Charlotte Frost


    You can know someone for years and think you know all about 'em. And, in a way, it can be true. You get to know their habits, the things that yank their chain, the things that make them smile... all the things that make up a person.

    But I don't think you can really know a person's soul until you can trace them back to where they came from. Find their origins. When you understand their origins, that's the true link to understandin' the whole person.

    So, that's why I kinda pushed it when Hutch started makin' noises about spending part of our two-week vacation back in Minnesota. We'd been partners for eight years and I'd never met his folks. It's not that I thought they were terrific people or anything -- or even that we'd have a good time -- it just... well, let's just say it seemed important. It was like there was a part of Hutch -- an important part -- that I'd only heard about from his very biased mouth. Now, I'm not complainin' about him being biased; it's only natural, after all. But I was interested in what kind of light my slightly objective perspective could shed on this very special person in my life.

    I mean, havin' a Hutch for a partner is a full-time job. It's an ongoing odyssey of tryin' to understand what makes him tick. I thought I might very well be comin' to the end of that journey if I could drop in on the Hutchinson past.

    So, I tried -- as subtly as I could -- to encourage Hutch when he started considering the idea of goin' back to Duluth. Bein' too enthusiastic would have made him suspicious and start thinkin' about not doin' it at all. I know how my Hutch works. He has to say "no", even when he knows all along that his actions are gonna be "yes". But if he didn't know how badly I wanted him to say "yes", then he wouldn't concentrate so hard on sayin' "no".

    The reservations were all made, the plane tickets in hand, two months before our vacation was scheduled to begin. That way, we got a discount on the tickets, though blondie still spent a lot of time grumpin' about how much the flight was gonna cost.

    And then he stopped grumbling. And then the reservations started changing.

    See, at first, we were gonna spend ten full days there. And then Hutch up and told me he was gonna change it so we only stayed a week. When I asked him the obvious question -- why -- he mumbled something about needing some of those vacation days to completely rearrange his greenhouse... like he'd been planning it for months. Not that he'd ever mentioned anything like that to me. But I didn't think much of it.

    Then he changed the reservations again to five days, a Wednesday through a Sunday. This time his excuse was that he suddenly remembered that his parents got allergies in the summer and they tired easily and therefore we shouldn't wear them out by stayin' so long.

    Four days before our flight was scheduled to leave, he changed them again. This time we were only staying Friday through Monday, returning to Los Angeles Monday evening. I didn't even bother asking why.

    As the first day of our trip edged closer, he kept getting more and more uptight. And then he'd deny he was uptight. I mean, he acted like he was lookin' forward to seeing his parents, and his sister, who was flying out from the east coast for the little family reunion. But there was a certain forcedness to his enthusiasm. Personally, I think Hutch was slowly starting to remember why he left there in the first place. I mean, in the beginning, when we'd first been planning the trip, he was talkin' about all the things we were gonna do, and all the people and places he was gonna show me. And then he just got quieter and quieter about it. And kept shortening the trip.

    But, finally, we were on the plane. Now, get this: Hutch wore a suit. Well, not a real suit -- no tie or anything -- but a three piecer nevertheless: slacks, button shirt, and a jacket. All brown. He looks real good in brown. And when he saw how I was dressed for the flight -- jeans and nice-looking plaid shirt if-I-may-say-so-myself -- he grumped at me. Then he just snarled, "Never mind," and didn't say anything else about it. I didn't know what the big deal was. I admit I don't fly very often, but when I looked around at the other passengers, many of them were dressed much more casually than I was. The only ones in suits were obviously businessmen who weren't payin' for the flight themselves.

    Anyway, I didn't get mad at Hutch or anything. I mean, his past has always been kind of a sensitive subject. So I didn't let any of his sourness get to me. But neither did I sit there and tell him how wonderful it was all gonna be. I was more interested in meeting his family than spending time with him, if you wanna know the truth. Consider it scientific research. Or just researching the Hutchness of it all.

    And I met his family soon enough

    They were all there -- Ma, Pa, and Sis. Well, I guess it would be more accurate to say Mrs. Elizabeth Hutchinson, Mr. Richard Hutchinson, and Ms. Suzette Landly. That's how they were introduced to me. Well, maybe those aren't the words that Hutch used, but those were the images that got planted in my brain. I mean, it's not like I was told I could call them Liz, Dick, and Sue. Hell, they never even called Hutch "Ken". Not even his sister. It was always Kenneth. And you could almost hear Hutch's teeth gnash every time.

    But I'm getting ahead of myself. Because there was this whole scene when we walked off the plane. Hutch, in a very controlled voice, said, "There they are," as soon as he spotted them. I tried to follow his line of sight, and there was this little group of... uh, very proper-looking people trying-not-to-stare our way. And they wore very polite smiles which sort of broadened as we approached.

    Then Hutch was smiling and he kissed his mother on the cheek. She's a slim woman, but pretty big-boned, with reddish hair.

    And then Hutch shook hands with his father.

    I gotta tell ya, I've always known that Hutch didn't grow up in the warmest of families. I mean, all families have their own ways of communicating with each other. And, I guess, fathers and sons showing any kind of emotion can sometimes be really difficult. All that masculinity crap.

    But no matter what Hutch had told me, and no matter what impressions I'd gotten over the years, nothing prepared me for the way those two greeted each other. They were smiling at each other. And they were shakin' hands. And that was it. They didn't even look like they wanted to hug each other. There was absolutely no indication of that I-really-love-ya-but-I-don't-want-to-make-a-scene-plus-it-makes-me-uncomfortable stuff. It was just a simple, raw handshake. Not even cold. Cold has emotion behind it.

    I realized later, after I'd recovered from the shock, that Hutch gets most of his looks from his father. Richard Hutchinson was tall -- even taller than Hutch -- and had that pale, pale hair. His face was smooth, too. Blue eyes. And a manner that said breeding, though not quite in the outward way that Elizabeth did. I mean, I kinda got the impression that Mr. Hutchinson knew he was well-bred, so he didn't need to show it off. That's how Hutch is.

    Not that Mrs. Hutchinson was over-dressed, or anything. Her display of breeding was more in the form of... well, her phony smile. She just had a look of plastic about her. Like she was a toy that could be wound up to meet whatever need was required. I didn't like her.

    When Hutch turned his attention to Suzette, I got the impression of a very, very shy girl. She kinda took a step back, like she wasn't sure how to greet him. He just sort of clutched her hand, touched his lips to her cheek, then stepped back to smile at her. And his smile was genuine.

    "Too bad Lawrence couldn't make it," Hutch told her. I took it that was her husband. She looked a little young to be married. I think Hutch told me she was about six hears younger than he was. To me, she looked a little frail, and I found myself hoping she didn't intend to have children. And then I remembered that Hutch had once told me she didn't... or couldn't... or something.

    The reunion complete, all eyes turned to me. Hutch reached behind him to take my arm. "Everyone," he said in that soft tone that can melt hearts, "I'd like you to meet my buddy, my partner, and my very best friend, David Starsky."

    Well, hell, with an introduction like that, it was kinda hard not to bounce on my toes.

    The toy stuck out her hand. "So very nice to meet you, Mr. Starsky."

    When I grinned and it hurt the corners of my mouth, I realized I'd already been grinning the whole time. I guess it was from nerves. You know, it's always nerve-wracking meeting people that you don't want to cause any embarrassment to. I took her hand, shook it maybe a little too enthusiastically. "David, please. Or just Dave. Very nice to meet you, too. I love your son, ma'am."

    I cringed almost right away. Well, inside, anyway. Outwardly, I laughed kinda stupidly, trying to cover my embarrassment. Well, hell, I wasn't embarrassed. It was the truth, after all. And I guess a part of me thought she would want to know that. Every mother wants to know her son is loved. It's just... well, the way it slipped out, I figured it probably embarrassed Hutch, and that's the last thing I wanted to do.

    But a funny thing happened. I turned my head just enough to see Hutch's anger through the corner of my eye. But he wasn't angry. He was lookin' off to one side, a little smirk at his mouth. I don't know if he was amused by me, or by my attempt to put his mother off balance.

    Because, well, I gotta admit I guess that's what I was tryin' to do. Something in me wanted to get through all that plastic. I guess some part of me was tryin' to say, "Hey, I can say it. So can you." But the toy just widened her smile like I'd said, "Have a nice day," and didn't say a word.

    I turned to her husband. "Nice to meet you, sir." His handshake was more firm... and more gentle. But he didn't say anything. He kind of reminded me of a statue that had had its finer edges dulled.

    Now the sister. "Hi, Suzette. Very nice to meet you. You go by Suzy or Suzette?" I was babbling. Nerves again.

    She smiled sort of embarrassed-like, like she was sorry for me that I hadn't gotten it right the first time when Hutch introduced everyone.

    "Suzette, I guess?" I ventured.

    "Yes, nice to meet you." Well, at least she talked.

    We all started walking. "How was your flight, Mr. Starsky?" That was Elizabeth.

    "Oh, David, please, ma'am."

    She eyed me a little funny. Then an over-blown smile. "If you insist."

    "I insist, ma'am." I sorta of laughed then. I don't know why. Hutch was walking behind me, Suzette a little behind him. I kind of got the feeling no one was going to talk unless I did. "The flight was very nice. Good food. Hardly any turbulence. Didn't throw up or anything." I glanced back Hutch, grinning like an idiot, hoping he appreciated that my lack of tact, if nothing else, was at least amusing.

    But he was looking off into the distance, where planes were lined up for take-off on the busy runway. I don't think he even heard.

    So, the conversation kinda went like that all the way through the airport and getting our luggage. I did most of the talking, most of the laughing, asked most of the questions. Mrs. Hutchinson put in appropriate comments when there was a lag in my speech. Mr. Hutchinson didn't say anything at all, unless it was something like, "I'll get the car." Or, "Here, let me carry that." Just gentlemen stuff, you know? It was easy to forget he was there.

    Hutch and Suzette were hardly saying a word. But they stayed near each other, kinda smiled at each other. Every once in a while, one of their mouths would move, and they would seem to say something to each other without making eye contact. But with the crowd in the airport, and my babbling to Mrs. Hutchinson, I had no idea what the words were. Except once Hutch reached up and sort of smiled and rubbed at his mustache, so I knew she must have commented on it right then.

    Apparently, the Hutchinsons had already planned to take us straight from the airport to an expensive restaurant. I assumed this since there was no discussion about it. When we were in the car, Mrs. Hutchinson said something like, "I hope you're hungry, because we're going to The Blue Lagoon." I knew it was expensive, because Hutch had told me about it earlier, since he was sure we would be taken there at some point during the vacation.

    So, after picking up our bags, and waiting for Mr. Hutchinson to drive the Lincoln Continental around, we were on our way. Me and a car full of Hutchinsons. I was sitting in the back between Hutch and Suzette; I'm not sure how it worked out that way, and I felt kinda bad about it, because I sensed they wanted to be together. But no one was complainin'. In fact, after a while, Hutch leaned over me and said to Suzette, "So, how's Lawrence's new job going?" Then he glanced at me. "Her husband's an architect."

    "Oh," I said, then waited for an answer.

    Suzette looked in our direction. "He's been working over 60 hours a week, but he likes it. The company seems to have a good future."

    "That's good," Hutch said with gentle sincerity. Then his smile broadened. "What about you? Still planning on opening your own decorating store?"

    Her smile was real bashful. "I hope to. I'm still trying to get enough investors. It takes time getting all the legalities and financial details worked out."

    "I can imagine," Hutch said. Then he glanced at their father and his smile went away. I couldn't help but wonder if he was thinking that maybe Mr. Hutchinson should be helping his daughter out in her venture into entrepreneurship. But, then, maybe he already had. It wasn't any of my business.

    Then Hutch's smile returned as he looked back over at Suzette. "I can still invest a little, if you're interested."

    She shook her head, maybe met his eye a quarter of a second. "I'll keep it in mind, but I'd really like to do it all on my own."


    "Just let me know if you change your mind," Hutch said, settling back.

    Mrs. Hutchinson turned in her seat to look back at us. "Have you ever been to Minnesota before, Mr. Starsky?"

    "Dave, please. Uh, no, ma'am, I haven't. But Hutch has told me so much about it that I almost feel like I know it." Then I giggled again. Nerves, you know.

    "Are you able to travel much at all?"

    "No, not often. I don't really have that urge to go different places, like a lotta people. I stick pretty close to my roots."

    "You've lived in Los Angeles all your life then?"

    "Well, not exactly. See, I'm originally from New York. After my father died, when I was nine, my mother sent me to Los Angeles to be raised by my aunt and uncle."

    Her lips sort of puckered and she sympathetically said, "Oh, that must have been rough, being uprooted at that age, and having your mother send you away."

    I had to correct the impression she was getting real fast. "Uh, ma'am, it wasn't like that, at all. You see, after my father died, I got to be real difficult to handle. I needed a man in the house, and my uncle provided that. If anything, it took a lot of courage on my mother's part to send me away, and I love her for putting my needs above her own. It all worked out, and we talk on the phone every week."

    "Oh, that's nice." But she didn't sound convinced.

    Things got quiet, and I noticed that Hutch just seemed to be staring out the window. I felt funny doin' all the talkin' at the exclusion of their son. "Hey, you know, on our last vacation, Hutch took me hiking."

    "Really?" She said it enthusiastically, just glanced at Hutch, then looked at me, waiting for more.

    "Yeah, you know, Hutch is really into the outdoors. I never liked it much at first, but it's kinda grown on me." I nudged my partner in the ribs. Hutch was looking at me now with a little, indulgent smile, like he appreciated the effort I was making, but wasn't going to encourage things along. "Hutch here is real good at fishing. You shoulda seen the one he caught our last trip."

    "Yes, Kenneth always liked to fish and hunt whenever he got the opportunity. I imagine he misses the fresh air, out there where he is."

    I thought it was funny how we were talking about him like he wasn't there. "Hutch, tell her about that fish you caught on our last trip, the big one."

    I could hear him make this real quiet sigh. Then he spread his hands. "It was maybe this big, a six-pounder."

    "Oh, did you have it for dinner?"

    "Naw, we threw it back," I said.

    Now her expression was like of course. Like we'd made it up. I said, "We had a long hike back and didn't want to carry it. We were just, you know, fishin' for the sake of fishin'. We weren't trying to catch our dinner, or anything."

    Elizabeth looked at her husband and laughed, "Richard, this isn't the first story you've heard about one that got away, is it?"

    I could see him smiling in the rearview mirror, and he shook his head, like he was just trying to please her.

    Then all the remaining conversation was about how good the food was at The Blue Lagoon. And Hutch just kept looking out the window.

* * *

    I was glad to be outta the car, around more people, even if they did seem to be a bit stuffy-looking. I felt kinda out of place in my jeans, but everyone was too polite to say anything.

    The Blue Lagoon was one of those places where the waiter memorizes everyone's order. And most of the conversation was in proper, subdued tones. No real laughing or anything.

    We spent a lot of time talking about the restaurant, the food, and what our orders would be. Most of the attention seemed to center around me, like I was from another country or somethin' and needed help. But I really didn't mind; it kept the conversation going.

    Once our orders were placed, Mrs. Hutchinson looked at me and said, "Well, now, Mr. Starsky, do you eat out often in Los Angeles?"

    "Mother," Hutch said firmly, "will you quit calling him that? He's told you twenty times to call him 'Dave'."

    She put a hand to her throat. "Oh, I didn't realize I was still calling him 'Mr. Starsky'." Then she laughed nervously and nodded her head at me. "I'm sorry, Dave."

    I grinned to ease the tension. "It's okay. But, please, do call me Dave. Or David."

    She looked at her son. "You call him Starsky. I've heard you."

    With forced patience, Hutch said, "But not Mister." Then he grinned at me. "I can't see you as a 'Mister' anything."

    It was supposed to be a joke, with me as the butt, but I didn't mind, because I really wanted to see Hutch smile. "I can't either," I said. For a moment, everything threatened to get quiet, so I tried hard to remember Mrs. Hutchinson's last question. "Well, ma'am, Hutch and me eat out almost all the time. But not at places like this. Usually, just fast-food burger or Mexican joints. We don't have much choice, our schedules being the way they are."

    It was starting to gnaw at me again that me and Mrs. Hutchinson were doing all the talking. I looked at Mr. Hutchinson. "Hutch tells me you're an accountant."

    He folded his hands on the table top. "Yes, I am."

    "Interesting work?" I meant it seriously; I was desperate for something to talk about.

    "Most people wouldn't think so," he answered in an even voice. "But I appreciate the discipline of it." He glanced at Hutch.

    Hutch's jaw firmed, then he looked away. I didn't get it; Hutch is the most disciplined person I've ever known. That is, as long as I don't make him break his routine. He'll do it for me, but I have to push the right buttons.

