Charlotte Frost


    I've always been a strong believer in keeping your eyes on the road while driving, but I couldn't help but glance periodically to my right as the Torino threaded its way through the Thursday mid-morning traffic. It was a nice, sunny September day. Traffic was sparse, but I found myself driving carefully, not trying to dodge any yellow lights. I'm not sure why, because I don't think I was doing Starsky any favors by stalling the inevitable.

   He was all hunched down in the passenger seat, the same old blue jeans, a pale blue t-shirt, and his blue windbreaker. He'd asked earlier what he was supposed to wear, and I told him it didn't matter, considering he'd be taking it all off in a short while. Of course, the major difference in his appearance was his lack of a weapon, which had been left at home. But his shades were pulled down over his eyes, and his mouth was wearing that little frown that had persisted there the past two months. In his lap was his little blue duffel bag. He presented a pathetic picture. But I'd run out of encouraging words some time ago, so I wasn't saying much at all. Besides, words don't work with him as much as just being there.

   We stopped at yet another light, and I reached over and patted his shoulder. "Hey, watch those frown lines. You'll get wrinkles."

   He made a heavy sigh, like he was apologizing for not being in the mood for a retort.

   "Just think, Starsk, a few hours from now and it'll all be over." Of course, it really wouldn't be, but I was thinking about the part he was most afraid of.

   "Yeah, sure," he pouted. Assuming I survive it, I know he was thinking.

   We were silent as we continued from light to light, then he suddenly looked over at me and asked, "How come in, all this time, you haven't said anything?"

   I didn't know what he meant. "About what?"

   "About how my gall bladder got full of stones in the first place."

   "Oh," I said, "you mean your poor eating habits that I've been ragging on for years?"


   I shrugged. "Being operated on is punishment enough, isn't it?"

   He perked up a little then. "Well, Doc didn't say it was necessarily from my eating habits. I mean, some people get lung cancer even when they've never smoked."

   I sighed wearily. "Starsk, if you're determined to go back to your same old food habits after this is all over, it's not like I can stop you. I'd just tend to think something like this would make you reconsider some of your ways. But I'm not going to sit here and lecture you about it." I hoped he was grateful that I hadn't lectured him at all, especially since it had been damned tempting.

   Well, in a way it had. In another way, I felt downright sorry for him. It didn't seem right. My buddy has had his body torn open by bullets, and then torn open some more by surgeon's scalpels looking for those bullets and trying to repair the damage they'd caused. And all those scars stemmed from the line of duty. So it wasn't fair that now Starsky was going under the knife again, for no reason other than that his gall bladder decided it liked to create little stones. And unlike those other times, when the surgeries were a frantic matter of saving his life, in this case he'd had two months to think about it.

   It had all started a while back with him going through bouts of not feeling well. It was never anything serious enough to keep him from work, or to in any way incapacitate him; but he'd just up and say, out of the blue, "I don't feel very good." It was usually an hour or so after he'd eaten. When I started to nag him about seeing a doctor, he quit complaining. Then when it was time for the annual departmental physicals in July, I guess the way he answered some of the questions on the form alerted the doctors. They made him take some tests, and the next thing we knew he was being scheduled for surgery, two months hence, to have his gall bladder removed.

   It didn't matter that it was a routine operation, didn't matter that the doctor said it was one of his favorite surgeries "because the patient always feels better afterwards" -- Starsk was still scared out of his wits from day one. And it's not that I blame him. The idea of having someone cut into your body, especially when there's nothing seriously wrong with you, is something that no human being in their right mind would look forward to. On the other hand, making it into more than it was wasn't going to solve anything. So, I tried to be as encouraging as I could.

   But Starsky still insisted on seeing an attorney to update his will "just in case." I told him he was being morbid, but I have to admit it came at a convenient time. We'd been meaning to get a Power of Attorney for each other, and just never had gotten around to it. One night, maybe six months ago, we'd started talking about how our affairs would be handled if one of us died or was in a coma. We agreed that we wanted each other to have that responsibility. And that included making the decision to pull the plug, if one of us was in a vegetative state. It's not easy talking about things like that, and we both downed a fair number of beers during the conversation. Before the night was over, we'd gotten maudlin and were sniffling and clinging to each other. Neither of us wanted to ever be a vegetable, but we forgave each other in advance that night for taking a long time to pull the plug, if the one left behind was having a hard time coming to terms with letting the other go.

   We used to have different attorneys, of course. But mine moved out of state, so it just made sense to have Starsky's lawyer, a Mr. Anderson, handle my affairs, too. That way, one person would have a better chance of understanding how important we were to each other, and therefore not cause any hassles for the one left behind. So, Starsk and I went to see him earlier in the week. I have to admit, after all these years my partner still surprises me sometimes. He's usually such a little kid. But when the situation calls for it, he can be so mature that it's mind-boggling. And as we sat there in Anderson's office, carefully going through each of our wills, detail by detail, Starsky was so attentive and involved in what was being said that you would have thought him some kind of Harvard graduate, blue jeans and all. I was real proud of him.

   After leaving the building, Starsky had asked me, "So, whaddya think? Anderson's pretty cool, huh?"

   I glanced at him as we made our way to the car. "I think he thinks we're queers."

   He seemed surprised at that, his innocent expression contorting itself into a puzzled frown. But Starsky didn't dwell on that aspect. Instead, he said, "Well, even if he does, it's not like it's gonna affect how he handles our affairs."

   He needed reassurance, so I went to the point. "Right. I didn't mean otherwise. I just think he thinks that we're queers."

   Starsky sighed then, as we reached the car. "Well... it doesn't bother you, does it? I mean, since when have you ever cared what other people think?"

   "I don't. I'm just saying he thinks we're queers." I shrugged. "He's great, Starsk. I trust him. It's good having all that stuff taken care of."

   Actually, the problem with taking care of things in case of your demise is that once you have everything figured out to your satisfaction, it suddenly dawns on you that you have to die before any of your plans can be carried out. I've always thought there was something weird about that.

   Of course, Starsky's mind in recent weeks hadn't been on anything else but dying. He kept pointing out the stories he'd heard -- people not waking up from surgery because they were put under too deep; people having a cardiac arrest even in the midst of a very simple procedure; patient records getting switched and having something removed that wasn't supposed to be removed. In fact, as a prime example of the latter case, Starsky has told me no less than 80 times about the man who went in for an appendectomy and had his penis removed instead.

   "They cut off his dick, Hutch," Starsky kept saying. "He went to court over it, but he ain't never gonna get his dick back. It got tossed out with the trash."

   I finally got so sick of listening to that story that I told him, "Starsky, if they accidentally cut off your cock, I'll still love you, anyway. All right?" He finally shut up after that.

   But he was still scared, and grew more so as the dreaded day approached. Of course, I stayed with him last night. He wasn't supposed to eat or drink anything after seven o'clock, so I was there to make sure he didn't, though I knew he wouldn't dare take a chance on disobeying doctor's orders and causing something to go wrong. But I stayed there anyway, because I knew he'd need someone to complain to about the injustice of it. And he did complain -- but not nearly as much as I'd expected. He was too busy worrying himself silly about everything that could go wrong. And of course he didn't get any sleep. And that meant I didn't, either. There's drawbacks to being so closely tuned to each other.

   Finally, we were at Memorial. I drove around the parking lot twice before finding an open space. I pulled the Torino into it, and as we got out, Starsky looked at the tomato for a long time, like he might never see it again. He'd been that way earlier in the morning.

   "Oh, no," he'd insisted, "we aren't taking that heap of yours to the hospital." He looked me right in the eye. "This could be my last ride, you know. I want to take the Torino."

   All my protests about how full of nonsense he was died on my lips. I'm not sure why. It just suddenly didn't seem important to argue with him about it. But I didn't want him behind the wheel in the mood he was in. "Fine, but I'm driving." He didn't say a word, just got in the passenger seat.

   We walked into the main receiving area and followed the signs to the check-in counter. Starsky pulled out all his paperwork from two days prior, when he'd gone in for some sort of "pre-admission" thing, where they took samples of his body fluids and did other routine tests, and had him fill out most of the forms. So, he didn't have to spend much time at the counter. Then we were told what room he was assigned to and where to find it.

   It was on the fifth floor. We didn't talk as we rode the elevator, but I was glad that when the doors opened the floor appeared to be newly remodeled. We checked in at the nurse's station and were led to the room. When the arrangements had first been made, Starsky had asked for a private room, even though it meant he'd have to pay himself for the difference between that and a regular room. But we knew it would be worth it. In addition to not having to deal with a roommate, it had been our experience that visiting hours aren't as strongly enforced in private rooms.

   Once in the room, which also looked new and therefore a little more welcoming than most, the nurse, Holly, looked at her watch and said, "You're scheduled for surgery in about 45 minutes." She indicated a white pile at the edge of the bed. "Get completely undressed, put this on, and I'll be back to take your temperature and start an IV."

   Starsky took a deep breath. "I have to take off my underwear, too?" He was dead serious, though considering how many times he'd been in those hospital smocks, he surely already knew the answer. But I couldn't blame him for asking. If the doctors don't have to be naked during surgery, it's never made sense to me why the patients have to be, if the surgery isn't in that area of the body.

   Holly smiled a little. "Well, you can hang on to them a while if you want, but they have to come off before we take you downstairs."

   I liked her right away. She seemed to understand how vulnerable people can feel in hospitals. It wasn't like she was laughing at him.

   After Holly left, Starsky sat on the edge of the bed and started pulling off his windbreaker. I busied myself with taking his things out of his duffel bag and putting them where I thought they should belong -- his toothbrush, his pj's, his robe, his razor, some comic books. When he was bare-chested and working on his jeans, I took the smock from the end of the bed and unfolded it. "Here, pal, put your arms in this."

   He paused from where he'd been pushing his jeans down his legs, and slipped his arms through the sleeves. I started tying it at the back while he finished with his pants. I tied the last of the little straps just as he was taking off his socks. I picked up his clothes and straightened them out while he laid back on the bed, his hands resting across his stomach.

   He was still plenty uptight. After putting the clothes away in drawer, I sat in a chair beside the bed, listening to him sigh heavily.

   "It'll be over soon, buddy," I told him.

   I think he wanted to answer, but all he could manage was a loud swallow.

   While he stared at the door, waiting for the nurse to return with the dreaded IV, I thought about how naive I'd been when the doctor had first announced that Starsky needed surgery. Honestly, I thought he'd be like a kid. And most kids tend to be excited about the idea of being hospitalized. They relish getting so much attention. It took me a while to realize that Starsk had already had far more than his fair share of hospitals -- he was very adult in that respect.

   The nurse came in with her arms full tubes and needles packaged in plastic. Starsky swallowed again and looked in my direction. I leaned closer to him, placing my hand on his arm.

   "Are you right or left handed?" she asked.


   Holly leaned down to insert a thermometer in his mouth. She seemed to realize how nervous he was, so she didn't say anything, just went about her business, working with his right arm. To tell you the truth, I'd prefer not to be in the room when they put IV's in. I see enough ugly sights in the course of my work that I don't need to watch a big, long needle being stuck into a relatively healthy person. But I knew Starsky would find my presence comforting, so I decided to stay put. I thought hard about something to say that would distract both of us from what she was doing.

   I patted his left arm. "Sure you don't want me to call your mother?" I asked gently. We'd gone over it and over it, but he didn't want any of his relatives notified until it was all over. He kept insisting that he didn't want to upset or worry them, but I think the real reason was because he didn't want to have to exhaust himself by putting on a brave front. After all, Starsky doesn't like letting his weaknesses show. That's reserved for me.

