Charlotte Frost




It hurt to swallow. Even an attempt seemed to take a great effort. His throat was thick and dry and filled with sand and dust. If only he had some water....

He ran his tongue along his lips. They stung. He could feel deep cracks along the dry, torn flesh. His tongue was so swollen that it felt as if it took up his entire mouth, increasing his sense of suffocation.

His eyes were dry and could no longer tear as the wind blew across them. He'd made a turban out of his T-shirt and put it around his head, but it did nothing to ease his discomfort. It had been a long time since he'd had the strength to look up, but he knew that buzzards still circled about, waiting for their chance to feast.

His muscles ached and it took all of his concentration to put one foot in front of the other. He didn't dare stop. So relentless was his determination to keep moving that his pants were occasionally soaked with urine, only to dry quickly to the uncomfortable stiffness matched by his sweat-soaked shirt.

Worst of all was the heat and brightness of the never-ending sun....

* * *

Starsky rose up in bed. He ran his hand over his face, surprised to find that it felt normal. His lips weren't cracked, his tongue wasn't swollen, and his eyes could see well enough to make out the outline of furniture in the darkness.

He tried to swallow and did so easily.

His head was pounding and there was an uncomfortable nausea in the pit of his stomach. He flung the covers aside and got out of bed.

He turned on the bathroom light and reached for a bottle of aspirin. "Feel like I've been in the friggin' desert," he muttered. He downed three aspirin, and kept drinking after swallowing, as the water tasted so good. It bathed his throat, soothing the phantom thickness within.

Starsky went back to bed and curled onto his side, waiting for the aspirin to work. He was accustomed to occasional nightmares, especially those related to specific incidents that had happened in the past. But this one puzzled him, because he'd never been stranded in a desert or had any such fear.

And Freud would probably say it's sexual, he thought with grim humor. I don't think so, you dead, over-sexed pervert.

After a time, he was able to fall back to sleep.

* * *

Five hours later, Starsky left his apartment, dressed and ready for work. After emerging from the shade of the stairwell, he found himself bathed in sunlight. He squinted, gazing up at the sun, puzzled by the feeling that it was his enemy. Then he moved on and gave the finish of the Torino an affectionate pat before getting in. He put on his sunglasses and pulled down the visor, protecting himself from the relentless brightness.

* * *

Starsky was leafing through pages in a file when a large shadow fell over his desk. He paused in his work, but didn't look up as he waited to hear what words of wisdom his captain wished to impart.

"It's kind of odd with just one of you sitting here," came Dobey's voice.

Starsky shrugged, wishing his superior would let it go. He knew it was awkward for Dobey to have expected four of his detectives to be gone at once, but instead to have only three missing. The one remaining from the foursome must have seemed like a lonely figure.

The black man grunted. "Just as long as you weren't pulling my leg earlier about why you're still here. Friction between partners is bad for everyone, all the way around."

Starsky sighed and turned to look up at the figure standing over him. "Cap'n, everything's fine. The only 'friction' is between me and a certain lovely person whom I consider to be my girlfriend. Like I told ya, a situation in her family came up right when we over-worked detectives were all supposed to go on the little fishin' trip. I thought I should go with Mary Ann to San Francisco, and it would have been too much trouble for everyone else to try to reschedule." A bit grudgingly, he noted, "Hutch can have fun with Simmons and Babcock without me." He didn't add that he hoped Mary Ann wasn't having fun without him. They'd had a heck of a fight the morning they were supposed to leave for her grandmother's, and Starsky still hadn't figured out what he'd done wrong. He only knew that she drove off without him.

Rather than sit alone in his apartment brooding over the situation, and feeling sorry that the others had already left for their fishing trip, he'd decided to work instead. Today was his third without his partner. Both he and Hutch had become more friendly with Simmons and Babcock ever since the latter duo had helped Starsky when Hutch had gotten botulism.

The phone rang. Starsky picked it up. "Starsky here."

"David?" It was a hesitant, female voice.

"Hold on a sec." The detective glanced up at his superior. "Uh, Cap'n, this is personal."

Dobey grunted and moved away.

"Mary Ann?" Starsky said.

The sigh was heavy from the receiver. "I just wanted you to know I made it okay to my grandmother's."

"Good. How is she?"

"She's doing pretty well, all things considered."

There was a long pause and Starsky said, "I wish you would have called me before now. I was gettin' worried."

Her sigh was heavier this time. "I wasn't ready to talk to you yet. Besides, I thought maybe you'd gone ahead with the others on the fishing trip."

"They'd already left," Starsky noted, hearing the distant self-pity in his own voice. "I wish you woulda called earlier to see if I was home."

"Like I said," she said softly, "I wasn't ready yet to talk to you."

"Are you ready now?" he asked hopefully.

"I'm not sure," she replied after a moment.

Starsky took a deep breath and let it exhale slowly. Then, "Look, Mary Ann, you're the one who drove off. I don't even know what I did to tick you off."

It was the wrong thing to say, for now her voice had an edge. "You don't?"

"No," he said in exasperation, hating the way women played you're-supposed-to-know-how-I-feel-even-when-I-won't-tell-you games. "Fill me in."

Her voice was steel. "For once, use your brain instead of your gonads and think about it." The line went dead.

Starsky stared at the receiver, as though that piece of equipment had committed an offense. Then he let it drop to its cradle.

He turned to the water cooler, eager to soothe his parched throat. As he filled a paper cup he decided he could stoop to consider what she said. Up to now, he'd avoided any serious recollection of their argument before she drove off.

Early in the morning, two days prior, everything had been packed and ready to go for the 400-mile trip to San Francisco.

"Keys," he'd prompted, standing at the trunk of her blue Chevy.

She tossed her ring to him and he opened the trunk. He put in his little duffel bag. There were two fair-sized suitcases left. "Isn't this a bit much for a two-day stay?" he'd asked, picking up the first of the remaining luggage.

"I need all that stuff," she told him, watching with her hands on her hips.

"For two days?" he pressed in disbelief.

She tossed back her full head of long brown hair. "You're just mad because you would have rather gone fishing with your friends."

That rankled him, especially since he was sacrificing that very trip for her. "Mary Ann, if I'd rather have gone fishing, I'd be fishing instead of here with you, getting ready to leave to see your grandmother in San Francisco." He put the last bag in and closed the trunk. "So, wipe that frown off your lovely face and let's go." He stepped forward, intending to kiss her.

But she stepped back. "Don't talk down to me like that. This trip means a lot to me. My grandmother only has a few months to live and this may be the last time I ever see her alive. She's my favorite grandparent and--"

"O-kay," Starsky gently took her arm and gestured to the car. "I understand all that and I agree." He smiled. "So, let's stop arguing about it and hit the road."

She grabbed the keys from him, and stormed past him to open the trunk. She took out his duffel bag and dropped it to the pavement. "I don't want you with me when you'd rather be somewhere else. Go find your friends and kill some fish." She marched to the car, got in, and drove off.

Starsky stood there, standing next to his duffel bag, watching her go, and wondering why he ever thought he understood the female gender. And yet, Mary Ann's assertiveness and fire were some of the very things he found most attractive about her. Finally, he called after the retreating bumper, "They've already left!"

But he called, just in case. Called Hutch. Called Mike Simmons, and then John Babcock. None answered. As previously arranged, they had all left at dawn, heading southeast toward the Salton Sea.

They were expected back tomorrow evening.

"You planning on leaving any for the rest of us?"

Starsky looked up and found Sgt. Lupton standing over him. "Huh?"

"You got a medical condition or somethin'?"

Starsky followed Lupton's gaze to the cup in his hand, and then followed it farther to the water dispenser. He must have drunk at least three cups straight while reflecting upon his argument with Mary Ann.

He turned away, embarrassed, crumbling up the cup before tossing it into the trash. Then he marched out the door, feeling a sudden need to visit the men's room.

* * *

Starsky spent all day in the squadroom, slowly going through files that contained possible suspects for a homicide in a department store. The store hadn't been robbed, but a sales clerk had been murdered. In a vague way, it reminded Starsky of when Terry had been shot, and that gave him a chill that relented only when he was reminded of the continuing need to water his parched throat.

The afternoon dragged at a snail's pace. Starsky had to admit that banter back and forth with his partner always did a great deal to break up the day, and he wished he had that banter now. He smiled, thinking about Dobey's concern that there might have been some sort of rift between Hutch and him. He supposed that, after the Kira Incident five months ago, he couldn't blame Dobey for suspecting such. At the same time, it filled him with warmth to know that such a situation was virtually impossible. He and Hutch had made up, their partnership now all the stronger.

He had no doubt that Hutch missed him just as much as he missed his blond, despite the fact that Simmons and Babcock could both be a couple of clowns who were fun to pal around with.

The phone rang. As soon as Starsky picked it up, he wondered if he should have taken a moment to consider what to say to Mary Ann. Hesitantly, he answered, "Detective Starsky here."

"Starsky? This is Simmons. What are you doing there?"

He hesitated, wondering how much he wanted to admit to. "Things didn't quite work out as planned with Mary Ann. What's up?"

"Has Hutch called in?"

The hairs on the back of Starsky's neck prickled. "What are you talkin' about? He's with you, isn't he?"

"He was until we hit Coachella the day before yesterday. He ran into an old girlfriend and wanted to spend time with her. He said he'd meet up with us at Salton Sea Beach by noon today. We haven't seen any sign of him, so we were a little concerned. I thought if he wanted to get in touch with us, he'd leave a message with someone at the station."

The nausea which had teased Starsky all morning now took firm root in the pit of his stomach. "What was the girl's name?"

"I'm not sure." There was the sound of Simmons turning away from the phone. Then, "Babcock doesn't know, either. Sorry, Starsky, but neither of us remembers, though I know Hutch introduced us." There was more talking in the background. Then Simmons said, "Yeah, she had long, black hair. Petite little thing. Wore short-shorts and those shoes with the big, thick heels."

Starsky shook his head. Hutch, damn you and all your lovers. How am I supposed to remember which one that is, huh, lover boy? "He hasn't called," he said. "Are you sure he knows where to find you?"

"Yeah. It's the same place we all went to before, the beach where there's the funny-shaped rocks."

"Right. I remember."

"We're in the park security's office, checking to see if he might have left a message with them. But there hasn't been a peep."

"Hutch would know you guys would start getting concerned," Starsky said worriedly, the nausea growing stronger.

"Right. We figure he'd have the courtesy to get a message to us if he decided the hell with the fishing and preferred to spend all his time with the girl instead."

Starsky felt a need to spring into action. "What number can I reach you at?"

"Call here at the park security office. 555-6264."

Starsky wrote it down. "I'll call you if I hear anything. And make damn sure you call me if he shows up, no matter how late."

"Right. Hopefully, he's just having such a good time he doesn't want to be bothered with anyone else."

One side of Starsky's mouth formed a tight smile. "Right. See ya." He hung up.

Dobey moved toward Starsky from the file cabinets. "What's up?"

"Hutch hasn't shown up at the lake like he was supposed to."

"I thought they all went in the same car."

"They did. But Hutch ran into an old girlfriend when they stopped in Coachella that first day. He told Simmons and Babcock he'd meet back up with them by noon today." Starsky released a heavy sigh. "He still hasn't shown."

Dobey smiled. "Well, we both know Hutch and women...."

"Yeah," Starsky acknowledged distantly. He was thinking furiously about the description that Simmons had given. The vague image didn't bring a face into view. He sat staring at the table, thinking it through. With conviction, he said, "Hutch wouldn't do this."

"Do what?"

"Leave us hanging like this. He knows I wouldn't put up with it from him any more than he'd put up with it from me."

"He doesn't even know you're here, right?" Dobey reasoned. "He thinks you're in San Francisco. There's no reason for him to try to contact you."

"But he wouldn't do that to Simmons and Babcock." Yet, even as Starsky said the words, he wasn't as convinced of them. It was easy to feel selfish with one's time when one was in the throes of pleasure. Still....

Starsky turned to his superior. "Cap'n, I gotta go out there."

"Are you out of your mind? Hutch probably just got lost and forgot where they're supposed to meet up. He'll find them eventually."

"And if he doesn't?" Starsky challenged, his heart racing. "If he needs help...." He shrugged into his jacket. "Besides, I was supposed to have these three days off, anyway."

Dobey was gazing at Starsky, studying his expression. Then his face turned into a sober frown. "All right. But I have days off starting tomorrow, too, and I'm going with you. We'll call in every half hour to see if Hutch or Simmons and Babcock have checked in."

Starsky felt relief filter through him. Dobey was taking the situation seriously. He was glad to have his superior's help.

Just as they turned toward the door, the phone rang. Starsky picked up and breathlessly greeted, "Starsky here."

A hesitant, female voice said, "David?"

"Mary Ann, I can't talk right now. Something's up." He slammed the receiver down and led the way out of the squadroom.

* * *

It was getting dark as Starsky sat in the Torino, which was parked in front of a phone booth in the little town of Coachella. He took a sip of bottled water as Dobey hung up the phone and moved back into the car. "Well?"

"Hutch hasn't called but Babcock and Simmons did. They're going to meet us at the Mr. Steak on 2nd Street. They said that's where Hutch met up with the girl."

Starsky looked up at the sign marked "1st Street". "Must be just the next block up." He capped the water bottle and put the Torino in gear.

"What's with you and all this water?" Dobey wondered.

Starsky shrugged. "My throat feels like it's dry all the time."

"You been to a doctor lately?"

"I get the annual physicals like everyone else."

As Starsky slowed at a stop sign, he felt the black man's gaze on him. "Do you have diabetes in your family?"

"No." He looked over at his superior. "Why?"

"Extreme thirst can be a sign of diabetes. My sister has it."

Of course, Starsky had heard of diabetes but he didn't know much about it. "Is diabetes serious?"

"It can be, especially if it isn't treated."

Hesitantly, he asked, "The thirst... it can feel like you're walking in a desert?"

That brought a concerned look. "I imagine so." Then, "Starsky?"

The detective glanced at his superior. "What?"

"When we get back, see a doctor. Don't make me make it an order."

Starsky looked out the windshield. And swallowed heavily. Hutch, where the hell are you? I might have a serious disease, and if I do I'm gonna need your help to deal with it.

* * *

Neither Simmons nor Babcock looked to be their usual, jovial selves. Both faces were lined with worry as Dobey and Starsky entered the lobby of Mr. Steak.

Babcock said, "We've got the address of the waitress--the girlfriend--because she's not working tonight. Her name is Florence Dunning."

Starsky shook his head, even as they headed for the Torino. "Doesn't ring a bell."

Starsky and Dobey held the seats of the Torino forward so Simmons and Babcock could get in the back. The latter said, "What's with all these water bottles?"

* * *

Florence Dunning answered the doorbell on the first ring. "Yes?" she asked through a crack in the door.

Starsky presented his badge. "Los Angeles Police. We have some questions to ask you about Sergeant Kenneth Hutchinson."

The door closed an instant, there was the sound of the sliding chain, then she opened it fully. "Come in. What about Hutch?"

"When did you last see him?" Starsky asked as they entered.

"Yesterday morning. I told him to take my car so he could meet with his friends...." she trailed off, seeing Simmons and Babcock. "I thought he was meeting back up with you two at the lake. You are the same two who were at the restaurant the other night, right?"

"Yes, ma'am," Babcock said. "Unfortunately, he never showed."

Her eyes widened and she put a hand to her mouth. "Oh, no. What could have happened?"

Starsky stared at her, not certain if she was friend or foe. "Why don't you tell us everything you know, starting when you left the restaurant last night. Better yet, start with how you first knew Hutch."

She retreated from the intensity of Starsky's gaze, sitting in an easy chair. "I used to live in Los Angeles with my sister." She looked at the three men, avoiding Starsky's eyes. "A few years ago, I was waitressing at the bowling alley on Ocean. I met him there and invited him to my place. It was just a one-night stand but..." she took a deep breath, "I...I liked him. When I saw him at the restaurant the other night, I couldn't believe it. And I was so happy that he seemed to remember me, too."

She paused and Starsky quietly commanded, "Go on."

"I invited him back here. He spent the night and I told him it was okay to borrow my car for a few days to meet up with his friends," she nodded at Simmons and Babcock.

"What kind of car is it?" Babcock asked.

"1972 Ford Mustang. Dark blue."

Simmons sighed. "Maybe we should go back to the lake. I don't remember seeing any cars like that, but now that we know what we're looking for...."

Florence's eyes suddenly darted to the screen door. "Who's that?"

Babcock glanced out the window at a car driving up. "Looks like a police car."

The four men exchanged worried glances, not knowing if it was good news or bad news.

An officer came to the screen door. "Miss Dunning?"

She went to the door and opened it partway. "I'm Florence Dunning."

"Sorry to bother you, Ma'am, but it's about your car. Do you own a dark blue Ford Mustang?"


"Have it you noticed it missing lately?"

"I loaned it to a friend yesterday morning."

"Have you heard from that friend?"


"Well, Ma'am, we found your car abandoned just off of Highway 86, about ten miles from town."

Beneath his breath, Starsky whispered, "No."

* * *

They spent the night talking to local law officials, the county sheriff, the state patrol, and the park police. Even in the light of a new day, a trip to where the car had been found didn't reveal any evidence of foul play. The car contained no belongings of Hutch's; but then, all his belongings--other than the clothes on his back--had been in Simmons' car.

Helicopters were combing the area where the car had been abandoned. It was now past noon and the three LA detectives and captain made their base at the local police station. They had contacted all hospitals within a hundred miles. And the morgues. There was no sign of anyone matching Hutch's description.

"If the helicopters don't find him," the local sheriff sighed, "I'm not sure what else we can do for the time being, except put out posters and alert the media."

Starsky had been able to scarf down a sandwich, but otherwise hadn't eaten. He stared at the local lawman. "Widen the search."

The man shifted his weight. "We don't have the manpower to do that. Plus, for a man on foot, it's unlikely that--"

"Nothing about this whole situation is likely," Starsky pointed out.

The sheriff went to a map on the wall. "Look. The Mustang was found off Highway 86 at roughly the same point where the Salton Sea and the Desert State Park form the sides of a 'V'. We've got choppers covering roughly ten miles each way all along the sides of the V. Any farther west and you're getting into urban areas heading toward San Diego. Any farther east are the Chocolate Mountains, which is where the military does missile testing, so it's not accessible to the public. To the south there's not much more than desert. To the north--"

Starsky's head snapped up. "Desert? What desert?"

The sheriff tapped the map. "Right here. The Algodones Dunes and surrounding area."

Images flooded Starsky. Desert. Sun. Bright. Hot. Thirsty. His voice emerged like a machine gun. "Helicoptersrightaway.He'sthirstythirsty.Lotsofwaterlotsofwater."

Dobey shook him by the shoulder. "Starsky, what are you talking about?"

"Hutch. He's in the desert. He needs help. He needs water. Get helicopters with paramedics. Now."

Starsky tore out of his superior's grasp and rushed out to the parking lot. He stared into the back seat of the Torino. The floorboards were covered with water bottles. He'd bought some at every stop on the trip when Dobey had kept calling Parker Center. Some distant part of him acknowledged that it was funny...all those water bottles in his back seat.

He tore the door open and reached into the back. He grabbed an armful and was grateful that his fellow detectives had joined him in the parking lot. He shoved the bottles at Babcock. "Hutch needs lots and lots of water." He reached for more and shoved them at an open-mouthed Simmons. "Are they calling the paramedics?"

Dobey appeared. "No, we haven't called them yet," he bellowed. "What makes you think Hutch is way the hell out there in the desert? How is that possible?"

Starsky didn't know the answer. He reached for more bottles and placed them in Dobey's reluctant hands.

The black man started to speak again, but Babcock laid a hand on Dobey's shoulder. Gently, he noted, "Captain, it's the only lead we've got."

* * *

Simmons and Babcock stayed behind to monitor communications with other search vehicles. Starsky and Dobey accompanied a pilot and two paramedics in a medical helicopter. So did armfuls of water bottles.

The sun was still high in the sky as the helicopter entered the sand dunes by following Highway 78.

"We know he's not near the highway," Starsky said. "If he was, someone would have seen him and picked him up. He has to be the middle of nowhere."

Dobey regarded the detective skeptically, but he nodded at the pilot, who turned the copter toward a southeasterly direction.

For half an hour they saw nothing but sand and dunes. All five men kept their eyes to the ground, as the copter angled in various directions in the sky, making sure no area between dunes was missed.

"I see something!" a paramedic called from the back.

They all turned their heads to see where he was pointing. The copter banked toward the indicated direction.

"Yeah, it looks like a person," the other paramedic said.

From his seat next to the pilot, Starsky strained to spot something unique within all the miles of sand. And then he saw it: a speck growing larger. Barely moving. But moving nevertheless. He looked at the pilot. "Hurry!"

Starsky felt a hand on his shoulder. And then the awed whisper of his superior. "How did you know he was here?"

Starsky turned around to face Dobey. He wanted to answer the question, but found himself speechless, because he didn't know what the answer was.

He turned his face away and unbuckled his seatbelt, heading back to the bay area where the paramedics were opening the big side door as the copter eased down to within a hundred yards of the ground.

