Hutch found himself humming a tune under his breath while he watched the door. He was probably making everyone in the joint nervous — everyone who knew he was a cop, anyway. Hutch had spotted at least two unfriendly faces on his way in. With the way he was staring down the doorway you’d think this was a stakeout. It wasn’t. He’d be less nervous if it were.
Starsky walked into the restaurant two minutes late, exaggeratedly dusting nothing off his sleeves before he joined Hutch in the booth at the very back, sliding in on the same side. Hutch felt a turning-away of interested eyes in the room — now that Starsky was here the two of them were business as usual — and released the tension in his shoulders with his next exhale.
He brought the rose he’d been holding up from under the table and slid it to Starsky like a bribe, crinkling the pale yellow tissue paper it was wrapped in and almost upending the beer he’d ordered.
Starsky held the flower up to his nose, deep blue eyes sparkling. “Blintz! Puttin’ the moves on me?”
Hutch felt his face heat. “Said I would.” He had agonized over which rose to pluck from the refrigerated cabinet at the store, and had accidentally destroyed the one next to it, and poked himself with a thorn. He had wondered, watching a drop of red well up on his thumb, whether this was an omen against yet another romance. Especially one that meant so much. Meeting for drinks out had been his idea. ‘Drinks’ because Hutch wasn’t sure he could keep a hold on his guts with both anxiety and whatever greasy dinner option Starsky picked roiling there, and ‘out’ because the idea of officially taking this step with Starsky on one of their couches with a takeaway pizza had rankled his sensibilities. Were Starsky a girl, Hutch would take him out somewhere. So here they were. A quaint little bar in the canal district. Ivy on the walls outside and candles on the tables, but not so nice as to require dressing up, for Starsky’s sake.
They sat next to each other for a few moments without speaking. Starsky tucked the rose into his jacket and then pulled his feet up onto the seat and rested his elbows on his knees, grinning at Hutch like a fool. His shirt was unbuttoned one button lower than usual, hanging open practically to his navel. Hutch’s cords felt tight. The room was warm. Hutch wrenched his gaze away from the disorienting wave-blue of Starsky’s eyes and downed half of his beer with a shaking hand. It was warm and went down his throat sour, like blood.
“Your eyes are doing that thing I like,” said Starsky, and Hutch laughed incredulously.
“ My eyes?”
“Yeah. Sort of flashing, you know. Like when you’re angry.”
Hutch put his beer glass down and waited a moment to be sure it was steady before he lifted his hand away. “I’m not angry.”
Starsky raised an eyebrow at him and stole his glass, downing the rest of it. His throat worked. The world could have ended in that moment and Hutch wouldn’t have seen the walls crashing down around them. Hutch breathed in the smell of Starsky next to him, the familiar scent of a day’s sweat cut through by a dash more cologne than usual. There was a bruise on Starsky’s collarbone from a tussle with a petty thief yesterday. His skin shone in the evening heat. A speck of foam from the beer lingered on Starsky’s prominent cupid’s bow and it was all Hutch could do not to kiss it away in public. Starsky got to it first, and the pink flash of his tongue made Hutch’s skin ignite like coals under a sudden breath. The breeze kicked up outside as if in sympathy.
“Thanks, doll,” said Starsky, taking two more beers from a waitress that Hutch hadn’t noticed approaching at all. “Didn’t step on any cracks on the way in, right?”
Hutch realized the question was directed at him, and blinked. “What?”
“Just want to know how much bad luck I’m working against when it's time to get you home in one piece. I spent the day looking at houses for mom, did I tell you that?”
“She’s not moving out here?”
“No way she’s leaving New York.” Starsky shook his head, smiling wistfully.
“Then why look?”
“Who the hell knows why I do what I do. Because she asked. Because she’s a sweet old bird. Listen to me, bringing up my mother on the first date.”
The word thrilled Hutch’s pulse more than it should. He knocked back his second beer and held the empty glass up for a refill. “I can do you one better. On my first date with Gillian I told her I’m divorced and a widower. Jesus, that’s three exes in one sentence.”
Starsky laughed and the sound of it made Hutch laugh, and they fell into easy ribbing from there, meandering in and out of shop talk and the day’s grievances like only two people who are seldom apart can do. The sky outside glowed pink as the sun slipped below the horizon. Street lights flickered to life along the avenue. When full darkness arrived, Hutch paid their tab and they migrated outside. The moon gleamed like a searchlight as they fell into step together, Starsky on the left and Hutch the right.
“Where to?” Hutch prompted.
“Let’s walk a bit. The weather’s nice, and I should sober up.”
