Charlotte Frost



"Come now," Louis Milford admonished as he reached into his pocket for a cigarette. He was a bulky man, six feet tall and some 250 pounds. His right-hand goon, Jeffrey Simons, stepped forward and offered a light. When his cigarette was lit, Milford sat back against the couch and regarded Starsky--undercover name Dwane Mitchells--with a devious smile. "You can't tell me that you and that handsome partner of yours have never..." Milford laughed and glanced at Simons and his accountant, Nathan Tanner, "shall we say, indulged each other."

Starsky sighed as he stood before his "employer". He had thought it would be beneficial that he and Hutch could still be partners while undercover. They acted as high class bodyguards--and dressed the part--for Milford, who owned an expansive estate along the northeast edge of the Angeles National Forest. They had been on the job for four weeks, and they'd had only minimal luck in finding evidence of Milford's involvement in the murder of a couple of police officers, the cause of which they suspected centered around secret gambling establishments owned by Milford. Now, Starsky tried not to flinch at the surprising content of Milford's statement, for he was certain the other wasn't a homosexual. "Mr. Milford, sir, Sam Green and I are best friends all the way down the line, but I'm afraid you have us pegged wrong."

The other's grin widened with amusement. "Sure I do. You work next to that beautiful blond day in and day out, and you are trying to tell me that your separate bedrooms aren't just for appearances' sake?" He laughed and, following their employer's lead, the other two men in the room laughed, too.

"As I said," Starsky forced a smile, "I'm afraid you do have us pegged wrong, sir." Inside, he felt a peculiar sense of danger. He was long accustomed to accusations being made about him and Hutch, mainly from people who didn't appreciate being arrested. Occasionally from jealous girlfriends. Rarer still, an off-the-cuff snarl by a fellow law officer. But he had never felt threatened by such statements before, because they couldn't be proven since they weren't true. Now, not knowing what Milford hoped to gain, Starsky didn't bother trying to force down the growing bile in the pit of his stomach.

Milford stood and patted Starsky on the shoulder as he moved passed him. After exhaling smoke from his nose, he paused and said, "Don't worry, Mitchell. He's all yours. I respect that kind of closeness between men. Especially when I'm paying them a fortune to protect me." He moved to sit behind his big, mahogany desk and waved a hand. "Go on. You're both off duty for a couple of days. I won't need you again until Friday. We're going to Las Vegas and spending the weekend there."

Starsky bowed slightly at the waist. "Thank you, sir."

"Be ready to leave nine o'clock Friday morning."

"Yes, sir."

Starsky left the room, not realizing how suffocated he'd felt until he was in the hallway, which was decorated, as was most of the house, with fine paintings and antique furniture. He peeked into various open doors. It was when he glanced into the library that he found what he was looking for. "Hey, there."

That "beautiful blond" stood decked out in a black three-piece suit, as Starsky was. He looked up from a book. "What's up?"

"Nothin' much. Except we're off duty until Friday. What are you doin'?" Starsky tilted his head to focus on the book. He noticed that a piece of paper was resting on top of the page, and realized that looking at the book was only a cover for reading what was on the paper.

Hutch glanced warily toward the door and Starsky stepped over to close it. The blond said, "I found some papers hidden behind a shelf that could be logs from his gambling establishment. Having everything written on regular pieces of notebook paper would be a good cover for hiding what they really are, don't you think?"

"Uh-huh," Starsky said as his eyes ran down the list of numbers. "Think his beauty parlor is the front for the casino?"

Hutch straightened. "Well, we know the meat market isn't and the gun store isn't. So that leaves the beauty parlor or the gym."

"Wish he'd send us on an errand to one of them."

"Or go himself and need us along."


Hutch poked a finger at Starsky's chest. "You know, since we have a couple of days off, why don't we decide to get a nice, healthy workout?"

"That's an exclusive club," Starsky reminded.

Hutch shrugged. "Maybe he'll give us guest passes. Don't think he'd mind us keeping ourselves in shape at his expense." Now a smile. "He should be able to appreciate how keeping our bods beautiful will make us more efficient at our jobs."

Starsky gave his partner a disapproving look. He went over to a shelf and absently ran his finger along the titles.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothin'. But you're right, that would be a good way of getting in and checking the gym out for ourselves. Let's ask Milford tomorrow morning if he'll let us go there."

"What about tonight so we can get an early start?"

Starsky turned to look at Hutch. Then he muttered, "He's not in the best of moods right now. Lost playing poker to Tanner."

"Tanner cheats." Hutch closed the book and put the loose sheet of paper in his pocket.

"Sure you want to keep that on you?" Starsky asked.

"I want to compare the handwriting to other things in the house to see if it's Milford's, or Tanner's, or someone else's." Hutch put the book back on the shelf. When he turned and saw Starsky still watching him, he assured, "Don't worry. There's no reason for anyone to be suspicious of us." He grinned. "We're well-liked here."

Starsky looked him in the eye. "Right." He drew a breath. "I'm going back upstairs. Maybe watch some TV in my room."

"Yeah, okay. I'll be up in a minute."

Starsky hesitated, not liking the idea of leaving Hutch alone, especially after Milford's statements about his partner's dashing exterior. But he didn't know how to express the unease that he felt, so he left the room without looking back.

* * *

Fifteen minutes later there was a knock on the door. "It's me," the voice said from the other side.

Starsky was stretched out on his stomach on the bed, wearing briefs and a T-shirt while watching a western. "It's open."

Hutch entered with a tray.

"What's that?" Starsky sat up, pleased.

"Crackers and cheese and wine. The best bedtime snack." Hutch put the tray on the table next to the TV. "What are you watching?"

"Nothin'." Starsky got up and turned it off. He pulled out a chair from the table and sat.

Hutch undid his tie. "What's eating you?"


The tie was tossed aside and the blond pulled off his jacket. "Something's bugging you. Come on, what is it?" He loosened the top buttons of his shirt and sat opposite his partner.

Starsky turned in his chair so that he wasn't directly facing Hutch, who was pouring each of them a glass of wine. "Have you ever thought that Milford might be a fag?"

"What?" Hutch set the bottle down and regarded his partner a long moment. Then he took the lid off the round package of cheese. "Starsky, of course he's not a fag. You and I both have seen plenty of evidence of that."

"Well, then, maybe bisexual," Starsky suggested quietly.

Hutch opened the box of crackers and dumped them onto the plate next to the cheese. "We know he likes to enjoy himself." He shrugged. "I guess it's not altogether surprising that he might want to play in bed with men as well as women." He picked up a cracker and spread cheese on it. "Here."

Starsky turned and took it.

"What brought this on?" Hutch asked, preparing another.

Starsky wouldn't meet his partner's eye. "He said some things a little while ago." He put the cracker in his mouth.

"What things?" Hutch, too, began to eat.

Starsky made a face and put the cracker down. "This cheese tastes funny."

The blond made a face of disapproval. "It's too cultured for you."

"Yeah, well, I'll just eat the crackers." Starsky grabbed a few and crunched noisily.

"You don't have to wake up the whole house."

"No one's asleep yet." Starsky sipped his wine.

Hutch sipped as well, then asked, "So, what was Milford saying?"

Starsky lowered his gaze. He felt the twisting in his stomach again. Softly, he said, "You need to watch yourself, Hutch."

"What?" he heard the other ask. "What do you mean?"

Starsky looked up. "Milford. He has a thing for you."

Pale brows furrowed doubtfully. "You sure?" Then a brief laugh. "That's incredible."

"Hutch, it's not funny. You shoulda heard him. He was talkin'"

"Like what?"

Abruptly, Starsky was on his feet, feeling the urgent need to move, his back to his partner. After a pause, he said, "Like he thinks you're the most beautiful person on this Earth."

"I am a beautiful person," the smug voice noted.

Starsky turned around, hands on his hips. "Will you knock it off? I'm serious. He has a thing for you." He swallowed thickly. "You just need to be extra careful."

"What do you mean?" The other seemed genuinely puzzled. "Just because he likes to look doesn't mean he wants to touch. Besides," Hutch took another sip of wine, "I can handle myself."

"Hutch, the man is a killer."

"We don't know that for sure. And what's that got to do with him liking me?"

"Well..." Starsky hesitated, "what if he comes on to you? Then what are you going to do?"

"I've had men come onto me before, on occasion. Saying 'no' has always worked."

"Hutch, Milford's the kind of man who's used to getting what he wants."

Hutch ate another cracker. After swallowing he said, "Did he tell you he was going to...try to get to me?"

Starsky shook his head, frustrated with his partner's denseness. "Of course not. He acted like he wasn't going to come between me and you."

That got his partner's attention. Hutch pulled away a partially eaten cracker. "What?"

"He thinks you and I are making it together. Like...there's no way anyone can be partnered with you and not want to do it with you. He seemed sort of amused by it; I mean, that I was denying it. But then he said he wasn't going to come between you and me because he had too much respect for us."

Hutch picked up the cracker again. "Then what are you worried about?"

Starsky clenched his fists, then released them along with a deep, deep breath. "Just watch yourself. Please?" he said more softly. "For me?"

Hutch dabbed his lips with a napkin. "Starsky, you're missing the obvious here."

Starsky sat back down. "What's that?"

"His...obsession...might be useful. It might allow me to get closer to him and find out more."

Starsky held up a hand. "Hutch, no. No way. I won't allow it. I mean, what if it goes too far and he wants you to go to bed with him?"

"I'll tell him I'm hopelessly devoted to you." Hutch grinned widely at his partner as he inserted another cracker into his mouth.

Starsky shook his head, deflated. "Hutch, you're impossible."

The blond finished his wine. "You can have the rest," he said as he stood, picking up his jacket and tie. He stepped toward the door, then turned. "Imagine how this looks," he said, indicating the clothing he held. "You in your underwear and me leaving your room only partially dressed."

"You know," Starsky sighed, "you make it real difficult to be your partner when you won't take stuff like this seriously...."

"I'll be okay, buddy." Hutch winked. "I can handle myself." He opened the door and left the room.

Starsky sighed again, this time heavily. To the empty room, he muttered, "That's what you think."

* * *

"Of course," Milford sat back in his big leather chair and blew smoke across the desk, "I'll let you into my gym. I like my guards to keep physically fit." He was looking at both men standing before him, dressed in jeans, but then his eyes strayed to Hutch. And stayed.

"Thanks very much, Mr. Milford," Starsky said.

Milford picked up the phone and dialed a number. After a moment he said, "Douglas, this is Mr. Milford. I have two men coming down there this morning who aren't members. Their names are Mitchell and Green. Give them complete access to all facilities."

"Thanks again," Starsky said when Milford hung up.

"We appreciate it," Hutch said, and they both turned away.

* * *

It was nearly an hour's drive into San Bernardino, the city nearest Milford's estate and where most of his businesses were located. Starsky and Hutch worked out for awhile, then covered every inch of the gym that they could, looking for signs of a secret casino. They found none.

When they returned to the main part of the gym, Starsky gestured to the wrestling mats they passed and said, "Hey, let's go for two out of three."

Hutch shrugged. "Sure. Be prepared to lose in two."

Starsky grinned as he took his place on the mat. He didn't care if he lost in two or not. He just wanted an excuse for them to play together. The incident eight months ago with Marianne Owens had pointed out to him how much he and Hutch had drifted apart. He resolved to never let that happen again, especially when danger was near. He'd made an extra effort toward their relationship after the Fitch case ended, and Hutch had responded. If anything, it seemed they were all the closer after having gone through the situation that had been so difficult for them both.

They moved toward each other. Starsky reached for Hutch, but his partner ducked and stepped away. And then Hutch lunged at him and grabbed him by the thigh. The next thing Starsky knew, he was slammed down onto his back, Hutch pinning him with an arm across his collarbone.

"Never have learned how to defend that move," Starsky muttered when he had his breath back.

Hutch grinned. "Won't do it next time. That's my handicap."

Starsky nodded. It was fair enough, for Hutch was once a champion wrestler in college, after all.

They took their places at opposite ends of the mat. They circled each other, arms extended. Then Starsky dived for Hutch's legs. The blond fell back onto his rear, then scissored his partner between his legs. Starsky squirmed free and grabbed Hutch by the arms. Hutch grabbed back and they rolled a couple of times. Then Starsky managed to jump into a sitting position. He grabbed Hutch by the crotch with one hand, feeling the athletic supporter, and with his other jabbed Hutch in the ribs with his elbow. Hutch tried to roll away, but Starsky had more momentum and plopped down on top of him, this time his arm at the blond's neck.

"Gotcha." It gave a him a great deal of satisfaction to say it.

Hutch merely nodded in resignation.

"Hey, Starsky and Hutch."

Their eyes widened as they looked at each other, Starsky easing his hold.

"Who is it?" Hutch whispered.

Starsky raised his eyes without moving his head. The last thing they needed was their covers blown. He saw a short man in an old overcoat looking at them from a few feet away. Thinking quickly about the best course of action, Starsky waved and said, "Hey you, over here." Beneath his breath, he said, "It's Gentleman Gerry." The man was an ex-con who was occasionally good for information.

"Don't let him know we're undercover, or he could use it against us."


Both men sat up as Gerry approached. Thankfully, there were only a few people in the gym, and they all seemed more interested in their exercise than seeing what was transpiring between the three men.

"What are you guys doing way out here?" Gerry asked.

Starsky said, "We'd like to ask you the same thing."

"Hey, I changed to a new beat. Cops out here aren't as tough as back in Los Angeles."

Hutch said, "Guess that means you're back to picking pockets."

"I ain't admitting to anything." Then, "I hope you two didn't get transferred or somethin' like that."

Starsky shook his head. "We have a friend who belongs to this gym, and he got us passes." He glanced around. "We'd heard about it, so thought we'd give it a try since we had the day off."

Hutch said, "How did you get in?"

"I work in the laundry room. Just on my way home."

"Oh," Starsky said. He swallowed, wondering how much of a threat that could be. What were the chances that a laundry man would ever see the owner of the gym, let alone mention the names Starsky and Hutch to him in reference to men who were supposed to be Mitchell and Green? It seemed unlikely.

Hutch got to his feet. "We're on our way home, too."

"That's right." Starsky also stood. "I've had enough for one day." He started toward the locker room. "Nice seein' you, Gerry. And keep those hands out of everyone's pockets."

The other waved dismissively and walked off.

Starsky and Hutch looked at each other. "Let's get out of here," the blond said.

As they headed toward the locker room, Starsky added, "And not come back."

* * *

"The casino has to be at the beauty parlor," Starsky said as they drove back toward Milford's estate in their blue Chrysler New Yorker.

"Unless Milford owns other businesses under false names," Hutch noted.

"Haven't heard him mention anything else."

"Yeah," Hutch relented. Then he said, "In any case, it's going to be hard finding an excuse to check out the beauty parlor."

"We might need to contact Dobey and have him get the San Bernardino police to send in an undercover female officer to check it out."

"Let's stop at the next gas station and give him a call."


* * *

Starsky had decided that being a bodyguard was one of the most boring professions one could ever get involved in. With slot machines clanging all around him, he stood next to a vacant one and watched Milford...who was watching Hutch.

The blond was leaning against a railing overlooking the floor below. Milford was a few yards away at the table, sipping a beer with a dance hall girl in the chair next to him. But Milford's eyes were on Hutch. Starsky was back a ways, between the two of them, completing a triangle while under the pretense of watching out for Milford's welfare from a brief distance. He and Hutch had shadowed the man, but they both had been dismissed from being close to their employer with a gesture of Milford's head when the girl had showed up at his table.

The woman was making conversation, but Milford wasn't responding. He kept watching Hutch.

Starsky decided enough was enough. He walked up to Hutch and put his arm around the other's back.

Hutch started and looked at his partner. "What's up?"

Starsky ran his hand up and down Hutch's back. "I'm afraid to say."


"Milford's staring at you like crazy. Even with the knockout at his table."

The blond frowned and his voice had an edge. "Then what are you doing?"

Starsky squeezed Hutch's shoulder. "Letting Milford know that he was right, and that I was lying."

Blue eyes glared at him.

"It's the safest thing," Starsky told him, his voice devoid of apology.

"We should have discussed it first," the other said tightly.

"No time. I just want Milford to understand that if he wants to try to get to you, he's gonna have to deal with me first."

Hutch shifted uncomfortably. "Ease up, will ya? Or we're liable to get thrown out by management for creating a public display."

Starsky dropped his hand and placed it on the railing. He took a few short steps sideways so that their shoulders were brushing. "If he already knows we're good friends, it can't hurt anything to know that his suspicions are correct. It's safer this way."

"Shouldn't you at least pretend to be on guard against anyone who might harm him?"

Starsky sighed. "He doesn't want us around as long as the girl's with him." After a moment, he added, "I don't know why he's so concerned about privacy. Anyone who's looking can see that he's got it bad for you."

"Funny, I haven't noticed at all."

"Good. Keep not noticing. And maybe he'll keep his ideas to himself if he thinks you don't even know he exists...except for the weekly paycheck he gives us."

Hutch muttered, "Who died and put you in charge?" He pushed away from the railing.

Starsky put his hands behind his back and wandered slowly along the nearest row of slot machines, eyes on the lookout for anyone who might be taking an interest in Milford. No one was. The man himself had finally turned his attention to the showgirl, now that Hutch was nowhere in sight.

* * *

An hour later, Starsky was at Milford's shoulder as the man made his way toward his suite. He watched while Milford inserted his key into the lock. As it made a clicking noise of release, Milford turned to him. "You know, Mitchell, you could have saved me the expense."


"Needing two rooms for you both. You can deny it all you want, but I know better." Starsky shifted uncomfortably. "Mr. Milford, with all due respect, Green and I will share a room if that's what you prefer. It just won't be for the reason that you think; only because you ordered us to." He thought it would be best if he kept up the pretense and denied any sort of relationship.

Milford eyed him closely. Then, "Have it your way."

"Good night, sir."

"I won't be up until close to noon."

"I'll let Green know."

"You know, it's okay to lighten up a bit, Mitchell. Las Vegas is for fun. Loosen up. I don't mind my boys enjoying themselves."

Starsky smiled indulgently. "Yes, sir. Goodnight, sir." He turned away.

He knocked lightly on Hutch's door, wondering if the other were asleep. Because Milford stayed up so many hours while in Vegas, they traded some shifts while overlapping others, and it would be Hutch's turn to be with their employer for the early part of the next day.

It took a while, but the door finally opened. Hutch was in his robe and looking a little scruffy. "What?" he said with a frown.

"Milford won't need you until noon."

The frown deepened. "You couldn't wait until tomorrow morning to tell me that?"

Starsky shrugged. "I intend to sleep in. Thought you might appreciate knowing you can, too, if you want."

Hutch nodded and closed the door.

Starsky went to his own room, wishing they had, in fact, told Milford's accountant to reserve just one room for them. He found his partner's annoyance much easier to handle when they were in close proximity. That way, he knew how much Hutch was festering. And he didn't have to wonder.

* * *

The knock on the door was loud, waking Starsky from a deep sleep. "Who is it?" he called groggily.

"Your better half. Let me in."

Starsky untangled the bedclothes and got to his feet. He squinted as he opened the door.

Hutch stood there, dressed in sweats and holding a tray. "Breakfast. Let me in."

Starsky stepped back and grumbled, "Told ya I was gonna sleep in."

Hutch put the tray on the table. Then he went to the curtains and opened them, letting the sun stream in. "Yeah? Well, you aren't the only one with a say in this partnership."

Starsky swallowed, resigned to the upcoming discussion. He put on his robe and sat down at the table. "What is this stuff?" He pulled some lids from the dishes.

"Biscuits and gravy and fruit. That'll get the plumbing going bright and early." Hutch also sat down.

Starsky frowned at him, then concentrated on the food. "Thought you'd want to sleep in a little, too."

Hutch looked him in the eye. "I figure we have some talking to do."

Starsky glanced away.

"You know," Hutch was spooning out gravy for both of them, "I'm fully aware that when one is undercover, one has to make split-second decisions and go with them. But that decision you made last night didn't have to be made right then. We at least could have talked about it."

Starsky shifted uncomfortably. "Do you want Milord pawing at you?"

"Do you paw at every woman you think is good-looking?" Hutch countered.

Starsky focused his gaze on the tray and didn't answer.

"Besides," the blond continued after swallowing a bite from his biscuit, "if he puts his paws on me I'll just tell him to take them off."

"Don't know how you can be so casual about it," Starsky muttered.

Hutch studied him a long moment, then demanded, "Can't you see how your attitude makes me feel?"

"What do you mean?"

Hutch's lip curled. "I feel like some vulnerable little pretty thing that you want to protect."

Starsky felt a flush come over him. He hadn't meant to make his partner feel like that. "Well," he reasoned, "we always try to protect each other. I mean, it would work the other way. Would you like knowin' Milford--or any guy--had a thing for me?"

Hutch snickered.


"I think that would be pretty funny to see another guy try to get to you."

"Oh, great, Hutch, you're a barrel of laughs." Though he was somewhat annoyed at Hutch's response, Starsky was also glad that his partner was now in better humor. "You wouldn't even try to defend my virtue?"

The grin was still there. "I'd have no doubt you could defend it well enough yourself." Then, more seriously, "So, why don't you grant me the same respect?"

"All right," Starsky relented. "Point made." He ate a few bites, but couldn't let the subject go. "It was just that, even last night, he mentioned it again; I mean, about you and me having separate rooms for appearances' sake. He said it wasn't necessary." Starsky shrugged. "I still denied the whole thing." He pushed his food away, for his appetite had disappeared. "Hell, he probably beat off all night thinkin' about you. He didn't go to bed with the showgirl."

Hutch shrugged. "Whatever keeps our employer happy."

Starsky studied his partner a long moment, wondering how much of Hutch's nonchalance was a put-on, and how much was...."You don't like him jerking off, thinking about you, do you?"

"Oh, Starsky, what is it with you? No one can control someone else's fantasies. Fantasies are just that: fantasies. They don't harm anyone. Why should I feel threatened?"

He should have anticipated that response, Starsky realized. " aren't flattered...are you?"

"No. Why would I be?"

"Just don't see how you can be so calm about it." Starsky put down his napkin.

"Don't see how you can be so uptight about it."

"Well, I'd feel pretty damn funny about some guy wantin' my prick or my ass."

"Don't knock what you haven't tried."

Starsky felt something fall to the pit of his stomach. He was afraid to ask the question that popped into his mind...but he couldn't not ask. "Hutch..." he whispered, "you aren't sayin...."

"Don't look like that," the other scolded. "I've never done anything with a man before."

Starsky let out a breath of relief.

"But I have done stuff with other kids."


Hutch dabbed at his mouth. "When I was fourteen years old, a group of us were alone in one of my friends' house. Of course, we talked about girls and sex." He chuckled briefly. "At that age, what else is there to talk about, right?"

Starsky just blinked, wondering if he was going to be sorry to hear what Hutch was going to say.

"I don't know exactly how it came about, but I remember one boy was reading out loud from a dirty book, and we were all getting really aroused. I think there was some conversation about what it must be like to get a blow job. Someone suggested we could do it to each other to see what it was like."

Starsky's eyes widened. "Ah, geez, Hutch." He let out a heavy breath.

The other was still wearing a grin beneath his mustache. "So, we did each other. Laid down in a circle and blew each other." The grin widened. "A good time was had by all."

Starsky put a hand on his stomach. "I think I'm gonna be sick."

"Oh, stop it. We were just kids. Using each other as substitutes for girls."

" did it more than once?" Starsky asked cautiously.

Hutch shook his head. "That was the only time. One of the kids' older brother got wind of what we did, and he told his brother that if he kept doing that, it would make him into a fag. So, that kid told the rest of us that, and we didn't dare touch each other again."

"Man," Starsky said, trying to find some equilibrium. He'd never imagined Hutch doing anything like that. "I can't know..." his voice lowered, "putting another guy's prick in my mouth." He made a face at the mere thought.

"Well, don't worry; there's nobody I know of who wants it from you. You're safe."

"Which is way off the subject, because it doesn't change the fact that Milford might eventually want something like that from you."

Hutch finished his orange juice, then used his napkin again. "Not everyone gets what they want."

* * *

"We struck gold, Hutchinson."

Hutch pulled the pay phone's receiver from his ear so that Starsky, who moved closer, could hear. "You mean the undercover policewoman found something?"

"Right," Dobey said. "The casino is in the basement below the salon. The patrons come in through a back alley entrance. Of course, the San Bernardino police are anxious to organize a bust, but I've persuaded them to hold off until you two can find some solid evidence that Milford is the man behind the casino. As it stands, all he has to do is claim he didn't know it was there. He can buy off his people so they won't testify against him."

"Right," Hutch said. "Tell the San Bernardino PD to hold off a little longer. We can probably find something in the house. There's some papers in the library that'll be all we need for evidence. I've bought a micro camera so that Starsky and I can start shooting the documents when we get the chance."

"That'll work. But make sure you're careful."

"Right, Captain." Hutch hung up the phone and looked at his partner. "Hopefully, just a few more days and our boring employment will be over."

"And none too soon," Starsky agreed with enthusiasm. He led the way to the blue New Yorker, and they began the long trip back to Milford's estate.

* * *

Starsky turned the page of the newspaper, trying to find something to distract his boredom. He had already been through the whole paper twice. Milford and Tanner had been consulting all morning on financial manners, and Starsky sat in a chair next to the big desk. He was on duty, but the fact of the matter was that while Milford was in his home--as he was most of the time--there really wasn't any need for a bodyguard. But he seemed to like to have one around--more for ornamentation for his massive ego, Starsky thought, than for any practical use.

The conversation between Milford and Tanner had become more casual in the past few moments. Hutch took the opportunity to enter. He stood hesitantly just inside the door.

Milford waved him forward. "Tanner and I are finished. What is it, Green?"

Hutch stepped closer in a bashful manner. "Uh, Mr. Milford, sir, I was wondering if I could request a favor."

"What favor?"

Starsky watched over the top of his paper, noting how Milford ran his eyes not-so-casually up and down the tall frame before him.

"Well, sir," Hutch began, "I've noticed that you have an impressive collection on the European monarchies in your library."

Milford seemed pleased. "Yes, I do."

"And...well, I'm sort of an amateur historian, and I've always wanted to write a book on the life of King Charles II."

"Oh, is that right?" Milford seemed even more pleased.

Hutch started to fidget. "Well, yes, sir. Actually, I started my book about five years ago but I'm afraid," he laughed self-consciously, "that I haven't had much time to work on it since. Anyway, seeing your collection has inspired me again, and I was wondering if you'd mind if I made use of your vast resources and continued working on my book in your library. It would mean spending a considerable portion of my free time there."

Milford waved a hand. "Certainly, you are welcome to continue your research. I'm flattered that my library will be of use to you. I, myself, never spend as much time there as I'd like. By all means, spend as many hours there as you wish."

Hutch bowed respectfully. "Thank you, sir."

"King Charles II is your favorite monarch, then?"

"Uh, actually," Hutch hesitated, and Starsky was sure the nervousness was genuine now, for he doubted Hutch knew European royalty all that well, "I favor Queen Elizabeth I because she accomplished so much during her reign. But I think that Charles is a more interesting focus for one's attentions."

"I find myself particularly fascinated with the Edwardian line," Milford said. "That was such a great era of European history. Sometimes I wonder if it were true that we are all reincarnations of earlier lives, then perhaps I was The Black Prince."

Hutch grinned good-naturedly. "That might very well be true. Thank you again."

Starsky watched Hutch make his exit, wondering who the Black Prince was.

"Well, Mitchell," Milford said to him, "it looks like your playmate is going to have other distractions for a while."

Starsky made a face to show his displeasure at the implication. But his voice held feigned casualness when he turned his attention back to his newspaper. "Yes, I guess he will." Then he added, "I'm all for whatever his little blond heart desires."

Milford grunted.

* * *

"Are you crazy?" Starsky whispered as he entered the library in his robe. "It's two o'clock in the morning." He closed the big double doors behind him.

Hutch, still dressed immaculately, looked up from the array of open books spread on the table. "What better time would you suggest to do what I need to do?"

"But you've been up all day and you're on duty first thing in the morning."

Hutch put his micro camera up to his eye and snapped a picture of a sheet of paper that was carefully arranged between some open books. "If I can get this roll of film to Dobey, we may not have to be here long enough to worry about catching up on my sleep."

Starsky came to stand beside him. "Good stuff, then?"

"I think so. I haven't had time to really evaluate the numbers, but that box behind the bookcase seems to be a gold mine. Can't imagine what else the information would be for, if it's not records for the casino. And look at this," Hutch pulled a paper from the box and pointed to a line, "I think this $10,000 may be payment to hit men for killing the two cops."

Starsky nodded, impressed. "Were you able to match up the handwriting from before?"

"It's Tanner's."

"Good. Just don't let anyone catch you."

"I only pull out one sheet at a time. That's what's taking so long. I figure if anyone walks in, it'll just look like my research papers amongst all these books."

"How much longer do you figure before you're done?"

"Maybe another hour."

"How about a half hour if I help?"

Hutch picked up the paper he'd photographed and moved to place it back in the box. "Suit yourself."

Starsky pulled out the next sheet and placed it on top of the table. "Since you're on duty tomorrow morning, I'll drive into town and overnight the rolls of film to Dobey."

"That's what I was counting on."

"Hopefully, there will be warrants within a couple of days, and then we're outta here."

Hutch grinned at him. "Are we good, or what?"

Starsky grinned back. "We're good."

* * *

It was with the satisfaction of a job well done that Starsky drove back to Milford's estate late the following morning. He had called Dobey, who was very happy to hear that the film was in the mail. It should be enough to get warrants to both close down the casino and arrest Milford.

As Starsky neared the estate, the music on the radio was interrupted with a news bulletin that a fire had broken out in a high-rise building in downtown San Bernardino. Rescue units from within the area and surrounding counties were being called in to assist, for there were literally thousands of people trapped on the floors above the fire. Starsky felt the instinct to help, but he couldn't risk blowing his and Hutch's covers by assisting law enforcement units. His presence was expected in order to trade shifts with a tired Hutch at two in the afternoon.

When Starsky drove up the long lane to the house, he was puzzled to see more than the usual number of cars parked there. He didn't recognize any of the cars as those associated with Milford's acquaintances.

When he walked in the front door he was greeted by the butler. "Ah, Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Milford requests your presence in the drawing room."

"Where is everybody?" Starsky asked as he followed the butler. The house seemed unusually quiet.

"In the drawing room."

Starsky wanted to ask who owned the unfamiliar cars out front, but he knew the butler didn't indulge in idle conversation. Besides, he'd find out soon enough.

The butler stood aside at the entrance to the drawing room, which was a large, austere room that Starsky had only seen once, when first given a tour of the house. He had been told it was sometimes used for meetings, and that appeared to be the case here, because it held a group of a half dozen men, all seated in a semi circle.

Just as Starsky stepped across the threshold, he heard a poignantly loud double "click". He froze, all too aware of pistols being pressed against his temples on either side.

He felt his intestines twist and coil in on themselves.

"Mr. Mitchell," Milford stood from his chair, turning to face him. "Or, shall we say, Detective Starsky."

The goon, Jeffrey Simons, stepped in front of Starsky and reached inside his windbreaker. He removed his Beretta and patted him down.

Starsky swallowed. It was a big room and he was just in the doorway; he couldn't see past the men seated furthest away. "Where's Green?" he demanded, trying not to reveal his dread.

"You mean Detective Hutchinson," Milford corrected, stepping back. The two men with the revolvers to his head shoved Starsky forward. He stumbled to the floor. A gun was again against his head. His arms were grabbed and he was dragged to one side. When he was able to, he looked up and saw Hutch sitting in the center of the room in a chair, his hands tied behind his back. He was gagged and had been divested of his jacket. His hair was disheveled and his white dress shirt was partially unbuttoned. He was watching Starsky with wide-eyed concern.

A gun was still against Starsky's temple, and he was aware of his hands being tied. It was on the tip of his tongue to deny his true identity, but Hutch had surely already tried that tact and been unsuccessful. Starsky decided to save his strength for whatever lay ahead.

He was pulled into a kneeling position, and his feet were tied behind him.

Milford nodded to Simons. "Now that the other one is here, you can remove his gag."

Simons went up to Hutch and untied the gag. Removing it revealed that Hutch had blood running from the corner of his mouth. Starsky realized then that they had been afraid of Hutch shouting a warning to him and that's why they'd gagged him.

He also realized that the rope around his hands was being connected to the rope around his feet, thereby leaving him completely helpless. Nevertheless, a gun was still pressed against his temple.

Hutch attempted to swallow. "It was Gentleman Gerry," he said to Starsky in a gruff voice.

"That's right," Milford said, grinning dangerously as he moved to stand a few feet in front of Hutch and addressed them both. "Gerry knows that Mr. Milford takes good care of the people who are loyal to him. When he needed a few extra dollars, he called and asked me if I knew that two well-known Los Angeles cops were making use of my gym. He had no idea just howhelpful his information was." Milford's voice hardened. "He'll be paid accordingly."

Milford stepped toward Starsky and leaned down. Angrily, he said, "If you've learned one thing about me in the time you've been with me, it's that I respect loyalty and honor. The worstthing anyone can do to me is betray my trust."

A blow slapped against Starsky's face and he fell to one side.

Milford turned back to Hutch, who was looking anxiously at Starsky. "A book, you say," he taunted. "You wanted to be in my library to write a book. What did you really want?"

Hutch only glared at him.

Starsky couldn't stand the thought of Hutch receiving the same treatment as himself. As he struggled back to a kneeling position, he calmly said, "It's too late, Milford." He was pleased when the man's attention snapped to him. "Film we took of your casino records are on their way right now to the Chief of Police at the LAPD. Nothing you do to us is going to save you from arrest. It'll only increase the charges against you."

Milford laughed. "You two haven't been keeping up with the news, have you?"

Both detectives were silent.

"There's a whole city block on fire in San Bernardino. All the police from hundreds of miles around are there. You know what that means? There's no police left to save you. Or to serve warrants on me for at least the next twenty-four hours. I'll be out of the country by then. My private jet is being prepared as we speak. Both of your lives depend upon my mercy."

Starsky felt a flare of hope. Milford wasn't threatening to kill them outright.

The heavyset man looked at Simons, then gestured to Hutch. "Untie him."

Starsky saw the puzzlement on Hutch's face, which reflected his own. Milford now sat back in a leather chair, eyes on Hutch.

Hutch rubbed his hands when his bonds were free.

"Stand up," Milford ordered.

The blond looked at Starsky, and Starsky knew his own expression mirrored his fear of the unknown. Carefully, Hutch stood.

"Move the chair away."

Simons stepped forward and pushed the chair to one side. Hutch was now standing in the middle of a semi-circle of people.


Starsky's heart kicked into high gear, realizing his worst fears were going to come to fruition.

"Why?" Hutch asked with a calm that his partner knew was feigned.

Milford looked at Starsky, and Starsky felt his hair grabbed as metal pressed against his temple again. "Because I'll have him blown him away if you don't do exactly what I tell you."

"All right," Hutch said quickly. He waited until the grip on Starsky's hair eased, then he began unbuttoning his shirt.

Starsky lowered his eyes, wondering if he might throw up. Milford was going to do what Starsky had most feared. Use Hutch and dirty him and humiliate him in front of a room full of people who only wished them harm. Worse, Milford was using Starsky as the pawn to get what he wanted.

After a long moment of no noise except the movement of clothing, Starsky looked up without moving his head. He could see what an effort Hutch was making to not make a big deal of it. With the rest of his clothing removed, he pushed down his pants and underwear in one quick move. The blond's gaze was locked with Milford's, avoiding Starsky's eyes completely.

Hutch now straightened, his hands at his sides.

Milford rose and stepped forward. He looked Hutch up and down, his gaze not leering but one of genuine admiration. When he was close enough, he placed a hand on Hutch's shoulder and whispered, "Nice."

Hutch forced out, "What do you want?"

The man was walking around him. Almost casually, he replied, "The same thing your partner has been enjoying for however long you've been together." Having completed his circle, Milford said, "I have no use for your partner. I can kill him with a word."

Hutch swallowed. "I have a proposition."

Starsky's heart beating faster, as he dreaded what Hutch was going to come up with.

A sly grin spread across Milford's face as his eyes flicked down, then up. "I don't see that you're in any position to make deals." There were a few snickers from the small audience.

Softly, Hutch said, "It might be worth it to you."

Milford's gaze moved down the pale body once again. "I'm listening."

"I'll give you what you want--freely--if you let him go."

Starsky's body sagged, the nausea upon him full force. Oh, God, Hutch, no. No. He was grabbed by the hair. When he was upright, he saw both Milford's and Hutch's eyes watching him. "Don't do it, Hutch!"

His hair was grabbed harder and he couldn't restrain a yelp.

He could see the pain in his partner's eyes. Knew that, for Hutch, there was no choice. Just like there wouldn't be any choice if their positions were reversed.

Hutch's desperate eyes turned back to Milford. "You said yourself that nothing can happen to you as long as the fire is going. You let him go--let him drive away freely with no one following him--and I'll give you what you want. No hassles. If you're a man of honor, I know you don't want it by force."

That drew another admiring smile from Milford. "You know me well."

"Free and clear," Hutch emphasized. "If he's allowed to drive away unharmed."

Milford's eyes darted from one man to the other, his fingers rubbing at his chin. "What guarantee can you give that he'll stay away?" he asked.

Hutch looked at Starsky and his jaw firmed. "You have my word. He won't come back."

Starsky wanted to shake his head--deny it--as he felt some part of himself dying inside. No, Hutch, no. But they wouldn't have a chance if he didn't at least make an effort to appear agreeable. He tried to speak, but only managed a croak.

"Let him go," Hutch pushed again. "And I'll do anything you want. Anything."

Starsky closed his eyes. Oh, God, Hutch. Oh, god. He felt an anger building, its force making him grit his teeth to keep himself from expressing all his hatred for Milford and...Hutch, how can you agree to this?

When Starsky opened his eyes, Milford was still looking from one to the other. To Hutch, he said, "All the promises have been coming from you."

"I'm what you want," Hutch emphasized. "He won't come back, because he knows it'll endanger me." Quickly, he added, "And he won't be able to get help, because of the fire."

Milford nodded thoughtfully. He looked at Starsky, then back at Hutch. Firmly, he warned, "If he dares to men will have orders to shoot him on sight."

Hutch met Starsky's eye. "He won't return."

Starsky heard his own heavy breath. He could see the pleading in Hutch's eyes. Still, he protested, "Hutch, don't."

"It's our only chance!" Hutch shouted at him.

Starsky looked at Milford and demanded, "What are you going to do with him when you're finished with him?"

Milford moved away. After a long moment, he turned around and said, "I'll leave him here. Unharmed. You come back in eight hours--no sooner--and he'll be here along with the butler. The rest of us will be gone."

Starsky gritted his teeth. "You'd better keep your word, Milford. Or I swear I'll hunt you down.... No matter where you are...."

"And you better keep yours. Or both of you die." Milford's gaze hardened. "If there's even a hint of you or your vehicle after you leave here," he nodded toward Hutch, "you'll find him dead." His voice grew dangerously passionate. "Believe me when I tell you that, in such a case, his death will be quite horrifying."

"But if I wait the eight hours," Starsky clarified, his own voice just as dangerous, "he'd better be alive and unharmed. Do you understand me, damn you?"

There was the hint of a smile. "We appear to understand each other...completely." He glanced at the guard next to Starsky. "Cut him loose."

As his bonds were cut, Starsky heard Hutch say, "Let me have a word with him."

"I think I've already been more than generous to two men who have betrayed my trust. You both keep up your end of the bargain and you'll live to see each other again."

"I want to see him leave," Hutch said.

"You don't trust me?" Milford countered with an edge to his voice.

"I want to see him leave. Free and clear. No goons following."

"All right, Hutchinson--Ken, is it?--we'll both escort him to the door." Milford nodded at Simons. "Come on. The rest of you gentlemen get ready to leave."

Starsky was now on his feet. He looked at Hutch defiantly, his insides churning with anger, fear...and disgust at what Milford was going to do in his absence.

Hutch looked equally defiant. But his voice was a plea. "Your safety is the only thing that will get me through this."

Starsky turned away, not wanting to torment either of them any longer. He marched out the open door and down the hallway, all too aware of the sound of bare feet behind him. It increased his anger that Hutch had to walk around naked, even after agreeing to humiliate himself to Milford.

He reached the front door too soon. The butler was holding it open and Starsky stepped over the threshold, resisting the urge to pause and look back. He went past all the cars in the driveway until reaching the New Yorker. He pulled out the keys and opened the door. It was then, with one foot in the car, that he looked back at the house. Milford was watching him, Hutch at his shoulder, and Simons behind them.

The corner of Hutch's mouth moved, and Starsky could see that he was trying to smile.

Starsky threw himself into the car and slammed the door shut. He started the motor and the car fishtailed as he gunned it around the circular drive and headed out of the estate...alone.




"There, you see," Milford said, glancing back at Hutch, "I keep my word." Then he frowned. "George," he said to the butler, "for goodness sakes, bring this man something to cover himself with."

"Right away, sir."

"You're dismissed, Simons."

Simons looked at Hutch, then at his employer. "Are you sure, Mr. Milford? Perhaps I'd better stay nearby in case he has any ideas about going back on his word."

"He won't go back on his word," Milford said while looking Hutch in the eye. "The last thing he wants is for his partner to return here and find him dead."

Hutch didn't respond. He was grateful when the butler held out a robe to him, and he quickly put it on. No matter what was being said around him, all he could see in his mind's eye was the anger and defiance on Starsky's face. He knew the other would not wait eight hours to return. But he hoped Starsky wouldn't return too soon and endanger them both. With the fire happening in town, reinforcements were out of the question; his partner was on his own.

One thing was certain: No matter what Starsky might be able to come up with for a rescue plan, he wouldn't be able to return before Milford was finished amusing himself.

Hutch wondered if Starsky would ever forgive him for what he'd agreed to do, even if it spared both their lives.

Milford's demeanor was now more pleasant and relaxed. He put a hand on Hutch's shoulder. "It will be a good time for you, Ken, I promise." He looked to the butler. "George, bring some champagne up to my bedroom."

"Right away, sir."

The hand squeezed his shoulder. "Come on, Ken, enough of all of this. Let's retire to my room."

Hutch allowed Milford to lead him up the stairs, the older man's arm around his waist. He felt a sickness in his stomach and the thundering of his heart. For Starsky, he told himself over and over. It was a chance at life. If he hadn't agreed to do this, they both would probably have been killed in the drawing room. And himself probably raped first.

It will still be rape, some part of his mind protested. Coerced sex is still rape.

Doesn't matter, another part insisted. If we live through this, that will be enough.

Yet, there was the memory of the accusing glare in Starsky's eyes.

"Here we are, Ken," Milford said gently, holding the door back.

Hutch entered, feeling as he stepped over the threshold that it was a point of no return. It was actually a plainly decorated room...a room where he might very well emerge a changed man, because of what he would allow to happen.

