Charlotte Frost



Harold Dobey knew he wasn't completely asleep, but already dreams were starting to intrude. The distant bark of a dog... a soft, persistent thumping noise....

"Harold?" His whispered name was accompanied by a nudge on his arm.

He rolled away, snuggling farther beneath the covers.

"Harold, I hear something."

His eyes came open, blinking to focus on the digital bedside clock. It read 11:14 pm. In his line of work, one often suffered bouts of insomnia. Therefore, it was criminal to be awakened so soon after having fallen asleep so easily.

"Harold," Edith persisted, now pushing at his shoulder, "it sounds like somebody's at the door."

Dobey rose on an elbow to prove he was awake, then listened carefully. The thumping noise definitely sounded like a knock. "Who the hell could that be?" he grumbled while tossing the warm covers aside and rolling out of bed.

"I don't know," Edith whispered. "Why don't they use the doorbell?" She, too, was getting up.

Dobey only grunted as he pulled on his robe. He was glad whoever it was wasn't using the bell, so it didn't wake up the kids. "Let me handle it," he told his wife.

She was tying her robe. "I'm going with you."

Carefully, they crept down the hall and descended the staircase. When the knocking became more urgent, they moved faster.

Upon reaching the ground floor, Edith moved to the end of the front window farthest away from the door, and tried to peek through the edge of the curtain. Dobey stood before the door, on his toes, and looked out the peephole.

They both made noises of surprise, relief, and concern as the precinct's captain opened the door.

Dobey had seen the face of their visitor thousands of times before. But never in its current state. "Starsky," he greeted, puzzlement blocking his voice's normal firmness, "what are you doing here?"

The curly-haired detective stood on the porch, dressed in his usual assortment of blue -- faded blue jeans, dark blue windbreaker, and darker blue t-shirt. But what was unusual was the wet, wild look of his eyes, the desperate contortions of his open mouth. "Cap'n," the voice was unusually shaky, "I hafta see ya."

Abruptly, Dobey stood back, holding the door open. "Come in."

"I'm sorry to intrude," the visitor said upon seeing Edith appear behind her husband, "but, Cap'n, I just have to talk to ya."

"Yes, come on in," Dobey prompted the one-half representative of the famous duo he captained. He waited until Starsky entered, then softly closed the door. "The kids are asleep," he said pointedly.

"I'll try not to wake them," Starsky assured.

"Let's come in the kitchen," Edith led the way, "and I'll make coffee."

"Starsky," Dobey whispered, his curiosity and concern outweighing his annoyance at being disturbed, "what the hell is going on?" To be visited by anyone at this time of night was highly unusual; to be visited by Starsky without Hutch was unheard of.

"Cap'n," the smaller man planted himself in front of Dobey and gripped his superior by the arms, "I need your help with something." In a choked whisper, he added, "It's real import'nt."

It was then, with the other standing so close, that Harold Dobey realized his prize detective was at least a little bit inebriated, for he could smell the alcohol. For an instant, he wanted to launch into a lecture about the stupidity of driving while under the influence, but then stopped himself when he realized he hadn't seen the Torino out front. "Where's Hutch?" he asked, wondering where the other half of the team fit into this man's apparent trauma.

"I'm not sure." Starsky was now entering the kitchen where Edith had turned on the light, and twisted to speak to the man behind him. "That doesn't matter right now. But I have to talk to you, Cap'n. It's real, real important."

Edith pulled out a chair and patted it. "Sit right here, David, and I'll fix some coffee."

Starsky sat, his attention focused solely on Dobey.

The heavy black man took a chair across from his visitor and folded his hands on the table top. "Level with me," he demanded quietly. "What's this all about?" For Starsky to not know where Hutch was was highly unusual. Sure, they both had moments of privacy, even from each other, but Dobey was certain that whatever Starsky's problem was, it somehow concerned the blond half of the duo. Otherwise, Starsky would be sharing his problem with Hutch.

Their visitor sat with his shoulders hunched, eyes still watery... most likely from the over-indulgence of alcohol. In a soft, intense whisper, he replied, "I need a favor."

Habit kept telling Dobey he should speak firmly and loudly and gesture wildly with his hands. But there was something almost... pathetic... about the man seated across from him, and he found his voice emerging in a gentle, lulling tone. "What favor?"

The curly-haired man's eyes released Dobey, and now spent a moment darting about the room, as though not knowing where to settle. Then Starsky seemed to shudder, and he drew a deep breath. His eyes, a bit softer now, settled back on his superior. "I need you to make a promise to me."

Dobey glanced hesitantly at his wife bent over the stove. Perhaps this was something too private to even be shared with her. But Starsky didn't seem disturbed by her presence. The black man leaned forward and whispered, "What favor?"

The detective swallowed audibly. "I -- I," he tried gesturing in no particular pattern with trembling hands that accompanied a gruff, strained voice, "I need you to promise that if anything ever happens to me, you'll make sure he's taken care of."

Dobey frowned. "What's going to happen to you?"

The other blinked. "Nothing. God willing, nothing. I hope, for his sake, nothing ever happens to me. But, Cap'n, you never know when something will. And if I buy it from some two-bit hustler, or some freaked-out junkie, or even from throwing myself in front of some car trying to save his precious neck," the voice softened, "you have to promise me that... that...."

Dobey closed his eyes and nodded. "Of course," he said gently, "I'd do what I can if Hutchinson is ever left alone." He knew instinctively the words would never be enough. Starsky wouldn't be here, drunk on his doorstep, if he'd only wanted words.

"No," the curly head shook firmly, "you can't just 'do what you can'. Hutch... Hutch," he stuttered, as if he couldn't figure out what to say, then softly, "Hutch requires special handling." Starsky leaned forward on the table. "You hafta... hafta know just how to deal with him. It's real important. If I'm ever not around, and you give him another partner, that new partner will need special instructions. It's important, Cap'n. I mean, having Hutch for a partner requires a lot of instructions. He's very high-maintenance. You'll have to make a special tag -- with the instructions, I mean -- and put it around his neck. So everyone will know."

Dobey's eyes narrowed as a coffee cup was placed before him. He realized that in any other circumstance he would have burst out laughing at the mental image Starsky's words presented. But he knew there was nothing funny about what Starsky was trying to say. He just wished he knew exactly what it was the other was trying to say.

Starsky glanced sharply at the cup Edith set in front of him. He stared at it while she placed a teaspoon of cream, then sugar, in it, and stirred briskly.

The detective's brows furrowed. Slowly, he shook his head, whispering, "No, you can't be that open about it." The bright eyes darted to Dobey. "Hutch would never let you. So," Starsky thoughtfully ran a hand along the top of the table, "you hafta be real careful about it. You can't let him know what you're up to." His voice strengthened as he said, "But giving his new partner the proper instructions is the most important thing you can do... if anythin' ever happens to me."

Dobey finally sat back in his chair, sighing heavily, as he picked up his cup. He was rarely at a loss for words, but he had no idea what would put the younger man's heart at ease.

"Captain," Starsky said suddenly, "I have to write it down. All the instructions. Then you'll have them. And you can put them somewhere very, very safe. And they should never be removed from that safe place. But just in case.... anything ever happens...."

The older man knew assurance was needed, and nodded, "I understand." But he wondered if he did at all.

Starsky held his hands open, looking at the table top. "I need something to write on," he said decisively. "And something to write with. So I can give you all the instructions."

Edith moved to the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. She took a spiral pad and ballpoint pen and placed it before their guest. Then she put a hand on her husband's shoulder, bending to whisper, "I'll leave you two alone."

He patted her hand gratefully, and she left.

Starsky had missed the interchange, for he tore the notebook open, patted down the first blank page, and pulled the cap off the pen with a flourish. Then he positioned himself, ready for writing. His eyes searched the wall over Dobey's head.

The captain was about to say something to distract the other from his impossible task, but Starsky suddenly nodded like one struck with a brilliant idea, and bent his head to write.

"The first thing," the detective said, creating a "1." on the paper and continuing to write as he spoke, "is that Hutch likes to act like he knows more than most people about just about everything."

Dobey cocked his head curiously. It wasn't the most complimentary statement about one's character, but Starsky hadn't said it in the tone of one complaining. Just accepting.

"And," the smaller man went on, directing his words at his superior while still writing, "you hafta let him have his way with most things. He likes to feel like he's the boss, like he's in charge." He finished and looked up. "So, you can't give him a partner who is going to challenge him, who's going to get pissed that Hutch is actin' like a know-it-all. See," Starsky's voice dropped slightly, "Hutch likes to be in control of things. And pretendin' he's an expert on things makes 'im feel secure that he's in control. An'," he shook the pen toward Dobey, "that might mean he talks down to ya every now and then. Or kinda makes fun of ya. But it's nothin' to get excited about. So, see, his new partner hasta understand that." He straightened and looked at his host expectantly.

Dobey nodded once. "I understand," he said gently.

Starsky wrote "2." in a large, lopsided scrawl. Dobey noticed that the first item hadn't been placed on the paper in very straight lines.

"The next thing, Cap'n, is that because Hutch likes to be the boss in most things, it means that... well," Starsky shrugged, "it sorta means that he might treat you like a little kid sometimes. And that can be kinda fun. But, sometimes, you can get so carried away actin' like a kid that you forget how much he's takin' care of things while he's being the boss. So, you gotta watch him." As though suddenly remembering his task, Starsky bent to the paper and wrote while whispering beneath his breath. Then he stretched out his fingers, as if he had writer's cramp, and reached for his coffee. After setting the cup back down, he told Dobey, "See, even though he tries to be strong all the time, you hafta watch out for those times when he's stumblin'... strugglin' a bit. Because that's when you hafta grow back up real fast and take care of 'im. I mean, sometimes he lets his temper get the best of 'im, and then you have to be real, real calm. It's very important to keep the balance in the partnership." He pointed the pen at Dobey. "So, any partner he has hasta understand that."

Dobey nodded, sipping from his own coffee cup. He noted that the second item wasn't written any more legibly than the first.

"Number three," Starsky announced, writing it. "He... likes... the... things... he... likes." The detective's voice was very calm now as he spoke to his superior. "See, Cap'n, he likes plants. I mean, really likes plants. Tells 'em stories and stuff. Chatters to 'em. And he likes that hunk o' metal he calls a car. And he likes that yogi stuff. So, you just gotta accept that. If he seems like he's into somethin' strange, you rib him about it a little then go on your way. That's all. You hafta let 'im enjoy the things he enjoys.

"Number four." Starsky looked at his superior after writing the numeral and a period. "You hafta make him laugh. But you can't be obvious that you're makin' 'im laugh. Hutch doesn't like to think that you're settin' 'im up. 'Member what I said about he likes ta be in control? See, I don't think Hutch came from a very happy family. In fact, I know it for a fact. So, it does a lotta good ta... you know, humor 'im. Adds years to his life. But you jus' can't tell 'im a joke. It has to be... subtle. He can't know that you're tryin' to make him laugh. Because when it sneaks up on him... well, when Hutch laughs," Starsky sat back and his eyes beamed, "well, Cap'n, it's the most beautiful sound in the whole world." He bent his head to the paper, but was still directing his words as his superior. "And his partner will catch onta that real fast. So, I don't hafta repeat it, 'cause the reward will make you want to make Hutch laugh over an' over. But you can't make him laugh over an' over because then it's too obvious that you're tryin' to make 'im and...." The detective paused, then started to write, whispering the words he was writing in a voice too low for Dobey to hear.

The captain sipped his coffee.

"Number... five." Starsky dotted it with a flourish, then paused. He swallowed and his voice was strained as he looked at Dobey with aching eyes. Gruffly, he whispered, "Cap'n, you gotta be real careful. You can't give 'im a partner that... that... well, that wouldn't like being touched. See," Starsky's voice became even lower and gruffer, "Hutch likes to touch a lot. He really needsit, Cap'n. So, you can't give 'im some guy who's gonna think it's silly or unmanly or somethin'. 'Cause Hutch will just come right out and say, 'I love you'. I mean, well, he'll sort of throw it in the middle when he's sayin' somethin' else. But he hasta say things like that, so you can't be afraid of it. You gotta let him say it." Starsky swallowed again as he jabbed the pen toward his listener. Voice shaking, he said, "Any mother's son who hears that from Hutch better be damn honored. 'Cause bein' loved by Hutch is no small thing." The gruffness left, but the whisper remained. "It's real, real special. Sacred, you know." The detective took a deep breath, sipped his coffee with determination, then wrote.

After putting the pen down, Starsky blinked slowly. Dobey shifted, wondering if the other was finally coming out of his inebriation.

But the deep blue eyes stayed upon him, and Starsky harshly whispered, "It works the other way, too. You know, Cap'n?"

Unsure of what the other meant, Dobey nodded.

"Sometimes... Sometimes, you just have to go up to 'im and put your arms around 'im. It's real important, Cap'n. You don't need no reason or nothin'. Just do it. He likes it. He likes it a lot. Just eats it up. And when you aren't puttin' your arms around 'im, well, you still gotta touch him a lot. He likes a lotta contact. Needs to keep reassurin' himself that you love him. So he touches and squeezes a lot. Better not give him any bastard for a partner who's gonna pull away from him. That'd kill Hutch."

The visitor went back to his paper. "Number... six. When Hutch," his voice caught briefly, "gets sad.... I mean," he looked up at his captain, "real, real sad... I mean, Hutch is real tough. But, sometimes, when the grief or sadness or whatever gets real bad, well, then he needs ta cry. You gotta let 'im cry it out. But, Cap'n," the pen dotted the air as the speaker shook his head, "you hafta hold 'im when he cries. 'Cause if you don't hold him, he'll try to get over it too fast and then the cryin's wasted. So, you hafta hold him real, real tight. The tighter ya hold him, the harder he'll cry. So you gotta hold him real tight 'til you're sure he's all done. That's the only way the healin' will start."

Dobey picked up his coffee cup and stared at the liquid that filled the bottom half. He heard the determined whisper, "You... have... to... hold... him... when... he... cries." Pause. "Hold... him... tight." The black liquid blurred as he felt his eyes fill.

Another thick swallow filled the room. The hoarse voice announced, "Number... seven." Another swallow, then another. "You... have...." Through the corner of his eye, Dobey watched the pen tremble. "... to... love.... him." Starsky's arms dropped, as though in exhaustion. Dobey looked up, met the speaker's eyes. The strained whisper said, "You have to, Cap'n. Any partner he has, they have to love him. A whole lot. 'Cause... 'Cause... Hutch takes a lot." The whisper faded until it could barely be heard. "You can't never run out. It's the most important thing of all, Cap'n." Starsky picked up the pen, hunched forward, and made a big, deliberate asterisk next to the last item. "See," he looked up again with sad eyes, "if there ever comes a time when I'm not around anymore, I'm just afraid," the voice caught on the last word, and Starsky closed his eyes as he gulped, "that he might not get enough. There can't be any limits. His partner can't have a certain amount set aside for Hutch. 'Cause whatever amount you set aside, it's not gonna be enough. You just can't ever run out, that's all. Because, if you have a limit, Hutch will use it all up. And then, when it's all gone, what's Hutch 'posed to do?" Starsky looked back down at the paper and whispered as he wrote, "Can't... never... run... out."

Captain Dobey blinked, not knowing what to say. Starsky was silent now, staring at the paper. The black man cleared his throat and gently asked, "Are you finished, David?"

"Huh?" Starsky looked up. "Oh. Yeah. That's it. I'm all done." He began to carefully tear the paper away from the spiral binding. "You gotta keep this in a safe place, Cap'n. It's realimportant."

"I know that, Detective. I'll keep it in a safe place." Dobey folded his hands on the table top, waiting until the paper was completely free of the notebook. The black ink zigzagged all over the page.

Starsky held it out, then stared at it. "Oh," he said suddenly, laying it down and picking up the pen, "I forgot ta title it." His mouth curved into a contemplative frown; then, slowly, he wrote across the top, "INSTRUCTIONS FOR BEING HUTCH'S PARTNER". The words didn't fit on one line, so the second half of the sentence curled over on top of the first. "There." He smiled a little, then got out of his chair, came around the table, and knelt before his superior. His eyes misted and he was whispering again. "Captain, promise me that... that, if anything happens to me, that --"

"I promise," Dobey replied gently, taking the paper. "If anything ever happens to you, I'll give these instructions to his new partner." Starsky nodded and seemed pleased. "But, David," Dobey said firmly, "nothing better ever happen to you."

"I don't intend for anything to," the smaller man replied with sober determination. He stood. "Thanks, Cap'n. Sorry for disturbin' you and the missus. Thanks for the coffee. I'll be going." He started out of the kitchen.

Dobey abruptly turned in his chair. "Where?"

The other swung around, blinked. With puzzlement, he replied, "Home."

"How are you going to get there?"

Starsky's mouth dropped open, as though the question caught him off guard. Then, "I'll take a cab."

Dobey didn't like the other's confusion. "How did you get here?" he asked in a sharp whisper.

"In a cab."

The older man stood. "I'm taking you home," he said firmly. "Wait right here while I throw on some clothes and tell Edith." Starsky looked like he was going to protest, and Dobey growled, "That's an order."

Starsky froze and Dobey marched briskly up the stairs. He tiptoed into the bedroom, but Edith raised her head and asked, "Is he gone?"

Dobey pulled open his closet. "I'm taking him home."

"Did he and Hutch have a fight?"

"I don't know. Something went on, that's for damn sure." As Dobey dressed, his mind went over it and over it. Today had been a typically busy Friday. He'd come out of his office once and remembered seeing the two speaking to each other, laughing with each other. Nothing had seemed amiss.

"Will David be all right?"

Dobey sighed. "I think so." Certainly, the young detective had gotten out of his system what he needed to get out. And now he was going to have to make a trip to the bank on Monday to put that piece of paper into their safety deposit box. Such a silly piece of paper.

If only Hutch knew. If only anyone knew... that they were loved so much.

"Edith, we aren't missing church again this Sunday."

She raised up a little. "What?"

His voice elevated. "I said we aren't missing church." He went to her and kissed her forehead. "I'll be back within half an hour." He quickly strode down the hall to the stairs. Those two needed some prayers... to fix whatever was wrong with them... and to make sure nothing ever happened to Starsky. So no one would ever have to see that piece of paper.

And the one who should see it would never see it.

Starsky was waiting obediently by the door, chin drooping, arms lax at his sides. He looked up and restrained a yawn as Dobey approached. Then he said, "This really isn't necessary, Cap'n."

Dobey's hand went to the knob. "Shut up and get out that door."

They didn't speak again until Dobey pulled into the parking lot of Starsky's apartment. The smaller detective got out, his step more sure than when he'd arrived on Dobey's porch. It made the older man wonder how much alcohol would have to wear off before Starsky felt foolish about what he'd done.

Though Dobey hoped he never would.

"Thanks, Cap'n." Starsky closed the passenger door. He waved briefly then started for the stairs.

Dobey drove away.

* * *

Starsky took a deep breath, letting the sharpness of the February air penetrate his lungs. It made him feel a little less woozy, but he still used the banister to steady himself on the stairs.

And stopped just as his foot settled on the first step.

"Hey, partner," came the soft greeting.

Hutch was sitting on the top step, arms resting on his knees, wearing jeans and a black jacket pulled over a blue shirt. His tiny smile beneath the mustache was wry; his hair, even at this late hour, in nearly perfect alignment. But his eyes were bright with feeling.

Starsky took another deep breath, then slowly marched up the stairs. As he reached the final steps, the blond said, "I've been a real bastard, haven't I?"

Starsky cast his glance to one side, too afraid that a simple answer to that question would give the wrong impression. Instead, as he reached for his key, he asked, "How long have you been here?" He was pleased that his voice sounded firm.

The leather shoulders shrugged.

Starsky turned the lock. "Why didn't you let yourself in?"

Hutch stood. "I wasn't sure of my welcome," he replied with a slight quaver.

Starsky glanced over his shoulder with a scowl. "Big dummy," he muttered, opening the door. He turned to meet those skittish blue eyes. "You don't ever need permission. Not ever." He couldn't say any more or his voice, too, would start to tremble.

Hutch nodded, as though properly reprimanded, but his eyes were narrowing at his partner. "Where have you been?" he asked with forced casualness.

Starsky shrugged.

"My place?" the blond asked, a hint of hopefulness in his voice as he closed the door behind them.

"No," the shorter man replied, shrugging out of his jacket. He didn't like disappointing Hutch... and he didn't like thinking about where he had been. Jesus, what was Dobey gonna think?

Hutch waited a moment, then lowered his face as he moved farther into the room, his stance showing his acceptance that Starsky wasn't going to answer.

The curly-haired man gestured to the couch. "Have a seat," he offered quietly. "Want a brew?"

Hutch -- somewhat reluctantly, Starsky thought -- plopped down on the sofa. "Yeah, I guess." A hand rubbed at his face.

Starsky opened the refrigerator, staring at the remains of the last six-pack. He forced his eyes to focus and decided the last thing he needed was more alcohol. Decisively, he took one can and closed the door. Then he carried it to the living room, thinking it odd that just some five or six hours ago Hutch had been over here, the same tension between them.

And it had changed everything forever.

Starsky knelt before his friend, handing the beer to him. "Here."

Hutch gazed at Starsky as he accepted it. "Thanks. You're not having one?"

Starsky shook his head.

The blond tilted his head to one side, nose wrinkling slightly as he continued to study his partner. Then, with concern, "You've been out drinking?"

Starsky had to look away. He shrugged.

"Aw, Starsk, that's not like you." Hutch popped the lid. "That's not like you at all." His tone, soft as it was, demanded an explanation.

And Starsky knew he'd better come up with one, or his partner's guilt complex would rise even higher than its current level.

"I'm sorry," Hutch said, before Starsky could speak.

The curly-haired man frowned at the face he knew so well. "Sorry for what?"

Hutch closed his eyes, took a deep breath. When they opened again, he replied, "Changing things."

Starsky turned and plopped down onto the carpet, his back resting against the couch, next to Hutch's legs. Evenly, he said, "Apology not accepted."

The blond paused in mid-swallow. Then, with mild harshness, "You want to see me grovel? That's not like you, either."

Starsky sighed deeply, then rested his cheek against the denim-clad leg. "No. I'm not accepting your apology because there's nothin' to apologize for. I don't want you to be sorry for bein' honest." He tilted his head back, battling the dizziness, so he could look up at Hutch. "Nothin's changed in how we work together, Hutch. Just because I disagree with you doesn't change how I feel about ya, you know." He let his cheek rest more heavily against the leg.

Hutch's head was bowed. "I know. But I was such a bastard about it, trying to push things."

Starsky felt so comfortable right here, his cheek pressed against the leg. His eyes were closed and if he didn't have to talk, he could have easily fallen asleep. But he did still have to talk, because Hutch needed him to. "It's not a crime to try to take what you think you want."

"You aren't going to budge on this, are you?" Hutch demanded. "You're absolutely totally convinced it's something I just 'think' I want -- not something I really do want... or need." Before Starsky could get his inebriated brain to begin to form a coherent answer, Hutch relented with a sigh, "Not that it would change anything. Your answer is 'no', regardless. Okay. I accept that."

They hadn't done a very good job of discussing it earlier in the evening, Starsky thought forlornly. Hutch was still trying to work it through... and misunderstanding the reasoning behind Starsky's rejection. Eyes still closed, the curly-haired man said, "Hutch, if I thought for one minute that us doin' it with each other would give you something you needed, I wouldn't hesitate an instant."

The blond snorted, "That's great -- you deciding what I need, like I don't know myself."

He knew Hutch hadn't meant for there to be further anger, but the hurt was so clear in the words. Levelly, Starsky said, "You're all mixed up inside -- one hurt after another." He started to tilt his head again to look at his partner, then decided it was too much effort. "In a way, I think, it's understandable that you'd go looking elsewhere for what you want."

There was a pause, then a quiet, "I don't consider you 'elsewhere'. You're right here. Always. That's one of the reasons it made so much sense to me."

Starsky's head leaned even more heavily against the leg. He was having a very difficult time convincing it to support its own weight. "And I'll keep being here," he noted. "Always."

A hand patted his hair, furrowing through the curls. He felt himself smile.

The gentle voice shattered his peace again. "Ah, Starsk, you're bushed." The leg moved, and Starsky's head slipped to the edge of the sofa. "Let me put you to bed."

Some prideful part of him wanted to protest, but he didn't have the energy. Powerful hands grabbed at his armpits, lifting him. He tried to help, using his feet, and then he was hoisted into the air and he instinctively grabbed onto his partner's neck. Somewhere along the line, he made grunting noises of disagreement. And they were met with gentle, whispered words. "It's okay, you silly goof. My intentions are purely honorable."

Starsky must have dozed off, for he was roused when his head hit the softness of a pillow. The mattress felt good, and Hutch was doing all the work, pulling the covers out of the way. He wriggled his toes when his shoes and socks were removed.

"Trust me to undress you?"

Of course I do, ya big lummox. But he didn't think the words reached his mouth. Still, Hutch must have known the answer, for Starsky felt his clothes manipulated and peeled away. He heard himself giggle when Hutch wrestled with the tight jeans, finally forcing them down his hips. His underwear had no choice but to move with the denim, and he didn't mind except for the cold air hitting his bare skin. But a moment later the covers were tucked around him.