"At least he's mobile," one paramedic, with sandy hair, said to the other, a fresh-faced youngster with red hair. He turned to Starsky. "How long do you think he's been out here?"

Starsky swallowed, not liking the fact that the hunched-over, staggering figure hadn't looked up or given any indication of being aware of the helicopter. "This might be the third day."

The two paramedics looked at each other. "Let's bathe him in water," the older one said. His companion nodded.

Starsky looked at them. "It's all right to let him drink it, isn't it?"

"Yes. If you want to take care of that part, we'll take care of cooling him down. That's assuming he's not too delirious. If he's confused, we'll have to be very careful."

They all watched while the copter came closer to the moving figure, and the red-haired man said, "He doesn't even seem to realize we're here."

The copter landed with a gentle jolt, about a hundred feet from where the turbaned, pale-haired form continued to stagger forward. Starsky could see now that Hutch had taken his T-shirt and wrapped it around his forehead. His outer shirt hung open. His jeans and shoes looked torn, but for the most part covered him. His face was lowered toward the ground.

Starsky grabbed a water bottle, his mind bombarded with the agony experienced from his dream two nights before. "Let me approach him first." He jumped out of the copter as the blades slowed to a more shallow spin.

The sand felt thick and hot to his sneakers. He moved out a brisk place toward Hutch.

He heard the other's deep, wheezing breath as he came within twenty feet. The wind carried the stale, powerful smell of sweat and urine.

"Hutch," Starsky called, the wind whipping the words away. Then, more loudly, "Hutch!"

The other did not look up.

"Hutch," Starsky gentled his tone as the space closed between them. He was reluctant to reach out to his partner, for he could see the angry redness dominating the other's skin, making him uncertain of where he could touch without causing pain.

"Hutch," he whispered, the other now right in front of him, his head still bowed.

Starsky knelt, for Hutch had stopped upon seeing his shoes, at least having some awareness of something blocking his path. He swayed, hunched over like a weary gorilla. Starsky ducked his head to look up into the other's dirt-smeared, red-blotched face. The lips were swollen, cracked, and torn. The nose and cheeks blistered. The eyes outlined in red. But the orbs...Starsky could see a glimpse of blue. "Hutch," he said in a whisper, "it's all right now. I'm here." He reached up, took a piece of sleeve between his fingers and gently tugged. "I'm right here."

Hutch dropped to his knees.

Starsky unscrewed the lid to the water bottle and tossed it aside. He poured some in his hand. "Here, Hutch. Water." He tilted his hand toward the other's lips.

The change was instant. Hutch flailed at Starsky's hand, as though trying to grab it and keep it at his lips. "Easy, Hutch, easy." With his other hand, Starsky brought the bottle up and tilted the opening against Hutch's mouth.

The blond grabbed at the bottle, hands shaking so hard that most of it spilled over his mouth.

"Hutch, easy. Easy. There's plenty. There's plenty." Starsky had control of the bottle now, and he pulled it away when Hutch coughed from deep within his chest.

"Easy, buddy. Easy." As soon as the spasm passed, Starsky tilted the bottle again, more careful this time, and was grateful that Hutch used his limited energy to drink, his hands having collapsed to his sides.

The paramedics appeared. The older one had open bottles and began pouring them over Hutch's head.

Hutch seemed to have run out of breath and Starsky pulled the water away from his mouth.

"He ready to lie down for us?" the paramedic asked. The red-haired one brought the basket-like gurney next to them. It was lined with a white sheet.

Even as the paramedic spoke, Hutch seemed to sway again, and the three of them grabbed his shirt, trying to direct his collapse toward the gurney. They were partially successful, and pulled at his clothing until he was inside the basket.

"Let's get him out of the sun and treat him in the helicopter," the paramedic said. He and his assistant tightened the straps on the gurney. Dobey had appeared and all four of them carried the basket toward the helicopter. Hutch remained quiet, but Starsky could see his throat muscles straining to swallow or speak, he wasn't sure which.

As soon as they were all inside and the side door closed, a thumbs-up was given to the pilot. The blades quickened as they left the ground.

"How close is the nearest hospital?" Starsky asked.

"About forty-five minutes. It's in El Centro." The paramedic turned to his partner. "Radio the hospital and let them know we're removing his clothes and are going to wrap him in water-soaked sheets.

The red-haired man turned to the radio.

Starsky leaned over the basket. He put a hand on Hutch's shirt, could feel significant heat through the thin material. "Hutch, it's okay now." He watched the throat muscles continue to work. "The hard part's all over. Just rest."

Now that he was out of the sun, Hutch's eyes appeared to open a little wider. They gazed up at his partner. Starsky returned the gaze, and watched as a subtle change came over his partner's expression. Starsky knew that Hutch recognized him and understood he'd been rescued, for the muscles in his face seemed to relax. Except for the right corner of his lower lip, which quivered, as though his emotions were close to the surface.

While a radio conversation between the red-haired paramedic and the hospital crackled in the background, the senior half of the duo turned on an oxygen tank and inserted two small tubes in Hutch's nostrils. Then he glanced at Starsky. "How aware do you think he is?"

"He knows I'm here and he knows he's been rescued. If you want to ask him questions, I don't think he can talk."

The man shook his head. "I don't want to question him. He's exhausted." He presented a pair of large scissors. "We need to get his clothes off and get a temperature reading before we wrap him in wet sheets." He handed a water bottle to Dobey, who was kneeling next to them. "Keep pouring this over his head and neck."

Dobey nodded.

While the scissors were used on the jeans, Starsky peeled away what remained of Hutch's shirt. The skin that used to be so pale was now covered in red, some areas a deeper red than others, much of it accented by angry blisters.

As Starsky removed the shirt from Hutch's head, he heard the senior paramedic say to his partner, "Tell them that his urine stains are brown."

"What does that mean?" Starsky asked worriedly.

"It's a sign of dehydration." The paramedic tossed the torn, smelly clothing away. He took the white sheet that his partner handed to him and spread it over Hutch, Starsky and Dobey helping. Then he produced a thermometer and rubbed Vaseline along the barrel. "We've got to turn him so I can get this into him."

Starsky knew it would be wasting his breath to ask why they couldn't take Hutch's temperature from the other end. Hutch was obviously too weak to be trusted to keep a thermometer in his mouth, never mind that the water he'd been given would decrease the accuracy of the reading.

"Use the sheet to touch him," the paramedic directed. "Just pull him toward you a little," he said to Starsky. Holding the bottom sheet that was near Hutch's shoulder, Starsky gently moved it toward him. Between the three of them, they got him on his side enough that the paramedic was able to say, "That'll do."

"Easy, buddy," Starsky whispered, though Hutch wasn't showing any sign of resistance. The blond was almost completely covered with the sheet, and he didn't seem aware of what the paramedic was doing. His eyes remained barely open and his breathing heavy. There wasn't any fresh sweat on his body, and Starsky suspected that could be serious. He watched Dobey continue to pour a gentle stream of water along Hutch's head and beet-red neck.

The paramedic pulled the thermometer away. "Let him lie back."

"Here, Hutch," Starsky whispered, relaxing his hold on the sheet and letting Hutch gently fall back to a prone position. "There you go, pal. It's all right now."

"It's 105.1," the paramedic told his partner. The other lifted the microphone to the radio.

Starsky swallowed at the information. "Can I keep giving him more water?"

"As much as he wants. Just go slow enough that he can swallow it."

The red-haired man joined his partner and the two now worked at preparing an IV.

Starsky opened another water bottle. He bent close to the eyes that remained half open. "Hutch, I've got some more water here. I need you to drink it real slow. Give your throat a chance to work."

He could only assume Hutch understood, for the pale blue orbs maintained eye contact from beneath red lids.

"I'll lift his head," Dobey said, doing so.

Starsky tilted the water bottle carefully. The first few drops ran down his partner's chin, but then the other opened his mouth, and Starsky paused until Hutch swallowed. The blond's eyes closed for a brief moment, as though in bliss.

"You can have all you want," Starsky assured him.

Hutch swallowed a few more mouthfuls, then moved his head a fraction of an inch.

"You can put him back down," Starsky directed Dobey. "He doesn't want any more." Starsky tilted the bottle and poured it along the redness of Hutch's neck and upper chest. The paramedics were doing likewise with the sheet that covered Hutch, soaking it with water . When they were finished, the older one said, "That's as far as it goes until he gets to the hospital. We've got to be careful that his temperature doesn't turn too far in the other direction."

There was a swallowing noise and Starsky leaned close again, noting the throat muscles working deliberately. "Hutch," he soothed, placing a hand on the wet cloth covering his partner's chest, "don't try to talk. Just rest, pal." Looking at the torn, chapped lips, Starsky was reminded of the vivid dream he'd had. He turned toward the paramedics. "His head hurts real bad and he's nauseated."

The paramedics looked at each other. Then they looked at Dobey. No one spoke. They apparently decided not to question the source of Starsky's knowledge, for the sandy-haired one said, "That's from shock. The IV will help."

Starsky turned back to his partner. The throat muscles were still moving, as was Hutch's jaw. "Hutch, don't try to talk. It's all right now. Just take it easy. Rest."

The muscles worked harder, and Starsky realized then that Hutch was determined to speak. He tilted his ear close.

There was more of the painful swallowing noises. Then a scratchy, trembling, "H-how f-f-find-d me?"

When Starsky pulled back, he saw that Hutch's lower lip was quivering again. Then his gaze was captured by the blue eyes that had grown brighter since the rescue.

Starsky let himself fall into their depths. It was the same question that Dobey had asked; but, this time, it seemed very important to have the answer.

He listened to the thump-thump-thump within his chest, wondering what other answer there could have ever been. Wondered why he hadn't figured it out sooner, before so many days had gone by since his dream.

He, too, had to swallow before speaking. He bent closer, and his voice was soft and tender. "I followed my heart."

The eyes continued to gaze back at him, then the lids closed a little, and there was the hint of a nod.

"I wonder what happened," Dobey said. "How could he have possibly made it this far away from the car?"

"Someone had to have left him there," Starsky said without looking away from Hutch. He sighed. "It doesn't really matter now. We'll get the whole story when he's well enough."

The paramedics continued to take Hutch's vital signs periodically, and kept reporting the data to the hospital. Though he was glad that Hutch was quiet, Starsky felt the need to continue to soothe. He picked up a water bottle and poured some along Hutch's neck and collarbone, where the sheet didn't reach. He gently patted the moisture along the overheated skin. He noticed that whenever he glanced up at Hutch's face, his partner's red-rimmed eyes were watching him.

That kind of trust was the last thing Starsky would ever betray. He felt the knowledge quickening his heartbeat, but softening other parts of his chest. He knew that what he really wanted more than anything was to pick Hutch up and press his partner against himself. Wanted to rub his hands up and down the other's back, lock the other's chin over his shoulder, squeeze around his waist, scratch up into his hairline...gestures of affection that Hutch would appreciate. Things that would make him feel better. Feel loved and wanted. Instead of abandoned like he must have felt when whoever it was left him to die in the desert.

"Why don't you take that T-shirt," the paramedic pointed to the one that had been wrapped around Hutch's head, "soak it in water, and tie it loosely his neck. It'll be easier for him to stay cool."

Dobey picked the T-shirt up, untied it, and held it out while Starsky poured water over the cloth. When it was dripping wet, Starsky took it and slipped it under Hutch's neck. "Here you go, pal," he soothed as he pressed the ends against the sides of the burned skin and tied it. "There you go."

Those sea-blue eyes were still following him. Starsky leaned close. "Hutch? It's all right to close your eyes. You can rest now. You're going to be fine. When you wake up you'll feel better. Promise." He wanted to touch the other somewhere, and finally settled on the sun-bleached mustache. He stroked along the fur, then locked his gaze with the stubborn eyes. "Hear me, Hutch? It's all right now. Close your eyes and sleep. We're all gonna take good care of you." His finger stroked in rhythm to his voice. "Close your eyes. Relax. Rest. It's gonna be fine. Gonna be fine." The squinting became more pronounced, but the lids didn't quite close. "I know how tired you are. It's okay to give in to it. It's okay now. I'm still gonna be right here while you're sleeping."

The throat muscles worked again in what was a difficult attempt to swallow. Starsky was tempted to offer more water, but the eyes finally closed. His finger continued to stroke and he whispered, "That's a boy. It's okay. It's all okay now. It's gonna be fine. Just fine."

He stopped talking but continued to pet along the strip of hair. Hutch was very still and Starsky eventually removed his finger. He watched his partner a while longer, then straightened. He slumped back against the sides of the helicopter and noticed that the other three occupants were all looking at him, but they glanced away as soon as he noticed.

Starsky closed his own eyes, letting exhaustion and worry overtake him.

The hospital was ten minutes away.

* * *

Three days later Starsky entered the hospital. It was late in the morning. Simmons and Babcock had driven their superior back to Los Angeles the day before. Hutch was being treated with fluids and steroids. He had slept almost all through the previous two days, which allowed his body to recover from the heatstroke and his temperature to stabilize to just a little above normal.

The only physical problem left was brought to mind when Starsky crossed the threshold to his partner's room. Hutch looked like something out of a horror movie, because there were blisters all over his body. The worst--most on his face and shoulders--were being treated with ointment, which added to his unpleasant appearance. The doctors were giving him painkillers to provide some relief from the burning, but still Hutch lay in bed uncovered, wearing only briefs, as contact with any material intensified his discomfort.

The bleach-blond head turned at the sound of his visitor. Hutch managed a genuine smile. "Hi." His voice was very scratchy from having gone so long without water, and it hurt to hear him talk.

"Hi, yourself." Starsky stood back and looked him over. "My, aren't you a handsome sight this morning."

Hutch snorted with amusement, then admitted, "Haven't seen a mirror yet."

"I wouldn't recommend it, unless you want to lose your appetite." Starsky grabbed a nearby stool and sat down. Though his partner looked awful, it was rewarding to see him in good spirits.

"They said I can go home tomorrow."

The grating voice made Starsky cringe. "Can't they do anything for your throat?"

"Sounds worse than it feels," Hutch assured. "The doctor said it would take awhile for it to recover the stress of being without any lubrication for so long."

Starsky softened. "Speaking of which, you up to telling me what the hell happened?"

Hutch closed his eyes and shook his head, as though in disbelief. "They thought I was someone else."

"Who did?"

"A group of hit men." His eyes opened. "There were four of them, counting the pilot of the helicopter. I thought I was stopping to help a guy who had car trouble, and the next thing I know all these guys are on me. They blindfolded and handcuffed me and put me in the trunk and drove me out to where they had a helicopter. They put me in it, and the whole time we're flying they kept calling me Frank Jennings and saying they were doing a job that Thomas Whitley wanted done, getting revenge for what I'd done to him. I kept telling them they had the wrong man, and that I was a cop and to look in my wallet. But they didn't bother, just kept saying they'd been warned about how easily I could get fake IDs."

Hutch glanced up at the table next to the bed, and Starsky poured a glass of water from the pitcher there. Hutch swallowed a few sips and then continued. "The helicopter landed and they pulled me out, took off my blindfold, undid my cuffs, and got ready to take off. I asked them if they were just going to leave me there, and they said 'That's the way Whitley wanted it done. He said you'd understand why.' Then they took off."

The blue eyes darted to Starsky. "I really wasn't that worried, at first. I had no idea where they'd flown me, but I was in good shape and thought if I kept moving west, I had to eventually run into the ocean, which meant civilization." He swallowed thickly. "But every time I crossed over a hill, there was another one in front of me. I thought about stopping the first night, but it was so much cooler that I thought I should take advantage of it and keep moving. By the end of the next day I was..." Hutch hesitated, then, "exhausted. So hot. So thirsty. I-I think I got confused about the direction I was supposed to be going in." He snorted. "May have been going in circles, for all I know."

Starsky lowered his eyes, looking at the floor, not wanting to relive what that must have been like. The dream had told him enough.

"Tell you one thing," Hutch said, "I'm sure not going to be anxious to get a tan for a long time."

Starsky managed a half-hearted smile at the joke.

"Keep going over it and over it," the blond said, serious now. "Don't understand how you figured out where I was."

Starsky allowed a small inner smile. He shifted in his seat. "We'll save that for later, Hutch. For now, I want you to tell me about Florence Dunning. If she loaned you her car out of the goodness of her heart, then what the hell were those four men doing waiting for you?"

The blond's eyes shifted thoughtfully from side to side. Then, "Starsk, Flo doesn't have anything to do with this. She's not the type of person to get mixed up with people like that."

"Hutch, lots of people get mixed up in things they don't want to get mixed up in."

Hutch shook his head. "I don't believe it."

"Then what's your explanation?" Starsky pressed. "How did those men know that was you--or somebody who looked like Frank Jennings--driving that car? Going down that particular road?"

"That's just it, buddy, she didn't know what road I'd be taking to Salton...." Hutch trailed off, his eyes widening. Then they closed. "Oh, God."


"Oh, Flo," Hutch said, bitter now. "You conniving little--"

"What?" Starsky demanded.

"I can't believe it." Hutch's eyes opened. "Can't believe she'd pull something like that." He looked at his partner. "She suggested I take a shortcut to get to the Salton Sea park. She said there was a little-known turnoff off of Highway 87." Hutch slammed a fist against the bed. "Damn it!"

"Hutch, it's okay," Starsky said quickly. "You had no way of knowin' what she had planned."

Hutch shook his head, laughed self-mockingly. "I thought she really thought I was hot. She seemed so glad to see me in town, even though we'd only had a one-night stand, years ago. Damn, I can't believe I fell for it. She set me up but good."

"Ah, Hutch," Starsky said, "Your heart was in the right place." He continued, "So, what do you think? This Frank Jennings guy was a lover, or father, or brother, or something, and she agreed to help the other guy--Thomas Whitley--find him? But, instead, she either thought it through ahead of time, or thought it through on the spot, and when she saw you, you must have looked enough like Frank that she knew the hitmen would go after you, thereby leaving her...." Starsky now slammed his own fist down. "How much you wanna bet she and this Frank fellow hightailed it outta town as soon as they got the news you'd been found?"

Hutch nodded toward the bedside phone.

Starsky picked up the receiver and called the local police. He wasn't surprised when they sent a squad car over to Florence Dunning's house and found the house empty and her things gone. A neighbor told them that Florence had said she was moving to Mexico. She was accompanied by a tall blond man with a mustache who the neighbor assumed was her boyfriend.



Two days after arriving back home, Starsky stopped by Hutch's on his way to work. After giving the telltale knock, he let himself in with the key over the door. He found his partner in his green robe and stirring a morning concoction.

"Good morning," he greeted.

"Morning," Hutch muttered. He stirred the drink in his glass. Again and again.

"Just thought I'd see how you were doing before I hit the salt mines." Starsky sat down in a chair opposite Hutch. The skin on the blond's nose and neck was still blistered, but the rest of his body had started to peel. "How's your new birthday suit comin' along?"

Hutch gave him a baleful look.

"Too bad you still get today off. If you came in with me, you could answer the phone first in case it's Mary Ann."

That brought another disapproving look. "You're going to have to face her, Starsk, sooner or later, and find out what the problem is."

"I know," Starsky sighed. "I just don't understand what's gone wrong with us. I thought we'd work things out when she got back from San Francisco. But she's still mad at me and she won't tell me why. She says she doesn't want to talk to me...but she keeps calling me." He shrugged. "I feel like I'm running in circles and she's in the middle watching."

Hutch nodded as though in sympathy, but didn't speak. His attention still seemed to be on his drink, which he continued to stir.

Starsky frowned, disappointed that his partner wasn't being more helpful. "Well, guess I'd better get going, so I won't be late." He stood.

"You're going to be late for work," Hutch said firmly.


"Sit down."

Starsky obeyed the sharp tone and worriedly asked, "What's wrong?"

Hutch looked at him squarely. "I'm tired of going in circles, too."

"What do you mean?"

"Lay it out to me straight. How did you find me?"

Starsky sat back down, his heart beat a little stronger, softening his voice. He put his arms on the table, leaning forward eagerly. "It was the strangest thing, Hutch. A couple of nights after you guys left, I had this incredible dream. I was walking in a desert, and I was exhausted, and hot, and thirsty. And I just knew that I had to keep moving. And when I woke up, my head was pounding and I felt sick in my stomach. And then, the next two days, I kept feelin' like I was thirsty. Kept drinkin' lots and lots of water." He laughed. "Dobey thought I had diabetes. Can you believe that? He wanted me to see a doctor."

Hutch didn't laugh. "Maybe you should."

Starsky shook his head, wondering how Hutch could miss the point. "No, no, Hutch. Since we found you, I've been fine." His voice softened again. "It was just between the dream and when we found you that I felt real thirsty."

"So, how did you find me?" Hutch persisted. He finally quit stirring and sipped from his glass.

"Well, after they found the abandoned Mustang, they had helicopters looking all over the area for you. And then we were at the sheriff's station, talking about where the car was found on the map, and then the sheriff mentioned something about a desert area and--bam!--it just suddenly all clicked into place. I knew you were out there. I just knew it. Because of the dream, I mean. And feeling like I was thirsty. It was incredible, Hutch."