"Make yourself comfortable. George will be here shortly with some champagne."

Hutch stood a few feet inside the door, not knowing what to do, another than look from one wall to another. He felt his respiration quicken.

"Please, sit," Milford gestured.

"I'd prefer to stand."

The other's face softened. "You're nervous."

"Do you blame me?"

"I guess I shouldn't," Milford said. He glanced at the door. "George, bring it in." The butler set the small tray on the table. "Thank you. I am absolutely not to be disturbed for the next two hours."

"Yes, sir." George bowed and left, closing the door behind him.

"Champagne?" Milford offered as he poured.

Hutch was tempted to say no. But then he decided he should at least make some effort to be agreeable, so it couldn't be said he wasn't holding to his end of the bargain. Plus, having his brain a bit fuzzy might make everything just a little easier. "Please." He approached the table as Milford held a glass out to him while sipping from his own. Hutch downed half of his in one swallow.

"Ken," the other man said with concern, "your hand is shaking."

He had to make an effort to keep the edge out of his voice. "Coerced sex isn't my cup of tea."

Milford sat down, looking him over. "But it is much better this way, don't you agree? At least, I can justify to myself letting you and your partner live."

With forced casualness, Hutch asked, "Is that really your intent?"

"You are worried about that," Milford said with amusement. "Think about it, Ken. When I have worn myself out with your pleasures, I and my people will leave here for the airstrip and fly out of the country. The fact that I am not telling you which country I'm going to should show you that I intend to let you live."

Hutch took a deep, steadying breath, wanting to believe it.

"There is nothing any U.S. police force or government agency can do to me. Therefore, what threat are you to me? I admit," Milford finished his glass and set it down, "that if it weren't for the fire, it would have been impossible for me to let your partner go. But I am confident he will not get help in time to stop me."

It made sense, and Hutch allowed himself to relax a fraction. He tilted his glass back, finishing the rest of the champagne, then set it on the table, knowing it was marking the end of the preliminaries.

His heart beat faster still.

Milford smiled at him. "You are as handsome as they come. But I'm sure you are aware of that."

Hutch chose not to respond.

Milford stood and stepped right in front of Hutch, looking up into his eyes. "It is so rare that one such as you comes along and gives opportunity."

Hutch could smell the other man's breath, and he braced himself for what he knew was coming. Milford's eyes closed, and then his lips pressed against Hutch's.

Though he knew it was dangerous, Hutch couldn't bring himself to respond. Bearing it without reaction was difficult enough.

But when Milford pulled back he didn't seem angry. "It is unfair of me, isn't it? Kissing is for lovers, and you love him, not me."

Hutch didn't reply, but the relief he felt was strong. At least he wouldn't be expected to do that which, in some ways, was so much more intimate than sex.

"The thing women do not understand," Milford noted, "is how men are able to enjoy each other immensely, even if they know they will never see each other again. That is one of the biggest advantages to enjoying a man. Don't you agree?"

Hutch thought furiously. Would it be best to confess to his virginity? No, that might disappoint Milford and could be dangerous. "I wouldn't know. My only experiences with men have been with my partner."

"Hm." The other shook his head in admiration. "You two do love each other quite a lot. I admire such love. It is one where sex is only a small portion of the intimacy."

"Yes," Hutch found himself readily agreeing, and then cautioned himself to not fall for the other's surface understanding.

"In any case," Milford sighed blissfully, "I hope you will not blame me enjoying what I can while it is available. I know you will be thinking of him while we are together. But that does not matter. At least, I will have the physical." With that, he bent his head, pushed the robe aside with his nose, and tongued at one of Hutch's flat nipples.

Hutch felt a quiver go through him at the poignant sensation. He felt both ashamed and guilty that it was somehow a betrayal...of what, he wasn't sure.

Maybe he's right, and I should think of Starsky....

"You are so beautiful." Without looking up, Milford's hand felt for the robe and pushed it away.

Hutch let it drop to the floor.

Milford was kissing down his middle. The soft wetness felt almost annoying, and Hutch had to resist the urge to not back away.

Now his pubic hairs were kissed. Then Milford's cheek rubbed against his flaccid penis. "So beautiful," the kneeling man muttered, "even when like this." Then he took it in his mouth.

Hutch restrained a gasp of surprise. The last thing he'd expected was for Milford to do the pleasuring.

Again, the wetness all about him felt annoying rather than pleasurable. He tried to tell himself to respond, but knew that wouldn't work.

Think of Starsky, he reminded himself. But when he did, all he saw in his mind's eye was his partner's furious glare.

After a time of unsuccessful manipulation, Milford pulled back and looked up at him. The man's face was gentle. "You are still nervous."

Hutch didn't know what he could say, other than to admit, "Yes."

"Perhaps we should move to the bed and relax."

Hutch wasn't sure he could stand that. With the way things had gone so far, he doubted that dragging out the inevitable was going to help anything. Stomach churning, he suggested, "Why don't we just get to the main event." He wondered how much it would hurt to have another man ram inside him, and how dirty he would feel when Milford deposited his sperm into his bowels.

Now Milford smiled. "You do not like preliminaries. Fine, then. We will do it backwards. The 'main event', and then foreplay." His grin widened. "Variety keeps one young." He moved to the nightstand and opened a drawer. A tube of ointment was in his hand. He squeezed some into his palm as he came back to Hutch. Then he knelt again.

Hutch felt a growing alarm as the substance was applied to his flaccid penis. He'd had no idea Milford would want him to be on top. He thought he should be relieved. Instead, he felt a sense of doom.

"It is stubborn," Milford chuckled, applying such a firm pull that it almost hurt. "No matter. It probably needs more inspiration." He put one leg up on the bed, then squirted more of the substance onto his fingers. He reached between his legs and pressed his fingers into himself. "It has been some time since I have enjoyed a man. You will go easy, won't you?" His voice was soft.

"Y-yes," Hutch stuttered, his fear increasing. He reached down to his groin, taking his shaft in hand, frantically trying to bring it to life. Touching it how it loved to be touched. It responded, but to only a minimal degree. Hutch swallowed thickly, silently pleading that it not fail him at a time when his life depended upon it.

Milford tossed the tube aside. He got on the bed, then lowered himself into a crouch. His knees were tucked beneath himself--to a degree that was surprising for such an overweight man--his buttocks at the edge of the bed. "Whenever you are ready, Kenneth."

Hutch felt in a daze as he stepped behind the man. His penis was still growing in his hand, but the growth was hesitant, as though it wasn't sure what was in store for it. Hutch looked fully at the buttocks raised before him...and thought it was the ugliest sight he'd ever seen in his life.

"Perhaps you'd like more enticement," Milford said leeringly. He reached back, with both hands, and parted himself.

Hutch couldn't restrain a gagging noise as he flung himself away, his groin retracting in protest.

He heard Milford move. "What is it?" The voice was less gentle.

Hutch was against the wall and he didn't open his eyes. "I can't," he said simply.

The voice was dangerous now. "What do you mean, you can't?"

Hutch swallowed, opening his eyes, seeing the anger on the face of the man who was now standing, arms raised as though poised for a fight. "I can't."

The face grew red as Hutch watched, then twisted in rage. "You gave your word!"

Hutch blinked in disbelief. Surely, being a man, Milford didn't think he had control over the desires of his body. "I'm sorry," he choked out. "It doesn't want to work."

"Traitor!" A hand rocketed across his face.

Hutch dropped to the floor, escaping a further blow, and found himself thinking that now Starsky would come back and find him dead. If only Milford had fucked him, like Hutch thought he'd intended, then he could have gotten through this. But now....

No. He dived at Milford's legs and the man collapsed heavily to the floor. Hutch punched him in the face, and followed it up with a blow to the stomach. He heard footsteps rushing up the stairs and looked around the room. The window was his only hope. He took the robe from the floor, darting away from Milford's grab for his feet, and wrapped it around his arm. He flung his protected arm at the window, shattering the glass.

The door opened and a gun was on him. "Hold it right there." It was Simons.

In a split second, Hutch calculated the likelihood of him being able to jump through the window and onto the roof without being shot. Zero likelihood, he decided.

He stood there, panting, as Milford got to his feet and quickly put on another robe.

"Are you all right, Mr. Milford?"

"Yes, Simons. Thank God you came. This cop is a traitor." He stuck his head out the door and yelled for his new bodyguards. He glanced at Hutch only briefly, then looked at Simons. "Get him out of here and see that he is sufficiently punished for going back on his word. But I want him conscious when we kill him."

"Yes, Mr. Milford."

The other goons had arrived. Simons smiled wickedly at Hutch. "Let's go, cop."

Hutch didn't know what choice he had, when he'd next have an opportunity to make a move. As long as he was alive, he told himself, there was hope.

As he was shoved past Milford, the man growled, "When your friend returns, he'll find your mangled body hanging out in front of the house."

* * *

It wasn't until he had been driving for over twenty minutes that Starsky slammed to a halt at the driveway of a house beside the road. It had a "For Sale" sign out front and looked vacant. Nevertheless, he got out of the car. The images had been tormenting his mind ever since zooming away from the estate, the ways in which Milford would violate Hutch.

The urge was almost unbearable. Starsky quit fighting it. He bent over and stuck his fingers down his throat, vomiting beneath a tree.

With his stomach relieved, he jimmied a window of the house and crawled inside. He picked up a telephone and slammed down the receiver when there was no dial tone. He went to the kitchen and let the water run for a few moments before rinsing out his throat.

There were other houses farther along the road which should have phones that worked. But that meant driving even farther away from Hutch, and trying to convince the homeowners that he wasn't some kind of maniac, for he didn't have his ID on him.

When he'd left the estate, Starsky's first concern was to keep driving in case Milford's men tried to follow. Now that he was convinced he didn't have a tail, the priority was to turn around and go after Hutch. He wasn't about to wait any eight hours. He had no reason to believe that Milford would let Hutch live. Or, almost as bad, wouldn't try to take his plaything along with him when he left the country.

Starsky slammed down his fist on the countertop.

When he was back in the New Yorker, he turned it around and started the 20-mile trip back toward Milford's estate.

* * *

Though his face and entire body ached, Hutch knew he'd gotten off easy...relatively speaking. Milford's house was a flurry of activity while in preparation to leave the country. The bodyguards "punished" Hutch for a good twenty minutes. They'd tied his hands behind his back and blindfolded him. He'd still tried to put up a fight with his feet, but two burly men against one blind, restrained cop--even a cop who was fighting for his life--was too much to overcome. They'd pummeled him for what felt like a long time.

When they finally let him be, he was coughing and gasping for breath. He heard one of them say to the other, "Get Milford," and Hutch knew his remaining time on this Earth was brief. He thought of Starsky and the anger was there full force.

"Unbind me," he choked out in what he thought was the direction of the remaining guard.

A brief laugh greeted him. "Not a chance. You should have cooperated with Mr. Milford."

"You think it won't happen to you?" Hutch challenged. His voice was thick and dry, and his diaphragm hurt when he breathed. "I didn't ask for his infatuation," he spat, trying to show his disgust. "Untie me. At least give me a fighting chance." He hated the pleading in his own voice, but pride wouldn't mean anything if he were dead. When silence greeted him, he taunted, "At least take off my blindfold. Or are you afraid to look into my eyes when you kill me?"

More silence. Then footsteps of the man coming nearer.

A boot impacted with Hutch's naked groin and he cried out and curled in on himself.

The boots moved away. "Lousy cop. If you'd just given Milford what he wanted, it would have saved us all a lot of trouble. I think he was serious about letting you live."

Gasping for breath, Hutch said through gritted teeth, "Remember that when he asks you for what you can't give."

Footsteps approached from down the hall. The voice of the returning guard said, "Milford's too busy to mess with him. He doesn't want any evidence left here, just in case he ever decides to comes back. He said to take him out a few miles, the opposite way from the airstrip." A pause, then, "What happened?"

The guard who'd stayed said, "He's got a smart mouth. I think we'd better gag him just to be safe. Sound travels far in this area."

"Good idea. I'll drive the car around back so we don't have to drag him through the whole house. I don't have a silencer. Do you?"

"Nah. We'll just have to make sure the first one counts, then get the hell out."


Hutch knew the doorway had to be near where they were talking. He gathered his strength, then lurched to his knees and dove for the door.

A fist slammed into his cheek, driving him to the floor "Pesky little bastard, isn't he?"

* * *

As he drove, back toward Milford's estate, Starsky kept running possible options through his mind. Stop at a house. Convince the occupants he meant no harm. Call Dobey. Tell him to try to get a hold of some authorities who could stop Milford from leaving the airstrip.

But Starsky couldn't bring himself to stop. He kept driving, though he had no idea how he'd get onto Milford's property without being seen. He had no weapon. Only his determination to find Hutch alive.

* * *

The car stopped. Heart pounding wildly, Hutch scrunched down into the back seat. He knew what they were going to do. He was still gagged, blindfolded, and bound, and they were going to drag him out a ways from the road, force him to his knees, and put a gun to the back of his head. Everything would go black...and Starsky would find him dead. And never forgive himself for having left the estate.

The door opened, and Hutch deliberately tumbled to the pavement. A strong arm grabbed him and hoisted him upwards, but he refused to cooperate and straighten his knees. Just when he was being cursed at, he found his feet and spun around. The instant he felt the grip of the hand weaken, he spun back the other way, felt the grip break loose, and then took off running.

He couldn't see, and with the gag, he could scarcely breathe. The earth collapsed beneath him, and he rolled down a hill. When he stopped, he scrambled to his feet. Something seared through his right side, and he heard the echo of gunfire. He stumbled, than struggled to his feet again.

Hutch continued running, his bare feet stepping on sharp branches and rocks, and then his shoulder slammed into something solid, rattling him. He fell back, knowing it must have been a tree. He felt dazed, and wanted to lay there and catch his breath. But he knew he had to keep moving, and he got to his knees and started crawling, realizing that warm fluid was running down his naked side. In the distance he heard laughter. Then something that sounded like, "He's done for. Let's get out of here. Besides, Mr. Milford will never know the difference."

Feeling a surge of hope that there wouldn't be any more shots, Hutch scrambled to his feet once again. After a few steps, the ground sloped downward once more, and he fell, this time rolling with the fall. When the earth leveled out, he felt something poke into his knee. He got up and crawled forward, but this time felt some sort of barrier across his midsection, and he was aware of something pulling all across his body. Frantically, he pushed forward and felt flesh tear at his calf. The sensation of being barred from further escape increased his panic, and he jerked further forward, feeling more tearing of skin. He took a few more steps, and pain appeared along his upper thigh, something thin and wire-like wrapping itself around his leg, near his crotch.

He couldn't breathe with the gag, and Hutch collapsed, feeling more of his flesh penetrated by...something. He tried to still his breath and his panic. He thought he'd heard a car drive off. There were no more voices.

It was a long time before he felt he was breathing almost normally. He tried to take stock of his situation. His cheek was lying against dirt. His right side was throbbing. He was cold, and he was afraid of shock setting in. He tried to crawl forward a few inches and felt more pulling of his skin. It made him aware of tiny points of pain all over his body, to say nothing of the flaring fire at his side. He heard a droning noise, and after a moment realized it was insects buzzing about. He had no clothing for protection, and he gasped with frustration when he felt them land on his throbbing wound.

Dear God, he pleaded silently. He was alive. But he was gagged, blindfolded, bound, and wounded. He was trapped in a way that he did not understand, a convenient feast for hungry insects.

When the wind blew across his bare back, he shivered.

* * *

Starsky slammed on the brakes when he saw the tail of a black BMW disappear around the corner in front of him. It looked like one of the cars that had been at Milford's place earlier. He realized now it must belong to the new bodyguards, since he hadn't seen their cars before today. What was it doing out here, and why was it headed back toward Milford's estate? If it had been trying to follow Starsky, surely it would have continued to do so, rather than heading back to Milford.

Starsky waited a few minutes, then crept the New Yorker forward, thinking furiously. He thought he'd heard gunfire a few minutes ago, but he wasn't sure if it was a trick of the wind. Now, because of the car, he was sure it had to have been from a gun. But where had the shots been coming from? It could have been anywhere along this road.

He stopped and got out, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. The appearance of the car had to have something to do with Hutch. There was no other explanation. And now the car was gone. Gone had done what it needed to?

Starsky's throat tightened. How often were the victims of a murder dumped off on the side of a road?

He swallowed thickly, then called out, "HUTCH?"

He listened. There was only the sound of the wind.

* * *

He thought he heard his name. The yelled word sounded so frantic.


Hutch wanted to shout back, but though his gag was looser, he couldn't push if off, even after rubbing it against his shoulder.

He tried to move...make some noise or sign. Wire tightened around his leg and torso, and there was more tearing of flesh. His eyes watered from the raw tenderness in his side.

And watered more from despair.

* * *

Starsky thought furiously. About a half mile back, there had been a sweeping bend in the road, circling around a hill. It allowed one to see for some distance, almost to this very spot. When Starsky had circled it a few minutes ago, he hadn't seen the BMW. That meant the BMW had stopped and/or turned around between where Starsky was now and perhaps 200 or 300 yards back in the other direction.

He trotted down into the woods. The area around here was forested and had a lot of hills and valleys. There wasn't much in the way of fencing, but he did see there was an old barbed wire fence a little ways ahead, at the bottom of a valley. As Starsky came nearer to it, he was looking all about, searching for signs of a shallow grave, and desperately hoping he wouldn't find one.

He thought he saw the wire fence move.

The wind. The fence was old and not very secure, as it was unraveled in some places. Nevertheless, Starsky continued to walk along it, wondering if any gaps might reveal some sort of side road where the BMW might have temporarily parked.

Starsky was about to call Hutch's name again when his eye caught something pale against the darkness of the forest. It was sticking out of the ditch where the fence was. Starsky approached cautiously, head tilted to one side, as the shape became more focused.

It was a man. Naked and facedown. Tangled up in the wire. Insects hovering over the body.

His heart exploded. "HUUUUUTTCCHH!"

* * *

It was his name again. Closer this time. Sad and desperate.

Hutch whimpered against his gag, willing Starsky to see him.

* * *

Starsky saw the blond head move. His relief sent him to his knees beside the otherwise quiet figure. "Hutch?" he choked out.

The head was moving again, but that was all. Horrified, Starsky took in the gag, the blindfold, the bound hands.... Blood was running from the pale flesh.

"Itsgonnabeokay, itsgonnabeokay, itsgonnabeokay," he chanted, reaching for his pocketknife. "Gonna have you loose in a minute. It's okay, Hutch. It's okay." He shut up then, for his voice had started to break.

How dare Milford do this to Hutch after what he took from him.

Forcing back his fury, Starsky pulled the gag down, then reached to where the blindfold was tied. As he cut it, he heard Hutch making coughing noises, mixed with moans that consisted of too many feelings to put a name to.

Starsky flung the blindfold away. As Hutch blinked repeatedly, Starsky realized how bruised the other's face was.

Hutch looked up at him, his eyes watery and strained. Dryly, he croaked, "Get me out of here."

Starsky squeezed his own eyes shut and forced down a thick swallow. When he opened them he had his voice under control and he allowed a smile to break over his face. "I'll have you out of here in no time."

He laid his hand on Hutch's shoulder and squeezed it. His elation at finding Hutch alive began to recede as his eyes moved from his partner's pale back down to his waist...and then to his legs.

Barbed wire was beneath Hutch's torso. It was also imbedded along both legs. On Hutch's left leg, it was wrapped tightly around his upper thigh. Starsky could see chunks of flesh and small bleeding wounds from where the wire had torn at Hutch as the blond had tried to free himself.

But the biggest pool of blood ran from the right side of Hutch's back. It was now starting to clot, and insects were landing on it. Starsky's eyes narrowed, and he bent forward, trying to find the source of blood that also was in front of Hutch's torso. Thankfully, his partner was resting in such a way that Starsky was able to see the edge of Hutch's front right side. The blood there was also clotting.

Starsky sat back, allowing a breath to escape. The bullet had gone through Hutch. At least that was one less thing he'd have to worry about.

Hutch groaned and Starsky turned his attention back to the immediate needs. He squeezed his partner's shoulder again and bent toward his head. Starsky's voice was steady this time, for emotion had no place in the task that lay ahead. "Hutch," he said firmly, "I'm gonna cut your hands loose. But I don't want you to move them, because they're a little tangled up. Let me do it."

Hutch made a small nod, but pleaded, "Hurry."

Starsky placed his pocketknife against the rope at Hutch's wrists. No part of the blond's hands or arms was embedded by barbed wire. But without his warning, he was afraid that if Hutch moved too quickly, he might injure himself further. He wasn't sure what his partner's mental state was like, or if Hutch was even aware of how tangled he was.

Starsky flung the rope away. After putting the pocketknife down, he took a few moments to massage along Hutch's arms. Then he carefully lifted the left one up and bent it away from Hutch's body, which caused a soft groan from the blond. Then he let it rest in a normal position on the ground in front of Hutch. He repeated the same procedure with the right arm.

As Starsky had feared, now that Hutch's hands were free, the blond braced them against the ground as though preparing to move.

"Hutch, stay still," Starsky said firmly. He placed a hand in the center of his partner's back. "I need you to lie still for just a bit longer."

There was a noise near the road above and Starsky whirled around, arms spreading out to protect his injured partner.

A woman stood at the road, looking down at them. "Do you need help?" she called.

"Yeah!" Starsky called back. Hutch shifted restlessly and Starsky bent close to him, "Hutch, stay still. Help's here. I'll be right back. Right back, pal. Don't move."

He patted the pale skin, then stood. The woman was coming down the embankment and Starsky maneuvered himself over the barbed wire and trotted toward her. "Who are you?" he asked.

She was fiftyish and had hair colored a light red. "I live just around the bend," she pointed, and Starsky realized that where she was pointing was perpendicular to the main road, indicating that there was a side road. "I thought I heard gunfire."

"You did." Starsky spoke rapidly. "Look, I'm a cop and my partner's wounded and tangled up in the barbed wire. Can you get us help?"

"I'll do what I can, but the phone lines in this area are all down because of the fire. I don't think they'd send a rescue unit anyway, because there's hundreds of people trapped in that hotel. The whole city is there, including my husband, who's with the fire department."

Starsky felt a sinking sensation. No help.

"Let me at least get you some first aid items," she said, looking past Starsky to the ditch.

"Wire cutters," Starsky emphasized. "Blankets, water, bandages--the whole bit. And we're going to need some kind of gurney to get him out of here."

She nodded.

Starsky looked around. "You didn't drive?"

"I'm just around the bend, but I don't have a car that runs right now. My husband took our four-wheeler."

Starsky pointed in another direction. "My New Yorker is just around the corner. The keys are in it. Take it and hurry. I've got to stay with him."

"Right." She took off at a run.

Relieved to at least have some degree of help, Starsky turned back to where Hutch was. And ran to him.

Despite Starsky's firm words, the blond was trying to crawl forward, and cringing against the pain of his movement.

"Hutch, stop it!" Starsky collapsed beside him and grabbed Hutch's shoulder, stilling him. "You can't move. Understand?"

"Get me out of here," Hutch forced through gritted teeth.

"Hutch, you--"

"Get me out." He batted at an insect buzzing around his head.

Starsky softened his stance after deciding to be straightforward. He rested a hand in Hutch's hair. "Listen to me, buddy. Listen." He waited until Hutch was still, then swallowed. "You're all tangled up in barbed wire, Hutch." He petted across the blond strands and gentled his voice. "That's why you need to lie still, babe. It's gonna take a while to get you out, so you just gotta be patient." He squeezed Hutch's shoulder. "But you're gonna be fine. Just fine. I'm gonna be right here with you."

Hutch relaxed against the dirt and Starsky took off his jacket. He spread it out over Hutch's upper body, leaving his partner's lower midsection exposed.

"Starsk?" The voice was low and trembling.

Starsky bent close. "Yeah, pal?"

"I-I-I think I got shot."

Starsky's heart twisted as he wondered at the blond's mental state. "I know, pal, but it's not serious." He wasn't sure if that were true, but hoped fervently it was. "The bullet went right through you. I know it hurts like the dickens, but it's just a flesh wound." He squeezed the leather-clad shoulder. "I know it's not easy, but try to rest."

Hutch swallowed again. His eyes were closed, but the dry voice muttered, "Should have listened."

Maybe distraction was what Hutch needed most, so Starsky decided to participate in the conversation. "What? What, buddy?"

Another thick swallow. "Right about Milford."

"Ah, Hutch." He wanted to tell his partner that he had been right, too, in that Milford's infatuation was something that could be useful. It turned out to be so useful that it saved their lives...even if that hadn't been Milford's intent. "It wasn't enough for him to use you, was it?" he said with sympathy, petting up and down the jacket. "He had to do all this to you afterwards." Now his voice was shaking.

It seemed to take a long moment before Hutch gathered the energy to respond. His eyes squinted open before he spoke. "Not like you think."

Starsky bent closer, puzzled. "What?"

"H-h-he didn't...didn't rape me."

Relief went through Starsky...and yet his puzzlement increased. "What did he do?" he whispered. Maybe Hutch couldn't go through with it and fought from the beginning. Or maybe they had different definitions of rape.

Hutch tried to tilt his head to look at Starsky. The curly-haired man lay down on the ground instead, his cheek in the dirt, so he could meet Hutch's eye. Those blue orbs were bright and watery. "He..." Hutch swallowed thickly and Starsky wished the woman would hurry up with the water and other supplies. "He...he...wanted...wanted me do do him."

Starsky's brow furrowed as understanding dawned.

"And...and...I..." Hutch choked out the final word in a small voice, "couldn't."

Starsky felt something change inside himself, something that he didn't understand. "You mean he wanted you on top...?"

The barest hint of a smile appeared beneath the mustache. "I wanted...wanted to cooperate. But...but I...I couldn't." Hutch's eyes closed and his cheek moved farther into the dirt, as though he wanted to turn away.

Starsky straightened abruptly. He looked down at the leather jacket covering Hutch's back, his partner's face trying to bury itself in the dirt. He swallowed down a huge lump in his throat, thinking that he didn't know anything...that he'd been so foolish. He'd literally made himself sick conjuring up images of how Milford debased Hutch, and it turned out that Milford's infatuation had been such that the man had instead wanted the 'honor'--probably in his eyes--of being fucked by Hutch.

Starsky's own eyes closed. He'd had the misfortune, a few times in his life, of not being able to perform when taking a date to bed. The lack of cooperation from his sex organs always made him feel humiliated and less of a man...however temporarily. And here was Hutch having experienced the same lack of performance...but at a time when his life depended upon it. What that must feel like, Starsky couldn't fathom. To have the betrayal by one's body being the reason one was to die.

Hutch hadn't died. He had, somehow, some way, escaped. But not before he'd been thoroughly punished for disappointing Milford. For not having any control over the desires of his body.

Starsky reached out to Hutch, carefully laying his hand on his back. He wanted to be tender and gentle, to reassure Hutch that there was nothing lacking in him, even though he hadn't been able to come through when his life depended upon it. And yet another part of Starsky--the more confused part--wanted to sing Hutch's praises for Hutch having been so brave in the first place...trying to save them both by agreeing to allow himself to be Milford's plaything. It may have been the only choice there was; yet that didn't change the fact that it was nothing less than heroic.

But what Starsky wanted most of all was to take the pain away. After all he had been through, that was the one thing that Hutch deserved most.

There was the sound of a car. When Starsky turned he was relieved to see the New Yorker coming to a halt on the side road. "Hutch, help is here." He squeezed the blond's arm beneath the jacket. "It's gonna be fine. I'll be right back."

He was running up the hill to the road just as the red-haired woman started down it. She had a laundry basket and held it out to him. "Here's some first-aid things and the wire cutters. If you can do without me, I'd like to see if I can round up more help. And I still need to find something to use for a gurney."

"Good idea," Starsky said, taking the basket. "Thank you. Thank you so much." He wondered what her name was, but didn't want to waste time asking.

"I'll be back as soon as I can," she said, starting back up the hill.

Starsky galloped down the slope, taking stock of the items as he ran. When he was back beside Hutch, the first thing he pulled out was a canteen. "All right, buddy, we're going to try to make you a little more comfortable." With Hutch lying on his stomach, Starsky wasn't sure how he was going to pour water into his mouth. Then he spotted a group of straws. "Good deal," he muttered as he removed them. He unscrewed the lid to the canteen, then inserted a straw inside. "All right, Hutch, we're in business now." He watched the blond's lids flutter against the dirt. He reached inside the basket and pulled out a folded blanket. It would be pointless to cover Hutch with it until the barbed wire was removed, so he decided to use it as a pillow for the time being.

He rested the canteen against a rock, then took the blanket in one hand and raised Hutch's head with the other. "Here you go, pal. Ought to be a little more comfortable."

Hutch was still silent but his eyes were active, watching what Starsky was doing.

"Here, pal." Starsky held the straw in the canteen, then brought the canteen up to rest on the blanket near Hutch's mouth. He pointed the straw until it was against the full lips. "Here, buddy, here's some water. Suck it up through there, if you can."

Hutch's lips closed around the plastic and Starsky watched his throat muscles move.

"Not too fast now. There's plenty."

It took a few moments, but Hutch finally coughed up the debris in his throat and Starsky moved the canteen away and patted gently at Hutch's back.

"Want some more?" he asked when the spasm ended.

Hutch shook his head.

"Okay." Starsky patted him again before putting the lid back. "I'm going to work on getting you out of here. I need you to lie real nice and still." He pulled work gloves and a pair of wire cutters from the basket. The basket also contained gauze and bandages and Starsky was tempted to tend to the bullet wound, but it had clotted on its own and he thought freeing Hutch was of the most immediate importance.

He turned to look at the tangled mess around his partner's lower body. Then he bent near Hutch's closed eyes. Gently, he said, "I'm going to have to be pulling out some of the barbs. You're probably going to feel some pain here and there, but there's no other way. Just try to take it easy." He pulled on the gloves.

Hutch swallowed, as though in resignation.

Starsky turned to the wire and examined it closely for the first time. It looked like the fence hadn't been very sturdy to begin with, which was good, or it would have already ripped his partner to pieces, considering the few yards Hutch had traveled after becoming tangled. There was one strand embedded in Hutch's midsection, which he was lying on top of. There was another section that ran along his right leg and curled around his hip, but only the latter portion seemed to be stuck in his flesh. It looked like the wire had been embedded in Hutch's calf, but it had since torn loose, leaving an ugly gash.

The other leg was a different story. Wire was wrapped tightly around Hutch's thigh, spiraling up to be deeply embedded between his leg and his groin, the rest of the strand lying harmlessly beside him.

Starsky cut loose the wire in Hutch's upper body from both sides. He was afraid of how badly it was embedded, but he wouldn't know until Hutch was free enough to be turned over. At least, for the time being, the cutting was painless.

He decided to move to the next most painless step. He cut the wire pieces that ran to the old fence, careful to fling the severed ends well out of the way. Hutch still wouldn't be able to move until the barbs were out of his body, but at least he couldn't injure himself further since he was no longer attached to the fence.

Starsky decided to keep going with his task, and he cut at more of the strands of the fence, moving away from Hutch, so that he could push the barrier completely to one side. That way, when they were actually able to remove Hutch, they wouldn't have to contend with it.

When that was done, Starsky knelt beside his partner. Hutch was still lying in the ditch on his stomach with ugly wires sticking from his body, but at least he was no longer attached to the fence itself.

Keep going with the easy stuff first, he decided. He focused on Hutch's right leg. Most of the barbs had penetrated to only a shallow degree. He bent close, taking careful note of how the first one had gone in. Slowly, he pulled it back from the same angle. Blood flowed into the little hole created.

Hutch's facial muscles twitched, but he was otherwise obediently still.

Starsky continued on in the same manner, until he'd removed some seven or eight barbs. He used the wire cutters to free that section so he could fling it away. There were still a couple of barbs in the torn flesh of Hutch's calf. They were less easy to remove, and as Starsky tried to pull them clear, Hutch made a noise and moved his head.

"Easy does it," Starsky soothed. He patted the inside of Hutch's leg, where none of the barbs had reached.

Next he worked at where the wire was in a sloped semi-circle around Hutch's right hipbone. These were a little deeper, and Hutch's facial reaction was more pinched as each barb was removed. The resulting wounds also bled more, but the bleeding was still minor enough that they started clotting within seconds.

"Makin' progress, pal," Starsky assured when the right leg was free of entrapment. "You're doin' real good."

He stepped over Hutch to kneel down at his other side. He started with Hutch's lower thigh first, because that's where the wounds were more shallow. Still, Hutch flinched when the barbs were removed, because the soft skin in that area was so sensitive.

Starsky reached up and squeezed Hutch behind the neck. "Buddy, this next part is going to be pretty uncomfortable. I'll be as fast as I can."

Hutch moved his right leg when Starsky took out the first firmly embedded barb from his left. The leg moved more with the next one. When Starsky pulled at the next one higher up, Hutch's left leg moved instead, thereby throwing off the angle of removal and cutting flesh as it was pulled away.

The blond cried out softly.

"Ah, Hutch." Starsky rubbed at his neck again. "Buddy, you got to lie real still or it'll hurt even more." With the way Hutch was slightly turned away, it wasn't possible for the blond to hang onto his partner while Starsky worked on the left leg. Impulsively, Starsky leaned over the prone from and pulled out another blanket from the basket. "Here, buddy," he said, placing it between Hutch's right hand and the blond's chest. "Take a good hold of that when it hurts. Understand?"

Feebly, Hutch pulled the blanket closer against himself.

"All right, pal, I'll try to get the rest of this as fast as I can. Just bear with me, buddy. Bear with me."

Starsky went back to work, anxious to get done. The wire was so tight around Hutch's upper thigh that he used the cutters to break off each removed piece, so he could fling it away before it had a chance to catch Hutch's skin again. Hutch squeezed the blanket and sometimes gasped as Starsky worked, but he didn't move again.

Finally, there were only three barbs left in the leg, but they were deep against Hutch's groin area. In fact, it was amazing that they'd missed his scrotum, for they were right next to it.

Starsky straightened, leaned down to his partner's head. "Hutch, buddy?" He petted at the blond's neck, then pushed his hand inside the jacket to rub at his partner's back. "Listen, pal, I'm almost done with your other leg. But to get the last few out, I'm gonna have to touch your nuts to get them out of the way. Okay?"

He wasn't sure if Hutch understood, for the other's eyes were closed. Starsky leaned closer and said, "Just don't want you to think anything's wrong with them; I just need to get them out of the way." He hesitated, then added, "Just don't want you thinkin' I'm tryin' to take advantage or anything like that."

Finally, the bare hint of a grin appeared beneath the mustache.

Starsky squeezed the nearest shoulder. "That's my buddy." He started to go back to work, then added, "It's extra important that you don't move if it hurts, Hutch." He pressed Hutch's hands against the blanket. "Just take a good hold of your blanket or scream if you want, but don't move." He squeezed Hutch's hand.

He pushed at Hutch's right leg to get it out of the way. Then he put his hand on Hutch's scrotum and gently maneuvered the pouch and cylinder beneath to one side. He mentally braced himself, then reached to grab hold of the tightly embedded wire.

He was going to have to try to follow the same angle as that of the original penetration, but the barbs were so embedded that he knew the removal was going to take some flesh with it. There was no easy way to do this. It simply had to be done.

Starsky took a firm grip on the top of the wire. He yanked downward.

Hutch screamed and lurched, his body trying to jackknife into the dirt.

It didn't matter because Starsky had made sure he yanked hard enough to pull the entire strand away before Hutch reacted. He threw it angrily into the woods.

"I got it, Hutch." He rubbed fiercely at the blond's shoulder. "I got it all. All done." His partner was taking quick, gasping breaths while holding tightly to the blanket. "Sorry about that, babe. Sorry. It's gonna be easier from here." He hoped he wasn't lying.

He also wished he could be more comforting. But with Hutch still lying facedown, and injured, Starsky could hardly pick him up and hold him.

A stream of blood oozed from the line of new wounds, and Starsky had to swallow while reminding himself that groin injuries, like head injuries, tended to bleed more excessively than their true seriousness. He rubbed and squeezed at Hutch's shoulder for a while longer, waiting until the grip on the blanket eased. "Better now? Huh, buddy?"

Hutch groaned feebly.

"Okay, Hutch," Starsky realized his own breath was short, as he'd exhausted himself with his efforts. "We're gonna get you out of here. The next thing we gotta do is get you turned over. Would you like that? Huh?"

Hutch's legs moved lazily, showing he must have understood.

"Hang on a sec." Starsky squeezed him again. "Let me get you ready first so it's as easy as possible."

He was worried about the wire Hutch was lying on, wondering how deeply embedded it was. Though under normal circumstances he would be reluctant to move Hutch until help arrived, he knew that assistance from any kind of medical personnel was unlikely at any time in the near future, because of the fire. He was going to have to do the best he could with the limited resources available.

He took the blanket from Hutch and spread it next to his partner. Then he removed his jacket from Hutch's back and leaned down to check out the bullet wound. It was thick and matted with blood, and looked very tender. Moving Hutch could start it to bleeding again. Starsky stepped over him to the basket and took out a roll of gauze. He pulled a length out across the blanket, measuring with is eyes so that it was about level to Hutch's wound.

"Hutch, we're gonna move you now. Just roll you right over to your back. I want you to use your arms and your legs, and I'm going to support your back so that you don't land too heavily on your wound. Do ya understand what I'm tellin' you?"

Hutch was shifting again. Though the insects weren't bothering him like they had before Starsky had covered him, it was obvious the blond was still just as anxious to get free of his current condition.

"Take your time, pal," Starsky soothed. He had his left hand on Hutch's far shoulder, gently pulling it back toward himself, and his right hand against his lower back. "Just roll backwards, nice and easy. I'm right here."

Hutch had moved his limbs so that they were in a position for him to push off the ground.

"On three," Starsky told him, watching Hutch breathe harder from simply preparing to move. "Roll right back on three. I'll help, okay? One...two...THREE."

He pulled sharply on Hutch's shoulder. Though his legs only made a half-hearted attempt, Hutch pushed firmly with his hands and launched himself onto his back. He made a noise between a cry and a groan, and then sucked in his breath.

"That's good, Hutch," Starsky soothed, hating the sight of tears in the other's eyes. "You did good. Now just stay right there." His voice sounded distant to his own ears, for his attention was focused upon the sight revealed. The barbs embedded below Hutch's sternum were expected. What Starsky hadn't expected to see was the blue and purple that colored the left side of his partner's face. The black eye. The series of bruises that ran down his rib cage.

Bastards, Starsky thought with gritted teeth. All because he couldn't get it up for your filthy, disgusting carcass, you lousy, slimy scumbag.

"Starsk?" The word was weak and feeble.

Starsky shook himself and leaned closer. Worriedly, Hutch said, "I--I think I'm bleeding."

Starsky looked down. Hutch had moved his hand from his groin. His fingers were covered with blood.

Starsky quickly covered his partner's lower body with a blanket. He didn't want to tend to the injuries there, since they were actually minor, when there were more important tasks to be done. He leaned close again. "Hutch?" He waited until the watery, pained eyes met his. "Listen to me, pal. You're all right." He stroked lightly at a bruised cheek, softening his voice. "You have some minor wounds in that area, but none of the important parts are injured. Hear me? Everything's fine down there."

Hutch gazed back at him a long moment, as though trying to compute the words. And then his face softened and he made the motion of a nod.

Starsky patted his cheek with his fingertips. "'Atta boy. You're gonna be fine, Hutch. Just fine." He realized, for the first time, how warm Hutch's face was and how much he was sweating.

Starsky straightened and took the ends of the gauze, which Hutch was now lying on top of. He wrapped them around Hutch's side, then pulled them tight.

Hutch choked out a brief scream and arched up.

"Sorry," the other said quickly, tying the ends of the gauze. At least that would keep the wound from bleeding further.

That done, there was one more tortuous task remaining. Starsky gazed at the embedded wire. While it was very deep from having Hutch's weight on it for so long, all the barbs had gone in at the same angle and not been manipulated by movement.

Starsky grasped both ends of the strand. He didn't give himself a chance to think about whether or not he should warn Hutch. With both hands, he pulled.

Hutch's body arched up, this time from the force of removal, and he let out a choked scream.

Starsky tossed the wire away.

"Hutch, it's okay, it's okay." He held his partner's uninjured cheek with one hand and squeezed his shoulder with the other. "It's all right now," he soothed. "That was the last one. You can rest now, pal. Just rest."

Hutch's head had collapsed back in exhaustion and tears were oozing from his eyes.

The newest wounds were bleeding, but not nearly as bad as the bullet wound or the groin injury had. Starsky decided to let them clot on their own for now, and he threw the other blanket over Hutch.

He had tormented his partner enough; now all he wanted was to make it better. He couldn't do anything more for his wounds until the woman returned with some kind of help. Starsky moved behind Hutch, then knelt down and placed his hands beneath the blond's shoulders. Slowly, stretching out his legs, he settled on the ground, and let his partner's head lie back against his lower stomach.

Starsky stroked across the other man's forehead. "It's gonna be okay, Hutch," he whispered. "I'm right here, pal. Right here." He patted his chin. "Want some water?"

"Yeah." The word was whispered.

Starsky had to stretch to reach the canteen and nearby straw. After opening it, he spent a moment washing the straw. Then he placed one end in the canteen and the other in his partner's mouth.

Hutch had to raise his head a little higher before he could sip it. Starsky shifted, helping to support him. Hutch drank a long time, and when he was through he slumped back in exhaustion.

Starsky petted his forehead and rubbed at his shoulders. "Rest, Hutch," he whispered. "Rest as much as you can."

The blond's eyes were already closed.

After ten minutes Starsky began thinking he was going to have to put Plan B into action. That would mean carrying Hutch out of here. But there was finally the sound of a car, and he saw the New Yorker come to a halt farther down the road. He noted then that the ground was less sloped there.

The woman got out and waved.

Starsky waved back as best he could without disturbing his partner. He was disappointed that no one else was with her.

As he watched, the woman pulled a long sled from the backseat of the car. She slung some rope over her shoulder and started toward them. Starsky knew that he should go to her and assist, but he didn't want to disturb Hutch's few remaining moments of peace.

Her pace slowed as she approached; she was regarding Hutch worriedly.

Starsky manufactured a smile of what he hoped was reassurance. Hutch made a quiet groaning noise, and Starsky patted him on the head.

The woman slumped in relief, and Starsky realized that Hutch had looked dead to her.

He put his hands beneath Hutch's shoulders, and carefully slid backwards, then lowered Hutch's head to the ground. "Take it easy, pal," he whispered. "I'm right here."

He stood and stepped nearer to the woman. "Can't imagine anyone having a sled around here, but it's a great idea."

"I stole it from a neighbor's garage who wasn't home. I also left a note on her door telling her we'd be bringing an injured man. I think she's just out for her daily walk, so she should be back soon."