Life was perfect.

The mattress gently rocked, and Starsky was aware of his partner settling alongside him, above the covers. A hand stroked through his hair.

It was a struggle, but Starsky was able to open his eyes. In the darkness he thought he saw his partner's bright orbs.

"Sorry," Hutch whispered, "for making you do this to yourself."

Sorry you're sorry. Starsky knew he had to do something to put the other more at ease. After thinking the mechanics through, he was able to encourage an arm from beneath the blankets. It slid over to Hutch, squeezed some part of an arm.

All was silent as both men relaxed.

As Starsky drifted into oblivion, he wondered why Hutch wanted that when they could always have this.




Feeling he was in the way of the nearest camera man, Hutch slipped to one side of the room crowded with forensic specialists, pressing himself against the wall and toward the doorway.

Flashbulbs went off over and over again.

Before exiting, he glanced over toward the opposite wall. Starsky was staring at the grisly scene in the middle of the room, face pale. Then the curly-haired man lowered his eyes and looked away. Hutch started to take a step toward his partner -- not sure how they had gotten separated in the first place -- but Starsky looked up just then and their eyes met.

Hutch felt helpless as he stared across the expanse of the room toward the bleak depths, not knowing what comfort he could possibly offer.

Their look held until Starsky visibly swallowed. Then the shorter man's chest heaved with a sigh as he looked away yet again. And started toward his partner.

Hutch cleared from the doorway, making room for the empty body bag being carried in by coroner's assistants. He moved a few steps down the hall of the two-story house, then stood with his back against the wall. And waited.

Starsky appeared moments later, gaze still toward the carpet as he stopped next to his partner.

Hutch closed his eyes, wondering how it was that they were a single unit in so many ways, yet each had certain pains that he suffered more intensely than the other.

Rape was one thing. Male rape was another. And rape to the point of murder was something else altogether -- a crime that Starsky, for all his street wisdom and experience, seemed to have a more difficult time grasping than other types of abominations human beings could commit upon each other.

For Hutch, it was an awful scene, but no more nor less than most of the other gruesome things they saw in the daily course of their lives. He touched Starsky's shoulder and gently whispered, "You gonna make it?"

Starsky looked up and tried a smile that resulted in a weary grimace. "'M tryin' not to lose my lunch. It should have digested a few hours back."

"I hope so," Hutch noted, "since it's almost dinner time." This time his hand rested on Starsky's shoulder. "Let's get some air. There's nothing else we can do here." He led the way down the staircase, then out the door.

A few minutes later they were in the LTD. The blond looked over at his partner, who still looked dazed. "Want to log us out?"

Starsky dutifully straightened and told Control One that they were now off duty.

"Think you can handle some dinner?" Hutch asked.

Starsky shook his head. Then, "Just wanna go home."

"Okay," Hutch said congenially.

They rode in silence, Starsky gazing out the window, and Hutch trading his attention between the windshield and the man next to him.

Hutch pulled up next to Starsky's apartment building. As his partner reached for the door, he asked, "Want some company?"

A lip corner curled into a semblance of a smile and Starsky shook his head. He opened the door and got out. "See you tomorrow, huh?" He shut the door behind him.

Hutch drove away.

* * *

Hours later, Hutch sat in an easy chair at his apartment, wearing his robe, sipping a beer.

It had been a grisly scene and the chances of finding out exactly what had happened, let alone who was responsible, were slim. Was the victim a prostitute? A lonely man looking for a good time that got out of hand? The target of some sort of sick, sacrificial ritual? A bit of S&M that went too far? The victim of revenge, which the instigator wanted to carry out in one of the more horrifying ways imaginable?

No matter how many times Hutch ran the scenarios through his mind, his thoughts kept coming back to his partner. The pale horror on Starsky's face. He could imagine what the other was thinking.

Hutch closed his eyes, absently circled around the opening of the beer bottle with his thumb and forefinger.

It had been two months since he'd presented his case to Starsky -- presented a thoroughly thought-out, calm recitation of why they should be everything to each other, instead of almosteverything. And Starsky had rejected him.

Except that wasn't really true. Never, in any of it, had Starsky rejected him. Starsky had only rejected the idea. For a while, Hutch had felt a tinge of bitterness that there really wasn't any distinction between the two. But as the days, then weeks, went by with his partner just as amiable, as affectionate, as friendly, as concerned as always, Hutch had to accept defeat. Starsky hadn't been lying when he'd said he was glad Hutch got it out into the open. Starsky hadn't seemed self-conscious or the least bit threatened; if anything, he had been concerned that Hutch's feelings were so powerful that they were a burden.

"I mean, Hutch," Starsky had begun worriedly a few days after everything could have changed forever, "it's not like... I mean, well... I mean, you don't have the hots for me or anything, do you?"

The question hadn't been motivated by a desire to protect his virtue. Starsky had been sincere, wondering if Hutch was suffering.

And the blond had loved him all the more. He'd shook his head. "It isn't like that," he'd replied. But how to explain what it was like? "It's not like when you look at a beautiful woman and think, 'I want that. I want to do it with her.' It's more...," he'd trailed off, gathering his thoughts, wanting so much to get it right. Even though his partner had said 'No' unequivocally, Hutch had found his own pride helpless against his partner's desire to understand. Finally, he'd softly said, "It's like, 'I love this person. So much. And I want to show him in every way imaginable.'"

Starsky had looked away, and Hutch had placed his hands on the other's shoulders. "It's all right. I've always believed that 'No' means no. I accept that."

Starsky had looked back at him then, a mouth corner twisting into a sympathetic smile. He'd been about to speak, but Hutch hadn't wanted to hear it all over again -- how his partner believed this was all coming about because Hutch's losses in the female department had been so great in recent months. So Hutch had said, "I don't see any reason to keep bringing it up, so I don't want to say anything more about it. But, buddy... if you ever change your mind, the offer's always open."

Starsky had nodded, not meeting his eye. And that had been the end of it.

And now this. A body ripped apart at its center, a cruel demonstration of what that sort of activity could do.

Hutch got up, put the bottle on the counter, switched off the lights. He discarded the robe and got into bed. He lay there for a few minutes, staring at the shadowy image of the telephone. Then he reached for it.

His fingers pushed the buttons automatically, the sequence of numbers effortlessly memorized from the sheer quantity of recollection.

It was answered on the second ring, the voice sounding tired. "'lo?"

Hutch didn't bother apologizing if he woke the other. "Hey," he said, "just calling to see if you're all right."

"Why wouldn't I be all right?" Starsky asked after a moment, but the tone wasn't defensive. "Just another example of the rotten things human beings can do to each other."

"Yeah," the blond acknowledged with a sigh.

"You not sleepin'?"

"Just got to bed. I'll be all right." He resisted pointing out that it was Starsky who always seemed more affected by this type of crime.

"Yeah. See you tomorrow."

"Night." Hutch hung up the phone, wishing the call had made him feel better.

* * *

Captain Dobey slowly closed the office door behind him, sealing himself off from his men. Ever since the night that Starsky had come to his home, the large black man been looking for signs. Even the next work day, there had been none. His prize detectives behaved the same way toward each other as always. Now, even with two months having gone by, he still found himself looking for any little gesture or expression that might indicate something different. But still nothing was visibly amiss. And he would be tempted to admit that he must have fantasized that late night visit.

Except he had a piece of paper in a safety deposit box that proved otherwise.

* * *

When Starsky entered his apartment, guilt weighed heavily upon his soul. He sighed and headed for the kitchen.

Lanette was a nice girl. She was a clerk down in Records and had been hinting at her interest for a while now. Finally, Starsky had yielded and set a date for tonight. They'd had dinner and gone to a movie. Throughout the evening Lanette had given off signals that she had no qualms about sleeping together on a first date. And Starsky had pretended not to notice. He'd taken her home and left her on her doorstep with a chaste kiss on the lips. He could hardly blame her if she didn't pursue a second encounter.

And he didn't care if she didn't. He twisted the cap off a cold one and leaned against the counter while indulging in the first sip. From that position, his eyes had little choice but to fall on the refrigerator.

Starsky gazed at the calendar attached to the door with a magnet. He took a marker from off the counter and moved to place an "X" over the box signifying today's date. Then he leaned back against the counter and stared some more at the calendar, crossing his arms in between sips of beers.

The month was two-thirds over and all the days prior to today were also marked with an "X". So were all the days of the month previous. And the last few days of the month previous to that.

Starsky turned away from the kitchen with a quiet sigh. He wasn't quite sure why he was doing it. But he didn't have his partner's penchant for analyzing things, so he decided to let it be. He just knew that each "X" meant yet another day's passing since Hutch had made The Suggestion. And Starsky's interest in the opposite sex had been minimal since.

He sat down on the sofa and unsnapped the harness that bound his holster to his body. Then he bent to untie the laces to his sneakers.

He probably would have felt better if it had been Hutch who had gone with Lanette. But Marianne, the blues singer, seemed to be the last in a long line of painful failures, and Starsky could hardly blame his partner for having withdrawn into monk-like behavior, being no more than politely friendly when anything of a female persuasion cast a glance his way.

And Hutch had thought making it with his partner would be the answer to that.

Starsky shook his head, snorting out loud as he pushed the shoes off his feet. His partner had always had the most bizarre of tastes -- from his meticulous health habits, to his love for the most decrepit of cars, to his zest for playing the role of hired killer Eddie Carlisle. And he had thought that sleeping with his partner would cure his unhappiness.

Starsky left his beer on the coffee table and laid his head back against the couch, gazing at the ceiling.

Hutch was one of those people who could never be loved too much. It took all of Starsky's energy simply to love him enough. And Hutch needed to have that love proven, in various ways, over and over again. If you loved me enough, you would sleep with me, he seemed to be saying that night eight weeks ago.

Starsky closed his eyes. He had done the right thing, he told himself over and over, by rejecting his partner's suggestion. He had done what was best for both of them. For if he became yet another one of Hutch's failures, then Hutch would have nothing left, no one to turn to after the relationship fell apart. Starsky's responsibility as the one who loved Hutch most was to pick up the pieces... not create them in the first place.

He was certain that Hutch understood that. Hutch seemed to have taken the rejection gracefully. Nevertheless Starsky knew there had to be some hurt that his partner hadn't allowed to show, just as he was sure -- after the first few days -- that things could continue as they had before. And, so far, they had. Except Hutch had left the door open, refusing to close it, should his partner ever change his mind.

Starsky tilted his head back as far as possible so he could see the calendar hanging on the refrigerator, decorated by the series of X's. He wondered how many days would go by before he no longer felt the need to keep counting.

* * *

Hutch sighed as he entered the squad room and plunked his jacket down over the back of his chair. He'd had a miserable weekend. The plumbing backed up on Saturday morning and the landlord hadn't gotten anyone to fix it until last night. He'd balanced his checkbook and found it was overdrawn. He'd thought he should get serious about jogging again and had pulled a muscle in his thigh. It was a minor injury, one that didn't even cause a limp, but it told of age and how he'd let himself go the past year or so. Added to all these woes was that whenever he'd tried to call Starsky to complain about the unfairness of life, the other's phone had been busy or had rung without being answered.

And it didn't help his mood at all to see his partner sitting in the squad room looking eager and bright-eyed.

"How was your weekend?" Starsky asked while Hutch passed him in favor of the coffee maker.

The blond poured a cup and grunted.

"That bad?" The curly-haired man was looking over his shoulder at him.

Hutch shrugged as he took the chair next to his partner. With a hint of accusation that he scarcely tried to hide, he said, "Must have been dull compared to yours since you were on the phone the whole time."

Rather than looking guilty or reprimanded, Starsky straightened with a smile. "Yeah, I was working out arrangements."

Hutch looked at him, his insides churning. The word "arrangements" usually referred to funerals. Yet, the other hardly seemed bereaved. "Arrangements for what?" he asked cautiously.

The grin widened. "Nicky's getting married."

It was a moment before the statement registered. "Your brother, Nicky?"

"Yep," Starsky verified proudly. "Little Nicky."

Hutch felt a smile twitch at the corner of his mouth. "When's the date?"

"The 22nd of next month."

The blond furrowed his brow. "That's kind of sudden, isn't it?"

Starsky shook his head. "He's known the girl a long time. Been seein' her off and on for a coupla years. Keeps goin' back to her. He sounded really smitten when he called me."

"Oh, that's nice," Hutch said, wishing he could feel happier about it. It wasn't that he was unhappy; it was just that Nick wasn't one of his favorite people. "Does he want you to be best man?"

"Naw, he's going to have his best friend be best man. But we're all gonna be there -- me, Uncle Al, and Aunt Rosie." Starsky shifted uncomfortably in his chair, resting his chin in his hand. "He's having it in New York, at the very same church our parents were married in."

"That's nice," Hutch said again. "You and your aunt and uncle are all going to fly back together?"

Again, there was a nervous shifting. Then Starsky said, "Well, see, Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie are gettin' kinda old."

Hutch felt his smile fade, Starsky's discomfort telling him he wasn't going to like what was coming.

"And," Starsky went on carefully, "they're ready to take a major vacation while they're still spry enough to do so. So, they thought they'd drive to New York. You know, see the country along the way."

That sounded harmless enough. "And you're going to meet them there?"

"Well," Starsky shifted again, "I'm not real big on travel an' all. But since they're so old and stuff -- and, you know, Aunt Rosie lost her license a while back because of her poor eyesight -- "

"Uh-huh, uh-huh," Hutch nodded quickly, feeling a flare of impatience.

"Well, it'd be hard on Uncle Al to spend all those miles behind the wheel." Starsky came out with it: "So, I thought I'd go with them and help out with the drivin'."

It was a moment before Hutch realized Starsky had stopped talking. Then he was puzzled by his partner's nervousness. "That's considerate of you. I imagine, then, you'd be driving back with them on the return trip?"

Starsky shrugged. "Yeah."

Hutch didn't understand what reaction Starsky was expecting from him. And he wondered, not for the first time, how different his life would have been if he'd had the closeness with his own family that Starsky had with his. He smiled. "That's great, partner. Sounds like it'll be a real vacation. Your mom must be excited."

That brought a genuine grin and lowered eyes. "Yeah. She's all happy that Nicky's finally settling down and getting married. And she's looking forward to havin' the whole family there." He hesitated, then, "I'll be gone two and a half weeks total."

"Has Dobey approved it yet?"

Starsky took a form from a pile of papers. "Naw, I haven't put in the request yet. I wanted to tell you about it first."

Hutch shrugged, letting his puzzlement show. "It's not like you need my permission."

"Well," Starsky explained bashfully, "it's just that we've always taken our vacations together. If I take mine now... well, when you decide you want to take one I won't have any time available. So, you'll have to take yours alone, too."

The taller man shrugged again. "It doesn't matter. In fact, while you're gone maybe I'll take a few days myself and do some things you don't particularly like -- fishing and horseback riding, stuff like that."

Starsky nodded and seemed to let out a breath, as though relieved. Then he stood, the paper in hand. "Guess I'll put this in Dobey's In basket."

Hutch watched while his partner moved toward Dobey's office, which was empty, the captain having not put in an appearance yet. The blond wondered again at Starsky's unease, his own lack of reaction. Of course, he'd just as soon Starsky not leave him alone for all that time; it always felt odd working alone or being temporarily partnered with a stranger, but it would be good for Starsky to get away from L.A. a bit. In fact, it might be good for them both. Total dependency rarely made for a healthy relationship.

Captain Dobey entered the squad room, his stride never hesitating as he headed toward his office. "Hutchinson, I want to see you and your partner."

Starsky was just leaving the captain's office, and he stepped back into it while Hutch and Dobey joined him.

* * *

Twenty minutes later the two detectives sat side by side, mouths twisting grimly as they passed a group of photographs back and forth between them.

"No doubt it's the same perpetrators?" Hutch asked. The body certainly looked similar to what he and Starsky had seen two weeks ago. Whip marks covering the victim's back, his body ripped open anally, blood and fecal matter all over the place. The victim's hands were bound and he was gagged. Analysis of the first victim had revealed that two men were responsible.

"The results haven't come back," Dobey replied, "but we have every reason to believe the prints will be the same, as well as the semen analysis."

Starsky sighed, tossing the photos onto the desk, which his feet were perched upon. "Probably gonna come up with a big fat zero, as far as witnesses go," he noted forlornly. "From all accounts, the last victim wasn't a homo or bi or any of those things; just an average Joe. This guy probably is, too."

"Let's not jump to any conclusions," Dobey cautioned. "Otherwise, it'll be too easy to pass up something important. I want the two of you to get on this, investigate every nook and cranny; re-interview everyone who knew the previous victim. A connection between them is our only hope for finding those responsible."

Both detectives nodded as they got to their feet, Dobey having not said anything they hadn't already been considering.

Starsky opened the door and stood to one side to let Hutch pass. Then he snapped his fingers. "Uh, Captain, I just put a vacation request in your basket."

While Hutch, too, stood in the doorway, Dobey grabbed the top paper from the pile. "For when?"

"The end of next month. Be gone two and a half weeks. My brother Nicky's getting married."

The black man's eyes were on the paper. "Humph," he grunted approvingly. While reaching for a pen he asked, "Did you check with Personnel to see how many days you have, so I don't have to?"

"Yeah, talked to them before I filled it out. I got enough to cover it."

Dobey signed the form then held it out.

Starsky snatched it from his hand. "Thanks, Cap'n."

As the two exited the room, Starsky's expression told Hutch that he was surprised his request had been approved with so little fuss.

The blond was surprised at his own feeling of disappointment.

* * *

Three days later, Hutch frowned as he approached the Torino, which was parked at the curb on Twelfth Street. He and Starsky had separated to interview people at the various shops that the most recent victim had frequented, for they were on the same block as the apartment where the victim had resided and been murdered. Now Starsky was sitting in the passenger side of the Torino with the door open, feet on the curb, head in his hand, staring at the ground.

"Hey, partner," the blond said gently, kneeling beside the other. "What did you get?"

Starsky looked up, face pale. "Nothin', Hutch. Not one damn thing. No one could tell me anything."

Hutch waited, knowing there had to be more.

The curly-haired man took a deep breath, gesturing with his arms. "It's just so damn crazy. I mean, who would do a thing like that to somebody? Tie him up, gag him, beat him, sodomize him, then shove a 'wide, sharp object' up his ass to rip him open so he'd bleed to death?" He shook his head. "It just doesn't make sense."

His partner had been tight-lipped about his feelings up until now, going about his job as a professional. Hutch had been waiting for something like this, and now that the time was here he wasn't sure what assurances he could offer.

"I mean," Starsky went on, "it's not like it's just some perverts killing people for kicks. This is too... too cruel. And it can't be just sadists. I mean, they wouldn't gag their victim, would they? They'd want to hear him scream."

Hutch felt his nerves tremble. Talking about the details out loud made him more uncomfortable than just looking at bodies or pictures. It made it all seem more real... and more nauseating. Gently, he noted, "Screams would have alerted somebody."

"Yeah," Starsky agreed heavily. "Okay, so they gag him. Tie him up. Beat him with a whip." He looked up suddenly, haunted eyes bright with an idea. "I wonder if they used the same amount of lashes on both victims. If so, then it might be a ritual of some kind. If not... well, at what point do they decide to stop beating him and fuck him instead?"

Hutch took a deep breath. "Maybe the whipping is just foreplay. When they get excited enough they finish the act."

Bitterly, Starsky said, "Or there's nothing left of the guy's back to tear up anymore."

Hutch chose not to respond to that.

Starsky shook his head, tone disbelieving. "And the sickest part of all... they each fuck the guy, to the point of orgasm, and then they want to kill him in the sickest way imaginable." He glanced up quickly, tone desperate for commiseration. "I mean, after you've had a great orgasm, what do you do? Roll over and go to sleep, right?"

Hutch nodded, more to keep Starsky talking than to agree.

"And if you're really sick you kill the person you've just fucked. But if you've just had a great orgasm, you aren't feeling very aggressive. So, maybe you just use your hands to, like, strangle the person. Keep it simple. But these guys...," Starsky closed his eyes and visibly shuddered. "They just drained their balls and they still got this very precise, gruesome way that they murder the guy. They've already had their orgasm, so what kind of kick can they get out of shovin' something up his ass and ripping his insides out?"

It was a moment before Hutch could gather his wits enough to respond. "Maybe the killing isn't a sexual thing for them. Maybe, like you mentioned before, it's ritualistic." He stood. "They're finishing the process in a way that, to them, is a neat, clean closure to the whole thing."

Starsky also stood, turning to rest his arms on the hood of the car, his back to Hutch. "I wonder if these guys are fags, or just sick perverts."

Hutch swallowed, not having his partner's fondness for the use of labels. "Whether they're 'fags' or not, they're definitely sick perverts."

Starsky shifted restlessly. "You know what I mean. Are these guys outright gay, or are they just 'average Joes', so to speak, like their victims?"

"I don't know."

The other turned around. In a more casual tone, he asked, "Did you find out anything?"

The blond's grin broadened, and he pulled a black book out of his back pocket. "Our latest victim accidentally left his appointment book at the barber shop." Hutch glanced toward the street where the barber shop was. Then he began leafing through the book, enjoying Starsky's interested expression. "On the day he was murdered," Hutch turned to the appropriate page, "he lists a three o'clock appointment with an insurance salesman."

Starsky was looking over Hutch's shoulder. "That the only appointment that day?"


"So, we need to find out who his insurance carrier was."

Hutch tilted his head thoughtfully. "That would be a first step. But note," he pointed, "that he lists 'insurance salesman'. If he were already doing business with that salesman's company, he would have listed the guy as his agent, not just as a 'salesman'."

"One would assume," Starsky cautioned dubiously. Then, "What are you thinking?"

Hutch turned to face him, resting his elbow on the car. "I'm thinking our perpetrators called him up, offered him a great deal on, say, his car insurance, and the victim agreed to an appointment. And that's how the perpetrators got in the door without creating any kind of scene."

Starsky stared at the hood of the car. He drew a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "And once they were in the door, they probably pulled guns or something, huh? So, he'd have no choice but to let them tie him up?"

Hutch flipped the appointment book closed. "That would be my guess."

"Jesus, the victims probably didn't stand a chance."

Hutch got in the passenger seat as Starsky moved around to the driver's side. "No," the blond agreed. "Probably no chance at all."

* * *

They stuck with their hypothesis in the weeks following, but that did nothing to get them closer to those responsible. Nor had they any ideas on a motive, or any possible connection between the two victims.

The only additional information that came from the coroner was that both victims had had a small brand on their lower backs, in the shape of an oval within a square. Both brands were fresh and assumed to have been created by the perpetrators.

The investigation was at a standstill when Starsky pulled the Torino up in front of his aunt and uncle's house. Both detectives got out of the car, and the curly-haired man moved to the trunk and opened it.

Hutch was at his partner's side, helping him remove two suitcases, when Al and Rosie Starsky appeared from the house.

"David!" Rosie exclaimed, holding out her arms. She had gotten plump over time but her gray hair still had many streaks of black.

Starsky left the suitcases on the ground and laughingly endured the huge hug his aunt gave him. Hutch stood back and watched, knowing that his partner thought the greetings Rosie bestowed on him rather ridiculous, since they saw each other numerous times throughout the year.

He also felt a touch of envy at the familial scene.

Al nodded at Hutch and placed a hand on his nephew's shoulder as Starsky and Rosie separated. "We're all packed." He was thinner and a little shorter than his wife, with his nephew's chiseled features and blue eyes.

Somehow, Hutch thought, Starsky's relatives looked older than the last time he'd seen them, at Christmas. They looked a little delicate to be taking such a long trip, and he realized all the more how good it was of his partner to drive them.

Starsky picked up one suitcase, Hutch the other, and they all moved to an Oldsmobile parked in the driveway. The next minute was spent moving luggage around in the trunk, making room for Starsky's additions. Finally, the trunk was closed.

"House all locked up?" Starsky asked his uncle.

The older man dangled the keys. "Yep." He turned to Hutch. "Sorry to be taking your partner away from you, but family duty calls."

The blond chuckled good-naturedly. "Yeah, lucky me. I get to drive the damned tomato while he's gone." He'd promised so the car wouldn't have to sit in one place for so long, inviting theft or damage.

Starsky helped his aunt into the front passenger seat, then straightened to look at his uncle across the hood. "You want to start out driving, or do you want me to drive?"

"You drive. You'll get us out of town a lot faster." Alvin Starsky tossed the keys across the hood to his nephew.

"Okay, get in," Starsky said. "I'll join ya as soon as I read my partner the last rites on takin' care of my car."

Both detectives moved back toward the Torino.

"Your aunt and uncle are lovely people," Hutch said, "but are you sure they aren't going to drive you nuts? You're going to be stuck in the car with them for more than six thousand miles."

They paused next to the passenger door of the Torino. Starsky shrugged. "It'll be okay. Aunt Rosie only nags when she gets bored, but hopefully the sights will be enough to distract her. And the only problem I ever have with Uncle Al is that he snores a lot."

Hutch laid his hand on Starsky's shoulder and squeezed. "Okay, pal. Don't drive like you do on the streets. And make sure you and your uncle trade shifts behind the wheel."