   "No," he mumbled around the thermometer. "But you can call 'em right away -- soon as the doc tells ya it went okay." Then, as he looked at me, his eyes widened and watered just a bit. I knew then what the nurse had just done.

   I squeezed his arm again. "I'll call them. But you know they're going to be mad that I'm calling them after the fact."

   He shook his head, and I could see him gradually start to relax, now that the initial sting of the IV needle was passing. The nurse took the thermometer, and he told me, "No they won't. Remember, I did tell them I was havin' surgery, I just didn't say when."

   Small difference, if you ask me.

   Holly said, "I'll call down now for a gurney." She left again.

   Starsky took a deep breath and tried to settle against the bed. Slowly, his eyes moved to his right arm and then up the tube to the apparatus with the upside down plastic bag. He swallowed again.

   "It's gonna be okay now, partner. Just a little bit longer."

   He stared at the ceiling a moment. Then, with a sense of urgency, he said, "Hutch, I wanna take my underwear off now, before she comes back."

   I don't know why we bother so much with our modesty, when we're in situations where we have so little control of it. But I guess Starsky taking off his own underwear -- rather than waiting for her to tell him to -- was his way of stubbornly maintaining a small degree of control over his own body. Or maybe he was just afraid his underwear was dirty and he didn't want her to see.

   He was working, one-handed, beneath the smock. And I couldn't stand to watch him struggling, so I leaned over the bed and pulled at the opposite side. A moment later they were free, and I pulled open the nearest drawer and tossed them in.

   "Thanks, buddy," he breathed a sigh of relief.

   It was in the nick of time, for the door opened, and she entered, leading the way for a gurney and two accompanying male nurses.

   Starsky gripped my wrist. "Hutch, you mean what you said? If they cut off my cock, you'll still love me?"

   I would have been embarrassed, except he was talking low enough that I don't think they heard, plus I knew he was just downright scared.

   I leaned close to him and brushed my hand back through his hair. That always soothes him. I whispered, "Of course I will. What do I want with your cock, anyway?"

   Then he grinned crookedly, like it struck him for the first time that that prized part of his body didn't have anything to do with me. "Oh. Oh, yeah."

   I had an urge at that moment to tell him I loved him. But the image formed in my head of a Hollywood drama, and people only tell someone in a hospital that right before they're going to die. So, I didn't think it would be the best way to send him off to surgery.

   I kissed him instead. I'm not really sure why. I guess because I was hoping to distract him from his fear, and I wanted to give him something to ponder while he was waiting to be put under. It was just an impulse, and over in an instant. But in that instant I realized how dry his lips were. I felt bad for him, being so afraid. And I couldn't help but feel a bit guilty that I was abandoning him to the wolves.

   The nurse patted the gurney. "Can you move over here? You need to get rid of your underwear, too."

   "Already did," Starsky announced. He glanced at me one last time, then he got out of bed, and I and the nurse helped move the IV stand as he pranced to the gurney and hoisted himself up.

   They were throwing the sheets over him and starting to roll the gurney toward the door. "I'll be right here, buddy, when you wake up," I called after him.

   Holly told me which operating room it was, and were I could wait. I went to the elevator, alone.

* * *

   It's a funny thing about hospitals. They tend to get on your sentimental side. Something about all those people in one building, none of them feeling very well. Some of them will never come out. I suppose probably the only happy place in hospitals is the maternity ward. But then I suppose that can also be the saddest place if your child isn't born healthy.

   The hospital, of course, had a main chapel, but each wing also had its own little chapel area. My throat always tightens when I walk past one of those; I'm not sure why. I guess because I know the only people that will use them are those who are praying for a loved one to pull through. Because there wouldn't be any reason to pray if someone you knew was going to be fine.

   I reached the waiting room that was specifically for the families of those having surgery. There was only one other group of people there, and from snatches of conversation I gathered that their little girl was being operated on for something. I sat down and leafed through a magazine. After over a half hour had passed, a nurse came in looking for the family of David Starsky.

   I got up and she said that the operating room he was scheduled for had just been freed up, so he was taken in a moment ago. I thanked her for the information, but in actuality I was annoyed. That meant he'd been laying there all this time, thinking about what they were going to do to him. As though he hadn't had enough time to worry these past two months.

   I sat down again and leafed through some more magazines, but then gave it up and just stared at the wall. And all of Starsky's fears drifted back to me, only now they were mine instead of his.

   And things really did go wrong sometimes. It's just that none of us wants to think it'll happen to us. And I began to think: what if they did put him under too far, and he couldn't wake up in recovery? What if his heart did stop beating? Lord knows, it had happened once before. He was lucky that time. Maybe, finally, his luck -- our luck -- had run out. I imagined myself calling his relatives and trying, calmly, to explain it to them.

   And the story about the guy who had his cock accidentally removed was true, too, but I know Starsky labored on that just to cover up the fact that what he was really most afraid of was downright dying.

   I scoffed at myself, wondering why I was letting myself get carried away with those thoughts. Starsky had been in enough near-death situations that it was foolish to harp on the "what-ifs" of a simple operation. Of course, the operation itself was really the easy part. It was the days after that were going to be most difficult, and I hadn't let on about that because I was trying to keep Starsk's spirits up. But I called up an old girlfriend and asked her about it, because a friend of hers had had her gall bladder removed. I was told that the first few days afterwards were so painful that the friend had been in almost constant tears. Starsky's doctor, in so many words, had hinted at that. Gall bladders were difficult to get to, and they had to go up underneath the rib cage, so more areas of flesh were disturbed than in most other routine surgeries.

   And I also hadn't dwelled on it because I hadn't wanted to think about it. Really, God, Starsky's already suffered enough in his life. Just because his spirit has always overcome is no reason to knock him down again.

   I finally gave up trying to sit in the waiting room, and resorted to pacing up and down the hall. But then I found myself reluctant to stay away from the waiting room, in case someone was looking for me there with some news.

   I shouldn't have worried so much. Once I sat back down, it was over in an hour. The other family had left, and it was just me there, in that big room.

   Finally the doctor, fresh in his greens, appeared. "You're here for David Starsky?" he asked.

   I stood, nodding, and went up to him.

   "It all went very well," he said quietly. "There were quite a bit of stones, so it's a good thing we got the gall bladder removed. We have no reason to foresee any complications at this point. If you want to go up to his room, they should be bringing him there in the next twenty minutes or so."

   I thanked him and headed for the elevator, feeling on top of the world. All those fears -- both his and mine -- had been so foolish. I couldn't wait to tell him so.

   Once I was back in his room, I sat down and made the phone calls to the relatives he had carefully designated -- his mother, his uncle Al, and his Uncle Frank. They all expressed surprise -- they didn't know the surgery was today -- and I told little white lies about how the hospital was booked up, but suddenly there was an opening so Starsky took it while he could. I told them I had to keep the conversation short, because Starsky was being brought up any moment and would need his rest.

   It was much longer than the twenty minutes that the doctor had said. But, eventually, the door opened and a group of quiet nurses wheeled in the gurney.

   "He's not feeling any pain," Holly smiled at me. "They injected the incision with an anesthetic."

   Well, that was all fine. But it would wear off eventually.

   I stood and looked at Starsk as attendants lowered him to the bed. His eyes were closed -- like he was deeply asleep. But after he was in bed, they suddenly opened wide. "Huh?" he said loudly, like someone startled him.

   I wasn't close enough to touch, because the nurses were still working with the IV tubes and other stuff. But I whispered, "It's all right, Starsk. It all went just fine."

   Holly moved close to him. "Mr. Starsky, if you're tired, go right ahead and rest. Just go to sleep."

   "What happened?" Starsky demanded, his voice still carrying that startled quality.

   The male nurses were leaving with the gurney, and I pulled a chair close to the bed and took my buddy's hand. "Starsk, the surgery is all over. Everything is fine. You're going to be fine. Go ahead and sleep."

   His brain seemed to focus then and his voice was softer. "Hutch?" He was looking toward me.

   I squeezed his hand. "Right here, pal. Everything's fine. You came through like a champ."

   "A champ?" His voice was high-pitched and I knew he had no idea what I was talking about.

   I moved out of the chair and squatted by the bed. I stroked back through his hair. "Go to sleep," I whispered to him. "I'm going to be right here, keeping watch. Go to sleep. Go to sleep." I repeated it over and over, my voice getting softer and softer. And it seemed to be working, for his face relaxed and he seemed to be sleeping deeply, or as deeply as he could. Even with all the drugs, no one I've ever known has ever slept soundly in a hospital.

   I glanced up and blushed when I saw the nurse looking at me with a tender smile. I don't know why I was embarrassed; I guess because I wasn't used to Starsky and me being watched like that. I never expect other people to understand about us.

   Quietly, she said, "He'll probably sleep for a while now. It may be a good opportunity for you to take a break and get some rest yourself."

   I considered it, but shook my head. "I promised him I'd be here when he woke up." But I did go to the cafeteria for a bite to eat.

* * *

   As I said, no one ever sleeps soundly in a hospital. Over the next few hours, Starsky woke up periodically, but just to grunt something or say something that made no sense whatsoever. I would concentrate on encouraging him back to sleep, and throw in a few words about how he was doing great. That seemed to work, but a nurse came in every now and then to check his blood pressure, so that woke him up, too. I've never understood how hospitals expect people to rest.

   It wasn't until it was dark out -- past seven -- that he seemed to wake up for real. His voice was low, strained, and weak. "Hutch?"

   The room was dark and I moved closer to the bed. "Hey, there, buddy, how you doin'?" I grasped his hand.

   He swallowed with difficulty and I leaned closer so he wouldn't have to try so hard to talk. I got a whiff of his breath, and it had that nauseating, dry quality that stems from breathing the anesthetic. Of course, smelling it on another person isn't near as bad as smelling and tasting it throughout your own body. He whispered, "What time's it?"

   "About seven-thirty," I told him. "How you feelin'?"

   He grimaced. "Man. Really hurts."

   I pressed the call button. "I'll see if the nurse can get you something." Then I squeezed his hand. "The doctor said it went great, Starsk. It's all over now."

   He mumbled, "Don't feel like it's over."

   I felt real bad for him then.

   A different nurse -- I guess Holly's shift was over -- came in and I said, "He's in pain. Can you give him anything?"

   She nodded, then started fussing with the IV, then took his blood pressure again. After that, she put a thermometer in his mouth. Then the lights came on and a lady came in and cheerfully announced that she needed a blood sample. While that was going on, the first nurse left. Starsky looked pale and miserable and just sort of stared straight ahead with his eyes barely open. I kept squeezing his hand, but I think what he wanted more than anything was to be left alone.

   The first nurse came back with a new IV, and as she was setting it up, the vampire lady left. Then the nurse said, "Do you need to use a bed pan, Mr. Starsky?"

   He seemed to have trouble comprehending her, so I leaned down to him. "Starsk, do you have to take a leak?" He blinked slowly, like he was thinking about it, or like he didn't want to think about it. I looked up at her. "Why don't you bring one and I'll help him if he needs it."

   She left again and I watched my partner, waiting to see if he was going to give any indication one way or another. We were both pros at assisting with bedpans. It was like a pact we had, helping each other with those sorts of things if at all possible -- and Lord knows we each have had plenty of experience -- and then the nurses didn't have to be involved. Using those things are humiliating enough, but when a close friend is the one who is...uh, handling you, then it makes it a bit easier to tolerate.

