A Virgin in These Woods

by

Pamela Rose & Rosemary

(Sequel to WHAT'S A PARTNER FOR? by Rosemary)

 

Starsky pulled the tab off his beer and tossed it carefully over his shoulder, grinning in delight when he saw it land in Hutch's African violet. He hated the damn thing; it reminded him of the man-eating plant in Tarzan's Desert Mystery.

He flopped down on the couch, chugging the beer and trying to avoid watching the clock. Hutch would be home soon. Starsky felt a delicious tingle of anticipation--then laughed at himself for it. Who'd think he could get a hard-on just from thinking about his lanky blond partner? Of course, it took a little getting used to; it was still such a new reaction.

Starsky finished off his beer and propped his bare feet on the coffee table, wriggling his toes as he thought about the previous night and the incredible scene that morning. He'd tried to talk Hutch into calling in sick for once, but Hutch was too conscientious to agree--although he was late for work for the second time in a week.

At the first jingle of the key in the lock, Starsky was on his feet, waiting for the door to open. Hutch entered and paused when he saw his partner. The blond smiled, just a hint of a blush in his cheeks.

"Hi." Said with a touch of shyness.

"Hi, yourself. You're late."

Hutch looked puzzled. "Am I?"

Starsky grinned. "Not really. It just felt like it."

For a long moment they simply looked at each other, a little nervous, both recalling the passionate embraces of the morning. Somehow it didn't feel right to do that now. It was easier to fall back into familiar patterns.

Starsky dropped back onto the sofa, aimed the empty beer can toward the kitchen, and tossed it with practiced accuracy into the trash.

"As long as you're home, you can get me another beer."

"Your leg broken?" Hutch inquired lightly, pulling off his jacket and gun.

"I'm an invalid, remember? I need to be pampered, waited on, uh...fatted...."

"The word is feted," Hutch corrected absently. "Besides, the Camille act is all over. Dobey says you've been cleared to go back to work, starting Monday."

His partner jumped to his feet. "No kidding? Really? That's great! Terrific!" Starsky hugged him wildly. "Why didn't you tell me that right off?"

Hutch hugged him back happily. "I did, dummy. I've only been home thirty seconds."

Starsky pulled back and laughed. "The dynamic duo rides again. All right!"

"But not until next Monday."

Starsky's face fell. "That's nearly a week."

"I know." Hutch studied his shoes. "I figured you wouldn't want to hang around here murdering my plants, so...I got Dobey to loan us his cabin. He gave me the rest of the week off. I guess he knew I wouldn't be worth much for the rest of the week anyway, waiting for you to come back."

"Cabin?" Starsky repeated blankly. It took a moment to sink in fully. "Oh, no, Hutch. Can't we go to Bermuda instead?"

"You got the money?" Hutch asked pointedly.

"Are you kidding?" On sick pay? Besides, I just bought a new pair of sneakers and--"

Hutch heartlessly cut off his tale of financial woe. "Then you'd better be satisfied with a free vacation. Just think of all that fresh air and sunshine and those green, growing things. It'll be great for you."

"Got plenty of those right here," Starsky grumbled. "That cabin is a...a deathtrap, Hutch. The whole place was crawling with witches the last time. Not to mention the--"

"Satanists, Starsk. And they're all gone now," Hutch said patiently.

Starsky ignored him. "...Rattlesnakes in the fridge, and skunks in the woodpile, and bears, and--"

"You really don't want to go?"

Starsky started to give an emphatically negative answer, but something in his partner's voice made him hesitate. Hutch obviously wanted to go--maybe even needed to. Returning to nature usually seemed to recharge him, gave him time and strength to rebuild his defenses. Recalling Hutch's recent plague of nightmares and shakiness, Starsky relented.

"Oh, hell, why not?" As long as you let me pick out the groceries this time. I refuse to eat celery and yogurt for a week...or bear meat and acorns."

Hutch brightened. "Sure, Starsk. We'll make a stop before we leave the city tonight and let you stock up on pizza mix and coney sauce."

"Tonight?"

"The sooner we leave, the better. I'm sick of the city. We could get there by midnight if we start now."

"But I haven't had dinner yet," Starsky protested.

"So we'll stop and get tacos or something on the way."

"Tacos, huh? Okay, let's get packed."

*~*~*

They didn't reach the cabin by midnight, Starsky had insisted on stopping at the Dairy Whip for a triple banana split to top off his tacos and enchiladas, and Hutch had been amazingly patient about it--even to the point of foregoing his usual derogatory comments on his friend's stomach lining.

At his own insistence, Starsky was driving. Hutch was slumped down in the front seat, doing his best to stay awake. In the brief glare of the passing headlights, Starsky could see how exhausted and worn Hutch looked.

"Hey, babe," Starsky said softly. "Why don't you crawl into the back seat and get some sleep? You're beat."

Hutch jumped a little, startled out of his doze. They'd both been silent for several miles, "Uh...no. I'd rather stay up here with you. I'm okay."

"Sure you are. You're so tired you can hardly spit. Must've been a rough day. What happened?"

Hutch hesitated. "Nothing, really."

"C'mon, Hutch. What?"

The blond sighed and rubbed his eyes. "We finally nabbed the guy who's been knocking over the jewelry stores."

"Oh, yeah? Any trouble?"

Hutch shrugged. "I had to chase him on foot for about ten blocks. Finally cornered him in a back lot on Sycamore." Again he paused. "He pulled a gun on me."

"And?" Starsky's hands tightened on the wheel. Hutch had been in trouble and he hadn't been there to back him up. It hurt.

"And I was clumsy enough to trip over a damn cat and my gun went sliding halfway across the lot."

Starsky's breath felt tight in his chest. It wasn't necessary for him to have been there; he could see the scene perfectly. Almost taste it--the grit in his teeth from the dust of his fall, the heat pounding off the pavement, the yowl of the alleycat against the muffled noise of traffic...and the cold eyes of a punk with a gun twice the size of his morals.

"What happened?" he asked hoarsely.

Hutch hadn't wanted to remember any of this, he could still feel the sick cold in the pit of his stomach as he'd stared into the barrel of that gun, and he was irritated that Starsky had pryed it all out of him. He resisted the urge to reply tartly that the scum had shot him and he died. Why take it out on Starsk? He could empathize with what his partner was feeling, and neither of them were in the mood for snotty jokes.

"Lane took the car the other way and came up in back of the guy. Just in time, too. I was really sweating it for a minute. You were right about the kid. He's pretty sharp."

"You could've had your head blown off," Starsky snapped. "He should have been there quicker. Where the hell was he?"

Hutch laid his hand on the other's arm. "Hey, he did exactly what you would've done. You might have been there faster, but it all worked out and that's what counts. Next week you will be there...okay?"

Starsky relaxed a little. "Okay," he grinned sheepishly. "And I don't know that I could've made it quicker than Lane. Those streets are pretty tricky around there. I didn't mean to knock Dave. I just...got a little freaked thinking what might've happened."

"Yeah...so did I. But neither of us can afford to think that way, can we?"

Starsky glanced over at him. Hutch was rubbing his eyes again. "No, we can't. Or we'll both be having nightmares." He reached out one arm and pulled the blond head over to rest against his chest. "Give it up, cowboy. Get some sleep before you fall out the car door."

Hutch snuggled up against him contentedly, rubbing his cheek against the cool leather jacket. Starsky's arm stayed around him, hugging him tightly. Hutch had longed for Starsky to hold him like this since he'd gotten home, but except for the brief hug, they'd both automatically kept a slight distance between them. Hutch had expected it. It would take a while before either of them would be able to take their love--their new way of loving--in stride. That was one reason he'd wanted them to have some time alone together, away from friends and phones and doorbells. They needed time to level off the highs and lows of their new relationship and find a workable medium.

Starsky felt a warm hand settle on his thigh. He brushed a kiss on the blond hair, and the hand slid up an inch on the inside of his leg. He tightened his grip on Hutch's shoulder, and Hutch's fingers began stroking slowly along the in-seam of his jeans, moving closer to the crotch. Starsky automatically spread his legs a little wider, and the questing hand settled on the bulge in his pants. His cock hardened as Hutch squeezed it, teasing it erect. Squirming, Starsky finally protested. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Letting my fingers do the walking?" Hutch suggested sleepily.

Starsky snorted. "That's gotta be the worst line you've ever come up with."

"You're right. It sounds like one of yours. I must be tired."

"Listen...you've got to stop that. It's too distracting. You're gonna make me wreck the car."

"You've driven this car with bullets smashing through the back window, and you think this is too distracting?" Hutch asked in amazement.

"If I had a hard-on, I wouldn't have even noticed the bullets. Come on, Hutch. Have a heart. You're driving me crazy."

"Then pull over to the side of the road," Hutch suggested silkily.

For a second, Starsky was tempted, but he shook his head resolutely. "No way. I refuse to be had in the front seat of my Torino. Or the back seat," he added hastily, before his partner could suggest it.

"Don't tell me this car is a cherry," Hutch mumbled teasingly. "All this time I thought it was a tomato."

"And I thought you were sleepy. So shut up and go to sleep. Your jokes are getting as bad as Huggy's now."

Hutch sighed and let his hand move back a safe distance down the muscled thigh. "Okay." He paused. "Starsk?"

"Yeah?"

"I love you."

Starsky's free hand gently stroked the blond hair. "I know," he said softly. "It's mutual."

*~*~*

When the Torino pulled up in front of the cabin, the full moon was sliding in and out of the drifting clouds. Starsky shut of the motor and waited a moment for the moon to reappear, listening to the crickets and fighting his agoraphobia.

He looked down at his peacefully sleeping partner and stroked a damp curl from Hutch's forehead. It seemed a pity to wake him, he was sleeping so soundly for once, but Starsky's shoulder was long past being asleep and well on the way to being dead from loss of circulation.

"Hutch," he said softly. "Hey, babe, wake up. We're here. Your squirrelly paradise. Rattlesnake Motel. Bears-in-the-bushes Hilton. Come on, sleeping beauty. If you think I'm getting out of this car without you to protect me, you're nuts.

Hutch stirred and sat up, stretching. "Ahhhh. Where...? Oh, we're here. Good." He yawned, then lay back down with his head in Starsky's lap. "Let me know when you have the car unpacked, the bed made, the wood in, the fire started...especially when you have the bed made."

"Ha, ha. Get your ass up, nature lover."

"Well, if you insist--" Hutch opened his eyes and sat up a little, taking Starsky's face in his hands and kissing him. After a startled second, Starsky responded eagerly. As soon as their tongues began touching, however, Hutch pulled back and abruptly opened the car door, triggering the dome light and blinding them.

"What did ya do that for?" Starsky complained, reaching for him again.

Hutch evaded him. "We've got work to do."

"Tease," Starsky accused.

Hutch ducked his head back in the car door, looking innocent. "You said you didn't want to do it in the car, remember?"

Starsky suddenly felt himself blushing furiously, strangely embarrassed at how openly Hutch was talking about...everything. Doing it was all right, but talking about it bothered him. And he wasn't sure why he felt that way. He loved Hutch, and when they were touching or holding, he felt fine about the whole thing. But then, without warning, it would all seem wrong somehow. He'd had no doubts last night or this morning--at least, not many--but several times during the day, he had been stopped short by an uneasy sensation, as though he were going too far down the wrong road.

"Hey, I thought you were going to get the stuff out of the trunk!" Hutch shouted from the doorway of the house. He had the lights on, and their glow silhouetted the spare, neat form of his body in the tight jeans and rumpled shirt.

Starsky stared at him until the warm, secure feeling rushed back. That's Hutch waiting for me, he told himself sternly. Beautiful, sweet, dependable Hutch. And I'm not going to hurt him. He gave me plenty of chances to back out, and I didn't. I didn't want to--not then, and not now.

"Starsky!" his partner yelled again. "Did you fall asleep out there?"

"I'm comin', I'm comin'. Keep your pants on--" He broke off at Hutch's amused laugh. "You know what I mean." He got out of the car and unlocked the trunk.

It didn't take long to get everything into the cabin. Hutch began putting away the groceries while Starsky located the blankets and sheets and made the bed.

"What time is it?" Hutch asked from the kitchen.

"I don't know." Starsky replied absently.

Hutch sighed. "I'm sure you'll tell me sometime why you bother to wear that damn watch."

"Oh. Yeah. Uh...it's 2:25."

"Thank you, Big Ben. Well, there's hardly any point in going to sleep. The best fishing is around five."

Starsky looked stricken. "You really don't expect me to ruin my new sneakers stomping around in the dew looking for fishies at five o'clock in the morning, do you?"

"Okay, Starsk. We'll sleep late today." He shut off the light and moved toward his partner. "That sounds pretty good to me, too."

They stood looking at each other in the dim moonlight. Hutch began unbuttoning his shirt; eyes still fastened on Starsky's. The moonlight turned the blond's hair to silver, making his face appear dark against the whiteness.

An uncertain shiver prickled Starsky's spine. Hutch was so open about the whole thing, so relaxed. Each of his movements spoke of an unqualified acceptance of their new sexuality. Starsky envied him his composure. Hutch seemed to have settled any reservations about their new relationship and was now intent on enthusiastically enjoying its benefits. That was all right, only...only it was all so very new. Scary in a way.

"Need some help?"

Startled out of his reverie, Starsky grinned sheepishly. Hutch was already naked. Belatedly, Starsky started unbuttoning his own shirt. "Just admiring the view."

"So far, its kind of one-sided," Hutch teased, assisting him with the last button.

The reply that popped into Starsky's mind remained unspoken. He wanted to tell Hutch that both sides looked damn good to him, but he just couldn't say it aloud. He pulled off the rest of his clothing, wishing he could relax and take this in stride...as if they'd done it a hundred times before.

As they touched, his nervousness faded. Hutch felt good in his arms, really good, like he belonged there. Even the scruffy moustache felt soft against his skin.

Locked in a deep kiss, they tumbled onto the bed. The cold sheets were a shock to his overheated flesh, but he buried the chill in the warmth of Hutch's kisses.

It was funny how one's perceptions of a person could be totally changed in one short day. He'd always loved Hutch--or had loved him for so long that he'd forgotten the time of mere friendship--but he'd never consciously wanted him before. Not like this. Now he wanted nothing more than to spend forever in those arms. Starsky vaguely wondered whether he could keep an erection throughout eternity.

