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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER VII

 

Starsky stared dreamily at the afternoon edition of the Los Angeles Times, none of the words making the slightest impression on him. He was sitting at his desk, sipping a cup of coffee after lunch and attempting to read the paper, but thoughts of Hutch kept intruding, and he had no will to stop them. He thought of last night, the warm sensations of being surrounded with love, the laughter they had shared upon waking up freezing at two in the morning and searching for the forgotten blankets; the sheer, sweet togetherness that he had missed so long. And he thought about the night to come.

He wanted to know what it was like when he was in the coma. Maybe I should show him -- take care of him, wash and massage him from head to toe, then begin to make love... we've seen he can get an erection... maybe I should just pull out all the stops. And if I do it right, with enough patience, maybe he'll finally get all the way there.

Starsky still marveled over the way Hutch seemed to be accepting his limited ability to respond. He's so willing to do everything for me. And God knows, I can't turn the pleasure aside after all those years of loneliness. But deep down, he has to be hurting, feeling incomplete. I'm a man, too. I know how I'd feel if I couldn't...

We talked about both of us doing everything to each other. Can he even imagine what I really want? More than being inside him -- though I need that, too -- I want him inside me. He's driving me crazy these last few nights... takin' charge of me, making love to me, giving me all those sensations... 'til I want more and more... him fucking me...

He closed his eyes, recalling the size and shape of Hutch's erect penis, of the strong motions of the man's flexing hips. Starsky knew that, all along, deep down, that was what he wanted Hutch to do to him, but when he was missing, the desire only existed in the dreams Starsky couldn't suppress. Now, held by him, caressed and at last loved by him, he wanted Hutch to possess him completely. Sometime soon, he told himself, trying to summon patience. I'll be good to him, good for him... I want to give him back the manhood he lost out here in the outback... want to assure him that his recovery really is complete...

The ringing phone startled him out of the heated daydream, and swallowing the sense of having been caught at something naughty, Starsky picked up the receiver, barking a hello worthy of Captain Dobey.

"Hey, my man, better learn to relax and take life easy," a slow drawl welcomed his outburst.

"Huggy! Hello -- what can I do for you?"

"It's the other way around this time, Starsk. I've got some info for you." There was a pause and Huggy didn't volunteer to continue.

"Okay. I'm listening. What is it?"

An abrupt intake of breath. "Well, there's a rumor goin' around that the men that tried to waste Hutch are back in town."

Someone had just knocked the desk chair from under him, Starsky thought, and he was falling all the way to the center of the earth.

"Didya hear me, man? I said -- "

"I heard you, Hug. How much truth is in this rumor?" One hand held the receiver to his ear in a grip almost tight enough to crush it; the other was clenched on the edge of his desk.

"I think it's the real thing." The other man's voice dropped a level. "I also heard somebody's handing out some big bills to anyone who can give them any information on what Hutch is doin' right now."

That can only mean one thing, a cold, passionless voice in Starsky's head insisted. They want to finish the job they started. They mean to find Hutch and kill him.

"Okay. Okay." He'd been running and had to catch his breath. "Thanks, Huggy. I'll get back to you." He closed his eyes, finding the calm center where the police lieutenant part of him existed. "And Huggy, if you hear anything more -- "

"You'll be the first to know."

Starsky hung up the phone, still fighting to let the professional side of him take control of the situation. A part of him was ready, capable of going by the rules. But another portion of him, fueled by rage that had never had a chance to be expressed, wanted to take over, to see those bastards smashed into an oblivion deeper than any coma.

Where's Hutch right this minute? Could they have found out anything this soon? Starsky reached for his phone, then stopped short. I can't call him up while I'm goin' nuts like this. He'll know right away that something is wrong. And I can't tell him.

But how can I keep this from him? When he was still sick, Starsky knew he could have managed hiding the information from his friend. But Hutch was independent now. It would be impossible to truly protect him without his realizing that something was going on.

Yet Starsky resisted telling him. He remembered the terror that had stalked Hutch almost constantly from the time he'd first awakened in the hospital. The fear had been so real, so long lasting, haunting his dreams, coloring his every waking moment. Those men were responsible for the ruin of his career, the loss of two years of his life, the fragmenting of their relationship. Those fuckers almost killed him -- I can't put him through finding out they're coming back to finish what they started.

Starsky sat still for a long moment, wrestling with his own demons. And then the words he and Hutch had shared only last Saturday on the beach came back to him. We promised never to keep secrets from each other. He closed his eyes, running a shaky hand over his suddenly sweat-sheened face. Hutch had a right to know. It was his life, his future that was at stake. I can't keep it from him. Not if I truly believe he's recovered now. It's cruel enough thinking of him having to be frightened for his life again, but it would be crueler still if I tried to hide the truth. And after we promised... I can't betray what that promise meant.

Drawing a deep, calming breath, Lieutenant Starsky picked up the phone and dialed the number he'd jotted down only that morning -- Seitz's Flower Shop. It was one forty-five and Hutch was scheduled to get off at two o'clock this first day on the job.

********

Hutch took his eyes off the road for a second, just to glance at the directions he'd hastily written down when Starsky had called. 'Come down to the office right away. I have something important to discuss with you.' It had been Hutch's first impulse to protest that he never wished to set foot in the police station again, but something about Starsky's voice had made him hold his peace. Something was wrong. So he hadn't asked questions, he'd simply written the directions for getting there down in his notebook, figuring he'd find out what was going on when he arrived. His first thought had been concern for Starsky's safety, protective instincts leaping into full gear. But then Starsky had ended the brief conversation with his own caution to Hutch. 'Be careful, Hutch. Don't stop to talk to anyone on the way. Just get down here.' It had been more than a reminder to drive carefully.

Hutch turned into the familiar parking lot, sliding his car into a space right next to Starsky's Camaro. He felt a surge of adrenalin wash through him, feeling as though they were about to embark on a case together. His curiosity growing about what was going down, he hurried inside the building.

He had to ask directions twice to find Starsky's office, but when he finally saw his name on the door and pushed it open, Hutch found not only Starsky but Dobey as well, seated inside. He came forward, a tentative smile on his lips, glad to see his partner, worried by the look in the dark blue eyes.

"What's goin' on, Starsk?"

A hand settled on his shoulder in a brief, meaningful clasp, then Starsky motioned him to a chair. "Sit down, Hutch. We'll tell you."

He felt Dobey's brown eyes looking at him penetratingly. "Hi, Captain. How've you been?"

The big man shifted his bulk in the armchair, clearing his throat and nodding briefly. "I'm fine, son. Listen to what Starsky has to tell you, now."

Hutch turned his attention back to his partner, his own worry deepening.

Starsky began to speak. "You remember the men that abducted you, Hutch? Eddie Strouse and Kurt Flavin? I found out from Huggy that they're back in town."

He just stared at Starsky for a moment while the words sank in. Then he got up from the chair and strode to the room's one window. Peering outside, he saw a normal, smog-filtered Los Angeles day. There was danger out there all the time, crime in the streets, crazy drivers on the highway, but Hutch hadn't personalized it in a long time. Now someone was out there, with a face he could never forget... possibly looking for him.

"What do you want me to do?" he said, turning, strangely calm, to look at his friend.

Starsky took a step in his direction, a look full of anguish on his face. Then Dobey's voice broke in again. "That's what we brought you down here to discuss."

"Captain, I want every available cop on this right away," Starsky's words were terse, authoritative. "I want an APB out on these men. I checked, and the federal warrant is still out on them. All we have to do is find 'em and..."

"And how simple do you think that's going to be?" Dobey's rumbling voice cut in mildly. "These men may have been back in the country for weeks already. They might be able to elude the police for quite some time, especially if they still have good connections on the street."

"I know. So what do you suggest? Make them come to us?" Starsky was pacing now, his body betraying a need to act, to get onto the streets and take matters into his control.

"What else? They're looking for Hutch..."

"And what do you think I should do? Set him up as the bait to reel them in?" He whirled on Dobey, looking as though he could slug the older man where he sat.

"Why not?" Hutch broke into the conversation.

Starsky turned on him, then. "No way! I'm absolutely against it. Hutch, do you think I'd let you take that chance?" He strode up to him, glaring at him -- with love written all over his face -- for a long moment. Then he turned and paced back to his desk, perching on the edge. "Damn! I should never have let those stories about you get into the papers. That's gotta be how they found out you're alive. If there'd never been any publicity..."

"Don't, Starsky," Dobey interjected. "There's no use crying over spilt milk. What's done is done. They know. But we might make that work to our advantage."

The dark head came up slowly, anger still flashing from the blue eyes. "You're talking crazy, Captain. I'm not gonna set him up as the bait. We're gonna get Hutch out of town and then comb the city until we find those bastards. And then I'm personally going to tear them apart with my bare hands!" Starsky was shaking, livid with anger. Hutch moved to stand close to him, hand tracing gently down his back, but Starsky shook off the gesture, unwilling to be comforted or calmed.

"What did the articles say about me?" he asked quietly. "I don't remember the interviews too well." Don't pull away from me, babe.

Slowly, Starsky turned to look at him again, drawing a breath as if to steady his raging nerves. "When you first got back to the States, there was one in the Sunday supplement that detailed your medical condition, how you were improving and what the prognosis was. The reporter talked to me on that one. And then there was the interview you did when you got out of the hospital, remember? It talked about how well you were getting along."

"You did make the news a good deal, Hutch," Dobey said from his seat across the room. "Starsky, it wouldn't be difficult at all to get something new in print."

"Forget it, Captain," Starsky snapped again.

