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Best Man

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It was funny, now that he thought of it, but he’d never been to a Christian wedding before.

Not that he’d been to that many weddings of any kind. He counted them up silently while he and Hutch waited. His cousin Rhoda's when he was about ten. He still remembered how horribly bored he’d been, how he’d passed the time picking imaginary lint off his sleeves until his mother slapped his hand.

Then there was his Aunt Rosie's best friend's son Danny-who-married-an-Orthodox-girl-grew-side-curls-and-moved-to-a-kibbutz-near-Tel Aviv (Rosie always referred to the guy that way now, in a rush of breathless, scandalized awe). That one was a few months after his high school graduation, when he was at loose ends, working at his uncle’s used car lot during the day, driving a hack at night for the extra dough, thinking about joining the army, thinking about being a cop like John Blaine. Mostly just drifting through the days, waiting for something to happen.

And then Nick's, only two weeks ago, back home at Congregation Etz Chaim. Starsky didn't think that particular union was going to last long, even if Beth wasn’t lying about being pregnant. Nicky was barely twenty, and no one had ever accused him of being mature for his age.

But he’d seen plenty of weddings on TV and in the movies, enough that he knew what to expect, and of course they'd had a rehearsal. All he had to do was stand next to Hutch and hand over the ring at the appropriate moment. He touched his pocket. It was still there, the hard little circlet he was going to put into Hutch's hand. He'd decided he wouldn't look at Hutch's face when he did it, and certainly not at his eyes.

The minister made an unobtrusive hand signal and Hutch got to his feet, Starsky rising hastily beside him. They took a step toward the altar. Hutch didn't look back down the aisle, so Starsky didn't either. He waited, watching out of the corner of his eye as the three bridesmaids, carrying flowers and wearing identical lacy yellow dresses and coy expressions, arranged themselves in front of the pews on the left side. Then there was a pause, a stillness, before the organist struck the first chord of that song they always played at weddings in the movies, but never at the real weddings he'd been to. Starsky turned as Hutch did, saw the guests rise from their seats in unison, and watched as Vanessa walked slowly toward them, unaccompanied. She didn't look nervous at all. Starsky glanced back at Hutch, at the rigid set of his shoulders, the tension in the back of his neck. He closed his eyes briefly and fought down an urge to massage that tension away. What if Hutch couldn't get through his vows without stuttering?

He did, though. His voice never faltered. He sounded sure of himself, and sure of Vanessa, and when he placed the ring on her finger it was Starsky's hands that shook.

 

*****

 

He got a little drunk at the reception, which wasn't much of a reception, really. Neither set of parents had flown out to attend the ceremony, though Vanessa's had kicked in enough bread to cover expenses. But that was all they'd done, and the cake was unremarkable, the champagne domestic, and the venue -- the church basement, festooned with crepe paper and balloons -- hardly reeking of glamour. Starsky watched Vanessa, determined smile in place, greeting friends with careful hugs and kisses that didn't quite touch skin. He could imagine what she must think of this little shindig.

Hutch, he knew, didn't care.

Starsky made his toast -- "To my best buddy and his beautiful bride, bottoms up!" -- and milled aimlessly around, nipping steadily at the champagne and making painful small talk with strangers. He knew almost no one. Luke Huntley and his wife put in an appearance, but left early; Luke had an evening shift to work. Nearly all the other guests seemed to be friends or acquaintances of Vanessa. Like Hutch, she appeared to have no relatives interested in showing up. That was sad, Starsky thought, though if Vanessa was bothered by it, she gave no sign. That was one of the many things about Vanessa that made Starsky uneasy -- her apparently effortless independence. She never seemed to need anyone.

Hutch needed to be needed.

Starsky drained his glass and appropriated a bottle from the refreshments table before slipping outside, where he wandered around the church grounds for a while and finally seated himself on the steps leading up to the main doors. He drank slowly, watching the traffic flow past him on the street.

He didn’t hear Hutch’s approach, and jumped when he felt the familiar hand on his shoulder. It struck him that he couldn’t remember the last time Hutch had managed to sneak up on him. Over the past year and a half, he’d grown so accustomed to his partner’s close proximity it only felt strange when Hutch wasn’t with him.

“Hey, buddy,” Hutch said. His grip tightened a little on Starsky’s shoulder. Starsky wasn’t sure what that meant, whether it was reassurance or possessiveness, though he wouldn’t have minded either. He blinked up at Hutch. The bow tie Hutch had bitched about wearing was dangling limp from his collar.

“Hey, married man.” He gestured vaguely with the bottle. “Take a load off.”

Hutch sank down, one step below him. His legs in their rented black wool stretched out so far Starsky found himself wondering how Hutch would ever be able to fold himself up small enough to fit into the front seat of whatever hot little muscle car Starsky finally managed to acquire. He had plans for that car. He’d had plans for Hutch, too, for about five minutes, but that had all gone to shit now, so maybe he’d never get the car either.

Hutch cocked an eye meaningfully at the bottle in Starsky’s hands. “Getting in a little extra celebrating?”

“What, this?” Starsky took another swallow and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Not costing you anything, is it?”

Hutch shrugged. “Not a dime. Knock yourself out.”

“Thanks, I will.”

“Only don’t pass out. I’d have to take you home, and then I’d be late and Van and I would miss our flight. And then we’d have to spend our wedding night in ugly old Bay City.”

Starsky heard Vanessa’s tones echoing in the last words. He laughed, uncertainly. He was never sure how just how far to join in when Hutch poked fun at Vanessa. He felt no desire to defend her, but going along with it might make him seem petty, or jealous. He had a horror of seeming jealous of Vanessa.

Belatedly he tipped the bottle toward Hutch, who grimaced slightly and waved it away. Starsky shrugged and took another drink. Tasted okay to him, but then maybe Hutch didn’t need it. Maybe Hutch was drunk on love. He snickered inwardly at the thought.

“Starsk,” Hutch said, and touched his hand lightly.

He closed his eyes, because here it came – the speech, the confession, the apology, the whatever the fuck it was going to be. He could hear it in Hutch’s voice, and he wasn’t ready for it, not in broad daylight, not with no place to hide, not as frighteningly sober as he still was. In Hutch’s place, he’d have said it over the phone if he was feeling cowardly – and he would have been, completely chickenshit – or maybe in a dark, noisy bar with several shots inside them both and too many people around to risk a hysterical scene. Not that he was about to get hysterical. No fuckin’ way.

“Starsk,” Hutch said again, and stopped. He sounded helpless, like a man confronted with a problem which he knows has no solution.

Starsky looked out at the traffic and said, “Nice weather we’re havin’.”

Hutch sighed.

“Could use a little rain, but – ”

“Starsky, nothing’s gonna change. You know that, don’t you? Between us, I mean. We’ll still be partners, we’ll still be friends. We’ll still – ” he hesitated, “ – we’ll still be close.”

Yeah, only not close enough. Come on, Hutch, it only happened once. One time, and you have to fucking get married to forget about it?

“Sure,” he said. “Close.”

He turned his head and looked at Hutch, really looked at his face for the first time since he’d sat down. The furrow was deep between his brows, the familiar light blue of his eyes a shade darker now with – what? Concern? Guilt? But those eyes didn’t glance away; they held Starsky’s gaze firmly. He had to give Hutch credit for that.

He couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t be too much.

Hutch reached up and touched the back of Starsky’s neck, a careful touch, not quite a caress, not quite…hell, Starsky didn’t know what it was. He was getting tired of this damn compulsion he’d been feeling lately to analyze his partner’s every gesture and expression for hidden meanings. He wasn’t good at it.

“I’ve got to go back in, Van’ll be wondering where I am.” Hutch rose, and then wavered uncertainly. “You gonna be okay?”

Starsky tilted his head and squinted up at him. The sun was directly behind Hutch, gilding his hair, throwing his face into shadow, obscuring his expression.

“I’m fine,” Starsky said. He held the champagne bottle up with a flourish. “Me and my buddy here, we’re gonna be just fine.”

He refused to let himself watch as Hutch walked away.

 

*****

 

The hell of it was that he hadn’t even meant for it to happen. It wasn’t like he’d planned it or anything, like he’d sat behind the wheel of the cruiser and plotted ways to get into Hutch’s pants. Sure, he’d thought about it, dreamed about it even. He’d woken up in the mornings with his sheets sticky and his lips numb from phantom kisses. But there was no intent there, no premeditation. You couldn’t condemn a man for what he wanted.

At the academy, it hadn’t really been an issue. He’d convinced himself that he didn’t want that kind any more. It was too complicated and too risky, and he was back in the real world now, where actions had consequences and you couldn’t just do whatever the fuck and tell yourself you’d straighten out and get your shit together later.

True, that first sight of Hutch at orientation -- solemn-faced, golden-haired, muffling miserable sneezes in a monogrammed handkerchief (it was fall, and the Santa Ana winds were whipping up allergies right and left) – had shaken his resolve severely. That, Starsky thought, is beautiful. With or without the post-nasal drip. But he pulled his eyes away, shifted carefully in his seat, and gave his attention back to the speaker, one Lieutenant Gray, who informed the class that theirs would be an awesome responsibility, and that anyone who wasn’t ready to shoulder that burden should back out now.

It wasn’t until they were assigned together as partners that it started. At the academy, Colby had always been with them, around them, between them. They’d seldom had a reason to spend time alone together, and by the time Colby dropped out, it was too near graduation for Starsky to let anything distract him. Their first year on the force they wound up in different divisions and rarely saw each other.

But after that year was over, Starsky found himself spending eight or ten or twelve hours a day with Hutch and wishing it were more. The friendship they’d shared from the beginning deepened into the closest relationship of his life, and he knew it was the same for Hutch. Not that either of them ever said so, exactly, but that was the beauty of it; they didn’t have to. It was almost eerie, the way they didn’t have to say anything. With a smile or a cocked eyebrow or a tilt of the head, they discovered they could communicate, on the street or off. Starsky didn’t think too hard about that; it wasn’t something he could explain, and he regarded it with a vaguely superstitious awe that discouraged close examination. He was half afraid it might disappear if dragged out into the light. And he noticed that Hutch, for all his scientific bent, seemed just as reluctant as he to analyze it.

Very soon, each of them was the sun around which the other revolved, and you didn’t feel that kind of closeness, that kind of trust and ease and love, dammit, without sex elbowing its way into the picture somewhere, skulking around the edges of things, hovering, waiting like a patient dog to be let in from the cold. Not if you were Starsky, anyway, and not if the object of those warm feelings was also the most beautiful man you’d ever seen.

He didn’t tell Hutch that he sometimes thought of guys that way, or that he’d fallen back into a pattern of acting on it occasionally, when it seemed more or less safe, when he felt he could get away with it. Hutch was an open-minded type of guy, but liberal ideals didn’t necessarily carry over from the abstract to the literal. Starsky had discovered that in high school, the day he finally summoned the courage to admit to John Blaine – the most fair-minded, upright man he knew, the only person to whom he’d ever have considered making such a confession – that he sometimes had to hide an erection in the locker room after football practice.

At first, Johnny had just laughed it off with “Davey, you’re seventeen. I’ll bet you get hard reading the funny pages.” But after Starsky hinted that there was more to it than that, you’d have thought he’d confessed to murder. Johnny blew up at him, told him to take cold showers, study harder, quit the team – anything, anything to wrestle his wayward desires to the ground and bury them. Then he scribbled down an address on a slip of paper, dug through his wallet for a bill, and sent Starsky out the door with instructions to go to the address and do whatever the lady there would let him do for twenty bucks. Starsky followed through on the suggestion with satisfactory results, though he had no idea how it would help. He’d already gone all the way with a girl twice, and it hadn’t helped yet.

Neither he nor Blaine ever brought the subject up again.

So he said nothing to Hutch, even though he watched for a while, covertly, in the faint hope that he might be missing something, some indication that Hutch would consider a taste of the exotic if given the opportunity. Nothing. Starsky gave up and jerked off a lot.

When it finally happened, he was as surprised as Hutch. They’d flown up to San Quentin with a couple of detectives to escort two prisoners back to Bay City to testify in a racketeering case. Captain Hollinger thought it was a good idea for young cops (and they were both still rookies as far as Hollinger was concerned; he was sixty-one and eager for retirement) to be exposed to as many experiences as possible.

So Starsky and Hutch found themselves traversing the forbidding gray corridors of one of the world’s most notorious prisons in the company of a prison guard and Detective Sergeants Edwards and Maggio, BCPD, who were clearly both relieved that they had help and resentful that they needed it. Black Panther George Jackson had been shot to death at San Q a month earlier, along with two other prisoners and three guards; three weeks later the riot at Attica State had ended in tear gas, shotgun blasts, and the massacre of thirty-nine people. Penitentiaries across the country were teetering on a razor’s edge, waiting for the merest push to topple into anarchy.

Starsky kept one hand on his gun butt as they walked and bestowed frequent light touches on Hutch’s arm with the other, little reminders that said I’m here, buddy and Stay with me. Hutch returned the touches, accompanying them with tiny sidelong smiles and eyes that darted carefully from side to side, and beneath his fear Starsky felt a glow, a familiar flush of pride and euphoria. He glanced at Hutch, tall and strong, calm and dangerous. And beautiful, of course. My partner. Ain’t a better one in the whole fuckin’ world.

On either side, from behind barred doors, eyes followed them. Sullen, hopeless, bored, burning with hate. Some so empty of life, of feeling, that they would have seemed at home on a doll’s face, or a shark’s. Starsky didn’t let himself meet any of those eyes; he had no reason or desire to. He ignored the occasional catcalls and shouted imprecations. He ignored everything until one inmate pressed against the bars of his cell as they passed and grinningly invited “Blondie” to suck his dick.

Starsky’s conscious mind didn’t even register that he had lunged toward the guy before Hutch and Maggio were dragging him back, Maggio bellowing, “What the fuck are you doing?”, Hutch planting a steadying hand on the small of his back and giving him a glare that somehow managed to combine disapproval, gratitude, and offended pride, with emphasis on the latter.

Starsky felt remorse prevail over outrage. They backed each other up, always, but they didn’t fight each other’s battles. That was a rule.

He mumbled, “Sorry, Sergeant,” but he kept his eyes on Hutch’s, watching them soften in acknowledgement.

“Shit,” Edwards muttered. “Let’s get this the fuck over with.”

The guard, who had observed the incident silently, glanced from the offending inmate to Starsky before again leading the way.

The prisoners they had come for, Perez and Novak, were waiting in a holding area so far inside the guts of the building it was like a descent into hell to reach them. Starsky nudged Hutch’s shoulder as they rounded yet another corner. “What the hell is this about? How come they didn’t have ‘em waiting for us outside?”

Hutch shrugged, but Starsky could tell he was pissed off about it, too. “Got me. Looks like they just wanted to give us the grand tour.” He gave a contemptuous little snort. “Maybe Hollinger told them to throw a scare into us.”

Starsky muttered under his breath. Hollinger was an asshole, and everybody knew it.

Finally, after more twists and turns than Starsky could keep track of, the guard led them through a doorway into still another corridor, an enclosed space with doors at either end. Cells lined both sides here, too, cells with small barred windows set high up in the doors. The guard stopped in front of one, unlocked it, then stepped to the side suddenly as the door banged back against the wall, revealing five men in prison gray, each of them holding an automatic with both hands.

“Up against the wall, motherfuckers,” growled one, and it occurred to Starsky, in the first instant of frozen shock, that if this were a movie, he’d have laughed at the cliché.

Since it wasn’t a movie, he took his hand carefully off the butt of his .38, raised both hands in the air, turned around, and placed them against the wall. He did it all without taking his eyes off Hutch, who was mirroring his movements. Their eyes met. Hutch’s were cold with anger, and Starsky felt a surge of admiration. He hoped his own expression was masking his fear as effectively.

Next to him, Edwards was spitting fire. “What the fuck is going on? What the hell are you – ”

“Shut up!” The voice cracked like a whip. “Drop your guns!”

Starsky didn’t move. He barely breathed. He cut his eyes again toward Hutch, who looked back at him with a grimace.

“Fuck it, I said drop ‘em! On the floor!”

“Do it,” Edwards said. Starsky glanced at him, saw him reach slowly under his jacket, draw out his weapon, and let it fall.

Maggio followed suit, his gun clattering on the concrete floor.

Starsky had his .38 halfway out of its holster when he heard a startled exclamation behind him, followed almost instantly by the roar of a gun, ear-splittingly loud in the enclosed corridor. He dived to the floor, pulling Hutch with him, just as a bullet whined past his ear and ricocheted off the wall with a sharp ping.

In an instant, pandemonium reigned. Voices shouted, gunshots echoed, and above it all, from somewhere, came the sudden deafening blare of a siren. But Starsky hardly heard any of it. He kept his head down, firing blindly in the direction most of the shots seemed to be coming from. Beside him, at his shoulder, Hutch was firing, too, getting off one round after another, and nothing made sense but that, Hutch next to him, Hutch covering him, Hutch alive, Hutch not bleeding, not yet.

It ended as suddenly as it had begun. The door at one end of the corridor burst open, and prison police swarmed in. Shouts of “Freeze!” rang out, and the shooting stopped. Through the haze of gun smoke, Starsky saw two men lying still on the floor, and three others slowly raising their hands in the air. A sixth was slumped against the wall, moaning, his right arm held awkwardly against his body, a dark stain spreading down his sleeve.

Starsky was taking it all in, heart still pounding, ears still ringing, when he felt a hand touch his hair. He turned his head. Hutch was staring at him with wide, naked eyes.

Starsky summoned up the shakiest of smiles. “Next time we take a trip,” he said, “let’s try the Grand Canyon, huh?”

 

*****

 

It took a while to sort things out. Edwards was unhurt. Maggio had suffered a minor burn from a bullet that had just touched his left hand. One of their attackers had a shattered kneecap; another, who turned out to be Perez, was dead, felled by a bullet from the guard’s gun. The guard himself had taken two bullets, one to the upper arm, the other to the shoulder.

Hutch’s only injury was a bruised hip from where he’d hit the floor when Starsky pulled him down at the sound of the first shot. Starsky made sure of that, checking and rechecking with the doctor at the prison infirmary while the exasperated nurses tried to haul him away for his own examination. Not that Hutch was any better behaved. Starsky couldn’t suppress a grin at the sight of his partner all but shoving the doctor aside in his impatience to assure himself that a few scrapes and bruises were the only souvenirs Starsky would bring home from San Q.