    Things got a little quiet, for lack of something to say, while we waited for the food. Hell, Hutch hadn't seen his folks in four years. There should be tons of things to talk about.

    They brought the bread and Mr. Hutchinson did the slicing and passing it around. While that was going on, I said, "You know, Hutch and me got a commendation for cracking the Leland case." I know it sounds like bragging, but I wanted to brag on Hutch, and of course whatever exploits he was involved in, I was involved in, too.

    The phony smile from the toy. "Oh, really, that's nice."

    "Yeah, we both got medals, but it was Hutch who was mainly responsible for finding the kidnapper. He figured it all out. I just went along." I glanced proudly at my partner. He just wore that little smile, like he understood what I was trying to do.

    "Kenneth has always had a good head on his shoulders." This, believe it or not, was from Mr. Hutchinson, though I got the feeling something was being left unsaid. Still, I beamed proudly at Hutch, but his father just kept paying attention to his bread.

    All of a sudden, I felt a little pinch on my left thigh. And since Hutch was sitting at my left, it was pretty easy to figure out where it came from. But before I could say anything, Hutch pushed his chair back. "Excuse me," he said to everyone and sort of tilted his head toward a far corner of the large room. I followed his tilt and saw the restrooms. I could take a hint.

    "'Scuse me." I grinned at everybody. "We haven't been to the little boys' room since our flight." And then I went to catch up to Hutch, whose long strides had already carried him halfway across the room.

    The men's room was fancy, had an outer parlor-like, between the door and the actual facilities. And it was carpeted. Hutch moved to one corner of the parlor and waited for me to join him.

    "Starsky," he whispered, putting a hand on my shoulder, "I understand what you're trying to do, and it's not that I don't appreciate it. But, buddy, ease up, will ya? Quit trying so hard."

    "Hutch," I squeaked in protest, then made an effort to lower my voice when his eyes darted about to see if anyone heard. We were the only ones in the parlor, though stately-looking gentlemen crossed between the door and the inner room. "It's not that I'm trying so hard, it's just that your family doesn't talk. What's the matter with them, anyway? What's the matter with you? For goodness' sakes, you haven't seen them in four years. Can't ya at least join in the conversation a little bit? Geez, these four days are going to be a long weekend if no one talks to each other." And then I shut up, because I'd just realized why Hutch had kept changing the reservations.

    He must have understood what I was thinking, because he grinned kind of smugly. But then his face softened, and he took both my arms in hand. "Listen, buddy, you're a real pal for coming out here with me. I hope it isn't too uncomfortable for you. But will you trust me? I lived in the same house with those people for twenty years. I know how best to get along with them. And, believe me, the best way for me to get along peacefully with them is to not say much of anything. Because if I say too much, the things I say aren't going to end up being very nice. And I'd like to keep it peaceful."

    I had to think a second about what he'd said. "But, Hutch, what would they say that would make you say not-nice things? They seem pretty harmless to me."

    Now he sighed, and kind of looked down, and let go of me. "Of course they seem harmless to you. But certain things get under my skin, that's all. And if I start talking more, the things I say will get under their skin...."

    "But it might be a more honest way of dealin' with things," I couldn't help but put in. I mean, sometimes a little honest anger is good for relationships.

    But Hutch was shaking his head. "Trust me, buddy. We're all doing the best we can to be cordial. Nothing good ever comes out of any of our arguments."

    This was getting complicated. "So what do you want me to do, just sit there and stare at the wall?"

    He seemed perplexed for a second. Then he said, "No. I want you to just be yourself. But quit trying so hard to make me into a saint. They don't care. Honestly, they don't."

    He said it so casually, like he was discussing the weather. And it really isn't like I hadn't heard all this before. But actually being there, in his home town, with his relatives... it just made it hard to match the faces of those people out there to the monsters that Hutch always seemed to want to make them into, or truly believed they were.

    And what the hell did catching a fish and getting a commendation have to do with being a saint?

    But this vacation was for Hutch. Sure, I was along for research, but they were for my own purposes, and Hutch's feelings came before my needs. So I nodded. "Okay." I patted him. "It'll be cool."

    He squeezed my shoulder. "Thanks, pal," and turned toward the door.

    "Hey," I called after him. When he turned, I gestured to the inner room. "Don't you have to...."

    "Oh, yeah." He joined me.

* * *

    So, I stopped trying so hard, but me and Mrs. Hutchinson still did most of the talking -- about inane things, like whether the western painting on the wall was of Colorado or Arizona. Then the food arrived and everyone got serious about eating. It was good, really good. I had lobster tail and steak. Hutch had some kind of linguini and crab, with some creamy-looking sauce. You know what was really funny? After he noticed me looking at it, he offered me a bite. Held out his fork for me. Now, we do that kind of exchanging food stuff all the time at home. But, here, I hadn't intended to ask for a bite because I thought... well, in this kind of restaurant, it wouldn't be proper. And I didn't want to embarrass anybody. But be yourself, Hutch had said. So, hell, I leaned over to him and let him put the fork in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched his parents try real hard to pretend not to notice. But I noticed Suzette watching us, almost like with fascination. There was something about her expression that made me feel real sad.

    We were all stuffed, but the Hutchinsons seemed to take offense when I started to decline dessert. Me, Hutch, and Suzette ended up splitting cheesecake three different ways. Suzette seemed happy to be part of the sharing.

    Then we made the journey home or, rather, to the Hutchinson home. It was on the outskirts of town, in a ritzy area. Took about a half hour to get there. It had this nice little paved lane, lined by trees, that lead up to it. I gotta admit, I'd sorta gotten this image of Hutch growing up in a mansion or something. So, at first, I was disappointed because while the house looked big, it didn't look all that big. But once inside, it was a whole different perspective. A person could get lost in a house like that. Hutch explained that his grandfather on his father's side had originally built the house when it was way out in the country. Now, the city was closing in, but they had no intention of selling.

    Anyway, the first order of business was to show us to our rooms. We went up the wide, wooden staircase, and the first door on the right was the room that Hutch took. "This the room you had when you were a kid?" was the first question out of my mouth.

    "Yep," he said as he brought his suitcase in.

    I stood in the doorway, looking around. Boy, was I disappointed. The room was nice and clean, with a queen-size bed, but it was pretty sparsely furnished. And there was nothing about it that said it had been occupied by my partner in his youth. I wondered if, maybe in a back closet, there was some of his old belongings. If not in the room, then there had to be in the attic. Or basement. Or somewhere. Those were the kinds of things I had wanted to come on the trip for.

    Mrs. Hutchinson reached for my arm but didn't quite touch it. "Now, David, let's show you your room." She seemed pleased to be leading the way down the hall, like she was real proud of the house. I couldn't blame her for that. It was fancy, but not overly so.

    I was glad, too, that Hutch was following behind, like he was wanting to make sure I got settled in okay.

    Suzette disappeared into the first room on the left. She'd arrived two days before Hutch and I. The second room on the left was where Mrs. Hutchinson stopped and opened the door and stood aside so I could enter.

    It really didn't look very different from Hutch's room, but it was the nicest guest room I'd ever seen. Another big, queen-sized bed. Large windows. Wooden floors. A bureau opposite the bed. A plush chair in the corner. Hell, it beat some of the apartments I'd seen in LA.

    "This is very nice," I said as I entered. "Thank you."

    "You're very welcome. Make yourself at home. I suppose you and Kenneth both," her glance took in Hutch, "will want to rest up for a while. We'll have some drinks a little later, about nine, if you want to come down then."

    "Thank you," I told her.

    She left then, closing the door behind her. I looked at my partner. "Wow, this is really something. I didn't think it looked all that big from the outside, but... wow."

    He sort of grinned. "There's a lot of houses like this around here. They weren't that expensive to build, back then."

    "Yeah, but you had plenty of room to grow up in." I moseyed over to the window and looked out into the back yard. "How many acres is there?"

    "A couple."

    "Looks bigger than that." Of course, I didn't really know how big an acre was supposed to be. I turned back around and sat on the bed. "Hey, I thought your room would, you know, still look like when you were a kid. Kinda silly, huh?"

    He just sort of a smiled, then shrugged. "I haven't lived here in fifteen years or so, pal." He sat down in the easy chair. "And considering how little I visit, it would be kind of dumb of them to keep it the same." He brushed at some lint on his trousers, which told me he was a little nervous discussing the infrequency of his visits.

    Then he looked up, chin resting in his hand. "It's just a guest room now."

    I didn't bother pointing out that my mother still kept some tokens from my childhood in my old room.

    "You and my mother seem to get along pretty good," he said.

    "Yeah, she's okay."

    "She likes you. I can tell that." He seemed pleased about it.

    I just shrugged. Mothers did tend to like me. But I was more interested in his other relatives. "Suzette seems really kinda shy. I don't remember you telling me that."

    He shrugged again. "She's only like that around our parents. Get her away from them, and she's really a neat person."

    "Oh." I was dying for an explanation, but wasn't sure if it would be pushing it.

    But I shouldn't have worried. Hutch seemed to read my mind. "I think she's come to the same conclusions I have over the years. Don't say much, and everything will be tolerable."

    I took a deep breath. "That's admirable of you both, but I think it's a rotten way to live."

    He looked at the floor and his voice was quiet. "We have our reasons."

    I wasn't sure what he meant by that. But suddenly he was on his feet and he pressed his hand against my stomach. "Hey, as soon as you get your stuff put away, I'll show you the rest of the house."

    I liked that idea. "Okay."

    "I'll be in my room." He turned to leave, then turned back. "Oh, the bathroom is...," he gestured with a thumb, "at the end of the hall."

* * *

    It was fun going through the house. There was all these little stories for Hutch to tell about various rooms and furnishings. There was even a little knife that dated all the way back to the early 1700's, when the Hutchinsons first came to America. The family seemed proud of its heritage and the wealth it had made; though, in current times, they weren't as wealthy as they had been in the past. There was even an ancestor who had once been a Norwegian princess.

    Most of the interesting stuff he showed me was kept in the attic. We didn't go through all of it; just the stuff Hutch thought I'd want to see. He seemed a little bit proud about his past, and I could tell that he was really enjoying showing me all the items and telling me stories. His voice had the intense, soft quality that it gets when he's speaking about something that's important to him.

    Finally, we picked everything up and put it away in the trunks and chest of drawers that were kept in the attic. As we were brushing the dust off our jeans, I remembered what I really wanted to see. "Hey, Hutch, isn't there any old belongings of yours up here?"

    He seemed surprised. Then he asked, "Like what?"

    I shrugged. "Didn't you have a favorite teddy bear or something? Or baseball glove? Things like that?"

    He seemed kind of amused, maybe even a little embarrassed. "Oh, sure. But I didn't keep them."

    Well, okay, it wouldn't be like Hutch to keep his favorite teddy bear. But... "Well, there's got to be something of yours around here... isn't there?"

    He thought a moment. Then he looked at me with that open expression of his. "No, there isn't. I took all my belongings with me when I moved to LA." Then he shrugged. "Really wasn't much. I never was into having things."

    Well, that was true enough... at least now. I suppose it must have always been true. He must have rejected his parents' fondness for the good life from the very beginning.

    He seemed to realize I was disappointed, because his face suddenly brightened, and he said, "My mother always kept lots of photo albums. Want to see some of those?"

    "Yeah, as long as you're in 'em."

    He led the way toward the staircase. "Come on. I think my mother keeps them in her bedroom."

    We went from the attic to the second floor. The house seemed really quiet, almost cold-like. I guess everyone else was downstairs.

    Hutch went to the top of the stairs and called down, "Mother, are the old photo albums still in your bedroom?"

    Mrs. Hutchinson appeared at the base of the stairs. "Well, yes, they're in my closet." She started up the stairs. "Here, I'll get them for you."

    Hutch frowned. "I can get them if you just tell me where they are."

    "Don't be silly. I know where everything is."

    She reached the top of the stairs and led the way down the hall. She glanced back and asked, "How far back did you want to see?"

    I answered, "When Hutch was in diapers."

    "Well, you know, Kenneth, there are those two albums you haven't seen yet from when your father and I went to Japan. We had a very nice time and -- "

    "Mother, Starsky wouldn't be interested in that," Hutch said firmly. "He wants to see when I was a kid."

    "Maybe another time we can see the ones of Japan," I assured her. I gotta admit, it sort of grated on me that Hutch had to point out to her that I was interested in him. I was beginning to see, just a little bit, how much Hutch had to struggle to be considered important in his mother's eyes. I hoped I was misreading things and over-reacting.

    His mother didn't really say anything but lead the way to her bedroom. It was really big -- bigger than all the guest rooms -- and she went back into a walk-in closet. She went to a stack that must have had about twenty albums, and began to sort through them, talking to herself. "Let's see, this one has Kenneth.... I know this one does.... I think this has some pictures from when he was in college...."

    When she came out of the closet, she was carrying four albums. They didn't look as thick as some of the others, but by this time I just wanted to see anything of Hutch's past.

    She led the way back downstairs, and I realized we weren't going to be allowed to look at them alone. I really didn't mind -- it would be interesting to have her input -- but I got the feeling Hutch was thinking he and I would go back to his room, or something. But he didn't say anything.

    Mr. Hutchinson was reading the newspaper, with the TV turned low, sitting in an easy chair, when we came down. He eyed us then the albums. "You found them, did you?" he asked his wife.

    Scoldingly, she said, "I know where they are. I've always kept them in the same place."

    His attention turned to Hutch. "It's all the old photos, I imagine. I suppose you didn't bring anything new for us to add."

    Hutch sighed tiredly. "No, I didn't. I didn't think you'd be interested."

    Uh-oh, I thought and braced myself. But Hutch hadn't said it mean-like; his tone was kinda casual. And, sure enough, his father just grunted and went back to his paper.

    His mother paused beside the sofa. "It would be nice to have something recent of yours, Kenneth."

    His tone was carefully patient. "If I think of it, I'll send one."

    I took the top album from Mrs. Hutchinson's arms and plopped down on the sofa next to the lamp. I couldn't wait any longer, and I opened it to the first page. Mrs. Hutchinson sat beside me, and Hutch stood behind the couch, looking over my head.

    The first few pages were of other relatives, and Mrs. H. went through them quickly, pausing when Hutch occasionally asked a question, or pointed something out to me. Every now and then, Mr. Hutchinson would throw in a comment from across the room. All in all, they seemed like a normal group of relatives -- the eccentric uncle, the pregnant niece, the cousin who wound up in the state pen. All of it was from decades ago.

    Then, finally, there were some baby pictures. I grinned. "This must be Hutch."

    I could feel my partner smile behind me, and Mrs. H leaned a little closer. "That's Kenneth all right. Six pounds I think it was, three or four ounces. Born eight minutes after we reached the hospital."

    It was the usual assortment of baby pictures. All black and white. Most all of Hutch by himself, lying on a blanket, or sitting in a stroller. There was one of his mother holding him, but her smile was kind of forced. Hutch wasn't a particularly attractive baby. His hair was real, real light. And his cheeks were chunkier than one would think. And he didn't smile a whole lot.

    I turned a page and suddenly an older, serious-looking child was there.

    "That's Kenneth on his first day of kindergarten."

    I frowned and flipped back. "That's all of Hutch as a baby?" It was a rude question, I realized almost right away, and I didn't mean it like that. But, truly, I was surprised. I mean, most people get ridiculous about taking pictures of their kids. Every little movement and sound is considered a momentous occasion and worth rolls and rolls of film. These looked like there was one roll taken over a few month's time. And none were of Hutch as a toddler.

    The man himself seemed sorta amused by my question. "Gee, Starsk, we'd be here all night if there were more."

    I tilted my head back to look up at him. "Well, I was kinda hopin' to see you stumble on your first walk." My grin widened. "Or on your first crawl."

    He sorta grinned back at me, then he shrugged. Then he ruffled my hair, and it made me feel good that he would do that in front of his parents.

    Mrs. H. was reaching to turn the page back again. "And so Kenneth started school..."

    "Wait a sec," I said, holding the page firmly to keep it from being turned. "I just want to look at these again." I could sense both her and Hutch's impatience to get on with the growing-up process, but my detective instincts were in full gear. Even within the baby pictures, there was something missing. I looked at them all carefully again. And again. What I didn't see made me kinda sad, and I wasn't even sure why. But I was careful to keep my voice light. "Hey, I wanna know why, when Hutch looks at my baby pictures, he gets to see my naked little baby's butt. How come I don't get to see his?"

    Truly, Mrs. Hutchinson seemed embarrassed. She tried to turn the page again, and I let her. "Well, we couldn't have Kenneth exposing himself, and...." she trailed off, and then started right in with Hutch's first day of school and look-at-that-nice-outfit.