"Wait, Starsk," Hutch began, "I'm part of this, aren't I? This is my life we're talking about. It could take days or weeks even to find these men if they are any good at hiding. Wouldn't we be likely to get them faster if they know where to find me?"

"What do you want to do? Go on a talk show and tell the world about your new job?" Starsky's tone was sarcastic.

"New job?" Dobey piped up. "I hadn't heard about that."

"I just started. Working five hours a day at a florist shop out on Pacific Avenue."

Starsky continued with his own reaction. "It would work just great to tell them exactly where you're working, and how well you've recovered."

"Maybe they should think I'm not quite as recovered as I am." Hutch, half-surprised that the logical thought occurred to him, pinned Starsky with a look, daring him to continue rejecting his input.

"He has a point, Starsky," Dobey quickly came to his rescue. "If they think he's an easy mark, they may not take too many precautions when they come looking for him."

Starsky's eyes went from Hutch to Dobey and back again. The anger in his gaze was being supplanted by pride and a shading of humor now. "Think you're pretty damn smart, don't you?" he said in a hushed voice.

"I always was the brains of this outfit." Their gazes held, Dobey forgotten, time spiraling back to bring their partnership into focus.

The discussion continued for an hour or longer at the office, points raised, rejected, modified and planned out. Newscasters and reporters were called, Hutch's new boss at the shop consulted, details ironed out. And even later that evening, at Starsky's apartment, the discussion went on.

Hutch was still seated at the dining table, watching Starsky pace like a caged animal in the confines of the room. He wanted to tell him to stop, but knew that would only make Starsky more agitated. When the mood worked itself out, he'd calm down.

"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" he asked once more, turning to face Hutch.

"Of course I am. And it's not like I'll be out there alone. You'll be right there. So will half a dozen other cops. What can go wrong?"

Deep blue eyes rolled ceiling-ward. "You're just taking it all kinda quietly, that's all."

"I thought one of us carrying on was enough." He raised an eyebrow, knowing the dig would get a response.

"I can't help it, babe." Starsky moved closer to him, kneeling beside his chair. "When I think about what those guys did to you, what they put the both of us through all this time... I do lose my sanity a little. I admit it. I'm not looking at this from a cop perspective. I wanta toss out the rule book and destroy them the way they almost destroyed you." His chest heaved with the effort of keeping his voice even minimally calm. "What about you? Don't you feel angry toward them? Don't you want to get back at them?"

"Sure. But it all happened because I was a cop. I want to see them arrested, to watch them go to trial. A good, long battle with our legal system should take up as much of their lives as they took up of mine. And when justice finishes with them, they'll be locked up for the rest of their time here on earth. Just like I'll be the same as they left me."

"Babe..." Starsky's eyes grew moist and both his hands came up to rest on Hutch's thighs. "You're not the way they left you. You're not even the way you were the day they took you away. You'd changed from those years on the streets, remember? You were burned out, ready to chuck it all, to give up on the system. But right now you sound like the idealist you used to be, a long time before you ever heard of Eddie Strouse or Kurt Flavin."

"Maybe." He laid his hands over Starsky's, trying to warm his friend, to reach into his heart. "I don't want to see you tearing yourself up over these guys. They aren't worth it, Starsky. I know you'd like to take your anger out on them, but it won't do you any good. I'm here. I'm okay. Can't that be enough?"

"It's enough." Desperately, two arms wrapped themselves around his waist and Starsky buried his face against Hutch's chest. "I just don't want to take a chance on losing you again. I can't face that. I won't let them take you away from me again!"

He stroked the rumpled curls. "I'll be careful, babe. I'll do it just the way we've planned. I won't take any chances. Promise."

Both the evening and late news carried the story of Hutch's new job. With Starsky seated beside him on the couch, he watched himself on television, part of him pleased with the way he'd managed to come off as a somewhat handicapped person, part of him cringing from the realization that there had been a time when this had really been the way he appeared. I'm just playing a role, going undercover, he told himself, doing what has to be done. Yet it irked him to realize that people who didn't know him, and who'd only heard of him from the media, now believed his recovery was so limited.

And though he hadn't admitted it to Starsky, the prospect of seeing his captors again was terrifying. For months after regaining consciousness, the nightmare of the hours he'd spent at their mercy had haunted him: the handcuffs, the thirst, the discomfort, the death they planned for him... He'd worked so hard to forget. I fought my way back from the edge of the death that they showed me and now they're making me face my own mortality again. His own fears were too difficult to confront, so he pushed them aside, trying to concentrate on helping Starsky deal with the situation instead.

Following the last news broadcast, he took Starsky to bed, the tension in the muscular body making him easy to arouse. Starsky whimpered and moaned as Hutch sucked him, thrashing on the bed in a tumult of pleasure and anguish. His climax was powerful, emotional, and afterward he sank into a deep sleep almost immediately, letting Hutch hold him near. For Hutch himself, however, sleep did not come so easily. He lay long into the night, Starsky wrapped close in his arms, staring into the darkened room as he contemplated what the morning would bring.

********

Hutch climbed out of the shower and reached for his shaving things, thinking about how different this morning was from the preceding one. Just yesterday, the butterflies in his stomach had been caused by the prospect of starting his new job. Today, what he felt was more than eager anticipation. A part of him was shaking inside with fear and caution, yet the rest of him was actually looking forward to the possible confrontation. He felt like... like he was a cop again.

He wiped the residue of shaving cream from his face and studied his reflection in the mirror, considering how the moustache made him look. He'd been wearing it when Strouse had first caught sight of him that day, thus making it more likely that he would again be able to identify him. And it had been visible on the newscast. But he thought that somehow he looked more vulnerable, more innocent, without it, and thus an easier target. This is me, though. I'll be going enough in disguise today. He put the razor down.

"You want me to scramble some eggs?" Starsky called from the kitchen.

"Sure. I'm gonna get dressed," he returned, making his way into the bedroom. They'd carried a lot of his clothes over to Starsky's from Venice Place last evening, and Hutch slipped on those he'd laid out to wear. The faded jeans were two sizes too large, and the striped shirt was also too big for him now. Starsky came into the room just as he finished buttoning the shirt.

"Do I look skinny enough?" Hutch asked, running his hands through his disheveled hair.

"Guess so. But you still look kinda cute."

"Flatterer." Hutch sat on the bed to adjust the brace worn on his right leg. He usually didn't wear it unless he planned on a lot of walking or driving, but since he would be on his feet at work today, it was necessary again. Then he picked up the cane he planned to carry as a reminder to limp and turned, ready for his assignment.

"Sergeant Hutchinson reporting for duty, Lieutenant," he grinned, trying to take the edge off the tension both of them were feeling.

Starsky just stood there, favoring him with a long, unreadable look. "No. You're not quite ready yet. Hold on a minute."

Puzzled, Hutch followed Starsky out of the bedroom to where he was going through the contents of his desk in the living room. Finally, under a sheaf of papers in the top center drawer, Starsky unearthed the thing he'd been searching for. "There," he pronounced, turning back to Hutch. There was a look of expectancy in his eyes. "I almost forgot about this. Here." He handed over the object that remained concealed in his hand.

Hutch took it from him, immediately realizing that it was a badge folder. The feel of the leather was so familiar to his fingers that he looked up at his friend, his heart pounding in recognition. The devilish blue eyes nodded to him to continue. Hutch looked down, opening the badge folder. It was indeed his own police ID.

There was his photo. His name on the ID card. And his gold shield. The sight swam before his suddenly tear-filled eyes.

He took a deep breath, looking up at Starsky once more, then was drawn to gaze a while longer at the badge. "I threw this away once. Didn't want to have it... polluting me. Remember?"

Starsky made a soft sound of acknowledgement.

"I... remember when Flavin pulled it out of my pocket on the plane. That's the last time I ever saw it. I-I wasn't a cop anymore after that." He felt Starsky coming closer and reached to grasp his friend's hand. "I didn't think I'd ever see it again."

"I got it from the plane. It was found by the Feds when they busted the pilot. That's the clue that led me to Australia. I put it away here when I left to go look for you." A shoulder lifted briefly. "It's been here in my drawer... I remembered I had it last night. I want you to take it with you today." He squeezed the hand holding the badge case. "You're still a cop, Hutch. One of the best damn cops this town has ever had."

"That's because I had the best partner." Hutch blinked the moisture from his eyes, and let his gaze meet Starsky's. The look held, memory and anticipation solidifying the bond between them.

"Let's go then," Starsky nodded emphatically. The two of them made quick work of the breakfast Starsky had prepared, then went out together and climbed into the Camaro.

********

Starsky watched as Hutch counted back change to an elderly customer, wondering just how much of his hesitation was part of his act. It was positively eerie how confused his friend managed to look as he waited on people. Flavin and Strouse might come in at any moment, or they might send someone to observe him first, so the plan included having Hutch look as 'limited' as possible throughout the day. Starsky found the act strangely disturbing. He went back to the duty he'd taken on as part of the assignment -- that of loading flower arrangements for delivery. He was decked out in a blue dustcoat over his jeans and t-shirt, one with the name 'Dave' over the breast pocket. It had been years since he himself had participated in an undercover, and he'd forgotten one impossible to ignore element -- boredom. It was already three o'clock in the afternoon, and nothing had happened yet.

"Getting tired, Lieutenant?" Sally Hagan moved up to him, carrying a big spray of gladiolas. She was wearing a florist uniform of her own, as well as a huge grin.

"No, no. Certainly not," Starsky was quick to protest.

"You know," Sally went on in a tone of confidentiality, "this reminds me a little of my first job out on the street. Working undercover in that motel restaurant... at least the costume this time isn't so skimpy."

"More's the pity, my dear," Starsky quipped as she turned back to her floral arrangements.