Hutch rolled his eyes at that, certain that Starsky was more concerned about the safety of his car than himself. But the weather was nice -- a cool breeze dried the sweat on the back of Hutch’s neck and ruffled both their hair. They stepped in sync through bands of shadow cast by interlaced tree branches overhead. Starsky had turned west, away from the heart of the district. The shops they passed were locking up for the night, lights going out. They passed under a bridge and on the other side the first building was boarded up. The sign marked it as an art gallery in its past life.
“Look at this,” said Starsky. “You know, this is what’s wrong with the world. No one wants art anymore.” His voice was jovial, teasing. Hutch put his hands in his pockets and then took them out again when a panel van rolled by slow as a shark, its sides splattered with dry mud. It didn’t stop. Hutch watched the taillights dwindle into nothing. “There were a bunch of murders out here,” Starsky continued, and it took Hutch a moment to distinguish the new vein of conversation from the old.
“Oh? Who’s on the case?”
“Went cold a decade ago. There was an old quarry out this way, defunct now. In 1928 a boy scout found five decomposing corpses in one of the caverns. Then in 32 and 59 six more surfaced. They never tied it to organized crime. Cause of death, as well as it could be determined with the decomp, was strangulation.”
“Guess so. Creep snatched people down here and stowed them away under the earth for thirty years without getting caught.” Starsky turned to look up at Hutch. His face was luminous in the moonlight, animated.
“Thirty years is a long time for one person.”
“Maybe it was a family thing. Like Sawney Bean.”
“Cannibals. Lived in caves and shit. An old quarry is just a cave when you think about it.”
“I think I prefer your baseball trivia.”
Starsky barked out a laugh. They kept on their path, strolling by residential houses now. Old ones with chain-link fences and neglected yards that looked lush in the night-gloom. The street lights were fewer and further between. A television flickered blue through a window as they passed, projecting phantom life. Lovemaking or murder or explosions, lurid as lurid can be, but safe too. Distant. Unreal.
Hutch loved how Starsky walked. He gave himself permission to study it now. To linger on Starsky’s stride next to his, somewhere between a march and a sway, arms swinging and head turning on an unconscious swivel like a prizefighter. Like a predator. Starsky was not exactly graceful -- not that Hutch had any room to talk -- but he possessed a sort of animal agility without trying. Hutch trained hard for every ounce of muscle on his frame, every quick reflex. Starsky was built for it.
“Are you armed?” Hutch asked. He had wanted to ask it at the very moment they left industry behind and let residential dark swallow them, only he felt paranoid. Starsky lifted his jacket enough to flash his holster, and Hutch nodded. He hated himself a little bit for needing the reassurance, but who could blame him? Certainly not Starsky.
In the next instant Starsky pulled him into shadow, off the side of the path and into an alley.
Starsky’s hand over his mouth. “Nothing. There’s nothing wrong, but don’t move.” Hutch stood. He didn’t move. Starsky released him and stood in front of him, nearly chest-to-chest in the narrow space between silent houses. Hutch glanced out toward the path and Starsky repeated. “Nothing’s wrong. Look at me.”
Hutch obeyed. Starsky leaned up their slight height difference and slowly ghosted his lips against Hutch’s. He pulled back when Hutch leaned in for a kiss. Their first kiss, Hutch thought. This wasn’t the locale he’d have picked, but it was so intrinsically Starsky to rush things along that he couldn’t complain. Starsky kept the distance between them, hands gripping Hutch’s lapels, lips touching Hutch’s so lightly that it could pass as imagined if not for the heat and taste of Starsky’s breath intoxicating Hutch’s every inhale. They waited, breathing. Hutch tried to breathe in when Starsky breathed out, getting lightheaded. High off him. Starsky’s nose bumped Hutch’s. Then Starsky spoke.
“Tell me about a time you died, before us.” His voice was low, seductive. Incongruous with the words themselves, which were perhaps the last ones Hutch wanted to hear, now or ever. All of the pain came flooding back. Seeing Starsky crumpled next to the Torino with 3 bleeding bullet holes in his back, and then the endless torture of his long hospital stay. The coma… the fear that he would lose his partner. That Hutch would lose Starsky and never have truly confessed how he felt, even though they both knew.
“We don’t have to talk about poison, or car wrecks, or bullets. Nothing recent. Nothing since the academy.” Starsky said quickly. “But I’ve died and come back a helluva lot more than once, Hutch. You don’t need to think of me different now. Lots of times and I’m still here, okay? When I was ten some jerk hit me with his car. I was riding my bike. Bike was too big for me and the car was real low. I went up on the hood…instead of under the wheels, thank God…but when I hit the ground I swear I heard my own spine crunch. The guy just drove off. I was laying in the street and everything went dark for a while. When I came to--”
Hutch understood then, the madness of Starsky bringing up this topic on the night of what was supposed to be their fresh start clicking into place. It wasn’t the dying Starsky wanted to talk about. It was the waking up. “Everything was too sharp.”