"Wait a second," Starsky felt his head spinning, "we gotta get Hutch to a hospital."

She shook her head wearily. "I don't think that will work. For one thing, your car doesn't have much gas and I'd hate for us and him to be stranded somewhere, since the closest station is another fifteen miles. I've been to house after house, but the people aren't home, probably because they're helping with the fire. I think we should get him to my neighbor's house. At least there he'll be more comfortable and then I can take your car and see how far I get."

"Doesn't your neighbor have a car?"

"The people around here took it to help with the fire, just like all the other cars that are in operating order." She drew a breath. "I know the people around here. Hopefully, after your car runs out of gas, I can start hitchhiking and someone will pick me up. I won't be in any danger. When I get to a phone that works, I'll see what I can do about getting help." She looked down at Hutch, then back at Starsky. "How bad is he?"

"I'm not sure," Starsky admitted. "None of his injuries alone are life-threatening, but he had flies in his wounds and he's been lying in the dirt...I'm worried about infection. And shock."

"Let's get him to my neighbor's," she said. "You can get him cleaned up, at least. Hopefully, you can keep him quiet and comfortable until I'm able to send help back." She took a deep breath. "I just don't know long it'll take."

Starsky took the sled from her. "Guess we'd better get started."

"Can't imagine someone treating a cop like this," she said, her voice full of questions.

"It's a long story," Starsky said wearily, not wanting to go into it. As he helped her remove the rope from her shoulder he asked, "What's your name?"


"Dave Starsky of the Los Angeles Police Department." He knelt next to Hutch. "And this is my partner, Ken Hutchinson."

She also knelt. "Hi, Hutch," she said quietly.

Hutch's eyes were closed and he didn't respond.

Starsky squeezed his shoulder, then said, "If you think you can lift the blanket at his feet, I'll get his shoulders and we'll put him on the sled."

She nodded, positioning herself.

"Listen," Starsky said firmly, "once we lift him, don't stop until he's on the sled. Even if he screams."

She swallowed and nodded, taking a tighter grip on the cloth.

Starsky bent close to his partner and laid a hand on the unbruised side of his face. "Hutch," he said tenderly, "we're gonna lift you up and put you on something that's going to get you out of here. I want you to lie still and let us do the work. Okay?"

There was a small nod.

Starsky gathered the blanket beneath Hutch's upper body. "On three," he told Rita. "One...two...THREE." He lifted. She did, too, vocalizing the effort it took to lift even just the lower part of a fairly tall man.

Hutch was groaning, but that was the extent of his protest. He was lowered onto the sled less gently than Starsky would have liked, but he felt, finally, a sense of progress.

He took out his pocketknife. "Now the rope." He spent a few moments cutting it into necessary lengths. Then he wrapped one strand around Hutch's chest, then beneath his armpits, and attached it to the sled. He made a similar loop around the blond's ankles, securing him in place.

"Guess we're ready," Starsky said. He glanced at the basket of supplies, and she said, "I'll come back later for that."

Starsky looked up to where the car was. "This sled isn't going to fit into the backseat of the car," he just now realized, "with him lying flat on it."

"The neighbor lady I was talking about is just past the intersection of these two roads. Maybe it'll be easier on him if we just carry him on foot the whole way."

"Yeah." Starsky smiled at her. "Think you're up to it?"

She drew a deep breath. "We might have to rest a few times."

He reached near the basket and held out the gloves he'd used while cutting wire. "Put those on. It'll help you get a better grip."

She did. When they were ready, they lifted the sled together. Hutch had stayed relatively quiet through the whole preparation and Starsky was able to focus on where to put his feet so the sled was jostled as little as possible. Going up the slope to the road and trying to keep the sled from tilting were the most difficult parts, and they put the sled down, both breathing heavily, afterwards.

They had to rest once more before they came to a sizable ranch house tucked back from the road by way of a shady, tree-covered lane.

"Oh, good, she's home," Rita panted as they approached the structure. "My note has been removed from the door."

"Let's stop and you knock."

They put the sled down and Rita went up to the door. Starsky was watching Hutch, who was sweating but still quiet and had his eyes closed. There was the sound of the two women greeting each other and then talking rapidly.

Starsky felt a jolt race through him as he thought he recognized the new voice. He was just about to turn his head when he realized the neighbor had stopped talking, as well; no doubt taking in the shock of his and Hutch's identity.

For a few seconds there was silence.

Then Rita said in puzzlement, "Do you know each other?"

Feeling a need to protect Hutch from his suspicions, Starsky rose and turned fully to the house. His eyes took in the tall woman with shoulder length brown hair who stood in the doorway. He found himself thinking that she hadn't done so badly since the Fitch trial, for she looked more peaceful than he'd ever seen her.

He walked a few steps forward so Hutch couldn't hear. Then he stuttered, "M-marianne? Marianne Owens?"




She was staring at him, and then seemed to shake herself. She looked past him to the sled, then back at Starsky. Unsteadily, she said, "It's...him?"

Rita shifted restlessly. "Uh...maybe this isn't such a great idea?"

Marianne looked at her. "No, no. It's all right." She seemed calmer when her eyes went to Starsky again. "Of course, it's all right to bring him in." She swallowed. "Is he serious?"

"Kinda hard to tell," Starsky replied. He was anxious to get Hutch into a more comfortable room. "Where can we put him?"

She opened the door and led the way through the living room, then pointed down a wide hall. "The last room on the left. It has an attached bath."

Starsky peeked in. The room had a queen-sized bed with sturdy wooden furniture. "Terrific," he said, already heading back toward the door; he didn't want to leave Hutch any longer than necessary. He trotted back out to the sled and knelt beside it, preparing to say something soothing. But then he noticed that Hutch's eyes were still closed. His partner was breathing somewhat harshly and still sweating, but Starsky decided to let him be. At least, if he wasn't fully conscious, he was less likely to be aware of the identity of their hostess.

Rita appeared. "Time to get him inside?"


"Marianne is going to hold the door open."

Starsky took the sled. "Ready?"

She nodded.

They hoisted together and moved their burden toward the house. Thankfully, the doorway was fairly wide and the length of the living room allowed them to get the sled all the way inside, before having to turn it to go down the hall.

"Put it down," Starsky said as they reached the bedroom. They wouldn't be able to get the sled inside the bedroom without tilting it, and that was out of the question. He took out his pocketknife. "I'll carry him." He cut the ropes that bound his partner to the sled.

Marianne stepped around him to move into the room. "I'll pull the covers back."

"Is there anything I can do?" Rita asked Starsky as he put his knife away.

"Just make sure the blanket beneath him doesn't catch on anything."

Starsky worked his right arm beneath the blanket at Hutch's shoulders. "Buddy," he whispered, "I've gotta move you. Just once more." Reluctantly, he put his left arm beneath the blanket at the blond's knees. Normally, he would prefer to leverage himself against the other's upper thigh to make it easier to lift him, but that was out of the question with the wounds in Hutch's groin.

"Okay, here we go," he said, then lifted with a mighty heave.

There was a gasp from Hutch and his head and arms fell back. Starsky moved as fast as he could to the bed, feeling the tremendous strain on his back and legs.

Marianne was on the other side of the bed, holding the covers back as Starsky lowered Hutch to the mattress.

"Want me to move the blanket from beneath him?" she asked.

"No, leave it there," Starsky said, panting. It'd be better to move it later after he'd cleaned Hutch up, rather than soiling the bed sheets.

Rita said, "I'd better get moving. I'll take the sled back outside, then get the first aid supplies and bring it to you. Then I'm outta here."

Starsky nodded. He found himself wishing it was Rita who could stay and Marianne who would look for help in the car, but he didn't know how to voice what was on his mind. Plus, Rita seemed confident about getting help. Seeing a notepad on the nightstand, he tore a page from it and picked up a nearby pen. "Take this," he said as he began to write. "When you get to a phone, call Captain Dobey of the LAPD at this number. Tell him Starsky and Hutch need help to be sent."

She took the paper from him. "Listen," her voice was apologetic, "I don't know how long it'll take. With the phones down, I can't call you to let you know what's happening."

Starsky squeezed her arm. "I know you'll do the best you can."

She bent to pick up the sled. Then she was gone.

There was a sharp in-drawn breath and Starsky turned around to the bed. Hutch was lying awkwardly upon it, his barely open eyes focused on the wall. Thankfully, Marianne was on the side he was turned away from, and he was still unaware of her presence.

Starsky knelt next to the bed. "Hey, buddy boy, got you into a nice bed, huh?" He brushed at the sweat on Hutch's forehead. "We still need to move you a little, don't we?" He looked up at Marianne. "I want to turn him a little onto his side, so I can get to all his injuries. Do you have some pillows or something that we could use to support his back?"

She moved toward the door. "Let me get some from the sofa."

Starsky decided that the top blanket wasn't needed, so he pulled it off Hutch and bunched it behind him. He then took the bedclothes, which were still pushed back, and molded them around Hutch's back. There was no point in covering Hutch with them until Starsky was done with the first aid.

Marianne appeared with a couple of firm pillows. Starsky took them from her and also placed them near the blanket at Hutch's back, trying to build a small mountain range of cloth. When he glanced up, he saw her looking down at Hutch's naked form. Then she looked at Starsky. "What happened to him?"

"He's been shot, tangled up in barbed wire, and beat up." Tightly, he commanded, "Get me a towel."

"How big?"

"Doesn't matter."

She stepped into the bathroom and came out with a hand towel. Starsky held up his hand and caught it when she tossed it to him. He draped it over Hutch's genitals.

She shook her head in disbelief and said, "Don't worry about his modesty, I've seen him before. About thirty minutes before I found out he was a cop." Her tone was quiet and level, but Starsky knew that all the anger at being used was present again. Before he could comment, she added, "Sorry. This isn't the place."

Starsky decided to let it go. "Look, get on the other side of the bed. I'm going to tilt him toward me, and I want you to push the blankets and pillows against his back."

She nodded and obeyed, kneeling carefully on the mattress.

Starsky leaned close to Hutch, who had closed his eyes again. "Listen, buddy," he whispered, "I'm going to tilt you up onto your side. It might hurt a little, but I think you'll be more comfortable. Okay? I need you to help and roll towards me a little." He took Hutch's far shoulder in one hand and hip in the other. He gently pulled. "Roll towards me, Hutch."

Hutch made a groan of effort and tilted onto his left side.

"That's good, that's good," Starsky encouraged. Marianne pushed the pillows and blankets up against Hutch's back. "Okay, buddy, that's all for now. That's perfect." He patted Hutch on the head. "That a little better for you, huh?"

Hutch's eyes blinked. He was still breathing hard from the effort of moving, and he muttered, "Where are we?"

Starsky rubbed at his partner's shoulders. "We're in a house where you're nice and safe. Someone has gone to get help. In the meantime I'm gonna take real good care of you."

Hutch's expression went blank after a moment, as though Starsky's words hadn't been computed. But Starsky couldn't see the point of going into an explanation about the fire, and why they were in a house instead of a hospital, while Hutch's state of awareness was questionable.

There was a sound from the front of the house and Marianne left the room. She returned a moment later with the basket of first aid supplies. "Rita brought this." She set it next to Starsky. "What else can I get you?"

He wished both him and Hutch could rest a while, but that was out of the question. "Cold compresses for his forehead, warm water and wash cloths to clean him up. Mild soap. Anything like peroxide or rubbing alcohol that will work as a disinfectant." Starsky glanced into the basket at the gauze. "Lots of regular-sized bandages."

"Some of that is in the bathroom," she gestured with her chin. "I'll get the rest." She left the room.

Starsky gave Hutch's shoulder a final squeeze, then got up and went into the bathroom. He grabbed another towel and some soap. He opened the medicine cabinet. There wasn't much in it, other than a box of Band-Aids and bottle of peroxide. He took them.

He placed the items on the floor next to the nightstand. Then he stood, watching Hutch, and began to roll up his sleeves.

Hutch seemed even quieter now, and was perhaps only partially conscious. The last thing Starsky wanted to do was disturb him further, especially when the immediate result would be more pain. But the end result--clean wounds and no infection--didn't leave him with any choice.

Marianne appeared with a pan and a stack of cloths. "Here's the cool water. There's no other first aid items in the house. Did you find something in the bathroom?"

"There's some Band-Aids and peroxide, but the bottle is half empty." As Starsky spoke he continued to stare at Hutch. Marianne cleared the lamp from the end table and set the pan and cloths there. He hated the thought that was going through his mind...what he was going to have to do in the name of taking proper care of his partner.

Marianne moved toward the door. "I'll get something for the warm water."

Starsky reached for her arm to stop her. Without emotion, he asked, "Is there any alcohol in the house? Whiskey or brandy?"

"Yes," she whispered, looking at him as though puzzled by his expression.

"Bring it," he said softly.

She turned away.

Starsky went to the nightstand and dunked a cloth into the cold water. He squeezed it out and then placed it on Hutch's forehead.

Hutch's face twitched in surprise, and then his eyes opened a little.

Starsky knelt beside the bed. "How ya doin?" he whispered.

The other swallowed and, in a strained whisper, muttered, "Hurts all over."

Ah, Hutch. Starsky picked up his partner's hand and squeezed it. "Hutch?" He brushed his fingers along the other's mustache. "I'm going to have to clean your wounds and disinfect them. It's gonna hurt, pal. It's gonna hurt a lot. Can't be helped."

Hutch closed his eyes and looked away, his jaw tight.

Starsky took Hutch's hand and pressed to his forehead, gathering the strength to hurt when all he wanted to do was comfort.

He looked up when Marianne appeared from the hall with a large, empty pan and a couple of bottles of brandy. He moved quickly to the door, and took the bottles from her just as she was about to enter the room.

She looked him up and down. "You don't want him to know I'm here, do you?"

The words were accusing, but the tone was not. Starsky looked away, not knowing how to respond truthfully.

She went into the bathroom and turned on the water to fill the pan. Starsky followed and she said over her shoulder. "If you want my help, I'm available. If not..." she trailed off. When the pan was full she turned around and held it out to him.

Not knowing how else to communicate what he was feeling, Starsky replied in a low voice, "I'll call you if I need you."

She left the room without a backward glance.

Starsky put the new pan on the floor beside the bed. He found a pair of scissors in the basket. "All right, buddy boy," he said as he sat on the bed next to Hutch and cut the tie to the bandage around his partner's lower torso, "we're gonna get you all fixed up here." The bandage had stuck to the dried blood and when Starsky yanked it loose it drew a half-hearted gasp.

Starsky shifted closer to the head of the bed. "Hutch, buddy, I'm gonna have to clean the wound. You want something to bite down on?" He reached for a dry cloth. "Huh, pal?" He held it up to Hutch's mouth. "Might make it easier."

Hutch's eyes were pinched shut, as though in dread, but he finally opened his mouth a little and Starsky inserted the cloth. He picked up Hutch's hand and wrapped it around a wooden bar at the head of the bed frame. He did the same with the other hand. "You grip all you want."

Now that Hutch was prepared for the worst, Starsky didn't want to waste any time. He dunked another cloth into the pan of warm water. He briefly did the same with the soap, and then rubbed the bar against the cloth. He then mentally braced himself, and pressed the soapy cloth against the blood surrounding the wound.

Hutch made a low, animal sound through his gritted teeth, and his hands tightened on the headboard.

Starsky knew he had to ignore it and keep working. He wiped swiftly at the blood, then scrubbed at the wound when he could see it, which caused Hutch to shift his legs and brace a foot against the mattress. He quickly rinsed the cloth out, applied more soap, then rubbed once more at the open wound, which was now bleeding freshly, relieved to see that dirt was appearing on the cloth, and no longer in Hutch's body.

Starsky let the cloth fall back into the pan and he grabbed the nearest bottle of brandy. He tore the cap off and tilted it over the wound.

Hutch screamed.

* * *

It didn't surprised Marianne when she heard it, for she had been watching from the hall, a dozen feet away.

The dark-haired one--Starsky was his name, she remembered--was now rushing to apply gauze to the wound and trying to tape it into place, while keeping firm pressure. It was tempting to help him, whether he wanted it or not, but she decided to not add to the displeasure of the job he had to do with her presence.

He'd finally managed to finish with the taping and now he pulled the cloth out of Ken's mouth, which hadn't done any good once he started screaming.

"At least we don't have to worry about you gettin' pneumonia," Starsky was babbling to him, "if you're gonna keep your lungs nice and clear."

It was interesting, watching them. Watching him. Ken was no longer screaming but Starsky was trying so hard so soothe him, petting him and talking to him. Somehow, in all his coaxing, he was able to get Ken to turn a little more so that his back was more exposed. Marianne took a few steps forward and could see that his back looked as injured as the front. She had thought Starsky wanted the whiskey because he was going to try to remove the bullet. Now it appeared that there wasn't a bullet, because it had gone through Ken, creating two separate wounds.

Starsky made sure Ken's hands were firmly gripped around the headboard again. He didn't bother with trying to give him something to bite down on. His face closed and he began scrubbing at the wound on Ken's back, ignoring the way Ken was gasping and flinching.

She'd seen the look on Starsky's face when he asked for the whiskey. This task was not something he had wanted to do. Maybe another reason he hadn't wanted her in the room was so she wouldn't see Ken while he was so...vulnerable.

She felt a flare of affection, but squelched and lowered her eyes. Ken was capable of incredible deceit and not to be trusted. She had seen Starsky quite a bit during the Fitch trial and she had always thought of him as a typical cop--shallow, crude, probably alcoholic, and incapable of feeling very deeply, for surely the ugliness of a cop's job was too intense for a normal, healthy human being to bear. So, to bear it, there had to be plenty of walls built.

She knew about walls.

But here they were, the shallow one showing so much caring and concern for one who was so untrustworthy. Surely, even in the code of the department, there were limits on how much you trusted your partner. The police might stand for law and justice, but they were just as corrupt as many of those who were on the other side of the jail cells. In many ways worse, because it was easier for them to get away with so much more.

There was another scream, sounds of the mattress creaking as Ken fought against the pain his partner was inflicting.

Marianne did not look up. Ken's throat would be raw when his torment was over. She went to the kitchen to make sure there was enough ice for ice water.

* * *

Even though Hutch still made periodic gasping noises, the room seemed relatively quiet to Starsky's ears. He had disinfected and bandaged the two sides of the bullet wound, the ugly tear at the back of Hutch's calf, and the injuries to his groin. He had discovered cuts in Hutch's feet and taken care of them. Now he was scrubbing at and applying peroxide to the smaller injuries from the barbed wire. He knew the peroxide stung but, relatively speaking, it was a minor pain and for the most part Hutch didn't complain.

After cleaning each series of wounds, Starsky had applied Band-Aids, wanting to be sure even the small injuries stayed clear of any foreign debris.

Hutch was panting his exhaustion, each exhalation almost in tune to the ticking of the clock on the wall.

The last series of injuries were the larger ones across Hutch's midsection, beneath his sternum. Starsky dipped the cloth into the bloody water, which he'd emptied twice, grateful it would be the last time. He applied the soap, then scrubbed across the three wounds. Because they were deeper than most of the others, he wasn't surprised when Hutch tilted his head back and made a noise that sounded like a soft, weary cry.

"Alllllmost done," Starsky assured softly, his own voice weary. He tilted the bottle of peroxide, not worried about being conservative like he had before, because this was the last series of wounds.

Hutch sucked in a shaky, teeth-clenched breath.

Starsky watched the substance bubble up as it removed dirt from the wound. He reached to the box of Band-Aids, and found himself struggling with the paper peelings. His own hands were shaking a little, and he realized then just how weary he himself was. His neck and the back of his shoulders ached, his eyes kept blinking, and he felt the urge to collapse on the bed next to Hutch.

He looked over his shoulder at the clock. It was a little past seven and almost dusk outside. It had been around ten o'clock this morning when he'd returned to Milford's estate.

Nine solid hours of intense angst for them both. And pain and sweat for Hutch. And, for himself, a non-stop attempt to soothe and comfort the past three or four.

He smoothed the bandages into place over the final three wounds. Then he pulled at the blanket beneath Hutch, while bracing a hand against him to hold him in place. He got the upper part of the blanket free, which was wet with water and antiseptic, and soiled with blood. He stood, feeling the weariness in his legs, and pulled the rest of the blanket from beneath Hutch's lower body. He wadded it up and threw it into a far corner.

He knelt back beside his partner, whose eyes were squinted open. "Now, we've got you on nice clean sheets," he whispered, pulling at the bedclothes and covering Hutch with them. "The worst is all over, pal. From here on out it's a piece of cake."

Starsky heard footsteps and looked up. Marianne stopped at the entrance and held out a glass. "Water."

Starsky got up and took it. "Thanks." He watched her stride away, her cooperation making him feel guilty that he had, essentially, demanded that she stay away from Hutch.

He took the first few sips himself, realizing how thirsty he was. Then he carefully sat on the bed next to his partner's head. "You thirsty, buddy?"

Hutch blinked more, as though trying to rally.

"Here, pal." Starsky lifted his head and brought the glass to his lips. Hutch started to raise his hands, then seemed to reconsider when it was obvious his partner was going to do all the work. The glass was nearly empty before Hutch stopped swallowing.

"There, that's better," Starsky said, placing the glass aside. He stroked up and down the unbruised side of his partner's face. "How ya feelin'?"

The response was a barely audible whisper. "So tired."

"Yeah, I hear you." Starsky gently laid Hutch's head back on the pillow. The cold compress had long since been dislodged with his partner's thrashings, and he now re-wet it in the pan of cold water and placed it across the pale forehead. He took another cloth and wet it, and dabbed at the dry sweat along Hutch's chest and neck. He also used it to wipe at the redness decorating the blond's checks, from the tears that had streamed down his face during the worst of his suffering.

When he was finished, Starsky knelt by the mattress again. "You need to sleep, Hutch. That's all you have to worry about." He massaged his fingers into the other's blanketed shoulder. "I'm gonna be nearby if you need anything. Just want you to rest and not worry about nothin' else."

Hutch's eyes were already closed. Starsky wonder what pain-killers Marianne might have available, but he preferred to not have to disturb Hutch further. He seemed exhausted enough to fall asleep without drugs.

Starsky gave Hutch's shoulder a final squeeze. After getting up, he went toward the bathroom, reaching in to turn on the light, then closed the door only partway, so Hutch wouldn't be in a completely dark room in a strange place. The ceiling light was already off--Starsky just now realized how dark the room had become with the setting of the sun--and he exited, leaving the bedroom door open a crack.

Lights were on in the living room. He found Marianne sitting in an easy chair, leafing through a magazine and smoking a cigarette. She looked up. "Are you finished for now?"

Starsky plopped down onto the couch. "Yeah. Hopefully, he'll sleep through the night." He rubbed at his neck and arched his back.

Her bright, inquisitive eyes seemed to dance...he wasn't sure if it was from humor or something else. She said, "Does he treat you as kindly as you treat him?"

Starsky tugged off his shoes. "Do you mind if I put my feet up?"

"Go ahead."

He rested his feet on the coffee table. He didn't want to answer her question. Once again, the words had been biting, but the tone was conversational. More importantly, he didn't like talking about his feelings for Hutch with anyone. Not even Hutch.

But she was looking at him, and he thought it in all their best interests to at least be cordial and take a stab at alleviating the tension between them. He shrugged and muttered, "'Course, he does."

She lowered her eyes then, as though his answer were beyond her comprehension.

She put her magazine aside and stood. "You look whipped. Would you like something to drink?"


"I don't have any beer. Will a soda do?"


"I'm afraid all I have is diet."

"I'll live."

"Want a glass and ice?"


She had ice water for herself and held out a can to him.

"Thanks," he said, making an effort to sit up and pop the lid. "You know...Marianne," he said softly, after taking a sip, "I really do appreciate you putting us up."

Her eyes flicked away a moment. "Despite how I feel about him, I could hardly turn you away." She looked back at him and said, "I know you probably can't discuss what happened, but I admit I'm curious."

Starsky set the can down and put his head in his hands. He spent a moment letting the weariness wash over him. Then he rubbed at his face and raised his head. "Let's just say that to say that Hutch has had a rough day would be the understatement of the century." Then he muttered, "Can't believe that at nine o'clock this morning everything seemed terrific."

"It was a case you were on?" she asked, her tone merely curious as she flicked her cigarette into an ashtray.

"Yeah, undercover job."

"Around here?" she said in surprise.

"About thirty miles south."

"Oh." She sipped her drink.

"Our covers got blown."

"Oh," she said again. Then, "He seems to have a knack for that."

Starsky raised his eyes to look at her, wondering why she would want to say something so cruel, considering the circumstances.

She shrugged at him and, reluctant as he was to admit it, he realized that she wasn't being deliberately provocative. Just honest. Still, he wanted to change the subject. He looked around. "Nice place you have here."

She shook her head. "Wish it was mine, but it isn't. It belongs to my lawyer. His family is on vacation for a month, so they're letting me house-sit."

Starsky continued looking around, not knowing what else to say.

"There's some leftover tuna casserole. They have a microwave. It'll take just a few minutes to heat it up."

Starsky rubbed at his eyes again. "Sounds great."

She moved to the kitchen. "If you want to see what's going on with the fire, you can turn on the television."

"Think I'll pass. I've got my hands full already with an injured person."

"I wonder how long Rita will be."

"She didn't know. She was expecting the car to run out of gas before she got to a phone. Hope she's okay."

"She's a nice lady." There were beeping noises as Marianne punched numbers on the microwave. "She and her husband are both great people. All the people around here are. I was starting to feel some hope for humanity."

"'Was'?" Starsky questioned.

She faced him, still in the kitchen. "The condition Ken came here in is a rather frank reminder of what one human being can do to another, don't you think?" She reached to pull some dishes from the cupboard. "I know what kind of man he is, but even he doesn't deserve to be treated like he matter what he may have done to provoke it."

Starsky looked away, trying to push down his desire to explain how wrongly she perceived Hutch. But what would be the point? Still, he did mutter, "You don't know what kind of man he is."

She turned sharply, plates in her hand. "Do you?" she challenged.

Starsky was amazed that anyone would question that. "Of course, I do. We've been closer than brothers for seven or eight years now."

She put the plates on the counter and stood over the microwave. "Then I assume you approve of his hypocrisy."

Her tone was biting this time. He stood. "What do you mean?"

"You don't know, do you?" She reached for her pack of cigarettes and quickly lit one. "You don't know what was said between us. The things he said that went against everything he did. But I suppose any cop would excuse that since it's all right for someone undercover to use people and lie and make up pretty words."

"Look, Marianne," he stepped closer until he was a few feet away from the kitchen, "I know it's not going to make you feel any better for me to say this, but I'm gonna say it anyway. Hutch had feelings for you. Real feelings. Feelings he should have never let himself have. He broke rule number one and got involved." His voice softened. "It happens. It's happened to me before, too."

She snorted, blowing smoke through her nose. "Are you saying that one roll in the sack qualifies as 'real feelings'?"

Starsky hesitated, not sure where she was coming from, and therefore not sure how to deflect it. And wondering why he should even try.

"You're surprised," she told him. "One minute making passionate love, the next not denying he's a cop, and then just a day later, trying to tell me that we shared something 'special'. Ha." She turned to shake loose the ashes into the sink.

The microwave beeped and she snapped open the door. "Where did he come from anyway?"

Starsky definitely wasn't sure what she meant by that. "Huh?"

"What kind of upbringing did he have?" She quickly stirred the casserole and placed it back in the oven. "Making pretty little speeches to me." She jabbed at the buttons. "That you've got to say, 'This is me, and I like it.' That you've got to know that you're worth it. That, for once in your life, you've got to own that." She turned to Starsky, her hands now stretched out behind her to lean against the counter. "A person doesn't say things like that unless something's happened in their life to make them question their worth. Something deep down. Or was that some speech he read somewhere and memorized in preparation for his little undercover job?"

Starsky could only stand there with his mouth open, not remembering anytime when Hutch had used the words that she quoted. Finding himself curious, too, about what brought those words on. And wondering what he could possibly say to soothe Marianne's anger.

"Talking down to me," she went on, "like I didn't have a right to feel that my life was absolutely miserable. That he could compare his pains to mine."

Starsky grabbed at the last group of sentences. "Well, you have seemed to do pretty well for yourself since then. I mean, I know this isn't your house, but you look like you have things together a lot more than you did back then. You must be doing something to get your life back on track."

The microwave beeped again and, more calmly, she opened the door. For a long moment, she stared at the wall. Then she said, "The death of my brother, whom I loved more than anyone, was probably the best thing that ever happened to me." She took the casserole out and glanced at him. "Try fitting that fact into a life that's supposed to make sense."

Starsky watched her pick up a plate and spoon out casserole. "Lots of things in this world don't make sense. I mean, take the reason Hutch ended up like he did today. The circumstances are totally crazy. Beyond belief."

She held the filled plate out to him. Softly, she said, "But at least he has you to care for him."

Starsky took the plate. It was on the tip of his tongue to say that everyone can have someone to care for them--if they just make the effort--but he knew they were only words and wouldn't help.

She dipped out another serving. "It seems odd to me now, having watched you with him. That night before my brother's death--when he was beat up by Fitch's men--I don't understand why he came to me instead of you."

Starsky turned away, guilt stabbing through him as her words sent him back to that time. He'd been looking all over for Hutch, and grew all the more frantic when Huggy had told him that Fitch had put a price on Hutch's head. He had wondered at the time--and now he was certain--that if Hutch wasn't lying hurt somewhere, that the reason Hutch didn't call him was because he didn't want Starsky's lecturing and lack of sympathy.

Starsky put his plate on the coffee table and sat on the floor. Quietly, he said, "Well, Hutch and me weren't goin' through the best of times then. I mean," he shrugged, wondering why he was explaining himself, "it's one of those things that you don't really realize until you look back on it later." He ate a forkful of casserole, realizing how hungry he was. Silently, he thought back, remembering how they'd gotten to the point where he and Hutch simply weren't spending as much time together outside of work. He found his partner frustratingly negative and moody a good percentage of the time, and Starsky quit seeking out his company. And when he stopped initiating it, personal time together stopped happening. That grated, too, that Hutch didn't seem to want to seek out his company any more than he wanted to seek out Hutch's.

But we came through it when we both decided to make a better effort...because we needed each other. And our friendship grew to be all the stronger. He didn't see any reason to share something so private out loud.

She sat down in the easy chair with her plate, and they ate in silence, Starsky finishing quickly.

"That was great," he said, putting down his empty plate.

"There's more."

"I'll help myself. But first I want to check on Hutch."

He moved back to the bedroom, glad his stocking feet were quiet against the carpet. He peeked through the crack at the door.

The light from the bathroom shone across the bed. He saw an arm move, heard irregular breathing. He strained his ears, then was relieved that it didn't seem to be a noise of distress. But more of restlessness.

Starsky retreated back down the hall. He picked up his plate. "He's not sleeping. I'm going to lie down with him for a while and see if that'll help." He put his plate into the sink and poured water over it. "Are there any drugs in this place for pain?"

She put her plate aside and stood up. "Just Extra Strength Tylenol."

"That'll have to do."

She moved into the kitchen and reached to the cabinet. "Here it is."

Starsky took the bottle and filled a glass with water. He wished he would have asked for the Tylenol earlier.

As he passed back through the living room, he saw that secretive glint in Marianne's eye, and again didn't know if it was amusement or something else. "Hopefully it won't take long," he told her, and headed back down the hall.

Starsky entered the room and carefully closed the door behind him. He went to the bathroom door and opened it wider, so more light shone in the room. He then moved to the bed and knelt beside it. "Hey, there, pal," he whispered. Hutch's arm shifted and he took the blond's hand and squeezed it. "I'm right here, Hutch. How you doin'?"

"Starsk?" The other's eyes opened a little.

"Right here, buddy." He squeezed again. "You're supposed to be sleepin'."

Hutch's legs shifted a little beneath the covers. "Hurts all over."

"I might be able to help with that. Got some pills for you." Starsky sat on the bed, and reached to put his hand behind Hutch's head. "Let's wet your throat first. Here's some water."

He lifted the blond head with one hand and placed the glass against the dry lips with the other. "Swallow, Hutch," he said as he started to pour.

Hutch did.

Starsky allowed a few sips then took the glass away. "Open your mouth a sec."

The other obeyed, but only slightly. Starsky had to force his jaw lower with his hand before he could place the capsule at the back of Hutch's throat. He picked up the glass again. "Drink."

After Hutch had swallowed, Starsky repeated the procedure with the other capsule. "That'll help," he assured when he pulled the water away a final time. He then picked up Hutch's hand and placed it between his own. "Your gonna be fine, pal, just fine. Just need to rest now." He held the hand a while longer, then placed it back on the bed. "I need some rest, too. I hope there's room for two."

Hutch didn't respond. Starsky moved to the other side of the bed. He pushed the bathroom door closed in passing, then cautiously knelt on the mattress. "Just gonna get right here behind you, buddy. I hope you don't mind sharin' a little body heat." Starsky carefully stretched out alongside the blanket and pillows supporting Hutch's back, angling himself so that his cheek came to rest against the back of Hutch's covered shoulder. With his right arm, he reached around to Hutch's chest and rested his hand there, over the blanket. He rubbed back and forth a moment, then muttered, "Much better, don't you think?"

After a long moment, he felt one of Hutch's hands come up and wrap around his arm.

"That's my buddy," Starsky muttered against the shoulder. "Sleep now." He took a deep breath of his own and felt himself relax. He was asleep moments later.

* * *

It was a "thump" that woke him. Starsky raised his head in the darkness, and realized a body was moving next to his. It took a moment to orient himself, then he grabbed the blanketed form and realized he had an arm. "Hutch, what is it?"

"Piss," came the pained response.

Starsky sat up quickly. "Just a sec. Just a sec. Hang on." He squeezed the arm firmly. "Stay put and I'll help you."

He rushed to push open the bathroom door, which revealed light.

The door to the hall opened and Marianne poked her head in. "I heard something fall."

"Get something for him to relieve himself."

She backed out.

Hutch's face was cringed in pain. "Have to..." he muttered, struggling to get up on an elbow.

"Hutch, just hang on." Starsky sat beside him. "Just hang on another minute. You can't get out of bed." Gently, he pushed him down. "Lie still. Just lie still." He pressed the blond head back to the pillow. Hutch seemed more alert than he'd been since they arrived, and Starsky didn't want him to see Marianne when she re-entered the room. He went to the door just as she returned.

She held out a plastic half-gallon measuring pitcher. "I hope this will do."

"It'll do." He took it from her. "Thanks." He closed the door before she'd had a chance to turn away.

"Okay, Hutch, it's okay." He sat on the bed and pushed the covers away.

The other's face was still pinched. "Have to," he panted.

"I know, Hutch." Starsky placed the pitcher where it needed to go. He gently held the flesh in place. "Okay, pal. It's okay now. Go ahead."

There was a noise of effort, but nothing came out.

"Take your time, take your time." Starsky could see the effort Hutch was making to relax, but that didn't seem to help whatever mental block was at work. He knew from experience that trying to urinate while lying down and having someone else handling you wasn't the most conducive path to successful relief.

Starsky removed his hand and pressed against his own lower region, finding from the uncomfortable pressure where his bladder was. He skimmed his fingers across Hutch's skin, then pressed at the comparable area.

Hutch gasped and reached down with his hand, and Starsky let him take over and just focused on holding the pitcher.

Finally, it began to fill. After many seconds he was afraid it wasn't going to be large enough to hold it all, but the flow finally ended. Starsky was relieved that the color looked normal and Hutch hadn't given any indications of pain. He wasn't sure how seriously Milford's goons had pummeled Hutch, but it now seemed apparent that most of their efforts had been directed at Hutch's bruised face.

Starsky dumped the pitcher into the toilet, flushed, then returned to his partner's side. He did a cursory perusal of the bandages, not seeing anything amiss. He would have liked to remove some to see how the wounds were healing, but he thought it best not to disturb them after just a few hours' time. He glanced at the clock and saw that it was past eleven. He settled the covers around Hutch, who had closed his eyes and seemed more peaceful, though it was obvious from his shallow breathing that he was still awake.

Starsky got back into bed with him.


It was well past midnight before he emerged. Marianne had the TV turned down low and was trying to watch an old movie, but she was really more interested in the magazine she leafed through over and over.

He seemed surprised that she was still there. "You always stay up this late?" he asked. She thought his hair and clothes looked a little disheveled.

"I've always been a night owl. I usually don't get up until noon or so." She sipped her drink. "How is he?"

"Sleeping." He gestured toward the television as he sat down. "What's the word on the fire?"

"It's destroyed nearly an entire city block, including the hotel where it started. The wind blew it into some of the surrounding residential areas. A real mess."

His face looked puzzled. "Hard to imagine something like that spreading."

"There's been conflicting reports, but they think it was caused by a truck that spilled gasoline along the street. That helped it spread. I guess it's almost out now. There's something like sixty people dead and over a thousand injured. They've called in the National Guard."

"I guess Rita might have gotten caught up in helping them."

"Or maybe she couldn't get anyone to send help back here, since that's the bigger emergency." She didn't want to give him the wrong impression and soothed, "Ken doesn't seem to be in too bad a shape, considering." She then realized that she hadn't really seen him close up. "He is better, isn't he?"

Starsky settled back on the couch. "No worse. If he can get some rest and as long as there isn't any infection...yeah, he'll be okay." His face changed as he said the last, as though he was just now realizing it.

She got up from her chair. "I'm having more casserole. Would you like some?"


As she reheated it, she found her thoughts returning to the same spot they'd visited when she'd been alone while Starsky tended to his partner. She kept trying to search inward for her true feelings about the blond cop. She remembered, even now, with much affection, the way they had come together when they had run away from Fitch's men and ended up at Ken's apartment. Though she knew it had not been an act of love, for they hadn't known each other at all, it was an event of great passion and warmth. And, she realized now, she had unintentionally lied to Starsky when she'd told him that she'd seen his partner's nudity before. They had never looked at each other. They had only kissed and wrapped themselves around each other, him sliding into her...the entire process one of gentle, eager touch and not vision. He had put his underwear back on as he left the bed; and he had respectfully turned his back while she dressed.

Of course, it was only afterwards that she started to question who he was and what he was doing in her life. He'd asked a question or two of his own about Fitch. That's when the instincts in the back of her mind came to life. She absolutely did not want to believe it, but after the guilty look on his face when she inferred that he was a cop, she didn't see how she could have ever thought anything but. And he had used her, trying to get to her brother so he could get to Fitch. Trying to loosen her up with lovemaking so she would talk to him.

She had never hated more in her life than she had at that moment. Hated him, and hated herself because, as she left, she still had a pleasant memory of their brief time together. Hating the fact that, despite the deceit, she was glad that it had happened, even though it never would again with him.

And then, such a short time later, he'd tried to tell her that it had been "special", as though there was something unique or uncommon about a bed being shared by a man and woman who did not know each other.

Worse, he'd seemed to genuinely believe what he was trying to tell her that night.

"You're awfully quiet."

Marianne removed the casserole from the microwave. Starsky had approached and now asked, "What were you thinking about?"

"Pity," she replied, spooning them each out a serving.

He blinked in surprise. "Pity for whom?"

She handed him his plate. "For him."

Starsky's face softened. "I think he's gonna be okay." He moved away.

"I didn't mean that." She waited until he put his plate on the coffee table and turned. "I was thinking about the night he was beat up--before it happened--when he was trying to lecture me about taking control of my life, as though I had a choice. " She was glad that her voice was mild as she lit a cigarette. "As much as I hated him for being just another man who was using me, I also felt a great deal of pity for him because I think he truly believed everything he told me in his pretty little speech."

Starsky took a deep breath, as though trying to restrain his own reaction. Then he approached so he wouldn't have to shout across the room in the quiet of the night. "Marianne, Hutch would not have taken you to bed if he didn't have real feelings for you. He just can't act that well."

"I wasn't talking about that," she pointed out, wondering why he behaved so funny whenever she mentioned what she and Ken had shared. "I was talking about what a pathetic person he was because he seemed to think that a single act of intimacy can make all the difference between two people. Like it can change the world. Or a whole relationship." She exhaled smoke through her nose. "Maybe you ought to teach him a thing or two about real life and tell him not to take his little ten-minute romances so seriously. Or his heart is bound to get broken a hundred times over. Surely, that's not much of a future to look forward to."

"You want to talk about future?" He was angry now, and she could see he was trying to keep his voice down. Still, his tone was so intense. "Do you want to know why he's in that bed," his arm shook in the direction of the bedroom, "in the condition he's in and I don't even have a scratch? Because some--some bisexual...pervert...took a fancy to him and...yes, Hutch used that. You know what he used it for?" His eyes flared with indignation. "He used it to spare my life. He offered to give that godforsaken excuse for a man exactly what he wanted to save my hide. He exchanged his--his pride, his dignity, his--his whole being for my life and my freedom. And you know what else?" he demanded on a high note. "When it got down to it, he couldn't do it. He couldn't perform for that bastard. Despite what you may want to think, he can't command his prick to act on cue. It only works for him when he really wants it. That's why they were trying to kill him. You didn't see the shape he was in, Marianne." He gestured frantically on his own body. "He had his eyes blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back. A gag across his mouth. They were going to do a classic execution. But somehow--God love him--some way, he got away, even though he couldn't even see where the hell he was running." His head shook back and forth. "Don't stand there and tell me how pitiful he is. He's the bravest man I know." He took a deep, deep breath and spun away.

His words did not hurt. She realized she felt pride at what Ken had done, but her feelings were quite different than Starsky's.

She picked up her plate and moved to the easy chair. "I didn't know," she said simply.

The fight had gone out of him as he sat slumped on the sofa, staring at his food. "Look, Marianne," he said in a more amiable tone, "I know you can't help how you feel. You got a bad deal all the way around. It's just that...there's nothing any of us can do to change what happened. We can't turn back time. We can only go forward. So, I guess I don't see the point of rehashing it."

"It won't be rehashed," she told him. She felt more at peace, at least for the moment. Maybe all she'd needed was someone to take her anger out on. Apparently, he'd needed someone to vent to, as well.

Now having a better understanding of each other, they both ate with a more amiable feeling surrounding them. The only conversation revolved around their food and the movie on TV.

* * *

Morning's dawn cast shadows across his bed and the walls of his room.

At first, the walls had puzzled him. He'd figured out that they were part of an unfamiliar house and that he'd been here a while, but he didn't know for how long. He knew that Starsky was near, because though he was very sore and had throbbing in various parts of his body, especially his side, he knew he'd been taken care of in a way that only Starsky was capable. He remembered Starsky tending to him. Though he was too sore to move his head enough to see behind him, he knew that Starsky wasn't in the room now. But he knew that he'd been in the bed next to him at some earlier point in time.

The door creaked softly and Hutch looked up to see a sun-shrouded figure. He thought he was seeing a ghost and blinked repeatedly, flooded by a sense of guilt that he did not understand.

"Hi," she said softly, coming into the room.