The kiss deepened. Sparks of desire pulsed through him as Hutch's tongue pressed into his mouth. Starsky sucked on it hungrily, savoring the taste, recalling the taste of other parts he longed to sample again.

The tongue continued to caress the roof of his mouth, while Hutch's hand combed through his hair to the nape of his neck, moving again to stroke slowly down his spine. As it glided over his buttocks, Starsky froze. He pulled back from the kiss, his whole body tense.

Despite his efforts to stop the memory, Hutch's words echoed in his mind--"Kind of one sided." Did Hutch want him to reciprocate for what he'd been given last night? It was only fair that he give his partner the same privileges he'd been granted. That thought had been brewing in his mind all day. Starsky had sworn to himself that if Hutch asked it of him, he would; but now that he was actually facing the possibility, he just couldn't.

"Starsky, what is it?" Hutch asked, confused by the fear he sensed in his partner.

"Hutch...I...." The troubled eyes begged for understanding.

Puzzled, Hutch stared at his friend. Abruptly, he realized where his hand was positioned and the cause of the withdrawal. Starsky watched the concern fade from Hutch's face. He expected disappointment, maybe even anger, to replace it, but the eyes just softened.

"Hey, relax. That's not what I want, Starsk. I just want to touch you...okay?"

There was a wistful note in Hutch's voice that eased his anxieties...and, at the same time, triggered a consuming guilt.

"I'm sorry, Hutch. Didn't mean to...." He looked away, not knowing how to explain his fear without hurting Hutch even more. A strong hand gripped his chin, turning his face back, and then lightly caressed his cheek.

"It's okay, Starsk. It doesn't matter, honest."

"It's not that I don't want...."

"Sssh," Hutch soothed, gathering him back in his arms. "Don't worry about it."

For a long time, Starsky lay still in the loving embrace, inhaling Hutch's warm scent, appreciating the hand that continued to tenderly play with his hair. The nagging guilt remained with him. Hutch wasn't lying; he really hadn't intended anything more than a caress, but Starsky knew it would happen sooner or later. When the time came, when Hutch wanted it for real, what if he still couldn't give it?

"Hey," Hutch interrupted his troubled thoughts. The stroking hand didn't venture near his ass. "Know what I want?"

"A new partner?"

"Never." Now the voice was strained, eagerness deflated.

Starsky silently cursed himself. Man, am I screwing things up!

"What do you want, Hutch? Tell me." Whatever it was, he'd give it gladly.

Hutch pulled back so he could look into Starsky's eyes. "Starsk," he began shyly, "I'd like you to...to take me again, like before."

The last part was whispered so low that Starsky barely heard it. When the request finally registered in his mind, something wrenched inside him. Hutch wasn't afraid to give himself; why was he?

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

"I want to." The steadiness of the moonlit gaze proved the truth of his words. "That's why I brought the lubricant."

Starsky nodded slowly. Although his own body was more than willing to oblige his partner, he found it difficult to believe that Hutch really wanted this again--especially after his own shameful failure.

The dark head bent for an ambivalent kiss, but Hutch's immediate response was reassuring. The blond bristles collided with his lips, chafing in their eagerness. A second later, the moustache brushed by and was replaced with the incredible softness of a delicious mouth, overpowering him with a warm, absorbing kiss.

Their cocks crushed together tightly as Hutch arched upward and Starsky's hips began a steady rocking, with anything but steadying effects. Before long, they were both out of control, panting for each breath. Hutch gently urged his partner's weight off him, and turned onto his stomach, befuddling Starsky. New position. Last night, Hutch had been on his back. How was he supposed to excite his partner when Hutch's groin was pressed into the mattress?

Hutch's ass rose a few inches, as if searching for him. Hypnotized by the unbroken whiteness, Starsky reached out a hand to stroke his partner. Hutch was so pale; even his legs had lost their tan. It had been a long time since they'd been to the beach. Too long. His "accident" had kept Hutch from doing so many of the things he loved to do...because he didn't want to leave him, Starsky, alone.

Starsky pushed the unpleasant reminder aside, concentrating on the softness beneath his fingers. The skin was so perfect--softer and warmer than any velvet. His insides shivered with need. God, Hutch has a beautiful ass..., he thought dreamily.

Locating the cream on the bedside table, Starsky warmed it in his hands before gently probing the cleft between the cushiony mounds. He lubricated himself and entered his partner carefully, started to encounter less resistance than the night before. But there was no fear now. Hutch's body was almost totally relaxed, the muscles clenching and unclenching around his cock in a controlled rhythm, rather than a spasmodic reaction. He pulled back, gently reentered, then repeated the sequence, cautious not to push too forcefully.

"Harder," Hutch gasped, pushing up against the shaft and burying it nearly to the hilt. "Take me harder." His voice was strained, but it wasn't with pain.

Starsky complied, exerting more force, studying Hutch's reaction to each successively deeper penetration. This really seemed to turn Hutch on, maybe even more than when his hand pumped Hutch's cock.

Analysis during sex wasn't a habit with Starsky--to him it seemed more like something Hutch would do--but now it was important for him to understand. It was incomprehensible to him that Hutch could like this, enjoy being violated. That was still how he saw it, in the back of his mind, as a violation. To take was natural, an aggressively male action. His body agreed with that, as it surged into Hutch. But to let one's self be taken was a very different matter. It took a different kind of courage--a courage Starsky wasn't sure he had.

The pleasure became too intense to allow further analysis, sweeping him along with the force of his ejaculation. Hutch's head tilted back, strands of disheveled hair brushing the sturdy shoulders as he cried out his own completion.

Starsky moved from him, and Hutch rolled onto his back. His eyes were still tightly closed, his face twisted with spent passion.

"Hutch? Hutch, are you all right?"

The blond took a deep, satisfied breath, his face relaxing into a smile. He opened his eyes; Starsky was staring at him, very concerned. Hutch smiled again and wiped the worry from the beloved face with a quick kiss.

"You're unbelievable, Starsk. Absolutely unbelievable. You make me feel so...so damn good." Content with the answering blush, Hutch buried his face in the fuzzy softness of the dark chest.

Starsky kissed the corn-colored hair, loving its silkiness. Cornflower eyes...cornsilk hair. Beautiful!

Hutch snuggled closer to him, ready to sleep, but Starsky couldn't let it go so easily. He had to ask, had to find out for sure.

"You really do like it, don't you, Hutch?"

"What?"

"You know. When I...fuck you." Subtlety had never been one of his strong points. "You really dig it."

"Sure I do. I came all over the sheet, didn't I? Now go to sleep."

"No, wait, Hutch, I...."

Hutch opened his eyes, catching the uncertainty. Starsky wasn't just fishing for compliments. He was dead serious and completely confused. Propping himself on one elbow, Hutch asked in a softer voice, "Okay, what's bothering you?"

"Guess I'm having trouble understanding how you can...like it."

"I love you."

"Yeah, but--"

"No buts. Let me finish, Starsk. I love you and when we're making love that way, it's as if you're a part of me...absorbing me, both covering and filling me with everything you are--all the goodness. I feel safe then, as if nothing could ever separate us...or take you away from me. Do you understand?"

Starsky blushed. "I guess so. I don't know. It still seems...."

"Listen," Hutch said firmly. "Besides all that, it feels good. It feels wonderful. I'm not as much of a masochist as you think I am. Trust me."

"I do. As long as you're sure I didn't hurt you."

"You didn't hurt me," Hutch said patiently. "Think you can sleep now?" He sounded like he was humoring a five-year-old.

"Yeah, I think so." Starsky opened his arms, and was impressed by the speed with which Hutch moved to fill them. For all Hutch's tendency to patronize, it was he who required the physical cuddling. "Good night," although he suspected his partner was already deeply asleep.

"Sure was," came the mumbled answer.

With a last soft kiss on the hairy chest, Hutch did fall asleep. Suddenly aware of his surroundings, Starsky stared up into the darkness of the cabin ceiling, contemplating man-eating bears, ravenous rattlesnakes, and carnivorous crickets. How was a man supposed to sleep peacefully knowing that big, black, squishy bugs were responsible for all that noise?

*~*~*

Starsky woke to a loud rumble of thunder and the sound of Hutch clattering around in the kitchen. He rolled over and buried his face in the pillow, clutching it like a lost lover. It was a rainy day, and his subconscious told him that rainy days were for sleeping on your stomach in a warm bed until the drizzle stopped.

"Wake up, dopey," Hutch said cheerily from the doorway. "I've almost got breakfast ready."

Starsky groaned. "Wha' time is it?"

"10:30. Aren't you hungry?"

Starsky's stomach rumbled in echo to the storm. "Uh...yeah. Wha'd'ya fix?"

"Oatmeal and orange juice."

Raising his head at last, he regarded Hutch balefully. "Want me to gag?" Then he brightened. "Oh, yeah, I brought some Froot Loops."

"But you forgot the milk."

"Shit! I knew there was something...."

"Come on, Starsk. Oatmeal sticks to your ribs."

"So does cold pizza," Starsky said wistfully.

"Now I'm going to gag. Well, are you going to stay in bed all day?"

"Maybe. It's raining."

Hutch sat down on the edge of the bed. "You noticed. And I thought you were still in your zombie stage."

"You promised me sunshine."

"Sorry." Hutch ran his hand down Starsky's spine. "Maybe tomorrow."

Starsky turned over. "That's okay. If I've got to be in the wilderness, I'd just as soon stay inside."

"You're impossible." Hutch smiled and leaned down to kiss him. Starsky wrapped his arms around the bare shoulders and dragged Hutch down beside him. In a few seconds, they were totally engrossed in each other, kissing, stroking, licking.

"Hutch." Starsky said suddenly, "where did all the smoke come from?"

"Smoke?" Hutch said absently from somewhere under Starsky's collarbone. He lifted his head. "Smoke. Damn! The oatmeal!" He jumped up and shot out of the room.

Starsky sighed and folded his hands under his head, listening to the cursing from the kitchen. Then, he began to smile wickedly. No more oatmeal.

After breakfast of very crunchy Froot Loops and coffee, they spent the rest of the morning trying to build a fire in the fireplace. Although the wood had been partially covered by a waterproof tarp, it was still a little damp, so it required a degree of patience--mostly from Hutch--to coax the flames to life.

Once they had a satisfying blaze, they sat back triumphantly. For a long time, they were content to simply watch the fire burn and feed in a new long now and then, listening to it sizzle and crackle in protest.

Hutch's hand reached out to clasp his partner's. "Glad we came?"

"Uh huh. Feels kind of cozy. I like fireplaces...and storms. They kind of go together."

"I've always been a little afraid of storms. But it's a good scary feeling, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah, like when you're watching Forbidden Planet and the monster from the id leaves those big footprints in the sand, and--"

Hutch laughed. "That's not exactly the aesthetic quality I was trying to describe."

"What d'ya mean?" Starsky replied, slightly offended. "That's aesthetic. It's a classic."

"It's a monster movie, Starsk."

"No way. It's science fiction. You're too hooked on reality, Hutch. You have to use your imagination, broaden your horizons."

"A horizon is also just a straight line. Things aren't so simple. Escapism doesn't solve any problems."

"Thinking about problems is a problem," Starsky retorted. "I'm all for escapism. If you ignore something long enough, it usually goes away."

"You've got a weird philosophy, Starsk."

"It gets me through the day. Speaking of which, what are we going to do with the rest of this one?"

"I saw a Monopoly set on one of the shelves," Hutch offered.

"Okay, but I get the little dog. You had it last time."

They laid out the board in front of the fireplace and argued over who was going to be the banker. Once that was settled, they began playing their usual game--Starsky buying up all the utilities and railroads while Hutch held out for the classier real estate.

After awhile, Starsky asked, off-handedly. "You never did tell me how you talked Dobey into letting you have time off. Buy him a box of candy or something?"

Hutch shrugged. "I just told him we needed some time alone."

Starsky looked up sharply. "You told him what?"

"That we needed some time together. What's the big deal? He understood."

"Understood what? Christ, Hutch, you didn't have to say it like that!"

Hutch studied him, puzzled. "How did you want me to say it? I just told him the truth."

"The truth? Are you kidding? Not about us? You didn't!"

Hutch straightened as he saw Starsky's intent expression. "All I told him was that we were both pretty wound up and nervous and needed time to talk."

Starsky relaxed. "For a minute there I thought you meant-- But geez, Hutch it still sounds kinda funny. You didn't have to make it seem like a...a honeymoon or something."

Hutch turned to look at the fire, carefully keeping his expression neutral. "Why? Would it bother you if he knew?"

Starsky hesitated. "Well...sure...I guess it would. Wouldn't it bother you? I mean, it's not something you want to shout from the rooftops."

The blond head turned back quickly. "Isn't it? Are you ashamed? Sorry?" he demanded.

"Don't put words in my mouth," Starsky snapped, feeling trapped. "It's just...it's nobody's business but ours. I don't see any point of making an issue of it."

"I don't like the idea of hiding in the closet either!"

Starsky's mouth dropped open. "In the.... Wait a minute! You make it sound like we're both gay or something!"

Hutch stood abruptly and moved to stare out the window at the rain, his back to his partner. "What would you call it?" he asked softly.

"Well, not that. I mean, there's a difference. We just kind of fell into it. It's not like we...we're queer or anything."

"And what we've been doing for the last two days--what would you call that?"

"Loving!" Starsky burst out angrily. "What would you call it?"

Hutch took a deep breath. "So, why do you think we need to hide it?"

Starsky looked confused for a second. "Because other people wouldn't see it that way. They wouldn't understand. They'd see us as a couple of...of faggots."

"I see," Hutch said quietly. He was silent for several moments before he turned back to look at his partner. Starsky was standing now, too, and his fists were clenched nervously at his sides, his body language signaling withdrawal and defense. "You're really afraid of that, aren't you, Starsk?"

"I just don't think it's very smart to be so damn open about it. Our jobs are at stake, you know. Besides, you're the one who's always saying you hate labels. You want to be labeled with this?"

"And they never bothered you before," Hutch pointed out gently, "...until now."

"God, Hutch, you know how everyone acted when they found out about Johnny Blaine. We don't want to go through that."

Hutch sat down by the Monopoly game again, dropping his eyes. He felt scared suddenly, terrified by Starsky's adamant denial of what their relationship really signified. "Do you think our friends would turn their backs on us if they knew?"