    I couldn't believe it. I mean, everyone has that classic lying-naked-face-down-on-the-blanket-cute-little-baby's-bottom-up picture. Innocent, round little baby's butt. Exposing himself?

    It was all I could do to keep from whistling in disbelief. And, behind me, I sensed Hutch's tension. I doubted if he was able to understand what I was thinking, but something that was being said had struck a nerve.

    I quickly focused my attention on the school days presented before me. Hutch looked so godawful serious. And he was growing up fast. And then there were baby pictures of his sister. And Hutch joined in the conversation, making warm comments about cute little Suzette. And she was a pretty thing, though she had that sad expression, too. There was one particular picture of her, about six or seven, holding her uncle's hand. Her uncle's arm was around her shoulders, but she looked real tense, like she didn't like being next to him.

    God, what a warm, loving family.

    The first album was done and we moved on. There were pictures of Suzette and her pony. Then of ten-year-old Hutch and his dog.

    I leaned back again to look up at him. "Hey, I didn't know you had a dog."

    His fingers ran along his mustache. He was now sitting with one hip on the back of the couch. "I didn't have him for very long."

    "We had to get rid of him," Mrs. H. put in cheerfully, "because he barked too much."

    "Only because I didn't pay enough attention to him," Hutch said firmly, "because there was a limit on how much time I could spend with him." There was definitely anger there, and he wasn't trying to hide it.

    But Mrs. H. didn't turn a hair. "Of course there was a limit, Kenneth. Otherwise you would have been with him all the time and neglected your studies."

    "My other responsibilities didn't keep me from my studies."

    "Yes, but you were only ten when you had the dog," she explained with exaggerated patience. "It's difficult for young children to be in charge of a pet."

    "Especially when they don't get the opportunity to prove that they can."

    She looked back at him. "What difference does it make? You grew out of your fondness for dogs, anyway. You've never owned one since then."

    I was looking back at Hutch, and he opened his mouth, but then suddenly shut it. I could just feel what he wanted to say -- things like he wasn't home enough, his landlord wouldn't let him have one, and all of that. But he suddenly seemed to feel it wasn't worth arguing over.

    So be it. I looked back at the album. "Is Suzette still fond of horses?"

    "Yes," Hutch replied triumphantly. "She has two." His voice softened. "She's a real good rider, too. She took two firsts in an intercollegiate championship a few years back. You know, jumping over fences."

    "Really?" I said. It was difficult to imagine someone as timid as Suzette doing something as bold as jumping thousand-pound horses over fences. I was happy for her.

    Mrs. Hutchinson put a hand to her throat. "Yes, she still hasn't grown out of that. She's going to get her neck broken one of these days."

    "But at least then I would die doing something I loved."

    We all turned to see Suzette coming down the stairs. She'd made her statement with such determination, but then she seemed meek all over again as she approached and sort of nodded to me and Hutch.

    I smiled at her. "Hey, I hear you're a real horsewoman."

    She shrugged as she came up to the couch. "I'm not that good. I have a real good coach. And good horses." She seemed to perk up when she saw the photo albums. "I haven't seen these in ages." She reached for the one we already looked at.

    I started leafing through the pages of the one I had. "Any pictures of you jumping?"

    "No," she replied quickly. "I didn't start doing that until after I'd left home."

    "Do you have any with you?" Hutch asked. His voice had dropped an octave.

    She shook her head. "No, I'm afraid not. Maybe I'll remember to send one with my next Christmas card."

    "You do that," I told her. I turned back to the album. Now, she joined in the discussion of the photos, and Hutch participated more, too. Mrs. H. only made a few comments, and -- before we'd gotten through the last album -- I think Mr. H. had spoken up a total of three times from the far end of the room, with his sudden comments about the fate of certain relatives.

    Drinks had been served, too, by the time we finished. I closed the last album with a sigh of finality.

    "So, there you have it, buddy," Hutch said, "my entire life story through young adulthood."

    "Or at least an abridged version," I said. Really, I'd been kind of disappointed. The photos didn't tell much of a story. Or maybe the lack of many meaningful ones was the story.

    I yawned and stretched, realizing what a long day it had been. "I think I'm ready for bed."

    "Me, too," Hutch said.

    I thanked Mrs. H. for the drinks and the albums, then followed Hutch up the staircase.

* * *

  I was real happy with the room I was staying in. And the bed was real comfy. But when I picked up my glow-in-the-dark watch for the third time and looked at it, it was nearly midnight. And I knew I wasn't anywhere near being able to sleep.

    It was just hard, lying there, imagining Hutch living in this house. Trying to imagine how the long, dark halls must have appeared to a little boy. The silent father in the easy chair. The mother worried about him 'exposing' himself. The little sister who must have been terrified of her own shadow.

    Not a lot of love in this house.

    So, I tossed and turned. And finally I couldn't stand it anymore. So, I got up, found my robe, and tip-toed out of my room and down the hall. When I reached Hutch's door, I hesitated. I was afraid knocking would echo and sound real loud in the stillness of the night, but I sure hated to just barge in without any warning at all.

    So, I did a couple of real soft knocks, hoping Hutch heard them, and I slowly turned the door handle.

    I peeked around the edge of the door, into the darkness. "Hutch?" There was only silence, and I thought I'd probably whispered too softly. I didn't want to consider that he actually may have been sound asleep. It just didn't seem likely. "Hutch?" I said a little louder.

    His voice was puzzled... and hopeful. "Starsk?"

    "Yeah." I stepped a little further into the room.

    "Just a second."

    I paused and heard him fumbling around. Then a lamp suddenly came on beside the bed, and he was lying there, on his back, in his t-shirt, looking at me with eyes that were wide awake. His voice got all soft. "Hey, what's the matter, buddy? Can't sleep?"

    I shrugged and stepped toward the bed. "Guess not. Apparently, you can't either."

    "Yeah," he said around a sigh. "I've just been laying here, remembering a lot of things."

    I sat on the edge of the bed. "I can imagine."

    He put his hands behind his head. "Your bed comfortable?"

    "Yeah, it's great. It's just kinda hard to sleep... you know, being in a strange place an' all." I looked around. "It almost seems too quiet. This is a big place for your parents to be livin' in alone."

    "Yeah, but it's the only place they've ever had. They wouldn't leave it."

    "Hutch, how come you wanted to come back here?"

    He looked at me suddenly, blinking. For an instant, his expression looked like it was going to get defensive. But then he was all soft again. "It just seemed like the time to do it." Then he sort of snorted. "I always think, after enough time has gone by since the last visit, that I can come back here and somehow things will be different."

    "What do you mean different? It's not like you guys have been arguing a lot, or anything."

    He shook his head. "No, I don't mean that. I mean that I always feel that by coming back here, I'll somehow understand something -- about myself, about them -- that I didn't before. And then when I get here, and everything is the same, I wonder why I even wanted to come." He stared at the ceiling. "I can't wait for it to be Monday, Starsk."

    I hadn't realized he felt that bad about being there. Oh, it's not like he seemed to be having a great time. I just hadn't realized he was already having a lousy time.

    His tone was suddenly wistful, and a little smile formed on his face. "You know something, buddy?"

    I leaned closer, pulled in by his voice. "What?"

    "When I was a kid -- even a teenager -- I used to lay here at night and wish, so much, that I had a brother."

    "Oh, yeah?" I knew he considered me the brother he never had -- well, actually, more than brother -- but I hadn't known that he ever longed for one.

    A small laugh. "Yeah." He looked at me. "Older brother, younger brother, it didn't matter. Just someone to pal around with."

    "You were pretty lonely, huh?"

    He had to think about that. Then he made a little nod. "Yeah. At least, whenever I was here at home." His face brightened. "But I really tried not to be home very much. I participated in a lot of extra-curricular activities at school. I made a lot of friends, so it wasn't like I was lonely all the time, or even most of the time."

    I placed my hand on the covers that outlined his leg, and leaned on it. "Then how come you wanted someone to pal around with?"

    His brows narrowed, like he was taking the question -- and the answer -- real serious. "I guess because I wanted someone I could be with who understood where I was coming from. Someone who, you know, knew me. My friends didn't know what my home life was like because I never talked to them about it."

    I didn't have anything to say to that.

    Hutch's eyes were on the ceiling again, and his voice got kind of distant. "I used to lay here and pretend that there was another bed in the room, and that my brother slept in it. And, in the middle of the night, I would imagine us having all sorts of conversations. We talked about everything."

    His voice was so intense. And even though I knew it's not unusual for kids to have imaginary playmates, I all of a sudden felt real sad for Hutch, sadder than I had the whole day. I mean, there's a big place in people that's filled by the love of the people who love them. And Hutch had a big, big hole where that place was supposed to be. And it just wasn't right. And I felt real mad at those people sleeping down the hall.

    "Thanks for coming here, buddy."

    That was the second time he'd acted like it wasn't my idea. "How come you sound like you had to talk me into it?"

    He'd been looking at the ceiling, and now his eyes turned to me. "Huh?"

    "You sound like you think you had to talk me into coming."

    His eyes narrowed, like he was puzzled. "Didn't I?"

    I lay down on my side beside him, propping my chin in an elbow. "No, dummy. I practically insisted on coming."

    Now his mouth was open. "You did?"


    "How come?"

    "Because I wanted to see for myself where you grew up."


    "Dumb blond." I poked at his ribs. "You having delusions or something about how this trip came about?"

    Now his voice was firm. "This trip was my idea. I'm the one who made the reservations."

    "Yeah. And as soon as you mentioned that you might go back to Duluth, I started dropping hints that I wanted to come. Not that you argued or anything," I admitted. Then I couldn't resist adding, "And then you kept changing those damn reservations. I wasn't sure we were ever going to get here."

    Now his expression got all sheepish. "Oh."

    I patted his shoulder, softening my voice. "Hey, I'm glad we're not staying any longer than Monday. This is a pretty dull place."

    His voice perked up. "I'll show you around tomorrow. Places I used to go, like my old high school. Just me and you."

    "Terrific. It'll be good to get out of the house."

    He snorted. "You've only been here a few hours, moron."

    "Yeah, but it seems like longer." I shivered. "This is a cold place, Hutch." I couldn't help but reach out and stroke his chin, tweak his mustache. "I don't know how you managed to turn out as well as you did."

    "Like I said, I stayed away as much as I could."

    "I'm sorry about your dog."

    It seemed to take him a second to figure out what I meant. Then he sort of laughed. "Yeah, thanks. I've always stayed mad about that. The poor little mutt didn't have anyone to play with, so he sat outside and barked all day. I only had him about three weeks."

    "How come you never got yourself one of your own? I mean, after you were old enough?"

    "Ah, Starsk, I never lived in a place where I could have one."

    "What if you bought a house? Would you get one?"

    "Sure. But I can't see being able to afford a house anytime in the next ten years or so."

    He had a point. "Yeah," I agreed with reluctance. At least I already knew what I'd be getting him for a house-warming gift when the time came.

    I was getting tired of laying on my side, so I scooted down the bed, then twisted to lay my head against his chest. Then I put my hand on his stomach.

    His arm came around me, and he petted along my shoulders. He's real good at that kind of thing.

    And it struck me -- really not for the first time -- how odd it was that someone who had been raised in such an unaffectionate environment could be capable of demonstrating so much love. I mean, I'd always understood that human beings followed in their parents' footsteps, even when they tried like hell not to.

    The robe I was wearing was real thick, and he seemed to realize that, so he stuck his hand inside it at the back of my neck. His hand was real warm as it rubbed against my t-shirt. I think I made a noise of blissful contentment.

    "Hedonist," he scolded.

    Hey, I wasn't gonna argue with the truth.

    We lay there for a while, each with our own sleepy thoughts. Then I remembered something. "Hutch?"


    "What does your mother have against bare baby bottoms?"

    "Huh?" Then he seemed to remember what I meant. And he laughed. "Oh, I don't know."

    "But she said it was, like, exposing yourself. I mean, geez, an innocent little baby...."

    "She's always been prudish about things like that. She always made sure we wore lots of clothes."

    "She must have been one of those mothers who acted like, you know, sex was real dirty or evil or something."

    "Pretty much."

    "Did your parents talk to you about it?"

    His hand paused. "What? Sex?"

    "Yeah. Did you get that father-son lecture from your Dad?"

    "Nope. I learned from my friends." His hand started petting again. Honest to God, Hutch has the world's gentlest hands.

    "Did you learn everything from them? Or just what fucking meant?"

    "Pretty much everything. Most importantly, that everyone else was jerking off like I was."

    I grinned. "Yeah, I'd consider that a pretty important part of one's education."

    Hutch's other hand started in on my scalp... rubbing... scratching. He outright giggled, like a mischievous little boy. "You can probably imagine how scared to death I was when I almost got caught by my mother."

    I was laughing, too. "Jerking off?"

    "Yeah. I got the little pecker put away just in time."

    "It probably wasn't so little by then."

    "No, I guess not. It sprouted up overnight, and boy did it feel good."

    This was great, having Hutch laughing like this. "Yeah, it was like that for me, too."

    I suddenly realized there was something we'd never discussed. "Hey." I rolled over onto my back so I could look at him. His hand never missed a beat and was rubbing against my chest. But the one in my hair had left. "How old were you when you first did it?"

    He seemed surprised, too, that we'd never talked about it before. "Eighteen. You?"



    Believe it or not, I felt a little embarrassed. "Yeah. I'd been lying about it since I was sixteen. But I really didn't do It -- capital I -- until I was twenty."

    "Was it good?'

    "Yeah. Mary McMillian. I was in love with her. She was real nice. And I learned fast."

    Hutch snorted, his free hand plopping down on my forehead. "I don't remember much about my first time, except that I came so fast that I hardly knew what happened. I was sort of disappointed, actually."

    "No fireworks, huh?"

    "No. That didn't happen until later -- until Van."

    "No wonder you married her."

    "Yeah." His voice was soft, bittersweet.

    Van. "Hey, how come those photo albums didn't have any of your wedding pictures?"

    Hutch shrugged. "I don't know. They may have been in a different album. Maybe we never got around to sending them any."

    "Did Vanessa like your parents?"

    "Not particularly. But they liked her."

    "Because she was hollow, like them?"

    Hutch snorted and seemed uncomfortable. "I don't know." His hand stopped rubbing and his voice was soft. "Hey, Starsk, I'm going to get the light, okay?"


    The room went dark and I had to wriggle a lot to get out of my robe. But Hutch didn't complain about all the jostling. I finally had to stand up a sec to get free of it, and when I knelt on the bed Hutch was holding the covers open. I slipped between them and snuggled up next to him, my head back on his shoulder.

    See, Hutch and me had kinda gotten used to sleeping together. Now, I know how that sounds, but that's not what I mean. We usually don't sleep together. But sometimes we do. I mean, there just came a point in time when staying at each other's place no longer meant sleeping on the couch. I guess it all started when Hutch almost died from the plague. When they finally released him from the hospital, and that awful, sterile room, I wanted to do nothing else except hold him and hold him and hold him. So, after I got him home and put him to bed, that's what I did. He didn't have any complaints. And sometime later he returned the favor -- just because he felt like it, I guess. I mean, it wasn't after any particularly near-death incident, or anything like that. After a time, it just sorta got to be a habit whenever we found ourselves at the same place and ready for bed.

    I guess you could say that we're kinda spoiled. But I don't really care. I mean, hell, we sleep better when we're together. I don't see why there should be anything wrong with it. But it's not like we can tell anybody. And, well, I gotta admit, I feel a little funny sometimes when I read in an advice column every now and then about someone complainin' about their six-year-old kid still insisting on sleeping with its parents. I mean, once you're a certain age, wanting to sleep with someone who isn't your lover is considered some kind of bad, awful thing. I don't know why. Maybe those people who write all those advice columns should try it sometime.

    Anyway, I was all snuggled up against Hutch when I realized there was something wrong with our sleeping positions. This was one night where I really didn't want to do anything except hold him a lot. Try to fill up the empty place a little bit, do the job his parents didn't do. Not that if I held him for weeks and weeks it would make up for all those lost years, but I wanted to do what I could.

    I nudged him in the ribs. "Hey."


    "Scoot over a sec." I raised up, dislodging the arms that had been around me.


    "'Cause I wanna hold you, that's why."

    "Hey, I was comfortable," he complained, but moved over anyway.

    When there was enough space in the middle of the mattress, I lay down in it on my back, then felt for his arm and pulled on it. "Come on, lay back down here."

    He was real careful about lowering himself on top of me. Well, not exactly on top, but against my left side, and then laying his head on my chest. You know, Hutch really isn't as tall as some people seem to think. But he's lanky. All arms and legs. But he's real considerate about not knocking ya around with his elbows and knees.