Starsky made a face at the warning. "I know, I know. It'll be great. We'll be fine. Don't worry."

The blond shrugged, not knowing what else to say. "Call me as soon as you get there."

They stood looking at each other a moment, Starsky nodding. Then, "Guess we better get going."


As Starsky moved by his partner, he put an arm around the blond's lean waist and squeezed briefly. "See ya."

Hutch opened the door to the Torino, listening to his partner's footsteps fading on the payment. Just before getting in, he called, "Starsk? Say hello to Nick for me."

Starsky waved a hand without looking back.

Hutch started the motor, knowing he was going to hate the next seventeen days. He couldn't even remember the last time they'd been separated for that long a period. Though there was something to be said for taking a break from someone you dearly loved, he also knew that certain habits were so ingrained that he would be taking many stumbling steps without his partner there to balance him.

Even now, while he watched the Oldsmobile back out of the driveway, he had an urge to turn to the space next to him and make a comment about the way Aunt Rosie's mouth was already moving excitedly. Since there was no one to make the comment to, he merely grunted to himself.

There was more waving from the people inside the Olds as it started down the street. Hutch steered the Torino behind it, waving back. At the first intersection, they went their separate ways.

* * *

Over a week later, Hutch sat in his apartment in the late evening, cards spread out on the table before him, and placed a Jack of Clubs on top of a Queen of Hearts. He was hardly paying attention to the solitaire game, for it was merely a background for his roaming thoughts.

He was bored, lonely, and not above feeling a little self-pity. Starsky had called him at the station earlier in the week to say that they had arrived at his mother's in New York. True to his promise, his partner must have called immediately, for Hutch could hear noises of enthusiastic greetings in the background. Starsky sounded happy and excited, though his voice would occasionally fade as he'd turn from the phone to speak to yet another relative who didn't have the courtesy to not interrupt his phone call. Hutch had no choice but to sit through it, and Starsky said he would call again before they left for their return trip.

The deck ran out and he had lost yet another game. Hutch started to reshuffle, then tossed the stack of cards none too gently onto the table top. This is ridiculous, he decided. He wasn't sure if he meant the mindless game or the way he and his partner were so interdependent. Whatever the reason, if Starsky was having fun, he may as well, too. He went to a drawer to find a road map.

* * *

As soon as Hutch entered the squad room the following morning, Dobey beckoned him into his office. The captain picked up a manila envelope from his desk and pulled a group of photos from it. "These were overnighted from the police in Bakersfield." He handed them to Hutch. "Look familiar?"

When the images he was seeing registered, Hutch gulped, the horror adding to a growing nausea. "Oh, my God," he whispered softly. The pictures were of a murder victim, taken at various angles, lying in a pool of blood and other bodily material, which ran from his ripped back and torn rectum. When he found his voice, the blond asked, "It happened in Bakersfield?" He handed the photos back.

Dobey put them aside and nodded. "From what they've told us so far, the MO appears to be the same. They're asking if we can be of any assistance in finding those responsible. Of course, we'll send them a copy of the case file, but I don't know how much it's going to help." Dobey hesitated. "I thought it might be a good idea for you to go up there yourself and observe the situation first-hand. Maybe you'll see something to tie the three victims together. If nothing else, this proves we've got a pair of serial killers on our hands, and there's no reason to believe they won't strike again."

Hutch nodded agreement. A good, long drive might do him some good, keep him preoccupied. In fact... "Uh, Captain...."


"I was thinking of taking a few days off and heading up in that direction... to fish, maybe do some riding. I was going to turn in my request this morning. But now maybe I can mix business with pleasure and visit the Bakersfield PD on my way up."

Dobey shrugged. "Fine by me. When do you want to leave?"

"I could drive up this afternoon, meet with them, then take a three days weekend. I'll be back here Monday morning."

Dobey nodded again, holding out the envelope. "The Bakersfield detective's card is in here. And don't forget to take a copy of our files."

Hutch stood, feeling a weight fall from his shoulders. It felt good to have something meaningful to do. "Right." He moved toward the door.


The blond turned.

"What do you want me to tell Starsky if he happens to call in, looking for you?"

Hutch shrugged. "Just tell him I'm taking a few days off and he can call me on Monday."

Doubtfully, the captain asked, "You won't be staying any place in particular, where he can get hold of you?"

Hutch felt a sense of freedom as he replied, "No, I won't."

* * *

Detective Tom Newman, from Bakersfield's Homicide Department, adjusted the waistband of his slacks as he and Hutch moved from the latest victim's home toward Newman's car. After meeting the detective at the city's police station, Hutch had gone with him to see the murder site in person.

Hutch grimly noted, "Everything about the crime looks the same as the two in L.A. The only similarities we can find out about the victims is that they were single men -- though one was divorced -- who lived quiet, ordinary lives."

Newman sighed as they halted in front of his Chrysler New Yorker. He was slim, dark-haired and baby-faced, though fortyish. His dark eyes met those of his visitor. "Your coroner down there wasn't able to reach a conclusion about the murder weapon?"

Hutch lowered his gaze, for this was always the most difficult part. After leaning back against the car, he said, "Blood loss, and the resulting shock, was the direct cause of death. As for...," he felt himself hesitant to speak of it, "...what they shoved into them, they've only been able to call it a 'large, sharp instrument'." Hutch met the other man's eye. "They think it couldn't have been just a knife. The damage was more extensive than something a single blade could have caused. The incisions were ragged, not clean. The coroner said something about having the impression of an arrow pushed in and pulled out, though he thought the kind of arrow you use in archery would have been too small for that severity of damage."

Newman gazed at Hutch a moment longer, as though lost in thought, then put away his notepad. "All right, Hutchinson, I guess that's going to have to do for now. I'll drive you back to your car so you can get on your way."

They didn't say much more until entering the parking lot at police headquarters. As Newman halted beside Hutch's car, the blond said, "I'm taking a few days' vacation and thought I'd go up north. Have any favorite fishing spots up there?" He asked more for the sake of conversation than needing advice on where to go. He already had his plans mapped out.

Newman shook his head. "I don't fish."

* * *

The next afternoon, Hutch shifted in his car, trying to get comfortable. He'd gone for a two-hour horseback ride in Sequoia National Park that morning -- something he hadn't done in two or three years -- and his body ached from muscles that stiffened while he drove. He'd taken the LTD, leaving Starsky's car parked in front of Venice Place, as he was sure Starsky wouldn't appreciate his risking the paint getting scratched in the wilderness.

Hutch had enjoyed the horseback ride a great deal. It had been very scenic and he wondered why he didn't indulge more often. He also couldn't keep Starsky out of his thoughts for those two hours. The one time he'd tried to get his city-bred partner to enjoy the open air from the back of a horse it had been disastrous. Or, at least, one would think from all of Starsky's complaining. Starsky had never allowed himself to relax, and he'd complained for the next three days about sore muscles, chafed knees, and the stupidity of the equine species. Hutch had only laughed -- sure that, if nothing else, Starsky had enjoyed the scenery -- but he'd never been able to talk his partner into going again. Still, on this morning, he had day dreamed back to those days of non-stop complaining, realizing that he missed it.

Now, he'd left the parameters of the Park and was traveling north, following the Owens River. Fishing was on the agenda for the afternoon. Then he'd find a nice, quiet motel, get a good night's rest, and spend the remaining weekend doing more fishing and probably some hiking.

He'd been up this way before, years ago, and there was a certain private spot that he hoped to find again. Thankfully, his memory was still clear and as though on instinct, he turned off the main highway and made a few more turns until coming upon a familiar dirt road. He followed it as it curved around a series of boulders, its path parallel to the river. He finally pulled the car to a satisfying halt when the road ended in a clearing next to the water. Across from the clearing was a hill, dotted with trees, which he thought he might try hiking if the fish weren't biting.

He spent the next few minutes removing his equipment from the trunk. Finally, he pulled on his rubber waders and, fly-fishing rod in hand, moved out into the shallow water. He spent a few minutes perfecting his casting rhythm, for it was rusty, and then lost himself for the next couple of hours in the peaceful rushing of the water, the birds overhead, the scurrying of squirrels in trees along the bank. As time went on, he traveled farther and farther down the stream.

He managed to pull in a couple of trout, but keeping them would be too much trouble, so he threw them back. He was more interested in enjoying the process than in capturing prey.

Eventually, Hutch glanced up and noticed that the sun was near the western horizon. Guessing it was about three o'clock, and seeing the flurry of rapids ahead, he decided to take a break and waded over to the bank opposite from the one he'd entered. Glancing back, he saw that he'd traveled so far downstream that he could no longer see the LTD.

Hutch sat down and pulled off the waders. A brave squirrel pounced upon a rock a few yards away, chattering as it regarded him skeptically. Hutch wished he had something to feed it. But his pockets were empty and he settled for a few soft words of greeting. The squirrel was unimpressed and scampered away.

It felt good to be free of the cumbersome boots, and Hutch got back on his feet and started climbing the hill that bordered this section of the river. He couldn't remember if he'd climbed this hill when he'd been here years before.

Starsky, of course, had been with him then. They'd still been in blue at the time, and Starsky had been ever-afraid of the woods, river, and wildlife. Hutch had been amazed that one who could be so tough on the streets could possess such childish fears when taken out of his element. It had been a learning experience, teaching him not only more about his partner, but about people in general, and their various passions and limitations.

Having ridden earlier in the day, Hutch's legs ached as he crested the hill. In most directions, the view presented more hills. But looking northeast, he saw a clearing below with what looked to be a wooden cabin. The cabin was inhabited, for an old Chevy was parked next to it. There were many cabins like it sprinkled throughout this region of the state, and Hutch wondered if he were on private property, though there had been no fencing or signs indicating such.

He heard a rustle in the trees, and slowly -- for he thought he knew what it was -- Hutch turned around. It took a moment for his eyes to focus, for the foliage was so thick, but he eventually made out the outline of antlers. And then black eyes and a square nose.

The deer was staring right at him.

Hutch stared back, not daring to move, for he enjoyed the sight and imagined himself telling Starsky about it later. His partner may act unimpressed, but Hutch was certain that Starsky would appreciate the simplicity of the wildlife if he were here to share it with him.

Suddenly, the deer turned back toward the interior of the forest and bounded away. Hutch thought the animal must have picked up his scent, for there was no movement or sound that could have disturbed it.

Except he heard a shockingly familiar "click" and cold metal pressed against the back of his head. "Don't move," a gruff voice snarled.

The tone was deep, dangerous, and Hutch's heart kicked into high gear, disbelief rushing through him. Where had the man come from? Carefully, he asked, "What do you want?" Money?What else could it be?

The man didn't answer, and Hutch felt a coldness go through his body. He didn't have a gun, for he'd left it in his glove compartment, certain he had no use for it out here. But the man didn't know he was a cop, and therefore wouldn't know how well-versed he was in self defense.

Hutch started to turn his head to confront the other, for he was certain the man didn't really want to shoot him or he would have already done so. But just as Hutch started to turn, his attention was distracted by another man appearing from the trees to the right, holding a pistol in front of him.

This second man was thin, dressed raggedly, and had a heavy beard and small, dark eyes. A smell of body odor reeked from him as -- Hutch realized now -- it did from the first man.

Hutch recognized the coldness surging through him as fear. He was accustomed to facing individuals who wanted to harm him, but not in this environment. Without knowing their intent, he was at a great disadvantage. He kept his voice carefully neutral as he repeated, "What do you want?"

The face in front of him twisted into a grimace of evil and meanness, and then a boot lashed out and Hutch dropped to the ground in a ball, crying out, the most awful pain racing up from his groin and spreading through his body. He clutched at himself, moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes.

His arms were grabbed, pulling them away from his groin, and Hutch knew he was in serious trouble. He tried lashing out with both arms and legs from the ground -- for he was too incapacitated to stand -- but a boot slammed into his ribs, rolling him onto his stomach, and a gun was placed against his temple.

Hutch lay still, gasping for breath. His hands were again grabbed and pulled behind his back. The gun pressed more firmly against his skull, as though in warning.

If they wanted to kill him, he repeated to himself, they would have already done so. Yet, all survival instincts told him it was foolish to try something when a simple pull of the trigger would end his life. Therefore, he endured it as his hands were tied behind his back with rough twine.

"Dammit," he spat, turning his head to look up at the man holding the gun. Again, the evil in that face chilled him. "What do you want?"

His mouth was stuffed with a thick, dirty rag, which was tied around the back of his head. He strained against it, then realized the futility of his action. He was going to need a clear head and whatever energy he possessed to get out of this.

He forced himself to relax, at least as much as his throbbing groin would allow. He was still curled into a partial ball, for the pain was so great.

They were looking down at him, as though calculating. Hutch tried to communicate with his eyes, blinking to demand that they speak to him and tell him what was going on.

Instead of speaking, the first man frowned down at him and held the cocked gun out, pointing it at Hutch's face.

Hutch froze. His eyes were glued to the trigger, knowing the barest pressure would be the end of everything. As he tried to get his racing heart under control, he realized that his ankles were being tied together with more twine. His eyes narrowed as he thought furiously, trying to figure out what these men wanted. And he feared their reaction if they were to take his wallet and find out he was a cop. As it was, wrists and ankles bound, he was no threat to them. Surely, they realized that. Surely, they didn't intend to kill him, or they wouldn't be going through so much trouble to restrain him in the first place.

Once the second man had Hutch securely bound, the first man lowered his gun. Then both men reached down and grabbed Hutch by an arm on either side. They lifted him slightly, then started to drag him, face down, toward the northeast corner of the mountain, where he had seen the cabin.

Hutch held his head up as high as he could, trying to avoid foliage and rocks that were in the path. The two men didn't seem to care how badly the vegetation and rocks pulled at his clothes. Their progress became faster as they started down the hill, toward the cabin.

Dust began to kick up as gravity caused their feet to travel a little in front of him, and Hutch coughed feebly, the cloth in his mouth a severe obstruction to his attempts to purge his system of the debris. His mouth was uncomfortably dry, for the thick material was absorbing any saliva his glands could produce.

It seemed to take forever, but finally they were at the base of the hill, the cabin and its surrounding yard a short distance away. Hutch's chest and stomach felt sore and scratched, but he was no longer feeling self-righteous anger and his panic had eased. He was totally at the mercy of these men and his only hope of freeing himself was to think his way out. And he would need every bit of calm he possessed to do so.

They dragged him across a short field of tall grass, then stopped when he was lying in a spot between two tall posts, about three feet apart, at the south end of the yard. While looking down from the hill before his capture, Hutch had seen the posts but not taken any special note of them. Now, he felt a sense of dread as one of the men straddled his back and a gun was once again pressed against the back of his head.

Hutch lay still while the rope around his ankles was untied. Then his shoes were pulled off, followed by his socks. The feeling of foreboding, knowing that he was dealing with something more alien and sinister than anything he had ever known, returned the chill to his blood. He did not know what they were going to do, but he began to wonder if he should make a move and risk being shot.

And yet, it seemed foolish to think he could have any chance of escape with his hands immobile and an armed man on his back.

His left ankle was yanked to the post. Then Hutch felt the twine again, going around his ankle and the rough wood.

He couldn't settle for this, could not not fight it. He kicked out with both feet, tried to bend his knees and roll himself over, but the man's weight made it impossible. A moment later his hair was roughly pulled and his head was yanked back. The gun was now placed against his ear, its cold barrel shoved into the flesh there.

The panic returned, his heart beating frantically. These men were deadly serious, and he fought for calm as the tying process began again. He wished desperately that he could swallow, but his dry throat made it impossible.

Something in his chest seemed to sink all the way to his stomach when his other ankle was grabbed and pulled to the right. He whimpered as his legs were parted, reminding him of the tenderness in his groin. But they took no pity and tied that leg to the other post. He could only close his eyes against the pain exuding from the center of his body.

Hutch had a moment's relief when his hair was released and he was able to rest his cheek against the ground, the man moving off him. Then they grabbed his arms and pulled up. Hutch understood that they were trying to lift him, and he tried to cooperate, for otherwise his shoulders threatened to be pulled from their sockets. For a moment, he was allowed to rest on his knees -- an uncomfortable position, for his legs were spread so wide -- but then they lifted again, and with grunts of effort he was hauled into a standing position. Already his ankles were being rubbed raw from all the maneuvering. But he knew that was the least of his troubles.

He had one chance now. They would have to free his arms in order to tie his wrists to the posts.

A hand reached to pulled the gag partway down. Before Hutch could even utter a breath of relief, a pistol was shoved into his mouth, the metal scraping painfully against his teeth, the barrel maneuvered so that it pointed to the top of his palate.

Hutch held his breath, not daring to move, but felt sweat trickle down his back and sides as the second man cut the rope that had bound his hands, firmly taking the left one and securing it to the post.

The confusion, anger, disbelief all returned in full force. What did they want? Why were they doing this?

Hutch scarcely breathed, knowing the slightest mistake would set the gun off. All he could do was stare at the fathomless eyes of the man before him.

He felt the sinking sensation again as, finally, his right wrist was tied into place, sealing his helplessness.

The barrel was removed from his mouth and replaced with the gag. Both guns were tossed carelessly to one side. Hutch allowed a moment of relief to go through him, but he snapped to attention again when both men approached him with large pairs of scissors.

As always, he watched their eyes, trying to catch their gaze, because it was the only hope he had of communication. But they ignored his face completely now, and one man stood in front of him and undid his belt. A moment later the snap to his jeans was parted and the fly taken down.

Oh, God. What could they possibly want?

Cold scissors were thrust inside his jeans, from both front and behind, and then the cutting of denim began. Feeling thoroughly helpless, Hutch let his gaze drop to the hands of his captors.

What he saw turned his intestines to water.

One of the fingers was adorned with an old, dirty ring, the metal of which was burned. It was shaped like a square, an oval ornament within the square.

Oh, dear God. Dear, dear God.

It couldn't be. It couldn't be. The MO was to attack the victim within his own home. Not out here, in the wilderness, when he was on vacation.

But the evil, the darkness of these two men, fit with what he had seen of their prior victims.

Hutch felt something die within, realizing he had made a horrible, horrible mistake. From the moment he heard the first "click" of the gun, he should have fought. It would not matter that they would have killed him, for that would have been, at least, a quicker and merciful death. Why had he been so stupid as to assume they merely wanted to rob him? Why had he hesitated during any of it, for even the briefest second? He was going to pay for his lack of thinking with his life... in the worst way. His eyes darted around the yard, looking for the murder weapon... the monstrosity they would use to finish him... after they were done....

He didn't see anything. But he was aware that he couldn't control his trembling.

His jeans and underwear had been completely cut away. He felt rather than saw the hands start on his shirt, for he had closed his eyes in an effort to recover some filament of sanity.

As long as he was alive, there was hope.

And hope flared when he thought of Starsky.

But Starsky was more than three thousand miles away and would not be back for over a week.

When he didn't show up in the squad room, Dobey would send out units to look.

But he wasn't due back at the station for another two days, and these men would be long since finished with him by then.

His car was left abandoned by an old dirt road. A passerby would see it and call the police, prompting a search of the area.

But his car was parked in a remote area, and could not be seen from the motorists driving by.

His head hung as the hopelessness of his situation penetrated. He was naked now. His groin throbbed, as did the upper ribs on the left side of his chest. His mouth was completely dry. But those were the least of his worries.

He heard a crackling sound. Hutch opened his eyes, raised his head enough to see a small fire a few yards to the right. It consisted of small and medium-sized branches. Both of his attackers stood before it and when the flames were sufficiently high, they scooped up Hutch's torn clothing and tossed the bundle into the fire

Hutch could make out the back pocket of his jeans. As the flames penetrated the denim, he could see the thickness outlining his wallet. All of his ID and all of his money were being burned. As was his badge. These men did not know he was a cop. They were not doing this because he was a cop.

They were only doing it because he was a man.

No. They were not treating him as a man. Not as any kind of human being. But as an animal.

No, even worse than that. He was insignificant. To them, he was Nobody.

Hutch squeezed his eyes shut. Why did human beings ever think they truly mattered in the realm of things? They were just puny insects... to be swatted at and squashed... by other puny insects.

He sensed -- smelled -- their presence before he heard them. Footsteps that were coming closer. Wearily, Hutch opened his eyes and saw one of them walking toward him, carrying a coiled whip.

Oh, God.

The man didn't even pause, but walked around Hutch. He did not seem interested in showing Hutch the whip, or in trying to prompt fear. The man's face held no expression of enjoyment. Nor pity. It was as though he was merely carrying out a grim but necessary duty.

The man had no heart, Hutch decided defiantly. Neither of these men did. Their hearts must have been yanked from them at some point in their decrepit lives. Or maybe they had been born without.

Suddenly, a sharp burn flared across the middle of his back, accompanied by the sharp crack of leather hitting flesh. Hutch gasped through his gag and his eyes filled. He'd had no idea it would hurt that much. No idea at all.

He wished he had more faith in God.

Another burn flared from his right shoulder down to the center of his back.


Starsky was in New York, enjoying the love and closeness of family. Watching his brother getting married, which probably ensured that the Starsky line would be carried on. There was probably much celebration and joy.

While Hutch was here. Alone.

The third lash hit diagonally across his back, overlapping the first wound. Hutch sagged in his bonds, his weight pulling at his arm sockets, and closed his eyes.

Starsky was going to be so angry when he got back. So angry that Hutch had gone off, gotten into trouble, gotten killed, leaving Starsky alone.

Tears squeezed through Hutch's eyelids. His chest ached with a desperate wanting. If he could be granted one wish, it would be to tell Starsky that he was sorry, that he hadn't meant for this to happen. That he didn't want Starsky to spend -- the rest of his life? -- looking for those who had killed his partner. And all that time Starsky would be mad at him, not understanding how, once again, Hutch had gotten himself into trouble -- like with Ben Forest, like with Ralph Slater, like when they'd played that stupid game of hide and seek -- that he couldn't get himself out of without Starsky having to come and rescue him.

The next lash hit across his lower back. After the worst of the sting died away, Hutch felt the tickling sensation of blood dripping down his back from the cuts higher up. It felt thick and warm.

The fifth lash hit him -- he wasn't even sure where -- and he thought it puzzling that he was bleeding down the inside of a thigh. After the sixth lash, it occurred to him that the stream wasn't blood at all.

It was urine.

He had pissed on himself and he didn't even care.

He was nothing.



Hutch felt a warm shoulder beneath his chin. The shoulder was low enough that he was able to rest his chin upon it, thereby easing a small amount of weight on his neck, back, and shoulders.

He would not be resting his chin upon the shoulder had he the strength to move away from it. But his ordeal had left his body weak, his spirit broken, and now he had to suffer the humiliation of not being able to refuse the moment's respite offered by one of his tormentors.

Somewhere along the line, the gag had been removed. Had he the strength, Hutch would have begged the man to not move his shoulder away, for it seemed like incredible bliss to be able to rest his head there, after having had it hang for so long. He was past the point of having any hope of his arms being released from where they were stretched out from his body.

His back stung, but that was a torment he had grown accustomed to; that is, as long as there were no new applications of the whip. It seemed like there hadn't been for a while, but he could no longer trust his sense of time.

And, the worst of it, the awful cold....

Which was why he rested his head's full weight upon the shoulder... to grab those few seconds of longed-for rest; to feel the warmth against his chin and cheek, even though it was provided by one of his tormentors.

The man spoke to him. Hutch wasn't sure if it was one voice or two, for he had long since flown to a haven of darkness, shutting out any light. He could not decipher the words, nor had he the desire. These men were evil and he had no interest in anything they had to say.

His hands were cold and numb, and he only peripherally began to realize that his ropes were being untied. His sense of relief was followed by trepidation, for now that they were finished with this part he feared what he was certain was going to come next.

The shoulder beneath his cheek shifted and moved as the effort continued at his hands. Hutch wished it would stay in one place, wished he would be allowed to sleep, then never have to wake up....

He was jolted by the sensation of falling. Hands gripped his armpits. His head found the shoulder again, but only with another rude jolt . A warm hand was placed on the back of his head, pressing him closer against the shoulder.

A bitterness welled up, self-hatred for not having the strength to pull back.

Hands were touching him... brushing along his flesh, except for his back... and he mentally traced the warmth wherever it went, silently begging it not to leave.

It did leave, but then fingers gripped him high on his sides, and he heard himself gasp from the pressure on tender ribs, the pinching of his skin. And everything hurt in a new way as he felt himself in the air, then had the sensation of being upside-down.

He was being hauled over a shoulder, he realized now, for he rested uncomfortably against a shoulder bone, hands holding his naked waist and butt. The humiliation was there again, and he wanted to hide from his own weakness....

They were moving. He groaned at the pain the motion caused in his ribs, and the hands holding him tightened further.

He was aware of crossing a threshold, for the air was warmer, though also stale. Indoors?

Hutch felt himself being lowered, placed upon something soft. But as his weight sunk into it, he realized something beneath the softness was hard and firm. He was being held in a sitting position, hands still gripping his sides to prevent him from slumping as he wished to.

He was allowed to fall forward, and his face rested against a warm body. Again, he detested his failure to reject the warmth, his inability to find the strength to move away from it. The body was shifting. Hutch's position remained still, but he could feel the movement of muscle and ligaments in the other man.

