A Bargain at Any Price

by

Rosemary

 

Starsky sighed and glanced at his wristwatch. Two o'clock and all is well -- only it wasn't.

He'd dropped Nancy off over two hours ago. Alone in his apartment, he was now beginning to regret that decision. At least if he'd gone home with her as she'd so openly suggested, he'd be making love right now instead of sitting here feeling sorry for himself and dreaming tormenting impossibilities.

Except, he hadn't been up to pretense tonight.

Sweet-natured Nancy was really a great girl, flaky, attractive. She made him laugh more than anyone had in a very long time. And she was generous to a fault. What other woman would put up with him taking Hutch along on every one of their dates for the last four weeks; be content with a few games of bowling, a movie, a kiss at the door, and nothing more? Never a single protest about their morose chaperone, and it wasn't 'cause she had eyes for Hutch either. That had happened enough in the past for Starsky to recognize the signs. No, Nancy was just a kindhearted human being and he owed her a lot for her compassionate acceptance this last month. The truth at the very least.

Right. The truth.

Starsky could just picture himself trying to explain to Nancy that their dates just weren't fun anymore now that Hutch had found himself a new lady to occupy his time.

The well-shaped blond they'd met at the bowling alley four nights ago wasn't anywhere near as classy as Gillian had been, but then, she wasn't a hooker either. Starsky had checked this one out and knew for sure. Steady job as a bank teller the last three years, paid her taxes on time, one outstanding traffic ticket. No surprises there. With Abby less than a year in the past, Starsky knew his partner wasn't up to many more shocks.

He felt guilty about doing it. Hutch was a grown man, entitled to his privacy. If the blond ever found out about his snooping, there'd be hell to pay. Starsky was fully aware that he'd overstepped the boundaries of both friendship and partnership by checking Hutch's new girl out, but he'd passed that point years ago. Now he was running scared.

Gillian had known his secret.

'You love him, too, don't you.' It had been a statement, not a question, spoken at first with more than a hint of accusation.

Starsky remembered how he'd stood immobile in her living room, waiting for her to finish the scene, to give voice to all the horrible recriminations he'd spent years torturing himself with. Hell, she had the right. She might have been a hooker, but at least she was straight. Normal.

To Starsky's utter amazement, Gillian's attitude had gentled after that acknowledgement. It was at that moment that he'd begun to understand how Hutch could have fallen for her. Her graciousness and charm hadn't been an act. He'd stood with his soul bared before her. Gillian could have gotten back her own, stripped him of his pride and held what he was up to the merciless light of day. Instead, she'd just talked about how lucky Hutch was that the both of them loved him so much. Some things you just couldn't figure.

So what now? Another all nighter with the television? Although the noise sometimes tricked him into feeling less alone, the mindless chatter wasn't going to ease this hurt. He could always call it a night, Starsky supposed, at least try to get some sleep. Only he wasn't at all tired and he knew what would happen if he laid himself down with this tension in his body. There were some mornings he could hardly meet his partner's eyes with the shameful memory of what he'd done the previous night singing so sweetly through his flesh.

In the act of turning on the set, Starsky froze. His head cocked to the side like a hunting hound's at the distant echo of its master's horn. He was unsure if he'd herd the sound or only imagined it.

There it was again, the softest of raps at his front door.

He reached for the holster buried between the couch cushions, then left it there after all. His heart beat double time as he approached the door. He knew only one person who'd be calling on him at this hour of the night. Starsky was not the only one upon whom the events of the last month had visited sleepless nights. From the tentative sound of the knock, he didn't want to be greeting his guest with a gun in his hand.

Taking a deep breath, a futile effort to still his racing heart, Starsky tugged his robe firmly dosed and opened the door.

Moonlight danced from one silvery strand of hair to the next; the long, athletic body was poised in retreat.

"Hey, it's a long way to drive out just to make sure I've locked my door," Starsky greeted. "What's up?"

"I... " Hutch looked back over his shoulder at him, appearing more self-conscious than Starsky could remember in a long time. "I didn't want to disturb you, but your lights were on and... are you alone?"

"Not any more. Come on in." He stepped aside, unconsciously giving his partner a wide berth.

Hutch's eyes quickly scanned his empty living room. Belatedly, Starsky remembered that he'd asked his partner along on tonight's date.

"I thought you and Nancy would be taking advantage of the privacy," Hutch commented, his roving gaze giving the doorway to the darkened bedroom a considering glance.

"Nope. Want a beer?" he asked, heading for the kitchen.

"No, thanks."

"Would you sit down already? You're makin' me nervous hovering in the doorway like that."

The tall blond gave a sheepish, totally charming smile and deposited himself at the end of the couch.

Starsky detoured to the kitchen long enough to snag a couple of cans of coke and a bag of pretzels. "Dig in," he invited, settling into the nearby easy chair.

"Aren't you going to ask me why I'm here, Starsk?" Hutch asked softly after a few minutes of companionable munching.

Starsky shrugged. One look had told him all he'd needed to know. For over a month now the utter misery in those startling blue eyes had bled right into his soul. This wasn't the first night since Gillian's death that he and his partner had waited out the dawn together. It was, however, the first time Hutch had come to him. "Long night. The apartment gets bigger, lonelier."

Hutch nodded, then looked away.

"Starsk?"

"Yeah?"

"There's something I've got to ask you."

His blood drummed wildly through his veins, his worried mind reading levels in the reluctant statement that couldn't possibly be there. Had he slipped up? Did Hutch know? Could Gillian have told him before...?

