Balance Due

by

Rosemary

(Sequel to "A Bargain at Any Price")

 


By their very nature, physical altercations were short lived. In the movies, Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee or the latest silver screen golden boy could effortlessly toss all comers around for hours without stopping for breath, but that had nothing to do with reality. Over a decade of working the streets had taught Starsky that most fights lasted two, three minutes, tops.

This one felt like it had been going on for days.

"Come on, kid," Starsky pleaded with the out of breath youth. "Give it up. You're busted."

"Not yet I ain't, pig," the sweaty Hispanic shot back, redoubling his efforts.

The would-be thief was so wet with perspiration that Starsky couldn't get a firm hold on him in the few openings he'd gotten. As he fought for each breath and blocked another punch, he tried to remember why it had been so important that he return to street work after Gunther's attack. The flash of sunlit gold he caught sight of over his opponent's shoulder gave him his answer.

Hutch was slowly making his way up the alley, favoring his right foot. His partner was alone, which meant that the kid's accomplice was home free. Great.

A glint of deadly silver put all thoughts other than immediate survival from his mind. Now where the hell had the switchblade come from, Starsky wondered. The punk had less clothing on than last month's centerfold, his shorts barely enough to conceal his privates, let alone six additional inches of steel.

All humor having fled the situation, Starsky made short shrift of the rest of the fight. As the knife hand lunged for his mid-center, Starsky stepped almost casually to the side, blocking down with a ruthless judo chop. Mere seconds after the switchblade clattered to the pavement, its owner found himself on his knees beside it.

"Christ, man, you're breakin' my fuckin' wrist. Let up."

"You just added assault with a deadly weapon to breaking and entering, bozo," Starsky informed his prisoner, releasing the pressure not at all. For a painful moment he just crouched there over unlucky captive. Gradually the agonizing cramp running up his left side loosened its grip, his breathing becoming slightly less labored. "You have the right to remain silent... " Starsky began to recite as he cuffed his charge.

He was finished reading the punk his rights by the time his limping other half joined him. "You all right?"

"Fine." Hutch shrugged off his injury. "Your buddy needs driving lessons, kid. Nobody seems to have told him that pedestrians have the right of way in this state."

Covering the burst of concern Hutch's danger gave him, Starsky wiped the malicious grin off his prisoner's face by hoisting him to his feet by his handcuffs -- never a pleasant experience.

"Will you get this mother-fucker off me?" the youth demanded of Hutch.

"You're his prisoner, kid. I'd be nice to him if I were you. He isn't in a very good mood today." Hutch's smile was the purest sunlight as he limped toward the Torino.

"I don't know about you, but I'm getting too old for this kind of thing," Starsky grumbled as he maneuvered the foul-mouthed youth into the back seat.

"Wouldn't know it by me. You should've seen yourself, Starsk."

"What d'ya mean?" Starsky asked, not quite understanding the glow of pride suffusing his partner's tired features.

"I mean you were terrific. Last year when they let you back on the force I used to worry that maybe you weren't up to it anymore..."

"You never said," Starsky interrupted. "Hell, if you were right I could've gotten you killed."

"It wasn't me I was worried about, babe," Hutch gently explained, obviously regretting his candor. "It didn't last more than a week or so, but I wanted you to know that I was wrong. You still make it look easy."

The adrenaline rush from the fight was passing. Starsky found his emotions dangerously close to the surface. The gratitude and love that welled up in his chest for the man at his side brought tears to the corners of his eyes.

Hutch had been there through it all: the shooting, the months in the hospital, his grueling recovery, all the frustrations inherent in his return to duty. Starsky knew how hard that dark period had been on his partner. Letting go of the fear hadn't been easy. For over a year Hutch had had to treat him like the invalid he was. Sometimes it was hard for the blond to remember that he was better now. Hearing Hutch praise his performance when he hadn't even been trying to impress went a long way in healing some of those lingering doubts.

"Thanks, partner. That means a lot to me. You know if it weren't for you..."

"Aw, shit. I forgot my violin."

Starsky stiffened at the mocking comment from the Torino's back seat. "Shut up, trash. You're in enough trouble as it is."

Giving the taller detective's shoulder a brief squeeze, Starsky circled the car front to the driver's side.

Darkness had claimed the city by the time they'd signed out that night. The sun had been new to the sky when they went on duty that morning, Starsky remembered.

"We're here, babe," Starsky announced, letting his gaze linger on the long-limbed body sprawled across the passenger's seat.

Hutch's eyelids reluctantly separated, his partner charmingly sleep-fogged. "Huh?"

"Home sweet home. Come on, time to lay that tired body down."

"I wish." Hutch's weary smile broadened to a grin under obvious inspiration. "Hey, Starsk. Cathy's flight gets in in an hour. Why don't the three of us go out dancing tonight, show her the town?"

"Dancin'? You gotta be kiddin'. You couldn't do the Dogpound Shuffle on that foot." The sprain Hutch had gotten dodging that car this afternoon had been troubling him all evening.

"So you dance with her, then. I'll watch," Hutch offered, meaning it.

How often in the past had the three of them danced in the dawn? So many good times were associated with the giggly brunette that it was difficult for Starsky to decline.

"I'm not up to it tonight, buddy. You'll have to handle her all by yourself this time out."

"Come on, Starsk. It's Friday night."

A million years ago he would have been the one on the other side of this conversation. "It's also almost ten o'clock."

"You know what they say about all work and no play, Starsk," Hutch joked, the words without sting.

"You can wake me up and tell me what they say later," Starsky said, refusing to be baited.

Hutch's expression turned abruptly serious. "I don't know how to say what I've got on my mind, partner."

Seeing the concern in the openly troubled gaze, Starsky turned away. His body tensed until the steering wheel was held in a white-knuckled grip. He knew what was coming. Pretending to watch a wino hunt through the corner trash-can for empty bottles, he quietly suggested, "You could say nothing."

Hutch's exasperated sigh ripped through the Torino. "I suppose that might work. Between strangers. Starsk, I'm worried about you."

Which was why Hutch had no doubt set up tonight's date with Cathy. Starsky knew right now how that would have gone down. No sooner would the three of them have gotten to the club than Hutch would have bowed gracefully out of the picture.

"I know you are." Starsky braced himself before meeting the too-perceptive gaze. "Guess you're not gonna settle for me tellin' you there's nothin' to worry about, are you?" He glanced down at his hand, releasing the strangle hold on the wheel. "Do you want me to sleep with her? Will that make you feel better?"

"It's not a test or something," Hutch exploded. "I just wish you would tell me what the problem is."

Lost, he stared into the problem's eyes. All these years. Familiarity was supposed to breed contempt.

The lump in his throat felt larger than his badge. How could he explain what was wrong with him. "I -I can't."

Confused, he watched Hutch's anger turn to mortification. "Did you mention it to Dr. Silverstein?"