   She brought one in -- well, really it was just a plastic bottle, which made a lot more sense than those cold, archaic silver things -- and left it on the side tray. "Don't pour it out," she instructed, then turned.

   "Uh, can you get the light?" I asked her.

   She nodded and shut off the light as she left, leaving the door open just a little ways.

   Starsky seemed to be breathing deeply again, so I relaxed in the chair beside the bed. But after a few moments he stirred, and I squeezed his hand so he'd know I was there.

   "Still here?" he breathed deeply.

   I squeezed again. "Right here, pal. Feeling any better?"

   He swallowed thickly. "Little bit."

   At least the drugs were working. He shifted without really moving, and I ventured, "Need to piss, buddy?"

   "Huh?" he breathed. Then he swallowed. "Yeah. I think."

   "Let me give you a hand," I said, getting up. I reached for the bottle, then brought it beneath the covers. I found everything easily, for I'd learned to not be shy a long time ago. After all the awful bodily ejections Starsky had put up with from me after what Ben Forrest's cronies did, there was nothing I wouldn't do for my buddy.

   "All ready, pal," I told him.

   His face sort of twisted, then he said, "Don't know if I can."

   "Relax," I told him. "Don't try to force it." Really, there's few things worse than trying to piss under pressure. I leaned closer. "You know something, buddy?"

   "What?" he grunted.

   "I can vouch for a fact that all the parts are still there. The surgeon didn't accidentally cut them off."

   I really didn't expect my statement to register with his drugged brain, but Starsky giggled almost right away.

   "You're all intact," I clarified.

   He snorted some more -- like he was being careful not to laugh -- and then he sighed gratefully and I felt the plastic of the bottle grow warm where I held it.

   "Tell me when you're done."

   He didn't say anything for a long time, and after a minute had a passed I wondered if he'd fallen sleep. But I had to be sure before I moved. "All done, buddy?" I whispered.

   "Yeah," he whispered back, his voice laden with weakness.

   I carefully disengaged the parts, then carried the bottle toward the bathroom. I turned on the light and sat it on the sink, trying not to notice that disgusting orange color that piss seems to have when you've been on IV's. It just looks so alien I've always found it nauseating, even when it's been from my own body.

   I spent two seconds washing my hands, then switched off the light and went to sit in the chair beside the bed. Starsky was breathing pretty deep and I stared out the window at the star-filled sky. I stared at it so long that I started to feel insignificant.


   I turned to my partner. "Yeah, pal?" I whispered, leaning close.

   "Go on home. 'm jus' gonna sleep. Go home."

   I could hardly disobey an order like that, and I was weary of the hospital. It amazed me for the zillionth time how Starsky, even when off his feet and weak and hurting, still managed to place my needs above his own. Sometimes, that made me feel even more insignificant than a sky full of stars. And sometimes it made me feel like a king.

   "Okay," I squeezed his hand. "Do you need me to do anything for you before I leave?"

   He made a grunting noise that I took to be a negative answer.

   I took his hand and placed it on the call device. "If you need anything from the nurses, just push the button. Okay, pal?"

   He was still breathing deeply. "'kay."

   I placed my hand on his forehead. "I'll be in tomorrow before I go into work."

   He barely nodded.

   I stood looking down at him in the dark, reluctant to leave. It's always hard, wondering if he might need me at some point when I'm not there. He'd survive, I knew, but it always left me with the feeling that I wasn't doing my duty as his friend...whatever one chooses to call us. I don't think I know anymore. There's no word to describe what's between us.

   And I had the urge to kiss him again...just a peck on the forehead. Starsky accuses me sometimes of thinking too much, so I gave in to the impulse and planted one just beneath his curls. "I love you," I whispered as I pulled back. It was okay to say it now.

   He made a little grunt, the corners of his mouth barely turning up.

   I patted his cheek with a touch so light that I barely felt his skin. "'Night, buddy." I walked away without looking back.

* * *

   Things were different in the daylight, when I went back early the next morning. He looked awful, like someone who hadn't felt well for a long, long time. I would almost say he was irritable, except he hardly spoke. I didn't feel quite so bad leaving him to go to work, because I don't think my presence was doing anything for him. He was too wrapped up in his misery and pain.

   When I went back in the evening, it was even worse. It seemed like his body was just reaching the full realization that it had been through something traumatic. Of course, they had him pumped full of drugs, but drugs can only do so much. He was full of complaints and was downright irritable as he tried to get more comfortable -- barely shifting this way and that as much as possible (which wasn't much) -- but it seemed like the forces of the Earth were plotted against him. His IV even came loose and the nurse had to come in and re-connect it. He told me to fuck off when I offered to help him piss again, but then gave in grudgingly when he couldn't wait any longer. I have to admit, I probably was a little less sympathetic than I should have been, but it was mainly from my own frustration that there was really nothing I could do for him. I left after only a couple of hours, because I felt like my presence was only giving him something else to be mad at. But I felt a little guilty and called him before I went to bed. He answered on the third ring and sounded more mellow. He didn't act like anything special had taken place earlier, and just said he was tired and going to sleep and hoped I had a good day at work. He also gave me a full report on all the visitors and phone calls he'd had during the day. I refrained from pointing out that I hoped he had treated them better than he did me.

   The next day was Saturday but I had to work to make up for spending all day Thursday at the hospital. I wasn't able to visit until evening. It was a 180-degree turnaround, for Starsk actually seemed a little bit cheerful. He said the nurse had made him sit up in bed a few times, and though it hurt like hell, it was progress. While I was there, he made the Ultimate Big Step and with the help of both the nurse, and me walked to the bathroom. I stood there with him to make sure he wasn't going to fall, and after we got him back in bed he said he wanted to trade his smock for his pj's. I helped him get into them, and when he was lying back in bed, he seemed relieved and downright talkative. I sat with him while he had his dinner, which he didn't fuss too much about. We talked about inane things -- the case I was working on, the personalities of the nurses, gossip that his relatives had shared. I noticed that he would sort of look at me, then suddenly dart his eyes away. I thought it was probably because he was faking how good he felt. I didn't have the heart to point it out to him, but I stayed there until nearly eleven o'clock, when he fell asleep.

   On Sunday morning I took care of some errands and dropped by the hospital at about one o'clock. Huggy was there, and Starsky looked a lot more relaxed in bed, and I was relieved that he was past the worst of the pain.

   "Hey, man," Huggy greeted.

   "How's he doing?" Of course, I was asking Huggy, but my eyes were on Starsky. I noticed then that they'd taken the IV out, giving Starsk free use of his arms.

   "Doc was here before lunch," Huggy said, "and said he could probably go home the day after tomorrow." Starsk was visibly grinning at that bit of news. Then the Bear's mouth formed into a frivolous smile and said, "The man here just got encouragement from one of the nursing staff to fart himself into oblivion."

   You can always count on Huggy for crudity. I moved closer to the bed. "Yeah, hospitals love for you to make those gastro-intestinal noises."

   "Said it would show that his lower body was 'waking' up from the anesthesia," Huggy went on, like I hadn't ever been hospitalized before. Then he picked up his jacket. "So I think I'll leave, before Starsky-man takes her advice too much to heart."

   Starsk giggled good-naturedly, but it was a little forced. I think he was sick of whatever discussion there had been on bodily functions. He's grown up a lot the past few years.

   Huggy turned at the door. "See ya tomorrow, my man."

   Starsk gave him a little salute. "Thanks, Hug."

   I settled into the chair next to the bed and pulled off my jacket. "You're feeling lots better, huh?"

   "Better," Starsky emphasized, like he was still a ways from being up to par. "They made me get up and walk around; wasn't as bad as I thought."

   "You get a lot of visitors already?"

   He grinned. "Yep. And Ma called twice."

   "Twice?" I laughed.

   "Yeah. I think she was afraid I was lonely."

   "But you weren't, were you?" I asked hopefully.

   He sighed with pleasant fatigue. "Not hardly. It's been a busy morning; gone by pretty quick." He'd been looking at the ceiling, and now his eyes darted to me. "What about you?"

   I shrugged. "I went to the greenhouse and bought some plant food, changed the oil filter in my car, picked up a new lamp to replace the one that broke last week."

   He nodded, but his expression was distracted and I knew he really wasn't listening. When I stopped talking things got silent.

   I put a hand on his arm. "Hey, partner."

   He looked at me quickly, and then he turned his face away. It was the same way he'd been reacting to me last night -- looking at me, then looking away. I frowned and tightened my grip on his arm. "Hey, buddy," I beckoned softly, "what's up?"

   He tried a smile, but it was very forced. And then he swallowed hard, like there was a big lump in his throat.

   I moved from the chair and sat on the very edge of the bed. My heart started beating against my chest. "Hey, pal," I said with desperate cheerfulness, "did the Doc give you bad news or something?" I had a horrible vision of gangrene having infected the scalpel wound, or something ludicrous like that.

   He looked back toward me, but wouldn't meet my eye. "Oh, no, nothing like that," he said in a tone of apology. Then he tried another unconvincing smile. "Everything's okay, Hutch."

   I leaned closer and tried to keep my voice light. "Then what?"

   With his chin, he nodded toward a little clear bottle resting on the tray on the other side of the bed. "Guess what that is?" I knew from his tone that what was in the bottle had absolutely nothing to do with what was on his mind, and he was trying to use it as a distraction.

   It's very unusual for Starsk to have difficulty speaking his mind, so I let him off the hook and reached over him to take the bottle. It had a blue, plastic lid, and it looked like little dark brown gravel-sized rocks were in it. "What is it?" I asked as the answer dawned on me.

   "The stones from my gall bladder," he replied, turning to look at me.

   "Ah, Jesus, Starsk," I scolded, "you aren't actually going to keep these, are you?"

   He shrugged. "Maybe. Kind of a souvenir, you know?"

   He had enough souvenirs from hospitals, Lord knows. Most of them were carried in the form of scars.

   "Kind of hard to believe those little suckers were inside my body," he went on. "Kind of gross, huh?"

   I twisted my mouth. "No kidding."

   His voice filled with humor. "Take the cap off and see what it smells like."

   I admit, for an instant, human curiosity got the best of me and it was tempting. But then common sense kicked in, and I quickly put the bottle aside. "I think I'll pass."

   He giggled. "It's smells awful. I thought Huggy was gonna throw up."

   The image of he and Huggy passing the bottle back and forth to satisfy their childish curiosity made me wonder if Starsky really had grown up at all the past few years. And, I guess, I part of me hoped he never least not completely.

   "Would have served you two right," I told him as firmly as I could manage. "Really, Starsk, considering where it came from what did you expect it to smell like?"

   He shrugged again, and when he blinked rapidly, I knew moving his shoulders had irritated the wound.

   "Still pretty damn tender, huh?"

   "Hurts like hell if you want to know the truth."

   I laid my hand on his shoulder. "Then lie still."

   He took a deep breath, and when his head was turned away, it reminded me that something was still on his mind. I massaged his shoulder with two of my fingers, trying to tell him that I was ready to listen. After yet another swallow, I whispered, "Hey, you gonna tell me what's on your mind?"

   He glanced at me, then said, "Can you close the door?"

   Despite my determination to be as positive as possible toward him, I knew I was frowning as I considered his request. It was hard not to worry as I got up to do as he asked. It had to be something pretty earth shattering for him to be so concerned about privacy.