Cloth touched Hutch's back, and he shuddered and gasped as torn nerve endings throbbed and stung while the cloth was pulled tight, part of it wrapped around to the front of him and tied at his chest.

The warm body pulled back, and his upper arm was held in a tight grasp. The cloth beneath him was being pulled, and the grip on his arm tightened painfully, as though his tormentor was trying to hold him upright while maneuvering the material.

The grip relaxed and Hutch collapsed onto his side, grateful for the softness beneath his body.

A hand settled on his buttock and he flinched, not wanting to face what was going to come next.

Then respite... for the hand was taken away. Another layer of softness was placed over him. Then the body left him completely and he lay there, shivering from head to toe, certain he would never again know what it meant to be warm.

There was the sound of voices... an urgent voice... a one-sided conversation... then the single ring of a phone disturbed when a receiver is slammed upon it.

He was no longer restrained. He should run for it. Get up and escape.

Hutch sent the message to his limbs while hearing running water and the slamming of cabinets in the background. His body responded sluggishly... he wasn't sure if his arms and legs even moved at all. He was too weak. And the hopelessness and self-loathing was upon him once again....

And it was too late. The man was back beside him. A hand settled on his upturned buttock, beneath the covering, and he trembled. Another hand was placed in his hair. A gentle touch... as though a cruel preparation for what they intended next. A trick.

An almost-hot cloth was placed around his neck. The softness covering him was shifted, and another heated cloth was pressed behind his scrotum, upward against his crotch. He whimpered at the pain and violation.

And yet the warmth felt good, and he was so focused upon it that he forgot to ignore the voice that was talking to him. "Take it easy," it whispered while a hand stroked through his hair. "Just tryin' to warm you up a bit."

He wanted to respond to the words, for it was the path of least resistance... the only thing he had the energy left to do.

And to obey that voice seemed so instinctive.

It was the same voice that had been chattering insistently ever since something had supported his chin. The same voice that was speaking so softly and soothingly... worriedly.

A memory flared, but Hutch squelched it, determined to not be tricked, for that would be the cruelest violation of all.

The hand left his crotch, leaving the cloth there. It felt good, as did the one against his neck.

Crotch and neck. Points of anatomy where the body is warmest. Points of anatomy that absorb heat most quickly. Points of anatomy that should be tended to when treating hypothermia....

First aid. Help.

"Hang on, Hutch." Such a gentle whisper. "I'm gettin' into the sleeping bag with you. Gonna warm you up."

It was not possible. That fact Hutch had determined a long time ago... back when they had applied the first lashes of the whip. There was no way his partner could be here.

"Okay, here we go. Gonna be a tight fit, but it's all gonna be okay."

The top covering moved. The brush of the other's flesh, some clothed and some not, made Hutch shiver more profusely -- from anticipation of receiving more warmth, from fear of having the enemy so close.

Unless it was...?

For a moment, a finger touched his back, applying pressure on an open gash, and he heard himself make an anguished cry of protest. The hand quickly moved down, resting on his buttock.

"Sorry, sorry."

The wound throbbed and stung, but Hutch's confusion overwhelmed everything else. The other body was wriggling profusely, working its way beneath the covering, brushing against him.

"Hutch," the anxious voice whispered, "tell me if I touch you somewhere where it hurts. Don't wanna hurtcha anymore, babe."

That voice, that concern. It could only be...

The promise of what might be overrode his fear. Hutch opened his eyes.

Only blurriness confronted him. Slowly, it cleared.

He was looking into bright, worried, sapphire blue eyes, inches from his own. They crinkled to form a smile. "How ya doin'?"

Hutch meant to smile back, thought his heart would burst from his chest as it soared with relief, thought he would never again have to wish for anything in his life....

But something within betrayed everything that should have been. He felt his chest collapse at the same time his dry throat constricted. His vision clouded in an instant, and a sound burst from his throat... incoherent and smothered.

Hutch didn't understand why it was happening, but his brain eventually figured out that he was crying. He desperately wanted to stop -- for he feared the other would misunderstand; and because his throat, ribs, and back hurt with each inhaled and choked-out breath.

"Easy does it, babe." The softest of whispers. A hand gently furrowing in his hair, drawing his head closer to the warmth, pressing his face against the unclothed, furred chest.

The scent that was his partner assaulted him full force. Hutch relaxed. And the sobs and tears flowed more freely.

He could feel the movements of his partner. A leg worked its way between his own, hooked a foot around his calf, drawing their bodies closer. Hutch felt the sensation of the other stretching, and then something was placed over his head, blocking out whatever light he'd been able to detect through the blurriness.

Some of Starsky's movement pressed against Hutch's ribs. While there was initial pain, the other's body also provided a degree of support, and Hutch found himself breathing easier.

His hands were taken within his partner's, then his fingers were pushed into an opening that had cotton on one side and flesh on the other. It was warm in that place. So warm.

A hand was on his buttocks, rubbing briskly there, occasionally dropping down to the back of his thigh. Another hand was on his chest, massaging firmly in the narrow space between their bodies, spreading the warmth.

Somewhere along the line, the tears stopped and he was drained of all feeling. But he badly wanted to speak. He forced his vocal chords to vibrate. Starsk? He thought it came out as an incoherent squeak.

The warmth pulled back. The covering over his head was shifted, and his chin was tilted up with a gentle finger. "Right here, pal."

His eyes had closed and now he had to make the effort to open them. And the same face that was there before came into focus.

"It's gonna be okay, Hutch. Warmin' up a little?"

The words were calm, gentle, soothing. But the eyes held a brightness, a sadness, that Hutch wished he could dissipate.

He wanted to nod his answer, but he couldn't send the proper messages to his brain. So he only gazed back at the other, hoping to communicate in a way that words could not.

Hutch felt the heat beginning to disperse throughout the surface area of his body, though he doubted he would ever feel warm again at bone level. He felt more alert, less confused... but the renewed circulation through his veins was causing his nerve endings to send frantic messages to his brain. And a fire began along his back.

He closed his eyes and a painful gasp emerged, dragging his emotional euphoria to a sudden stop.

"Easy, Hutch." Tender, concerned words. "Easy does it."

He tried to stifle a further gasp, but the fire was spreading, increasing in intensity. He choked out a hiccup.

"I know it hurts. But it's gonna be okay. Help's on the way."

Help. Coming. Starsky had been on the phone. Civilization. How far...?

Hutch squinted his eyes open. From beneath the zipper of the jacket that was over his head, he could see the interior of a cabin. The cabin that housed the men who....


"Hutch, take it easy. Take it easy."

Starsk. His throat hurt, it was so raw, and he couldn't seem to get his tongue to form words.

"Hutch, I'm right here. It's gonna be okay."

Hutch calmed, waited until he could get a thought together enough to speak. "Starsk?" It was a whisper, but not quite so gruff.

An ear tilted near him. "I'm right here, pal. Right here."

Hutch heard the fear in his own cracked voice. "They 'ome b'ck."

The head turned and eyes were looking at him. Their sympathy softened into tenderness. Starsky whispered, "They're dead, Hutch. It's okay. Not gonna hurt anyone ever again."

Hutch closed his eyes. Starsky had killed them. That was the only way the other could be so sure.

As relief traveled through him, he let himself relax. But giving in to the exhaustion brought the tightness back to his throat, the tears back to his eyes. He heard himself choke out more sobs.

A finger brushed against his mustache. "It's okay, Hutch." The voice was so soft, soothing. "It's all right. Rest if you can. Cryin's okay, but try to relax and rest. It's real important."

Starsky was so worried. Hutch wanted to say that he was all right now, knowing the men were dead, knowing they could never do what he knew they had intended. But that reassurance was too long a sentence for his brain to manufacture, and the only noise he could make were more choked sobs.

And he wasn't really all right. His back stung and throbbed, his chest was constricted. Some of his ribs hurt. Muscles were cramped throughout his body. And there was still the cold.

His head was drawn back to the chest that was covered by nothing but a layer of hair. He longed for its warmth, but felt smothered when pressed against it.

Starsky's hand settled on his hair. It applied pressure, urging Hutch to turn his face so his cheek rested against Starsky, and oxygen infiltrated his airway more freely.

His hair was stroked. The hand on his buttocks pressed him closer.

Starsky's soft voice whispered, "Try to take it easy. I'm right here."

Hutch tried to do as directed, but each time lassitude threatened he became all the more conscious of the pain. And his tear ducts wouldn't quit.

"It's all gonna be okay, Hutch. It's all gonna be okay."

He wanted to squeeze Starsky's hand, feel its strength and security. But he couldn't find his own hands, for he didn't know where they were. He concentrated, trying to locate his fingers. They were in a warm place. He wriggled them. Felt fabric. Felt skin and hair. Felt wiry hair.

"Fingers warmin' up?"

Hutch explored a little further, encountering something that felt like a hipbone. Then he knew where his fingers were. He could now feel his arms for his wrists stung, but not as badly as his back. He started to pull his hands from their safe haven.

With gentle firmness, Starsky said, "Leave 'em there, Hutch. Gotta keep you nice and warm."

Hutch readily obeyed, for he forgot why he intended to remove them in the first place. And indeed, it was warm there. So warm that he imagined his hands must feel very cold to the flesh next to them. In fact, he thought he could feel his partner shivering.

"Help's on the way, Hutch. Hang on."

Hutch let himself relax further. The tears had finally dried up, leaving him in a lethargic haze. His back stung and throbbed to such a relentless degree that he thought he might throw up, but then he was distracted by Starsky's voice.

"Relax, Hutch," it soothed as hands continued to massage along his chest and butt. "Relax. It's gonna be fine. It's all gonna be fine."

He let the gentle sound lull him into a comforting darkness.

* * *

Two hours later, Starsky lay on his side in the emergency room of a small town hospital, wrapped in a blanket. He had been so successful at transferring his body heat to Hutch that when the rescue units found them it was he who had been shivering. Once they were at the hospital, they made him lie down, covered him, and took his vitals. He acquiesced only because they agreed to not curtain him off from Hutch. The emergency room contained only five beds, all empty upon their arrival. Now Hutch was lying on the center one, Starsky on the one two beds down.

Two doctors sat on stools on either side of Hutch, both stitching his back. They'd been at it a long time, neither speaking as they went from one gash to another. Thankfully, the anesthetic had allowed Hutch to finally settle into a semblance of sleep. For, until then, he had needed some coaxing to keep him calm and assured, even though he'd shown signs of understanding that everyone was trying to help him and the worst of his ordeal was over.

There was the sound of a radio and Starsky looked toward the doorway. A nurse frowned at the uniformed man who entered, who then guiltily turned down the volume on his walkie-talkie.

"Sheriff Tuney," Starsky greeted softly.

The man, who had thinning red hair and stood about six foot four, pulled up a stool next to Starsky's bed and sat down. "All right, Sergeant," he said in a quiet tone, "now that your partner's being taken care of, why don't we go over it a little more slowly?"

Starsky flicked his eyes to Hutch and saw that the blond still appeared to be resting. Then his gaze switched back to focus on the man beside his own bed. He liked Tuney because the other hadn't tried to badger him for anything more than the most basic details when help had arrived at the scene, understanding that Starsky's attention was solely on Hutch.

Starsky glanced at the clock -- it had been dark out when they had arrived and now it was twenty after eight -- then turned his attention back to the sheriff. "I was away in New York on vacation. I came back early and thought I'd surprise Hutch, because he'd told everyone he was going fishing up this way after stopping in Bakersfield to talk to the PD there about a murder that was similar to a couple that had taken place in L.A." He paused while Tuney wrote on his pad, then continued. "No one knew for sure where Hutch had gone, but I remembered a fishing spot he really liked from years back, so I figured I'd look there first. I found his car but he wasn't around. Downstream a ways, I found his fishing boots and pole. That's when I started to get the feelin' something was wrong." Starsky swallowed. How strong that feeling had been. "I started lookin' around. Then I hiked up a hill there and saw the cabin down on another side of the hill. I saw someone tied to the posts next to the cabin, spread-eagled. I could see enough that I knew it was Hutch." He paused, letting Tuney write while recalling the disbelief that had assaulted him. "I saw a guy whipping him, another, like, standing watch. I ran down the mountain as fast as I could. When I was close enough, I fired a shot into the air and said, 'Police!' They looked up and reached for some pistols -- I guess they were on the ground -- and I fired at the closest one and he went right down. I fired at the second guy the same time he fired at me. He missed. I went over to the first guy and I saw him wearing a weird looking ring and that's when I knew they were the same two suspects as the case we were working on -- the one Hutch had gone to Bakersfield for. " God, the fear he felt then. But Starsky's voice was carefully neutral. "When I bent down to feel his pulse, I saw the second guy struggling for his pistol, and I fired off two more rounds. I made sure he was dead. Then I took care of Hutch."

Starsky lapsed into silence. He had been certain that Hutch was dead. The blond had sagged in his bonds, completely still. He had soiled himself and his skin was chillingly cold. Blood ran lazily down his back, buttocks and legs. Starsky had been shaking so much with grief that when he reached to feel for a pulse he hadn't been able to find the carotid artery. It was only when he dropped his gaze with despair that he saw the stomach muscles move with a slight inhalation. Then all he could think about was getting Hutch down from there.

The cabin had had no furnishings other than sleeping bags. Without any other options, Starsky had laid Hutch on the nearest one. There had been a phone on the wall and he was shocked that it actually worked and had wasted no time in calling the authorities. He'd found a couple of rags but they were too dirty to apply to the wounds, so he had used them instead as warm compresses, surprised that the cabin actually had hot water. He had taken off his shirt and tied it around Hutch's back. It wasn't nearly large enough to do an adequate job, but Starsky hadn't been as worried about the loss of blood as much he had been about as how cold Hutch was. Though the temperature outside was a respectable sixty-five degrees, it was far too cold for one who was naked and injured, and the shock from the loss of blood -- to say nothing of whatever mental trauma there may have been -- compounded the situation. Starsky had gotten into the sleeping bag with Hutch, tried to wrap himself around the other, though it was difficult since he couldn't put his arms around Hutch's back and simply draw him closer. Instead, he'd had to settle for putting a hand on his partner's buttocks, and the implications had scared him when Hutch flinched. But that, he realized now, was before Hutch was aware of who he was. Starsky had placed Hutch's ice-cold fingers inside the front of his jeans and put his jacket over Hutch's head.

Then came recognition. And all those tears. Starsky had actually been relieved to see them for, as with a newborn, he'd thought the crying would get Hutch's heart pumping and get his circulation going to help the warming process. It appeared to work, though the drawback had been the awareness of pain, which Hutch seemed to have previously escaped from with whatever mental journey he'd taken.


Starsky blinked, turning his attention back to the sheriff.

"Who at the Bakersfield Police was working on the case?"

"Detective Newman. He'll have all the details about what those perverts have done to their victims."

Tuney made a note. Then, delicately, he asked, "Do you think your partner was sexually assaulted?"

Starsky firmed his jaw. He hadn't been sure at first, especially when Hutch had flinched. Now he was. "They didn't get that far. They weren't done tearing up his back yet."

Tuney glanced over at Hutch, then looked skeptically at Starsky.

"When you get the pictures of the victim from Bakersfield," Starsky told him, "you'll understand what I mean."

Their eyes met, then Tuney put away his pad.

There was the murmur of voices and both men looked at the center of attention. The doctors had started suturing near Hutch's shoulders, and had cleaned the wounds as they worked their way down. They seemed to be almost done, for they were at Hutch's lower back. Now they were gently parting his legs, talking amongst themselves.

Starsky felt his heart race, and he looked pleadingly at a nurse who was watching the doctors. He caught her eye and she moved over to him.

"What's going on?" he asked in a small voice.

"His testicles are bruised and swollen," she told him. "Like somebody gave him a good kick."

Tuney looked away. Disgustedly, he said, "That's easy to do to somebody who's spread-eagled and can't defend himself."

Starsky didn't comment. In truth, he was relieved that it wasn't something worse.

The nurse presented a friendly smile. "He'll be all right." She took some equipment that was hanging on the wall, next to the gurney. "Let's take another look at you. Can you sit up?"

Keeping the blanket around his shoulders, Starsky hoisted himself into a sitting position. The nurse wrapped the blood pressure sleeve around his arm.

"That's all I need," Tuney said. "I'll come back tomorrow to see if your partner is well enough to give us a statement. If you need anything in the meantime, give me a call."

"Thanks, Sheriff."

"Would you like me to contact your captain and let him know what's going on?"

Starsky shook his head. "I'll call him myself as soon as they've got Hutch in a room."

Tuney waved as he turned. "Take care."

"How do you feel?" the nurse asked as she studied the BP monitor.

"I feel fine."

"The numbers are fine, too. Let's get your temperature to be sure." She inserted a thermometer into his mouth.

Starsky sat quietly, knowing his temperature had been slightly below normal when they had brought him in. He was warmed up now, though he wished he had a shirt to wear.

Both doctors stood and began putting away their supplies, a nurse stepping in to assist. Hutch's upper body was wrapped in a bandage, and the blanket that had been covering his legs was now drawn up to his neck. An IV that had been inserted when the paramedics arrived was still near his collar bone, that location chosen because his wrists had been so chafed and tender.

One of the doctors left the room. The other approached Starsky as the nurse removed the thermometer.

"How is he, Doc?" he asked as the physician halted before him.

"He took over 300 stitches. They'll be able to come out in about ten days." The doctor shrugged. "I'm afraid it's going to leave a lot of scarring."

Starsky didn't give a damn about the scarring. "What else?"

"Other than minor scrapes and bruises, he seems to have suffered a powerful kick to his groin. The swelling should subside in a matter of hours. Also, he looks to have either severely bruised or cracked ribs on his upper left side. We've chosen not to x-ray at this time, since we'd rather not disturb him, and there's not a lot we can do to treat it, anyway."

Starsky nodded agreement. "What happens now?"

The doctor glanced over his shoulder at the orderlies who were releasing the brakes on Hutch's gurney. "They'll take him up to his room. We'll give him a sedative to make sure he gets a good night's sleep."

Quickly, the curly-haired man reminded, "He's allergic to morphine."

The doctor nodded. "We have that in his record since you already mentioned it. We aren't giving him anything from that family. Since the wounds were so deep and there were so many, we're going to go ahead and give him an antibiotic to fight any infection that may set in."

The doctor stopped speaking, and in disbelief Starsky asked, "Then... he can go home tomorrow?"

The physician hesitated. "I'd rather keep him here tomorrow just to make sure nothing shows up that we've missed. But he should be able to leave the day after that."

Starsky let out a breath. That was good news.

"He's lost a lot of blood," the doctor said firmly. "So even though he'll be well enough to leave, he'll tire easily for the next two to three weeks. It'll take that long for his system to manufacture the blood cells he's lost."

Starsky nodded quickly. "Yeah, no problem."

"That does it for tonight." The doctor removed his stethoscope. "I'll be checking in on him during the day tomorrow."

"Thanks, Doc."

The doctor left. The nurse was still there and Starsky asked, "What room did they take him to?"

"I'm not sure. You need to check with the nurse's station. It's down the hall and to the right."

Starsky slid off the gurney. "I've got to stay with him tonight. If he wakes up in a strange place after what he's been through...."

Pleasantly, she replied, "Small town hospitals like this don't enforce visiting hours very strongly. It'll be all right for you to stay with him."

Starsky let out a breath. "Thanks."

She smiled at him. "Let me see if I can scrounge up a shirt or pajama top for you to wear."

* * *

The next morning was overcast, and with the light out and curtains drawn Hutch's room remained in near-darkness. The drugs had worked, for the blond hadn't woken up at all during the night. Starsky had sat in a chair next to the bed for a while, trying to still the questions in his mind about what his partner had been through. Finally, he'd stretched out on the remaining bed in the room and dozed off. In the morning, his first thought was that he needed to buy some clothes for them both, but he didn't want to leave and have Hutch wake up alone.

Finally Hutch stirred, his limbs shifting lazily beneath the sheets.

Starsky went over to the window and opened the curtain part-way, letting the morning's grayness penetrate the room. Then he sat in the chair next to Hutch's bed, watching pale eyelids flutter, listening to the soft noises of wakening.

Hutch had been facing the window, and when his eyes drifted open they immediately narrowed.

The chair was also on that side of the bed. "Hey, buddy," Starsky whispered as he laid a hand on the arm that was visible from beneath the covers.

Hutch's eyes rose meet his. They narrowed again, this time in puzzlement. "Starsk?" His voice was weak and dry.

The shorter man let a smile dominate his expression. "Hey, there, tiger."

Hutch started to hoist himself onto a forearm, then he froze and squeezed his eyes shut, gasping.

Starsky was out of his chair and holding his partner by the shoulders. "Hutch, easy. Easy does it. You gotta be real careful about movin' around."

The tight expression eased and Hutch looked down at the bandage around his body. His eyes widened, and he slowly -- as though afraid of what he might see -- tilted his head back over his shoulder.

There was nothing to see but more of the bandage. Gently, Starsky said, "Let me give you a hand. Want to turn on your side?"

Hutch didn't move, other than drawing a deep breath. Then he murmured, "It wasn't a dream."

The other swallowed. "No. But you're gonna be fine, Hutch." He gripped the shoulders. "Let's at least get you turned...."

It was difficult with the IV in the way, but Hutch allowed Starsky to manipulate him onto his side so that he was facing the window. He spent a few seconds regaining his breath, then his eyes narrowed again. "Where am I?"

Starsky clasped his hand. "In a friendly little hospital in a town called Independence."

Hutch's expression showed recognition at the name. He looked up. "What day is it?"

"It's about eleven o'clock, Saturday morning."

Slowly the blond shook his head, staring at the other. In a hushed tone, he said, "You weren't due back...."

Starsky presented a tiny smile. "I came back early."

Hutch closed his eyes, a pained expression overtaking his features. He turned his face into the pillow.

The curly-haired man wasn't sure what mental demons Hutch was facing. He moved out of the chair and carefully sat on the edge of the bed. Then he brushed his hand through delicate, palomino strands. "It's okay, Hutch," he whispered tenderly. "It's okay now."

Hutch bit his lower lip. Then, in a strained, gruff tone, he said, "Didn't think you'd be back." He swallowed thickly and forced out, "In time."

Oh God, Hutch. Starsky couldn't imagine what that must have been like. In every life or death situation he had ever faced, Hutch had been there with him to see it through -- at least to the point that he'd known Hutch was frantically searching for him.

Starsky wasn't sure what words to say but knew that his presence was most important. He continued petting back through the hair. Hutch alternated between staring out the window and squeezing his eyes shut, as though trying to force back a memory that wouldn't quit.

Gently, Starsky asked, "Still scared?"

There was the motion of the Adam's apple bobbing. Then a slight nod.

Starsky trailed his hand down until it rested on Hutch's cheek. There, his fingertips massaged gently. "I'm gonna be right here. Not goin' nowhere." He could imagine the thought process Hutch was going through, for he had experienced it himself in traumatic situations. You tell yourself that everything is fine now -- those who caused harm are either dead or in custody -- yet, the feeling of intense vulnerability persists... sometimes for days... sometimes for weeks... sometimes longer than that.

Hutch looked up at him. "They're dead?"

Starsky nodded. "They're dead."

The blond's gaze returned to the window.

Starsky's hand moved to a shoulder, settling there. "Hutch, the sheriff is going to be by sometime to get your statement about what happened. I'll be here, too, so you only have to go through it once. But, just for now...," Starsky himself swallowed, hesitant to ask, but wanting to know, "... did they tell you why they were doing it?"

The eyes closed again and Hutch shook his head once, firmly. "They never said anything to me. They didn't say anything to each other." Bleakly, he added, "They didn't say anything at all. And... and it wasn't like they were even enjoying it. It... it...," he let out a breath, then, "Did they do an autopsy? I'm not sure they were human."

Starsky blinked. Hutch couldn't be serious. And yet, the other definitely wasn't joking. Levelly, he replied, "I'm sure they'll do autopsies."

This time when Hutch's eyes closed, the lids held a weariness. After a few moments, he asked, "How bad is it?"

Starsky had to consider the meaning of the question. "Your back?"


"You took over 300 stitches. How does it feel?"

"Sore. Tight and sore." His voice softened. "Real sore."

"They can probably give you something for it."

Hutch's eyes flew open wide.

"They know about the morphine," Starsky assured quickly.

Hutch relaxed then, taking a deep breath. "Thanks." After a moment, his brows narrowed and his hand moved down his body, beneath the covers. "What did they....?"

The curly-haired man wasn't sure if Hutch meant getting kicked or... "You have a catheter," he informed gently. "I guess because they weren't sure how long you were going to be asleep."

The full lips twisted. "Great."

Starsky had experience with the discomfort of the device. "I'm sure they'll take it out now that you're awake." There was no response and he ventured, "Want me to get the nurse?"

The blue eyes stared out the window. In a small voice, Hutch replied, "Not just yet."

Starsky waited, wondering what more his partner wanted to say before strangers invaded the room. After a few moments he laid a hand on Hutch's shoulder and rubbed gently.

Hutch took Starsky's hand in his and pressed it against his chest. He closed his eyes tightly, squeezing it.

Starsky felt something shimmer within his own chest. He couldn't pretend to know what Hutch had gone through. He was going to have to wait until Hutch was ready to tell him.