Starsky clamped down hard on the impulse to panic. Hutch couldn't know. He'd never be this calm if he'd discovered the truth. And Hutch certainly wouldn't have come here in the middle of the night to broach such a dangerous topic.

"What's that, partner?" He forced his voice to come out normal, made sure his gaze remained rock steady.

Hutch reached inside his jacket pocket.

While he dug out whatever it was he was looking for, Starsky relaxed enough to admire the view. Black turtleneck, black jacket, brown cords and cowboy boots; Hutch's attire couldn't have been simpler, or more devastating. God help him if Hutch ever set his mind to looking good. Considering his response to the somber, casual outfit, Starsky knew he wouldn't have as much as the proverbial snowball in hell's chance of hiding his feelings.

"Tonight was the first time I felt up to going through Gillian's things," Hutch explained, confusing Starsky until he recalled the suitcase and bags beside the woman's dead body. With no traceable next of kin, they'd gone to Hutch. Everything else had been in Grossman's name and was frozen by the courts. "I found this in her handbag."

"Huh?" Starsky stared in non-comprehension at the envelope Hutch held out to him.

"There's over a thousand dollars inside. And a plane ticket in Gillian's name. One way to New York."

The last was news to Starsky. Still playing it cool, he commented, "Yeah?"

"Starsky, your handwriting is on the front of the envelope."

He didn't need to see the scribbled 'Gillian' to confirm his stupidity. "I know."

The quiet whisper seemed to temporarily defuse the emotion Starsky had seen building to explosion point in the brilliant gaze. Hutch asked less certainly, "Are you going to tell me what this means?"

"What's to tell?" Starsky challenged, wanting the worst to be over as fast as possible. He'd pried into matters that were none of his business. His duty had been to tell Hutch what he had learned, not meddle with the outcome. Where Gillian and his partner's relationship would have gone after Hutch learned the truth was their affair. His protective instincts and far less noble interest had gotten the best of his common sense. Now he was about to pay dearly for that lapse.

"You bought her off," Hutch snapped coldly, everything he was feeling held in so tight that Starsky ached in sympathy for the effort that control must have cost.

"It wasn't like that, Hutch." Starsky's protest sounded feeble to his own ears.

"No?" The impenetrable mask dropped, tangled passions blazing through the furious gaze. "You gave her money to clear out of my life. She had a plane ticket in her hand, her bags were packed. She was going to skip without so much as a 'so long, sucker, thanks for the memories.'"

"She loved you. She was doing what was best for you."

"Right." The laughter was a horrible, bitter travesty of Hutch's normal laugh. "I may be naive, Starsky, but I'm not stupid."

"Look, if she didn't care what happened to you, she would have stayed on, regardless of the consequences to you. She was...

"She was a... "

"Don't say it. Gillian Ingram was a lady and she loved you." Reigning in his own anger had never been one of Starsky's strong suits. He took a moment to steady his breathing, all too conscious of how closely Hutch was watching him. "I know you're hurtin', babe, but don't lose sight of the good that was there."

The expression on his partner's face reminded him of the time they'd spent in that little room on top of Huggy's waiting for Forest's junk to work its way out of Hutch's system. There had been a point when Hutch had tried to get past him as he physically blocked the door. When Starsky hadn't given in to either trickery or pleading, Hutch had drawn back, straightening up to his full height, his eyes rebellious and hard as he'd considered moving the battle of wills to a physical level.

Although Starsky knew his friend wasn't thinking of hitting him now, the feeling was the same, a purely mental struggle over which interpretation Hutch would accept -- Starsky's positive view as a semi-objective observer, or the tale of sordid deceit Hutch's wounded mind had obviously concocted.

Now, as then, both their nerves were stretched to the breaking point.

Eons seemed to drag by before the fair head finally lowered. "I loved her, Starsk... God, how I loved her."

Starsky moved smoothly from his easy chair to the empty space on the couch beside his partner, staying close as he had for the past month. Only this time, there was no flood of tears, nothing other than that ragged whisper. "I know, partner."

Lightly, he laid his hand on Hutch's forearm. Even with so gentle a pressure, he could feel how tense the muscles were, coiled tighter than a drawn bow.

"I don't understand you sometimes, Starsk," Hutch confessed, looking up at him through a veil of golden silk.

His fingers twitched on Hutch's arm, aching with the need to feel those fine, blond tufts slide between them. He knew it must be only his imagination, but Starsky swore he could detect the resiny scent of Hutch's herbal shampoo even from this distance.

"No?" Starsky smiled, absurdly glad that Hutch had chosen not to reject all that he and Gillian had shared because of its tragic end.

"You -- you paid Gillian to go away. I didn't think you liked her, yet you keep defending her. Why?"

Why, indeed? Because she'd responded with compassion instead of attacking a weakness when given the chance? Because he, too, could understand how those blue eyes and Hutch's gentle way could drive a person to lie about almost anything in order to get close enough to touch? Both were true, and for that reason must remain unspoken.

"I never said I didn't like her," Starsky tried to explain. "I don't understand how someone as classy as Gillian got mixed up with scum like Grossman, but regardless of how she made her living, Hutch, Gillian was a lady through and through. And she loved you, babe. So much."

"Not as much as you."

Starsky froze, shaken by the serene observation. He scanned Hutch's face, trying to find some sign that he'd given himself away in the handsome Nordic features, but found only fond exasperation waiting there for him.

"Starsk, that had to be your whole savings account."

Uncomfortable, he averted his gaze. "Forget it, partner."

"Forget it? How can I? You... "

"I only did what I had to do, Hutch," Starsky cut in. "I thought you'd be mad at me for interfering."