To no one’s surprise, the incident was revealed to be an inside job. Eager to cut a deal, Novak confessed in the infirmary that the guard had smuggled the guns to the prisoners in return for money and drugs. Perez hated turncoats, Novak said, and had shot the guard the moment the cops’ backs were turned, setting off the melee.

Because Novak himself was injured, his testimony in the racketeering case would have to wait. A flurry of phone calls ensued, and by the time matters were settled, it was too late for the BCPD cops to get a flight home that day.

Exhausted and fed up, Starsky, Hutch, Edwards, and Maggio checked into a Best Western for the night. The whole trip, Starsky thought with disgust, had been nothing but a fucking waste of time.

 

*****

 

The motel was almost full up. There was a dog show in town, and the parking lot was full of vans and campers and people taking canines of all descriptions for their evening constitutionals. Starsky and Hutch got the last room available, squeezed in between an overweight lady with three capering Irish Setters and an elderly couple with a tiny, prancing animal that looked to Starsky like a miniature of the dog that galloped across the sides of Greyhound buses. He wasn’t happy about the prospect of trying to sleep amid a chorus of barking, but to his surprise, once it got late and people turned in, the noise level sank to near zero. Dogs must be dog tired. Just like us.

He lost the toss for the shower. Hutch was already asleep when Starsky came out of the bathroom, sprawled boneless across the room’s one bed on his belly, lips parted slightly, one arm flung out to the side. Starsky stopped in the doorway and just looked at him. Close as they’d become, they’d never had occasion to share a bed before. His eyes traced the line of Hutch’s shoulder, the slope of his back as it narrowed to his waist before vanishing under the blanket. He wondered wildly for a moment if Hutch was naked beneath the covers, and felt his knees weaken. That was crazy, though. Hutch wasn’t the type. He’d be wearing underwear, same as Starsky. Tight, tight briefs that molded to his body and arrogantly showed off that heavy rig of his. Or maybe boxers, loose and comfortable, so easy to slip a hand into….

Jesus. Starsky looked away, snapped off the light, and slid into bed beside his partner. He could sleep; hell, he was exhausted. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been turned on and still managed to slip into unconsciousness. If he could just stop thinking about the warm male body, Hutch’s body, lying so close to his.

He sighed and closed his eyes. It wasn’t even just the physical proximity. It was the fear. He’d shoved it away, pushed it aside and refused to remember it was there, but now, in the dark with nothing else for him to think about, it crept back, its shadow slipping silently into his conscious mind, reminding him of what could have been. He could have died. Far worse, Hutch could have died. He could have lost Hutch forever, could have watched him bleed to death on a cold concrete floor, his bright hair clotted with gore, his strangled voice pleading for help Starsky couldn’t give him, his eyes growing gradually dimmer until their light went out. He could have watched flies crawl over Hutch’s face, seen the jungle sun beat down on Hutch’s dead eyes until….

His eyes snapped open and he shook his head sharply, squinting up at the dark ceiling. That wasn’t right. It wouldn’t have been like that, though it would have been just as bad, every bit as bad. His heart gave a violent shudder, and he took a deep breath to steady it. What the hell was he thinking?

He turned onto his side, away from Hutch. Forget it. It’s over. Just stop thinking. The fear, the racing heart, the adrenaline hangover – that was where it used to start. That was when it had been so easy to reach out and touch.

He thought about jacking off, and no sooner had he thought it than he was almost groaning from the need. He touched his cock, cradling it through his briefs. He couldn’t do it here, he’d have to get up and do it in the bathroom. Hutch would wake up if he did it here. A wild thought assailed him. Maybe Hutch would like it. Maybe he’d want to watch. Maybe….no. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t think about that anymore.

“Starsk?”

Hutch’s voice was soft, blurry with sleep, but it still made Starsky jump. Like a shamefaced adolescent, he snatched his hand from his crotch.

“What?” He snapped the word off sharply, guiltily.

“Starsk,” Hutch repeated, and it was barely a whisper now, little more than a breath.

Starsky turned over. “Whassamatter?” he said, his own voice sinking to a murmur. He touched Hutch’s face. He could do that, it was okay. They touched each other a lot. “Thought you were asleep.”

Hutch didn’t answer. Instead he closed his hand around Starsky’s and pressed it to his cheek. His eyes searched Starsky’s face in the dimness.

“Rough day, huh?” Hutch said softly.

Starsky swallowed. “Yeah. I didn’t mean to wake ya.”

The crease deepened between Hutch’s eyes. “You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay, sure.” He should draw his hand back now. He should stop noticing the tiny prickle of whiskers peeking through smooth skin. He should stop wanting to run his thumb over Hutch’s lips. He should definitely stop staring at those lips. But he’d wondered for so long if they were as soft as they looked.

And then, the next moment, he was kissing Hutch. Their heads were so close together he hardly had to move to do it. It was as if no effort were being made, as if there were nothing extraordinary about it. It felt to Starsky as if nothing else could possibly have happened, even though a minute earlier he wouldn’t have believed it. It was as natural as breathing, as sleeping, as jumping in front of a bullet meant for Hutch.

And he’d been right. Oh, those lips were soft. He closed his eyes and just savored them, their feel, their taste, the tiny wet sounds they made as they parted in invitation. He likes it. Oh, Christ, he likes it. He reached out and put an unsteady hand on the back of Hutch’s head, pressing him closer, feeling him shudder.

The kiss deepened, his tongue slid slickly over Hutch’s, Hutch’s hands clutched at him, and then somehow he was on top of Hutch, sprawled wantonly across him, kissing his mouth, his jaw, his neck, answering each of Hutch’s moans with his own, and they were rubbing together, his pulsing cock still trapped in his briefs, Hutch’s – God, Hutch’s cock – poking out through the slit in his boxers. He could feel it, Starsky thought, dazed with lust. He could touch it now, he could have it.

“Starsk,” Hutch whispered. His hands slid down and tugged impatiently at Starsky’s briefs. Starsky gave an awkward twist, lifted first one leg and then the other, and then the shorts were out of the way and Hutch planted a hand on each of his buttocks and squeezed. Starsky gasped – Yeah, touch it, touch it – and humped Hutch’s thigh mindlessly. Hutch raised his leg obligingly, giving him leverage, giving him sweet, firm friction, and Starsky felt a grateful moan escape his throat.

He was coming before he could stop it, before he was even aware of it, coming like a kid who only needed a stroke or two, a glimpse of a girl’s breasts, a locker room full of near-naked boys. He cried out as it ripped through him, jolting him, soaking Hutch’s thigh and belly, and then groaned helplessly again as he felt Hutch take hold of him, stroking, squeezing, stripping the last weak spurts from him until he sagged, panting, into Hutch’s arms.

For a long moment he lay, just breathing, suspended in that glorious emptiness of mind and body that follows orgasm. But he could feel Hutch breathing, too, short, ragged gasps, could feel Hutch’s heart thundering against his. He moved his leg slightly and it brushed against Hutch’s dick, hard and leaking against the soft cotton of his shorts. Hutch made a low, strangled sound in his throat.

Starsky raised his head and looked into Hutch’s eyes. They stared back at him, wide and hot and pleading. And astonished, as though Hutch were having difficulty believing he wasn’t dreaming.

Starsky smiled at him, a lazy, wasted smile, a God, that was good smile, and brushed a damp, straggling lock of hair back from Hutch’s forehead. He could not remember ever feeling such sheer tenderness.

“S’okay,” he said softly, and touched Hutch’s lips. “I know. I’ll take care of ya.”

Hutch moved restlessly beneath him. “Starsk, you don’t have to – “

“Shh,” Starsky said. He crawled down Hutch’s body, lowered his shorts, and was eye to eye with his objective. “Somebody’s gotta do it.” He raised his head and grinned up at Hutch. “And Raquel Welch ain’t here.”

Hutch breathed heavily. “Just – just with your hand. Not – ”

“Will you shut up?” Starsky said, and took Hutch’s cock between his lips. He heard Hutch’s reverent “God!” and smiled.

He closed his eyes and ran his tongue slowly down the shaft, tracing the pulsing vein there, enjoying the heat and the weight of it, and the muttered curses he was eliciting from his partner. No way he could take it all in. He’d never seen Hutch erect before, but he’d made some covert estimates in the showers at Metro, and he could see now how close his fevered imaginings had been. He wasn’t complaining. He had two good hands. He wrapped one around the base – tight; Hutch was on the edge already – cradled the testicles with the other, and settled in for some fun.

It was always fun – the power of it, the control it gave him. He got off on that. But this was Hutch – Hutch’s hands clutching at his head, Hutch’s voice begging him, Hutch’s balls quivering in his palm. He didn’t feel powerful now. He felt weak with love.

His exhaustion had vanished. It seemed to him that he could pleasure Hutch all night, could go on sucking, nibbling, squeezing, bestowing leisurely licks across the head, could savor the bitter, salty taste and the rapturous groans indefinitely. But Hutch started thrashing, thrusting up, trying to fuck Starsky’s mouth, making incoherent choking sounds, and Starsky relented. He released his grip on the base of Hutch’s cock, grabbed his partner’s hips to brace him, and commenced a hard, steady suction. After only seconds, he was rewarded with a hoarse shout and a copious gush of hot, silky fluid. He pulled back a little out of self-preservation, but kept the flaring head in his mouth, swallowing hastily, riding it out, drinking it down, until Hutch went limp beneath him. Then he softly kissed the tired flesh until Hutch made a weak, protesting sound in his throat.

Starsky sighed and crawled up to lie beside him, noting in passing the mess he’d left on Hutch’s body when he came. He should get a towel, a washcloth, something. But he could barely hold a coherent thought in his mind.

Hutch’s mouth was open, his breath coming in gradually slowing gasps. As Starsky settled next to him, his eyes slid slowly closed.

Starsky smiled, a smile that was promptly interrupted by an enormous yawn. Sleep, pushed aside in favor of passion, now dragged at him like a riptide. He snuggled against Hutch’s shoulder, threw an arm across Hutch’s middle, and sank like a stone. A happy, sated stone.

*****

He woke gradually to the muffled sound of a woman’s voice murmuring, “Hurry up, Dino, hurry up for Mama.” There was a pause, a faint patter of liquid on leaves, a “Good boy, Dino,” followed by the sound of retreating footsteps and the skitter of claws on concrete.

Starsky turned over, yawning, squinting at the window, at the first faint gray streaks of light that crept around the edges of the curtains. He reached out a hand and touched the pillow next to his, fingers lightly tracing the indentation of Hutch’s head. On impulse he moved closer, pulled the pillow into his arms, and buried his face in it, sighing.

No sign of Hutch, but there wouldn’t be. He’d be out running. He wouldn’t let a little thing like brain-melting sex with his partner tempt him away from his fitness regimen. He’d come through the door any minute now, sweaty and tousled, breathing hard. He’d stop dead when he saw Starsky on the bed.

Starsky pictured the scene. He’d be lying there, sheets pushed down, lounging against the pillows, smiling invitingly. He’d give his dick a slow, teasing little stroke, just to make Hutch’s eyes widen. Hutch would smile, that beautiful, shy smile of his, and say something like, “I’m all sweaty, I need a shower.” And Starsky would hold out his arms and say, “C’mere, I wanna get sweaty, too.” And Hutch would grin and strip and climb into bed and whisper, “Last night was fantastic,” and they’d kiss, and….

Except that wasn’t what happened. Starsky waited, and waited some more. In the parking lot, doors slammed, voices babbled, dogs yelped and whined and trotted, tags jingling, past the door. Finally, his bladder couldn’t take it any longer. He got up and headed to the bathroom, where he froze at the sight of a tented slip of paper resting on the toilet seat. He picked it up.

Starsk,

I’m at the restaurant next door with Edwards and Maggio. Join us for breakfast?

Hutch

 

*****

 

He did join them. He sat next to Hutch, the man whose cock he’d sucked the night before, the man whose cock he wanted to suck again – many, many more times – and ate pancakes and talked about the weather (it was hot, even for mid-September) and baseball (the Dodgers were making a race of it; if Sutton stayed healthy they had a chance) and the war (Maggio was firmly of the opinion that the carpet bombing of Cambodia hadn’t gone nearly far enough).

They didn’t talk about the previous day’s events at San Q. To talk about shit like that was to give it shape, give it power, make it real. If it was real, it could hurt you. What you did, if you were smart, was forget it. If you couldn’t do that, you just refused to think about it. Starsky was good at that. Hutch needed more experience to really get it; Starsky could tell that from the vaguely haunted look in his partner’s eyes. Hutch had been a street cop for two years, and he still thought too much. Starsky wanted him to grow a harder shell, but at the same time he didn’t, because that would mean going through a shitload of bad scenes. Sometimes when they were on the street it was all he could do to keep from covering Hutch’s eyes, shielding him from some of the things they had to look at. Hutch was too good, too fine to have to see that shit.

He had, of course, been a fucking idiot to think that what happened between them last night might help erase that shadow from Hutch’s eyes.

Naturally, they didn’t talk about that, either. In the restaurant they couldn’t, and on the hour-long plane ride back to Bay City, they just didn’t. He and Hutch sat far enough from Edwards and Maggio that private, whispered conversation would have been possible, but somehow it was impossible. Hutch, in the window seat, was quiet, distant, speaking in monosyllables or not at all, apparently absorbed in cloud-watching. Starsky slumped beside him, reading the same page of the same John D. MacDonald paperback over and over again because he just couldn’t fucking concentrate, couldn’t think about anything but Hutch and Hutch’s hands on his ass and Hutch’s dick in his mouth, and when, when, when were they gonna do it again, and why didn’t Hutch at least look at him, at least smile at him, at least give him some acknowledgement that it had happened and he wasn’t sorry.

But of course, Starsky knew why. He’d seen it before; hell, he’d done it before, lots of times. It was the very same reason you didn’t talk about the bad stuff. It went down a hell of a lot easier if you ignored it. He’d never had a problem with that in the past. He’d learned the rules quick in Nam, and he understood them. If you weren’t queer (and nobody was, oh no, not in the U.S. army), you just did what you needed to do and shut the fuck up about it, because it wasn’t you, it wasn’t your nature. It was a temporary measure, like the guys who fuck each other in prison. You adapted to the circumstances you were forced into and made the best of it.

And if you liked it, if you wanted it, if you dreamed about it as often as you dreamed about the boom boom girls in the Saigon bars, you never, never let anybody know.

And that, apparently, was Hutch’s trip. Because Starsky knew damn well he’d liked it.

 

*****

 

The first thing Hutch did when they got back to Metro was call Vanessa.

Starsky heard him talking to her on the phone at their cramped, shared desk on the first floor of Parker Center. Vanessa’s voice was just a faint crackle that he couldn’t make out, but he could hear every word Hutch said, and he could hear the teasing, flirtatious note in Hutch’s voice.

“Yeah, we’re back. Just got in. Hey, don’t be mad, I didn’t know we’d be staying overnight. What’s the matter, did you miss me?”

Starsky shot a glance at him from behind a file. Hutch was smiling, cradling the receiver against his shoulder, a rapt look on his face.

“Tonight? No, I’m not tired. Okay. No, I haven’t seen it yet. We could have dinner at that French place, and then go.” Hutch was silent a moment, and then laughed softly. “Well, maybe we could catch the late show if you want to have dinner at your place. Or maybe we could just skip the movie….”

Starsky shoved his chair back and went out into the corridor to get an Almond Joy.

 

*****

 

Hutch had only met Vanessa a few weeks earlier, at his dentist’s office, of all places (Starsky had cracked a few ill-considered oral jokes before Hutch made it clear they weren’t appreciated). She was working as a receptionist while trying to break into the acting business. They’d gone out several times, twice on double dates with Starsky and Mandy, the girl who checked out shoes at the Fast Lanes bowling alley. Starsky hadn’t particularly liked Vanessa, but what the hell. She was just a chick Hutch took out now and then. It wasn’t like it was the romance of the century or anything, any more than he and Mandy were. He didn’t have to like her. She was gorgeous, and Hutch was getting some. Nothing wrong with that.

But after their return from San Quentin, it was Vanessa this and Vanessa that. Vanessa was coming over, so Hutch had to rush home after work. He was picking Vanessa up at her place, and he had to stop at a florist and buy some roses. She had a shot at a role in a television commercial; he helped her memorize her lines. She wanted to go skiing at Snow Valley, so Hutch took a long weekend.

Gradually they stopped double-dating; Hutch and Vanessa wanted to be alone. Starsky and Hutch no longer hung out as much, played basketball as much, went to the movies as much. He stopped finding excuses to drag Hutch to dubious diners and roadside taco stands after their shift. Not that he didn’t want to; he just didn’t have the heart anymore now that Hutch was so preoccupied. Starsky tried to convince himself he wasn’t jealous, that he didn’t care that he was no longer the primary object of his partner’s attention. Hey, a guy had a right to make a fool out of himself over a beautiful girl, didn’t he? Hutch was still his partner, still his best friend. Hutch still loved him. Starsky knew that. He was the one who’d changed. He was the one who couldn’t seem to go back to a simpler time, a time when, no matter what X-rated dreams he’d succumbed to in private, at least he’d still been able to behave like a rational human being the rest of the time.

A taste of honey’s worse than none at all. A philosopher, that Smokey Robinson.

He didn’t say anything to Hutch about That Night. If Hutch had wanted to discuss it, they would have. They were together all day long, five days a week, trapped in a patrol car with long stretches of boredom to deal with. They had time to talk about it, lots of time. Clearly, Hutch had no intention of doing so, and Starsky was afraid to push it. All the rose-colored fantasies he’d entertained in the motel that morning now seemed ludicrous, laughable. Only he didn’t feel like laughing.

Sometimes it made him shiver, the way he’d exposed himself, the risk he’d taken. What if Hutch had decided he couldn’t handle being partnered with a queer? What if Hutch hadn’t been able to deal with the knowledge that he’d done a bit of queering himself? He could have lost Hutch. The thought of it was enough to chill Starsky’s blood. Sex or no sex, Hutch was the most important person in his life. He couldn’t even imagine being without him. He’d lie awake sometimes remembering his life before Hutch, feeling like Dorothy stepping out into Oz for the first time. He hadn’t had a bad life before, not really. He’d never been unloved. But Hutch had flipped the switch. He’d turned everything to color.

Starsky didn’t want to go back to black and white.