Hutch gazed at him a long moment, not speaking. Finally, he grunted. "Humph."

Starsky felt a sinking disappointment that Hutch didn't share his joy in the story. "That all you got to say?"

The blond took another sip. When he pulled the drink away, he admitted, "That is a pretty incredible coincidence."

"Coincidence? Coincidence? It was a helluva lot more than that."

"Like what?" Hutch challenged.

"Well, I dunno," Starsky admitted, puzzled as to why Hutch was giving him what felt like an interrogation. "But, Hutch, I've never had a dream like that before. I mean, so vivid. If it weren't for that dream we would never have figured out where you were."

Hutch's face closed and he began stirring vigorously again.

Frustrated, Starsky pointed out, "You believed that Joe Collandra guy. How come you don't believe this?"

Hard blue eyes turned on him. "How come you do? Especially when you didn't believe Joe Collandra?"

"Because I had the dream," Starsky stabbed at his own chest with a finger. "Doesn't matter whether or not it can be explained 'normally', does it? For God's sakes, Hutch, it's because of the damn dream that I found you. Why is it so hard for you to believe, when the fact that you're here right now is proof that there was something--I dunno, psychic, I guess--going on between us?"

Hutch was on his feet, voice raised. "There was nothing psychic going on between us when you were kidnapped by Simon's goons. I almost didn't find you in time. I almost didn't find out who hired Vic Bellamy in time. I didn't have any psychic help."

Starsky watched his partner's chest heave as the blond fought to bring his anger under control. Quietly, he reminded, "But you did find me those two times, Hutch. Maybe that's the difference. There's no way we would have ever thought you might be in that desert. Maybe that's why some sort of psychic connection or whatever kicked in."

Hutch plopped back into his chair, shaking his head in disbelief, but his voice was calmer. "Angels on our shoulders? I don't think so, buddy."

Starsky shrugged. "There's no harm in the thought, is there?"

"Yes, there is." The blond's voice wasn't raised as high as before but the anger was just as poignant. He waved his hands at nothing in particular. "If something...happens to you...and I gotta find you before it's too late, how good do you think my chances are going to be if I sit back and wait for some sort of," he waved an arm dramatically, "psychic intervention? How would I ever forgive myself if my belief in that made me try this much," he held a thumb and forefinger barely apart, "less hard to find you; and it made all the difference between finding you dead and finding you alive?"

"You wouldn't try any less harder, Hutch. Not even that much less. I know that."

Hutch stared at him doubtfully.

Starsky stood so abruptly that his chair made a noise as it scooted back. "I don't even know why we're arguing about this. Any way you look at it or define it, we have something special between us, and that specialness should be bringing us something...good...instead of causing us to argue with each other." He shrugged dismissively. "If I have to fight with someone I care about, it may as well be with Mary Ann." He marched to the door and slammed it shut behind him.

* * *

The phone rang and Starsky sighed as he picked up the receiver. "Sergeant Starsky."


"Mary Ann?" Despite his not knowing what to say to her, he was glad that she'd called.

"Look, uh, can you come over tonight after work for dinner?"


"Will you be able to be here by seven o'clock?"

Starsky smiled into the phone. "Sure, sweetheart."

"All right, darling, see you then."

Starsky kissed the receiver, his smile widening as he hung up. Sometimes making up was incredibly easy to do.

* * *

The phone rang again an hour later. "Sergeant Starsky speaking."

The voice was male. And bashful. "Hey,'s it goin?"

"It's goin'." When nothing was immediately forthcoming, Starsky prompted, "How's it going for you?"

"It's goin'."


"Hey, uh...look, about swinging by my place after shift? If I promise to have something edible?"

Starsky's heart sank. "Ah, Hutch, I got a date with Mary Ann right after work."

"Oh, never mind," Hutch said quickly. "You patch it up with your lady friend. I don't want to get in the middle of that."

"Yeah," Starsky said regretfully. He wished he could say something else to smooth over the earlier breach between them, but Hutch spoke first.

"See you tomorrow, buddy."

"Yeah. See you then."

Starsky hung up, no longer smiling.

* * *

The Torino darted forward when the light turned green. It was dark and Starsky was headed for Mary Ann's house. He'd gotten involved in a conversation with Dobey and left later than intended. Now he was trying to make up for it by gunning through yellow lights.

He sighed, thinking about how rare it was for him or Hutch to have a reason to apologize to one another. And how difficult a time Hutch in particular had in doing so. The request for his partner's presence after an argument was a big step for the blond to make. And Starsky had had to turn him down in deference to Mary Ann.

Sweetheart, you'd better be worth it. She had sounded warm to him on the phone, like she wanted to make up. Starsky was more than willing. But, more importantly, he'd decided on the way over that they were going to hash out their problems tonight and not put it off any longer. He was determined that a delicious dinner and pleasurable lovemaking were not going to interfere with having the conversation that was long past due. Either they were serious about each other--and had to therefore make an effort to communicate better--or they weren't. And if they weren't, they should have the courtesy to stop wasting each other's time.

The light at the next block turned red and Starsky slammed on the brakes. He sat there, revving the motor, trying to ignore the fact that the cross street was the boulevard that would take him to Ocean. If he even stopped at Hutch's for a few minutes, it would take him far enough out of his way to make him a half hour late to Mary Ann's.

Starsky swallowed. There was no reason to upset her further when they already had so many communication problems. Being on time would be a big step toward showing his seriousness about wanting them to work things out.

The light turned green.

"Dammit," Starsky swore at no one in particular, making a right onto the boulevard that would take him to Ocean.

* * *

"Hutch," he called while knocking rapidly. He'd seen the LTD in the parking lot, so at least his partner hadn't gone elsewhere for the evening after being gently rejected by his partner.

The door opened. Hutch stood there, still in his robe, with his guitar in hand. "What are you doing here?" he asked, stepping back. "Don't tell me Mary Ann already threw you out."

"Nah, I still need to get to her place. Not gonna be long." Starsky moved into the living room, while Hutch, watching him, sat back down on the sofa. "So," Starsky rubbed his hands briskly together, "what have you been up to all day?" He finally decided to straddle an arm of the sofa.

Hutch set the guitar down so he could rub his hand along the opposite arm. "Peeling off dead skin."

"Hm." Starsky waited expectantly, and then decided he really didn't come here to listen to Hutch apologize. His head ducked slightly. "Uh, look, Hutch. I'm, uh, sorry about this morning."

Hutch shrugged and took up his guitar again. "So am I. Guess I've been a little touchy lately." He picked at a string, its singular sound vibrating through the apartment.

"Well, if either of us has a right to be, you do. Guess I shouldn't have been so pushy about the dream."

Hutch hit another string, then, "You were just answering my question. I guess I had let some stuff build up, and I took it out on you."

Starsky shrugged. "What are partners for?" Then his brow furrowed. "What stuff build up?"

"The usual in that type of situation: Anger that I got left out there like that when I hadn't done anything wrong. Self-righteousness that things like that aren't supposed to happen to me. Disbelief that it was all going to end that way."

Starsky shook his head thoughtfully. "I don't think that's what was making you mad this morning."

Hutch hit a string a little too heavily, and its twang was loud and bitter.

Gently, Starsky said, "You were scared this morning, Hutch, reliving those times when you thought you wouldn't be able to get to me in time. I shouldn't have walked out on you when you were feeling like that. I knew you weren't mad at me."

Hutch set the guitar down again. He gazed at the coffee table a long moment, then said, "Yeah, I guess I was." He looked up and shrugged again. "I guess maybe," his eyes closed and he released a heavy breath, "it got mixed up in being out there, and afraid that I wasn't going to make it, that nobody was going to find me in time." His eyes opened, and now they were bright with gratitude.

"Ah, Hutch." Starsky hopped off the sofa arm, moved the guitar out of the way, and plopped down next to the blond. He rested his forehead against his partner's robe-covered arm.

Softly, Hutch said, "If I'd had any energy left, I would have cried like a baby when you were just suddenly...there. Couldn't believe it."

"I'm surprised you remember any of it."

"I remember...WATER. Cool. Wet. The sound of the helicopter. You hovering over me. That I couldn't move, but that was okay."

Hutch went silent, and Starsky was feeling so comfortable that he decided to mix in some humor and said, "Guess you don't remember them sticking that thermometer up your backside."

There was further silence, then Hutch glumly admitted, "No, I don't remember that. How considerate of you to mention it."

"Just bein' a pal."


Suddenly, Starsky was pushed away. "Go on," Hutch said. "Mary Ann's waiting."

"Shit," Starsky said, jumping to his feet. "She's going to be pissed as hell that I'm late. Hell hath no fury...."

"Why don't you call her and let her know you're on your way."

"Because she'll start arguing with me over the phone. It'll just waste time, since we'll probably be arguing when I get there, anyway."

Hutch picked up the guitar again. "You'll work it out."


The blond's face softened. "Yeah. You two are good for each other. She's got a feistiness about her that's equal to yours."

Starsky reached to the door knob. "I'll remember that when she's roasting my nuts over an open flame."

* * *

She opened the door of her house when he knocked, but then she stormed away with her arms crossed.

"Mary Ann," he started, following her, "look, I'm sorry. I know I said I'd be here at seven, but Captain Dobey and I were talking about an important case, and I just couldn't walk out in the middle of it."

She swung to face him. She was wearing a black velvet dress that hung low about her bust. "You could have called."

"I didn't want to stop to take the time and be even later than I am. I'm here now."

She moved away again. "That's what you always say when you're late."

"Well," he sputtered, "it's true. What difference does it make now that I'm here? I mean, what else can I do to make it up to you?"

"Don't do it again." Her back was to him.

"I can't make a promise like that. You know with my job that sometimes things come up and--"

"That's just an excuse."

He stepped in front of her, arms spread. "All right. What do you want from me? What can I do to get back into your good graces?"

She turned toward the bedroom. "Let's fuck."


She swung around. "That's what you want, isn't it? That's supposed to solve any and all problems."

Starsky felt the fire go out of him. Meekly, he said, "What are you talking about?"

"Whenever anything bad happens, you want to screw."

Starsky blinked, feeling more lost than ever. "What bad things are you talking about?"

Her voice quivered with unshed tears. "When I first found out my grandmother was terminal, you just wanted to fuck me."

Starsky felt his jaw drop. Confusion gave way to disbelief, and then an ache that went to the very core of his masculinity. "M-M-Mary Ann," he stuttered, reaching to gently take her arm, "I-I-I just wanted to make love to you."

"Is that what you call it?" she asked, tears falling. "I have my heart ripped out because my grandmother is the most important person in the world to me, and you think sticking your prick into me is supposed to make it all better?"

Starsky fought down every instinct to lash out at her for trampling on his masculinity and so completely misunderstanding his motives. "Mary Ann," his own voice was unsteady, "I wanted tocomfort you, protect you, make you feel alive. I th-thought making love to you was a way of making you feel loved...despite all your sorrow. Man oh man, I never would have done it if I thought you didn't want it." His voice hardened as the memory became clearer. "What signal did I miss that meant 'no'?"

"How could I say no?" she sniffed, moving away from him. "I was in shock and going through the most traumatic moment of my life, and all you could think about was doing it."

Starsky felt that his heart had dropped down to the level of his shoes. He sat heavily on the couch, his head in his hands. "I felt so sad for you," he explained, not looking up, "and I wanted to comfort you, and love you. Making love to you had always seemed to be something pleasant and wonderful for you, so I wanted to give you that when you seemed to need it so much right then." He looked up. Those big, dark eyes were on him as she wiped her nose. "If I was wrong, then I have no defense. But, Mary Ann, please, for God's sakes, don't think it was for anything other than what it was. I wasn't thinking about me that night. I was thinking about you. If I'd known for one second that you didn't want that kind of sympathy, I never would have done it." He swallowed, then said something he very much wanted her to know. "I've never in my life asked twice when I got a 'no' the first time. I have never in my life made love to any woman who I didn't feel wanted it wholeheartedly from me."

She put the tissue aside. "It's never occurred to me before that I might have to explain why I didn't want sex. But I guess I should start saying yes or no every time you come on to me."

"Fine." Starsky picked up a magazine, angry now, and tossed it back on the coffee table. He followed her to the kitchen. "There's a whole 'nother issue here, you know."

She looked at him with red-rimmed eyes. "What's that?" She turned to the stove and stirred something that looked like gravy.

"Why-in-the-hell am I just now finding out about this? Huh?" He leaned toward her. "You found out about your grandmother--what?--two, three weeks ago? You've been madder than hell at me about making love to you that night, and it hasn't occurred to you to tell me about it until now?"

She looked sharply at him. "I explained that. I was in such a state of disbelief. I kept trying and trying to rationalize it--why you behaved that way. It's taken me this long to realize that Ididn't do anything wrong." She turned off the burner beneath the gravy.

"Jesus, you make it sound like I raped you or somethin'."

She swung around completely to look at him. "You said it, not me."

Starsky closed his eyes, trying to get his brewing emotions under control. He was certain that, if it were anyone else, he would walk out and never look back. But he and Mary Ann had been relatively happy together for months. And he had come here determined to find a way for them to return to that more peaceful happiness. If anyone walked away, he decided, it wasn't going to be him.

"All right, I was wrong."

She pulled down plates from a cupboard. "Here. Put these on the table."

He took them. "What are we havin', anyway?"

"Meat loaf. If it's dry, it's because you're late."

"You know, Mary Ann," he said, setting plates out for each of them, "I have to keep wondering that if I'm such a total screw-up, then how come you keep calling? I mean," he accepted the salad she handed him, "I must have some good qualities."

She poured the gravy into a server. "Don't flatter yourself."

"By the way, how is your grandmother?"

She sighed heavily. "She seems to accept it. She's been making out lists of who gets all her things."

Starsky put the salad on the table and turned back to capture her by the shoulders. He massaged deeply and was relieved when she let him do it. "Mary Ann," he said tenderly, "I really amsorry. I-I know something about having someone you love very, very much having only a short time to live."

She glanced at him. "I didn't know."

He let his hands drop as she moved to the oven. "Yeah, well, I really don't like to talk about it. Especially now. I'm a lot more interested in talking about us."

She pulled the meatloaf from the oven. "What about us?"

"Well, gee, where do I begin?" He placed the large platter on the table.

"I hate sarcasm," she muttered. She stood back and looked at the table. "All right, we're ready."

He held a chair for her, then seated himself to her right. "You can't tell me that the way we've been lately is normal. I mean, I've never been in a relationship before where the woman was mad at me for so long."

She served herself salad. "So, now I'm 'the woman'."

"See? Every little thing I say, you pick at. I mean, can you even remember if I've done one good thing the past week or so?"

She passed the salad to him. "I'm thinking."

He sat the salad down, and exhaled a heavy breath. "Mary Ann, look. I'm here because I love you. I admit that sometimes I have no idea on Earth why I love you, but I do. You're beautiful and sexy and smart and...moody as hell, but I love that about you, too. You're good for me. Hutch even says so."

She snorted beautifully. "Guess that makes it true, if Hutch says so."

Starsky studied her, wishing he'd never brought up Hutch's name. "Now who's being sarcastic?"

Since he was so involved in looking at her, she took upon the task of placing food on his plate.

When it became obvious that she wasn't going to respond to his question, he said, "Mary Ann, the bottom line for me is that I can't have a serious relationship with someone who is mad at me and won't tell me why--won't give me a chance. I mean, I can put up with a lot, but being in the dog house without a reason kind of makes the whole relationship thing sorta pointless, if you get my drift."

For the first time, she smiled, "Oh, so we're talking about a serious relationship now." She stabbed at her green beans.

Starsky took her by the wrist and removed the fork from her fingers. "We're going to talk this thing out, right now, with no distractions."

"The food will get cold."

"I don't care. This is more important." He waited until she relaxed in her chair and looked at him with luscious brown eyes. "Yes, I want to talk about a serious relationship. Either we gotta work things out, or we go our separate ways. I can't stand being in between. And I, personally, vote for working things out, 'cause I'm so crazy about you. But if you don't want to, then we'll have a pleasant dinner and I'm outta here. For good."

She nodded and reached for her wine glass. "Working things out sounds good to me, too."

"Okay, I have a few things I want to say. Then I'll shut up and you can say anything you have to say, and we'll go from there. Fair?"

She nodded. "Fair."

"Point one. I am very, very sorry about that night you found out about your grandmother. I never, ever would have hurt you intentionally like that. I need for you to at least try to understand that. It hurts me that you think I'm some kind of walking hormone. When I make love to you, it's because I want to make you feel good and share something beautiful with you. That's the only motivation.

"Point two. You're going to have to trust me enough to tell me how you feel. You like to play word games, Mary Ann, but I know it's because you're trying to cover up your true feelings. I don't expect things to change overnight, and don't think that I'm trying to change you. I just think for a healthy relationship, we have to express feelings openly and honestly, even if it causes an argument. It's not fair to me when you're upset with me but you won't tell me why. I'll treat you with the same respect.

"Point three. If we're gonna get serious, then we can't see other people. For what it's worth, I haven't slept with anyone since we've been goin' together. If you've been sleeping with anyone else, it's time to tell them goodbye."

He sat back. "Your turn."

She leaned toward him. "Point one. If you're going to be more than ten minutes late, you call me. No matter where you are.

"Point two. You need to be willing to spend at least as much time with me outside of work as you do with your cop pals.

"Point three. I'm very close to my family and you're going to have to be willing to accept them as part of our lives.

"Point four. We have fun together and I like being with you. But if we're serious for more than a few months, then I'm going to start thinking about marriage. If that thought sends you running away screaming, then tuck your tail between your legs and go now."

She picked up her wine glass. "Are we in agreement?"

Starsky sat staring at the table.

With disappointment, she said, "The marriage part makes you want to run away screaming."

"No," Starsky said quickly, "it's not that. I-I have an amendment."

"What is it?"

He closed his eyes briefly for a moment, then opened them to look at her. His voice was soft, for he wanted her to understand the seriousness. "You mentioned my cop friends."

She nodded. "Uh-huh."

"And your family."

"Right." She sipped her wine.

"If we...get serious...especially if we eventually reach the point of getting married?"

She nodded impatiently. "Uh-huh?"

"Hutch is gonna have to be a big part of our lives."

"Why?" she asked simply.

"He's my partner. He has been, for years." He took her hand. "Mary Ann, don't ask me to explain. You just gotta accept that...we're like glue, Hutch and me. I mean, we're a single package. Get one, get both."

"I hope that doesn't mean he's going to be sleeping with us." Her eyes twinkled.

"Well...not in the same bed," Starsky hedged, "but there might be some nights, if we've been out late together on a job or somethin', when he might need to crash on the couch." Then, more firmly, "He's gonna be around, Mary Ann. That's what I want you to understand. He's part of my family. And more." Hesitantly, he asked, "You do like him, don't you?"

She shrugged. "He's okay. I haven't really talked to him much to feel like I know him."

Starsky released a silent breath, then picked up his wine glass. "Agreed?"


They clinked their glasses together.

* * *

Starsky was humming the next morning when his partner entered the squadroom. "Hey, there," he greeted.

Hutch pulled off his jacket, revealing long sleeves. The blisters had healed and now his face was peeling. He nodded toward other cops who muttered greetings and then sat down. "You're looking awfully chipper," he noted. "You and Mary Ann must have made up last night."

"Yep," Starsky grinned, "and then some."

"Guess that means your balls didn't get charcoaled."

Starsky's grin widened. "Well, let's just say a manner of speaking, they did."

Hutch laughed. It was a delightful sound. "You lucky devil."

"I tell ya, Hutch, she's a lot of woman. From her quick mind, to her temper tantrums, to her lovely curves that go all the way down to her adorable little feet."

"Hm. Wonder what she sees in you."

"Good question. I've never been able to get that one out of her, but I must be charming her with something."

"Until she gets tired of whatever it is."

"Nah, I don't think so," Starsky said more seriously. "This could be it, Hutch. The One."

The blond's brow furrowed. "Starsk, are you serious? Are you thinking you two might get married?"

"Not anytime soon. But we've definitely gone from the seeing-each-other stage to the going-steady phase. If things work out, well...there's no reason not to, is there?"

Hutch took a stack of files at his left and straightened them. "Guess I better keep the couch available." He sucked in a breath. "Considering her temper, I have a feeling you're going to be sleeping a lot of nights alone."

Starsky grinned like a Cheshire cat as he took a file from the top of the stack and opened it. "But the making up is incredible."

* * *

A basketball game was on TV. Hutch was watching it, bare-chested, while sitting cross-legged in front of the sofa. Behind him, sitting on the couch, was his partner.

Using tweezers, Starsky pulled away a thin layer of old flesh from between his partner's shoulder blades. "A big piece came off that time."

Hutch reached back with his arm. "Get as much off as you can. The itch is driving me crazy and I can't reach it very well."

With his free hand, Starsky rubbed at the middle of his partner's back, pressing hard.

"Ah, yeah," the blond approved, dropping his own hand, "that feels better."

When Starsky used the tweezers again, he said, "It's amazing how much it's still peeling back here, since the rest of you is pretty much all healed."

