An Even Tighter Closet

by

Rosemary


"You like that, Louise? Got enough water, girl?" Starsky asked, his dark, curl-clustered head bent over the shoebox as he watched his lucrative bundle of fur greedily wolf down the remains of his pork fried rice dinner. This afternoon he'd been so excited about his purchase, his mind filled with visions of the chinchilla farm he was going to start and all the money Louise's offspring were going to earn them so that he and Hutch could retire to the life of leisure to which Starsky had always wanted to become accustomed. A part of him knew that it was only a pipe dream, but he loved the way his crazy schemes made Hutch laugh, so he'd follow this one to its conclusion -- whatever that might be. Who knew? Maybe the chinchilla farm would be their ticket to the good life.

Starsky tried to hook into his earlier good spirits, but his mood remained glum, his enthusiasm squelched by that phone call Hutch had received during their expense conference with Dobey this evening.

Vanessa. The ex-Mrs. Hutchinson, the woman who'd never darned his partner's socks. It had been five years since they'd heard a peep from the Ice Queen. Starsky had fervently prayed that the bitch had dropped off the face of the planet. But like the proverbial bad penny, Vanessa was back again and Hutch was seeing her tonight.

As he settled his fuzzy buddy down for the night, Starsky's gaze strayed to the bedside radio alarm clock. Its glowing red letters blazed 11:43.

Hutch and his ex would be done with dinner by now. Maybe they'd gone their separate ways.

Part of him wanted to call Hutch to see how the reunion had gone, but Starsky's self-preservation instincts wouldn't allow him to give in to the masochistic urge. This way, there was a chance he might sleep, albeit a slim chance. If he knew for certain that Hutch had taken her home with him...

His better sense counseled him that not even Hutch could be that stupid. His partner might just as well open a vein on the spot. It would be a hell of a lot faster and cleaner than what that black widow would do to him in the long run. No one knew that better than Hutch himself, only...

Starsky knew that his buddy still had a thing for his ex-wife, probably always would. To Hutch, Van would always be the one that got away. Kenneth Hutchinson was very old-fashioned at heart. Love, honor and cherish, till death do us part…those vows had meant something to his friend. For years, Hutch had worked his tail off to make his money-grubbing wife happy, and in the end, the bitch had left him for ¬greener pastures. Privately, Starsky had always thought his partner well rid of her, but at the time, Vanessa's desertion had just about destroyed Hutch. It had been months after the breakup before Starsky could get a genuine smile from the gorgeous blond and nearly a year before he could convince Hutch that it wasn't cheating to date once your wife had divorced you.

Hutch's healing had been a long, excruciating process, but it had happened. Slowly, he had learned to laugh again and to open himself to others, but Starsky knew his friend's heart still had the scars Vanessa had left behind.

And now Hutch was no doubt out there doing his damnedest to get his heart broken again. And there wasn't a thing on this Earth Starsky could do to prevent it.

Angry and frustrated by the whims of Fate, he left Louise scratching around in her nest of shredded newspaper. He wasn't really tired, but going to sleep beat standing around torturing himself with impossible dreams. As he peeled back the sheets and slid into his cold, empty bed, Starsky's mind was awhirl with what ifs.

What if Vanessa hadn't called tonight? Better still, what if his best friend in the universe had never met the black widow or gotten entangled in her web? Or, the ultimate what if of all -- what if Starsky some day found the courage to speak his heart?

Since that last was never going to happen, he didn't waste too much energy envisioning it. At this point, those fantasies were too painful to indulge. But, for Hutch's sake, he wished that the others were possible. He'd long ago accepted that he'd never have Hutch for himself. All he wanted now was for his partner to find someone to make him happy, some sweet-natured girl who'd take the big blond straight to her heart and give Hutch all the things his very male partner had no right to offer. Maybe then, when Hutch was finally happy, Starsky would stop wanting his partner so bad.

Yeah, right, Starsky thought. And maybe the day after that, the sun would start circling the Earth.

Sighing, he stretched out on his comfortable bed and did his very best not to think about what might be transpiring in an equally comfortable bed across town.

As he settled into the darkness with the familiar shadows of his room and the well-known contours of his mattress absorbing his tensions, Starsky tried to figure out precisely when his life had gone so radically astray.

Surely, he couldn't have always felt these things for Hutch. There must have been some time in his life when he'd been able to look at the long-legged blond without his guts twisting in knots. The first time he'd clapped eyes on Hutch at the Academy his heart hadn't screamed, THIS IS THE ONE, THE ONE AND ONLY PERSON WHO WILL EVER MAKE YOU TRULY HAPPY... had it? This feeling couldn't have sprung fully-grown inside him. It was too intricate a part of his life, too intractable, too finely enmeshed in the fibers of Starsky's very soul to be anything but the result of years of cultivation.

Cultivation?

Hardly. No sane man would cultivate such a lethal attraction. The feeling was more like a weed, something that should have been rooted out at inception, but was somehow overlooked until Starsky had turned around one day to find a full grown tree standing there, a tree whose roots were so firmly entrenched in his soul that they could never be extracted now, not without killing him.

That's what came from letting his guards down, Starsky acknowledged, for being -- what had Gordie called him back in 'Nam that horrible day his...fuck buddy had spelt the facts of life out for him? Oh, yes -- that's what he got for being a sloppy sentimentalist.

Starsky didn't think that Hutch would be as cruel in his rejection as Gordie, for his partner had true feelings for him. Just not the right kind of feelings.

It was almost funny, really. For over two years Gordie and he had screwed each other's brains out, that wild, furtive release the only thing that had kept either of them sane in the jungle. Then when Starsky's feelings for Gordie had changed, when Starsky had stopped simply having sex and started making love, Gordie had dumped him like the proverbial hot potato. All because Starsky had voiced those three fatal words.

By contrast, he could tell Hutch a thousand times a day that he loved him. His partner welcomed the words. Hell, Hutch voiced the sentiment as often as Starsky did himself. Only the blond didn't mean those three little words quite the same way Starsky did. After years of circumspect analysis, of furtively testing the limits of what Hutch would and wouldn't tolerate, of finding remarkably few don't dos, Starsky had decided that his partner was the most sexually secure man he'd ever encountered. Unlike the majority of Starsky's male buddies, the blond Midwesterner didn't freak out every time Starsky touched him. From the very first, Hutch had seemed comfortable with Starsky's shows of affection, accepting the contact in the innocent spirit in which it was offered. Hutch didn't have to twist a touch into something sordid. He didn't read deeper motives or hidden agendas behind every chance physical contact. Hell, Hutch trusted him so much that the blond cop failed to pick up those deeper meanings even when Starsky couldn't help but broadcast them.

And it was because of that unshakable trust that Starsky knew he could never act upon his desires. He'd die before he'd see the brightness fade from Hutch's incredible blue eyes every time his partner looked at him. There was a special…glow Hutch reserved only for him. The blond kind of lit up around him during their innocent, meaningless banter. Starsky would do nothing to change that, even if it meant he had to suffer the trials of the damned every single second they spent together, even if it meant he had to stand by and let that witch Vanessa get her claws back in his friend. .

Sighing, Starsky did his best to clear his mind, to give his tired body the rest it hungered for. Eventually, the darkness wove its lulling spell and he slipped over into sleep.

The dream came to him again that night, as Starsky had known it would. Whenever the subject of Vanessa came up or when Hutch seemed to be seriously falling for some shapely beauty, Starsky's biggest should have done, his worst missed opportunity, would rear up from his subconscious to give all his altruistic, self-sacrificing intentions a good kick in the balls.

Tonight was no different.

As he tossed in restless slumber, Starsky once again saw himself as he'd been that bright morning…

Early spring. The sun hadn't turned vicious yet. The vegetation was still lush and green. There weren't any droughts or mudslides. Bees buzzed and the birds sang in a stereotypical portrait of renewed life. That particular morning, the sun shone gently down upon California, giving Starsky a glimpse of the paradise L.A. must have been when those early explorers first set foot here.

Starsky's buoyant mood reflected the morning's brightness. He was newly promoted to Detective Sergeant, and his steps were almost as light as his heart as he climbed the stairs to his partner's upscale home. The luxury condo suited his down-to-earth partner about as well as the snobs that inhabited it. Hutch hated the place almost as much as Starsky did. But Hutchinson's wife loved it, and what Vanessa wanted, Vanessa got. One way or another.

Practically skipping up the stairs, Starsky forced himself to push the dark thoughts away. On a day this lovely, he was even willing to give the Ice Queen the benefit of the doubt. Life was too good to waste time griping about the likes of Vanessa Hutchinson.

Things were finally working out the way Starsky had always dreamed they would. He'd finally made detective. The new precinct to which he'd been assigned didn't seem to be nearly as riddled with corruption as the last. The new captain wasn't bad. Not as sharp as Schuller had been, perhaps, but then Dobey didn't seem to be the kind to get caught with his hand in the cookie jar, either. And, best of all, their academy dream had been realized. Hutch and he were finally partners for real. There'd be no more worrying about whether a guy counting the days till his retirement would have the balls to back him up when things got hairy, no more biting his tongue over bigoted comments about their suspects' racial backgrounds, no more holding some ape with a badge back from using a cuffed prisoner as a punching bag, no more wondering if the guy regulations forced him to call partner was on the take.

With Hutch, there were no such worries. His old academy buddy was so clean he squeaked. Though the blond had toughed up some in the years they'd worked apart, Hutchinson still had that gentle streak that Starsky so fondly recalled from their training days. Hutch was an idealist, through and through, a shining white knight questing for justice in the grimy back streets of L.A.

As he neared the polished dark wood of his partner's condo door, the loud angry shouts from its other side dissolved his visions of Camelot like dispersing smoke. So much for his bright, sunny morning.

Starsky glanced at his wristwatch. If they left now, they might make it on time. The tone of the heated discussion raging within didn't give the former New Yorker much hope of clearing out any time soon. Lately, his partner's home seemed to be one endless domestic.

Starsky rang the wimpy bell that could barely be heard in the dead of night. He knew that it didn't have a three-legged derby contestant's chance of being heard above all that screaming.

Just leaving his finger on the dumb plastic buzzer, Starsky waited…and waited.

When some healthy New York pounding on the door also went unnoticed, Starsky shouted, "Hey, Hutch, it's half past. We're gonna be late again, partner, if you don't get a move on!"

Starsky may as well have whispered the words into Niagara Falls for all the response he got. Listening to the ever-increasing volume of the heated exchange, Starsky knew that he'd never be heard.

Not wanting to be late -- again -- he reached for the key his partner kept above the lintel to let himself in, shaking his head at the trusting blond's stupidity. One of these days that habit of Hutch's was going to land him in a shit load of trouble.

Wincing at the less than sweet sounds of domestic harmony, Starsky followed the shouts down the fancy parquet hall to the pastel living room, where Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson stood squared off in mortal combat.

Although in his less charitable moments Starsky questioned how a man as smart as his partner could have gotten tied up with such a superficial, vicious bitch as Vanessa, every time Starsky laid eyes on her in the flesh, he completely understood the attraction.

In more ways than one, Vanessa and Hutch were perfect complements to each other. The green-eyed brunette offset Hutch's striking, Viking blondness perfectly. In looks, she was the perfect lady in waiting to Hutch's white knight. Her beauty was almost unnatural, an intriguing cross between an angel and last month's centerfold. With looks like that, there wasn't a man alive who stood a chance of resisting her. Hutch had probably been hooked from her first smile.

Unfortunately, Vanessa's temperament failed to live up to her angel's smile. Starsky had seen streetwalkers with stricter morals and cold-blooded assassins with more humanity.

From first sight when Hutch had taken his academy buddy to meet his future bride, Van and he had detested each other and made no bones about it. Maybe it was Starsky's street wiles that allowed him to see past her stunning facade or perhaps it was simply plain, old-fashioned jealousy that had made him hate her; whatever the source, he'd known at first sight that this dark haired, coldly perfect beauty would never make Hutch happy.

But you couldn't tell a man be smitten by love such a thing, so Starsky had tried to be charming, made all the right noises in Vanessa's company, counseled caution whenever Hutch and he were alone...and watched through gritted teeth as his closest friend made the greatest mistake of his life. It hadn't taken two months of wedded bliss for Hutch to recognize how basically unsuited Van and his personalities and goals in life were to each other. Now, two and a half years down the line, all couple did was fight. To Starsky, it seemed the pair slept only to regroup their ¬energies to rejoin the fray.

Judging from the furor of the present bout, the contestants had each gotten a good night's sleep and were ready to go another ten rounds.