"Mad? Who else would care enough about not seeing me hurt to do something like that?" Hutch put the damning envelope down on the arm of the couch, his free hand coming to cover the hand that Starsky still had resting on his partner's forearm.

Starsky stared at their joined hands. Hutch's heat was incredible, assaulting him from above and below that trapped limb, the warmth running up and down the length of his arm. This was a thousand times worse than the nights he'd held Hutch while he cried out his hurt, for this time Starsky felt himself the weaker of the pair. Keeping his breathing regular was an increasingly impossible task. The quiver coursing through his nerves, as yet unseen, would soon be manifesting itself physically. Above all else, he had to get that hand free, but short of yanking it loose, Starsky could think of no way to casually extricate himself.

"Sometimes, Starsk, I wish.... "

Abruptly, Hutch released him, both hand and arm dropping away. Starsky almost gasped in relief, but managed to cover it with a deep breath.

Curiosity brought his gaze to the lowered head. "What do you wish, babe?" he asked, confused by the hopeless yearning he'd thought he'd heard in Hutch's voice.

Hutch's head gave a mute shake.

Dazzled by the swaying gold curtain, it was a moment before he pressed. "Come on; what do you wish?"

Hutch's eyes met his, evaluating, yet determined. "That just one of the women I've known would love me even half as much as you do, partner."

Speechless, Starsky just stared, deafened by the pounding of his own heart.

"Then other times," Hutch continued, "I think, what do I need them for at all? Me and thee is enough. Or could be."

The last ended in a ragged whisper, Hutch sitting still as stone, seemingly not even bothering to breathe.

There could be only one response to the troubling admission. An eternity ago the chuckle and light-hearted joke about precisely what they needed women for would have been automatic, but not any more. Tonight, Starsky couldn't even dredge up a cheap imitation.

This was it, his mind roared, the chance of a lifetime. Hutch had spelled out what he wanted for him. The invitation could have been a little clearer, but not by much. They both knew what Hutch was asking. It would be so easy to just say 'yes', only...

Only Starsky knew precisely where Hutch was coming from. He'd been there himself after Terri, and Helen. Bereft, stumbling through a maze of anguish and absolute aloneness, a man reached desperately for something to cling to. And what could be more secure and steadfast than one's own partner? It was only a measurement of how deeply Hutch's wounds ran that the need was transmitted on a sexual circuit.

To take advantage of that emotional weakness would be tantamount to rape, Starsky reminded himself, no different than had he said 'Sure, I'll get you some help if you let me screw you,' last year when Hutch had promised him anything in exchange for heroin.

Starsky hadn't realized how prolonged his silence had been until Hutch's movement jerked him out of his stasis.

"I shouldn't have said that, Starsk. I didn't mean it the way it sounded." Hollow lie. Hutch couldn't even meet his gaze. "I better get going. It's late and... "

"Don't," Starsky pleaded, catching hold of Hutch's jacket as he started to rise from the couch. "I understand what you're feelin' now. Hurt and lonely, like love's never worked out for you. I was there myself after Terri, babe. If it weren't for you bein' there... I never would've made it through those nights."

"You don't understand," Hutch insisted. "I want, I need... "

"I do understand," Starsky gently persisted. His tone was utterly reasonable, his face as open and compassionate as he dared allow, outwardly totally unruffled. Inside, he was shaking, his control brittle as frozen glass. "Times like this, emotions get... confused. Friendship, love, sex... they all run together like the different shades of paint in a water color. Once you get back in the swing of things, everything will be back in focus."

"Will it?" Hutch questioned, the unconvinced tone almost totally devoid of hope. "Did your... confusion fade away?"

Starsky stiffened as if flicked with the end of a whip. "Yeah, in time."

It wasn't a lie. Months had passed before Starsky had sorted through his feelings and given his restless desire its true name.

"Maybe I'm not as strong as you," Hutch whispered.

His partner was on his feet before Starsky could stop him. But rather than making for the door, Hutch crossed to the bookshelf. Back firmly turned to him, the blond stood lost in thought, or emotion, if the rigid set of his spine and back muscles were anything to go by.

When his partner turned to Starsky once again, that desperate look was back in his eyes, the bewildered hurt that'd had Starsky's protective impulses working on overdrive the past month.

"Sleep with me tonight, Starsk. Just this once. It's not just sex. I need to be with someone who loves me." It was so like his partner to make such a request from a distance rather than seduce by sheer proximity.

"Hutch... " Warning or denial, Starsky could force nothing more from his lips.

"You don't have to do anything that'll make you uncomfortable. Just let me hold you. Please."

"Lay back and let you do all the work, huh?" Starsky finally found his voice and a shaky smile. He watched Hutch turn scarlet to the roots of his shining hair. "Come over here and sit down, Hutch."

The blond shook his head, maintaining his distance as if afraid of the closeness.

"This is a partnership, babe, not a one way street."

"What are you saying?" Hutch demanded, his shaky control telling Starsky that he couldn't take much more of this.

"That if we do it, we do it. Not you, not me separately, but together."

"Is that a yes?" From the guarded tone, one would almost think Hutch suspected he was being teased.

"I don't know," Starsky answered honestly, every ounce of his will channeled into resisting the impulse to simply enfold Hutch in his arms, consequences be damned. But Starsky knew that he himself would not be the one to suffer from such an action. It was the confused man before him who would pay the price for his recklessness. Hutch had been through too much already for Starsky to consciously add to his grief.

"What?"

"I don't think this is such a good idea." The wounded gaze turned his way forced Starsky to go on. "You're hurtin' now, partner, so bad that you don't know what you really want..."