"Huh?" Then, his cheeks heated as he realized how he'd been misunderstood. "I'm fine, Hutch, just... tired, that's all. Why's it so important, anyway? You never used to care..."

"Hey," Hutch interrupted. "I always cared, partner. I just never worried. There's a difference."

"Why are you so worried?" Starsky asked, primarily to discover how he'd slipped up.

"Starsk, you just haven't... been yourself."

He considered the inadequate explanation. "How've I been different?"

Except for not chasing girls as much, he could detect no marked change in his own behavior since being reassigned to duty. Yet from the way Hutch had been carrying on for the last couple of months, one would think that he'd been radically altered. The only thing that had really changed was his capacity to put up a good front and play the game as expected. Other than that one small failing, everything was the same.

'Only more so.' The echo came unbidden from the past, Hutch's prophetic words, the ones that had damned him to this eternal torment.

Hutch glanced away at his question, as if uncomfortable with the challenge. "It's your eyes, mostly."

"My eyes," he repeated blankly. Of all the complaints he'd expected, this one had never been considered. "What's wrong with my eyes?"

"When you first got out of the hospital, even though you were in physical pain, your eyes always looked bright, like you were glad to be here."

"And now?" he asked unwillingly.

Hutch shrugged. "Now they don't."

"And you thought Cathy would put the sparkle back in them?" Starsky grinned, consciously lightening his attitude.

"I thought that maybe she'd help you get back into the swing of things. You two always had a great time together. You know how crazy Cathy is about your sense of humor."

Abruptly, Starsky understood what this was all about, the illumination coming like a lightning bolt out of dark skies. Dear, sweet Hutch, who worried about everything, even problems that didn't exist. Almost giddy with relief, he cast his defensiveness aside. "I get it. It's not like you think it is, Hutch."

"What?"

Starsky reached down and unbuttoned his shirt. He spread the powder blue cotton aside, baring the livid collection of bullet wounds and incision scars to the darkened car interior. "I'm not that insecure, partner. I know they ain't pretty, but they wouldn't keep me outta anyone's bed."

Hutch's flush was a dead giveaway that he was right on target. "Starsk, I thought that maybe..."

He interrupted the embarrassed explanation. "I know, and I appreciate the concern. But there's nothin' wrong with me, Hutch. You gotta believe that. I'm just holdin' out for somethin' special."

"Anyone I know?" Hutch asked with a light laugh, the blond's relief almost as bubbly as Starsky's own.

"A tall blond with a mothering complex," Starsky joked, humor being his only recourse to the pain. "Now get yourself up there and get ready for your date, Give Cathy a kiss for me--a big one."

"Sure you wouldn't rather deliver it yourself?" Hutch quizzed.

"Go on, get movin'." Starsky gave his partner a push toward the door. "Oh, and Hutch?"

Hutch paused halfway out of the car. "Yeah, Starsk?"

"Thanks, buddy. I wasn't kidding 'bout your being something special."

"You're not so bad yourself, partner. Tennis tomorrow?"

Starsky grinned. "If you think you'll be up to it, tiger."

"Count on it. I'll call you in the morning. Have a good night, Starsk."

"You, too, babe."

He waited until Hutch disappeared in the building's entrance before turning his car toward his empty apartment.

*~*~*

The persistent buzzing shouldered its way into his slumbers. Starsky groggily reached for the alarm. Bewildered, he found that the clock wasn't even set.

Hutch was gonna kill him.

He shot up in the bed, wondering how he could have forgotten to set the alarm. If they were late again this week, Dobey would have them back on traffic control for sure.

Consciousness rapidly returning, Starsky stared about the room, his anxiety fast giving way to confusion. The bedroom was still dark, not even the half-light of dawn had broached the windows yet. Even if it had, it was a Saturday that was dawning, a Saturday they had off.

The ringing sounded again. This time Starsky correctly identified the annoyance as the doorbell.

He glanced at the clock on the nightstand. Eleven forty-five p.m. He'd been asleep for a little over forty-five minutes.

"Okay already. I'm comin'!" he shouted as the bell blared again.

Though hardly an unthinkable hour for company on a Friday night, Starsky didn't know who would be calling on him unannounced this late. Since his release from the hospital most of his friends had accepted his curtailed social life.

All except for Hutch, who knew better.

Starsky grabbed his robe, bracing himself. He wouldn't put it past his partner to bring the party home to him. Cathy wouldn't be averse to the idea, Starsky knew, remembering those rare nights the three of them had ended up in his bed together, slightly inebriated and wholly uninhibited.

The first time it had happened it had been a fluke, the result of good-natured drunken wrestling between Hutch and him. Cathy had somehow gotten between them. When the laughter had stopped all three of them were tangled together and too hot to think about the niceties of social convention. The few times after that... Intentional, but always on Cathy's suggestion.

It hadn't happened in years, though. Starsky knew his own limits. Being that close to Hutch in a sexual situation, there was no hiding his true desires. The last time his caresses and kisses had found his partner's flesh more than Cathy's. And when he'd come, it had been against Hutch's backside, his arms encircling both his bedmates. Cathy hadn't noticed and Hutch had never said anything about his slip-up, but Starsky had taken heed of the warning. They hadn't shared a woman since.

The question had only arisen once after that incident. As Starsky walked through his darkened living room to his ringing door, he recalled the bewildered hurt that had flashed through his partner's eyes at his last refusal. Hutch had looked as if he'd just lost something very precious to him, his disappointment so apparent that Starsky had almost changed his mind. But he couldn't risk it. Not then, not now. He was fighting for his life.

Wondering where he'd ever find the strength to turn away his well-meaning friends, Starsky opened the door.

Shock and relief flooded him as he recognized his visitor. "Huggy, what're you doin' here?"

Eleven forty-five on a Friday night. The Pits was hopping about now. Only the direst emergency would have pried its proprietor from his bar before two.

Starsky's suspicion was confirmed by the sense of urgency that seemed to cling to Huggy's gawky form. "Starsky, I need to see you. You alone?"

"Ah, sure, Hug. Come on in." He stepped aside. "What are you wearin'?" Starsky asked, catching a metallic sparkle of reflected streetlight from the vicinity of Huggy's gaunt chest. He snapped on the living room light after closing the door.

"You like?"

Starsky had seen the maroon suit before, he thought. It was the silver lame vest that gave the ensemble that Lost In Space air. "You tryin' out for super hero of the month?"

"Something like that. Where's your better half?" There was nothing casual about the question.

"Out on the town. Cathy's in for the night," Starsky answered automatically, adding only as an afterthought, "We ain't joined at the hip, you know."

Funny, how everyone assumed that he'd know where his partner was at any given moment, day or night. That the assumption was usually correct irked him all the more.

"Oh, right," Huggy said, his dark gaze darting almost nervously around the living room. Bony fingers worried the fastening on a manila envelope that Starsky had just noticed in his friend's hands.

"What's up, Huggy? Must be pretty important to bring you out here on a Friday night. You in trouble or something?"