In that moment, he connected a name with the face. And the reason for his guilt. He tried to raise his head. "Marianne?"

She smiled a gentle smile. "Small world, isn't it? I know you're surprised to see me, and I was surprised to see you when you were brought here."

He was trying to compute that as she stepped closer and said, "Your partner's asleep. He wanted me to get him if you woke up."

Images flashed through Hutch's mind. All the pain. The frantic soothing. Starsky a constant presence. "No. Please. Let him sleep."

"He'll be mad if I don't get him," she said mildly.

"Doesn't matter. Let him sleep." He was grateful to rest his head back against the pillow.

She nodded. "I think he could use it." Her expression grew soft as she gazed at him. "He loves you so very much."

Hutch blinked, wondering why she was stating the obvious, and what kind of response she was expecting. Then he realized she wasn't looking for a response at all. He decided to change the subject. "Where am I?"

Her eyes roamed around the walls. "At the house of my lawyer. He and his family are away for the month and I'm house-sitting. It just happens to be in the general neighborhood of where your case was."

It seemed odd that she would know about the case.

"Don't worry," she said, as though she were almost amused. "Your partner didn't give away any state secrets."

That was a relief, not that he would have thought otherwise. "How long have I been here?"

"Since about three o'clock yesterday afternoon. They couldn't get an ambulance for you because there's been a very bad fire in town. An entire hotel burned down and the surrounding buildings. The phones out this way don't even work." She smiled warmly. "You look like you might not even need an ambulance now."

Hutch hadn't yet taken the time to take stock of his injuries, but he liked hearing that he might not wind up in a hospital. With his immediate questions answered about himself, he voiced his curiosity. "How are you?" he whispered.

She shrugged. "I don't have any complaints since the trial. I've gotten involved with another club and we've got some exciting projects going, maybe an album. And I've taken up oil painting to keep me busy when I'm not working."

Hutch managed a smile and realized that his face hurt. But he said, "I hope...I hope my being here hasn't upset you."

She regarded him for a long moment. He knew that her integrity was such that she would be brutally honest. She said, "I don't get any pleasure from seeing what was done to you."

Hutch hesitated, feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable with the word "seeing".

"Not that I really 'saw' much," she amended. "Your partner was being more protective than a mother hen with one chick and a bull protecting his territory, put together. He didn't want me near you." She shrugged. "I don't think he'd be too happy knowing that I'm here now. But I thought I'd look in on you since he was sleeping so soundly."

It was a moment before Hutch realized that her tone wasn't upset or annoyed; if anything, she seemed faintly amused.

"Don't wake him," he pleaded again.

"I won't. Can I get you anything?"

He had to urinate, but the urgency wasn't such that he couldn't wait for Starsky. He shook his head.

"Not even a little food?" she suggested. "Hot soup?"

It wasn't that he didn't think he could eat. It was just that he knew he couldn't without assistance. He wanted that assistance from Starsky. Though Marianne was being more than cordial, he was uncomfortable with the idea of depending on her. His head shook again.

"I'll let you rest," she said. "Would you like the door open or closed?"

"Open." He wasn't quite sure he wanted her to leave, for he was feeling a little lonely and had questions about his condition. But that, too, was Starsky's area.

After she left the room, he closed his eyes. He still felt weary. But his mind was alert and he knew sleep wouldn't come again for awhile. He slowly investigated his face, feeling acute tenderness, but nothing external except at the corner of his lip. He remembered that that particular injury had happened when he was confronted by Milford and his men with the fact that he was a cop.

Hutch swallowed. Despite Marianne's reassuring comment about the ambulance, he was hesitant to explore his body for further injuries. He remembered a tremendous amount of pain and fear. Heart-pounding trauma. Guaranteed death. Running blindly. Being shot at. Hard to breathe. Hearing laughter. Not being able to move any more because something was pulling at his flesh.


The word rushed out of his lungs before he realized he'd spoken. Hutch clamped his jaw shut, embarrassed that he'd cried out.

For a moment, he thought perhaps his shout wasn't as loud as he'd feared. But then Starsky charged through the door, looking disheveled.

"It's okay, it's okay," he chanted, sitting on the mattress and holding the right side of Hutch's face with one hand, squeezing his shoulder with the other. "It's okay, Hutch. It's okay." His voice softened. "You're gonna be fine. Just fine."

Hutch hated seeing the other so worried. "I know, I know," he assured quickly, then drew a deep breath. "I just need to know...what happened. What's wrong with me?" He reached up to grip Starsky's forearm, wanting to feel that strength. He saw, behind Starsky, that Marianne had been standing at the entrance, and now left while closing the door behind her.

Starsky blinked. His own panic seemed to have eased and his breathing evened out. "You don't remember?" he asked gently.

"There's lots of images," Hutch replied, "but I don't know the right order." He got to the root of his fear. "Just tell me what my injuries are."

Starsky's face softened. "You worried about the bandage between your legs?"

Hutch had to think about that. He realized that he was bandaged there, but Starsky misunderstood the more general meaning of his question. Still, he asked, "What's it for?" As he spoke the words, he realized how serious the significance could be.

But Starsky was calm. "Hutch, you're okay there. Nothing's damaged. You just got some wounds from the barbed wire. They didn't puncture your balls or anything. Just right next to them."

Automatically, Hutch sent his hand down to explore. He felt the bandage to the right of his testicles. The actual organs all felt fine. Then he realized his arm was feeling other bandages. And his body seemed to ache all over. "What else is wrong with me?"

Starsky grinned. "Nothing's 'wrong'. You're doing great, pal." Then he said, "Your most serious wound is from the bullet that went through your side."

Hutch's hand came up and instinctively pressed near the bandaged area that was, he realized now, the most painful part of his body. He flinched as he touched it.

"Still pretty tender, huh?" Starsky said with sympathy. "But it's just a flesh wound, Hutch. Bullet went right through you." Starsky straightened a little, but didn't dislodge Hutch's hand on his arm. "You've got little punctures all over from being tangled in barbed wire, but they aren't anything serious, either. 'Cept you'll probably have an ugly scar on the back of your leg, 'cause the skin got ripped pretty good." While Hutch tried to comprehend the barbed wire part, Starsky added, "And you're probably pretty stiff and sore from Milford's men beating on you. But I don't think anything's broken."

More images fed upon the ones he was beginning to understand. Hutch closed his eyes. "I shouldn't be alive." He had been a goner, he was certain.

Starsky gripped his shoulder. "Hutch, you got away."

Hutch shook his head, more images becoming clear. "No. They had me cold. I couldn't get far enough away fast enough." He felt anger at that. Anger at what they had intended to do to him.

Starsky's voice was very quiet. "Then what happened?"

"I-I don't know." Hutch's eyes opened, as he remembered an annoyed voice back at Milford's house. "Maybe I got through to him."

"Got through to who?"

"One of the guards. I told him it could be him next time that Milford wanted to sleep with. I didn't think he was listening, but...." He paused, images coming more into focus. "After I was caught--I guess in the barbed wire--I was dead meat. But I heard him say to the other one that they needed to get out of there and that Milford wouldn't know any different if they'd finished the job or not. They'd already gotten their money."

Now it was Starsky who closed his eyes, letting out a sigh of relief. When they opened, he was wearing a tiny smile of affection. He reached out and put his hands behind Hutch's neck, rubbing there.

The contact felt good. It gave Hutch the courage to continue. He squeezed Starsky's arm and said, "I remember hearing you calling my name. I heard you, but I couldn't talk because of the gag...."

Starsky rubbed at him more intensely. "I found you," he said simply, as though that were the end of it.

Hutch smiled then. He felt uncomfortably full of emotion and looked for a distraction. "Is that the john?" He nodded toward the open door.

"Yeah, but you're not going to visit it, because I don't want you up."

He had a vague recollection of Starsky's assistance in the middle of the night. His mind hadn't been very clear then. He was much better now. "I'll be careful."

"Uh-uh," Starsky said. "I don't want to risk tearing your bullet wounds back open. Just a sec." He got up from the bed.

Hutch felt annoyance, but knew he couldn't argue with his partner's fears. His throat was sore and his fuzzy memory of piercing pain told him why. And he knew, from experience, how much worse it was observing your partner's pain--and not being able to do anything about it--than suffering it yourself. He could only imagine how much worse it must have been to be the cause of it.

As much as he hated the thought of pissing in bed, he decided to give Starsky a break.

The other returned with a plastic pitcher, cheerful now. "Here, just use this." Starsky patted his cheek--the one that wasn't bruised--and pushed the pitcher into his hands. "I'm gonna give you some privacy, but then I'll be back to change your bandages. 'Kay?"

Hutch nodded.

When he was alone, he brought the pitcher beneath the covers, but then realized he was in an awkward position. Cautiously, he hoisted himself up onto an elbow and cringed at the soreness that made itself known through most of his body.

He managed to relieve himself without making a mess. After putting the container on the floor, he was grateful to relax again. The morning's conversations had tired him, and his weakness made him realize that he wasn't as up to par as it had seemed when he first woke up.

He lay there lazily, eyes closed, while waiting for the door to open and reveal Starsky's return. The images from yesterday continued to run themselves through the fatigued defenses of his mind, and Milford's face and fat, ugly body came into view. The other's rage when Hutch couldn't give him what he wanted. The realization that he'd held the power of his own life in his hands...and couldn't do what was necessary to save himself. That he'd let both himself and Starsky down.

Thank God he didn't find me dead. All because a half-witted goon of a guard had taken his words to heart.

"All done?"

Hutch looked up sharply. Starsky was entering the room with a bowl in one hand and a glass of orange juice in another, napkins tucked under his arm.

"Looked like you were dozin'," Starsky said as he put the supplies on the table.

Hutch decided not to answer. While he was tired and could sleep again, he was glad that Starsky was here; the unwanted memories going through his mind weren't something that he was eager to face alone.

"Gonna get some nutrition into ya, then change your bandages." Starsky turned to him. "We need to see if we can get ya to sit up a little. Feel up to it?"

Before Hutch could respond, his partner had scooped up the plastic pitcher from the floor and taken it into the bathroom. A moment later the toilet flushed.

Hutch had managed to get himself onto an elbow before Starsky returned.

"Real slow and easy," Starsky said when he sat back down. "Last thing we want to do is tear open your wounds." He reached for the pillow behind his partner's head. "Here, let's move this so we can sit you up."

Hutch held onto Starsky while the other moved things around.

"Okay," Starsky said, "I'm going to try to lift you up by the armpits and you push with your feet."

Hutch nodded. "Okay."

Starsky counted to three and then they moved together. Hutch became aware of a new set of aches and pains as he got his rear underneath his body. When he lay back against the upright pillow, he found even more areas and grimaced.

"Just a sec," Starsky said, grabbing a sofa pillow that had been used to support Hutch's spine. "Let's try this." He worked with placement of the pillow at the small of Hutch's back until Hutch grunted his agreement. Starsky then took the other sofa pillow and placed it on top of the regular pillow, adding more support for Hutch's head.

"There you go," Starsky said triumphantly, rearranging the blankets so that Hutch was covered up to his chest. He took the bowl from the nightstand. "Now you can eat."

"What is it?"

"Oatmeal. Nice and healthy. I even added bananas and a little milk."

Hutch was intrigued. "You made it yourself?"

"Of course." Starsky sounded indignant. "Who else do you think..." he suddenly lowered his eyes.

"Starsky, I know about Marianne."

The other looked up. "You do?"

"Yes." Hutch couldn't help but be faintly amused, and he wondered why Starsky was so touchy about the subject. "In fact, she and I had a nice little talk this morning. I wouldn't let her wake you up."

"Oh. Are know, okay about being here?"

"As long as she's okay about my being here."

Starsky shrugged. "She doesn't have a lot of choice." Then he grinned. "She and I have had a few 'nice little talks' ourselves."

Hutch felt a rush of curiosity, but Starsky was holding the bowl up to him. "Come on," the other said. "Eat up while it's still a little warm. I couldn't find a tray around here, so I'll just hold it for you."

Hutch took the spoon and scooped out a serving. He placed it in his mouth and appreciated the warmth. But it was also very sweet. "You put sugar in it," he accused after swallowing.

"Of course, it has sugar in it. Who can eat something as bland as oatmeal without sugar?"

The over-sweetness spoiled the flavor to a large degree, but Hutch didn't want to disappoint his partner after Starsky had made the effort to cook for him. He took a few more bites, then said, "Marianne told me about the fire."

"Yeah, it sounds really incredible. Close to a hundred people dead and over a thousand injured. Marianne's neighbor--the one who helped me carry you out of the woods--went into town for help, but we haven't heard from her yet. The phones don't even work."

Hutch swallowed again, then said, "Doesn't really matter, does it? I don't think I need to go to the hospital or anything."

Starsky tilted his head to one side, his voice hinting at scolding. "Nice try, but no dice."

"What's a hospital going to do for me that you and bed rest haven't already done?"

The other's voice was more serious now. "For one thing, they need to sew up the bullet holes in your side. Otherwise, you aren't going to be able to get out of bed for a long, long time."

Hutch reluctantly knew Starsky was right. He let the spoon plop back down into the bowl. "I can't eat anymore."

Starsky reached to the nightstand. "Here then, chase it down with orange juice."

It tasted good and Hutch drank almost the whole glass. While doing so, he watched Starsky help himself to the rest of the oatmeal, and he knew then the real reason why his partner had added so much sugar.

When the empty bowl had joined the empty glass on the nightstand, Starsky left the bed to pull a laundry basket from where it had been against the wall. "Okay, blondie, time to change your dressings."

Two brandy bottles, one of which was empty, were on top of the basket, and Starsky silently took them out and pushed them to one side.

Hutch realized it was what had caused the ferocious stinging that had sent him into fits of screaming...just yesterday. It seemed like a bad memory from a long, long time ago.

Starsky again sat on the bed and then flipped up the covers in one swoop.

"Hey!" Hutch protested, reaching for them.

Starsky pushed them back farther, not allowing Hutch's fingers to get a grip. "This is all my handiwork," he said firmly. "I gotta check it out." Then he muttered, "Nothin' to be bashful about. You ain't got nothin' I haven't seen before." He was already turning Hutch's lower leg.

Hutch let his head fall back to the pillow and his eyes took refuge in the ceiling. He and Starsky had never been modest around each other. But it made a difference when one didn't have a choice. Still, he found curiosity overtaking his embarrassment, and he lowered his eyes to watch Starsky unwrap the bandage on his leg.

"This is where the barbed wire did the most damage," Starsky was saying. After having the bandage removed, he reached into the laundry basket and moved things around. Then he took out a tube of Neosporin. "Didn't know this was here yesterday," he said in surprise.

Hutch watched while his partner squeezed a stream of ointment along the injury. It did look ugly. Some skin was completely torn away and that which remained was twisted, and he wondered if even sutures would make it heal properly. Starsky was now rubbing the cream in, and Hutch felt his eyes water from the pain. He looked to the ceiling again, and was grateful a few moments later when the anesthetic kicked in.

Starsky carefully wrapped his leg back up with clean gauze. Then he moved to the bandage at Hutch's groin. "Let me get this undone and you can rub this stuff on yourself while I work with the little bandages."

Hutch moved his legs, to allow Starsky easier access. The movement of the bandage and his partner's hands were feeling ticklish, but he was curious to see what it looked like there. When all the gauze was pulled away, he was surprised that the puncture wounds, though ugly looking, really weren't as dramatic as he'd feared.

"Thought they'd be worse," he muttered, "since you put so much bandaging there."

"They were bleeding a lot," Starsky explained. "Here." He raised the tube and turned it upside down.

Hutch held out his hand and Starsky squeezed a big lump onto his fingers. "Rub that in real good."

While Hutch rubbed cautiously at the tender area between his balls and his thigh, Starsky invested a considerable amount of time in removing each small Band-Aid along his leg, squeezing a drop of ointment onto each injury revealed, and covering it with a fresh Band-Aid. When Hutch was done with his task, he said, "Hand me the gauze."

Starsky stopped to find a fresh gauze pad and a roll of the material. He handed them to Hutch, then moved to the Band-Aids dotting his partner's thigh.

"Ouch," Hutch protested when the removal of the sticky plastic hurt the soft skin of his inner thigh. Starsky didn't pay attention to his protest, so Hutch focused on his own task, re-wrapping his groin area by running the length of gauze across his hip and underneath his thigh. It wasn't as heavy as what Starsky had done, and he thought his more moderate job a more efficient one.

Still, it was bizarre to look down at himself and be confronted with the fact that his balls appeared to be in a sling, because the bandage kept them pushed to one side. He sat staring at them, wondering if they were still the friends to him that they been since puberty.


Starsky looked up from where he'd put ointment on the last thigh wound.

Hutch felt his chest constrict with the increased speed of his heart. But he met his partner's eyes and said, "Milford didn't try to do what you thought he was going to do."

Starsky's face softened to such a degree that Hutch felt relieved, but also puzzled.

"Yeah, you told me," Starsky said gently, "that he wanted you to be on top...?"

Hutch's brow furrowed. "How do you know that?"

"You told me when we were still in the woods and I was waiting for Rita to come back with help. You don't remember?"

Hutch shook his head.

"Yeah, well," Starsky reached for a new Band-Aid from the box, "I guess you wouldn't. You were pretty stressed right then."

That could be the end of the subject for now, but Hutch still felt a need to confess what had happened. He snorted harshly. "I-I was so shocked. He didn't even try to kiss me when he realized I wasn't interested. He went down on me. He went down on me and I couldn't respond. I wanted to...I tried to...."

Starsky rubbed the last Band-Aid in place on Hutch's thigh, his fingers moving very slowly. Then he looked up again and said, "What could you do, Hutch? You couldn't help it. You'd just think he would have realized that as much as the next guy. Holding a gun to your head, more or less, and expecting you to feel amorous."

"I wanted to cooperate," Hutch insisted. "I really did. I wanted to go through with what I'd promised to give him. I could have handled it. But..." he trailed off, and then said quickly, "When he couldn't make me hard by sucking on me, he undressed and got on the bed..." Hutch closed his eyes, the memory washing over him. "He really thought that would make a difference, me seeing him ready for me like that. I thought I was going to be sick."

Starsky was still now, gazing at the floor. Then he looked up and said, "Considerin' how things turned out, surely you aren't sorry he...he didn't abuse the way you'd expected."

Hutch released a heavy breath. "Of course, I'm not sorry." But that fact brought him no peace.

Starsky started pulling off the bandages beneath his sternum. When he was done, he met Hutch's eye and asked, "What else is goin' on in that thick skull of yours? Huh?"

Hutch wished he knew the answer to that himself. When Starsky had started in again with the ointment, he said, "I just feel like I should have...done something...been able to act. Do what was necessary to stay alive."

Starsky's hands paused as he looked up again. Sternly he said, "You did do something. You talked the guard into letting you go, even if it seemed like it had no effect at the time. You refused to go down easy, and you stayed alive."

Hutch closed his eyes, feeling new Band-Aids being placed over his highest wounds. He couldn't explain to himself, let alone to Starsky, the unease he was feeling about what had happened. Finally, he muttered, "I made a deal for your life and I didn't keep my end of the bargain."

Starsky tossed the box of Band-Aids into the basket. Teeth gritted, he said, "The only deal between you and me was that we each stay alive. Your deal with Milford doesn't matter." He snorted. "Surely, you aren't feeling guilty about going back on your word to him."

Hutch shook his head. "No, nothing like that."

"Hey." Starsky's hand rested on his cheek. Hutch reached up and took hold of Starsky's arm, wanting to feel that strength again.

"Hutch, what you went through yesterday isn't something a person can read a manual about ahead of time that tells 'em how they're supposed to feel about it all." Starsky's voice softened to a whisper. "It's understandable that things might seem sort of confusing right now." His eyes lowered. "Don't even like thinkin' about what it must have been like for you when they dragged you outta that car."

Hutch tightened his grip on Starsky's arm. He didn't like thinking about it, either. It had meant certain death. Defeat. Which is why he'd had nothing to lose by trying to get away.

"Ah, Hutch."

He felt the mattress shift. A hand on his other shoulder. And then Starsky's forehead came to rest against his.

Hutch relaxed, relishing the contact.

"Ya know, if I knew it wouldn't hurt, I'd squeeze the stuffin' right outta ya."

Hutch grinned while keeping his eyes closed. Starsky didn't often verbalize the depth of his feelings.

"But," Starsky moved back, "I've got more important things to do. Like change the bandage around your middle."

Hutch opened his eyes as the mattress shifted again. He wasn't eager for the wound to be messed with, but he was curious as to how it looked.

They were silent while Starsky cut the bandage, then carefully unwound it. He pulled the gauze away from first the wound in the back, then the one up front.

Hutch gazed down at it. It looked raw, but there was no fresh blood.

"I'm not gonna put any of that ointment on it, because I'm afraid the pressure from it might break some of the healing. Just gonna put new bandages on it and leave it at that."

Hutch winced when there was pressure from the new gauze pads. But he reached down to help hold them in place while Starsky started with the dressing.

"You know," Starsky sighed, "the really rotten thing in all of this is that Milford's going to get away scot free."

After allowing a moment for the statement to sink in, Hutch realized that he hadn't given any thought to the case itself. "Damn," he muttered.

"Yeah," Starsky said as he worked. "If I coulda phoned Dobey, he maybe coulda been stopped somehow."

"Maybe if we ransack his place," Hutch suggested, "we'll still find more records of his activities."

Starsky looked up at him while tying the bandage. "Yeah, but that still doesn't change the fact that he'll probably never have to face up to the charges. I can't see him daring to show his face in this country again."

Hutch chose not to respond. The subject put a solid damper on the morning. All their efforts the past few weeks were going to be for nothing.

"There." Starsky straightened. "You're set for another day."

"Thanks," Hutch said off-handedly, re-arranging the covers over himself.

"I'll get a glass of water so you can take some more Tylenol stuff." Starsky moved the laundry basket back against the wall. Then he suddenly froze. "Hear that?"

Hutch listened. A vaguely familiar sound was permeating the air above them.

"I think it's a helicopter," Starsky said. He rushed to the window. "Can't see nothin'." He moved to the door, squeezing Hutch's leg beneath the blankets in passing. "Be back in a sec."

* * *

Marianne stood in her bathrobe in the middle of the living room, smoking a cigarette. There were grunts of effort from the paramedics, but they finally had the gurney rolling down the hallway. Starsky, of course, was at the side of the bed, babbling encouragements as the group of them made their way to the front door.

She saw enough to tell that there wasn't an IV. That was a good sign. She hoped to get a glimpse of Ken's face, but Starsky was on the side of the stretcher that blocked her view.

She didn't think that was by accident.

After the gurney was out the door, Starsky moved back inside. His face looked impatient, and she knew it was difficult for him to be separated from his partner for even a brief moment.

"I can't thank you enough," he told her from where he stood inside the doorway.

Marianne flicked ashes into a tray on top of the TV. "Then don't thank me," she suggested.

He seemed to understand her meaning. "But tell Rita thanks for getting in touch with Dobey." The helicopter was from Los Angeles, rather than the surrounding area. "Maybe I'll try to contact her later." He started to turn, then asked, "What's her last name, by the way?"

"Hayworth," she told him.

He grinned bashfully. "Oh, like the actress."

"Yes, like the actress."

"Should be easy enough to remember."

"Yes, it should." But she knew he wouldn't. Starsky wasn't a man who collected debts. He paid them as he went, and moved on.

He hesitated, as if he thought he should say something else. But there was nothing else to say. "Goodbye," she told him.

"Yeah," he nodded, stepping out the door. "Goodbye." And he was gone.

Marianne drew in a puff from her cigarette. She had wondered before if she was glad or upset to have seen Ken again.

Now she knew. Now the door to that wall could be firmly closed forever.


"How you holdin' up?"

Through the corner of his eye, Starsky saw Hutch turn to look at him from the passenger seat. The blond wore an expression that suggested annoyance with the question. He replied, "I'm holding. I'm great, in fact, considering we just wasted two hours trying to pump somebody for information who didn't even know Marquez."

"Yeah, but we wouldn't have known that for sure," Starsky said cheerfully, "unless we'd taken that time to pump for information."

"Should have believed him when he first told us he didn't know what we were talking about."

"Hey, if we believed everything every schmuck on the street told us, we'd never find out anything."

Hutch didn't respond.

Nevertheless, Starsky thought, the banter felt good, especially with it being Hutch's first day on the street since his convalescence. He'd been helicoptered back to Los Angeles, but he was allowed to leave without being admitted. The doctors had sutured both his bullet wounds and the worst of the barbed wire tears, and given him an antibiotic for good measure. He was ordered to stay home for a few days, then allowed to do desk work until the stitches were removed, which was yesterday.

Milford's estate had been thoroughly searched in the meantime. There was, indeed, further evidence of his gambling establishment, which was scheduled to be busted any day by the police in San Bernardino, and his involvement with the death of the two policemen. But none of that mattered as long as Milford couldn't be found.

Now they were back on the street at the usual routine, this day being an unproductive one of trying to run down leads on the murder of a gas station attendant.

Pulling up behind the LTD on Ocean, Starsky turned off the motor of the Torino, deciding to come up with Hutch to make sure he got settled in okay. It was always difficult to not be hovering after having seen to your partner's survival after a crisis. He knew that Hutch understood that, for the other didn't comment when Starsky followed him up the staircase.

Hutch had picked up his mail on the first floor, and he leafed through it after opening the door of his apartment and divesting himself of his jacket and holster.

Starsky removed his own jacket. "Anything in there that says your great, great uncle died and left you a million?"

"Funny you should ask." Hutch held up a large brown envelope. It had flamboyant print all over it.

Starsky took it. "Oh," he said, taking off his holster while reading the front of the envelope. "Who needs a great, great uncle when you've got Ed McMahon." Starsky made his voice booming. "'You may have just won one million dollars.'" He sat on the arm of the sofa. "You're going to mail it in, aren't ya?"

Hutch was tearing open another envelope, his back to his partner. "What would be the point? That's all a scam."

"No, it isn't. There's government committees that look into these things, make sure they stick to all their promises. Come on, you gotta enter. Otherwise, it's impossible to win."

"It's impossible, anyway," Hutch said, reading the newly-opened mail.

"Then I'll enter for ya," Starsky decided. "I'll even order some magazines for you so your entry gets put in the 'Yes' pile." He laid the envelope down, then watched Hutch, who was opening more of his mail.

Hutch was healed now. It had been twelve days since the events at Milford's estate. Other than a jagged scar on his leg, and more minor ones in the front and back of his left side, he had no external evidence of his ordeal.

Starsky walked up behind his partner, feeling he'd been waiting for this moment those entire twelve days.

"No way am I 'Past Due' on my phone bill," Hutch muttered, tossing the envelope in his hand to the table.

Starsky slipped his arms around Hutch's waist, careful to make sure they were high enough to not touch the area of the recent wounds.

"Hey--" Hutch started.

"Shh," Starsky admonished. He pressed his cheek against the taller man's back. "Just give me a minute."

Human warmth. Such a simple thing, but sometimes so very vital. Starsky felt the heat against his cheek, and he stepped closer, wanting his whole body to experience that same reassurance of Hutch's well-being.

Human strength. Starsky felt it, through all the parts of him that pressed against this powerful man who was his partner. So powerful that he had managed to elude his would-be killers, even when all had seemed lost.

Human tenderness. His arms applied it now as they pressed the body they held. Wanting to give tactile sensation as badly as he needed to receive it.

The warmth spread out from Starsky's cheek to his face and neck. Flowed from his arms and came back through them, filtering down into his chest. Surged from his groin to the buttocks he was pressed against, creating a circular effect.

Starsky closed his eyes. Powerful strength was building between his legs, coming alive to nudge against the snug flesh he was pressed against. He decided that he did not mind having that kind of reaction.

Hutch made a noise and tried to step away.

Starsky squeezed him tighter, holding him in place. "Let's not be ashamed of it," he whispered.

He felt the deep breath drawn by the other's chest. He knew, instinctively, why that breath was needed.

Squeezing tighter with his right arm, Starsky moved his left hand down Hutch's front. He came to a hump at the other's crotch and placed his hand firmly against it, cupping it.

He liked feeling it move. Liked feeling the proof of how healthy Hutch was, proof that he had taken good care of Hutch in the aftermath of his emotional trauma and physical abuse.

Starsky opened his hand and rubbed its flatness against the growing mound.

Hutch wrenched away, so quickly that Starsky was jolted by the cooler air that now taunted his body; the force of gravity that made him stand on his own two feet, which was such an unpleasant contrast to having leaned against the warmth of the tall, powerful frame.

Hutch walked stiffly to the kitchen and turned on the water--cold, Starsky knew--at full power. He ran his cupped hands beneath it, then bent and threw water at his face. He grabbed a hand towel and ran it underneath the stream. When it was thoroughly soaked he put it around his neck and pulled tight.

Slowly, he turned off the water. Then he turned around.

Starsky swallowed as those blue eyes met his own from across the kitchen. All he could read in them was confusion.

No words were uttered. By either of them. Starsky moved a few steps toward the kitchen and placed his hand on the back of a chair at the table, then lowered his eyes. He attempted to speak, but only an incomprehensible sound emerged, because he wasn't sure what he should say.

"What was that all about?"

Starsky looked up. Hutch was now facing him, his hands resting back on the edge of the sink. He'd pulled the towel from his neck and looked like he was serious about getting an answer.

Starsky let out a breath. "Nothin," he said.

Hutch looked as though he didn't believe him, and his voice was tinged with frustration. "You're one of the last people I'd ever expect to say a man shouldn't be ashamed of a sexual response to another man."

Those words sounded funny. "Man." "Sexual response." Like something out of a textbook. Like his and Hutch's feelings for each other could be explained with the proper academic enlightenment.

Starsky knew he had to say something. "I just needed to be close to you, Hutch. You know how it is...after a close call."

The words had an effect, for he could see Hutch's expression soften. "Yes," the blond said, "I know how it is." Now a frown. "But don't pretend this is anything other than what it is."

Those words were puzzling. "What do you mean?" Starsky asked, wondering what Hutch was talking about.

Now blatant frustration. "Ah, come on, Starsky! You know damn well what this is all about. I saw the look on your face at Milford's when I told him I'd give him what he wanted."

Starsky's eyes widened. He felt they were treading on dangerous ground...ground on which there were so many feelings that it seemed impossible to try to begin to sort through them. "Hutch," he protested, trying to stem the attempt, "I know you had to do the only thing you could do. And I was mad as hell," he admitted, feeling that anger now, "for being sent away like that. But I knew it was necessary. I knew it was the only chance of us both getting out of there alive, just like you did."

Louder, "I'm not talking about that."

The words were harsh and Starsky waited, feeling both a sense of dread and a desperate need to know what Hutch was going to say.

"I'm not talking about life and death," Hutch insisted. "We both know what we each had to do to stay alive." His jaw firmed. "But there was something else going on on a completely separate level that had nothing to do with life and death." He stabbed a finger toward Starsky. "What happened just now was because you needed to prove something, didn't you?"

Starsky flinched, surprised at the accusation.

"No, I take that back," Hutch corrected rapidly. "Not what you needed to prove. What you needed me to prove." He drew a deep breath, but the next sentence was no less harsh. "If I'm going to get it up for another man, that man had better be you. Right?"

Starsky sank into the chair he'd been standing beside. He'd never intended for his expression of love to have created such a storm of misunderstandings. Or confused feelings. "Hutch, I--"

"Ownership," Hutch interrupted. "Possessiveness. Territorialism. Whatever you want to call it. You can't stand the thought of men making it with each other, but when it gets down it, if your partner has any such ideas, he'd better reserve them for you. Right?"

Starsky made sure Hutch was finished speaking. Then he said, "Hutch, you've got it all wrong. I'm--I'm...sorry...that I--" he gestured helplessly, "things just got confused. That's all."

The tension had left Hutch's body. He reached up and rubbed wearily at his forehead. "Yeah," he finally agreed. "No kidding."

"Hutch, I--" Starsky knew he'd better finish a sentence. "Listen, I just...I just love you so damn much."

Hutch looked up sharply then, his hand dropping away from his face. There was something in his expression...something subtle, but nevertheless, the anger and confusion were slipping away.

Starsky was amazed at the transformation. He'd never felt very comfortable verbalizing his feelings. It had always made more sense to him to show how he felt instead of talking about it. But even he had to acknowledge the power of those three words over his partner, for Hutch had now lowered his eyes and looked outright bashful.

"Yeah. I know," Hutch finally said.

Starsky felt bashful himself and muttered, "Didn't mean to...upset you."

When he glanced up, Hutch was moving away from the sink. "Yeah, I know," he said again, this time softer. He came over to Starsky and reached down to his shoulder. Starsky closed his eyes as those fingers squeezed his flesh, and was gratified to feel Hutch's other hand on his other shoulder, also massaging.

"I wasn't ashamed," Hutch whispered. "Just...over-heated."

"I got a little carried away," Starsky admitted, feeling amusement now. The fingers were loosening him up nicely. "I'd been wanting to hold you like crazy ever since that morning at Milford's when you agreed to sacrifice yourself. Didn't have the chance until now."

The fingers stopped and an arm was now draped around his shoulders as Hutch knelt at his side. Those eyes were such a bright blue. "Buddy," he said, "you know...if I ever were do it with another could only be with you."

Starsky definitely felt bashful now. "Yeah," he mumbled, understanding what Hutch meant, and not feeling threatened by it because it was all academic. But then he said, "Of course, don't forget your buddies when you were fourteen."

Though Hutch had to know he was only joking, the blond seriously said, "Those were just kids. It was just sex play. It had nothing to do with love or feelings."

Starsky had to lower his gaze, for it was, indeed, so powerful, the love and feelings between them. Such a strong force. He reached out, put his hand on Hutch's head, loving the feel of the soft hair. "I don't want you gettin' the wrong idea. I don't want anything from you, Hutch. Just needed close. Everything's been...." Abruptly, Starsky pushed from his chair and marched a few steps away, before turning back around.

Hutch was looking up at him with concern.

"Everything's just seemed to crazy lately," Starsky said. Now that that fact had been admitted, he felt a flurry of words rush from within. "Not just you and Milford and how that whole thing played out, but meetin' Marianne again, of all people." His eyes lowered. "Brought back all that stuff about how things were between you and me then. How we'd...let ourselves drift apart. And also," he looked up quickly, "how sometimes when all you want to do is a good job, you still stumble and fall and get mixed up with the wrong person. You and I both know that." Starsky took a few steps away, unable to remain in one place. "And then just wanting to..." he swallowed thickly, "help you...after finding you in those woods. And having to..." he drew a deep, deep breath, "hurt you like I did in order to heal you." Starsky threw up his hands, and then let them drop to his sides. "Some things just don't seem to make a lotta sense anymore."

Hutch was on his feet. "Starsk," he said anxiously, moving to take his partner by the arms. "Buddy, we'll get through all this. Put it behind us. Because we've always got each other. That's why we'll always make it."

Starsky couldn't help but smile. Between the two of them, it was usually himself that was the eternal optimist, and he knew it threw Hutch for a loop those few times when it was himself who got down.

The blond squeezed the arms he held. "Don't know what I'd do without your strength." A pause. "Don't ever want to find out."

"As long as staying alive is our number one priority, neither of us will ever have to."

Hutch rested his forehead against Starsky. "Yeah," he drawled softly.

Starsky loved feeling that weight against him.

Abruptly, Hutch moved, and a wet kiss was planted on Starsky's cheek.

Starsky grinned. "If you're gonna start behavin' like that, I think it's time for me to go."

Hutch stepped away. "I was going to fix a Greek salad. Sure you don't want some?"

Starsky made a face. "No, thanks. Think I'll pass in favor of some real food." He went to the sofa and picked up his gun and holster. "See ya tomorrow, huh?"

Hutch waved while turning to the refrigerator.

* * *

"Starsky, Hutchinson."

Both men looked up at their superior.

"In my office."

They exchanged a glance, then obeyed.

"I have a report here from Interpol," Dobey said after both detectives were seated. "A few days ago a small plane crashed down on the southern tip of Mexico, apparently on its way to Brazil. All six people on board were killed. One of them was Louis Milford."

"Damn," Hutch said as he bowed his head.

Starsky felt the same. "That was better than he deserved, the lousy pervert." Dobey would know what he meant. Hutch hadn't been shy about reporting the details of what had happened after their covers were blown. The only vagueness in the report had been on his lack of ability to perform, which he'd simply described as "finding myself unable to participate in what I'd agreed to do."

The captain went on, "The other men killed were identified as his bodyguards, his personal secretary, and the pilot."

"Now we don't have a case," Hutch said morosely. They had hoped that someday they would be able to put all their solid evidence to use, if Milford dared set foot back in the U.S.

"We all know how it is," Dobey said. "Sometimes we put our time and effort into something important, to say nothing of putting our lives on the line, and it all comes to naught. We've got to put this disappointment behind us and go on." After a moment, he asked, "How's the leads on the gas station murder going?"

"None of the possible suspects have panned out," Hutch replied distantly. "It could just as easily have been a two-bit robber who got a little trigger-happy."

"I'm not convinced as yet," Dobey said. "Keeping running down what you have."

Both detectives nodded and got up from their chairs. They left the room and plopped down at their desk in the squadroom.

After a long moment, Hutch said, "I had hoped we could get justice."

"Yeah. Me, too.

"I hope he suffered a little before he died."

Starsky blinked and was so surprised by the statement that he didn't comment.

Hutch glanced up at his silence, then ducked his head. "I didn't mean that." His head tilted. Then, softly, "Yeah, maybe I did." He wadded up a piece of scrap paper and threw it into the trash can.

Starsky tried to be consoling. "Yeah, well, who'd blame you? Can't say I feel any different. Maybe we did get a certain sort of justice, and he was facing certain death while the plane was going down. Served him right to feel what it was like."

Hutch gazed at the desk top for a long time. Then he said, "I don't like feeling like this. It's not what I want." Abruptly, he was on his feet.

"Where you goin'?"

"I gotta take a leak."

Starsky watched him go, a memory tickling the back of his mind. What was it Marianne had told him? Something about...making pretty little speeches. Hutch telling her, "You've got to say 'This is me. And I like it.'" And what was it she had pointed out? Someone doesn't say things like that unless they've experienced something in their life that has taught them that. Or were those words some pretty little speech he read before his little undercover job?

No, those words definitely weren't part of any 'research' that Hutch had taken part in. So...they had to come from the heart.

His precious, blond little heart.

So, what are you saying, Marianne? Starsky wondered now. Are you saying that Hutch spent some portion of his life--perhaps a large portion of his life--not liking himself?

Starsky squirmed in his chair, not liking that thought at all. And simply not believing it. He'd always viewed his partner as tough and confident. Self-confident. Sure, there were moments when that confidence was challenged. Like when he had a scene with a line in a western movie. But most of the time Hutch was strong, bold, always ready with an answer. The right answer. Courageous. Powerful. Resilient. Charming. Bashful. Former college wrestler. Former collegiate dart champion. Hutch was all those things. He was also moody, fussy, and cantankerous. And he had grown very disillusioned in the past year or so.

But I haven't known him his whole life. Not even his whole adult life. Just most of it.

Starsky knew that Hutch had grown up in a household where material possessions were stressed more than love. Still, despite Hutch's grumblings on the rare occasions when the subject was brought up, Starsky couldn't bring himself to believe that Hutch had been unloved. In fact, when it got down to it, he didn't believe that Hutch truly believed he had been unloved, either. He just hadn't gotten as much as he felt he'd deserved. Still, Hutch had been a standout in just about every activity he'd participated in at school. He surely received a lot of encouragement and praise from teachers, coaches, and friends. He wouldn't be the confident man he was today if he hadn't.

So, where does not liking himself fit in? Starsky wondered. Why did he feel so strongly about the things he thought he needed to say to Marianne? He sure made an impression, because she sounded like she had memorized the things he said. She was such a sad person, being used unmercifully by her brother, the person she loved most. She felt helpless in the situation she was in, and Hutch was trying to rally her to take control of her life.

Hutch, what's the parallel to your own life? Was there some point when you decided to take control, too? Because you felt you were being controlled by someone else?

Of course, most teenagers felt controlled by their parents and were full of frustration as a result. But that stuff usually worked itself out as the teenager grew into adulthood. Starsky found it difficult to believe that Hutch hadn't worked the same stuff out himself.

So, buddy, if it's not your parents who were controlling you, then who was it? And when and how did you break free?

Starsky left the squadroom, heading down the hall to the men's room. He'd started the trip without thought as to why he was going there or what he wanted to say. He just knew that he felt a strong need to be close to Hutch.

Starsky swung open the door. "Hey, Peterson," he muttered to the man who was drying his hands.

The man nodded in return, tossed the towel in the vicinity of the wastebasket, and left the room.

Starsky looked down the row of urinals. No one else there. He looked down the row of doorless stalls. Legs clothed in blue jeans could be seen beneath the one on the far end. The jeansweren't bunched at the ankles.

"Hutch?" Starsky said beneath his breath. He strode down the row, and turned to face the open stall at the end.

Hutch was sitting on the toilet, fully clothed, his head in his hands. Except now he looked up in surprise.

Starsky gripped each side of the stall. "What are you doin' sitting here?"

Those pale lashes fluttered at the irony. "Trying to get some privacy."

It would have been funny in other circumstances. But this wasn't other circumstances. "Privacy from what?" Starsky wanted to know.

"Not from anything in particular," Hutch replied blandly. "Just privacy."

"What's goin' on?" Starsky whispered.

"I don't know," Hutch told him. "I just...don't know."

"Can't you go be private somewhere your car or somethin'?" He heard the door open and glanced back to see an unfamiliar man step up to the urinals.

Hutch's eyes were asking who it was and Starsky shrugged.

Now the blond's voice was tinged with frustration. "In most cases," he said in a low but very distinct voice, "bathroom stalls are great places for privacy. Unless you have a partner who's a little too eager to stick his nose into your business."

Starsky flinched, even though he had to admit that Hutch had a point. Nevertheless, he said, "I'm just concerned about you, buddy."

"Starsky, if I want to talk to you, I'll talk to you."

The door opened again and Starsky cringed at the large black form he saw enter through the corner of his eye. "Dobey," he whispered through gritted teeth.

Hutch glared at Starsky. "Imagine how this must look," he whispered back, just as tightly.

Starsky hoped their superior was too focused on his own needs to notice, but in heading for the urinals, Dobey had already spotted them. "Starsky...Hutchinson?" he asked with concern. "Is there a problem?"

"Uh, no, Captain, no problem at all," Starsky said with exaggerated cheerfulness. "Me and Hutch are just havin'...a private conversation."

Dobey grunted as he turned toward the urinals. "Funny place for a conversation."

Starsky looked back at his partner and the glare from those blue eyes was just as strong. No kidding, Hutch mouthed to him.

Starsky sighed, knowing that whatever he said wasn't going to score any points with his partners' sensibilities. Just the opposite, in fact. Frowning, he turned away and left the room.