    When he was all settled I put my arms around him. Then I squeezed real, real tight. And then I started feeling emotional, and then I squeezed harder, and that made me feel even more emotional. I mean, hell, I loved the guy. And I wanted everything to be wonderful for him. And I wanted him to feel nothing but love and contentment and happiness and good things like that the whole rest of his life. So, maybe, if I just squeezed hard enough nothing bad would ever, ever touch him. But I knew it couldn't really be like that, that I couldn't protect him from everything in this world of ours, so my throat got all tight.

    And I was trying so hard to shut out all the bad that it took me a minute to realize he was trying to speak.

    His voice was real soft, strained. But real gentle, too. "Let go of me, buddy."

    Hey, what The Man wants, The Man gets. So I let go. And then I was lying there, my arms against the bed, breathing hard from having squeezed and squeezed and squeezed.

    I realized my chest was cold and he wasn't lying against me anymore.

    But then something warm, butterfly soft, and slightly moist touched my forehead.

    Then it touched my left cheek. Then my right one.

    I opened my eyes, and he was hovering over me. And, from the moonlight from the window, I saw him close his eyes and lower his head. The warm, butterfly-soft lips touched my chin.

    Did I mention how gentle Hutch is? How much I love him? How much he loves me?

    I mean, it was like taking the most wonderful thing in all existence -- our relationship -- and making it even more wonderful still. Even though it's impossible to make it more wonderful.

    His hand reached up and stroked back through my hair... real slow-like. Then his face lowered again and I felt that soft touch against the tip of my nose.

    I knew what I wanted then. I almost whimpered with the wanting of it.

    He knew.

    I closed my eyes this time as his face lowered. My lips parted, waiting. And a moment later, I felt the soft touch there. The softest touch I've ever known. And I think I did whimper when he pulled back.

    His eyes were half closed, his face all soft. He leaned down again, and when I closed my eyes a heavy breath blew against my ear. "I love you."

    Oh, Hutch. I clutched at his back, trying hard to understand what it meant that this was happening.

    Those so-soft lips touched each of my eyelids. Then they were back at my ear, his voice so incredibly soft. "Will you let me love you?"

    Oh, Christ. He'd been loving me for forever. I mean, I had to think real hard to remember a time when I hadn't been receiving Hutch's love.

    I wanted to ask him what it meant, that we were doing this. I wanted reassurance that it wouldn't change anything, that-nothing-bad-would-ever-happen-because-of-it, thatitwouldn'tmeanwewerereallyfaggots, that I wasn't dreaming it... this thing I'd never even thought about.

    But knew we'd arrive at, eventually.

    Okay, so I'd been fooling myself all along. Especially about the sleeping together part. But, hell, I just wanted to be close to him all those times. I mean, there's nothing like it -- having the person you love so, so much all snuggled up against you, safe and warm.

    I wasn't sure I could answer his question. But it didn't matter, because my body was answering for me. I felt completely open to him, like my limbs couldn't do anything of their own. I just lay there, limp against the bed. But, damn, I had one hell of a hard-on....

    His upper body was straddling mine, his weight against my chest. Those lips were there again, at my ear. "How do you want it?"

    Oh, shit. Like he was willing to do anything.

    I swallowed, and my eyes were all watery. I'm not sure why. But I had to talk, had to tell him... "However you want it."

    But then, right away, I was thinking I didn't want him to blow me. Because then he'd have to move down there, and I wanted him up here, right here with me when something happened.

    He didn't answer. But he was beside me, leaning on an elbow. He put one hand on the center of my chest. Then the other moved down and pulled at the elastic of my shorts.

    I arched up, so relieved when he removed them. Man, I was on fire. And his hand came down, over my dick, and I arched and arched and arched. And then groaned because it wasn't near enough.

    His whole body started to move toward it, and I stopped him by grabbing his arm. "Stay here." And he looked at me, his expression so incredibly soft, tender. And, shit, I loved him so damn much, and I knew in a million years he'd never know just how much, because no language possessed the words, no action would be enough, and he'd never know, and it seemed so sad all of a sudden, and tears were streaming down my cheeks, and my prick hurt like hell.

    He straddled me, and I could hear how heavy he was breathing. And then his hands went behind my head and neck, lifting slightly. And then his lips lowered to mine, and it wasn't gentle this time. He pressed and pressed, that beautiful mustache of his against the bottom of my nose, and I thought I was gonna die, and I arched and arched but found nothin' but air.

    And then he flattened out against me, matching our bodies together, and I reached down to pull his cock out of his underwear, and for some reason I was shocked at how thick and hot and smooth it felt. And then he arched his ass up to position them against each other, and then he grabbed my shoulders and humped and humped....

    It was both some of the best and some of the worst sex I'd ever had. The best because it was Hutch. The worst because the friction wasn't the greatest, and we both had to struggle like hell to hit the peak, and we both were sweating and gasping and heaving. He came first, and when he collapsed against me was when I was really able to get anywhere, rubbing like crazy against his stomach.

    But when you're struggling so hard, the comin' can be that much better, because it's that much more of a release, and I thought I was gonna sink right into the mattress. And he seemed to be having a hard time keeping his weight off of me, though I was glad he didn't move away. I wanted him near, kinda liked feeling the sweat dripping from his hair onto my t-shirt and neck.

    And then it was suddenly too hard to just lay there and breathe. So I reached up and put both hands in his damp hair, curling the strands around my fingers. I guess he liked it because he dropped the top of his forehead to my chest, and then his whole body sort of relaxed, his legs spreading to rest outside of mine, his body resting on top of me, though he was hoisted up on his elbows so they'd take most of his weight.

    We were both still breathing hard, but he stretched to lay a little soft kiss against my throat.

    God, he's so beautiful.

    I was all emotional again, but I knew we needed to talk about it as soon as possible, preferably now. "How'd this happen?" I asked him, my voice strained with effort. And I really wanted to know the answer.

    He lips kissed along my t-shirt, over my chest. "I don't know," he said in low voice, "it just did." He didn't sound regretful or ashamed, but kinda like -- just maybe -- it was something that shouldn't have happened. Then all of a sudden he looked up at me, those baby-blues staring right into me. "I love you so much and I wanted to show you."

    Aw, hell. When someone as special as Hutch outright loves you like that, you don't toy with it. You just take it, accept it. Being loved by Hutch is the greatest gift there is on Earth. I mean, he doesn't love a lotta people.

    I had my arms around him again, and I liked how he felt all lazy and heavy on top of me. And I squeezed him, but not as hard as before. And then I looked up, my chin brushing against his neck, and we kind of rolled onto our sides, still pressed against each other, and he sorta lowered his mouth so it was within range, and....

    Well, hell, what was I supposed ta do? I kissed him. I mean, it was real slow like, because I wanted to. I felt all warm and cozy, and he felt all warm and... well, kissable. And, damn, it just feltso damn good. Not like with a woman. With women, you know, there's all that makeup and perfume. And their bodies are all curvy and petite, so it feels real nice when you hold them. But, Hutch... hell, it was like we were physically bonded together, or somethin'. I mean, his body was bigger than what I'm used to being in bed with, and it's just so warm. Big and warm, and felt so strong when I put my arms around him. And when he put his arms around me... oh, boy, there's no describin' what that's like. I mean, a woman can hold you, but she can't cover you like a man can. Like Hutch can.

    And all of a sudden I felt real jealous of all those many women Hutch had had over the years. I mean, I'm the one who loved him. I oughtta be the one that he holds... the one who gets to holdhim. And right then, with us lying on our sides, chest to chest, kissing for so long, and everything so nice between us, there just downright wasn't any room for anyone else.

    He's the one that broke the kiss, but his lips were still real near, and he made this real soft groaning noise, kinda like a cat purrs. And I could see the crinkle around his eyes, and I knew he was smiling and he was all happy and felt good all over. Shit, I'd do anything to keep him like that. Anything at all. And so I quit worrying real fast about how things got like this.

    I reconnected our lips, and I put my hand up his shirt and rubbed all along that silky, smooth skin, that warm, warm body of his. And I sort of pushed against him and he sort of rolled a little way onto his back, just like I wanted. I mean, he was the one that had been doing most of the work, and I just wanted him to relax.

    I got a little bit on top of him, still kissing, and when my hand brushed down far enough it felt his wet, sorta-soft cock and his underwear. I was gettin real tired of those clothes. So I started trying to push them off, which was hard because I wanted to keep kissing him. I mean, damn, he's just so damn kissable. And he started to shift, straining to pull them off, and finally I gave up and straightened. Then I pulled my shirt over my head while he pushed the underwear down and kicked them away, and then hoisted himself up to pull off his shirt.

    Finally, we were completely naked, and I was getting excited again. And I pounced back on top of him, my chest sideways against his, and I started kissing him again, and my hands went crazy rubbing all over him....

    And he was groaning and purring and his hands were all over me, and... oh, damn, I wasn't aware of anything after that.

    Except, all of a sudden, he slowed it down. Somehow, some way, he was back in control of what was goin' on, and his kisses got real soft, all over my face, and his hands went from rubbing and squeezing to petting real gentle-like. And my heart started slowing down, too. And, I thought, maybe my cock really could wait awhile for another favor.

    I just lay there in the dark, on my back, and after a while I realized he was sitting on his knees beside me. He was running his fingers along my face, down to my chest. Every now and then they'd jump up into my hair, and do this real tender massage-thing that Hutch has always been good at. And, you know, I coulda died right then and it would have been okay, because I would have been so happy and content. I mean, there woulda been nothing else to do in life.

    Except Hutch would be all alone and I killed the thought right there. I mean, hell, every now and then -- even though I try real hard not to think about it -- I wonder how I'd ever survive if something happened to Hutch. But then I wonder how he'd survive if something happened to me, and that's an even worse thought. So, ever since I came close to buying it from Gunther's goons, I've been a lot more careful about stayin' alive. And maybe it's my imagination, but I think Hutch has been tryin' harder, too.

    All of sudden, he wasn't touching me and I felt all cold and I opened my eyes.

    Without hardly a sound or squeak of the bed, he'd made it down toward the foot of the mattress, and he was pushing the covers back. It was real easy to see him in the dark, that body of his is so damn white. Almost pure-like. Like an angel or somethin'.

    "Spread your legs," he whispered. Oh, man, his voice was so soft... so quiet. And, yet, it wasn't like he was askin'. Hey, when Hutch tells ya to do something, you do it. No if, ands, or buts about it. So I spread my legs. It was kind of a vulnerable feeling, but exciting, too. I mean, I didn't know what he had in mind. I just knew that some ultra-sensitive parts of mine were going to be getting something.

    And they knew it too. My cock had softened a little after things slowed down, but now it was doin' that ninety-degree salute.

    He came closer, between my legs, then settled on his knees. He reached out and put a hand on my stomach, and I closed my eyes, so I wouldn't spoil it. I wanted my nerves to feel everything first.

    At first, the hand just rubbed, real gentle-like. And then I felt two fingers drawing a line from my stomach, down to my pubic hairs. And then they started scratchin'. Man, it was good. Such a nice feelin'. Not even really a turn-on, just nice. They scratched and scratched. And then they moved on down, went around my cock, and then they were into my balls. Just the fingertips were feelin' around my nuts, kinda scratching a little bit. And then they went underneath, to that seam right beneath my nuts. And kind of scratched, then just barely went down into my crack. And then he drew them up and rubbed them around the base of my cock.

    And, man, my dick was about to burst. I mean, this was some big-time teasin'. But I needed him to pay attention to further up the shaft, and I meant to say somethin' about it, but all I managed was a sound that came out like a strangled groan.

    I guess it got the point across. He slid up beside me, still on his knees, and in a very quiet, matter-of-fact tone, he whispered, "I'm going to make you come."

    Oh, shit, all the veins in my cock throbbed when he said that. But I had no idea how he was gonna do it, because he wasn't touching me at all. But he sorta smiled at me -- real tender-like, but also sort of mischievous. And shit, I groaned again, or whimpered, or something.

    He turned around then, his back to me, and reached for my dick. When he gripped it real firm, I understood why he was in such a funny position. He was gonna jerk me off, and he needed to grip it like he did his own. That in itself was another turn-on, I mean him pretending that my cock was his.

    And his hand started to stroke. Damn. He was good, too. Knew right where to grip it firmest around the head. I guess it shouldn't be strange that Hutch, being a guy, would know how to make it feel good, but I always figured every guy likes his cock handled a little differently. I know that what's heaven for one woman isn't necessarily anything special for another. So, I figure with men, it would be the same way.

    And maybe it was. Except Hutch and me seemed to have similar tastes in how we liked to stroke ourselves. Because he was doin' one hell of a job. And I can't say nothin' else about it because my brain took a hike and all I know was that my cock was on fire, and his hand felt so damn good, and it just kept building and building, and it got so powerful that I think I yelled or somethin', because all of a sudden my throat was raw and everything was on a mattress of air, and I didn't have a body anymore, and nothing mattered anymore, and everything was wonderful and perfect, and it would have been fine if I'd died right then.

    Except I couldn't because something tickled along my stomach. I opened my eyes and had to raise my head a little. And there was Hutch bent over me, licking at the little... uh, puddle, that had been left there. Oh, shit, he was licking it so slowly, too. Like a cat or something. And it tickled but it was so incredible that I didn't want him to stop and I didn't even know why. For a moment, it crossed my mind that it must be pretty gross, but then I reminded myself that women swallowed that stuff all the time, so maybe it wasn't all that bad.

    And Hutch certainly didn't seem to mind.

    And then he did something that a woman could never do. He rubbed his mustache in it.

    Oh, fuck, it was really time to die. It tickled like hell, but I didn't move. I just watched. Shit. He'd lick, lick, lick -- quiet little strokes of his tongue -- and then he'd dip his mustache right in it, kind of rub it around, then go back to the lick, lick, lick. Jesus fuckin' Christ, is that what mustaches were for? Shit. I collapsed back on the bed so hard that it rattled. But he just kept right on lickin'.

    And then he was done. Had it all cleaned up. And he straightened and turned back toward me. Of course, I knew what he was gonna do. And I was ready. I would have hoisted myself onto an elbow, but I didn't have the strength. He just sort of looked down at me for a moment, like he was trying to figure out if I would mind or not. And I sorta grinned. And that's all he needed and he lowered his head.

    'Course, I could smell it long before his lips touched mine. Just smelled like it does in the bedroom after a lot of fucking has gone on. Only this was stronger, because it was all concentrated in one area. And he kissed me, real purposeful-like, but still kept it pretty soft, like he knew I didn't have the energy for anything heavier. And it suddenly occurred to me that, with the hair right under his nose, he was smelling it with every breath, and would go on smellin' it until he washed it off.

    Probably take one hell of a rinsin'.

    He turned me over, and I was so limp that he was able to do it real easy. In any other circumstance, I think I would have been real nervous about what was obviously coming next. But, damn, I felt like I didn't have a care in the world. Except I wanted Hutch to be able to fuck his brains out -- mine, too -- and I wanted to feel him all around me, and inside me. I mean, I've never felt like that before in my entire life. Never had an urge to have something stuck in me. I never even liked it when girls put their fingers up my ass. It seemed... I dunno, unnatural, I guess. Or maybe I was afraid that if I liked it, it would mean I was a fag.

    But none of that mattered now. I just wanted Hutch to do it. I wanted it so bad. Not just for me, but for him, too. I wanted him to pound into me and hold me real tight and scream like hell when he came.

    He hand was rubbing real slow up and down my spine. And after the sweat had started to cool me, it felt good to feel that warmth again. He paused at my lower back, rubbing in a little circle, and then drifted down one cheek and squeezed, then the other. It seemed like he was getting patient again, and though I was limper than a broken doll, I was real anxious for him to do it. I sort of bounced against the bed. "Do it, Hutch." My voice was real deep and breathless.

    His hand paused and I knew that somehow I'd misread things.

    He slid closer to me, leaned down a little toward my ear. His voice was heavy with wanting, but it was real clear. "Not going to do that tonight, partner."

    His no-nonsense tone sort of shocked me to my senses. Hell, we didn't even have any lubricant. He'd probably rip me to pieces. Sure, we could probably find something to use in the bathroom, but that was clear down the hall, and all of a sudden the whole process seemed way too complicated. I must have been crazy to want him to do that to me. And I shuddered to think what it would have been like if he hadn't been thinkin' straight and had rammed right into me, and it hurt like hell, and then I'd always be afraid of it, and he'd never forgive himself, and it would spoil everything....

    "Not tonight," he repeated. And it dawned on me the way he was sayin' it, like he was promisin' that it would happen on another night.

    And I closed my eyes and collapsed against the pillow. I mean, I loved the guy so damn much it just downright hurt at times.

    His hands were back on my ass, and I was confused about what he was gonna to do. I mean, he was real hard and it must have been driving him nuts. It was drivin' me nuts, knowing how badly he needed relief.