"It doesn't matter, because they don't have to know," Starsky said sharply. "This is just between you and me--and it should stay that way. Right?" Hutch didn't answer or even look up, and Starsky realized that he'd said something wrong, although he wasn't sure what. He began again in a less abrasive tone. "Listen, babe, it's different for us. We didn't want this to happen...it just did. It's not something we planned, or--"

"I almost asked you before," Hutch broke in, his voice hoarse.

Starsky froze. "What do you mean. You mean, you've thought of this...me and you...before the other night?"

Hutch toyed with the dice nervously. "Yes. Several times I...I wanted to tell you how I felt...what I wanted. But I was afraid. And then, when you found out about Johnny, you were so confused and upset about it...I just couldn't." He looked up, meeting Starsky's shocked eyes. "I've loved you for a long time, David."

A little stunned by Hutch's intensity and the use of his first name, Starsky stammered, "Hey, you know I...I've loved you, too. It's just that it...it took me longer to...find out what it meant. And I'm not sorry it's happened. You believe that, don't you?"

Hutch nodded, but glanced away, not totally convinced anymore.

Starsky took a deep breath and started over. "Well, anyway, I don't see what any of this gay stuff has to do with us. It's just not the same thing at all. It's not like either of us would ever think of doing...this...with anyone else."

Hutch glanced up. "Starsk...."

"Yeah?"

Hutch swallowed and examined the board. "Nothing. It's your move."

*~*~*

"Bears, Hutch. Wild man-eating bears. I'm telling you, it ain't safe out here!" The blue eyes darted nervously to the surrounding bushes. The threatening sound had come from a rather innocent-looking woodchuck, but he wasn't taking any chances.

"And I'm telling you there aren't any bears here," Hutch repeated for the fifteenth time. They were barely fifty yards into the woods and already his partner was exhibiting symptoms of severe paranoia. "Come on, Starsk, relax. Nothing's going to jump you."

"Nothin'?" Starsky asked with a disappointed smirk.

"Nothing with four legs, anyway." Desire was beginning to overshadow Hutch's customary enjoyment of Starsky's phobias. His partner, so rarely vulnerable in the city, was charmingly helpless out here. Hutch suspected that the reason he enjoyed dragging Starsky along on his back-to-nature excursions was that it was retaliation of sorts for Starsky's superior street knowledge. Here, Starsky had to rely totally on Hutch's judgement.

"How about the ones with six legs?" Starsky complained, swatting another of the bloodthirsty mosquitoes that persisted in dive-bombing his bare arms. What irritated him most about the damn things was the fact that they seemed to be dining on him exclusively. "How come they're not biting you?" he wailed in frustration.

Hutch smiled unsympathetically. "Maybe I'm not kosher."

"Then I'm in trouble," Starsky muttered, grinning a little himself.

Hutch ignored him. "God, this is beautiful! Just look at those trees?"

Starsky did as requested. All he could see was more places for bears to hide. "Okay, they're trees. So what?"

"Just once can't you enjoy the majestic beauty of nature without--"

"What's that?" Starsky yelled, panicked by a sudden rustling of bushes to their left.

A startled jay flew across their path.

"It's a bird, Starsky. A bird. You did have those in Brooklyn, didn't you?"

"Ours didn't hide in the bushes," Starsky grumbled, "scaring people half to death!"

"That's because the bushes were filled with muggers."

"Ha, ha. Hutch do we have to hike? What if we get lost out here...or we're attacked by a pack of bears? Can't we go back to the lake? We could go swimming."

"You don't like to swim." There was no way he could refuse those beseeching eyes. "Okay, Starsk, we'll go back to the lake."

Hutch turned, leading them back by a slightly different path. At the edge of the woods, he paused, seeing a dark, unmoving form in the shade up ahead.

"Why'd ya stop?" Starsky asked, tripping over a branch.

Hutch's arm automatically braced his friend. Both watched the colorful flurry brought about by the slight commotion. A cloud of yellow and white, madly fluttering butterflies exploded into the air.

"Butterflies," Starsky whispered in awe, a smile of pure delight brightening his face, "Never saw so many before. Why were they all together like that?" He stopped, seeing the small, very dead fawn.

"Feeding," Hutch replied matter-of-factly, watching the last flyer disappear into the trees.

"Feeding? On the deer?" The idea repulsed Starsky; it was disillusioning.

Hutch read the disgust on the pale face. "You never knew they did that?"

Starsky shook his head, making a wide circle around the dead animal. He remained silent the rest of the way back.

The blond glanced at his partner when they reached the lake. Starsky was too quiet. Those butterflies had really upset him. He put his arms around Starsky, drawing him close. "Hey," he suggested conspiratorially, "let's swim in the buff."

"Huh? What if somebody comes by?" Starsky still seemed preoccupied.

"They won't. This place is deserted." Hutch pressed against him sensuously, finally catching his complete attention.

"Okay. You wanna get your blond body outta those clothes?"

Hutch released him and started unbuttoning, watching Starsky struggle his way out of his clinging T-shirt. Jeans, briefs, boots, and a pair of Adidas joined the pile.

Starsky's eyes strayed up the slender figure. Not a bug bite or sweat streak was visible on the irritatingly perfect body. Starsky, himself, felt, and undoubtedly looked, like a chicken pox victim, but Hutch's growing erection assured him that his lumpy body still held some appeal.

"Hutch," he murmured, catching his friend in his arms. When the kiss ended, Starsky checked their position, calculating his chances of success. The lake bank was only a couple of feet behind them, the deep water gleaming invitingly. During the next kiss he managed to back the preoccupied blond a step closer to the edge. Perfect!

He released Hutch's lips and began nibbling on the long throat. His kiss moved to a hair-covered ear. "Hutch," he whispered, nudging a few loose strands with his nose. "Did you ever make it in a lake?"

Hutch's "Huh?" was lost in a loud gasp as Starsky tipped them over the embankment. He felt Hutch's arms tighten around him as they fell through the empty air and then abandon their hold when the blond began to tread water.

"Star...Starsky!" Hutch sputtered, his tone forecasting disaster for his partner. "Why the hell did you do that? When I get my hands on you--"

"We'll make it in the lake?" Starsky suggested hopefully. Obviously his joke hadn't been appreciated.

"You won't make it out of the lake," Hutch threatened.

The winner of the wrestling match was determined very quickly; the blond held clear superiority in the water.

"Had enough?" Hutch asked smugly.

Starsky nodded, too busy gasping for air to speak. He clung desperately to the wiry arms that had dunked him only seconds before. He was beginning to think making it in the water wasn't such a bright idea after all. He watched Hutch glide gracefully to the nearby bank. No one had the right to look that at home in water. Starsky brooded, using an exhausted dog paddle to follow. "Hey, Aquaman, wait up." He accepted the helping hand and fell gratefully on to the sun-warmed grass, trying to catch his breath.

Hutch eased down beside his partner, slightly regretting his roughness. Yesterday's rain had left the woods clear and fresh, and the day was too beautiful for anything but gentleness. The lakeside's feathered inhabitants celebrated the day with cheerful songs, and even the rustling of the leaves carried a sound of happiness. With Starsky beside him, he felt very much at peace, despite the unspoken tension that had hung between them since the interrupted Monopoly.

A loud sneeze disrupted the harmony. Hutch looked over at his partner. He was shivering a little and seemed pale.

"Are you all right?" Hutch asked, wondering whether he'd overdone the dunking routine.

"Su...sure."

"You're cold. We can go back to the cabin, if you want." He pulled his wet friend into his arms.

Starsky snuggled closer, cushioning his head on Hutch's shoulder. "I'm counting on you to keep me warm."

As the sun poured over them, drying their skin and reversing the water's chill Hutch heard the expected deepening of breath as Starsky dozed off. Swimming always seemed to knock the energy out of his partner, and he would invariably drift off afterward. Like a cat, he seemed to have the ability to fall asleep anywhere, in any position. Hutch was willing to admit--however, only to himself--that he envied his lover's vitality where sex was concerned. Not once in the past few days had Starsky been the one to call it quits there.

Hutch's eyes opened suddenly as he became aware of the bright sunshine and his sleeping partner's bare back--not to mention his bare bottom. "Starsk, we'd better go in...or at least put some clothes on."

Starsky only cuddled closer.

"Starsk, wake up. You're starting to get a sunburn."

"Uh huh...."

"Starsky! Come on. You know you burn easier than I do. You'll be sorry if--"

"Hutch you sound like my mother! Knock it off, huh?" The expected sarcastic reply never came. Starsky caught sight of the tightness around the blond's sensuous lips and knew his words had been taken badly. "Sorry, man. It's just...sometimes you...." Hutch's downcast expression silenced his exasperated response.

"Push too hard?"

"Nope, you just don't give a guy time to wake up. That's all I meant, Hutch." A soft touch brought the blond head back up, but the eyes were still shadowed. "Wanna kiss and make up?" Starsky asked lightly.

"Your eyes are too blue and your lashes too long," Hutch replied, holding the sleepy gaze.

"What? Starsky asked in confusion, failing to find the connection between his question and the strange answer.

"I said--"

"I heard ya. What's it mean? You gonna kiss me or not?"

In reply, Hutch leaned forward until their lips met, prolonging the kiss until both had to draw back for air.

"That's more like it." Starsky sighed. "Now, what was all that other stuff about?" He rubbed his cheek lovingly against the smooth chest.

Hutch tried to see the eyes and lashes in question, but found roguish curls blocking his view. The sun was splashing tints of red through the dark twists. He ran his hand experimentally down his partner's spine, but Starsky didn't look up from the nipple he was leisurely licking.

"You already know," he said finally.

"Know what?" Starsky lifted his head.

Hutch stroked his cheek, pausing to finger the small mole under Starsky's right eye. He'd long ago memorized every line of this body; now it was delightful to freely touch every inch of it, taste it.

"Every time you look at me, I melt."

"Huh?" The eloquent reply was created by the delays in the conversation. Starsky's thoughts kept being distracted by Hutch's hand tracing his navel and brushing along the edge of his pubic hair.

"Midnight blue eyes...they're very persuasive."

"Anything else?" Starsky demanded, unnerved by Hutch's detached inspection, and fervently wishing that every one of the ugly mosquito welts would vanish. "See anything else you like?"

The light blue eyes moved back up to meet dark blue. "Yeah...all of it."

Starsky relaxed, with a satisfied grin. "I've been told I'm a handsome devil."

"Your mother also thinks you look like Paul Muni."

Before Starsky had time to react, Hutch jumped up laughing. He ran a few steps and dove cleanly into the water. "Hey! Come on in," he shouted. "The water's a lot warmer now."

"No, thanks," Starsky replied, feeling a tinge of disappointment. "I like being nice and dry again." He lay back on the grass and closed his eyes, listening to the splash of Hutch's vigorous strokes and enjoying his lingering drowsiness.

Starsky had almost dozed off again when he was roused by an ominous stillness. Jerking to a sitting position, he stared at the empty lake, a coldness settling in the pit of his stomach. The surface was blank except for some ripples disturbing the stillness.

"Hutch?" He stood and moved to the water's edge. "Hutch!"

He breathed a sigh of relief as the blond head burst out of the water, but then froze again as it sank, arms thrashing.

"Hutch!!" He entered the water like a torpedo, galvanized into action by his partner's distress. He reached him quickly and locked his arm around the blond's throat to hold him up. Hutch let his body go slack immediately so Starsky could pull him to shore. Once on the bank, they both gasped for air and Hutch coughed up a little water. He reached down and grabbed his thigh, his face twisted with pain.

"Oh, god, that hurts!" he moaned, rocking a little with the agony.

"What is it?" Starsky asked breathlessly. "You okay?"

"My leg. I got a fuckin' cramp to end all cramps. Jesus!"

Starsky realized that it was the leg that had been broken in the car accident. Hutch still favored it. The bone had knit badly and had the habit of aching like a bad tooth in damp weather.

"Let me work on it," Starsky offered.

Hutch gratefully lay back and his partner began a massage.

Gradually, the iron hard knot of muscles relaxed. "Damn, that was a bad one," Hutch murmured, basking in the relief Starsky's hands brought him. "Thanks for pulling me out, buddy."

"I...I thought you were drowning."

"I think I could've made it to shore. It just startled me for a moment, it hurt so bad. But thanks anyway."

Starsky moved up to look into his partner's eyes. "Hutch, I was scared...really scared." He kissed him hungrily, crushing the blond body to him possessively. Surprised, Hutch returned the embrace, strangely excited by Starsky's feverish passion. Their lips ground together hotly for a few moments, the lines of their bodies merging.

Hutch finally pulled away and began kissing his way down the furry chest, stroking the insides of Starsky's thighs. His partner whimpered in need and thrust his hips up. Hutch relented and let his fingers touch Starsky lightly, tracing the cock from base to tip. Starsky was so beautiful here--velvet power--that Hutch wished he could spend hours indulging in the gentle petting, but his partner could only bear the butterfly touches for a few minutes at the most.

"Huuutch...."

The moan caught his attention. Hutch looked up from the prize he held in his hand. Starsky's teeth were clenched around his lower lip, his head thrashing. Suddenly guilty about prolonging his partner's agony, Hutch ducked his head, engulfing the burning organ. He sucked vigorously, urging Starsky's hips into a helpful thrusting. Their rhythm synchronized. Hutch felt his own cock harden even more as his partner groaned and spasmed beneath him, exploding in his mouth. He continued sucking until the last shudder passed and Starsky was once again soft against his tongue. He felt the fingers clutching at his shoulders again. This time, Hutch allowed himself to be drawn into the embrace. He kissed his lover's exhausted lips, his own body still hungry.

Hutch rested in the warm arms, trying to subdue the fire that shot through his loins, wanting to be content just to satisfy his partner.

"Hutch?"

He raised his head at the sound of the voice, and Starsky's hands combed through his hair, then pulled him down into an unexpectedly passionate kiss. Hutch gasped for breath, feeling the fire blaze up and his whole body start tingling again. Hutch gently kissed the waiting mouth, savoring its sweetness and planning on lingering there until Starsky was once more able to share the experience. His partner, however, appeared to have other plans. Starsky's fierce kiss demanded immediate response, and when the devious hips beneath him started a steady rocking, Hutch knew all possibilities of going slow were lost.