"Not me. A friend."

"Yeah?"

"You see, there's this guy who's into pictures."

"Movies?" Starsky asked, guessing that the kind of films they were discussing weren't the sort you brought your mother to see.

"No, stills."

"He's a model?"

"No, the guy I'm talkin' about's a photographer. And he ain't the friend that's got the problem."

"Then what' s the picture taker got to do with it?" At the best of times Huggy's stories were hard to follow. Awoken from a sound sleep they became practically surreal.

"The photographer's the problem. He's an entrepreneur of sorts. Got himself a little studio set up on Fourth. He, ah, specializes in candid shots. The kind where the models don't know they're bein' filmed."

"I see. A Peeping Tom. So what's this Alan Funt's angle and how's he a problem to your friend?"

Huggy sighed, visibly reluctant to continue. "He, uhh... some nights he sets up his camera down on the beach in Venice. He photographs the couples who come down there for some privacy. If the shots are good, he sells them."

Not understanding the expectant gleam in Huggy's eye, Starsky took a shot at the obvious. "Blackmail?"

"Not always. Sometimes he just sells them to magazines that cater to that sort of fancy."

Starsky felt he was missing something, something important. "So this here entrepreneur got some compromising shots of your friend and you want me to get them back for him?"

"Not exactly. I got 'em back... and the negatives."

"I don't understand. What's the problem then? Why come here during your busiest hour if all you wanta do is file a complaint?"

"I came to warn you is why. Starsky, it's the beach near Hutch's place."

"So?" He stared blankly at his increasingly agitated guest.

"So, you could be a bit more discrete is all I'm sayin'. It don't make no never-mind to me one way or the other, you know that, man. But, your captain and Internal Affairs... they wouldn't be too happy if these showed up in next month's 'Numbers' issue."

"What are you talkin' about, Huggy?" Whatever it was, Starsky had lost track of it at least five minutes ago. From Huggy's attitude it was more than obvious that he thought Starsky was being purposefully obtuse.

"This is what I'm talkin' about." Huggy thrust the envelope at him.

Starsky opened the fastening and withdrew a series of 8x10 glossies. The first glance made it clear why Huggy thought he should be concerned.

Starsky recognized the beach as the one he and Hutch sometimes jogged upon. The shots were taken at night. Were the subject of the pictures only the full moon sinking into the ocean, they would have been breathtakingly lovely.

As they were, the pictures still stole his breath.

No wonder Huggy was mad at him for being evasive. Dark hair, curls, well-muscled torso and generous buttocks, the man with his back to the camera could have been Starsky's brother--or Starsky himself, as Huggy apparently thought.

There was no doubt at all about the other naked man's identity. The photographer had seemingly been captivated by the moonlit blond.

There were four poses in all, more on the negatives. The first was an almost harmless embrace, Hutch's enraptured face visible over his companion's shoulder. The second showed Hutch kneeling before the other's lower body, his attitude almost worshipful as he eased a condom over the man's straining erection. The dark haired man's upper body was completely cut out of that frame. Through his shock, Starsky found himself relieved that his partner at least had the sense to use a rubber. In light of the action in the next two shots, such protection was more than required.

Starsky's mind seemed to freeze as he stared dumbly at the pictures. His disbelief was slowly dissipating, being overtaken by a harder, less-forgiving emotion.

His first impulse had been to deny the evidence before him, but on a visceral level, he knew this was no product of trick photography. Before the night ended, Starsky was determined to know what it was the product of. The cold fury tightening his loins was one he hadn't experienced in years and even then, it had never, ever been directed at Hutch.

The hurt child in his mind kept silently shrieking his outraged betrayal at the frozen image, even as the detective in him tried to date the incident. They were recent, damn recent.

The faint pink scar from that bullet Hutch had taken the time Starsky had been partnered with Meredith was just visible in the kneeling frame. Hutch that worn that scar for the last two years, yet his mustache had been gone the last eight months or so. The clean-shaven image placed the date sometime since then. Why it should hurt more to know it was so recent, Starsky didn't understand, aware only that it did.

"Starsky?" Huggy softly called him away from the hurtful pictures.

"Yeah, Hug?" he asked without inflection, feeling beyond any type of response at this point.

"I just thought you should know. If it happened once..."

The next time they mightn't be so lucky.

"Who else knows about these, Hug?" New worry.

"A mutual friend was in Mr. Wonderful's studio and recognized Hutch here. I doubt the photographer even knows they're gone," Huggy reported with evident relish.

"What mutual friend?" There weren't many people Starsky would be willing to trust a secret like this to.

"A friend who'd like to remain anonymous."

"Huggy, who the hell gave these to you and why? Why not just give 'em to Hutch or me?"

"Ain't it enough you got'em back?"

'No, Huggy, it's not. I gotta know who. There could be copies..."

"There aren't," Huggy insisted.

"Who, Huggy?" Starsky shouted, his control snapping so suddenly that the taller man took an instinctive step back from him.

"Sweet Alice brought them to me," Huggy reluctantly admitted.

Sweet Alice. Some of the fear gripping Starsky's guts loosened its hold. She'd always had a soft spot for Hutch, more than mere lust. If Alice told Huggy this was all there was, it was the truth. Her feelings for Starsky's partner would have guaranteed that Hutch was protected, while at the same time making it impossible for her to approach either one of them with this lovely surprise package. Too painful. Hence, Huggy's involvement.

Poor Alice. Those pictures must have ripped her heart almost as badly as his own, Starsky realized.

Huggy was watching him closely. "Whatcha gonna do, man?"

"Burn them," Starsky said in disgust. "What else?"

Huggy nodded. "I'd best be gettin' back to my establishment. Who knows what Anita's gotten up to while I ain't there to supervise." The smile Huggy gave him was genuine and unforced, the same as any his friend would have given him yesterday or a month of yesterdays ago.

Through the haze of betrayal blanketing his senses, Starsky recognized how lucky they were. The only judgment Huggy seemed to have made was in regard to their apparent stupidity in being indiscrete enough to get photographed. Their friend didn't seem upset, or all that surprised, by the actual content of the photographs.

"Huggy..."

"Yeah?"

"Thanks. We owe you."

Huggy shrugged off his timely rescue. "All I done was deliver 'em. I wish it hadn't been necessary."

"Me, too, Hug. I'll see to it that it don't happen again."

"You better. See you tomorrow."

"Yeah, Hug. Catch you later."

The door closed behind Huggy, leaving Starsky to stare down at the photos in his fist.

Less than an hour later, Starsky was climbing the stairs at Venice Place, his shadow-soft tread not reflecting the heavy burden on his soul.

Hutch's car wasn't out front. Chances were his partner would spend the night at Cathy's. It didn't matter. Starsky would wait.

The possibility that Hutch's date might accompany him back here flitted through his mind, but he dismissed it as well. She'd just have to leave. He had business with his partner that was not going to be put on hold.