 

*****

 

“Starsk – ”

“Shh!” Starsky leaned forward on the couch and peered harder at the TV. He didn’t get to see Night Gallery that often; they seemed to work the night shift on Wednesdays a lot. He had a feeling the poor old lady who’d been murdered by the evil real estate tycoon wasn’t going to stay dead.

“Starsk – ”

“Will you shut up? I told ya, somethin’ freaky’s gonna happen in a minute – ”

Hutch raised his voice over the eerie music. “Starsky, I’m getting married!”

Starsky turned his head. Hutch was looking at him with a kind of half-happy, half-sheepish expression.

Starsky got up and turned the TV off. He noticed on the way back to the couch that his legs weren’t entirely steady, even though he’d only had a couple of beers.

He sat back down next to Hutch. “You are, huh?”

“Yeah. To Van.”

Starsky gave a little snort. “Yeah, I figured that.” He looked down and picked at the upholstery.

There was an awkward silence before Hutch gave him a little punch in the arm. “This is where you’re supposed to congratulate me, turkey.”

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Starsky said. “Congratulations on your impending nepotism.”

He heard the eye roll in Hutch’s voice. “Nuptials.”

Starsky shrugged. “Nuptials, nepotism, nipples, Neptune….” He was amazed that it had hit him so hard, especially since he really should have seen it coming. His stomach contracted queasily. It was actually hard to breathe.

Figured. The first free evening he and Hutch had spent together in weeks, and it had to include bombshells.

“Gonna be my best man?” Hutch’s voice was so gentle Starsky felt his throat clench up to match his stomach.

“Sure,” he said, swallowing. “Sure, I’ll be your best man. Hell, I’m already the best man you know, right?” That sounded pretty good. Just the right lightness of tone. He elbowed Hutch in the ribs for emphasis.

“Yeah,” Hutch said softly, and touched Starsky’s hair. “Damn right, you are.”

Starsky’s heart gave a painful thump. He’d been expecting a flip reply. He leaned away, ever so slightly, from Hutch’s fingers. He didn’t know how to react to those touches any more.

Hutch’s hand fell away. “I want – I want to have a family, Starsk. Wife, kids, house. And I want to do a better job of it than my parents did.” His voice took on an almost pleading tone. “You understand that, don’t you?”

Starsky stared at him. Were they talking about it now? Were they admitting it had happened?

“Yeah,” he said cautiously. “I understand. I want those things myself.” And he’d have them, one of these days. He was determined. Sooner or later, he’d be ready, he’d meet the right girl, and the other thing would fade away, recede into the background, become just something he used to do before he got his life together.

But Hutch wouldn’t fade away with it. Of that Starsky was certain. He couldn’t conceive of a time when he wouldn’t love Hutch.

“I know you’re not exactly wild about Vanessa – ” Hutch gave him a wry smile “ – but she’s a good girl, Starsk, really. Hey, she’s got a future ahead of her in television and she’s willing to marry a civil servant wage slave with a lousy car. I can’t exactly accuse her of gold digging, can I?”

Stop tryin’ to convince me, buddy. I got no hold on you. “Guess not,” Starsky said aloud. He wondered if Vanessa knew about Hutch’s trust fund.

“We have more in common than you might think, too. She’s from the Midwest, and she doesn’t really get along with her family, and – ”

“You love her?” Starsky broke in.

Hutch looked caught off guard. “I – ”

“ ‘Cause if you don’t, none of the rest of it’s worth a damn, Hutch.”

Hutch’s eyes flicked away from Starsky’s for a bare instant before returning. “Yes. Yes, I love her. Come on, Starsk, you really think I’d marry a woman I didn’t love?”

“No,” Starsky said, and shrugged. “I just think you might not know for sure. You might be, y’know, just infatuated or whatever. Or….”

Hutch nudged him gently. “Or what?”

“Or – scared.” Starsky took a deep breath and glanced away. “Y’know, because of – what happened that night at San Q.” Despite his best effort, the last words trailed off into a mumble.

In the dead silence that followed, the ticking of the clock on top of the TV sounded like tiny explosions, one after another.

“I’m not scared,” Hutch said finally. Starsky risked a peek at him and saw him run his tongue over his lips. “That was – I don’t know what it was. Adrenaline, relief that we were okay, I don’t know. And up there…” He hesitated. “It didn’t seem real, somehow.”

“Yeah,” Starsky said quietly. “Away from home, everything feels different.”

“That’s not why I’m marrying Van, believe me.”

“Okay,” Starsky said. Was he imagining the touch of desperation in Hutch’s voice?

“I know it didn’t mean anything.”

“Okay.”

“We got a little crazy, once. That doesn’t mean – ”

“You ever done it before?”

“No,” Hutch said, flatly.

He’s lying. The conviction came to Starsky with sudden, inexplicable certainty. He felt a weird rush of satisfaction, of pride in his own instincts.

Damn, maybe he was gonna ace that detective’s exam after all.

He said nothing, and after a moment Hutch ventured, “Have you, uh – ”

“Yeah.”

There was a long silence.

“It’s none of my business,” Hutch said. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

Starsky laughed shortly. “If it ain’t your business, it ain’t anybody’s.” The truth was, he wanted Hutch to ask about it. He wanted to pour out names, dates, details – real or invented – more, lots more, than there had actually been. Yeah, I’ve fucked a lotta guys, got me a lotta ass – hell, Hutch, I had half the outfit lining up to suck my dick and the other half pissed off ‘cause I wouldn’t let ‘em! So don’t get the idea you’re somethin’ special, Blondie!

Hutch said, “It hasn’t changed anything between us, what happened that night. We haven’t let it hurt us. It was just a – an aberration, a fluke. ”

“Okay,” Starsky said. He picked up his empty beer can and studied it. The bull on the label glared at him menacingly. He wished it would come crashing through the wall like in that stupid commercial, and rescue him from this excruciating conversation.

“Starsky, I don’t want us to change.”

Starsky looked up. Hutch’s voice was soft and earnest, his eyes troubled. He put out an arm and rested it across Starsky’s shoulders.

“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You’re the best partner I could have. I want us to pass the detective’s exam and go on being partners. I’m not blaming you for what happened, I know you didn’t plan it. ”

Starsky cleared his throat. “Yeah, okay, sure.” He stood, shaking off Hutch’s arm. “You want another beer? I’m gonna have one.”

Hutch hesitated a moment, staring up at him from the couch. Starsky wished his eyes weren’t quite so blue.

“No, uh, I’d better go. It’s late, and, uh… ” Hutch rose and retrieved his jacket from the chair he’d tossed it over.

“Yeah,” Starsky said, and trailed Hutch to the door. “See ya in the morning, Mr. Groom-to-Be.” He forced himself to scrounge up a smile and a slap on the back.

Hutch smiled back, a hopeful, tentative smile. “Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” he said, and with a light touch of his fingers to Starsky’s face, he was gone.

Starsky leaned back against the door and closed his eyes. Well, he’d been wrong about one thing. He didn’t feel better now that they’d talked about it. Not a damn bit better.

 

*****

 

In the dream it’s too hot to fuck, but you’re doing it anyway. That’s what you do here, that and anything else you can think of that’s numbing. At home, sex made you feel great. Here, if you’re lucky, it makes you feel nothing.

This time, especially. You’re pounding into somebody, some body, and the air’s hot and sticky, and the sweat’s pouring off you, dripping down your face, out of your hair, splashing onto the guy’s back. Yeah, it’s a guy again; you realize it now, without surprise. The girls want you to pay fifty percent extra for the back door, which is complete bullshit. You can’t believe anyone takes them up on it. If you’re gonna screw a girl, you want that pussy.

Anyway, nothing’s happening. You keep fucking and fucking and sweating and sweating and shoving it in and pulling it out, but there’s nothing, no ache in your balls, no pulse pounding in your cock, no maddening tension begging for release. You can’t understand how you’re staying hard. And the guy, he’s flopping back and forth underneath you like a rag doll, no motion of his own, no tightening of his ass around you, no noise, no nothing.

It doesn’t make any sense, but you know there’s a reason. You keep trying to put it off, but even in dreams, even in fantasies, you can’t fuck forever. You’re scared, you’re so scared you’re almost crying, but you can’t help it, you have to find out. You reach for the guy’s shoulders and turn him over to look at his face. It’s a dream, so you don’t even have to pull out to do it. And his head flops limply to one side and his eyes are wide open and vacant, and you don’t even scream, because dead men can’t.

He woke with a jolt, heart knocking so violently against his ribs that he felt a brief flash of terror that it might burst. He squeezed his eyes shut, pressed a hand to his chest, breathed hard.

Now was when he would have called Hutch. He’d done that once before, in an unguarded moment of late-night panic. He’d omitted the specifics of the dream, of course, but Hutch hadn’t asked. He’d been so gentle, so concerned. He’d talked to Starsky in his quiet, soothing voice until Starsky’s heart had stopped racing and he felt calm enough to sleep again. Starsky knew if he’d asked him to, Hutch would have gotten out of bed, driven across town, and sat up all night with him, and they’d have talked and laughed and drunk beer and watched dumb movies on the late show. And just having Hutch with him, doing anything at all, would have been worth losing a night’s sleep, anytime.

But Hutch was in New Orleans. Starsky had the name and number of his and Vanessa’s hotel, but you didn’t drag a man out of his wife’s arms on his honeymoon.

Beside him, Mandy stirred, burrowing further down into her pillow. Starsky glanced at her. She was a sweet kid, and they had good times together. But he had no intention of telling her any secrets, or of asking her to hold him while he slept.

The blankets had slipped down, leaving her shoulder bare. He pulled the covers up, tucking them gently back into place, and she sighed in her sleep.

He turned over, his back to her, and stared into the darkness. It was a quarter to four, according to the luminous hands of the clock on his nightstand. Five forty-five AM in New Orleans. Five forty-five PM in Saigon.

 

*****

 

Hutch could tell as soon as he stepped into the room that Vanessa was asleep. Her long dark hair spilled over the pillow. Her ribs rose and fell gently with the rhythm of her soft, even breathing. In the dimness, he could just make out the delicate ridge of the spine marching up her back, seeming to invite a finger to trace it.

She was turned away from him, toward the wall. He couldn’t see her face.

Hutch closed the door quietly, taking care not to disturb her, and walked across the room to the window, where he parted the curtains and looked out over the drowsing city. Even New Orleans had to sleep some time, and at quarter to six on a weekday morning, the bars and jazz joints of the French Quarter had ceased their swinging and quietly shut their doors. If they hadn’t, he’d still be wandering through them, soaking up the music, trying not to soak up the booze.

It was dark still, though the eastern sky would be lightening just a bit by now, the smallest ribbon of gray appearing on the black horizon. Hutch couldn’t see it; the room’s windows faced west. Toward Bay City, and Starsky.

He sighed and rested his forehead against the glass.

He loved Vanessa. He’d convinced himself of that. He was determined to make things work. It occurred to him that vowing to make things work after only five days of marriage could be a bad sign. Wasn’t marital discord supposed to wait at least until after the honeymoon before rearing its head?

Vanessa was hot-tempered, quick to anger, quick to lash out at perceived slights. He’d known that before, but somehow while they were dating it had seemed harmless enough, even at times alluring. There was a certain appeal in bedding, taming, a hellcat, in turning her hisses to purrs. To be honest, it was exciting as hell. He’d never been with a woman like that before, one whose passions ran hotter than his own, one who wouldn’t let him out of bed in the morning, one who threw a wine glass at him after he smiled too warmly at another girl. He liked it. His own parents’ fights consisted of arctic silences and averted eyes. Hutch had learned early in life that retreating into oneself and pulling the walls in after you was the safest, sanest response to unpleasantness. Vanessa wouldn’t allow that. She insisted on her own method of conflict resolution, and together the two of them would yell, scream, curse, and then fall into bed and fuck each other blind. Afterward she’d drop off to sleep in his arms and he’d lie there, stunned, blinking into the darkness and wondering what the hell had happened to him.

At least he never worried about getting it up with Vanessa. She could have him blazing with a single touch. Sometimes when they were in bed, he even forgot about Starsky.

But not always. That was the problem.

Something touched his back and he jumped, turning, almost banging his head against the window. Vanessa was standing behind him, naked, hair rumpled, eyes huge in her pale face.

“Ken,” she said, and stopped. She looked somehow smaller than usual, as though she had shrunk in the night.

He had fifty pounds on her, he thought. Maybe more.

“Ken,” she whispered, and then she was in his arms, face pressed to his shoulder, hands clutching him fiercely. She wasn’t crying, but her body was trembling, quaking, as though fighting a tide of emotion. He stroked her back, noting the fine bones, the delicate skin. As always, he felt a surge of protectiveness. Of course he did. She was his to take care of, wasn’t she?

“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice muffled against his skin. She raised her head and looked him in the eye, and he saw her throat work as she swallowed. “I’m so sorry. I just – I couldn’t stop myself. ”

Her voice was shaking. He took her face in his hands and whispered, “Shhh. It’s all right. You were upset, I know that. It’s okay, it was my fault.” He felt his own inner tumult subsiding, the knots in his stomach smoothing out, as he said the words. She was sorry. She was miserable, and he was comforting her, holding her, being strong for her, taking responsibility. He was doing what men were supposed to do. Relief flooded him. He was being a man.

She raised a hand and touched his cheek gently, running a finger down the scratches. “You put something on them.”

“There’s an all-night drugstore a few blocks down. I got some iodine.”

She laughed a little, a forced, painful sound. “Did they tell you not to pick up stray cats?”

“Hey,” he said softly. “I love my stray cat. Claws and all.” It was his fault, he told himself firmly. A mistake, a serious mistake, but his fault just the same. Women didn’t go around scratching their husbands’ faces for no reason.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to do that, I didn’t mean to make you bleed, Ken, I love you – ”

“I know, I know – ”

“I just – you made me so angry I couldn’t help – ”

“Van, it’s okay – ”

“I don’t want to hurt you, but you can’t do that to me, it makes me crazy – ”

He seized her hands. “Listen to me. It’s over. We won’t talk about it again, we won’t think about it again. We came here to enjoy ourselves and that’s what we’re gonna do.”

Her face relaxed gradually into a smile. “Yes. All right.”

He kissed her smooth cheek. “Now, you wanted to see the banana wharf today, right? We’ll get dressed and – ”

“No,” she said softly. “It’s too early to get dressed, and you spent half the night wandering the streets, didn’t you?” Her eyes sparkled. “I think it’s time you got to bed.” She took his hand and tugged in the direction of the big four-poster.

She wanted to make it up to him. He could see that. She felt guilty, truly sorry for what she’d done. And it was their honeymoon. They could look at bananas any time.

They lay down and he rolled on top of her, burying his face between her breasts. She wasn’t Starsky. She didn’t look, smell, or feel like Starsky. Her little moans of excitement didn’t sound like Starsky’s. And this time, when she put her mouth on his cock, he was determined not to call her Starsky.

 

*****

 

“You okay?” Starsky asked over lunch at Dee Dee’s Thermonuclear Cafe (“Hottest chili in the west!”).

Hutch blinked, startled out of his thoughts. He couldn’t say he’d been paying close attention to Starsky’s account of the tire-kicking expedition he’d undertaken the night before. Starsky was always skulking around car lots after they closed, in an effort to “map out my options” without being hassled by salesmen.

“Fine,” he said, and took a sip of his chocolate shake. “Why?”

“No reason.” Starsky gave him a searching look that belied his words. “Just – you’re eatin’ like me. Y’know, good food. Cheeseburger, fries, milkshake. You didn’t bitch at me when we stopped here, you didn’t whip out a paper bag full of whole wheat bread and Brussels sprouts.” He frowned. “You sick or something?”

“I’m not sick yet,” Hutch replied. He fed himself another french fry. “But stick around.”

Starsky grinned. “This place won’t make you sick, buddy. I guarantee, it’ll clean out every pipe you got. Leave ya slick as a whistle.”

Except mentally. Got anything to flush out the brain shit, Starsk? Aloud he said, “Terrific. I can’t wait.”

Starsky sprinkled more pepper on his chili. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said, without looking up. “I missed ya.”

Hutch felt his throat tighten a notch. “Yeah,” he said. “Me, too.”

Starsky raised his head and smiled into Hutch’s eyes.

It wasn’t until they were back in the patrol car, cruising down Ashland, watching silently for speeders, jaywalkers, light jumpers, tailgaters, that Starsky said suddenly, “What’s with the scratches, anyway? You ever gonna tell me?”

Hutch felt himself close up. “Cat,” he said. “I told you that.”

“You ain’t got a cat.”

“It was a stray. Van found it in the parking lot outside our hotel, rummaging through a garbage can. It was hungry, and she felt sorry for it, so she sneaked it up to our room and we took care of it for a couple of days before we left. Then we gave it to one of the bellhops. He said his kids had been wanting a cat.” He took a long breath. It sounded plausible enough.

Starsky signaled for a left turn. “I didn’t know Vanessa was such an animal lover.”

“She’s crazy about animals. She had a lot of pets growing up.”

“Oh.” Starsky gave him a little lopsided grin. “I just thought it was funny, y’know, you having scratches on your face. You’re supposed to come back from your honeymoon with scratches on your back.”

Hutch looked away from him, out the window. “You’re a riot, Starsk,” he said. “You’re a regular one-man Laurel and Hardy.”

“Hey, did you watch those movies, too? Nicky and me watched ‘em all the time when we were little. There was this one channel that showed all the old comedies on Saturday mornings, you know, Laurel and Hardy, the Ritz Brothers, the Keystone Cops. Some of ‘em were silent, but we didn’t care. We laughed so hard we’d wake Pop up and he’d chase us around the apartment with his belt.” He sighed. “Good times.”

“Starsk,” Hutch said, “are you okay?”

Starsky’s nostalgic smile faded. He threw Hutch a quick sideways glance. “Yeah. Whaddaya mean, am I okay?”

Hutch hesitated. “You just look a little – I don’t know. Tired.”

Starsky looked straight ahead. “I’m fine. Been gettin’ laid a lot. Mandy stayed over twice last week, and I went to her place once.”

“Oh,” Hutch said. Starsky had dark smudges under his eyes.

“I’m fine,” Starsky repeated.

“Okay.”