"Like I said, I can't reach back there much, so I haven't been able to scratch it off."

There was a knock on the door. "That's Mary Ann," Starsky said. To the door, he called, "It's open!" Hutch started to move, and Starsky pushed at his shoulder, stilling him. "I'm not done yet."

"Hi, fellas," Mary Ann said as she entered.

"Hello, Mary Ann."

"Hi, kitten."

Hutch looked back at his partner. "Kitten?" he asked in a low, amused voice.

Starsky reprimanded Hutch with his knee, then told her, "Sit down. I'm just about done." He peeled off another layer of skin.

"I've been sitting all day at work." She leaned against the couch. "What are you watching?"

"Basketball game," Hutch said.

"Who's winning?"

Starsky didn't have a clue and continued his work. After an awkward moment, Hutch replied, "I think Chicago is."

"Oh," she said, her voice puzzled at his hesitation.

Starsky put the tweezers down and scratched briskly up and down the center of his partner's back. "That's gonna have to do you for a while."

Hutch made a gasp of pleasure, pressing against the hand.

Abruptly, Starsky rose. He brushed his hands off and said, "All right, my lady, I'm ready for dinner."

"Good. I'm starved." She started for the door and Starsky followed.

He turned around to watch Hutch put on his shirt. "Hey, Hutch, wanna come?" he asked, turning to Mary Ann. He caught the look of surprise and disapproval on her face. Embarrassed, he glanced back at his partner, who had also caught the look.

"You lovebirds go on," the blond said. "I've got some chops defrosting."

"If you say so." Starsky took his girlfriend's arm. "See ya tomorrow, blondie."

As they made their way down the steps, Starsky said, "Did you have to look at him like that when I suggested he come along?"

"I didn't know you were planning to invite him. Whose car?"

"Mine. I don't like leaving the Torino in this neighborhood." He helped her into the passenger side. When he got into the driver's seat and started the motor, he said, "I wasn't planning on inviting him. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing."

"So, why are you mad at me?"

"I'm not mad at you." The Torino started forward.

"You called me this afternoon and said we'd go out to dinner. I assumed you were talking about me and you. I didn't mean to give him a look. I was just disappointed that it meant we weren't going to be alone together, that's all."

"Yeah, I hear you," Starsky muttered. After a moment of wondering if he should elaborate, he finally said, "It's just that that's what I meant before when I told you Hutch was going to be part of our lives. Inviting each other to dinner, even when only one of us has a date, is a pretty ordinary thing with us."

"How come he doesn't have a girlfriend?"

"He has girlfriends," Starsky replied, then amended, "every now and then." His voice lowered. "He's had a lot of rotten luck with them, that's all."

"Sometimes people make their own luck."

Starsky wanted to protest, but he knew that he tended to be overly sensitive where Hutch was concerned and he didn't want his partner being the subject of another argument between them. But after a long silence, he said, "Even what happened to him was because he was betrayed by a woman he thought cared about him."

Mary Ann looked at him. "You mean when he was lost in the desert?"

"Yeah. Can you imagine what that's like for him?" Starsky pleaded. "I'm not just talking about the betrayal. I'm talking about having a group of creeps leave him in the middle of desert, as revenge for something Hutch didn't even do. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Having that helicopter taking off and knowing they'd left him there for the sole purpose of having him die a horrible death?"

After a long silence, she quietly noted, "He seems okay."

"Of course, he's okay," Starsky emphasized in deference to his partner's pride. "Hutch can bounce back from anything. Things you can't even imagine. But can you understand why I want to include him in things? After what he's been through, he deserves to be around people who..." Starsky shrugged, lost for better words, "like him and stuff."

Worriedly, she said, "Maybe we should go back and get him."

"Nah." Starsky felt himself deflate. "He'd know we were talking about him. Maybe I'll check in with him after dinner."

"Doesn't he have any other friends?"

"Well...sure," Starsky replied hesitantly, not liking how the more accurate answer would have sounded. "But not like, you know, friends like him and I are. I mean, Hutch and me have never really sought out other friends, because other people tend to not really understand what it's like for us--what we go through on the job. We're used to hanging out with each other, spending time together."


He looked over at her. She was staring out the side window. "What?"

"Don't take this the wrong way."

He wondered what was coming. "Yeah?"

"Remember when you told me that I was going to have to accept Hutch as part of our lives?"


She turned to look at him. "It's only fair, then, that he accepts me as part of our lives."

Starsky looked out the windshield. He'd never considered that.

* * *

After dinner, they went to Mary Ann's place. Starsky picked up the phone and dialed his favorite number. "Hey," he said when it was answered.

"What's up?"

"Nothing. Just checkin' to see how it's goin'."

"It's goin'. How was dinner?"

"Good. What have you been doing?"

"Eating pork chops and reading National Geographic. Any other questions, Mom?"

Starsky grinned. "No. Don't stay up too late."

Hutch grunted. "I'd like to see you try to take your own advice tonight."

Starsky moved to peek into the bedroom where Mary Ann was undressing. "No promises, babe. See ya."

When he hung up, he entered the bedroom in time to see her step out of her slacks. "Oh, that feels good," she said, stretching her neck. "It was a hard day at work today."

"Didn't know bein' a legal secretary could be so strenuous. Besides, why don't you let me take care of that?" He grinned, flexing his knuckles. "I've been told I have magic fingers." He lay down on the bed, propping himself on an elbow.

Dressed in her underclothes, she collapsed on the bed in front of him, on her side. "Magic fingers sounds like just what I need."

He placed his free hand on her and rubbed up to her bra. He did it slow and lazily, enjoying the smoothness of her skin.

"You do that for Hutch a lot?"

"Do what?"

"Scratch his back?"

Starsky shrugged, wondering how one determined what "a lot" was for a thing like that. "I dunno. Whenever he needs it, I guess. He needs it a lot right now because he's shedding a whole layer of old skin." He furrowed a brow as he continued to rub, skipping past her bra to her shoulders. "Why?"

"Just wondered. You seemed so into it when you were doing it for him."

"I wasn't just scratching his back. I was helping to peel the old skin off. It really itches between his shoulder blades because he can't reach there."

She shuddered. "Ick. I don't think I'd want to peel off somebody else's skin...touching someone else like that. Gross."

He paused, disappointed. "You couldn't do that for me?"

"You, yes. That's different, silly."

His hand moved again. "Why?"

She made a noise of disbelief. "Because of everything else we do to each other. You know," she said with amusement, "like mingle body fluids?"

"Good ol' body fluids," he approved. He shifted so he could use his other hand to unsnap her bra.

"But that's what I mean," she went on. "I guess it's like throwing up. It's okay if it's your lover or probably your own child or somebody like that. But if it's anybody else, it's just too gross to deal with."

Starsky rubbed at the area where her bra had been, thinking that he'd best not respond.

She tilted her head back to him. "If Hutch threw up, you wouldn't want to clean it up, would you?"

Starsky gently placed her on her back. He hovered over her, pushing the loose bra away. "Mary Ann," he whispered, "I think we have much better things we could be doing with our time than talking about throwing up." He kissed her right nipple. "Do you agree?"

She looked at the ceiling. "I don't know. Let me think about it."

He took the nipple back into his mouth, and then sucked on it, loving how it firmed, applying the exact pressure that he had learned that she loved. Reluctantly, he pulled back. "Still thinking?"

"Stil-l-l-l thinking-g-g-g-g."

Massaging the right one between thumb and forefinger, Starsky now took the left one in his mouth. He sucked leisurely. But she still hadn't yielded, so he worked his right hand down her body. His fingers slipped beneath the waistband of her panties. He felt her muff of fur, then delicate velvet. He felt farther, found the recess, and pushed his finger in, loving the wetness that gripped it.

Finally, he pulled his mouth away enough to pant, "You aren't still thinking, are you?"

She grabbed his head and pulled his lips to hers. She wrapped her legs around his clothed body while he entered her mouth with his tongue.

As he continued to please her, some part of his mind remembered a room above Huggy's and the bundle of pain that had been in his arms. And he wondered if it were somehow wrong to have willingly cleaned up after Hutch and to have simply wanted to make it all better.

* * *


In his profession, he was accustomed to waking at the slightest noise, even if it was three o'clock in the morning and the afterglow from numerous couplings had sent him into the ozone. "Hm?"

"Would you want to have children?"

He opened his eyes and realized his back was to her. Sighing heavily, he mumbled, "I haven't really thought about it. Why?"

"I've always wanted to. My prescription for birth control pills runs out this month. If you wanted children, too, I thought maybe I just wouldn't bother renewing."

Despite his longing for sleep, this was something that Starsky couldn't answer easily. The consequences were too great. "Mary Ann, can we talk about this later?"

"All right." After a moment, he heard her say, "I love you."

He smiled. "Love you, too."

* * *

"If I ask you something serious, will you give me a straight answer?" They were eating at a table outside a burger joint.

Hutch looked at his partner curiously, then nodded. "Sure."

"Mary Ann wants to have kids."

The blond shrugged, while eyeing him carefully. "Most women do. What about you?"

Starsky looked at the table before him. He'd already finished his burger. "I hadn't thought about it before."

"And now that you have?"

He looked up. And grinned. "Yeah, I guess I'd like to. I'd hate to be old and gray and sorry I never had any."

Hutch smiled, too, but he said, "There's no reason you have to decide now, is there?"

"Mary Ann's prescription is up and she's thinking about not renewing."

Hutch put his burger down. "Starsky. You better give this some thought before she ends up pregnant." His voice softened. "Don't get me wrong, buddy. I think it would be great if you two have kids. But if you're not wouldn't want one to suddenly be on the way, and thereby taking all your options away and leaving you without a choice." His voice softened further. "I'm just saying you need to sure, that's all."

Starsky rubbed at his chin, pleased that Hutch was so agreeable. "I was thinkin' that if she did up and get pregnant then it would be good that the choice was taken away. Otherwise, I'd just keep stalling and maybe never let it happen."

A finger pointed at him. "If you're stalling, there's got to be a reason somewhere inside you. Maybe you should figure out what it is first." Hutch munched on a fry. "You set a date yet?"

"No." Starsky laughed a little. "I'm stalling about that, too."

"How come?"

"What do you think?" Starsky asked. "Good old-fashioned terror. Weren't you afraid when you and Vanessa were thinking about getting married? It's such a big step."

The blond head tilted to one side, then, gently, "Yeah, I guess I was."

Starsky looked at the table again. "I'm just afraid that things might be different. Between us, I mean. You and me." He looked up. "I don't want them to be different, Hutch."

"Ah, Starsk, things change. It'll be okay. It's a natural step." Hutch put down his burger again and eyed his partner. "You know, buddy, I'm all for it. I like the idea of you having a family and kids and stuff. I'll, you know," he shrugged casually, "miss hanging out with you all the time, but I've been adjusting."

The words warmed him, and it gave Starsky the courage to speak further, though his voice was timid. He was still looking at the table. "I wish you and she knew each other better." He shrugged. "Seems like I'm either with her or with you, and more and more it's with her." His voice lowered. "Wish we could all three spend more time together."

Firmly, Hutch said, "Starsky, I'm not going to sleep with the two of you."

Starsky wadded up the paper his hamburger had been wrapped in, and threw it at Hutch. It hit his partner on the cheek. "Smart ass."

Hutch laughed. It was a delightful sound.

* * *

Two weeks later, Starsky's stomach churned at the idea of the lifelong implications as he slipped an engagement ring onto Mary Ann's finger.

She held up her hand, watching the light bounce off of its many facets. "It's so beautiful." Then she looked at him, as happy as he'd ever seen her. "When should we announce it?"

"Whenever you want."

She clasped his hands. "Let's have a dinner party next weekend. I'll invite my family down."

"Okay. We need to invite Hutch, too."

"Sure. But you don't think he'll feel uncomfortable around my family? Like odd man out?"

Starsky frowned. "It doesn't matter. I want him there. This is the most important time of my life, and he's the most important person in--" He hesitated, alarmed at what he'd almost said, "--from my...bachelor years."

She looked at him piercingly. "Don't choke on the words."

He changed the subject, taking her arm. "Uh, Mary Ann?"


"About having children? Why don't we wait until we're actually married before we start...working on it. That's the way it's supposed to be done, anyway."

She kissed him. "Sure. What's a few more months when we're talking about growing old and gray together? Eight-eight days from now, we'll be husband and wife."

* * *

They were as wrapped around each other as two people could possibly be. They both panted in tune to his thrusts, and Starsky thought there was nothing on Earth better than what he was feeling right now.

The phone rang.

"Don't answer it," she gasped.

"Mary Ann," he grumbled, pulling away and hating the coldness that surrounded his groin, "you know with my job that I have to."

She let her limbs fall away as he fumbled for the phone in the darkness. After picking up the receiver, he only listened for a moment before slamming it down and reaching for his jeans.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Something's happened to Hutch."

He flew out the door, carrying his shirt and shoes.

* * *

Three hours later, Starsky knocked on the door and then pushed it open. "Mary Ann?" With his other arm he gripped his burden a little more securely about the waist. "Come on, you big lug."

She appeared, tying her robe. "What happened?"

"Hutch got a nicked with a bullet. Dumb blond decided to assist, even though he was off duty."

Hutch tried to straighten. "I was just two blocks away from the robbery. Hi, Mary Ann."

"Yeah, yeah." Starsky hauled him over to the couch. "Come on, be a good Blintz and lie down."

"What's wrong with him?" she asked. "Why isn't he in a hospital?"

Hutch collapsed onto the sofa, revealing an arm in a sling.

Starsky pulled the boots off his partner's feet. "He got released." He straightened. "It wasn't serious. Just took some flesh out of his arm. He's woozy from the painkillers. Get a blanket."

She turned down the hallway.

Starsky knelt next to his partner. "Come on, out of those clothes so you can be more comfortable."

Hutch raised his head. "Uhh...." he hesitated.

"Come on," Starsky scolded, peeling back the blond's shirt as Mary Ann appeared with a blanket. "It's not like she's never seen men in their underwear."

"Wait a sec," Hutch said. He struggled into a partial sitting position, so it was easier for Starsky to remove his shirt. Bare-chested, the blond looked up at his host. Soberly, he said, "Sorry, Mary Ann. This was Starsky's idea."

"You're damn right it was," the other said, moving back to unsnap Hutch's jeans. "Somebody has to watch over you, you big dummy. Those black-and-whites could have taken care of the robbery. Come on, get out of 'em."

Mary Ann abruptly turned away to the bedroom.

"Look what you've done," Hutch said, trying to wriggle out of his jeans while keeping his underwear, "now she's mad. I told you I was fine. You could have dropped me off at my place."

"Shut up," Starsky grunted, trying to pull the jeans from Hutch's feet. "She's just being respectful of your modesty." The jeans came away and Starsky tossed them aside. Then he bent and tucked the blanket around Hutch. "Warm enough?"

The blond head nodded, then, sullenly, he said, "I really don't want to impose."

"Shut up. Go to sleep. I don't want to hear another word outta ya until morning." Starsky reached to a nearby lamp and turned it off.

Hutch muttered, "Who died and put you in charge?"

Starsky shook a finger at him. "Not one word." He waited. Satisfied when there was only silence, he moved into the bedroom and closed the door. In the darkness, be unbuttoned his shirt. "You know that saying about how blonds are dumb? My partner out there is absolute proof that it's true." He pulled the shirt off and unsnapped his jeans. "Just because he heard on the radio that a robbery was in progress two blocks from where he was, he felt he had to go in."

Clad only in briefs, Starsky felt for the mattress, then got beneath the covers. "Ah, man, maybe I can finally get some sleep." He reached behind him and felt a hip. He patted it, then closed his eyes.

A flat voice asked, "Why didn't you call me?"

He tilted his head back. "Huh?"

Her voice carried hurt. "You were gone three hours. You flew out of here with hardly a word and I didn't hear a single peep from you until you show up on my doorstep with your partner in tow."

He turned onto his back, knowing he had no defense. "Mary Ann, I didn't want to wake you."

"It didn't occur to you that I was already awake, worried sick?"

"Well...I was with Hutch the whole time."

Now anger. "You couldn't make a simple phone call from the hospital?"

"I never had time, Mary Ann. I was with Hutch in the emergency room. He needed me there."

"If it was just a flesh wound, they just have to...what? Put some stitches in it?"

"Yeah, but--"

"And you couldn't leave him for the 90 seconds it would have taken to call me?"

Starsky sighed and turned to face her. "Mary Ann, they were giving Hutch painkillers. I had to be there. A few years ago, he had a--a...bad some painkillers. He gets scared that they're going to give him something that he's going to have the same reaction to. So, I needed to be there to make sure the doctors knew what to give him and to make Hutch feel secure that it was gonna be okay. I had to stay with him, Mary Ann."

"But why bring him here? And don't get me wrong," she said quickly, "it's not that it's an imposition. But I heard him out there. He'd rather be at home, in his own bed, where surely he can sleep better than on a strange couch."

"He doesn't know what he wants. He's woozy from the drugs."

"He didn't seem that woozy to me."

Starsky sat up in bed. "Mary Ann, you don't understand how it is. There's a whole psychological thing that goes on when you're shot. It doesn't matter how minor it is. Because, you're thinkin, 'Just a half inch closer, and that flesh wound would have been a broken bone, or a severed artery.' Or, 'Just six inches closer and it would have hit me in the chest.' Or, 'A foot higher and it would have hit me in the head and I'd be dead.' Thoughts like that can make you crazy. You need someone nearby who understands. I mean, he could have a nightmare or somethin'."

"It's not like he wouldn't survive it." Then, "I've had nightmares when I've been alone, and I was still alive the next day to tell about it."

He sighed deeply. "Mary Ann, let's not argue about this right now. If he hears us fighting he'll feel bad and he won't get any sleep."

She pulled the covers tightly around herself. "Wouldn't dare want to ruin his precious sleep, even if it means I'm going to be lying awake instead. At least he has the benefit of drugs."

Starsky collapsed back to the mattress and turned onto his side, away from her. He closed his eyes and tried to still his thoughts. But one remained foremost in his mind: Damn.

* * *

Starsky looked up when Hutch entered the squadroom. "Stitches taken out?"

"Yep." Hutch took off his jacket and flexed and rotated his arm. "Good as new." He sat down. "How are you holding up?"

"What do you mean?"

The blond grinned at him. "Three more weeks. Getting cold feet yet?"

Starsky shook his head and placed his chin in his hand. He liked being able to talk about it. "If you want to know the truth, I'm actually anxious for the big day to hurry up and get here. I won't be backing out, Hutch."

"I'll remind you of that when you're barfing outside the church from nerves."

Starsky laughed.

The phone rang. Hutch looked up but Starsky reached it first. "Starsky here."

She was crying. "David?"

His gut tightened. "Mary Ann, what's wrong?"

"She died. She died this morning."

Starsky felt his heart sink. "Your grandmother?"

"Yes." She spent a moment crying, before she managed to say, "I wanted her so much to live long enough to see us married."

"I know, sweetheart, I know. Look," he thought quickly, "just sit tight and I'll be right over. I'll be right there. We'll drive right up to San Francisco. Okay, honey?"

"All right. Hurry."

"On my way."

He hung up the phone and found Hutch looking at him with concern. "Her grandmother died."

"The one she's real close to?"

"Yeah. Poor kitten." Starsky stood and picked up his jacket. "We're going to have to drive up there and stay for the funeral. I'm not going to be back for a few--"

The phone rang. Hutch grabbed it. "Hutchinson here."

Starsky looked about his desk, moving files from one pile to another so Hutch would be able to make some sort of meaning of them.

"They gave you the wrong extension," Hutch was saying into the receiver.

Starsky started toward the door. The phone rang yet again, and Hutch waved to indicate he'd get it.

But Hutch was still talking and, thinking it might be Mary Ann again, Starsky grabbed the receiver. "Starsky here."

A familiar voice said, "Starsky, my man."


"Get out the chimes, 'cause it's Christmas time."

"What are you talking about?" He looked at Hutch, who had hung up. "Line two."

Hutch obeyed and picked it up.

"You wanted information on some dude named Thomas Whitley?" Huggy said.

Starsky's heart quickened as he looked at his partner. Five months had gone by since Hutch was left behind in the desert, and they hadn't been able to get a single lead on the man who was behind it. "Yeah?" he prompted.

"Someone who owed me a favor scored big. Your friend Mr. Whitley lives in Reno, but he's in town to do some business with his accountant. You hurry, you might get there before he leaves. Suite 320 in the old Tower building downtown."

"Huggy, if you were in front of me I'd kiss ya."

"Greens will do."

They hung up simultaneously. Hutch grabbed his jacket as they headed for the door. "Listen, buddy, I can get backup. Why don't you go on to Mary Ann's?"

They started down the hall. Starsky eyed the blond walking beside him. "Can't do that, partner. I'll call her on the way."

* * *

"You drive," Starsky said as they reached the Torino. As soon as they pulled out of the parking lot, he put the mars light on the roof.

"Don't know if we want to give him any warning," Hutch said.

"It'll get us there faster. I'll take if off when we get close." Starsky had another reason for wanting the noise of urgency. He picked up the microphone. "Control One to Zebra Three."