    He felt along the tip of my tailbone, back and forth, over and over. In fact, he seemed kind of obsessed with it, like he was trying to figure something out. Then his hands gripped my cheeks and he parted them. It was a real funny feeling being... well, exposed like that. For a split second I thought he'd changed his mind about doin' it, but then I realized right away that there was no way he'd chance hurting me like that.

    And then something hot and thick and full laid all along my crack. And I knew it had to be his prick, and I liked how it felt so... I dunno, filling. I mean, I gotta admit, I still kinda of wanted him to stick it into me, but that of course was impossible, so I just tried to enjoy what he was doing. He placed his hands beside my shoulders, and then his cock started moving back and forth in my crack, and almost right away he started grunting with effort. And I was sorta worried that we were gonna have that problem again with the friction. But then he started rubbing the head of it against my tailbone, with each forward thrust, and I knew that's what was really going to get him off, having that firm bone to brace against.

    It was kinda frustrating layin' there and not being able to help him along. I mean, I could squeeze my ass muscles, but they weren't able to enclose his cock. I mean, that's what a man really likes... having his cock surrounded by something that grips and loosens.

    But Hutch was doing okay. I could tell by the way he was breathing and thrusting that he'd found a rhythm that felt really good. All of a sudden, he grabbed my shoulders, and I liked him gripping me like that, and his muscles were all tense while he thrust harder and harder... faster and faster. And then the sweat started dripping onto my back. And then a cry started deep in his throat, and then he thrust really hard, and I realized my tailbone was gonna be sore, but I was so happy listening to that groan/yell emerge from his throat. It wasn't like he screamed or anything. It was much deeper than that. And had this vibrating, shuddering quality. But it was real satisfying, like every bit of tension he possessed was being expelled all through his body.

    And then it sort of trailed off into a whimper, then a deeply drawn breath. And then I felt him go all slack.

    That's when I realized there was moisture on my lower back. It felt kind of funny, not really hot because it was the same temperature as my body, but not yet cooling, either. I know it sounds kinda funny, but it was sorta a turn-on, knowing that it had come from Hutch. And I always thought it kinda strange that that stuff could make babies.

    Hutch collapsed beside me. His eyes were closed and he was wearing a little smile and his face was all soft and relaxed. And he sort of made this real, deep, contented sigh.

    I was gettin' tired of laying on my stomach, and I was just about to roll over when it dawned on me that there was something I wanted real bad. I don't know why. It just seemed important.


    I felt a little guilty when his eyes opened and they looked so sleepy. But I kept my voice firm and -- I hope -- sorta sexy. "Aren't you gonna, you know, sweep it up?"

    His eyes widened right then. And then he took a deep, purposeful breath, like he was still testing how strong his mustache smelled. And then he blinked and raised up.

    Hutch knows how to take orders, too.

    I relaxed against the mattress, and he put an arm across my back, then sort of leaned on it while he lay his head down and went at it. I mean, I could still feel a little hesitation -- not that there isn't a guy in the world who hasn't tasted his own sperm -- and I hoped he didn't mind too much that I was makin' him do it. And I guess he didn't. Because he just sort of relaxed and licked.

    And was doin' too much of the licking.

    "Hey, I said sweep it up." Shit, was that my voice that sounded so... so commanding?

    Oh, but he obeyed, like a good little Hutch. If I wouldn't have been so exhausted I would have gotten another hard-on right then.

    He sort of raised up, then I felt those ticklish little hairs along my lower back. I could tell that he was making sure they got soaked. He's always been willing to do anything for me.

    He went back to the licking for a moment, and then he was all done. I rolled onto my back and pulled the covers up over us. He'd taken his place beside me, curled toward me, his eyes closed like he could sleep right then.

    I sorta inched closer, put my arm out and, with his eyes still closed, he moved a little to place his head on it. I know he knew what I wanted to do, but it was like he was just too exhausted to participate much.

    And maybe it was just as well. Because I was gonna take my time.

    I put my other arm around him -- felt real protective of him all of a sudden, especially with his body being so lax -- and I leaned down to kiss him. He kissed back a little, but I didn't press it. I just wanted the taste. I mean, I'd done that before -- kissing women after they swallowed it -- but this was something a million times more special than that. Because as soon as my tongue licked up to his mustache, I knew I was tasting both of us. And there just seemed something so meaningful about it.

    I was tired, too, but I was getting into it. I mean, I wanted to part each and every hair of that little caterpillar and lick it clean so he wouldn't even have to wash it. But, then, I kinda liked the idea of him goin' around, smelling like the two of us, and nobody daring to say anything.

    But, for now, I just licked at it and licked at it. I had to be careful; I mean, I had to keep pulling back to give us both a chance to breathe. And then he just gave up and started breathing through his mouth. And then he drifted to sleep.

    Somewhere along the line, I did, too. And when the muscles around my mouth hurt when I woke up, I knew it was because I had been smiling all night.

* * *

  We might not have gotten much sleep, but I felt all rested when I woke up. I was sleeping on my stomach, and when I opened my eyes Hutch was on his back, his head turned toward me like he was watching me. He looked wide awake, too.

    I couldn't help but smile at him. "Mornin'."

    He smiled, too; that real soft expression overtaking his face.

    I knew we had to talk about it, but I wanted to make it clear with the tone of my voice that nothin' was ever gonna make me regret it. I raised my head. "How'd that happen?"

    I think he must have been thinkin' about that, because he was ready with an answer. But first he put his hand in the middle of my back, beneath the covers. "We were ready for it."

    If he had all the answers, he was gonna have to share them. "Why now? How come we haven't been doin' this for years and years? Or month and months?"

    His voice was all tender and soft. "Because we weren't ready yet."

    He said it like it made the most perfect sense in the world, and I believed him. I raised up a little more. "What time is it?"

    "Going on seven."

    I'd thought it would be later. "What time do people get up around here?"

    "Seven-thirty, eight o'clock. My mother will probably get up a little early since she has guests to feed."

    "She do all the cookin'?"

    Hutch looked surprised. "Of course."

    "Oh. I thought there might be a maid or somethin'."

    He shook his head, then snorted like it was a dumb thought. "It's just the two of them, Starsk."

    "Oh. I guess so."

    Now, lookin' back, it seems real funny that I didn't think about it sooner. But, honest, I didn't. And when the thought did cross my mind, my eyes got real big, and I sort of raised up in the bed, on my elbow. "I've gotta sneak back to my room." I mean, geez, what would his parents think? His sister think? If they'd known what had gone on in that room during the night? I didn't want them to think any worse of Hutch than they already did. His parents, I mean. Somehow, I didn't think it would be as big a deal to his sister, but still a shock....

    Hutch laughed a little, but it was real gentle this time. "Don't worry about it. They won't come in here."

    He seemed to be missin' the point. "But if I'm not in my room -- if they see me come out of here -- they'll know...." I turned on my side and sort of sat up against the pillow.

    He closed his eyes and shook his head. "No they won't. They won't notice anything. And if they do, they won't say anything. They just won't." His voice seemed to be saying trust me.

    I started to argue, but then I realized how it must have seemed. And I didn't want him gettin' the wrong idea. "Hey," I whispered, reaching to run a finger down his cheek, "it's not that I'm ashamed of anything we did. Not at all. I just don't wanna complicate things with your family."

    "I don't care about that, Starsk. They don't care, either." There it was again, him sayin' it so casual, like when we were in the men's room at the restaurant yesterday. No anger, or grief, or bitterness, or hatred. Just a blunt statement of fact.

    I moved over to kiss him, but he put a hand on my mouth. Then he laughed a little. "You don't want to do that." And he sort of rubbed at his mustache.

    I was close enough to get a bit of a whiff, and I wasn't gonna argue. It's funny how things that seem like such a turn-on at certain times can seem downright gross at other times.

    Well, fine, maybe I couldn't kiss his beautiful mouth, but there was plenty more of him to love. I started to curl against his side, and put my head on his chest, but then all of a sudden I had a big urge to just take him in my arms. So, I did. I grabbed him and rolled back with him on top of me and just put my arms around him and squeezed real hard, and I felt myself get all emotional again.

    "I think I'm gonna cry," I said in a voice that came out real small.

    His reply was so tender, and he was rubbing at my shoulders. "Huh? Why?"

    "Because I love you so damn much." I wasn't exactly crying, but I sort of sniffed.

    He scooted down a little, and I loosened my hold so he could. Then he kissed me right in the center of my throat. And then he moved down, kissing along my chest. And then he sort of sucked at one of my nipples... or whatever the hell they're called.

    Man, it was great. But it had only been a few hours since I'd last gotten off, and it seemed like too much of an effort to do it again. Especially when the bed was so warm and cozy and we could be just layin' there being lazy.

    I sort of patted my hands along his back -- not rubbing -- trying to keep it from getting too intense. And then he stopped and just lay down against me, like he didn't quite have the energy, either.

    We sort of lay like that for awhile. Then he raised up a little and put his hands on my cheeks and just looked at me, all serious. "I love you.'"

    Well, hell, it's not like he's never said it before. Or even not said it in a long time. But it just meant so much right then. And I thought it was important that I say something real meaningful, too. I mean, we had a future to think of.

    "Hutch," my voice was shakin' a little, "I don't want no one else. It's just me an' you, from now on. There ain't ever gonna be anyone else, for either of us."

    And, shit, he kissed me right then, like he couldn't help it. And I didn't really mind. In fact, I wouldn't let him go. And I put my hands on him and started rubbing... anywhere... everywhere. His cock was pretty soft, but he started groaning -- real deep-like -- when I rubbed across it. So, I kept rubbing. And he started arching against me and rubbing all over me, and we were kissing and kissing, and then licking and devouring, and I don't know what all happened, but we didn't get up until nearly nine o'clock.

* * *

    Hutch was in the shower when I came down the staircase. The house looked a lot brighter than the night before. The windows were all open, letting the summer sun stream in, and it all felt real cheerful.

    Mrs. H. came out of the kitchen. "Would you like some breakfast, David?"

    I grinned at her. "That'd be great. Thank you."

    "Come on in, then. I've got scrambled eggs and bacon, toast and pancakes."

    I followed her, loving the smell coming from the kitchen. I got the feeling she didn't normally go to such an extreme at breakfast, and she seemed to relish the break from the normal routine.

    So did I.

    "It must be Kenneth I hear in the shower," she said over her shoulder.

    "Yeah, he should be down soon." It kind of worried me that you could hear the shower all way up the stairs, down at the other end of the house. It made me wonder what else could be heard. But she didn't seem to behave funny, or anything. And I guess everyone was already downstairs when I had left Hutch's room to take my own shower.

    The kitchen was even brighter than the rest of the house. It was large, too, like it could comfortably seat eight or ten people. But it was just Mr. H., sitting there with the newspaper stretched out before him -- though he lowered it enough to nod at me -- and Suzette looked like she was finishing up her breakfast.

    "Good morning," she smiled at me, still kinda shy-like.

    "Good morning, Suzette."

    "Did you sleep all right, David?" Mrs. H. asked from where she was bent over the stove.

    "Yes, I did."

    She turned long enough to pull out a chair. "Here, sit right down. I'll have the eggs warmed up in a moment. Orange juice?"

    I nodded, surprised that she seemed to want to hover so much. She hadn't seemed like that kind of person.


    I raised the cup that was sitting at my place. "Please. Thank you."

    Suzette looked at me with her bright, blue eyes. "Do you and Kenneth want to take my car today to drive around?"

    "I didn't know you drove here." Mrs. H. placed two slices of toast before me, and I reached for the butter.

    "I didn't. But I rented a car, because I wanted to see a lot of my old friends. But I've already done most of that. If you two could drop me off at my friend Nancy's, you could have the car the whole day."

    "That'd be great. Hutch mentioned something about wanting to show me places today."

    Mr. H. lowered his paper to sip his coffee. His breakfast had already been cleared. "You a sports fan, David?"


    "What's your favorite?"

    I shrugged, glad that he was finally talking to me. "Just depends on whatever the season is. I get off on all of it. You?"

    "I'm a Twins fan all the way back," he stated proudly.

    "Yeah, Hutch follows them, too. It's too bad they aren't on national television very often. He keeps track of the Vikings, too. Fran Tarkenton was a big favorite."

    Mr. H. made a grumping noise... sorta like Hutch does. "Tarkenton's always been over-rated. People always made so much out of all the records he's broken, but he did it throwing those short little baby passes. Anyone ought to be able to complete those."

    I shrugged. To each his own. "Hutch likes it that he went into commentating when he retired. He doesn't come off like a big, dumb jock, like most of those ex-athletes do."

    Mrs. H. put a plate before me. "There you are, David."

    I smiled up at her, because the smell of bacon and eggs was so wonderful right then. "Thank you, Ma'am. You're a real sweetheart."

    She smiled, seemed a little embarrassed, then turned away. "I'll get your pancakes. Will two be enough?"

    "Sure." I started to dig in.

    "You follow hockey?" Mr. H. asked.

    Mrs. H. put down the pancakes and sort of nudged her husband on the shoulder. "Really, Richard, must we talk about sports?"

    It did seem a bit ridiculous that we had to make such forced conversation, though after yesterday I hadn't expected much else. However, it would be easy to change the subject. I sort of wriggled in my chair to get more comfortable. "So," I addressed both of them, "tell me what Hutch was like as a child."

    Mr. H. glanced back at his newspaper. Mrs. H. sat down with a few strips of bacon. "Oh," she said, "there really isn't much to tell. He was a pretty good boy. Serious, you know."

    I couldn't believe she'd just leave it at that. I toyed with my breakfast. "Well, surely, he at least occasionally got into trouble."

    "Damn near set the house on fire once," Mr. H said firmly, lowering his paper again.

    That was something I hadn't expected. "Really?"

    "It was an accident," Mrs. H. put in quickly. I noticed that Suzette seemed to hunker down, like she was trying to make herself as small as possible. She was slowly chewing on the last of her pancakes, like she was too full to eat them but was determined to finish them.

    "Accident or not," Mr. H. went on in a firm voice, "he damned near left us without a home."

    "What happened?" I asked. "How old was he?"

    "He was twelve -- old enough to know better. We got him that damn chemistry set he'd been wanting for his birthday, and two days later he threw away some chemicals in a waste basket and it caught on fire. Thank God I was around to smell the smoke and put it out in time."

    I let out a breath. "It was only a trash can fire?" I asked hopefully.

    "'Only'," Mr. H. snorted. "The smoke damaged the wall. We had to have it repainted."

    "Did you make him repaint it?" I tried to ask casually. It seemed like a punishment to fit the crime.

    "Of course not. I wanted it done right. I called in a professional and made sure Kenneth paid the bill."

    "Well," I shrugged, trying not to sound judgmental and to keep things reasonably cheerful, "I bet he never did anything like that again."

    Mr. H. snorted and went back to his paper. "You're damn right he didn't. That was the last he saw of the chemistry set."

    "Well," I said again, determined to not over-react, "I'll bet that took care of any ambitions he made have had to become a chemist."

    "Oh, it was just a phase," Mrs. H. put in quickly.

    Mr. H. was still looking at his paper. "Kenneth didn't have much ambition for anything."

    Real quiet, and matter-of-fact like, I said, "He does when it's important enough to him."

    Mr. H.'s voice softened a little and his eyes were still on that damn paper. "Obviously, you've seen a side of him that I haven't."

    "Obviously." It probably shoulda been left at that, but I couldn't help but add, "He's a damn good cop, you know. Famous, actually. I mean, within our precinct. Even outside it."

    If he was impressed, I couldn't tell, and Suzette suddenly said, "Are you famous, too?"

    I shrugged, feeling kinda self-conscious. "Well, we are partners. Everything we've accomplished, we've accomplished together. So...," I trailed off so I wouldn't have to outright brag on myself.

    Mr. H. seemed to fold his paper for a final time. He looked at me. "I'm glad you've helped him along, David." He shook his head and made this big sigh. "I was always afraid that he wouldn't turn out to be much of anything. He's always been stubborn and strong-willed and never had any appreciation for the things my wife and I have tried to give him. I know a certain amount of rebellion is normal in children, but after all these years, Kenneth has never come around to appreciating his family -- his roots -- like I'd always hoped."

    There was so much I wanted to say to that, that I had no idea where to start. Of course, a part of me was very angry that Hutch was so misunderstood. And, yet, the very fact that Richard Hutchinson was able to talk to me about it -- when he otherwise said so little -- showed that he actually had an interest in the subject. He did care, at least a little bit. So, I tried to keep my voice level and calm and help him understand the stranger that was his son.