“She’s a lotta lady, Hutch. Sometimes she wants it two or three times a night, so – ”

“Yeah, yeah.” Mandy had never looked like a “lotta lady” to him. He doubted if she could handle it two or three times a night, not with Starsky. Christ, Starsky could probably fuck anybody through the wall. Any woman or any man. He could probably fuck so hard he –

“Hutch, you with me?”

“Uh, yeah.” Hutch cleared his throat. “I just – I was hoping you weren’t having nightmares again. That they weren’t keeping you awake.”

Starsky’s hands tightened on the wheel. “No. No nightmares.”

“Buddy,” Hutch said softly, “any time you need to talk about them – ”

“Yeah,” Starsky interrupted. “Yeah, thanks.”

Ahead of them, a white Dodge Challenger swerved into the passing lane, surged easily past a red Volkswagen Beetle, and proceeded to cut it off at the knees. Horns blared, brakes screeched, Starsky swore. Hutch hit the siren switch, and the conversation ended.

 

*****

 

He’s here, and that’s not right. There’s something wrong with the picture. It nags at you, nibbles at the edges of your mind, dancing out of reach before you can grasp it. He’s not supposed to be here.

But it’s him, all right. You’d know his smile anywhere, the grin he throws over his shoulder at you as he leads the way, parting the undergrowth as he goes, pushing leaves and branches aside with his rifle. You can see the glint of the sun off his bayonet, but it’s not as bright as that smile.

You keep walking. You’d follow him anywhere, to the worst place in the world, and this is it. But it’s not so bad now, not with him in it.

He looks back at you again, laughing, teasing, and then he takes off, running ahead of you through the trees. You chase after him, but he’s too fast for you. You yell at him to wait, but he just laughs. He pulls away from you as if it’s nothing, as if you’re standing still. And you are. Suddenly, you can’t move. You’re caught in a tangle of vines, held fast as they twine around your body.

And up ahead, he disappears into the jungle.

And then you hear the scream.

Something touched his hand, and he struck out blindly. There was a startled exclamation, and then he was awake, breath coming in gasps, sitting bolt upright on the couch in Hutch and Vanessa’s apartment, and Hutch was staring at him.

“Dammit,” Hutch said in a breathless voice. “What the hell?”

Starsky closed his eyes tightly for a second. When he opened them, Hutch was peeling his shirt off with shaky hands.

“Jesus,” Starsky whispered. “What – ”

“You were dreaming, I guess.” Hutch took a deep breath, clutching the shirt in one hand. “I went to get us some coffee, and when I came back you were out like a light. I tried to wake you up, and you yelled and knocked the coffee out of my hand.” He ran a cautious hand over his bare chest.

Starsky scrambled off the couch. “Are ya hurt, did I burn you?” If Hutch was hurt, he’d drive him to the emergency room, he’d pay the bill, he’d donate his own goddamn skin for a transplant. Doctors could do that, couldn’t they?

“I’m okay, I’m not – ”

“Whaddaya mean, you’re okay?” He grabbed Hutch by the shoulders, eyes roving over the fair skin. “I throw hot coffee on you and you’re okay? What are you, Superman or something, you don’t burn like other people, you don’t – ”

“Starsk!” Hutch almost shouted, cutting off Starsky’s panicked babble. “I’m okay,” he repeated, more softly. “I’m fine. Most of it missed me, some of it got on my shirt, but it barely touched me.” He raised his hand to Starsky’s face, cupping his cheek. “I’m fine. Are you?”

Starsky swallowed. “Yeah, sure.” Hutch’s hand was like balm, cooling him, settling him. He wanted to turn his head and kiss the palm.

Hutch made a disbelieving sound. “Yeah, sure? You always wake up hollering and trying to deck people?”

Starsky stepped back from him and shrugged. “Just a dream, that’s all.” He glanced deliberately downward, at the scattered books, the broken mug, the dark liquid soaking into the carpet. “Jeez, Hutch, we better clean this mess up before the little woman gets home.”

Hutch sighed, tossed the wadded-up shirt on top of the nearest stain, and stepped on it. “She’ll be late, Starsk, remember? They’re shooting that night scene for the pilot.”

Starsky bent to retrieve the nearest piece of the coffee cup. Right. I wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t gonna be late, would I, buddy? “Man,” he said aloud, “I still can’t believe my buddy’s wife is gonna be on a real TV show.”

“Well, she’s only got two lines. And she said they might cut her whole part, so she’s trying not to get her hopes up.”

Starsky didn’t reply. He hoped Vanessa’s part didn’t get cut. He hoped she went on to bigger and bigger parts, with more and more lines. The more she worked, the more she’d be away from Hutch.

He’d stopped feeling guilty about that. He hadn’t seen any more scratches on Hutch’s face since he and Vanessa came back from their honeymoon six months ago, but he’d seen some other things he didn’t like. Not every day. Some mornings Hutch just looked like a guy who’d gotten his balls drained good the night before. But other mornings, lots of other mornings, Starsky saw the tightness around his partner’s mouth, the lines in his forehead, the bleakness in his expression. All that shit was new. Hutch used to look like the sun rose behind his eyes.

And once, once there was a cigarette burn on Hutch’s arm. Starsky saw it at the end of a hot summer day when Hutch finally abandoned department propriety and rolled up his uniform sleeves in the patrol car. When he noticed Starsky staring at it, he rolled them down again. He’d fallen asleep smoking, he said, with a sheepish expression. No, he hadn’t started back, not really. He just had one once in a while. Yes, he’d be more careful.

Well, people did fall asleep smoking. Starsky couldn’t prove it was anything else.

As for the state of his own relations with Vanessa, the less said the better. Every time he’d seen her since the wedding, she’d looked at him as if she’d have gladly cut his throat if only she could be sure the bloodstains would wash out of her silk blouse. He didn’t know why. Before she and Hutch were married, she’d been distantly friendly with him, treating him with the kind of careless politeness he imagined she accorded anyone who resided below her on the social ladder. Now, for some reason, she hated him. Starsky didn’t care; hell, if she made Hutch happy he wouldn’t have cared if she’d spit in his face.

But Hutch was miserable. Starsky knew that, even though Hutch had never even come close to admitting it. Indeed, he treated the entire subject of his marriage as off limits.

Hutch sprayed carpet cleaner on the last of the stains, fetched two fresh cups of coffee from the kitchen, and sank back down on the couch, setting the mugs carefully on the coffee table in front of him. He closed his eyes, tilted his chin back, and rolled his head from side to side as though trying to get a kink out of his neck. Starsky picked up the book they’d been studying from and joined him. When Hutch didn’t open his eyes, Starsky inched closer to him and bumped their shoulders together forcefully.

“Hey.”

Hutch turned his head and gave him a dirty look. “Hey, what?”

“Hey, let’s get back to Law Enforcement Procedure in the State of California. I dunno about you, but I’m finding it to be a real suspense-filled page turner.”

A tired smile tugged at the corner of Hutch’s mouth. “That why you fell asleep?”

“I fell asleep ‘cause we’ve been working twelve-hour days and then burnin’ the midnight oil studying. Can’t blame the author of this soon-to-be best seller for that.”

“Didn’t have anything to do with your little problem, huh?”

Starsky felt his stomach tighten. “I don’t have a problem. I’ve told ya before, I don’t need as much sleep as most people. I’ve got a big metabolism.”

“High metabolism. You’ve also got bags under your eyes.”

“Listen, starting a week from tomorrow, I’ll sleep up a storm. I’ll sleep like you’ve never seen, buddy. I’ll be the world’s all-time champion sleeper, I promise. But right now, we gotta study.”

Hutch yawned. “One more week till the detective’s exam. It better be worth it.”

“It will be. Hell, it’ll be worth it just gettin’ to wear our own shoes instead of those damn uniform oxfords. They give my blisters blisters.”

Hutch sighed and sat up straighter. “Okay, let’s hit it.”

If only, Starsky thought, with an inward roll of the eyes. Hutch was still shirtless, and as far as Starsky was concerned, he was welcome to remain that way indefinitely. His skin looked – and was, Starsky remembered – smoother than silk. It was warm, too; Starsky could feel it through the thin material of his own shirt where his upper arm pressed against Hutch’s. The air-conditioning had hardened Hutch’s nipples to stiff little peaks. Looking at them, even out of the corner of his eye, made Starsky’s own nipples tingle in sympathy.

He forced his gaze down to the book. “Okay, chapter six, page one twenty-nine. What is the correct protocol – ”

He broke off abruptly and looked up as the front door opened. And kept looking. He had to hand it to Vanessa; whether you liked her or not, it wasn’t easy to take your eyes off her. Even with wet clothes and a decidedly pissed-off look on her face, she was something.

Vanessa’s eyes flicked from Hutch to Starsky and back again before she shut the door behind her. “I didn’t realize you had company,” she said, and turned to deposit her dripping umbrella in the stand by the door.

Hutch got up quickly and went to her. “Just doing a little studying.” He gave her a light kiss and took the jacket she shrugged off her shoulders. “You’re home early.”

Vanessa rolled her eyes at him. “It’s pouring outside, in case you hadn’t noticed. They couldn’t get any decent shots, and the damn cameras kept getting wet and having to be covered, and they were afraid the costumes would get ruined, so they called it off for tonight. We’re going to try it again tomorrow night.”

Hutch went to the window and drew the curtain aside to look out at the rain. “I didn’t even hear it. Did you, Starsk?”

“Nope,” Starsky said, manufacturing a smile. “Hi, Vanessa.”

Vanessa spared him a glance before turning back to Hutch. “You two must have been very absorbed,” she said. He watched her eyes travel over Hutch’s naked back.

Hutch let the curtain fall and turned back to her with the edgy little half smile he wore so often in his wife’s presence. Starsky hated that smile.

“You have no idea how fascinating our homework is. Differential calculus pales by comparison.” He took a step into the kitchen. “Want something to eat? Starsky and I got take-out for dinner, but if you’re hungry – ”

Vanessa cut him off. “I ate on the set. I just want a hot shower, and then I’m going to bed.” She gave Starsky a long, level look. “Will the two of you be much longer? It’s late.”

Jeez, it gave him the creeps when she looked at him like that. Like she was measuring him for a body bag or something.

“Uh, I was just leaving,” he said, and raised a hand to forestall Hutch’s protest. “Vanessa’s right, Hutch, we gotta get up early tomorrow.” He reached for his abandoned sneakers and jammed his feet into them. “How ‘bout I pick you up at six-thirty and we’ll go to the Pancake Palace – ”

“Ken and I are having breakfast together tomorrow,” Vanessa said. She turned to Hutch. “Remember?”

Starsky saw Hutch’s lips tighten. But he nodded.

“Oh. Well, uh, I’ll pick you up at seven, then.” Starsky snatched his jacket off the back of the couch. “And we can do some more studying at lunch, okay?”

“Starsk,” Hutch said softly, “you don’t have to go. At least wait till the rain lets up.”

This time it was Vanessa’s lips that tightened.

Starsky paused with one hand on the doorknob. “Hey, I ain’t afraid of a little water.” He made himself grin. “See ya tomorrow, buddy. Night, Vanessa.” He slipped out into the corridor, experiencing a weird mixture of relief and guilt.

Because he’d gotten out, but Hutch had to stay.

 

*****

 

Hutch sat on the couch in darkness lightened only by the flickering gray glow of the TV. He’d never watched a lot of television, not as much as most people seemed to, but there were times when a late-night talk show or a sitcom full of canned laughter was exactly what he needed to unwind, to let his brain slip into neutral. It was pleasant, sometimes, to fall asleep like that and wake up to a test pattern or one of Starsky’s monster movies.

He took a contemplative sip from his Coors. Pleasant or not, he thought wryly, it probably wasn’t the way most newlyweds spent their evenings.

Vanessa walked out of the bedroom halfway through Johnny’s monologue, in the middle of a not particularly funny joke about Spiro Agnew, and stopped directly in front of the television. Its light shone through the silky white negligee she wore, and he could see the gentle curves of her thighs and the empty space between them.

She took a drag off her Virginia Slim. “I thought you were tired.”

Hutch set the beer bottle down. “Yeah, I’ll be in in a minute.”

She bent and crushed out the cigarette in the ashtray on the coffee table. Then she stepped around the table and kneeled on the couch, straddling his hips.

“You could be in right now,” she said in a whisper. She rocked her pelvis against his in a slow, circular motion, pressing the fly of his jeans tight against his cock.

He kissed her, cupped her ass in his hands, and raised his own ass up to let her unzip him. She stroked his cock helpfully, though he didn’t need it, and guided him into her. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back for a moment before remembering to reach between them and massage her clit. She climaxed quickly, moaning, and the wet heat clamping down on him pulled him over with her.

She slumped against him, sighing, while he ran his hands absently over her back under the nightgown. From behind her came Ed McMahon’s rumbling voice and a burst of laughter from the studio audience.

“Well,” she said after a moment, and pulled back. He opened his eyes to see a tight smile on her face. “I wondered if you had it in you. I guess you showed me, didn’t you?”

There was a note in her voice that set off a quiet alarm bell in his mind. “What are you talking about?”

She lifted herself off him, grimaced, and walked into the bathroom, where he heard her toweling herself off.

In a moment, she was back, tossing him the towel. “I’m talking about what was going on here before I got home.”

Hutch gave his dick a rough swipe with the towel, ignoring the sensitive flesh’s protest. He tucked himself back into his jeans, got up, and turned the TV off. “It’s late,” he said, starting for the bedroom. “I’m going to bed.”

Vanessa stepped into his path. “I know open marriage is all the rage these days, but it’s not quite fair when it’s only open at one end.”

He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Van, look. It’s late, and we both know this is bullshit. I’m tired, and – ”

“Bullshit?” Her laugh was brittle. “I come home unexpectedly and find you lounging around half-naked with your partner – ”

“Goddammit, we were studying, you know that!” He heard his voice rise precariously, felt his heart give an unpleasant jolt. Vanessa could dump more adrenaline into his system, faster, than anyone he knew.

“You had your shirt off. He was sitting so close to you he practically had his head on your shoulder. Please don’t insult my intelligence by telling me that’s the way any two friends act when they’re studying together.”

Hutch took a deep, steadying breath. “We are not having this conversation,” he said, and was gratified to hear his voice come out level and strong. He took her by the shoulders and pushed her, gently but firmly, to one side so he could step around her.

She slapped him, hard, across the face.

His head snapped back, and for a moment, the shock of it took his breath away. He raised a hand slowly to his cheek. He could feel the red mark pulsing, like a brand.

“Don’t shove me,” she said, “and don’t you dare patronize me.” Her voice was low, and it shook with anger.

He spoke as calmly as he could. “I didn’t shove you, and I didn’t mean to sound patronizing. I’m sorry if – ”

She clapped her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes shut. “Jesus Christ, will you stop it! Stop trying to soothe me! Stop being so goddamn reasonable, and stop treating me like an idiot who can’t see the truth when it’s shoved in my goddamn face!”

The sudden hysteria in her voice appalled him. He gripped her shoulders again and shook her. “Van, stop it, stop it! Calm down, please, the neighbors – ”

She made a sound like a strangled sob, wrenched away from him, and picked up a china figurine off the mantle behind her. He ducked just in time. The knickknack sailed over his head and crashed into the opposite wall.

He grabbed for her wrists, intending to immobilize her hands, but he wasn’t quick enough and she hit him in the left eye with her fist. It wasn’t terribly painful – he’d been hit far harder by people with far more upper body strength than Vanessa could muster – but once again the shock of it rocked him to his core. From somewhere came a grimly amusing thought: Chump, it’s about time you stopped being so damn surprised.

He reeled back a little and raised both hands to his injured eye. Through the roaring pulse in his ears, he heard a door slam. When he looked up again, the bedroom door was shut. A moment later came the decisive snap as Vanessa locked him out.

 

*****

 

This time it wasn’t a cat or careless smoking, it was a door.

A fucking door.

Like they both hadn’t heard that one a few dozen times. Dispatch said domestic disturbance, Starsky and Hutch dashed to the scene, bitching all the way about the inevitable shittiness of domestics, to be greeted by a disheveled lady with a shiner the size of an egg, but oh no, it was nothing! She’d just walked into a door.

“Starsk, I’m a klutz, okay? You, of all people, should know that by now. I trip, I stumble, I crash into things. Last night after you left, I was sleepy, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going, and I walked right into the edge of the bedroom door, that’s all.”

Starsky just looked at him. Hutch’s eye was swollen and purplish, and the bald fluorescent lighting in the locker room at Metro wasn’t doing it any favors. He’d already been the object of several curious double takes from passing co-workers.

“Uh-huh,” Starsky said, and sat down on the nearest bench to tie his hated oxfords. “We got some awful mean doors in this town. I hear some of ‘em are working independently, and the rest are on Vic Monte’s payroll.”

Hutch, on the bench opposite him, cast his eyes at the ceiling and sighed a long sigh. “Okay,” he said after a pause. “Okay, I didn’t run into a door.” He lowered his voice. “Van and I got a little, well, enthusiastic last night, you know? We were wrestling around, getting pretty carried away, and her elbow hit me in the eye. Accidentally.”

“Oh,” Starsky said. “She likes it rough, huh?”

Hutch’s cheeks reddened a little. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“ ‘Course not.” Starsky stood, grabbing his cap and plopping it precariously atop his springy curls. “Give a lady what she wants, I always say.”

Hutch quickly adjusted his own cap in the mirror and followed Starsky toward the door. As they reached it, Starsky turned abruptly and stopped, raising a finger in Hutch’s face.

“This is the last time,” he said. “This is the last time I’m listening to this bullshit from you. Once more, and I’m gonna deal with her.”

He shoved the door open and walked down the corridor, leaving a speechless Hutch staring after him.

 

*****

 

Starsky left the testing room with a mingled feeling of relief and foreboding. He hadn’t done as well as he could have, and he knew it. Exams always made his guts clench up. When he was in grammar school, he couldn’t concentrate. He’d try to study at home, but Nicky would be crying, or the TV would be blaring with his dad’s Westerns, or worst of all, his parents would start fighting again. He’d have trouble remembering which chapters he’d studied and which he hadn’t, and then he’d get frustrated and give up. In high school, it was easier in some ways, harder in others. Al and Rosie’s house was blessedly quiet, but by then he was so distracted by thoughts of food, sports, and above all, the almost perpetual throb in his groin, that he could barely sit still. His grades had hovered in the C range, with occasional scary dips and gratifying bounces. Overall, he was delighted when it was over.