"You're never around, damn it! What the hell am I supposed to do all day? Sit around darning your goddamn socks?" Vanessa screamed. Her cheeks were flushed with emotion, her eyes glittering green malevolence like an enraged panther's. In her wispy, long white night gown, she'd never looked more lovely or regal.

Hutch, fully dressed in a pair of brown cords, brown tee shirt with and a red, black and white plaid lumberjack shirt over it, shot back furiously, "That's, no excuse for running up a $3,000.00 VISA bill in one month. Where are we gonna get the money to pay for that?"

"If you were making a decent living instead of playing cops and robbers all day, we wouldn't have to count pennies the way we do," she spat back.

"You knew I was a cop when you married me," Hutch reminded. "That's no excuse..."

Realizing that the pair hadn't even noticed his entrance, Starsky cleared his throat and announced his presence. "Ah, excuse me..."

Vanessa whirled towards him, surprise and distaste flashing across her impassioned features. "Didn't anyone ever teach you to knock? Or don't they have doors where you come from?"

Starsky bristled, keeping his cool only because this was his best friend's wife, someone he was going to have to deal with for a very long time. "I'm sorry. I did knock, but I guess you couldn't hear me, busy as you are." He turned to the angry blond. "We're gonna be late if we don't hit the streets now."

His long frame tensed in anger, Hutch gave a stiff nod. "Right, I'll get my gun. Thanks for picking me up again, Starsk. The LTD will be out of the shop tomorrow, promise."

Starsky nodded. "No problem. We gotta move, though."

"Don't you even think about walking out on me again! This is the first time I've seen you vertical in three days!" Vanessa shrilly announced.

Starsky, who'd interrupted this same argument at almost the exact point yesterday morning, knew the accusation to be something of an exaggeration.

Hutch seemed to have gotten himself under control. Glancing up from the strap of the shoulder holster he was donning, the blond calmly stated, "I've got to go to work. We can finish this later when I get home."

"What time?" she demanded, stepping in closer.

Stunned, Starsky saw his partner's body give the near-imperceptible signals that always told Starsky the blond was braced for a physical confrontation.

"Sevenish," Hutch replied.

"You said that yesterday and it was almost midnight," Vanessa reminded.

"I told you about the body they found on Sycamore..." Hutch began.

"The only body I care about is yours. Home, here, on time." Her slender form radiated contempt. "And it might be a nice change if you could keep your eyes open long enough to get it up for once."

Starsky, who'd been watching his partner shrug into his brown leather jacket, saw scarlet humiliation stain the blond's cheeks.

Christ, but he hated domestics, especially when it was a friend's. No matter how close two men were, there were just some things that you didn't want your best buddy knowing.

Pretending to be deaf, Starsky schooled his features and focused his gaze on the peach shag rug beneath his sneakers.

Normally, it took a lot to make Hutchinson really lose it. Starsky had seen his friend walk away from taunts that would have left himself on death row. But now, rage turned Hutch's eyes to the same incandescent blue of a gas jet. The lanky blond stepped up to his wife and arrogantly sneered, "It'd be a nice change if there were something to get it up for."

That scored a definite hit. The slim brunette froze for a second, before spitting like a cat in a fit, "Why you..."

Starsky was moving between the pair before he consciously made the decision to interfere. The move was an instinctive one, made to protect his partner from attack, executed with the same lack of forethought he'd use on the street.

He had only been here once before when the arguing had reached this volatile stage. He would never forget how Vanessa had slapped Hutch's face that day, digging her talons into the tender flesh of the blond's cheek and raking downwards. Hutch had been fortunate that those jagged rents hadn't scarred.

Starsky calmly blocked her blow, grabbing hold of her wrist to prevent any further mayhem. Seeing her eyes flash undiluted murder at his impertinence, her fingers tensing to scratch at his hand, Starsky warned in a low growl, "Don't."

A fleeting series of emotions flashed through her angry cat eyes: rage, hatred, curiosity, pure animal cunning.

Starsky watched her consider her response to his gesture in the calculating fashion so typical of her. He could see her size him up as a possible candidate for seduction, dismiss the idea, then move on to others. She was transparent as a two-bit whore. Finally, she settled on a naked challenge, "Or?"

His thumb moved of its own accord into the pressure point on her slender white hand, exerting just enough force to widen those feline eyes in something other than fury. Deciding it was long past time for a little truth, he drawled with soft menace,

"Tread carefully here, Vanessa. Hutch and me ain't from the same school. You push my buttons and you'll live to regret it."

Her snort of disdain was pure show. Starsky could see the uneasy glint in her eyes, as if this was one battle even this hellcat was unwilling to jump into unless it was absolutely unavoidable.

Peripherally, Starsky felt, rather than saw, Hutch approach. "Come on, Starsk, we're gonna be late," the taller cop gently reminded, laying a hand on Starsky's forearm -- the same arm that held Vanessa's delicate hand captive.

"That's right, choirboy, run away!" she sneered.

Hutch stiffened, glanced at his wife's and Starsky's locked hands, not seeming to care what the outcome might be. "I'll be out in the car, partner."

Vanessa's contemptuous laughter followed the tall detective as the blond strode from the room.

Starsky waited until Hutch was gone before releasing her. "You're pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?" he questioned.

Looking regal and more beautiful than any queen Starsky had ever seen depicted in the history books, Vanessa threw her long raven curls back with a coquettish toss of her head and laughed…not a totally unpleasant sound. Her curvaceous body was a ripe challenge. Any man faced with her would have been tempted to throw her to the floor and fuck her through the rug; she was that carnal a temptation. Staring at her laughing face, Starsky thought that she was the most beautiful woman he'd seen in his entire life, and the only thing he wanted to do with her was wring her elegant neck.

Vanessa gave him a sultry glance that would have melted asbestos. Her left brow arched ever so slightly, her heart-shaped face tilted at a flattering angle as she bragged, "The woman hasn't been born that could take him from me."

In Real Life at this point, Starsky had just nodded and left, conceding defeat.

But now, as happened every time Starsky's subconscious rewrote this particular slice of history, he spoke the words that had been on the tip of his tongue that bright May morning: "Take care, Vanessa. Maybe the woman hasn't been born who could take him from you, but I'll lay you odds that the man has."

As she stood frozen in shock, gaping at him like a goldfish, a satisfied Starsky turned on his heel and left the room.

His angry stalk brought him to his sleek, baby blue Mustang, where Hutch sat in the passenger's seat staring unblinkingly out at traffic. Now in the dream, as in reality, Starsky opened the driver's door and slipped in beside his silent friend.

Hutch's profile could have been cut from marble, so tightly was he repressing his emotions. With the morning sun glinting through the shower of damp curls at the nape of his neck and sparking gold off his eyebrows and lashes, Hutch looked like some perfect work of art. More than handsome, Hutch was breathtakingly beautiful. Starsky felt that beauty slither through his blood like an amphetamine, the feeling solidifying in his groin as a pulsing ball of need. HUTCH. With every breath, he throbbed for this man.

"You okay, partner?" Starsky softly questioned when the silence dragged on too long.

. Hutch gave a tight nod, not removing his gaze from the passing flow of traffic, as if too embarrassed by the sordid scene to meet his partner's eyes.

Needing to break through that intimidating wall of silence, Starsky forced a chuckle, then commented, "Vanessa doesn't pull her punches, does she, buddy?"

As intended, that snapped Hutch's attention to him. Eyes sparking anger, the blond demanded, "Just what is that supposed to mean?"

"Everybody fights with their wife, Hutch. Sometimes they say things they don't mean," Starsky offered.

"Oh, she meant it all right." Hutch's cheeks flamed crimson again as he struggled to explain what no man should have to tell another. "We've been keeping such crazy hours on the job lately that I...well, I sorta fell asleep..."

"Shhhh," Starsky soothed, touching a tense bicep. Once again, he was struck by this gentle man's raw courage. He would never have been able to face Hutch after a scene like that.

"I...I really loved her once, Starsk...thought she loved me... How could that change?" Hutch asked in a broken voice, his gaze still fixed on the cars speeding by.

Wanting to help, but not knowing how he could, Starsky gave the same lie in his dream that he'd given all those years ago, "It's the job, babe. Just the job."

"I'm such a disappointment to her," Hutch whispered at last.

Starsky looked at this man that he'd walk through fire for, unable to even find his voice under the force of the other cop's physical presence. "You, a disappointment? You're loyal, idealistic, brave and compassionate. What more could a woman want?"

"A better provider?" the blond sarcastically suggested.

"You are a good provider. Hell, even if I sold my car, I still wouldn't be able to pay a $3,000.00 VISA bill," Starsky sensibly protested.

As he had hoped, that brought a small smile to the full lips, a fleeting twist of the corners that was gone almost as soon as it started. "Not with this car, you wouldn't."

"Hey, don't insult my baby," Starsky warned with a grin, affectionately patting the leather padded steering wheel.

"Seriously, though, Starsk, I...I don't know what I'm going to do. There are times she makes me so furious that I really could kill her. This wasn't what I expected when we got married. I can't even remember what it's like to be with someone who...who's in love with me. Even in bed, it's like...warfare."

Starsky gave the muscular arm another ineffective pat and bit back the suggestion that Hutch get out from under. It wasn't his place to make such a remark, especially since his own motives were suspect.

"I just...I just want to feel loved again," Hutch sighed. "Is that so much to ask?"

Unwilling to trust what might come out of his mouth, Starsky gave a mute shake of his head. The misery in those wounded blue eyes bled straight into his very soul. Once again, he found himself unable to withhold the truth. "You are loved, babe," he hoarsely rasped, his hand rising of its own volition to cup Hutch's satin-smooth cheek.

A thousand years ago, Hutch had sniffed at this point and buried his wet face in the front of Starsky's jacket.

But here in Starsky's dream, where all things were possible, his perceptive partner finally comprehended what Starsky had really meant that day.

Dreams not being reality, there was no revulsion or disappointment in those amazing blue eyes.

Instead of rejecting Starsky outright, Hutch's gaze widened in shock, his expression softening immeasurably after a frozen moment.

One of the blond's big, finely shaped hands rose to brush Starsky's cheek, Hutch's thumb lingering to finger the moles there.

In this alternate reality, Starsky was finally able to do what he hadn't managed for at least eight months after that eventful morning -- distract his partner from the pain of his messy breakup.

"You have something you want to tell me, partner?" the blond asked gently, his eyes assuring Starsky that anything he wanted to say was more than all right with Hutch.

Struck speechless by the acceptance, Starsky nodded. His gaze locked with familiar blue, the dark-haired cop leaned in and in…until his mouth made contact with the lush, sensuous pads of Hutch's lips. The skin was incredibly soft and warm, flavored by the blond's drying tears.

Hutch sat still for a moment, stunned amazement freezing him solid.

Then, all at once that stiff mouth beneath Starsky's seemed to melt like butter.

Arms that were perhaps more powerful than Starsky's encircled the dark-haired cop, drawing him in closer. Long fingers tangled in his dark curls, locking his head in place. It was more than mere acceptance. Hutch became an active participant. The blond's tongue greedily sought admission into the smaller man's mouth.

The hunger, the open delight in his partner's response was more than Starsky could ever have hoped for. Highly conscious of that they were two L.A. cops sitting here French kissing in the front of his car on a very public street, Starsky moaned. But he didn't have the will to pull back, to reject the fulfillment of his deepest longings. Knowing that he could be damning them both, Starsky opened his mouth and surrendered to his partner's desperate fervor.

In his heart, he knew that Hutch's involvement was just a reaction to the running battle that passed for his home life, that once the quiet blond had time to consider what he'd done, Hutch would come to regret this choice and possibly even hate Starsky for ambushing him this way.

But Starsky had waited so long on the sidelines aching for this man, knowing how hopeless his cause was, that presented with a reality -- albeit a fleeting one -¬Starsky was powerless to resist. Anything Hutch wanted from him, his friend would have. Right here in the bright morning sun in the front seat of Starsky's Mustang with Hutch's wife and neighbors watching from their windows, if that was the way Hutch wanted him.

Hutch's mouth was so sweet, the intimate, wet dance of their tongues so perfect that the pleasure left Starsky mindless. All he knew was this raging desire was finally being realized.

Hutch's right hand untangled from its lock on Starsky's curls, trailing down his neck, over his chest and lower.

Starsky gasped as his partner ripped free of the kiss, the blond's mouth fastening on the tender spot behind a dark curl-obscured ear with vampiric persistence. At the same instant, Hutch's moving hand left where it had been unsuccessfully trying to open the recalcitrant zipper of Starsky's leather jacket. Instead, that hot palm pressed down against the moving bulge that was trying to burst through Starsky's fly.