“I could see everything. I could see the goddamn cracks in the concrete like the Grand Canyon. I still remember the exact shade of purple the shadows were. By the next day things were back to normal, but it comes back sometimes. Everything gets sharp like it's coated in ice. I’m not just talking about when I’m hurt. I can be sitting with you in the Torino eating lunch and then everything perks up, like the world materialized just to hold me.”
Hutch’s hands found Starsky’s shoulders and squeezed. “I drowned when I was a kid,” he said, breathing the words against Starsky’s lips. “I was out sailing with my dad. Fell in. Dad had to press the water out of my lungs. I remember laying on the deck and vomiting up water and thinking that there wasn’t really any bottom to that lake at all. That I’d stumbled onto this huge...conspiracy. There wasn’t an end to that water. And I remember the frayed edge of the sail above me against the sky.”
“This is romantic,” said Starsky, his voice teasing and his eyes not. “Are you in love with me yet?”
“That damage was done long ago,” Hutch told him. He leaned in again and this time Starsky let him. The kiss was soft, hesitant at first. Starsky’s mouth opened to him and Hutch licked into him, tasting, and then Starsky surged up against him. Hands gripped his neck, his shoulder so tight they almost hurt. Hutch’s whole body lit up, nerve endings sparking to life and calling out for more. Hutch didn’t know what he expected, but it hadn’t been this. For Starsky’s lips against his to feel like known territory, as if they’d been kissing each other full on the lips for years. The taste of him like home. They stood, kissing. Starsky pressed Hutch against the wall and Hutch groaned low in his throat when he felt his own arousal mirrored, Starsky hard and hot against his thigh through those tight bluejeans of his.
Too soon Starsky pulled back. Hutch trailed after him automatically and Starsky kissed his cheek. “Any more and you’ll have to book me for lewd and lascivious behavior.” He stepped back, grimaced and adjusted his crotch.
Hutch let his head fall back against the wall, breathing like he’d just finished a workout. “Maybe I look the other way this time, punk.”
“Cause I’m so cute?”
“Cause you’re a good kisser.”
The smile Starsky flashed him was 1000 watts even in the shadow of the alley. The night had deepened into velvet. Hutch expected to turn back but Starsky led them onward. Hutch counted 78 paces before the trees turned scrubby in sandy soil, and 60 more before vegetation ceased entirely. The sidewalk ran out and the road became gravel. They crested a hill together and Bay City lights sparkled in the distance.
Across the quarry.
The wind moaned. The moon floated far above, sailing across swift-moving clouds, brighter in this treeless space than the street lights had been. The sounds of the city were distant, and Hutch heard running water somewhere far below. He imagined rusting metal conveyors and submerged tunnels. Starsky plucked his sleeve and led him to a large, flat stone. They sat shoulder to shoulder and watched cars move on the horizon like tiny glowing ants. Starsky took the rose out of his jacket and unwrapped it, folding and pocketing the tissue paper. He laid the flower on the stone beside them. An electric charge arced between them, not new but strengthened. Hutch cursed himself silently for all the years he’d waited, afraid of ruining the deep friendship that existed between Starsky and himself. Though of course that wasn’t the only risk. Just the biggest one.
“We’ll have to be careful.”
“I know, Hooch.”
“This could mean our jobs, or--”
“Baby, I know.”
Starsky’s hand found his thigh and Hutch covered it with his own. Starsky inclined his head toward him and they gazed into each other’s eyes. Hutch held that moment, savored it, and then unceremoniously pushed Starsky over, going for his belt.
Were they cloaked in the privacy of his bedroom, Hutch would enjoy undressing Starsky slowly, each new glimpse of skin a revelation no matter how many times they’d been nude together under different circumstances. He noted the hitching breath Starsky took as his fly was undone, the pebbling up of his nipples beneath his unbuttoned shirt, the jump of his throat as he swallowed. Hutch made no move to bare Starsky more than necessary. Even here at the edge of the earth they were too exposed for that. He pulled down Starsky’s underwear, suppressing a snort at the sight of bright red briefs. Hutch allowed himself a moment to appreciate the sight of Starsky’s thick cock standing at attention in the moonlight, flushed dark with blood. A drop of precome shone on its head and Hutch wanted to taste it, and then realized he could.