The police academy exams weren’t so bad, though they could have been better. As usual, he knew the material, but by that time he expected to choke when he was tested on it. It had become a habit. Hutch had helped him, calming him down, trying to teach him to take his time, tune out everything else, and find what Hutch called his “center.” It hadn’t been a complete success, but he’d done all right, and the stomach aches hadn’t been nearly as bad as the ones he’d had as a kid.

He’d tried Hutch’s techniques again this time, with a feeling of desperation he knew was completely at odds with the philosophy behind them. He hadn’t been sleeping well lately. The dreams were coming more often and more vividly, to the point where he’d begun spending his nights with a light on in hopes of chasing them away. He got a doctor to write him a prescription for Seconal, took it a couple of times, then abandoned it because its velvet oblivion felt so good it frightened him. Last night he’d barely slept a wink, studying until just before dawn, when he’d fallen at last into an uneasy doze full of heat and terror and tormented eyes that pleaded with him. He’d woken up shaking, and the jumpiness didn’t go away. His pencil had slipped repeatedly as he filled in the answers on his test paper.

Hutch was waiting for him in the cafeteria. The shiner was finally on the wane, its purple fading to a sickly greenish yellow, but it was still easily visible across the room. Shit, it must be a pain in the ass having skin that fair. Every mark on it showed up like a beacon.

It was a pain in the ass for Starsky, too. Every time he looked at it, he hurt.

Hutch was brown-bagging it again, but the yogurt and apples and carrot sticks he used to vacuum up so eagerly were nowhere to be seen. He was just finishing off a slice of cold pizza, and two Twinkies lay before him, waiting to be unwrapped.

Starsky was beginning to get used to the food thing, bizarre as it seemed. Hutch was feeling like shit these days, and when Hutch felt like shit, he treated himself like shit. Comments on his unexplained change in personal habits brought forth dangerous glares and growls of “What the hell difference does it make?”

But it did make a difference. You had to have a very special constitution to thrive on a diet of junk food. Starsky, to his smug satisfaction, had that constitution. Hutch didn’t, and that was just one more thing for Starsky to worry about.

He grabbed the chair opposite his partner, turned it around, and plopped himself into it, resting his arms on its back and his chin on his arms. Hutch gazed at him expectantly, and maybe a bit apprehensively.

“Well?” he said.

Starsky shrugged. “Dunno. Some of it was easy. Some of it – well, I dunno. You?” He raised his eyebrows, trying to appear genuinely curious, though he was sure Hutch had aced it.

To his surprise, Hutch hesitated. “I’m not sure. I had some trouble concentrating.”

Starsky couldn’t help rolling his eyes a little. “Quit worrying, college boy. If they gave grades higher than A+, that’s what you’d get.”

Hutch said nothing. He looked down, picked up a Twinkie, and began tearing distractedly at the cellophane.

“Hey,” Starsky said after a moment. When Hutch didn’t respond, he reached out and covered Hutch’s hand with his, stilling the nervous movements.

Hutch blinked and raised his head, seeming to shake off unpleasant thoughts. “I’m sure we both did fine,” he said, and smiled. “Aren’t you gonna eat?”

The thought made Starsky feel faintly green. “Uh, no,” he said. “I’m a little off today, you know what I mean? Since we got the rest of the day free, I’m gonna go home and maybe take a little nap.” His stomach cramps had eased, but he didn’t trust himself yet. And his head ached from tension and sleeplessness.

Hutch smiled at him again, and Starsky’s heart turned over. Dammit, how could a guy be so, so….

“You do that,” Hutch said. “I think you could use it. And take some pink stuff for your stomach.”

“Sure, ma.” Starsky rose and spun the chair back around. “Can I drop you off at your place?”

Hutch looked up quickly. “No, I think I’ll hang around for a while. I might go down to the library and look up a few things, or go over to the firing range, or….”

When he didn’t finish the sentence, Starsky said quietly, “You know you can come home with me if you want.”

Hutch looked away, shaking his head. “Thanks, but – ”

“Yeah, okay.” He knew when to back off, even if he hated to. “See ya Monday, buddy.” Or anytime over the weekend. Anytime you need me, babe.

“Yeah,” Hutch said. “See ya.”

When Starsky got to the cafeteria door, he glanced back. Hutch was tapping an unfiltered Lucky out of the pack he’d taken from his shirt pocket.

 

*****

 

This time you can’t shoot him. Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t, and when you’re awake you can never decide which is worse. When you’re asleep, it’s obvious. The worst is whatever’s happening this time, because this time is the only time that’s real.

So he’s lying there looking up at you, and you can’t shoot him. Your sidearm won’t fire, and in the dream, you’ve got nothing else, no rifle, no bayonet, no knife. You keep pointing the automatic at him, pulling the fucking trigger over and over, and nothing happens, and he’s screaming and begging you to do it, just do it, please God just fucking do it, do it now! And you’re crying so hard you can’t even breathe. And the blood, Jesus, the blood’s everywhere. He’s nothing but blood and mangled flesh and screaming mouth and blue eyes, those blue, blue eyes. But you can’t do anything. There’s no way to make it stop. You’re caught there forever, with the blood, and the empty gun, and his screams, and his eyes.

When he woke up, he called Hutch. It was either that or crush his own head between his own fucking hands to get the pictures out of it.

Vanessa answered, and he hung up. Then he dug the Seconal out of the back of the medicine cabinet, stood for a moment looking at its label (“May be habit-forming; take only as prescribed”), and dumped it down the drain in the bathroom sink.

He grabbed his favorite jacket and left. Distraction, that was the thing. Something to jolt his mind out of the groove he was wearing in it. It was 7:00 PM on a Friday, and the bars would be jammed. He’d have to drive a ways; he wasn’t about to risk it close to home. But he’d get there, and he’d find a guy, and he’d fuck that guy’s brains out. It had been way too fucking long.

 

*****

 

It was another week before they posted the exam results. Hutch didn’t pass.

He wasn’t even surprised. After checking the S’s and finding “Pass” beside Starsky’s name, he relaxed and calmly noted the “Fail” beside his own. Once upon a time, Van would have given him hell. Now he wondered if she’d even care enough to hit him.

He cared, of course, but only because the results of the test meant the end of his partnership with Starsky. Starsky was moving up to detective; Hutch was remaining in uniform. The thought of that made his stomach twist.

He was still standing in front of the bulletin board when Starsky strolled around the corner, stopped short, and then raced down the corridor, skidding to a halt at Hutch’s side.

“Did they post ‘em? Did we – ”

“Congratulations, mushbrain,” Hutch said, giving Starsky a proud little punch on the arm. “Excuse me – Detective Sergeant Mushbrain.”

Starsky’s grin revealed every tooth in his head. He whooped so loudly the desk sergeant at the end of the corridor threw him a look of disgust. “We made it, partner, we made it!” He grabbed Hutch by the waist and attempted a quick two-step.

“Starsk….” Hutch gently peeled Starsky’s hands off him. “You made it.”

Starsky blinked uncomprehendingly, and then turned to stare at the sheet on the bulletin board.

“I don’t believe it,” he said after a moment. “They fucked up. That’s it. They got you mixed up with somebody else, O’Connor probably, that meathead couldna passed if he had the answers written on his hand – ”

“Starsky, come on.” Hutch put his hands on Starsky’s shoulders and guided him firmly away from the board. “I failed, that’s all. I had a bad day, and I failed the exam.”

“But you couldn’t have! You knew it all, you knew it better than I did – ”

“Okay, maybe I was overconfident, maybe I didn’t take it seriously enough.”

Starsky’s eyes were dark with bewilderment. “Hutch, you – you went to college.”

Hutch couldn’t keep back a laugh at that. “Buddy, people fail tests in college, too.”

Starsky was silent for a long moment. “What are we gonna do?”

“We’re gonna celebrate, that’s what. You made detective, Starsk! Stop looking like your dog just died, okay? Tonight after work we’re gonna go out and paint the town.” He forced a grin. “Anywhere you want, buddy. I’ll buy you all the crappy food you can eat and all the cheap beer you can drink.” He paused as a sudden thought struck him. “I’ll have to call Van first, though. We were supposed to go to some party tonight. But she can go without me.” Seeing Starsky’s unenthusiastic expression, he added, “Come on, Starsk. How long has it been since we made a night of it?”

“Hutch,” Starsky said softly, “we’re not gonna be partners anymore.”

“Sure we will,” Hutch said. “It’ll just be a while, that’s all. They give the test every six months, you know. I’ll take it again next spring.” He didn’t add what they both knew – that a previous failure went into a cop’s file and tended to prejudice his chances for promotion even if he passed the exam the next time around.

Starsky looked down. He nodded, but said nothing.

Hutch released him, realizing for the first time that they were attracting curious glances from passersby. “I’ll call Vanessa now and then we’d better roll.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “We’re due on the street in ten minutes.”

He walked to the desk to use the phone, leaving Starsky to stare again at the list of names on the bulletin board.

 

*****

 

Hutch drank vodka while Starsky drank beer. They weren’t driving, they weren’t on call, and it seemed like years since he’d done anything just because it felt good, just because he wanted to, just because he was with Starsky and the night was theirs and tomorrow was too far away to think about. Maybe since San Quentin.

He got drunker faster than Starsky, of course, and it bothered him the way Starsky kept shooting him concerned glances and saying things like “Take it easy, buddy, it’s not goin’ outta style,” and “Slow down, Blondie, you’re gettin’ way ahead of me.”

Hutch wanted Starsky to have a good time; hell, it was Starsky’s party. But a shadow seemed to hang over Starsky the whole evening. He ate, he drank, he flirted with the girls and joked with the bartender, but Hutch could tell he wasn’t really happy. And that was Hutch’s fault, of course. He’d flunked the damn test and busted up their partnership.

The later the evening got, the more that appalled him. Jesus, how could he have done it? He’d thrown away the only thing that still made him want to get out of bed in the morning. He’d hurt Starsky. All because he’d had some pathetic, childish desire to get back at Vanessa. He hadn’t consciously thought of it that way, but he knew that was what it was. He recognized the pattern. A few years ago, he’d been living his life with the sole aim of pissing off his parents. Now his parents had no power over him anymore, not even psychologically. He no longer cared what they thought. He’d transferred his focus, and the resentment that inevitably tagged along with it, to his wife. She wanted success, money, respectability, both in her own career and, vicariously, in his. Vanessa would love it if he jettisoned law enforcement entirely in favor of some more prestigious field. Failing that, she wanted him off the streets as soon as possible and into an office with “Captain Kenneth Hutchinson” printed on the door. Obviously, getting out of uniform was the first step in that direction. And even though he and Starsky had talked for years about what they’d do when they made detective, even though he wanted that as much as Starsky did, he’d sabotaged himself at the first opportunity, for the sake of punishing Van.

God, he was fucked up. He ordered another round and tried not to think about it.

The Jungle Club was closer to Starsky’s place than Hutch’s. When the cab arrived, Starsky gave the driver his address, and he and Hutch climbed into the back and collapsed against each other. Hutch sighed at the feel of Starsky in his arms. He was anchored now, settled. In the bar he’d felt exposed, as though his dark thoughts could be read by all, his inadequacies enumerated. Now he could relax.

“She’s gonna be mad,” Starsky said, his voice pleasantly slurred. He let his head settle heavily against Hutch’s shoulder as the cab took a sharp curve. “She’s gonna be mad at you.”

Hutch hugged him closer. It was dark in the back seat, and even though the cab driver had given them a long, hard look when they got in, Hutch was too drunk to give much of a fuck what anyone thought. And Starsky was so warm.

“Who?” he asked, his chin brushing Starsky’s hair.

Starsky gave him a reproachful look from beneath long lashes. “Whaddaya mean, who? V’nessa, that’s who.”

“Oh,” Hutch said, and giggled. “Her.”

Van actually hadn’t said much when he called to tell her he was taking Starsky out to celebrate his promotion. He knew he’d hear plenty about it when he got home, though. Well, what the hell. He was a bastard. What kind of man lets his wife go to a party alone while he and his buddy get loaded at a strip bar? It was his fault; he’d take the consequences. He felt wild tonight, free, like a man staring down from the top of the Empire State building after making up his mind to jump.

“Yeah, her. She wanted you with her tonight, didn’ she? She’s gonna be so pissed at you, buddy, she’ll prob’ly lock ya outta the bedroom.”

“She does that anyway,” Hutch confided. The vodka coursed through his veins, dangerous and hot . It seemed suddenly ridiculous to keep secrets from Starsky.

“She does?” Starsky raised his head and blinked at him blearily.

“Sometimes.” He wished Starsky would stop talking and relax, and they could just hold each other. Maybe he could pay the cabbie to keep driving all night.

“That’s awful,” Starsky said, with comical solemnity. “An’ she hits ya, too.”

Hutch shifted uncomfortably. “Starsk – ”

“Yes, she does. You gotta quit lyin’ to me, Hutch. I know what she does, I know she hurts you.”

“It’s not – it’s not that bad, she doesn’t – ”

“The hell it ain’t bad.” Starsky’s voice was starting to climb. Hutch saw the driver glance into the rear view mirror.

“Starsk, c’mon, she’s a girl, she can’t – ”

Starsky held up a hand, counting on his fingers. “She scratched ya, she burned ya – ”

“Starsky, c’mon, shut up.” Hutch looked up and met the driver’s eyes in the mirror. “Hey, this is a private conversation, pal!”

The driver looked hastily back at the road.

“I can’t stand it, Hutch, I can’t fuckin’ stand it anymore, she’s doin’ things to you and you’re – you’re so….”

“What?” Hutch asked. “I’m so what?”

Starsky sighed and let his head fall back against the seat. “Nothin’. Don’t matter.”

They said no more, and Hutch closed his eyes and shut out the world.

When the cab pulled up in front of Starsky’s apartment building, Hutch paid the driver and asked him to wait.

“I gotta come up with you,” Hutch said, as Starsky stumbled out onto the sidewalk. “You’re drunk, Starsk.” He fought his way out of the cab, lurched, and almost went down.

“Hey!” Starsky grabbed him, hauled him up, and they stood swaying together, clutching each other’s arms.

“You might – might fall or somethin’,” Hutch said. He closed his eyes for a moment until the dizziness subsided a bit. “So I gotta come up with you, buddy. Gotta take care of you ‘fore I go home.”

“ ‘Kay,” Starsky said, and as they started for the doors, arms around each other’s waists, he gave Hutch a sloppy smile. “You take care of me, an’ I’ll take care of you. ‘Cause we’re partners, right?” As the last words left his mouth, his face darkened. “Still partners, for now.”

They rode up in the elevator, and they didn’t stop touching. Hutch wasn’t sure he was awake. It seemed like dreaming – the small, empty space, the weightless feeling, Starsky’s head on his shoulder, soft curls against his face. I could kiss him, and nobody would know. The thought was like a bright gold beam through the fog in his head. He was still thinking it, grasping at it, when the doors opened on Starsky’s floor.

Starsky couldn’t find his key at first, and Hutch watched him, watched Starsky’s hands patting his pockets, touching himself, and he closed his eyes and thought about those hands, and those pockets. God, he was drunk. He knew it, reveled in it. He was drunk, and Starsky was with him, and Vanessa already thought they were fucking.

It was dark inside, and Starsky groped awkwardly for the light switch by the door. Hutch found it first. He covered it with his left hand, kicked the door shut, and buried the fingers of his right hand in Starsky’s hair, pulling his head forward until their mouths touched.

He felt Starsky jerk backward, but before his sluggish mind could even process that fact, it was gone, and Starsky was pressing against him and they were kissing, mouths wet, lips clumsy, tongues reaching, missing, finding. Hutch heard a noise, a needy, gasping sound that could have come from his throat or Starsky’s, and he knew it didn’t matter which.

Starsky’s mouth drew away. In the dark, Hutch could hear his breath, harsh and ragged, could feel it, warm and heavy on his face.

“Hutch,” he said, “Hutch – shit, we’re drunk.”

He couldn’t see the expression in Starsky’s eyes, could barely see his face at all. He whispered, “I’m still thirsty,” and slid his hand over Starsky’s denim-covered cock. He felt it jerk.

“Fuck,” Starsky breathed, and then, “Don’t go home,” just before his hands found Hutch’s ass and his mouth settled on Hutch’s left ear, and his tongue stroked the lobe, little hungry licks that made Hutch want to howl.

Instead, he caught Starsky’s head again and kissed him, hard, and yanked the t-shirt free from his jeans and slid both hands under, upward till he found the nipples. He stroked them, pressed them with his thumbs, and Starsky growled into his mouth and pushed his groin against Hutch, against his thigh. It wasn’t enough, and he made an impatient noise and pulled at Hutch’s zipper.

Hutch grabbed Starsky’s wrists, shoving his hands away. “Said I was thirsty, partner,” he whispered, before he dropped to his knees, rested one hand briefly on the floor to steady himself, and buried his face in Starsky’s crotch.

“ ‘M gonna fall,” Starsky said, in a voice soft with disbelief, like a man overcome with wonder at the occurrence of a miracle. Hutch felt him sway, grabbed him by the hips, and pushed him backward until he heard Starsky’s shoulder blades bump up against the door. His hands slid around, to hold the sweet, rounded ass, and Starsky hissed in a breath and said again, pleaded, “Don’t go home, huh? Don’t go home.”

Hutch brushed his lips against Starsky’s fly. “Take it out for me,” he said, in tones so husky he barely recognized his own voice.

His eyes were getting accustomed to the gloom. He watched Starsky’s hasty fumbling, saw the zipper’s teeth part, saw the hard column of flesh cradled carefully in his partner’s hands, and his head swam.

Gonna have every inch of that.

He touched it with his hand first, stroking, testing, looking up to see Starsky’s mouth drop open, his head go back against the door. Starsky wasn’t completely erect, his cock clearly fighting to cast off the effects of the beer he’d drunk. Hutch licked the tip, sucked hard on the head, pressed his tongue firmly to the underside. It stiffened, the crown bobbing up to brush the roof of his mouth, and Starsky let out a wordless little cry.

He had to work hard at it, but he didn’t have to think at all, for which he was grateful, and the dull buzzing in his head blended with the wet sounds of his sucking and Starsky’s muttered curses and pleading moans and whispers of “Hutch, Hutch,” until the sweet hypnotic rhythm lulled him into a dreamlike place where Starsky’s cock belonged to him, was his to suck forever.