The incredible heat, the sheer daring of the hand that gripped and took his measure through the strangling denim overwhelmed him. Anything Hutch wanted at the moment was his, anything at all. If the ingenious blond could figure a way to manage it around the protruding steering wheel, Starsky would have let his partner screw him right there in the front seat of his Mustang. He was that hot for Hutch.

Shaking uncontrollably, Starsky felt that large hand carefully unzip him, then reach between the folds of his open pants to withdraw his wine red cock from the choke hold his Fruit of the Looms had on him. The relief alone was nearly as heady as the feel of that moist palm encircling his straining shaft.

Hutch wasn't the least bit hesitant or inhibited as he began to work Starsky's hungry flesh in powerful strokes.

Delight such as Starsky had never dreamed possible danced through his loins. This was Hutch, his Hutch, touching him this way, wanting to touch him this way... "Looks like you've waited a long time for this, buddy," the blond softly commented, a question in his voice.

"Forever," Starsky admitted, not caring how much he gave away or what kind of hold his candidness would give the blond over him, "I've waited forever for you, babe."

"Then let's make it worth your while, shall we?" The warmth and acceptance in that beloved voice just about destroyed Starsky.

When that golden head actually lowered towards his groin, his destruction was complete. He knew at that moment that nothing in his life was ever going to be this good again. This was as perfect as it got.

His system on overdrive, Starsky gasped and panted for air, transfixed by the sight of those passion-swollen, pouty lips opening to engulf his blazing cock.

It was unreal. More than he'd ever expected or dreamed he'd have.

Starsky's blood was roaring so loud in his ears that he could barely think over its drumming. As his friend's mouth drew closer and closer to its goal, the pounding in his ears grew louder, more persistent.

Until the thunder of aroused blood coalesced into the recognizable shrill blare of a ringing phone. Normally, at this point it was the alarm that woke Starsky.

"Hutch..." he groaned in denial, trying to catch on to the wispy illusion as his dream lover evaporated in a beam of cruel morning sunlight.

No! God damn it, no, not again...

Only a dream. That was all it was. All it could ever be.

Choking on a sob, Starsky rolled over, burying his emotion-torn face in his pillow, pushing his humiliating erection into the mattress. This was going to kill him, absolutely kill him.

And still the phone blared on.

He considered ignoring it, then gave up. Probably Dobey hollering about those expense vouchers. The captain kept even weirder hours than they did. There were times Starsky suspected that Dobey never slept, just ate.

His groping hand snagged the receiver, yanking it over to his ear. "Yeah?" he snarled.

"S-Starsk?"

He tensed. Hutch's voice, sounding strung out, upset.

"Hutch? What's up, partner?" Starsky was unaware how his tone altered, the unconscious softening.

After a breathy pause there came a loud gulp...which made Starsky wonder if his partner hadn't just awakened from his own version of that wet dream, but the blond's next words dispelled the fantasy.

"Van…Van's dead, Starsk."

Starsky froze. For an incredible, horrible second, he wondered what the bitch had done to finally drive Hutch over the edge. Then he got a hold of himself and asked as calmly as he could manage with his erection poking its way through the mattress and the dream's sensual web lingering in his flesh, "What happened, babe?"

His breath caught in his chest, Starsky waited out the answer, aware that whatever his partner said next would dictate the course their lives would take from this moment on.

If Hutch had killed her...

To Starsky's intense shame, the thoughts which followed the mental question had nothing to do with police procedure and legal defense. Rather, his mind was quickly running down a systematic list of possible burial sites, places where a body would never be found. "I...I don't know. I went...for a run. Van was gonna make me breakfast... When I got back, she was dead on the floor… Shot with my piece."

The relief gushed through Starsky's body as he released his captured breath. It was bad, but not as bad as he'd feared.

"Okay..." Starsky inanely commented, his mind just freezing.

"She's dead, Starsk...dead..." The shocked voice shook, on the verge of breaking.

"Sit tight, babe. I'm on my way. It's gonna be all right," he promised, hanging up the phone.

Tugging on a pair of jeans and the first shirt that came to hand -- yesterday's dirty one, as it turned out -- Starsky paused long enough to pull on the crumpled socks beside the bed, tug on his Adidas, then he was out the door.

Eighteen hours later Starsky's partner was under suspension with a warrant out on him for Murder One and they were both fugitives from the law. Funny, what a difference a day made, Starsky thought as they followed a grumpy Huggy Bear into his apartment after awaking the poor guy from a sound sleep.

From the time Hutch's phone call had awakened him this morning, the case had been an escalating nightmare. Hutch's skin and blood under Vanessa's nails, the victim murdered with Hutch's own gun, a 70-karat motive... The only thing missing to seal this airtight case was a film of the murder, with Hutch in the starring role. If it were anybody but his partner, even Starsky would have been forced to admit his guilt.

But Hutch wouldn't kill her, not that way. If Van had broken her neck or fractured her skull, then Starsky might have been forced to believe the implications. He'd seen Vanessa go far his partner's face with those claws of hers far too many times to be under any illusions. If she'd tried that on Hutch and been pushed back too forcefully, Van could have fallen and broken her neck...but no matter what the circumstances, Starsky knew that his partner would never have shot his ex-wife.

But knowing it and proving it were two different matters.

In Hutch's car on the way over to Huggy's they'd hatched up a scheme whereby they might get Wheeler to admit to the murder. It was one hell of a long shot, but it was all they had.

Even as he'd fast-talked his worried superior, Starsky hadn't been sure that he'd be able to get Dobey to go along with the plan. Murder One wasn't a charge that any cop could easily overlook. Loyalty only went so far. If Dobey were implicated in assisting a known felon, his badge could be forfeited along with those of his two wayward detectives.

As Hutch and he stood there in Huggy's living room, close as lovers as they listened in on the same phone to Dobey's grudging consent to play along, Starsky felt ready to sag with relief. Finally, something was working out.

Responding to Dobey's concerns about what would happen if Wheeler failed to incriminate himself tomorrow, Starsky sighed, "Well, if it doesn't, you can come visit

Hutch and I in San Quentin."

"Not funny, Starsky," Dobey growled. "I'll get that picture over to The Pits first thing tomorrow. Till then, stay low. We've already got enough heat."

"We will, Cap. And…thanks. We really appreciate it," Starsky told Dobey, too aware of how far their boss was going out on the limb for them.

As Starsky hung up the phone, Hutch's eyes were digging into him. "It could come to San Quentin, you know," the blond whispered, his lanky frame taut with tension. "You made yourself an accessory to Murder One when you left Dryden cuffed to that table."

Bravado was the only thing that had carried him through the day. Starsky knew that he couldn't appear anything less than 100% confident that they'd successfully see this through. He had to stay strong to keep Hutch strong. He could see how close to snapping the exhausted blond was. Starsky knew that if he showed any doubt himself, his friend would shatter. And he needed Hutch to hold it together for just a few hours longer.

"They have to find us first," the dark-haired cop bluffed.

"Find us? Starsk, this morning I told Simonetti and Dryden that the owner of The Pits was a personal friend. How long do you think it's gonna take for one of them to remember that? And when they do...Huggy will be implicated, too," Hutch argued, the lines in his face deepening as he spelled out their situation.

"Laverne and Shirley there couldn't find their way out of an open paper bag with a road map and flashlight. Don't sweat it, partner." Starsky reached out to run his fingers through that glimmering cascade of gold. He only allowed himself that liberty when Hutch was really upset. The gentle contact always seemed to soothe the taller man's frayed nerves.

But tonight Hutch didn't allow himself to be sidetracked. "This is serious, Starsk. It's not just us anymore. It's Huggy and...."

"And nothin'," Huggy interrupted as he returned from the back of his apartment, seeming more awake. "I'm sorry for the less than polite welcome you received, but you woke me up. You ain't goin' nowheres till mornin'."

"But..." Hutch protested.

"Where's your keys, man?" Huggy demanded.

"Huh?" Both cops stared at the silk-draped black man.

Huggy gave a pained sigh, looking as if he were dealing with a pair of simpletons. "If you give me your keys, I'll move your car into the garage and put the Caddy on the street. That way, if the heat does drop by, your wheels won't be parked in my front yard. It won't be so obvious."

It was clear that Huggy had harboring and abetting down to a science. "Oh. Give him the keys, Hutch," Starsky commanded.

"This isn't a good idea, Starsk. We should just…" the taller cop argued.

"Just what?" Huggy interrupted. "Where else you gonna go at this hour of the morning? Come on, Hutch-my-man, talk sense."

"I am the only one talking sense here. Do either of you realize just what you're risking for me?" Hutch demanded.

Only surprised that this issue hadn't surfaced back at Hutch's when they'd left Dryden cooling his heels, Starsky dug out his own key ring, pointing out his copy of Hutch's key. "It's the gold one nearest the rabbit foot, Hug," he informed, tossing the set to their host.

"Starsky!" Hutch sounded pissed off.

"Got it." Huggy grinned. "Make yourselves to home. I'll be back in a minute."

Alone, Starsky faced his partner's quelling glare. Hoping Hutch's mood would pass, he detoured to Huggy's kitchen to snare them both a much-needed beer. His luck held, however. The blond was still glaring at him like he'd drunk from the milk carton when he got back to the room. "What?"

"We could go to prison for this, Starsk. At the very least, you'll be kicked off the force."

It was a fate he'd accepted the minute he'd made his decision in Hutch's kitchen, when his partner's sarcastic comment of 'You're awful quiet, buddy' had made Starsky realize how impossible it was to take Hutch in. "They can't fire me."

"Huh?" Hutch blinked.

"I already told Dobey I was gonna resign."

"You what? Starsky, are you…?" Hutch's comment was cut off by Huggy's return.

"All's quiet on the eastern front," Huggy reported. "The car's outta sight. You two hungry or do you just wanta crash?"

Huggy's bright tone sounded as if he were hosting a pajama party instead of harboring a pair of fugitives.

Starsky checked his partner's too-pale face. Hutch was furious, but scared under it. They hadn't eaten since they both pushed lunch around their plates this afternoon, but sleep seemed more essential at the moment. "We'll just crash, if it's all the same to you, Hug."

The gaunt barkeeper nodded, gesturing towards the bedroom the two detectives were already standing in. "Okay. You can use Turk's bed here. I don't think he'll mind. He's outta town visitin' his folks."

The curious relationship Huggy had formed with the good-looking Southerner was a source of mystery to Starsky. Considering his old friend's nebulous sexual orientation and less than constant attentions, Starsky had never envisioned Huggy Bear as actually settling down. That it would be this corn-husker Hug set up housekeeping with was a complete conundrum. But somehow, the pair suited each other.

Approaching the unspoken subject more openly than he'd ever dared in the past, Starsky asked, "Will you be goin' home to meet Turk's folks soon?"

Huggy froze, looking back from one to the other of them before answering, "A lot will depend on how this trip goes. Some people just ain't ready for the truth."

"I hear you." Starsky nodded, understanding all that hadn't been spoken. Just trying to picture how that squeaky-clean Southern boy was going to go home to his momma and tell her that not only had he taken up with a man, but a black man besides, made him ache in sympathy for the absent Turk. The little Huggy's friend had told them of his background made Starsky suspect this trip back home would be less than idyllic.

Speculation entered Huggy's rich chocolate gaze as his eyes darted meaningfully in Hutch's direction before meeting Starsky's own again. "Then there are some others who've been waitin' on the truth for years. You dig, my friend?" Starsky gulped, feeling the blood drain from his face. Huggy knew.

"I hate to interrupt your friendly chat..." Hutch planted himself between Huggy and his partner, oblivious to everything but his current predicament. "But we have a murder to solve."

Exchanging a telling glance with Huggy, Starsky pulled himself together. Reminding himself that Hutch had a personal stake in this particular homicide, Starsky gently reasoned with the overtired blond, "I know, partner. We got a job to do and we'll nail them, but nothin's gonna turn till morning. Right now we need to lay low and catch some sleep. We'll be no good to anyone if we're too tired to carry this off. Okay?"

For a second, the exhausted cop glared blue arctic ice at him, Viking stubbornness and common sense at war in the tense form. Then the taller man gave a weary sigh and capitulated, "You're right, Starsk. Sorry."

"Nothin' to be sorry for, partner," Starsky assured. "Why don't you go get ready for bed?" he gently suggested, seeing how nerves and shock had worn Hutch down.

"Yeah, that's a good idea."

"Come on, my friend." Huggy took the blond's arm and led him towards the bathroom. "I'll get you a tooth brush."

Docile as a child, Hutch allowed himself to be guided. "Yeah. Thanks, Hug."