After letting himself into the quiet apartment, Starsky paused in the doorway to draw a deep, shaky breath. He had no clear idea of what he was doing here, his mind a passion-storm of complex, conflicting emotions.

He'd never known a rage like this, or a betrayal that ran this deep. The fury boiling through his blood urged him to violence. He looked around the familiar room, wanting nothing more than to smash something, anything, lest when this driving anger at last claimed a physical outlet his partner would be in his path. That was what he wanted deep in his heart, to hurt Hutch as he himself had been wounded.

Why? Why would Hutch go to a stranger? What did that dark haired man without a face give his partner that Starsky could not?

For over five years he'd denied himself, kept his hands off and his thoughts pure... because it wasn't Hutch's way.

In their nine years together there had been one night that Hutch had been his alone, a single night of stolen ecstasy that Starsky had paid for daily ever since. The longing that wouldn't die, the hunger that no other lover had ever managed to satisfy... Starsky had lived with it, kept the pain to himself without inflicting it upon his partner. And all that time Hutch had been...

Starsky shook at the memory of what was in those pictures.

Who the hell was that guy? From the back it could have been Starsky himself, minus eight square inches of scar tissue. He wished he could have seen his face, maybe then he'd know what he was dealing with here. Whoever the man was, he had to be important to Hutch. Starsky couldn't believe that his partner would give himself to a one-night stand with such... vigor. No, they had to be long-term lovers.

Still, Starsky didn't understand how he wouldn't know the stranger. In the last year and a half, with his hospital stay and prolonged recuperation, Hutch and he had been all but living together. It was impossible that his partner could have been seeing anybody, man or woman, on a regular basis that Starsky wouldn't have been aware of. As far as Starsky could tell Hutch had been completely celibate during his recuperation, the blond detective's entire energies divided between his convalescing partner and his job. Hutch had simply not had the time or the stamina for any outside interests.

So it had to have happened since Starsky's return to work as Hutch's physical appearance in the pictures had already declared. But even that didn't make much sense.

They spent as much time together off duty as they did on. Saturdays were usually filled with something athletic: basketball, tennis, jogging, sometimes fishing. Sundays were generally quiet. They got their shopping done and relaxed at one or the other's apartment. Their lives were simply too intermingled for either of them to have a serious commitment without the other knowing of it. Even if Hutch had been keeping the guy a secret, he just hadn't had the time to develop a long-term relationship.

Though disturbed on one level by what that last observation made those pictures out to be, Starsky was nonetheless relieved to realize that Hutch wasn't committed to the mystery man. He also experienced a sudden, unexpected stab of guilt.

Had he been monopolizing Hutch's time too much lately? He'd needed his partner so badly after Gunther's hit. And Hutch had been there for him, every minute day and night. Nursing, cheering, doing the million and one things he was too weak to handle himself, just listening... not once had Starsky ever had to ask. Hutch had been there, silently anticipating his every need.

Me and thee had come a long way these last two years.

Starsky supposed he should have let go some after returning to work, spent his weekends with others instead of just his partner. But Hutch had spoiled him. Starsky had grown accustomed to having his partner around and was reluctant to give him up.

Nor had Hutch shown any desire to be free of his company. Even though his partner had started dating again soon after Starsky's return to work, Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday seemed to have been reserved specifically for Starsky. And it wasn't always Starsky who arranged it that way. More often than not, it was Hutch who suggested they do something. Like tomorrow's tennis game.

Shaking his head in bafflement, Starsky deposited himself on the end of the couch to await his partner's return.

Hutch's presence permeated these rooms. Even in his partner's absence, Starsky could still feel him here. Normally, that awareness had a comforting effect upon Starsky's nerves. Tonight that presence was a living torment.

It was close to two when he heard Hutch's step upon the stairs. The slightly off-key whistle rang through the quiet building. Listening closely, Starsky felt one of his worries lift. His partner was alone.

Every muscle tensed as the door rattled and swung open. Starsky had thought himself prepared, but that first sight of the tall blond striding into his own territory with such carefree ease raked through him. His stomach twisted in knots, his heart pounding with the anger of betrayal and an even greater fury at himself that Hutch could still move him so by just entering a room. He couldn't give name to half of the passions that flared inside at that instant, knowing only that all of them hurt.

Hutch froze halfway through the door, as if sensing the shadowy form occupying his couch. His large hand leaped automatically for his concealed shoulder holster.

"Don't. It's only me," Starsky called out, his voice sounding strange to his own ears. Hutch must have been out on his feet to have missed the Torino parked down the block.

"Starsky?" The overhead light snapped on.

Through its blinding barrage, Starsky saw his partner's cautious expression change to one of surprised pleasure. "I thought you were calling it an early night. What are you doing here?"

There was nothing but curiosity in the question, nothing to make Starsky feel that he was an intruder or unwelcome at even this absurd hour.

"Waitin'."

His terse reply seemed to deflate some of the buoyant good humor that had all but shone off Hutch as he entered the apartment. Starsky couldn't help but wonder if his partner had taken Cathy to bed.

"For me?"

"It is your place," Starsky coldly pointed out.

Puzzlement crossed Hutch's tired features, Starsky's attitude at last seeming to penetrate the contented haze that had surrounded him. "What's wrong? Are you all right?" There was no caution to Hutch's approach, the lanky detective clearly oblivious to his danger.

Hutch might as well have been tossing lit matches into a munitions dump, Starsky thought, recognizing the unstable state of his own volatile emotions.

"Don't," he hissed, harshly pushing the hand that reached for his shoulder away. He couldn't bear Hutch's touch right now, not with what it might unleash. Still, the shocked hurt in the open stare slashed at his conscience.

Hutch's hand dropped numbly to his side. The blond stared down at it almost unseeingly, his body language decrying the depth of the blow Starsky had intentionally dealt him.

"Are you going to tell me what this is all about?" Hutch asked woodenly, his gaze remaining on the floor as if to hide the success of Starsky's attack.

Starsky, who had never needed to see those eyes to know what his partner was feeling, attempted to master the urge to hurt. "Huggy stopped by my place before to drop these off. I think they belong to you."

Hutch silently accepted the out-thrust package. The relentless glare of the overhead light spilled across the 8x10 glossies as they were slowly removed from their envelope. Its brightness seemed to highlight the frozen figures, making every act all the more graphic.

Hutch stiffened at the first picture, leafing through the rest with abnormal restraint. Nothing showed in his face, no disgust, no shock, no guilt, nothing at all. For all his reaction, the blond might have been thumbing through the Sunday supplement.

"Well?" Starsky demanded when his partner returned the photos to their envelope, still without uttering a word.

"Well what?" Hutch answered, his voice positively devoid of inflection. "What can I say?"

"A reaction might be nice. Or better still, how 'bout an explanation."

"I would think them self-explanatory." Hutch dropped the envelope onto the coffee table, devoting his full attention thereafter to hanging up his jacket and holster. His gaze did not once stray in Starsky's direction.