He thought, with sudden, startling clarity, There is nothing more in life that I want.

He didn’t want Starsky to come, not until he’d had more time to love it, more time to wallow in the taste and feel and smell of it. But Starsky came anyway, jerking helplessly, writhing against the door. Bitter salt sprayed the back of Hutch’s throat, so far back he couldn’t taste it. Dimly, he was aware that he was choking. He pulled away, and the last weak spurts painted his lips. He reached up to wipe his mouth and missed it, his clumsy hand falling short.

There was a blank then, an indeterminate moment of nothingness, and then he was lying on his back and something was tickling him where his shirt had ridden up. His hands groped aimlessly beside him. Shag carpet. He laughed, a liquid giggle, and blinked up toward the ceiling. It was too dark to see it.

He looked again and saw Starsky’s face, a dim white shape looming over him.

“Hutch,” Starsky said in a whisper, and his head came to rest on Hutch’s chest. His hands stroked Hutch’s arms, moving up and down, gentle, feathery. His voice murmured, soft and slurred.

Hutch smiled and raised a hand to play with his partner’s hair. “Whassamatter?” His own voice sounded thick, and his jaw didn’t seem to want to work. “C’mon, c’mon….”

“Hutch,” Starsky said, and Hutch felt hands working at his jeans, and he closed his eyes and laughed again, his head rolling from side to side. He’d never made it on a shag carpet.

He drifted, numb. He thought he tried to raise his hips to help Starsky get the jeans off, but couldn’t be sure whether he was doing it or just thinking he should. But it didn’t matter, because then Starsky’s mouth was on him. He could barely feel it, but he heard the soft suckling sounds. Starsky was going to suck him off. He sighed, and tried again to arch upward, to get deep into that mouth. He reached down, wanting to pet Starsky, but his fingers found empty air. He made a small, bewildered sound in his throat.

Starsky’s face appeared again in his line of vision, and he felt a hand brush the hair back from his forehead. Starsky smiled gently at him.

“You can’t, babe,” Starsky said. “Dick’s like – wet spaghetti.” His tongue tripped clumsily over the last word.

“No.” Hutch tried to shake his head. “Want you to – wanna – ”

Starsky said something else, something about not getting up, but Hutch’s mind was slowing, slowing to the point where he couldn’t understand it. Maybe Starsky meant they didn’t have to get up ever again, that they could sleep here together on the shag carpet and to hell with the world. Such a sweet thought.

The darkness closed in and Starsky’s voice faded out like a low-watt radio station. Hutch felt his eyes slip shut.

 

*****

 

Starsky didn’t dream that night. He woke early, when the sun first crept through the curtains and stole across the room to where he lay, sprawled boneless on the shag carpet. The light tickled his closed eyes unpleasantly until he opened them, which was even more unpleasant. He groaned, and raised his fingers to his temples, massaging them gently.

His head was resting on a pillow. He had a shadowy memory of pulling the pillows off his bed and tossing them on the floor after Hutch passed out and he couldn’t move him.

Hutch.

Starsky turned, wincing at the dull pain that sharpened with the movement. Hutch was lying next to him, clothes awry, face buried in his pillow.

Shit. He could suffocate like that.

He tugged at Hutch’s shoulder, gently at first, then more insistently. When there was no response, he dragged Hutch onto his back, grunting with the effort, and resettled his head, face up, on the pillow.

That accomplished, Starsky would have liked to stay there, right there on the hard floor, just looking at Hutch’s face, maybe touching the lips he remembered kissing the night before, maybe laying his head on Hutch’s shoulder. Instead, he struggled to his feet and hurried to the bathroom. Sometimes love had to yield in the face of physiological necessity.

His head was pounding, and the whirling confusion of his thoughts didn’t help. He took a piss, washed his face, swallowed three aspirin and a full glass of water, and then stood staring at himself in the mirror, at the bloodshot eyes, the matted hair, the gray pallor.

Beautiful. No wonder he couldn’t keep his hands off ya. He grimaced and turned away.

“Starsk?” came a faint voice from the living room.

Here we go. He left the bathroom, fighting down dread.

Hutch was lying where Starsky had left him, propped precariously on one elbow, gazing around through pain-pinched eyes, and looking as if he’d have given anything not to have awakened. When his eyes met Starsky’s, he seemed to relax fractionally.

Starsky forced a smile. Be cool. Maybe he doesn’t even remember anything. “Hey, partner. How ya doin’?”

Hutch snorted and passed a shaky hand over his eyes. “Oh, just peachy keen, Starsk. Aren’t you?”

Starsky went back into the bathroom and retrieved the aspirin bottle and a glass of water. When he came out again, Hutch was flat on the floor, holding his head with both hands.

Jeez, that’s gotta be murder on his back. “C’mon, buddy, let’s get you someplace softer.” He set the bottle and the glass on the coffee table and went to Hutch, sliding an arm under his shoulders.

“I can’t move,” Hutch protested in a pained mumble, but he allowed Starsky to pull him to his feet and steer him in the direction of the couch, where he collapsed with a groan.

Starsky got him to take the aspirin. He watched the water slide down the long, pale column of throat, watched the muscles work, thought about the sweet, warm pull of it. When Hutch turned to him, he glanced away. He knew his eyes must be bright with wanting.

“Hadn’t you better call Vanessa?” he asked, because he had to say something. And Jesus, Vanessa must be mad enough to spit nails by now.

Hutch waited so long to reply that Starsky finally had to look at him. Hutch still looked monstrously hung over -- red-eyed, pale, queasy. But he was staring at Starsky with wonder in his eyes.

“I – last night – we….” Hutch stuttered to a halt, gazing at Starsky. Waiting for confirmation.

Starsky swallowed, dropping his eyes. “Yeah.”

He heard Hutch’s breath huff out, almost as though he’d been punched.

“How – what – ”

“You sucked me off. I tried to do you, but you were too wasted to get it up. Then we both passed out.” Starsky spoke baldly, flatly, making no attempt to embellish. There, he thought, with satisfaction. Can’t pretend it never happened this time, can ya?

“Oh, God,” Hutch said, softly. He cast his eyes toward the ceiling, and then closed them, nodding. “I remember. Some of it.” He paused, then turned back to Starsky. “I kissed you. I started it.”

Starsky felt the petty glow of triumph fade. “Hutch, you were drunk. I mean, really hammered. I was, too, but you were worse. That’s the only reason” – he faltered, because it hurt, dammit, it hurt to say it – “that’s the only reason you did it.” He took a deep breath. “That’s the only reason you wanted to. I know that.” That, and you like guys sometimes. You ever gonna admit that, buddy?

“Why did you?”

Starsky looked up quickly. “Huh?”

“Why did you do it?” Hutch asked, and his voice was very soft.

He almost said it then, almost spoke the words he knew Hutch didn’t want to hear. But he caught himself in time. “Aw, you know how it is. Ever since Mandy dumped me, it’s been nothing but self-serve. And I didn’t even have time for that while we were cramming for that damn test. Kept fallin’ asleep with my hand on my dick.” He affected a casual shrug. “I was ready to blow the second anybody touched me.”

“Oh,” Hutch said, and was silent.

“I’m sorry,” Starsky said, after a long pause. “I mean, you’re married and everything.” I’m really, really sorry you’re married, babe.

To his amazement, Hutch started to laugh. The laugh was interrupted immediately by a groan, and Hutch winced and touched his head gingerly. But it had been a real laugh, Starsky was sure.

“Okay, let me in on the joke,” he said.

Hutch shook his head slowly. “Van thinks we’re making it,” he said. He turned to Starsky, a wry smile quirking his mouth. “You and me.”

“You gotta be kidding.” Starsky stared at him. “You mean, before – ”

Hutch let out another little laugh. “For months now. She’s convinced we’re balling every time her back is turned. She’d never believe last night was the first time.” He paused. “I mean, the first time since we’ve been married.”

Starsky felt a chill settle in the pit of his stomach. “Is that why – is that why she hurts you? Because of me?”

Hutch’s posture stiffened. His eyes withdrew from Starsky’s. “Starsk, I’ve told you it’s nothing. She’s a little hotheaded, she gets carried away sometimes, but it’s nothing. I’m a grown man, I’m a cop, for God’s sake. I can take care of myself.”

But you ain’t. You ain’t taking care of yourself. “Hutch – ”

“I need to call her,” Hutch said. As he spoke, he reached for the phone on the end table. Starsky watched him dial the number, watched as he held the receiver to his ear, heard the intermittent, indistinct buzz from the other end.

“No answer,” Hutch said at last. He replaced the receiver in its cradle. “Either she just stepped out for coffee at the corner drugstore, or” – he smiled wanly – “she found someone else to put her up for the night.”

Starsky blinked. “You think she’s screwin’ around?” He knew he should leave it alone, knew he was already on shaky ground in this conversation. The topic of the Hutchinson marriage was a designated no-go area, as far as Hutch was concerned. Starsky could understand that, in a way. You weren’t much of a man if you didn’t defend your wife, no matter what other people thought of her. But, jeez, there had to be a limit.

Hutch gave him a look. “Why not? After last night, so am I.”

“But you’re not treating her like shit,” Starsky snapped. “Buddy….”

Hutch rose, gripping the arm of the sofa briefly for balance. “Speaking of shit, I feel like it. Mind if I take a hot shower?”

Starsky sighed. “Why the hell would I mind?” He gestured toward the bathroom. “Take a shower, and then I’ll take one, and then I’ll drive you home.”

“My car’s here – ” Hutch began, and stopped abruptly. “No, it’s not. It’s at the Jungle Club, isn’t it?”

“If you’re lucky, it’s at the Jungle Club.” Starsky managed a grin. “If you’re not, it’s already got fresh plates and a shiny new paint job, pal. You may recall, that ain’t the most impeccably respectable neighborhood.”

“Shit,” Hutch said, and rubbed his hands over his face wearily.

“Look, we’ll go over there and get it, assuming it’s still there, and I’ll follow you to your place. I’ll come in with ya.”

Hutch dropped his hands. “I don’t need a babysitter, Starsk.”

“Hey,” Starsky said. He waited until Hutch looked at him. “I’m your partner. I don’t give a damn what the department says, I’m still your partner. In here.” He touched his chest. And I ain’t letting you walk into that bitch’s spider web without backup.

Hutch hesitated a moment, and then shrugged. “Whatever you want,” he sighed. “I’m in no mood to argue.”

Starsky gave him a gentle push. “Go. Shower. You stink.”

Hutch responded with a half-hearted glare, mumbled, “You’re no perfume factory yourself,” and disappeared into the bathroom.

Starsky watched him go, and stood for a moment, considering. Then he went to the bedroom and rummaged in a dresser drawer until he found the ankle holster and the small handgun he kept there, buried under stacks of neatly folded briefs. He loaded the gun and replaced it in the drawer. After he showered and dressed, he’d strap it to his leg, under his jeans.

He felt a little ridiculous about it, as if he were overreacting wildly. But he remembered the eye, the scratches, the burn. He’d never hurt a woman in his life, but he’d never loved anyone like he loved Hutch, either. If Vanessa tried anything in his presence, he’d stop her, one way or the other.

But he didn’t live with them. He couldn’t stop her if he wasn’t there. His mouth tightened at the thought. He’d have to go home, and then….

He had to think of something, come up with some sort of plan. And he always did his best thinking in the shower.

He sat down on the bed and waited for Hutch to finish.

 

*****

 

Vanessa wasn’t home. Hutch hadn’t expected her to be, after his phone call went unanswered, and he was relieved. Starsky was acting so weird it made him nervous, and the last thing he wanted to deal with was some soap opera type scene with the three of them standing around in the apartment shooting meaningful glances at each other while Van decided whether to murder him or just de-ball him.

His car was where he’d left it, at least, so that was one headache he didn’t have to face. They drove back to his place and Starsky insisted on coming up with him. Hutch raised his hands in exasperated acquiescence, and Starsky stuck to him all the way to his front door like a damn guard dog or something. Hutch half expected him to kick down the door and yell, “Police! Freeze!” before Hutch had a chance to unlock it.

“I told you,” he said through gritted teeth after they’d determined that Vanessa was nowhere in the apartment, “I don’t need a goddamn babysitter. We’re talking about my wife, not the Boston Strangler.”

Starsky seemed oblivious to the sarcasm. “Just making sure everything’s okay,” he said, eyes roaming the room as if he expected assassins to emerge from behind the drapes. “Does she know where you keep your gun?”

“Starsky, for chrissakes!” Hutch exploded.

“Hey!” Starsky shouted back. “You won’t take care of yourself, so I’m tryin’ to do it for ya!”

Hutch shut his eyes for a moment and tried to speak calmly. “I’ve told you before, there’s nothing to worry about. I can handle her.”

“Yeah, you’ve handled her real good so far, pal, she’s walkin’ all over you and you’re not doin’ a damn thing about it!”

He was tired, hung over, guilty, and the words hit him squarely in the nuts. “What, you think I can’t? Maybe I’m not – not man enough?” He heard his voice rise dangerously, heard a roaring begin in his ears. “M-maybe I don’t have the balls to stand up to her, maybe I’m some kind of c-candyass faggot who screams when a girl hits him and can’t even – can’t even….”

He stumbled to a halt, bile so thick in his throat it choked him. He could see his father’s face, his father’s eyes, cold with contempt, as plainly as if the man stood before him, could hear his voice, the names it called him, could feel the sting of the hard palm on his cheek. He’d thought he was past all that, that he didn’t care anymore. That he was a man now.

Starsky was staring at him as if he no longer recognized him. “Hutch – ”

“Fuck you, Starsky,” Hutch whispered. “Get the fuck out of here.”

“Hutch,” Starsky said again, softly. His eyes looked stricken.

Hutch turned his back, fighting to control his breathing. “Go home. Now.”

There was a pause, and then he felt a hand rest lightly on his shoulder. He flinched, and the hand was removed. He heard Starsky’s retreating footsteps, and then the sound of the door opening and closing.

He went into the bedroom, kicked off his shoes, and stretched out, fully clothed, on the bed, hoping that wherever Vanessa was, she wouldn’t come home until he’d gotten a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

 

*****

 

Starsky had just reached the bottom of the stairs when the street door opened in front of him and Vanessa appeared. She saw him, and froze, her long, dangling earrings swinging. She was wearing a shiny green dress – nicely clingy, Starsky noticed – and some kind of animal draped over her shoulders. He wondered if it was a real animal or a fake. Probably real, he decided. Probably some kind of poisonous weasel.

“Well, hello,” Vanessa said. “I didn’t expect to see you here.” She smiled with her mouth, but not her eyes. “What’s the matter, isn’t your own bed big enough for the two of you? You have to use mine instead?”

He stepped forward, grabbed her arm, and clamped a hand over her mouth. “We’re gonna have us a little talk,” he said quietly, leaning close and staring into her shocked eyes. “In private.”

He dragged her, struggling, to the elevator by the stairs. “Push the button for me.” She didn’t, so he forced her arm up and placed her finger on it. A bell dinged, and a moment later the doors slid sideways. He pushed her inside and quickly stabbed the “Closed” button without letting go of her.

“Scream,” he said into her ear as the doors shut, “and I’ll take you in for creating a public nuisance.” Bullshit, but she didn’t know that, he hoped. He shook her a little. “You with me?”

Her eyes flashed fire, but after a pause, she nodded.

He let out a breath, and released her.

She stepped away, backing up against the wall opposite him. “That’s quite a technique you have there,” she said, a little breathlessly. She adjusted the fur and smoothed the dress. “Maybe a little lacking in finesse, but I’m sure plenty of girls just fall all over themselves for the tough guy routine.” She smiled at him again. “Plenty of boys, too, no doubt.”

“Sister,” he said, “you ain’t seen tough yet.” He moved toward her, close enough to feel her rapid breathing on his face, to smell the faint, sweet scent of her skin. He placed his hands on the wall behind her, bracing her, and watched her eyes flick from one of his arms to the other before she tipped her chin up and stared back at him.

She had balls, that was for sure. But he’d be damned if he’d let her have Hutch’s, too.

“You ain’t seen tough, but you will. If you ever hurt Hutch again, you’ll see it real close up. You can take that to the bank.”

“I don’t know what you mean. I haven’t hurt Ken. I love him.” She spoke with admirable calm, and her eyes never left his.

“You’re lying,” he said softly, “but that’s okay. From now on, it’s the truth. You don’t hurt him. You count to ten, you say a prayer, you beat the hell out of a punching bag, I don’t give a damn what you do, but you don’t hurt him. Not ever again. Not if you want to stay healthy and pretty.”

He saw a flicker of fear in her eyes. She tried to turn her head, and he moved one hand to her chin, holding it immobile.

“You don’t know me very well,” he said. “You don’t know me inside. You don’t know what I’d do, where my breaking point is. You don’t know what I’d die for, or who. Until you’re absolutely sure you know those things, be careful. Don’t hurt him.”

He held her face and her gaze for a long moment before he backed away and pushed the “Open” button. The doors parted, and he stepped out into the lobby, not taking his eyes off hers. He saw acceptance there, and hatred, before the elevator doors closed.

 

*****

Hutch woke to the sound of a drawer being slammed shut. He started wildly, eyes snapping open, and saw Vanessa across the bedroom, her back to him, tossing items out of the bureau.

He blinked in confusion, mind struggling to throw off the fog of the light sleep he’d just slipped into. She was throwing underwear, his underwear, into a suitcase.

He sat up. “Van?”

“Yes, Van.” She hurled a wadded-up pair of boxers into the case, shoved the drawer closed, and turned around, hands settling on her hips. “Van, not Starsky.”

“Where have you been?”

She laughed. “The question is, where are you going? And the answer, I’m sure, is Starsky’s place.”

He swung his legs off the bed and stood. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but – ”

“You’re leaving, Ken. I don’t care where you go, I don’t care if you spend the rest of your life screwing your partner’s meager little brains out, but you are moving out of this apartment today.” She closed the suitcase, flipping the clips into the locked position.

“Well,” he said, after a moment. He felt a little dizzy, and he wasn’t sure if it was the result of shock, heartbreak, or relief. His heart thudded unsteadily. “Thanks for doing my packing for me.”

Vanessa’s expression seemed to soften fractionally. She walked past him to the window, where she drew the curtain aside and stood gazing out. “We could have been good together, Ken,” she said, quietly. “We could have made each other happy.”

She turned back to him, and he thought he saw wetness in her eyes. “We did make each other happy, remember? Sometimes.”