"Starsky...slow down, I can't wait."

His warning was heeded for once. The hips stopped undulating. An inexplicably heavy silence fell between them. Hutch could hear the grass swaying all around them, feel a sudden tension in his partner. Then Starsky's thighs parted; hips arching upward in the same silent offer Hutch had made their first night together.

Hutch's breath caught sharply in his chest as he looked into his partner's eyes. The desire to give was there--the blue pools were clear, steady...and wide with fear. But there was also trust, a trust which the searing heat driving his own body was sure to betray.

"No, Starsk. It's too soon for this," Hutch declined shakily.

"But, Hutch, I...I have to--"

"No, you don't." Before Starsky could protest, Hutch quickly added, "Please, let's talk about it later, okay?" Not now." Hutch wanted his own body enough under control to make the first time good for his partner. If he accepted the offer now, there'd be no holding back and Starsky would be hurt.

Torn between guilty relief and disappointment, Starsky agreed. Abruptly, he slid down the slender form and took the cock in his mouth eagerly, his hands fondling lower.

Hutch felt the pressure of Starsky's touch increase to a steady pumping, mouth sucking in unison. His balance and perceptions whirled madly in a cauldron of trembling flesh, then erupted as the fire purged itself in a frothy geyser. Starsky's mouth cooled his fevered body, swallowed the tormenting fire. Strong arms gathered him close, cuddled him tightly as the world steadied. When up and down had returned to their rightful position, Hutch opened his eyes.

"You should let me do that more often," Starsky commented, his gaze following a dragonfly's skimming flight to the lake.

That was true, Hutch mused contentedly. He usually came when Starsky was inside him, but this was almost as wonderful.

The sun was just beginning to dip behind the tops of the trees, but Starsky remembered the bats they'd seen the night before. He didn't want to take any chances. "What time is it?"

Hutch threw him an exasperated look.

"This time I left it at the cabin," Starsky added hastily. "I didn't want to get it wet."

Hutch obligingly fished through the pockets of his jeans until he located his grandfather's old pocket watch. "I didn't realize it was so late--it's nearly seven."

He put on his jeans and shirt, and Starsky quickly followed suit, suddenly eager to return to the comparative safety of the cabin.

"It's getting dark early, Starsk. Looks like we might have another storm tonight, the way those clouds are coming in."

Something black darted past the tops of the trees. It could have been a bat, early as it was. "Hutch...uh...beat you back to the house!"

Hutch's bewildered stare followed his fleeing partner. He shrugged, retrieved Starsky's abandoned sneakers, and pursued him at a slower pace.

*~*~*

The thunderstorm had arrived, just as Hutch predicted, but Starsky had other things on his mind.

Forty-eight minutes. They'd been at this for almost an hour and still...nothing. Stage fright was one thing, but this was ridiculous.

"Hutch, it's been almost an hour," he announced plaintively.

The massaging stopped. A hand gripped his shoulder and turned him onto his back. Hutch did not look happy. He held out his hand, his voice irritated. "Give me that damned watch."

Starsky didn't debate, just meekly relinquished his watch. Hutch stared silently at the timepiece, then tossed it on the nearby dresser top. He rolled a couple of inches away from his partner; eyes fixed on the ceiling.

"Well, say somethin'."

Hutch didn't look at him. "What do you want me to say? No one is forcing you to do this, you know."

"I know. It's just.... Well, it's been an hour. Is it supposed to take that long?"

"I wouldn't know. Can't recall ever being timed before!" Hutch snapped, losing patience. Then he relented. "Starsk, you're just not ready for this. You're tense and as stiff as a board. I can't get you to relax, and it won't be any good if you don't. This isn't necessary, anyway. You know that."

"Yes it is. I...I want to. Really. I was acting like an idiot before, but...could we give it another try? Please?"

There were a few things Hutch could imagine his partner begging for--being fucked was definitely not one of them. Hutch was certain that until a couple of days ago the idea of one man submitting sexually to another had been totally foreign to his partner. It was too soon for this, and he couldn't understand why Starsky was so insistent. How could he explain to Starsky that a thing this important shouldn't be rushed?

Starsky stroked his cheek, trying to soothe away the doubts he could read in the clear eyes. "Please, Hutch?"

"Why?"

The soft question bit sharply into Starsky. He didn't want to answer and bring up a problem they'd had to face for years--one that was even more frightening now. He decided to evade for the moment.

"Because I want to. I have to...."

"Starsky I meant what I said before--you don't have to do this. You don't have to prove anything to me."

"Except that I love you," Starsky whispered.

"What?" Hutch sat up in the bed.

Starsky just shook his head, refusing to repeat it.

"I heard what you said, Starsky. What did you mean by it?" A wall of stubbornness met his question. Starsky wasn't even looking at him. "Okay, what's bugging you?"

"The same thing that's bugging you."

Hutch started fearfully. Just what does he mean by that? he thought worriedly.

Starsky hadn't missed the way the blond flinched at his words. "That's exactly what I'm talking about, Hutch. Something is bothering you, too. What did I do wrong?"

"Wrong?" Hutch echoed, both confused and relieved.

"Yeah. Ever since that stupid Monopoly game, somethin's been...different. Sometimes you look at me like...."

"Go on," Hutch prompted.

"Like...you don't trust me anymore." He had to struggle to get those words out, afraid that speaking them aloud might make it true.

"That's ridiculous. I love you!"

"Didn't say love, said trust. There's a difference."

"How could I love you if I didn't trust you, Starsk?" His partner's eyes seemed to remind him of all the others he had loved without trusting. "Listen, with us the trust came first. It had to. So don't start doubting it now, okay?"

"You never answered my question. What did I do wrong?"

"Nothing, honestly. It's just that...I was worried."

"You havin' seconds thoughts about us?" The dark blue eyes were serious.

"No, not about us. I've been worried about how you're going to make out when we get back to the city."

"Don't worry your blond head over that," Starsky returned lightly. "My style ain't gonna change. I'll still be as wonderful as ever."

Hutch stared at the grinning face in exasperation. "Can't you be serious for longer than five minutes at a time?"

"Nah. Tried it once, but I started lookin' more and more like you all the time. Could we please get back to what we were doing before--"

"Before you interrupted us?" Hutch reminded him. "I still think it's too soon for this. Why do you want to rush it?"

"You know, Officer Hutchinson, I'm beginning to think you don't want me."

"I want you," Hutch whispered, knowing he was falling into a trap by admitting it.

"So prove it."

"How many times do I have to tell you that this isn't something you do to prove a point? Especially to me?" Hutch asked hoarsely.

"It's not just for you." At Hutch's disbelieving stare, he continued. "For the past few days, you've been doing most of the giving. A partnership works both ways. It's my turn to give now."

"Starsk, you've barely accepted the idea of making love to me. There isn't any reason to take it any further right now."

"It wasn't too soon for you. What makes it different for me?"

"That's different. I wasn't a vir--" Panicked at the slip, Hutch hurried on before Starsky could interrupt. "...A very sick man recovering from gunshot wounds."

"Neither am I. I'm recovered, remember?"

"Damn it, Starsky, I'm afraid of hurting you. You're all tensed up." Hutch didn't mention scared to death.

"Well, let those sexy fingers of yours do some more walkin'."

Hutch stared at him helplessly. He realized that his own pleasurable reactions to being taken had helped convince his partner. There was only one thing he could think of that would dissuade his curly-headed friend...but that was one sure way to lose Starsky forever. Or was he selling himself short. Trust him. You have to trust.

"Starsk," he began hesitantly, hardly able to speak around the lump in his throat and the coldness in the pit of his stomach. "There's something I've got to tell you--"

"Hutch, don't talk me outta this. Puttin' it off will only make it harder, and...I.... Well, if you want to know the truth, it occurred to me today that it ain't such a hot idea for us to put off anything. Especially something this important." His eyes sought Hutch's and held them. "I was really scared today. I thought you were drowning. And I realized that if something happened to either of us before...before I could show you how much you mean to me.... Well, it wouldn't be right. I don't think I could forgive myself. The way we are...as cops, I mean...we can't afford to put things off. Maybe this isn't as important to you as it is to me--maybe you're right and I'm just trying to prove something to myself. Do the reasons really matter? I need to do this, and I don't want to wait. Can we try again? Please?

The lump in Hutch's throat seemed impossibly large. He couldn't tell Starsky now, and he couldn't deny him.

He leaned forward and their mouths melted together in a kiss. Hutch waited for the familiarity of the unthreatening act to relax his still-nervous partner, prolonging it until Starsky's body was supple and relaxed against his. He moved his lips to nuzzle the soft neck. Thankfully, Starsky did not giggle this time. In fact, his partner was cooperating quite nicely, permitting Hutch to make all the aggressive moves. Starsky's concentration was focused on luxuriating in the tender caresses.

"Hutch...."

"Hmmmm?" Spoken around a mouthful of erect nipple.

"You do that real good."

Hutch leaned over to kiss his friend's belly button, sinking his tongue into the shallow depression. Starsky squirmed beneath him, emitting a small, pleased cry.

His strategy was working this time. Not only was Starsky relaxing, but he was beginning to enjoy the procedure, not thinking about what was to follow. Hutch was convinced that that had been their problem before--thinking too much. Starsky had been lying there, waiting to be taken by him like an animal in heat, and he, himself, had been too cautious just to let that happen, so neither of them had let themselves simply enjoy the pleasure of the touches.

Enjoy. Hutch knew something that Starsky enjoyed. He descended greedily on the erection; fingering and stroking the growing organ with a slowness that he knew drove his fast-paced partner mad. At last, he lowered his head, sucking the top of the cock into his mouth. He liked Starsky's flavor, saltily arousing. As his tongue tickled the tip of his delighted captive. Hutch let his eyes rove down the sexily bowed legs. Amused, he watched the long toes wiggle. Starsky was so much like a kid at times. That childlike enthusiasm for life was one of the things he loved most about his partner.

"Did you know your toes curl when I do that?" Hutch observed, lifting his head.

"Huh? What're you talkin' about?" Starsky sounded and looked dazed.

"Your toes. They wriggle like crazy when I suck you."

"Do not," Starsky denied, running his hand through the long gold silk of Hutch's hair, silently urging him to abandon speech and continue his previous occupation.

"Do, too. I'm watching them right now, and they definitely," Hutch reached out to give the shaft a quick lick, "curl."

Starsky surrendered and sighed with contentment as Hutch began to seriously work on his cock. Hutch spent a long time worshipping there, careful to build arousal without granting release. He could tell he was driving his partner crazy.

"Hutch...please...."

The blond paused for a moment, considering. Starsky was flat on his back; penetration this way would be more painful. "Starsk, turn over."

Starsky's eyes widened fearfully. Hutch could tell that he'd almost forgotten their original intention. Now the fear was back, revealed by a nervous gulp. Their eyes met, held for a few seconds, before Starsky turned silently onto his stomach.

"Hey, relax, babe."

"I'm tryin'!" But he was still trembling.

Hutch kissed the back of his friend's neck, his nose playfully nudging the black curls. "You know how much I love you." His tongue darted under an earlobe, eliciting the expected result. "Especially when you shiver like that."

A light laugh indicated a slight lessening of the nervousness.

"That's better," Hutch complimented, then kissed his way down the muscular back. He planted a long, wet kiss above the cleft between the cheeks. While he kissed, his fingers deftly massaged the beautifully formed curves.

He'd barely touched Starsky and already he was burning. His own cock throbbed at the thought of plunging in and losing himself in the loving body beneath him. His kiss wandered downward, hands assisting nudging face in an imperceptible parting of flesh. Hutch's lips found the opening he sought. His tongue hesitantly licked. He'd never rimmed anyone before, and privately wondered how Starsky had known to do it their first night together. It was different. Hutch wasn't sure whether he liked it or not, but if it would make things easier for Starsky, he'd keep it up all night.

Finally, Hutch raised his head. "Babe, pull your legs up under you. It'll be better that way."

Starsky did as requested, making no objections.

Hutch looked at his kneeling partner, faintly surprised by Starsky's compliance. Starsky was still scared, but was desperately trying to hide it. Hutch knew Starsky would have to relax or he'd be hurt, but telling his friend to calm down didn't seem to do any good. Recalling what had eased the tension before, he maneuvered his head between Starsky's legs. He sucked until his partner was once again ready to burst, then, as before, he let go. He moved behind Starsky, leaving one hand to pump the engorged cock while the other fished over the side of the bed for the jar he'd left there earlier.

"The cream's cold, dammit!"

"Sorry, it'll be okay in a minute." Hutch stretched to kiss a shoulder. Even there the skin was delightfully soft, although not as satiny as that of the elevated cheeks.

Hutch rubbed some of the gel on his penis then carefully positioned himself. He quickened the speed of his pumping on Starsky's cock, hoping to divert his attention from the actual penetration. He sank in slowly, overwhelmingly cautious about inflicting pain despite the growing compulsion to satisfy his own needs. Nevertheless, when the head of his cock entered the virginal passageway, Hutch heard a sharp cry of pain.

"Starsk?" he questioned, fear stopping all motion.

"I'm all right. Don't stop."

The panic in the strained voice was overlooked as Hutch thrust deeper into the tight tunnel. He was rapidly losing control, as he had been afraid he would, the sensations over-shadowing his perceptions to the extent that he didn't notice that his partner's erection had deflated with the first ripping pain. He was soaring higher with each thrust. The idea that Starsky wasn't sharing this ecstatic climb to release was unthinkable.

This was good. Even better than he'd imagined it would be. Hutch's breath caught in his chest. He had waited so long for this, needed Starsky for so many years, that the resolution of the eternal wait was shattering and totally absorbing. He couldn't see or think beyond this second, and Starsky was so integral to this moment that it never occurred to Hutch that the pleasure was exclusively his.

The fire within him centered, flaring for several deliciously prolonged seconds before exploding gloriously. Hutch shuddered repeatedly, crying out in release.

There was another cry, softer and somehow wounded, unheard over Hutch's desperate struggle to regulate his racing breath. The blond collapsed onto the shaking back, the added weight pushing his partner flat onto his stomach. The trembling didn't stop. Gradually, Hutch realized that the movement was caused by more than his pounding heart.

"Hey, Starsk…what's wrong?"

No answer. His partner looked so miserable, so crushed.