"Who is he?" Starsky demanded softly, keeping the shout locked tight inside. If he lost his cool this early in the game there was no telling what he'd say... or do. Right now he didn't trust himself to be alone with his partner.

"I don't know."

"You don't know?" The silence that followed his incredulous question clawed at his restraints, ripping tiny chinks out of the wall he'd built to contain his fury.

"Does it really matter?" Hutch asked in that same emotionless voice.

"Don't push me, partner, not tonight, not over this," Starsky warned. "Who is he?"

Hutch left the closet, crossed the room to stare out at the darkened greenhouse. "Just a guy. He said his name was Jim, but that doesn't mean much. Mine was Chris that night. Did he have these taken?"

The lack of interest in the last inquiry grated along Starsky's nerves almost as much as the unaffected attitude. "No. Would it make a difference if he had?"

"Not really."

It was as if there were nothing there behind that unmoved front, which Starsky knew simply could not be the case. "How could you be this stupid? A public beach not four blocks from your house..."

Starsky's explosion was swallowed by the unnatural quiet.

Other than tensing at his outburst, Hutch gave no response.

"I don't understand you. Don't you care? Your entire career could be ruined..."

"Did they send a set to Dobey?" Hutch asked softly.

Starsky thought he detected the slightest of tremors in his partner's voice this time. "What if they had? Would that matter to you?"

"Did they?"

Hutch's calm was back, but this time Starsky saw it for the fragile shield that it was. A small measure of compassion overtook his anger. Furious as he might be with Hutch, he could not countenance deliberate teasing. "No. The... photographer never even knew who you were."

Hutch's back was turned to him, but the night black glass of the greenhouse door threw the tall blond's reflection back at Starsky in a mirror perfect image. Hutch's eyelids sank closed, the tightness leaving his features as they went momentarily slack. Even across the room, Starsky could hear the deep-held breath that was slowly expelled, his partner's relief almost palpable.

"Why did Huggy bring the pictures to you?"

Suddenly self-conscious, Starsky studied his Adidas. "Huggy thought it was me with you."

"I'm sure you set him straight on that right away," Hutch commented, his tone sharp and somehow challenging.

Not understanding the abrupt change in attitude, Starsky shook his head. Hutch seemed almost angry at him all of a sudden. "No. I didn't say anything."

At last his partner turned back to face him. "Why not?"

The reflective glass behind Hutch showed the broad shoulders and straight set of the spine as unchanged, but looking deep into the original's eyes, Starsky could read the vulnerability Hutch was trying so desperately to conceal.

Starsky shrugged. "It didn't seem important."

"What was important to you then?"

Starsky drew a deep, ragged breath, pinioned by the wounded gaze. "Understanding how something like this could happen. Why, Hutch? Tell me why?"

Hutch wavered. Starsky could see the indecision clouding the bottomless blue pools, the desire to tell all, whatever that all might be. Then the barriers snapped back into place, hard and ungiving. "It's none of your concern."

"None of my concern?" Starsky echoed, his voice dangerously subdued as it had only been once before with Hutch, that time his partner had faked amnesia. He advanced on the taller man, his body vibrating with barely contained fury. "I get a package of pictures too obscene for 'Numbers' to print and you tell me it's none of my business."

"I'm sorry if your delicate sensibilities were offended, buddy. It won't happen again." The words were laced with sarcasm, almost as if Hutch were attempting to ignite his anger rather than cool it off.

"You better believe it won't," Starsky exploded, his fist darting out to haul the taller man closer to him by the front of his shirt. It didn't matter that Hutch had three inches on him, more in those fancy cowboy boots. Starsky glared up at the stubborn features with all the self-righteous fury of an avenging angel. "Never again! Do you hear me? Never again!"

His shout blasted out of his body, his limbs shaking with the need to release some of his pent up rage.

Hutch stared down at him with cold, condescending arrogance. "Where do you get off telling me what to do? You don't own me, partner."

The hand balled in Hutch's shirtfront tugged the blond even closer. His other fist rose automatically, angled for a punch that would bash those perfect white teeth right out the back of his tormentor's skull. The violence was that intense.

Hutch's gaze moved to Starsky's upraised fist, then locked on his eyes, silently daring him to follow through. Hutch made no move to protect his exposed face or pre-empt the need for defense with an offensive blow.

"Damn you!" Starsky blazed, something wild inside ripping loose. His fist darted out, fingers opening at the last instant to bury themselves in Hutch's hair. He yanked his taller partner's head forward and down, crushing the wide arrogant mouth to his own in the most brutally possessive kiss he'd ever given.

Starsky's hips jutted forward, pushing his suddenly hard, demanding front against Hutch. His partner backed away in shock until the glass door was against his spine. Starsky didn't let up the pressure, pinning his companion flat to the no doubt cold surface as he savagely plundered Hutch's mouth.

Didn't own him... he'd show him....

His hand reached for the front of his partner's pants, fully intent on ripping them off and taking what he'd waited so long for.

Still locked in the kiss, Starsky shivered. Not with desire. The mindless violence of his passions frightened him, for he had no idea if this would stop at rape. The way he felt now, he could very easily rip the life from the unresisting body.

Slowly, that last fact registered. Hutch wasn't fighting him. Standing there with his eyes snapped tightly shut, his back pressed to the door and his hair tangled in a hold that had to hurt like hell, Starsky's partner was just allowing him to take what he wanted.

What he wanted was a fight. He needed to vent this anger on the object of his broken dreams, take by force what Hutch had offered willingly only once, but... The perceptive blond obviously knew him too well, Hutch understanding that a pacifistic martyr was the last thing he wanted now.

Abruptly disgusted with them both, Starsky shoved himself off the other man. Chest heaving for breath, his balled fist rubbed at his bruised lips. "I could have owned you. Once, when it was worth something."

Though heartlessly cruel, the words were true. Starsky knew that five years ago after Gillian's death he could have made his partner into anything he wanted the blond to be; Hutch had been that vulnerable. Always prone to guilt, all it would have taken to entrap his sensitive partner would have been an honest statement of his own needs and Hutch would have been his.

Starsky took a certain grim satisfaction in seeing his words strike their target. Hutch's closed eyes winced more tightly shut, his body stiffening against the glass, frozen like a pinned butterfly in a bug collection.

His heart shattered by what they had come to, Starsky looked away. Hurting each other seemed to be all they had left.

Starsky knew he should let go, get out of here while they still had a partnership, but he couldn't just flee like a hit and run driver, leaving his broken victim to bleed to death alone. Hutch had yet to step away from the door or open his eyes.

Looking at the motionless blond, the anger that had fired his loins turned to an ice ball of guilt, torturously twisting his stomach. What had he done?

More than just hurt Hutch, that was obvious. They'd argued enough in the past for Starsky to know that he was no match for his partner's sharp tongue. Hutch could be positively vicious when he wanted to be, yet his partner had suffered both physical and verbal attack without offering even a token defense.