Hutch had finished with his customer and was walking toward Starsky now. He used the cane to lean on, limping as though his right leg was quite wobbly, effectively giving the impression he was an easy target. But the light in his blue eyes when he got closer was anything but feeble.

"I'd forgotten how much time something like this can take," he complained, standing shoulder to shoulder with Starsky.

"Tell you a little secret," Starsky said solemnly, leaning up close to him for a moment, "so did I."

Hutch chuckled softly. "Then it's not just me and my faulty brain circuits. That makes me feel a lot better, partner." He lost his amused air. "Seriously, do you think they've gotten the word that I'm hangin' out here by now?"

"I hope so. It was in the morning papers, too. And Huggy was supposed to put it out on the street. They may just be taking their time, making sure... I don't know when they'll show up, but they will. We've just gotta be ready for them."

"I'm trying."

"You're doing terrific, Hutch," Sally said, returning. "It's great to be working with you again."

The three shared a few more cordial words before getting back to the business at hand. But for the remainder of the day, no one seemed to be checking out Hutch, or acting suspicious in any way.

********

The stakeout went on for two more days. Hutch's nerves were strained and he was getting sick of putting on an act. Worse, he'd gotten the feeling that his new boss, Mr. Seitz, really believed he was as stupid as he was acting. If something didn't turn soon, he might not keep the job much beyond this week anyway.

The bell over the door jangled as a new customer entered the shop. Hutch slowly moved to his place behind the cash register, watching the man wander around looking at the displays. The man was in his late twenties, and was someone Hutch didn't think he had seen before. Still, with his memory the way it was, it was hard to be certain. After a few moments, the man came up to him at the counter.

"Hi," Hutch spoke up in his deliberately hesitant voice. "Can I help you?"

"Yeah. I'd like to order some flowers for a funeral."

"I see." Hutch picked up a pencil. "What kind?"

"A big bouquet, any kind of flowers."

"We have some for twenty-five dollars, sir."

"That's okay." The man leaned on the counter, pulling out his wallet to pay.

"Would you... like to fill out a card?" Hutch asked as he finished writing down the order.

"Oh, you can write it out for me," said the customer casually. "Put 'in deepest sympathy, from a friend."'

"Just... just 'a friend?'" Hutch questioned, his pencil poised in mid-air. "Who is this to be sent to?" The doorbell jangled again as Hutch looked down toward the order form.

"The name of the deceased?" the customer verified, reaching this time into his jacket. "It's Kenneth Hutchinson."

The events played out as if in single-frame advance. Hutch registered the sound of his own name as a flash of skin marked the movement of a hand reaching into and out of the man's leather jacket. The hand came out holding a silver gun.

"Starsky!" Hutch shouted as loud as he could, at the same time grabbing with both hands for the gun.

"Police! Hold it!" It was Sally's voice, as she sprinted forward from the left side of the store, her own gun already in view.

"Put it down!" Starsky, to Hutch's right, barked the order just as Hutch felt his own fingers close on the gun barrel.

The man reacted just as quickly. He dropped to the floor, rolling out of Sally and Starsky's line of fire. Hutch, forgetting all caution, vaulted over the counter, throwing himself toward the man.

"Don't, Hutch!"

He ignored Starsky's shout, intent on the powerful man's retreating figure.

The man got off a shot. Hutch felt the bullet whiz past his left ear. He dove toward the man's ankles as another shot seemed to blast through the store. He landed on his right leg. The brace bit into his ankle, and Hutch winced, losing his grip on the man's legs.

"What's going on?"

The voice was a new one. Hutch looked up from the floor to recognize his friend Ted Fletcher from the Rehab Center. And behind him stood someone else. He must have come in behind Ted -- the second shot had come from the gun this man held. Hutch stared up at him, eyes narrowed. Eddie Strouse! In the moment of recognition, the man moved, grabbing Ted Fletcher from behind, placing the handgun at Ted's temple.

"Don't do it, man!" Starsky's harsh command resulted only in Strouse backing slowly toward the door, still clutching Ted.

The standoff between cops, Hutch, two gunmen and the hostage, Ted, held for a breathless five seconds or so. Then the sound of gunfire erupted once again, a deafening crossfire full of blurred movement and angry voices -- and the stench of burned powder.

Hutch pulled up to his feet, running toward Ted. Caught in the crossfire, his young friend was falling, blood appearing at his shoulder. Hutch grabbed him as he fell, turning to see the original gunman drop as well, that man's wound apparently in the leg. Eddie Strouse was making his getaway, roaring away in the car he'd parked in front of the shop.

"It's okay, Ted. You'll be okay," Hutch murmured, easing the young man to the floor. He turned around, glancing to make sure Sally and Starsky were both all right. To his relief, both of them were up and moving. Sally, covering the fallen gunman, was talking into her radio, summoning help, while Starsky hotfooted it to the sidewalk, intent on getting the license of Strouse's car.

It was a moment before he returned to the shop, bending down to where Hutch sat holding a handkerchief over Ted's shoulder wound. Warm fingers brushed under the hair at his nape.

"You okay there, partner?"

"Yeah. You?"

"Fit as a fiddle." Starsky winked, the fingers squeezing Hutch's neck gently.

"How 'bout the bad guy? That was Strouse, you know."

"Bastard got away." Starsky got up, pulling the handcuffs from his belt as Sally frisked the wounded gunman who now lay face down on the floor. "But with any luck at all, we'll at least get some information from this one."

"Hutch?" For the first time since the commotion had started, Ted spoke up in a shaky voice. "What's goin' on?"

"You know this guy?" Starsky asked, returning to Hutch and Ted.

Hutch nodded, lifting the handkerchief a little to check the bleeding wound. "Starsk, this is my friend from the Rehab Center. Ted Fletcher."

"Hi, Ted. Sorry you happened into this."

"I saw you on TV, Hutch," Ted was saying as he winced in pain. "I wanted to come and congratulate you on getting a... a job..."

"Take it easy. Ambulance is on its way," Hutch reassured. He drew a deep breath, realizing for the first time just how hard his heart was pounding. An attempt had just been made on his life. Unsuccessful, but Strouse and Flavin still remained at large. Hutch looked up to find Starsky's expression reflecting his own dismay and frustration.

********

"Room service."

Starsky opened the motel room door a fraction, leaving the chain on until he was certain that no armed felon was attempting to get into the room. He slid the chain off, then opened the door wide to permit the bellboy to bring in the tray of food. "Thanks," he said, pulling a few bills out of his wallet to pay the man. Completing that exchange, he closed, bolted and put the chain back on the door. "Come on, Hutch. Dinner's here."

Hutch slowly drew his gaze away from the window he'd been staring out of for the last two hours. He knew it was well past dinner time, but his stomach was still tied in so many knots he doubted he'd be able to eat.

"Come on. It's getting cold." Starsky had already lifted the lids over the plates, having pulled up a chair and unfolded a napkin over his lap.

Tiredly, Hutch got to his feet and joined him. He removed the lid on his own plate, relieved to see nothing more exciting than a hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy. He'd half feared that Starsky had ordered spicy burritos or some heavily seasoned Italian dish.

"Hey, this stuff isn't too bad," Starsky commented.

Hutch felt a smile twitch at the corners of his mouth. There'd been a time, many years ago, when that pronouncement would have ensured he stay far away from whatever Starsky was urging him to try. Fortunately, both of them had mellowed in their eating habits over the years. Still, a part of Hutch missed those days. He picked up his knife and fork and began to eat.

"You look beat," Starsky commented as he took a sip of his cola. "I hope you can rest okay on this bed. I know it's not the same as home."

Hutch shrugged. He had agreed to the necessity of staying in a motel rather than risk going back to either of their apartments tonight.

"Are you going to talk or what?" Starsky reproved him gently, attention returning to his own meal.

"Sorry. Guess I've had a lot to think over." Hutch tasted his food, found Starsky's recommendation to be true and decided he was hungry after all. "I just... I keep reliving what went on today. Can't seem to get it out of my mind." He stared out into space. "That guy... Eddie Strouse. He seemed so close... so real..."

"He was real, Hutch."

"With a real gun, I know. But I wasn't afraid at the time, until I remembered how scared I was when I knew they were going to kill me. When there was no hope of rescue or reprieve." He shuddered. "I thought I was all over it..."

"Hey -- you and I both know some demons never go away. But we'll get him next time, Hutch, and Flavin, too. The guy we arrested doesn't know much, but we did get some ideas from him on where to look for them. And Huggy is out there getting whatever word on the street he can. Don't worry. We're safe here."

"I know. The place is crawling with cops," Hutch managed a grin as he chewed another bite of food. "Seeing him... just took me back a bit."

"Don't think about it," Starsky advised. He glanced around the typically decorated motel room. "Think about the two of us shacked up here for the night."

Hutch chuckled out loud. "Being chaperoned by L.A.'s finest?"

"Who better?" Starsky leered, wiggling his eyebrows. He licked a morsel of food off his fork with a lecherous tongue. "Say -- do you remember the last time we stayed in a hotel together?"

Hutch searched his memory, in vain.

"On the way back from Australia. We had a really nice room in Hawaii." He ducked his head. Hutch noticed that the man who a minute ago was making sexual innuendoes now looked like a kid on his first date. "I was completely alone with you for the first time and I couldn't help thinking what we'd be doing if not for the circumstances. You were still pretty out of it, so I just helped you to take a bath and get into bed. I slept in the other one."

"Feeling alone?" Hutch whispered, touched by the look in Starsky's eyes as he spoke of the trip he barely remembered. "I'm sorry. I just didn't know..."