"Are you all right?" The quaking seemed to worsen at the question. Hutch's voice was shaky now. "I hurt you, didn't I? Starsk? Babe?" He dared to touch the tear-stained cheek, hoping to comfort. The tears only fell harder.

"Hu...Hutch...I'm sorry."

"Sorry? Oh, god, I'm the one who's sorry. I wanted this to be good for you." He pulled his sobbing partner into his arms.

"No...I ruined it. My fault. It hurt, Hutch." It was the voice of a child, filled with pain and confusion. "I tried, but it...it really hurt."

"Forgive me, Starsk...please. I didn't mean to hurt you. I'm so sorry--"

"Don't. It wasn't you, Hutch; it was me. It shouldn't've hurt like that. If I hadn't been such a coward.... It didn't hurt you that bad. You're always better at everything than me, but I didn't think I'd disappoint you tonight. I'm sorry." He failed. After all that preparation, he'd blown it. He felt like such a fool. Misery welled up again.

"No, no," Hutch said quickly. "You didn't disappoint me. How can you say that? I just wish it had been better for you. But it will, I promise. The first time is never easy."

The dark head turned toward him. "You mean it was this bad for you? God, babe, I didn't realize "

"Oh, no," Hutch interrupted hastily. "With you it was wonderful from the start."

Starsky's eyes widened, but he smiled crookedly. "With me? Makes it sound like you've...." He trailed off suddenly as Hutch looked away.

Starsky sat up and snapped on the lamp. "What did you mean by that, Hutch?" he demanded.

Hutch felt frozen, his chest tight with sudden panic. "Starsky, I...."

Starsky stared at him, seeing the trapped look in the pale eyes. Almost guilt. "Are you saying there was...somebody else? Hutch...."

The blond rolled off the bed and stood. He walked away, feeling the shocked, questioning eyes burning into his back. When he found his voice, the words poured from him rapidly, hoarse and scared by the slip he'd made. "I...meant to tell you. Honest, Starsk. I would've told you, but...no time seemed right. I didn't know how to begin...still don't. I wasn't hiding it from you on purpose; you've got to believe that. You weren't the first, but...it was different with him. It wasn't the same at all. There was...someone else...a...a long time ago. So...so long it doesn't matter...re...really...."

He clenched his teeth, realizing that he was beginning to stutter and his words weren't making sense. He risked a cautious glance back at the man on the bed, and the expression of betrayal written on Starsky's face scared him even more. "Ah, Starsk, don't look at me like that...please. I'm sorry. Starsky?"

"Who was it?" Starsky asked dully.

Hutch didn't answer.

"Jack," Starsky said suddenly, firmly, no doubt in his voice.

"Starsk...."

Ignoring the whispered entreaty, Starsky stood up and methodically pulled on his jeans and T-shirt. Hutch watched in numb horror as he slipped on his Adidas and grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair. Without even looking at Hutch, he calmly walked out the door.

For a long moment, Hutch stared at the closed door in disbelief. He automatically pulled on his own jeans, but sat limply down on the bed without going any further. It had all happened so quickly; he felt lost, confused. What was Starsky thinking? He'd been a fool to let it all come out that way, like a slap in the face. Hutch suddenly saw how things must look to Starsky. Part of what had helped Starsky accept all this was the thought that they were going through it all together, learning together. Oh, god, I should have told him. How could I have let it go so far?

The sound of the car engine brought him back to an awareness of the situation. Starsky was leaving him. Really leaving.

"No...." he whispered to the empty room. Terror raced through him, driving him to action. "No, Starsk, please!"

He tore out of the cabin, shirtless and barefoot, blinded by the downpour. "Starsk!" He raced toward the red car, expecting it to pull out before he could reach it. He slipped in the mud and almost went down, but caught himself and went on, panic pounding the blood in his ears like the roar of a cannon. It took him a moment to realize that the motor had been shut off. He stood by the car door on the passenger's side for a long time, letting the rain beat down on him without noticing. He was afraid to touch the handle, afraid to trust the fact that Starsky hadn't left him.

Finally, he opened the door and slid inside. Starsky's hands were gripping the steering wheel, his gaze fixed on the rain-washed windshield. Neither man spoke. The darkness was broken by the frequent flash of lightning; the silence, only by the drumming rain on the metal roof."

Hutch's breathing didn't steady as he sat there, afraid to look at his partner, afraid not to. He was shaking, chilled by the cold rain and Starsky's icy silence. His wet skin stuck to the black vinyl seat. As the tension stretched, a tiny sigh escaped him, and he leaned forward to rest his forehead against the dash, his hands clutching it for support.

"I thought you...you were leaving," he said at last with a little break in his voice.

Starsky still refused to look at him. "I was. I should." There was a long pause. "Why, Hutch?" The question held an accusation and a demand for an explanation.

Hutch wasn't sure what he was asking, why it happened or why he hadn't told him about it. Starsky continued, clarifying the heart of his pain.

"I thought we told each other everything. We're partners, aren't we? All that talk about trust...all those lies, I mean. You've known everything about me that mattered...everything. The good and the bad. Yet, you've never...in all these years together...told me this. Why? I don't understand."

"I didn't kn-know how to...to tell you. I was afraid you'd despise me for it...."

"That doesn't say a whole lot for your opinion of me, does it?" Starsky snarled. "Oh, damn it, Hutch...I can almost understand why you didn't tell me before...before we started all this. But since we did, how could you keep it from me? How could you let all of it happen without even being honest with me? I thought we always had that. I don't like finding out I was wrong. Not at this stage of the game. It's a little late for secrets. And--if it hadn't slipped out like that--I'd never have known, would I?"

"Yes," Hutch croaked miserably. "I-I was going to t-tell you--"

"Sure you were," Starsky said harshly. "I know you're smarter than me, Hutchinson, but I'm not a total idiot!"

Hutch pounded his fist against the dashboard. "Stop it! Just stop it, please! I was scared, for Christ's sake. Can't you see that? I love you so...so damn much, you scare me to death."

For the first time, Starsky took in the appearance of the drowned rat in the seat beside him. Hutch's body was shaking violently, water still running down his neck from the plastered hair. The jeans were soaked and clinging to his thighs like a second skin. For once, the tall body looked small and very vulnerable. There was none of the Nordic Hutchinson beauty left in the shivering form to blind him to the faults that lay underneath. Hutch was a lost child waiting to be punished for straying. Starsky felt some of his anger evaporate, but the hurt was still there, and he wasn't ready to give it up.

"What are you scared of?" he demanded mercilessly.

"That...that you'll leave me...li-like Jack did."

The name made Starsky stiffen again, the anger spurting back. "Yeah, well, maybe he had a reason, too. What were you hiding from him? You can be a real bastard sometimes, you know that? You make me feel like dirt, Hutch. I don't need that. Not from you, not from anybody. I felt like such a fool in there awhile ago, did you know that? Ashamed that I couldn't live up to--" He broke off and took a deep breath, trying to calm down. "I trusted you, Hutch. God, I can't believe how much I trusted you...and you didn't trust me at all."

A roll of thunder covered Hutch's convulsive sob, but the next flash of lightning illuminated an expression that shocked his partner.

"Hey, Hutch," he said cautiously. "I didn't mean...."

Hutch didn't respond. He swallowed hard, then clapped his hand to his mouth. He fumbled with the car door until he got it open, almost falling out into the rain. Leaning over precariously, he was violently, explosively sick. Without much in his stomach, he was soon convulsed with dry heaves, painful and wrenching.

All Starsky's anger drained away. He'd seen this kind of thing happen before, but never with Hutch. In 'Nam, he'd seen men so terrified they'd either crapped their pants or threw their guts up, their bodies rebelling against the emotional strain. To see this happen to Hutch--cool, calm, controlled Hutch--was more than he could take. He slid over, wrapped his arms around the clammy shoulders, and held the weak head while Hutch vomited helplessly. There was nothing attractive about the blond now, sick and wet and shaking. Only a mother could love him now. Starsky thought ruefully. Or a partner. He tightened his embrace in unconscious proof.

"Ah, babe, it's okay. I'm here. I'm not goin' anywhere."

"At last Hutch was able to steady himself and sit up with Starsky's help. Starsky shut the car door and searched the glove compartment for some tissues. He wiped his friend's face and streaming eyes, then pulled him back into his arms, trying to warm the chilled flesh. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around the bare shoulders.

"You okay now?"

Hutch nodded silently.

"Let's go inside. It's freezing out here."

Hutch turned to him with a glimmer of hope. "You...you're not...leaving?"

"No," Starsky said simply. "I'm not goin' anywhere--except inside to get you dried off before you really get sick. Come on."

With Starsky's arm around his partner, they made their way back to the cabin, Hutch docilely following the other's direction. Once inside, Starsky stripped off the blond's wet jeans and wrapped him in a blanket before pulling off his own wet clothes and finding dry ones. He built up the fire and put the tea kettle on, then searched through the cabinet until he came up with a half-empty bottle of whiskey.

Hutch's bleak eyes followed him everywhere. At last, he spoke shakily, "Starsk, please...talk to me."

Starsky stopped, the spoonful of instant coffee suspended over the cup. He paused for a second, looking over at the quivering form on the bed. Dropping the spoon into the cup, he took a deep breath. "Let's give it a rest, babe. We're both a mess right now. let's back up for a little while, until we can get our heads together, okay?"

Hutch nodded gratefully. "Okay...but I love you, Starsk. Believe me?"

Starsky smiled sadly. "Oh, yeah, I believe you. Nobody's ever barfed for me before."

Hutch flushed and ducked his head, mortified. "I'm sorry. It was stupid. I don't know why--"

"I do. But let's not talk about it right now. Here, drink this. Give you hair on your chest."

Hutch smiled wanly as he took the cup. "No thanks, you've got enough for both of us." He took a sip and coughed. "Strong."

"It'll warm you up." Starsky sat down on the bed, a careful three feet from his partner. He took a quick gulp of his own whiskey-laden coffee, glad that it burned his throat and made it impossible for him to speak.

Hutch wrapped the blanket around himself tightly, beginning to relax as the drink spread through him. His stomach almost rebelled again as the strong liquor hit it, but settled down and accepted the pleasant heat.

Starsky was too nervous to sit for very long. He stood and began to pick up their wet clothes and drape them over chairs to dry. He drained his cup and poured in some more whiskey, this time minus the coffee.

Hutch watched him silently. He was warmer now; his teeth had stopped chattering, and he felt calmer. Starsky wasn't leaving. That was the important thing. The rest he could deal with somehow. Mainly, he just wanted to get it over with now, so they could put it all behind them.

"Do you want me to tell you about Jack?" he asked abruptly.

Starsky stopped cold, then angrily chucked another log into the already blazing fire. A deep flush darkened his face. "You've never made a habit of telling me the intimate details of your love life. That's more my style, isn't it?"

"I...I want to tell you. Maybe it'll help you to understand."

Starsky's jaw clenched. "Just 'cause we've started fucking each other, I don't want it to change who we are."

Hutch was quiet for a moment, hurt by the harsh way Starsky phrased it. "We don't have to, if--"

"Damn it, Hutch, it's too late to go back. You're the one who's always tellin' me how things are never so simple. You're right." He sighed and sat down in front of the fire, knees pulled up in front of him. "Okay...tell me about Jack."

Hutch took another gulp of the coffee, wishing that Starsky weren't so far from him right now--in so many ways. He could have told the story easier with Starsky's arms around him, his face buried against the strong shoulder where he wouldn't have to see the disappointment and disillusionment in Starsky's eyes. But perhaps this was better. Starsky saw his concealment as a lack of trust--and it was, in a way--but in himself, not in Starsky. Yet, how could he explain that?

"Maybe you were right," Hutch began awkwardly. "Maybe I wouldn't have found the guts to tell you. I've tried enough times and...it just wouldn't come out. It wasn't because I don't trust you, Starsk, but...I trusted Jack, too, and...."

Grateful for the encouragement, Hutch closed his eyes and took a steadying breath. "It was at the end of that summer that Jack and I were lifeguards. You already know how close we were...like Siamese twins or something. I was always about a step behind him everywhere we went. He seemed perfect to me--bigger, stronger, faster, funnier--everything I wished I could be. I was satisfied when I could just keep up with him."

"That's not the way he told it," Starsky broke in. "He said he became a lifeguard so he could be with you."

Hutch looked puzzled. "Yeah, that really surprised me. I never knew. At the time, I guess I thought he just tolerated me. I knew he was going to med school in the fall--Harvard of course. And I was going to MU, so chances were we wouldn't see each other too much after the summer was over." Hutch's expression was thoughtful. "That summer was the best...and the worst. God, we had fun. But every day that went by, I began to dread the end of it, not seeing him again. I guess most guys get crushes on some other guy at one stage or another. I had one on Jack that made my gut ache. Yes, it was sexual...but I don't think I consciously realized it at the time. At eighteen you give it a dozen different names to avoid the truth. Plain horniness for one. But it was more than that."

"So you finally told him?" Starsky questioned. "Or did he guess?"

"I don't know; maybe he knew. But he never said anything. Jack was a lot like you, Starsk. He wasn't into analyzing life. He just lived it. I don't think it even occurred to him to think about it in the same way I did."

Hutch stared into his cup, the memories stirring. "About three weeks before the end of the summer, we both got plastered. I don't remember what started it, or why we decided to get so drunk, but we wound up in an old equipment shed, lying on volleyball nets and tarpaulins, giggling like idiots. Then I," Hutch's voice choked and he paused, "I started crying...." he grinned crookedly at his partner. "You know what a maudlin drunk I can be. Anyway, Jack put his arm around me, and the next thing I knew, we were kissing and.... Oh, shit, I don't know who began what, I guess it's not really important. I just remember how much it mattered to me. It wasn't just puppy love at that point, not to me at least. But I was naïve enough to think it meant as much to him. It didn't."

Hutch's expression hardened. "He screwed me and left me. As simple as that. When I woke up in that crummy shed, he was gone. I went to his house to find him and he was already packing to leave. What's the cliché? Seduced and abandoned? That's what it felt like, anyway. I made a real fool of myself. I told Jack I loved him, even begged him not to go. Or to let me go with him." The blue eyes lifted to meet Starsky's. "He looked at me like I was crazy. Told me to stop taking myself so seriously. That he'd just decided to get to school early and settle in; that it didn't have anything to do with what happened. We both knew that was a lie. Then he laughed and said that we'd both just been drunk and horny and that blondes always turned him on--especially tall, skinny ones." Hutch swallowed painfully. "God, Starsk, he was making jokes! I'd opened myself to him in every way a person can--emotionally...physically--and he was making jokes about it."