Glad that another argument had been averted, Starsky took a deep breath and started peeling off his clothes. Too aware of their fugitive state, Starsky placed his Beretta under his pillow on the right side of the bed. Even so, he had no idea what he'd do if someone burst in upon them tonight. It was the law they were hiding from, after all. Brother cops.

Hutch was back a few moments later, smelling of Huggy's sandalwood soap and peppermint toothpaste. As the hopelessly klutzy blond patiently disentangled himself from the sparkling strings of plastic beads that separated Turk's room from the living room, Hutch said, "It's all yours, Starsk."

"Thanks."

When Starsky returned to Turquette's room a few minutes later, Hutch was already in bed. On the right side, the golden head resting on the pillow under which Starsky had hidden his gun. "Ah, Hutch..."

"I put your piece and holster in the top drawer over there. Mine's in there, too. If the cops find us, we're goin' peacefully, Starsk. No arguments on this one," Hutch ordered. .

Strangely relieved, Starsky nodded and climbed into bed. "No arguments."

Settling down onto the unfamiliar mattress, Starsky stared around the strange room, listening to the tense sound of Hutch's breathing. He reached out at the first choked-back sob. "I'm here," he whispered into the dark.

"I know." There was a quiet, breathy pause. "Though I'm grateful for your presence, I wish to God you weren't here."

"Huh?" This wasn't at all what he'd been expecting. With no time to mourn Vanessa, Starsky had assumed that Hutch would be upset over his ex's murder.

"This...this could all go wrong, Starsk. The cops could catch us tomorrow. We could both go to prison for a very long time," Hutch fretted.

"At least we'll go together."

"It's not funny, Starsk," Hutch hoarsely denied.

"I know it's not, babe. But it's gonna be all right. I promise," Starsky vowed, silently swearing he'd do anything it took to make this right for his partner.

"Simonetti really believes I killed Van. He could make it stick. I - I don't wanta go to jail, Starsk." The last syllable wavered dangerously.

"That ain't gonna happen." Starsky turned on his side to stare at that worried, handsome face. Throwing a protective arm over his partner, he snuggled closer.

Hutch sighed, his hand covering Starsky's where it rested on the warm, nearly hairless skin of his chest, seeming to hug Starsky's limb to him. "It could. Wheeler mightn't talk. What are we gonna do then? We can't hide at Huggy's forever."

"Don't worry about it now, Hutch. If it don't work out, we'll split the country. Starsky soothed.

"Right," Hutch snorted, "We'll just breeze down to our retirement villa in Rio."

"No," Starsky patiently corrected, "We'll get Huggy's friend the Baron to fly us across the border, then we'll lose ourselves in Mexico."

"Get serious, Starsk," Hutch said sharply. "This isn't a game."

"I know it's no game and I ain't jokin'. If we don't get the goods on Wheeler in that funeral home tomorrow, then tomorrow night I intend for us to be south of the border."

"I almost believe you," Hutch whispered at last, his form growing even more tense.

"Good, then maybe you'll get some sleep now," Starsky grumped, readjusting to a more comfortable position that left them sharing the same pillow.

"Do you have any idea of what you're saying?" Hutch asked in a weird, strained voice.

"Hutch, it's two thirty in the morning. Give it a rest for a few hours," he pleaded.

"You're talking about throwing your career and your whole life away for my sake," the blond whispered, sounding scared as Starsky had never heard this courageous fighter frightened before.

"They put you in jail, babe, and my life isn't worth diddly anyway. I stopped at the bank after Simonetti and Dryden found that rock in your car this afternoon. Pulled my savings out. We got enough to get us somewhere safe. I give you my word, Hutch, they ain't puttin' you in jail for a crime you didn't commit."

"Starsk..." The name caught on a sob, the tears Hutch had fought back all day finally fighting through.

Gathering his shaking partner to him, Starsky rolled over onto his back and cuddled Hutch against his bare chest as the blond cried himself out.

They were both wearing nothing but briefs. Even though Starsky had fantasized about moments like this, dreamed about how good all that naked skin would feel against him, all he could think about now was making Hutch feel better. He rubbed the velvety expanse of back in broad, comforting strokes.

"It's gonna be all right, partner. You'll see." Starsky crooned this and other nonsense, holding Hutch the way his partner had held him after Terry's death, in an embrace so fiercely protective that no hurt would dare try to penetrate it.

Eventually, Hutch's grief worked its way out. The hot, ticklish flood of tears against Starsky's chest hair slowed, then stopped. The sobs mutated into a few hiccup-like sighs. At last, Hutch's jittery breaths deepened, evening out as exhaustion claimed the over-strained cop.

It was only when Starsky knew his partner to be incontestably asleep that he lowered his mouth to the crown of fragrant blond hair. Burying his lips in the sweet, Hutch-scented locks, Starsky pressed a chaste kiss against his friend's scalp, silently promising the sleep-heavy man that he would do whatever it took to keep him safe...even if it meant pulling a Butch and Sundance and fleeing across the border.

What seemed only moments later, Hutch's gasp -- half terror, all pain -- seeped into Starsky's troubled dreams.

"Ahh…"

Starsky's eyes snapped open. His arms were full of a warm, hard body. Hutch, he blearily identified, unconsciously comforted by the familiar scents and feel of his friend. He momentarily panicked at the feel of the strange bed beneath him and the unfamiliar surroundings, but then he remembered. They were at Huggy's, hiding out from their own coworkers.

He concentrated on the room around him, not relaxing until he was certain that his partner's outcry was caused by nothing other than a dream. But there were no assassins or cops lurking in the shadowed room. Nothing but Hutch and him, twined in a highly compromising position.

They were snuggled together spoon style in the center of Turquette's huge bed, Hutch in front, Starsky clutching him in an unconscious death grip from behind.

As the shudders and shakes of the warm body he clutched told Starsky that his friend was once again trapped in his grief, Starsky fought his way up to full consciousness. After the trials of the previous day, it was no easy task. His body was just screaming for sleep.

"I'm here," Starsky breathed into the nearby ear, pulling his partner even closer to him. "What was it? A bad dream?"

A tight nod told him how hard Hutch was trying to get a grip on his emotions. But three a.m. on the night when you'd been charged with your ex-wife's murder was a rough time to try and tough it out.

Only half-awake himself, Starsky made comforting noises, gently rocking the taller man against him as his hand rubbed in comforting circles across Hutchinson's perfectly smooth chest. .

"Feel better?" Starsky mumbled thickly when the trembling subsided.

"Yeah, thanks."

"'S okay. Think you can sleep now?" Starsky questioned.

A weighty silence preceded Hutch's obviously forced nod.

Stifling a sigh, Starsky kept up the stroking and rocking, doing his very best to ignore how wonderful his partner's warm body felt nestled safe in his arms. But at three a.m. in the morning on a day that might end with them both behind bars in prison, such discipline was as tall an order to fill as Hutch's bid for emotional control.

Perhaps it was subconscious planning on Starsky's part or maybe he really was more asleep than awake. Whatever the case, the drowsing detective was not aware of the moment when the nature of his touches altered, when a reassuring rub became a sensual glide, when an innocent hug became something only slightly less than a lover's embrace.

Starsky's first hint of trouble came when his friend gave a long, drawn out, sibilant hiss.

Thinking that pain lay behind the sound, Starsky fought his way back up to consciousness yet again.

Wheeler's strong arm, Cardwell had given Hutch a pretty good going over before the second, unseen perp had hit the blond detective from behind. There was no telling what might rupture in a stomach punch nor was it possible to predict how long it might take such subtle damage to make itself known. Aware that a trip to an emergency room might cost them not only their bid for Wheeler, but their freedom as well, Starsky was immediately awake. "You okay?"

Every muscle in the body Starsky held clutched to his chest felt as if it had turned-to solid stone.

Truly worried now, Starsky stared over his partner's shoulder at Hutch's face. The contorted features were in no way reassuring. "Hutch? What's wrong? Come on, babe, talk to me," he pleaded, his palm stroking over the firm chest to focus Hutch's attention on him.

Two things happened simultaneously at Starsky's gesture: the taller cop released a strangled noise that sounded like nothing so much as a whimper while at the same time the soft nipple beneath Starsky's moving palm perked up to pebble hardness.

"Christ... I'm sorry, Starsk," the visibly mortified blond whispered, attempting to pull away.

"Sssshh, don't. It's okay," Starsky soothed, locking his partner in tight. Still peering over Hutch's bony shoulder, he stared down the long body to ensure that what he suspected was indeed happening.

Even in the night-dark bedroom, Starsky could see the impressive bulge straining the front of his partner's briefs.

"You don't understand, Starsk. Let go 'a me. Please?" Hutch begged.

Desperation didn't suit this confident man.

Starsky pressed his cheek close to the cool blond hair, whispering into an obscured ear, "I do understand, partner, and I'm here for you...if that's what you want.

"You can't mean that," Hutch whispered back, his voice raspy and confused.

It was like some dream. Dark and sensual, poised on that fragile brink between fantasy and reality. One wrong move could ruin everything.

"Can't I?"

"What are you saying, Starsk?"

The genuine bewilderment and open apprehension reminded Starsky of what was at stake here. This was no convenient wet dream. This was the real thing. His partner. And his own carelessness had just laid a head-trip on his unsuspecting friend that Hutch might not be able to handle at a time like this.

"I mean that I'm here for you and that I love ya, man."

What Starsky had intended as reassurance only appeared to further his partner's confusion. Hutch lay very still in his arms before releasing a deep breath. "I don't think you mean that quite the way my body's interpreting it, buddy. I'm...really strung out. In case it's escaped your notice, I just lit up like a Christmas tree."

Impressed by the other's unflinching honesty, Starsky once again rubbed his palm across the flat, muscular chest. "I'd noticed. It seems to be a mutual condition," Starsky confessed, struck by an unaccountable bashfulness.

"Yeah, right," Hutch snorted, his disbelief palpable as he once again attempted to squirm loose.

To prove his point, Starsky pressed his hips forward into the soft white heat of the back of Hutch's briefs, pushing until his hardening cock was poking between the gentle mounds of Hutch's ass, until his erection couldn't be ignored. "I ain't this good an actor, partner. Looks like we're both wired."

Silence reigned for several tense seconds.

"So what do you want to do about it?" Hutch asked with forced harshness, his gruff tone betraying his anxiety.

Knowing that he was pushing the limit too hard here, Starsky pulled his pelvis back and released his hold on Hutch. This was one particular issue he didn't want to force. As things stood, he was already going to have a truckload of guilt to deal with after inadvertently turning Hutch on as he had. "That's up to you, babe. Like you said, we're both strung out. We can chalk it up to nerves and go back to sleep or...''

"Or?" Hutch prompted, not moving an inch out of the embrace, despite the open escape route Starsky had offered him.

Emboldened by that show of trust, Starsky let his hand glide over the hairless chest, straight down the flat belly to the wonders that lay below. Just briefly, his fingertips grazed the bulge of the blond's cotton covered erection, his wayward hand coming to rest on Hutch's right flank.

The lanky blond jerked as if a volt of raw electricity had convulsed him, his helpless cry one of sheer delight.

"Or anything else you care to name," Starsky promised, nuzzling the delectable neck for effect. When he felt the shivers course through the long frame, Starsky quit playing and raised his head, pulling totally away. "You just tell me which way it's gonna be, babe."

Heated blue eyes looked back at him over a milk-white shoulder. Then his partner made every one of Starsky deepest fantasies come true by asking, "Hold me...please?"

With a grateful groan, Starsky hugged his partner's warm back to his chest again. Spooning close, he buried his lips against that sensitive, sexy neck. "This what you want, Hutch?" Starsky questioned, awed by the reality of Hutch-scented skin beneath his lips.

"Yeah...yeah..." the blond murmured, grabbing hold of Starsky's left hand and directing it down to his groin. "Starsk?" Hutch called frantically as the darker-haired detective began to explore the impressive erection hiding beneath those briefs.

"Yeah, babe?"

"Make me forget about what happened today, what might be waiting for us tomorrow. Make me forget about everything but you. Think you can do that?"

Hearing the desperation, Starsky gently kissed what he could reach of Hutch's cheek while leaning over the blond's shoulder. "I promise it'll all go away, Hutch. Whatever it costs, I'll fix it for you tomorrow. Tonight...tonight's for you. You just close your eyes, babe. Lay back and enjoy it. Just trust me. Okay?"

"Okay," the blond sighed, leaning back against Starsky, baring his neck to the other man's attentions.

Starsky almost came right then and there at the silent surrender. He mouthed that delectable neck, his pulsing cock pushing hard between the cotton-covered cheeks of his partner's flat ass.