   After the door was completely shut, I moved back to the bed and tried to steady the pounding of my heart. Starsky is usually so forthright when something is bothering him. The idea that there was something that he was having trouble telling even me could only be something unpleasant. I tried to brace myself for the worst -- without being sure what the worst could be -- but my voice was still soft when I returned to the edge of the bed. "Okay, all secure," I told him with a forced smile.

   He met my eye a moment -- as though in thanks -- then quickly looked away.

   "Hey," I beckoned, reaching to lay my hand on his hair.

   He blinked a few times and took a deep breath. But he didn't say anything.

   The silence was starting to eat at me, and I prompted, "Hey, come on, pal. You're making me nervous."

   His mouth twisted into an apologetic smile. "Sorry. I don't mean to."

   I slowly stroked those thick curls. "What's going on?"

   He swallowed again, staring toward the door. "It's real hard to say, Hutch."

   The rate of my heart doubled, and I felt myself growing distant, even as I continued to pet his hair. Everything around me seemed to exist at the far end of a long tunnel. I tried to keep the fear out of my voice as I ventured, "Is it something to do with me?"

   "Yeah," he answered roughly. "With us."

   There could only be one thing about us that would upset him so much that would be so hard to say. I blinked, trying to understand how it could happen. Had I hovered too much? Come on too strong? Was I too needy? Was I too pragmatic? Had I insulted his precious car once too often?

   We'd had so much together. Perhaps, truly, it had been too special.

   My throat had gone dry, and my hand no longer moved, but just rested there. I would never blame Starsky for anything, no matter how much it might hurt. I loved him too much, understood him too well. It was puzzling that he would want to talk of such an important matter when he wasn't at his best, but maybe these last few days in the hospital had been the icing on the cake for him -- had proven what he'd already suspected... that I needed him too much, wanted to care for him to the point of aggravation, spent too much time with him, smothered him.... Everyone needs a little freedom now and then.

   I bowed my head, waiting to be hit with a pain that I would need all my strength to combat. But there was still silence, so I managed -- and I don't know how my voice came out so clear -- to say, "What about us?"

   I guess my tone gave away too much, for he turned to look at me. And he smiled a little. "You don't have to make it sound like a death sentence."

   Death. It had been on his mind so much lately.

   I wanted to tell him that he had no right to tell me how it should sound. For me, it would probably be the closest thing to death itself. And yet, I didn't want to speak, for I didn't want anything I said to interfere with what he needed to say. I owed him that, at least.

   He hadn't turned away again, and I felt his hand come up and rest on my cheek. It was moist and warm. His voice was, too. "Hey, I'm starting to wonder if you already know what I'm gonna say." He seemed fascinated by that. Then a hint of humor. "That would sure make things a lot easier for me."

   It was strange that he was the one in the hospital, the one having a difficult time speaking what was on his mind; and, yet, he was comforting me. It seemed, between us, I was always the one in need. I couldn't even imagine how draining that must be for the one person who loved me without condition.

   But love sometimes didn't go hand in hand with day-to-day life. Despite what the poets write, love didn't always conquer all.

   He dropped his hand, and then turned away. "I guess you aren't going to make it easier," he said blandly. Then he shrugged a little. "I guess it's just as well that I spell it out." He took a deep breath. "Wouldn't want there to be any misunderstandings."

   It was so like Starsky. So fair.

   As I continued to stare down at the form outlined by the sheets, he sighed and began, "See, buddy, I've been thinkin' a lot. And when you throw in things like Anderson giving you the impression that he did... well, it kinda gets me to thinkin' even more. And I'm tired of just thinking, Hutch."

   My eyes had narrowed, I knew, as I tried to sort it out. "Anderson...?" I finally whispered, wondering why Starsky was choosing such a convoluted path to speak his mind.

   "Yeah," Starsk replied firmly. From the corner of my eye, I could see him looking toward me again. "You know, you were so sure he thought we were queers."

   So what? I wanted to ask. What did that have to do with my having taken so much from Starsky that I'd finally drained him dry? Instead, I just said, "And?"

   "Well," he hesitated again, "it's just been kinda making me feel like we need to put a lid on this thing. I mean, end it one way or the other."

   I cringed then. Or at least my insides did. I could feel all my internal organs start to shrivel up and twist themselves into knots.

   Suddenly, his hand was on my forehead, his fingertips stretching into my hair. "See what I'm saying?"

   I couldn't speak.

   And then his next words contained the flavor of apology...and an edge of fear. "I guess I thought I'd bring it up now, since I'm in the hospital. And, well, I figure even if you were freaked out by the idea you wouldn't go off and leave me." Then a sheepish, "Kinda like blackmail, huh?"

   Leave him? Why would he be worried about me leaving him if he was going to push me away?

   He swallowed thickly and I knew he was looking away again. "I keep wondering if it would really be all that different," he said. "I mean, I keep trying to figure out what it would be like." Then a hint of humor. "It's kind of hard to imagine." A long pause, then, "So I guess I'm sayin' I think we should just give it a try."

   Despite my fear -- and, God, so much pain -- I thought I had been following along pretty well. But suddenly everything was confused, and I realized I was shaking my head back and it would really clear my brain and make everything crystal clear.

   "Oh, boy." Starsky's voice was a mixture of humor and fear. "I have freaked you out, haven't I?"

   It was too much. I suddenly looked at him, and found him looking at me. "W-W-What?" I managed. Then, before he could answer, I said, "Speak English, buddy. English." Surely, there was never a more important moment than this to share a common language. My heart was still beating like crazy, but it wasn't so much fear now as confusion and anticipation of whatever new knowledge was about to follow.

   His mouth dropped open, and he seemed a bit chagrined, maybe even a little annoyed... like he was being backed up against a wall.

   I took his hand, squeezed it firmly, and softened my voice. "Buddy, just come out and say what's on your mind." I squeezed harder. "Whatever it is, we'll deal with it." I started feeling hopeful then, that maybe I'd misread it all along.

   He seemed deflated, like it suddenly dawned on him that I hadn't understood a word he'd said, and he was going to have to start over.

   I tried to help. Gently, I told him, "Maybe you can start with what you meant about Anderson." That was something I needed clarified real bad.

   "Well," his voice was small, and his eyes dropped to the bed, "I just think that -- that.... Well, I think that, when you think about it, Hutch, we've got everything all ready for our deaths. I mean, everything is all set up."

   Death. Always death. I closed my eyes, even as I squeezed his hand more.

   "So...I figure maybe it's time we started thinking about life."

   My eyes snapped open, staring at him. He was staring back, and even though I still hadn't any idea where he was headed, I suddenly found myself emerged in a sea of hope.

   But then his eyes lowered, and his voice was timid. "Hutch, if Anderson was right... would it be so wrong?"

   I admit, it took a moment for it all to click into place. Anderson. Wills. Death. Life. Queers.

   I should have been scared out of my wits. If I'd had any sense I probably would have been. But the only thing I was aware of was that Starsky And I felt ashamed of myself -- and enormously relieved that Starsky would never know what I'd thought he was going to say, when he'd first started talking about "us."

   No, this was the complete opposite. My God, I think he was saying he wanted to spend his life with me.

   And all I could do was hold his hand and stare at him, my heart wanting to jump out of my chest -- reach out and grab him and hold him and never, never let him go.

   His eyes were searching mine. "It wouldn't be wrong, Hutch, would it?"

   "No," I whispered to reassure him. And as I said it I realized I had no idea what I was talking about. Just what -- exactly -- were we discussing?

   He gulped. "Do you understand now what I'm sayin', Hutch?"

   My eyes lowered as I made myself search for an answer. My God, did I have any idea at all of what he was saying? What it meant?

   But he was the one most afraid at the moment, and my first priority was to set his fears to rest. Then we would be free to deal with the rest. So, I straightened, squeezed his hand, then just held it within both of mine.

   I nodded and managed a smile. "I think so." The room seemed so quiet around us, it was hard to believe we were in a hospital room...that anyone could come walking in at any moment. I hoped no one would.

   Calmly, I suggested, "Why don't we start with how things would be different than they are now?" It was a dark tunnel that we were passing through -- a long dark tunnel. It seemed I was so far away from what was being said, like it was something happening outside myself. I wasn't sure I could get too close -- though I wanted to -- but I was sure as hell interested in the outcome.

   Starsky wet his lips, looked down a second before looking up. "Well, you know how you said, after I get out of the hospital, you would probably stay with me a few days to make sure I was okay?" His voice was so quiet. I nodded. "Well...maybe it should be more than a few days." He breathed. "Maybe we should make it permanent."

   It seemed, right then, that his suggestion was both my greatest hope and my greatest fear. I'd never thought of it, but now that he had laid the idea out in the air, I realized how much I wanted to capture it, hold it. But it seems that whenever you possess something that precious, you're always afraid of losing it.

   He was looking at me anxiously, waiting to see what I would say.

   Gently, I asked, "Are you talking about me sleeping on the couch?" I was aware it was unfair of me to require him to have all the answers, but I wanted to be sure.

   He gazed at me for the longest time. Then he shook his head once and whispered, "No."

   It was then that I knew the true meaning of being at a loss for words. So I tried to let my expression speak for me, reassure him that leaving was the last thing on my mind.

   But his voice trembled. "It's okay, isn't it, Hutch?"

   I wasn't sure what he meant. Okay that he had those feelings? That it would make us 'queers'? That society in general would frown upon us? Perhaps he meant all those things, and a dozen others.

   I took his hand, rubbed it, squeezed it. Then brought it to my lips and kissed it. "Yes, it's okay."

   He seemed to relax then. And in a casual voice that strangely contrasted his earlier reluctance, he quietly said, "I think we should talk about it's gonna be."

   I had to smile. "Sure you're up to it?"

   He made a little shrug-like motion. And then there was a knock on the door.

   We looked at each other, and I whispered, "Later," just as Captain Dobey stuck his head around the door.

   "Captain," I greeted.

   "Hutch, Starsky," he came into the room, carrying flowers. "Sorry I haven't been able to stop by sooner."

   "S'okay," Starsky told him.

   The captain took another chair, and I suddenly felt claustrophobic and wanted to get out of there and sort through it all. But I didn't want Starsk to think I was running away. It's just that I knew Dobey would probably want to chat awhile, and since it was the middle of Sunday afternoon, there would probably be more visitors, and it could be forever before we were alone again.

   I stood. "Well, I think I'll get going."

   Through the corner of my eye, I saw my partner's face fall. I laid my hand on his shoulder, squeezed it gently. I waited until he met my eye. "See you later, pal. I'll be back by this evening."

   That seemed to soothe him, and he nodded, a twinkle in his eye.

* * *

 The mid-afternoon sun greeted me when I left the hospital. I got in my car and drove, not sure where I was going. I wondered if I had imagined the conversation we'd had, or at least imagined my response to it.

   I'd never wanted that for us. It wasn't that I had anything against people who loved members of their own sex, but it was only fine as long as it was them. I'd never considered it for myself, except only as the most passing thought. Not even with Starsk had I ever considered it...except as the most passing thought. And now I had welcomed it, embraced it, without even pausing to ask what I was getting myself into.

   I tried focusing on the traffic, then gave up and stopped at the nearest park. I got out and started walking.

   I know I hadn't reacted to his words as much as to his fear. Calming his fear was paramount. And to do that I had to reassure. And to reassure I had to...lie?

   No, it wasn't a lie. That much I knew, accepted. None of the things I'd said to Starsky had been untrue. Nor had my reactions. He had touched me by what he wanted, and I wanted to give in return... so much...

   But could I? Or was it such a ridiculous fantasy that even he would no longer be interested once he stepped into the sunshine?