Hutch rolled forward slightly, so that Starsky's hand rested more firmly between his chest and the sheets, his own hand still holding it. His eyes stayed closed, as though he were in some world of his own, and Starsky's hand was the only link to the outside... or perhaps the only link of any kind that the blond cared to possess.

They stayed like that until a nurse switched on the light and cheerfully announced that lunch was being served.

* * *

Sheriff Tuney visited late in the afternoon, as did Detective Newman from Bakersfield, who wanted to put a lid on the case in his city. The latter seemed shaken that Hutch had turned out to be the next victim, and he was sincere in his wishes for a speedy recovery. Both law officers were disappointed in what little Hutch had learned from the men responsible. Tuney said that the bodies had possessed no identification. The cabin was owned by a wealthy couple in Seattle who claimed they had not rented it out to anyone and did not know the two men. The ownership of the car parked outside the cabin could not be traced.

Starsky sat quietly while Hutch gave his statement, achingly aware that everything his partner said was told in precise, even tones, sprinkled with very little of his own feelings about his capture and abuse. But he knew that those feelings existed close to the surface, were battled every time Hutch closed his eyes.

The next morning, they were on their way home. The trip was over 200 miles but seemed much longer. Tuney's teenage nephew, a car enthusiast, agreed to drive the Torino down in a few days. Hutch and Starsky took the LTD so Hutch could stretch out along the back seat, but the taller detective seemed unable to get comfortable. He even tried sitting in the front seat once -- with abruptly purchased pillows strategically placed against his upper shoulders and lower back -- but that proved unworkable. His inability to rest made him irritable and at one point he launched into a two-minute tirade about the ineptness of Starsky's driving. Starsky didn't bother responding, knowing there was nothing personal in the words. After over a minute of silence, Hutch meekly said, "Sorry". Starsky replied, "It's okay". Neither man spoke the remaining 80 miles.

Starsky made sure Hutch was settled at Venice Place, then went to Parker Center. Though he was officially on vacation, he needed to make a report about what had transpired. Plus, he knew Dobey would feel better after speaking to him in person. When he had first called their captain from the hospital, the black man had been shocked and vehemently concerned about Hutch's condition. It had been such a gruesome case. No one had expected the next victim to be one of the Department's finest.

After leaving the station, Starsky stopped to pick up a few groceries and a large tube of Neosporin, which the doctor said would help speed healing and deter infection if rubbed into Hutch's sutures on a daily basis. When Starsky arrived back at the apartment it was close to six o'clock. He found Hutch sitting hunched forward on the couch, listlessly watching television. Starsky warmed up a can of potato soup and grilled a couple of cheese sandwiches. Hutch ate hungrily, but he seemed distracted and conversation was kept to a minimum.

Starsky cleaned up while his partner sat silently at the table. Then he picked up the tube of cream. "We need to take off your bandage and put some of this on."

Hutch looked up at him, nodded, and stood. Wearily, he moved to where the bed was, his partner following. He sat on the edge and slowly moved his hands down the front of his shirt, loosening the buttons one by one.

The silence was wearing on Starsky's nerves. He was about to speak -- insist that Hutch say something -- but Hutch spoke instead.

"Tell me," the blond demanded in a low voice while staring at the floor, his shirt falling open as the last button was released, "how it is that you came back early."

Starsky realized that he shouldn't have been surprised at the question. He'd told Hutch what had happened since his arrival, but not how he'd come to be home early in the first place. "Well," he shrugged, reaching to pull back Hutch's shirt, "after the wedding there was all the festivities and the whole family -- there were over 200 people there -- was all around and most of 'em wanted to talk to me since they hadn't seen me in a long time." He pulled the shirt back, and Hutch -- without lifting his gaze -- gingerly removed one arm from its sleeve, then the other. "And, well," Starsky's own gaze shifted to the floor, "a lot of them were making comments about the fact that Nicky -- my younger brother -- tied the knot before I did." Starsky moved to take some scissors from the nightstand. Then he stood looking down at Hutch, scissors in hand, and was glad when Hutch slowly looked up at him, a spark behind the his partner's otherwise bleak expression. "So, that's the way a lot of the conversations went."

Starsky sat back down and cut the knot that had secured the bandaging. "Everyone was wanting to know when I was going to 'grow up', 'settle down', and things like that." He began to unwrap the long cotton strip. "If you want to know the truth," he said blandly, "even though I knew they meant well, I was startin' to feel a little persecuted." His hands paused. "And I missed you, Hutch."

The blond turned to look at him, the bare hint of a smile lighting a mouth corner.

Starsky smiled back, continued with the unwrapping. "So, I was gettin' a little restless. And then Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie were sayin' they wanted to take even more time drivin' back -- wanting to go down south through Tennessee and places like that. And some of the other relatives started gettin' interested and then they all started plannin' this big trip." The unwrapping complete, Starsky pushed the cloth to one side, not letting the sight before him affect his tone. "So, all of a sudden, it was apparent that they didn't need me to help with the drivin'. So I caught a plane out early the next morning."

Hutch was staring at the opposite wall and didn't reply.

Starsky thought he owed it to the other to complete the story. But he had to lower his voice to a whisper. "Seein' all those people together, I felt kinda out of place. I had a real strong urge to get back to you...." He wondered how Hutch would take that. Between them, it was the blond who was usually the most openly sentimental about their relationship.

Hutch looked at him, brows furrowed. "You sensed something was wrong?"

The other man thought about it. Then he said, "No. I just... felt like I wanted to be with you. It was a real strong feelin'. To, you know, get back where I belonged. I tried to call you to pick me up at the airport on Saturday morning. Dobey said you'd gone up to Bakersfield and then was going fishing. So, as soon as I was home I started up north. I stopped at Bakersfield and talked to the detective there, because I thought you might have told him where you were going. He wasn't much help, so I just put my instincts in gear. And I remembered that one place you liked so much that we went to that one summer."

Both men sat silent.

After a time, Starsky delicately ventured, "When are you gonna tell me what it was like for you?"

The blond head turned, the expression showing annoyance that he was being asked to repeat himself.

Starsky knew what his friend was thinking and clarified, "I mean about what it was like for you." He lightly tapped his own chest. "In here."

Hutch looked away, firming his jaw. He rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the curtains drawn over the window.

Starsky waited.

"In all my life," Hutch whispered slowly, not turning his head, "even after all the close calls we've had, I have never, ever known fear like I did with those men."

He had wanted Hutch to talk, but Starsky didn't know what he could say that would make it better. And since Hutch knew he didn't know what to say, it would be pointless to throw out meaningless platitudes. Starsky opted for truth. "Anyone who knew what those men were capable of would have to be brain-dead to not be afraid."

Hutch closed his eyes. "It wasn't just," he swallowed thickly, "that I knew what they were going to do. It was... I...."

It was instinctive to place a hand on his partner's back, but that area of Hutch's body was off limits. Starsky hesitated, then reached to rest his hand behind the nearest knee, squeezing gently.

"It was like...." Weakly, Hutch gestured toward his chest. Then his whisper softened. "There was... no hope. I knew you couldn't come. I knew no one could come. I couldn't come to my own rescue... couldn't help myself. There was no one. And I was nothing. Nobody."

Starsky inched closer on the bed, swallowing thickly. "Hutch..."

"I've never felt so helpless, so afraid, in my entire life." The blond's gaze dropped from the curtain and his head bowed. "So alone."

Starsky pressed his face against Hutch's arm, still not knowing what could be said. Except sorry. And sorry wouldn't help.

"I kept thinking," Hutch went on in a stronger tone, "about how angry you'd be."

Starsky straightened, not understanding.

"How I'd gotten myself in yet another mess. Only this time you wouldn't be able to pull me out in time. And I knew you'd be so mad that I'd gone off and gotten myself killed. Didn't give you a chance to intervene. And you'd have to spend the rest of your life going after those responsible."

The curly-haired man took a deep breath. Levelly, he noted, "You've pulled me out of my share of 'messes', too. I think we're pretty even in that department."

Hutch didn't reply.

Firmly, Starsky noted, "You had no options, Hutch. They had guns, you didn't. There was nothing you coulda done different and still gotten out alive. You didn't do anything to provoke them. You just...," he sighed weakly, "happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The pale brows furrowed and Hutch glanced in Starsky's direction. "What did they use for the murder weapon?" he asked matter-of-factly.

It was only natural, Starsky told himself, that Hutch would want to know. But he really wished he didn't have to answer the question. Tuney had not looked for a murder weapon, as he hadn't known the killers' MO. But Newman had gone to the cabin and found it. Of course, he'd been sensible enough to not tell Starsky about it until they were outside of Hutch's room.

Starsky looked at the floor. "It was this... this...," he gestured vaguely, "some sort of customized thing. Like they made it themselves."

The taller man's voice firmed. "What kind of thing?"

The other exhaled heavily. "It was metal, sort of like a shovel. A spade. Only, it had three pairs of points going down the sides."

Hutch's gaze was back on the wall. "How big?"

"I don't know," Starsky said uncomfortably. "Maybe four inches across, maybe eight inches long."

Hutch barely shook his head. "Maybe I wouldn't even have felt it, I was so far gone."

Starsky didn't know what to say to that. After a moment, he offered hopefully, "Maybe none of the victims felt it. Maybe those creeps didn't care that their victims felt it. After all, you said they didn't seem particularly interested in you knowin' what they were going to do, how much they were plannin' to hurt you."

They dropped into silence and a minute passed. Then Hutch whispered, "If they hadn't gagged me, I would have begged for my life."

"Your life is worth begging for, Hutch."

The blond closed his eyes. "It didn't seem worth much of anything right then."

Starsky pressed his cheek against Hutch's shoulder, leaning his weight against him. "It's worth everything to me," he whispered. "Everything." Maybe it wasn't what Hutch needed to hear, but it was what Starsky needed to say. Such a thin line between life and death. One had to cherish the former before eventually succumbing to the latter. "I thought you were dead, Hutch." He hadn't meant to say that.

Hutch turned to look at him. "No picnic for you either, huh, pal?"

The curly-haired man shook his head against the shoulder. "Not between those fifteen seconds when I felt how cold you were and when I finally saw you breathin'."

Hutch's brows narrowed thoughtfully and Starsky raised his head, asking, "What?"

"You shot those men next to the cabin, right?"

Puzzled, Starsky nodded. "Yeah. Right near where you were."

Hutch's brows pulled closer together. "I don't remember it... hearing the shots. I remember your shoulder, resting my head on your shoulder -- only I didn't know it was you at the time -- but I didn't hear any gunfire."

Starsky closed his eyes, just now realizing how withdrawn, how close to death, Hutch had been.

"You haven't told me what the wedding was like."

Starsky opened his eyes and found his partner looking at him expectantly, the hint of a smile lighting his features. The question had been asked conversationally, as though they'd been speaking of domestic matters all evening.

And it was a relief to think about something else. Starsky grinned. "Ah, it was real nice, Hutch. He was handsome and she was beautiful. They seemed real fond of each other. Our mother cried. Her father cried."

Hutch made the barest noise of a laugh.

"She messed up only one of her lines. And he started to put the ring on the wrong finger, but... they got through it." Starsky nodded approvingly. "I think she's going to be real good for Nicky. Takin' care of her is gonna make him be a lot more responsible."

Something nagged at the back of Starsky's mind, and when he pinned it down, he tried to push it to one side.

"What else?" Hutch was looking at him curiously.

Starsky shrugged, glancing away. "Nothin' much. Everyone had a great time." Through the corner of his eye, he saw his partner tilt his head to one side, beckoningly.

He knew then that he wasn't going to be able to keep the thought to himself. And he knew it was something that was going to be a relief once it was out in the open, even though it didn't make sense. "You know," Starsky rubbed at the corner of his lip, "the really crazy thing with everything's that happened is," he sighed heavily, "well... I can't help but feel it's Nicky's fault."

Hutch's eyes widened. "Nicky's?"

"Yeah." Starsky shrugged uneasily. Then he gave in. "Ah, Hutch, it just really made me mad that he didn't invite you to the wedding."

The blond's expression was one of disbelief. "Starsky, I outright told him I didn't give a damn about him, when he visited a while back. It wouldn't have made sense for him to invite me." A heavy snort. "There's no love lost there. And, besides, weddings are for...," he finished lamely, "families."

Starsky seized the opportunity. "That's just it," he said earnestly. "We've been partners forever. It doesn't matter whether Nicky liked you personally or not. He should have recognized that I'm part of a package." Hutch started to speak, but Starsky wasn't finished. "Even our mom asked why you didn't come. I didn't want to make Nicky look bad, so I didn't tell her you weren't invited; I just said you weren't able to make it."

"Starsky, even if Nick would have invited me I wouldn't have come." Hutch snorted again. "I love your family dearly, pal, but being stuck in the car with your aunt and uncle for a cross country trip is not my idea of a vacation."

"I know," the curly-haired man acknowledged sheepishly, "but you could have taken a plane and met us there. And then," his voice lowered, "you know, none of this would have happened."

Hutch looked away. Then he looked back and pleaded, "Starsky, don't go blaming your brother for the crimes of two of the lowest forms of slime ever to set foot on this earth."

"Can't help it," Starsky said stubbornly. Then he admitted, "I never said anything to Nicky about it. I figured there was no point and I didn't want to start an argument."

"Good," Hutch put in quickly, "because I wouldn't want to be the cause of any trouble between you two."

The smaller man shifted on the bed, and his hand came into contact with a fat plastic tube. He picked it up. "Lie down so I can put this on you."

The blond firmed his jaw. "I'm tired of lying down."

Starsky sighed. "Hutch, those sutures are still gonna be tender. And I'm gonna have to press a little to rub it in."

"Doesn't matter," Hutch insisted, his gaze back on the floor. "Go ahead."

"Okay," Starsky said dubiously. He drew a knee up on the bed and shifted a few inches so he could see Hutch's back. The sutures were thick, dark, and ugly; crisscrossing over the pale flesh in no particular pattern. Better get used to them, Starsky told himself. He squeezed long streams of ointment along the center of each row. Then he put the tube down, got on his knees and, as gently as possible, began to rub in the ointment. His fingers moved in a circular fashion, applying as little pressure as possible.

Hutch bent forward a few inches, as though trying to escape the resulting pain, his shoulders tightening.

Starsky moved faster. As he worked, he noted that not all of the cuts had stitches. Some were shallow enough that the doctors had used butterfly bandages to pull the flesh together. He decided against removing those.

"What does it look like?" Hutch asked.

"Well, there's lots of them," Starsky said, not sure what kind of description the other was looking for. "Your whole back is pretty much covered."

Quietly, the blond said, "Maybe I'll have to get plastic surgery, huh?"

Starsky shrugged while continuing to massage in the ointment. "I suppose that's always an option if you want it."

"Every time I take off my shirt... at the station, at the gym... people will see and wonder."

Starsky was relieved to be down to the last row. "I imagine so. But, at the same time, it's not like they'd say anything."

Hutch was silent while Starsky straightened and put the lid back on the tube. "All done. I'm not going to put the bandage back on, so the stitches can breathe a little. But you probably need a t-shirt or something to protect them."

The blond was contemplative. "The rumor will get out about those men and what happened... and people are going to assume I was raped, just like the other victims."

Starsky closed his eyes. He knew Hutch was right. People talked and there was nothing anyone could do about it. And the facts would get distorted with each telling.

Hutch shook his head, still looking at the floor. "I don't really even care," he said in a tone of subdued surprise.

Starsky doubted his partner would feel that nonchalant as time went on; but he was relieved the other didn't seem to be interested in making an issue of it right now.

The taller man grunted, "It's ironic, isn't it?" He looked at his partner. "After what I wanted to do with you -- share with you -- it almost happened to me?"

Starsky blinked, hoping he was misunderstanding. "Wha'?"

"I wanted it so bad," the other replied with impatience, as though annoyed that he had to explain. "I wanted it... and I almost got it."

No. Starsky scrambled to his feet, feeling something twist inside. "What are you saying?" he demanded. Then he gestured with his hands and stammered, "You think -- you think that I think for one minute that what you wanted us to do together has anything to do with what they were going to do?" His voice rose with each word.

Hutch merely looked up at him, not speaking.

Starsky turned away in exasperation. "God almighty, Hutch." Then he turned back. "After all our years on the job, don't you know by now that rape doesn't have a goddamn thing to do with love?" Again, his voice was rising. "Those men wanted to hurt you, violate you. How can you possibly talk about those two things in the same breath!" He was almost shouting, breathing hard, and he fought for a sense of calm. Of all things to be yelling at Hutch about....

But the blond didn't react, other than looking slightly meek. "I didn't mean it that way."

The shorter man blinked. "How did you mean it?"

The other appeared thoughtful. Then, in the same quiet tone, "I guess I feel like maybe I deserved what they were going to do."

Starsky resisted the urge to throw up his hands. It wasn't Hutch's fault. His partner had been the victim of a very brutal crime... of which the emotional consequences were far greater than the physical. And he knew a few things about the mental torment victims went through. It was wrong of him to expect Hutch to be immune to those same reactive patterns.

But he couldn't say nothing. "You didn't deserve it, Hutch," he pointed out softly. "You didn't deserve to be raped and you didn't deserve to die. You didn't deserve to get kicked in the nuts and you didn't deserve to have your back torn to bits."

In a quiet, helpless tone, Hutch said, "I know." He was looking at the floor.

Starsky's voice thickened. "And you didn't deserve to feel that nobody was gonna come for you."

Hutch winced. And for a long time neither man spoke.

Starsky stretched his arms behind him, leaning back against a chest of drawers. It was getting late. He felt drained, and Hutch surely felt doubly so. But leaving the apartment was definitely out of the question. And even the sofa seemed to exist across a vast chasm. "Want me to sleep with you?" He suddenly realized, after what they'd just been talking about, how Hutch might take it. "I mean -- "

"I know what you mean," Hutch interrupted with a voice that carried a hint of amusement. He looked up, eyes bright with sincerity. "I'm okay, Starsk."

Starsky considered the answer. "Since you didn't say 'No' I'll take that as a 'Yes'."

Hutch didn't respond.

The shorter man pulled his shirt over his head. "You better put a top of some sort over your back."

Hutch stood and moved to the dresser, Starsky stepping to one side. The blond made a motion of flexing his muscles and said, "That ointment makes it feel better. It's not as sore."

"Yeah," Starsky said, pulling off his shoes while using a hand against the wall for balance, "but once the anesthetic effect wears off you'll probably need the pills that the Doc prescribed."

The blond shrugged. "I want to try it first without the pills." He pulled open a drawer and took out a t-shirt. He inserted his arms through the bottom of it. But as soon as he started to raise his arms over his head, he froze and clenched his teeth.

Starsky moved to his side. "Here, let me help." He took the shirt from Hutch and pulled and stretched the fabric every which way. He didn't stop until there was very little shape left. He then held it before his partner. "Let's get it over your head first." He was certain that Hutch didn't like being unable to dress himself, but was also relieved that the taller man seemed to accept his limitations.

Hutch tolerated it while Starsky slipped the shirt over his head. "One arm at a time," the darker man said as Hutch bent his left elbow to insert his arm from beneath the fabric. "Don't try to put your arm through; let me work the shirt down over it."

It seemed to take a long time before the shirt was in place, but it was worth it for Starsky to spare Hutch additional pain. Silently, the blond started working with his jeans, and Starsky turned away to finish his own undressing.

Down to briefs and an undershirt, Starsky gestured to the bed. "Want me on this side?"

Hutch nodded, moving into the main area of the apartment to switch off lights. He, too, was in white underclothes.

Starsky pulled back the covers, thinking it odd that Hutch had never gotten anything larger than a double bed. As he moved between the sheets, he tried to think back to the last time they had slept together. They'd never done it here, at Venice Place. But there had been a time or two at the cottage and quite a few occasions at his own apartment. He decided the last time must have been after Hutch rescued him from Simon's followers. It had been one of those occasions when fear and a feeling of vulnerability had persisted, even though he'd known rationally that he was quite safe from further harm.

The apartment was dark and Starsky listened to Hutch's bare feet as the taller man approached the bed. "Leave any room for me?" the blond asked as the mattress rattled with his weight.

"Little bit," Starsky replied off-handedly, surprised that the other was trying to joke. He turned on his side toward Hutch, and there was the unavoidable brushing of limbs as the blond got settled. Between his ribs and his back, Hutch really didn't have much choice but to face his partner.

Starsky reached out, found an arm, then traced it down until he was able to place Hutch's hand in his. He squeezed it and waited for the answering pressure.

There was none.

Starsky released the hand and moved up to a shoulder. There, he squeezed again and noted the stiffness that was at odds with the intent to rest. He massaged it with a thumb for a while. Then he gently ventured, "Can't stop thinking about it?"

There was a swallow, but no answer. Starsky let his hand drop until it rested on an arm, but otherwise he didn't persist. Perhaps Hutch found the contact more distracting than soothing. And, truth be told, Starsky wasn't adverse to the idea of getting some genuine shuteye. He'd spent the last two nights in the hospital in Independence, most of that time trying to sleep in an unaccommodating chair.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, feeling himself relax.

"Starsk?" The whispered word was hesitant.

"Hm?" Starsky's fingers began to massage again.

Hutch's voice was strained. "I gave up."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"I gave up." The soft voice was full of regret. "I gave up fighting... to stay alive... to get away. I gave up."

"Hutch, you couldn't fight."

"I didn't even try. I let them... do what they wanted."

The curly-haired man got on an elbow. "For God's sakes, Hutch, they shoved a gun in your mouth! What the hell were you supposed to do? Make a move and get killed?" There wasn't an immediate response, so Starsky went on earnestly. "If Hutch makes a move, Hutch gets killed. Starsky arrives and it's too late. Nothing Starsky can do to bring Hutch back. It's over. No second chances. Hutch cooperates -- like they always teach us to do -- and Hutch goes through hell but Hutch is still alive when Starsky comes. Bottom line: Hutch is alive. I can't be sorry for that."

"I know," Hutch relented in a small voice. Then a bitter snort. "How many medals have we gotten for bravery, valor, things like that? I wasn't brave." Harshly now. "I wasn't brave at all. I literally had the piss scared out of me. I couldn't do anything but... hang there, let them do what they wanted."

"Jesus, Hutch, you had no choice!"

"I remember," the blond went on, though his voice was quieter now, "after you cut me down, took me inside the cabin. I thought you were them. There were a few minutes when you went to the phone, when I could have gotten up and run... escaped." Starsky could see him shake his head vehemently in the darkness. "But I didn't. I didn't."

Starsky found a hand, cradled it in both of his. With gentle intensity, he said, "Hutch, listen to me. This is real important. I was on the phone less than a minute. That's all. And, Hutch," his voice became more earnest with the desire to make the other believe, "you had a strong case of hypothermia. I was talkin' to one of the nurses about how cold you were when I found you, and she said your system was shutting down because it was trying to conserve heat, trying to save itself. Your circulation and everything had all slowed down, so you were incapable of reacting. Your body just downright wasn't able to. "

Hutch didn't say anything for a long time. Then he asked, "How long was I captive?"

As before, Starsky could understand the other wanting all the details. "You said you stopped fishin' about three o'clock. I probably got there about six, six-thirty. So, they had you between three and four hours."

There was a harsh snort across the miniature chasm between them. "It's a wonder they didn't finish with me in that time. I wonder how long it would have been before they decided to stick their filthy dicks into me."

"I don't know, Hutch. As much damage as they did, your back doesn't look as bad as those other three victims. I guess, being out in the wilderness like that, they weren't in a big hurry." He had to ignore the urge to reach around Hutch's back and draw him close. The next ten days, before sutures were removed, were going to be a challenge.

Hutch inched closer, however. Then his hand carefully went around Starsky's back, pulling the other near.

Starsky readily obeyed, and Hutch didn't stop applying pressure until Starsky was pressed against him, his face against the blond's chest.

With firm, deep strokes, Hutch's hand began to pet up and down Starsky's back, massaging firmly.

The motion was so intense that it almost qualified as foreplay. And, for a moment, Starsky wondered if their closeness had triggered the passion that Hutch had revealed a few months back. But then he realized that it was highly unlikely that Hutch was feeling any virility at all. There were too many physical and emotional road blocks.

Hutch's other hand went to Starsky's head, rubbing at his scalp, pulling his head closer, embracing it, almost smothering him. Starsky wondered if these actions were because Hutch was trying to express gratitude, or if the blond desperately needed to cling. Or if he had a need of his own to give something of his self.

Whatever the reason, Starsky let it continue. He felt loved and cradled and cherished, even though the friction of the hands against his back and head was making him feel a little too warm.

He exhaled heavily against the cotton shirt, trying to breathe, and the grip around his head relaxed slightly. He turned his face up to take in air, leaving his cheek resting against Hutch's chest.

The hand on his back slowed, as well, until the fingertips were just a light trickle up and down his shirt.

"You gonna be able to sleep?" Starsky finally asked.

"I think," came the soft reply. "If you stay close."

Starsky settled more comfortably against the other's body. "Not goin' nowhere."

He felt Hutch rest a cheek against his hair. Then the fingers finally stopped. Hutch put an arm loosely around his waist and, finally, the blond's whole body relaxed.