* * *

Starsky didn't feel any better over the fact that they'd driven separate cars to work. If they'd shared, he could have at least tried to talk to Hutch on the way home.

But he was alone in the Torino as he drove toward his apartment. He could understand Hutch's frustration. Usually, they were respectful of each other's space to whatever degree was necessary. But Starsky felt extra sensitive about making sure he and Hutch didn't become distant from each other, as had happened before. And with what had almost happened with Milford, and what he'd learned from Marianne, he felt as though there was some part of Hutch that was a stranger to him.

And he didn't want that part--or any part of Hutch--to be a stranger. He gave himself wholeheartedly to his partner, and he wanted to know all of Hutch in return. He wanted to comfort and protect that elusive part as much as the rest of Hutch. He wanted to know that his partner was whole and intact. He wanted to be secure that there were no surprises lurking down the road.

He wanted Hutch to tell him everything, and he thought he had a right to expect him to.

But Hutch couldn't ask for his help if the blond himself didn't know what help was needed. He'd looked like such a forlorn figure, sitting on the john with his head in his hands.

What was going through your mind, Hutch? What was tormenting you that I couldn't help with?

"I don't know," had been Hutch's reply.

Then let me help you figure it out, Starsky pleaded silently. And then maybe you can help me figure out some of my feelings about everything that's happened the past few weeks.

Few months?

Starsky's jaw firmed. Or had it been a few years?

* * *

"Stop here," Hutch gestured to the sidewalk next to the park.


"I want a pretzel."

Starsky pulled the Torino to the curb next to the closest vendor, thinking it an odd request on his partner's behalf.

It was two days since they'd gotten the news of Milford's death. Starsky had mentioned the incident in the men's room once, and had been met with a terse, "Will you quit making such a big deal out of everything?" Much as it went against his instincts, Starsky decided to take a step back and give Hutch the space requested.

Hutch got his over-sized pretzel and Starsky ordered a raspberry snow cone. While Starsky was taking his first bite, Hutch started walking in a direction away from the Torino. Starsky followed.

They were silent for a few moments. Then Hutch nudged his partner with an elbow. "You open to a truce?"

Despite his frustration the past two days, Starsky felt himself go soft all over. "Hutch, that isn't necessary." He worked intently with his straw, trying to crush the ice of his cone into smaller pieces. "I just need to learn to step back sometimes, that's all. After everything we've been through together, it's hard not to feel over-protective at times."

"Yeah," Hutch said softly. Then, "I'm not trying to shut you out, buddy."

"I know."

"I just have some issues I need to work through."

They'd entered a path that led into the park, and Starsky leaned back against a drinking fountain. "Yeah, I know. It's just that I also know that sometimes--most of the time--working things out goes a lot faster when you have somebody you trust to bounce things off of."

Hutch took the last bite of his pretzel and used a napkin to dab at his mouth as he chewed. Then he wadded it up and tossed it into the nearby trash can. He stood back, looking at Starsky thoughtfully. "You want the real truth?"

Starsky straightened, surprised that there was a 'real truth' to be revealed. "What?"

Hutch lowered his eyes a moment. Then he looked up and said, "I can't talk to you about the things on my mind because I don't think you've confronted the truth about how you feel. In fact, I know you haven't."

Starsky blinked, more puzzled than ever. "What truth?"

Hutch shook his head. "Ah, Starsk, you're" he threw up his hands.

"So...what?" Starsky prompted, uneasy with his partner's hesitation. Wondering what he could have possibly done to make Hutch not want to talk to him.

"This whole thing," Hutch finally replied in a small voice. "The issue...with Milford."

Starsky searched his partner's eyes, more uneasy than ever. "What about it?"

Hutch snorted. "Starsky, stop and think about it. You don't make any sense. For as long as I've known you, you've had an issue with guys making it with each other. You're completely uncomfortable with the whole subject. Yet, the minute Milford gave you vibes that he had a crush on me, you were totally obsessed with the idea. It was practically all you thought about." Hutch stepped closer, his voice lowering to the point of almost being apologetic. "And then, when I took the one option I had to try to get us out of there alive, you were angry as hell with me. And I don't mean for sending you away, though you were understandably angry about that, too."

Starsky felt his heart beating faster. Hutch sounded so sure of himself. Starsky wanted to protest the words, but he didn't have the same self-assurance about what he would say.

"Don't you see?" Hutch was still leaning toward Starsky, as if to drive his point home. "Milford was coming onto your territory. And I was letting him. Never mind that you'd never in a million years claim what you felt to be your rights to me that way. But that doesn't change the fact that you don't feel any other man should have a right to me, either."

In disbelief that he should have to point it out, Starsky sputtered, "He didn't have rights to you, Hutch! By definition, coerced sex is the same thing as rape. He had no right to do to you what we both thought he was going to do. Even with what it turned out he really wanted to do, it was coercion. Completely. What's wrong with me objecting to my partner being subjected to that?"

Hutch threw up his hands. "Because that's not what you were objecting to!" He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, then looked around him, as though conscious of being in public. He nodded toward a vacant gazebo ahead.

They both started walking.

"Don't you see?" Hutch pleaded as they reached it. "Are you trying to tell me you would have felt any different if I'd wanted to do it with him?"

Starsky felt a cold fear latch onto his throat. He swallowed thickly and his voice was high-pitched in disbelief. "There's no way you coulda wanted to do it with him."

"Right. But I'm talking philosophically," Hutch said quickly. "Just pretend for a minute that I go through a midlife crisis and decide I'm going to join the sexual revolution and try anything and everything. And I make it with guys. Voluntarily. How would you feel about that?" He plopped down onto a cement bench.

Starsky turned his back and placed his hands on the railing. He realized, then, the point Hutch was trying to make. He was puzzled as to why it was so important, but there was no way he wouldn't give Hutch what he wanted.

He swung around. "All right, all right. You want to hear me say it?" he challenged. "Okay. Even voluntarily, I wouldn't want to think about you doing it with other guys." He drew a ragged breath. "There. I admit it. I'm not proud of it, but how else do ya expect me to feel when--you're right--I don't like the thought of guys doin' it with each other. I don't want to think about my partner doin' those things, either."

Hutch was looking up at him with eyes that grew wider as Starsky spoke. Then the blond snorted harshly and was on his feet. "That is bull...shit!"

Starsky blinked and stepped back, confused that he seemed to be misreading Hutch so badly.

"You still can't face the truth," the blond accused. "Don't stand there and tell me the reason you don't like the thought of me doing it is because you don't approve of the act itself. Not when, just a few days ago, you were standing against me with your boner pressed against my ass, and telling me we shouldn't be 'ashamed'. And then rubbing your hand against me like you were wanting to start something."

Starsky realized his mouth was open. He could see, now, how mixed up it all seemed on the surface. Hutch was still misunderstanding his intent from that night.

Hutch slumped back on the bench again. His voice was now quiet and pleading. "Don't you see, buddy? I can't talk to you about any of this, because you won't even admit that it's an issue. You want to make everything black or white. But I feel like we're straddling a fine line. But since you want to pretend that you're safely to one side of the line, I've got to figure out what's going on all by myself."

"Hutch," Starsky moved to him, unable to bear that he had somehow made Hutch feel so isolated. He sat beside his partner, intentionally close enough so that their arms were pressed together. "Hutch, you sound like you think I want us to make it together." His voice softened. "Geez, it's nothin' like that. Like I told ya the other night, I don't want anything from you. Things just got a little mixed up that night, and I guess I can see how you'd--"

"Why did they get mixed up?" Hutch pressed, looking at him. "If you're so damn sure of how you feel, then how did your feelings get mixed up in the first place?"

Starsky's mouth fell open because he realized it was a good question and he didn't have an answer.

"Buddy, don't get me wrong," Hutch implored, more gently, "I--I'm not blaming you for anything. I'm just...trying to figure out what's been going on inside me since that day at Milford's. And you aren't helping when you aren't being honest about your side of it."

Starsky sighed. He did, indeed, want very badly to help. Hutch didn't deserve to have his life shaken up by a two-bit, murdering, perverted creep like Milford. He just didn't know what more he could say that wouldn't continue to frustrate Hutch. But he did want badly to understand. "Well, why don't you just tell me some of the stuff that's goin' through your mind, and I'll just listen."

Hutch laughed softly and looked away a moment, as though he really didn't think that would help, but he was amused by the effort. Amused enough to indulge it, apparently, for he looked thoughtfully at the ground. After a long moment, he said, "I--I was scared. I don't just mean about if Milford was going to keep his word or not and let me live. But also about what I thought we were going" He swallowed thickly. "I kept telling myself I could handle it. I should be able to handle it. I mean, guys get raped every day; much more than most people realize. But..." his brows pulled together as his voice became more unsteady, "I was afraid of how much it might hurt. How degraded I'd feel. I knew I'd live through it--and I kept trying to focus on the fact that it's what allowed you to live--but I was still...." His head bowed and it was a long moment before he spoke. "And, yet...I was even more afraid when I realized what he wanted from me. Even before it was obvious I couldn't perform, I was afraid that...."

Starsky pressed his body closer to his partner's, anxious for the rest. "That what?" he whispered.

"That...that he would like it," Hutch replied in a choked breath. He closed his eyes. "I didn't want to do anything to that bastard that he was going to enjoy. At least, if it were rape, I knew I didn't have a choice, and it would be something he took and not something I gave."

"But you didn't give him anything," Starsky said quickly, more puzzled than ever at Hutch's dilemma; yet not doubting for a moment that what Hutch had gone through was capable of wreaking a great deal of havoc with one's mental and emotional state of mind. "And, besides which, it wasn't your fault that you didn't. I mean, technically, it was still rape because you were being forced into a sexual act, but you couldn't respond, through no fault of your own. So," he added gently, "when you look at it that way, it still wasn't your choice. And you didn't give him anything."

Hutch lowered his head in his hands. When he looked up again, he firmly, said, "But I wish I'd had a choice. I wanted to respond...even more than I hated the thought of giving him what he wanted. Between the two, that would have been a lesser evil--because I'd made the decision of my own free will. I sure as hell didn't want to be..." his jaw firmed, "taken out and shot."

"Damned if you do and damned if you don't," Starsky muttered. He supposed that, ultimately, that's what it all came down to. That was what Hutch had been wrestling with. Trying to forgive himself for what he hadn't been able to do; and trying to forgive himself for what he would have done if he had been able to.

Starsky had to restrain himself from putting his arms around Hutch. They were in a public place, and he was afraid of sparking another round of misunderstandings. But he also hated knowing what was going through Hutch's mind...running for his life while severely handicapped, absolutely scared out of his wits. They both had had close calls before, but never before had either of them been so completely helpless while in enemy hands. Starsky's closest parallel experience had been when Simon's goons had had him scheduled for sacrifice at sun-up. But he'd known Hutch was looking for him, and had also worked tirelessly at talking the girl into helping him escape. It had been terrifying, particularly in those final moments, but the fact that he'd been able to face his would-be killers had been part of what had given him the strength to keep working on the girl. Hutch had been deprived of any such dignity. Milford's goons had blindfolded him so they wouldn't have to look into his eyes when they murdered him. It was, in Starsky's opinion, the ultimate in cowardice.

He did place his hand in the middle of Hutch's back. "Hey, pal," he whispered gently, "bottom line is, we're both still here, and not too worse for the wear. You gotta focus on that."

Hutch straightened a little and let out a deep breath. "I am focusing on it," he said, then admitted, "I just hate feeling this way. I know I can't change any of it. I just...want to learn to accept it."

Starsky squeezed his shoulder. "Time's all that's needed."

"Yeah." Hutch managed a smile, then he stood.

They returned to the Torino.

* * *

Hutch sipped from his beer and watched the tennis ball bounce lightly a few times before diving off the edge of the table. After a long moment of considering, he decided not to retrieve it. Instead, he took his beer to the sofa and sat heavily upon it. He tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling.

It had helped...talking with Starsky earlier today. Helped to put what he was feeling into exact words. Helped to know that somebody else now knew the dilemma he was wrestling with, even though it shouldn't matter because, as Starsky had pointed out, the fact that they were both alive and none too worse for the wear was what was most important.

Except feelings about Milford and what had happened/might have happened in his bedroom were only part of the problem. Hutch shook his head in exasperation, still gazing at the ceiling. He'd babbled harshly to Starsky about his frustrations with his partner's refusal to examine his own feelings, and had gotten nowhere. As the conversation went on, the subject was forgotten. He wondered if that was clever manipulation on Starsky's part and, if so, if the other were even conscious of it.

What do I want from you? Hutch asked himself now. It was only fair, if he was going to rag on his partner about not being honest, that he be honest with himself.

I want to know what you want from me, he decided. The look on Starsky's face at Milford's was burned into his memory. Less intense, but no less important, was Starsky's obsessive behavior concerning Milford's interest in his partner.

So protective, Hutch marveled now. But protecting me from what? You never quite answered that question--did you, buddy?--when I pointed out that you were treating me like I was your territory.

So what? he asked himself. Why am I making such a big deal out of it now? Why can't I let your reactions go? You certainly seem to want to.

Because we should be able to talk about this, he insisted to himself. After all those months ago when we realized we had gotten so distant and we both made a conscious decision to put more effort into us...why shy away from it now? Why, buddy, do you have to be so uptight about the subject of sex if it isn't your basic male-female relationship? Why are you so threatened by it?

But why were you so unthreatened by it that you were encouraging us both to be aroused that night?

Hutch sighed, straightening to take another sip of beer. Why is it so hard to be open about how we feel? It doesn't mean anything has to happen, you know.

Is that what you're afraid of, buddy? That I might want something from you, when you don't want anything from me? But if you don't want anything from me, then what was going on the other night?

Hutch snorted into his beer. Out loud he grumbled, "Circles."

* * *

"Wanna get a beer?"

Hutch glanced over at him. "I don't have any at my place."

"No, dummy, I meant stop somewhere." Starsky pulled over to the curb. "Like here, for instance." It was an unfamiliar bar. But The Pits was out of the question because the air conditioning there had broken overnight and it was a sweltering day.

They went up to the bar and ordered their beers. Then they both focused their attention on the pool game in progress.


Starsky turned at the voice and then realized it had been directed at Hutch. A petite woman with dark red hair and bright lipstick was looking up at his blond partner. "I haven't seen you around here before."

Hutch stuttered, "Uh, not really our neighborhood. The air conditioning's broke at our usual hangout."

She slipped into the stool next to him that someone just vacated. "My name is Cathy." She held out her hand.

"Uh, Cathy," Hutch said, belatedly bringing up his hand to shake hers, "I'm Ken." He touched Starsky's shoulder. "This is Dave."

Starsky grinned at her, thinking it had been awhile since he'd been laid. In fact, not since before the Milford assignment. "Hi, Cathy."

She nodded politely but her eyes went right back to Hutch. "So, what do you do?"

"Uh," Hutch's eyes were on the pool table, "we're detectives with the LAPD."

"Oh, like policemen?"

"Right. Plainclothes."

She was silent for a moment, then asked, "You married?"

"Uh, no." Hutch's eyes were riveted to the pool table.

Starsky looked over at Cathy and met her eye. He shrugged to indicate his puzzlement at Hutch's disinterest. Then he smiled, wondering if she might find himself more to her liking.

She glanced up at Hutch once more, who was still focused on the pool table, then took her drink and left the bar.

Starsky frowned at his partner. "Boy, aren't you the charmer." He finished his beer and placed it on the counter. "I'm ready to split."

Hutch finished his own beer and they moved toward the door.

"Man," Starsky said when they were back in the sunshine, "if a pretty lady like her had come on to me like that, I'd have wasted no time in picking her up."

"Then why didn't you?" Hutch countered.

"I guess you didn't notice, but she had eyes only for you. And I know it's been at least as long for you as it has been for me." He started around to the driver's side of the Torino.

Angrily, Hutch said, "So, now you're in charge of my sex life with women, too?"

A bolt went through Starsky. He felt a flash of anger in return--anger that things seemed so wrong between them--but a moment later it was replaced with compassion. And determination.

"Sorry," he said, after Hutch had closed the door.

Hutch was looking out the window and didn't respond.

Starsky started the motor. "We're goin' to my place. And we're going to talk. And we aren't going to stop until this whole thing is worked out."

The blond head turned to him with a tight jaw. "This ought to be interesting. If you really mean it."

Starsky skidded the Torino away from the curb. He felt the thump-thump-thump of his heart, but his voice was no less firm. "I mean it."

* * *

Hutch had his jacket flung off first. "Okay, start," he demanded as he unbuckled his shoulder harness. "In fact, why don't you begin with why I should have to explain to you why I didn't want to sleep with a stranger trying to pick me up in a bar."

Starsky leaned back against the sofa. "You don't," he said meekly. "I said I was sorry."

"Oh," Hutch shrugged with exaggeration. He went to the refrigerator and poured a glass of milk. "Then I suppose that's all you have to say and that's the end of the conversation."

That hurt. Starsky swallowed and said, "That milk might be old. Look at the date on the carton."

Hutch carefully sipped from the glass. "It tastes all right." He came out of the kitchen and looked at Starsky pointedly. "So?" he prompted.

It seemed like Hutch had put him on this very spot so many times in recent days. Starsky demanded, "What is it you want, huh? What is it you keep waiting for me to say?"

"I want the truth," Hutch replied.

"Since you don't believe anything I tell you, then what do you think the truth is?"

"I don't know," Hutch said, pacing along the living room. "If I knew that, I'd be telling you instead of waiting for you to tell me."

Starsky decided to continue, though he wasn't sure why he should have to. He thought he'd explained himself earlier. "Look, if this is all about the other night...I--" he stopped abruptly. Then started again, more softly. "All I wanted, babe, was to be close to you. And, yeah, I know, I got aroused. But so what? What would any guy expect to happen when he brushes close enough to a warm body? But...I meant what I said. I didn't want to be ashamed of it. Because I'd rather be holding you that close and not ashamed, than not being quite so close and keeping some sort of 'proper' distance."

The blond's voice was also softer...though also more anxious. "We've been plenty close before without that happening," he pointed out.

"Well, all right," Starsky relented, sinking to the carpet and leaning against the couch, "then...blame it on the mood. The atmosphere. Hell, blame it on the alignment of the stars. But, bottom line," his voice grew more intense, "it-it didn't mean anything more than it was. It was That's all. It didn't mean anything needed to happen. Or that I wanted anything to happen." He hesitated, then thought he might need to add, "Which I didn't." Hutch looked as though he was going to speak, but Starsky wanted to finish and be done with the subject. "And as for...your reaction...Hutch, I admit, maybe it wasn't the most sensitive thing for me to do, but if you wanna know the truth, I just downright liked knowing that you were all right. Is that so wrong? I mean..." he drew a deep breath, then raised his voice as the memory came to him full force, "I got outta there without a scratch. What do you think that was like for me, seeing the condition my partner was in--the man I'm responsible for keeping alive--while I got away scot free?" His voice softened again. "I wanted to make it up to you, Hutch. For everything. For everything that had happened to you, I wanted to make it better. And the other night..." he drew a deep, deep breath, then released it, " was just...proof...that you were all better. That I'd taken good care of you. That's all."

Hutch had stopped pacing and was leaning against the back of the sofa, his gaze on the floor. "What about the rest of it?" he demanded softly. "What about everything that happened at Milford's? How protective you were of me when you knew Milford wanted me? How..." he pushed away from the couch, "betrayed you felt when I told him I'd give him what he wanted."

Betrayed. No, it wasn't the right word. Or, maybe it was. Perhaps in the sense that Hutch was forcing them to be separated, so he would have to face the worst possible humiliation alone. A betrayal of their partnership in that they were supposed to face everything together...even though there had been no choice.

"Hutch," he said, meeting his partner's eye, "what I felt at Milford's had nothing to do I just didn't want him to...use you. Before or after our covers were blown. Maybe I feel over-protective about that sort of thing because you act so open-minded about it. Maybe too open-minded. But it had nothing to do with...." Starsky trailed off, a new thought coming to mind. His heart quickened as he debated about whether or not to voice it. He had been determined to talk this thing through, so now he was going to face the consequences. "Hutch?" he murmured, not wanting to ask but knowing he had to. "Is it that you wish I would have felt...betrayed or whatever? That way?"

The taller man sat down heavily on the arm of the sofa, his head bowed. "Buddy, it's not a matter of wishing. It's just...I thought you were thinking along those lines, even if you wouldn't admit it to yourself. Between how you were behaving before our covers were blown, how you reacted when I said I'd sleep with him, and the other just seemed like two and two was adding up to four."

Starsky swallowed. "Yeah?" he prompted, afraid once again of the answer. "How did you feel about thinkin' I felt that way?"

His partner's face softened and Starsky knew then that everything was going to be all right. "That's what I've been tryin' so hard to figure out. It's not something I'd--I'd ever considered before. And then, all of a sudden, it seems like my partner--the man who practically barfs outside a porno house after seeing a scene with two guys together--has ideas about me. About us. So I have to say to myself, 'If he wants to do it, then what do I want? Am I willing to? What does it all mean in the long run? Or, is it just some kind of phase that's going to burn itself out?'"

Starsky felt much calmer now. "Hutch?" He waited until the other's bright eyes met his own. "You don't have to worry about that stuff anymore. Because that's not what was goin' on. Let it rest, babe."

Hutch pushed off the sofa arm, and moved to sit down next to Starsky on the carpet. Starsky loved the other's closeness, the fact that their arms were brushing together.

"Okay," Hutch said. But his head was tilted toward the other direction and he was silent for a long time.

"What?" Starsky wondered.

Now a bashful snort. "I," Hutch glanced at Starsky briefly, " be honest, buddy, I guess I'm a little disappointed."

Starsky straightened, surprised at the admittance, but determined to face it head on. "You mean, like, maybe...try something together?" He didn't know what other words to use.

Hutch was contemplative another moment. "Yeah," he admitted, still bashful. "I guess I'd sort of talked myself into the idea. Gotten used to it while I was trying to figure everything out." Now it was he who swallowed. "If you would have wanted to, I would have said yes."

Starsky took a moment to absorb that. Then he, too, felt shy. "Ah, Hutch, you're too good to me. Even when you have crazy ideas that I don't want any part of."

The blond shifted a little so that his cheek rested against the sofa. "Yeah."

Starsky also rested his cheek against the cushion, facing his partner. "Do you believe me now about what was goin' on inside me concerning this whole thing?"

A hand reached out, brushed along Starsky's hair. "Yeah." Then, "I know it's not easy for you to talk about those things, buddy. But I was going crazy, wondering what you were really thinking. Feeling."

"S'okay. You went through something that no one should ever have to go through. Potential rape and almost getting executed...for nothing. Your brain can get full of cobwebs after stuff like that."

"Maybe everything's okay now, huh?" the other suggested hopefully.

Starsky grinned to show his agreement. But then he felt serious again. "I love you, Hutch. Like crazy."

An arm snaked out and Starsky felt it come around his body, pulling him close against his partner.

"Yeah," the other said softly. "I love you, too, you big goof."

Starsky moved his head so he could look up at the other. "Don't want things to ever get to where we're afraid of bein' close to each other."

Hutch ran a finger down his nose. "I don't, either."

Starsky pressed his face closer against Hutch, absorbing the familiar musky fragrance. "Don't wanna ever have to be without you."

"You won't." Hutch held him closer. "Not as long as staying alive is always our first priority."

Starsky felt his stomach growl. "We need to eat."

Hutch took his hands away. "Don't confuse 'need' with 'want'."

Starsky pushed at the other man's chest. "Now I know everything's normal, since you're back to bein' a smartass."

Hutch fell sideways from the pressure, then seemed to decide to go ahead and fall all the way back until he was lying on the floor. Starsky scrambled to the other man's side, placing his arm against his collarbone in a playful gesture of restraint. "We gonna order pizza?"

Hutch sighed. "I've gotta leave. It's my mother's birthday and I need to call her."

"Oh." Starsky eased his hold. "Can't you do that from here?"

"It might take awhile. I haven't talked to her since my birthday."

"Oh." That had been four months ago. Hutch so rarely brought up any mention of his parents.

You've got to say, "This is me. And I like it." Marianne's recollection of Hutch's words came back to Starsky.

The blond was on his feet and picking up his jacket and holster. "Don't forget to pick me up from Merle's tomorrow because my car has to get tuned."

Starsky nodded but didn't say anything, his mind fiercely trying to remember other things Marianne had said. More puzzle pieces that made up the brilliant complexity of his partner.

"Enjoy your pizza." With that, Hutch was gone.


Hutch gazed into the shop window, intrigued by the finely-detailed Mexican guitar and the big tuba next to it. Just a few yards down the sidewalk, he could hear the distant sound of his partner's voice on the payphone. They had a new lead on the gas station murder, and Starsky was talking to Dobey about possible ways to proceed, since the lead concerned an affluent family with political ties.

Hutch took a few steps to his right and noted the Scottish bagpipes, a unique contrast to the tuba and guitar. Another step, and his gaze fell on the poster taped to the window.

"Marianne Owens" it read. "Appearing Sept. 15th - 28th at the Players Club." There was a crude black-and-white photo of that face Hutch remembered so well, and two band members in the background.

Hutch turned away abruptly when he heard the phone being hung up. He watched his partner approach. "Well?"

Starsky squinted into the sun. "He wants to try to contact the family and see if he can get the kid to come down on his own."

Hutch sighed. "No doubt with a group of lawyers in tow."

"That's what I figure. But what can we do? At least we can see if he has an alibi for that night."

"Yeah," Hutch agreed distantly as they both got into the car.

* * *

Hutch sat at the back of the bar and sipped his drink. His eyes closed as the rich voice he remembered so well trailed off sadly at the conclusion of the song. Such talent, and so much depth of feeling to draw from. It seemed a crime that more people hadn't heard her sing; if they had, she would have national recognition.

She bowed gracefully, said a soft "Thank you" with that knowing smile, and then she left the stage to the continuous applause. Her band went into a more cheerful melody and some couples went out to the small dance area to take advantage of it.

Hutch tried to take his time and finish off his drink, but the tightness in his stomach made it difficult.

It was no more than five minutes before he could wait no longer and left the table. He slipped behind an obscure black curtain and found himself in a short hallway. A waiter nodded politely and walked past. There was a row of unmarked doors, and he couldn't tell which one she might be behind. He settled on the nearest one and knocked.

"Who is it?" her voice inquired from within.

His stomach tightened. "It's Ken. Ken Hutchinson."

There was a painfully long silence. Then a hesitant, "Come in."

Slowly, he turned the handle. When the door was open far enough, he saw her braced expression as she looked up from her dressing table, holding a newly-lit cigarette.

"Hi," he said, opening the door farther and feeling timid.

"So, we meet again," she said.

He felt a strong urge to explain himself. "I--I was just never able to thank you for putting me up a few weeks back."

"Your partner seemed to want it that way."

Hutch furrowed his brow, wondering for a moment if the statement was a complaint. Then he realized she didn't mean it that way; she was just displaying her usual brutal honesty. The honesty that was part of so much of what he admired in her.

She nodded toward a chair filled with music books. "Please, move those things and sit down."

He shook his head, though the offer was tempting. "I don't want to keep you. I just...wanted to say thank you. For helping me when I needed it." Before she could say something else about Starsky, he added, "For helping him."

He saw that she understood the distinction. "I was glad to help. I loved the solitude of that house, but I didn't mind having the monotony broken for a few hours." There was a touch of humor in her reply.

There was something new about her, a peace to her nature that hadn't been there before. He wanted so much to know what was behind it, to know all of her, to know how she came to be the person she was.

"Hey, uh," he leaned more heavily on the door handle, "could you dinner sometime? No strings."

The twinkle in her eye did not fade, but her voice was firm. "Don't."

Hutch blinked, tempted to play the innocent and ask what she meant. But before he could speak, she said, "Don't pretend we had something when we didn't."

He looked away, wanting to deny the accuracy of her assessment.

Her voice was more pleasant when she spoke again. "Besides, I'm seeing someone right now."

He looked up then, feeling a stab of jealousy but also glad that she had something joyful in her life besides music. "I guess, once again, there's no room for me. Even as the most platonic of friends." He tried to sound pleasant about it.

She puffed on her cigarette. "My 'friends' have to earn the title."

That hurt, though he knew that had not been her intent. After giving himself a moment to recover his dignity, he said, "I'd like a chance to earn it, but I have a feeling you aren't going to let that be possible." He felt like he should present a stronger case. "We both know I have a lot to redeem myself for."

"I don't hate you, Ken." She exhaled a slow stream of smoke. "I did. For a long time. But time does heal almost all wounds. Perhaps, someday, I'll even be able to forgive you." Her expression softened. "I'm glad you're all right." Now an affectionate smile that was almost maternal. "And I'm glad to that you have someone who loves you so." She bent to the mirror, studying her complexion closely while reaching for a jar of cream. "Who knows?" she asked of him via the mirror. "Maybe, someday, my new man and I will have that kind of caring for each other." She spent a long moment rubbing cream into her face, then looked at him again. "I'd like to think so."

Hutch stood silent, part of him annoyed that she wanted to talk about Starsky, another part amazed that his partner had left such a powerful impression.

Lamely, trying to end the conversation that had become uncomfortable, he said, "I'm sure you and whoever the lucky man is will be very happy together."

"We have a good start," she noted, putting the lid on the jar of cream, and adding pointedly, "He has nothing to prove." She picked up a lipstick.

Hutch lowered his eyes, though he didn't understand the dig. Then he reached for safer territory. "Good luck with your album. I hope you won't mind if I ask you for an autographed copy someday."

She stabbed out her cigarette. "Not at all." She nodded toward the direction of the band. "I have to go back on."

Hutch turned away. And didn't look back.

* * *

Someone had once said that when one is most afraid is when one feels the most alive. He was definitely afraid now. And felt very alive. But only because he was so conscious of the fact that in a matter of moments he would be dead.

He couldn't see nor speak nor move his hands. He could only hear. And feel.

Hands pushed roughly on his shoulders. The weight forced him to his knees.

Cold metal pressed against the back of his head. He wanted to cry for the grief he'd leave in his wake. He sought comfort from the fact that he wouldn't be around to observe the suffering when his body was found.

For himself, all problems were solved....


Hutch woke with a start. He lay frozen for a moment, feeling the frantic beating of his heart, and a sadness that seemed to encompass his whole being.

He wiped at the moisture from his eyes and looked over at the clock. It wasn't even eleven thirty yet. He'd fallen asleep quickly and the dream must have come immediately. Starsky might still be awake....

He reached for the phone, holding the receiver within his palm while pushing the sequence of buttons.

It only rang once. "Yeah?"


His partner's voice was very mellow. And accusing. "You have lousy timing."

Hutch's mouth fell open. It hadn't occurred to him that Starsky might have company. His partner hadn't mentioned anything during the day about a date. "Sorry. Never mind."

Now congenial. "What's up?"

"Nothing. Nothing that can't wait."


"Yeah." Hutch smiled, as he liked knowing that his partner was in the arms of pleasure. "Enjoy yourself."

"Orders received and obeyed. Sergeant Starsky out."

Hutch chuckled out loud while hanging up the receiver. It felt good to laugh. And, he thought while lying back against the pillow, Starsky having a date showed that everything was back to normal.

Almost everything.

Don't worry, Champ, he thought as he fondled himself beneath the covers. You'll get your turn soon.

Seeing Marianne again had been a step in that direction. He had truly only wanted to thank her, but he had been foolishly--he admitted now--hopeful that she might be interested in more. Instead, he'd found that, while her hatred had eased, her resentment had not. And she had somebody else in her life now. Somebody who doesn't have anything to prove.

What the hell did that mean? he demanded of the darkness. And shied away from the suspicion that he should already know.

Prove that I truly loved her? he wondered. Or prove that I'm worthy of her love?

He hated the part of himself that asked that question.

He'd felt foolish enough for seeing her, for hoping that she might still want him in some way, shape, or form. But he knew a manipulative, fast-aging cop had no place in her life, a life which had had more than its share of downs, but was now going places.

"Me?" he'd snapped at Starsky during the Fitch case, "There's no room for me."

Hutch looked over at the phone. Even Starsky didn't have room for him. At least, not at the moment.

He loves you so. It was the second time Marianne had said that.

Hutch felt a tiny grin stretch the corners of his mouth. A week or so ago, he and Starsky had been talking so seriously, their cheeks pressed against the edge of the sofa. Starsky had said, "I love you. Like crazy."

Starsky had been saying things like that more often lately. Used to be, he didn't like to put his strongest feelings into such straightforward words. He said what he needed to say with action instead, or backward-assed comments like, "I just don't want to have to break in a new partner." It was his way, and Hutch accepted it for what it was. Outright confessions of love had never been very Starsky-ish.

So, what's changed now, partner? Hutch wanted to know.

He couldn't come up with an answer, and when his thoughts started to drift he felt the poignant horror of tonight's dream coming back to him.

Hutch swallowed and rolled onto his side. He stretched his hand out to the empty space in front of him, wishing Starsky were there so he could squeeze his hand...or his arm...or any part of him that he could hold onto.

He and Starsky and hundreds of other cops had attended a seminar a number of months ago on something called PTSD. It was a fairly new term within the psychological community and stood for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It applied to those who had experienced something beyond what human beings normally dealt with. Such as being shot, being in a plane crash, finding a dead body, or simply witnessing similar incidents. Next to war veterans, cops were one of the most likely groups of people to experience events that would trigger PTSD, even though one might expect them to be "used to it" in terms of observing, and being involved in, the uglier realities of life.

Hutch now wondered if he were suffering from some form of PTSD. There was no doubt that he and Starsky had experienced variations of it over the years. But their experiences of the disorder were usually mild, because they gave each other such constant support...which was really the only cure, other than therapy, for those suffering to an extreme degree. Hutch knew that he was now in better emotional shape than he'd been the first couple of days after Milford. He'd longed for Starsky's presence almost constantly then, feeling a need to be reassured even though, intellectually, he knew he was fine. Needing to talk about what he'd been feeling as the events unfolded...both the assumed sexual assault, and being the potential victim of an execution-style murder. Starsky had been there for him. And had put up patiently with his irritability and badgering when Hutch had tried to force a confrontation about their phantom sexual feelings.

The constant need for his partner's nearness was no longer present. But Hutch still felt it strongly at times. Such as now, when he didn't like the feelings the dream had left him with. The dream which might be another symptom of PTSD, though he'd had variations of it only a few times since Milford's. Although, perhaps, tonight's dream had been his own fault for seeking out Marianne, as she was an indirect tie to what had happened that fateful day.

His outstretched fingers closed around the space on the mattress. Need you, buddy. Hutch looked at the telephone again. Starsky might be done by now. Maybe he'd even rolled over and gone to sleep, that wonderful wobbliness in his legs and sated feeling in his groin.

Hutch lay back again and closed his eyes. Let him be. It'll keep until morning.

* * *

Hutch really didn't want to bring it up, because everything was better in the light of day. But he couldn't contain his curiosity. "Who was she?"

Starsky pulled away from the curb in front of Venice Place. He grinned. "Shelly Newton."

Hutch couldn't put a face to the name. "Don't remember you mentioning a date."

Starsky shook his head. "It wasn't a date. I was feelin' a little lonely and got out the little black book. Struck paydirt on the second phone number." His grin had widened.

"Oh," Hutch said, stretching. Usually, it took a lot of energy and effort to get a companion for the night. But every once and a while it was easy.

"You can borrow it, if you want."


"My black book. Some of 'em will go for you as much as me. They aren't necessarily particular."

"Or they wouldn't be in your little black book in the first place, right?"

Starsky gave him a baleful look. When his attention returned to the traffic, he said, "What was the reason you called last night?"

Hutch shrugged, wanting to let it go because it really didn't matter now. "No special reason," he said with forced casualness.



They were stopped at a light. When the Torino was moving again, Starsky looked over at him and said, "So, what was the not-special reason?"

Hutch faced him squarely to enforce his point. "It doesn't matter now."

Starsky shrugged. "Okay."

Hutch relaxed as they drove a few more blocks. Then compulsion hit. "I saw Marianne last night."

That produced a frown and a tone of surprise. "Why?"

"I saw that she was performing at the Player's Club and thought I'd thank her, since I never got a chance to."

After a long moment, Starsky looked over at him again. "And?"

Another shrug. "That's all."

His partner seemed puzzled by that. Hutch decided to enjoy himself, while also appeasing his curiosity. "What did you say to her?"

Another puzzled look. "Huh?"

"You made quite an impression."

"I made an impression?" Starsky was switching his gaze between the windshield and his partner. "I doubt it was anything like the impression you made."

Hutch swallowed, knowing he'd deserved that. "Yeah," he whispered blandly, staring out the side window.

Starsky's tone was warmer. "No, I mean about the things you said to her."

The hurt was pushed aside. "What things?"

"I dunno exactly," Starsky said. But then contradicted himself. "Things like...owning your own life. Liking yourself. Stuff like that. It's like she remembered everything word for word."

Hutch was amazed. She'd seemed so angry with him that night. Though he'd also wanted to believe, despite the sarcasm in her words, that she had some feelings for him.

After a moment, he realized Starsky was still looking at him expectantly. He wondered again about the conversations he and she had had.

When Starsky was focused on driving again, he gently asked, "Is she the reason you called me last night?"

"No," Hutch said. But then he remembered why he had called, and he found himself puzzled again by the unease that appeared at times in the weeks since Milford. With a gentleness that matched his partner's, he said, "It's nothing. Let it go."

"Wanna go bowlin' tonight?"

Hutch felt relieved at the change of subject. But bowling always reminded him of Gillian, because that had been him and Starsky's favorite diversion after she had died. All those nights when Starsky and his companion of the moment had insisted on babysitting him through his grief.

Hutch looked out his side window, feeling an inner smile.

"How 'bout a movie, then? The sequel to Star Wars is still playing. You haven't seen it yet. You'll be sorry if you don't see it, Hutch."

The smile was external this time.

Hutch hadn't replied by the time Starsky turned into the parking lot at Parker Center. But he knew that his partner knew that his answer was "yes".

* * *

"Is that the wave of the future?" Hutch asked with disgust as they moved from the darkness of the theater to the darkness of the parking lot. "You pay four bucks to see a movie that leaves you hanging until the next sequel two or three years from now?"

"Whaddya mean?" Starsky asked. "It was a great movie. And it increases the anticipation for the next one. You extended foreplay." As they reached the Torino he looked over the hood at his partner. "You did like it, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Hutch shrugged. "It was great."

Starsky frowned, not liking the bland tone. He nodded toward the park across the street. "Let's wait for the traffic to clear out."

The blond's cheeks billowed with a heavy sigh. But then he stuffed his hands into his black jacket and turned toward the street.

Starsky danced beside him as they crossed the street, refusing to let his partner's mood dampen his enthusiasm. "Pretty heavy stuff, don't you think?" he asked. "Luke Skywalker finding out that his real dad was Darth Vader?"

"Yeah," Hutch replied, a touch of sarcasm this time. "Classic. It'll probably rank right up there with Casablanca as one of the greats of all time."

They passed a bench and Hutch stopped and put his foot up, bending to retie his shoelaces.

Starsky squatted to the ground. The grass beside the pavement was wet where it had recently been watered. He pulled up a large handful, determined to get a rally out of his partner.

Just as Hutch was about to straighten, Starsky rammed the handful of wet grass inside Hutch's jacket, down the back of his shirt. Then he turned and ran across the lawn.

"STARSKY!" he heard behind him.

He slowed down, trying not to be obvious, as he heard Hutch coming nearer. And then a heavy weight was upon him, and he collapsed to the wet ground with a grunt.

"You moron!" Hutch accused as Starsky managed to roll onto his back.

Starsky's wrists were pinned as Hutch straddled him. He looked up at the face above him. A nearby street lamp that lit the park's walkway showed the grin and the sparkle behind those eyes.

Starsky giggled. "At least you're smilin'."

"Yeah? If I rub your face in the dirt, I'll smile even more, you prick."

Starsky was about to say "prove it", but Hutch had already grabbed his face. He fought as Hutch tried to turn his head to the dirt, which only had a sparse layer of grass. Then Starsky gave in, laughing loudly, as his cheek was smeared against the wet ground.

Some of the dirt got in his mouth, and it was only when Starsky tried to spit it out that Hutch released his face. He was still spitting when Hutch smugly said, "There. That look suits your crass nature much better."

Starsky rubbed at his mouth with the back of his hand. Through the corner of his eye, he saw that Hutch had an arm behind his back, obviously trying to divest himself of the grass. He ended up pulling his shirttail out of his jeans.

His mouth was as clean as it was going to get without being rinsed, and Starsky ran his hand against his cheek. He realized all he was doing was smearing the dirt across more of his face, so he gave up and dropped his hands to the ground.

Hutch flung some grass away. Then he, too, rested his hands at his sides.

For a long moment they both looked at each other and neither spoke, Starsky wishing the fun didn't have to end anytime soon. He grinned, then thrust upward with his hips, for Hutch was starting to feel heavy.

The blond moved off him, but Starsky, not wanting to stand up yet, grabbed the sleeve of his partner's jacket. "Hey." When his partner looked at him, Starsky yanked on the sleeve hard enough that Hutch's upper body fell against his.

Starsky put his arms around him. The ground was feeling cold against his backside, making him all the more conscious of the warmth within his arms. He reached up and placed one hand against the back of Hutch's head, trying to signal that he didn't want his buddy to move away anytime soon.

His chest swelled when Hutch relaxed against him.

Starsky waited at least a minute. Then he said, "What's been goin' on with you, huh?"

Hutch shifted onto his elbows. He gazed down at Starsky, his eyes still such a clear blue, as though the mischief had not yet faded. He swallowed as though to speak, but only looked at his partner blankly.

"You've been moody lately," Starsky elaborated without accusation. "Kinda distracted."

The blankness in the other's eyes changed into something that resembled sadness. And then Hutch lowered his gaze.

Starsky squeezed his shoulder.

Hutch looked back at him, then admitted, "Everything seems...disconnected."

"What do you mean?"

Hutch moved off him, shifting to sit on the ground, his knees drawn up, arms resting across them. "I don't know exactly," he said with frustration. "It's like I--I--I can't connectwith...anything. Everything"

Starsky had also hoisted himself into a sitting position. "Does this still have to do with Milford, or is this something else altogether?"

"I don't know!" Hutch almost shouted. Then, more gently, as his face lowered, "I don't know...don't know what I want anymore."

There was something about the statement that indeed sounded "off". Meekly, for he wasn't sure where it might lead, Starsky suggested, "You don't know what you want, or you're afraid of what you want?"

Hutch looked at him sharply. "What do you mean?"

It had obviously pushed a button. But Starsky shrugged. "I don't know. It doesn't necessarily mean anything."

"I hate when you get like this."

Starsky flinched. "Like what?"

"Always playing the innocent. Acting like you don't know anything about what's going on around you when you damn well do. You're the smartest person I know."