"I want to hold you," Hutch quietly interjected, a peculiar calm enveloping his emotion-fraught features.

His trembling was back again, ten-fold, Starsky realized. Vaguely, he wondered how many times he could keep saying no to something he so desperately longed for.

As many times as it takes, his conscience relentlessly commanded.

Starsky drew a deep, shaky breath and tried again. "What you're suggestin', it could change everything, partner."

"How?"

"What do you mean, 'how'!" Starsky's patience snapped. "You're askin' me to sleep with you."

"Tonight, Starsky, just tonight. One night isn't going to make that much of a difference. I know that you don't... want me that way, that you don't go for guys."

"You don't either," Starsky reminded.

"No, but this isn't about sex," Hutch retorted with a weary sigh. "Maybe you're right. It was a stupid idea, too much to ask. I better go."

"Hold it," Starsky commanded as his partner started for the door. His mind was awhirl with confusion, but one fact was clear. "Nothin's too much to ask between you 'n me, partner. It's just... I don't understand this, Hutch. I thought things were better. You 'n Linda were gettin' along so good..."

"I took her to bed last night," Hutch softly admitted.

"And?" Starsky prodded, not liking the tone.

"It didn't help. She was nice and willing, but, it was like we were using each other, Starsk, like she had this idea of me she was making love to, but it couldn't have been the real me because she didn't know me from Adam. Does that make any sense?"

"Yeah." Starsky couldn't count how many times he'd felt that way himself. Passion seemed to flare like a brush fire out of nowhere, but when it burned itself out, it was a stranger's eyes he'd find himself looking into.

"It started me thinking about what was real, and what wasn't. I thought Gillian was real, but I never knew her at all. It's been that way straight down the line, Starsk. Gillian, Abby, Jeannie, even Van... especially Vanessa. As soon as the illusion shattered there was nothing real left to work with."

Starsky thought about that in silence for a few moments. Hutch did have a point, but his partner also had a habit for going for extremely glamorous, self-centered women. Gillian, Abby, Van, a slew of countless others, they'd all been knockouts, but not a one of them had had the heart of his Terri, who'd been lovely in a much less artificial fashion. But how to phrase that diplomatically?

"Maybe you should slow things down then, partner," Starsky suggested. "Wait until you're sure it's for real."

The silence hung between them like a heavy thunder-cloud, filling the air with that same tingly anticipation that came before a major storm.

Finally, Hutch spoke into the quiet, his voice seemingly lower than Starsky's own heartbeat. "No one's ever stuck around after discovering the real me, partner."

Leave it to Hutch to figure he was the problem rather than his poor choice in women. "Hey, I'm still around, aren't I? No one knows the real you any better than me, buddy."

A smile tugged at the tight line of Hutch's mouth. The tension seemed to seep out of the blond's body as their gazes met and held. "I know. That's why I came to you tonight. I wanted to know what love felt like when it's for real, even if just for one night. I'm afraid I'm not thinking very straight, Starsk. It seemed... a good idea at the time."

"Seemed?" Starsky asked, not understanding the wistful tone.

"Like you said, it's a partnership. Guess I forgot you had to want it, too. It was a dumb idea, Starsk. Forget I mentioned it, okay?"

Was it such a dumb idea, Starsky wondered. Hutch hadn't been himself since Gillian's death. Starsky had been certain that all his partner needed to get his head back on straight was a good, long dose of loving. But the other man was right in his claim that you didn't get the kind of loving so obviously required from a stranger. When it came down to it, who else did either of them have to turn to but each other?

"No."

"What?"

Hutch's worried expression confused Starsky until he realized that his companion was probably scared that he'd ruined their entire partnership with the unusual request.

"Come over here, babe. Sit down. We gotta talk."

Hutch hesitantly complied.

"First off, I ain't upset 'cause you asked," Starsky said immediately to clear the air of all uncertainty. "That took guts, partner, more courage than I've got, that's for sure."

"Starsk, you don't have to..." Hutch protested.

"I ain't. I mean it. Told you before I been where you are now. I couldn't've done it."

"That's because you have more sense than I do, Starsk. I had no right to lay all this on you."

"You have every right," Starsky cut in before the guilt trip could build up a full head of steam. "Now, I want you to answer a question for me, partner, but you have to be real sure of the answer before you make it."

"What is it?"

Relieved, Starsky noted that the tall body had relaxed some, Hutch seeming mostly curious at this point.

"Are you certain you want me the way you think you do?"

Hutch took a long moment in answering. "When I walked in here I wanted to be with you more than I've wanted anything in a long time."

"And now?" Starsky prodded, shivering at the thought of Hutch sharing some of the same longings.

The fair lids dropped down to conceal expressive eyes. A second's consideration before the gaze rose to solidly meet his own. "I know what you want me to say, Starsk, but nothing's changed. It's all... just words. They don't help. Not anymore."

Starsky understood too well. That empty ache inside could make even the truest avowals seem meaningless or worse, taunting for what the words appeared to offer but never delivered.

"Okay."

"Okay, what?" Hutch asked impatiently.

Starsky laid his palm against his partner's cheek. Hutch was so smooth, baby soft. Just like he'd always imagined he'd be. "Okay. I'm here, partner."

Hutch gave a small gasp, his body going very still. "Does that mean you will?"

Starsky nodded, drawing in still closer. Head cocked to the side, positioned for their first kiss, Starsky paused. He wanted so much from Hutch, but tonight wasn't about what he wanted.