    I pushed away my plate and folded my hands on the table top. "First of all," I said steadily, "my 'helping him along' runs both ways." His eyes dropped from my gaze, but he was listening. "Hutch would be dead if it weren't for me. And I would be dead if it weren't for him. That's how partnerships work. And everyone in the LA police department knows that Hutch and I have the best partnership of all, because we do more than protect each other. We sometimes communicate without words. We like each other, respect each other, and love each other." I put a hand on my chest. "If something happened to Hutch -- if he died, or even if somehow he wasn't my partner anymore -- there'd be this big hole that nothing else could fill. You can't know what it's like, if you've never experienced it."

    Mr. H. didn't say anything. He didn't seem particularly impressed, nor did he act like he was disregarding what I'd said. He just sipped his coffee and reached for a piece of bacon.

    And then I felt frustrated because all I'd talked about was our partnership... what we were to each other as cops. I wanted him to understand the person that Hutch was. So tender, warm, and caring, and....

    We all looked up when we heard Hutch trotting down the stairs. Trotting. Really. I would almost say he was humming, but the noise he was making wasn't quite that coherent.

    "Good morning, everyone," he greeted as he entered.

    Mrs. H. was getting up. "Would you like some breakfast, Kenneth?"

    "Sure, Mother." Hutch came behind me and slapped me on the shoulders. "Good morning there, pal." He ruffled my hair.

    I looked back at him and grinned. Ah, hell, even after the shower, and being in the same room with them, he looked all soft and happy and in love. Jesus Christ. He was just radiating with it.

    "Kenneth," Mrs. H said a bit sternly, "let David finish his breakfast. Here's some orange juice." She patted a chair across from me. "Come over here and sit down."

    Hutch ruffled my hair again, then turned away. Cheerful as hell, he said, "Whatever you say, Mother. I know how uncomfortable it makes you to see people love each other."

    It took a moment for his comment to register. Then my mouth sorta dropped open. Mr. H. looked up from the paper he'd pick up again, and Suzette just kept looking from me to Hutch and back again. And Mrs. H. put together Hutch's breakfast that much faster, like it would keep her from havin' to think about what he'd said.

    And I wasn't sure what he was tryin' to say. I mean, surely, he wasn't trying to hint at what had happened last night. I can't imagine him having any desire to let his parents in on that little secret. Yeah, he may not go out of his way to hide it, but he surely wouldn't flaunt it.

    No, I think he meant... well, the 'just love' stuff. Not havin' to do with last night, or sex, or anything. And it seemed like he wanted to shout it to the world... or at least to his family. And, to me, it showed that he really cared.

    But I shouldn't have been so concerned about whatever point he was tryin' to make, because Mr. H. went back to his paper, Mrs. H. served him breakfast and started cleaning the counter, and Suzette went back to coaxing down those final three bites of her pancakes.

    And there threatened to be a big silence. And I didn't want that. And Hutch was just sitting across from me, beaming at me, not at all caring that he had made everyone uncomfortable. Really, I had no intention of making everyone uncomfortable, either. But I just couldn't let Hutch's comment get away without a response. I grinned at him and announced, "I love you, too, buddy."

    He grinned back and dived into his breakfast.

    No one else paid us any attention.

* * *

    We dropped Suzette off at her friend's and drove her car into the city. Hutch showed me all the schools he'd attended. I think it would have been nice to try to visit his old teachers, but since it was Saturday we didn't have the opportunity. Plus he said he wasn't sure if any of them were still teaching in the area. He showed me some of the houses where friends had lived. Most of his friends' families didn't live there anymore, and of the ones that did, he really didn't have any desire to stop and say "Hello". I was relieved, because sometimes it can be awkward trying to have a polite conversation with people you haven't seen in years and years, especially when you don't really care about each other anymore. And I sorta wanted Hutch to myself, anyways.

    He was still radiating with happiness throughout the day. He showed me places -- the malt shop, the little theater, the dime store -- where he used to hang around town. Showed me where some places used to be before they were torn down and replaced by something else. Showed me places that used to be open fields that he played in and were now occupied by big office buildings. And the more he talked, the more he remembered. And the more he remembered, the more he talked, and the recollections fed on themselves. It was really neat, watching it all unfold. I felt like I was on top of the world, because he just... well, he just seemed so damn happy, chattering away. I mean, Hutch is the greatest guy on this whole damn Earth. But when he's happy like that, well, hell, he's just so damn beautiful.

    We stopped for lunch at an old A&W that had survived the onslaught of fast-food restaurants. After stuffing ourselves with greasy burgers and fries -- I mean, there weren't really any other options and besides Hutch wasn't complaining -- he finally started to wind down and looked a little peaked.

    "Want me to drive?" I asked him. "You look like you didn't get enough sleep."

    He grinned at me. "No less than you." But then he rubbed a hand over his face. "No, I want to show you one other place. We'll get out and take a break there."

    I flipped my shades down over on my eyes. "Okay."

    We drove out of the city. Eventually, we reached farmland. But there was forest areas, too. Finally, he stopped the car on a little country road. No one was in sight.

    "Still here," he said with satisfaction. He was looking past a barbed wire fence, into a group of trees that surrounded a little meadow.

    I looked at him, waiting for more.

    He wasn't chattering like he was before, and he seemed very mellow as he led the way toward the fence. "This land used to be owned by the Robertsons. The son was well-liked at school and he was always having other kids over to play around in the meadow here. When I was old enough to drive, I'd still come here by myself to think things through."

    "Had a lot on your mind then, huh?"

    He didn't answer, but parted two strands of barbed wire, and I crawled between then. Then I did the same favor for him, and then we were walking toward the circle of trees.

    I looked at him. "So, did you ever want to be a chemist?"

    He took off his sunglasses and turned to me, frowning like I'd said something really stupid. "A chemist?" His voice was all puzzled.

    "Yeah." I had my hands stuck in the back pockets of my jeans. "Your father was talking this morning about how you almost burned down the house."

    He snorted. "That was damned nice of him."

    I shrugged. "Well, I sorta of started it. You know, asking about you as a kid."

    We were in the shady clearing now, beautiful green trees surrounding us, and Hutch's voice was a bit tight. "Bet he didn't have much to say."

    "No. Neither did your mother."

    His frown hardened and I felt kinda bad that I'd started talking about it. But since we were on the subject....

    "Hey," I said, moving to stand directly in front of him, my hands on my hips, "what made you say what you said this morning to your mother?"

    He knew exactly what I meant, and he seemed kinda embarrassed, his smile all sheepish. "Nothing," he told me. Then his smile faded. "It was the truth, you know. She never could stand to see me love anybody. Even anything." He looked at the ground, grinding the toe of his boot in the dirt. Then, he looked back up at me. "You know, even that damned dog of mine." He shook his head, snorting. "The minute I'd kneel down to hug it, she would be all over me about germs and getting hair on my clothes and that sort of thing."

    I felt my heart sink. But I couldn't hate them. They were too pathetic to hate. Carefully, I suggested, "Maybe she was just jealous, Hutch."

    He snorted so harshly I was tempted to offer him a handkerchief. "Jealous? I don't think so, buddy." He shook a finger at me. "And I'll tell you why. When I was six years old, I was such a stupid little shit that I actually went up to her one day and hugged her. I'd seen one of my friends do it to his mother, and she seemed to like it, so...." He took a deep breath. "And you know what she did? She pushed me away, said I was wrinkling her dress."

    I looked away and muttered, "Her and her damn clothes."

    "No shit."

    It all seemed so sad. And so unfair. I was turned to one side, facing away from Hutch, but I reached back and put my hand on his stomach. Curiously, I asked, "Where did you learn about love, Hutch?"

    He didn't even hesitate. "From you."

    It sorta annoyed me that he was trying to be flattering and I looked back at him. "No, really."

    He sort of smiled then, and nodded. "Really, Starsk," he said, his voice all soft.

    Well, okay, I realized then that that's what he believed, but it wasn't the right answer. "No, Hutch, you learned it before me. Otherwise, you wouldn't have been able to love me, because you wouldn't have known how."

    His beautiful brows furrowed, like he was trying real hard to think about it. Then he suddenly sat down right there on the grass, his arms stretched out behind him.

    I, of course, sat down beside him.

    He shook his head, all serious. "No, Starsk. I didn't know how to love you, not at first." He tilted his head to one side. "Don't you remember?"

    Now it was my turn to think real hard. I tried to remember how it'd been all those years ago. We'd met at the police academy. Then, when we were both in uniform and assigned to different precincts, we tried to keep in touch and socialized together, saw each other maybe every other week or so. I got promoted to detective about two months before Hutch, and we'd already discussed by then that we would request to be assigned together just as soon as his promotion came through.

    We were just friends back then. None of that life and death stuff. I'm not even sure if it could be said we genuinely loved each other. Our relationship was still... well, kinda shallow... compared to now, anyway. We always talked a lot, but rarely about anything particularly personal, or deep. I mean, hell, he was married. Married people don't have a lot of room for single friends.

    I realized my eyes had narrowed, drawing my eyebrows together, just as Hutch's had done a few minutes ago, because I realized something that had never occurred to me before.

    The divorce was the turning point. All that bitterness and hurting and aching and needing. The marriage slowly crumbled, and so did Hutch. Really, it was like there were bits and pieces of 'im scattered all over the place. Bitter anger one moment. Heavy remorse the next. The iron determination to keep them together. The weary depression that they could only survive by being apart. It took eight months for it to happen. One morning he greeted me with a strained, trembling, "Van and I are getting a divorce." And then all that we've-made-up, I'll-try-harder, we're-trying-a-trial-separation shit that came in between. And then one day it was truly over.

    "Hutch." My voice sounded hushed to my own ears. I was staring at the ground in disbelief at my discovery, but through the corner of my eye I saw him look at me, waiting.

    "Hutch," I snapped my fingers, "I know exactly when it was -- the moment I started to love you." I looked at him. "I mean the moment when we weren't just 'good friends' anymore, but... but special together."

    He leaned closer to me, his face all serious and intrigued. "Yeah?" He said it like he couldn't believe it could really be all that black and white.

    I wouldn't have thought so, either, generally speaking. Nevertheless there it was before me. But even though I was kinda excited about having realized it, I felt bad that...well, for him it wouldn't be a pleasant memory. So my voice was real gentle. "Remember the day your divorce was final?"

    He snorted again, tossing a small pebble in front of him. "Of course."

    "It was then, Hutch."

    He looked sharply at me. Then disbelief. "You mean you were jealous of her?"

    Ah, man, that's not what I meant. "No, Hutch," I said firmly, but still gentle. "Remember, that night, when I came over to your place?"

    He looked down and his mouth sorta twisted. I couldn't tell if it was a grimace or a smile. I guess maybe both. And then he sorta relaxed. "Of course."

    "It was then, Hutch. Because you trusted me enough to... to let me see it how much it hurt. You didn't hold anything back. And... and, well, I know this sounds kinda weird considerin' how painful it all was, but it made me feel almost... I dunno, proud, I guess. That you trusted me that much. That, you know, you were willin' to let me be there for you."

    Man, it had been a scene. Almost like with Gillian; in some ways, worse. Because he had all night to down a few beers and bawl his eyes out. Not that it took all night.

    "You let me hold you," I went on softly. "I mean, most people, even when they're really devastated, still hold something back. I don't know what it is about people. It seems like we're always afraid that if we give too much of ourselves away, we'll somehow lose something, be less of a person; or maybe we're afraid we won't find ourselves anymore. And, you know, we men have all that macho shit to deal with on top of that." I tried to sum it up. He was listening, staring at the ground. "It made you the strongest person I've ever known. And, I guess, I was sorta in awe of you for it."

    He looked at me slowly. His expression was all soft, but his brow was still furrowed like he was thinkin' real hard. "S-strong?" he sorta stuttered. "Jesus, pal, you were the one with all the strength that night. And it was because you were so strong, that I guess I felt safe enough to go ahead and," he shrugged like he wasn't happy with his choice of words, "be weak." Then he nodded. "But that's what I meant... about learning about love from you. If Van and I ever had a scene like that, it would always end up in the bedroom. Ultimately, any strong feelings -- love or anger -- lead to that goal. There was never time for 'just love'." And then he looked all serious again, like he was thinkin' it through.

    "You know," I said, "I suppose it really isn't surprising that you married a real sensual person like her. Because your parents -- your mother, at least -- had that prudish attitude about sex and stuff. I mean, someone like Vanessa must have been a revelation."

    He sorta smiled then. "She was." Then he paused, frowning. "It all was. Sex, I mean. Once I discovered it, I went after it in a big way. Hell," he grunted, "I must hold some kind of adolescent record for beating off."

    I glanced at him sideways. "I doubt it."

    He turned his head to look at me. "But do you understand what I mean? About the love? Real love? I didn't know about it before you."

    He wanted me to agree with him, but I wasn't sure I could. "But you were ready for it, Hutch. You could have pushed me away that night. You still could have... felt like you did, but not let me near you, turned away from me and cried by yourself." When I stopped, it suddenly seemed funny to me that we were talkin' about that night in an abstract way, being all objective-like. Because it hadn't been that way at all. Lots of grief, lots of sadness, lots and lots of loss, but also lots of warmth and love. I never believed that stuff about divorce being more devastating that death, until that night.

    "I guess," I said, "in simplest terms, after that night I felt more protective of you, Hutch. I just -- "

    "And I was more protective of you," he interrupted. "You were special to me." But then he looked at me, his mouth all curved into this warm smile. "But then you'd always been so damn lovable. So full of life. Man, you're something." He leaned forward, and I met him, and we kissed. But we kept it light.

    He flopped back on the grass, a hand behind his head. I didn't waste any time in joining in. I curled up next to him, and laid my head on his chest.

    His voice was enticing. "You going to sleep with me tonight?" His hand was furrowing through my hair. He knows I'll do anything when he's petting me like that.

    "Yeah, I guess I had plans for sneaking in your room tonight."

    "You don't have to sneak in, Starsk," he said flatly.

    I hoisted up on my elbow, leaning on his chest. "Whaddya mean? Maybe you think they don't care, but I wouldn't have thought you'd want to advertise it."

    "It wouldn't be advertising. If you come into my room tonight, they aren't going to know why you're there. For all they know, we'd just be talking."

    Well, okay. We were quiet for a while, and then I felt I wanted to keep talking about it. "Hutch?" I was turned away from his face, my head resting in the middle of his chest.

    "Hmm?" His hand was rubbing up and down my body.

    "Think we woulda ever done it, if we hadn't come here?"

    "Sure we would have."

    I was surprised by his confidence. I pulled back to look at him. "Really? When?"

    He pressed my head back down against him. "Probably the next time we slept together. I don't think it would have been long in coming."

    "You'd been thinking about it?"

    "In a way." He seemed a little amused. "The back of my mind was, anyway. The front of my mind didn't think about it too much. But I know a part of me knew it was just a matter of time." His hand paused. "Did I shock you last night?"

    I had to chuckle. "The front of my mind was kinda surprised. But not the back of my mind."

    He seemed relieved. "I was going to say that you didn't act like someone who'd been caught off guard."

    "It just seemed natural." And as I said the words, it dawned on me how simple they were. And how true. And I knew right then that I wasn't ever gonna worry about the reasons anymore. But.... "Do you think we're fags?"

    He sort of pushed at my arm, scolding-like. "Don't use that word. It's an ugly word."

    I was kinda surprised that he felt that strongly about it. I tried to be reasonable. "Well," I shrugged, "if it's true...."

    "If your skin was black, would you call yourself a nigger?"



    Okay, I saw his point. I sighed. "Does that mean we're gay, then?"

    He seemed kinda irritated with the conversation. "I don't know. I don't think so. I mean, I don't want to go to a bar and look at other men." Then his voice softened, and his hand stroked my back. "Just you. If other people want to call that 'gay', then fine. I don't care what other people choose to call it. I just want to live it -- live life with you."

    Aw, heck. I snuggled against him more. But then I realized that, even in the summer, the shade in Minnesota is a lot nippier than what we were used to. Hutch must have been thinking the same thing, because he suddenly sat up and tugged on my hand. "Come on, there's a neat view on top of the hill."

    He dropped my hand before too long, because his legs were so much longer than mine. I followed him as we walked past the circle of trees, then came upon a big field with tall, yellow grass. Maybe it was a wheat field, or hay, or something. Hey, I grew up in the city.

    There was a hill to the left and we climbed up it. It wasn't a very big hill, but it let you look down at all the farmland, and the woods and the trees, and the little houses. In the distance, you could see where the city was stretching out.

    "I always liked this view," Hutch said softly. "There's so much variety. It's like seeing all the possibilities of life stretched out before you."

    Well, to be honest, it didn't look all that grand to me, but I guess to a boy who was lookin' for any way to get away from home, it probably seemed like the whole world.

    "Ever want to be a farmer?" I asked.