Hutch's breath tickled his hair. But Starsky didn't say anything. After a time, he felt the other's breathing even out. And then he was able to close his own eyes and sleep.

* * *

"I'm home," Starsky announced to his apartment. It was Thursday, his first day back from vacation, and it had seemed like a long, boring day at the station, getting caught up on what was going on with various cases. Thankfully, one case in particular had the lid closed on it, though the two men responsible still remained unidentified and no one knew their motive.

For the first time since leaving for New York, he was going to sleep at home. Other than stopping by once the past few days to water his plants and pick up his mail, Starsky had spent the rest of his vacation days with Hutch. This morning, the blond had said it wasn't necessary for him to return to Venice Place after work. Though Hutch had continued to sleep with him pressed close, the sense of urgency in the gesture had gradually decreased. Starsky did call once from the squad room during the day to check on his partner, and Hutch had complained about being bored and wanting to go back to work. But Starsky had gotten Dobey to agree that with all the sutures, Hutch would have to be bound to a desk, and that would make him more irritable still. And given the loss of blood, he was still likely to tire quickly. The agreement was he could come back part time once the stitches were removed.

Starsky watered his plants, then looked into the refrigerator to take inventory, since a trip to the grocery store was next on the agenda. When he closed the refrigerator door, he found a partially-naked calendar confronting him.

Starsky gazed at it, noting that the last box with an "X" was the day before he'd left for vacation. Two and a half weeks had passed since then. He reached to the kitchen counter and picked up a marker and began crossing off the subsequent days that had gone by.

It still rankled him, what Hutch had said. Despite the blond's protest that he "didn't mean it like that", Starsky still felt the sting that Hutch had linked together the atrocities committed by those men with what Hutch had wanted for them. In truth, Starsky was just as surprised by the vehemence of his own reaction.

Well, this whole thing hadn't been easy on him, either. Despite his annoyance with Nicky, which still persisted in the back of his mind, Starsky was also aware of a layer of guilt more at forefront. He knew there was no rationale to it, but it was there, nevertheless. He'd gone off and left Hutch, and he shouldn't have. Whether it was healthy or not, the fact was they had a certain interdependence that they each counted on for survival. Even while in New York, Starsky had had the persistent urge to introduce everyone to his partner. Hell, even on the trip out, he would make some comment about a landmark or unique picture of a landscape, and he would be surprised when it was the voice of his aunt or uncle which responded. He kept getting reminded that Hutch wasn't there.

And if Hutch were to be permanently removed...? Starsky had been shying away from that thought all along, for Hutch's concerns had been more important. But now his own questions faced him head-on: If he hadn't come back early... if he'd been only an hour or two later....

A chill swept through him. He couldn't let that happen. Could never let it happen. He should have told Nicky they both were coming, or neither of them were coming. In fact, he probably would have if Hutch had shown the slightest indication of having wanted to accompany him to New York. But Hutch hadn't seemed the least bit interested, so Starsky hadn't even bothered asking when he first brought it up in the squad room. In the entire eight years of their partnership they had never been separated for so long a time. Even when Hutch's uncle had died, the blond had gone back to Minnesota only for the few days necessary to attend the funeral. Then he was back at his partner's side.

The last "X" was in place, marking today. Starsky didn't know exactly how many days had gone by since that night when Hutch had spilled his guts, revealing a passion that even Starsky himself hadn't been aware of.

Which was exactly why Starsky felt so certain that Hutch's desires were misplaced. Out of the blue, his partner had decided the answer to all his heartaches was to join with his partner in the most intimate way possible.

Starsky grunted, turning away from the refrigerator. He wasn't sure how much more intimate they could get than they had been the past few nights. Hutch holding him so close, finding comfort in his nearness. Sure, they could insert body part A into body slot B, but he didn't see how that could make them feel any closer to each other. With women, of course, it was different. With women, at least the casual acquaintances, the whole point was to insert body part A into body slot B.

Starsky paused on his way toward the door, looking back over his shoulder at the calendar, its rows of X's an illustration of his celibacy. He was more than ready to put his body part A into anybody's slot B.

And he wondered when his desire for the company of women would return.

* * *

Edith Dobey sat at the kitchen table, going through the mail. After reading through one particular letter, she turned toward her husband, who was trying to fix the light over the stove. "Harold, look at this."

Dobey gratefully straightened. "What is it?"

"The Woodlawn Bank is closing down. Why, we've been banking there for nearly a dozen years."

He looked over her shoulder, trying to read the letter. "When are they closing?"

"At the end of the month. It says all the customers need to withdraw their money and move their accounts elsewhere."

Dobey grunted, turning back to the stove. "I'll make a point of taking care of it later this month."

Edith put a hand to her mouth. "It's not just our bank accounts. We've got the kids' trust funds and our safety deposit box there."

More firmly, Dobey repeated, "I'll take care of it before the end of the month."

* * *

Hutch let himself into Starsky's apartment and shut the door behind him with one hand. In his other hand he carried a sack, and he took it into the outer bath area where the vanity was.

He wanted to come here after leaving the clinic not only because Starsky was meeting him after work, but also because this apartment had a much larger mirror than Hutch's apartment did.

The blond put the sack on the vanity, then quickly unbuttoned his shirt. Once opened, he carefully removed it, then reminded himself he wouldn't have to take quite so much care in the future. The stitches were gone less than an hour, and already he was feeling more like a human being than a rag doll.

The shirt cast aside, Hutch removed a square desktop mirror from the sack. He turned away from the vanity, his back to its mirror, then held the new mirror up at an angle. And looked into it.

Albino white meshed with pink stood out in numerous streaks against patches of pale skin. He moved back against the vanity, almost sitting on it, and peered closer into the hand mirror. The streaks were lumpy and textured. Gingerly, he reached behind him with one hand and felt along some of the scars. They did indeed feel fleshy. Ugly.

Hutch sighed. Then he turned and put the mirror on the vanity. He retrieved his shirt and slipped back into it, then slowly buttoned it.

He knew that, with time, the streaks would smooth, would not be quite so pronounced. But anyone looking at him would always know something dramatic had happened. He imagined himself in his bedroom with a date and removing his shirt. He imagined her gasp of horror. And no matter how sympathetic she might be after his explanation -- even if he prepared her beforehe disrobed -- he knew that she would find nothing pleasant in feeling those scars when her arms were around his back as he made love to her.

Hutch sighed, staring at the floor. It had been a while since he'd had much desire to make love to anybody. It hadn't seemed important for a long time. And now, he wasn't even capable.

Plastic surgery would cost a lot of money and he would have to pay for it himself. The LAPD's insurance wouldn't cover it, because it would be for cosmetic purposes only -- another reason that he didn't need to worry about it right now. If surgery seemed necessary down the line, he could always consider it then.

He moved away from the bath area to the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator revealed a full six pack and he tore the nearest can from its siblings. He popped the lid as he let the door close, wondering if he should indulge in the leftover deli salad he saw sitting on the middle shelf.

But the door had gently clicked shut and Hutch leaned back on the kitchen counter, enjoying the brew. He saw that Starsky had a cartoon attached to the front of the refrigerator, but he was too lazy to lean forward and read the caption.

His eyes drifted from the cartoon to the calendar that hung from a magnetic clip. An inspection of the heading revealed that it was actually turned to the correct month... something his partner often neglected to do with his desk calendar at work. Not only was it the correct month, but Starsky had kept up with crossing off the days. Each day of the month had an "X" over it, right up through yesterday.

Hutch's eyes narrowed. He could never remember his partner having the tendency to mark off days. Starsky must be counting down until something special was going to happen.

Intrigued, Hutch left his beer on the counter and moved to the calendar. He flipped it to the next month, then the next. Neither had a special day marked. He looked further along, eventually finding the notation "Mom's B-Day". The month after that he found "Hutch". It was marked on his birthday, but it didn't say "Hutch's B-Day", just "Hutch". For some reason, that made the blond smile.

But none of that explained what Starsky was counting down days for. Putting his detective instincts in gear, Hutch removed the calendar from its clip and started at January. No boxes had an "X" over them. He flipped to the next page, trying to find when the X's began.

When he found it, something began to churn inside. There was a sense of foreboding as he flipped through the calendar some more. The X's had begun some three months ago.

He knew what had happened then.

Hutch closed his eyes, his heart beating quickly, as he tried to understand the significance. Starsky wasn't counting down to something. He was counting each passing day from....

God, what did it mean? Was Starsky counting the days since Hutch had forced everything to change forever?

Except, things really hadn't changed. Nothing was different about them since that day. Things had gone on as before... unless Starsky had been misleading him....

Confusion, mixed with anger and disbelief, swirled within the blond's chest. What was Starsky up to? Why was he tracking this? What did it mean?

When had he intended to tell Hutch? Or did he ever intend to tell him?

Hutch looked up sharply as the door handle rattled. He was holding the calendar in trembling fingers and he had no intention of letting go. He wanted answers. Now.

* * *

"Hi ya," Starsky greeted as he moved into the living room. He took off his jacket and began unsnapping his shoulder harness.

Then he froze when he saw that Hutch was staring at him. "What's wrong?"

Hutch held out the calendar and hissed, "What is this?"

"Huh?" Starsky moved to the kitchen, eyes shifting between his partner and the item in his hands. "What do you mean, 'What's this'?" A quality of nervousness betrayed his otherwise casual tone.

Large hands rapidly flipped through the pages. "What is this, buddy? Huh? Just counting off days until your mother's birthday? Or is there something else going on?" He tossed the calendar onto the counter with such force that it tumbled to the floor.

Slowly, with his eyes averted, Starsky squatted down and picked it up. Brusquely, he whispered, "What do you mean?"

But Hutch saw the look in his eye, the one that told of having been found out. Still, the blond's anger was just as raw. "I may have gotten roughed up, partner, but my brain is still intact. You think I don't know what that is?" he demanded as he pointed to the date when it all began. Then, sarcastically, "Or is it just the most incredible coincidence that you started crossing off days at the same time I said that we should consummate our feelings for each other?"

Starsky stood. Gaze still averted, he said something too softly to be heard.

"What?" Hutch demanded, feeling hot air release through his nostrils.

Starsky swallowed. "It's not coincidence," he admitted meekly.

Hutch was pleading now, for his partner still wouldn't look at him. "Starsk, what do all the days since then mean? What do they stand for?"

The other took a deep breath and placed the calendar on the counter. "I don't know," he said, moving toward the living room.

"You don't know?" Hutch asked in disbelief, following him. "You've been marking off days for the past three months for reasons you don't know?"

Starsky sat heavily in a chair, shoulders slumped. He covered his face with his hands, moving his head back and forth.

Concern softened the blond's voice as he took a step toward his partner. "Starsk?"

The other drew his hands away in a deliberate gesture. Then he straightened. "I guess....." He let out a breath and finally met Hutch's eye. "I guess you could say...," now a wry smile, "... they're all the days I've been saving myself for you."

The blond 's heart thundered with disbelief -- and hope. "What?"

"Ah, Hutch." Starsky closed his eyes briefly, then opened them. "I guess maybe it's time I faced a few things."

The anger was gone, his partner's hesitancy pulling at his compassion. Yet... "Starsky," Hutch noted earnestly, "you're the last person in the world to hide things from yourself. You've always known what you want." He took a careful breath before continuing. "When you said 'no' it meant 'no', right?"

"Of course, it did." Another wry smile. "Hutch, I meant all those things I said then. About how you were wanting to do it for the wrong reasons." His brows furrowed thoughtfully. "It's just...."

"Just what?"

Starsky examined his fingertips. "It's just that... well... I guess I've sort of been enjoyin' it." He ducked his head. "You know, like havin' your cake and eating it, too."

Hutch shook his head. "No, I don't know."

"Well...," a lame shrug, "I guess, in a way, it was like I really liked that you loved me that much... to want to go against -- however you want to say it -- your normal heterosexual tendencies, or whatever. But at the same time, I didn't have to risk anything. So, I guess it was sort of like the best of both worlds."

Hutch closed his eyes and shook his head. He hadn't expected this. Hadn't expected it at all. He had so completely believed Starsky when the other rejected the idea outright that he hadn't allowed himself to pursue it any longer, even in his most private thoughts.

"Honest, Hutch, I didn't realize it at the time. I never would have misled you like that. But," Starsky's voice softened with the wonder of discovery, "I guess I was misleading myself. 'Cause I was havin' a hard time dealing with the whole idea." Hesitantly, he asked, "You been with anyone since then?"

Hutch shook his head, his tone distant for he was puzzled by the question. "No. I haven't been interested."

"I haven't, either," Starsky admitted. "Guess that says something, huh?"

Hutch started to speak, then stopped himself. It seemed as though Starsky was changing his answer, and yet the other hadn't actually come out and said it. An edge of frustration showed in his voice as he replied, "I don't know. Does it?"

Starsky looked uncomfortable. "The whole idea is just so far out in left field."

Gentleness washed through Hutch, pushing everything else aside. "What is it that scares you so much?"

The other looked up then, eyes wide with exasperation. "Everything, Hutch! I mean, what if we start playin' around or whatever and then you decide you want to go back to women? What if I'm not very good at it and mess it all up? If we have a problem with each other, then who the hell are we supposed to turn to?"

Those fears were sincere, genuine. Yet, Hutch found a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "What do you mean, mess it all up? We've had a pretty good partnership for seven or eight years now, buddy. I'm not sure that sleeping together would change it all that drastically." He couldn't believe they were speaking like this... that this might actually be the turning point.

Starsky rested his elbows on his knees. "Hutch, we start makin' it together...." He trailed off, then tried again. "I don't think, you know, that I could handle, like, an open relationship." He took a deep breath, as though struggling for courage. "If we go that far, it's gotta be for real. I mean, it'd be a big risk. We... It can't just be like... like an experiment."

Ah, Starsk. "Buddy, if you'd let me finish that one night, however many months ago, you would know I had a lot more in mind than just 'experimenting'. I wouldn't want to toy with the friendship we've built any more than you. It's too important."

"But," Starsky hesitated, "what if... like... I'm not very good at it. You know, if...."

A thought occurred to Hutch just then, and his voice softened even more. "Buddy, is it the physical part that scares you?"

The other drew a deep, defensive breath. "Well, it's not exactly the most natural thing, you know. Everything would feel different than what we're used to."

Hutch felt a warm spot develop in his chest. His partner wasn't articulating very well, but the blond had a lot of experience in reading between this particular man's lines. He moved to the chair in two long strides, kneeling before the other. "Starsky, all you had to do was say something. I'm not going to push you to do anything you don't want to do. As far as I'm concerned," he touched his own chest, "anything goes. But whatever limits you want to set for your own comfort level, I'll respect. We'll take it as slow and as careful as you like... as either of us needs." He realized, just then, how ridiculous this conversation was. How pointless. He stood and turned away.

"What's wrong?" came the worried voice behind him.

Hutch didn't turn as he snorted at the irony. Then, jaw firm, "You don't need to be afraid of anything I might want to do." His head hung. "I'm harmless."

There was a moment of silence, then he heard the other delicately ask, "You mean...?"

He turned then. Starsky was looking up at him with that open, concerned expression that always made Hutch feel as if he was the only person in the world who mattered. Wryly, he declared, "I couldn't get it up if our relationship depended on it."

"Our relationship doesn't depend on it," Starsky said quickly.

Hutch leaned back against the kitchen counter. "I know."

"Hutch, surely it's just a temporary thing. I mean, you've been through a lot the past coupla weeks."

The blond could only shrug, for he didn't know if the offered explanation was valid or not.

Starsky rose to his feet. "All right, look. I - I think I've changed my mind. I mean, I know I've changed my mind. I wanna try it with you." He seemed to think he needed to clarify it in a stronger manner. "Ah, damn it, Hutch, you're everything to me. I guess I realized that more than ever when I was on that trip. You're... home. Where I belong. And like you tried to point out that one day, I guess it just makes sense that if we're going to be everything else to each other, we may as well sleep with each other, too. Probably keep us both a lot happier."

It certainly wasn't the most romantic declaration. But it was all Starsky. Hutch closed his eyes, wanting to imprint the moment on his brain.

Soft footsteps approached. Then hands were on his arms, gently squeezing. "Forgive me?"

Hutch opened his eyes, puzzlement dominating his tone. "For what?" The other's orbs were regarding him intently, and he wanted to answer their every plea.

Starsky swallowed but didn't look away. "For not bein' able to... accept that I wanted it, too."

Hutch blinked, feeling tenderness spread through him. "Like you said, pal, it'll be quite a bit different from what we're used to." He reached up and brushed a thumb along a furrowed brow. "Hopefully better."

The deep blue eyes sparkled back at him. "Yeah."

He had it all now. Everything he wanted. Yet, for all his heart's expansion, Hutch couldn't feel anything develop farther down. He looked away. "What happens now?"

Through the corner of his eye, he saw the other shrug. "Let's just wait and... see how it goes. Wait until you're feelin' better. I mean, maybe it's just as well that you're out of commission right now. It'll give us a chance to get used to the idea."

Hutch look at his partner and, putting his hands on Starsky's shoulders, smiled down at those eyes that were regarding him so expectantly. There was still a little fear there, he could see, and it made him all the more resolved to be careful and patient each step along the way.

And Step One?

Hutch slowly bent his head. Just before he closed his eyes, he saw Starsky point his mouth up. He touched his lips to the other's, barely pressed, then pulled back. The thought of continuing was appetizing... but would it be insensitive on his part, for he knew there was nothing wrong with his partner's virility.

Starsky took a deep breath and clasped Hutch's hand, leading him away from the counter. "Don't know how I'm going to explain this to Mom," he said in a tone of mock dread.

Hutch chuckled as he followed, glad to lighten the mood. He was encouraged to sit in the chair Starsky had occupied, the latter now kneeling on the floor in front of it. "She'll get over it in a hurry." Voice softening, he noted, "She loves you, Starsky."

"I know," Starsky admitted sheepishly, showing the discomfort of an adolescent who had grown too old for his mother's kisses.

Hutch put his hand in his partner's hair, stroked back through the curls. Starsky grinned and Hutch couldn't help but lean down, lips ready.

It lasted a little longer this time, seemed a little more natural. After they pulled apart, Starsky leaned forward to slide his arms around Hutch, then froze.

"It's okay," the blond said, glad that -- finally -- it was.

"The stitches are out?" Starsky asked.

"Yeah. Took a long time, but they got them all out."

"Can I see?"

"Sure." Hutch pulled at his shirttail until it was free of his jeans, then helped his partner lift the material. It didn't bother him to have Starsky see the scars. After all, Starsky was more familiar with those wounds than anyone else. Even Hutch himself had only seen the sutures by looking over his shoulder into a mirror, and therefore he hadn't been able to see the fine details up close.

When the shirt was high enough, Starsky got up and leaned over the arm of the chair. Hutch bent forward and a moment later he felt gentle fingers trace up and down the texture there.

"How does it feel?"

"Itches now and then." In fact, Hutch reached back now and rubbed at a couple of the streaks.

"That'll get better with time," Starsky assured.

Hutch straightened and his partner moved as if to sit on the arm of the chair. But Hutch pulled Starsky toward him, and the other fell into his lap.

Starsky grinned and put his arms around the blond's neck, his head resting against Hutch's. "Ah, man, this is gonna be somethin'. Just the two of us."

Hutch chuckled softly, loving the warmth, one arm around Starsky's waist, the other resting on his knee.

"Hutch, I'm really sorry for dragging it out like I did. It's not what -- "

"You had your reasons," Hutch interrupted gently. "You just had to work them out in your own way."

"Well," Starsky admitted hesitantly, "I'm not sure I would have come around on my own. But comin' home and seeing you holding that calendar and so upset...."

"I wasn't sure what it meant," Hutch explained in a quieter tone. "I wasn't sure if... you know... you may have been marking days since the day that -- in your mind -- I betrayed you. Or showed myself to be someone other than who you thought."

"I wasn't sure what it meant, either. I just know I had an urge to keep track. And, you know what, Hutch?" Starsky raised his head.


"It's not like, that day, I thought you had turned into somebody else. It's just that I thought -- "

"I was confused about what I wanted," Hutch finished. "Yeah, I know, I've heard that speech plenty."


Hutch held him closer. "Don't be. It's okay now. Or it will be." He hoped he sounded convinced. In truth, he had no idea what the origin of his problem was. He hoped, as Starsky suggested, it was just because of everything he had been through.

"Wanna start sleepin' together again?"

Hutch felt his heart beat a little faster. "I've missed you the last few nights. Got used to you being there."

"That means 'yes' then?" Starsky teased.

"Yes," Hutch chuckled softly, "it means yes." Then he sobered, thinking of what Starsky might want. "As long as... you don't think you'll get too frustrated, being close but not being able to do anything."

"No different than those other nights," Starsky reasoned. "I didn't get frustrated then. I just liked... bein' close."

"I know. But that was before --"

Starsky kissed his forehead. "I don't think things are really gonna be all that different."

Hutch nodded gratefully. Softly, he said, "I want to please you, pal. I want to be able to make you feel good and glad to be alive. Glad that you are who you are."

"That's a proposition I'll accept," Starsky said with a grin. Just then, his stomach rumbled.

Hutch said, "Guess I have to get you fed before I can take you to bed."

"Wanna go out? Have a romantic dinner? To, like, celebrate a beginning?"

Hutch really liked where they were right now. He wished they could sit in this chair forever. Instead, he straightened and when Starsky did too, he ducked his head and captured the other's lips. And he didn't want to let go, for it made his heart feel so nice within his chest.

When they pulled back Starsky let out a deep breath. "You're damn good at that, blondie. Now I know why I've kept you around all these years."

* * *

"Starsky, Hutchinson."

Both men looked up from their table in the squad room.

The captain jerked his head toward his office. "In here."

They looked at each other, for the captain's expression was grim, then moved to obey.

Once they were seated, Dobey began, "I just got a call from the morgue up in Sequoia County. A woman there, a...," he consulted a note on his desk, "Miss Thompson... has identified the two perpetrators." He eyed Hutch so there would be no doubt as to which 'perpetrators' he meant. "They were her brothers."

Starsky and Hutch looked at each other, both mouths open in surprise. Finally, the shorter man whispered, "Does she know why they did it?"

"The coroner didn't say. But she's going to stop by Bakersfield to talk to the police there, and then she's going to come here and tell us whatever she knows." Dobey looked at the blond detective again. "She was particularly interested in meeting Hutch."

Starsky straightened. "Why?" he demanded defensively.

Hutch rose from his chair and strolled over to the window, crossing his arms.

Dobey shrugged. Gently, he said, "I don't know. Perhaps she wants to apologize for the deeds of her siblings." He turned in his chair to look at the other man. "It's up to you, Hutchinson."

The other forced a smile and also shrugged. "Sure. Why not?" He glanced at his partner. "Besides, I want a few answers of my own."

* * *

Sarah Thompson's fingers trembled as she held the cigarette -- her third -- that Hutch had lit for her. She was fortyish, with graying hair and lines on her face which she tried to hide with makeup. Her manner was pleasant, her speech careful, but her eyes told of hard times.

"So, you see," she exhaled the first puff, "my brothers really had little choice in how they lived. They had known nothing except physical and sexual abuse all their lives. They knew nothing of love or warm feelings, except what they may have perhaps felt for each other. Though they were fraternal twins, they were bonded by far more than genes. The only people who knew what they had been through were each other."

They were in a questioning room -- for reasons of privacy rather than security -- and Starsky sat backwards on a chair at the head of the table, his chin resting on top of it. Hutch sat with a hip on the table, across from their visitor.

"Please understand," she added, "I'm not trying to make excuses for what they've done. I'm only trying to help you understand that, to them, there were reasons. They had no idea how else to behave. They had no other role models than their foster parents. I can only be thankful that I was fostered out to a much nicer family and my upbringing was more normal."

Starsky clarified, "And you thought they may have committed the murders when you heard about the ring?"

"Yes. Four years ago, when I was living in Memphis, I was doing paste-up for a newspaper. That's how I came to hear about a gay man that had been brutally murdered. We ended up not running the story -- there wasn't enough room and very little interest in the murders of homosexuals -- but when I heard about the killer leaving some sort of brand on his victim, that's when I made the connection to the ring that Teddy had." She looked from one detective to the other. "It was the only token that any of us had from our real parents, who were killed in an automobile accident when we were very small." After they nodded that they were still listening, she went on. "I thought then that one or both of my brothers had committed the crime. But I knew nothing of their whereabouts -- I had not even seen them since our parents died."

"Then how did you know about their brutal upbringing?" Hutch asked.

"I had decided, a few years back, to try to get in touch with them. After all, they were the only blood relatives that I had. I traced them down to the town they grew up in. They had long since gone -- run away -- and no one knew where the foster parents were, but after some digging I found out about the abuse. There were police reports of it and physician's reports. There were also reports of various crimes that my brothers were suspected of committing. Apparently, nothing was solid enough to cause arrest or convictions." She looked from one to the other. "Small towns tend to have a different mentality about things like that."

"Go on," Hutch prompted.