Starsky realized that he was going to have to allow Hutch to choose the course tonight's loving would take. Tempting as it was to live out some of his fantasies, to do so would be sheer self-indulgence, probably even harmful to Hutch. Starsky was determined to provide whatever his partner needed, without shackling the man with his own unrealistic needs. The last thing Hutch needed right now was a headtrip like that. And maybe, just maybe, if he made this good enough for his partner, Hutch might be interested in more than just one night.

Hutch stared at him uncertainly before he seemed to interpret the cause of the delay. The taller detective closed the distance between them, powerful arms pulling him in tight as the incongruously soft mouth covered his own.

Starsky's hand slid up Hutch's cheekbone into the length of baby fine hair. His other hand rose to the opposite side, locking Hutch's head in tight.

A small, panicked cry broke from Starsky's throat as the feeling washed over him. He hadn't expected a simple kiss to be this damn earth-shattering. His breathing and heartbeat sounded too loud in his ears, harsh and erratic as they shouldn't be after only one kiss.

After? Hell, they'd barely touched yet and he was flying.

Starsky felt Hutch's mouth widen on his own, his partner's tongue giving his lips a light, tentative stroke.

There was nothing tentative about Starsky's response. He'd sucked the entreating tongue in before it had completed the circuit of his lower lip. Hutch proved thorough, exploring every reachable portion of Starsky's mouth and then some. The dark-haired man supposed he must have had equally arousing kisses in his day, but couldn't recall one that moved him to this extent. The taste of that tongue tingled through his entire body, leaving none of the doubts in its wake Starsky had anticipated arising should his fantasies ever materialize.

When they parted, it was for air's sake alone. Hutch's tongue reluctantly withdrew, Starsky instinctively following the retreating mouth until they forcibly broke free of each other.

Thunderstruck, they regarded each other in wide-eyed wonder. Hutch's expression appeared almost as shocked as Starsky's emotional state. Though outwardly subdued, inside Starsky was crowing in triumph. This was actually going to work.

"Would you like to move inside?" Hutch asked almost shyly, a flush of anticipation touching his cheeks as his gaze slipped to the double bed waiting on the other side of the wall unit separating the two rooms.

Not touching, they moved to the bedroom. The current between them was so intense that the lack of actual physical contact was as stimulating to Starsky as another's touch might be.

Pausing by the bedside, Starsky slowly undid his robe.

Hutch's black jacket landed on the easy chair by the window. The lanky detective shrugged his way out of the midnight turtleneck and white cotton undershirt, tossing them in the general direction of the chair.

Starsky suppressed a smile at his friend's obvious haste, pleased by how clearly aroused Hutch was. He'd done that with just one kiss, Starsky thought, proudly eyeing the telling protrusion at the front of his partner's brown cords.

The heavy cowboy boots were easily toed off. Hutch bent to peel the white socks beneath them, his movement unusually graceful for Starsky's oft-times clumsy partner.

Starsky watched the figure straighten, his eyes running the lean length. The brown cords were all that remained of Hutch's clothes. Golden hair tousled from its encounter with the tight turtleneck, bare-chested and footed, Hutch looked oddly young, like some innocent farm boy just roused from a nap in the hayloft.

Noticing his attention, Hutch's tongue licked nervously along his upper lip, his long fingers darting to his pants fastening, as if self-conscious of the time he was taking or worried that Starsky might change his mind if kept waiting too long.

"Let me?" Starsky asked, unwilling to allow the air of sensuality that had hung about his companion to be dispersed by awkwardness.

Hutch nodded wordlessly, his hair shimmering tantalizingly around his broad, bare shoulders. The light blue eyes were engaged in their own frank perusal of the view offered by Starsky's open robe.

Starsky silently prayed that Hutch wasn't put off by what he found there.

Hutch's gaze rose to his face as Starsky stepped so close that their chests cut off the view of their lower bodies. Starsky reached for the slender waist. Tucking his index fingers into the cords' belt hooks, he drew the taller man into another kiss.

Their bare chests crushed together as their mouths fastened on one another. Starsky wondered if his body hair felt as strange to Hutch as the blond's flat chest did to him. Though Hutch's skin was almost indecently soft, enough of a suggestion of beard stubble could be felt to remind Starsky that this was a man in his arms.

As if he needed any reminder. There was no missing the difference. Power and vitality clung to the lean-muscled figure the way perfume would to a woman.

Hutch moaned deep in his throat as they kissed, his hips butting up at Starsky's exposed groin. He'd never considered corduroy a particularly sensuous fabric, but raw silk couldn't have felt any better than Hutch's trousers did at that moment. Starsky savored the alien experience of feeling another man's erection moving and growing as it tried to get at him through the strained pants front.

Hutch's small cry as Starsky broke the kiss turned into a sigh as his mouth moved to the long neck. Starsky couldn't resist the temptation of the exposed length, kissing and sucking his way down over the twin moles. They were right where any vampire would be tempted to leave his mark, Starsky thought with a secret smile.

The bare chest beckoned to him like a cool drink at the end of a thirsty shift. The taste of Hutch's flesh was anything but cooling, however. There was a fire birthing in his loins, the small sparks of joy spreading like brush fire through his Hutch-starved system, every lick and kiss was like that much more dry tinder added to the spark.

The breathy moan Hutch released as Starsky's mouth fastened on a nearby nipple seemed to thunder through the still room. The ribcage beneath Starsky's stroking fingers was rising and falling like Hutch had just run ten miles. His partner's excitation bubbled through Starsky's blood like shaken champagne.

Starsky took his time exploring the firm chest and stomach, tasting each centimeter, being careful to discover what type of touches each part liked best. The ribs and flat belly, Starsky learned, were most susceptible to the lightest finger skimming, while Hutch's nipples and navel liked to be rimmed by a wet tongue.