At another time, Starsky would have basked in the compliment, for Hutch had never said anything like that to him before. But now, instead of being complimented, he felt that Hutch was being unfairly presumptuous.

"We used to never be like this," Hutch went on.

"Like what?" Starsky asked, wondering if he was going to be wrongly accused once again.

"Having such a hard time just talking to each other. It seems like, the past months--maybe the past year--we have to go around in circles just to get to where we can understand each other."

Starsky swallowed thickly, not liking that analysis at all. He couldn't even deal with if it were true or not. "Hu--"

But he was interrupted. "It's almost like we're afraid," Hutch said softly, his head bowed.

Of each other? Starsky wondered in disbelief. He wasn't sure if that was what Hutch had meant. But his priority was to get his partner out of this funk. Everything would be easier after that. "Hutch, I love you." He squeezed the leather-clad arm. "I love you more than anything."

The blond head came up. As they had in the past the few times Starsky had said that, those blue eyes glowed with emotion. But there was also something else there, and after a long moment, Hutch said, "Sometimes I'm afraid I need you too much."

Starsky blinked. His first reaction was pride...pride at knowing he meant so much to someone who meant so much to him. But then the instinctive need to solve Hutch's problem kicked in. "What's wrong with needing me?" he asked. "I need you, too, you know. It's one of those whachamacallit symbolic relationships."


"There, see? I need you around to straighten me out when I have misperceptions about things."

"Miscon..." Hutch trailed off and was frowning heavily when he turned to look at him.

Starsky giggled, wondering what retaliation he would have to endure. He saw Hutch's arm, on the other side of his body, moving along the ground.

Starsky lunged first, knocking his partner onto his back. The leather-clad arm came up and Hutch made a half-hearted attempt to shove grass into Starsky's mouth.

While wrestling, Starsky maneuvered himself so that most of his weight was on his upper body, which now leaned heavily against Hutch's upper body, his hands pinning the other's arms. The other finally stilled.

Starsky spat a few times to rid himself of the grass. Cheerfully, he said, "You know what you need?"

Hutch didn't even pretend to struggle. "What?"

"You need to get laid, big-time."

The blond head looked away, and he sighed wearily.

"Seriously, Hutch. It's been--what?--at least a few months, right? Before Milford." The other's face was still turned away, and Starsky reasoned, "Come on, you know I'm right. Gettin' laid doesn't solve everything, but it can sure put your problems into perspective." He tugged on the other's jacket, trying to encourage a response. "If you won't try yourself, then let me set you up with somebody."

The other's face snapped back to look at him. "You can't be serious."

"'Course, I'm serious. Come on, Hutch, look at it from my perspective. I've got to work with you every day. It's tough on me when you're so grumpy." Sometimes blackmail was a very useful tool. "Just think how nice it'll be to be with someone all nice and soft and willing who isn't expecting any promises or commitments. Someone pretty who's just as lonely as you are and just wants to spend an evening with a handsome guy who's gonna make her feel real good."

Hutch muttered, "If it was that easy, you'd be getting laid every night."

"Look, I know a few ladies who I've tried to hit on, and they've made it clear I'm not their type but hinted they wouldn't mind gettin' to know my partner a little better. I'm gonna call some of them."

"Forgodsakes, I'm not a charity case."

"No, but I am," Starsky insisted. "I deserve some consideration for having to live with you day in and day out. Just think how nice and mellow you'll feel once you've had a roll in the sack. You'll be smilin' all the next day. Promise."

Hutch sighed heavily.

Starsky patted the blond's cheek, then started to rise. "That's my pal." He held out his hand and they helped each other to their feet.

* * *

Three nights later, Starsky tossed his little black back onto the coffee table. Strike four. Melanie had started dating someone and didn't want to see anyone else. Added to Crystal's phone being disconnected, Sue Lynne's working nights, and Tammy's social calendar being booked up for a solid two weeks...he'd run out of possibilities. So where did that leave his lonely, moody, disconnected partner?

With yet another disappointment, Starsky thought forlornly. Hutch had only vaguely indicated interest when Starsky had kept him posted on his attempt to find him a date. Still, he couldn't imagine that Hutch wasn't enjoying the anticipation that he was going to get laid soon...and without having to make any effort on his own behalf.

Geez, Hutch, all you hafta do is sit your gorgeous blond self down at a bar somewhere, or a park, and something beautiful would be flirting with you in no time. And I wouldn't have to go through all this.

Why wasn't Hutch trying anymore?

Has what happened at Milford's got you that screwed up, pal? Huh?

But why would that have any effect on Hutch's relationship with women?

Or is it seeing Marianne again that's done it? Wonder what happened when you last saw her. That's the night you tried to call me, right? What was on your mind then, buddy boy?

Maybe it was nothing more than sheer guilt. Maybe Hutch still felt guilty about Marianne and he didn't want to risk starting something with another woman and having everything get so complicated again.

But they both had felt that way before about tragic situations with women...and they'd eventually returned to shallow flings so they didn't have to get involved.

But you won't even go for the shallow, Hutch. What are you so afraid of?

"It almost seems like we're afraid," Hutch had said the other night in the park--inferring, Starsky felt, that they were afraid of each other.

Which can only lead back to Milford and all that tangled up stuff. Hutch mad at me for being so concerned about Milford's interest in him. Hutch putting too much emphasis on the look on my face when he told Milford he'd be his plaything. Hutch putting way too much emphasis on that night when we both got hard-ons. Hutch thinking, in addition to all that other stuff, that I was jealous.

Starsky sighed. I thought we had that all resolved.

But what was it Hutch had said when Starsky had told him to "let it go"? "I guess I'm a little disappointed. I guess I'd gotten used to the idea."

Starsky sighed again. He didn't want to examine that sentence more closely, but he knew he had to...for his partner's sake.

Once again, I just let it blow by, didn't I, partner? You were laying your guts on the line, and I was trying to keep it simple. I guess I thought that since you seemed to accept that you'd misread me, that you'd just forget the whole thing.

But maybe you haven't.

Starsky's heart beat a little faster. It's still eating at you, pal, isn't it? All those questions. About sex. And me and you. Is that why you don't think you're fit to see anybody? Is that why you're still feelin' disconnected? You were disappointed when I laid it out on the line, so now those brain circuits in your head are goin' crazy, trying to understand why you felt disappointed? Trying to make sense of it all?

What a mess.

Starsky laid his head back against the sofa and studied the ceiling. Okay, let's resolve this, pal. Point One: You need help, buddy. Point Two: Let's assume that your main problem is me and you and sex and how--if it's all connected in that over-active mind of yours. Point Three: Let's assume you're still curious. You let your imagination get the best of you before, when you didn't think I was bein' honest with you. And then when you found out I was bein' honest, your imagination had already crossed the line. Point Four: You've been tryin' to get your imagination to cross back to the safe side of the line, but it's not working. You're curious. You can't help it. You want to know what it would be like. Point Five: You're probably needin' to put some closure on the whole bit with Milford. The last time you were about to participate in an act of sex was when it was going to be rape. You couldn't perform. It almost cost you your life. You haven't had any sex since then, let alone any warm, loving sex. Which leads to...Point Six: You're in desperate need of some major Tender Loving Care, which would be all the better if it included a great orgasm to clear out all those cobwebs in your brain. No strings. No pressure. Just warm, fuzzy love.

Starsky could take care of the TLC part himself without any problem. He was also more than adept at handling the warm, fuzzy stuff where his partner was concerned. Hutch always responded well to warm fuzzies whenever Starsky doled them out.

That just leaves the sex part. Someone to give you a nice, uncomplicated lay.

Starsky glanced at the black book on the table and frowned at its lack of cooperation.

But that wouldn't really be solving anything, anyway, would it? It would just be a temporary Band-Aid.

Starsky got up and went to the kitchen. He pulled a beer from the refrigerator. All right, he thought while leaning back against the kitchen counter, let's approach this from another angle, pal.

Let's assume you've crossed the line in your mind. There's nothing to bring you back, nothing to stop you from thinking and wondering about it. The only thing that would bring you back is if you didn't like being there.

So let's have sex so you can see how ridiculous it would be.

Starsky placed his beer on the counter and put his hands to his hair, rubbing at his scalp. Oh, rats, pal. It might be ridiculous, but there wouldn't be anything bad about it. There couldn't be, could there? Not with how much we care about each other. At the very worst, it just might be...nothing special.

Ah, man, Hutch.

Starsky grabbed his beer and moved back to the couch. He sat heavily upon it. Man, Hutch, he thought forlornly, if we start doing something together....

It would be the warmest of the warm fuzzies. He and Hutch would be snuggled up together, and then they would...kiss....

Starsky tried to think "Ick". But couldn't. He and Hutch would melt together, their bodies all pliant. It would feel so good together that they wouldn't want to part.

But how come that's never happened before, considerin' how physical we've always been together. Huh, Hutch?

Maybe because Hutch had never needed sex to help him heal like he needed it now.

It's always been my job to take care of you, Starsky decided. If making you all better includes sex, then I guess that's my job, too.

Starsky took a sip of beer. "Didn't need you after all," he muttered to the little black book.

Instead, he started making plans of his own.

* * *

It was five minutes to eight. Hutch popped the cork on the wine bottle and had to admit that he felt nervous. This was a blind date, if there ever was one. Worse, the fact that it wasn't a "date" at all made it more puzzling.

Starsky had told him that she would be coming at eight. Starsky had also told him that he didn't have to take her out anywhere. That he didn't have to fix dinner for her. He just needed to be showered and look halfway decent, and that's all she required. Starsky kept waving him off when he'd asked for her name.

It sounded so odd that Hutch had accused Starsky of setting him up with a prostitute. Starsky had taken offense to that and denied it vehemently.

Still, though he didn't like the fact that his partner had had to go on the hunt for a companion to cure of him of his grumpiness, Hutch couldn't deny that he was looking forward to it. It all sounded so uncomplicated. Maybe she'd even stay the night and he could enjoy her in the morning, since he and Starsky had the next two days off.

He was carrying the wine and two glasses to the coffee table when the doorbell rang. He smoothed his hair back and brushed a finger along his mustache. Dressed in clean blue jeans and a plaid shirt, he went to open the door, planting on his most charming smile.

It quickly turned into a frown. "What are you doing here?" he snapped.

Starsky was dressed similar to himself. "Well...uh...."

"She canceled," Hutch said, hating the disappointment he felt.

"No, not exactly."

"What does that mean?"

"It means.... Hey, uh, can I come in?"

Hutch would have preferred to sulk in solitude, but Starsky probably felt responsible to act as a replacement and at least keep him company. He stepped back and turned away, wishing he hadn't let Starsky get involved in his romantic life. Or lack of such. He felt as though he were an imperfection on display.

He poured the wine carelessly, and some spilled beside the glasses. "So, what was the reason?" he asked when he looked up, though he really didn't care. He held out a glass. "We may as well drink it."

Starsky took it and stood looking at him.

"What?" Hutch asked with irritation, sipping his own glass.

"Are you gonna sit down?" Starsky asked hopefully.

Hutch sat down, worried now that something awful had happened to the lady who was supposed to meet him. It only served to validate his suspicions when Starsky sat down, too--so close to Hutch that their shirts were brushing.

"Is she...okay?" Hutch asked worriedly.

Starsky put his wine glass down. "Hutch, there never was a 'she'."

That made no sense. "What?"

His partner's face softened. "Hutch, I lied about a girl coming here tonight. But I wasn't lying about any of the rest of it."

"What?" Hutch was too puzzled to be angry. "What do you mean, 'the rest of it'?"

Starsky shrugged...a bit shyly, Hutch thought. "What you thought she was gonna come here to do."

Hutch took another heavy swallow of wine, wondering if Starsky had any idea of how irritating he could be at times. Then he knew the answer. "Starsky's Law" had won many a chess game. In exasperation, he said, "Will you please say something that I can understand?" He put his glass down.

A hand settled against Hutch's ribs. "You know, a week or so ago, we sorta talked things out about where we stood about...things. And you said that you were disappointed that...things stood where they did. Because you'd gotten used to the idea, you said."

Hutch's mouth fell open, his anger diminishing. It was replaced by concern...and fear. Starsky was stepping into foreign territory, where he was a complete stranger and without any defenses, thereby leaving himself completely vulnerable.

While Hutch was trying to figure out how to protect Starsky from this place so foreign to him, the latter said, "I've gotten used to the idea, too, Hutch." The fingers at the blond's ribs squeezed gently.

Hutch felt himself putting up mental walls, trying to keep an objective perspective. It just now occurred to him that one of his partner's most irritating traits was his persistence. This whole subject was supposed to be behind them.

"Starsky, that's impossible," he finally said, knowing he needed to say something. "Don't forget; you're the person who barfs outside porno studios after a homo scene."

The other appeared genuinely irritated at the reminder. "Hutch, come on, when I barfed that time it had nothing to do with what was going on in the movie. It was that stupid milkshake I bought. It had a funny aftertaste and my stomach couldn't handle it."

Oh. Hutch had never known that. He'd been too busy teasing Starsky about it.

"Hutch, I really didn't come here to talk."

"Then what did--" Hutch asked automatically, and then closed his mouth when he realized the answer. Oh, Starsk, don't bring yourself to this.

Starsky rested his head on the back of the sofa. "I mean," he said softly, "we're both wonderin' what it would be like. Let's just...see."

Hutch felt his compassion kick in. "You sure?" He wasn't sure if he himself was, but he was more concerned about his partner.

"You think I'd be here if I had any doubts?" Starsky challenged. And then his face and voice softened again. "I love you, Hutch. All the way. Right down the line."

"He loves you so." Marianne had said it twice.

Hutch swallowed, closed his eyes. He decided to let whatever was going to happen, happen. It could all be sorted out later.

He felt a shifting of the sofa cushions, sensed the other's nearness, felt the hand on his ribs move up to his shoulder, as though to steady itself there.

And then he felt warm instant before softness touched his lips. And pressed.

He expected his partner to react negatively...almost expected himself to react that way. And there, indeed, was a tiny flicker of instinct to push the other away. He told himself to relax. And then the floodgates of desire opened...just as Starsky slowly pulled back.

Starsky was looking at him, his face so soft, his eyes hooded, and then he breathed deeply. A tiny grin, and then Starsky leaned forward again.

This time his fingers squeezed into Hutch's shoulder as his lips pressed again. Hutch was feeling light-headed, heavy-hearted, blood thundering through his veins. He pressed back deliberately himself, tasted the flavor of mint.

They worked at it now. Hutch pushed against Starsky's lips, and when he'd pressed forward as far as he could, he yielded and let Starsky press him back. In the meantime, his veins felt inhabited by tiny butterflies, which traveled throughout his system, creating warm and pleasant sensations.

Starsky's hand was on his chest now, rubbing at the bare flesh left unprotected by an open button. Hutch liked the sensation of the hand against him, felt the proof in his firming groin. He wanted to return the same pleasure and, his lips still against Starsky's, placed both hands on the other's shoulders. He massaged gently a moment, felt the pliant flesh beneath the material, then rubbed more firmly.

They groaned simultaneously.

And parted as if by some mutual agreement, their hands still touching.

"Knew it would be like this," Starsky whispered. He licked his lips.

Hutch felt touched by that. He hadn't had that confidence when he'd thought about it. Though he had hoped.... He swallowed thickly, needing something clarified before things got too intense. "How far do you want to go?"

There was an equally-thick swallow from his partner, then a breathless, "Keep it simple for now."

No fucking, maybe blow jobs, Hutch interpreted. Otherwise, just beat each other off. Or maybe dry-hump.

He leaned forward, and Starsky did as well, but Hutch ducked to kiss the other's chin. Then he whispered, "Bed?"

Starsky swallowed again, then nodded.

Hutch stood first and held out his hand. It then occurred that maybe Starsky wouldn't appreciate being led to bed like a dutiful wife. But Starsky took his hand, let Hutch hoist him to his feet. Their arms went around each other's waist.

Hutch had made the bed in anticipation of his "date". He'd also made sure there were rubbers and clean towels in the top drawer. He wasn't sure how much, if any, of that was going to be needed now.

They paused beside the bed. This time when they kissed it was more tentative, a tender brushing of flesh, while they still held each other at the waist.

Hutch moved his hands around Starsky's back, drew his arms tight, hugging him. Starsky's nose ended up against his neck, and he brought his hand up and pressed his partner's head against his shoulder. He let his swelling heart speak for him. "I love you so much." He introduced a gentle swaying motion, back and forth.

"Big softie," Starsky accused, his breath hot against Hutch's neck. He kissed the corner of Hutch's mouth, not able to reach closer.

Hutch shifted first, moving both hands down past his partner's waist until they gripped the generous formation there. He squeezed and pulled forward, feeling a jolt go through his own groin. "Don't think there's much soft about me right now," he panted, and also feeling that he was giving a warning. Just in case Starsky got inhibited....

"Sure there is," Starsky replied calmly. His hands gripped Hutch by the cheeks. "Your heart is the softest thing I know." And those lips were upon Hutch once again.

Perhaps it was, for his chest felt so light that he thought his whole body might start to float away. The sentiment also served to thicken his throat, and Hutch was reluctant to say anything further. Instead, he stepped back and felt the edge of the mattress against the back of his knees. He bent them, and brought Starsky down with him as he lay back.

The other's weight was upon him now, and it inflamed them both. Starsky pressed more harshly, his groin grinding against Hutch, lips forcing the opposite ones apart, so that Hutch now felt the titillation of the exploring tongue. He worked his hands in between their bodies, found the snap to Starsky's jeans. Parted them while the other continued to gyrate and groan against his mouth.

Their bodies were so pressed together that he couldn't get his hand inside the other's clothing. He was only able to press against the underwear from the open fly. He felt a stiff, powerful lump that moved against his hand.

Starsky pulled his head back and groaned loudly.

Hutch kept working with his fingers, trying to get inside the slit of the underwear. Starsky finally arched his hips back and Hutch was successful. As soon as he gripped the smooth cylinder of flesh, Starsky cried out.

It was fascinating to watch, the expression of relief and exhilaration on the other's face. And fascinating to feel, the warm fluid that made itself known through his pant leg. The creamy droplets that were on his palm.

When Starsky's yell ended with a long, drawn-out purr, he sat up, shoulders slumped.

Hutch released him.

"It's been a long time since I've come with my clothes on," Starsky muttered.

"There's towels in the top drawer of the nightstand."

Starsky looked at him, a relaxed sparkle in his eyes. "How you doin'?"

"Simmering." In fact, he'd throbbed with envy when Starsky had cried out, but now he was resigned to waiting.

"Just keep right on simmerin', 'cause your turn is next."

He wondered what the other had in mind, and there was another surge in anticipation of the pleasure.

Starsky stood and pushed his pants down his hips. He was now unabashedly cleaning himself with a towel. He looked up a moment. "Want one, too?"

Hutch shook his head. He'd already wiped his hand against the covers.

Starsky put the towel down and pulled his pants the rest of the way off. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and discarded it. He'd been looking at Hutch the entire time. "My loss is your gain," he said with a grin.

Hutch wondered what that meant. He saw Starsky kneel and then he felt his shoes being pulled off. The socks followed. His erection strengthened when Starsky reached for the fly of his pants.

"I went too fast, so that means we're gonna spend a lot of time on you."

The promise intrigued him. Hutch raised his hips after his fly had been opened, pushing at his jeans. Starsky was pulling from the other end. When they were off, Hutch put his hand at the waistband of his briefs, then hesitated. Even after everything, he was afraid that Starsky might be turned off by the naked display of his desire.

But Starsky's hand was already there, pulling at them. "Nothin' to be shy about," he said as he rolled the briefs down Hutch's legs. "Gonna make it feel real good, Hutch."

While they were pulled away, Hutch worked on the buttons of his shirt. As he did so, he found himself wondering if someday he might turn over for Starsky. That thought brought a wave of insecurity. There would be only love at his back, but still....

He recalled when he'd been standing in Milford's bedroom. Before he'd known what Milford actually wanted. He'd wondered, then, what it would feel like to have that heavy carcass humping his back, pushing in and out of him, ejaculating into his bowels.

It wouldn't be anything like that with Starsky, of course...assuming the other ever had any intentions of doing that. For one thing, Starsky wouldn't be that heavy. He would be nothing but tender, patient, and careful. His ejaculation would simply be the physical proof of pleasure shared.

Still, the thought of it brought forth the unease that Hutch had been feeling. It always went away. But always came back.

"Hey." Soft and concerned.

Hutch had been staring at the ceiling, and now his eyes darted to Starsky, who was leaning over him. "Where you been?" Such a soft whisper.

Hutch felt an emotion-filled smile curl the corners of his mouth. He reached up. "Love you so much, buddy." As long as they had that, nothing could touch them.

Starsky eagerly crawled into his arms. Hutch held the naked flesh tight against himself. He was still wearing his shirt, but it was open. After being squeezed a long moment, Starsky shifted and applied wet kisses in a circle all over Hutch's face. Then he pulled back. "Ready to feel good?"

Hutch's erection had softened with his wandering thoughts, but now it was surging again. He reached up, traced Starsky's lips with a finger. "I already feel good."

A huge grin. "Does that mean you're not disappointed in your date?"

He certainly had been at first. But now he couldn't imagine how making love to a stranger would be more palatable than being in the arms of one who knew and understood him so well. With whom he could be completely himself.

Hutch brought Starsky back down against him. The other's face was pressed against his neck. Hutch had an arm around his partner's waist, and now he rubbed it across those generous buttocks, gripping at the same time.

Starsky giggled. "Careful. That's startin' to feel a little too good."

"Yeah?" Hutch asked in a whisper. "What's wrong with that?"

Starsky straightened. "What's wrong with it is that it's your turn, blondie." He scooted down Hutch's torso, the inner part of his thighs brushing Hutch's stout desire in passing. His expression became very soft. "I've never, you know, done anything like this before. to me, Hutch. Tell me how to make it good for you."

Hutch swallowed thickly and sought the ceiling again, understanding then exactly what Starsky was going to do, and wondering how the other had ever talked himself into it.

"Want to get all the way on the bed?" Starsky asked.

Hutch raised his head and saw that his lower legs were still hanging off the side. He shifted along the mattress, so that he was completely lying on the bed, and at a more traditional angle, with his head near the pillows. He took a moment to remove his shirt. While doing so, he felt himself leaking and was afraid that Starsky might find it distasteful.

He reached down and brushed at the moisture with a finger.

"There, now I got more room," Starsky said with satisfaction, settling himself between his partner's spread legs.

Hutch closed his eyes, not wanting to witness any hesitation. He felt soft kisses planted across his stomach. Then they started downward. Along his pubic hairs...his erection was bumping Starsky's chin. Kisses against his nuts. Moist softness licking up his shaft.

Then he was enclosed in wetness.

Hutch gasped, both overjoyed and worried that Starsky was doing this. It felt good, and he reached down to put his hand in the thick head of hair, stroking affectionately at the curly strands. But he was afraid that Starsky would try too hard to bring him to orgasm, and it wasn't going to work. Hutch hadn't been able to come from oral sex alone since adolescence. It was only foreplay; he always needed the penetration that followed. But penetration was impossible for now. Though he knew that Starsky would probably give it to him if he asked for it, it would be wrong for them to do something so intense when this was such a fledging part of their relationship.

Starsky was tonguing at him, and he liked that. But the base of shaft was naked. While continuing to pet his partner's head, Hutch moved his free hand down. He found one of Starsky's hands and placed it against his hardness. Starsky gripped the area not covered by his mouth.

"Ohhhh, yeahhhh," Hutch encouraged. "That's nice." He focused on the actions of Starsky's tongue. It never stayed in one place, as though his partner was experimenting. Hutch gently said, "Like it best when it stays pressed against the underside. The suction against there." He usually didn't bother correcting female companions on technique, but Starsky had specifically requested feedback.

The mattress shifted, Starsky moving to get more comfortable while he planted his tongue against there.

"Yeah, partner," Hutch murmured. He was still worried. It felt wonderful, but it still wasn't going to be enough to propel him to the edge.

He closed his eyes. In his mind, he was moving in and out of a wonderful tightness. The snug walls gripped his prick as he moved. It wasn't the silky, moist grip of female muscles. It was a courser grip, caused by the channel itself rather than any muscular movement. The only moistness was artificial, provided by lubricant. He slammed against those powerful buttocks, saw a sparse layer of hair along the back beneath him.

All the good feelings went away from his organ. But only long enough for Starsky to say, "Tell me what you're thinking." And then he was enclosed again.

"I'm fucking you," Hutch gasped. It was so instinctive to obey his partner's command that he'd replied without thought. His sex was still being loved, so he decided to continue until his partner signaled otherwise. "I've got my arms around you, because I need to be close to you." He stroked lovingly at Starsky's hair. "My cheek is against your back. I'm pushing in and out. You're tight. Hot. You're making noises because you like it." Hutch drew a deep breath, feeling himself grow larger and Starsky trying to stay with it. "I'm trying to hold back, because I want you to keep liking it. Don't ever want it to end. It's too good. " He swallowed thickly. "Oh, man, you're pressing back against me, and I go really deep."

He felt the back of Starsky's throat as the other's mouth covered him more firmly. It was exquisite, even if the other choked softly and had to release the extra portion almost immediately.

"It's loud," Hutch gasped, "me slapping against your ass. The bed is rocking. You're beating yourself off. I'd do it myself but I don't want to let go of you. I've got my hands on your shoulders. You feel so strong. Man, I'm gonna come. Gonna come like crazy. Just a matter of time...."

He imagined the building sensation. Felt his balls being fondled. Heard and felt Starsky's deep, vibrating, "Mmmmm."

"Oh," Hutch cried out at the exquisite perfection. "Ohgodalmighty." He arched up, coming with a vengeance, the semen spurting thickly from him. He knew it was a lot, a buildup from months of abstinence.

Starsky had moved off him, but that didn't matter. The coming still sent waves of pleasure through him, and when his balls were drained, he let himself sink into the mattress. His eyes were closed and he realized after the fact that he had groaned.

He let the warm fuzziness settle in. After a while he became aware of cloth rubbing at his stomach.

He cracked an eye open. Starsky had just tossed the towel aside, and was looking at him with a grin of satisfaction.

"Feel better?" his partner asked.

Hutch grunted, amused that Starsky had to know there could only be one possible answer to the question. But he did want him to know, "Can't usually come just from a blow job." He meant it as both a compliment and a way of preventing any feelings of inadequacy on his partner's behalf if the act was repeated in the future.

"You have an amazing imagination."

Hutch's eyes opened fully then. Starsky was leaning over him, and he reached up and brushed his fingers along the other's nose and cheeks. "You okay about it?" he asked tenderly. "That I could think of you like that?"

Starsky settled on his stomach beside him. "That's why I'm here, dummy. It dawned on me that you had to still be thinkin' about it. And since I was thinking about you thinking about it...Istarted thinking about it. And then it seemed like it only made sense to stop thinking about it and do something about it instead."

Hutch grinned widely, mussing Starsky's hair. "You've always been a man of action."

"Yeah. That's why deep thinkers like you need men of action like me in their lives."

"Good point." Hutch shifted, feeling a chill and wanting to get under the covers. "You gonna stay?" He didn't try to hide his hopefulness.

"I sorta of planned on it. But if--"

"Good," Hutch cut him off. "'Cause I want to hold you for awhile."

Starsky began getting under the covers, too. "That might be a problem. Because I've been wanting to hold you, too."

"I said it first," Hutch insisted. He waited until Starsky was beneath the blankets, then he scooted next to him and put his arms around him. The curly head rested nicely on his shoulder.

Starsky's arm was loosely around Hutch's waist. "Close your eyes, blondie. Enjoy your afterglow."

Hutch did. There were lots of things he wanted to say to Starsky--to discuss with him--but that could wait. Except for one thing.

"Love you," he whispered.

Starsky chuckled, then scolded, "Hush. Go to sleep."

Hutch did.



When Hutch awoke, the bedside clock read 4:00 am. He was facing the nightstand, on his side, and was aware of a body at his back. The overhead light was still on in the living room.

"You awake?" he heard Starsky whisper.


"How come?"

"Just woke up." Since Starsky's voice sounded clear, Hutch asked, "How come you're awake?"

He felt a shrug. "Just thinkin'."

Hutch shifted onto his back, tenderness kicking in. "Yeah?" he asked, reaching to draw the other closer. "About what?"

"Nothing in particular. Just nice stuff."

"What nice stuff?" Starsky's head was against his chest, and he loved feeling that weight.

"Just about what might happen now. Between us." Starsky raised his head to look at Hutch. "Not that either of us is obligated or anything. It just seems we could go to lots of nice places from here."

Hutch stroked up and down the bare skin of his partner's back. "I'd like that," he said, relieved that they could speak like this now without dancing in circles. Except...he reached up and brushed at Starsky's hair. "How far are you willing to go?"

"As far as we can. Eventually." Starsky leaned closer . "Don't see why we should rush into anything. Just take our time. Feel our way. You know," his face softened, "I didn't know...with a woman unless we were real experienced with each other."

Hutch nodded, agreeing with the need for caution before going all the way.

"Feeling better?" Starsky asked, snuggling against him. "I mean...more connected?"

The blond snorted with amusement, happy that his reply was true. "Yeah."

"Hutch?" Serious now.

Hutch furrowed his nose through those thick curls. "Mm?"

"'Member when I was kidnapped by Simon's goons?"

How could he forget? "Of course."

Starsky shifted so that he was now more on his back, his expression easier to see as he tilted his head to look up at Hutch. "Remember how it was? The first coupla days afterwards, I was just so happy to be alive. Feelin' terrific. And then, out of the blue, a few days later, it was like I felt...I dunno, like something was different. Like you said, I guess...disconnected. The world around me was all the same, but somethin' inside of me was...uneasy, I guess. Started feelin' like something real, real bad gonna happen. Felt tense all the time. Wanted to keep feeling inside my holster for my gun. Paranoid, you know?"

Hutch hugged him. "You got over it, buddy."

"I know. But..." Starsky trailed off, and then seemed to switch subjects. "Remember that time when we were all required to go to that seminar on that whachamacallit PTA syndrome?"

"PTSD," Hutch supplied automatically, telling himself that he shouldn't be surprised that his partner's thoughts had ended up there, since his own had as well. "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."

Starsky picked up Hutch's hand and gently rubbed at the fingers. "Yeah. When we were sittin' there, listening to the doctors talk about the symptoms, I found myself thinking about those first few weeks after Simon. I thought, 'Maybe that's what I had.' Got over it pretty fast, though." His voice softened. "You were with me all the time. Gave me something solid to hang onto until those weird feelings went away, for good."

Hutch squeezed his shoulder. "I always knew you'd get better. I wasn't worried."

"Hutch?" Starsky's head was tilted back again. "Do you think that's what could be goin' on with you? Your whole system has been like...shocked...because of everything that happened at Milford's? And that's why you've been feelin' all out of whack?"

"It's crossed my mind," Hutch admitted. "But...I can't figure out why Milford would be any different from any other time I've almost bought it."

"Yeah, but what happened at Milford's was more than just seeing your life flash before your eyes. You were angry at me for feelin' protective of you. You were fearin' for both of our lives. You agreed to give Milford what he wanted even though you were scared shitless. You saw something in my eyes that you hadn't seen before. And then you were there with Milford...and you couldn't give him what he wanted. And after going through all that, and surviving it, they were still going to drive you somewhere nice and quiet and blow your brains out." Starsky drew a deep breath. "That's a lot for any man to put up with, let alone in one day. No matter how smart or level-headed you are, it's not like all that stuff is something that's just automatically...dealt with. Even though," his head tilted back again, his voice hinting at admiration, "I know you've been tryin' as hard as you can to sort it all out. You haven't let it draw you in so deep that you' know, gotten unstable or anything like that."

"Sometimes I feel unstable," Hutch admitted, not liking it.

"Like when you were sitting on the john that time?"

It was a moment before he understood what Starsky was referring to. "Maybe."

"And when you called me that night when I was with Shelly?"

Hutch swallowed. "I'd had a dream."

Starsky brought Hutch's arm up across his chest and held onto it. "A bad one?"

"Not all that bad."

"Ah, Hutch, you shoulda told me. I woulda come over. Or at least talked to you on the phone."

Hutch snorted then. "You would've been mad as hell at me for interrupting your pleasure." More softly, "Wasn't worth it."

"Yeah, I probably woulda been. But I've gotten you out of bed before when you were with someone."

That was true, Hutch recalled. One of those times had been when Starsky had been feeling particularly anxious--for no apparent reason--after the Simon incident. Hutch had been more than a little annoyed at being called and having to send his date home, but he'd still gone to Starsky's apartment.

After a moment of silence, Starsky gently asked, "What are your dreams about? Getting raped?"

"No," Hutch replied quickly, wanting to correct the other's impression. "Being in that car, knowing they were going to kill me when it stopped. Feeling..." Hutch drew a deep breath, "so sad that you were going to find me dead. And being so afraid that you'd never forgive yourself for leaving Milford's house, even though it was the only thing you could have done at the time."

Starsky snuggled closer against him. "Same dream over and over?"

"Pretty much the same one." Hutch wanted to put the other more at ease. "I've only had it a few times. That's why I'm not sure if it's really PTSD. It's not like the dreams are interfering with my life."

"Yeah, but remember, those doctors were talking like the effects of whatever syndrome could--"


"Yeah, disorder, could have really subtle effects on a person's life. That's what makes it hard to diagnose."

"Yeah," Hutch said softly. "I just times."

"Yeah. Uneasy. Anxious for no reason. That's how I was after Simon."

Hutch closed his eyes, enjoying the feel of Starsky so comfortably against him.

"Maybe I should stay with you a while," Starsky said. "Until you're better."

That opened his eyes. It was a nice thought, but... "Not sure that would be such a good idea, partner."

"Why not? You don't know when you're going to have one of those anxiety attacks. Easier if I'm just right here."

Hutch sighed. "But considering the bridge we crossed tonight--last night--it might be...." He trailed off, not having the right word.

"Pushing things?"

"Yes. Pushing things faster than we're ready for."

"Well...then maybe we can just agree to not have any more sex together for a while. I could sleep on the couch, like always."

Hutch was amused at the martyristic suggestion. "Considering that when I start feeling funny I'd want more than anything to hang onto you, I'm not sure that's really a solution."

"Oh. Guess you're right."

They were silent for awhile. Then Hutch said, "It'll be okay, buddy. I'll call you if I need you. Promise." He bent and planted a kiss on top of the dark curls.

Starsky grinned.

Hutch closed his eyes and let himself drift, his arm still snugly around his partner, who still kept a protective grip on his arm.


He roused himself. "Hm?"

"That night you had the dream--when you called me--that was the same night after you'd seen Marianne, right?"

"That's right."

" you think one had to do with the other? I mean, your mind probably associates Marianne with what happened at Milford's...more so than, you know, what happened between you and her before. So, do you think seein' her maybe got your subconscious thinking about it all again and caused the dream?"

"I don't know, buddy." Hutch sighed, then decided to be more honest. "It's possible."

More silence. Then, "Hutch, did you really go see her just to say thank you?"

He wished Starsky would let it drop. If his partner had the slightest bit of information, he tended to go to amazingly accurate places with it. Hutch resolved to swallow his medicine. "That was my intent," he admitted glumly.

"So, what else happened?"

"Nothing," Hutch replied blandly. "Didn't matter if I wanted something else to happen, because she didn't. Besides, she's seeing somebody."

"Oh." More silence. Then, without malice, "Are you in love with her?"

It was instinct to tell the truth to such a direct question. "Yes." There was no response, so Hutch said, "I guess I always have been. She has so many mysteries about her. They fascinate me."

"But if she let you find the answers to all those mysteries...then, don't you think she wouldn't seem quite so...interesting anymore?"

"She's the kind of person who will always have mysteries." Hutch tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling. "She has too many layers of mystique to uncover in a single lifetime."

Starsky grunted. "Funny you say that."


"Because that's how I feel about you."

Hutch stifled a noise of surprise. He hadn't expected anything like that. Hadn't known Starsky felt that way about him. Hadn't ever viewed himself as any sort of person with hidden secrets. Or layers. Just a cop who was older than his age and getting more burned out with each passing year.

"Only," Starsky got up on an elbow, shifting to lean over Hutch, "I've been partnered with you long enough to know that your mysteries never end. But, to be bluntly honest, I think you're over-romanticizing the situation with her. I don't think there's as much to Marianne as you want to believe. Just a scared person who's had a rough time. Like a lotta people. Only, she's got more class than most people, so it's the mixture that's attractive. But only on the surface. I think you're infatuated with her mysteries, not in love with her."

Hutch wanted to argue but, more importantly, he was puzzled by why Starsky felt such an analysis necessary. If anything, it seemed a bit insensitive. It wasn't like Starsky to bad-mouth the people Hutch had strong feelings for.

And then the reason for Starsky's interest suddenly made sense. Hutch laughed. Loudly.

"What?" Starsky demanded. "What's so funny?"


"Whaddya mean?"

"You, you silly imp." Hutch ruffled his hair, still chuckling. "You're jealous. Plain and simple."

"Hutch, I am n--" He shut up as Hutch continued to laugh. Then, "Well, fine then. Have a good laugh at my expense." He snuggled back down to the torso that was still vibrating. "Best sound I've heard in a million years."

Hutch had to keep laughing then. Or his heart would burst.

* * *

The door to the squadroom flew open and a short, gray-haired black-skinned woman entered. Both detectives looked up.

"Mrs. Marquez," Hutch greeted gently.

"Ma'am," Starsky nodded, not liking the look on her face.

"It's been four months," she railed, shaking the umbrella she always carried for emphasis. "And you don't have a single suspect!" Starsky was sure that she had once been a reasonably happy person, but after her son's murder, her mouth seemed to be a permanent frown.

Hutch pulled out a chair. "Please, sit down."

"Don't patronize me!" she shouted, and both detectives glanced at the staring eyes of the other people in the room. "My innocent son was brutally murdered while doing nothing more than his job and filling somebody's gas tank. Why isn't anybody doing anything?"

"Ma'am," Starsky leaned across the table, "if you can please try to calm down. Shouting isn't going to solve anything."

She quieted, her frown deepening. "I'm sorry. But it's so frustrating...."

"Look, Mrs. Marquez," Hutch said, his voice carrying that gentle quality that could melt hearts, "we do have suspects for your son's murder. But we're still trying to gather proof and we have to move carefully so that none of the suspects gets wise and flees. I know it seems like nothing is happening and nobody cares, but we do. Starsky and I are on this thing every day. It's just that it's a delicate puzzle and the pieces have to be put together a certain way or the guilty party will never get convicted. If we go around making accusations without all our ducks in a row, then we'll be accused of violating suspects' rights, and then we'll be the guilty party. And you'll never get justice."

She sighed so heavily that it shook her body. "You've already given me that speech. I need something more to keep me going." Her voice trembled on the last.

Starsky came around the table to the side she and Hutch were on. He took her shoulders. "Ma'am, my daddy was gunned down in the streets of New York when I was nine years old. When my mama sent me out here at the age of eleven to live with my uncle, because she couldn't handle me anymore, my father's killers still hadn't been inside a courtroom. They weren't tried until two years later. But it was worth it, ma'am. Believe me, it was worth it. You've gotta believe that. You've just got to. Your son wouldn't want you to give up."

She looked up at him for a long time. Then she nodded sadly. And shuffled away.

When the door closed behind her, Starsky felt Hutch's hand on his shoulder. The fingers squeezed. His partner said, "Let's say we pay Rodney Jenkins one more visit."

Starsky grabbed his coat. "Wouldn't hurt." Jenkins was a young, rich snot. Maybe rattling the cage one more time would cause something important to fall to the floor.

* * *

Jenkins refused to talk to them without his lawyer present, but they came away satisfied that they'd shaken him up a bit. They both doubted that he'd pulled the trigger. It was his rowdy friends that were more likely responsible. Maybe, if he got scared enough, he'd rat on them.

It was hardly enough to call progress, but at least it was a step in the right direction.

* * *

That night, they were at Starsky's place. In his bed.

Hutch didn't think either of them had intended to end up there, but after checking out for the day, and taking Chinese back to Starsky's, it became more a matter of...why not? Neither of them had an answer.

It had seemed such an incredible treat, having sex twice in one week, after having gone so many months without. By some unspoken agreement, they'd kept to themselves over the weekend, both cautious of pushing things too far too quickly. But here they were again, eager to please each other.

Hutch had had another orgasm just from a blow job. Starsky had knelt before him, while Hutch was still partially dressed, and tended to his partner's need. Hutch hadn't been able to conjure up a fantasy while standing, for it was too awkward. Instead, it was the knowledge that Starsky seemed to truly enjoy doing it that sent him over the edge. His partner's patient bobbing of his head back and forth, working on Hutch's flesh, worshipping it.

Hutch was returning the favor. Only, Starsky was stretched across the mattress, and Hutch was on his stomach between the spread legs, working just as patiently, enjoying the turgid flesh that filled his mouth. He'd been paying attention the two times Starsky had done him, and he had a fairly good idea of what made it best.

He was rewarded when Starsky kept groaning over and over. But it was a relaxed that said he wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere soon.

Hutch had the shaft firmly gripped with one hand. With his other he felt lower, found the taut testicles, scratched across the sac.

"Oh," Starsky said when groaning again. An audible swallow, then a breathless, "You can be firmer than that."

Hutch squeezed the furred ovals. Heard a more intense moan. Ran his fingernail down along the seam. Pressed at the area between the sac and the crevice farther down.

He wanted to put his tongue down where his fingers played, but that would mean he'd have to release his pacifier, and he wasn't ready to do that. His jaws were getting tired, but he liked the noises he was creating.

"You're so damn beautiful," he heard Starsky gasp. "The most beautiful thing on this earth. And you're treatin' my cock so nice."

Hutch knew that Starsky was talking himself into an orgasm. He increased the intensity of his sucking, bobbing his head back and forth, squeezing more purposely at the attachments beneath.

"Man." Another gasp. "Gonna have an explosion that's gonna blow the roof right offa this buildin'."

Hutch knew it was his signal to pull away. But he wanted to taste. He kept his rhythm, encouraging the sensation along.

Starsky cried out.

A sharp flavor registered with Hutch's taste buds. Carefully, he swallowed--trying not to touch the organ that was now overly-sensitized--and realized that he shouldn't be surprised that it wasn't the "hot sperm" that porno books wrote about. Instead, only the flavor and texture were unique.

"Mmmm," Starsky said sleepily.

Hutch settled beside him, leaning on an elbow. "Liked doing that," he whispered.

A lazy grin. "Liked having it done."

Hutch kissed him on the cheek.

Starsky puckered his lips.

Hutch laughed softly and kissed him there. The other's tongue darted out and lapped along the inside of his mouth.

"Mm," Starsky said after withdrawing. "You taste good."

Hutch snorted. "Narcissist."

Starsky's eyes opened wider. "Am I supposed to know what that word means?"

"It means you're in love with your own image."