    "Oh, I think I was in that phase for a while." He looked at me, his hands stuffed in the back pockets of his jeans. He was so beautiful, standing tall in the tall, yellow grass, the yellow sun reflecting off his yellow hair. "When I was maybe thirteen, fourteen, the idea of living off the land held some appeal." He looked me in the eye. "I was so idealistic then."

    I gave him a sideways glance. "You still are."

    He thought about that, then grinned a little. "I guess so." He looked at me. "Thanks for seeing everything with me today, Starsk."

    He wasn't kidding. It seemed real important to him. It was to me, too. I nodded. "My pleasure."

    He turned away then, starting down the hill. And when our heights were level, I just suddenly had an impulse, and I sorta threw myself at him from behind, and wrapped my arms around him.

    He wobbled a second, like he might lose his balance, but then held steady. And then he just dropped his head and leaned back, accepting it.

    I held him real close and squeezed him real firm -- but not hard, not like this morning or last night. I didn't feel desperate or anything. I just wanted to feel him in my arms. And, well, shit, Hutch is just so squeezable. I mean, he's like this big bundle of flesh that just melts right against you. And, honest, he really melts. Like butter left in the sun. He just gets all squishy and mellow. And then you can do anything with 'im. Well, he lets me, anyway. If you have his trust, he'll turn his whole life over to ya for safe keeping. That's what I was talkin' about with the divorce. He just gave in to the grief and let me hold him while he fell apart. If I hadn't been holding him, he wouldn't have allowed himself to fall apart. And then he wouldn't have healed near as well. Because, you know, there's some old saying about something having to be shattered first before you can begin to rebuild it.

    And it's like that time he went through the heroin withdrawal. He was goin' nuts, wanting to get out of that room Huggy and I had him locked in. And then at one point he actually was tryin' to fight me to get out, but he was so weak you couldn't really even call it a struggle.

    And then he gave up and rested the top of his head against my chest.

    See, there was once, years ago, when a detective in the precinct brought in his little baby daughter to show her off to everyone. I don't know how old she was, but she was too young to walk or crawl. So he held her, her little butt resting on his arm, and showed her to everyone, as proud as can be. She had these big blue eyes and just sorta stared at everyone who had gathered around her. And then she got tired and laid her head against her daddy's shoulder. I mean, she was completely wore out, and her entire weight rested against him. And her father told us, "This is what it's all about, guys... when that head goes down."

    Now, I have to tell ya, I'm not really into babies. I'm not the kinda guy who likes to make a big fuss over them. And his statement didn't really mean anything to me at the time. But then when Hutch and me were in that room over Huggy's, and Hutch laid his head against my chest, I thought about that father and his baby daughter. And then I understood. It was the trust thing. The idea of someone giving in and completely turning themselves over to your safe-keeping.

    And that had been what Hutch was doing the night he fell apart after the divorce was final.

    And that's what he was doing now. Tucking in his chin and leaning back so I could hold him. Only, this was better than those other two times because there wasn't any grief or pain. Just love.

    I sorta rubbed at his chest and stomach. He couldn't do anything because his arms were pinned within my grasp, and I liked it that he could only receive and not give. He's already given a lot in his life.

    I loved having him against the front of my body, the sun warm on my back. Life just seemed so perfect right then. And I wanted it to last forever and ever.

    "Hutch?" My cheek was pressed against the warmth of him.

    He almost seemed asleep, though he was standin' up. "Hm?"

    "I meant what I said this morning... about there not bein' anyone else. I'm serious, I want us to always be together. I just," I swallowed then, as the worst scenario imaginable flittered across my mind. Maybe it was possible that I had presumed too much. "I just wanna make sure you're in agreement about it. I mean, before we go much further."

    He seemed to sorta wake up, and started to turn around. So I dropped my arms and I guess he wasn't prepared, because he had to take a quick step down the hill to keep his balance. And then he was sorta lookin' up at me.

    And he was wearing this little smile beneath his mustache, and he was so damn beautiful. And I couldn't help but wonder what I'd ever done to get on God's -- or whoever's -- good side so that He would let me have this person, and share almost my entire adult life with this person, and that this person would be there to save me when I got in a bad spot, and that this person would need me so I would never feel unimportant, and....

    Hutch reached up and brushed a finger along my chin. Gently and sweetly, he asked, "You wanting to get married?"

    Married? All of a sudden, I felt kind of embarrassed. "Well, I dunno," I said sort of loudly, because I was frustrated that there wasn't a word for what we wanted to be together. "What are people like you an' me 'posed to do to make a lifetime commitment?"

    He thought about that, his little smile all warm. Then he simply said, "Just make a commitment."

    "Well, okay," I told him, wondering why I thought it shouldn't be that simple. "I guess that's what I'm gettin' at. I wanna go all out. But I wanna be sure that you feel the same."

    The finger stroking my chin stopped. Then his whole hand -- and Hutch has large hands -- settled against my jaw. His fingers stretched out all along the side of my face, like he was holding it. He looked into my eyes and his voice was so soft. "There won't ever again be anyone else for the rest of my life."

    Aw, shit, I was gonna faint right there. I mean, hell. Even if you've been a good person, sometimes it's damn scary having everything you've always wanted. It just seemed too simple, too easy.

    But, dammit, now that I had him I wasn't ever, ever, ever gonna let him go.

    And I think I woulda fainted, too, except his eyes held me up. They were so intense, so deep, so sure.

    "Okay," I said. It came out a little meek. I'm not sure why. But then I wanted real bad to do something, instead of just standing there basking in the wonderfulness of it, because then maybe it would disappear before I had a chance to take it and lock it away where no one else could ever touch it. I had to take a deep breath, but then I asked, "So, when are we gonna have a honeymoon?"

    His finger reached to my nose, then dropped off the tip of it. "When we get back to LA. We'll still have a week and a half of vacation."

    I took another deep breath. "Okay."

    He took a few steps up so he was standin' almost beside me, and he took my hand. With concern, he asked, "You going to be all right?"

    I beamed at him. "Hutch, I'm more 'all right' than I've ever been in my whole entire life."

    He reached for me. "Come 'ere." And then suddenly he lifted me and was holding me tight against him, and he placed a real firm kiss just below my throat. I was startin' to get a hard-on, but I really didn't want to do anything right there. I'd done it outside once before, years ago, and it was more trouble than it was worth. But it could be fun anticipatin'....

    When my feet were back on the ground, I asked, "You wanna go all the way tonight?"

    His head shook. "Uh-uh," he said easily, like he'd already thought about it. "Wait until our honeymoon." He shrugged. "We'll be much more comfortable back at home." And, then, correctly reading the look on my face, he assured, "We can still play around until then."

    "Okay," I agreed with enthusiasm. We held hands as we made our way back to the car. I was feelin' real fond of the whole state of Minnesota right about then.

* * *

    It's crazy what love can to you. I mean, I'd known Hutch for years. I'd known him intimately for years, considerin' our closeness an' all. But, hell, sitting across from him at the dining room table, you'd think that we'd just discovered each other. And, I guess, we had, in a manner of speaking. But only as far as the bedroom was concerned. Everything else shoulda still been the same.

    But it wasn't. I mean, Hutch sat there sipping at his soup with a spoon, and I was just so... so damn aware of him. I mean, more than usual. We'd always been real big on eye contact and being conscious of where each other was, physically, whenever we were in a room together. It makes it a helluva lot easier to get out of dangerous situations, being so tuned in to each other like that. But now we were supposed to be on vacation, and I seemed to know every little shift of his body, every little sigh, every little spot he itched and scratched at. Even the way he buttered his bread seemed to fascinate me.

    I think he was havin' the same problem, because he kept looking up at me. Our eyes would meet, then we would sorta grin at each other. I couldn't wait for the evening to be over so we could go up to his room. Though I knew, in reality, we could go up whenever we damn well pleased. It wasn't like anyone was going to stop us.

    The table was pretty quiet, and I realized a bit guiltily that Hutch and I weren't helping the situation, being so wrapped up in each other. So I cleared my throat and turned to Suzette, who was sitting next to Hutch. "How was your friend, Nancy?" We hadn't needed to pick Suzette up at the end of the day, because Nancy had dropped her off.

    "She's doing very well. In fact, she intends to move out to your area soon. She's sending out resumes for a position in television marketing."

    Mr. H. snorted from where he sat at the head of the table. He'd hardly said a word since we got back. "Nancy Lidderson always reached higher than her capabilities. Her family has a history of that. It's no wonder they live in the poor area of town. They've lost all their money doing things that didn't make any sense."

    Well, there didn't seem anything "poor" about the neighborhood when Hutch and I had dropped Suzette off. But I guess he meant relatively speaking....

    Hutch looked down the table at his father, his jaw firm. "It's a good thing Nancy doesn't have you around to discourage her."

    Mrs. H. was sitting next to me, and she screwed up her face at Hutch. "Kenneth," she scolded.

    Hutch reached for his water. "It's true, Mother. Everyone here knows it." He sipped from his glass, then said, "Father never did like to see people succeed at things."

    Now, I was feelin' a little nervous, wondering if tempers were gonna start to blow. But Mr. H. was calm when he replied, "That's right. There's nothing to celebrate when success is obtained by people who don't deserve it."

    "And I suppose," Hutch went on, mustache twitching, "you're the one who's going to play judge and jury regarding whether someone else 'deserves' it or not."

    "I have a right to my opinion."

    "Well," Suzette spoke up, but she was sorta of playing with her water glass and not meeting her father's eye, "Nancy is my friend, and I don't care what your opinion of her is."

    I had to nod at her, because I was proud of her for saying that.

    Mr. H. grunted. "You aren't telling me anything I don't already know. You've never listened to me. Neither of you ever have." He sounded, even to me, like a broken record. But I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. Sorry for the whole family. None of them were interested in fixing any of their communication problems.

    Hutch looked like he was preparing a retort to that, but then Mrs. H. suddenly reached for a dish and loudly said, "Would you like some more mashed potatoes, David?"

    It turned everyone's attention to me, like she was trying to remind them that there was a guest in the house and they should stick to being silent. I wasn't sure what I preferred -- the silence or the honest anger that wasn't ever going to solve anything. I finally decided to just be polite. "Yes, thank you."

    She dipped an overly-large helping onto my plate. I obediently attacked it with a spoon.

    Suzette looked at her brother, and her voice was a little lower, as though trying not to draw too much attention from their father. "Where did you two go today?" Her glance included me.

    "All the old haunts," Hutch smiled at her. He started naming then off. Then, "It brought back a lot of memories."

    Something occurred to me just then. "But this wasn't the first time you've visited them since you moved to LA, right?"

    He nodded at me. Man, his eyes were so blue, so soft. "Yes, it is. When I've come back before, I never had time for that."

    Mrs. H. piped in, "That's because he only stayed long enough for whatever wedding or funeral there was, then left."

    "Gosh, I wonder why I left so quickly."

    I narrowed my eyes at Hutch then. He isn't very attractive when he gets sarcastic.

    He darted his eyes away from me, then looked at his mother. "I'm only spending the time now because I wanted Starsky to see where I'd grown up. But, when it gets down to it, there really isn't a lot to show, is there?" His voice was getting angry, and it was hard sitting across from him, listening to the hurt.

    Mrs. H. turned her attention back to her plate. Honest, I don't think she understood the point he was making.

    But I guess Mr. H. did. "Everyone makes their own bed, Kenneth. And once it's made, you have to sleep in it."

    Hutch grunted at his father. "Yes. Well, I've made mine. It took me a while to get all the pieces together, but it's mine and I'm proud of it." I swear, I could see his nostrils flaring.

    I hoped they weren't going to keep talking like this. I get lost real quick when people started using meta-whatevers. And it made me squirm, all the talk about beds. If the Hutchinsons only knew how much they were on my mind... and his....

    "Then why are you crying about there not being a lot to show?" Mr. H. demanded, staring at Hutch.

    Hutch's face turned red, like he was gonna boil over. "Because somewhere over the years, Daddy, it's dawned on me that one's family is supposed to be a place of support. A place where they can always turn to, even when, especially when, everything else in their life has fallen apart. I never felt that support here. Not when I was two, not when I was ten, not when I was fifteen, and certainly not now. The only thing that kept me going when I lived here was my dream of getting out. Finding my own life, a real life. Not a phony," he curled his lip at the ceiling, "exterior that hides all the hollowness within."

    Suzette had gotten real interested in her food, and my mouth had fallen open. Hutch looked like he wanted to hit something, and Mrs. H. just sort of stroked at her throat, like if she rubbed enough she could make all the tension go away. But Mr. H. was once again undaunted and it occurred to me that he'd heard it all before.

    "That exterior," he said firmly, "is the roof that protected your spoiled little life. My money kept you in food and clothing. Your mother," he indicated his wife, "cleaned your dirty little behind when you were a helpless, screaming infant. And all we got in return was your willful, stubborn rejection of everything we tried to give to you."

    Hutch was staring at his plate. I knew what he was gonna say. It was right there on the tip of his tongue. His teeth gnawed at his lip, he wanted to say it so bad.

    But he didn't. And I couldn't believe it. And I wanted to say it for him, but I was afraid I'd somehow mess it up, plus I didn't feel quite right arguing with his parents. It would make him seem weak in their eyes if I had to speak up for him.

    Suzette said it. She was still staring at her own plate, and her voice was small, but she said it very clearly. "None of those things mean anything, Father, when there's no love behind them."

    Everything was silent for a long time, like maybe five seconds.

    "Is that what you think?" Mr. H. asked. "The both of you? You're crying about not being loved after all your mother and I provided for you? If not giving your children every opportunity isn't love, then I guess I don't know the meaning of the word." He looked from them to his wife. "Elizabeth, pass the gravy, please."

    "Why yes, dear." She snatched it up, grateful as hell to have something to do.

    Hutch shook his head, then looked at Mr. H. as he dipped out a serving of gravy. He was breathing kinda hard, like the adrenaline pumping through his veins was gettin' difficult to control.

    And then Mr. H. met his eye. "Am I wrong, Kenneth, about the meaning of the word?" His tone was confident that he wasn't.

    Hutch continued to stare at him, and then he suddenly dropped his gaze, blinking rapidly. And then he straightened. "It doesn't matter," he replied in a small voice.

    Mr. H. grunted with disapproval. "I thought so."

    Suzette seemed a little disappointed in her brother, but she didn't say anything, either. And I think Hutch was disappointed in himself. But in those few seconds of thinking it through, he must have reached the same conclusion that I did. And he did the right thing, by backing down.

    See, I was wrong before. I thought that, maybe, if they all made an effort, maybe they could get through all the bad stuff from the past, and start actually acting like a family. But Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson just downright didn't have the tools. They had no idea what else was required of them. And that wasn't their fault. In fact, it was downright sad. Have I said yet that I pitied them?

    Hutch dabbed at his face with a napkin. "Excuse me." He got up from his chair, then looked at me. "You coming?"

    "Uh," I hesitated, because I really did want to come, but I also didn't want to be rude to these people. Plus, it might actually do Hutch some good to be alone a bit. And he seemed to realize that, for his face softened, like he was trying to tell me that I shouldn't feel pressured to say "Yes" just because he'd asked. "I think I'll stick around for dessert."

    He smiled at me. All warm, like nothing bad had happened the past few minutes. "Okay. See you later."

    Everyone listened to him go up the stairs. Then Mrs. H. smiled and stood. "Everyone ready for dessert?"

    "That'd be great," I said. The other two Hutchinsons mumbled something.

    She brought out Jell-O with bananas in it and whipped cream on top. She served everyone a plate. After the first bite, Mr. H. said to me, "I bet your family is proud of you, David." He said it like he approved.

    "Yes, they are," I told him. "They're real proud of Hutch, too. Love him like a son." I inwardly cringed, wishing I'd chosen a different word. "Love" was a real touchy subject right now.

    But he just grunted, involved in his dessert. "They can have him then."

    Shit. I shoulda seen that coming, but it hurt like hell nevertheless. And, the thing of it was, I didn't even have any desire to hurt him back. I mean, he had the two most wonderful children in the whole, wide world, and he didn't even know it. I couldn't hurt him any worse.

    But I couldn't just stay quiet. "They've already adopted him," I said casually. "You might even say they treat him like a prince. Because they know how well he takes care of me." Well, it was a bit of a romantic exaggeration, but Hutch always felt comfortable around my family. Through the corner of my eye, I could see Suzette watching me.

    Mrs. H. reached over and patted my hand. Her hand felt real cold. "We're glad you're taking care of Kenneth, too."

    Since you didn't? I wanted to ask her. But there was no point in it.

    I stuffed down my dessert as quickly as I could, because I suddenly had a real desire to be away from there. But once I'd excused myself from the table, I really didn't want to go up to Hutch yet, either. Because once I went into his room, there wouldn't be any comin' out until morning. And I needed some air.