Finding his progress downward halted by the all but forgotten pants band, Starsky glanced up at Hutch's face. His partner's head was tilted back, the long, shining hair spilling down over his shoulders, lips parted, his expression one of absorbed ecstasy. Starsky had wanted permission before progressing further, but accepted the obvious satisfaction with his efforts as tacit approval. Without delay, he unbuttoned the pants, sliding them and the briefs beneath down the endless flow of Hutch's legs. He left them pooled at the blond's ankles while he rose to his feet and stripped off his own robe.

Hutch had yet to open his eyes.

Starsky guided his partner down onto the bed behind them. Hutch lay flat across the center of the bed where he was put, his knees still dangling down over the side. Starsky bent to remove the trailing tangle of pants and briefs from Hutch's feet, expecting the spell to break any second.

This was too much like one of his late night fantasies to be real, common sense argued. Hutch was going to sit up any second and all the inhibitions Starsky had feared would haunt any actual sexual encounter they might ever have would rear up like the ghost in a Shakespearean tragedy and put an end to all this delicious, carefree eroticism. Hutch simply could not trust him this much.

As long seconds passed and still his partner made no protest, Hutch seemingly a helpless prisoner to his pleasure, Starsky relaxed enough to dare a touch. He wasn't quite up to actually handling Hutch's shaft yet. Starsky knew his own excitement was such that he'd probably come the moment his hand closed around that impressive tower of velvet steel. So instead, he let his fingertips skim along the inner curve of Hutch's left thigh, right below the heavy testes. The fine gold body hair there was softer than satin, addictively sensuous.

Hutch whimpered at the touch, his thighs spreading wide apart. The gesture seemed to offer Starsky's hungry body any liberty he might care to exercise. His continued resistance was a trial to his control.

Emboldened by the eager response, Starsky dropped to his knees beside the bed. His mouth replaced his fingertips. He started with a sucking kiss, trailed his tongue down the inside of Hutch's thigh to his knee, then back up the opposite thigh. This time he went all the way up the leg to suck the hanging testicle into his mouth. He worked his way slowly to its twin, licking and sucking the musky, velvety flesh with a brash absence of inhibition that positively shocked himself. For a man who'd never touched another's cock, Starsky thought he was doing damn good.

Finished with the testes, he continued his oral investigation, trailing his tonguetip slowly up the underside of Hutch's cock. His partner was a beautiful, thick length, proudly masculine, yet at the same time almost delicately formed, so perfectly was he shaped. The tangy taste of Hutch here was almost too much for Starsky's failing control. The heady scent was intoxicating, the quicksilver pleasure bursts spreading like the inhabitants of Hutch's busted ant farm through his tingling flesh.

Hutch's head was thrashing by the time Starsky took the tip of his partner's shaft into his mouth. Making a tunnel of his hand, he experimentally worked the long organ while he sucked its flaring head. His partner went wild beneath him, Hutch's hips bucking like a rodeo bronc while the long fingers dug convulsively at Starsky's comforter.

Judging his timing to perfection, Starsky brought his companion to the very edge of climax before drawing back.

"Starsssk..."

"Ssssh, you're gonna enjoy this, babe. Trust me."

He ignored the wide, frustrated gaze desperately beseeching release and lowered his head once more to the now tight sacs. Starsky lathed the mossy tissue a few moments before slipping his hands beneath his partner's thighs. He lifted Hutch's backside off the mattress, purposefully separating his partner's legs. Wondering if this would be the cut-off point of his free license, Starsky paused.

Hutch was watching him, his gaze feverish and unfocused. Reading no protest, silent or otherwise, Starsky returned his mouth to his friend's body, resting the blond's knees tight against Hutch's chest.

He would taste all of Hutch tonight. His tongue would go where no other man had touched, that insignificant extension of Starsky's own body claiming Hutch there as no other portion of his flesh would ever be permitted to. He licked hungrily at the tiny, red opening, rimming the clenched ring of muscle until it relaxed sufficiently for him to just poke his tongue the tiniest bit up inside.

Hutch's breathing was a hoarse, raspy struggle, interspersed with guttural groans. Starsky hadn't expected his partner to be vocal about his pleasure. Somehow he'd always pictured Hutch as quiet in bed as he was elsewhere. Knowing that he'd been able to break through that reserve assured Starsky that his partner was enjoying this as much as the sounds themselves did.

In his entire life, Starsky had never paid such homage to a lover, but then, there had never been anyone he loved as deeply as he did Hutch. Amazing as it was to consider, Hutch's lively response was enough for him.

"Starssk..." Hutch rasped as his partner raised his head at last.

"Yeah, babe?" Starsky asked, slightly amazed Hutch could still talk. Starsky wasn't even the recipient, and he was having difficulty forming coherent thought.

"Do it."

"Huh?" he questioned, wondering if Hutch wanted him to rim him again.

"Fuck me," Hutch grunted, pulling his knees in tighter to his chest to further expose himself.

"W-what?"

"I want... you... inside me."

"You can't mean that," Starsky gaped, turning from the idea.

"Please, Starsk," Hutch pleaded, grappling for coherency and losing the struggle. "Feel so... open, loved... do it. Pleassse..."

The incandescent gaze blazed into his own, suborning his judgment. Against everything his common sense was screaming at him, Starsky found his hand reaching for the vaseline in his night stand.

Without breaking the mesmerizing gaze, he lubricated himself, his own touch almost finishing him.