Starsky managed a half-hearted shrug. "No, I'm not. I just think I taste good." His grin widened.

Hutch tweaked his nose. Starsky turned his face away and said, "Maybe I need to see how you taste next time." Then, more seriously, "Maybe we can do a sixty-nine."

That sounded complicated, and Hutch didn't reply. He got up and pulled at the covers. "Come on. To bed." When he had them pulled back, he realized that there had been no assistance or word from his partner. He glanced over his shoulder and found Starsky staring at him. "What--" Hutch then realized that he'd been too presumptuous. "Hey," he said easily, hiding his disappointment, "maybe I shouldn't invite myself to stay, huh?"

Starsky shook himself. "Huh? No, no way. That's not what I'm thinkin'."

Hutch got under the covers. "Then what are you thinking?"

Starsky maneuvered himself beneath the blankets. "Just thinking about how this all seems too easy."

Hutch put an arm around him. "What do you mean?"

"Just that...if we were destined to end up in bed together, then why did it take so long? And if we're not...then why are we doing it?" Sheepishly, he admitted, "It's almost like waiting for the other shoe to drop."

"Hey," Hutch scolded gently, "since when are you a worry wart?"

"You gotta admit, Hutch, what we're doing together isn't exactly a normal, everyday thing. Not for partners. Not for best friends."

"It is for two people in love with each other."

Starsky grinned and looked up at him. "Oh. Is that what we are?"

It was in the tone of a joke, but it led Hutch to a question he'd been avoiding asking the past few days. "Starsky, you're the one that came over here that night with the intent to seduce me...not that it took much. What made you change your mind after all your denial before?"

The other shrugged. "It wasn't denial before. It was the truth."

Hutch furrowed a brow. "So, when did the truth change?" It suddenly occurred to him that since Starsky couldn't find a date, perhaps he'd felt his partner was in such dire need of a lay that he decided to play substitute. But that didn't wash...not with what Starsky had said afterwards with seeing where things would lead.

"Like I told you that night, I just sorta got used to the idea. And once I reached that point, there was no turning back. And now that we've actually done things together...well, gee, Hutch, I'm not too crazy about the idea of just dropping the whole thing." His voice softened. "Like doing things with you. I mean, who knows us better than each other? We can be so good for each other." The last was said with more passion in his voice.

"So, why are you having doubts now?"

"I'm not having doubts."

"Yes, you are. Just a moment ago you said that this isn't the most normal thing. That means you're having doubts."

Starsky tilted his head back so their eyes could meet. "Only because I realize there could know, consequences. It's not like we can mention to anybody else that we're sleeping with each other."

This time it was Hutch who sighed. Heavily. "Yeah, you're right," he grumbled, then admitted, "I've avoided thinking about that part."

"We'll just have to keep our private lives private," Starsky said...a little too cheerfully for Hutch's comfort level. He squirmed out of his partner's arms, then patted his chest. "Hey, it's my turn to hold you."

Hutch grinned, feeling silly about it, but not denying that he liked the idea. He shifted to place his head against his partner's furred chest. It brought a sense of comfort, the security of which was increased when his partner's arm came around him. He never wanted to think about anything else, except that all was well while snuggled up with the person he loved most.

Armed with that thought, Hutch drifted into sleep.

* * *

The phone rang. Since Starsky was at the water cooler, Hutch picked it up. "Hutchinson speaking."

The voice sounded scared. "Detective Hutchinson?"

"Who is this?" Starsky looked up and Hutch gestured him to pick up another phone.

"Rodney Jenkins. Look, I gotta meet with you guys."

Hutch exchanged a glance of triumph with his partner. "All right. We can be there in twenty minutes."

"No, no way. Not at home."

"All right. Where?"

"There's a park near Iliff and Thornton. Do you know where that is?"

"We'll find it."

"I'll be near the fountain."


"It'll take me about a half hour to get there."

"We'll be there."

The line went dead.

"Wonder what's got him shook up," Starsky said as he put the receiver down.

Hutch grabbed his jacket. "Let's find out."

* * *

The meeting went going well. With his hands stuffed in his jacket pockets, Jenkins babbled to them about what his two high school friends had done on that fateful night four months ago.

Starsky crossed his arms, trying to show that he was unimpressed. He leaned back casually against a metal railing that ran along the park's pathway. "So, why have you decided to tell us all this now?"

"Because I'm scared of them!" Jenkins replied. "They know the cops have been talking to me, and I keep telling them I haven't said anything, but they keep bringing it up." He let out a heavy breath. "I'm afraid they're going to assume that I did rat on them. I'm afraid they're going to come after me."

"All right," Hutch said soothingly. "But in order to convict them, we're going to need your testimony. Which means you've got to play it straight with us from here on out. Otherwise, they'll still be free and you'll be dead meat. Understand?"

He nodded.

"Which also means," Starsky said, "we're going to have to bring you down to the station with us and get an official statement."

He started to protest, and Hutch quickly said, "It's the only way we can get a warrant for their arrest."

"You're in this thing too deep already to back out," Starsky told him. "You've got to take it all the way until they're in prison. If you're being straight with us, you shouldn't have anything to worry about."

Jenkins gulped. But nodded.

* * *

"Your father ought to be down any minute to get you," Hutch said as he handed Jenkins a soda. His statement had been recorded and now he was waiting in an interrogation room.

"I bet he wasn't too happy that I'm here," Jenkins said.

"He was upset that you didn't call your lawyer first, but I explained that you came in on your own." He was tempted to say, "That takes guts", but he was hesitant to praise Jenkins too highly. They still had many months to go before there could be a trial, and he still had his doubts that Jenkins was completely innocent while his pals were completely guilty.

Starsky entered the room. "Uh...Hutch?" he said uneasily.

Hutch went over to him. He was surprised when Starsky took him by the arm and guided him into the first empty room. "What's going on?" he asked.

"Uh..." Starsky swallowed. "Just thought I should warn you." He scratched his head. "You aren't gonna believe this."

"What?" Hutch demanded impatiently, unable to imagine what had his partner so nervous.

"Jenkins' father just walked into the squadroom. He had his girlfriend with him. You won't believe who it is."


"Marianne Owens."

"Mar--i--anne," Hutch repeated in a whisper. "She's here?"

"Right. In the squadroom. She's got to know we're the detectives on the case."

"So she came in on her own," Hutch said. Surely, she could have decided not to come along if she'd wanted to avoid him. He smiled. "I'll say hello." From the corner of his eye, he saw his partner's reluctant nod.

She was sitting in a chair next to their desk, smoking a cigarette. "So we meet again," she said when Hutch approached.

"Yes." Hutch sat on the desk, facing her. "Your boyfriend's son can help us put away two killers."

Starsky appeared beside him, sitting backwards in a chair between them both. "Just how well do you know Rodney?" he asked.

She looked Starsky up and down with a hint of amusement, making it obvious that she was aware of how he'd placed himself between them. "I don't know him very well. Of course, I see him around the house. He's got a chip on his shoulder, but I wouldn't expect much else from a rich kid whose father was never around enough. Why?"

"We're not totally convinced that he's being completely straight with us, even if he didn't pull the trigger."

Her eyes went to Hutch. And hardened. "So, I'm stuck in the middle once again. Am I faithful to someone I love, or am I faithful to the cop who wants to use me?"

Hutch bowed his head, feeling shame come over him, unable to meet her eye.

"Look," Starsky said, his chair scooting a fraction closer to his partner, "nobody's using anybody. We just want the truth. If there's nothin' you can tell us, fine. It's just that if Rodney was with his buddies that night, chances are that it's going to come out in the trial. If we know about any involvement ahead of time, we'll be able to put on a better prosecution strategy."

Her attention turned fully to Starsky. "Why don't you ask his father?"

"We will," Starsky replied, meeting her gaze.

After a moment, her expression softened, but her voice wasn't gentle. "Will you excuse us just a moment?"

Starsky sighed heavily. He slowly stood, and Hutch gave him a nod of reassurance. Then Hutch looked at Marianne again as Starsky moved away.

"I didn't come here to fight," she said with a hint of apology.

"Then what did you come here for?"

"I was with Brandon when he got the phone call to come down. When I heard it was you two on the case, I thought I'd come down, too." She exhaled a long stream of smoke from her cigarette, her eyes still on him. "Thought I'd catch up on old times."

He met her gaze squarely. "You were right before; you won't be forgiving me anytime soon. So, why don't we just stay out of each other's lives until then?"

She flinched, as though surprised that he wasn't crawling toward her in fascination, as he always had in the past. "My, haven't we grown a thick layer of skin over the last few weeks?"

He let it go by. "What do you want, Marianne? Straight."

Now a forced laugh. "Straight? Coming from you? The man who takes women to bed under the guise of love?"

"I never lied to you, Marianne."

"No," she reached to an ashtray and stubbed out her cigarette, "I suppose not. Though, somehow, I find it hard to believe your silence about who you really were wasn't a lie in itself." Her voice was harsher. "Explain it to yourself any way you want."

Their words had grown ugly. Hutch straightened, resisting the temptation to say something further. For there was nothing more to say.

Then she was soft again, as she nodded toward another part of the room that Hutch's back was to. "He's still so protective of you," she marveled. "Don't ever lose him, Ken." She glanced toward the door, and stood.

Brandon Jenkins and his son had entered. "Let's go," the elder one said impatiently.

Hutch looked away, not watching her leave.

* * *

"Wasn't I right?" Starsky insisted an hour later as they headed out to the parking garage. "Jesus, Hutch, she's still bitter and everything."

The blond looked at him sharply. "Do you blame her?"

"What difference does it make?" Starsky countered. "We can't change how she feels. I'm just tellin' ya, partner, you don't need to carry a torch for her. She's not worth your mooning over." They were at the Torino, and Starsky turned to face his partner squarely. "You can call me jealous all you want, but I don't think there's anything there for you to invest your beautiful little blond heart in."

"Don't worry about it," Hutch said sharply, his hand fishing in his jeans pocket for his keys. "The infatuation is over."

"Oh." Starsky thought he should feel relieved, but instead he felt bad for Hutch. Then he decided to change the subject. "Hey, uh, wanna...get something to eat...go to my place...."

Hutch shook his head. "Not tonight, partner. Rain check." But his expression had softened.

Starsky waved him off, teasing, "The heck with you then." He opened the door to the driver's side.

Hutch stood watching him. But the sternness of his reply was feigned. "You develop an attitude like that, and maybe someday soon I'll have to fuck you where the sun don't shine."

Starsky grinned while starting the motor. As he pulled out, he called toward Hutch, who was headed toward the LTD, "Up yours!"

"Dream on," Hutch called back.

Starsky's grin faded as he pulled out into the traffic. Fuck you where the sun don't shine. It wasn't a phrase his partner normally used, even while joking.

He sighed out loud. You'd really love to, wouldn't you, babe?

How awful could it be? Starsky wondered. Hutch would be really careful, patient. Kind. Gonna have to be some pain. But that would be worth...his chest swelled up...sharing something so close....

Besides, Hutch deserved a reward for letting go of Marianne.

* * *

"Don't ever lose him, Ken."

Why did Marianne even care? Hutch wondered. That was a puzzle. She ran so hot and cold. Seeming to care one moment, and then bitter the next. That was probably the result of hurt that went very, very deep.

Besides, Hutch wasn't in any condition to judge another's moodiness. What he did know was that she was right. He couldn't ever lose Starsky. Too much of all the good things in his life were wrapped up in that one very special person.

"Don't ever lose him." Why does it matter to her? he wondered again. Was it because she'd never had anyone in her life that had been worth not losing; and it was her way of saying that so few people had someone like that in their lives that if you were one of the lucky ones, you should never let go?

Or did she mean it in the sense that she considered Hutch so unlovable that he was lucky to have found love at all?

Hutch rubbed at his mustache, feeling the queasiness start. He'd needed to be alone this evening, to recover from having been reminded once again of what an unforgivable thing he'd done to an innocent person. His desire to help her during the Fitch case had backfired so badly that he couldn't use the excuse of trying to help anymore...not even in the privacy of his own thoughts.

Hutch stopped at a light and took a deep breath, feeling a shallowness in his chest. He glanced up at the buildings that lined the street. They seemed tall and foreboding. Almost as though they could swallow him up, car and all.

The light turned green. He moved the LTD forward. The cars on either side also moved forward. Hutch glanced over at them. Drivers were hunched over their steering wheels, as though attacking the street with their vehicles. Hutch wondered if he was a mere peon in the center of it all, and it was just a matter of time before he was snuffed out.

What's the point of it all?

They had made a major breakthrough in the gas station murder case. That was good. Things like that made it worthwhile. The victim's mother might finally know peace soon.

He passed a seafood deli that he often visited on the way home. Food will help. But his stomach was so queasy. And he didn't want to stop anywhere. Just get home.

Hutch took another deep, deep breath, trying to fight the shallow sensation in his chest. He raised his hand to adjust the rearview mirror and noticed a tremor.

Keep breathing in and out, he told himself. Just get home.

His stomach twisted when the car in front of him was moving too slow, and Hutch had to stop at the light. Bastard, he silently cursed the car in front of him. It meant further delay.

Was it mere minutes ago that he and Starsky were joking in the parking lot? "Fuck you where the sun don't shine." "Up yours." "Dream on."

He tried to feel the humor, but couldn't. It was only voices lost in time...existing over a century ago.

Starsky had wanted them to get together tonight. Hutch knew he wouldn't be good company, would be distracted because of Marianne.

What was Starsky doing now?

Probably cursing traffic. But without his stomach twisting, his body shaking, or his chest fighting for enough air.

Hutch passed by the gas station on Ocean that he often filled up at. He automatically glanced at the gauge and saw that he had a quarter tank. Usually not enough to stop, but.... Maybe I should pull over.

He passed it by, unwilling to stop, afraid of drawing attention if he got out of the car, afraid everything going on inside him would be noticeable.

Only three more blocks.

He had to stop again at a light. This time he was in front. He revved the engine while waiting for it to change, the nausea increasing....

He stared at an old sign on a furniture store, trying to figure out what the small lettering on the window said. It kept him distracted until the light changed to green.

He felt foolish when he pulled up in front of Venice Place. He'd made it, and to think he'd actually thought about pulling over a mere three blocks away. It felt good to move. Get out of the car. Go up the stairs. Feel for the key. Unlock the door.

He picked up the telephone from an end table and dialed. The phone rang. And rang. And rang.

Not home yet. Probably stopped for a burger.

A part of him realized it was just as well, as he wasn't sure what he would say. Still, he let it ring three more times before hanging up.

Hutch sat on the couch and pulled off his shoes. There was still a tremor in his hands. It dawned on him that the room was very warm, and he pulled off his jacket. His shoulder harness followed.

He curled up on the couch, one hand against his twisting stomach, the other against his chest. He wished he had turned on the television, as it could give him something to focus on. But now he wasn't willing to get up again.

He closed his eyes, trying to shut out the silence. If only he could sleep, but he knew he was too wired to be granted that.

Starsk, where are you, buddy?

Starsky would blame this all on Marianne. Which would be grossly unfair. It was Milford. Everything had happened at Milford's. One case that had seemed to be going so well...and ended up being so badly botched, which, four months later, still had such far-reaching consequences.

Should be over it by now. Starsky had gotten over Simon in a matter of weeks. Hutch himself had recovered from being trapped under his car with no quirky after-affects. Of course, the heroin ordeal had taken a longer recovery, but that was because the physical withdrawal symptoms still appeared unexpectedly as much as three months later. But they were only physical.

This is all in my head, Hutch told himself with gritted teeth. There's nothing wrong. Nothing that can hurt me. Or Starsky. He scoffed out loud at the irony. This should be the happiest time of my life. Me and Starsky...getting it on. Moving closer and closer to a permanent/forever relationship. One where we don't need or want anybody else, because we give each other everything that we need.

But how healthy is that? he wondered now. In addition to, like Starsky said, we can't tell anybody else, how good for us is it that we've shut out the whole world so that he and I are the only ones who exist for each other?

No, we have our jobs. We make a difference for others.

"He loves you so."

"Don't ever lose him."

I know, Marianne, I won't ever lose him. Can't ever lose him.

Hutch uncurled the fist from his chest and reached over the arm of the sofa for the telephone. He put it on the floor and dialed.

One ring. Then, "Hello?"

Hutch hadn't given any thought to what he might say. "Starsk?"

"Yeah?" Then concern when there was no immediate reply. "What's goin' on? "

Hutch wanted to say something reassuring, so that Starsky wouldn't worry. But it seemed to be too much effort to figure out how to say it the right way. "I-I'm not doin' too good."

"Sit tight, I'm on my way." The line went dead.

Hutch leaned over the couch to hang up the phone. He let his whole body drop to the floor so he could move on his knees to the TV set and turn it on. It seemed a great accomplishment, and a relief, when a picture appeared of a talking head giving the local news. Encouraged, Hutch stood and went back to the sofa. He wondered if maybe he'd overreacted and he shouldn't have called Starsky.

He lay down again, very still, listening to his body's signals. The nausea wasn't quite as tight. His chest still felt funny, but there wasn't the urgency to take deep breaths. He still thought the room felt hot. He glanced around at the walls of his apartment, wondering why it seemed he was a stranger in a strange land.

Hutch stared at the TV. After many minutes passed, he realized the newsman was talking about the possible Republican candidates for the 1980 presidential election.

Hutch blinked, realizing it was the first news story that had sunk in. He needed to make sure he registered to vote. He hadn't bothered last time. He needed to make sure Starsky registered, too. The election was a year away. Hopefully, that would be enough time.

Despite the late afternoon traffic buzzing by, he was able to identify the sound of the beloved Torino pulling up at the curb. Less than a minute later, footsteps were pounding up the staircase.

Then the door flew open. "Hutch?"

Hutch made the effort to tilt his head so he could make eye contact as his partner approached. "Hey."

Starsky was kneeling in front of him, his hand gripping Hutch's shoulder. "What's going on?" he asked breathlessly. "Huh, pal?"

"Not feelin' so good," Hutch muttered, hoping he wouldn't have to make the effort to explain further.

Starsky's hands were all over him, rubbing, squeezing. One brushed up his forehead into his hair, and then Starsky muttered, "Stay right there," and got to his feet.

Hutch continued to stare at the television. He heard the running of water in the kitchen. Then Starsky was at his side. An overly-wet cloth was slapped against Hutch's forehead. And then another was pressed against the back of his neck.

"Mm," he approved, closing his eyes and wondering why he hadn't applied cold compresses to himself when he realized he was hot. The coolness felt good against his flushed skin.

The one on his forehead was so wet that water dripped down his face. After a few moments, Starsky moved it to dab at the droplets, then pushed it inside Hutch's shirt and pressed it against his chest. It felt like heaven.

"Wanna talk?" a tender voice whispered.

Hutch was grateful the answer was easy. "No."

He felt Starsky touch his hand, moving it away from his chest so the cloth could be pressed against more of the skin there.

"Need to hang onto me, babe?"

Hutch knew then that his hand was still shaking. It was too difficult to figure out what he wanted, and he was relieved when the decision was taken away. The cloth was removed from his chest. The one on his forehead was draped around the back of his neck. Starsky was pulling at his arms, and Hutch allowed himself to be sat up.

And then he fell forward, his cheek landing nicely on Starsky's shoulder.

"I'm right here, buddy boy. Right here." Hands were stroking up and down his back.

Hutch put his arms around Starsky, clutched at the back of his shirt. Kept his eyes closed.

The hands were patient and soothing. Hutch knew that it meant Starsky was going to give him as long as he needed. He relaxed more heavily against the shoulder. He eased his grip on Starsky's shirt but still held on.

The sound of the television faded away.

* * *

Eventually, there had been movement, jostling. The television drifted in and out.

Hutch became aware of John Wayne's voice. And Bruce Dern's.

He opened his eyes. He was lying on the sofa, his upper body draped across Starsky's lap. A warm hand rubbed leisurely up and down his back, inside his shirt.

"What are we watching?" he muttered, but asking it didn't seem like the effort he feared.

"The Cowboys. It's almost over."

Hutch let himself drift a while longer, but he realized he was following the story line on the TV.

Hands still moving, Starsky asked, "Any better?"

Hutch twisted to look back over his shoulder. "How about lots better?"

"Good, 'cause I'm starved. I'll order pizza as soon as this is over."

At the mention of food, Hutch's stomach rumbled. Good. Everything was back in working order.

* * *

They watched more television while they ate. Hutch felt renewed and found it difficult to believe that a mere two hours ago he'd been wondering if he could even make it home.

He looked over at Starsky, who closed the lid on the empty pizza box. "Starsk, it wasn't because of Marianne."

The other regarded him doubtfully. "Well, maybe not directly, but she had to be the trigger. Just like when you had that dream." Starsky paused and furrowed a brow. "You haven't had the dream since then, have you?"

"Not really. Maybe less intense versions of it."

Starsky grinned at him. "You're getting better, pal."

The grin was so contagious that Hutch smiled back. But he didn't know how Starsky could say that, when he'd been almost incapacitated a mere hour before. It was the worst attack--or whatever it was--yet.

It was on the tip of Hutch's tongue to say, "Thanks," but he realized there was a better way to say what he felt. He leaned toward his partner and took him by the chin. He kissed him for an extended moment, tasting all the flavors of pizza toppings.

"Mm," Starsky grinned at him eagerly.

Hutch ducked his head and kissed him again...more forcefully this time, his hand pressing against the back of the curly head.

Starsky was serious when they parted. "You sure you're up to it?"

Hutch took his partner's hand and guided it to his crotch. "Does that feel like it's 'up' to it?"

Starsky was thoughtful. "Not sure." He parted the snap to Hutch's jeans. "I need to investigate a little further."

Hutch felt himself throb when Starsky drew out his erection.

"Hm," Starsky said, turning it this way and that. "It's long enough. Hard enough." He gripped its girth. "Thick enough." He rubbed a thumb over the moist tip. "Gettin' all charged up to do its thing." He nodded, stroking it. "Yeah, I guess it's up to it."

Hutch jumped to his feet and pulled off his pants.

Starsky was watching him, a huge grin lighting his face. But then it faded, though the glint in his eye was no less feral. "Hutch, what you threatened?"

Hutch was letting his shirt fall from his shoulders. "What do you mean?"

The grin was back. "Stick it where the sun don't shine?"

Hutch felt himself grow soft--and protective--all over. "Starsk..." he knelt on the sofa, took the other by the shoulders. "You sure?"

"Yeah. As long know, you go easy."

Hutch softened even more. "Of course, I'll go easy."

Starsky's chest moved with a deep inhalation. Then he said, "You got something for grease?" But he couldn't meet Hutch's eye.

Hutch squeezed his shoulder. "We'll find something." He flung his shirt away and took his partner's hand. "Come on."

He was aware of his jutting erection as he led the way to the bed. He stopped at the end, turned to place his hands on his partner's shoulders. Then he massaged with his fingers as he bent to kiss those enticing lips.

The first few times they'd had sex together, they'd gone into it with such a sense of purpose. They were less self-conscious now, more eager to please each other, than worrying about whether or not they could. Hutch used that to his advantage, not releasing his partner's lips until he was certain the other was weak in the knees.

He parted the buttons to Starsky's shirt, was delighted at the other's eagerness when he started on his own jeans. In less than a minute, his partner was naked, and Hutch rested a hand on the broad back as Starsky got on the bed.

Hutch went to the dresser and pulled open a drawer. He searched through layers of underwear until he felt a plastic tube. He took it and turned around.

His partner was face-up on the bed, weight resting on his elbows.

Hutch had expected him to be turned over, but decided it might be better this way. He knelt between the legs that spread wider for him. He dipped his head and took the firm erection within his mouth.

He loved how smooth it felt, the mushroom shape of the head. He sucked avidly, drawing a gasp of appreciation. Then he reached down and played with the furred testicles, squeezing periodically. Hutch had originally thought he'd just get Starsky nicely aroused, but the other was responding so eagerly that Hutch decided he could be patient enough to bring him to completion.

His hands stroked up the flat flanks, to the softer feel of the stomach, up to the moderate helping of hair that decorated the chest. He felt for the tiny nipples and squeezed them.

Starsky's legs spread further. "Oh, man. You're a fucking genius."

Hutch remained stretched out, patiently applying the sensations, listening to the verbal encouragement.

The peak was reached shortly thereafter, and a good helping of fluid was deposited on the back of his tongue. Hutch had gotten used to the flavor. He released his captive and swallowed his prize.

After a long moment of steadying his breath, Starsky said, "Man, you really deserve what you're gonna get after that."

Hutch merely grunted at the compliment. He waited a while, his hands brushing lightly along Starsky's inner thighs, wanting the other to enjoy the afterglow before demands were made of his person.

After the gasps of pleasure had melted into soft sighs, Hutch picked up the plastic tube. He squeezed some out across his fingers. "Starsk? You still among the living?"

The other man's eyes were closed. "Just barely."

"I'm going to touch you with a finger."

The legs spread wider and bent at the knees.

"We need a pillow if you want me to do it from the front."

Starsky grabbed the pillow next to the one he was lying on and held it out.

"Arch your ass up," Hutch said, taking it with one hand.

Starsky obeyed, and after some maneuvering and grunts of effort from them both, Hutch was satisfied with the placement of the pillow.

Hutch pulled one lower butt cheek aside, and touched the recess revealed. He stroked it. "Ever have anything up your ass before?"

"You mean other than at the doctor's office?"

Hutch wasn't sure if the other were teasing. "Right."


"Not even a finger?"

Starsky's eyes opened. "Well, maybe just barely."

Hutch picked up the tube and squeezed lubricant directly at the recess. He pushed at the substance, sliding it past the outer ring of muscle. No reaction. He felt for the inner sphincter, nudging past the tight muscle.

"Oh, man, " Starsky drew a deep breath. "That's just your finger?" he asked in amazement.

"Feel too big?" Hutch said worriedly.

"Just...takes up a lot of room."

"Don't worry," Hutch said gently, "I'll ease up to it." He felt the muscle working around it. "Relax, buddy."

The obedience was immediate. Hutch could feel the difference. "That's good, partner. Going to pull it out real slow, and then try two."

He withdrew, thinking as he felt the tightness release his finger that his prick was going to get to feel those sensations in a matter of minutes.

The channel felt tighter when he inserted a pair of fingers. He moved them back and forth when they were barely inside, then worked them in more deeply.

"Man," Starsky said while taking a deep breath. "Really feel them. Not sure how you're gonna fit."

"Second thoughts?" Hutch said, more for conversation than because he thought Starsky might want to back out. Starsky always relaxed more when he talked.

"'Course not. I'm gonna wanna know how it feels eventually. May as well be now."

Hutch bent his fingers at the knuckles, then scissored them, causing a gasp of surprise.

Starsky chuckled briefly. "Actually feels kinda good the way you're messin' around in there."

That made Hutch feel good and he moved them around more.

"Just feels real tight around the opening."

Hutch slid the fingers back, then used them to pull at the outer muscle. "Maybe I can loosen it up a little."

"Maybe circle them around?" Starsky suggested. He was gazing at the ceiling.

Hutch did so, moving the digits in a circle around the opening, making a bigger circle each time.

"Yeah," Starsky purred, "that's helpin'."

A minute later, Hutch removed his fingers. He took a moment to stroke himself.

He heard another swallow. Then, "I love you, Hutch."

Hutch looked up, felt himself go soft all over. He leaned forward over that leanly muscled body, so ready for him, and moved on his elbows until he could kiss Starsky. "Love you, too," he said, pulling back.

"Good. 'Cause I wouldn't want you to do this to me if you were only liked me for my body."

Hutch laughed. "Not a chance." He leaned forward and kissed Starsky again, this time deeper, loving the flush of warmth that came over him, the knowledge that he was going to get to increase their intimacy to a new level.

But he was serious when he pulled back again. "Starsk?" he whispered. "I'm going to put it in real slow. Just know that I can always take it out if you decide you don't want it. There's no such thing as a point of no return with us." He stroked across his partner's stomach. "Okay?"

Starsky's features were tender. "I'd hate to do that to you."

"I know, but it's been done to me before and I've survived. Nothing's worth hurting you."

"I know it's gonna hurt some," Starsky insisted. "I've never been able to avoid it when I've done it."

"I know, but if we're careful enough it shouldn't be a big deal."

Now that the moment was here, Hutch's erection was straining. He picked up the lubricant and squeezed a stream along the top of his phallus. Then he rubbed it along his length.

"Okay, pal," he whispered as he leaned on one arm. "I'm ready whenever you are."

Starsky wrapped his legs around Hutch's upper body. "I'm ready."

Hutch nudged at the opening. He was nice and hard and with all the lubricant it only took one firm thrust, and a small part of him was in.

He saw Starsky's eyes widen toward the ceiling. "Oh, man," the other gasped.

Hutch waited, feeling the muscles work around his girth, trying not to think about the sensations that would be his once his task was complete.

When the spasming had eased, he pushed in a little more.

"God," Starsky said tightly, and Hutch could see a glint of moisture in his eyes. He could also see the effort Starsky was making to work it through, to accept the pain he was feeling.

Hutch pressed gently and went a little deeper. This time Starsky's eyes squeezed shut and his teeth gritted.

Hutch withdrew, feeling the heavy throb of frustration between his legs.

Starsky opened his eyes and looked at him worriedly. "Don't give up."

"I haven't," Hutch said, breathing heavily. "Just giving you a breather." He stroked along his partner's flanks with the flat of his hands.

Starsky swallowed, but this time his breath evened out afterwards. "Do it again, but just stop when I say so."

Hutch took himself in hand, glad to try again.

"Just stop when I say stop," Starsky said. "You don't have to take it all the way out."

Hutch pressed forward, loving the warm tightness that fit around him. He slowly moved in, the first couple of inches going in with less resistance than before.

"Stop," Starsky said, his chest heaving. "Just give me a sec."

"Take all the secs you want," Hutch whispered tenderly. It would be worth it in the end. When he could lose his mind and let sensation take over. Him and Starsky...

"'Kay," Starsky muttered. "Try a little more."

Hutch obliged, shifting his legs to more easily thrust to a deeper depth. He waited until Starsky drew a sharp breath. "That's good enough," he whispered. "Don't need to go any deeper."

He felt and heard Starsky relax fully.

Now the other grinned at him. "Okay, blondie, show me your stuff." Then, suddenly, he sobered, and choked out, "Or just let me watch you a while."

Hutch ducked his head, feeling bashful. He braced his hands against the mattress and pulled out a little ways, then pushed back. "Feel good at all?" he asked, genuinely curious.

"Yeah," Starsky panted. "There's just so much pressure...feel like I'm stuffed. Be glad when we've had more practice and I'm used to it."

Hutch pulled back a few inches. When he thrust forward again, he allowed himself to only recapture another inch or so. "How about that?" he asked, panting himself. Starsky was so tight around him, their bodies locked together. Hutch knew that first times were rarely anything worth remembering, but he hoped Starsky could enjoy it.

"Yeah," Starsky nodded eagerly. "Not so uncomfortable when you don't go as deep." He renewed his grip on Hutch's upper body with his legs. "Go for it, blondie." He grinned hugely. "Wanna watch you get yours."

Hutch realized his partner was serious. He closed his eyes, thrusting shallowly, searching for a rhythm that would send him to his goal without increasing Starsky's discomfort. He found it--short, rapid thrusts--and focused on the tightness that felt so good, sending the most wonderful sensations shooting through his groin.

"That's nice," his partner purred.

Hutch's eyes snapped open. Starsky was staring at the ceiling again, but this time his expression was one of pleasure, his lips parted.

"Ah, buddy," Hutch gasped appreciatively.

Starsky glanced at him, then raised his arms to place his hands on Hutch's head. He moved them through the fair strands of hair.

Hutch felt a surge of tenderness as the sensations peaked. He cried out as seed shot forth from his body, then stilled his hips so no other feelings interfered.

All his muscles seemed to stretch like a rubber band...and then sag back, the elasticity turning into wobbliness.

Hutch knew he was grinning as he collapsed beside his partner.

Starsky got up, and Hutch heard the bathroom door close. He drifted lazily for a while. Then a damp, clean-smelling body snuggled against him.

"Ah," Starsky commented, "isn't it just like a man? Use you for his own pleasure, and then he rolls over and falls asleep. Not even a hug or a kiss."

Hutch raised his head. "I'm not asleep," he protested. He puckered his lips and leaned to touch them against his partner's. "There's your kiss."

"Guilt works every time," Starsky said, then worked with the covers. "I'm ready for sleep."

Hutch felt a chill and decided to follow suit. When they were both lying on their backs, he looked over at Starsky. And smiled. "Thanks. That was a treat."

Starsky grinned. "Anytime. Go to sleep, blondie."

Hutch turned to mold himself around Starsky. And obeyed.

* * *

From where he lay in bed, Starsky stared out the window of Hutch's apartment, into darkness. He'd woken up a little while ago and found his mind too alert to go back to sleep. Hutch was sleeping deeply beside him.

He wanted so much to please Hutch, wanted so much for everything to be as close to perfect as possible between them. He was glad to have behind them what they had done earlier tonight. It would get better with practice. They wouldn't have to be so cautious, and then they could let their passions rule....

It had been a surprisingly productive ending to an evening that had had a shaky beginning. Hutch had called him with a calm voice, but with words that had sounded an alarm in Starsky's mind. He'd come over to find his partner with flushed skin and trembling hands, but otherwise lacking in complaint. In fact, Hutch had said very little. Starsky would have been tempted to say that Hutch was depressed, but his partner seemed to have worked through his problem in a matter of hours...without being treated with anything more than patience and tender loving care.

Starsky fought back a snort of amusement. TLC worked magic on his partner. Unlike himself, who rejected sentiment when feeling responsible for some tragedy or loss of life, Hutch seemed to be drawn toward love and affection like a beacon. Or, more accurately, maybe he just couldn't bring himself to reject it when it was offered.

Almost as though he's had so little of it that he'll take all he can get, regardless of whether he feels he deserves it or not.

Marianne's quotation drifted across Starsky's mind. "This is me. And I like it. You've gotta know you're worth it. You've got to own that."

Starsky glanced at the peaceful form beside him. When did you ever feel you didn't "own" your worth, Hutch? He thought he'd talked to Hutch about that at one point in the past, but didn't remember there being any kind of answer. You probably changed the subject on me, Starsky mentally scolded.

And how are you feeling now? he wondered. When you've got all this funny stuff going on inside you?

Starsky swallowed, not liking the next thought that entered his mind. And probably us sleepin' together is just confusing everything even more. Time out to love each other, and then you don't have to deal with the cobwebs in your head, right?

Starsky turned away from the window and buried his face in his pillow. Adding sex to their relationship may not have been the best least not until Hutch got himself straightened out.

But he couldn't regret that it had happened.

* * *

Hutch had told himself he wasn't going to do it. But he couldn't seem to help himself. The poster was in the window. The club was on the block between the bookstore and the sporting goods store. He had reasons to be at both. He'd ignored the club while walking from one to the other. But when he walked back, he went inside, and refused to ask himself why.

It was the middle of a Sunday afternoon and there were only a few customers. Hutch went up to the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender had a reasonably friendly expression, and Hutch asked, "Is Marianne Owens around?"

The bartender gestured to a man a few stools down. "Ask him. He's in her band."

Hutch turned and recognized the man as the drummer from the last club at where he'd visited Marianne. The man looked up, having obviously overhead the conversation. "Who's askin'?"

"A friend." Even as he said the words, he could imagine her reprimand, "My friends have to earn the title."

"She expectin' you?"

"No," Hutch said. "But I'm sure she wouldn't be too happy about finding out I was here, and that I left without seeing her." He wondered if there was any truth to his statement. But Marianne had come to Parker Center when she knew he would be there....

The man nodded toward a blocked-off hall to the right of a pay phone. "Past that curtain. She was in her room twenty minutes ago, working on a song."

"Thank you." Hutch gulped his beer, left some change on the counter, and started toward the hall.

He could hear her voice even as he pulled back the curtain. He passed by the open door of an office, then came to another open door where she was humming as she applied an eraser to a sheet of music. She was facing the doorway at an angle, and stopped abruptly when Hutch appeared.

"Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to startle you."

She sat down abruptly. Then, with a brisk motion, she grabbed her cigarettes and pulled one from the pack.

Hutch stepped forward and took the lighter from the dresser, holding it for her.

After taking her first puff, she said, "If you want more information on Rodney, I don't have anything else to tell you." Her eyes were wary.

Hutch shook his head. "I'm not here for that. The case is in the hands of the DA's office now. Starsky and I will probably just have to give a few minutes of testimony."

Her voice was short. "Then what are you here for?"

Hutch opened his mouth, then realized it was a very good question. His mouth brought forth his answer before he had a chance to snatch it back. "Do you love him?"


"Brandon Jenkins."

"I don't see that it's any business of yours," she said mildly.

"No." Hutch stared down at the edge of the throw rug that decorated the floor. "Of course, it isn't." Still, he muttered, "Just hard to figure." He looked up. "You and him."

She gazed at him a long time. Then she tapped the ashes from her cigarette. "I suppose you consider yourself a more worthy prize."

Always, it seemed to come to this. Words that were like pulling teeth. That were honest, but which only seemed to hurt. "I'm not talking about that," he muttered.

"You told me that once before," she reminded. "Yet, you keep coming back." She tilted her head curiously, waiting for a reply.

He realized, with some degree of embarrassment, that he didn't have one.

She shook her head in amazement. "You have him. That's more than most of us will ever have."

Hutch furrowed his brow, gaze seeking the floor again. She couldn't know how close to the truth her words were.

When he glanced up again, her expression had softened. "He sees things in you that I don't," she said with admiration. "He said that you were the bravest man he's ever known."

Hutch felt his mouth drop open.

"Let him have his 'brave man'. And forget about me." She waited, then her expression hardened. "Brandon is, truly, my type."

He didn't understand what she meant by the last line. He just knew that it made him sad, and not for any reasons of jealousy.

And he knew he didn't belong here. He turned away. "See you."

* * *

They parted early in the afternoon, because Starsky had made an appointment with his tax accountant. Afterwards, he went to the grocery store. Shortly after he had the groceries put away, he heard a knock at the door.

Starsky grinned as he went to it, certain who it was. They hadn't made any plans, which made it all the better.

He opened the door without checking the peep window first. And, sure enough, his big blond stood there, leaning against the doorway, as dashing as ever.

"Come in," he said while stepping back and grinning widely.

"What's the bad news?" Hutch asked.

"Huh?" Starsky said, closing the door behind his partner.

"On your taxes."

"Oh. Not too bad. Should get a little refund even." He'd no sooner stopped speaking than warm hands had gripped his cheeks. And then the firm hairs of that mustache were tickling his upper lip while that full, so-soft mouth settled upon his own.

It was an aggressive, passionate kiss, sucking the breath right out of him.

Starsky gasped when Hutch finally pulled back. "Where have you been this afternoon?" he grinned at him.

Hutch didn't answer. Instead, he pasted his lips onto Starsky's once again, the grip of his hands increasing on Starsky's face. When they parted, it was Hutch who spoke first. "Guess what you're going to get to do?" he whispered in an enticing voice.

Starsky gulped. "Don't have a clue." But he did.

Hutch made a noise of amusement, obviously not believing him. Then he took Starsky by the hand. "Come on, my love." He led the way to the bedroom.

Starsky wasn't sure if he should laugh or melt at the sentiment. One thing was for sure; this promised to be more passionate than their earlier encounters.

Got to be careful, Starsky reminded himself. Be as patient and gentle with him as he was with me.

Hutch turned to him when they were beside the bed. "You won't be needing this," he said as his hands ran down the buttons of Starsky's shirt.

"Then you won't be needing this, either," Starsky said, mirroring his partner's action.

They pulled their shirts from each other's shoulders. Starsky bent to unsnap Hutch's fly, then knelt as he pulled the jeans down the long legs. He paused long enough to remove his partner's shoes and socks, and then he held the pooled denim while Hutch stepped out of them.

Starsky straightened and found himself face to face with a pale, 45-degree salute. He put his mouth on it, wanting to please. The smoothness of the skin was gentle to his tongue, and the salty tip provocative to his taste buds.

But his shoulder was tugged, and a firm voice said, "To bed."

Starsky shook his head. "Uh-uh," he muttered around the thick cylinder filling his mouth.

Hutch pulled harder. "Don't want to come."

Starsky didn't understand his partner's reluctance. But he sucked it in to the back of his throat as a farewell gesture, then released it and stood.

Hutch was rearranging the pillows. Starsky took a moment to remove the rest of his clothing. He then reached to the dresser, where there was a new tube of lubricant that he had placed there just a few minutes before when putting the groceries away.

Hutch was settled on his back on top of the pillows, his legs apart. Something about the deliberateness of his partner's intent made Starsky uncomfortable, but he tried to push that feeling aside...and think about the sensations that awaited.

He knelt on the bed between the widespread legs. He'd already removed the cap from the tube, and now he squeezed some onto his fingers. All was silent between them as he reached to the dark crevice separating the white hemispheres. He watched his partner's expression as he felt along the darkness and found the recess. He gently pushed in.

Hutch's eyes were on him. "Don't worry about going easy. I want it, buddy. I'm all ready for what you've got."

The eager passion of a few minutes ago was gone. Hutch's expression wasn't as soft. And his erection had deflated somewhat.

"Just let me stretch it out some," Starsky said, puzzled by the change in Hutch.

Hutch was now looking at the ceiling, showing no reaction as Starsky pushed in a little farther.

Starsky had done it with women a few times. Hutch felt hard and rigid compared to what Starsky was used to feeling. He supposed that was how he had felt at first, too. He worked now at circling his finger about, trying to stretch that taut, stubborn muscle.

Hutch bent and grabbed Starsky's erection, stroking it firmly. "Come on, buddy, I'm waiting."

Starsky loved the feel of that hand on him. But he protested, "You feel real tight." Nevertheless, he applied the grease to his phallus.

Hutch lay back. "It's okay. Go ahead."

Starsky still felt hesitant, but couldn't believe that Hutch would be willing if he wasn't ready. He leaned over his partner, positioning himself. Tenderly, he pleaded, "Say stop when it gets to be too much."

Hutch nodded impatiently.

Starsky nudged against the tightness, but the opening closed even tighter, disallowing entry.

Hutch was very still, staring at the ceiling.

Starsky sat back again. "We need more grease." His partner didn't respond, and he placed the tube against the recess and squeezed. He used a pair of fingers to try to spread it inside. His concern increased when he was barely able to get his fingertips in. He looked up. "Can you try to relax, at least?"

Hutch didn't move, other than his stomach moving with an exhalation. It helped a little, but Starsky still didn't see how he was supposed to fit himself in there when his fingers barely made it to the second knuckle.

Starsky took a deep breath of his own, accepting his disappointment. Then he leaned forward and kissed the tip of Hutch's hesitant phallus. He saw the other look down in surprise. Starsky grinned at him, then kissed his belly button. Then up Hutch's stomach to his sternum. He said, "Let's try it another time."