"Go ahead, Zebra Three."

"Please dial number 555-7882 and patch me through."

There was a pause, then the sound of dialing. Then a soft voice said, "Hello?"

"Mary Ann, look, sweetheart, I got called out on an emergency as soon as I hung up with you. But I'll be there, kitten. As soon as I possibly can. Have everything ready to go and we'll leave just as soon as I get there. I'll call when I'm on my way."

There was hesitation, then, "All right."

"Love you." He hung up the microphone, relieved that she hadn't gotten mad. Then he took the mars light off the roof.

They arrived at the downtown building ten minutes later and took the elevator up to the third floor. They took out their badges upon entering suite 320.

"Police," Hutch told the receptionist. "Where can we find Thomas Whitley?"

"He went down the hall to the men's room. He should be back any moment, if you'd like to have a seat."

"Right or left down the hall?" Starsky asked.

"It's to the left."

They turned from the suite.

It was Starsky who opened the door wide. One man, with dark, graying hair and dressed in a business suit, was drying his hands. He looked at them with disapproval.

Starsky held up his badge. "Police. Are you Thomas Whitley?"

His face closed as he looked from the badge to the two men. "Yes, I am. What's the meaning of this?"

Hutch crossed his arms and rested his back against the door that had closed behind them.

Starsky put away his badge. "You know a man named Frank Jennings?"

There was a look of surprise in the dark eyes. "I'm not going to answer your questions without a lawyer." He tossed a wadded-up paper towel into the trash receptacle.

"Well, let me help you out," Starsky said cheerfully. "He's tall and blond. Has a mustache. In fact," he gestured with a thumb, "he looks an awful lot like my partner here."

Whitley's eyes darted to Hutch, who was still in a casual stance against the door. He swallowed thickly.

"Oh, I see you've noticed the resemblance. You know," Starsky held up a finger, "there's four hit men you hired who also noticed the resemblance. Do you happen to know where Frank Jennings is right now, Mr. Whitley?"

He shook his head. "I've never heard of the man."

"Uh-huh. Well, just in case you're interested, he's now living in Mexico with his girlfriend, Florence Dunning." Starsky's eyes narrowed with feigned curiosity. "You do know Miss Dunning, don't you, Mr. Whitley? She did, after all, promise to deliver Jennings, didn't she? And when your little group of soldiers gave you the word that the deed had been done, I bet you paid Miss Dunning a nice, fat fee for her assistance in your little revenge scheme."

Whitley reached up and loosened his tie. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Smart woman, that Miss Dunning. See, not only is she spending your nice, fat fee in Mexico, but Frank Jennings is helping her do it. I bet they're living a nice, happy life down there.

"In the meantime," Starsky's voice hardened as he jabbed a finger at Whitley's chest, "your henchmen made a very, very big mistake. They thought my partner here," he pointed to the door, "was Frank Jennings." His breath exhaled powerfully through his nostrils as his blood began to boil. "You know, my partner was just down in that area for a nice, little vacation. He'd known Miss Dunning from the past and thought they'd get reacquainted. He had no idea, when he borrowed her car, that he was walking into a trap."

Sweat popped out on Whitley's forehead. "If she's the one who set him up, then what do you want with me?"

"Do you know what attempted murder is, Mr. Whitley? It doesn't matter whether you were trying to murder Frank Jennings, or my partner. It's still a felony. And, besides, Miss Dunning is out of the country, so you're the only one available to take the fall." His voice lowered to a dangerous level. He poked at Whitley's chest, his breath exhaling on the man's chin. "You see, because it's my partner that your little merry men grabbed, then you have to deal with me. Do you have any idea what being stranded in a desert does to you? There's heat. And sun. And never-ending thirst. Your body gets so hot that your cooling system breaks down and you can't even sweat anymore. And the sun is so relentless and your head is pounding so hard that you're not even sure which direction is the right way out. So you wander in circles, watching the buzzards fly overhead, waiting for you to collapse, so they can eat."

Whitley swallowed again, audibly.

Starsky inched closer, their faces almost touching. He was able to smell the other man's fear. "Your sorry carcass had better be damn grateful I found my partner in time. There are some things worth getting revenge for, Mr. Whitley. And if my partner had died out there, I'd be escorting you down to a back alley, where no one could hear you scream. Because you know what I would do to you? I'd take each of your fingers in my bare hands and break them, one by one. And then I'd take my knife and cut off those sorry things you call testicles and feed them to the alley rats. And when you begged me to let you die, maybe I'd light a match and start roasting you, an inch at a time." He let out a breath. "You're damn lucky I found my partner alive." Starsky's muscles tensed, and he grabbed Whitley by the jacket and threw him against the bathroom stalls.

Whitley collapsed to the floor and held his hands up in front of his face as Starsky approached. "No, please."

"Starsk." A hand was on his shoulder, strong and sure.

Starsky spun away. "Cuff him."

Hutch knelt and casually said, "Turn over and put your hands behind your back."

The man stared at him fearfully.

"Don't worry. My partner's finished with you."

Hesitantly, Whitley lay face down on the tile.

While Hutch cuffed him, he looked back at Starsky. "You need to get going to Mary Ann's. Call a black-and-white on the way and I'll ride with them."

Starsky nodded.

Hutch flashed him a tender smile. "See you in a few days, pal."

* * *

After calling for the black-and-white, Starsky had the dispatcher phone Mary Ann's. The line was busy after several attempts, so he gave up and pressed harder on the accelerator.

He rushed up the walkway to her house and tore open the door. "Mary Ann?"

She was off the phone. Luggage was packed and by the door. She was sitting in a chair, rocking back and forth, her red eyes staring into space.

"Mary Ann," he said gently, stepping around the suitcases, "I tried to call when I was on my way, but your line was busy."

"I know," she said in a monotone, not looking at him.

"Who was it?"

"My mother."

Something told Starsky to not move any closer than he was. She was so sad, yet still so beautiful, sitting there in that chair. He placed a hand on the counter near the doorway. Tenderly, he asked, "How is your mother doing?"

She didn't look at him. "What kind of emergency was it?"


"The emergency."

He wondered if she were angry but, if so, it wasn't like her to be so complacent. He couldn't keep the pride out of his voice. "We got a lead on the man who was responsible for leaving Hutch to die. He was in town for only a day and we had to arrest him while we had the chance."

A tiny smile lit her mouth corner. "I bet Hutch was glad about it."

Starsky shrugged. He took a step closer into the living room. "I guess so. But...something like this, it was more important to me than to him. It's kinda of hard to explain. It's a partner thing--wanting to get the person who wronged your partner."

She shook her head, maintaining the tiny smile. "You finally admit it."

"Admit what?"

"That it was more important to you than to him."

Starsky blinked, wondering if it was going to be another round of word games. She seemed to have gotten over playing them the past few months. The gentleness in his voice gave way to puzzlement. "What are you talking about?"

Finally she looked at him. "It was the strangest thing, David. When Hutch was over here for our engagement dinner, he and I had a nice, long talk. I found him to be intelligent, charming, amusing...and probably, of everyone there, the person most happiest that we were getting married."

Starsky wondered where she was leading. "I've told you all along that he thought we were good for each other."

"You've also told me lots of other things," she said without accusation. "You told me things that made me think Hutch was a meek, needy, six-foot tall child who could hardly manage to go to the bathroom without your help."

Starsky frowned at the image. "What are you talking about?"

"'Hutch has been through a rough time and needs to be around people,'" she quoted. "'Hutch needs me with him after he's been shot.' 'You don't know how scared he gets.' 'You don't know what it was like for him, being stranded all alone in that desert.' 'He might have nightmares.' Every time you talked about him, you always phrased it a way that made it sound like he needs you more than anything on this Earth." Now her voice broke, and she sniffed, "You can't face the truth, can you?"

He wanted to go to her, comfort her, knowing that whatever she was talking about was all mixed up in her extreme sorrow over her grandmother. But her focus on Hutch confused him and made his stomach twist, and he found himself still rooted near the doorway.

Her voice quavered in her attempt to fight back sobs. "When you brought him here after he was shot, you didn't do it for him. He didn't even want to be here. You did it for you. When you couldn't leave him alone in the emergency room even long enough to call me, it wasn't because of his fear. It was because of yours. You weren't afraid of him having nightmares. You were afraid of your own nightmares. He didn't need to be near you; you needed to be near him. And being lost in the desert might have left him with temporary physical scars, but the more permanent, emotional ones are all yours. You wanted to include him in everything because you needed him near, not because he needed to be."

She sounded so sure of herself. Starsky sputtered, "Partnerships work both ways." His voice was a mumble as he admitted, "Of course, I was feeling all those things, too."

She nodded slowly. "They work both ways. All partnerships should. Including the partnership of marriage."

He nodded, relieved they were talking about that instead of Hutch. "Right."

But she wouldn't let it go. "I'm glad you got your man today. I really am. You did the right thing, going with Hutch to put some closure on what happened to him. And it was good that it happened now, while I had to wait for you, since I was forced to confront the truth that I've known all along, but I've been too blind to face."

Starsky felt a sense of dread. "What truth?"

She stood. As she stepped to the kitchen counter, she pulled off her engagement ring. She looked at him, eyes no longer wet. "I can't marry you, David."

His chest tightened and all he could think of was denial. "No. No."

Her gaze didn't falter. "You're already more married to him than you'll ever be to me."

He gripped her wrist, his voice unsteady as he felt his future and all his dreams slipping away. "Mary Ann, don't do this. You don't understand."

A short laugh. "Oh, David," she said with tender affection, "it's you who doesn't understand. You've never needed me the way you need him. I can't compete with that."

His insides were crumbling. "Mary Ann, please--"

"I don't hate you, David. I'll never hate you. I suppose when the shock of everything has worn off, I'll feel some bitterness, but I won't feel it forever. I'd like to think that, someday, we'll run into each other and be able to go to dinner and catch each other up on our lives without any bad feelings."

He took her by the arms. His voice was shaking. "Mary Ann, you can't just throw all these months away. We've already built so much together. We've got to work it out."

"Remember the last time we 'worked it out'?" she asked. "We sat there at the table and made a list of rules for each other." She snorted in disbelief. "We put conditions on our relationship. I'll bet you and Hutch never had to do that."

Desperately, he pointed out, "Hutch and me didn't get along that well when we first knew each other. We--"

"But you eventually blended together, didn't you?" she said softly. "Blended together so naturally that you never needed to lay down rules for each other. It's called unconditional love." She lifted her hand, placed it against his cheek. "It's a precious thing. Don't throw it away."

He reached up, gripped her hand, trying to hold it against his face, as though it could make her change her mind. But she pulled her hand away. "Don't blame Hutch for this. I don't." She snorted with soft amusement. "I guess I didn't need to say that. Of course, you won't blame him. In fact, as much as you're hurting right now, I know you won't go to him right away with your pain, because you'll be too worried about how the things I've said will affect him." She took a deep breath. "I'll be staying with my mother until everything...calms down. I have a friend in town who will take care of selling the house for me." She glanced briefly around the interior. "After you've taken your things, lock the door behind you." She picked up her bags and moved to the door.

He grabbed her arm from behind. "Mary Ann, don't do this. We can put off the wedding, but let's not throw everything else away."

Her eyes watered as she faced him. "What would be the point?" she sniffed. "I can't ever own your heart, because you already gave it to him a long time ago." She opened the door. "If it didn't hurt so much, I'd call him myself and tell him I hope he appreciates what a precious gift it is." She gathered her luggage again and backed out the door. "Goodbye, David."

His mouth hung open as he watched her carry her bags down the walk. She didn't look back as she put them into the trunk and started the car. He wanted to run after her, but he knew whatever words were spoken would only bring more pain. He knew her well enough to know that there wouldn't be any changing her mind.

She drove off.

His throat closed as he turned to the interior of the house. It was quiet. Empty.

Just like himself. So empty that he could no longer feel. He could only close his eyes. And whisper. "No."




The breeze blowing from the ocean was just enough to curb the uncomfortable heat of the afternoon sun. Starsky sat on a small hill overlooking the beach, his arms wrapped around his drawn-up knees.

It had been five days since Mary Ann's grandmother died.

Starsky wasn't surprised when a hand suddenly appeared on his shoulder. Its grip was firm and strong.

"How did you find me?" he asked without looking up.

The tall figure plopped down beside him, and he felt an arm find respite across the back of his shoulders. The fingers squeezed. "I was starting to get worried when I found out the funeral was two days ago and there still hadn't been any word from you. I stopped by Mary Ann's place, managed to get past the lock, and I saw her ring on the counter." A pause. "That's when I knew your heart was broken."

And, Starsky knew, Hutch had set out to investigate those places his partner tended to visit at such times. "She went to San Francisco without me."

Dark shades turned to him. "You've been here the entire five days?"

Starsky shrugged. "More or less."

He was hugged against the other. "Ah, buddy."

Starsky rested his head against Hutch's shoulder, because it felt so good to do so. He found it incredible that he'd ever managed to give Mary Ann the impression that Hutch was needy or weak. Right now, nothing felt more powerful than his partner's strength. He wanted to absorb it into himself.

His shoulder was squeezed again. "Any chance of patching it up?"

Starsky shook his head. "I wanted to but she didn't." He swallowed. "I've come to realize that she was right not to."

"How so?"

"Don't wanna talk about it right now."

Fingers scratched at the back of his neck. "You need a shower."

Starsky didn't care if his buildup of body odor was offensive. "Never again, Hutch."

"Take a shower?" the other said incredulously.

"Have a relationship with someone."

Fingers massaged his shoulder again, his partner's voice tender. "Ah, buddy, we all think that when we've had our heart ripped out. You just need to give yourself time."

"No," Starsky whispered. "I gave everything I had to her, and it wasn't enough."

"Buddy," the other said with equal softness, twisting to look at him, "you have to admit she was a pretty demanding person. Just because you couldn't meet all her needs doesn't make you unlovable."

Starsky opened his mouth to reply, but Hutch put his hand over it. "Your breath stinks."


"Besides," Hutch said more cheerfully, "I still find you lovable despite the fact that you need a shower and a strong dose of mouthwash." He pulled at Starsky's brief whiskers. "And a shave."

"Guess there's no accounting for taste."

"Guess not."

Hutch eased his hold and gazed at him. "Since your pride's been trampled to shreds, I don't guess you'd object to my taking you home and cleaning you up, feeding you, and putting you to bed?"

Starsky shook his head. Hutch was right. He had no pride left. And as though fulfilling a prophecy of Mary Ann's, he was willing to wallow in all the neediness that Hutch would allow and milk it for all it was worth. He put his arms around Hutch's neck. "Take me home."

"Starsky, I'm not going to carry you."

Starsky sighed forlornly as Hutch helped him to his feet. "You can't blame a guy for tryin'."

* * *

At his own apartment, which he'd rarely visited in past months, Starsky put the toilet lid down and sat on it. He pulled off one shoe, then the other, not caring that a good helping of sand poured onto the floor.

Hutch reached into the shower stall and turned on the water.

Slowly, Starsky peeled off a sweat-soaked sock.

Hutch stood back, watching him. "At this rate, the water's going to get cold before you even get in there."

"Don't care," Starsky mumbled. He pulled up his leg and fought with the sock on the other foot.

"I care," Hutch said. He reached to the buttons of Starsky's shirt. When a few were undone, he tore the rest apart. "It needs to be burned, anyway," he noted, tossing it out the bathroom door. "Come on," he tugged at the T-shirt remaining, "put your arms up."

Starsky's feet were now bare, and he raised his arms. "Hold your breath."

"No kidding," Hutch said tightly, pulling the T-shirt up and off. "Stand up."

"Don't think I want you to see my underwear," Starsky muttered as he stood and opened his fly.

"I promise not to look."

Starsky fought to get the lower clothing past his hips. Hutch's hands were there, pushing, and when they'd made it, he stepped out of them in a hurry.

Hutch swatted his rear. "Come on, get in," he said, holding back the shower curtain.

Starsky obeyed. Just before closing the curtain, he saw Hutch gather up his clothing. He knew they were going into the trash.

The warm water felt good. He used soap and shampoo liberally and was starting to feel human again.

But along with the new vigor in his body came a more alert thinking process. And he was so tired of thinking.

Hutch had left plenty of clean towels for him, as well as his robe. Starsky dried thoroughly, put on the robe. Next came shaving, brushing his teeth and gargling with mouthwash.

"What are we havin'?" he asked when he emerged.

Hutch was rinsing out dishes that had been in the sink and had his back to him. "I ordered pizza."

"Oh." He hadn't expected a treat like that.

The blond glanced back at him. "Feeling better?"

Starsky shrugged. "Yes and no."

Hutch wiped his hands with a dish towel. Seriously, he said, "The way I see it, partner, you either have to talk about it or agree to a lot of distractions."

Starsky shook his head, his eyes lowered. "Not ready yet to talk about it, Hutch."

The blond head nodded with understanding. "Then sit down and find something on TV to watch while we're eating."

Starsky moved to the bedroom to put on a pair of underwear beneath his robe. Then he returned to the living room and obeyed.

"Thomas Whitley confessed," Hutch said, joining him. He handed Starsky a soda and sipped from his own glass of water.

Starsky rested his head on the back of the couch. "Yeah? What was the connection between him and Jennings?"

"They used to do a lot of business deals together, oil and stuff, always for millions of dollars each. About five years ago, Jennings agreed to give him the financing to get involved in another deal with the big oil barons. Up to that point, they'd both been small fries. Then Jennings up and disappeared. Took all the money he was able to get his hands on by himself. Whitley looked like a laughingstock in front of the big boys, and he was forced out of the oil business. He made it the focus of his whole life to find Jennings and get back at him."

Starsky considered that. "And he thought leaving him in the desert to be a way of getting back at him, 'abandoning' him?"


"Geez. If he felt that strongly about it, it's a wonder he didn't want to see Jennings in person when the deed was done. If he'd been with his goons, he'd have seen you were the wrong guy and they coulda let you go. If you were blindfolded, you wouldn't have been able to identify them later."

Hutch sighed. "Believe me, partner, I made that very same point to Whitley. Of course, I didn't get rough with him like you did, but he said he was sorry up and down for about two straight hours. He said he thought not being there in person was the only way of guaranteeing it would never get traced back to him. He hired the muscle, sight unseen. They all wanted it that way."

"But he couldn't resist telling them to give 'Jennings' his name, so he would know who was responsible for leaving him to die."

"Right. His only mistake."

Starsky looked at him fondly, his head still comfortable against the back of the sofa.

"Wrong. That was his second mistake."

"What was his first?"

"Messing with my partner."

Hutch lowered his eyes bashfully. "Yeah."

Two pizzas arrived and Hutch took it upon himself to bring them to the table, along with a good helping of napkins. "What are we watching?" he said as he sat down on the floor next to the coffee table.

"Don't know. Some movie."

They ate in silence, neither paying much attention to the television. When he was finally starting to feel full, Starsky asked, "How mad is Dobey at me?"

"I'm not sure. I think your first three days he'll fudge compassionate leave days, even though Mary Ann's grandmother wasn't officially a relative yet. The last two days..." he shrugged. "Don't be surprised if you have a short paycheck."

"Does he know I'm in town now?"

"I called him while you were in the shower. He wasn't too happy about me kissing away the rest of the afternoon. He's expecting us both in tomorrow."

There was still pizza left, but Starsky couldn't finish it. He sat back with a sigh and closed his eyes, thinking how comfortable it felt, just him and Hutch. No expectations of him except his usual grind at the salt mines. And that wasn't until tomorrow.

A few minutes later he felt a pull on his robe. "Come on. To bed."

It was still well before sundown, but rest sounded good, though he doubted he'd be able to genuinely sleep. He got to his feet with an exaggerated groan, then allowed Hutch to herd him into the bedroom.

Hutch started to pull the covers back, but Starsky plopped down on top of them instead. He shifted to lay on his side, propped on an elbow, and grabbed Hutch's shirt. "Stay."

Hutch batted his eyelashes, the way he did when he was feeling particularly sympathetic. He stretched out facing Starsky, mirroring his stance. "You ready to talk?"

Starsky shook his head. "Just stay with me."

Softly, the other said, "It's gonna hurt for a while, buddy. There's no getting around it. There aren't any shortcuts."

"I know. Not expecting any."

Hutch reached out, clasped his robed shoulder, massaging through the thick material.

Starsky closed his eyes, liking it, wanting nothing more than to be on the receiving end of such kindness. He rolled to lie on his back, keeping a hold of Hutch's shirt to pull the blond with him.

Hutch's head rested on Starsky's chest, the gentle hand still kneading. Thinking of another time, another place, Starsky said, "You're my pal, Hutch."

The blond head moved so that the blue eyes could look at him. "I always will be."

Starsky put his arms around Hutch, lacing his fingers behind him. "You know, she said that. More or less. Mary Ann," he clarified.

"Said what?"

" important we were to each other. And had been for a long time." Starsky swallowed. Once he said it there would be no turning back. He had to force the issue, or forever be afraid of it. "She said she couldn't compete." The timing was wrong. He felt the sudden stiffening of various muscles within his arms.