"So, I told the police in Memphis that I thought my brothers may have been responsible, but that didn't help them much, because no one knew where they'd gone or where they lived." She lowered her eyes. "The police also didn't seem very motivated to find them because they thought the victim was, I'm afraid, 'a faggot getting what he deserved'." She paused, not looking up. "They eventually admitted that they could find no evidence that the victim was homosexual, but that didn't stop them from believing that the victim was one." She took a long drag on the cigarette. "It was like that anywhere I went. Because of my job, I would occasionally hear about an atrocious crime committed on a homosexual. I know of five killings total, in addition to the ones here in California." She looked away. "I don't know how many murders they may have committed."

Starsky said, "Since they were happening all over the country, did you try to get any of the police departments to involve the FBI?"

She nodded. "There was an FBI detective assigned to the case. In fact, he's the one who told me about the bodies in Independence. But he was only one man, and I was of little help. My brothers were always weeks ahead. They moved constantly."

She became silent, and Hutch asked, "How were you able to identify the bodies if you hadn't seen them since infancy?"

"I got a copy of their dental records when I visited the town they were raised in." A sadness came over her expression. "I felt that I would need them one day." She grew thoughtful, then said, "It is unusual that they killed two people here in Los Angeles. I've always known them to commit one murder and move on."

"Maybe they were getting careless," Hutch said. "Or maybe they thought Los Angeles was so large that they wouldn't have much to worry about."

Starsky sighed heavily. "So they've traveled clear across the country, doing to people what was done to them. But... why would they finish their victims off? Why not beat them and rape them and then flee? Why did they have to resort to murder?"

"I don't know," Sarah replied simply. "I only have a theory."

"Which is?" Hutch asked.

"That they thought their foster parents were trying to kill them, so they were finishing the job vicariously." She lowered her gaze. "But I suppose no one will ever know."

"That's for sure," Starsky agreed with a sigh.

They were all silent while she put out her cigarette. Then she looked up at Hutch. "I'm sorry for what they did to you, Detective. But I'm so glad you survived." Sadly, she added, "You're the only one who did."

"I only survived," Hutch said sardonically, "because my partner here rescued me." He shook his head. "There was no way I would have lived otherwise." Now his voice softened. "They were very careful when it came to using restraint."

Her eyes surveyed him in a friendly manner. Then she smiled. "You don't look too worse for the wear." A sorrowful frown. "But I know the types of brutality they committed leave moreinternal scars than external."

"Oh, I've got plenty of external scars." Hutch automatically reached behind him to scratch. "They did quite a job on my back." He glanced at Starsky. "But my partner came to the rescue before they got any further."

She took a deep breath. "I'm glad to hear that. I hope, since you're back at work, that it means you're all right."

Hutch managed a partial smile. "I'll be fine."

She put her cigarette case back in her purse. "That's my story, gentlemen. And what I know of theirs. I'm only sorry that I didn't catch up with them soon enough to stop any of it."

Starsky tilted his head matter-of-factly. "It helps having a better understanding of their motive." They all stood and he said, "I'm glad that, for you, things worked out much better."

She smiled. "Thank you." She shook hands with each of them. "It's been very nice meeting you both. I'm glad I came down."

"Thank you," they told her.

Starsky escorted her out. Then he returned to his partner, who now sat in a chair, drawing imaginary designs on the table top with a thumbnail. "How do you feel?" he asked.

Hutch shrugged without looking up. "I'm glad she came down. It's a way of putting it all to rest."

Starsky let out a heavy sigh. "Yeah. It makes me wish that parents could be tried for the crimes of their children. Then maybe they'd do a much better job of raising them." He concluded, "They couldn't help it, Hutch. What they did to you didn't have a damn thing to do with you."

Hutch was still staring at the tabletop. "I know that," he said huskily. "That's really the worst part of the whole thing."

Starsky tilted his head. "What do you mean?"

Bleakly, the taller man said, "I was nobody to them. They didn't acknowledge me as... as any kind of living thing, let alone a human being. They didn't give a damn about who I was. I was nothing." His voice softened. "I think I started to believe it."

"Ah, Hutch." Starsky moved beside his partner and laid his hands on his shoulders, massaging. Carefully, he asked, "But you don't believe that anymore, do you?"

Hutch shook his head with a small laugh. "No, of course not." But he wouldn't meet his partner's eye.

* * *

He was no longer marking days, for there was no need. In fact, Starsky had tossed the calendar and gotten a new one.

Hutch was in the shower and the curly-haired man stood staring at the clean, glossy pages. He was still feeling a little ashamed that he had so easily fooled himself. What human being on this earth wouldn't want Hutch as their... their everything?

They had been sleeping together at one or the other's apartment every night for three weeks now. There still was no sign of any awakening desires in his better half. In some ways, Starsky didn't care if they never had sex, for he felt very fulfilled with the current arrangement. Hutch was so warm and loving, after all.

But another part of him knew he wouldn't feel that way forever. And he started to experience some trepidation that Hutch's condition went far deeper than being physically roughed up, or waiting for his system to renew its full quota of red blood cells. The time for the latter had passed. What concerned Starsky now was that the kick Hutch had gotten may have done serious damage, though the blond had insisted, "I've been kicked there before," like it was no big deal. If that wasn't the cause, then the only thing left would be something psychological in nature. And that, Starsky knew, could take a long, long time to heal.

Starsky heard the shower go off and felt himself smile. There would be dinner in front of the TV, snuggling up together while they watched a program or two, and then bed. And through it all Hutch would spoil him with a continuous, asexual outpouring of love.

And Starsky wondered again if he would ever want anything else.

* * *

While standing in front of the file cabinet, perusing the reports of a string of robberies, Hutch let his eyes creep up to the clock. Ten more minutes and then he would be able to leave. His partner had left early to keep an appointment with his hairdresser, and the last, lonely hour of the shift had crawled by.

You lovesick bastard, he scolded himself with an inner smile.


Hutch turned toward the voice. "Yes, Captain?"

The large man gestured to the door. "I'd like to see you a moment."

"Sure, Captain." Hutch rifled through the file drawer so he could put the manila folder back in its proper spot.

Upon entering his superior's office, he found Dobey sitting on the edge of his desk, holding a white, business-sized envelope.

"Uh... Hutchinson," Dobey cleared his throat while the blond man remained standing, "I'm not sure what the best way is to explain this." He indicated the envelope.

Helpfully, Hutch said, "It's usually best to come right out and say it, Captain."

The older man rubbed at his chin. "Well, my and Edith's old bank decided to shut down. We'd been going there a dozen years or so. Anyway, we had to move all our accounts from there to another bank."

Hutch nodded, wondering how long of a lead-in there was going to be. "Uh-huh?"

"I was down there this morning, taking care of withdrawing our funds an' all so we could move them elsewhere. And...," Dobey drew a deep breath, then exhaled it, "I also took everything from the safety deposit box we had there."

Hutch waited.

"While doing so," the Captain drawled on, "I came across this envelope." He waved it, then continued. "I had forgotten it was there. And after coming across it... well, it just didn't seem like the best thing to just move it to another bank."

"What's in the envelope?" Hutch asked, hoping to speed things along. Dobey was usually precise and used an economy of words, but when it came to personal things he could be the complete opposite.

Instead of answering directly, the black man went off on another tangent. "One night, quite a few months back, your partner came to my house."

Hutch blinked, all ears now.

"He'd had a few drinks too many. I don't know what went on that made him go out and do that, but that's not important." Dobey shifted his weight, eyes on the desktop. "He... he wanted to give me something. To keep in case something happened to him."

Hutch blinked again. Starsky drinking. Months ago. A few hours unaccounted for on that fateful night. Starsky had never told him where he'd been.

His heart started pounding.

Dobey went on. "So, I put it away for him. But when I came across it today, I got to thinking about a sermon that my minister gave a few weeks ago." He looked up thoughtfully. "It was a good sermon. The minister was talking about how people always give so much -- flowers, sympathy, well wishes, even money -- at funerals. We wait until people die and then we bestow a flood of love and warmth in the name of their memory." He shifted again. "The minister pointed out that our lives would be so much richer and fuller if we didn't wait until someone dies to express how important they are to us. We should tell them that while they're alive."

The captain held out the envelope. "So, in deference to that sermon, I'm giving this to you now." Suddenly, his calm manner became more brusque. "Go on, take it. I'm not going to say another word about it. Except... I hope I'm right to give it to you."

Puzzled, Hutch stepped forward and took the envelope.

"Go on," Dobey waved flamboyantly with an arm, "get out of my office."

Hutch obeyed, walking slowly as he stared at the envelope. It was plain, with no writing on it at all. And sealed.

Could it be Starsky's last words to him?

But he and Starsky had always been open about their feelings for each other. That's what made their friendship so unique from any other Hutch had ever known. So there would be no reason for Starsky to express his feelings from beyond the grave.

Except... since Starsky gave... whatever... to Dobey that particular night, could it mean that Starsky's thoughts weren't necessarily so flattering?

Except Dobey wouldn't be giving it to him now if that were the case.

The envelope contained something important... something that Dobey felt he should know. Now. While Starsky was alive.

Hutch picked up his jacket and left the squad room, desperate for privacy. He thought of the men's room on the third floor, which wasn't as busy as the others, but he didn't want to risk someone coming in. Besides, he needed air.

Walking briskly, he exited the building. He moved around the parameter, and when he came to where the garbage bins were he saw that no one else was around.

He sat on the ground and tore the envelope open.

At first, he was disappointed. For all that it contained was one thin piece of notebook paper, one edge shredded from having been torn from a spiral binder. With reverence, Hutch pulled the sheet of paper from its sheath. And then he unfolded it.

It looked like nothing more than a child's half-hearted attempt at pretending to write like a grown-up. Hutch held the paper closer, eyes finally settling on the top line.

Instructions For Being Hutch's Partner

Only the top line wasn't just a line. The sentence -- or title, he realized now -- curved up over the top of itself, since it all couldn't fit on one line.

Dobey had said Starsky had had too much to drink, Hutch reminded himself.

It was apparent to Hutch, from the title, that this paper wasn't meant for him. It was for his new partner if anything ever happened to Starsky. But Dobey obviously thought he should see it.

And then there was a series of points. Seven total. All written in the same wayward scrawl, but if he concentrated he could read it.

1. Hutch likes to be the boss and pretend he's the one in control.

What? Hutch felt a flare of annoyance. He and Starsky had always had an equal partnership. Neither of them ever bossed the other. Except... well, when Starsky was doing something that Hutch didn't approve of. Or doing something not for his own good. Or doing something that Hutch downright didn't like.

2. Watch out for when he's acting like a parent and you're his kid. 'Cause while he's watching out for you, it might really be him that needs watching out for.

Ah, Starsky did like acting like a kid at times... or maybe it was just plain frivolity. When he behaved like that, he invited parenting. And the second sentence... well, they always hadwatched out for each other.

3. He likes the things he likes.

What the hell did that mean?

4. You have to make him laugh, but don't be obvious that you're trying to make him laugh or he won't laugh.

Did Starsky really think he was that much of a control freak?

5. You can't have a macho complex. You have to let him show you that he loves you.

Ah, Starsk.

6. You have to hold him when he cries. Hold him tight.

Hutch covered his face with his hand. Lord knows, Starsky had always done that. Always. Starsky was the one person he had never felt obligated to hide his vulnerability from. With his family -- even with Vanessa -- he had felt inclined to put on the masculine front. But never with Starsky. And his trust had been so wonderfully rewarded.

Hutch drew a breath and looked at the final item, which had a big star next to it.

7. You have to love him. Can't never run out.

The paper blurred before him.

Hutch covered his eyes again, trying to get his breath.

He'd known, all along, that he required a lot of it. He took and took and took and took. Took far more than his share... far more than he deserved. And Starsky kept giving and giving and giving and giving. Sometimes, Hutch wondered when that well was going to run dry. And here Starsky was, saying that it mustn't. It couldn't.

As long as Starsky was alive, it wouldn't.

Hutch took his hand away and felt moisture at the corner of his eyes. It was tempting to give in to it, to purge his heart of all that it was feeling. But he shouldn't cry if Starsky wasn't there to hold him. No reason to cry alone as long as he had the option of Starsky loving him while it was happening.

Hutch wiped at his eyes and re-folded the paper. He wondered if he should tell Starsky he'd seen it. Dobey hadn't told him not to, but whatever happened their Captain wanted, understandably, to be left out of it.

He stuffed the paper back into the torn envelope and then placed it in the pocket of his jacket.

Who else is this world would leave "instructions" like that for their replacement?

And what other person in this world was gifted with someone who loved them so much?

Hutch scrambled to his feet, the desire to be with Starsky powerful and strong. He needed him. Now.

* * *

Starsky was staring at the interior of the refrigerator when he heard the rattling of the door handle. After listening to the door shut, he called over his shoulder, "What do you feel like for dinner?" As he continued to study the contents of the fridge, he realized that he probably shouldn't have asked. It would be simpler to just go out.

He decided that Hutch must not have heard his question, so Starsky closed the refrigerator door and turned around. His partner was standing at the threshold, regarding him with an expression that the shorter man wasn't sure he could interpret. He moved toward the blond. "Hey, did you hear me? I think we need to go out for dinner." He stood before the other.

Hutch seemed to be breathing just a little heavier than normal. His eyes were just a little brighter than normal. When he placed his hands on Starsky's shoulders, the grip was a little firmer than normal. "We're staying right here."

Still trying to decipher the unusual aura radiating from his partner, Starsky hesitantly agreed, "O-kay...."

The fingers gripped his flesh a little harder. And then Starsky saw that so-loved face bend toward him.

Automatically, he tilted his chin up to meet it. They kissed each other hello and goodbye and goodnight on a fairly regular basis these days.

Except this kiss wasn't saying any of those things. It was harder than usual -- more desperate -- and when Starsky put his hands on the other man's waist to steady himself so he could keep their lips together, as Hutch seemed to want, he realized that he could feel a tremor in his partner's body.

Slowly, they parted. But before Starsky could say anything, Hutch ducked his head and captured his partner's lips once again. This kiss wasn't as firm, but it was somehow more insistent... and large hands moved from Starsky's shoulders to his back, one reaching up into his hair, massaging.

And then Starsky knew. And he couldn't decide whether to be jubilant or terrified, for now the time was here. Now there would be risk.

When he was able to move his mouth to one side, he questioned, "Hutch...?"

The blond pulled back, but only long enough to put both hands on the sides of Starsky's face. He applied quick kisses, this time moving around the parameter of his partner's mouth, targeting cheeks and chin.

Starsky found himself giggling from the wet sensation and managed to tease, "What is it you've brought home from work today?" He wondered, then, if the change in Hutch's condition could possibly have anything to do with work. He couldn't see how.

The clearest, bluest eyes gazed back at Starsky. They were warm... and needful... and so vulnerable....

In answer, Hutch slowly bent his head once again. His lips touched Starsky's very gently, then pressed with gradually increasing tension. Hutch moved their mouths back and forth in a slow rhythm, pressing all the harder.

None of their kisses had been like this before. Starsky felt a flush rise through his body, gently increasing his heart rate, turning some parts of his body to liquid... other parts becoming more firm. He tightened his arms around Hutch, trying to draw him closer.

But, instead, the blond stepped back, breaking their contact. He put one arm around Starsky's back, the other beneath his legs and, with one mighty heave, lifted him from the floor.

Starsky locked his hands around Hutch's neck, laughing as they moved toward the bedroom. He'd never been carried to bed before, except when he was drunk. And the realization that this was how it could be filled him with an elation that helped offset his trepidation that he may not truly be ready for what was to come. All along he'd had his cake and eaten it, too. Now it was going to be devoured. And he could never have it back.

He was gently placed on the bed, on top of the rumpled covers. Hutch sat down beside him in the early evening light that shone from the window. In a voice as soft as his expression, the blond said, "Please don't do anything. Just... let me. Let me do everything."

Starsky was relieved that Hutch was taking the upper hand, but he was also puzzled and a little concerned about the need to take charge that the other seemed to have.

He nodded.

Hutch reached for his shirt with both hands. Starsky had already discarded his jacket and holster upon arriving home. He felt his own breath quicken as the first button was parted, one of his partner's hands creeping up to feel the small bit of flesh revealed. The hand was warm and smooth.

Hutch bent slightly, then rested his forehead against Starsky's. There, too, the curly-haired man felt the heat of the other. He drew a deep breath.

Gently, the other whispered, "Scared?" His breath was moist and warm against Starsky's cheek.

It would be foolish to lie. "Li'l bit." But not of Hutch. Never of Hutch. It was the strangest of dichotomies, feeling so safe with Hutch so close and warm, yet fearing the result of what they were going to do.

The hand stopped on Starsky's chest, fingers carefully entwined in curled strands. "If I start to do anything you don't want," the tender voice directed, "stop me with a word." A breathless pause. "Otherwise... pl - please don't say anything. Don't do anything."

The request was so anxious, so precise, that Starsky felt a dryness at the back of his throat and a desire to understand. With time, he hoped, he would feel -- and know -- what Hutch felt.

Apparently, his silence was answer enough. Hutch pulled back, then reached to the window and drew the curtains closed. The room was befallen by near-darkness. For a moment, Starsky wasn't sure what was happening, for there was no sound, movement, or touch. Then there was the gentle creaking of the mattress, and one large hand supported the back of his ankle while another worked with his shoe laces.

The shoe was coaxed off. Then the hands moved to the other foot, and the same procedure was applied. Then the sock was rolled down his ankle, past his heel, and pushed off. That process, too, was repeated with the first foot.

When both were bare, Hutch put a hand on the top of each and rubbed gently. His hands felt moist and warm, causing a peculiar comfort in the pit of Starsky's stomach.

Hutch could be the most gentle, the most tender of human beings. Starsky realized he shouldn't be surprised that those same traits extended to the bedroom.

The hands left his feet and a moment later Starsky felt the brief hairs of the wayward mustache as lips were applied to his cheek, kissing gently. Then the hands were on his chest again, slowly parting the buttons.

He wanted to take Hutch. Gather him up, hold him close, put his arms around him, rub his back, kiss him here, there... everywhere. Let the sensations build to their natural end....

But he wasn't supposed to do anything. Just sit there and let Hutch do it. Let Hutch love him. And he couldn't say no.

The last button was parted. Hutch ran his hand up the furred flesh revealed, passed a thumb over a tiny nipple. Starsky wondered if he were exploring... trying to get used to the feel of a man's body. Of course, the past few weeks they'd each been taking plenty of feels... but it had stayed on a platonic level -- nothing coy or provocative, nothing that was allowed to build, except to cause the gentlest quickening of heartbeats.

But, now, Starsky's heartbeat lunged as though jump-started. In the darkness, he didn't know what Hutch was going to do next. And a cool, wet tongue tasting the little protrusion that the thumb had just left was about the last thing the curly-haired man had expected. And Hutch was going about it in such a delicate fashion, as though wanting to absorb every possible response that his touch created.

Starsky had never been sensitive there. Never at all. He'd always felt a little foolish when his bed partners had tried to play with the tiny nipples. Even though they hardened, what few nerves they may have possessed didn't seem particularly interested in the events. Now that was changing. For it seemed a bundle of nerves was planted right there, waiting to be stimulated by the right person, and sending their message of delight down to his groin.

Teeth joined the protruding tongue. Starsky could sense their effort to be very gentle; yet, when a tiny pinch resulted he couldn't withhold a protesting gasp.

The nipple was kissed... once, twice. "Sorry," Hutch whispered.

A tongue swirled in the middle of Starsky's chest, mixing with the hair there, creating a peculiar sensation. And then it started down... pausing every few seconds to re-wet itself, then continuing to lap at exposed flesh. Eventually, it hit the navel. There, it swirled around.

Starsky shifted, breathing heavily, wishing Hutch would do something about his jeans, which were now so tight at their center that they downright hurt.

To his disappointment, Hutch straightened. The blond then slipped his hands around Starsky's back, inside his open shirt, and pressed their chests close together.

"Mm," Hutch purred, his hands rubbing up and down Starsky's back.

Starsky's heart pounded with love, but his strangled erection throbbed with frustration. He was trembling all over. Surely, Hutch could feel it....

The hands on his back moved down... down in a deliberate motion, ignoring the waistband of his jeans, sliding into the denim and underwear. It was such a tight fit, but they managed; and once traveling as far as they could go, both hands squeezed firmly.

Starsky groaned. It was a deep-chested noise, long and vibrating. He rested his head on the other man's shoulder, wanting to beg, but wanting even more to do things the way his partner wanted.

The hands withdrew part way. Then Hutch straightened and his hands traveled inside the waistband to the front. He undid the snap.

A strangled whimper emerged from Starsky as the zipper was tugged down. It was a battle, for there was so little room to manipulate the strip of metal. And, of course, the large hands were brushing against the thickness that was demanding freedom.

Finally, the soft-skinned column popped up into the air as both hands grabbed a full load of denim and cotton and tugged downward.

Starsky had to help with this part. He raised his hips until the clothing slipped past, grabbing handfuls of the bedding to keep from touching himself. He heard Hutch panting, too, as the blond worked to get the jeans down his legs.

Finally, they were tossed aside.

Starsky let his legs fall apart so there was enough room... for his erection and for Hutch. The blond paused and Starsky heard the sound of boots hitting the floor. There was the soft noise of Hutch's jacket being removed. Then the unsnapping of the shoulder harness.

With the remainder of his clothes still on, Hutch knelt on the bed between Starsky's legs.

Starsky waited, wondering with a mixture of hope and disbelief if Hutch was really going to do it... really put his mouth on it. It made him wish he had taken the time to clean up after arriving home. But how was he to know....

He did feel wetness, but it was against his upper thigh, a gentle kiss. Another kiss was placed against the other thigh. There was a slight moment of hesitation, and then the blond cap ducked and Starsky felt the soft lips against his sac.

Oh, God, he's going to do it. He squeezed his eyes shut, letting it happen.

He felt the gentle wetness against the base of his penis. And then the long tongue lapped upwards... stroke after stroke, circling around the circumference.

He allowed a soft cry to emerge, trying to communicate his need.

Hands settled on the tops of his thighs. The tongue darted around the crown, teased toward the slit. Starsky made another noise... and then he was taken.

He cried out. Not a sound of climax... but a long wail of disbelief mixed with the promise of relief.

Hutch's mouth was wet and lubricated with saliva. He had only taken in half the shaft, but he was working it well... sucking against the roof of his mouth, dancing his tongue along the underside, lips curled around his teeth. When he seemed to have all ingredients well coordinated, he started to bob his head forward and back.

Starsky could remain still no longer. He reached out and furrowed his spread fingers through the delicate hair, massaging with the very tips. Hutch paused a moment to swallow, and the sensations on Starsky's over-heated organ felt new and different. "Oh, God," he whimpered.

Hutch remained focused and within moments had regained the previous rhythm. There was nothing rushed about his action. He was taking his time, taking great care... and when Starsky cried out again he wasn't sure if it was for the building climax or the love that he felt.

"Gettin' there...," he whispered. "Don't stop... don't stop... gettin' close... so, so close...." The rhythm stayed obedient, continuing to milk him. His hands went from the blond hair down to Hutch's shoulders. "Almost... almost... real close now. Real, real....." There was the coalesced sensation of all the male organs in his body rushing toward explosion. He pushed Hutch away -- gasped from the accidental brush of teeth -- and then he screamed to the ceiling as the mixture of fluids burst from him.

He paused, panting, as the stream paused, and then there was more bursting, and once again his voice expressed his pleasure.

He collapsed to one side, wonderfully drained, aware of the larger-than-normal emission cooling on his chest and stomach. "Oh, God, Hutch," he panted. "Oh, God." He thought he should say something more than that, but he didn't know what.

A hand was placed on his leg. "You liked that, huh?" the blond whispered gently.

"Ah, man," Starsky let out a long breath, "it was fantastic." He spent another moment recovering his breath, then asked, "Where the hell did you learn that?"

He could see the blond head shake in the darkness and heard the touch of amusement in the other's voice. "I didn't 'learn' it. I just know what I like."

"Oh." Something within Starsky wanted to insist that it shouldn't be that simple.

The hand on his leg stroked up and down. "You didn't have to push me away. I was planning on swallowing it."

"I thought... I just...," Starsky trailed off, not knowing what he thought or wanted to say.

A soft chuckle. "It's all right." Then the gentlest of voices. "I love you."

He wasn't sure what to say to that, either. "Oh, Hutch," he growled, rolling onto his back. Sensation was starting to return to his limbs. He was aware of Hutch having left the bed, and a moment later he saw the outline of the pale form removing the rest of his clothes.

Starsky wasn't sure if he could deliver a blow job like that. He did know that he wanted to please Hutch, make him happy. Especially now. The other had his first erection in who-knew-how-long and Starsky didn't want to discourage it with hesitation.

In fact, it occurred to him now, it was amazing that, considering Hutch's period of abstinence, the other was able to be so patient tonight.

Hutch was naked now, getting back on the bed, his jutting phallus unmistakable, even in near darkness.

Starsky held him by the waist. "What do you want me to do for you?" he whispered, determined to go through with whatever Hutch wanted. The other's skin felt flushed, a quiver running beneath its surface.

The blond's voice was breathless. "Just let me do it," came the tender direction. "I want to rub against you. Maybe rub against your thigh."

There was a moment of relief, but it was brief. Surely, Hutch deserved more than dry-humping. Just because that was all the other was going to ask for didn't mean it was all he was going to get.