"No, come on," Hutch insisted. "I want it. Trust me."

"Hutch, your mouth says yes but your body says no."

The blond head shook. "Doesn't matter. Do it."

Starsky sighed again, this time with dual frustration. He positioned himself once more, not knowing whether to be glad or mad that Hutch was insisting. He nudged at the opening, felt the muscle contract at the threatened invasion. Starsky pushed more firmly, trying to encourage it to open.

"Shove it in there," Hutch said, eyes still on the ceiling.

Starsky pulled away. Enough was enough. "No way. Making love is for loving someone, not ripping them to pieces."

His partner wouldn't look at him, but stubbornly countered, "It's also for giving the person you love what they want, even when it doesn't make sense to you." Finally, those blue, troubled eyes fell on him, and the blond's voice softened. "Please, give me what I need."

That last statement was even more puzzling, but Starsky couldn't deny those pleading eyes. He stroked himself a few times to bring himself back to full erection, then leaned over Hutch once again. Being gentle was getting them nowhere. He closed his eyes, concentrated, then shoved as hard as he could.

Hutch cried out.

"Dammit!" Starsky swore tightly, pulling back. He hadn't gotten in very far, and the tightness had strangled him so much that it literally hurt. His erection was already deflating.

"DO IT!" Hutch shouted at him.

"WHY?" Starsky shouted back, his heart aching.

Hutch raised up on an elbow, watery eyes glaring at Starsky. "Because it's what I DESERVE!"

Starsky's mouth fell open. "Whaa...?" he trailed off in a whisper, wondering what phantoms were in the room with them.

Abruptly, Hutch was off the pillows. He sat on the edge of the mattress, back rigid, jaw clenched.

Starsky was at the foot of the bed, and he let himself slump to the floor, wishing he were wiser so he could understand his partner better. Gulping, he asked, "How can you possibly think you deserve to be hurt like that?"

The bare chest heaved, and then Hutch turned his head so they could look at each other. "I was willing to let Milford do it." The tone was blunt and harsh.

Milford again. Starsky swallowed, trying to think of the connection that tormented his partner. But all he could come up with was rationale. "But Milford didn't love you, Hutch. He wouldn't have cared if he hurt you, but I do."

The blond was staring at the wall, his back still rigid. "He chose me," he said. Then, more softly, "He could have had just about anybody he wanted, male or female. What does it say about me that a creep like him was so interested?"

Starsky felt his heart twist. "Hutch," he said, trying to keep his voice from trembling. "All it says is that you were right there, where he could see you, and where he had easy access to you. Do you think he gave a damn about what kind of person you were? All he cared about was that you were good-looking. That's all he talked damn gorgeous you were. He didn't give a rat's ass about what was in your head or in your heart. It was misplaced lust, plain and simple."

For a long time there was silence. Then Hutch said, "He wanted me. Gillian wanted me. Diana Harmon wanted me." Slowly, he turned to look at Starsky again, his eyes bright. "Those are the kind of people who want me."

Before Starsky could speak, Hutch went on. "Vanessa didn't want me. Abby didn't want me. Anna didn't want me bad enough to try to stay." His voice softened. "Marianne doesn't want me." A thick swallow, then Hutch dryly whispered, "The people I want don't want me. And the people I don't want do."

"H-Hutch," Starsky stuttered, scooting across the floor until he was sitting at his partner's feet, "you have no control over what other people want and don't want. Understand me, babe? I've wanted lots of women in my life who didn't want me. You aren't the only person in the world who's ever experienced that."

Harshly, Hutch whispered, "Did you ever give yourself freely to someone you didn't want?"

Starsky meant to make a negative sound, but it stuck in his throat.

"I gave myself to that creep." Hutch was staring at the floor.

"Only verbally," Starsky reminded, knowing it wasn't the strong argument Hutch needed. He added, "You did it for me, Hutch. To save my life. Are you sayin' that wasn't reason enough?"

The hard gaze was still lowered. "Once you were safely away, I could have refused. I could have fought."

"And gotten yourself killed," Starsky reminded. "I didn't deserve that, either...finding you dead. H-Hutch," he swallowed thickly, "everything you were willing to do was for me. Wasn't it worth it, babe?" he pleaded. "I can forgive myself for what I did, leaving you there. Why can't you forgive yourself for what you did?"

Hutch sat still for a long time. Starsky wanted to move up and enclose Hutch in his arms, press the other against himself, love and pet him in the way that Hutch always responded to so well. But if he did, it would be too easy to forget all this for now...and whatever demons were inside Hutch would be free to raise their talons later.

He waited.

As more time passed, Hutch's expression softened, but his gaze was still rooted to the ground. Finally, he whispered, "I was scared."

It took a tremendous willpower to not move closer. "I know that," Starsky said simply.

"B-but," Hutch stammered, "th-there was a part of me...a part of me...a small part of me...that wanted to like it." The last was so soft Starsky almost didn't catch it.

It surprised him, and Starsky wanted badly to understand. He ventured, "So it wouldn't hurt so much then?"

"I think because...b-because I wanted to believe if-if I liked it, there might be some way...after it was all over...some way of dealing with that look of betrayal on your face."

The guilt in the soft words was so powerful. Starsky wished simply pointing out the fact that all the things Hutch wanted to happen/didn't want to happen didn't happen should be enough. But, instead, he said, "I love you, Hutch."

Slowly, the blond head turned so that their eyes could meet in the semi-darkness.

"Love you, Hutch," Starsky said again. He slowly shook his head. "Nothing you say is ever going to change that fact."

Hutch's gaze lowered again.

"I don't hold it against you for wanting to make something positive out of an impossible situation." But Starsky knew that words only went so far. They obviously hadn't been enough before now. "What do you need from me?" he whispered. "What can I do that'll make the hurt start to heal?"

There was a long moment of silence. Then, "I want validation."

"Validation for what?" Starsky whispered.

The other visibly swallowed. "F-f-for the fact that I would have let him do it."

Starsky's tone was equally soft, but also incredulous. "You want me to treat you the way he would have treated you? If he'd wanted to do that to you? As...As some sort of punishment? Or in...the fact that you were willing to means it should have happened?" The words didn't make sense to his own ears.

Another extended silence. Then, "That was the price I was willing to pay for your life. But I never had to pay it. I...I-I need to pay it."

Starsky's teeth gritted, and he wasn't sure if he were angry or just extremely sorry for Hutch's mixed-up feelings. "What happened to you out there wasn't payment enough?" He didn't wait for a reply. Instead, he demanded, "And since when is a person's life something that has to be bought?" His voice was rising. "Milford had no right to expect anything from you for my life. He was the one on the wrong side of the law. You should never have even had to bargain for me. Milford wasn't owed a damn thing. By either of us."

Hutch was now staring at the wall, his jaw still hard. But he didn't speak.

Starsky felt the disbelief leave him. Hutch was so amazingly complex at times. But the blond was trying to communicate with him. Yelling wasn't going to help. Starsky tried switching to reason, and amiably whispered, "We've made fantastic love to each other, Hutch. Why...why would you want nothing but pain now?" Then, more gently, "What is it supposed to prove, babe?"

Hutch's head bowed again, but this time in a manner that was sheepish. The answer that emerged from the hard mouth was low in the semi-darkness. "Prove what I was willing to do to save your life."

"You've saved my life a hundred times over, Hutch. How is now dif--"

"I paid the price a hundred times over," Hutch agreed, then insisted, "but not this time."

Starsky snorted in disbelief. "Getting shot and tangled up and beaten up and being taken out for a mid-morning execution wasn't payment?" He suddenly realized what needed to be asked. Earnestly, he whispered, "Why is paying the price with sex so much different to you than any other way?"

Hutch was silent again, and Starsky could see that he was trying to work it through, to figure it out, to find the right answer.

The blond's upper body moved with a deep inhalation, and the expelled breath sounded loud in the quiet of the room. "Because that should have been something that was only for me and you." Distantly, Hutch added, "Being willing to give it away was...a betrayal."

"But, Hutch, what else could you have done?" Starsky implored.

"Nothing. But," Hutch finally looked at him, his eyes pleading for understanding, "sometimes all the explanations don't matter. Just like when you accidentally wounded that girl, Emily, and temporarily blinded her. It didn't matter to you that it was in the line of duty, and that she accidentally got in the way. Didn't matter at all."

Starsky took a breath himself. The analogy was too powerful for him to protest. He now understood too well. "Okay," he admitted softly. What had made it better when that unfortunate incident with Emily had happened? When she recovered, he answered himself. Hutch had tried, so hard, to help, but Starsky wouldn't let him. It wasn't until everything turned out all right that he could stop feeling guilty.

Everything had turned out all right concerning Milford. But, for some twisted reason within Hutch, it wasn't enough.

But then, Hutch wasn't like Starsky when it came to guilt. Hutch couldn't turn down sympathy. Couldn't turn down love. Couldn't turn down understanding. It didn't take much to push him into melancholy when he had a reason to worry or feel bad or feel guilty; but it also didn't it take much to pull him out.

It would have taken so little, during the Fitch case, when he was sitting on the steps, all by himself. All I woulda had to do was reach out to him, show him sympathy and understanding, and we could have behaved like a team the rest of the case, instead of pussyfooting around each other. But I was scared for him, so I took it out on him, and berated him instead. And he walked away, because what I'd given him was the opposite of what he'd needed.

Now he's both wanting me and pushing me away. Wanting me to love him, but insisting it has to be by force--that I have to hurt him to somehow 'validate' the fact that he would have been willing to do it with someone else to save my life.

He thinks it's what he needs. But it isn't. I know that--I know him...better than he knows himself.

Starsky looked around and located a robe. He picked it up while rising to his feet, then approached the bowed head.

Hutch looked up at him, his expression open. "I should be over it, shouldn't I?" he asked simply. "Everything that happened...that I should all be behind me by now."

Perhaps Hutch had a point. Starsky held the robe open and draped it over the blond's shoulders. He lifted an arm, and Hutch obediently placed it inside the sleeve. On his own, he inserted the other arm.

Starsky pulled the robe snug around his partner. Then he moved to a chest of drawers while wrapping a towel around his lubricated phallus. After tossing the towel aside, he took out pajama bottoms and slipped them on. As it did so, he considered what Hutch had said about being over Milford. And then it occurred to him that it wasn't coincidental that the Fitch case had popped into his mind a few moments ago.

Hutch was still sitting on the edge of the mattress. Starsky went to the same side of the bed and switched on the lamp. He tugged at Hutch's arm. "Come 'ere," he whispered. To enforce his words, he picked up Hutch's hand. The fingers felt cold.

Hutch looked up, then without expression he tucked his legs beneath himself. Starsky pulled harder until his big blond curled up in his arms, while he himself relaxed back against the headboard.

He spent a moment running his hand briskly up and down a robe-covered arm. Then he said, "I think you're right, Hutch. I think you are over what happened at Milford's."

Hutch looked up at him in puzzlement, the light from the lamp shining on his face.

"Where were you this afternoon while I was at the accountant's?" Starsky asked. He watched his partner's mouth open, his eyes showing surprise at the direction the conversation had taken. Starsky took pity on him. "Never mind, you don't have to answer. Because I already know."

The blue eyes widened in surprise at that statement.

Starsky wanted to push his advantage. "You wanna know how I know? It's simple really. See, Hutch, whenever you see her, not-nice things tend to happen to your insides. So, for you to have been behavin' the way you were tonight, it has to be because you saw her." He made an effort to not sound like he was scolding, though it was what he felt like doing. "All this unease you've been feeling the last few months...I don't think it has a damn thing to do with Milford. That's behind you, Hutch. But Marianne isn't." Now he dropped the confident poise and leaned close to his partner's ear. "Why, Hutch? Why do you keep going back to her and punishing yourself?"

"I--I don't ever mean to," Hutch replied after a moment. "I just...feel...compelled." He hesitated, then, "I want her to forgive me."

Starsky swallowed thickly, hating it that Hutch was wanting something Starsky himself couldn't give. Gently, he noted, "I don't think that's possible, Hutch. At least not for a long, long time. You're going to have to go on without her forgiveness. It's her problem, anyway. Not yours." He wished they had talked about this a long time ago, when they'd made such an effort to close the distance between them after the Fitch case. But those conversations had focused on the relationship between him and Hutch, not on the relationship between Hutch and Marianne.

Hutch was silent a long time. Then he said, "I want her to know that I'm really not a bad guy." He tilted his head to look up at Starsky. "I know it doesn't make sense. But I need her to know that."

Starsky digested that. While doing so, he brought his hand up to his partner's face, and ran his finger tips along his cheek. Then he decided to be straightforward. "What is it," he asked, "about her that gets to you? And don't," he warned, "tell me it's because she's 'mysterious', because I'm not gonna buy it." He dropped his hand. "I asked you once before about the things you said to her before Fitch's men got to you, and you never really answered. This time," he said with affection, "you're not gettin' off so easy."

Hutch snorted, "Starsky, it was just the passion of the moment."

"Uh-uh." Starsky was shaking his head. "Doesn't wash. There's something about her that made you say those things about believing you're worth it and stuff like that. And the reason you could say them was because you've been somewhere in your past similar to where she was when you told her those things. I want you to tell me about it."

Hutch's brow was furrowed. "Starsky, they were just words," he insisted again. "They just seemed appropriate at the time. It's not like--"

"Hutch," Starsky interrupted, "whatever's behind those 'just words' has some connection to all the crazy stuff you've been feeling the past few months. Marianne taps into something inside you that brings out a lot of unpleasant stuff. Like when you had the anxiety attack or whatever was right after you saw her at the station. And when you called me that one night--after you'd had a bad dream--it was after you'd seen her. And you getting all crazy tonight was because of what happened with her. Maybe some of the stuff that happened at Milford's intensified it or whatever, but it's seeing Marianne again that's brought all the bad stuff--whatever it is--to the surface. I don't think it has a damn thing to do with that PTA--"

"PTSD," Hutch corrected.

"Yeah, PTSD syndrome--"


"--Yeah, disorder--that we've been talking about." Starsky pinched the nearest cheek and scolded, "Don't try changing the subject on me, because it isn't gonna work."

"I'm not trying to change it."

"Good. So, look deep inside yourself and tell me what it is about Marianne that draws you." In the worst way, he concluded silently. "I'll wait."

Hutch's gaze dropped away to seek the wall again as he obeyed, looking thoughtful.

While Starsky waited, he thought through the past months, and felt more certain than ever that it wasn't Milford's ghost that was following Hutch around, but Marianne's. The Fitch case had been frustrating: Hutch's blown cover, feelings that the blond shouldn't have allowed to exist but which had. But stuff like that happened in a cop's life. Hutch had seemed fine during the Fitch trial, especially after they had made a conscious effort to get their partnership back on track. But when the Milford case happened, the emotional consequences left Hutch vulnerable, and being in Marianne's presence had take such a strong hold on Hutch that he hadn't been able to shake it free, even after the Milford trauma was well behind them.

And their developing physical relationship had only added to the emotional confusion.

We're going to work it out, Starsky thought determinedly, and beat this thing, whatever it is. His hand squeezed Hutch's robed shoulder.

Hutch must have misunderstood the gesture as one of impatience, for he said, "It's not that easy, Starsk. It just isn't that black and white."

Of course, it wasn't; and Starsky felt just a little bit guilty that he'd made such an impossible demand. Gently, he said, "Would it help if I ask questions?"

Hutch shrugged against his chest and shoulder.

"Okay," Starsky said, shifting to rest more comfortably against the headboard. "Start with telling me where you and she were...before Fitch's goons got to you."

After a thoughtful pause, Hutch replied, "It was the day after my cover was blown...after I walked away from you."

Starsky didn't like thinking about that time, since he'd botched it so badly. But he nodded encouragingly, and rested his chin against Hutch's hair.

"I went to the see her." In a tone of confession, Hutch said, "Not to talk about the case. But because I couldn't stand how we'd parted the day before after...after we...."

Starsky squeezed his shoulder again, wanting him to know that he didn't have to say what Starsky already knew.

Hutch let out a breath. "I guided her out to a back alley. She didn't seem all that surprised to see me, and she didn't try to avoid me. But she was..." a heavy swallow, "trying to cover her pain with a lot of sarcasm. And I couldn't stand it that...." He stopped abruptly.

Starsky hugged him against himself. "That what?" he prompted tenderly.

"That she was letting herself be such a pawn. Used not just by Fitch. Not just by her brother. But me." Hutch's voice was very soft. "She didn't deserve that. No human being does. And I wanted her to see that." He closed his eyes, jaw firm. "I wanted her to see that, so much. That she was as worth it--to have her own life--just like any other human being."

After a prolonged pause, Starsky whispered, "So, while you're there in that alley, telling her that stuff that was so important to you, what was going through you, Hutch? What had such a hold on your gut, deep down inside? What were you remembering from your own life?"

Hutch turned to look up at him. "I wasn't remembering anything specifically." His tone indicated surprise that his partner thought such.

But Starsky wasn't deterred. "Okay, not specifically. But don't you see what I'm getting at? Those things you were saying to her had to come from somewhere." Marianne knew it, too, Starsky thought, remembering what she'd said at the house. "There's a reason why you felt so strongly about it. I mean, there must have been some time in your own life when you felt like Marianne felt."

Suddenly, a snort. "A time in my life?" Hutch challenged. "I don't think so, buddy." Then, with a hint of anger, "More like nearly my whole life."

Starsky felt a sense of relief that Hutch was talking. He prompted, "When you were little?"

"Little?" Hutch looked at him again, eyes glaring. "Yes, when I was little. When I was older. When I was a teenager. When I was in college." He abruptly looked away and the anger deflated. "When I was married to Van."

"Tell me," Starsky whispered, hugging him tighter. There had definitely been hurt behind the anger.

"It's a common story," Hutch said dismissively. Then went on. "I was born into an upper middle class family that had made its wealth in the banking industry and legal professions. I was expected to be the good little son that was going to carry on the family tradition. It never occurred to my parents that my yearnings might run in another direction. And, at school, I was expected to do well because I came from a well-to-do-family. I wasn't allowed to have weaknesses. As a teenager, it was just assumed I was a ladies' man because I had blond hair and blue eyes. But what I wanted, more than anything, was to do something with my life that meant something to me."

He paused a moment. "Then along came Van. And I saw her as a way out. A way to have a life independent from all the expectations, while still keeping everyone happy, because we were thought to be a good match. I tried, so hard, to make her happy, Starsk. To please her."

Starsky cupped his partner's chin, patting it. "I know that," he said with sympathy, remembering how it had been before Vanessa divorced Hutch. They'd been partnered two years before it happened, and Starsky had had to stand back and watch Hutch try to cater to Vanessa's every need. Even with his relative objectivity back then, Starsky had seen how terribly one-sided the marriage was. The whole focus was on keeping Vanessa happy; Hutch's contentment was irrelevant.

"After a time," Hutch went on, "it became obvious that I'd traded one set of shackles for another. Vanessa had her own agenda about what I was supposed to be--both as a man and as a husband." He took a deep breath and distantly noted, "I was twenty-eight years old when we got divorced. That's how many years of my life I've spent trying to be someone else."

"But you're yourself now," Starsky said, needing to point out the positive. "It may have taken a long time, but the longest and hardest battles make the victory all the more rewarding."

Hutch seemed to think about that. Then, "I didn't want to see Marianne go through what I went through. She'd already gone through it long enough. She'd been used for so many years by her brother, and then also by Fitch. I wanted to help her break free, to see herself for the worthwhile person she was." He tilted his head back so his and Starsky's eyes could meet again. "That's what I was feeling in my gut when I was talking to her in that alley. I wanted to help her, as I had been helped."

Starsky blinked at the last. "Helped by whom?"

A smile ran across Hutch's lips and his eyes were bright. He reached up and ran a finger along Starsky's nose. "You don't know?"

Starsky shook his head.

"Silly goof." Hutch squeezed his nose. "By you."

Starsky felt his mouth fall open. Hutch was granting him an enormous honor, but he didn't understand.... "How?" he asked. "When?"

"When?" Hutch took his hand away, and instead rested it on top of his partner's arm. "From the moment we first met. You were so much yourself. So comfortable with who you were. So free of anyone else's agenda. God, buddy, I'd never met anyone like you. It gave me hope. That I could find a me inside myself. And...maybe..." his voice softened, "...that person was worth something. Was worth being."

Starsky felt a softness work its way through his body. He shifted so he could hug Hutch closer. "Ah, Hutch, I never knew it was like that for you." He bent and kissed the broad forehead.

"It was a subtle thing, buddy. It wasn't like I was consciously thinking those things. But I do know," his eyes sought his partner's again, "that it was because of you that I was able to feel that I was worth it. The real person inside me had a reason to come out of hiding, because you were so accepting of the little bits of him that I'd shown you. Being your partner has changed everything. For the better." He let out a heavy breath. "I wanted to be for someone else what you were for me."

Starsky closed his eyes, not able to put into words what it meant to him that he had done so much for Hutch--to help him be the man he had become--so he did not try. But there was something else that he still did not understand. "But why do you keep going back to Marianne? You've done all you can to help her, and she's seemed to have done better for herself since being free of Fitch and her brother. So what do you want from her?"

Hutch's eyes closed and he was silent for a long time. Finally, he said in a small voice, "Like I said before, I keep hoping she'll forgive me."

Starsky released a sigh. "I'm sure she will eventually, Hutch. But you can't put your life on hold until it happens. Besides, what you really need to do is forgive yourself."

Hutch looked up anxiously at Starsky. "She was trapped the way I felt I used to be trapped. And what did I do in the name of helping her? I used her. It was wrong."

"It was a job," Starsky said simply. "I know," he quickly held up his hand to stop what Hutch was going to say. "that knowing that doesn't help. Just like it didn't help me when I blinded Emily. Or when I was using Rosie to get to her father. But still," his voice softened, "it is a fact. We can't be worthwhile cops and bleed for everyone who crosses our paths, especially when being in the situation they're in is some of their own doing. Marianne didn't have to let herself be a pawn for Fitch and her brother. She chose it. It may have been for noble reasons, but she didhave a choice." He patted Hutch's cheek. "You've got to learn to accept that. You can't control what other people do. Just like your parents and Vanessa couldn't control what you wanted to do and be." Gently, he concluded, "You can't have it both ways, Hutch."

Hutch closed his eyes, this time wearily. After a long moment, he said, "I'm sorry about tonight."

"S'okay," Starsky whispered. He waited until the blue eyes opened again, then asked, "What was that all about, anyway?"

Hutch looked away, as though ashamed. "I don't know."

"Then we're gonna figure it out," Starsky said decisively. He waited until Hutch looked back at him. "We know that you get a little crazy whenever you see Marianne, right? Because you want her to forgive you and she won't. So it--what?--brings all your guilt about her back to the surface? Because it never quite had a chance to heal, since you keep seeing her." Scolding, Starsky said, "It's no wonder you haven't been able to forgive yourself."

Hutch was silent, his expression resigned.

Starsky went on as the memory from an hour ago danced across his mind. "But for some reason, tonight, you specifically wanted me to hurt you."

"No, not hurt," Hutch corrected. Then gruffly, "I wanted you to take what I couldn't give."

Couldn't give? Starsky repeated to himself. With puzzlement, he said, "But you wanted me to do it. You were enthusiastic about it. And then you...clammed up...." Starsky trailed off as he felt the sensation of a puzzle piece falling into place.

Hutch had never had a problem with giving to Starsky during sex. But this particular act--with Hutch in the submissive position--was new to them. Except that Hutch had almostexperienced it. Or, at least, he'd thought he was going to be subjected to it...when he'd offered himself to Milford.

Starsky's mind raced ahead, anxious for the hunt for understanding to reach its conclusion. To do the brave thing he'd done at Milford's, Hutch had to have been ready to accept the consequences, physically and emotionally, in order to go through with what was essentially an act of rape. Physically, the event had never taken place. But Hutch had already been emotionally resigned to being a victim.

The rape never happened, Starsky thought, but, in Hutch's mind, it may as well have. That's how committed Hutch was to keeping to his end of the bargain with Milford, so I'd be allowed to leave...alive. But, like a lot of rape victims, he feels he's to blame for what happened.

And, now, he can't give of himself to me, like that, because he's traumatized by the event--the event that never really happened. But he wants me to have him--"claim my rights" is a phrase he's used before--and since he can't give it, he wants me to take it.

And, by taking it, it'll show him that I love him. Show him that I love, in particular, that precious me inside his precious self, despite the horrible thing that 'happened', that he was willing to do.

I guess Milford's ghost is still with us, after all.

Hutch squeezed him arm. "Tell me what you're thinking," he demanded softly.

"I'm thinking that I want to make love to you." Give you the validation that you need.

Hutch's fingers squeezed harder on Starsky's arm. "Do." Then, "It won't be like before. I promise."

Starsky looked at him, gazing into those soft blue eyes, feeling a flush of tenderness and concern spread through him, even as he felt himself warming up in anticipation. He knew it wouldn't be like before, for their conversation had taken all the fight out of Hutch. But since Hutch wouldn't be able to give of himself that way, Starsky was going to have to take it from him. But he was determined that it would be the most gentle of conquerings. A conquering which, for Hutch, would hopefully be a release from Milford's ghost.

But even as Starsky thought about freeing Hutch, he wondered if making love to him in and of itself would be enough; if replacing the phantom of Milford with the reality of Starsky would allow Hutch to feel himself worthy of Starsky.

Maybe if there was something to be proven tonight, it was simply that Hutch was loved to the very core of his being. That fact needed to be proven in such a way that the big blond himself couldn't question it, despite the fact that he'd used Marianne, despite the fact that he was willing to allow himself to be used for Milford's pleasure. Maybe Marianne would never feel for him the way Hutch wanted her to; and there was no way the deceased Milford could ever take back the lust he had felt. So, that left it to Starsky to fill up those dark spaces left by others.

He wondered if it were possible to love Hutch in a way that would be uniquely theirs; love him in a more intimate way than Starsky had ever loved anybody else.

Starsky shifted again. "I know it won't be like before," he said in reply to Hutch's comment. "But let's start over, anyway. Why don't you go and clean up?"

That brought puzzlement to the pale features.

"Go on." Starsky urged. "Take a nice hot shower, and in the meantime Excalibur will have a chance to get warmed up again."

Hutch rolled his eyes but didn't comment on the name. Instead, he asked, "What are you going to be doing?"

"None of your business."

That produced more puzzlement. Starsky shifted to one side. "Go on," he insisted. "Shower good and dry off good."

Hutch left the bed.

When the bathroom door closed, Starsky went into the kitchen. He found a bottle of wine in the cupboard and filled a couple of glasses, one full and one part way. He carried them into the bedroom, turning off lights as he went. He placed the glasses on the nightstand near the bathroom. Then he straightened the covers and turned off the bedroom light.

A few moments later Hutch emerged from the bathroom, still using a towel on his hair. He seemed surprised at the darkness, interrupted only by the bathroom light, but didn't comment. As soon as he tossed the towel aside, Starsky picked up both glasses and handed his partner the full one.

"To us," he said, "and all we've been together and all we've yet to be."

Hutch's face softened at that. He watched Starsky drink first, and then followed.

"All of it," Starsky ordered, tipping his own glass.

Hutch obeyed.

Starsky placed both glasses back on the nightstand. Then he reached inside the bathroom and turned off the light.

All was dark.

He slipped out of his pajamas. Then he went to the pale shape that stood next to the bed, moving up close behind him. The other smelled fresh and clean. Starsky reached around and slowly ran his hands across the bare chest. "You know," he whispered in the darkness, "you were talking before about how it's always the people you don't want who want you." He paused deliberately. When his hands moved again, he said, "You left one very important person off your list, Hutch." He squeezed with his arms, embracing the other man's back against his chest, his cheek resting on a shoulder. "But none of that matters anymore. Because, from now on, it's just me and you. Whether other people want or don't want you doesn't mean a damn thing."

There was no response, only the sound of the other's breathing.

Starsky eased his grip and stepped back so that he could place his hands on Hutch's shoulders. He rubbed across the smooth, warm skin. Finally, he whispered, "I want you on the bed. On your stomach. And the only thing you're allowed to do is relax."

His fingers let go and Hutch climbed onto the mattress. Starsky waited until there was no longer any sound or movement, and then got on the bed himself. He reached out, touching a hip. He ran his hand along it, up to Hutch's back, straddling his partner as he did so.

When Starsky was settled on top of Hutch, his erection was resting between the other man's buttocks, his cheek just below his partner's neck. He rubbed his hands along Hutch's arms, relishing how relaxed the muscles were beneath the skin.

Starsky kissed the back of Hutch's neck. As he had predicted, Hutch was being very compliant. Starsky hoped he was right and that this was what Hutch be covered by the person who loved him most, who would nurture and protect and love him unconditionally. He would take on all the responsibility of Hutch's pleasure so that Hutch didn't have to work for it himself.

The kisses started down his partner's spine, Starsky moving back along the other man's body. His erection had to yield its snug place, so that the kisses could keep moving lower. While his mouth worked, Starsky kept his hands busy, massaging in slow circles along his partner's sides, enjoying the gentle friction created.

He reached Hutch's tailbone and kissed it deliberately. Then he shifted and planted a wet mark on the cushion of the left buttock. Then the right.

"Spread your legs more," he commanded in a whisper.

His hands were on the backs of the slender thighs, and Starsky felt them move farther apart. He settled his body between them, getting comfortable. Then he dipped his head and licked along fur, caressing the delicate skin of the testicles.

He could hear his partner breathing.

He kissed them, each one, and them moved his tongue upward, its motion slow and deliberate. It danced past the perineum between Hutch's scrotum and anus. And then Starsky pulling the buttocks apart with his hands.

His tongue touched the wrinkled opening, and then he lapped at it. Hutch gasped as a jolt went through him.

Starsky licked more purposely, stabbing at the opening, loving it when the hips beneath squirmed. He grabbed them to hold them reasonably still, so he wouldn't lose his place. A moment later, he reached up to run a hand along Hutch's back, and he felt a row of goosebumps.

A sharp "God" was emitted into the darkness.

Starsky now shifted and lapped the length of his tongue against the opening. He felt all the muscles in Hutch's body stiffen.

He raised his head. "Hey," he scolded breathlessly, "if you don't lie nice and relaxed I'm gonna stop. And then we'll never get to the main event."

Blackmail. But he didn't feel guilty about using it. A moment later and the flesh beneath him relaxed back against the mattress.

"That's my boy," Starsky approved. "Accept your medicine and don't fight me."

He squeezed a buttock lovingly, then dipped his head again. He took a moment to moisten the crevice with saliva, then stiffened his tongue and tried to push it inside.

Hutch made a noise, but he remained obedient and stayed pressed against the mattress. As Starsky continued to probe, Hutch's vocalizations became more pronounced. None of the sounds were coherent...but alternated between groans and high-pitched whimpers.

Starsky resisted the urge to undulate against the mattress, even though his erection was close to bursting. He now switched his rhythm, licking slowly around the wrinkled skin, lapping with his tongue, trying to brand Hutch with this exotic form of pleasure, to show a desire to please that went beyond the warmth in his heart, but which was more a soul-deep passion that desperately needed expression.

The room hadn't been silent for a long time. Hutch was emitting a continuous groan. He did move, but it was only to spread his legs even farther.

Starsky accommodated, inching forward and stabbing more purposely. He knew he'd have to stop soon, for his tongue was numb and his erection was aching with neglect. But it was difficult to decide which lap of his tongue should be the last. Finally, he snaked it up past the opening, into the shallower crevice, then up to Hutch's tailbone.

Starsky rested his cheek on the cushiony rump, catching his breath, listening to the new sound from the darkness, which was his partner also panting for air.

Starsky struggled into a sitting position. He felt around the mattress and found the tube of lubricant. He squirted some onto his fingers, then reached down to the moistened opening. He inserted his middle finger into the heat. The texture was so completely different than when he'd tried this earlier. The muscle was willing to stretch. He worked in a second finger. With his free hand, Starsky rubbed along his partner's lower back, loving the pliant feel of the muscles beneath the skin.

His hands reluctantly left so he could apply the ointment to himself. As he worked with it, he said, "The same rules apply as when you did me. You want me to take it out, I take it out."

He thought the panting had increased slightly, illustrating his partner's anticipation.

Starsky tossed the tube aside. All ready now. With one hand, he felt for the slick opening. With the other, he guided his straining maleness up to it. He stretched out his legs behind him, for there wasn't a pillow beneath Hutch. But though it made the angle a little difficult, this was exactly how Starsky wanted him.

Starsky pushed with his hips and the head of his erection slipped into the snug warmth that welcomed him.

He listened, but heard nothing except his own heavy breaths. Puzzled, he pushed more, relieved that the tight network of bone and muscle was parting for his determined spear, while still nicely snug, teasing his nerves.

Starsky rested a moment, taking a deep breath, trying to maintain control, despite the tantalizing sensations. He was well enough on the way now that he let go of himself and reached to place his hands on Hutch's shoulders. Bracing against them, he pushed in another inch.

Hutch made a gasp of pain.

Starsky swallowed thickly. "Just a little more," he whispered soothingly. Then he stroked at Hutch's shoulder blade, wanting to praise him for having taken all that he'd offered thus far.

He shifted his legs, trying to find the best leverage to insert the final two inches. He had to brace against Hutch's body again, using it to press himself in.

And then he was all the way inside. Starsky rested against Hutch's back, breathing heavily, his arms draped across the smooth-skinned shoulders. He wanted to stay like this, stay like this forever. For this was nirvana that nothing else could touch. Lying protectively on top of the person he loved most in this world--the person who gave his life meaning. And having the most physical part of himself inside that person, resting there, joining them.

But here, in the darkness, and the relative silence, he didn't know what Hutch was thinking. Needing to communicate, Starsky reached up with one hand until he felt a mouth corner. He stroked along the side of Hutch's face, feeling smooth skin around each feature, which indicated Hutch was resting peacefully, as well.

They were still for such a long time, sharing the heat and darkness and space where they joined, that Starsky felt himself threaten to shrink. He undulated slightly, to keep Excalibur interested, but realized too late that even that small movement was a mistake. His over-sensitized flesh responded too enthusiastically to the brief friction, and a wave of release was upon him. Starsky knew he could not fight it, and he simply let himself rest where he was as his life fluid released itself.

He groaned softly as the exquisite feeling flushed through his body, leaving him resting even more heavily upon his partner's back.

A curious whisper penetrated the darkness. "Did you come?"

Starsky made a soft snort, for he was feeling very lazy in the wake of the orgasm. "Yeah. Didn't mean to."

He felt a motion beneath him, and then a hand was petting against his rump. He knew he had to be feeling very heavy. Reluctantly, Starsky shifted enough to collapse on the bed beside Hutch. He wanted nothing more than to drift lazily, but the darkness now seemed oppressive. He rolled over so he could reach for the lamp. He turned it on, anxious to see what was in his lover's eyes.

Hutch squinted at the rude intrusion. Starsky waited until the other had adjusted.

The pale countenance smoothed out, and Hutch was gazing at him with a contemplative expression. And then the blond closed the gap between them and leaned down....

The full lips were upon his, and Starsky was taken back by the force of the kiss, for it was so rich and powerful.

"Wow," he breathed deeply when he was finally released.

There was that intense gaze again. And then it broke, Hutch shifting to sit up next to Starsky, the blond's arms coming around him and holding him close.

Starsky had meant to hold Hutch when he got his strength back, but he quickly decided that he liked this at least as much.

His hair was kissed, and then Hutch said, "Thank you me what I needed."

Starsky tilted his head to look up at him. "Was it enough?" he asked hopefully.

A tender smile filled the soft features. Hutch ran a finger along Starsky's lips. "I don't think there's any such thing as having enough of you."

Starsky had been looking for a more affirmative answer, but decided he liked that one better. He snuggled more closely against the lean, warm body. They were quiet for a while, and Starsky realized he was drifting. "Turn out the light," he whispered. "'M sleepin.'"

Limbs shifted beneath him. "I can't wait to do it with you on top of me."

"Oh." Starsky sat up a little, and Hutch reached to the lamp. The room went dark.

"Goodnight," Hutch said, getting beneath the covers.

When the other was still, Starsky realized he was inside the curve of Hutch's body. One hand was on his hip; he didn't know where the other one was. "What happened to my cuddle?" he complained.

"Big baby," Hutch said. He put his arm around Starsky's chest and pressed him back against himself.

"Mm," Starsky approved, just before falling asleep.





"This court is recessed until ten o'clock tomorrow morning." The judge pounded his gavel. He rose, and everyone else also stood.

Hutch sighed. His testimony had begun today, but now that a recess was called before he finished, he would have to come back tomorrow. Starsky's testimony would follow. He rubbed at his eyes and was aware of Starsky talking to the DA. Hutch looked up to see that most of the spectators had filed out of the courtroom. Just now exiting were Brandon Jenkins...and Marianne.

Hutch darted toward them. "Marianne."

She and Jenkins had already passed through the double doors. Hutch followed them out. They stopped as he came next to them, Jenkins looking impatient.

She looked up at her boyfriend. "Will you excuse us?"

"Certainly." He moved away.

Hutch smiled at her. "I think it's going well."

She shrugged. "One never knows until the verdict is in."

"Rodney is doing the right thing."

"I would have liked it better if he wouldn't have had to make a deal with the DA to tell the truth. He should have done that the first time...and taken his lumps."

Hutch agreed. It turned out that Rodney had driven the getaway car, in what he thought was only going to be a robbery. He was confessing all in exchange for a lesser charge. "Hopefully," Hutch said, "this incident happened early enough in his life to have a lasting impression, and he'll stay out of trouble from here on out."

"I hope you're right."

They were silent, each unsure of what else to say. Finally, she noted, "After this is all over, Brandon and I are moving to Chicago."

That surprised him. "Oh."

"Yes, we'll be getting married before then. We don't want to set a date until we know the trial is over."

"I'm sure you'll do great in Chicago."

"It depends on how it goes with Brandon's job. It sounds like he may need a full-time social secretary, so..." she trailed off.

Hutch felt something heavy press on his chest. With disapproval, he said, "You'll give up your career for him?" Even as he said the words, he knew Starsky had been right: no one could control another's life, and he should stop trying.

"If necessary," she replied.

It was like they had come full circle. "Just like that?" he challenged in disbelief.

Her gaze met his squarely. "Yes, just like that."

Hutch started to speak, but there was nothing to say. Except goodbye.

She smiled at him briefly, then nodded past his shoulder. "He's here. I'd better go." She turned away.

Hutch watched her. And wondered why he had ever been in love with her.

Starsky appeared at his shoulder. "What's up?"

"She and Jenkins are leaving town once the trial is over." He was still watching her disappear down the hall.

"Oh. You okay?"

Hutch looked at him. Finding a smile was easy. "Yeah."

* * *

"I don't get it," Hutch said while sifting through his mail. "The past few weeks, I've been getting all these strange magazines. I've never ordered Field and Stream," he held it up, "or Science Digest."

"Of course, you didn't," Starsky told him. "I did."

Hutch glared at him. "What? I don't want all this junk."

"It's not junk," the other protested. "Those magazine orders are what made sure your Publisher's Clearing House entry got put in the YES pile."

Hutch felt his jaw tighten. "Starsky, so help me..." he began, then demanded, "How many did you order?"

"I dunno," Starsky shrugged. "I just wanted to make sure your entry got serious attention. Maybe a dozen or so. You'll probably be getting your first bill any day."

"What?" Hutch asked indignantly. "You mean I have to pay for this stuff, when you're the one who ordered it?"

"Yeah, but if you win, it'll all be your money," Starsky pointed out reasonably "I don't expect you to split it with me."

"Starsky, I am not going to win. It's all a scam."

"I'll remind you of that when Ed McMahon comes knocking at your door." Starsky grabbed the Field and Stream from Hutch's hands and plopped down on the couch. He grumbled, "I don't know how you can expect to win at all with a negative attitude like that."

Hutch furrowed his brow while watching Starsky leaf through the magazine. The phrase 'negative attitude' pulled at his memory. Negative. Positive. Positive attitude. Getting a home improvement loan because of his positive attitude. Telling Starsky about it many months ago, when Starsky was grumbling about what an awful world they lived in if a woman and her small child could be devoured by wild monkeys.

That conversation had taken place a few weeks after Marianne's brother was killed.

Hutch pulled a beer from the refrigerator and popped the lid. "Starsk?" he said as he approached the sofa.

"Huh?" Starsky looked up, closing the magazine.

Hutch sat down next to him. "How come you haven't said anything about me seeing Marianne today?"

"Why would I say anything? It's only natural that we'd bump into her at the trial."

"Aren't you afraid I'll get crazy again?" He was genuinely interested in the answer.

Starsky shook his head. "No," he replied cheerfully. "You're all better now. You didn't look like a whipped pup when you were talking to her, which is how you've behaved before around her."

Hutch liked Starsky's confidence in him. And the fact that what Starsky said was true.

"What's wrong?"

Hutch realized he'd been staring at the coffee table. He shook his head at the irony. "She's going right back into the same situation I had wanted to help her get out of before."

Starsky slid closer. "What do you mean?"

Hutch looked at him. "She's going to give up her singing career for Brandon. Be his," he curled his lip in disapproval, "social secretary."

Starsky shrugged. "If that's what she wants...."

"No," Hutch corrected. "What she wants is someone else to control her life. She needs that, Starsky." He bowed his head, feelings of sadness washing over him. "I-I didn't understand that before. I thought if I could help her get free of Joe Fitch's imprisonment, she'd have a better life. But she's running right back to that same situation, except this time there isn't anything illegal about it." He snorted. "Now I understand what she meant before when she told me that Brandon was her kind of man." He swallowed now, hearing the sorrow in his voice. "I wasted all that time, caring about her...worrying about her...feeling guilty about that whole situation." He shook his head again. "It was all for nothing. Because she never wanted to be free of someone else's control." More sadly, he said, "I guess some people can't handle being free."

"Everyone has different needs," Starsky pointed out. "And thank God for it. Because I need you...a whole bunch. And I'm glad no one else has ever needed you as badly as I do, so you weren't already taken by someone else."

Hutch kissed him for that. It felt so nice that as soon as they parted, he pressed against Starsky once again.

When Starsky was able to pull back, he said, "I'm glad you realized that about her. Even if it hurts. Sometimes, a person gets mixed up in all the wrong causes. Just have to believe that, somehow, we're all the better for it afterwards, for what we learned."

Hutch rested his head back against the sofa. "What I've learned is that you're the only person I want to give myself to. Forever."

Starsky grinned lovingly. "Sounds like a vow."

"It is."

"Ah, Hutch." Starsky wrapped his arms around his big blond. "I wanna spend all night loving you. Take our time."

Hutch stood and took Starsky's hand. "Let's go."

Starsky followed.



This novel originally appeared as the fanzine PHANTOMS, published by Charlotte Frost in 1997.

Early comments on this story are TBA.

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