"I know." A tender smile softened the poignant expression. "And when you rolled over in that big double bed, like you were really able to stretch out for the first time in forever, I didn't mind leaving you over there by yourself too much. You looked so comfortable."

They shared a warm look and Hutch felt his cheeks begin to heat. Starsky wanted to make love tonight. He'd be only too glad to oblige, but he was coming to regret more and more the fact that he could not maintain an erection long enough to make their loving complete. He'd been able to satisfy Starsky, but deep down, he knew his lover wanted more. Hutch was as recovered physically and emotionally as he would probably ever be; he just wished the lower half of his body knew that. He'd thought he was handling the 'temporary' impotence, but every time they were together, his lack of response became more and more upsetting to him.

A strong hand covering his own let Starsky know he was on the same wavelength. "Remember the other night, when you asked me what you were like when you were in the coma -- what I did for you?" Hutch nodded, then looked up into the earnest, caring face. "I was thinking... what if I showed you? I mean, I used to massage you all over. Afterwards -- it was so strange, the nurses couldn't really tell, but I could -- you'd feel so good all over, so relaxed and peaceful. I got to thinkin' the other day that if I took real good care of you like that, maybe..." The words petered out. "I don't know. Maybe it's a stupid idea. Besides, with it all on your mind tonight after seeing Strouse today -- "

"No," Hutch interrupted quickly. "It's okay. I-I think I'd like that. Seeing him today, I guess I know now he's not some phantom who's out there trying to ruin my life. He's just an ordinary hood who's going to be in custody sooner or later. And I'm sorta curious about what it was like when I couldn't wake up and really respond to you. Did I ever tell you I knew you were there, even though I didn't have a name to call you? I'm sure I could hear you, and feel you... touching me. You were different from all the others." The intimate discussion was having an effect on both of them; an anticipatory tension began to fill the room, drawing them together as they hastily finished the meal.

"What do I have to do?" Hutch asked, sensing a tremor of eagerness run down his backbone, when the remains of their meal had been cleared away.

Starsky looked up at him, midnight eyes full of promise. "Oh, you don't have to do anything. Just lie there and take it, partner." He crossed to the venetian blinds on the window and adjusted them so that no one, especially the cops, could see inside from the street. Then he turned the one lamp down low and bent to pull back the covers on the bed.

"You said you helped give me a bath in Hawaii," Hutch pointed out.

"Yeah, but you were up and around by then. This is gonna be like when you were really doing your Rip Van Hutchinson act."

"Rip Van -- Starsky, cut the comedy, will ya?"

Starsky straightened from his smoothing of the bedcovers. "Okay. Take all your clothes off and lay down."

"All my clothes off?" Hutch wondered aloud. "You mean I can't even keep my skivvies on?"

"If you think you laid there in pajamas all that time, you're very much mistaken." Starsky sounded as though he were trying not to laugh. "There was just you, a little bitty hospital gown and a blue pad under your butt."

Hutch shuddered, muttering, "Embarrassing," as he began to surrender his clothes.

Starsky did chuckle then, and Hutch could have sworn he heard him say, "I knew it." His partner went into the bathroom and he heard water running, so he continued to undress and then sat down on the edge of the double bed.

After a few moments, Starsky came out, carrying a large basin of steaming water with several towels draped over his arm. He put the basin on the night table and piled his towels and a few other items on the opposite bed, then turned and eyed Hutch. All traces of mocking humor were gone. As he spoke his voice was serious, though tender. "Now this is what's gonna happen. You're going to lie there -- you can't do anything on your own. I have to move your arms and legs. If I put you in one position, you pretty much stay there. I'm going to give you a bath and then a massage."

"Starsky, doesn't this seem a little silly?" Hutch asked, running a hand down his lover's thigh. Not being able to contribute at all struck him as missing half the fun.

"Maybe. But I think it's kinda important, too. Just lie there and do nothing but think about feeling me touch you."

Hutch still tried a token protest to cover his stronger feelings of embarrassment. "But I thought... I mean, this is really supposed to be lovemaking, isn't it?"

"Not so fast. I think I read somewhere that if a man is having trouble in the bedroom, he should have his partner do exercises like this, where he just concentrates on touching that isn't necessary sexual, just to get used to it, before gradually moving on to... Stop looking at me like that, or this will never work!"

"Okay," Hutch managed to pull a straight face. Then another thought occurred to him. "I... thanks for doing this, Starsk. I know it wasn't easy for you when I was really like that."

Strong fingers slid over his bare shoulder in a brief caress. "S'okay. Now, lie down on your back."

Hutch did as he was told, locking eyes with Starsky for a long moment, realizing that all traces of laughter were falling away. His partner was about to do something very beautiful for him; and he wanted so much for things to work out right.

Starsky placed one of the towels over Hutch's chest and torso, drawing the sheet up to cover his legs. He bent to dampen a cloth in the steaming basin, then turned and stood looking down for a moment.

The partners shared a long, intense, promise-filled gaze, then, as if Starsky had asked him out loud, Hutch let his eyelids drift slowly closed.

For a few seconds, he felt intensely alone, as though enclosed by his own private darkness once again. He couldn't move or speak, could not reach out in any way. But a peaceful realization -- that Starsky was nearby -- came sweeping over him, and he began to relax.

The sound of water teased at his attention, then before he knew, a soft, warm, wet cloth was sliding over his face. It felt so good, Hutch wanted to lift his head and encourage the gentle washing, but adhering to Starsky's rules, he held still. His face was carefully washed, then gently blotted dry, and Hutch marveled at the unexpected intimacy of the simple procedure. The cloth moved on to cover his right arm; it was lifted, washed and dried in the same attentive manner, hand and underarm not being left out, then recovered by the towel while his left arm received the same treatment.

"That's good, Hutch," Starsky's voice murmured above him. "Now we'll take care of those long legs of yours." Hutch found himself straining to hear, not just every word, but every nuance of Starsky's speech, while still concentrating on the touches he was being given. The wet cloth started up high on his thigh, then stroked slowly down the length of his leg, swirled over his foot and back up. When the repeat gesture rinsed away the soap, Hutch found himself anxious for the cloth to touch the top of his thigh, hoping it would sneak a little further toward his groin. When one leg was finished, the second was also bathed and dried, then recovered by the sheet.

A warm hand rested on his knee for a moment. "We don't want you to get cold, Hutch. We'll keep you covered as much as we can."

Now it was time to wash his torso. Hutch felt the soft air of the room across his chest when the towel was lifted away, and waited while the cloth was sloshed in the water again. He nearly sighed aloud when its wet warmth caressed him, but maintained his quiet in an effort to savor as much of the sensations as he possibly could. A stray bead of water was slowly trickling down his side, teasing a shiver, apparently unnoticed by Starsky. He was surprised when his caretaker did notice and caught at it with the tip of one finger. Eager nerve endings followed in the wake of the finger stroke, up over the individual ribs to the center of his chest.

The washing continued, the cloth brushing over his nipples more than once. Hutch felt the sensitive flesh responding and was half-embarrassed by the knowledge, telling himself he was merely being given a bath. The cloth moved on, lower on his belly and he caught himself holding a breath, anticipating the moment when it would reach lower down. Starsky stopped washing, drying his chest and stomach, then -- by the sounds Hutch was following -- dropped the cloth back in the basin.

For a second, he thought the delightful bath was over, but Starsky's hands wedged themselves under his body at shoulder and hip and he felt himself being rolled to his side. He started to help, knowing he was heavier now than when in the coma, then controlled the impulse, remembering Starsky's directive. Slowly, the position of his arms was adjusted, and he was helped from his side to lie on his stomach. Concentrating, he realized the change in position was necessary to complete the bath, and his hopes were rewarded when the warm washcloth stroked over his shoulders and down the path of his spine.

Starsky was precise, so thorough and tender. Hutch had never experienced such exquisite care. His back was washed clean, not a single spot missed by washcloth or towel, and Hutch felt the worries and tensions of the day begin to drift out of him.

He was almost totally relaxed when the warm rag next found its way to his buttocks. His reaction was almost embarrassing; he'd known Starsky used to do this for him, but at a time when he himself was unaware. Thus the idea of the act had seemed less intimate than the reality was proving to be. Starsky's touch now was just as careful, neither impersonal nor too suggestive, and yet the movements of his hand made Hutch's nerves shiver beneath his skin. The procedure seemed to go on for prolonged moments, during which Hutch wondered if it was only his imagination that made it seem that way. As he was slowly stroked over and over with the soapy cloth, he realized that, underneath him, the response of his nervous system was taking shape. His penis was lengthening, crowded under him on the mattress. It felt trapped, needful, and he didn't know what to do at all, when he suddenly realized that eventually Starsky would turn him over and see...

His backside was dried and then it was time. Careful as before, Starsky changed his position again, and Hutch allowed it, close to mortification. But Starsky made no comment. He merely brought back the wet cloth and began to wash Hutch's groin area, not gingerly, but with patience and soothing concern.

He was murmuring to Hutch all the while. "That's it. Here's what we're going to wash last. Feel good, buddy? I know it does." The litany sounded to Hutch as though it had been repeated many times and his body quivered at the thought of how long he'd lain apparently insensitive to Starsky's presence. Yet he had known, on some deep, primordial level, that his friend was there.

The cloth became intimate, sliding over and around his penis and balls, washing and rinsing all of him, leaving him tingling with pleasure. He was carefully dried once more and the bath was finished. Feelings of deep love and commitment washed away the last vestiges of his embarrassment, though Hutch noted that the partial erection was subsiding on its own anyway.

That thought surprised him: he should have been worried when it went away, when it didn't become totally hard. But Starsky knew what he was doing tonight, and Hutch had entrusted himself to him completely.