"Hutch?"

The tense form flinched, but otherwise made no response.

Unable to ignore Hutch's pain, even that which he had purposefully inflicted, Starsky moved closer.

Hutch seemed to sense his approach, his long body going as stiff as a three-day corpse, the frozen blond seeming to expect any and all attacks.

"Come on, babe," Starsky murmured as to a frightened child. "Please, snap out of it." His palm cupped a strangely cool cheek. The moment he touched his companion a spring of hot tears seeped out of the corners of his partner's eyes to splash down over Starsky's knuckles, as if the unsought gentleness were the one assault which Hutch could not withstand. "I didn't mean it, Hutch. I swear."

The swollen lips parted. "Yes, you did. You meant every word of it." Hutch opened his eyes. The steady, vulnerable gaze pinned Starsky with its silent accusation.

"Not the last." His fingertips rubbed pleadingly against Hutch's cheek.

The blond's eyelids lowered at Starsky's gesture, as if his entire body were rallying to fight the sensation. After a second they reopened. Hutch drew an unsteady breath and stepped away from him.

"It doesn't matter. I got the message." Hutch glanced down. "That night was... a mistake. I knew it was stupid at the time, but... I don't have an excuse, except that I couldn't stop myself. It only happened the once and won't be repeated. You have my word on that. You'd better go now."

"Hutch?" He'd just been shut out, with good reason, but it was more than his own pain that compelled Starsky to follow his partner back into the living room.

Hutch had looked so isolated in his reserve, so alone, pride holding in all the hurt. But his eyes... never had Starsky seen them so empty. Hutch looked like a man who'd just watched the last of his dreams turn to dust.

"Get out of here, Starsky, before one of us says or does something we can't take back."

"One of us already has," Starsky countered softly, fearing that his actions tonight might very well have destroyed the basis of their partnership.

"So this is it, then? Nine years down the drain because of one screw up?" It was an unfortunate choice of words, but Hutch appeared too angry with him to have even noticed.

They were running on entirely different tracks, Starsky realized. "I wasn't talkin' about the damn pictures."

"Then what were you talking about?" Hutch demanded impatiently.

Starsky took a deep breath and clamped down hard on his temper. He'd let his emotions do his thinking for him too much tonight. Like his earlier conversation with Huggy, Starsky was once again hit with the horrible feeling that he was missing a vital piece of information.

"I'm talkin' about you and me and what we're doin' to each other." He paused. "We're rippin' each other to pieces, partner."

"Isn't that what you came here for?" Hutch asked icily, the hurt still bitter in his eyes.

"Yeah," Starsky admitted, ashamed of his irrational behavior.

"Well, you succeeded. You can go home now and we'll worry about picking up the pieces on Monday morning." Hutch's hand rose to his mouth, unconsciously fingering his savaged lip. Noticing Starsky's gaze, he flushed and looked quickly away.

"We've got things to discuss that won't wait that long," Starsky objected.

"I'm asking you to go. Please... I-I can't take much more of this."

Hearing the catch in Hutch's voice, Starsky's heart twisted in his chest. "Ahh, babe..." He took a step closer, stopping as Hutch stepped back, the guarded gaze seeming to beg him to keep his distance.

Was this the price he would have to pay for his anger? He sensed that his partner was almost afraid of him, with more than adequate justification. Starsky knew that if he didn't heal this breach now, time would only drive them further apart. "I was out of line before, totally. When I saw those pictures something inside me snapped. I wanted to hurt you the same way they hurt me. It was a stupid thing to do, but..."

He wasn't getting through to Hutch. The damage he'd so mercilessly inflicted was like a steel wall between them. Starsky was beginning to suspect that it would take nothing short of the unvarnished truth to break Hutch's defenses.

A cold sweat broke out on his skin as he considered the consequences. Hutch was hurting, ready to strike back at him. Laying his soul bare at such a time was nothing short of suicide. His partner wouldn't mean half of what he said, anymore than Starsky had before, but understanding the motivation wouldn't reduce the impact. Yet, the cost of remaining silent was more than Starsky was willing to pay. At least this way he'd know he'd done everything in his power to save their partnership. Some consolation.

"Okay, I'll give it to you straight. I looked at those pictures, saw that guy and..." He gulped, the betrayal and pain rising anew to choke him. "Why didn't you come to me? Why go to a stranger?"

As soon as the words were out a possible explanation presented itself to Starsky's mind as he recalled the conversation he'd had with his partner just four hours ago in his Torino. His scars meant little to Starsky these days, but Hutch had been worried about a non-existent sensitivity to them. Perhaps it was the blond himself who was put off by the grisly souvenirs of Gunther's attack. Abruptly uncertain Starsky couldn't help but recall how stunningly beautiful Hutch's sexual partners generally were.

"That isn't funny," Hutch growled.

"It wasn't meant to be," Starsky defended, feeling unbearably exposed. "Are you gonna answer me?"

Hutch's eyes narrowed.

Once again Starsky found himself being silently evaluated. After his actions of the past half hour he didn't anticipate even a minimal extension of trust. Amazingly enough, a small degree of the suspicion dissipated from his partner's wary gaze. "I didn't want charity," Hutch hesitantly offered.

"Charity?"

The pale cheeks flamed, but Hutch didn't back away from the topic. As Starsky had done, the blond seemed to have decided that the time had come to lay their cards on the table.

"I knew from experience that you'd humor me if I asked you, but..." Hutch trailed off, apparently unable to finish the thought.

Never had his partner appeared so defenseless to him, even before when he hadn't resisted Starsky's attack there had still been the barrier of passivity between them. Now Hutch had no protection, standing there watching him as if he fully expected to be ripped to shreds for this show of trust.

"Humor you? Hutch, I would've traded my soul to be in that guy's place." This time Starsky didn't halt his approach at the tautening of his companion's body. He laid his hands on the powerful biceps, a sure touch that was in no way sexual, being simply a point of contact between them.

"W-what?" The syllable wavered on the edge of belief.

"Hutch, we need to talk. Please, let me stay?"

Hutch nodded numbly, the movement tossing a spray of fine golden strands across his cheek and eye. Several of the hairs became caught in the long, pale lashes of Hutch's left eye.

A thousand nights and more had passed with him longing for the feel of that silken length. It was still Starsky's greatest weakness.

Hutch and his partner's hands both rose to brush the hair free.

Starsky paused mid-move, allowing Hutch to complete the gesture himself. In answer to the questioning glance, he explained. "Have you any idea how long I've had to stop myself from doin' that? Six years, partner, maybe longer."

"But, it's only been five years since we..."

"I know."

"I don't understand. After we... you never said..."

"You gave me one night, remember? 'Just tonight'..."

"I gave you everything I had to make you want me and it wasn't enough," Hutch shot back, the words a raw, open wound.