    I went out to the back porch. It was kinda chilly, but the air felt good. I'd only been out there a couple of minutes before Suzette appeared.

    She was all shy again. "Is it all right if I join you?"

    "Sure," I said and indicated a chair. She sat it in, and I sat in the one beside her.

    "I hope," she said, "that Kenneth prepared you for our arguments."

    "Tell you the truth," I said, "I was expecting it to be worse. But you all don't say a whole lot to each other."

    She looked off to one side, and quietly said, "No, we never did."

    I smiled at her. "That was real big of you to stand up to your father like that. It took guts."

    "I have them to thank for my 'guts'," she said dryly, "because I otherwise couldn't had survived living here."

    Surely, it hadn't as bad as all that, but I didn't see any point in saying so.

    "You and Kenneth," she said softly, like she really wanted to say something but was almost afraid to, "you... you both seem to care about each other a lot." It was almost like her voice was full of wonder... and a million questions.

    I shrugged. "Yeah, we do. Though the word 'care' is only the beginning." I had to shake my head in amazement, thinking about it. "Hutch and me are really close." I nodded, confirming it to her and to myself. "What we have together is really special."

    "It must be something, having a friend like that."

    I turned to look at her. "Come on, Suzette, you have lots of friends."

    "But not like you and Kenneth."

    I considered that. "No one that I know has a friendship like me and your brother. But that's no reason to discount the friendships you do have. Developing a relationship takes time, energy, and sacrifice. It doesn't happen just because you'd like it to. There has to be something about the chemistry between you. And that's something that just... well, just happens. You can't create it outta thin air."

    "I don't discount my friends," she said firmly, then she softened again. "It's just been... nice... watching the two of you together."

    I lost interest in the subject because I realized there was something I wanted to tell her real bad, before it was too late. "You know, Suzette, your brother is real fond of you."

    She kinda bowed her head. "I know."

    "You two oughtta stick together more, in my opinion. It's too bad you live on different coasts."

    "We've never needed to see each other a lot, to know we care."

    "That's nice," I said. "But it'd still be nice if you could see each other more. I'd love to have you come out to LA for a visit, when you can really enjoy it." The last time she'd come was when Hutch had been sick from the plague. I hadn't called any of his family until we were sure he was gonna pull through. I mean, that's just the way it worked out because there never was any time prior to that. His parents had made noises on the phone, wondering how he was. But they didn't come. Suzette stayed a coupla days. I didn't get to meet her because I was comatose from exhaustion.

    She was quiet a moment. Then, "Maybe I will."

    "Bring that husband of yours, too."

    She nodded. "I might do that."

    "I never had a sister. Is it okay if I adopt you?"

    She sorta giggled at my words. Then she shrugged. "Sure."

    I kissed her on the cheek. "Deal. Now we're siblings." I wished I could tell her that she was honest-to-God practically my sister-in-law. But I liked the idea of her just downright being "Sis" better. "Okay if I call you 'Sis'?"

    She giggled again, then shrugged.

    "You sure?"

    She nodded, but I got the feeling she thought it was really silly.

    I stood. "I'm going upstairs now and see how your brother's doing."

    She turned to me, suddenly years more mature. "Kenneth is okay. My family has arguments like that all the time."

    It was touching that she was so concerned about my concern. "Thanks," I said. "But I hope he won't mind a little company. See you 'round, Sis."

    I went back in the house, barely nodded to Mr. and Mrs. H, who had taken residence in the living room, and trotted up the stairs.

* * *

    When I opened the door, I found Hutch lying on top of his bed, his knees up, one leg crossed over the other. It looked like he'd been staring at the ceiling, except when I entered he was looking at me, of course. In other circumstances, it would have been sorta funny, the image he presented. I mean, he was 34 years old, and he looked like he was someone confined to their room for not doin' their chores, or somethin'.

    But, anyway, when he saw me he was all smiles. "Hey, there, buddy."

    "Hi ya," I said as I moved toward the bed.

    "Sorry you had to witness that. Not very pretty, huh?"

    I sat down on the bed, resting my back against the headboard. Then I put my hand on the top of his head. "For what it's worth, Hutch, from somewhat of an outsider's perspective, I think you did the right thing when you backed down from your father."

    He seemed sorta sadly amused. "You mean when Suzette spoke up instead?"

    "Uh-huh. Because your father wasn't going to get it, no matter what was said."

    He sighed real heavy. "Yeah, I think I realized that a long time ago. But after some time passes, I always feel like maybe I can get through to him."

    "But you know," I told him, "even if you could, it really wouldn't help, would it? I mean, it wouldn't take away all that emptiness when you two were kids."

    This time his sigh was real small. "Yeah, I've told myself that, too." Then he turned to look up at me, his hand brushing along my arm. "Was dessert good?"

    "It was okay. I spent a little time talkin' to Suzette afterwards."


    I smiled at him. "Yeah. I told her I was adopting her as my sister, since I didn't have one. Told her I was gonna call her 'Sis'."

    He chuckled, real light-like. "I bet she liked that."

    "It was hard to tell. She might have thought it was kinda silly, but, yeah, I think she liked it." We were a little quiet, then I asked, "Hutch, what is it about her? I mean, your parents ignore her even more than they do you. And, you know, she seems like such a sweet kid."

    His eyes lowered. Then he looked away, toward the wall. I knew right then that I'd struck a nerve, and in a way I was glad -- I mean, that there was some kind of explanation for all her shy frailness. But then he swallowed real hard and didn't say nothin', so maybe he wasn't gonna tell me. And then I got a feeling of dread, that there was something real bad that happened and I wasn't gonna like it.

    I didn't like seeing the struggle that was goin' on inside him, so I patted his arm. "Hey, it's okay if you don't wanna tell me."

    It's always struck me funny how reverse psychology works -- though that's not what I was trying to do -- because he started to tell me. But first he had to draw a real deep breath. Then, he said, "She was molested when she was seven." His voice was kinda shaky.

    "Molested?" I said, whispering. I felt real bad for her right away, but to tell you the truth, I wasn't real sure what Hutch meant. I mean, people use that word to mean all sorts of things. "What happened?"

    He was still looking away. And his voice was choked. "Our uncle -- my father's brother -- got to her. That's why she can't have children."

    It took a moment for the second sentence to register. "You mean he raped her?" Aw, shit, who could do that? Especially to a helpless little seven-year-old?

    He nodded, and his voice was real small. "Uh-huh."

    I slid down in the bed, then took him in my arms. "Hey," I tried to get him to look at me, and finally had to take his chin and turn it toward me. His eyes were all watery. "What happened, huh? Can you tell me what happened?" I mean, I was feelin' all outraged and everything, but I was more concerned about Hutch right then.

    He turned toward me, pressed his cheek against my chest. But he was looking down at the bed. "Our aunt and uncle were visiting from Florida." His brows came together, like he was tryin' real hard to remember. "I don't know exactly how it came about. Except, for a few days, I know I was uncomfortable with how he looked at her. And then the last night they were here," he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, "I remember hearing her crying -- almost screaming. I kept listening for our parents to get up and go to her -- do something -- but it became apparent that they weren't. And then I knew that whatever was going on, they were going to allow it by not interfering. So, I got up." He took another deep, shaky breath. "I was real scared, Starsk."

    "How old were you?" I asked gently.

    "Thirteen. I wasn't sure what was going on, but I knew whatever it was it was something awful. But I couldn't stand hearing her suffer anymore. I was already mad as hell at myself for letting it go on while I waited for someone else to act." I could tell, by the way he said it, that he still hadn't forgiven himself. I squeezed his shoulder and waited for the rest. "I went down to her room, and as I got closer, I could hear her crying, 'Stop it', pleading with him. I pushed open the door, and there was my uncle's bare ass, bent over her. I attacked him, took him by surprise, threw him off." He took a breath, waited a moment. "If I'd had a weapon, I would have killed him, Starsk. But I just kept hitting him and hitting him. He was so caught off guard that he didn't even try to fight back. He just crawled out of the room." Hutch closed his eyes then, and it was another moment before he could go on. "She was bleeding and crying. I tried to comfort her -- put my arms around her -- but I knew she needed a doctor. I kept wondering why my parents didn't get up, with all the commotion. Oh, God, Starsk, I didn't want to leave her alone, but I ran downstairs and called the ambulance. When I got back to her, she seemed in shock. She wasn't crying anymore, she was just staring into space. That scared me more than anything."

    Hutch was breathing real hard, like he must have been back then. My insides were goin' crazy, trying to understand what it must have been like, but tryin' not to think about it too much because it made me feel like I wanted to get back at everyone who was responsible. So hard to believe, it all happening in this same house, with these same people.

    I found Hutch's hand, then squeezed it. Then I just held it.

    "I ran into my parents' room," he went on softly. "I was screaming at them that Suzette needed help. They looked like I had just woken them up, but..." he shook his head, "there was no way they couldn't have not heard what was going on. And then they acted like I was over-reacting, and they were kind of upset that I'd called the ambulance, when she could just be driven to the hospital. They didn't want to draw attention from the neighbors. And you know," he sort of snorted, shaking his head, "in all of that going on, nothing was ever mentioned about what had actually happened.I didn't say anything about my uncle, and they didn't ask. That told me more than anything that they knew what had happened. No one even knocked on his bedroom door, to ask him about it, or to tell him what was going on. Everyone just..." he shook his head in disbelief, "ignored it."

    "Where was your aunt in all this?" I asked in a whisper, squeezing again.

    "Oh, she was asleep," he said. "She always took all these drugs that knocked her out for the night. So, I'm sure she really did sleep through it all."

    I was trying real hard to stay calm. "Then what happened?"

    Hutch shrugged. His voice was real soft. "The ambulance came and took her to the hospital. My parents followed behind in the car, and I went with them. They took her home after a day or two, but no one ever talked about what happened."

    "Oh, Jesus, Hutch. I bet no one said anything to your uncle, either."

    He shook his head again. "I'm not sure. But we never him saw again. The next day, he and my aunt quietly packed their bags and went back to Florida."

    I really didn't know what to say to all this. It's hard enough when things like this happen in the present, but so many years ago.... "I guess Suzette was a mess after that, huh?"

    "Yeah." Then he looked up at me, his eyes still moist. "She's come a long ways, Starsk. For a long time, she wouldn't talk to hardly anyone. I think she started getting help in high school -- you know, when she could do it confidentially and our parents didn't have to know. She's had a lot of therapy since."

    I know I shouldn't have been surprised, but it all made me so angry. "You mean they didn't do anything for her after it happened?"

    Hutch laughed, real sorry and bitter-like. "Good Lord, of course not. They couldn't have anyone -- not even a psychiatrist -- know what happened." He was silent a sec... well, more than a sec. Then he swallowed like his throat was all swollen. Real soft, he said, "They blamed her, you know."

    That did it. My voice practically screeched. "How could they? She was seven years old!"

    He looked at me. "I know. But they just tuned her out after that. Treated her like... like something ugly." He took a deep, shuddering breath, and sort of looked away.

    I laid my hand on the center of his chest. Gently, I said, "No wonder you're so protective of her. You must have been all she had for a long time."

    He shook his head. "I didn't help, Starsk. I didn't do anything for her, except she knew that I knew and that I didn't blame her. But in the realm of what she needed, it really wasn't anything."

    Hutch didn't say anything more after that. And looking at him, seeing this man who has been my partner for so long, through thick and thin, it made me realize, more than ever, how easily human beings are able to hide things. Because, you know, I'd always known that still waters run deep, that Hutch had lots of still waters, but I never woulda guessed anything like this from his past. But it did explain a lot about Suzette's fragility. And about her strength. Even I could see that she'd come a long ways from having endured something like that.

    And it really did say a lot about the kind of people their parents were. And I wondered how I'd ever be able to look them in the face again without making accusations. And now the word 'pity' seemed to only be the beginning of how I felt about them.

    And knowing the uncle never had to stand trial -- or even questioning -- for his crime. It just didn't make a whole lotta sense. But I also knew that getting all bent out of shape about it wasn't gonna help anything. It was over and past. Hutch survived and so did Suzette.

    And plus I didn't want to think about it real hard because it was all so horrible.

    Hutch suddenly squeezed his eyes shut, and his chest heaved just as a gasp came out of his mouth... like it was strangled because he was tryin' to hold it in. I stroked his cheek, leaned closer to him. "Hey," I beckoned softly, "don't hold it in. I'm right here. Right here."

    He drew another deep breath, like he was trying to make himself relax, and his eyelids weren't pinched anymore, though they were still closed. "Starsk," he said in a small voice.

    I could feel his body trembling. It sort of scared me, because it made me wonder what was coming next. I pressed him closer against me. "What, buddy? What?"

    He tried to force a smile, and it created a funny expression because he couldn't really pull it off and plus his eyes were still closed. But he breathed real deep and said, real quiet, "I've never told anyone before."

    I guess I had assumed that. I mean, what happened to Suzette isn't the kind of thing you can tell your friends about, and you certainly can't tell other family members.

    But it suddenly dawned on me what Hutch meant. He had kept it inside all these years. And now he had given voice to his secret, so he was free of it. He smiled a little and opened his eyes. They weren't watery anymore. Just bright.

    I hugged him closer against me. He reached up and ran a finger along my lips, and his voice was so light and airy. "I'm glad you're here."

    "So'm I," I said, gathering him even closer.

    And we sorta lay like that for a long time, mainly just holding each other. I mean, I ran my finger along his mustache every now and then, but it was just an "I'm here" kind of thing... not meant to get him going or anything. And it was real pleasing to know that we could still be like that for each other. That the new element in our lives wasn't going to change the way we were together all that much.

    He sort of closed his eyes, and I think he actually dozed a bit, and maybe I did a little, too. Eventually, he said, "Do you want to get the light?"

    I guess he asked me because I was closest to the door. So I got up and went to the light switch. Right before I turned it off, he turned on the lamp beside the bed.

    I turned around, and he was looking at me -- well, almost bashful-like -- and he was sitting up a little and starting to unbutton his shirt. It was almost like he was trying to make sure that I was thinking the same things he was, and he just wanted to be sure. So, I wanted to assure him and, standing beside the bed, I started to unbutton my shirt, too.

    And it struck me as real funny that we'd be just a tad shy undressing in front of each other. I mean, Hutch and I have dressed and undressed in front of each other a million times. We've dressed and undressed each other quite a few times, too. I mean, it's real hard getting into a shirt by yourself when your arm is in a sling, or trying to pull the zipper up on your pants, or even getting your pants on when your leg is in a cast. And that's just the injuries. That doesn't even count all the little things you do to help each other when one of ya is weak as a kitten from illness.

    But I guess we were a little shy because we knew that by taking off our clothes, it meant that before the night was over we were going to make each other feel real good, physically. And, actually, I'm not sure why that would make one shy, but it seems like it always does.

    And it was kinda funny, too, that I don't think we really knew what we were gonna do; I mean, since we'd agreed to save the serious stuff for when we got back to LA. I mean, "just fooling around" can mean a lot of different things. But I guess we both knew it was going to be pleasant enough that it was worth bein' shy about.

    And we'd only gotten our shirts off when Hutch reached over and turned off the lamp. He tried to look nonchalant about it, but I could tell that he wasn't. He was nervous. And that seemed strange, too. And I wondered if maybe it was because we were both looking forward to pleasing each other sexually, and sex was the very thing that had hurt Suzette so much, so maybe we both thought we should feel a little guilty about the pleasure we sought.

    Or maybe not.

    See, once I got rid of my pants and crawled into bed beside him, it was just like last night in that there wasn't any room for anybody else. It was just me and him... and all the warmth there could ever be in the world. And we did things to each other without our mouths ever going lower than each other's chest, and with our hands never rubbing harder than simply firm. And it was the best loving I'd ever known.

    The next day, it was me who changed the reservations. And we were in LA before dusk.

* * *

    See, I'd gone out there to learn more about Hutch. And in some ways I did. But I guess what I learned most was about myself. Mainly that there really is no substitute for love, and everything I'd always wanted in my life I'd had for the past eight years. And I also learned that you can't change people who don't want to be changed, and that everyone has their own private hells, and maybe overcoming them -- or learning to accept them -- is what really makes life worthwhile. And when you have the courage to change your life, the way Hutch and Suzette did, you have something that no one else can ever take away: a certain sense of self, a certain inner knowledge that's the best tool you can have for proceeding with the journey of your life.

    And sharing that journey is the best thing of all.

    And I'm glad Hutch chose me as the one to share it with.


This story originally appeared in the fanzine HEART AND SOUL, published by Charlotte Frost in 1994.

Early comments on this story are posted here.

Current feedback can be sent to regmoore@earthlink.net

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