There were some indefinable movements, perhaps Starsky rearranging his supplies, and then the side of the mattress depressed and Hutch knew his friend was sitting beside him. He was ready, open to what might come next, as involved with the complex fantasy as he could be. It came as a charming surprise when Starsky slid a comb into his hair and spent a few moments gently removing all tangles, arranging his locks to suit himself. Hutch realized that even this, the maintenance his own personal appearance, he had owed to Starsky during the time of his illness. The impression was confirmed when Starsky resumed speaking.

'"That's better. Those nurses don't know how you like to wear your hair. There. That's more like the Hutch I know." Warm fingertips stroked over his sideburns and the comb was apparently laid aside.

Starsky sighed, and Hutch understood at once how the loneliness was affecting him. He longed to break the spell and reach out to his friend, but Starsky moved away again, and Hutch held back. It's not yet time...

More movement and soft, incomprehensible sounds. Then firm hands reached out and took control of his body, lifting and turning him over again. Do anything, Hutch wanted to tell him, anything you want with me. His friend sat beside him now, and Hutch was lying on his stomach. The sheet was resting just over his hips and Starsky was rubbing his hands together, with something moist between them.

Starsky's palms came to rest on Hutch's shoulders, and the moist something turned out to be body temperature oil. Then the exquisite massage began.

Stroking, deep slow stroking, fingers pressing into his muscle groups, kneading away stress and tension. Shoulders surrounded with caring, smooth sliding down sides and the center of his back, thumbs pressing down the length of his spine. All knowing fingers dismembered him, took him apart to reassemble him as they wanted, as they knew best. Strong hands worked him over, pulling out pain and the memory of pain, until he was newborn, malleable as bread dough and open to impression as a baby. Under the hair at his nape, across his shoulder blades, down and back up, down and back up, nothing left unattended until his entire back was warm and stripped down to an essential purity. The hands moved on, treating his arms to equal attention, bones investigated, biceps and triceps molded, fingers separately massaged and exercised. His scalp, lovingly massaged, temples surrounded with ache-dissipating finger-circles. Then stroke, and stroke, and stroke again, connecting head and shoulders and arms to the spine, and swift movement of knowing hands to pull aside the concealing sheet, sliding down to his legs and on.

Each leg lifted in turn, hip joints worked, knees, ankles and feet, toes stretched and realigned. Soles massaged, stroked lovingly, caressed with sensuous, oil-slicked hands. Never-discovered new erogenous zones created, Achilles tendons, backs of the knees, all stroked and savored by the sculptor's, the magician's hands. Stroke joining stroke, up the backs of his thighs, up and over his cheeks, soft and softer, then deeper and deeper as the muscles of his buttocks were thoroughly patterned, pulled and pressed together, temptingly rubbed and massaged by hands that obviously, thoroughly enjoyed their work.

He couldn't help groaning, didn't miss the throaty chuckle of approval his succubus uttered upon hearing his groan. Please, just there, down further, he silently begged those fingers, and they magically complied. Delicious heat was radiating from all the way inside him, stretching out, lengthening, stiffening him again, and he never, ever wanted the sensations to stop.

Hands stroked in circles, circling over and over and over again, across his well-warmed cheeks, up over his back and sides, long, connecting strokes that reminded his nerves and sinews that he was one complete, feeling being, coming alive slowly to the tender treating hands that owned him so thoroughly. Then he was being turned again, face up, so that the spellbinding fingers could touch and trace over his features, down his jaw line, so that whispers could call him in his slumber, gently tease him until all he wanted to do was wake, wake and open his eyes to see his loving, giving friend.

Not yet, not yet. There are still more secrets, more promises to keep. Wait 'til the calling is all-insistent, 'til the answer cannot be stopped any longer...

Touch was all he knew, all he needed, the ever-lengthening strokes that patterned his chest, the fingers that walked down and up his individual ribs, that swirled and circled over his pectorals, paying teasing attention to his nipples until they rose up tight and aching for more than touch, more and always more. Hands widened the path of the fingers, spreading warmth and oil down his sides and front, gave his nerves tingling fire to open them up and make them live.

Wider circles smoothed and silkened his abdomen, round and round his belly chasing frissons of sensation. Down. Move down. Please, please move down. Something new was reaching, hoping and needing to be touched, for attention to be paid but the hands weren't finding it yet. Strange, that though their caress had not yet come to where he most wanted it, he could imagine the heart-rending effect it would have. Fantasy, so sweet, so pure... he begged silently and waited with tight-drawn patience for the magic to continue.

The hands slipped down to the top of his thighs, and his legs involuntarily started to open. "Mmnn, you can't move. You're asleep... drifting... Wait, Hutch. Just wait." And he had to obey.

The stroking, sweet torment, continued forever, tender mercies reminding him of all that life means, all that love promises, creating and fueling his needs. And he knew that he was arching, blood-engorged, standing out to meet the unexpected brush of an arm as a hand reached somewhere else. Soft sighs escaped him, soft whispers encouraged him, and his darkness began to pulse with new light. The light was reaching for him, swooping down for him, begging him to arise.

"Hutch? Hutch, can you hear me?" Light whisper breath right at his ear. "Are you ready to wake up now? It's all right. It's all right, I'm right here."

He opened his eyes to find the ones he loved best, blue eyes glowing with pride and with love. Tender lips bent close to him, just brushing his mouth and he wanted to cry out with joy. "Easy. Rest easy," the quiet words shushed him again. "Feel everything. Lie still. We're almost where we want to be... but give it a little more time..."

Time... hopelessly lost, never recovered... what he hadn't known was that there was always more to be had. If you're lucky. If you love hard enough...

He lay spellbound and watching as the flushed lips descended, covering his mouth in a kiss. Then they moved on, down over his chin, nipping, finding the pulse in his throat, searching for and finding his sensitive nipples, taking delicate tastes of him. They moved lower, tongue drawing a line down his middle, until all he could see was the top of a dark curly head, and a flash of bronzed shoulders.

His friend had undressed, too, but Hutch hadn't known when. He was content with that state of affairs, and tried hard not to squirm with delight as the nipping mouth traveled still lower on him, licking its way over the bones of his hips, touring the indent of his navel, skimming over the soft skin of his lower belly.

"That's right. Stay still -- if you can. Just feel."

A firm, bristly chin bumped the sensitive tip of his cock and Hutch couldn't help jolting from the surprise. He could hear Starsky laughing, enjoying his torment, and knew when the incident repeated that that time was on purpose.

Hands took his thighs in an authoritative grip, parting them and allowing the still thirsty tongue to bathe them up and down. Hutch was close to whimpering out loud, wanting to beg for the same touch on his now-straining cock. Yet still he waited, knowing that when Starsky finally gave him what he wanted most, the feeling would be sweeter still for all the anticipation.

Then he was being repositioned again, legs pushed up and open, hips pulled up until he rocked back on his spine. "That's right. Lay open for me just like that," the breathy order came to his ears. Hutch allowed his hands to move finally, so that they could hold his knees. Heart pounding with arousal, his eyes opened wide as he watched Starsky proceed.

Fingers touched him intimately first, just brushing and lifting, holding his balls so the eager tongue could lick. Then the heat of a mouth surrounded them, sucking first one and then the other and Hutch felt tears trickling out of his eyes. Then a spear of wetness reached lower, sliding between his cheeks and up deeper, into intimate recesses of his body, and he gasped aloud. The tongue made him wet, wetter, and then one slender, expert finger slid inside him, and he held his breath and thought he died. A second finger joined the first and death tumbled over into raw, unvarnished pleasure. And finally, the hot mouth found his rock-hard erection, lips brushing the responsive head, tongue stroking, moist heat surrounding, and the hungry throat sucked him deep and deeper. Hutch found himself pulling back hard on his knees, willing Starsky's fingers to twist inside him more thoroughly, for his tongue and mouth to suck more wantonly. And Starsky did. He gave to him, reawakening him, teaching him all of life and love again. Hutch was alive through him, because of him and never anywhere else but with him.

"Come on, babe," a breathless voice panted, urging him on, then a tongue licked him up and down again. "Wake up. All the way, now. Come for me..."

He was engulfed once more in the moist heated sucking of the most loving mouth he had ever known. If he'd had to sleep for a hundred years before he could have experienced this rapture, he wouldn't have minded. Two years was an instant in the infinity of time. Wake up. Let go. Love is real... love is now!

He groaned deeply, body twisting, hips lifting, held in place by deep pressed fingers and swallowed by a greedy throat. He shouted, felt his heart stop, an instant of pain transmuted into an eternity of pleasure. He felt his semen rush, drained from his balls into his cock, pumping and pumping while Starsky drank and savored, consuming all he had to give. Never tiring, his lover didn't let him go; the sweet mouth stayed on him, milking every drop, reducing Hutch to shudders of ecstasy, little sighs and gasps of satisfaction, leaving him sprawled in exhaustion across the bed.

He could have fallen into a deep, restorative sleep then, but he willed his eyes to open, to see the one person so capable of providing for all his needs. There was Starsky, the most beautiful sight Hutch could conceive of, sitting on his haunches between Hutch's open, trembling thighs, chest heaving, cock jutting high and hard, standing out from his body in need. One hand had been brought up to the reddened mouth, wiping off the residue of Hutch's seed. Eyes hot and hungry gazed intently into Hutch's own.

He sat up then, kissing the hot mouth that had loved him so expertly. He folded protective, thankful arms around the sweat-sheened body, then cradled the head full of damp, tangled curls and pressed Starsky back against the bed. He knelt between his lover's thighs, opened his lips, and found success in seconds. He fell asleep with his arms wrapped around a slim waist, listening to Starsky's lazy, sated laughter.