Hutch groaned deep in his throat, the drawn-out sound transforming to a hiss as Starsky's left hand pushed the front of the blond's briefs down and aside. That moist, rock-hard shaft jumped into Starsky's palm as if chiseled for the fit.

Unable to believe this was really happening, Starsky avidly sucked at his partner's sleek neck while his hand explored that amazing cock. Velvet steel. Hot and moist, his partner's cock nestled in his palm, jerking and pulsing like a creature with a life of its own. More than big, Hutch was huge and growing larger by the second as each pulse of the vein throbbing against Starsky's sweaty palm brought more blood gushing to the engorged organ.

Blindly charting the contours of the long, thick cock wasn't enough. After all those years of hungering for its touch and taste, Starsky had to see it. Once again, he craned his neck over Hutch's shoulder to get a look at what was going on down below.

The sight was nearly too much, ripping the breath from his chest as he took in the view of his own dark hand moving against his partner's even-darker flesh. Hutch was built like a thoroughbred, huge and powerful. His partner's cock was wine red with a long, pulsing vein running its length. Just watching that dark ribbon throb against Hutch's shaft almost made Starsky come. The gold fuzz at the base of that amazing penis was a pleasing contrast to the delicate pink of the balls the hair dusted.

His throat tightening up, Starsky murmured, "You're beautiful, babe, so goddamned beautiful."

Mesmerized, Starsky watched his hand pump that monster cock, loving the small, pleading sounds Hutch couldn't hold back. The blond's hips fell into rhythm with Starsky's moving hand, Hutch not seeming to mind that every time he pulled backwards, he pushed his ass right onto his partner's hungry cock, which was just about to poke its way out the front of Starsky's briefs.

His heart pounding harder than a jackhammer, Starsky's moving fist drove them higher and higher. His mouth was making a feast of Hutch's neck, ears and shoulders, convulsing the tall blond in helpless shivers that only seemed to accentuate what Starsky's left hand was doing to the captive penis.

His own briefs strangling him now, Starsky pulled his right arm out from where it was trapped under his partner, then tugged off his own underwear. Free of the painful vise, his cock bobbed greedily up. Knowing he'd come the instant he slid his shaft between those perfectly formed cheeks, Starsky's right hand grabbed hold of his own cock, rubbing its weeping tip back and forth across the living velvet of Hutch's ass while his left hand continued to pump his partner.

Hutch went wild, bucking back at him like a bronco in a Wild West show.

Too hot to even think about what he was doing, Starsky saw the muscles in Hutch's hypnotic, milky butt convulse with pleasure. The blond's moans and pleading whimpers drove any trace of lingering sanity from Starsky's mind.

He'd dreamed of this...longed for it so many nights that he could almost taste it...

And now Hutch was his to taste. Hutch was his, period.

Barely remembering to keep up his left hand's automatic pumping, Starsky's hungry gaze followed the trail his right one blazed as it stroked his cock across the burning flesh of Hutch's ass. The pulse drumming in his ears beat double time when he saw the clear trail of moisture glistening on the velvet smooth skin, the trail of preseminal fluid weeping from the tip of his shaft.

His hips more than capable of carrying on this way by themselves, Starsky's right hand moved to trail an index finger down the length of Hutch's spine, feeling each dip of vertebrae, each bony protrusion, running the entire length of the long spine to where the dark cleft of cheeks met.

Without pause, he continued, pressing his finger between those moist mounds until he found by touch the secret, hidden entrance his cock was screaming to know.

Hutch's entire body jerked as he made contact there, the blond giving a breathless gasp that was pure ecstasy.

"Ah, God, Starssssk!" Hutch's hips bucked so hard that Starsky's finger was pushed free.

The cry was too much for him to take. Completely gone, Starsky abandoned Hutch's shaft, fumbling towards that beautiful ass. Each of his hands took a cheek and squeezed, his thumbs pressing deep into the dark-shadowed cleft, pushing inward with some force until both thumb tips met, butting that hypersensitive orifice.

Hutch gave an inarticulate shout and bucked again. Lying on his side as he was, there was nothing for Hutch to press that pulsing erection against, no friction to reward those wild thrusts.

In a fleeting second of cool rationality, Starsky evaluated their situation, taking in his partner's lack of control, measuring his own barely-leashed arousal. Starsky had rarely been this close to the edge before, a heartbeat shy of completely losing it. If he let himself go that tiny bit more...there'd be no stopping where this scene was heading.

What he should do now, Starsky recognized, was roll Hutch over on his back, suck the overwrought blond off, then get some shut eye. Hutch would sleep like a baby afterwards, and, with any luck, the blond might chalk the entire encounter up to a really strange wet dream. That would be the sensible, safe path.

But Starsky had hungered for this man too long to even consider playing it safe. His blood was on fire and there was only one thing that would cool it -- the flaming flesh he held in his arms.

"Please, Starsk, please...you gotta finish it..." the frustrated blond begged. Hutch's hand groped to where both of Starsky's were frozen on his butt. Capturing Starsky's left wrist, Hutch tried to pull the hand back to his distended groin.

Starsky jerked his captured limb free.

This was it. The moment of truth, the instant that would change their lives forever. Starsky knew what honor dictated his next move must be. A true friend would be thinking of Hutch’s needs right now, not his own. An honorable man would remove his thoughts from that luscious ass and not be thinking the thoughts he was thinking, wanting the things he was wanting.

With a growing sense of unreality, Starsky watched his hands repossess Hutch's ass and use that hold to roll Hutch over, face down on the mattress.

The blond gave a surprised "Whummff" at the sudden move.

Starsky froze, awaiting a protest, his heart thundering in his ears, his cock aching so bad he could barely draw breath around the need.

The seconds ticked by, only the sounds of their labored breathing filling the pregnant silence. For a full minute or more, Starsky held himself back, waiting for the 'no' that must come, the refusal that was never voiced, even though they both knew goddamned well what this position signified.

Finally, with a choked-back groan, Starsky broke the stasis, his hands laying claim to that scrumptious ass.

Starsky kneaded the pale cheeks, manipulating the silken flesh as Hutch seemed to like it. Listening to his partner's frantic moans, Starsky smiled at the sight of his normally controlled friend wildly humping the mattress.

Starsky lowered his head to kiss and nibble his way across the peach-fuzzed globes, simultaneously stroking the fingers of his left hand up between the blond's athletic thighs, the trailing touch soft as a feather's brush. The joint stimulation drove Hutch even higher, the blond's cries so loud and harsh that it was a miracle Huggy wasn't out here demanding what the hell was going on.

But Huggy would know. The sounds of passion were unmistakable. Starsky was sure Huggy and his friend had filled this room with the very same sounds on occasion.

So out of control that he could barely draw breath, let alone think straight, Starsky tried to remind himself whom he was with and just how much was at stake here. But all he could see was Hutch thrusting his slender pelvis into the mattress and spreading those golden thighs wide for him, the muscles in the cheeks of the blond's ass clenched tight in anticipation.

Restraint at this point was too much -- like asking a famine victim to ignore a meal placed before him.

His hands spreading those velvet-downed cheeks wide, Starsky buried his face between them, his tongue finding the tight-guarded passage.

Starsky would have balked at doing this with anyone else, not unless they'd both bathed first. But this was Hutch. The sheer carnality of the primitive act, the savage need that had triggered this unpremeditated foray into the forbidden, made Starsky even hotter for it. Hutch's smell and taste spurred him on. While Hutch humped his cock deeper into the mattress, cursed and clawed at the bedclothes, Starsky lapped greedily at the tight ring of muscle.

Sensing that they were both reaching explosion point, Starsky pulled back a bit.

Dazed with wanting, his wild gaze scanned the unfamiliar bedroom till it settled on the nearby night table. Starsky's hand was pulling the drawer out and hunting blindly through its jumbled contents before he'd even mentally settled upon a course of action.

His expectations were not disappointed. What he'd gambled on being there was in the drawer. His searching hand withdrew the blue and white tube of KY. Without pause, Starsky uncapped it, squeezing a large glob out onto his left hand. He warmed it a second, then transferred it to Hutch's body.

His partner was watching him over his shoulder, the blue of his eyes nearly incandescent with desire, the color of jet flames.

Beneath Hutch's heat, there was something uneasy.

Reading the hesitation, Starsky played the moment out, giving his companion every opportunity to speak up and refuse.

But no protest was voiced. Hutch just watched him, sweat beading on his high, intelligent brow, the blond's breaths coming shallow and rushed.

The moment heavy with significance, Starsky moved his gel-coated finger to press against that tight, hidden entrance, piercing the sanctity of the fiery flesh for the very first time. Just barely inside, he paused, waiting for a reaction.

Hutch's breathy gasp filled the room. The eyes still staring over a bony ¬shoulder widened, as if Hutch had just realized what would happen if he didn't get his act together.

Starsky was too far gone to give his friend time to reconsider. Knowing fully well that it was a dirty move, he homed in on the sensitive area behind Hutch's ear kissing and breathing down the blond's neck in what he'd learned was the sure way to drive his partner crazy. Within moments the lanky blond was convulsed with shivers.

"Love ya, Hutch...love ya so much. I'm gonna make you forget everything but me right now. Just like you asked me to. All right, partner?" Hating himself for unconscionable manipulation even as he did it, Starsky breathed the words into Hutch's ear, aware that his friend was too far gone to even think about refusing.

In that moment of final surrender, when Hutch walked that fine line of sanity ¬and wild abandon, Starsky took the opportunity to plunge his finger all the way in, straight up the tight rectum.

Hutch's whole body spasmed as he was penetrated in that instant of indecision.

Starsky could feel the other's shock as he worked his finger deeper and deeper into the virgin tight ass. Hutch was so tight back there that Starsky didn't have to ask to know his partner had never had anything as thick or large inserted into him before.

Shamed by the proud delight he took in knowing that he was the first, Starsky claimed that tight channel as his own.

Hutch's grunts and moans weren't all pleasure as Starsky worked to open that recalcitrant passage wider.

"Please...Starsk...please..." Hutch mindlessly begged, it plain to them both that the strung out blond didn't even know himself whether he was pleading for Starsky to stop or continue.

Fighting the physical resistance, Starsky kept pushing in, searching until he found what he was looking for. When his finger was pushed up into Hutch's ass almost as far as it could go -- and as far as Hutch could take if the hands clawing the sheets were any indication -- he at last found the roundish protrusion he knew would make everything all right.

Pressing against that little, secret button, Starsky breathed almost playfully, into the blond's ear, "Want me to stop, babe?"

Hutch's whole body jerked at whatever sensations pulsed through him, a cry catching in his chest, as if the feelings had stolen even his breath away. Visibly helpless, Hutch flung his head back and finally loosed the cry. When it had died to a ragged rasp of breath, the blond whispered, "No…don't…don't stop... God ...oh, God…what are you doin' to me, Starsk?"

Hutch seemed totally adrift at that moment, his eyes wide with disbelief as he stared over his shoulder to where Starsky was finger-fucking him, the blond's hips pounding into the mattress in response, utterly helpless against responding to the sensations. Judging by his facial expression, the situation seemed totally beyond the blond's capacity to comprehend.

Starsky could well sympathize with him. There was apart of himself that was appalled by what he was doing, a part of him that knew that this was wrong, that he was taking advantage of the situation, that this was something Hutch wasn't going to be able to handle. But the part of his heart that had loved this man in silence for so long, that had ached and yearned for the impossible had no patience for these qualms of conscience.

Hutch was a full grown man, responsible for his own behavior. Nothing short of the blond standing up and yelling 'stop!' would make Starsky give this up now, and Starsky knew every trick in the book and then some to ensure that that never happened.

He didn't allow Hutch to cool down long enough for the blond to reconsider. He just kept feeding sensation after sensation into that sizzling body, keeping Hutch wound so tight that the over stimulated detective wouldn't care what Starsky did to him, so long as the blond achieved orgasm.

While he continued to work Hutch's prostate with his buried finger, Starsky reached around Hutch's chest to give his partner's right nipple a sharp tweak. The blond moaned, shivering as Starsky nibbled his neck and wetly tongued his ear again.

Hutch was so sensitive there that it was almost criminal to make use of it. But use it Starsky did, and everything else he could think up.

When he felt Hutch's anus loosen around his rotating finger, Starsky pulled it out, slathered on some more lubricant, then eased it back in with a partner.

Hutch gave a prolonged groan at the increased bulk, cursing as Starsky began to piston the paired fingers in and out, almost yelping as each inward thrust hit the prostate.