Shocked, Starsky could only stare into the stricken gaze. There was absolutely no doubt in his mind that Hutch was telling him the truth. The scars of that misconstrued rejection were as real as those on Starsky's own chest.

Could it really have seemed that way to his friend?

Starsky thought back on that night, so very long ago. Most times it was an effort to recall the particulars of anything that had happened that far in the past, but in this instance each detail was strikingly vivid.

Little wonder. Starsky couldn't begin to count the number of times he'd mentally relived that incredible night. From the first touch, it had been perfect. Fantasy hadn't had to alter anything about the loving -- Hutch had given him everything he'd ever desired. All his imagination had ever sought to rewrite was the heartbreaking conclusion the following morning when Hutch had all but told him their loving had made no difference.

But had Hutch really told him that, Starsky wondered now, recalling how uncertain they'd both been that morning. Hutch had said that nothing had changed, that they were the same. Only more so.

What if his partner had been hiding the same desires Starsky himself had, and in his own pain Starsky had simply failed to notice; was it possible?

Horrified by the concept, Starsky sought to deny it. "Hutch, you were the one that said that nothin' had changed, that everything was the same," he reminded, but gently, so as to offer as little hurt as possible.

"What else could I say?" Hutch asked softly, some of the devastation he must have felt at that time lingering in the quiet question. "I'd talked you into going to bed with me. You didn't exactly jump at the idea..."

"I didn't think you knew what you were doin', Hutch. You were still hurting over Gillian and I was afraid to make things worse for you. But you hadta know how I felt afterward, babe," Starsky said, sure he had given himself away with every touch.

"How? You looked so... miserable that morning, like you'd been crying..."

And Starsky thought he'd hidden it from his partner.

"I had been," he confessed. "You gave me everything I ever wanted -- for just one night."

"No..." But Hutch was looking straight at him, reading the truth in his eyes. "How could you just let me go if you felt that way? How...?"

"How could I hold you?" Starsky countered, his fingers tightening on Hutch's shirt as if to unconsciously hold him now. "Like you said, I took my best shot and it wasn't enough to hook you. All you'd asked was for me to show you what real love felt like, not..." The words ran out, leaving him to struggle for control. What had he done to his partner, to himself?

"You did it too well, Starsk. After you, it was never the same, no matter how hard I tried to put that night behind me." Hutch took a deep, trembling breath. "I kept hoping that someday you'd look over, see me, remember what we did that night and maybe want to give it another try... but that never happened. Eventually, I started to resent you for not... wanting me that way. I took it out on you a lot then, hated every one of the women you became involved with: Kira, Emily, even Meredith..."

What Hutch was saying explained so much. For months after the night they'd made love, their partnership had been seemingly unaffected by the intimacy. That period of hope Hutch had mentioned, no doubt. Then, about a year before Gunther's attack, nothing had been right between them. Starsky had never been able to pinpoint exactly when everything had started to go wrong. The lines of communication between them had just abruptly ceased to exist. Could that have been the point where Hutch had begun to lose hope and hate him?

"If you felt that way why have you been so worried about me not dating these last few months?" Starsky asked, confused. From what Hutch was saying, Starsky's celibacy should have been a source of celebration, not concern.

The broad shoulders shrugged. "Because I knew you were unhappy. I mightn't have enjoyed standing aside to watch you give your heart to someone else, but as long as you were happy, I could... survive it."

Starsky swallowed uneasily. They were too much alike in that regard. Six years Starsky had kept his silence for the very same reason. "You've always had my heart. They just got my body. Lately, I haven't wanted to give them even that much." He was quiet for a moment, his eyes feasting on the sight before him. Hutch seemed to be hanging on his every word. "If you want it, it's yours," Starsky offered shakily.

Hutch's arms came up around his back, pulling him into an embrace so tight that Starsky feared it would crack his ribs.

They were both trembling, clinging to each other for support as much as solace.

Funny, how perfectly their bodies seemed to fit together, Starsky thought, his nose buried deep in the hair at Hutch's neck.

At last Hutch drew back far enough to look into his eyes. Long fingers found their way into his curls. Hutch's intense concentration bordered on solemnity, hardly a fitting match for the playful motions of his hands. "You make me so happy," the blond said gently, the truth of the assertion to be found in the contented glow that permeated the handsome features.

Starsky gulped. All he'd done was let Hutch touch him. Ten minutes ago they'd been at each other's throats.

"We ain't done nothin' yet," Starsky pointed out when he could trust his voice.

"Starsk, with you that almost doesn't matter."

"Know what you mean, babe," he assured, reaching out to stroke his partner's cheek. A pleasing shiver ran through the length of the tall body at the small gesture. "For years I suffered the tortures of the damned wanting to make love to you, driving myself crazy every time you got too close. Now here you are in my arms and all I wanta do is hold you."

"That's all you want do?" Hutch looked ready to laugh, his eyes brimming with joy.

Starsky decided that Hutch's present happiness was worth all the grief it had taken to get them here. His finger lightly skimmed an outline around his partner's bruised mouth. He'd been so rough before, plundering what should have been delicately courted. "I'd like to kiss you."

If possible, Hutch's expression became even softer. "You don't need an invitation, partner."

"Feel like I do. Before..."

Before he was a madman, but that didn't excuse his behavior.

"Let's forget about before. All right?" Hutch asked.

"You should have clocked me one."

"We both said some things we didn't mean," Hutch generously dismissed.

"You didn't. You..."

"I might have if I'd gotten a... package like that. Considering the provocation you were... remarkably restrained."

"I was out of line. I had no right..."

Hutch's mouth covered the rest of his protest.

Taken by surprise, Starsky allowed the kiss to just happen. There was a rightness to Hutch's mouth moving against his own that reached down straight into his soul, bypassing his shock to call up all the passion he'd worked so hard to bury over the years.

A breathless eternity later, Hutch pulled away. "That gives you the right."

"What else does it give me?" Starsky asked, pressing close so that Hutch could feel his body's response to the declaration.

"Me, however you want me."

Starsky shivered, his eyes stinging with emotion. "There's only want way I want you, babe -- that's for keeps."

"I still can't believe you feel this way, Starsk," Hutch murmured as they parted from the subsequent kiss.

"How 'bout we move into the bedroom so's I can prove it to you?" Starsky asked with a suggestive arch of his brows.

Hutch seemed mesmerized by him, willing to agree to almost anything. That was why the sudden stricken expression came as such a shock to Starsky. "Starsk, I don't know if I..."

"What?" He might had have shouted the question in his frustration were it not for his partner's obvious distress. Hutch didn't look as if he'd changed his mind, more like it had been changed for him.

"I was with Cathy. We... damn I'm sorry partner."

Starsky instantly squashed the jealousy that flared at the self-conscious admission, trying at the same time to cover his disappointment. If Hutch's expression were anything to go by, he hadn't succeeded at either attempt.

"You're angry with me again," Hutch said softly.