   Except he had said it had been on his mind a while. Sleeping together.

   I paused and took a deep breath.

   There was nothing alien or foreign in that thought. Snuggling up next to Starsk... sleeping the whole night through... sharing the warmth of his body. Man, it suddenly dawned on me how much I wanted that. For I'd had a taste of it, a number of times, over the years. Holding him close, comforting him. And I knew damn well how it felt to have him comfort me. To share that, every night....

   And I wondered why I'd never let myself consider it before. I knew the answer right away: because Starsk would never consider it. Or I thought he would never. Obviously I'd been very wrong. I'd have to talk to him about that...about when he'd changed.

   And when had I changed? When had I gone from thinking it was all right for others to having that kind of relationship, to thinking it was all right for me to have that kind?

   And what kind was it, exactly? And was it really so strange? Was there anything bizarre, or unusual, or disgusting, about wanting to make love to the person you loved most in the world?

   I stopped and closed my eyes. There they were...the images that I hadn't allowed to penetrate my brain. Making love to Starsky. I wasn't even sure what I was supposed to imagine. I knew how guys did it, of course, but thinking of just bodies going at it...and then thinking of me and Starsk...images seemed a mockery. But I could imagine what it would feel like, being under the covers with him. He's the warmest, gentlest person I've ever known. But he's strong, too. If I could just hold him and be held by him, I'm not sure I'd ever need anything else.

   But my body mocked me, for I felt the beginning of a hard-on, and I turned back toward the car.

   Did I really want to do that? Stick it into him? God, I couldn't hurt him for anything in the world. Couldn't take pleasure from him like that, no matter how much reciprocation he got.

   Reciprocation. That stopped me in my tracks. And took care of my problem. Really, what would it be like, for him to stick it into me? It was difficult to imagine anything other than how it feels to get that Godforsaken doctor's exam -- not something even the most flaming queen would ask for voluntarily.

   But men did enjoy doing it with each other. At least, I'd always understood that they did. I guess, when it got down to it, I really didn't know much about it. Sure, I'd done it with women, but never as the focus of the activities, and they're just plain less resistant to the idea of...being penetrated.

   When I returned to my car, I headed out of the precinct. No way was I going to take a chance on getting recognized where I was headed. I had to drive for nearly a half hour until I was sure I was safe. One good thing about being a cop is that it's easy to recognize those sorts of places. I stuffed my hands in the pockets of my jeans and went inside.

   I browsed for nearly an hour. Really, I didn't feel very embarrassed or self-conscious. I bought a total of four books and drove until I stopped at a hot dog stand. I ordered something, then ate it in my car while I leafed through the books. Some had illustrations and those did make me blush a little. Guys doing all sorts of things to each other, little smiles of ecstasy drawn on their faces. I couldn't imagine me and Starsk like that.

   No, when Starsk and I got together, our hearts would be beating in tune with each other. We'd be feeling like we were floating on air, we would hardly be aware of each other's anatomy, because all the feelings and sensations would blend together to create one big cloud...of love. It'd be like heaven. And everything would feel good -- feelings those poor saps in the book would never know -- because the love was already in place, would enhance anything physical that we shared. It would be our own special place and it would be perfect.

   I flipped through more pages, and the fantasy disappeared. One illustration had a guy kneeling before another, sucking his cock.

   Oh, yeah, there was that, too. In fact, after reading while eating my lunch, it became apparent that that's what guys seemed to like doing most for each other. One of the books even had statistics -- and outright fucking was way down the list of favorite activities. A blow job was by far the activity of choice.

   Could I really do it? Put my mouth on his cock? God, if women could do it, why couldn't I? After all, I loved him more than any of them ever did.

   Still, it was hard to be comfortable with the idea. And then I felt selfish...until I realized I was just as uncomfortable with the idea of Starsk kneeling before me and doin' it. And it dawned on me it wasn't the mouth-on-cock idea that was repellant, it was the idea of one of us submitting to the other. I was much more fascinated by the thought of us snuggling against each other, pleasing each other by having our bodies pressed close, not one of us simply doing the other a favor. I wanted us to share -- not just insert item A into slot B. The latter was what the men in the books seemed to be doing.

   I then felt a little silly for buying the books. Why had I thought I'd need instructions? Jesus God, I loved the man. And love would be all the guidance I'd need.

* * *

   When I returned to the hospital, he was alone and was just pushing the tray away that had contained his dinner.

   "Hey, there," I greeted. He smiled at me. "I see you cleaned your plate. What did you have?"

   He watched -- beamed at me, actually -- as I made my way to the chair beside the bed. "Roast beef and gravy. Wasn't too bad. And I was really hungry."

   "How you feeling?"

   He settled back against the pillows. "Real sore. But it's not as bad as when I've been shot."

   "Dobey have much to say?" I really didn't want to make small talk, but I didn't want to plunge in, either. I guess a part of me was afraid that maybe I'd misunderstood completely this afternoon, and I didn't want to look like a fool. I wanted him to bring it up first.

   He shrugged a little. "Just the usual. He said Edith wanted to come, but she has the flu."

   "Anybody else stop by?"

   "My Aunt Nellie. She's the one that babbles non-stop, you know?"

   I chuckled softly. I'd met all of Starsky's relatives at various holidays. Aunt Nellie could go a mile-a-minute. "Guess you tolerated that okay?"

   "Yeah, I kind of got some sleep with my eyes open. Just nodded every now and then." Then he turned his head and looked at me squarely. Softly, he asked, "What have you been doing all afternoon?"

   It was a loaded question, voiced with the expectation of a specific kind of answer. I had to look down a moment. Then I met his eye. "I've been thinking."

   He kept gazing at me expectantly, then prompted, "About...?"

   So, it was going to have to be me that came right out and said it. I took a deep breath. "About us." And then, looking at him, thinking of him as a potential...I don't know -- lover? sweetheart? -- I found myself in that tunnel again, not sure I could face the changes ahead without putting a lot of distance between us.

   His voice was quiet, and hedged with worry. "Is it gonna be okay, Hutch?"

   I couldn't stand his uncertainty. Not that I could blame him for it -- neither of us had really come out and outright said anything all day. It was time to stop dancing around the fire...we were going to have to risk getting burned. And with my instinct to protect Starsky so ingrained over the years, I reached to the fire first.

   I let my feelings show on my face. "I love you, Starsky."

   He smiled a little, but I knew my statement hadn't solved anything. We'd loved each other -- intensely -- for years.

   I nodded, but I had to look down again to gather myself before going on. "I think...," I drew in a large breath, "I think I could do it with you." That sounded so awkward. "Make love to you."

   He was studying me so seriously. Gingerly, he eased up on an elbow. In a whisper, he asked, "But do you want to, Hutch?"

   I looked down again. "I want.... I want...." My God, what did I want? Starsky has always been so far ahead of me in that department. He always knew right where he stood...with himself, with me, with the world around him. I always seemed to be struggling in some huge ocean, reaching for something without ever knowing what I would find, or wanted to find. "I want," I tried again, hearing the gruffness in my voice. Distantly, I noticed how clean and sterile the floor looked. "I want to be able," I finally looked up, "to hold you and love you...always. I want to share my life with you. I want us to always be together. I want...I want to give you everything you need. I -- I don't want you to ever have to need anyone else." There was a thickness in my throat, and I had to swallow, for there was one other very important thing I needed to say. "I don't want there to ever be anyone else for you." God, after saying it, I suddenly felt very, very selfish. Maybe that's what he hadn't had in mind at all.

   His smile, which looked pleased, melted my heart, even though it appeared to be a little weary. Then he quickly looked away.

   I knelt on the clean floor, next to the bed, and picked up his hand in both of mine. "Hey," I whispered, "are you just being shy, or is there still something on your mind?"

   "I just," he started, then took a deep breath. It gave him the courage to look at me. "I just didn't expect it to be this simple." His eyes lowered. "I thought, maybe, you'd be turned off or something and it would never be the same between us."

   I squeezed his hand, then relaxed my grip and sort of toyed with his fingers. "You did throw me a bit of a curve," I said with a little laugh. "You know what I thought? When you started talking about 'us' earlier today, and you seemed to hesitant, I thought you were going to say you didn't want me around so much anymore."

   That made him look at me. And I inwardly cringed, because all I'd meant by confessing that was that I was scared, too. But his eyes carried the hurt of betrayal. Voice hoarse with disbelief, he demanded, "How could you have thought that?" When I didn't have an answer right away, he said, "Dear God, Hutch, we've been through everything together. How could you ever think that?"

   This really wasn't the conversation I wanted to have. Plus, I felt bad about upsetting him when he was supposed to be resting. But I had to answer. I shrugged sheepishly. "Sometimes I wonder if I hover too much." I squeezed his hand, and let my heart do the talking. "God, Starsk, I want to love you and protect you from everything. It would be understandable if you found my caring too confining."

   His eyes widened in disbelief. "Do you find my caring too confining?"

   The hurt had intensified, and I quickly said, "No. Dear God, no." Then I looked at him, and heard the desperation in my voice. "You can't ever love me too much, Starsk. There's no such thing. You give it and I'll take and take and take it." And then I found myself looking at the floor again, and I felt a flush of shame that I'd always be so disgustingly needy...a well that could never be filled.

   After a long moment, when I tried to catch my breath, I felt his hand on my cheek. Then it dropped down and a thumb reached out to trace my mustache. Gently, he said, "I want to give and give and give it." I looked up, almost ashamed all over again at my good fortune -- that God or Fate or whoever had given me this man to take care of me. "And I don't want you to get it from anyone else."

   I felt flushed all over, undeserving. But I had to laugh -- almost bitterly -- at his last comment. "No problem, buddy. I haven't even been with anyone in over two months." There just never seemed much point anymore.

   I slowly raised my eyes to look at him, and he smiled firmly. "It's been at least that long for me."

   Oh, God, had we really been headed in this direction all along? Why couldn't I see it? Why couldn't I have made the first move and seduced him or something? Why put him through all these verbal gymnastics when he was flat on his back in bed?

   I knew the answer, and I had to look down again. The pain was so great that I dropped a hand to my stomach.

   "Hutch?" he asked, concerned. His hand dropped from my face to my shoulder.

   "It's okay," I said feebly, wondering if it ever would truly be okay. "I'm such a selfish bastard," I whispered harshly.

   "W-what?" he asked.

   I took a deep breath, held it, then let it out. I straightened slowly, then sat back on my heels. I laid my cheek against the edge of the bed, then reached up to take his hand. Quietly, I said, "Even if I would have been thinking the same thoughts as you, I never would have brought it up first."

   "Why not?" he asked, right on cue.

   "Because, Starsk, you give so damn much, I would always be afraid that you would have said 'Yes' just because I wanted it. And I would always be afraid that, deep down inside, it wasn't what you really wanted."

   He blinked. "Don't you have think I have the same fears, you big dummy?"

   I raised my head, blinking rapidly to clear the confusion. The light was growing brighter at the end of the tunnel. Some huge cloud started to rise up through my body, and then slowly dissipate into the air. I couldn't speak as I experienced the sensation, and I waited until I felt truly free. Then I simply replied, "No, I didn't think of that."

   A nurse walked in, and I guess I looked pretty dramatic, sitting on the floor beside the bed, holding his hand.

   She took the tray. "Is everything all right?"

   We both nodded. Starsky smiled at her and I looked away.

   "Let me get your blood pressure," she said, taking the equipment from the wall.