Starsky didn't answer. He didn't know what to say. He'd never liked Jack Mitchell, and now he felt a cold fury at the way he had treated Hutch. No wonder his sensitive partner found it difficult to trust people. He'd been told in the most heartless way that what he had to offer wasn't worth much. Starsky doubted if Hutch had ever been able to forget that in all the years following. His experience with Vanessa hadn't helped, nor had what happened with Abby. Her desertion was very different from Van's, but it all boiled down to Hutch not being worth the risk.

"Damn him," Starsky whispered hoarsely.

Hutch shook his head. "I told you I don't blame him. There was no reason for him to live up to my expectations. He just wanted to be friends. It wasn't his fault that I wanted more from him than he could give."

"He was a creep," Starsky growled. "I didn't like him in Vegas, and I don't think I ever would have."

"But you really didn't get a chance to know him then. He was sick, and--"

"He was a selfish bastard, Hutch. Didn't think of anyone but himself, and I'll bet he was always like that. Damn it, how could you have fallen for someone like that?"

Hutch stared at him in surprise. His partner was furious again. Starsky drained his cup and poured another drink in an impatient motion, his face like a thundercloud as he chugged the shot of whiskey, blue eyes dark and stormy.

Hutch finally answered the question, puzzled by Starsky's attitude. "I just love him. Does there always have to be a reason? I don't think you can choose something like that."

"Of course you do," Starsky snapped. "And it looks like you make a habit of picking losers, buddy. Judging by your track record, you search for the people who are most likely to kick you in the teeth. I wonder how I fit in with that?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Hutch protested.

"Don't you?" Starsky demanded, thinking of Jeannie, Gillian, Vanessa. He shook his head, realizing that the whiskey was beginning to affect him, although the ache inside still hadn't numbed. "Okay, forget it. Just tell me about the others."

"Others?" Hutch was wary now, sensing the change in his partner's mood.

"Yeah. How many other guys?"

Hutch straightened, eyes flashing. "You don't think.... My god, I should've known you'd jump to conclusions. What do you want to hear, pal? That I go out cruising every Thursday, or just that I dress up in drag? Damn it all, Starsky do you really think I would set myself up to get hurt again after what happened with Jack? This isn't just a casual thing with me. I didn't even plan on letting it happen with us, you know. I was scared of ruining everything else. I...I still am."

Starsky refused to meet the hurt gaze. "Okay, sorry. I guess I really didn't mean that. It just kinda slipped out. This whole thing with you and Jack has sort of thrown me. I never imagined.... Oh, hell, I don't know what to think. Give me some time, okay?"

Hutch slumped dejectedly. "Sure. Take all the time you want. What's the difference?"

Starsky looked at him then, and the lump in his chest melted a bit. "Oh, Hutch. We'll make it somehow. We both knew this would take a lot of adjusting for both of us. So, it's a little rocky right now, so what? We've come through worse, right?"

Hutch didn't reply, and Starsky knew the comparison was faulty. This was all new territory, unfamiliar and scary. But he had been through too much this night, and he felt as emotionally drained as his partner looked. Far too tired to think about it any more right now, Starsky braced himself and stood. He moved to the bed and gently lifted the blond's chin up to look at him.

"Hutch, let's just go to sleep. We're both beat, and it'll all make more sense in the morning."

Hutch nodded, the light blue eyes searching Starsky's face tentatively. "Starsk...."

Starsky kissed him lightly. "It'll keep. Move over."

*~*~*

One eye opened. A sheet of solid gold greeted it. Starsky blinked, catching his lashes in more of the fine strands. The softness tickled his nose. Each breath carried the sweet, arousing scent of rain-washed hair. The smell made his insides tingle.

Starsky pulled his face out of the seducing blondness. He didn't want to be seduced, not this morning. He looked at Hutch. Starsky couldn't remember clutching his teddy bear that tightly when he was a kid. He tugged his left arm from beneath his sleeping friend, hardening his heart to the tiny whimper his harsh action caused. Was that small cruelty practice for what was to come? Tearing his gaze from the sleeping face was difficult enough; Starsky didn't know if he could tear his heart away.

He'd never come that close to leaving before. Nine years together--friends, partners, and now even more. That should count for something. It always had before, but last night he'd seriously wanted to end it. Even this morning, he was still uncertain. He couldn't decide what had stopped him from leaving--what was still stopping him. Hutch's sickness? After the stunt he'd pulled, Starsky figured he deserved it. Probably the need to know it all was what had kept him from going. And now that he'd heard it, Starsky wasn't sure whether it made any difference.

He wasn't certain of anything any more, not of Hutch, not even of himself. After last night, Starsky wasn't even sure if he could handle the sexual part of their relationship.

And Jack. Starsky tried to look beyond the bitterness, but couldn't help thinking that if it hadn't been for him, they wouldn't be in this mess right now. The idea of this type of relationship would never have occurred to Hutch if Jack hadn't happened.

Starsky shook his head in disgust, horrified to realize that he was actually beginning to blame Hutch for starting their love. Did he really regret it, wish that they had never become lovers?

A "yes" whispered somewhere in his mind, his panic building it to a thunderous roar. Yes, he wanted the simplicity back. Before, things had been peaceful, stable. He'd always known where he stood with his partner then; now, he felt as though he didn't even know Hutch. Sometime in the past few days, he'd lost something that he knew he couldn't live without--his friend, the person who had always helped clear his confusion and pain, not cause it.

If the past night was any indication of the kind of future they'd have together, Starsky wanted no part of it. Hutch's revelation even threw the past into doubt. How could he have hidden that all those years? That was what really hurt. For all his talk of "me 'n thee", Hutch had never really trusted him. All their years together, their entire relationship, was built on a foundation of sand. What was he sticking around for?

He pulled himself out of the bed and quickly located his jeans before he could change his mind. As he bent to tug them on, an unsteady tapping behind him drew his attention to the closed window. A flash of yellow careening wildly in front of the glass caught his eye. Drawing closer, he could see that it was a small yellow butterfly, attempting to fly through the clear glass. The sole result of its latest painful plunge was a somewhat louder tap. Undeterred by failure, the little creature kept flinging itself against the crystal barrier, desperately fighting for freedom.

Starsky watched the pitiful struggle, knowing that the little insect would never escape that way. Even as it battled the glass, the delicate creature seemed graceful, stunning. A beautiful dweller of the air untouched by the sordid ground. Vividly, Starsky recalled the aerial ballet of hundreds of butterflies as they abandoned the carcass of the fawn. The word DECEPTION flashed through his mind. The butterflies' fragile beauty concealed secrets as ugly as those of another beautiful yellow and white creature.

Hutch was like that--beautiful, graceful, ultimately deceiving, constantly flinging himself into relationships as destructive as the insect's suicidal dives at the window. Sooner or later, the glass would kill it, just as one of Hutch's relationships would finally kill him. This one?

Once again the butterfly bashed against the window. Starsky shuddered at the sound it made. He stalked angrily over to where the creature fluttered and shoved the window open. The yellow wings drifted past his arm without hesitation or thanks, gliding cheerfully into the open air.

"Damn it, do I always have to sympathize with you? You trapped yourself," he whispered at the departing butterfly, conscious that his anger was really directed at the man in the bed. Butterflies and Hutch. For all their faults, he loved them both.

The grass-stained jeans dropped from his hands. He couldn't leave, not now...not ever. Not everything was based on lies. Hutch did love him. Until that changed, he'd stay. Maybe if he explained his feelings to his partner, they could go back to being just friends for a while.

He eased back onto the bed, careful not to waken the sleeper. All his dreams of a simple, platonic, relationship dissolved when he turned to look at his partner. Hutch looked...perfect. The blond hair captured the morning light and reflected it back in blinding yellow streams. It seemed to Starsky that there was more light shining off his sleeping friend than was entering the room, as if Hutch were somehow amplifying the brightness of radiating light like a fallen angel. The peaceful facial expression, innocence far too complete for a grown man, confirmed Starsky's impression. He didn't understand how Hutch could look like that after what he'd put them both through the night before. The skin framed by the magical strands was as unlined as untroubled as a child's, the moustached mouth still as vulnerable as a little boy's.

The solidly muscled chest struggled to undo the face's effect. The sleeping nipples made Starsky hunger to wake them to hardness, to cover the tanned hairless expanse with kisses. His eyes followed the golden skin until it disappeared beneath the white sheet. Hutch's groin was completely covered by the bedclothes, but farther down a thigh, knee, calf, and foot jutted out from under the sheet. The tantalizing arrangement made Starsky want to lift the sheet and....

Starsky clamped down on his desire, tried to control his breathing. A moment ago, he'd decided to ask Hutch if they could call a halt to their loving. The moment before that he'd been leaving. This vacillating wasn't right. Either he was going to be Hutch's lover or he wasn't. He couldn't continue to slip in and out of the role. It was necessary for him to choose which he preferred now, before things went any further.

The simplicity of mere friendship was appealing, but they hadn't been "mere" friends in years. Maybe never. There had always been that something extra between them, that connecting spark that had drawn them to each other from their first meeting. And their first night together...they'd fallen so naturally into each other's arms, the love they made so incredibly tender that it had finally given him the courage to acknowledge that Hutch was the most important thing in his life.

The past few days hadn't changed that. True, things were more complicated. It was much easier for them to hurt each other now, but wouldn't he have been just as hurt to find that secret between them if they'd still only been friends?

Starsky conceded that his reaction would've probably been more sympathetic--certainly last night's anger would have been absent--but the hurt would have been just as bad. After all, the love had been there all along; their new way of expressing it physically only made it more intense, more volatile. Didn't deeper love always bring greater risks? Wasn't Hutch worth it? Was he, Dave Starsky, so much like Abby, Van, and the rest--afraid to take the chance?

Just looking at the slumbering face excited him. Starsky knew that he'd never be able to go back to not responding to the body beside him. He might be able to say that they were just buddies again, might even be able to pretend for a while, but it would never be true, and they could never again be as close as they had been without Hutch discovering the lie.

"Guess that settles that," Starsky muttered. Hutch, usually an extraordinarily light sleeper didn't stir at the sound of his voice. For some reason, that comforted Starsky. "We must be gettin' pretty used to each other, partner."

He grasped the edge of the white sheet and, with forced slowness and care, lifted it up. He could see the blond's hips, but the sheet was caught between Hutch's knees now. A bit of skillful maneuvering got it free, and his movements caused only the slightest reaction.

Hutch, already on his side, curled tightly around the warmth of Starsky's body once the sheet had been removed. A bony knee came to rest in his frustrated lap; the blond head was now positioned somewhere behind him.

"How come this never happens in books? You're supposed to roll onto your back."

Starsky impatiently rested his weight on his apparently comatose partner and straightened out the blond body. Once that was done, he fitted himself to his friend's form. Carefully matching part to part, he started a gentle, slow rocking. The steady rhythm was seductively arousing. Beneath him, Hutch was beginning to harden.

Starsky kissed the long throat, his mouth lingering there to enjoy the feel of bones and cartilage under the smooth skin. Each playful nip and wet kiss brought his friend more and more to life. He moved upward, softly brushing his lips across Hutch's pale pink mouth while increasing the tempo of his rocking. After planting a kiss on the tip of his friend's nose, Starsky drew back to see if his ministrations were having any effect. A delighted smile curved Hutch's mouth, and his arms came up to encircle Starsky. Hutch began to respond and then...froze. Starsky saw the light blue eyes flash open and then cloud with the uncertainty of remembering.

"Starsk?"

Starsky moved a wisp of long, yellow hair out of Hutch's face, stroking the soft skin reassuringly.

"I...I thought--"

Starsky cut him off by taking his mouth in a deep, possessive kiss. Hutch's body tensed in surprise, then surrendered gratefully.

They rocked together in gentle loving, stealing kisses between gasps, desire spiraling to fiery explosion. Their sighs of completion were caught by each other's mouths in their last kiss.

Afterward, Starsky used the sheet to clean off their stomachs, then snuggled into Hutch's arms, resting his cheek against the sweat-slick chest.

"I like it that way, Hutch."

"Me, too," Hutch agreed, brushing a kiss into the curls. "Starsk?" he began hesitantly.

"Yeah?"

"Why?"

"Why? 'Cause we get to kiss all the time when we're doing it that way."

"No," Hutch corrected impatiently. "Why did you want to do it at all? I mean...after last night, I was afraid. I didn't know if you'd even want to speak to me. I...I thought that once you'd had time to...think about everything, that you might...that maybe you'd want to leave.

Starsky took in the averted eyes and said sternly, truthfully, "I did want to leave."

A long silence, then: "Was this just your way of saying goodbye, or getting even with me?"

The harshness in Hutch's voice didn't even begin to cover his hurt. Starsky felt the arms slip from around his back, watched the fingers of the right hand dig sharply into the mattress. Leaning on his friend's chest, Starsky peered into the haunted eyes. "I said 'did,' Hutch, not 'do.'" He watched the Adam's apple jump nervously. "I'm staying."

Hutch closed his eyes, bit down on his lower lip to keep in the premature thanks. He still couldn't believe that Starsky would stay after learning the truth about him. Finally, he dared a question.

"What made you decide not to go?"

"Might've been some of those promises I made you." Starsky placed a finger over the mouth that opened to grant him his freedom. "Or the fact that I don't want to stop loving you."

"I love you, too," Hutch rushed to reassure.

"That was another thing that made me want to stay."

"Starsk, what I told you...it doesn't make a difference?"

"It...hurts, but I'll get over that." Something in his partner's eyes told Starsky that Hutch wasn't completely convinced. "What's diggin' at you now?"

"You don't think less of me for having been...with Jack?"

"Less of you? Hutch, I love you. What you did before you met me doesn't change what you are."

"You don't think it cheapens what we have together?" Hutch asked, wondering why he felt compelled to talk Starsky out of loving him. Why couldn't he just accept this miracle?

"Because you...loved Mitchell?" The stiff nod almost made him laugh. "God, you are an idiot sometimes, Hutch! That kinda philosophy'd invalidate all but the first time for everyone."

"You mean it doesn't really bother you?"