Starsky bent over to nip at one of the pale globes of Hutch's ass, causing his friend to shout his name and buck into the mattress again.

The blond's body was soaked in sweat, his head thrashing back and forth, his hips grinding incessantly against the bed.

Catching a glimpse of Hutch's profile as he tossed back and forth, Starsky knew that he had never seen such an expression on his partner's face. Absolute abandon. Hutch looked tortured, almost torn apart by feeling.

Nearly at that point himself, Starsky eased his fingers out. Fumbling with the now slick tube, he clumsily lubricated his cock, giving his own heavy balls a squeeze. He'd held back so long that they felt like they were twisted in knots.

This was it. The moment of truth...the moment he'd waited his whole life to experience.

Gulping in a deep lungful of cool air, Starsky tried to get enough control of himself to do this right.

It was hard going. Just looking at Hutch lying there spread out for the taking, his long athletic legs widely parted, huge rivulets of sweat streaking the corded muscles of the sleek golden body as Hutch waited to be taken, the blond's eyes clenched shut, fists tangled tight in the bunched up pillow…the sight was enough to undo Starsky.

Moving with preternatural care, Starsky eased himself down onto his partner. Using both his hands, he spread Hutch's cheeks again, guiding himself to that impossibly tiny aperture.

The instant his slick glans made first contact with that puckered, cherry red hole was without doubt the most vivid moment of Starsky's life.

Then he was pushing through the muscle guarding the entrance to that sacred ground and his whole life was changed forever. As Hutch's sphincter reluctantly gave way, Starsky knew that nothing was ever going to be the same again. It was very much like pushing through a virgin's unbroken hymen, the resistance was the same.

Hutch clamped around him like a vise, the grip so tight it hurt. "Starrsssk..."

"Sssssh…it's all right," he soothed, though tears of pain were standing out in Starsky's own eyes. "Come up a little, babe," he instructed, moving with his friend. "That's it, up onto your knees."

Maneuvering Hutch so that he could reach around the blond, Starsky repossessed his partner's cock. It wasn't nearly as large or as hard as it had been before, the pain of penetration obviously had taken the edge off the pleasure.

"How ya doin', magic man?" Starsky whispered, licking behind Hutch's ear, nosing through the sweaty blond hair curling there.

"Hurts..." Hutch grunted.

In the breathy silence that followed, Starsky sensed that they were both highly conscious of the fact that Starsky did not ask if Hutch wanted him to pull out.

"Sorry..." Starsky sighed, running his right palm down the sweat-sheened chest while his left pumped the slowly responding shaft back to hardness. "It'll get better, babe. Haveta move now..."

The blond hissed as Starsky sunk the slightest bit further into him.

"A little more, then it'll be good..." Starsky lamely promised, knowing that it would be a long, hard haul until he found Hutch's prostate again.

Hutch was breathing like a bellows as Starsky pushed further in, a fresh sheen of sweat breaking out all over. "Oh, God...Starsk...!"

The initial cry of despair ended on a completely different note as Starsky's shaft finally achieved its objective. The thrust might have hurt a lot more than a slow penetration would have, but the results seemed worth the momentary discomfort.

"Love ya, Hutch," Starsky swore as the blond shuddered with pleasure, the low moan telling him how lost his companion was to the sudden, unexpected delight, "...only you...waited forever to touch you this way..." Starsky murmured as the anal channel finally eased its death grip on his cock.

Certain that it was now only pleasure flooding the blond's system, Starsky pushed further up into Hutch. Rubbing against the roundish miracle spot, Starsky licked Hutch's ear. Letting up on masturbating his friend's powerful shaft for a second, he squeezed those heavy, velvety balls below. "You're so perfect, Hutch…so good...I'm gonna take care of you forever. Nothin' bad's gonna touch you again, not as long as I'm here to love ya."

"Starsk...Starsk..." It seemed to be the only coherent phrase Hutch could manage, so overwhelmed did he seem.

From what Starsky could catch of his friend's face by gazing over Hutch's shoulder, the blond seemed transformed by the experience.

His partner's enraptured expression destroying the last of his controls, Starsky began to rock his hips. Easing out gently at first, he carefully reclaimed the territory, opening the virgin blond wider with every inward stroke, branding Hutch as his own.

Soon they were moving in unison, Hutch pushing back against him as Starsky slid in, then the blond's hips thrusting that huge cock into the darker cop's pumping hand as Starsky pulled out.

Starsky had never felt anything like that tight ass impaling itself time and again on his hungry shaft. Before long, they were slamming against each other with all the concern of a pair of rutting stallions.

It was the most perfect, the most utterly carnal pleasure Starsky had ever known or imagined. The waves of delight seemed to crash right through his entire body, then straight into Hutch's, as if they were both victims of the same tidal wave of passion, a tsunami that didn't care about such inconsequentials as the separation of skin or different nervous systems. No guards, no barriers could stand against that pleasure. As he slammed in and out of the thrusting body beneath him, it seemed that both their souls were bared and ravaged by the lust they'd unleashed, burned and branded, no chance of recovery or restraint.

They moved as one being -- Starsky kneeling behind as he buried himself time and again in Hutch's perfect ass while the blond knelt on all fours, thrusting to receive him. It was better than any wet dream, better than anything he'd ever fantasized, for in every one of those hopeless dreams, Starsky had known that he'd needed Hutch more than Hutch needed him. Never in a thousand years could he have pictured this.

Hutch's surrender was absolute. There was no hint of resistance left as Starsky pounded away into him, Hutch allowing Starsky to ride him like a rutting bull…and enjoying every second of the feral rut.

It was different than anything that Starsky had ever envisioned for them. He'd always thought that if they ever got together, it would be a slow and achingly tender union, a long mutual exploration, a melting rather than an unbridled conflagration. He'd pictured anything other than this wildfire consuming them.

But tonight his partner had needed something different than the tender fantasies Starsky had planned for him, something less tame, a passion that would convince Hutch that he was alive and that his partner had the power to keep him that way.

Maybe in the future there would be time for the kind of sweet indulgence Starsky had dreamed about, but with a Murder One rap and probable incarceration hanging over his head, the overwrought blond had required something really radical to get him past his fears. It didn't get much more radical than this.

Starsky felt his own world had been completely re-aligned, and he was on the taker's end of the deal. He couldn't begin to imagine what it must be like for Hutch, who'd never been with another man before. To be owned this way, body and soul...

One final plunge into that hot tightness and Starsky was plummeting over the edge of orgasm, spiraling down and down an endless vortex of ecstasy, lost to the feeling. Even as he fell, Starsky knew that sex was never going to be this good again. Only with Hutch.

Hutch shouted, a hot spray of semen showering Starsky's pumping-fist.

They were frozen there on the apex of creation for an eternity, gasping and shuddering as climax destroyed them.

Finally, the convulsive joy released them.

Hutch's knees gave way beneath him and the blond plunged to the mattress. Starsky followed him down, a boneless, dead weight plastered along every inch of the taller detective's body.

Reality was a long time in returning. When it did, Starsky carefully eased out of Hutch. Rolling to his side, he took the weight off his friend. Casting an intimate arm and leg protectively across his companion, Starsky whispered into his partner's ear, "You're mine now, Hutch. Simonetti, Dryden, the whole damn world...if they want you, they're gonna have to go through me first."

For the longest time, there was no response. Hutch was so still Starsky couldn't even tell if he were breathing.

"Everything okay, babe?" Starsky worried, staring at his facedown partner, a cold chill inching through his innards at the continued stillness.

At last Hutch rolled over. His sweat-damp hair askew around his passion-flushed cheeks, his eyes bright as gemstones and just as hard and impenetrable, Hutch had never looked so attractive.

"I'm yours?" Thickly voiced, the question was a challenge.

Too wiped out to think straight, let alone to try to outguess his convoluted partner, Starsky nevertheless sensed the danger he was in at that moment.

Hutch's features seemed hard, set in stone. A protective front, Starsky realized when the tentative quality of the blond's gaze told him that Hutch wasn't sure how he should jump just yet, pride no doubt forcing him to issue a challenge to Starsky's claim of ownership.

Hutch wasn't mad -- yet, but Starsky knew that all it would take to unleash his partner's not inconsiderable ire was one ill-chosen word. And after what he'd just done to Hutch, there was no telling what might set his friend off. Wishing that he was more alert to deal with this, Starsky nodded, "Yeah, you're mine," he said carefully, then went on to outline the obvious to circumvent the brewing storm. "And I'm yours. Any time, anywhere, and any way you want me. Right here and now if it's what you need."

Starsky fervently prayed Hutch wouldn't ask him to even the score right now. He could barely keep his eyes open. When Hutch gave him that, he wanted to make sure he was alive enough to appreciate every precious inch of his big blond partner.

Hutch's adamant gaze lost its diamond sharpness, stony self-protection mutating into the glowing heart of blue flame. "I…" A jittery yawn preempted whatever the Nordic cop had been about to say.

"You're out on your feet," Starsky determined, affectionately mussing the already-wrecked hair.

The soft, vulnerable quality that entered Hutch's face melted his very bones. Starsky wanted to kiss his partner so bad that it was an actual physical ache, only Hutch's earlier challenge made him uneasy about taking too aggressive a stance.

So Starsky settled for brushing Hutch's cheek, that one touch holding all the tenderness he'd hoped their first time together would have expressed.

It seemed the right move.

The unthreatening caress seemed to bolster Hutch, bringing a jaunty grin to the passion-swollen lips. "I'm not on my feet, Starsk."

"Huh?"

"You said I was out on my feet before." Hutch reminded.

Starsky chuckled and gave his partner's shoulder a tentative pull, indicating his desire to hold the taller man.

It was almost as if they communicated better without words. Hutch immediately snuggled up to him, turning to face him so that their legs were intimately twined and their arms slung over each other's sides.

"I, ah...don't know if what we did was right," Hutch said after several moments of comfortable quiet, his voice thick with sleep, strangely contented. "But I don't feel scared about tomorrow anymore, not while I'm here in your arms."

"Good," Starsky stroked down the powerful muscles of the arm lying on his own left side, stretching until he interlaced his fingers.

Hutch moved their joined hands to a more comfortable spot between them, his sleepy blue eyes regarding their linked fingers with a visible sense of wonder. "What do you think's gonna happen tomorrow, Starsk?"

"We're gonna get Wheeler and clear your name, babe." Starsky made sure it sounded like a done deal.

"And after that?"

The same tentative emotion that flavored the whispered enquiry quivering through his innards, Starsky evaded, "We'll figure it all out after Wheeler's dealt with. Okay, partner?" He checked, giving the long fingers an affectionate squeeze.

As the minutes ticked by and still Starsky failed to feel his partner relax, he tightened his grip on Hutch's hand. "Hutch?" he called, eyes still tightly shut, lest he lose his nerve.

"Yeah?"

"Whatever goes down tomorrow, I want you to know that I…love ya, partner." Not knowing why he felt so scared all of a sudden, he held his breath and admitted, "More than anything."

Hutch released a shuddery sigh. "I know you do. I just...until tonight I didn't know…how you loved me."

"It bother you?" Starsky asked the darkness of his closed eyelids, listening to his heart hammer in his chest.

"It changes things, Starsk," came the ominous, reluctant, but ever-truthful reply, "I haveta figure out how, but...I like the way I feel right now."

Starsky opened his eyes and stared into the nearby, troubled face. If he was going to go for broke, he'd see with his own eyes the fall of the dice. Laying all his cards on the table, he asked the $64,000.00 question, "Enough to do it again?"

He could see in Hutch's eyes that the man was confused, perhaps even terrified of the emotion they'd let loose between them. Starsky could also see that hurting him was the very last thing Hutch ever wanted to do.

"You don't have to answer now, babe. Wait till all this stuff with Wheeler is settled, then give it some thought." Starsky let his friend off the hook.

"I do love you, Starsk, just..."

"Not that way?" Starsky dismally completed, beginning to pull back from the embrace.

Hutch's leg and arm wouldn't release him.

"I didn't say that!" Hutch snapped, iron in his voice. "I'm just…confused as hell right now. I need sometime to figure out how I feel. Just..."

"Give you room," Starsky completed with a wry smile, knowing that he had a habit of pushing too hard to get what he wanted -- and he'd never wanted anything on this Earth as much as he wanted Hutch for his own.

"Thinking room," Hutch corrected, cuddling closer until he was totally wrapped

around the shorter cop. "Stay close. Okay?"

Grinning, Starsky promised, "Closer than your shadow, partner."

"We'll talk after we get Wheeler bagged. Promise." For the first time, Hutch sounded optimistic about their chances of success.