He nodded, silently.

“But you want him more than you want me.”

“Van…. ”

She went to the closet and began sliding clothes off hangers. “I thought you’d get over it,” she said, and laid a pile of shirts on the bed. “I knew it the first time I saw you with him, but I thought you’d change.” She laughed. “I guess I thought I could cure you. Silly, wasn’t I?”

“You didn’t want me,” he said.

She gave him a sharp, questioning look.

“Come on, Van. You wanted a guy who’d look good with you at wrap parties. You were thinking that far ahead. You didn’t like it that I was just a cop, but you thought you could talk me out of that, push me into something better.”

“But you can’t be talked out of being a cop, can you?” she said. “Because that would mean leaving Starsky, and you’ll never do that.”

He didn’t reply.

Vanessa dumped another armload of clothes on the bed. “Well, don’t worry, Ken. You’ll pass the detective’s exam next time, and the two of you will be right back where you belong, together forever, no room left over for anyone as unimportant as a woman. I’m sure you’ll enjoy him. He’s dangerous, and you’re a sucker for danger.”

She smiled at him suddenly. “Maybe that was my mistake, huh? Maybe I should have hurt you more often.”

 

*****

 

John Blaine turned to Starsky with a grin. “Ready to roll?” he asked.

Starsky grinned back. “Thought you’d never ask.”

It hurt not having Hutch at his side, hurt like a bitch. He found himself walking through the corridors at Metro, turning his head to look for Hutch, waiting to feel Hutch’s hand on his shoulder, on his back. He’d met a guy once, at the V.A., who’d lost a leg to a mine at Than Khe. The guy said the leg still hurt, still tingled and ached, even though it wasn’t there anymore. That was how Starsky felt now, as if he’d lost something vital, something he needed to have, and he couldn’t get used to it.

But if he had to have someone else, anyone else, to usher him into his new existence as a homicide detective, he was glad it was John Blaine. It felt like coming home. It was only temporary, until Starsky got assigned a permanent partner (and he was determined to delay that as long as possible; hopefully for six months, until Hutch could take, and pass, the exam again). But for now, Starsky felt as if he’d be hitting the streets with the closest thing he had now to a father.

They rode around in Johnny’s Buick, patrolling the area – pretty much the same beat he’d had before, with Hutch – talking about one thing and another, listening to radio chatter. Starsky wasn’t happy, exactly, but he couldn’t help feeling excited. He wiggled his toes luxuriously inside his comfortable sneakers, and pressed his right arm against his side to feel his piece, snug in its new shoulder holster.

“How’s Hutch doing?” Johnny asked, while they waited at the corner of Beacon and Monterey for the light to change.

Starsky shrugged. “Okay, I guess.”

He hadn’t heard from Hutch since Saturday morning, when he’d practically thrown Starsky out of his and Vanessa’s apartment. But Hutch was okay. He had to be. Starsky knew their little encounter in the elevator had scared Vanessa. He’d gotten through to her, he thought. If he hadn’t, he had a backup plan. It involved taking every cent he’d saved for his car, and whatever other money he could beg or borrow, and using it to bribe her to get out of Hutch’s life.

“He’s not down in the dumps about the exam?”

“Nah. He’s gonna take it again next time and pass, and we’re gonna be partners again.” Starsky smiled, thinking about it. “You wait and see, Johnny. Hutch and me, we’re gonna be the two best detectives this town’s ever seen. We’re gonna be like Damon and – uh, that other guy.”

“Pythias.” Johnny gave him a look then, an odd, searching look, which was interrupted by an impatient honk from behind. They pulled out into the intersection and turned left.

“Yeah, him. Ain’t no goddamn test gonna keep us apart.”

There was a moment’s silence before Johnny spoke again. “Maybe this might be good for you, Davey.” He glanced at Starsky. “This separation, I mean. Not being with him so much.”

Starsky stared at him. “Huh?”

Johnny shifted, the leather seat creaking beneath his weight. “I mean, it might give you a chance to prove yourself, to prove you can make it on your own as a cop.”

“I can make it on my own.”

“I know, son, I didn’t mean – ”

“I just don’t wanna.”

Johnny spoke patiently. “I know how close the two of you are. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be. I just think it might be a good thing for you to have some breathing room. Maybe get a little perspective on things.”

Starsky looked away, out the window, as Johnny slowed to a halt at another light. A blue Mustang pulled up beside them, a ’68 or ‘69. The girl in the driver’s seat, a cute blonde in a halter top, glanced at him and smiled. He smiled back, distractedly.

“Davey.” The older man’s voice was soft and serious. “Davey, look at me.”

Starsky did. He could feel his mouth tightening defensively.

“It could get you into a hell of a lot of trouble, son. You know what I’m talking about?”

Starsky looked away again, at the Mustang as it pulled away. ’68, definitely.

“Hutch gets me outta trouble, not in it,” he said.

 

*****

 

Hutch’s new partner was waiting for him outside the locker room on Monday evening. “Hi,” he said, and extended his hand. “I’m Lamar Cross, your new riding buddy.”

Hutch shook the hand and mumbled, “Ken Hutchinson.” The word “buddy” didn’t sit particularly well with him.

He mentally scolded himself and met Cross’s eyes. He was a medium-sized, average-looking black guy, with a friendly but not overly ingratiating smile. Hutch had been given some cursory background on him – eight years on the force, clean record, wife and two kids, well-liked and good at his job. No obvious shortcomings.

Except that he wasn’t Starsky. Well, whose fault is that, Hutchinson? Not his.

Starsky was with John Blaine, though, and Hutch was glad. If he couldn’t watch Starsky’s back himself – a fact that gave him chills – at least he could take comfort in the fact that his friend was in good hands.

“Shall we go?” Cross asked, smiling.

Hutch made himself smile in return. Might as well make the best of it.

“Let’s go,” he said.

 

*****

 

They got the call at 12:15 AM. “All units, proceed to 1943 Waterman. Shots fired, officer down. Possible hostage situation. Respond immediately.”

Hutch’s stomach went cold. He hated night shifts anyway, and any cop with a brain hated responding to a hostage situation with an officer already down. Darkness just made everything that much worse.

Beside him in the passenger seat, Cross picked up the handset. “This is Ocean Six, we are responding.” He replaced the receiver and turned to Hutch, his smile flashing in the dark. “Ready for some fun?”

Hutch threw him a sour look and hit the siren switch. Cross seemed like a genuinely good guy, and they’d actually bonded a bit over supper at Dee Dee’s (Cross’s idea; Hutch would have preferred to avoid the place). Hutch had allowed himself to be drawn out a bit, had found himself talking about Starsky, about their partnership, about the way he’d fucked up the exam (though he omitted the even more fucked-up reason for his failure). Cross listened sympathetically, and offered the assurance that things would turn out better next time. An easy platitude, perhaps, and maybe he’d have said the same thing to anyone, but Hutch appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.

He didn’t realize until after they were back in the car that he’d never even mentioned Vanessa and his unsettled domestic situation. He smiled inwardly. Just went to show where his priorities lay.

Waterman Street was located in a run-down section of Bay City, a neighborhood of paint-peeled houses and weed-choked lawns surrounded by decrepit chain-link fences. Hutch had been there before, on other calls, often enough to know the area. Now, bathed as it was in flashing red and blue lights, alive with patrol cars and uniformed officers, crackling radios and walkie-talkies shattering the early morning peace, it was a scene out of hell. Hutch parked behind a string of identical black and whites and stepped out, adrenaline already speeding his pulse. Beside him, he heard Cross slamming a fresh clip into his gun.

An older cop – short, heavy, in plainclothes – approached them. “Lieutenant Dan Slate,” he said, briefly and without offering his hand. “You boys know what’s happening here?”

Hutch shook his head. “Only what dispatch said, sir. Hostage situation, officer down – ”

“John Blaine,” Slate said. “Good man. Fucker got him through the shoulder, we don’t know how bad.”

Hutch tried to speak and couldn’t. He felt Cross’s eyes on him, then heard his voice.

“Blaine’s partner, sir, is he – ”

Slate made a disgusted sound. “He’s in the house. Guy in there is Hank Alderman, suspect in three rape cases. Enters through a window, ties the woman up, rapes her in her own bed, takes a shower, goes back out the window. Only this time a neighbor heard a scream and called us. Blaine and – what’s his name?”

“Starsky,” Hutch said through dry lips.

“They were in the area, got the call, cornered him inside before he could leave. He grabbed the girl as a hostage and started shooting. We’re in communication with him. He says Blaine’s wounded, and that’s all we know.”

Hutch said, “I have to go in there.” At Slate’s dumbfounded expression, he added hastily, “Starsky’s my – my friend. We were partners until last week. I have to help him, I have to go….” He was numb, stiff with fear, and at the same time his heart was hammering so violently he could actually feel it shaking his body, pounding out a steady rhythm of Starsky, Starsky, Starsky.

He didn’t realize he had edged toward the house as he spoke until he felt Cross’s steadying hand on his shoulder, heard him murmuring, “Take it easy, take it easy.”

Slate gave an incredulous little snort. “You go charging into that house, boy, and that woman in there ain’t just a rape victim, she’s a murder victim. Nobody’s rushing this fucker; he’s already shot one cop, and he’s crazy enough to do it again. You think he’s got anything to lose now? You’re standing by till I say different. We’ll get your buddy out, and we’ll do it without anyone else getting hurt.”

Hutch nodded, automatically, his mind racing with possibilities. Standing by wasn’t one of them.

There had to be a way. He remembered these houses; they were small, one-story affairs, their floor plans simple. Front door opening directly onto living room, tiny hallway off that, couple of bedrooms at the back. He could see silhouettes against the lighted front window; presumably Alderman was holding his hostages in the living room. If he could get in through the back, through a bedroom or bathroom window….

“I’ve gotta take a leak,” he said, to Cross, as Slate turned away to brief another pair of patrolmen. He forced a little laugh. “Good time for it, huh? Shouldn’t have drunk all that coffee at the diner.”

Cross just looked at him.

Hutch licked his lips. “Just be a minute.” He gestured vaguely to the strip of shrubbery between the houses and started off.

“Hey,” Cross said behind him. Hutch stopped and turned.

Cross’s face was unreadable. “You remember the Watts riots, back in ‘65?”

Hutch nodded.

“My first partner was killed. Real good guy. I don’t want to lose another one.”

Hutch had to swallow before he could speak. “Me neither,” he said.

Cross turned away, and Hutch sneaked off between the houses.

It was so dark at the back of the house he could hardly see his hand before his face, and he was afraid to use his flashlight. He felt clumsily along the wall until he came to a window sill. The window was locked, of course. Hutch stood for a moment, considering, forcing himself to ignore the fear and think rationally. It was fairly quiet back here, but it was noisy enough at the front of the house to wake the dead. There was no way Alderman would hear something heavy going through that locked window. He hoped.

He broke a pane with the butt of his gun, wincing at the crash, and waited, not breathing, for a shout, for running footsteps, but there was nothing. Reaching in, he turned the catch, and raised the sash.

He climbed through, trying to avoid the broken glass, and stepped quietly onto the carpeted floor of a bedroom. His hand fell on tangled sheets; his dim reflection moved ghostlike in the mirror over a dresser. The only light in the room was a faint line under the closed door. Voices filtered through – an angry admonition; a loud sob; a level, calm undertone.

Starsky’s voice. Hutch couldn’t make out the words, but he felt the relief like a cool splash of water on a hot day.

He eased the door open a fraction and put his eye to the crack. He saw nothing but a lighter patch of gloom, and realized he must be looking into a hallway, with the living room beyond it. He slipped through and crept carefully down the hall, gun at the ready, stopping just short of the door, where he flattened himself against the wall and listened.

At first he heard only the sound of a woman’s tears, a strangled, gasping noise. Then Starsky’s voice broke in. Steady, but Hutch could hear the strain in it. “She’s bleeding, you see that? They’re both bleeding now. At least let me get a wet cloth – ”

“You’re getting nothing, pig!” The voice was high, tight, desperate. “Except a bullet in the brainpan if you make one more move! Siddown!”

There was a pause. Then, “Well, Hank, since you insist,” followed by a creak of chair springs.

Hutch chewed his lower lip. Dammit, he couldn’t do anything like this. He had to see what was going on.

Holding his breath, he inched closer to the door. He didn’t dare get close enough to see the whole room, but Starsky had sounded as if he were close to Hutch, near the door. If he could just catch Starsky’s eye somehow….

With infinite care, he peered as far around the doorframe as he could without, he hoped, revealing himself. And let out a breath of relief. Starsky was seated in a worn, upholstered chair just inside the doorway. Hutch could see only his profile, but he didn’t appear to be injured. He was sitting bolt upright, back not touching the chair’s back. His jaw was clenched, his lips thin. As Hutch watched, a drop of sweat trickled from the curls at his temple down to his cheek. The shiny holster that peeked from under his right arm was empty.

Hutch was biting his lip, thinking furiously, trying to come up with some unobtrusive way to let his friend know he was there, when he saw Starsky twitch, saw his head turn almost imperceptibly in Hutch’s direction. For a second his eyes, wide with surprise, met Hutch’s. Then he blinked, once, and turned away again.

Hutch took a deep breath. It wasn’t the first time one of them had been able to feel the other’s presence. It was a little spooky, but Hutch was fervently grateful for it.

“Hank,” Starsky said suddenly, “I’ve gotta piss.”

Hutch stiffened alertly, even as he felt a twinge of amusement at this echo of his own subterfuge.

“What the fuck makes you think I care?”

“Honest, Hank, I gotta go bad. I think the john’s down the hallway – ”

“Shut the fuck up!”

Starsky shifted from side to side in the chair. “I’m gonna go all over the floor in a minute,” he whined. “C’mon, Hank. ”

Hutch heard a creak of approaching footsteps, and the sound of the woman’s muffled sobbing dissolved into a gasp of alarm.

“I told you to shut up, cop.”

Alderman’s voice was nearer now, much nearer, but still he hovered maddeningly just out of Hutch’s line of vision. Hutch ground his teeth in frustration, and tightened his grip on his revolver. Somehow, he had to get a clear shot at Alderman without placing Starsky in even more peril. And Blaine and the girl, of course. He was responsible for their safety, too. He had to remind himself of that, force himself to remember it, even while his heart kept trying to focus on Starsky to the exclusion of everything else.

He could see Alderman’s shadow fall on Starsky’s face, could see the tension in every line of Starsky’s body.

“Listen, what are you afraid of, huh? You’ve got my gun, you’ve got two other hostages, you really think I’m gonna risk their lives and try to pull something?” Starsky’s voice hardened suddenly, tauntingly. “You must be one hell of a stupid fuck if you think that. But you are, aren’t you? You’re just a stupid piece of shit who’s begging to get his stupid brains blown out. Can’t even get laid without tying your women down first.”

Hutch held his breath. Careful, buddy, careful.

Alderman’s voice shook. “I’m gonna shove this fuckin’ piece up your fuckin’ ass if you don’t shut your fuckin’ mouth!”

Starsky’s lips spread into a grin of lunatic defiance. “Bet that ain’t all you wanna shove up there, is it, sweetheart?”

At that, three things happened almost simultaneously. Alderman leapt toward Starsky with a roar, gun raised. Starsky dived sideways to the floor, knocking the chair over in the process. And Hutch fired, desperately, aiming above Starsky at the only part of Alderman he could see -- his right arm.

He hit him in the wrist just as the rapist’s own weapon discharged into the wall behind where Starsky’s head had just been. Alderman screamed, and dropped his gun.

Hutch was on him in an instant, propelling him to the floor, adding a paralyzing punch to the face for good measure. Alderman sagged beneath him, stunned, and before Hutch could catch his breath, Starsky was pushing him gently aside and rolling Alderman, not gently, into a prone position. Hutch watched him cuff Alderman’s hands behind his back, taking no particular care with the howling prisoner’s shattered wrist.

Their eyes met just as the front door burst open and what seemed like dozens of uniformed cops rushed in.

“Couldn’t believe it when I saw you back there,” Starsky said, pointing with his chin to the darkened hallway. His face was pale, sweaty. “What are you, God or somethin’? Just happen to show up exactly when I need you?”

Hutch laughed, breathless, giddy. He felt suddenly weak enough to collapse.

“Jeez,” Starsky said. “Sit down.” He righted the overturned chair and guided Hutch to it with hands that weren’t quite steady. “Stay there while I check on John.”

Blaine was lying on the floor in a far corner of the room, clearly in pain but conscious, even smiling at Starsky’s approach. He didn’t appear to be too badly injured. Alderman’s original victim, a woman of perhaps thirty with long dark hair and an ugly bruise on her face, was sitting huddled on a couch in a blood-stained nightgown, crying weakly. As Hutch watched, Lamar Cross sank down beside her and spoke softly to her. She flung herself into his arms, hiding her face against his shoulder.

Hutch saw it all, but only Starsky registered. Starsky bending over Blaine, Starsky speaking to the uniforms, Starsky casting frequent glances back at him, shooting him shaky little smiles.

Starsky’s safe. Hutch closed his eyes and repeated it to himself, over and over again. He’s safe. He’s alive.

When he opened his eyes, Lieutenant Slate was heading his way. From the expression on Slate’s face, Hutch figured he was due for either a commendation and a possible medal for heroism, or a month’s suspension without pay for insubordination. He heard Starsky’s voice – strong, vibrant, alive -- and found he didn’t much care which it turned out to be.

 

*****

 

Starsky knew they were gonna make it that night. He could see it in Hutch’s eyes, could feel it in the way Hutch kept surreptitiously touching him – at the crime scene as they watched Blaine being loaded into an ambulance; at Metro where they made hasty preliminary reports and Hutch turned his weapon over, as per regulations, to Internal Affairs; in the car on the way back to Starsky’s apartment after they were both excused from duty for the next twenty-four hours. It was as if Hutch were reassuring himself that Starsky was still there, still warm, still breathing. Even when they weren’t touching, Starsky could sense the electricity, the invisible current that hummed between them, the need. He was so charged with anticipation he could hardly speak. Every time he looked at Hutch, Hutch was looking at him, long, hungry looks that made Starsky’s mouth go dry.

They were barely inside his apartment before Hutch grabbed him. But it wasn’t like the other night, when they’d been so drunk and Hutch had pushed him against the door and sucked him. This time Hutch just held him, arms tight around Starsky’s waist, face pressed against Starsky’s neck. Starsky could feel him shaking, trembling, as he hadn’t at the crime scene.