   I thought about moving to the chair, but that would make it look like I thought there was something wrong with sitting on the floor, holding his hand. So, I stayed where I was. Nobody spoke while she went about her task, though she reported the reading in a pleased voice when she was done. Then she took the tray and left the room.

   Quietly, Starsky asked, "Did you really think I didn't want you for a partner anymore?" He no longer sounded betrayed, but his voice had a scolding quality.

   It was effective, for I felt ashamed all over again. But I tried to shrug it off. "You were talking about Anderson, said something about us putting an end to it, one way or another. I had no idea what you really meant, so...."

   "Oh." It came out a bit apologetic. We were silent a moment, then he tilted his head to one side. "Really, Hutch, if I said, 'Get out of my life,' would you go?"

   I had to think about it, then I laughed sheepishly, feeling foolish that I hadn't realized that before. "No."

   He let out a breath. "Okay. At least we've got that straightened out."

   The floor was getting cold, and since he was looking comfortable in bed, I didn't want to crowd his space. So I moved to the chair. Just as I settled in, I noticed him struggling to restrain a yawn. I patted his arm. "Hey, you've had a tiring day. It's catching up to you."

   "Yeah," he admitted, "but I think we should figure out what we're gonna do...exactly, I mean."

   It sounded complicated and, really, as long as we got to sleep together I didn't care about all the other stuff. But that was being whimsical and naive. And it suddenly struck me that that was usually Starsky's role. But here he was, playing the intellectual, while I just wanted what felt good for the moment.


   His eyes had closed, despite his intentions. "Hmm?"

   "I thought, after everything you went through with John Blaine, you'd be one of the last people in the world consider an alternate lifestyle."

   He smiled, his eyes still closed. "'Alternate lifestyle.' Is that the new buzz word?" I shrugged, though he couldn't see it. Then his expression grew serious. "I'm not sure one has to do with the other. Sure, it'll make us 'queers' in other people's eyes, but I don't have any interest in being hustled by other men, and I'm assuming you don't, either." He suddenly blinked, staring at the ceiling. "But, somewhere along the line, I've lost interest in hustling women." His voice sounded puzzled.

   "So have I," I reassured in a whisper, just then realizing it. Maybe it wasn't so much a lack of interest in general, as simply seeing no reason to participate in an empty lay when you could get every other kind of fulfillment from the person you saw and loved every day of the year.


   I leaned closer. "Hm?"

   He turned toward me. "You know, when I first get out, I don't think I'll be able to.... Well, you know, I probably won't be able to do much for a while."

   I squeezed his arm. "I know. We'll wait until you're ready. We've got a whole lifetime, partner, we don't have to rush it."

   He looked at me hopefully. "But you're still staying with me as soon as I get out, right?"

   He sounded like a little kid who'd been promised a new baseball mitt for his birthday, and was now afraid he might not get it. I smiled warmly. "Of course. And not on the couch."

   Starsky took a deep breath. "I really can't wait until I get out of this hospital, Hutch."

   "Sounds like from what Huggy said it could be the day after tomorrow."

   "Yeah. Eternity."

   I laughed then, but I was feeling a little anxious, too. His eyes had closed again, and I really didn't think I should keep him much longer. But I didn't want to worry him about "figuring it all out," either. "Starsk, I don't think we should worry much about changing things. Maybe we should just let things happen as they will, not try to force anything. Just start out with sleeping together...go from there."

   His eyes remained closed. "'Kay."

   "I think you're falling asleep."

   "I think I am, too."

   I stood, then bent to lay a hand on his forehead. I always liked it whenever he did that to me. "I think I'm going to go now. I'll call you from the station tomorrow to see how you're doing."

   He barely nodded.

   I straightened. "I'll get the light on my way out. Goodnight, buddy."


   As I left there, I don't think my shoes touched the floor.

* * *

   It was hard getting through the next day at work. There wasn't much going on, so as I fought with paperwork, I found my mind going to Starsk again and again, imagining him lying there in the hospital, thinking about me...thinking about the future. But my mind seemed resistant to imagining anything more detailed beyond that. I'm not sure why. I just know it was a heck of a long day. And when I finally got out of there, I grabbed a quick bite to eat and went to see my buddy.

   Starsk was all smiles as I entered the room. "You just missed the doctor. He says I can leave tomorrow morning."

   "Great. I'll give Dobey a call at home tonight and let him know I'll be in late tomorrow."

   The edge of enthusiasm disappeared from his voice. "Guess you'll have to go back to work after taking me home, huh?"

   I nodded, moving sit on the edge of the bed. "I imagine so." I patted his leg beneath the cover. "I'll tuck you into bed, make sure you're all settled." I ruffled his hair. "Then you can get your beauty sleep before I come home." It sounded funny saying it...home. Starsky's apartment had always felt like home, as much as my own, but now the word held special it wasours. It made me wonder how long it would take before I downright moved in with him. And it would have to be me moving into his place. He would never tolerate moving into my apartment; it was too much of a "dump" as he put, for his taste. And that was all right with me, except I'd miss the greenhouse. All those plants... what would I do with them? But that was getting ahead of myself.


   I realized I'd been staring at the covers, and I looked up at him, saw the timid smile. "Hm?"

   "It's going to work out okay, right?"

   It seemed like the tenth time he'd asked that the past couple of days. I picked up his hand, squeezed it. "Hey, what are you so worried about?"

   A mouth corner twitched downward. "Other people finding out, for one thing."

   "We don't have to tell anybody," I tried to assure. I wondered why my mind was shying away from those very concerns. God, I didn't want it to be complicated. I just wanted us to be free to love each other.

   He shrugged a little. "People are gonna figure out we're sleeping together, eventually," he said.

   I traced a pattern on top of his hand. "I guess we'll have to deal with it when the time comes. Maybe we should agree right now not to admit to anything, so the burden will be on them to prove it."

   "If someone was able to...we could lose our jobs, everything."

   I sighed heavily and looked at him. "Okay. There'll be problems. What do you want to do? Call it off?" For a split second, I was almost afraid he was going to call my bluff.

   But he seemed to deflate. He looked away, then softly said, "No, of course not."

   I squeezed his hand again. "Starsky, I'm just saying that we have to take it as it comes. It's not going to solve anything to get all that uptight about it before anything happens. Besides," I added, willing myself to believe it, "with the way gay rights are making some headway, maybe by the time anyone finds out about us it won't be that big of a deal."

   I leaned closer to him and whispered, "Starsk, we're just going to have to focus on the love. That's always been our strength. If we protect it -- keep it vibrant and alive -- we can always draw what we need from it. Because no matter what happens," I vowed, "we'll go through it together. Even if we were to someday get kicked off the force, we'd still be together. Isn't that what's most important?"

   He sort of smiled sadly at me, then nodded. Then he reached out and placed his hand on my side and closed his eyes, like he was absorbing something.

   I liked how it felt...those little touches. I always have. It's amazing how much they can mean, at the craziest times. Sometimes I wonder if we wouldn't have near the violence we do in the world if people would just touch each other more. There's something about that contact...something so soothing and reassuring. Especially when it's from someone whom you know loves you.

   Starsky smiled again... this time more gently, and he said, "I'll be so glad when I'm healthy again." His eyes opened. "There's so much I want to do with you, Hutch. I just want to make you happy, make you feel good. I'm not even sure I'm going to know how to go about it, but I want to so bad."

   I reached out and stroked back through his hair. "We'll figure it out. And, buddy," I heard the softness in my voice, "just being close to you...all the going to mean so much to me. You can't know how much I want that."

   He swallowed, relaxed against the pillow. Then he dropped his hand and said, "Do you really think you can give up women? You know, forever?"

   I closed my eyes. Already we were talking about forever. Ah, Starsk....

   When I opened them again, I said, "Like I said, it's been two months. I haven't missed it." But he kept studying me, and I found myself searching deeper for the answer to his question. Truly, nothing felt quite like a woman. No matter how creative one got -- trying various positions, putting it here or there, using toys for extra stimulation -- ultimately, the thing that felt best was snug, moist, snatch. Putting it anywhere else could never recreate that sensation. And then there were those wonderful soft breasts, the smooth skin, the curves....

   ...All attached to a person I did not want.

   "Starsky, I want you," I said decisively. "Whatever parts you don't come with, I can do without."

   He gave me lopsided smile, like he'd reached a similar conclusion. "Yeah," he said wistfully.

   A nurse came in then, telling him that he needed to get up and walk around. Starsky didn't protest, and I took his elbow as we left his room and walked slowly around the floor. We didn't talk much, I guess because we were each thinking about how it was going to be. When we returned to his room, he sat on the bed, then reached up and ran a finger along my mustache.

   He's done that occasionally before, and I've always liked it.

   I stood, hunched over, looking down at him, waiting to hear what he had to say.

   "Hutch, it's going to be real hard waiting until tomorrow night."

   I grinned. "Don't get your hopes up. Remember, nothing's going to happen until you're closer to 100%."

   His eyes held a childlike softness. "Yeah, but we'll be together, right?"

   Like that was all that mattered. And it was. I closed my eyes. "Right." He was started to lie back against the bed, and I kissed him on the forehead, ran my hand along his cheek. "I love you," I told him, my voice shaking. I'm not even sure why.

   Next thing I knew, a hand was at the back of my neck, pulling me down. When my face was close to his, he kissed me on the lips. One quick, firm peck, then he let me go.

   Starsky has always been full of so much love. What had I ever done to deserve being the recipient of it?

   His expression was frivolous. "I owed you that one, for right before they took me down to surgery."

   Oh, yeah, I'd done it then, hadn't I? "I thought you were too scared to notice."

   "I was -- scared out of my wits, I mean. But it sure gave me somethin' to think about while I was waiting all that time in pre-op, or whatever it's called."

   I grinned smugly. "That was the intention."

   His smile faded. "I love you, Hutch."

   Ah, man, I couldn't keep this up. So much feeling, splattered all over the room. "I'm gonna go," I told him. Real fast, I kissed the top of his head. "Be here tomorrow at eight to pick you up."

   He settled back. "Okay, blondie. Sweet dreams."

   I couldn't imagine my dreams being otherwise.

* * *

   He wasn't quite as cheerful the following morning, even though he was leaving. After the ordeal of getting his things together, then getting him into a wheelchair, and signing all appropriate papers, he was pretty wore out by the time I placed him in the passenger side of the LTD. He complained about my not bringing the Torino, and then he just shut up, like saying anything else was too much effort. When we reached his place, we decided he'd be most comfortable during the day on the couch, because it was easier to sit up, plus he was closer to the TV and the kitchen. I'd already picked up his pain pills from the pharmacy, so after he took the required dose, and after leaving some snacks out for him, I let him be.

   I called him twice during the day. The first time was to see how he was getting along. He said he'd been able to sleep pretty well and wasn't too uncomfortable. The second time was to tell him that I was helping a couple of other detectives interview a lot of witnesses for a street shooting, so I probably wasn't going to make it in until after seven. He seemed disappointed, but for me, at least, being busy helped make the day go a lot faster.

   Finally, I was home. I found him still on the sofa, in his pajamas. He'd obviously made a few trips to the kitchen, because the coffee table was covered with a lot more remnants of food than I'd left him with that morning.

   "Want somethin' to eat?" he asked as I was getting rid of my jacket and holster.

   "Nah, I scarfed down a salad and some breadsticks while still at the station." I pulled off my shoes with a grateful sigh.

   "How did it go? Get any good leads?"