"Why should it? Do you resent all the people I've loved?"

"You mean all the women you loved," Hutch said quickly. "That's what makes the difference, isn't it? It shouldn't, but we both know that it does."

Starsky bristled at the unspoken condemnation. "Hey, I loved them just as much as you did him. Just 'cause they couldn't screw me like you did last night is no reason to--"

Hutch cut him off, abandoning subtlety. "That wasn't my point." He pressed harder. "You must have some kind of feelings about him."

Hutch's persistence suddenly cracked the thin layer of insulation Starsky had placed between himself and the maelstrom of emotions surrounding that issue. All lightness disappeared from his tone.

"All right. You want to hear about my feelings for Jack?" Starsky moved totally out of Hutch's embrace, sitting stiffly beside his partner, glaring down into the suddenly fearful eyes. "I hate him. I hate him for being first with you. I hate him for hurting you; but most of all, I hate him for making you afraid to trust me." The anger spilled out, each word causing his partner to almost physically cringe away from him.

"Why...why are you s-staying then?" Hutch stuttered.

"Hey, I said I hated him, not you. You're the victim here; you're the one who got hurt.... I just wish it'd never happened."

The blond nodded, unable to meet the fiery eyes.

"Hutch?" Concerned, Starsky stroked a nearby shoulder. His partner jerked at the gentle touch. "What is it?"

"Nothing."

The denial came too quickly. "Hutch, what's wrong?"

"You'll hate me if I say it."

"No. No, I won't. Tell me."

Hutch met his partner's eyes and drew in a deep breath. "I...I don't."

"Don't what?"

"Wish it had never happened." Hutch could feel his lover's body tense, see the sympathy harden. "The...loving was good, Starsk. It was the ending that...that hurt. I knew you wouldn't understand, but...." Hutch's voice faded under the appraising look he received.

"You told me anyway. Good."

"Good? You're not mad?"

Starsky shook his head and crawled up to where his disbelieving partner was propped against the headboard. "I'm not mad." His palm cupped Hutch's far cheek, turning the tilted head toward him. "Would you answer a couple of questions for me?"

"Su-sure. What do you want to know?" It was still very difficult for him to speak about this part of his past, but if Starsky was really going to stay with him, then it had to be done.

"Last night you said that...that there wasn't anyone else other than Jack--"

"And you," Hutch interrupted.

Starsky smiled. "And me. But you said you liked makin' it with him. Even on our first night you liked it when I...took you."

"You know I did, Starsk." Even though the last part of Starsky's statement sounded like a question, Hutch nodded his agreement, keeping a careful watch on the dark, probing gaze.

"Was it better with him?" The insecure thought rushed out before Starsky's mouth could stop it.

Shocked, Hutch could only stare at his partner for a tension filled minute. "No," he finally managed. "Of course it wasn't better with him. How could you ask such a dumb question?"

Starsky lowered his head, ashamed that he'd allowed his jealousy to show. "You...you keep defending him, even after the way he treated you, and you said that the lovin' was good with him...."

"Yeah, it was good, but nowhere near as good as it is with you, Starsk. It's never been that good with anyone before. I...I love you."

"But last night you said that I reminded you of him and that you loved him too." Starsky tried to keep his voice from shaking, wasn't certain whether he succeeded.

"Starsk."

The bowed head rose slowly. The uncertain blue eyes settled on Hutch. He couldn't recall ever having seen his confident friend so totally insecure.

"Starsk. I never loved anyone as much as I love you; you've no need to be jealous. You remind me of Jack only in your optimistic attitudes, nothing else. You're totally different from him. Jack was...well, he took what he wanted. You love me enough to give me what I wanted."

"You mean he raped you--?"

"No, he didn't rape me," Hutch corrected quickly. "Jack just wasn't as considerate as you are. He was more like me."

Starsky winced at the self-recrimination in Hutch's voice. "You said yourself that...first times were hardest. Was it that ba...upsetting for you?"

Hutch laughed, the sound sharp and bitter. "Upsetting? I didn't even know what he wanted. People didn't do things like that in Duluth; or if they did, I'd never heard of it. Not that! Just vague rumors; but Jack wanted it, so I...." Hutch looked down, unable to say the rest while staring directly at Starsky.

"It hurt at first, like it did with you. I was so...scared when he first touched me there and I realized that...that was what he wanted. But there was something about it, Starsk. Trusting yourself totally to someone you love makes up for the pain. Do you know what I mean?" Hutch said hopefully. If Starsky did, then maybe last night hadn't been as bad for him as it seemed.

"Yeah, I understand...a bit." The hopeful gleam in the sad eyes was too much to deny; besides, he did understand...a bit.

"Hutch," he asked curiously, "if you liked it so much, what stopped you from tryin' it again?"

Hutch's voice dropped to an empty monotone that somehow managed to embrace the pain of agonizing years in the sparse explanation.

"After Jack...left, when I was still in school, it still hurt too much. I felt empty inside...alone. I was confused about a lot of things--my masculinity for one. I'd never had any trouble getting girls before, but suddenly I wasn't sure if I wanted them. Then I met Van, and my confusion just...cleared up. For a long time, it was good with her; we were alike in a lot of ways. We got married. I brought her out here, joined the force...and then it all fell apart. It wasn't her fault. She just never bargained on a cop when she married me."

"Ah-hah. And after."

"After?"

"After your beautiful, blond body was set loose on poor, unsuspectin' L.A.?"

"You mean after Van dumped me. I couldn't."

"Why not? Seems like the perfect opportunity to me. It wasn't Duluth. There must have been plenty of chance for experimentin'."

Hutch shifted uncomfortably and mumbled, "Because of you."

A chill touched Starsky's spine. "You mean you wanted me th--"

"No, nothing like that," Hutch objected quickly. "I wouldn't even let myself think that way about you--not for a long time. You were my best friend, really the only family I had that meant anything. I was afraid to jeopardize that...afraid of what you'd think of me if you ever found out."

"But you said you don't care what other people think?"

"I don't. They don't matter, but you do. What you think of me has always been important."

"Hutch, it wouldn't've mattered...even back then. If you'd told me--"

Hutch cut him off. "It would have shocked you just like that thing with Johnny Blaine did."

An honest evaluation of his character, and all too truthful. Starsky didn't try to deny it. "Yeah, it would have shocked me, but I woulda loved you anyway. Findin' out about Johnny, that didn't make me miss him any less."

"I'm sorry, Starsky. Maybe I should've told you before, but I just couldn't risk...."

"I think we're going to have to learn how to take risks, Hutch. It's okay about what happened in the past, I understand why you felt you couldn't tell me back then and how, when you did...trust me enough to tell me, the timing was never right but...."

"But?" Hutch echoed nervously.

"But I don't want you feelin' that there are things you have to keep from me now...not important things. If there's anything else you're hid-- ... waitin' for the right moment to tell me about, now's the time."

"No, Starsk, there are no more deep, dark secrets that I'm keeping from you." An embarrassed flush entered the tanned cheeks. "Still want to stay?"

"Least until you've fed me breakfast," Starsky said, plopping his head onto a firm thigh, grinning up into a startled face. "I'm starvin'!"

"One of these day, Starsk," Hutch warned teasingly.

"I'll be an emaciated corpse if you make me wait that long. It's either bear meat, or--" He reached down and grabbed Hutch in a very vulnerable place. "Bare meat. Take your choice."

Hutch yelped. "Damn it! Your hands are as cold as ice."

"Want me ta warm 'em up?" Starsky offered evilly.

"Not right now, thanks." Hutch scrambled out of the bed and grabbed his jeans, "I'll go cook something up, Your Highness. You change the bed. Clean sheets in the closet."

"Do I have to?" Starsky grumbled.

"Are you kidding?"

"Yeah, guess we did make a bit of a mess. But don't act so superior. You may be a better cook than me, but I'm a better housekeeper."

"Since when?" The voice came from the kitchen, over the clatter of pans.

Starsky tugged the last corner of the sheet off and rummaged through the closet for clean ones. "Face it, Hutch, you're a slob. You throw your clothes all over the furniture, and there's dust an inch thick covering your entire apartment."

"It's just a healthy rebellion against my childhood environment."

Starsky finished making the bed. Strolling into the kitchen, he sniffed at the frying bacon. "Mmmm, smells good."

"Hutch's eyes smiled a greeting at the naked figure, a grin breaking across his face as Starsky perched on the edge of a vinyl-covered stool.

"Isn't that cold?"

"Nope," Starsky lied, forcing himself to remain seated. "Do you always cook in the buff?"

"I have jeans on, Starsky."

"Yeah, but your fly's open."

Hutch looked down and casually zipped his pants, but there was a hint of a blush in his cheeks that delighted his partner.

"Ya know, this gives me an idea on how we can finally make it rich. This one's bound to work, Hutch. Wanna hear it?"

"No, but I'm going to sooner or later, so you might as well tell me now. What is it this time? Clear plastic aprons for people like you?"

"Nah, but we can use them too, if you want...in the restaurant."

"Restaurant?" Hutch asked, almost afraid to hear the rest.

"Yeah. The In The Buff. We'll have lots of tall, blond waiters who'll serve meals in the all together...waitresses, too!"

"And chief cook and bottle washer'll be a blond ex-cop on the top of Vice's most wanted list," Hutch dolefully finished the scenario for his ambitious partner while carrying their plates over to the coffee table. "Right?"

"Wrong. I'm keeping you for myself. Thought Huggy might be interested in that position. What'd'ya think?"

"His knees are too knobby. You going to sit over there by yourself and starve, or are you going to get over here and eat this breakfast I slaved over?"

Starsky came to him as quickly as an affectionate puppy, a feigned expression of hurt plastered on the handsome features. It felt good to be able to joke once again.

"How come you never go for my plans, Hutch? Don't you wanna be a rich man?"

"Already am."

"Oh, yeah? Where you been hidin' your treasure?" Starsky teased, swatting away the hand that kept trying for his last slice of bacon. Feeling guilty, he relented, breaking the piece and offering half.

"Right beside me." Hutch clasped the outstretched hand.

The words had been almost too low to hear, yet Starsky felt his eyes beginning to mist over at the softness in Hutch's expression. "Hutch...."

"Yeah?"

"You're squashing the bacon."

Hutch looked down at the grease on his hand and popped the meat into his mouth. "Besides, we're still trying to unload the results of your last big scheme."

"Oh, yeah." Starsky winced at the memory. "Don't worry, Hutch, it'll sell."

"Starsk, there's only one sucker on this planet who'd buy that...fixer-upper, and he already owns it." There wasn't any bitterness in Hutch's voice, just a strange note of amusement.

"It's a nice place, Hutch. Shows a lot of promise. Someday someone will see what it's worth and then--"

"It'll be condemned. Let's face it, buddy; you're not E. F. Hutton. When you talk and I listen, we go broke."

"Still think the restaurant's a good idea."

Hutch collected the plates and returned them to the kitchen. On the way back, he saw that Starsky's head was lowered in an exaggerated pout. Impulsively, he leaned over the couch and gave the back of Starsky's neck a quick kiss. The resulting burst of giggles was not very flattering.

"You're just great for a guy's ego, Starsk. That was supposed to be erotic."

"I can't help it. Your moustache tickles."

Hutch rubbed his upper lip thoughtfully. "I didn't know it bothered you."

"I didn't say that. I said it tickles." Starsky stretched luxuriously against the couch. "What are we gonna do today?"

"I don't know. That's up to you."

"We could go back to bed and...."

"C'mon, Starsk, I'm beginning to get bed sores. We can't spend all week in bed!"

"Why not? Getting' tried of me already?"

"No. Of course not...if you want...." Hutch took a step back toward the big double bed.

The uneasy look that flashed through Hutch's eyes and the hasty offer told Starsky just how insecure his partner still was. "Hey, I was just jokin'."

Hutch searched his partner's face. The impish smile was missing. The eyes were soft with understanding. Hutch tried to remember a time when Starsky hadn't been able to read him that quickly.

"We could take the boat out and try for some trout," he suggested tentatively.

"Can I row?" Starsky asked hopefully.

Hutch smiled. The last time he'd let Starsky row, they'd twirled in circles for ten minutes and ended up minus an oar. "Okay, but if you drop them in this time, I swear you'll go in after them."

"Sure. No problem." Starsky bounced from the couch and headed for the door.

"Starsk."

"Yeah?"

"Clothes."

"Oh, right." He reversed his course and headed for the bedroom.

"I'm going to take a shower. You do the dishes," Hutch called after him, closing the bathroom door on the loud protest. For a few seconds he simply stood there, leaning against the door, eyes closed, breathing a short prayer of thanks that everything was working out between them after all.

A short time later, he turned off the shower taps and ran a towel over his dripping hair. He was anxious to get back to Starsky, to get in that boat and fish for trout, sink oars, and anything else his curly-haired wonder wanted.

The mirror made him pause. Generally fishing trips included stubbly beards; the spirit of getting back to nature and all those other marvelous platitudes he harped at his partner during these excursions almost demanded that he grow one. Already there was a little yellow fuzz adorning his chin. If he skipped shaving today, he'd be properly seedy by tomorrow. Only, one of the things Starsky liked best about his body was his smooth skin. Since they'd become lovers, his partner was constantly stroking or touching what he'd always thought of as depressingly underdeveloped, bare flesh. Hutch decided to take the time to shave.

He lathered his face, then ran the razor across it, carefully skirting the island of gold hair over his lip. Suddenly, he stopped and stared at it, wondering why he had grown the damn thing in the first place. In the last year or so, he had definitely let himself go to hell. Forgot his health food diet…had almost stopped running. The moustache was probably just a symptom of his state of mind during the last year--depressed and uncaring. Maybe it was time for a change.

As he considered it, he realized how strange his kisses must feel to his partner. He'd never kissed anyone with a moustache, but he imagined that the coarse hair must feel bristly, if not downright scratchy, to sensitive skin and lips. Starsky, usually quite vocal about his dislikes, had never complained about his moustache before, but this was the type of thing he might not mention. For all Hutch's teasing about his partner's lack of tact, Starsky was usually very careful about hurting his feelings, rarely coming down hard on him, even when he deserved it. Like this morning.

Making a decision, Hutch took a deep breath and proceeded to carry it out, feeling strangely euphoric from his action.

"Finished the dishes?" he asked, stepping out of the bathroom. He suddenly felt very shy about what he had done.