Hutch pulled back to look at him, mouth open. "Starsky. Are you saying...are you saying...she left you because of me?"

"No," he replied simply, then corrected, "She left because of me. Because of you."

The blue eyes narrowed and Starsky knew he needed to make more sense. "She left because of me and how I feel about you."

Hutch struggled to his knees, but still hovered over the other. "Starsky, the last thing I ever would have wanted was to come between you two."

"I know that," Starsky said forcefully. "She knows that, too. She doesn't blame you, Hutch. She made a point of saying that. She ended up liking you a lot. But," he closed his eyes, feeling his throat tighten. When he opened them, he managed, "She knows it's not your fault that...that I need you so damn much."

Now the pale features softened. "Ah, buddy," Hutch said. He bent to cover Starsky with his upper body, hands rubbing up and down the other's arms. "How did things get so mixed up?" he wondered out loud.

Starsky's voice was still unsteady. "It was my fault, Hutch. I wanted the three of us to be closer together, so much. But, in reality, I kept trying to keep you both separate. I divided my love right down the middle, trying to make sure there was enough for both of you. Trying to not shortchange either of you. When I was with you, I felt like I wasn't being fair to her. When I was with her, I felt I wasn't being fair to you." He swallowed thickly. "In the end, it was obvious that your side wound up with a whole lot more than hers. I can't blame her for noticing. Or for not wanting the lesser half, even if she had the token proof of a wedding ring. She deserved more."

Hutch shifted to lie next to Starsky on his side. Gentle fingers brushed along Starsky's face.

"I'm a fraud, Hutch. I'm a fraud and I didn't even know it. She had to point it out to me."

"Starsky, you're not a fraud. You gave her everything you were capable of giving."

"Which was only what was left over after I gave all of myself to you first."

Hutch shook his head. "Starsky, you can't--can' like that. I don't believe there's any such thing as having enough or running out. It doesn't make sense. If you love yourself first, there's no shortage of how much you can give to others."

Starsky looked away, feeling he wasn't up to the argument.

The fingers paused, and then a thumb brushed along Starsky's lips. He closed his eyes at its tender feel, moved his head just enough to indicate that he wanted more.

Hutch obeyed, the thumb running along his lower lip more firmly.

Eyes still closed, Starsky tried to kiss the thumb.

Hutch shifted closer, and Starsky felt his chin taken in hand. He let his eyes drift open.

Hutch was looking down at him, his expression such a mixture of tenderness and concern, holding his chin, his front pressed against Starsky's side.

As Starsky's eyes drifted shut, he nodded his head. A moment later soft, tender moistness touched his lips. He detected the musky, clean smell of the other's skin, and breathed deeply, trying to inhale the familiar scent that had always been a source of strength and security.

The lips against his pressed a little harder. He opened his mouth, but they pulled back.

When he opened his eyes again, Hutch was still looking down at him, so concerned. The blond whispered, "This is what you want?"

Starsky closed his eyes again. And nodded. But he knew he had to speak so there would be no mistake. "Yes," he replied in a barely audible voice.

The mattress shifted, and the top of his robe was parted. A wet tongue licked at his chest, then Starsky felt a nose against his neck, as he was kissed there. Hutch made a noise that could only be defined as some sort of approval of what his senses told him, and he held Starsky's cheeks and kissed him.

Starsky didn't kiss back. He couldn't even muster enough pride to participate. What had Mary Ann called it? Unconditional love? She had cautioned him not to throw it away. She need not have worried. He was going to milk it for all it was worth.

Lips kissed down to his navel. Hutch must have gotten bored with his lack of participation, for now Starsky felt his underwear shifted. The elastic band only had to be pulled down a little ways before his erection found its way free.

Starsky had to open his eyes for this part. He found his clothed partner staring at his desire, as though not sure what to do with it. Then Hutch glanced up at him. Starsky managed the bare semblance of a smile. Hutch's tender face smiled back. And then he lowered his head.

Starsky escaped to darkness once again, feeling that wet mouth working on him. This was unbelievable, Hutch sucking him.

He forced down a thick swallow. His whole world had turned upside down and nothing in his life made sense anymore. Least of all that he had reduced his partner to sucking on his dick.

Starsky felt himself shrink as the confusion of it all pushed his sorrow up through his chest. Hutch was sucking harder at the now-cowering flesh, and Starsky threw an arm over his eyes as a sob escaped his throat.

The ineffective sensations went away. The mattress shifted. And then arms were lifting him, cradling him, as his partner's sorrowful voice said, "Ah, buddy, that's not what you need. That's not what you need at all."

He hooked his chin over Hutch's shoulder as a hand pressed against the back of his head, securing him there. Even though strong arms were locked around him, Starsky still grabbed at his partner's clothing, needing to hang on.

His harsh sobs shook both their bodies. He wished he'd had more practice at crying. He knew he sounded awful and it was difficult for Hutch to keep his arms around him. He felt he should apologize.

A hand pulled at his underwear until it was more secure around his hips. Then it rubbed up and down his bare back, inside the robe.

"I know it hurts so bad," said a sympathetic voice next to his ear. "So, so bad." The hand on his head dropped to his neck, fingers rubbing there.

Starsky gripped Hutch tighter. And cried harder.

* * *

He didn't remember falling asleep. When he woke, the room was dark, save the light from the open doorway. Sounds from the television indicated he wasn't alone in the apartment. A blanket covered him.

Starsky shifted, rolling from his back onto his side. The bedside clock said that it was after nine. He'd slept some four or five hours and felt refreshed. Renewed. In mind and in body.

Hutch was out there, keeping himself occupied with the TV, while watching over Starsky's sleep. Playing the watcher. The protector. Any role that Starsky needed. As he always had. As he always would.

One could not put a price on that.

Starsky's eyes closed. There was a flush of shame at the memory of what--in all his confusion --he'd asked Hutch to do.

And Hutch had done so. Willingly. Hutch had done it because that was what Starsky had wanted. But the fact that Hutch had correctly read the wish that wasn't verbalized--and the fact that he'd acted without any sign of distaste--didn't that mean that Hutch found the idea not offensive at all? Had he, perhaps, even allowed the idea of it to cross his own mind before now?

Starsky frowned at the thought, not liking it: the possibility that Hutch had perhaps thought about this before...and kept his thoughts to himself in deference to his partner's other plans. But Hutch had not lowered himself on his partner with the air of one who was finally getting something he'd always wanted. If anything, he'd seemed...merely curious.

And, it was the big blond who had so rightly figured out that any such activity wasn't what Starsky needed at all. And he had abandoned the task just as quickly, all so he could take Starsky up in his strong arms and allow him to purge his heartache and sorrow.

Funny, how Starsky now so fully understood why Mary Ann had been upset when he had wanted to make love to her when she had found out her grandmother was terminal. Sex was for expressing love. Not easing sorrow.

What Hutch had given him instead had eased the worst of the sting of Mary Ann's rejection. In fact, Starsky was no longer interested in analyzing what went wrong between them. He was much more interested in that blond pillar of strength who was always there for him to return to.

Didn't Hutch deserve something in return for all his loyalty?

Only it wasn't loyalty. Mary Ann had definitely been right about one thing. It was unconditional love. Hutch would love him no matter what.

But shouldn't that love be a blessing, if also a burden? Didn't Hutch deserve something in return for all his love other than Starsky going off and trying to make a life with someone else? Something other than being asked to suck his partner's cock?

"Hi," came a soft voice.

Starsky looked up. A tall silhouette stood in the doorway. He reached to the bedside lamp and turned it on. "Hi, yourself." He waited until Hutch took a few steps into the room. Then he relaxed back against the headboard. "We need to talk."

The blond sat down on the bed, near the lamp, leaning his weight on an arm that was braced against the mattress. The light revealed the sincerity of his expression. "Starsky, it's o-kay."

"What? That I went limp on you, or that I wanted it in the first place?"


Starsky shook his head. "That's not really what I want to talk about. Not specifically, anyway."

Hutch brushed a hand against his covered knee. "Mary Ann?"

Starsky lowered his eyes to the mattress, not sure how to answer or how to begin. After a moment, he looked up and asked, "What do you want most in this world?"

The blond's expression showed that he didn't appreciate being put on the spot without warning. He shifted, turning to sit with both legs on the floor, hands clasped between them. "I guess to have enough meaning in my life that I don't wake up every morning wondering what the point of it all is."

Starsky's head tilted to one side. "You wake up often wondering that?"

Hutch shrugged. "Now and then. Not all the time."

"What do you consider meaningful?"

The other thought. Then, "Putting away the bad guys. Watching the Vikings make another losing trip to the Super Bowl. Eating rare foods cooked to perfection." He glanced at Starsky. "Taking care of you."

"What about sex?"

"What about sex?"

Starsky shrugged. "That isn't important--meaningful--to you?"

Hutch reflected briefly. "I like it as much as the next guy. Sure, it's meaningful when I have it. Sometimes," he said after hesitating, "it's not meaningful enough to go through the games that it takes to convince a lady that it'll be to her benefit to share my bed." After another moment, he asked, "Why?"

"It seems like all I've done the past five days is think about what Mary Ann wanted and what I wanted. I haven't given much thought to what you've wanted."

"Starsky, I'm basically a happy guy. Don't get yourself into a titter about it."

"Thought I was, too."

After a long moment, Hutch prompted, "And?"

Starsky sighed and looked up at him. "Is there any pizza left?"

Hutch deflated. "A few slices."

Starsky pushed the blanket aside. "Good. I'm starved." He got up and went out to the living room.

"It's in the refrigerator," Hutch said behind him. "It'll be cold."

"Doesn't matter."

He didn't bother heating it up. He bit into a slice and chewed for a while, then washed it down with soda. After a while, he joined Hutch on the couch. "So, what have you been thinkin' about while I've been sleeping?"

"Guess," Hutch demanded, his ultra-sensitive mode having slipped away with Starsky's renewed energy. He stood and leaned on the top of the chair with the wide, fanned back.

"Well, let's see. I would tend to think you were either thinking about how Mary Ann could have messed me up so much. Or, how long it's gonna be before I'm back to normal. Or, if I wasn't so messed up right now, what would it have been like if we'd done it?"

Hutch said, "Try all three."

Starsky shrugged, not surprised. He moved to the television, kneeling beside it, and turned if off. He stretched out on the carpet, chin propped in his hand. "I'm gonna be okay, Hutch."

The other's expression was sympathetic again. "Don't sell yourself short," he said, leaning his hands on the back pockets of his jeans. "It can take a long, long time for that kind of hurt to heal."

Starsky studied the tall blond standing a few yards away, looking down at him. Held within that receptacle of flesh and blood and heart and soul, there rested a glow, a warm spot, that housed all the love that Hutch felt for him. He had one of those places within himself, Starsky knew. That was the place that made him want to make all those excuses about Hutch to Mary Ann, so that he could keep Hutch close to him, so that warm spot would not be deprived of shining itself upon the subject of its existence.

Starsky rubbed a finger along the nap of the carpet. "You know what I want more than anything on this earth?"

Hutch looked intrigued as he took a step closer. His voice was soft with curiosity. "No. Tell me."

"I want to pick a day, Hutch. A day in the future. But not too far in the future. And when that day comes..." he trailed off, unsure of how to phrase it.

Hutch knelt where he was. "Yes?" he prompted.

Starsky shrugged, then grinned at the other. "I want to make it the most wonderful day in your life."

The blond seemed fascinated, but his contrariness kicked in. "Ideally, we should all strive to make every day like that."

"No, no," Starsky corrected. His voice softened. "We can't have it be tomorrow, or the next day, or next week. We've got to give ourselves time to...anticipate. And to change our minds, if either of us gets cold feet. But Hutch," he propped up the other elbow and placed his chin in both hands, eyeing the expression that kept switching back and forth between curiosity and puzzlement, "when that day comes, I'm gonna be all ready for you. 'Cause, in the meantime, I'm gonna educate myself. And I'm gonna learn every possible way I can make it the best day of your life. And when that day comes, I'm you how I feel about you."

Hutch shook his head, as though to clear it. "Starsky, are you talking about sex?"

He shrugged. "Well, if that's the word you want to use. Personally, I'd consider it making love to the person I love most in this world. And who I, truly, want to give all of myself to."

A brief, disbelieving laugh. "That's crazy."

"Why?" Starsky asked simply. But he realized he had to remove any semblance of a trap. He batted his eyes as innocently as he could. "If you don't wanna, all you have to do is say no."

Hutch stared at him with his mouth open.

"Let's see," Starsky continued as though his partner wasn't looking at him as if he'd lost his mind. "I was planning on the 22nd being a very special day. It'll still be special," he decided, liking the idea. "That's sixteen days from now, a Saturday." He nodded. "Good, we can have the whole weekend." He pushed off the floor, sitting up, "And that gives me enough time to do some research."

The blond's mouth hadn't closed. "Research?"

"Well, yeah," Starsky replied casually. "I've never had any practice doin' it with someone with your parts." His voice lowered with sincerity. "Wanna do it right, make it special."

Pale eyes batted at him repeatedly. Then, in disbelief, "Starsky, are you telling me we're going to go to bed together and do things to each other based on what you read in a book?"

Starsky shrugged. "Books, movies...what difference does it make?" Seriously, he added, "But this isn't about doing things to each other, Hutch. This is only about what I'm gonna do to you. It's gonna be your special day." Now a grin. "If you don't like it, all you have to do is say no."

"Starsky, I am not going to make love with a sex manual!"

The smaller man gazed at his partner. Then he said. "Okay. If you don't want to do it, just say no."

The blond's nostrils flared. "I didn't say that!"

"Hutch, I think you're getting a bit worked up. And, you know, we still have sixteen days before anything's gonna happen. So...why don't you go water your plants or somethin'?" He allowed a tiny smile. "I'm okay."

Hutch picked up his jacket and hurriedly put it on. He started toward the door, but then turned, shaking a finger at Starsky. "I'm going to forget this conversation ever took place." The door slammed behind him.

Starsky laughed out loud. Then he got to work.

* * *

Hutch was true to his word. But on the afternoon of the second day, while they were on patrol in the Torino, the blond tossed his almost-empty cola can into the backseat.

"Hey!" Starsky protested. "Don't let that drip on my books."

Hutch turned to the backseat. "What books?"

"Books for my research project."

Hutch looked at him. "What proj--" He abruptly shut up as his eyes widened.

Starsky answered as if Hutch had finished the question. "You know, the one where I'm finding out all I can about how to make you feel good. I mean, especially good."

Hutch put a hand over his eyes, as though in pain. "Starsky, dare I ask what kind of books those are?"

"Well, let's see," Starsky tapped the steering wheel. "There's How to Please a Man In Bed, What Every Man Wants, The Male Sexual Organs, The Joy of--"

Hutch gripped Starsky's arm to stop the flow of titles. His other hand was still over his eyes. "Starsky, I had hoped you weren't serious about continuing with this. I thought surely by you would have come to your senses."

"Hutch, I assure you: my senses are very intact, thank you. And I'm quite serious."

"Control One to Zebra Three."

Hutch pulled his hand away, took a deep, deep breath, and answered the microphone, looking grateful for the distraction

* * *

On day five, they stopped for burgers and ate in the car. Starsky had been hungry, so his food was scarfed down first. Bored after finishing off the fries, he turned to watch his partner take a bite of his own burger. "Did you know that there's an incredible number of nerves in the anal area of the human body?"

Hutch choked, and spit out the piece of burger. His face screwed up to an incredible degree. "Starsky, that's gross. That's disgusting. I'm eating!" He closed his eyes and seemed to be counting to ten.

"Well, it's true."

The eyes didn't open. "That is the grossest, sickest--"

"Well," Starsky pouted, "if you're gonna be upset about it, I can consider that part of your body off limits." Firmly, he reminded, "Whatever you want, Hutch."

Hutch looked sharply at him. "You ought to be institutionalized. I can't believe I even agree to sit in the same car with you. I must be as crazy as you are. We both need to be institutionalized." He bit determinedly into his burger.

"Well, I'd recommend waiting until after eleven days from now before calling the men with the white coats. Eleven more days, Hutch."

* * *

It felt good to be standing before the urinal, his bladder relieving itself of its burden. Starsky was surprised when Hutch walked in, because the other had been down in Records. It was the tenth day.

"They'll have the files by tomorrow morning," the blond said, moving to stand beside Starsky. There was the sound of his fly lowering.

"You know, Hutch, I was watching this movie last night."

The blond closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, as though preparing for pain...or trying to hold himself back from causing it.

"It was really sort of interesting. See, these two guys were on an empty bus. And one guy was standing on two seats on opposite sides of the aisle--one leg on each seat, so he was sorta spread-eagled across the aisle." Starsky zipped up his fly. "It gave him great leverage. He'd lower himself down onto the other guy's prick. The other guy didn't even have to do anything, because the first guy was raising and lowering himself on it... I mean, the first guy was being fucked, but at the same time it was it was like he was doing the fucking." Starsky moved to the sink and ran his hands under the faucet for a couple of seconds.

Hutch's voice was steel. "Dammit, Starsky."

"You know, Hutch," Starsky said as he dried his hands, "you keep saying that, and I'm afraid people are gonna start thinking my first name is Dammit."

Wide eyes turned on him. "It would fit, wouldn't it?" the blond noted tightly.

Starsky grinned. "What's a matter? You all hard and now you can't piss?" He exited in a hurry, leaving a string of swearing in his wake.

* * *

"That's a great price for oranges, don't you think?" Starsky babbled as he carried the crate to the Torino from the farm truck parked beside the road. It was the twelfth day.

"Yeah, yeah, terrific," Hutch replied without enthusiasm.

"You can take some home with you, if you want."

The blond shrugged. "Maybe."

Starsky set the crate on the ground, got out his key, and opened the trunk. He pushed a paper sack aside, upsetting the contents, and heaved the crate into the space. When he straightened, he saw that Hutch was staring at the sack, eyes wide, mouth dropping open--both expressions having become familiar in recent days.

"S-S-S-Starsky," his partner stuttered, "w-w-what is th-th-th-that thing?" Then, obviously having answered his own question, Hutch flung himself away, a hand over his mouth, as though he were going to be sick.

"What do you think it is?" Starsky asked reasonably, his hands behind his back.

"Starsky," Hutch swore, shaking his finger at the sack, "there's no way on Earth I'm going to sl-sl-sleep with some-some-some toy." He whirled on his partner. "Do you understand?"

Starsky didn't flinch, other than holding up his hands in a soothing gesture. "Hutch, you got it all wrong. That's not a toy. It's just a...device. To assist in the preparation. Just like lubricant." He reached into the sack and pulled out a huge plastic tube. And smiled. "See?"

Hutch looked away, his expression one of long-suffering nausea and disbelief.

"See, Hutch," Starsky continued easily, putting the tube back, "all the instructional stuff I've been reading and watching say that one should use a vibrator first know, stretch things out." His partner turned to look at him, still wearing an offended, confused, the-world-makes-no-sense expression. Sweat was popping out on the broad forehead. "It's very important to be real careful, Hutch, so the whole experience is just...nice. Nothing but nice."

The blond's breath was getting heavy as he stood there, looking at Starsky incredulously, his mouth still hanging open.

Starsky closed the trunk. "Uh...Hutch? I think you're getting a bit heated up. So, see that little sandwich shop down there?" The blond's dazed eyes followed the direction where he was pointing. "Why don't you go there and like, maybe, order yourself a nice, cold milkshake. Think of things like...I dunno...the polar ice caps. In the meantime, I'll take this stuff home, and then I'll come back for you." He patted the blond's arm, gave him the lightest of shoves. "Just be a good Blintz and go on down there and I'll come back for you." He winked and added, "Four days, Hutch. That's all."

Starsky got in the car and looked in the rearview mirror. He grinned as he started the motor, watching his partner shuffle stiffly toward the sandwich shop.

* * *

His partner had been unusually quiet all day. Comments weren't responded to, and questions were greeted with nothing more than grunts. Hutch invested a lot of time in staring out his side window.

Starsky was afraid that an explosion--of some sort--was on the horizon. And they still had two days.

Probably best to try to diffuse it....

He pulled the Torino into a grocery store parking lot. He looked over at his silent partner and cheerfully said, "I need to stock up. And since you look like you can use some alone time, I thought I may as well do it now." He patted the nearest knee. "You just wait right here." He got out of the car.

A soft "What?" was asked, as though the speaker were in a daze.

Starsky poked his head back in the car. Hutch was looking at him with that wide-eyed, blank expression. "I'm gonna get some groceries."

The blue eyes closed wearily and Hutch brought a hand up to his face. "Oh, dear God, I can't even imagine.... I don't want to imagine...." He lamely gestured toward the grocery store. "What it is that you're possibly going to be in there for.... God, I think I'm going to be sick."

Starsky blinked innocently. "Hutch, you got it all wrong. See, I'm gonna go in there and buy things like...milk, bread, cheese, toothpaste, salami, Doritos.... I mean, I gotta eat just like the next guy."

"That's all?" Hutch asked hopefully, looking at Starsky with the same confused expression.

"Well...yeah." Starsky stuck his head further into the car. "Gee, Hutch, what else did you think I was gonna be going into a grocery store for?"