They woke again, two hours later, and Starsky repeated the lesson he had taught, arousing Hutch more quickly and easily than before. This time, they did it sixty-nine, pleasured and pleasuring, redefining their bond of happiness and love.

 

********

Starsky woke first, as narrow bands of light filtered in through the angled venetian blinds. He sat up, rubbed his tousled hair out of his eyes, and looked down at his partner. Hutch was sleeping peacefully, stretched across most of the wide bed. His gilt and cream-toned skin was bare to the light and Starsky's loving gaze, one hand lay resting across his belly, one knee was bent, and the penis that had surged with so much life and love last night lay curled on his groin. Starsky couldn't stop himself from reaching out, and smiling when it responded to his questing touch. Sleeping beauty is awake...

"Hey," a morning-fogged voice questioned abruptly, "after last night, I don't think..."

"I wouldn't be so sure," Starsky let his own dancing eyes meet Hutch's, then lay down beside his lover and kissed his mouth. "Morning. Sleep well?"

"I must have." Two strong arms wrapped around his shoulders and like a big cat coming awake, Hutch rolled him over. "But I don't remember a thing."

"The hell you say." The rest of Starsky's protest was lost in a much more thorough kiss.

The ringing of the telephone made both of them jump.

"Shit. Forgot about my wake-up call," Starsky said, stretching to grab at the receiver. "Yeah? Okay, all right, it's seven-thirty. Thank you very much." He tossed the receiver in the general direction of the phone and sat up again. "Babe, I hate to say this, but I gotta go to work." He climbed off the bed and grabbed one of the towels off the floor. "Mind if I shower first?"

Hutch followed him into the bathroom. "This is a side of you I've never seen before."

Starsky straightened from turning on the taps. "Huh?"

"I mean the all-business-even-on-your-honeymoon side. I don't think the building's gonna fall down without you, Lieutenant Starsky."

"Today it might. I want to be there when the Feds come in to question that hood we arrested yesterday. When he sees the pressure they're putting on, he might give us some more information about Flavin and Strouse."

"Then I want to be there, too." Hutch held up a hand. "And none of that crap about me being a civilian. You gave me back my badge, remember? Isn't that the same as deputizing me or something?"

"I love ya, schweetheart, but I outrank ya," Starsky winked. "You're staying here today, in 'protective custody.' I don't want you setting foot out of this room until we know we have Flavin and Strouse under wraps. With the boys in blue outside, I won't have to worry about you while I work on this case, and the two or three others I happen to also be in the middle of."

Hutch didn't answer for a moment, then sighed in agreement. "Okay. I'll play the good boy. Besides, I could use a vacation," he went on with wry humor. "It's been a long haul since I started at Seitz's Flower Shop."

His lover kissed him on the cheek. "'Preciate that, babe." Then Starsky climbed into the steaming shower.

Twenty minutes later he was dressed, had eaten a room service breakfast with Hutch and was ready to go. They stood kissing behind the locked door.

"Call me," Hutch admonished as he let him go. One tawny eyebrow arched; Hutch still trying to tease him about being left behind. "And have a good day at the office, dear."

Starsky grinned. "You're an idiot, you know. I can't believe it took all these years to figure out how to get you to do anything I want you to do." He opened the door and felt two hands on his rear shove him outside. The door closed and the blinds moved aside at the window. He waved at Hutch and hurried out to his car, pausing to speak to the uniformed officer on duty. Then he slid behind the wheel of the Camaro.

Arriving at Metro thirty minutes later, he concentrated on wiping the sappy smile off his face as he turned off his ignition. He was locking the car when a voice spoke from directly behind him.

"Lieutenant Starsky?"

He answered without turning all the way around. "Yeah?"

The movement of something black swinging through the air alerted him, but not in time. A blinding blow caught him in the back of the head, and Starsky dropped to the ground.

********

Hutch finished his own shower and had decided to grab a little more shut-eye. He was startled awake by the ringing of the phone, and glanced at the clock, surprised Starsky would be calling him so early. "H'lo?" he mumbled, trying to wake up more fully.

"Hutch? Is Starsky still there?" It was Dobey's voice and he sounded, as usual, disgruntled about something.

"No, Cap. He left about forty-five minutes ago. Hasn't he arrived yet?"

"If he'd arrived, do you think I'd be making this phone call?" A few more unintelligible mutterings and the connection was cut.

Hutch lay back down, figuring Starsky was probably caught in traffic. Then, considering more carefully, he got and up and searched through his pockets for his notebook, jotting down the time of Dobey's call. Just in case it's important. Wide awake now, he dressed and sat in the room's one easy chair, checking to see if the uniforms were still posted outside. They were, and waved at him as he nodded. The minutes began to drag as Hutch became more and more certain that something was wrong.

Twenty minutes later, the phone rang again.

"Yeah?"

"Hutch, it's Sally. Captain Dobey didn't think I should call you but..."

"Sally, what happened?"

"We found Starsky's car in the lot. He was nowhere around. I think they've got him."

"Oh, my God." Feeling dizzy, Hutch sank down on the rumpled bed. Think, think... I've gotta think... "Was there a note? Anything? Any calls?"

"Nothing so far. We're interrogating the guy we arrested yesterday, but honestly, Hutch, I don't think he knows anything. Besides, they know we have him, so surely they wouldn't take Dave anyplace that guy knew about. It would be too easy for us to get that information from him."

"Yeah." Hutch held the phone with both hands, trying to concentrate through the pounding in his ears.

"Hutch, are you all right? Try not to worry. I'll let you know as soon as we hear anything. Dobey was afraid that if I let you know you'd try to help us, but I told him you'd listen and stay put. Okay?"

Her words washed over him, making no impression. "Sally... I gotta get out of here. I can't just sit still all day waiting for you people downtown to do your job."

"Starsky wouldn't want you to take any crazy chances!"

"Starsky wouldn't expect anything less from me, Sally!" He stood up, glancing at his watch and at the time he'd written on the page in his book. Too much time had gone by since Starsky had been missing. "I'll be in touch." The phone was in its cradle an instant later.

He went out the door and strode purposefully up to the uniformed officer leaning against his Mercedes. "Listen, guys. Dobey just called to tell you to call this thing off. They've arrested the men who tried to hurt me, and I'm going home."

The cop looked at him skeptically a moment, and Hutch realized something in his eyes told the man not to question what he'd said. "Thanks a lot, okay. Lieutenant Starsky and I really appreciate it." He pulled the car keys from his pocket and climbed into his car, backing out of his space and giving the officer not another thought. Then he raced as fast as he could back to Venice Place, glad that they hadn't traveled to a part of town he didn't know as well.

He parked his car and raced up the steps to his apartment, his ankle protesting the strain already. Hutch told himself the twinge was just caused by the stress he was under and ignored it, but he wished he'd taken the time to put on his brace before leaving the motel. There was no time to worry about that now, however. He had to sit down and think what to do to find Starsky.

There was a large piece of paper taped to his front door. Hutch unlocked the apartment, took it inside and read it.

"We don't want your partner -- we want you. If you want him to live through this, come to 418 Coldwater Canyon Drive and we'll release him. Don't alert the police, or he'll die."

Shaking, Hutch couldn't get his bearings for a moment. A part of him was terrified that he didn't possess the reasoning ability to help Starsky now when he most needed to. Yet a patient voice inside him told him to rely on his instincts.

"Come to Coldwater Canyon Drive." That was a residential section, if he remembered correctly, not patrolled by as many police cars as the downtown area. Was he supposed to think they were holding Starsky there? It would be stupid if they were, Hutch realized, because he could alert the cops to the location. If he showed up there, they'd simply kill him and then kill Starsky, too, to keep him from coming after them.

I need help. Who -- ? Huggy... Hutch rifled through the pages of his notebook, searching for Huggy Bear's number. He finally found the address and phone number of his friend's new restaurant.

The manager himself answered. "Morning at Huggy Bear's."

"Huggy, it's Hutch. I need some help," Hutch blurted it out at soon as he heard the familiar voice.

"Hey, take it easy, my friend. What's goin' down?"

"Have you heard anything about where those two guys that tried to waste me, Flavin and Strouse, are holed up?"

I'm waiting for a contact to stop by right now, but -- "

"Good. As soon as you get the word, meet me at Starsky's place." Hutch hung up the phone, smiling as he imagined Huggy's startled look when he heard such commanding tones from him after all these years. Realizing that he'd been able to pull himself together at least that much gave Hutch more confidence in himself. I'm going into this with nothing but guts and and gamble, Starsk. Hope to God it's gonna be enough. He headed out of his apartment, pausing for a moment to pull on an old black leather jacket from the closet. The bulky garment made him feel safe, more sure of himself. If I look like I used to when I was a cop, maybe I'll be more likely to act like a cop.

His hands began to shake on the steering wheel as he drove up in front of Starsky's apartment, and he took a few moments to draw deep, calming breaths before climbing out. On the way over, a frightening scenario had occurred to him. Starsky might already be dead -- Flavin and Strouse hadn't been afraid to try to kill a cop before, as Hutch knew from first-hand experience. He didn't know whether his partner was still alive, but he was going to find those men regardless. It was time they were brought to justice. If Starsky was dead, Hutch didn't much care what happened to him, but if necessary, he'd give his own life to make sure Flavin and Strouse didn't get away again.

He began going systematically through the drawers in Starsky's apartment. He knew his gun was there somewhere, Starsky had told him he'd brought it over from Venice Place. He had to find it. He looked and looked, his breathing growing labored, and he recognized the signs of stress and despair. Realizing that unless he calmed down he'd never find what he was searching for, he sat, then lay down on Starsky's bed, willing himself to relax.