"Just a sec," Starsky said, making up his mind. Keeping one hand on Hutch, he reached to the nightstand with the other. He fumbled with the drawer handles, but it wasn't until he pulled open the bottom one that he found what he wanted. For a moment, it occurred to him that bringing out the tube may give all the wrong messages, but then he told himself that Hutch wouldn't misread him that badly. Especially if he made it clear what he had in mind.

"Here, let's do it this way," he said, squeezing the substance from the tube into his other hand. "Should make it a lot nicer." He noticed that Hutch didn't seem to mind that he was making decisions on his own. Perhaps the other was even relieved, for it was possible all the blond's prior willingness to take responsibility had been solely to relieve a nervous Starsky of the same.

It was awkward, and he sensed his partner's curiosity, but Starsky eventually had the jelly on both hands. He rubbed his hands together, spreading it further. Then, refusing to hesitate, he reached out and found the heated column, clamping one hand around it.

Hutch groaned achingly.

It felt so powerful... and needy. Starsky knew that, if his own hands hadn't been coated with the K-Y, he would have been able to feel the baby-soft skin. But that would have to wait for another night. Now, he placed his other hand behind the first and squeezed gently.

Hutch whimpered.

"Gonna keep my hands together, like a tunnel," Starsky explained. "Then you can move back and forth within there."

The blond, breathing harshly, stretched his legs out, while also placing his hands on the bed on either side of Starsky, letting them take his weight.

Starsky understood the intent. He carefully lowered his hands, along with their prize, to his stomach, just above his pubic region. That way they were approximately the same position that would be natural for Hutch to thrust into.

Hutch thrust now. When he drew back, he did so too easily and Starsky clenched his fingers closer together. When Hutch moved forward through his hands, the grip was tighter, and there was a groan of satisfaction from his partner.

It went like that -- Hutch shoving in, pausing a moment, then pulling back out. As he developed a rhythm, the pauses got shorter and shorter, his groans louder and more pronounced. Starsky took great satisfaction in knowing that he could do this for Hutch. His only frustration was that with his hands so busy he couldn't put his arms around his partner.

There was also a special surprise in doing this, a treat Starsky hadn't anticipated. As Hutch worked in and out of the Starsky-made tunnel, his scrotum slapped against Starsky's groin area, hitting his own scrotum... his penis.... Though the contact itself was light and soft, the sensation renewed his excitement.

Hutch's groans were getting deeper, louder, more drawn out. Starsky concentrated, tightening his hands further just as Hutch withdrew, trying to mimic the muscle contractions that his own organ had delighted in many times.

And, finally, it was as though a barrier had been crossed, for Hutch began to pump frantically, the power of each thrust making Starsky work harder to keep his hands steady. The slap of the soft skin against his own delicate tissues escalated his arousal.

Hutch was a screamer, too. He let out a yell, loud and long, and warm fluid burst from him, coating Starsky's hands, landing on his stomach.

"God, God," the blond gasped earnestly, almost as though sobbing. "Oh, dear God." He carefully withdrew from the tunnel, collapsing at Starsky's side. The latter let his hands fall away. Then he turned to the nightstand, fished out a cloth and, hoping it was reasonably clean, wiped his hands against it.

Hutch was face-down on the bed. His groans were so deep that the accompanying words were indecipherable.

Starsky patted the nearest buttock as he settled back against his pillow. "A long time in coming, huh?"

The blond snorted. "Humph. So to speak."

Starsky hadn't meant to make a pun. "Okay if I turn on the light?"


The darker man reached for the lamp. When he turned to lie back down, he found snow-white buttocks at his side. And the scar-covered back.

He rubbed along the scars. "Did it feel okay to you, babe?"

Hutch rolled onto his side, facing him. The blond's smile was bright and tender. "Felt more than okay. Wonderful." His eyes closed as his expression sobered. "Want to love you so much more."

Ah, Hutch. "We've got a whole lifetime, pal."

Hutch got up on an elbow and leaned toward his partner. "Then let's start the rest of our lives right now."

The kiss was whole, soft, pressing. The previous activity had left Starsky vulnerable to this new attack and his reawakened flesh responded willingly. He kissed back, licking along the other's full lips, delighting in the groan that ensued. The heat between them had a different texture now... soft and heavy and full and warm. He placed a hand on the back of Hutch's neck, drawing the other closer, loving the way this contact made him feel.

He and Hutch. Forever now. A promise long felt... now sealed with their bodies' fluids, the pleasure they could create.

Hutch pressed further and Starsky rolled onto his back, pulling the blond on top of him. This was so much nicer than the previous contact, for they were pressed together, all parts of the front of their bodies in contact with each other. A warm phallus reached out to meet Starsky's own, and the curly-haired man felt relief that any doubt about Hutch's virility could be banished for good.

Their mouths seemed sealed together, Starsky unsure of where one ended and the other began. In fact, it was like that from head to toe. So much a part of each other they had always been....

Hutch struggled to get on his elbows, and it was a moment before Starsky relaxed his own lips enough to let the other pull back. But the blond did so only enough to move his mouth near an ear.

His breath was hot and full. "Partner. I'm ready for you. You've got the lube right here. I'll put some in. Then you can...." Hutch kissed his cheek, letting the thought linger.

Something in Starsky's chest sunk, threatening to destroy all the wonderful things he was feeling. "Hutch," he whispered desperately, "I can't. Hear me, babe? I can't do that to you. I just can't."

Hutch pulled back a little more, meeting Starsky's eye, his own full of puzzlement. Then, with gentle firmness, he reminded, "Starsky, I wasn't raped."

The darker man brought a hand up to trace the full lips. "I know. But...." It was hopeless. He would never be able to explain something he didn't quite understand himself. "I just can't, Hutch." He fell silent, knowing there was nothing else he could say.

The sea-blue eyes of the other reflected more puzzlement, then disappointment. The pale throat bobbed with a swallow, then a light kiss was planted on Starsky's chin before the other looked away, as though he were trying to decide what to do next.

Starsky knew that, as promised in the beginning, Hutch would never push. And he couldn't bear to be the cause of that disappointment. Maybe there could be a compromise of sorts. "Hutch?"

The other looked back, the hope unmistakable.

"Look, there's no way I can... put it into ya. But... but we can try it if, like, you can maybe lower yourself on it."

The blond's expression was so anxious, studying him intently, as though looking for any sign of doubt. "Are you sure it would be okay?"

Starsky managed a smile. Wasn't that a question he should be asking Hutch? "If it's okay with you, it's okay with me." Even now, his desire was simmering from the conversation, his phallus rising with interest. He and Hutch... bodily connected. Sharing each other in the most literal fashion.

Hutch kissed him quickly. Then he stood, looking around for the tube.

"It's there," Starsky pointed to the floor next to the bed.

Hutch picked up the uncapped tube, reading the label as though he didn't already know what it was. Then he straightened and squeezed the ointment onto his fingers.

He reached behind, inserting it. Starsky watched him, feeling the same lack of self-consciousness that Hutch did. They had, after all, touched each other on every part of their bodies at some point over the years. Literally cleaned up after each other when one of them was totally incapacitated. Helped each other with bed pans when one was too weak to get up. And there was the one time when Starsky had thought it would be exciting to go without underwear and had gotten caught in the zipper of his jeans. Hutch had dutifully knelt before him and helped get him out of it. It was only after he was free that the blond teased him mercilessly.

Starsky rubbed his penis now, knowing it needed to be as hard as possible in order to achieve the penetration necessary. He squeezed and milked it, working it in the way that it responded to best. It hardened further when Hutch straddled him, balancing on his knees. He scooted up closer to Starsky's chest, his own partially erect penis almost at the darker man's throat.

But Starsky wasn't watching it. His eyes were on Hutch's, badly needing that kind of communication to get through this. "Sure you put enough in?"

"We can use more if we have to," Hutch stated reasonably.

Starsky took a deep breath. "'Kay." He gave his phallus one more pull. Then he looked around the bed for the tube, appalled that they had almost forgotten. "Need to put some on me, too."

"Want me to do it?"

Starsky found it, picked it up. He presented a wry smile as he squeezed it out. "I'd better, since I know how to handle it best. You do it, I'd probably come." He wasn't sure if it were true, but he found the need for conversation, to keep communication open, so neither of them made an irreversible error.

He applied the lube from feel alone, for Hutch's daunting body blocked all view below his chest. And Hutch was, he realized now, such a large person. Perhaps not as muscular as he once was, perhaps even carrying a little softness around his middle, but certainly more filled out.

He laid the tube aside and stroked the slippery shaft once more. "Okay."

Hutch straightened, then scooted back a little. "You going to hold it in place?"

Starsky took a firm grip. "Yeah."

The taller man scooted back more until the stiffness brushed against his buttocks. He moved around, attempting to center it, and Starsky grabbed a lower buttock with his free hand, trying to guide him. In all the manipulation, Starsky's hand brushed against the recess between the fleshy cheeks. "Hutch, wait. Wait a minute." There was a panic building within, and he was relieved when his partner obeyed. "You've got to stretch it out more," he scolded. He took the task upon himself, inserting a finger into the recess, grateful that they had the comfort level with each other that allowed him to do this without feeling awkward.

Hutch didn't respond, but held himself still, breathing heavily while Starsky worked.

Starsky circled the finger round and round. The opening was ridiculously small. He pulled at the edges, trying to stretch it outward. He withdrew the finger, thought what the hell and found the tube of ointment. He placed the nozzle approximately where it should go, then squeezed the tube. With trepidation, he looked up at his partner.

But Hutch was accepting it, as though understanding that Starsky needed to do this. He waited without laughter or impatience. In fact, he reached to place a hand on Starsky's hair, stroking gently.

Starsky tossed the tube aside and worked with two fingers. The area was so greasy that he couldn't get much of a grip on anything, but it made him feel better to know that two digits could fit fairly easily. Finally, he decided enough was enough. He grabbed his shaft again, giving it one more stroke. "Okay."

Hutch closed his eyes, lowered himself a fraction of an inch. Starsky guided the straining head between the buttocks, waited until Hutch lowered himself a little more before the crown bumped the wrinkled skin. He gripped the base more firmly, determined to let it happen.

Hutch pushed back, closed his eyes, as though concentrating. He took a deep, deliberate breath, then let gravity take over.

The tightness of the firm opening pulled at the delicate skin. But the K-Y was helping, and it wasn't long until the tight ring of muscle slipped passed the crown.

Hutch let out a little gasp... paused. Then, so slowly, he let himself sink back.

God, it was tight. And moist. And it was Hutch.

Starsky resisted with all his might the urge to push upward. He found a distraction, reaching to the phallus which rested on his chest. It had softened, and he stroked it firmly.

As his buttocks lowered, Hutch's body moved backwards. There were a couple more moments of pauses and sharp breaths. And then an expression of satisfaction overtook the blond's features as his buttocks brushed against Starsky's thighs.

The curly-haired man thought it should be a pinnacle. But all he felt was worry. "Feel okay?" he asked anxiously. Hutch was definitely going to have to do all the work from here. It was impossible for Starsky to thrust while bearing the other's weight.

Eyebrows furrowed, Hutch's expression now one of concentration. "It's a little uncomfortable," he admitted thickly.

Starsky didn't doubt it. Hutch looked like he was sitting up too straight for the angle to be natural.

The blond leaned forward a little, then pulled himself partly off the thick flesh. But just as he was about to thrust backward, the firm cylinder slipped free.

Both men groaned with frustration. Starsky grabbed the errant erection, trying to hold it still, thinking that maybe he'd gotten too carried away with the lubricant.

"Starsk," Hutch panted, "let's roll over and put you on top. It'll be easier."

Automatically, Starsky obeyed, tipping them onto their sides. He was willing to do anything to keep this from being a disaster.

Hutch slid onto the mattress, face-down. He got on his knees.

Starsky was also kneeling, and he moved to get behind the raised buttocks. He no longer felt concern about the penetration, for he knew now that Hutch could take it without unreasonable pain. And they both needed to complete this, for psychological reasons as much as the pleasure they sought.

He grabbed Hutch by the sides, encouraged him to stretch out further, so the pale buttocks were lowered to a more accessible level. Then he took his slippery flesh in hand, aimed it at the equally-moist opening, and pressed gently.

Hutch's breathing grew louder, and his legs stretched a little wider, but he offered no resistance. Relieved, Starsky let himself slowly sink in the rest of the way.

And they were joined. Him inside of Hutch.

He laid across the other's scarred back, his cheek resting against Hutch's shoulder blades. With both hands, he reached for the blond mass of hair, entwining his fingers, certain that Hutch wouldn't mind that they were greasy. He just needed some way of letting the other know how much he appreciated it that Hutch had let this happen.

He removed one hand to brace against Hutch's shoulder. And then carefully -- ever aware of the excessive lubricant -- he briefly pulled back, then pushed in. Despite the grease, there was a tightness there, especially near the opening. He repeated the short strokes, moving in and out with increasing speed.

"Feel okay?" he asked breathlessly.

"It's fine, partner," the other purred softly. Then Hutch balanced on one hand and reached to grab the organ between his own legs. He began stroking it, working with practiced fingers.

That enthusiasm propelled Starsky onward. He closed his eyes, focusing on his own pleasure, letting it build. It would take longer since this was the second time tonight, and he knew Hutch wouldn't mind if he enjoyed himself.

Damn, this may be fine, after all.

"Starsky," Hutch said breathlessly, "grab my nuts and play with them."

Starsky's eyes snapped open as his cock surged. He straightened, then reached around Hutch's left leg and felt for the scrotal pouch. His hand brushed against the one that was stroking earnestly, and felt lower. The tender skin was firm and smooth with fine hair. Starsky squeezed, confident from his own experience that he would know the proper amount of pressure. His shifted his hand and rolled the two lumps within his fingers.

"God, yes," Hutch gasped. "Yes."

Concentrating heavily, Starsky pulled back while still maintaining his hold. It was a little awkward for his legs, but all his concerns were on the jewels he held in his hand, the pleasure in Hutch's voice, and the sensations charging through his own pumping phallus.

"Oh, God, Hutch," he joined his breathless chant to the other man's. "Real nice, babe. Real nice."

Hutch's arm was moving furiously. "Oh, God," he panted, "Oh, God. Don't stop. Don't stop. God. God. Gooooooooo........." The cry was loud, deep-chested, and long. His muscles spasmed as his voice reached a peak, and Starsky let his hand drop away.

The curly-haired man grabbed both hips, then pumped furiously, still riding the physical and emotional wave of Hutch's orgasm. At one point his organ slipped out; but it pushed back in easily, and he began to pump with more force, trying to keep it inside the moist channel.

The sensations were building. Hutch's upper body had collapsed against the bed, his head turned to one side, eyes closed.

Damn, he was gorgeous to let Starsky do this.

The sweat burst out onto Starsky's forehead as the final crest was reached. He was too exhausted to yell, and merely moaned as the fluid erupted from him.

He let it slip out this time, the sensations still potent, and rested his weight on Hutch's back. Then, fearing that if he didn't move now he never would again, he slipped to one side and collapsed onto the mattress.

* * *

Some minutes later, Starsky managed to sit up against the headboard. While Hutch was in the bathroom, he took the time to arrange the pillows comfortably behind him. His movements were sluggish, for his body felt totally drained. It had been a few months since he'd had sex, longer still since he'd had two orgasms in one night. He could imagine what Hutch must feel like.

The blond emerged wearing his robe -- and a tender smile that made Starsky's heart turn over. The curly-haired man felt his protective instincts kick in, for Hutch seemed more precious, and vulnerable, than he ever had before.

Hutch kicked some clothes into a corner, then moved to the bed. "Thanks for hogging all the pillows."

Starsky patted his own chest. "Guess that blond head of yours is going to have to lie right here."

There was no snappy comeback. Hutch got beneath the covers and crawled into Starsky's arms. Even after the fast shower, his body felt lazy.

Starsky had tried to clean up with towels, dirty clothes on the floor, and the edges of the sheets. He scratched along his partner's hairline. "You feel okay?"

Hutch kissed the furred flesh beneath his lips. "I feel a hundred times better than just okay."

The other was glad to hear it, but... "Sore?"

"What do you think?" And Hutch looked up at him with a grin.

Starsky grinned back, kissing his nose. They lay together for a few moments, then Starsky knew he couldn't let the night end without asking, "What happened today, Hutch? That, you know, caused you to change?"

Hutch straightened so that he was more to Starsky's side and they could see each other. Varying expressions crossed his features, and Starsky knew he was carefully choosing his answer. And then there was the warmest of smiles as their eyes met. "I realized how much you love me."

Starsky felt his brows furrow, unable to feel the obvious glee that his partner did. "Hutch," he protested worriedly, "I've loved you for a long, long time."

"I know," Hutch nodded. Then his expression softened. "I meant... how much you love me."

Starsky blinked, knowing there had to be an explanation behind the statement. But Hutch was choosing not to tell him, at least for now, and he had to respect that.

In fact, when it came to revelations he himself didn't have a monopoly on honesty. And he knew it would bother him until it was dealt with... sooner or later.


The other raised his head from where it had been resting against Starsky's shoulder bone. "Hm?"

Starsky took a deep breath. "There's something I think I'd better tell ya."

Hutch stared at him. Then, with a hint of trepidation, he asked, "What is it?"

Starsky swallowed thickly. He was afraid it might sound stupid saying it out loud. "Well, remember when I used to date Donna Tyler a coupla years back?" There wasn't an immediate response, so he described, "Sorta amber hair. Dark eyes. Petite. Used to be a cheerleader at the University?"

"Oh, yeah," Hutch nodded, "I think I remember her."

"Yeah, well, one night we were doin' it at her place. And then at one point in the... proceedings... she pulled out one of those dildo things." Starsky hesitated, remembering. "She wanted to put it into me. I wasn't interested but she started actin' like, you know, there was something wrong with me if I didn't want to do it. She acted like all guys like things stuck up their assholes. And she was sayin', like, that if I thought it was gonna make me feel like a fag then I must not be very secure in my masculinity." He glanced at Hutch, pleased that the other was listening intently, though the blond was obviously puzzled as to where this was leading.

Starsky let out a breath. "So, against my better judgment, I said yes. And she did it." He closed his eyes, feeling the anger build. "She shoved that damn thing into me all at once. Just rammed it in." His voice hissed with intensity. "Hurt like a sonofabitch. Never felt anything like it."

Hutch straightened, his hands reaching to take Starsky's shoulders. "Starsk," he whispered, voice filled with compassion and concern.

The smaller man shook his head. "Never saw her after that. Never wanted anyone goin' near my asshole after that." He sensed his partner's smoldering anger and quickly said, "I don't think she meant to do it like that. I mean, I found out later that she was mad that I was seein' other girls -- not that I'd ever told her otherwise. So, I'm thinkin' it was one of those whatever-you-call-it Freudian things. You know, she didn't mean to hurt me, but subconsciously she really wanted to."

Hutch let out a tight breath. "God, pal, that's practically rape."

Starsky bristled, wishing Hutch hadn't used that word. "She had my permission," he defended quickly. "I just didn't know she was going to do it like that... shove it all in at once." He turned to look at his partner, desperate to make his point. "Hutch, I know it would be different with you. I know it would. And I want to share that with you." He shrugged sheepishly, admitting, "But at the same time -- "

"You're scared?" Hutch offered simply.

"Yeah. I mean, I know that I'm gonna be real uptight about it, even if I try real hard not to be." His voice deflated helplessly. "I'm afraid I'll mess it up for you."

Hutch's lips pressed against the side of the darker man's forehead, and then his head rested against Starsky's. "Ah, Starsk, we'll work it out. We'll work up to it, real slow and careful, only do as much as you're willing to each night. Not go to the next step until you say so." Long fingers brushed along Starsky's temple and cheek. "Okay?"

Starsky grinned at him. "Okay." Relief made its way through his body in one huge wave, purging as it went.

Hutch took him by the shoulders, turned him to lie back on the mattress. The blond straddled him, pale brow furrowed thoughtfully. "Starsk?"

"What?" Starsky's hands were holding Hutch's arms.

Hutch whispered, "Is this the real reason behind your hesitation, all this time? You were afraid you couldn't let me do it to you?"

"No, of course not," Starsky replied automatically. He felt naked and exposed as Hutch continued to study him. He shifted restlessly, then admitted, "I don't think so." The gaze didn't waver and he had to look away. "I don't know," he said quietly. "Maybe."

A hand petted back through his hair. "It doesn't matter now," the blond decided.

Starsky closed his eyes, gratitude replacing his earlier feeling of relief. When he opened them, he reached up to Hutch with both arms.

Hutch leaned down and they wrapped their arms around each other, pulling snug. Starsky pressed his face against the clean-smelling neck. He wasn't quite sure what words to use to express what he felt. His arms rubbed up and down the other's back, feeling the lumps of scar tissue. His voice caught as he managed, "I'm so glad you're all right."

Hutch's arms tightened. "So am I. So am I."




"Where's that partner of yours?" Dobey grumbled while seated behind his desk.

Hutch decided not to sit down, for he hoped this wouldn't be long. He shrugged, hands in his pockets. "Getting something from the cafeteria."

The captain picked up a file folder and held it out. "I want you both to get on this right away."

"What is it?" Hutch asked as he took the file and leafed through it.

"A professional thief who just got paroled. We got a lead that yesterday's jewelry robbery may be him. If so, he's already altered his prior MO, because this time he left the store clerkdead."

Hutch stepped toward the door. "Decided to change his ways, huh? We'll get right on it." He reached for the door handle.


The blond paused, puzzled by the softer tone. He turned. "Yes, sir?"

The black man presented a wry smile. "You're looking good, son."

For a moment, Hutch felt a stab of vulnerability that he could be read so easily. But he also knew that Dobey had been genuinely concerned about what had happened to him, and realized now that his superior was trying to indicate that he knew Hutch was a hundred percent recovered. He smiled back, turning the handle. "Thanks, Captain." As he stepped over the threshold, it occurred to him that he had something of his own to say, and now was probably as good a time as any.

He turned again. "Captain?"

Dobey looked up.

Hutch's smile was gentle this time. "I thought I'd let you know... your minister was right." Hutch waited for the slight inclination of Dobey's head to show that he had been understood. "Thanks," he added, then left the room, closing the door behind him.

He spotted his partner sitting at their desk, eating a gooey roll, one foot on the desktop and one foot off, studying a file folder.

Hutch let his eyes dart about the room, enjoying the thought that no one suspected what went on between them in their private time. No one knew how he had so deliberately seduced Starsky the past couple of weeks, working with him and playing with him, fine tuning him in preparation for conquering the final barrier between them. He had been so patient, so careful, just stroking with an outer finger at first, while loving Starsky in other ways. Gradually, over time, he had pressed a finger in. Later, there had been two. Eventually, he worked it up to four, which had stroked and caressed and stimulated. Finally, last night, Starsky had asked for the real thing. In retrospect, Hutch suspected his partner had been fooling him somewhat; because Starsky had proved to be so ready that he had taken Hutch into his body all the way the very first time. Not only had he accepted the thickness, but he had asked for something else, as well. And, even now, in the brightness of day, the memory sent Hutch's lower regions into a fit of quivering.

"Take it out," Starsky had demanded huskily, once fully penetrated. "Take it all the way out and put it back in."

Hutch had obeyed, though not quite understanding why Starsky wanted him to do it. And then it was repeated: "Take it all the way out and put it back in."

The request was made over and over, and Starsky began to writhe and pant and mutter something about loving the sensation of Hutch filling him. And Hutch had found himself richly stimulated by having his cock pass through that tight ring over and over, back and forth. From the standpoint of sheer eroticism, it was the most memorable sex he had ever known.

And Starsky sat in the squad room now, looking as though nothing special had happened last night, not giving any indication of the residual soreness that Hutch knew he had to be feeling.

As for himself, Dobey was right. Hutch felt big and strong and powerful. In control. For he had never felt himself more a man than when he'd been so patiently loving with Starsky, helping the other conquer his fear. Thinking of Starsky more than himself.

Hutch flexed his shoulders as he moved toward the table, feeling the pull of scars, which stole his attention away from his fantasies. He had stopped thinking about plastic surgery. The scars were a part of him and Starsky accepted that.

And Starsky's opinion was all that mattered.

His partner looked up at him while biting into his roll. "What did Dobey want?"

Hutch tossed the folder onto the table. "Yesterday's jewelry store robbery may be the work of someone who just got paroled."

Starsky clicked his tongue against his teeth while opening the file. "Not very bright on his part."

"Nope." Hutch picked up his jacket from the back of his chair. "Let's roll, partner."

"Where to?"

"I figure we can start with his old girlfriend. Maybe he's been in touch with her since he got out."

Starsky was on his feet and reaching for his own jacket. "Ever wonder why women wait for creeps like that to get out of prison?"

Hutch shrugged as they moved toward the door. "Who are we to judge love?"

Starsky looked up at him as they exited, a grin lighting the side of his face. Seeing no one in the corridor, he softly said, "We are love, babe. And don't you ever forget it."

Hutch knew that, with Starsky at his side, he never would.




This story originally appeared in the fanzine HEART AND SOUL 2, published by Charlotte Frost in 1995.

Early comments on this story are posted TBA.

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