He wasn't so far gone as to forget about his partner, however. His index and middle fingers dug deep into the gel, carrying a generous amount back to Hutch. Moving blind, he located the opening. Ever so slowly, he inserted his middle finger up the passage, his eyes locked on Hutch's all the while.

Hutch's gaze widened as his finger pushed its way up the virgin-tight channel.

"Haaah... " Hutch gasped as the second finger joined its mate.

"Sure this is what you want, babe?" Starsky questioned, shaking from the strain of holding back.

Now it was Hutch who seemed hypnotized by something in Starsky's eyes. The blond gave a wordless nod, watching in wide-eyed fascination as Starsky positioned himself.

The cry Hutch gave as Starsky entered him sounded almost as piercing as the penetration itself must have been. The only other sound was their heaving gasps for air as Starsky's cock slowly claimed the passage for its own. Hutch's face was twisted with emotion -- rapture or agony, maybe both. It was so hard for Starsky to judge at that point.

All he was conscious of was the tight tube of muscle reluctantly stretching to accommodate him. Hutch was a burning, gripping heat all around him, slick from the vaseline, yet resistant to every millimeter gained.

Once completely sheathed, Starsky stilled all movement to savor the sensation. Hutch was his. No fantasy could equal the thrill of this moment. It was more than the triumph of conquest, for in truth, Starsky felt himself the conquered. He was united to his partner emotionally as he had been to no previous lover, as if their joined flesh were welding their souls together as well.

Aware of the pain, he asked, "You want me to stop?"

"No," Hutch gasped. The shake of his head that accompanied it spilled a shower of gold across his sweat-streaked features, some of the strands sticking to the moist skin.

The only thing he was less resistant to than his partner's hair was Hutch's gaze. He reached up to free the caught strands, wincing as Hutch grunted. The sudden movement forced his cock that much further up inside his partner.

Starsky closed his eyes, overcome by the unexpected pleasure flare.

There was no holding back after that. His whole body felt as if it would explode if he remained still. Hutch's moan sounded like one of pain at his first thrust, but the second cry mutated into one of unanticipated delight. Their bodies moved together then, synchronized by the fire blazing between them.

Their union was wilder than Starsky ever thought sex could be. But despite the primal pleasure, there was an emotion overlaying their loving that bad been absent from all prior joinings. This was the relentless flame that forged the strongest of swords, and their two bodies were the separate strands of iron being hammered together in the firestorm.

Starsky screamed Hutch's name as he came, hearing his partner's cry pick up almost the second his had died. He was spasming with his last ejaculation as Hutch's outpouring sprayed both their chests.

Boneless, Starsky collapsed upon the sweaty, shaking body beneath him, slipping wetly from his partner. He clutched the gasping man, covering the sweat-lined face with kisses.

Fishing blindly for the comforter, he pulled its welcome weight over their cooling forms. Burying his nose in the damp, Hutch-scented curls, Starsky slipped into slumber, content as he'd never dreamed he could be.

*~*~*

It was the sunlight which woke Starsky, sunlight and the unaccountably heavy weight crushing him into the mattress. Nancy was putting on weight. He didn't remember the shapely brunette being this solid or...

Starsky emitted a shocked gasp, his eyes snapping open in panic. There had been nothing even remotely feminine about the hard bulge that had just bumped his thigh.

The morning sunlight streaming off the longish golden strands almost blinded him. For a spellbound eternity, Starsky just lay there appreciating the sight, not allowing himself to think beyond the beauty of the moment. And his partner was beautiful beyond description. Lying there so peacefully at rest, Hutch's innocence and inner beauty seemed to shine off him as boldy as the brash sunlight. His partner finally appeared content, at peace with himself and the world around him, Gillian's ghost at long last laid to rest.

But what of Starsky's own ghosts?

Last night had gone a long way beyond mere wish fulfillment, Starsky realized soberly. He never would have had the courage to ask for what Hutch had freely given him, that intimate union seeming the ultimate gift one man could offer another in Starsky's mind. He wondered if Hutch had any idea of what he'd been doing when he made that offer.

No, his friend had just been too carried away by the emotion. Starsky supposed that if the pain of loneliness had been powerful enough to force his reticent, slightly old-fashioned partner into asking him to sleep with him, it might also be bad enough to require that type of hard loving to appease the aloneness. But what of the consequences? What price were they going to have to pay for last night's foray into the forbidden?

When those baby blue eyes opened this morning, they might hate him, Starsky realized.

Now, in the not-so-cold light of day as it were, Starsky knew that his first impulse had been right. They should never have done this. He should never have given in to Hutch... even though turning his hurting partner away would have been a cruelty beyond him on his darkest of days. If only he could have stayed in control, been strong for them both. If only...

If only the soft-spoken blond hadn't stolen his very soul.

That was the bottom line. Starsky knew that if things were as Hutch thought them to be, he wouldn't be feeling like this now. His partner had thought he was asking something difficult of him last night, something outside of his nature, which he would do to humor Hutch but be easily able to put behind him when done. That was why the tall blond had been so sure that whatever passed between them wouldn't affect their working partnership, because he'd thought it something Starsky wouldn't go for. Hell, that was probably why Hutch had asked him to take him, so that Starsky would get some pleasure out of it. Why Starsky hadn't thought of that angle last night and refused was beyond him, until he looked back over at his sleeping partner.

He'd been so intoxicated by the feel and scent of the man, by Hutch's generosity in granting him such freedom to touch, that the idea that Hutch would make such an offer out of gratitude had never even entered the picture. Were the entire truth told, Starsky knew that he'd be forced to admit that he had stopped thinking rationally soon after he'd opened the door last night.