Relieved that at least that much had been accomplished, Starsky settled down for what was left of the night.

After Wheeler came about with mind-boggling speed. Less than fifteen hours after Starsky and Hutch had woken tangled together in Turquette's big bed, the case was totally wrapped up. Wheeler and his henchmen were awaiting arraignment for Murder One. Simonetti and Dryden were off Hutch's back. Dobey was happy. Everything was right in Starsky's world except for the space gaping between Hutch and him.

Riding home after they'd filled out the last report, it felt to Starsky as if he were with a stranger, and a hostile one at that.

Not that Hutch had even so much as sniped at him. At this point, Starsky would have almost welcomed an open attack, anything to end this oppressive silence.

Not knowing what was going on in Hutch's head was driving him nuts. With his complex partner, it could be almost anything from a guilt trip to utter contempt for what they'd done. The fact that he couldn't even guess where Hutch's feelings lay was driving Starsky insane.

It was his partner's eyes that bothered him the most. Starsky couldn't count the number of times he'd glanced up while doing the mountain of paperwork necessary to book Wheeler to find that crystal gaze watching him. The expression lurking in Hutch's eyes at those moments had really scared him. It wasn't anger. More like hurt incomprehension. Hutch had been watching him all day like he'd never seen Starsky before, like he couldn't even figure out what species to which the stranger who'd taken his familiar partner's place belonged.

Starsky was horribly aware of the fact that they hadn't touched once since they'd left the mortuary this morning. It wasn't like Hutch flinched away from him or anything that overt. His partner had simply stayed outside of touching range for the better part of the day…which really hammered home the extent of the problem. Even on those infrequent occasions when they were truly furious with each other, Hutch and he never stayed that far apart for an entire day.

Every time Hutch turned that wounded expression upon him, something inside of Starsky wanted to roll up and die.

Starsky hated himself for what he'd done to his closest friend. Hutch was the best thing that had ever happened to him and now the blond couldn't even look at him without squirming.

Starsky's conscience kept berating him. He'd just had to have it all. He couldn't have let it go with just a hug and a kiss last night, he had to screw his closest friend, ruin twelve years of friendship for a few moments between the sheets.

Part of him didn't want to hear what Hutch was going to say to him when they got back to Venice Place. But the larger part of him just wanted it over with. After all, Hutch couldn't call him anything that Starsky hadn't already called himself this day. Whatever Hutch chose to do to him, Starsky figured he had it coming in spades.

Starsky wished that he could apologize, but how did you apologize for loving someone so much that you'd sell your soul for them? For getting so carried away by their touch and scent that right and wrong were meaningless? Just how did you say sorry for that sort of thing, Starsky wondered.

He knew that he should never have touched Hutch sexually last night, not when his friend was so emotionally vulnerable. But he'd no more been able to turn away from his partner's need to be loved and reassured than he could have refused his next breath.

Now Starsky was going to learn what that lapse of self-control was going to cost him. The remote hardness in his partner's handsome Nordic profile told Starsky that the price was already a hell of a lot higher than he was willing to pay.

What seemed several centuries longer than any other commute, Hutch parked the LTD in its usual spot outside the restaurant and turned off the ignition, pausing behind the wheel for a moment as if to gather his resolve. The streetlight spilling in through the windshield turned his hair into a shimmering silver cascade that left Starsky breathless. Its beauty was almost ethereal, Like frozen moonbeams, the besotted member of Zebra Three thought.

It was a fleeting impression. When his partner's resolute gaze turned his way, Starsky knew he was in trouble. His whimsical fancy evaporated like a handful of stardust, black leather and dark turtleneck painting Starsky's white knight in shades of menace. Starsky actually shivered, never so acutely aware of his partner's lethal capabilities. This was Hutch the relentless hunter, a visage that Starsky had never had turned on him before.

Tense as he could never recall being with this man before, Starsky silently waited, abruptly uncertain if he'd even be invited up.

Eyes blue and cold as arctic ice studied Starsky from the other side of the battered LTD's front seat.

"We gonna finish this out here on the street or are you gonna invite me up?" Starsky asked when the tension became too much.

The response wasn't exactly encouraging.

"Upstairs." Hutch said in his street voice, his expression not giving at all.

Heart sinking, he watched the lanky blond exit the car.

Hutch waited at the street entrance so that Starsky could precede him up the stairs…almost as though the taller cop was afraid to turn his back on him.

Trying to squash that kind of rampant paranoia, Starsky still couldn't completely shake the impression that he was being marched up the stairs like a truant school kid. The fact that he knew that he was completely in the wrong in this instance didn't make the situation any easier.

The apartment door seemed to slam behind him like a prison cell's door. The suppressed anger with which Hutch shut it and the strange finality of the gesture were chilling. Starsky felt as if his selfish indulgence last night had closed the door to their friendship forever.

Seeming at a loss, Hutch went into the kitchen, returning to the living room a few moments later with a couple of icy Coors in hand.

"Sit down," Hutch ordered, handing him a beer.

Starsky took the cold, sweaty can and nervously perched on the edge of the couch.

After a moment's hesitation, Hutch settled at the other end.

The silence settled over them, heavy as a shroud.

Not wanting to see the guarded look that closed him out from the heart that had once been an open book to him, Starsky stared at the sculpture on the coffee table in front of him.

Strange, he'd never really studied the fragile figurine before. The entwined cherubs struck him as an oddly delicate thing for a man like Hutch to own, the hugging figures seeming like they'd be more at home in a woman's house. Staring at the sculpture, Starsky was startled to realize that the pair of cherubs almost looked like two little boys.

The sudden metallic clang and hiss as Hutch opened his beer can actually made him jump.

Stealing a furtive glance his partner's way, Starsky's heart contracted in his chest. He'd never seen Hutch look so lost, so miserable.

Too aware that it was all his own doing, Starsky softly offered, "You got every right to hate me. What I did last night was...unconscionable."

"Is that supposed to be an apology?" That imperious tone could out-freeze a glacier. It was guaranteed to push every one of Starsky's buttons.

Doing his best not to react, Starsky shook his head. Feeling awfully lost himself, he quietly admitted, "No, I know I can't apologize for...that."

"Can't or won't?" Hutch probed, as merciless as a tongue against an open cavity.

Starsky shrugged. "Take your pick. I know what you wanta hear, but I can't lie to you, partner. I ain't sorry it happened...but I am sorry you got hurt by it, Hutch. I never intended..."

"What did you intend?" the blond snapped. "What the hell was that about last night, Starsky? This isn't some small indiscretion we're talking about here. You fucked your partner last night, buddy. I think I have a right to some answers. Don't you?"

The crudity hit him like a slap in the face. Feeling the blood drain from his cheeks, Starsky numbly nodded.

"Truth time, Starsky. That wasn't the first time you'd...done it with a man; was it?" Hutch's tone made it plain that he already knew the answer.

"No," Starsky confirmed.

"Christ, am I gonna have to pull everything out of you tooth and nail? What do you mean 'no'?"

Starsky shot a single glance at his determined partner, then looked back at the safer focus of the stupid white sculpture. Eyes fixed on the wispy figurine, he told Hutch about his old fuck buddy, Gordie. He didn't hold anything back, not one single sordid detail.

Hutch was silent as a grave for some time after Starsky stopped speaking. Finally, the blond said, "I…didn't think we had any secrets from each other, Starsk. That's a hell of a thing to forget to mention."

"It wasn't a secret, Hutch," he swiftly denied, "just…"

"Just what?" There was no give at all in Hutch's shuttered face.

"I was ashamed, all right?" Starsky looked away, appalled by the tears pricking his eyes. "Things were so crazy over in 'Nam, Hutch. You don't know what it was like. The girls couldn't be trusted. They'd slit your throat as soon as look at you…and who could blame them? Gordie was…safe and…it didn't mean anything to him, Hutch. It was just sex…" he blathered, seeing everything that mattered slip through his fingers.

After another lengthy silence, Hutch asked in a softer tone, the perceptive blond's cop instincts homing in on the one telling line in Starsky's recitation the way they would the one hole in a suspect's alibi, "You said it didn't mean anything to him -- what did it mean to you?"

Starsky gulped. He never even let himself think about those days. Now Hutch was going to make him examine the darkest, most hurtful portion of the entire war experience.

"At first, it was just a way to relieve the tension. But then I…you know how I am, Hutch. Leap first and think later. I made that leap on blind faith, sure that my partner was gonna be there to back me up. Only...I was too fuckin' stupid to live. I…I never even knew the rules of the game Gordie and me were playing. Soon as I told him how I felt, he cut me off cold…told me I was a sloppy sentimentalist and that I had better learn the score. So I wised up…"

Starsky jumped a little when he felt a hand gently touch the arm that was tightly hugging his own chest. He hadn't even been aware when he'd assumed that defensive pose. He was hugging himself like an abandoned child, he realized, embarrassed.

Hutch's confused voice asked, "Did you think I'd hold that against you? I - I told you about Jack and me…years before he ever showed up..."

"Gordie wasn't kids' games, Hutch. We were both grown men and…"

"Grown men? You were what -- seventeen, eighteen back then?" Hutchinson challenged.

"Nineteen," Starsky corrected.

"Okay. You were nineteen. That's just four years older than Kiko, Starsk. You were in a foreign land with people shooting at you twenty-four hours a day. You were just a kid scared out of his mind, taking comfort where you could. You didn't do anything wrong, babe," Hutch assured, "Nothing I wouldn't have understood."

Hearing the gentle compassion in that beloved voice, Starsky knew that he'd never met anyone like this incredible man. Even after what he'd done last night, his partner could still find it in his heart to comfort him. Touched, Starsky found himself falling in love all over again.

"After that I…" Starsky gulped. "I never let myself think about what I did with Gordie, Hutch. I tried to make believe that it never happened at all..."

"That whole number you played when Johnny Blaine died was an act, then? A...cover-up?" Hutch questioned, his hand staying on Starsky's arm, for all that the blond sounded angry again.

Comforted by the familiar warmth on his forearm, Starsky shook his head. "Not an act. I…I couldn't believe that someone like John Blaine was really gay, Hutch. After Gordie freaked on me the way he did, I - I spent years thinking that what I'd done with him made me the sick pervert he'd called me. I…I thought all guys that liked guys were sick, too, but then there was Johnny, one of the finest cops I knew…loving a respectable man like Whitelaw. It just blew me away. I was running scared…"

"That I'd find out what happened in 'Nam more than fifteen years ago?"

The incredulous question brought Starsky's gaze back to the man at his side. Truth time had come with a vengeance. Knowing that there could be no holding back now, he gave it all to his lover. "No, I was...terrified that you'd find out how I felt about you."

"About me..." Hutch echoed, sounding more startled than angry.

"Fate's got a real weird sense of humor, babe. Just when everything's running smooth, it's got a way of throwing a monkey wrench into the works. You were my monkey wrench." Finding no censure in those waiting eyes, Starsky continued, "I never met anyone like you, Hutch. You have such…conviction, such fire. You're so good inside. From the moment we met, I wanted to be your friend. There wasn't any choice involved. I had to get to know you. Maybe I should've taken my warning from that and kept my distance, but by the time I realized what was happening, I was in so deep that I couldn't even see the shore anymore."

"You didn't think that I had a right to know about this?" Hutch demanded, anger sparking his eyes jet blue.

"It was my problem. I thought I could handle it. You…you were never supposed to know." As a defense, it sounded lame to even his own ears.

"Christ, Starsk..." Hutch looked down at the beer can he'd been cradling in his free hand, his other leaving Starsky's arm to play with the moisture beaded on top.

Needing to know what was going on in that complex brain, Starsky carefully began, "I know last night really…threw you…"

"Is that what you call it?" the blond snapped.

"Hutch, I need to know what's going on with you…how you feel…?"

"How do you think I feel?"

"Hutch?" he pleaded.

"You…you screwed me right through the mattress and made me love every minute of it…made me want more…"

"You mean that?" Encouraged, Starsky shifted closer to his partner, totally perplexed as to the cause of the difficulty he'd sensed between them all day. "If we're both on the same track, then what's the problem? I been scared spitless all day that you were gonna read me the riot act and tell me to kiss off."

Bewildered, Starsky watched his partner stiffen in rage. "The problem is that I don't know who I am anymore, let alone what I want."

"Huh?"

Hutch turned those wounded, confused eyes on him. Their bewilderment bled right into Starsky's soul.

"Yesterday morning when I went out for that run, my life was together. I knew who and what I was. But ever since then…I was almost arrested for a crime I didn't commit, Starsky. My own brother cops were doing all they could to send me up the river."