Delayed reaction, he thought. It’s just hittin’ him. He hugged Hutch back, running his hands up and down his spine, murmuring, “Hey, hey, it’s okay, we’re okay,” even while his dick stirred restlessly in his pants, and his hands itched to tear Hutch’s uniform off. He pressed a cautious kiss to the soft skin just below Hutch’s left ear, and then, when Hutch only sighed in response, he added another, more confident one.

“Starsk,” Hutch whispered. He pulled back, raising his hands to cup Starsky’s face, his fingertips stroking the hair at the temples, and Starsky felt his insides begin to melt.

Hutch kissed him so gently it was shocking. Starsky didn’t move, didn’t respond, just stood still, hardly breathing, while Hutch’s lips moved against his. He was powerless against those lips, helpless every time they touched him, defenseless before their pillowy softness. Each time Hutch kissed him, he was amazed anew, and thankful.

Hutch drew back. “I thought I’d lose you.” His voice was hollow. “I thought I’d have to watch you die.”

Starsky didn’t bother to answer, not with words. He pulled Hutch’s mouth back to his and claimed it, because it was his, no matter Vanessa, no matter anything. He knew it, and he knew Hutch knew it, too. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t argue with. It was just a fact.

My beloved is mine, and I am his.

They undressed and went to bed. They kissed and touched and petted, rolling around in the tangled sheets, humping eagerly against whatever exposed flesh was convenient, but Starsky knew what he needed, and what Hutch needed. He knew also that Hutch would never ask. So he pulled away from Hutch’s grasping hands, smiling at the questioning expression in his partner’s eyes, shoved a pillow under his hips, and stretched out, belly down, head resting on his folded arms.

He jerked his chin at the nightstand. “I got some stuff in there. You’re welcome to it.”

Hutch was stroking Starsky’s ass, running gentle hands over its curves, gazing at it almost reverently. At the words, he looked up, and Starsky could see the surprise in his eyes.

“C’mon,” Starsky said softly. “Let’s do this right this time.”

Hutch licked his lips, a sight Starsky found particularly alluring. “You want me to?”

God, Hutch had a beautiful mouth. Starsky blinked. “Huh? Hell, yes, I want you to. You think it’s charity or somethin’?”

“I’ve never done it.” Hutch looked faintly abashed. “Not – not from either end.”

“You’re kiddin’. Nobody ever wanted that big billy club of yours up their ass?”

Blood flushed Hutch’s cheeks. “If they did, they kept quiet about it. Starsk, we don’t have to – ”

“But we’re gonna, because we’re both dyin’ for it. Hutch, please, I’ll tell ya what to do. Just get the damn lube, will ya?”

Hutch hesitated only a second longer, and then lunged for the nightstand. Starsky watched, amused, as he yanked the drawer open and rifled through the odds and ends inside, finally locating a half-used tube of K-Y. He squeezed a blob of it into his hand and began hastily applying it to his erection.

Too hastily. Starsky put a hand on Hutch’s wrist, stilling his movements. “Hey,” he said softly. “Slow down. I’ve never seen you play with yourself before.”

Hutch blinked, and then smiled. He sat back, reclining on one elbow, and gripped himself with his slick right hand. He gave it one slow, smooth stroke, and Starsky watched his eyes slip closed, his lips part.

“Beautiful,” Starsky whispered, avid eyes fixed on the long, blood-heavy cock peeking from between Hutch’s fingers. “Work it for me, babe. Yeah, just like that.” He licked his dry lips, heart thudding, and took hold of his own dick, squeezing it comfortingly. “God, you’re beautiful. You know that?”

Hutch gazed at him through heavy-lidded eyes, his hand speeding up. “Starsk,” he breathed, “I wanna be in you.”

The naked longing in his partner’s voice sent a fresh jolt to Starsky’s cock. “Oh, yeah, you’re gonna be, babe. I just wanna watch you a little first, watch how you do it, see how good you can make it for yourself.” He smiled. “Maybe get me a taste of that….” He leaned forward, wrapped his left hand around Hutch’s right, and licked a gentle swipe across the dark, spongy cockhead.

Hutch gasped. “God!”

“Remember San Q?” Starsky whispered, letting his breath tickle Hutch’s tip. “Remember how I did ya with my mouth?”

“Starsk….” Hutch’s voice was raw, strained. Starsky looked up at him, at the tendons standing out in his neck, at the hot flush painting the pale skin. He grinned.

“Okay.” He drew back, turning onto his belly and cocking one leg at the knee. “Come and get it, Blondie.”

He heard the sudden catch in Hutch’s harsh breathing. “Are you sure I won’t hurt you?”

“Not if you don’t do anything,” Starsky snapped. He took a deep breath and got a grip on his patience. “Just loosen me up a little, with your fingers – ah!”

“Like this?”

Starsky struggled for breath. “Yeah….” Hutch’s finger was long and slick. He felt himself opening to it, felt it slide deeper, and then….

“Yeah,” he said again, in a strangled voice, as pleasure shuddered through him in waves. “That’s good. Another one.” He groaned as Hutch introduced a second digit, as he rotated the fingers slowly, exquisitely. Starsky closed his eyes and moved with them, riding Hutch’s hand, rocking his hips in shameless abandon.

“Jesus,” Hutch whispered. “God, Starsk.”

Starsky pushed himself up to all fours. He was shaking now, his forearms trembling as they took his weight. “Do me now,” he rasped. “C’mon!”

He waited, his mind chanting, Now, now, hurry, hurry, and after an endless moment of awkward fumbling, Hutch – his Hutch, his – was pushing in.

Hutch’s cock was huge. Starsky knew that, of course, but knowing it with his ass was different from knowing it with his mouth, or his hands, or even his eyes. It was a deep, primal kind of knowing, a gut-level knowing, that brought it home to him as nothing else ever could. It hurt. He couldn’t help whimpering, just a little, as he was breached, but he bit fiercely into the pillow to stifle the sound, because he knew Hutch would stop cold if he heard it, and if that happened, Starsky might just expire from frustrated need. He hadn’t been fucked in years, and never like Hutch was doing it, never so deep, so full, so hard. Never by someone he loved.

He wanted to say all these things to Hutch, especially the part about loving him, but he couldn’t even breathe, much less make speeches. He could only hang on – gasping, moaning, clamping down and letting go – while Hutch thrust hard, harder, hardest, crying Starsky’s name, a note of wonder in his voice, as if he couldn’t believe what he was doing, or to whom, gripping him around the waist, nipping hungrily at his shoulders, pounding him until Starsky’s consciousness slipped its moorings entirely and went spiraling off into some hazy netherworld of carnal sensation where orgasm was of such secondary importance he actually couldn’t remember for a moment whether or not he’d come yet.

He hadn’t. But he did when Hutch reached around and jerked him. One stroke, two, and he was there, his seed fountaining from him in an ecstatic rush, and he was shouting, his cries mingling with Hutch’s as they pulled each other over the edge and floated slowly, slowly down to earth again, where Starsky collapsed and Hutch, with a last breathless groan, slumped heavily down on top of him. Starsky was too exhausted to tell him to move. He turned his head on the pillow so he wouldn’t suffocate, and just lay there, under Hutch, because being crushed into a mattress by his partner was better than breathing freely anywhere else.

After a minute, Hutch roused himself and eased carefully out, rolling onto his back. Starsky opened one eye, and smiled at the wasted expression on his partner’s face.

“Hey,” he said softly. “I’m layin’ in the wet spot, here.”

Hutch turned his head and gave him a dopey, blissful smile. “Quit bitching and come over here, then.” He stretched out an arm in invitation, and Starsky slid close, settling his head on Hutch’s shoulder and resting an arm across the smooth, flat belly. He closed his eyes again and just drifted.

He felt Hutch’s fingers playing with his hair. “Starsk?”

Starsky grunted drowsily.

“Do you do that much?”

“What, get fucked?”

“Yeah.”

Starsky yawned. “Not for a long time.”

Hutch said no more, and Starsky slipped peacefully into sleep.

 

*****

 

He heard himself yelling, “I can’t, please, I can’t, I can’t!” and something shook him, hard.

“Starsky! Starsky, dammit, wake up!”

His eyes opened and Hutch was there, leaning over him, alive, in one piece, staring at him, gripping his shoulders with fingers that bruised. Without a word, Starsky grabbed him and pressed his face against Hutch’s bare chest. He couldn’t speak. He squeezed his eyes shut and just breathed, in ragged, choking gasps, letting the scent of Hutch’s skin fill his nostrils like a drug.

Hutch held him, not speaking, stroking Starsky’s hair gently until Starsky felt his racing pulse gradually slow and his breathing return to near normal. Then Hutch carefully pulled back and reached to turn on the lamp on the nightstand. Light flooded forth; Starsky could see it, though he still had his eyes closed.

He felt a finger under his chin, tipping his head up.

“Look at me,” Hutch said.

Starsky opened his eyes. Hutch’s face was so close Starsky had to pull back a little to see it clearly.

“That’s it, Starsk.” Hutch’s eyes were hard, intense. “I want to know what this is all about, and I want to know it right now.”

Starsky swallowed. “I, uh, I think I could use a drink first.”

Hutch hesitated, then nodded. He left the bedroom, returning with a coffee mug and the only liquor Starsky had in the house, a bottle of Jim Beam. Silently, he opened it and splashed a generous portion into the mug.

Starsky leaned against the headboard, lifted the mug with both hands, and took a sip. The whiskey burned comfortingly, but not as comfortingly as Hutch’s strong arm around his shoulders.

When he’d said nothing after a minute, Hutch nudged him gently with his thigh.

Starsky sighed. “It’s really nothing. I mean, it was something at the time, but it’s over now and I don’t see any point in talking about it, or thinking about it. Or dreaming about it, but I can’t seem to stop doin’ that.”

Hutch made no comment.

“And it’s not so bad, just havin’ dreams. Not compared to what happened to some guys. Not compared to….” He trailed off for a moment. “I mean, I’ve got two good arms and two good legs, and I’m not dead or whacko or puttin’ away a couple of quarts of booze a day. ”

“It was something that happened in Nam?” Hutch asked softly.

Starsky nodded. He hadn’t told anybody about it, not since it happened, had forced himself not to even think about it, and now it was almost a physical pain to do that. His jaw hurt as he pushed the words out.

“Okay, quick version. There was a guy in my outfit, a buddy of mine, named Jeffords, Bob Jeffords. He got hurt.”

“He was wounded?”

“No. We were on patrol, and he was up ahead, point man. I was the closest to him, but I couldn’t see him. I heard a – a loud noise, like an animal. I didn’t know what it was at first. And then I heard him screaming, over and over.” He took a breath, and followed it with a drink. “When the rest of us caught up to him, he was on the ground, still screaming, and there was a tiger on top of him.”

He felt the shock run the length of Hutch’s body. “A tiger?”

Starsky smiled wryly. “Lotta tigers over there. That was the only one I ever saw, though. One of the other guys shot it, but Jeffords was – he was pretty torn up.” His voice faltered. “He – his guts were – ”

“Starsk,” Hutch said, and tightened his grip on Starsky’s shoulder.

Starsky swallowed. “No way he could’ve lived. We were out in the middle of the fuckin’ jungle – our medic wasn’t there, he was on leave or something – no way a chopper could have got there in time, and there was no place for it to land anyway. We all just stood there staring at him, and he was screaming, he was still screaming. I don’t know why he wasn’t unconscious yet, but he wasn’t. He just screamed, and screamed, and – ”

“Jesus,” Hutch whispered, and Starsky saw him close his eyes.

“I shot him. In the head.” Just saying it made him cold, made his chest tighten painfully, and he was grateful for Hutch’s warm skin against him, for the solid strength of his body. “He was beggin’ somebody to, because of the pain. I thought it had to be me, ‘cause I was his friend. We – we were real close.” He paused. “He was the last guy I let fuck me.”

There was a moment’s silence before Hutch answered. “God, Starsk, I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t – I mean, it wasn’t like me and you.” Nothing’s ever been like me and you. “But it wasn’t bad.” He shrugged. “Beat the hell outta havin’ nobody.”

“And – you dream about him? Ever since then, you’ve been dreaming about him?”

“No.” Starsky took the bottle from Hutch and poured whiskey into his mug with an unsteady hand. “I dreamed about it a few times right after it happened. Then I got out, came home, and the dreams stopped. For a long time, I didn’t dream at all. Then it started back.” He raised his eyes to meet Hutch’s. “And they’re not about Jeffords anymore. They’re about you. In the dreams – he’s got your face.”

Hutch stared at him for a moment. Then he looked away, and Starsky saw him swallow.

“I think,” Starsky said slowly, “it’s because of – how I feel about you. I mean, it scares me, y’know, thinkin’ about something happening to you. I guess maybe I’m associating you with him, or something. When I think about Vanessa hurting you, or – ”

“Vanessa’s out of the picture,” Hutch said. His voice was flat, expressionless. “She threw me out. I’ve been staying at a motel since Saturday.”

Starsky’s mouth dropped open. “What the hell – she threw you out?”

Hutch gave him a wry smile. “She knew you and I were together last Friday night. She said she didn’t care if I spent the rest of my life screwing your brains out. Maybe she’s got the gift of prophecy, huh?”

Starsky’s mind whirled. Vanessa had listened to him. Vanessa had decided to cut her losses. He felt a surge of guilty apprehension. “Hutch – did she hurt you?”

Hutch looked impatient, annoyed, the way he always did when Starsky brought that subject up. “No. She just told me to leave. We’re through, Starsk.”

“You sure?” Starsky asked, seriously, because he had to know.

“Yes, I’m sure.” Hutch looked away again, his voice cracking a little. “She doesn’t want me. I don’t know if she ever did, really. Maybe if I was something else…but she doesn’t want Ken Hutchinson, cop.”

He fell silent, and Starsky put a hand on the back of his neck, massaging it gently.

“So I guess,” Hutch said after a moment, “it’s me and thee from here on out, huh, sweetheart?” He spoke lightly, glancing at Starsky with a grin, but Starsky saw something flicker in his eyes, a hope too faint to put into words, a question too presumptuous to ask.

He felt his heart contract. Ah, Hutch.

He said, “Hey, that’s cool with me. I got a thing for blonds.”

Hutch’s face relaxed into a real smile. He leaned in, and they kissed.

When it ended, Hutch touched his forehead to Starsky’s and sighed. “Buddy, what are we gonna do? I mean, how….” He made a helpless gesture.

“I dunno.” Starsky shook his head. He didn’t know how the hell they were gonna do this. Be Bay City’s first gay cops? Stroll through the corridors at Metro hand in hand? Sure.

“I dunno,” he said again. “We’ll just have to be careful, keep it quiet, go out with girls – I dunno, Hutch. But I wanna try. I want us to have whatever we can, together.” I’ll take what I can get, when I can get it. If that’s pathetic, then, fuck it, I’ll be pathetic.

Hutch’s eyes were troubled. “I want that, too. But – it scares me, Starsk. I don’t mean being found out. I don’t give a goddamn what people think. It’s the way we are together that scares me.”

Starsky touched Hutch’s face. “You wanna explain that one, to me, huh? ‘Cause I’m feeling kinda dumb, here.”

Hutch sighed. “You have nightmares and wake up screaming when you think I’m in danger. And I – Starsky, when you were in that house with Alderman, I would’ve shot everyone there to get you out. Blaine, the victim, everybody. I didn’t give a fuck about anyone but you. I shouldn’t feel like that. I’m a cop, for God’s sake. I know better, but….”

“Hey,” Starsky whispered. “It’s okay. I’d have felt the same way.”

“I know! That’s just the point! We don’t have any perspective when it comes to each other. Someday….” He trailed off. “Buddy, someday, somehow, that’s gonna get us in trouble. We’re gonna cross a line that shouldn’t be crossed.”

“We’ve done that,” Starsky said. “We’re here, in my bed, together. My ass is sore as hell from that pounding you gave me a few hours ago.” He set the mug on the nightstand and reached out, catching Hutch’s chin before he could turn his head away. “It’s too late, babe, don’t you see? It’s fate, or karma, or whatever. We just gotta go with it.”

Hutch’s somber expression twitched into a reluctant, you-gotta-be-kidding smile. “That’s the corniest line in history, Starsk. Trust me, baby, this thing is bigger than both of us!

Starsky grinned, heart lightening. He lay back against the pillows. “Well, it is.” He snaked a hand up Hutch’s thigh to his groin. “Come to think of it, so’s this thing.”

Hutch sighed, and lay down. “You’re not gonna let me worry, are you? There are some very real issues here, Starsky.”

“We’ll talk about ‘em later.” Better yet, we’ll ignore ‘em. That’s a way better plan. “Now, we’re either gonna sleep or fuck. If you wanna sleep, shut up and close your eyes. If you wanna fuck, shut up and roll over, ‘cause I’m one round behind and I’m ready to introduce you to a whole new world, baby. What’s it gonna be, huh?”

“Sleep,” Hutch said, after a moment. “Learning to resist the temptations of the flesh is a vital step along the road to emotional maturity.” He turned away, stretching out on his side.

Good. He’s kidding around, now. Starsky let out a theatrically disappointed sigh and curled himself comfortably around Hutch’s back. Hutch, he noticed, appeared to be laughing silently to himself.

“You are so full of bullshit, Hutchinson. You belong in Spain, with a guy in tights waving a red sheet in your face.”

He felt Hutch snort. “That was weak, even for you.”

“Hey, you gotta take the bad with the good. Me and thee, remember?”

“Me and thee,” Hutch repeated softly. He reached back, running a gentle hand over Starsky’s thigh.

Starsky lay blinking into the darkness for a long time. They hadn’t resolved anything, really. He had no idea how they would do this, how they could be together and be cops, how they could be partners and lovers and just good friends all at the same time, how they could let each other fly free when it came to women, how they would handle the strains and the stresses the situation would inevitably provoke. It was overwhelming. Despite his brave words, he was scared, too.

Hutch wasn’t sleeping, either. Starsky could feel the lingering tension in his body.

“Hey,” he whispered. “I’m here. Sleep.” He listened for Hutch’s sigh, and smiled when he heard it. Hutch was safe, and the sun was coming up outside the window. The time for nightmares was past, for now.

He pressed his face to Hutch’s soft hair, and closed his eyes.