"Yeah, slave driver." Starsky left the kitchen, moved toward his friend. "Why do you get to have all the fun? You get to cook, and--" There was a shocked silence.

"Starsk...do you like it?" Hutch asked hesitantly. His partner's face was still completely blank.

"Course I do." Starsky couldn't take his eyes off the patch of white flesh in the middle of the evenly tanned face. "Hutch, why'd you do it?"

Hutch lowered his head. Starsky didn't seem as pleased as he'd expected. "Don't kn--" He remembered his resolve to be more open with Starsky. "Just thought that a new start deserved a new face...and that maybe you'd like it. It's not important."

"You cut off a piece of yourself for me and then say it's not important!" Starsky's voice and his body were shaking. He pulled the self-conscious blond into his arms, hugging him tightly. Pressing his face into the crevice between Hutch's neck and shoulder, he kissed the now-rumpled collar. "God, do I love you. You know...you know you didn't have to do something like that for me."

"I know," Hutch whispered in relief, his finger tracing the pattern of Starsky's right ear. "But do you like it?"

Pulling back to take another look, Starsky nodded seriously. "Just one thing's worryin' me."

"What's that?"

"Now I'm gonna get busted for corruptin' the morals of a minor."

Hutch laughed, "Aw, come on Starsk."

"Well, you dropped ten years easy without that cookie duster."

Hutch did feel curiously younger, and the look in Starsky's eyes cleared up any doubts he had about removing it.

"Listen, we'd better get to those fish. It's getting late."

"Hey, don't I get to try it out? I've never kissed you without it, you know."

Hutch smiled and leaned forward. Starsky kissed him slowly, savoring the new sensation, likening it immediately. The kiss deepened rapidly, their tongues twining hungrily. They crushed closer together, their noses crashing painfully. Starsky pulled back to rub his nose; Hutch leaned forward to rub an erect nipple.

"Where are you going?" Hutch demanded as Starsky's body slipped away.

"To take a quick shower. Don't want to offend the fish. Be right back."

Hutch watched the bouncing curls disappear into the bathroom, a bundle of clothes tucked under Starsky's elbow. A rear view of Starsky did nothing to relieve his tension. Hutch wandered around the small cabin, struggling to calm his body. His eyes settled upon the neglected guitar Starsky had insisted they bring along with them, purportedly to continue his lagging lessons. Hutch, however, suspected that its sole purpose was to overload the Torino.

"Hey, Hutch," Starsky yelled over the sound of the shower. "Can ya find my shoes?"

Hutch looked up from his strumming, locating the Adidas beside the fireplace. "They're by the fire," he called back. An enthusiastic, very off-key strain of "Running Bear" drifted out over the water's hissing.

"Starsk...." He put down the guitar and picked up the damp sneakers with a sigh. Things were really back to normal.

Hutch opened the bathroom door soundlessly. He stashed the shoes under the sink and tiptoed up to the closed shower curtain, preparing his throat for a loud bear growl.

"Thanks, Hutch." The curtain parted, and Starsky grinned into his startled face.

"How'd you know I was in here?"

"I can always tell when you're around. My ESP, remember?" He leaned over to place a wet kiss on his partner's cheek. "But since you're here...." He slung his arms around Hutch's neck and drew the dry body closer.

"Hey!" Hutch's protest faded quickly in the steamy silence. The soapy, slippery bare skin was disarming...and sexy as hell. "If you're going to do that, do it right." He tugged Starsky even closer, taking his mouth in a fierce kiss.

Starsky blinked, pulling back a little. His eyes dropped to the tub, discounted it, and moved to the floor speculatively. His gaze returned to his partner. Hutch looked willing enough, but...Hutch wasn't the kind of person you took on a bathroom floor. A class act deserved a class setting, or at least one where those shining gold strands wouldn't end up covered with dust motes and cobwebs.

"Uh...Hutch, let's wait till I get finished, okay?"

"Wh...shy?" Hutch looked up from where he was kissing water off his friend's neck.

Starsky ducked his head, hesitant to admit the real reason. Finally, he mumbled. "It's a mess in here, Hutch."

"I don't believe you!" Hutch drew back, flabbergasted. "You're complaining about the mess? I always thought that you were the kind of guy who'd make it anywhere. After all, didn't you brag about the first time you and Linda made it...it was a 747's--"

"Hutch, that was different."

"How was it different?" Hutch asked, his voice and his mood suddenly serious.

"That was just for kicks...didn't mean anything. You...you're my partner."

The respect Starsky managed to cram into that one word surprised Hutch, as did his partner's reluctance. Their love was still their love, regardless of where they made it. The distinction between the dusty bathroom floor and the bed of pine needles they'd made love on two days before was not a considerable one in Hutch's opinion, but the difference obviously bothered Starsky.

"Okay, you win. I suppose it'll keep, but hurry up."

"Sure," Starsky said to the closed door. He rinsed quickly and toweled himself dry. He could hear a steady strumming coming from the other side of the door. Either Hutch had managed to find a station on the radio that was strong enough to battle the mountain's interference, or there was another guitar lesson somewhere in his near future. One song learned in over two years of relentless teaching had eliminated his partner's patience with him as far as the guitar was concerned.

Starsky grimaced as he opened the door and confirmed his fears. The blond was perched on the couch back, bare feet planted in the seat cushions, fingers moving skillfully over the strings.

"Hutch, please the fish're waitin'."

"Sssshh!" Hutch hissed, working out the last chord change.

Starsky quieted. The tune was faintly familiar. It didn't sound like the last tendon twister Hutch had tried to drill into reluctant fingers, so he relaxed a bit, keeping his muscles poised for immediate flight at the first sign of instructorly interest. When Hutch looked up from the frets, Starsky saw that the maniacal maestro gleam was totally absent. Instead, Hutch seemed vaguely nervous. Starsky settled himself on the corner of the couch.

At last Hutch was satisfied with his ability to perform the song smoothly. He glanced at his partner, then cleared his throat.

"Starsk, I...I've been looking for a way to let you know how...I feel about the second chance you've given m...us." He stopped fumbling, forcing certainty into his words. "You haven't made a mistake. I swear it, Starsk, I'll never let you down like that again."

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

"Please, I know you don't like soapy scenes, but if I tried to say it in words...it'd be even worse. Will you...will you listen to a song?"

The eager, hopeful question determined Starsky's answer. He nodded, his voice suddenly lost. He listened as Hutch began to sing, the song was sweet, the voice sad and beautiful.

"You smiled that misty way
and something in me said,
Remember the last time,
don't fall in love...."

Watching the emotions pass through Hutch's eyes as he sang those first few lines, Starsky realized how frightening and risky starting their new relationship must have been for Hutch, who'd been through it all before, with disastrous results.

"I walked so blindly in
I fell and hurt my heart.
I can't forget it,
but I don't regret it.
I couldn't even stop it if I tried."

Stop it? Starsky wondered. Falling in love with me...or remembering Jack?

"Only this time I'm going in with my eyes open.
won't make the same mistake again.
This time I'll see the signs and no hearts broken,
won't be so blind and lose my way."

Feeling tears beginning to burn his eyelids, Starsky leaned back against the couch. The reason he hated soapy scenes so much was that they got him every time. He twined an arm around the denim-covered leg beside him, then looked up to discover that his maneuvering hadn't helped him escape Hutch's soft eyes.

"You'd be so nice to love,
don't let it end the same.
If you get uneasy,
just let me know...
Won't lie or call you by
someone else's name.
I couldn't take it,
I know it would break it,
and I wanna give you everything I am...."

Hutch sang through the chorus, then put the guitar down. "I meant every word of it, Starsk." His hand reached down, but stopped short of stroking the dark curls. He was beginning to think that the song might have been too emotional.

Starsky reached out, blinded by his tears, to grab the thin waist in a tight hug, resting his cheek on Hutch's thigh, just holding on.

"Hey," Hutch murmured, sliding down onto the couch and pulling his partner into his arms. "Do you think the fish will mind if we're a little late?"

Starsky shook his head, his tears still dangerously close to spilling over. He held Hutch even tighter.

*~*~*

"Come on, Starsk!" Hutch impatiently yelled out of the window. "It's getting dark out here. If we don't leave now, we won't get back to the city before dawn, and you know the Captain's expecting us in tomorrow."

"Ain't found them yet." The stubborn reply was muffled by distance.

Hutch sighed and gathered breath for a new shout. "We'll find you some new ones when we get home."

"It's not the same."

The unexpected closeness of the soft voice made him jump. Hutch opened his eyes to find his partner staring at him over the half-raised window.

"How'd you...? Never mind, just get in, will ya!"

Starsky silently took his place in the driver's seat and started the car. "Can you hold these for me?"

Hutch ignored the warning. Finally, he felt calm enough to speak to his partner. There was a question that had to be asked before they got much farther from the cabin.

"Are you absolutely certain that you've got everything now? That there's nothing else you want to bring back with you--like maybe a suitcase full of crickets, or a jar full of mosquitoes, or a sprig or two of poison ivy, or maybe--"

"Lay off, Hutch. Those are important."

"How can a bag of dirty pine cones possibly be important?"

"I didn't risk my life goin' into those woods for nothin', and I'm not about to leave them behind after facin' all those ferocious animals and--"

"The most ferocious animal we saw all week was a raccoon."

"He looked mean, Hutch."

"He was a baby, Starsk, barely bigger than a kitten."

"He was chasin' me!"

"If you hadn't thrown him your sandwich, he wouldn't have followed you."

"I told you, I was just tryin' to keep him from attackin'."

"All right. Drive. We're going home now. That should make you happy."

"You're just mad 'cause you didn't catch any fish."

Hutch grimaced. Five-fifteen in the morning, up to his hips in cold water, alone in a chilly, gray dawn--and not a single fish to show for his efforts. Starsky had breezed out of the cabin at ten-thirty, incensed at having been left alone and unprotected in the dangerous wilderness, and promptly hooked six meaty trout. Once again, Hutch reflected on the absence of justice in the world.

"Hutch?"

Hutch turned to look at his friend. Starsky's voice had lost the teasing tone. "Yeah?"

"Why don't you get some sleep? You look kinda tired."

"You need me to navigate," Hutch protested.

"If I think we're lost, I'll wake you."

"Starsk, you never know when we're lost."

"Suit yourself."

The quiet words sounded hurt, almost rejected. Suddenly, Hutch wanted to cuddle close, to make up for his short temper.

"Hey," he said, edging closer. "I'm not really tired, but...would you mind if I used you as a pillow anyway?"

"Anytime you want, partner." Starsky shifted, allowing the blond head to rest on his shoulder.

Hutch settled himself comfortably against his friend, feeling secure in the warm embrace. Despite his best efforts not to succumb, the surrounding darkness and Starsky's nearness had a powerful lulling effect on his nerves, and he soon felt his eyelids slipping shut.

Some time later, something woke him. He 'd felt his body moving, then a slight chill, and finally blinking in the harsh brightness of the highway lights.

"We lost?"

Starsky started looking vaguely guilty. "Nope, almost home."

Hutch recognized a bottle-capping factory that passed by the window. "There's almost an hour's ride left. Why'd you wake me--getting lonely or something?" He was certain that the smile on his face and the hand he let squeeze Starsky's knee more than adequately conveyed the "something."

Starsky squirmed as a truck whizzed by them, going in the opposite direction, his eyes shifting nervously to the high cab. "No, nothing like that."

Hutch's eyes seemed to demand further explanation. "My...ahh...my shoulder was fallin' asleep."

Hutch sensed that there was something more to it than that, but let the incident pass. The long drive might have tired Starsky.

"Want me to drive for a while?"

"No way. We're almost home."

They rode in silence for a few minutes.

Hutch, still feeling sleepy, leaned over to rest his head on his partner's lap. "This should save your shoulder." Confused, he felt the thigh muscles tense beneath his cheek. "Did I hurt you? Don't worry. I'll behave myself this time."

The muscles didn't relax.

"Hutch?" Starsky's whisper sounded panicked.

"Yeah?"

"Think you could sit up for a while?"

Hutch rose, looked at the tense features. "You all right, babe?"

"Just tired."

It sounded like a lie. Hutch figured that Starsky's newly healed gunshot wounds were probably giving him trouble again. "You sure you're going to be all right to go back to work tomorrow? Maybe you should take another week?"

"No, I'm fine. Really. Don't ya want me back?"

"Every minute for the past three months, Starsk," Hutch smiled reassuringly. Relieved, he saw that Starsky was beginning to relax. Maybe he had just been tired. Maybe.

"You know, this car of yours not only looks like a nightmare, it causes them."

"Huh? You havin' bad dreams again?"

"No, weird ones. We were in the woods again. I stopped to get some water, and you went on to get more of those damn pinecones. All of a sudden, you started screaming. You came running past me chased by a pack of--"

"Bears," Starsky finished, sharing his partner's terror.

"No, pine cones. You kept throwing sandwiches and Froot Loops over your shoulder to slow them down, but they kept right on coming. It was horrible!"

"You are weird," Starsky said, stifling a smile.

Hutch broke into a hearty laugh that deepened when he saw Starsky nervously glance at the pinecones in the back seat.

"Why'd ya have to tell me a thing like that," Starsky said, beginning a complaint that would last all the way home. "They were the only things I liked out there. The only things I felt safe around and you had ta go and ruin it...."

Hutch chuckled. "That's what I love about you, Starsk. What an imagination. I can see it now....'The Attack of the Fifty Foot Pinecone,' starring Vincent Price."

"Hey, it was your dream!"

Starsky tossed him a dirty look. "I knew that."

"Sure you did." Still smiling, Hutch leaned over to put his head back on his partner's shoulder. Starsky stiffened, immediately.

"Hutch, you'd better sit up now, okay?"

"Why?"

Starsky glanced nervously at the passing cars. "Uh…the traffic's getting heavier. I'd better watch my driving."

Hutch stared at him, feeling suddenly cold and cut off. Back in the city again. Time to hide. Are we going to have a big closet or a little closet, Starsk? Is there room enough for both of us in there? He moved over to his side of the car and looked at the window, fighting back the gray veil of sadness. Take what you can get, Hutchinson.

Starsky, feeling the withdrawal and the empty silence, said with forced lightness, "Hey, we're almost there."

"No," Hutch said simply, "we still have a long way to go."

THE END

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