"We proved Simonetti and Dryden wrong," Starsky argued. "Tomorrow's hearing will clear your name totally."

"And that will make everything all right?" Hutch practically spat, turning away.

"It'll clear you with IA. That's all that counts," Starsky reasoned.

"Is it? What about all the rest?"

"What rest?" he cautiously asked, feeling like he was tossing lit matches at a powder keg. "I thought you were upset about…the sex…?"

"What happened last night is...just part of it all," Hutch sighed, sinking back against the couch, as if the entire situation were too overwhelming to deal with.

"Maybe you better start at the beginning, babe," Starsky tried to soothe. "What's all this about?"

Visibly torn, Hutch tried to explain, "I barely know, myself today and I don't recognize you at all. The day before yesterday, we were cops, sworn to uphold the law. I knew that we…stood for something, but now..."

"Now?" Starsky prompted, his blood running cold for some inexplicable reason. Hutch didn't hate him. He should be happy. But something about the trail this conversation was following scared him worse than if Hutch had told him he hated his guts for what they'd done last night.

"Now I don't know what we're about anymore. Have you thought this out, Starsk? The minute it looked like the law we've upheld for the last twelve years was going against us, we threw the rulebook out the window. We ran like every two-bit hood and hustler we ever had to run to ground. And rather than taking our chances and having our day at court like we tell everyone we bust, we were ready to flee the country."

Shivering despite himself, Starsky reminded, "It all worked out in the end, Hutch. We didn't break any major laws, we just…bent them a little until we could settle the case."

"And if Wheeler hadn't tumbled? What then?"

"Huh?"

"You were ready to skip the country last night. What's more, you had our whole escape planned, right down to having pulled your savings."

"So?" Starsky snapped, getting angry himself now. This was so far from what he'd thought was bothering his partner that he could barely comprehend what Hutch was so riled up about.

"So we're cops. We, of all people, shouldn't be thinking that way."

Starsky stared at his partner, completely sure his friend had taken leave of his senses. This was what Hutch was upset about, not getting screwed?

"Would you rather be in prison right now?" Starsky challenged, losing patience with the entire ridiculous subject. "If you recall, prison was the only other immediate option when Dryden dropped by your place last night."

Hutch paled at the reminder. "No, Starsk. I…I'm not blaming you and it mightn't sound it, but…I'm truly grateful for what you did for me. I know you'd die for me..."

"Then what's the problem?"

"You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?" Hutch looked pushed to the wall.

"I hear you. You're just not making much sense right now."

The long-legged blond stared at him as if he'd never seen Starsky before. "I'm not making much sense? God, Starsk, you're scaring the hell out of me."

"We did what we had to do, Hutch. Anything else, and you'd be in jail right now. I know I was wrong in what happened at Huggy's, but as far as the case is concerned, we played that the only way we could." Of that much, Starsky was certain. He'd screwed up big time in his personal life, but professionally…they'd brought down the bad guys. That was always the bottom line as far as he was concerned.

"It doesn't bother you that we were ready to throw away everything we ever believed in?" Hutch challenged.

"Not when the choice was seein' you in jail. It's been me 'n' thee against the system for years, Hutch. We've bent the rules before. Why's this botherin' you so much all of a sudden?"

"I'm just wondering where we draw the line. Can you tell me where that is now, Starsk? 'Cause I sure as hell can't see the line anymore."

Unable to believe that Hutch was serious, Starsky simply stared.

"Illegal flight?" Hutch asked, his eyes blazing like an avenging angel's, "Murder?"

"What are you talking about? What murder? No one got killed." Starsky tried to calm his overwrought partner.

"Not this time, they didn't."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Starsky demanded, not liking the tacit implication.

Hutch shifted nervously, staring down at his lap, "We never discussed it, but…that time the Haymes girl was grabbed, you took out the only two men who could've told us where the hostage was being held…because you thought that they'd shot me."

For a second Starsky sat there frozen in his seat, unable to believe that Hutch would ever throw something like this up in his face. "You make it sound so…deliberate."

"Are you telling me it wasn't?" Hutch's stare was level, if haunted. "Don't forget, I know what a crackerjack marksman you are with a rifle. With a Winchester in your hands, you hit what you aim at. Period. No mistakes. No misses. If you hit the gas tank of a car, that's what you were aiming at." The tense blond studied him for a long moment before asking, "Are you going to deny it?"

Feeling like he was on trial for his life, Starsky whispered, "How can I? We both know what went down that day. I saw them shoot you down in cold blood and the response was pure instinct. I know what I did, Hutch, what it coulda cost and I ain't proud."

"But you're not sorry, either," Hutch observed, reading him all too well.

Starsky glared defiantly at that too-pale face. "Not if it keeps you alive, I ain't. You tellin' me you feel any different? Remember, I was up on that roof last year when you let Vic Bellamy use you for target practice, so you can't lie to me, babe."

Hutch's head lowered.

Starsky watched with bated breath while his partner stared at the beer can for the longest time.

At last, Hutch looked up. "No, I'm guilty as charged. I love you as much as you love me. God help us both."

"Then what's the problem?"

"Don't you see? This is getting…dangerous. We're becoming more important to each other than the job and…"

"And?" Starsky prodded, cold with fury.

"And sooner or later some innocent bystander's gonna suffer for it."

"What the hell are you talkin' about, Hutch? Where's all this comin' from? I screwed you last night. You should be mad about that…but all this other stuff, it just makes no sense."

"No," Hutch softly agreed, sounding so sad that it just about broke Starsky's heart, "I guess it's never gonna make any sense to you, Starsk."

Even as the sorrowful tone hurt him, the content of his partner's words set him off. "Don't you dare patronize me, Hutchinson. You want to belt me for what I did last night, go ahead. I got it comin'. But don't you dare talk down to me!"

"I don't want to hit you, Starsk." Hutch said tiredly, seeming to slump in defeat.

"Then what do you want? 'Cause I sure as hell can't figure it out from what you're sayin'. It almost sounds like…like you want out of the partnership." Starsky voiced his deepest fear, watching that beloved face like he would an armed felon's gun hand, waiting for the slightest twitch that would foreshadow intent.

"No, I…don't want that," Hutch said at last, utterly miserable, if his expression were anything to go by.

"You don't sound too sure of it." Though Starsky tried, he couldn't keep his bitterness from flavoring his reply. Everything was falling apart on him, but it wasn't for any reason he could understand, not for the one he wouldn't have blamed Hutch for.

"Don't you get it? I'm not sure of anything right now. From what we stand for to who I am." The Viking wrath fizzled out as Hutch softly continued, "The only thing I am certain of is that you love me -- more than life…more than honor."

The way the blond said it, it made it sound like something dirty.

"And that's a bad thing?" Starsky floundered. For the very first time in their twelve year friendship, Starsky had no idea what Hutch was really thinking or feeling, let alone what his partner was trying to tell him.

"I don't know if it's enough to base my entire being on. I…I never figured on being anyone's bottom man, Starsk."

Over-stressed, Starsky flinched as if he'd just been struck. And he had. A blow straight to the heart. As ever, Hutch's words were as lethal as his bullets.

Still, Starsky had to make one last ditch effort to salvage the situation. He loved Hutch. Hutch loved him. If it was only who was on top last night that was troubling his companion, Starsky was more than ready to remedy the problem. "I told you it wasn't like that. We're partners, Hutch. Equals. You need that from me, you got it. Right here, right now, if that will fix things. I - I love ya, Hutch."

"And what does that mean?"

"Huh?" Starsky blinked. He could have been more plain in his offer, but he could tell from Hutch's expression that the angry blond had gotten the gist of his proposal.

"Precisely where do you think this love can go?" Hutch demanded, looking scared as Starsky could never recall seeing this idealistic fighter.

"I'll love, honor and cherish you, partner. Till death do us part -- if you want that kind of promise."

"Forsaking all others?" Hutch whispered hollowly, staring off towards his greenhouse.

Starsky shivered at the dead tone, but plowed ahead, hoping to reassure. "That's part of the deal; ain't it, babe?"

"What about the job? You gonna love, honor and cherish me on the unemployment line?"

Feeling as if the ground had dropped out from under him, Starsky stared at that hard, ungiving profile, finally getting a sense of what Hutch was trying to tell him.

"We've fielded that accusation before," Starsky reminded, his own voice low, his heart hammering as he silently prayed that this wasn't what he thought it was.

"When it wasn't true. Starsky, think about what you're saying. We go this route and…"

"We've already gone that route, Hutch. It's a done deal."

"It was one night. We can still walk away from it," Hutch quietly suggested, his tense muscles looking primed for an explosion.

"Can we?" he asked, numb all over. "I'm in love with you. I don't know how to walk away from that."

Dead silence preceded a whispered, "Christ, Starsky…"

"You love me, Hutch. You know you do." Ashamed, he realized that he was begging.

The blond released a shuddery sigh, then shakily conceded, "Yeah, but that doesn't solve any of my problems. It just..."

Hearing what Hutch hadn't had the heart to voice, Starsky completed the sentiment. "...Complicates things. So, what are you sayin' to me, partner? I love you. I'll play this any way you wanta, but you gotta call the shots here."

Hutch stared off at the moonlit greenness of his glassed-in garden. Just watching him, Starsky could sense that his friend was gathering his resolve about him.

Finally, Hutch broke the thickening silence. "I - I wish I could say what you want to hear, Starsk. I - I do love you, but…I just can't…deal with this now. Not on top of everything else I gotta sort out. I - I need some space..."

"Space..." Starsky repeated, every dream he'd ever had about their happy ever after crashing around him as his partner gave him the tired cliché they'd both used to end scores of relationships that had gotten heavier than they'd wanted.

"Starsk, please…don't look at me like that..." Hutch beseeched, his eyes bright with tears.

"Like what?" A hard, brittle shell forming around his bleeding heart, Starsky pulled himself to his feet. He had to get out of here. Now.

"Where…where are you going?" Hutch sounded panicked.

"You wanted space, partner, you got it."

"Starsky, you don't even have your car. Let me..."

"No!"

"How are you gonna get home?"

"I'll call a cab." Starsky put his still-full beer can on the coffee table beside the cherub figurine and quickly shouldered into his jacket.

"Please, Starsk, don't do it this way…"

"What way? You wanted space, you got it. All the space you need, partner. I'll get myself to work in the morning."

"Starsk, please..."

"You come to any decisions, we'll talk," Starsky said from the door, not daring to look back. "Till then, keep your distance."

"What are you sayin'?" Hutch sounded scared again, but this time Starsky didn't really give a damn.

"Don't tease me with what I can't have. Don't touch me unless you mean it."

"This isn't fair, Starsky..." Hutch argued.

The accusation was too much. His own pain and anger solidifying into a solid wall of hurt, Starsky directed his words to the sports poster on the back of Hutch's front door.

"No, it's not fair. I know you had a hard time of it these the past two days, but what happened last night wasn't entirely my fault. You coulda stopped it, but you didn't. You're dragging up all this bullshit to cover the fact that loving someone scares the shit out of you." The quality of the silence behind him told Starsky that he'd scored a definite hit with that last barb. "I love you, and that ain't gonna change, unless you really work at changing it. I'll wait for you to get your act together, partner. But I won't wait forever. Until then, enjoy your space."

Not lingering for a reply, Starsky ripped the door open and took the stairs two at a time at a dead run. He couldn't remember ever hurting this much. Not when Rosey left him, not when Terry died…

In a way, it felt like a death. Nothing was ever going to be the same again. He couldn't go back to pretending that he wasn't in love with Hutch and his partner wasn't going to be able to forget that Starsky felt that way about him. This wasn't something that was just going to blow over. It would make or break them…depending upon what Hutch decided he wanted. Hutch loved him, but Starsky had learned the hard way that love wasn't always enough.

Whether Me and Thee would be strong enough to weather the storm, Starsky honestly didn't know. All he knew was that he was going to have to give his partner the space he needed to make his decisions. Difficult as it would be to stand on the sidelines and wait to see which way his life would fall, Starsky knew he had to do it. If he wanted Hutch, he was going to have to back off and let his partner work through this.

But the necessity hurt. Deep down in his heart, Starsky couldn't help but resent the situation. Hutch always had to make a mountain out of a damn anthill. Nothing was ever easy with the complex blond. Getting Hutch to believe that love could work out for him might just prove the hardest task of all.

Sighing at the enormity of the screw-up, Starsky pushed into the restaurant downstairs and looked for a pay phone. Time to start practicing that distance, giving Hutch his frigging space. Hating the way that felt, he punched in the number of the cab company Huggy's cousin ran, wondering if this were the beginning of the end or just a rocky beginning.


The End

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