Only now was he beginning to comprehend the price he might have to pay for his stupidity.

Hutch would surely see this as betrayal piled upon betrayal.

It had been his duty as a true friend to deny Hutch's request that he sleep with him. That was a given. Betrayal number one. Number two was a bit more subtle. Had Starsky been up front with his partner from the start about his change in feeling for him, the occasion wouldn't have arisen at all, for Hutch would never have lightly used his feelings for him no matter how desperate the need for comfort. The final failure was of course his inability to refuse Hutch's body. For whatever reason, this last weighed heaviest upon his conscience. It was ultimately the one thing that couldn't be fixed. Repairing virginity had gone out with the middle ages, Starsky bitterly recognized.

So much to make up for. Question was, would Hutch give him the chance? And, if his partner were that generous, would Starsky himself be strong enough to accept it?

Never again, that's what it would mean if Hutch didn't wake up furious over the events of last night. He'd have to content himself with Hutch's 'just tonight' grin happily, as the blond left his bed forever.

Starsky didn't know if he could do it.

Maybe if Hutch hadn't given him so much last night, it would be easier. If he'd been left wanting, if Hutch had been selfish and uncaring in bed, maybe, just maybe, he could let Hutch walk.

But it hadn't gone down like that. Hutch had been more fun and accommodating than Starsky's most treasured fantasy lover. He hadn't had to ask for anything; Hutch had given his all, had given him his virginity, for God's sake. Only a greedy bastard would ask for more than that.

But deep down inside, Starsky hungered for it all. Given the chance, he'd make Hutch his, and not just physically. Incredible as the sex had been, it wasn't enough. What he wanted was... the real love Hutch had spoken of so desperately last night.

It was already his, Starsky knew. Real love was what their day to day partnership was all about. He already had the real thing, minus the sexual thrills. What wouldn't he sacrifice to keep what they had intact?

Nothing, not even this new, precious joy.

He'd rationalized last night's pleasure by telling himself it was for Hutch's happiness. Now was the time to live up to that self-deception.

Starsky was hardly conscious of the hot stream of tears coursing down his cheeks unnoticed as he stared longingly at the touchable figure sprawled on top of him.

At length, Hutch stirred.

Starsky's hand shot to his face before the fair lids could part, wiping away the last traces of moisture. He pasted a crooked grin on his mouth as Hutch's eyes opened, hoping it wasn't as weak around the comers as it felt. Breathless, he waited for the explosion of betrayed anger he half-expected.

"Starsk?" Hutch blinked, his confusion snapping off like a light switch as shock flooded the sleepy features.

"Good mornin', partner," Starsky greeted, hiding his uncertainty. He had yet to draw a breath.

To his surprise, Hutch looked almost trepidant, as if he feared the very same fury Starsky was anticipating.

The blond remained frozen for a long moment before releasing a deep breath and relaxing his tense length.

Starsky followed suit, pretending not to notice as Hutch casually rolled off him.

"Morning, Starsk."

"How you feelin' today?" he asked brightly.

A pause, then, "Better. You... you really put my head back together last night, partner. Thanks." Though uncertainly voiced, there was nothing false to the emotion shining in the brilliant eyes. Hutch truly appeared recharged, back on track as he hadn't been since long before Gillian's arrival. The affectionate gaze seemed to embrace Starsky, holding him as safe as Hutch's arms had just moments before.

"Don't mention it. It was my pleasure," he gruffly confessed.

"Yeah?"

Reading the legitimate concern, Starsky reached out to smooth down the skewered blond tangles, heartbreakingly conscious that this was perhaps the last time he would have the opportunity to do so this openly. "Never doubt it."

A thousand dangerous questions flashed through the too-expressive gaze. The one Hutch voiced encapsulated them all. "Last night you were worried that what we did might change things between us, Starsk. Has it?"

"Has it for you?" Starsky countered, holding everything locked tight in his fragile heart.

Hutch gulped, then cleared his throat, the sound loud in the morning quiet. His partner silently shook his head, not seeming to be able to find his voice at first. "Nothing's been ruined. We're still the same. Only more so."

And there it was, as Starsky had known it would be from the moment he'd said yes last night. Choking on the lump constricting his throat, Starsky managed, "Right."

Never had his partner spoken truer words. Everything was the same as it was before they'd made love last night. Only more so.

From now on their usual buddy-buddy routine was going to be much harder to keep up.

Unable to mask his misery while staring straight at Hutch, Starsky turned his attention to the tangled bedcovers.

In so doing, he missed the expression of profound regret that swept helplessly across the proud, Nordic face, hearing Hutch's sigh only as one of relief.

When he looked up, Hutch's features had assumed a strangely stoic set.

"Mind if I borrow your shower, babe? I've got an early appointment at Merle's."

The mundane concerns of daily existence hit him like a slap in the face. His crushed hopes had left his heart raw, too open for this. As ever when bleeding inside, he tried to bluff his way through, aware that Hutch was the one person it never worked with. "Ah, sure. We still on at Jackson's this afternoon? Huggy said he might drop by for a couple of games."

Hutch nodded, offering a smile that never quite lifted the sadness from his eyes. "You bet. I'll pick up the ice cream on my way over."

So promising, Hutch left the bed.

Starsky watched him go. His hands twisted in the blanket, his teeth almost biting through his trapped lower lip with the effort it took not to call his partner back to him. As he turned to assemble Hutch's wardrobe from the various corners of the room where it had landed, he recalled that the sand was supposed to stay put in an open hand.


The End

On to sequel: Balance Due

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