A light went on in his mind. I napped here that day, too. Hutch sat up, trying to let the memory form a picture for him. Then, eager to find out for sure, he slid to the floor and pulled out the bottom drawer of Starsky's dresser.

There was the bear Terri had left him. And the lock box with his gun. Hutch heaved a sigh of relief and wiped the perspiration from his face, then opened the box. The sight of the Magnum lying there created a quiet sense of calm for him. He picked up the gun, carefully loading it. It was heavy, more so than he remembered, and he cursed his betraying body for trying to let him down. Damn wrist. He'd never be able to shoot straight unless he took care of that problem. Hutch closed his eyes, praying logic would help him find a solution.

He climbed to his feet, taking the .357 with him to the bathroom. In the medicine cabinet, he found a roll of adhesive tape and wound it tightly around his right wrist and lower arm to stabilize it. Then he hefted the gun again. It was easier to hold it steady now. He had no idea where his holster was; he'd have to settle for carrying the gun in his belt.

A tread on the floor in the hallway startled him, and Hutch whirled, aiming the Magnum.

"Whoa!" Huggy stood there with his hands up, eyes not quite certain Hutch recognized him. "I'm a good guy, remember?"

"Sorry, Huggy." He lowered the weapon, sliding it into his waistband. "What've you got for me?"

Another strange look from his old friend, then Huggy shrugged and began speaking. "Flavin rented a house out on Coldwater Canyon Drive -- "

"Yeah, yeah. What else?"

"But he also has a place down on Sepulveda Boulevard, or that guy Eddie Strouse does, anyway. You know, out near the airport."

"The airport." Hutch closed his eyes against the involuntary memories, then smiled coldly. "The place on Sepulveda is where they probably have Starsky, Hug. I have to go down there and get him. If he's still alive."

"Wait a minute, amigo. Slow down, you're makin' my head spin. What's goin' on?"

Briefly, Hutch filled Huggy in, including his recently realized fear that the villains might already have killed his partner.

Huggy considered for a few moments. "Okay. You're right, they wouldn't hesitate to waste a cop. But think about it this way, Hutch. They're also concerned about their own hides. When they tried to kill you, they took you all the way out of the country to do it, and waited three years before coming back. I don't think they're desperate enough even now to kill Starsky right in town. It's too risky -- especially if they don't have you yet."

Hutch thought that over, recognizing the validity of Huggy's theory, hoping it had a grain of truth. Both of them knew the bad guys didn't always act true to form.

"All right. Thanks, Huggy. Maybe Starsky and I will see you later." He started to move past his friend.

"Not so fast." Huggy reached out and caught at his arm. Hutch felt the adhesive tape tug at his skin. "You're not going down there alone. You might have forgotten all the streets, for one thing, and for another you're breathing about as heavy as a train right now. What are you going to do when you get down there and hyperventilate?"

"Huggy..."

"I'll drive, Hutch. We'll take my car. It'll be less conspicuous than that pricey number you're driving these days." With that, Huggy steered him out into the hall. Hutch recognized the wisdom of his advice, and went with him willingly.

********

At last they pulled into a parking space in a rundown block of Sepulveda Boulevard. Huggy pointed out the house three doors down, and nodded toward the empty homes on either side of it. It was a perfect place for them to be holding Starsky.

"How do you want to play it?" Huggy said, stepping around the car to stand next to Hutch.

He looked at his friend, pleased that Huggy trusted him enough to let him call the shots. "Fast and easy. We don't want to let this thing get complicated. Let's get up to where we can look in some windows and try to figure out where they're holding him."

"Right." Huggy led the way to the house, crouching low the nearer they got. Hutch followed suit and they spent a few minutes quietly casing the building. Still early, the sun was up high, but filtered through the smog it didn't cast many shadows. The house was tumble-down, barely furnished. One room Hutch looked into was empty. Then he peered through a half-open front window, and saw Starsky tied to a chair.

There was a dark bruise on the side of his face, but other than that, he looked all right. Eddie Strouse hovered over him, while a man Hutch recognized instantly as Kurt Flavin lounged more casually in the corner. His heart twisted with revulsion at the sight of the man who'd attempted to kill him. I survived... but the cost was too high. And what you did to Starsky... Three days ago, Hutch had told his partner he really wanted these men to stand trial. Now, a coldness inside him said he might not care what happened to them, so long as they paid.

"See anything?" Huggy's voice was a whisper at his elbow.

"They're right in there," Hutch nodded, then held up a hand in a signal for silence as he caught a few words from the men within.

"Your idiot pal must have gotten our note by now, cop. We're gonna go out and pick him up in an hour or so -- that is, if he's smart enough to figure out what Eddie's handwriting says!" Flavin laughed at his weak joke.

"Don't worry, Mr. Flavin," Eddie spoke up, "I printed it in all capital letters."

"Good boy, Eddie." Flavin rubbed at the knuckles of his right hand; it must have been what he hit Starsky with. "I watched your friend on the news, Starsky. It was so nice to see they hire the handicapped here in good old L.A."

"Goddamn you!" Starsky spat at them, struggling against the ropes that bound him to the chair. "You bastards almost killed my partner. He lay like a dead man for two years! And after he's spent another year piecing his life together, you're not gonna take it away from him again!"

"Huggy," Hutch whispered, knowing time was short, "you go around back. Wait thirty seconds and then throw a rock through a window on the other side of the house. I'll get in the front door."

"Gotcha." Huggy was off without a backward glance.

Hutch slipped up onto the porch, praying a loose board wouldn't alert those inside to his presence. He tried the door and found it was locked with a simple bolt. It was easy to wedge a credit card in and unfasten it. Thanking somebody up there for letting him retain the knowledge of how to do that, he carefully opened the door.

"Oh, he may have 'pieced his life together' as you call it, but from what I could see on the tube, he can't tell his ass from a hole in the ground," Flavin retorted.

"Go ahead," Starsky taunted him. "If you want to find out how stupid my partner is, kill me. He'll come after you, no matter what it takes. And if you kill Hutch, somebody else will come after you. There'll always be somebody else..."

Where have I heard those words before?

There was a resounding crash and glass sprayed the floor in a room at the back of the house. Both Flavin and Strouse turned in the direction of the sound, pulling their weapons.

Hutch was into the room where they were holding Starsky in four strides.

"All right, both of you -- drop your guns!" He hoped his voice sounded as menacing as he meant it to.

Eddie Strouse looked terrified. Kurt Flavin remained more casual.

"Well, look here, Eddie," he said, still holding his gun up, "it's the cop we thought we left sleeping Down Under."

"Y-yeah." Eddie sounded near the breaking point. Hutch tried to remember more about the man; his weaknesses, his fears... he feared going to prison. Maybe I can use that... or maybe it'll make him more likely to take a chance with his own life.

Flavin's eyes narrowed, as if he were gauging Hutch's potential. The gun didn't waver. Then he barked an order at Strouse. "Aim at his friend, Eddie," he said, directing his own weapon at Starsky. Eddie followed suit.

"What are you gonna do now, Hutchinson? Damned if you do, damned if you don't. You fire at either one of us, and the other will get your ex-partner."

"Are you sure you haven't underestimated him, Flavin?" Starsky spoke up, his voice calm and unruffled. "Did you call him my 'ex-partner?' I wouldn't be so sure about that."

"What are you going to do, cop?" Flavin's voice lashed out at him again, a voice from Hutch's nightmares. "Maybe we're gonna make you watch us kill your old friend here. How about we pull up his sleeve while he's tied to that chair? Remember the needle we gave you?"

Hutch was shaking inside, willing his hand to hold the gun steady. He watched, seeing the man's eyes darting from Flavin to Starsky and then back to Hutch.

"You don't want to do that, do you, Eddie?" he asked, quietly. He kept his own gun leveled at Flavin, who was easily the more dangerous of the two.

"You're not going to shoot, Hutchinson," Flavin sneered again. "You can't trust your aim, I'll bet. I saw on the news how you favored that arm."

The gun was already becoming heavy, but Hutch was determined not to let Flavin's words get to him.

"Stay cool, Hutch," Starsky's voice was even, soothing. "You're in control."

"Yeah, he looks like he's in control, all right." Flavin's jeering continued. "Like he did when he tried to keep you from injecting him with that needle. Remember, Hutch?" He sneered the name.

Hutch steadied his breathing, determined not to allow his memories of horror to interfere with the reality of what was happening now. "You had the upper hand then, Flavin," he told him scornfully, "but you're not facing down an unarmed man now. Besides, do you think I'm stupid enough to have come here alone? Cops always send for back up -- keeps the odds more in our own favor."

"I'm not worried. You'll let us go. We hold your partner, and the only way we'll let him live is if we get a free pass out of this country. If we don't get what we want, Starsky ends up a corpse."

"Touch him once more, and I'll kill you where you stand." They were the most ominous words he'd ever spoken. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Eddie move a little further away from Starsky's chair. Strouse's gun lowered a fraction.

"No you won't." Flavin still had the nerve to defy him. "Cops don't shoot people outright."

"That may be true, Flavin." Hutch took more careful aim, supporting his grip on the Magnum with his left hand. "But thanks to you I'm not a cop anymore." His mouth curved in a deadly smile.

"I got you covered, man!" Huggy's voice rang out.

"Shoot him, Eddie!" Flavin barked the order, moving into firing stance himself.

But the only gun that fired was Hutch's. Kurt Flavin staggered, then took a step toward him.

Strouse's gun fell heavily as Eddie backed into a corner of the room.

Hutch fired again. Flavin dropped. Hutch kept the gun muzzle pointed toward him. He fired again. Then a fourth, fifth and sixth time.