Hutch flicked his tongue over the tip of Starsky’s cock, tasting the salt of his skin. Starsky throbbed, and Hutch continued his teasing little licks down to the base and back up, gratified when Starsky panted and arched his back, and groaned out, “You fucking tease.” Hutch gave him a few gentle strokes before taking Starsky into his mouth. Starsky’s cock was heavy on his tongue as Hutch hollowed his cheeks to suck. Starsky’s hands tangled in his hair and Hutch let him set the rhythm, drinking in his moans and muttered curses and attempts to thrust up for more. Hutch worked a hand partially into his jeans to pin Starsky’s left hip down and swallowed him to the hilt, bobbing in time with the twitching of Starsky’s muscles under his grip.
Starsky made a choking sound and tugged Hutch’s hair urgently, all the warning he gave before Hutch’s mouth flooded with his release. Hutch swallowed once, twice, in time with the pulses of Starsky’s orgasm. Thrice. Starsky sagged, spent, and Hutch pulled off. Hutch’s vision doubled, not in his eyes but in his brain. He knelt before Starsky as if the stone seat was an altar, lips pressed to his hip, then kissing inward over the soft hair on his belly. There were red marks on his hip now that would become bruises in time, red spots mapping the path of Hutch’s fingertips there. His knees rested hard on sandy forsaken ground that was also a street with cracks like the Grand Canyon, that was also a lake without a bottom, that was also an unmarked grave that was also a cannibal’s roof… realities kaleidoscoped. The taste of Starsky lingered in Hutch’s mouth, down his throat. An artifact of his own being now. Starsky touched his neck. Cupped his jaw. Said something, some sweet nothing that was also everything. Hutch curled his toes in his shoes. Fear and exultation warred and then merged in his chest.
“You’re going to bruise,” said Hutch. “Where I grabbed you.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not sorry. I mean it's sexy as hell.”
“You’re nuts, babe. Warn a guy first… rocked my fuckin’ world,” Starsky laughed and hauled him up for another kiss. A cloud rolled over the moon and the world went too dark. Starsky sucked Hutch’s lower lip before they parted. “All the lights went out.”
A chill raised the hair on the back of Hutch’s neck when he realized what Starsky meant. Bay City was dark. Some vast cosmic hand had snuffed it out, every building a hulking corpse. Car horns blared across the great dark empty, traffic at a standstill. The rock beneath them trembled, and small stones cascaded down within the quarry. Somewhere in the depths there was a metallic shriek, and then the land stilled and the echoes died quickly.
“Earthquake,” Starsky and Hutch said as one. Then, from Hutch: “Let’s start back.”
“I haven’t taken care of you,” Starsky protested.
“You pick where we go, only let’s get out of here.” Hutch said firmly. The vast empty of the quarry so near to them was unbearable with the whole city dark.
They inched along the path in the dark. A dog barked somewhere. A door slammed in someone’s backyard. Starsky took Hutch’s hand and Hutch wondered whether Starsky could hear his pulse drumming. He couldn’t help imagining that the quake had sheared the sidewalk and in just a few more paces he would swing his foot out over murky nothingness and fall. The bridge loomed in front of them, the bridge with the defunct art gallery in its shadow, and the canal shopping district beyond, dark now except for the headlights of cars and quiet except for the low murmur of voices, the occasional nervous shrieky laugh.
Behind them an engine started and headlights clicked on, piercing the darkness. Hutch pulled his hand away from Starsky’s automatically, caught in the floodlights like a criminal. It was the panel van that had cruised by them earlier, idling now with its lights blinding the two of them. Hutch half-expected for the doors to slide open and the van’s inhabitants to jump out with ropes and knives and guns. They didn’t. Hutch realized he must look half-crazed to the driver. Washed out like a pale blonde ghost in the headlights. His eyes were probably flashing.
“We’re not going to die again tonight.” Starsky said, reading Hutch’s mind. Recapturing his hand and tugging him along.
“That’s optimistic of you.”
“You’re just a cynic. The power of love’ll protect us. Come on, beautiful. Trust me, trust me.”
Hutch squared his shoulders and walked after Starsky, listening to the night and preparing for the inevitable. When they passed by the bar all the lights on the street flickered on and the moon came out from the clouds at once, cutting the inky night with gold and silver. There was an all-encompassing sound, a combination of gasps and relieved laughter and exclamations of wordless delight from the strangers around them, suddenly visible under the miracle of electric lights.
Starsky grinned up at him -- there, see? -- and Hutch smiled back. The sort of wide smile that Starsky said made him look like an overgrown kid. Starsky leaned in close to whisper, “Your place, Blondie. You can cuff me to that big brass bed of yours.”
Hutch did not realize until he was sliding into the passenger side of the Torino that Starsky had left his rose back on the altar.