   I shrugged and sat down in the wicker chair next to the sofa. "It looks like the killer was wearing a Mickey Mouse watch. That's about it." I unbuttoned my shirt and let it hang open. "What have you been doing?"

   He laid back and looked at the ceiling. "I've watched I Love Lucy, Mannix, Star Trek, Bonanza, The Big Valley, and Mission: Impossible."

   My socks were sweaty and I was having to work to roll them off. "Sounds like quite a cultural variety. What was your favorite?"

   He looked over at me. "I dunno. Bonanza was funny because the boys all got in trouble with Pa because they were goofin' off instead of doing their chores. Even Adam."


   "Yeah, the older brother. You know, the level-headed one."

   "Oh, yeah." I hadn't seen the show in long time, plus it kept changing characters.

   The apartment grew silent, and I wasn't sure what else to say.

   He looked over at me again. "Are you gonna sit there by yourself, Hutch, or are you gonna come over here?"

   Well, it was a good thing we both weren't shy. But the couch was awfully narrow. I rubbed at my chest and tried to sound casual. "Are you ready for bed, or haven't you had enough to eat tonight?"

   He surveyed the coffee table. His tone also trying to be casual -- with equal unsuccess -- as he replied, "Yeah, I've had enough to eat."

   Now I definitely felt nervous. I rubbed a hand along my chin. "You're ready for bed then, huh?"

   He looked sharply over at me. Then, almost shyly, "Well, yeah, if you are."

   If we tried hard enough, we could probably have sat there and talked for two hours. But I didn't want that, and I'm sure he didn't, either. One of us was going to have to make the first move todo something. And since I hadn't been operated on during the past week, I suppose that meant me.

   And I didn't really mind. I stood up and went over to him, settled on the floor next to the couch, facing him. My voice was even more gentle than I'd intended. "Think you can haul your carcass off this couch and make it to the bedroom?" I reached out and rubbed a couple of fingers along his forehead.

   His eyes surveyed the part of my body that was revealed by the open shirt. "How am I," he said in a soft, level tone, "going to get turned on by you, when you can't show me anything that I've haven't already seen without getting turned on?" Yet, despite asking the question, he didn't seem worried.

   I ran my hand back through his hair. "I think it's a good thing if you don't get turned least until you're feeling better. We don't want to do anything to aggravate your incision."

   He let his hand drop to the side of the sofa, then gradually it found mine and clasped it. "Do you think you're gonna get turned on by me okay?"

   He asked it so innocently, almost like a little kid. "You know that day you first mentioned it?" I asked. God, had it only been three days ago? It seemed like forever.


   "Well, I went walking through a park, thinking things through. And, just thinking about it, I got a hard-on."

   He presented a crooked smile. "Really?"

   I nodded. "Really." But then I rested my chin on the edge of the couch, and with the hand that wasn't in his hair, I touched his stomach through the blue cotton pajamas. "But you know what?" I said softly, "Sometimes I feel like I don't really care about the other stuff. All I want to do," I was petting back through his hair, "is just hold you and keep you safe. Just let you feel how much I love you. The other'll just be icing on the cake."

   His eyes were riveted on mine. Breathing deeply, he said, "Let's go to bed right now, Hutch."

   I closed my eyes and kissed his hand. "Okay."

   I stood up and he started to straighten. He moved gingerly, and I reached to help lift him, and then he leaned against me as we made the short journey to the bedroom.

   "We need to get the lights," he said.

   "I'll do it as soon as you're in bed."

   We both pushed the covers back, then I helped as he carefully lowered himself to the mattress. He grunted as he shifted to get comfortable. He really didn't have much choice except to lay on his back or on his left side, since the incision was on his right side; and since I was going to be with him, I assumed he wanted to be facing me. I fixed up the pillows as best I could, then when he waved a hand to indicate he was as comfortable as he was going to get, I went back through the apartment and shut off the lights.

   My heart was pounding, and I'm not really sure why. After all, it's not like anything was going to happen. But I felt that simply being in bed with him, snuggling close, was going to be the most wonderful thing....

   And it's funny that it really wouldn't even be the first time we'd slept together. We've done it before...well, Starsky has slept with me, that is. After I was sick with the plague, and Starsk finally took me home from the hospital, he put me to bed and curled himself around me and we both slept. Then, after I woke up, he slept for another two days. It wasn't until then that I realized just how much energy and effort he'd put out looking for Callender. And, before that, there was the aftermath of...well, what Ben Forrest's cronies did to me. Even weeks after the worst of it was over, I still had occasional relapses. And Starsky would sleep with me then -- hold me close -- to make sure I wasn't going to feel that some little white powder would be a better crutch against the pain I was feeling.

   Hell, thinking back, I guess the Ben Forrest ordeal was when I realized that Starsky loved me. I mean, really loved me. Not the you're-my-partner-and-we-have-to-look-out-for-each-other kind of love, but the deep down, know-it-in-your-guts kind love. The unconditional kind. To be honest, I think there's probably only a few people in the world who ever experience that kind of love, and probably fewer still who experience it with their friends -- as opposed to family members and spouses. So, I guess, it's easy to feel special when you're involved in that kind of relationship.

   And you can't help but wonder what the hell you ever did to deserve it.

   "You comin', blondie?"

   I was poised over the sink, filling a glass with water. "Be there in a minute," I called to him. "Do you need to take your pills?"

   "Just took them a few minutes before you got here," he called back.

   I drank from the glass, then set it in the sink. The street lamps outside kept the interior lit enough to find my way around in the dark, and I returned to the bedroom. My stomach started feeling funny as I stood there next to the bed, and took off my clothes. Maybe it was nerves, but I also knew it was the most wonderful kind of excitement, knowing it could be like this from now on...knowing that there was nothing to stop it from being like this...except ourselves. And we weren't ever going to let that happen.

   When only my shorts remained, I took a t-shirt out of his drawer and slipped into it. Then I pushed the covers back and crawled into bed. I was careful not to jostle the mattress, because while Starsky seemed to be doing real well since his surgery, I knew from my own experience that sometimes the smallest thing could send a wound into a fit of throbbing. Slowly, I slid across the sheet until my knees bumped into his.

   "Where are you?" he asked, reaching out.

   "Right here," I whispered. I settled against the pillow, then reached for his hands. I found them in a moment, and we both silently straightened our legs, so I could slide a little closer. I could hear his breath, smell the healthy musk, and my hands were relaxed against his arms. But I stretched one out to lay against the top of his chest, where I could feel his hair through the top open buttons of his pj's. "I love you."

   "Mmm," was his only answer. He laid his hand against my chest, too, or rather against my t-shirt. Then, after a few moments, it drifted down and came around to my waist, and then he just let it rest there.

   "Can't believe this is happenin'," he mumbled.

   "Yeah," was all I could say. I moved my hand up to his face and felt the brusqueness of his whiskers. "How long since you shaved?"

   "I did this morning, after you left."


   "Yeah. Grows back fast, huh?"

   I chuckled. "Must be an extra dose of male hormones."

   He sort of laughed too, but then the hand on my waist started to pet up and down, and it gradually worked up the edge of my shirt, so he was feeling the skin beneath. "You know, Hutch," he said quietly, "I really like it that you're smooth all over. I mean, I like being hairy, but I'm glad you're not."

   "Yeah? Well, I like it that you're just so damn...male." The words came out stronger than I'd intended.

   "You're no less male than I am," he said, his tone sounding like he was wondering if I was questioning my masculinity.

   "I know," I assured. "But you have such a...a ruggedness about you. I've always found it...I don't know, soothing, I guess. I mean, I wouldn't want some 120 pound flake watching my back."

   He chuckled real soft. Then his hand went from my waist, up to my hair. The fingers furrowed in it, and I lay real still, soaking it up.

   "You're just so damn beautiful, Hutch." His voice was amazed.

   I swallowed because I've never really known what to say when people tell me that. It's nice being good-looking, but when people dwell on it, it's always made me uncomfortable.

   "Really," he said. "I mean honest, Hutch, I'd still love you to death if you were one ugly mother's son. But I feel like it's a fringe bein' so damn gorgeous an' all."

   I closed my eyes. His voice sounded so passionate.

   "Sometimes I wonder," he went on, "what the hell someone as beautiful as you is doing wasting your looks on someone like me. I mean, you ought to be married to someone like Miss Universe."

   I swallowed and opened my eyes. "I a manner of speaking."

   He had to take a minute to let that sink in. "Well, I know," he finally said, "Vanessa was one gorgeous lady, and --"

   "Exactly," I interrupted, wanting to close the subject, "but it was a whole different story on the inside." I gripped his scrubby cheek. "You're the most special, most precious person I've ever known. I don't want anything else on the outside if they can't have your insides."

   He was quiet a moment, then he said, "But you're beautiful on both the inside and the outside."

   He was so damn serious about it. All I could do was laugh a little. "Well, I think there are a number of people -- including Vanessa, God rest her soul -- who would disagree with that."

   "Doesn't matter," he whispered, stroking my cheek, "you're mine now. No one else can have you."

   I took a deep breath, wanting to believe that with all my soul. People always seems to think that commitment ties you down -- but, really, it sets you free, because you have the security of knowing there's someone who loves you and will support you and stand by you. That's how it's supposed to work, anyway. And I know with Starsk, it will. Because we've been standing by each other and supporting each other for forever.

   We both lay there for a while in the stillness of the night, relaxed and content. Every now and then one of us would move our hands to a new location...rub and scratch a little.


   My eyes had closed. "Hmm?"

   "What do you think it'll be like? You know, when we do it?"

   He was still so serious. I shifted a little, then lay very still. I tried to answer as honestly as I could. "I don't know." Then it occurred to me he could have meant a couple of different things. "Do you mean just 'do' something in general, or...?" I didn't know how to phrase it.

   "I mean when we get serious. You know, do it. Fuck each other."

   I wanted to make a joke about his choice of words, but realized my heart wasn't in it. I shifted a little to lay on my back. "I don't know, Starsk. I've never done it before...with a man, I mean."

   "But you have with women, right?"

   I shrugged. "Occasionally." I looked over at him. "Haven't you?"

   "Well...yeah." I sensed there was more he wanted to say, but he was afraid of saying it. I moved my hand across the mattress until I felt his hand, and I stroked it with the backs of my fingers. And waited.

   After a time, he swallowed and said, "I really didn't like it much. I mean, not as much as doin' it normally."

   I rolled onto my side and whispered, "I didn't, either. As much, anyway. Nothing feels quite like a woman."

   He thought about that a long moment. Then he said, "Do you think maybe we're makin' a big be thinkin' we might do it someday?"

   I wanted to put that fear to rest right away. He was already saying 'might' instead of 'will'. My fingers found his and curled around them. "No, Starsk. Not at all. We'll make do with the parts we have available to us. I think...I think...," God, what was the right phrase to use? "...that that will be the only way we have of being physically joined. I guess I see it as an ultimate, as far as the physical, and I at least would like us to be able to share that. If we enjoy it, that is. Obviously, some men like doing it."

   "Yeah," he agreed quietly. Then he cheerfully said, "Hutch, are you ever gonna kiss me?"

   I glanced up at him, feeling a bit guilty. He said it like he'd been waiting for it ever since we got into bed. Of course, he couldn't make the first move without being awkward because of his stitches. At the same time, I had thought.... "Hey, buddy," I squeezed his hand, "I wasn't planning on any of that yet."

   "Just a little kiss, Hutch."