The blond looked at him again. Blinked. There was a spark growing behind those sea-blue eyes that Starsky recognized as being dangerous. That spark usually meant one thing: RUN!

Starsky whirled and tore out of the lot. Thankfully, there was a park two blocks away. He headed for it at full steam. Of course, he'd gotten a good head start--and he could out-sprint Hutch any day--but he could hear pounding sneakers on the pavement behind him, and he knew that over a distance of ground those long legs would catch up to him.

He ran past the little pond, past the Little Leaguers playing softball, past the lovers on blankets beneath trees. He started up a hill, panting for breath....

He was tackled from behind. Brought down to the grass in an unglamorous heap. The heaving blond straddled his exhausted body. Though he couldn't really see it, Starsky knew from the tenseness of his partner's muscles that Hutch was sporting an aching erection.

"We're in public," he hissed, afraid that Hutch might try to press against him to relieve the ache.

The blue eyes gazed at him for the longest time, Hutch's chest heaving, his mouth hanging open. Finally, he simply asked, "Why? Why are you torturing me like this?"

Starsky gasped, "Just two more days, Hutch. That's all."

"And then what?" Hutch managed. "More torture?"

Starsky was appalled. "Oh, no, Hutch. No, no, no." The innocence was back in his voice. "Maybe I haven't explained things well enough. See, Hutch, two days from now is going to be the best day of your life. The best day, Hutch. That means nothing but good things are going to happen to you. Not torture. Only good things, Hutch. Isn't that worth waiting for?"

Hutch abruptly released Starsky, throwing himself to one side. He sat on his knees, shoulders hunched, still gasping for breath.

"You know, Hutch," Starsky said, pulling himself into a sitting position, "you told me not so long ago that what you wanted most in life was for there to be enough meaning for you to not question the point of it all--the reason for your existence. Haven't you found meaning in waiting for your special day, Hutch?"

The blond closed his eyes, as though it were all too much to assimilate. He staggered to his feet, and Starsky did likewise.

Hutch vaguely indicated a patrol car in the distance. Wearily, he said, "I'm going to have them take me home."

Starsky watched Hutch start down the hill toward the black-and-white. He was relieved at the separation. It had taken all his willpower to keep from arching himself up against Hutch when the blond was on top of him.

They still had two days.

* * *

It was past nine-thirty p.m. on the fifteenth day.

They had looked for every possible excuse to stay away from each other since the incident in the park, but sniffing out the trail of a suspect who had murdered two clerks in a gun store heist had drawn them together in search of their prey. They had already put in a twelve-hour day. After interviewing various witnesses and following up on the resulting leads, they were now creeping down an alley, closing in on the makeshift shelter that the suspect was reputed to live in.

From where they were, moving from one garbage dumpster to another, they could see the glimpse of white in the darkness that indicated the sheets used as the basic structure for the suspect's "home."

They were now hiding behind the dumpster nearest the makeshift tent. Starsky looked at Hutch. The blond nodded to him.

Starsky moved to stand next to what looked like an entrance. With his gun raised, he called, "Ernest Tallman? Police. Come out with your hands up." He looked toward his partner, who was waiting against the dumpster with his gun aimed at the entrance. Starsky tried again. "Police! Open up or we're coming in."

There was no sound, and Starsky felt a sense of disappointment. He couldn't detect any noises of movement from within. Finally, he nodded at his partner, who nodded back. Starsky reached to yank back the covering that acted as a door. Hutch lunged into the entrance, gun drawn.

Hutch backed out before Starsky could even follow him. "No one there," the blond said simply.

Starsky's shoulders slumped. "Damn." He put his gun away.

Hutch did as well. "Nothing even in there. Not even a mattress. Just a towel on the ground and a candle."

"Man," Starsky sighed. "How much you wanna bet that he got wise and hightailed it out of town?"

Hutch didn't answer. The black jacket across the blond's shoulders grew tight as he led the way back down the alley.

Starsky followed silently.

Suddenly, Hutch lunged at a dumpster that was so over-filled with cardboard boxes that some of the boxes had tumbled to the ground. The blond kicked at a box with all his might, then another...and another. "Damn it!" he raged. "Damn it, damn it, damn it!" He kicked the boxes a few more times for good measure, using both feet this time.

Then he collapsed to one knee, hiding his head in his hands.

Starsky knelt behind and grabbed him around the shoulders. "Hey, partner, what was all that?"

From above, a window was heard to open. A woman's voice screamed, "You down there! Quit making so much noise or I'll call the cops!"

Hutch looked up and his lips twisted as if he were going to say something not-nice in reply.

Starsky clamped a hand over his partner's mouth. By doing so, he was drawn closer to his partner's body. Once again, Hutch was panting, his body tense with frustration.

"Look, Hutch." He turned the blond's head toward the corner of the opposite building. Inside the glass walls of the bottom floor was a dry cleaning shop. It was closed and unoccupied, but a nightlight illuminated the clock on the wall. Starsky whispered, "See? It's almost ten o'clock. You know what that means? Just two more hours."

Hutch's mouth moved and Starsky lowered his hand.

"Two more hours?" Hutch's disbelief made his voice high-pitched.

"Yeah, just two more hours," Starsky assured with a grin.

The blond head turned to look at him. "We don't have to wait until tomorrow morning?"

Starsky blinked. "No, Hutch." And then he realized that his partner truly hadn't realized that crossing from one day into another would, literally, be the twelfth hour. "I guess I didn't explain that part," he admitted. His lips almost touched the nearest ear. "See, Hutch, as soon as the clock gets one second past midnight, that means your special day is here. I plan to get started on the celebration right away." He squeezed Hutch's shoulder, and then shifted back so that they were no longer touching.

Hutch stared at the clock, his mouth open once again. "Just two more hours?"

Starsky felt a need to be soothing. "Hutch, look. I've still got some preparing to do. So, I gotta get home. Listen real careful, 'cause this is what you gotta do: First, I'm gonna drop you off at Huggy's so I can get on my way. You gotta stay there and...whatever--but don't drink too much booze--and wait until it's almost time. In fact, it would probably be good if you ate something. Something to give you energy. Then have a taxi bring you to my place. But Hutch," he emphasized, "don't come to my place a second before midnight. Because then you'll have to wait outside my doorstep until the clock strikes twelve and it'll make us both crazy. Okay?"

Hutch only staggered to his feet in answer.

Silently, they returned to the car.

* * *

All the lights in Starsky's apartment were out. The walls carried an almost eerie illumination from the array of candles burning in every room. An entire row was stretched across the headboard of the bed, for he wanted him and Hutch to be able to see each other's eyes.

It was a minute past midnight and there had yet to be a knock on his door. Starsky sat on the couch, trying to convince himself there was no way, after all this time, that Hutch wouldn't show. If the blond had disagreed with the idea, he would have said so at some point during the past sixteen days.

Starsky resisted the urge to study himself in the mirror once more. It wouldn't change how he looked. He hoped so much that Hutch would find him appealing. He was dressed in loose-fitting, black silk pajamas with gold trim on the sleeves and neck. It had taken some inquiries and a long hunt to find the perfect attire.

Dark and light. The apartment. Himself. He and Hutch together.

Starsky watched the clock. Two minutes past. He'd told Hutch to make sure he wasn't early, but he hadn't given any warnings about being late. After all, getting there at a precise time didn't have any bearings on things; Starsky just couldn't conceive why Hutch would waste precious minutes being late. After all, his special day had a finite number of minutes in it. But maybe Hutch hadn't considered that.

It was also possible that the big blond had left Huggy's to go to his own apartment, perhaps to change or get cleaned up after their twelve-hour shift. Starsky hoped not; for that task was something that he had laid out in his plans.

Of course, he reminded himself, as he had numerous times in the past sixteen days, Hutch's special day meant that Hutch could have anything, and Starsky had to be careful that the blond's wishes came before his own. Some of Starsky's fantasies might have to remain just that, if Hutch chose not to participate in some of the things Starsky had in mind for them.

A single knock sounded at the door.

Starsky jerked his head toward it, listening breathlessly. There was no further sound. He swallowed thickly, then moved to the door, aware of his heart thundering in his chest. He hesitated, then opened it wide.

Hutch looked at him, apprehension dominating his expression. Then he looked into the apartment, eyes amazed at the eerie lighting. Breathlessly, the blond whispered, "Is this heaven or is this hell?"

"Heaven, Hutch. Nothing but heaven."

The sky-blue eyes darted to his. Hutch was still dressed as he had been before, meaning he'd obeyed orders and stayed at Huggy's...waiting for time to pass. His clear orbs reflected the glow of the candlelight, but Starsky thought he also detected excitement, perhaps fear, and anticipation in those storybook depths.

Starsky's throat was so thick that his next words were barely audible. "Come in." He stepped back.

Hutch entered enough for his host to close the door. Then the blond man closed his eyes. "If you touch me," he warned in a painful whisper, "I'll explode."

"Then explode." Starsky reached for him.

For a moment, Hutch held up his hands as though to keep Starsky away. But as soon as Starsky gripped his leather-clad arms, it seemed the blond was lost, for he wrapped himself around Starsky with a desperate grip and locked their mouths together.

The mustache felt funny--Starsky hadn't noticed it when they had kissed briefly before--and he reminded himself that there would be plenty of time later to explore the unique texture. For now, he felt the steel hardness grinding beneath his beltline, and Hutch's beer-flavored breath stealing his own breath away.

If he could have, Starsky would have used his hand to help ease his partner's need. But Hutch had his arms in a vise-like grip, and he could only stand there and be used as an instrument of relief. Hutch was thrusting hard against him, and the force caused Starsky to step back until he felt the arm of the sofa against the back of his legs.

Hutch used it to his advantage. He dumped Starsky's upper body onto the seat cushions, then pinned him with his hands. And then the rock-hard, denim-clad groin was thrusting against Starsky's upraised crotch, which was supported by the sofa arm.

Starsky's own groin was on fire. But not as much as his heart. Hutch was looking down at him, the most intense passion Starsky had ever seen reflected by the candlelight in the hooded eyes.

And then Hutch cried out, squeezing his eyes shut as he did so. Over the next few seconds, the frantic motion of his hips stilled, and his flesh turned to putty. He slowly collapsed on top of Starsky.

The blond head was resting on Starsky's stomach. The darker man couldn't resist reaching out and running his fingers through the delicate, sweat-damp strands.

After a moment, Hutch tilted his head up so that Starsky could see his face. The blond's soft voice was both bashful and apologetic. "Haven't come in my pants since I was a kid. Couldn't help it."

"I know," Starsky soothed. His voice was cheerful as his fingers continued to stroke. "Now, you're all nice and relaxed. That's exactly what I wanted."

"Played right into your hands, huh?"

"Hey," Starsky whispered, dropping his thumb off the end of the other's nose, "if I know one thing in this life, it's my partner." Then he was soothing again. "No reason for you to hold back, pal. Anything you want on this day, you get."

"I really didn't want sticky underwear."

It felt so good, Hutch resting against him. Starsky's erection had eased with acceptance that it wasn't his turn to receive any favors yet. But he loved having the big, spent blond on his chest. Right where he could keep an eye on him.

But movement was inevitable, at least for the time being. Starsky gripped his partner's shoulders as the blond started to move off him. "You stay put." He eased his way out from beneath the other's body. "Just relax for a few minutes and I'll go start a nice, warm bath so we can clean you up and you can get more comfortable."

Hutch obediently stayed where he was. Starsky went into the bathroom.

He turned on the faucet full-blast, making sure the temperature was warm but not hot. He dumped an oily bubble-bath solution into the water. The light wasn't right. Starsky went into the bedroom and took a candle from the far corner and placed it on the sink, which helped illuminate the tub more.

He came into the living room, where Hutch had fully stretched out and was now staring at the glow from the candles on the coffee table.

"Bath's almost ready," Starsky announced in a low voice.

Hutch looked up at him. Then got to his feet.

Starsky followed him. When the tall form stopped before the tub, Starsky slipped the black leather jacket off the long arms. He then unsnapped the shoulder harness and pulled the holster and straps away. He reached around to unbutton the shirt, loving it that Hutch was staying still and letting him do it. When that was tossed aside, Starsky reached to the front of the other's waist, pulled apart the snaps to the jeans and lowered the zipper. He pulled at the blond's hips, beckoning the denim and underwear to the floor. Hutch stepped out of them.

Starsky watched while his partner lowered himself into the water. He then sat on the floor closer to other end of the tub, so that he was almost next to Hutch but still able to face him. He pushed at the blond's shoulder. "Just sink all the way down in there." Hutch did so, submerging all but the tops of his shoulders, which made it necessary for his knees to come out of the water. "That's good." Starsky approved. "Now just lie there and relax."

"Might fall asleep," Hutch warned.

"Go ahead. In fact, it might not be a bad idea considering all the energy you're gonna need later."

Hutch eyes were searching his partner's face. Then he softly said, "Starsky...why?"

"Well, tell you the truth, I was really hoping you weren't gonna spend too much time thinking about it all. I'd really rather you just enjoy yourself. But, to answer the question, just because, plain and simple, I wanted to do something nice for you, Hutch. Special."

A hand emerged from the layer of bubbles. It reached up, the wet fingers drifting across Starsky's nose, then settled on his cheek.

"You don't think," Hutch asked, "that having you as my partner, day in and day out, is special enough?"

Starsky was touched by the sentiment, but shook his head. "No. Especially not lately. I've hardly made any time for you outside of work."

The other stared at the bubbles a moment, gathering his thoughts. Then he took his hand away and, with tender scolding, said, "Starsky, I've never felt...neglected. I've told you before: I was happy for you and Mary Ann. I never envied her time with you."

Starsky swallowed. "I guess maybe that's the whole point. You loved me enough to let me be free to love somebody else. But I was trying to keep you both--tryin' to balance it all. And I've come to realize--as she did--that I would always be trying to include you as equally as I did her. I'll never be able to give myself wholeheartedly to someone else, Hutch, because I'll always be looking behind me, making sure you're coming along for the ride, too. So, if I'm always gonna feel like that...then, I may as well take the whole trip with you."

Hutch closed his eyes a moment, shaking his head. Though Starsky would rather they have not gotten into this conversation right now, he was glad that Hutch was still relaxed against the back of the tub. When his eyes opened, the blond said, "Starsky, you're missing the obvious here. It wasn't that way with Terry, buddy. What makes you think you can't have that kind of relationship again?"

"That was different, Hutch." He'd already thought the Terry issue through. "You were involved with Terry and me from the very beginning. She liked you and with you volunteering to help with the kids..." he shrugged, "it's like you were a part of us all the way around. I didn't feel like I was leaving you behind. If we would have gotten married, you woulda been a regular part of our lives. It would have enriched all three of us, rather than taking anything away from any of us."

"So, why don't you think you can ever have that kind of relationship again?" Hutch repeated. "Just because it didn't work with Mary Ann...."

Starsky reached up to a towel rack and pulled off a wash cloth. He rolled up his sleeves, then dipped the cloth into the water, shifting to run it across Hutch's neck and shoulders. He squeezed the water out as he did so, taking satisfaction in watching it drip down his partner's pale skin. "Things are different now. You and I are closer than ever." He dipped the cloth again, then rubbed it against the back of the blond's neck. "I'm always gonna want to protect what we have. I don't want to lose any of it. That's why it interfered with me and Mary Ann; I was always so focused on you and your needs." He took a deep breath. As he dipped the cloth again, he confessed, "Mary Ann had to point out to me that focusing on your needs was really my need. I...needed to do that more than I needed to care for her." He shook his head. "I can't argue with the truth, Hutch." He ran the cloth along the broad forehead.

"Don't take this the wrong way, buddy," Hutch said, closing his eyes as the cloth moved over his face, "but I intend to take everything you say about relationships these days with a grain of salt." His eyes opened as Starsky finished. "You might find that you feel differently once the hurt has a chance to heal."

Starsky shrugged. "Fair enough." He put the cloth down and stood. "Stay right there. Be back in a sec."

He went into the kitchen and took a pitcher out of the cupboard. When he returned, Hutch asked, "What's that for?"

"Gonna wash your hair." Starsky knelt down again and scooped up a pitcher full of bath water. With one hand, he formed a barrier over Hutch's forehead; with the other, he poured the water over the blond strands.

He put the pitcher down and grabbed a bottle of shampoo. He took a moment to open the spout; and when he looked up he found Hutch looking at him with a tender expression.

Hutch nodded toward the candles. Softly, he said, "You didn't get the idea for all of this from reading sex manuals."

Starsky felt a smile light his face, for he was glad that the prior subject was behind them, at least for the time being. He shook his head. "Right. Dreamed it up on my own."

Hutch nodded with approval. "Romantic."

Starsky leaned forward to squeeze out shampoo onto his partner's head. "Thought the darkness would help you relax more, too."

"The way you keep using that word 'relax', you'd think I had an ulcer."

Starsky put the bottle aside and rubbed at Hutch's hair, creating a lather. Bashfully, he replied, "Just wanna take care of you. For just one day, I want to enjoy pampering you."

The blond's eyes closed as Starsky used his fingernails to scrub. "It's not like you've never pampered me before. I seem to remember you hovering long after I was recovered from the plague. For starters."

Starsky found the pitcher again and re-filled it with water. "Right," he said as he rinsed the shampoo out. "After the plague, after what Ben Forrest's cronies did, after you were trapped under your car...." Starsky did a second rinsing, then sat back to look Hutch in the eye. "Those were all times after you'd been through a rough time." His voice softened. "Just once, I'd like to take care of you just because I feel like it, not because you need it."

Voice low, Hutch replied, "Okay."

The barely-audible word put Starsky's chest into a flutter. He reached for the cream rinse and squeezed a small helping out, then rubbed it in. Hutch kept his eyes closed through the rinsing, the tiniest smile lighting one mouth corner.

No further words were spoken as Starsky covered Hutch's barely-noticeable five o'clock shadow with shaving cream and applied a razor to it.

Afterwards, Starsky grabbed a hand towel and used it on his partner's face, then his hair. He rubbed briskly all about Hutch's head. When he was finished, he asked, "Ready to get out?"

Hutch gazed at him for a long moment. "Depends on what's next on the agenda."

Starsky took a deep breath, meeting those eyes that glowed from the reflection of the candles. "Gonna take you to the bedroom and lay you down. And then I'm gonna give you a nice massage, all over. That might be a good time for a nap, if you're worn out."

As they continued to gaze at each other, a subtle change came over the blond's expression. Gently, he said, "I'm ready to get out."

Starsky rose and took a bath towel from the rack. It was new, black, plush, and huge. He unfolded it and held it open. "Stand up here."

Hutch did as told and Starsky began drying him off, starting with his shoulders and working down. Afterwards, he straightened and wrapped the towel around Hutch so that it included his arms.

Starsky stood back and looked at that blond head atop the body wrapped in black. He grinned. "You're beautiful, you know that?"

Hutch couldn't hide that he was pleased at the compliment, but he swallowed and said, "It's all in the eyes of the beholder."

Starsky wanted to kiss him then, but he denied the impulse. If Hutch was all warm and mellow and snug, Starsky didn't want to take that secure feeling away from him. They'd have plenty of time later for other things.

Starsky guided Hutch to the bedroom. Hutch paused in the doorway, sucking in his breath, as though amazed at the row of candles on the headboard.

Starsky gave him the gentlest of shoves. "Go on in there and lay yourself down. I'll be right back."

When he returned, Hutch was sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to divest himself of the towel. He had one arm free. Starsky handed him a glass of wine.

Hutch accepted it, but paused before taking a sip. "Is it drugged?"

Starsky grinned. "If you wish it were, then pretend." He sipped from his own glass.

The other grinned back. And drank.

Starsky helped unravel the towel and eventually took the wine glass away. "Just lay face down and go ahead and nap, if you want. I'm just gonna be doin' some nice things to your muscles."

When Hutch was prostrate Starsky put the towel over him, but pulled it back at the shoulders. He reached for some oil and squeezed a helping into his hand. He straddled Hutch's back while warming the lotion between his hands. Then he went to work.

He did Hutch's shoulders first, taking great care to massage each muscle. He branched out to the arms, then came back to the spine. He worked slowly and deliberately, pulling the towel back as he moved down Hutch's body. There was a periodic "Mm" from his partner, but otherwise the other seemed to be drifting on the lassitude created by the friction of Starsky's hands.

It was rewarding doing this for Hutch, in the candlelight and silence, his lubricated hands creating pleasant friction against the other's skin. When he reached the buttocks, he squeezed liberally, drawing another noise of appreciation. He liked it that Hutch didn't feel nervous about him being back there. Such priceless trust....

After a time, he finished the legs and topped off the massage by rubbing Hutch's feet. He moved to the front of the bed and bent down to the closed eyes. He whispered, "Wanna turn over so I can do your front side?"

The eyes remained closed, and a sleep-heavy voice whispered back, "Already in heaven. Sleep."

"'Kay." Starsky put the towel back over Hutch. Then he curled up in the almost too-small space beside him. He watched Hutch's peaceful face for a long time; then his own eyes eventually closed.