The sound of gunfire reverberated in Hutch's ears, growing louder, coming close like a siren. There were more voices now, puncturing the siren wail, and the sound of running feet. Doors at the front and back of the house burst open.

A sudden darkness seemed to be crowding his vision. Hutch shook his head slightly, fearing the encroaching blackness would pull him under again.

He was a cop. No. Not a cop. Never again...

He had to remind himself to breathe, force his heart to keep on beating.

He staggered. The gun was so heavy. But he had to keep holding it. His prisoner couldn't get away. He kept it aimed on the crumpled body. Keep the gun up, he told himself. He held it steady while he slowly sank to his knees.

Getting dark. Getting darker. Endless night... no one here but me...

He was peering through a narrow tunnel. He was deep inside, lost in the dark, and all he could see was the gun he held, the prisoner who lay bleeding on the ground. The sound of his own breathing grew loud in his ears.

The voices were louder now, seeming to swarm around him. Hands were touching him, but he couldn't connect, couldn't respond. Not the right voices... not the hands I know... They pulled at his gun, but he wouldn't give it up.

He was alone, fighting the expanding darkness.

"Hutch."

One word, spoken by a voice he could never forget.

"Hutch, come on. Come back to me, babe."

He blinked, tried to shake his head to clear it again. Hands were on him, grasping his shoulders, supporting the heavy gun he still held.

"That's it, Hutch." The voice was so soothing. "Look at me."

He tried to focus. The swirling dark fell back somewhat and a face swam before his eyes. A tangle of near-black curls, eyes the color of midnight blue.

"That's right. You're comin' back. Come on, Hutch."

He swallowed, fighting the dryness of his parched throat. "Starsk?"

"That's right. It's me, Starsky. Come on, Hutch, let go of the gun, now." Hands wrapped around his own frigid ones, gently pried at his fingers locked on cold steel.

He saw a large man bend over Kurt Flavin's still body. Captain Dobey. "He's dead." The gruff voice was low, not disappointed.

It was okay to let go of the gun. Starsky took it from his hands, fingers sliding over the white tape on his wrist. "Pretty good idea, partner," the even voice praised.

Hutch blinked, answering slowly. "Wanted to... make sure I could hold it."

Starsky was nodding, his eyes sparkling, full of life and pride. He smiled at Hutch crookedly.

There was a dark bruise on his left temple. Hutch raised a hand to carefully investigate it, then slid his fingers into the riot of curls. There was a large lump at the back of Starsky's head.

"You all right?" Fear formed a cold rock in his chest.

"I'll be fine. Long as you're okay."

He remembered all that had happened. Running his hands down Starsky's arms, he looked at him curiously. "Somebody untied you."

Starsky grinned. "Sally did the honors. Hutch -- I'm okay."

He couldn't stop staring into those eyes. So many times he'd come this close to losing the sight of them forever.

Hutch opened his arms, pulling Starsky to him tightly. The weight of the man in his embrace felt solid, real, permanent. Starsky answered by winding his own arms around Hutch, pulling tighter, sealing the bond between them.

The voices of the others in the room were still there, and they were real, not some part of a coma-inspired fantasy. The other cops had their work to do, yet here were Starsky and Hutch, kneeling in the middle of the room, holding onto each other. Hutch didn't care. Starsky showed no sign of being ready to let go, and Hutch didn't plan on releasing him until they'd both had their fill of the embrace.

He realized slowly that his face was wet. Starsky pulled back just slightly, fingers wiping at the moisture. "It's all over, babe," he told him softly. "You won."

All Hutch could do was hold him tighter.

********

The two tired men drove back to Venice Place together in Starsky's Camaro. Hutch's car was left at Starsky's apartment, since Hutch was -- in Starsky's opinion -- in no condition to drive. Hutch protested that he was perfectly all right, but he acquiesced to Starsky's wishes nonetheless. They'd stopped off to check out of the motel and retrieve the rest of their clothes that had been left there when Hutch had made his sudden departure to go looking for Starsky. Now as they pulled up in front of Venice Place, both of them groaned at the thought of unpacking.

"Leave it," Starsky decided succinctly. Hutch didn't disagree.

Hutch led the way up the stairs. Starsky was worried. In the hours since the shooting, Hutch had become quiet, looking nearly as withdrawn as he'd been in the depths of the depression that had plagued him during his recovery period.

Once inside the apartment, Starsky heard Hutch mutter something about going to the bathroom. Starsky dropped onto the couch and started unbuttoning his shirt, when he heard Hutch yelp as though in pain.

He opened the bathroom door without knocking and found Hutch, seated on the lid of the toilet, trying to pull the adhesive tape off his arm. The big eyes looked up at him sheepishly.

"Maybe I should do that, partner," Starsky said softly, coming into the room and bending down to see how he could help. Hutch let him take over, and didn't make any more noise, though he did continue to wince and grimace as Starsky removed the tape. "You know, for a guy who doesn't have a lot of body hair, there's still a good bit of that blond fuzz on your arm there," Starsky told him, rubbing the reddened area to restore circulation and soothe the chafing a bit. Hutch's only answer was a deep, soul-reaching sigh.

Starsky hunkered down in front of him, taking the large-boned hands to hold in his own. "You okay, really?" he asked, eyes intent for any sign of fear or self-recrimination.

Hutch nodded, not avoiding Starsky's perceptive gaze. "I guess I don't have anything to be afraid of anymore. Flavin is... gone. And Eddie..."

"Eddie's going to go away for a long time."

"Starsk," Hutch began, then paused, "I... killed Flavin. I didn't intend... I mean, there I was, telling you how I wanted them to go through the legal system, and when it came right down to it... I just blew the man away." He shook his head, seeming amazed and contrite.

"Hey, you didn't know what you were doing. You were provoked, and the man was threatening both our lives. It was totally in self-defense, Hutch. You know that, and every cop there knew it."

"Yeah, and I'm not going to be charged with anything, either."

"You don't want to be, do you? Come on, no guilt trips, babe."

"No. I just... I can't believe I emptied the gun... I thought I was more in control than that. But I just... snapped, I guess... As soon as I fired the first shot... I don't even really remember..."

"Shh. Don't talk about it anymore." Starsky squeezed the hands he held. "By the way -- thanks for saving my life, partner."

Hutch's hands pulled out of his grasp and went to lock behind Starsky's neck. "I love you," the earnest voice whispered. Then the eyes looked at him more carefully. "You've been treating me like I'm the one who was hurt out there. How's your head? Still hurt?"

"I'm fine." Starsky got to his feet.

Hutch stood up, too. "Not so fast there. The doctor said you have a slight concussion. And that bruise isn't getting any better." The smooth fingers that softly investigated the hurt were incredibly soothing.

I've got my partner back...! Starsky realized a mist was filling his eyes.

"I'm going to get you an ice bag," Hutch said suddenly. "You lie down on the bed."

Starsky obeyed, taking time to strip down to his underwear and slide under the covers. Hutch returned in a moment, looked down at him, then sat at his side and held the ice pack on the bruised area. Neither man spoke for several moments, but the quiet was a comforting one. To Starsky, it felt like those times in the past when trouble had gone down on the street. They needed the easy companionship to regroup.

Hutch glanced thoughtfully toward the window. "I don't think there's much in the refrigerator. And since my cooking skills aren't really what they used to be anyway, how about I order from Chez Helene tonight?"

"Sounds good." Starsky was feeling a little drowsy. The wrap-up of the incident today had left him a bit wiped out.

Warm fingers stroked his shoulder. "You rest. I'll go take care of dinner."

Starsky sighed. Hutch was taking care of everything...

********

They dined in bed on ratatouille and salmon quiche. Leaning back on the feather pillows, luxuriating on the fine percale sheets, Starsky felt incredibly decadent. They watched some television, enjoying each other's company. The late news carried the story of what they'd been through earlier in the day.

"Kenneth Hutchinson, the LAPD detective who was abducted and left in a severe coma by two men three years ago had a chance to bring his kidnappers to justice today," read the announcer. "You will remember that we broadcast a story about Mr. Hutchinson getting his first job since the incident, in which he began working for a flower shop on Pacific Avenue. Today, when the men who had taken him and left him for dead in the Australian outback captured his former partner, Lt. David Starsky, Hutchinson proved his recovery has been better than it seemed in our earlier report. He managed to figure out where the kidnappers were holding his friend, and hold them until police arrived. Former Detective Hutchinson is credited with saving Lt. Starsky's life, and with apprehending his own abductors. One of the men, notorious drug and gem smuggler, Kurt Flavin, was killed in the incident. The other, Eddie Strouse, has pleaded guilty to all charges."

Starsky leaned over and switched off the set. "You're the hero of the day, Hutch."

"Guess so." There was a faraway look in the eyes that met his own.

Starsky lay down beside him, pressing his lips against a bare shoulder. "I know how to make you forget what happened today."

Hutch pulled him close, but was shaking his head. "I just want to hold you tonight, Starsk. I..."

"I know. I don't want to let go of you, either."

They turned out the lights, and settled together in the center of the bed, bodies finding their perfect match. Long moments passed in the quiet darkness, then Hutch sighed deeply again.

"What, babe?" Starsky asked, running a finger down the smooth chest.

"I was just thinking... I guess I found out something else today, too."

"Hmmm?"

"That if I wanted to... I could be a cop again."

"Do you want to?"

A long pause, subtle shifting of the long body. "No. But it's okay. I could. I don't have to prove it anymore. Not to myself... or anyone. I'm-I'm content, Starsk."

Starsky wrapped his arms more tightly around the precious man who lay next to him. "I love you." The words came from the bottom of his heart.