   He sounded like such a little kid. That always gets to me. I took a deep breath. "Buddy, I'm afraid it might be difficult to keep it little." I sighed, hearing the frustration in my voice. "And I don't want to start something that we aren't going to be able to finish. I thought we'd just sleep together for a while."

   He blinked, his eyes so wide and innocent looking and full of life. "Can't we just play around? You know, like in high school? Back before it was proper to go all the way?"

   I smiled -- or tried to. Maybe it was more of a grimace, because just talking about it was starting to get to me, and I had to shift a little, but it didn't help. "Starsk, we aren't kids anymore. We have adult desires." I took a deep breath.

   "We'll handle it, Hutch." He reached out and patted my cheek. "I really would like it if you kissed me. If it weren't for this damn surgery, I would've been all over you as soon as you got into bed."

   I shifted again, took another deep breath, tried to blank my mind....

   But damn, he was lying there, so expectant, waiting for me. And, dear God, when you love someone as much as I do him, it's very difficult to say "No" when they're asking for so little. Just wanting a little pleasure. Who was I to deny him that?

   It felt like I was diving off a cliff, as I carefully slid closer to him. I got up on my elbow so I could lean down. His eyes were wide open, watching me, waiting for it to happen.

   I closed my eyes and lowered my head. Honest to God, I meant for it to be a kiss -- nothing more, nothing less. But as soon as my mouth touched his, Starsky's lips parted and he pressed up against me, and I pressed down...and it was like being sucked into a well...except instead of falling, I was floating...and soaring...and it was like an addiction and we both just pressed harder and harder....

   It was Starsky who broke the spell, squeezing my shoulder so hard that I finally pulled back, and we gasped like two badly conditioned athletes who had just run a marathon, our foreheads leaning against each other.

   "I love you," I finally managed. I kissed his cheek, dragged my lips up to his nose, his forehead, tasting the salt of him, wondering why we had waited all this time, but glad that we had this specialness now to share.

   He tilted his chin up, reached with his hand to clasp my jaw, trying to pull us together again, but I pulled back. "Starsk, no," I gasped, wondering if I meant it.

   In his lying position, he could only let go. "Why?" he asked breathlessly.

   "Buddy," I warned, shaking my head, "I won't be able to stop...."

   "Who's asking you to?" I felt a hand on my abdomen and I tried to pull my hips away. "Don't hold back from me, buddy," he said with quiet deliberateness. "There's nothing about you that I don't want."

   Damn, but he was determined. Was this the same man who had kept asking if it was "going to be okay"? I didn't know whether to curse him or love him all the more. With my desire so strong, giving him what he wanted could only be torture for me, because I didn't know how the buildup of pressure could possibly be released....

   His hand went lower, stretching to fumble at the waistband of my shorts. I knew the movement had to have pulled at his stitches, and I sensed his flinch of pain. But still his hand pestered, trying to get inside.

   I raised up a little more. "Just a minute," I told him. I couldn't stand to see him hurt himself like this. The least I could do was not make it so hard on him, so I pushed at my underwear, forcing it down until my cock sprang free. In retrospect, I guess it sounds silly, but I almost expected him to hesitate, maybe think it was a little bit gross, just because it was so male....

   But even while I was still trying to kick my underwear off, he was touching it, stroking it. His grip was so soothing, so strong, so encouraging....

   I finally had the shorts off and I pressed against the mattress with my hands and toes, arching up, making myself more accessible to him.

   He had calmed down considerably...not being frantic like when we were kissing. But my insides were on fire, and I heard myself moan, "Oh, Starsk...." I didn't know what else to say, how to tell him how to help me.

   But I shouldn't have worried.

   "I'll get you off, Hutch," he said confidently. "I can make my hand feel just like pussy."

   I collapsed against the mattress, not knowing whether to laugh or groan at what he'd said. Pussy was the very thing we'd given up. But my cock ached all the more at the promise.

   His hand left me to go beneath. He carefully picked up my balls, then rolled them in his hands.

   "Feel good?" he whispered.

   I could only nod, trying to hold my breath as I watched him. God, most women had no idea how good it felt to have your scrotum played with. They seemed to think a quick feel was enough. But Starsk knew. He kept rolling them...and rolling them.

   I must have moaned or whimpered or something, because he carefully let them go, and said, "I'll get you off, Hutch. I know just how to do it."

   I had no doubt he knew how to do it for himself, but surely another person was a whole different matter. But he wrapped his hand firmly around my barrel, then pulled forward, tightening just behind the head as his hand passed over it.

   "Oh, God," I said. I'm sure it was a whimper this time. He was better than I'd imagined. He kept stroking, so steady, over and over....

   And I couldn't stand that he wasn't getting anything out of it. Trying not to dislodged his position, I got back up on an elbow and attacked his mouth, gripped his hair, reached down instinctively and pinched at the little nipples there.

   He groaned, too, kissed back just as vigorously. And still his hand kept its steady motion...and suddenly I felt it coming and threw my head back, and he pumped faster...faster...tighter and tighter....

   I know I cried out. It was such an all-encompassing feeling...something I hadn't experienced in quite a while, and I let it consume me, felt myself go limp as the juice flowed out of me, and I was numb all over until I realized I was spread out on the mattress. I think I was still groaning a little.

   "How the hell did you know how to do that?" I gasped, just now looking over at him.

   He was grinning smugly, a hand tucked under a cheek. Then he shrugged. "What's to know? You think I'm not a master at beating my own meat?"

   I blinked, recovering enough to turn back onto my side. "Beating your own meat and beating someone else's are two different things, partner."

   "Not really," he said. Then his smile faded. "You're so damn beautiful, Hutch. If there was some way I could make you feel good twenty-four hours a day, every day, I would."

   I was finding it harder and harder to know what to say when he gets so passionate like that. I decided to keep things as mellow as possible. In my state, I'm not sure I could handle anything else. "I'll accept what I can get for the time being." And I sighed dramatically.

   Then it occurred to me that I was being incredibly selfish. Gently, I asked, "How are you doing?" I tried to look, but the covers were still almost up to his waist.

   "I'm okay, Hutch," he said cheerfully. "I just wanted to do that for you." Then, like a mischievous little kid, "It got me my kiss, didn't it?"

   I reached to ruffle his hair, but stopped right away when my hip felt a coolness on the sheets. I sighed again, then rolled toward the other side of the bed. "I'll get a towel." I got up, feeling the wonderful wobbliness in my legs. I tried to rationalize it all and tell myself that an orgasm was an orgasm was an orgasm...that any woman -- any bed partner -- could have gotten me off like Starsk did. Made me scream. Made me feel like I didn't have a care in the world.

   But there was no other I had looked forward to returning to bed to as much as I was looking forward to returning to Starsk...even just to curl up and sleep.

   I switched on the light in the bathroom and found myself facing the mirror. I looked at the man there, trying to see him as someone else would.

   I knew, despite all the compliments, that he wasn't as handsome as he once was. Some said the mustache added character; however, some had also said it made him look sad. His face was paler than it used to be, bags a little bigger around the eyes, hair thinner, though longer. Without that color of blond, I knew he would be an entirely ordinary specimen of the human race. With the blond, he merely had an attractive exterior.

   And that man in the bedroom thought he was some kind of angel...or wise man...or god. Or perhaps just a soul who badly needed love.

   I picked up a hand towel off the rack, squeezed it around myself for half a second, then turned off the light. My search was over, though I couldn't help but wonder if it was necessary for all those years to go by before its conclusion. It's not that I felt they were wasted years -- all of life's experiences give us knowledge that enhance our existence -- but I wondered if I'd had any courage, if perhaps I could have been loving in return for some time now.

   And if Starsk hadn't had the courage, how much longer would we have gone on as we had?

   It really wasn't such a bad thought. The love we shared had been tops in both of our lives for some time now. After Gillian, after Terry, it seemed that for the serious stuff, we turned to each other. We just used and let our bodies be used by others. We worshipped each other, but we were indiscriminate with our pleasure.

   No more.

   They say that, eventually, everyone returns to their roots. Everyone must make peace with their past in order to have peace in their future. And Starsky and I had returned to the only real home each of us has ever known.

   The bedroom seemed darker after losing the brightness of the light, and I bumped into the edge. "Sorry," I said, thinking of his wound.

   His voice hinted at amusement. "Hurt me less than it did you."

   As I knelt on the mattress, I held out the towel. "Need this?"

   He sort of looked at his hand, then rubbed it against his pajamas. "Nah. Hardly got any on me."

   I felt for the wet spot, then laid the towel over it. Then I found my underwear and put them back on.

   "What took you so long?"

   "Just thinking." I settled against the mattress, feeling rested and renewed and at peace.

   "About what?" He sounded suspicious.

   I felt for his hand, then held it loosely. "Me. You. Life. Love. Things like that."

   With scolding hesitation, he said, "I don't know if I can let you go to the bathroom alone anymore, Hutch."

   I chuckled and squeezed his hand. Then I said, "I love you. You can't know how much."

   "If you say so. But I hope you don't mind my taking the rest of our lives trying to find out."

   My eyes watered then. I'm not really even sure why.

   I turned on my side, clasping his hand in a firmer grip. "Buddy, I'll be damn glad when you're healed, because I want to hold you so much I can hardly stand it."

   "I know. I want to hold you, too." And, slowly, he inched a little closer.

   I wanted to put my hand on his waist, but that was too close to his incision. So, I put it on his hip.

   "You know what's funny?" he asked.


   "I feel all mellow -- like I came, too, even though I didn't."

   I reached out, put on hand on his chest. "Wait until you're healed, partner. You ain't seen nothing yet." I rubbed a little, feeling the hair beneath the cotton.

   He grunted, then I felt fingers reached for my lips, gently searching around them.

   I captured a digit with my mouth, sucked it briefly. Then I pushed with my nose until I found his hand, and I kissed the center of it.

   He was lying back, looking at the ceiling. "You ever wonder if it'll all run out?"

   I released his hand. "What?"

   "The love." He looked toward me. "Do you ever think it'll get used up? Do you think that's what happens to marriages when they don't love each other any more?"

   "No," I answered immediately. I had experience with that. I moved a little closer to him. "I think what happens is that two people fall in love with the anticipation of meeting each other's needs. Then they get to know each other and, sometimes, they find out that they want different things." I drew a circle in the center of his chest. "That won't happen to us, because we've been meeting each other's needs for a long time now. We both know what we're getting."

   Starsky made a big sigh of contentment. Then he corrected, "Not what we're getting -- what we have."

   He was right, and I moved my hand from his chest to squeeze his arm. Then I felt a yawn coming on. "Buddy?"


   "Think you might be able to sleep with your head on my shoulder?" Say yes, please say yes.

   "Yeah, let's give it a try." He raised up a little, then gingerly tried to move nearer with an elbow.

   I inched closer to him, then put a hand on his back. When he first tried to lay down, his head was almost level with mine, so he slid down the mattress until it was on target. Carefully, he let my shoulder take his weight.

   I had my arm around his shoulders, and I couldn't help but pet a little up and down his back. "Comfortable?"

   "Yeah," he flinched a little, "I think this will be okay." Then, "Better than a pillow."

   "How does your incision feel?"

   Another slight flinch. "It kinda stings a little. Not bad enough to keep me awake," he assured.

   I let my hand drift up his back, into his hair. I twirled my fingers around it. "Let me know if you need anything."

   "Okay," he said tiredly. "Go to sleep, blondie. You've got work in the morning."

   I grunted at his feeble attempt to be commanding. But I obeyed. And I was confident that all my mornings of the future were going to be better than all those of the past.



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

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