* * *

It was the shifting of the mattress that woke him. He opened his eyes to see that it was Hutch who was watching him now, in the soft glow created by candlelight. The blond reached out and touched his cheek.

"What time is it?" Starsky asked.

The features remained soft. "Don't know." The tone said that he didn't care.

Starsky grinned affectionately, then propped himself on an elbow so he could see past Hutch to the clock on the opposite nightstand. "Four forty-two a.m."

Fingertips fluttered across Starsky's forehead. "Guess that means we have a little time before daylight."

Starsky's heart jump-started as he realized now the time was here. And Hutch was ready and willing. "Wanna get under the covers?" he asked hoarsely.

"Undress first." It was a whisper, but also an order.

Starsky swallowed and rose from the bed. He turned around with a deliberate motion, facing Hutch, who was slipping his long legs beneath the bed clothes, having tossed the towel aside.

Starsky unbuttoned the silk pajama top. Hutch was propped on an elbow, watching him, but not staring lewdly.

Starsky took his pajama top off.

It seemed strange to him, Hutch wanting to watch him undress, for the other had seen his nudity numerous times before. But he couldn't deny that it excited him that Hutch had commanded the unveiling.

He pushed the bottoms down his legs and stepped out of them. He was a little embarrassed to be standing half-erect, in full view. But the gentling of Hutch's eyes soothed him.

Hutch held the covers open.

Starsky got into bed, his excitement increasing. Before he was settled, Hutch's lips were upon his, the blond's strong upper body pinning him. A shudder went through him as all his well-laid plans, about what he was going to do Hutch, evaporated. Hutch seemed to know exactly what he wanted, and the big blond groaned appreciatively against Starsky's mouth.

Starsky was gasping for breath, his erection poking against his partner, and he felt some relief when Hutch seemed to calm and the kisses became more leisurely. He could focus on the mustache now, how it felt against him. The hands that were running up and down his arms, alternating between that and holding his cheeks, stilling his head for more breath-defying kisses, and rubbing against his upper chest.

Finally Hutch pulled back, his face all love-soft.

Starsky found some semblance of his voice and croaked, "You know you take my breath away?"

The hooded eyes softened further. "You know I'm so crazy for you that I want to eat you alive?"

The nerves throughout Starsky's body shimmered. He groaned happily, dropping his head back and exposing his throat. Hutch started there, sampling him, gentle nips working down both sides of his neck. And then a wet tongue was lapping along his collarbone, tracing it. Starsky grabbed Hutch by the sides, impatient to have his hardness soothed, and he rocked it against the stomach that trapped it.

Hutch moved more quickly, licking down Starsky's chest and stomach. Starsky kept thrusting, groaning his frustration, and then Hutch was there. The blond had pushed back the sheets while moving down Starsky's body, and Starsky could see Hutch grab the swaying cylinder with both hands, as though holding a baseball bat, and then lower his mouth on it.

Starsky stilled immediately, not daring to disrupt the sensations. The grip of Hutch's hands was perfect--just how he liked it--and the tongue inside those generous lips was working on the upper part of his penis, the sensitive underside that was most receptive to suction from the active tongue.

"Oh, God," Starsky moaned, wanting Hutch to know how perfect it was. "That's incredible," he gasped. "Just incredible." His hand inched down, felt along the blond's nose and cheek, then dropped down to feel the muscles of the jaw that was working so hard at pleasing him. He surged with love and grabbed the delicate hair, stroking along the top, not sure how else to express what he was feeling.

The power was building, threatening to peak at the point of no return. "Gonna come," he warned. As he said it, the sensations flew forth. He cried out, and his hands had to fall away when Hutch suddenly released him.

He squinted his eyes open as the fluid shot from him, spurting onto his belly, and he had a whole new rush of feelings as Hutch knelt there, watching the eruption, as though enraptured by it.

Starsky's eyes closed again as he sighed deeply, letting the afterglow settle in. When he felt Hutch's hands on his sides, he made the effort to open them, and the blond was looking at him with another one of those soft expressions that served to make his partner turn to mush. Then Hutch ducked his head and stuck out his tongue.

He went about it so precisely and delicately, lapping at the little white puddles. Starsky knew that if he hadn't been totally drained he would have gotten another hard-on. The tongue tickled gently along his skin as it worked, and Hutch went about it in such a worshipful fashion that Starsky found himself speechless. He let it continue.

When the cleaning chores were done, Hutch moved up on the bed and matched his lips to Starsky's. Starsky returned the kiss eagerly, and the full lips opened readily for him when he pushed his tongue inside to show his willingness to share. The flavor was vaguely familiar, a remembered taste from adolescent samplings. Starsky wrapped his hands around Hutch's head, holding him. When he shifted his knee it brushed against a steel hardness.

He moved his hands to lightly grasp his partner's jaw, stilling it. Hutch slowly pulled away and looked at him.

Starsky panted, "You ready for your reward for being so good to me?"

Hutch didn't reply, merely gazed at him with a mixture of soft amusement, wonder...perhaps hope.

Starsky swallowed, as the moment he'd been waiting most for drew nearer. "You can have it any way you want it," he whispered. "Any way at all."

Again there wasn't a reply, only the intensifying of the blond's gaze. Then, abruptly, Hutch straightened and looked to the nightstand.

Starsky took the other's arm in a gentle grip. "I'm all ready for you," he informed him. "Got all ready before you came over. Just tell me what position you want me in."

The blond's breath had grown heavier, his eyes brightening as the soft lines of his face grew more firm. He sat back on his heels, placed his hands on Starsky's thighs and gently pushed them apart.

Starsky swallowed, feeling a sense of excitement and vulnerability. Hutch inserted a finger into his own mouth, then reached between the spread legs.

Starsky's eyes sought the ceiling as the finger probed at him, then entered. His lubricated anus accepted it easily. After a moment, he gripped the digit, demonstrating his willingness. His eyes sought his partner's. "Told you I was all ready."

The finger moved around. It pulled at the opening, and Starsky said again, "I'm all stretched for you, Hutch. There's enough room in there."

Hutch pulled the finger out and closed his eyes, swallowing. He then looked at Starsky, almost as though he wanted to say something scolding in nature, like "you didn't have to do that." But he seemed to decide it was a moot point for, breathing heavier still, he reached to the nightstand and opened the top drawer. He fumbled around and then pulled out a tube of K-Y, which had already lost its roundness from Starsky's practice sessions.

Hutch sat back on his heels and squeezed a little of the substance into his palm. Then, very carefully, he applied it to the head of his erection.

It looked pale and long and big. Though he didn't think it was necessary, Starsky also felt it rather thoughtful for Hutch to apply the grease to himself.

Stroking himself in a soothing gesture, Hutch rose on his knees. His voice was thick and halting. "Need pillows."

"There's a couple under the bed," Starsky told him.

Hutch reached under the bed and pulled out one, then another.

Starsky turned onto his side and waited while Hutch placed them, one on top of the other, near the small of his back and his butt. The blond then helped him turn back on top of them, so that his hips were in position.

Starsky was breathing heavily, for it seemed like a point of no return. Hutch could do anything to him in this position, and it would be difficult for him to defend himself in any way. That was also the exciting part about himself so whole-heartedly to Hutch.

The blond moved closer, penis in hand. But then he looked up at Starsky and whispered, "I haven't been with anyone in a while."

The vulnerability in the tone pulled at Starsky's heartstrings. He grinned shakily. "If you come too fast, it'll just mean we'll get to do it all over again later."

Hutch let out a breath, looking relieved even though he couldn't have expected any other answer. The blond's voice was firm. "If I hurt you, I want to know about it."

Starsky nodded. He was expecting a degree of pain, for Hutch's erection looked much larger than the vibrator he'd practiced with. But he was expecting to enjoy it, too. He wondered if Hutch had any idea how much.

Hutch leaned forward and Starsky placed his legs over the other's shoulders, intensifying his vulnerability.

Firm flesh bumped against him.

Hutch looked up once again. This time his voice was very gentle. "Starsky, relax."

It was then that Starsky realized how harshly he was breathing. He let himself exhale for a long moment. The tension flowed out of him as his breath steadied.

Hardness pressed against his anal area. Hutch was looking down at their bodies; he adjusted the angle, and Starsky felt the head push against his opening. He'd learned how not to fight the resulting pressure, and even though the pressure was much greater this time, he was able to accept it.

Hutch hadn't looked up and he continued to watch them as his penis pressed into the sheath provided.

Starsky squirmed as more of the firm length reached inside. A gasp escaped.

Hutch looked up sharply, his mouth open as his chest heaved with the force of his restraint.

"Just feels huge," Starsky explained, panting himself. He let his head drop back on the top of his pillow and made another effort to steady his breath.

The blond's eyes closed. "Feels tight," he said appreciatively.

Starsky grinned. "Then shove the rest of it in there so your whole prick can enjoy it."

The thickness moved back, and for a moment Starsky was fearful of losing it. But then it pushed forward powerfully, and he felt more of himself penetrated. His muscles had adjusted to Hutch's girth, and now all he felt was a greater fullness. But he still couldn't feel Hutch's groin. "All of it, Hutch," he gasped.

There was more of the pulling back, and then a grunt as Hutch pressed himself against Starsky, trying to fit more of his length. For a moment, he stretched out his arms and grabbed Starsky's shoulders and braced against them, trying to bring their bodies closer together, and the darker man felt the soft wiriness of pubic hairs.

But then Hutch let go and settled back on his knees, a few millimeters slipping back out.

Before Starsky had a chance to mourn the loss, Hutch demanded, "Tell me what it feels like."

Hutch apparently liked to hear words. Starsky filed that information away for future use while he took a deep breath in preparation to answer. "Like something big and huge and powerful shoved up my ass. Can't wait until it moves back and forth."

Hutch pulled back slowly, then pushed back in with a quick thrust.

Starsky gasped.

"Play with yourself."

"Huh?" Starsky's eyes had closed and now he opened them to gaze at the impassioned expression hovering over him.

"Play with yourself."

It didn't occur to him to disobey the order. Starsky put his hand to his mouth, drooled on it, and then reached for his slightly erect penis, coating the head with saliva.

Hutch grabbed the tube of K-Y. Starsky took it from him and squeezed out a small helping into his palm. Then he dropped it to the bed while rubbing the substance along his length. He gripped both his hands around the barrel and stroked it. He panted as it flared in his grip. He'd never jerked off in front of anybody before, and he was surprised at how exciting it was, watching Hutch watch him.

The blond's breath was still heavy as he pulled out again and pushed back in. Starsky gasped more intensely, feeling the dual sensations, one inside his body, and one outside.

His erection was huge. Folded back as he was, it took an extra effort to keep a satisfying grip on his length. And then suddenly the fullness inside him retreated, and he made a noise of disagreement as he was left hollow inside, his legs dropping from Hutch's shoulders.

His hands continued stroking, for Hutch was still watching. The blond's eyes glittered in the candlelight, and he now guided his erection up to Starsky's crotch. He rubbed the head against the area between his balls and his ass. Starsky's noise was of agreement this time, and he stroked himself more firmly, feeling the head of his own penis flare encouragingly.

Hutch's prick moved upwards, and it now traced the seam between Starsky's nuts. He groaned in disbelief, stroking harder. And then he closed his eyes, feeling the hardness press against one of his balls, as though threatening to puncture it.

"I'm going to put it back in," Hutch told him. "And when it's all the way in, I'm gonna come." A breathless pause, then, "Raise your legs up."

Still stroking, Starsky managed to tilt himself back so that Hutch could fit his legs over his shoulders again. He felt himself breathing harshly, trying to bring himself up to the point where Hutch was, but not letting the sensations tip over the edge. He felt he was very, very close.

The steel flesh poked at his anus once again. Hutch said, "I'm going to shove it all in at once, and I'm going to come."

Hurry! was all Starsky could think. His male organs were tightening in preparation to send their seed on their fatal journey. He was gasping so hard for breath that he was afraid he was going to suffer oxygen deprivation.

Thick flesh speared him.

Starsky cried out as semen spurted from him, and he was aware of a more powerful scream as a quick series of thrusts rocked his body.

His legs fell away, and he felt disappointment when Hutch pulled back, knowing that the thickness had left him for good...or at least for a while. He lay panting, still pampering his shrinking erection, and feeling good things in his chest while listening to Hutch's harsh gasping beside him.

Starsky waited until the heavy noises eased into gentle, blissful ones. He made sure he had his own breath back, then he said, "I've never known anyone who could fuck like you."

There was the pause of a couple of breaths, and then an almost-casual reply. "I've never known anyone that I've wanted to fuck like that."

Starsky looked over at him. Hutch was lying stretched out beside him, his stomach muscles still contracting. "We make some beautiful music together, Hutchinson. I can't remember the last time I was so turned on."

Hutch grinned.

Starsky reached to the covers and rearranged them over them both. He then settled on an elbow next to the blond. He was feeling a wonderful lassitude. "Where did you learn all that, anyway? You gave me a blow job like a pro."

The other turned to look at him. "What makes you think you're the only one who did any research?"

Starsky felt his mouth drop open.

"I had the same time to prepare as you did," Hutch went on, obviously enjoying his partner's surprise. "Just because you're the one who was doing all the talking...."

Starsky punched him in the arm, but it didn't have much force, for the afterglow still present. He couldn't deny that he'd been had. Yet, another glow was working its way into his nerves, created by the realization that Hutch had made the effort to make sure this day was special, too.

Speaking of day....

Starsky looked to the window and saw that the faint glow of dawn was shielded by the curtain. He curled beneath the covers. "You ready for some shut-eye?"

The mattress shifted and Hutch leaned over him. "I'm ready." And then those full lips smiled and moved toward him.

"Mmmm," Starsky said as they tasted each other. Hutch's hands held a light grip on each of his arms, and Starsky felt himself floating on a cushion of warmth.

When Hutch pulled back he was no longer smiling. He looked at Starsky a long time. "I love you."

Starsky grinned bashfully. Then, "Surprise, surprise, I love you, too."

Hutch kissed him again, gently this time, and Starsky was disappointed when he pulled away. But the long body curled up close beside him.

Within minutes, both were asleep.

* * *

When Starsky woke again, he was alone in bed. He was also aware of hunger. It was past noon and the candles had all burned away.

Hutch appeared in the doorway, dressed in Starsky's robe and toweling his hair dry. "How long you been up?" Starsky asked.

"Maybe twenty minutes. I helped myself to the fruit in the crisper. Want anything?"

"I guess," he replied off-handedly, thinking it was he who was supposed to be serving Hutch.

The blond disappeared. Starsky took the opportunity to use the john while there was the sound of the microwave working. When he was back in bed, Hutch showed up with a muffin on a plate and a glass of orange juice. He abandoned the robe and joined Starsky under the covers, eating a banana.

Starsky focused on devouring the blueberry muffin. He was conscious of the fact that it was particularly satisfying, sitting in bed with Hutch on a weekend morning.

Hutch finished first, and he turned onto his side, propping himself onto an elbow. With his other hand, he reached beneath the covers and rested it on Starsky's thigh. Softly, he said, "I had a good time."

His eyes were so bright and sincere. "Not over yet," Starsky noted around the last mouthful of muffin.

A gentle laugh. "Don't know what we can do for an encore."

Starsky took a healthy swallow of orange juice. After putting the glass aside, he said, "There's certain parts of yours I've been wanting to explore. Can't imagine you'd object."

"We've still got all weekend."

"You got a better idea for the present?"

Hutch put an arm across Starsky's waist. "How about just lying here for a while and giving the food a chance to digest?"

Starsky grinned at the practical suggestion. "Anything you want."

Hutch nodded. "That's what I want."

Starsky snuggled beneath the covers, facing his partner. There was something so nice about simply being together without any expectation to perform.

Hutch reached up and traced Starsky's lips with a finger. Then he said, "What do you think's going to happen when the weekend is over?"

The tone was one of curiosity; yet, Starsky knew his answer was very important for them both. Honestly, he replied, "I hope that we can both still have fun with each other, like we did last night." He paused a moment, then softly noted, "It's up to you, Hutch. When it gets down to it, it's your call. 'Cause I'm gonna want to keep going on with what we've started. You're the one who's gonna have to say no."

"I can't do that. I can't say no to you when you want it this much."

With frustration, Starsky said, "But what do you want? This has been my idea all along. I don't see you disagreeing with anything's that's happened, but you've never said anything about how you really feel about all this."

The other's face softened tenderly. "Ah, Starsk. Do I have to tell you what it's been like for me, knowing that you were willing to go through this big charade, just for me? Just because you wanted to make me feel special?"

Starsky grinned. "You've liked it then, huh? Even with having to wait all those days?"

"Of course, I liked it. And I'm still liking it. But Starsky," his voice became more earnest, "I can't lie here and make plans with you for the future." Now, softness again. "You're wounded, buddy. When those wounds heal, you may very well find yourself feeling grateful for what we had, but wanting to go on again to something more..." Hutch shrugged, at a loss for a better word, "normal."

"Okay," Starsky shrugged. "Let's just keep enjoyin' each other until I'm not wounded anymore." But something sounded wrong about it all, and he pressed again, "What do you want, Hutch? You want something more normal for yourself, too?"

The blond looked away. "I don't know," he muttered. "Can't say I've had much success with it, in any case."

"You know what?" Starsky said, just now realizing a truth.


"I've never felt this way before, but honest, Hutch, I think if you were to fall in love with somebody now...I'd feel jealous. I mean," he rushed to clarify, not liking how the word sounded out loud, "I wouldn't want you making someone else feel good when you could be making me feel good, like you were last night."

There was a heavy sigh as Hutch lay back against his pillow.

"Does that upset you?" Starsky asked worriedly.

"No," Hutch said quietly. "It's hard to be upset about a thing like that. I mean," he looked at Starsky and managed a tiny smile, "someone loving you enough to feel that possessive of you."

"Oh. Well, I thought you loving me enough to let me love others was real love. Which would mean that my jealousy means I love you less than you love me, because you love me enough to let me be free. Yet," his brow furrowed, "I can't imagine that I love you any less than you love me."

Hutch chuckled. "You goofball." Then, after a moment, "There's nothing wrong with trying to take what you want."

Starsky swallowed. "But you don't want me enough to try to...'take' me? You'd be willing to let me go."

The blond presented an ironic smile. "Starsky, you can't discuss this stuff in a vacuum. Hypothetical situations don't have anything to do with real life."

"Then forget hypothe...whatevers. Let me put it to you this way: If you could have me any way you wanted me--without it having any effect on my happiness--what would you want for us? Plain and simple."

Hutch thought. Then, weakly, "I'd want us able to share whatever we could together. Everything else we've always had. Now the sex...all of it. Whenever we wanted."

Starsky grinned from ear to ear. It had been like pulling teeth, but his persistence had been worth it. He leaned over Hutch and kissed him briefly. Then he said, "You want it, Hutch. But you're afraid of wanting it."

Hutch was thoughtful again. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

"Why?" Starsky whispered.

Hutch swallowed thickly. "I guess because love that strong has never worked out for me."

Starsky rolled on top of Hutch, straddling him, feeling his confidence increase in direct correlation to his partner's vulnerability. "It's worked out this time, Hutch. It has, all along. All these years we've known each other. This doesn't have a damn thing to do with being wounded or with Mary Ann. It has to do with me and you. And Mary Ann herself would tell you not to throw it away, because you already own what she wanted: my heart. And if I ever have any doubts, all I have to do is remember the dream I had, Hutch, and how it led me to you when you needed me most. I'm not talkin' about anything psychic or angels on our shoulders, or anything like that. I'm just talkin' about love that goes so deep it blows past all barriers." His voice softened as another truth occurred. "Just wish I woulda paid attention to the dream earlier. Then we coulda found you sooner and you wouldn't have suffered so much."

"You found me," Hutch noted softly. "That's all that matters."

Starsky kissed him, glad that Hutch wasn't arguing with what he'd said. He pushed his hand down the other's body, encountering delicate flesh that surged toward him. "You done digestin' yet?" He fondled the soft-skinned organs.

Hutch smiled. "Yeah. For sure."

"Good." Starsky began to scoot beneath the covers. "Cause I got some major feastin' to do." He felt Hutch's hand on his head, encouraging him to go lower beneath the sheets. And when his mouth came into contact with the meal before him, he savored everything slowly...and then devoured.

* * *

"Mary Ann, this one's for you."

Mary Ann accepted the envelope from her mother. "Who's it from?" she asked, but there wasn't a return address.

"It doesn't say, does it?"

Mary Ann walked toward her bedroom and encouraged the flap open. She pulled out a card. There was a beautiful sunset on the cover. Inside the card was blank...except for the message written there.

Mary Ann,

I hope it doesn't upset you to hear from me. But I thought you would want to know.

I'm sorry for how things ended up between us, but I have to tell you that you were right. And Hutch and me are very happy.

I'll always remember you.

All my love,


Mary Ann carefully folded the card closed. She swallowed, old feelings churning inside.

She placed the card in a desk drawer.

And then she smiled.



This story originally appeared in the fanzine HEART AND SOUL 4, published by Charlotte Frost in 1997.

Early comments on this story are posted TBA.

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