Abruptly seeing the humor of the situation, Starsky found he was almost able to laugh, only Hutch was far too upset for such a response. "No. It's okay, babe," he soothed, leaning forward to kiss the worry pucker that always appeared between Hutch's brows when he was disturbed by something. "We've got plenty of tomorrows."

"Will you stay with me tonight, Starsk?" Hutch asked uncertainly.

"Just to sleep? I don't know if..." He wasn't sure his controls were up to that kind of test. To share a bed with Hutch and not...

"Please, stay." His partner looked as if he feared everything they'd gained would be lost forever if they separated for the night. Starsky didn't believe what they felt for each other was fragile enough to disappear like that -- considering that they'd both been trying to kill the emotion for over five years and hadn't succeeded, it seemed damned unlikely -- but Starsky could sympathize with the worry. This still didn't feel quite real to him yet. Probably wouldn't until after they'd made love. "Sure. I'll stay."

Starsky had thought that they might stay up a while talking, anything to give his now embarrassing desire a chance to subside, but Hutch turned straight away to the bedroom. "Good." Hutch's smile was bright enough to light the darkest of hearts.

Starsky trailed his companion almost reluctantly. His eyes were pinned to the tall blond as Hutch stripped down to his briefs. He followed Hutch's example, wishing he had the nerve to ask for a pair of pajama bottoms.

Dreading the coming torture, Starsky slipped free of his jeans and hopped quickly beneath the bedcovers. The front of his button-down shirt, briefs and the blankets should just about hide his erection.

"That was quick," Hutch smiled. He snapped out the light, plunging the room into almost utter darkness. Then he slid into the bed beside Starsky -- entirely too close for the dark haired man's peace of mind. "You all set?"

"Yeah." He was not, Starsky told himself, shaking with want. Maybe if he repeated it enough it'd be true.

Rather than lying back and going immediately to sleep as Starsky was praying he would, Hutch leaned over him. In the dark all the taller man was was a glimmer of golden hair and white flash eyes and teeth. "Good night, Starsk. I haven't said this yet tonight, but I think you know anyway. I love you, partner."

"Love you, too," Starsky mumbled, wracked with tension.

Hutch bent still closer. Moist breath misted against his cheek moments before Hutch's mouth covered his own.

A small, strangled cry was ripped from Starsky. His fingers clutched frantically at bare shoulders, whether to hold his friend back or bind him to him, Starsky wasn't sure. Hutch's hip casually brushed against his straining organ. The spiraling waves of sheer delight that chance contact set off undid every one of his resolves. With a dismay that was growing not nearly as fast as his erection, Starsky felt himself instinctively press against the insufficient stimulation.

Hutch broke the kiss almost instantly. "Starsk?"

"Sorry, I..."

"Why didn't you say something sooner?" Hutch asked, sounding more exasperated than annoyed.

"But you said -- I didn't wanta..."

Hutch kissed him again, long fingers stroking his cheeks as if aware of their high color. "Is that why you left your shirt on?"

Starsky nodded, feeling twice the fool.

"Here I thought you were bashful," Hutch chuckled, sounding delighted.

"Hutch," Starsky protested as his partner began to fumble open the buttons of his shirt. "You don't haveta... "

"I want to. Very much." Hutch kissed his unveiled sternum to accentuate his point. From there the lips roved to his nipple.

Once hit with that incredible sensation, Starsky was beyond protest.

"You taste wonderful," Hutch sighed sometime later, working open the lower buttons in the dark.

"Not as wonderful as that feels, I'll bet," Starsky gasped as Hutch's tongue found its way into his belly button. His own fingers couldn't get their fill of stroking his partner's skin. Wherever he touched, the flesh was softer than silk, warm as plush velvet.

"You'd lose," Hutch mumbled, tugging at the waistband of his partner's briefs.

Starsky wasn't sure what his partner had in mind, but was fairly certain he'd enjoy anything Hutch devised for his pleasure. He felt absurdly liberated once freed of the constricting cotton.

Not even his hottest fantasies had prepared him for what Hutch did next. His partner's fingers never even touched him. Hutch's mouth homed in blind on his shaft as if by instinct. The wet heat alone was almost enough to finish Starsky, but when the suction began it left him almost mindless with sensation. Pummeled by the ecstatic bursts, Starsky stared dazedly at Hutch's indistinct silhouette. Save for a few rays of filtered streetlight shimmering through his silver-gold hair, his partner was nothing but a slightly thicker shadow. Starsky longed for light at that instant almost as fiercely as he'd craved his partner's body all these years.

Hutch was damn good at what he was doing, Starsky realized. The tongue movements and perfectly timed sucking spoke of an expertise that might have been disturbing if he were willing to allow himself to be tormented by speculation as to where such knowledge was obtained. Starsky was too busy enjoying Hutch's gift to be troubled by such trivialities, however.

"Ahh, god, babe. That's good," he moaned, reaching down to touch the tantalizing shimmer of hair that tickled his belly whenever Hutch took him completely into his mouth.

Starsky watched the bobbing shadow, his body tinglingly alive with delight. If the love he bore this man hadn't been sufficient to bind him to his partner, Hutch would have just discovered an equally effective key to his enslavement. Between heaving breaths, Starsky silently admitted that there was nothing he would not endure for this sweet pleasure. Five years it had taken them to get back here together, and the joy of it was worth every hour of desolate suffering. Any second now the pleasure would eclipse and...

"Hutch!" Starsky gasped as he was abandoned on the very edge of orgasm. "What...?"

"Hold on a sec, partner," Hutch requested in a voice so hoarse Starsky barely recognized it.

"What're you doin'?" he asked less frantically as Hutch made his way across the bed to the nightstand on the far side.

"Shhh. You'll like it."

"Already love it."

After some blind fumbling in the drawer, Hutch seemed to locate whatever it was he was searching for. The dim silhouette scrambled on its knees back to Starsky's side. There was a moment's pause in which all Starsky could hear in the silence was their labored breathing, then Hutch took hold of him for the first time. Those long fingers proved no less skilled than Hutch's tongue. Strange, they seemed nearly as wet as they stroked his over-sensitive shaft. Not wet precisely, Starsky decided as Hutch repositioned himself in the darkness, more like slick or gooey.

"Hey, what've you got on your handsss...?"

Starsky's question died as a hot, tight tunnel of muscle gradually lowered itself onto him, slowly accepting every inch of his greased shaft. Hutch was straddling him, Starsky vaguely recognized, his mind too absorbed with sensation for much thought. Coming as it had out of the darkness, the move was a complete shock. Starsky's body responded where his mind failed him. Bolts of lightning bright pleasure danced along his nerves, the blade of ecstasy so sharp that it might have been agony.

Starsky grasped for sanity, believing that he might just survive this. Then Hutch began to move on him, and he knew he was lost. There was no describing the feelings that bombarded his hypersensitive nervous system at that point. Starsky's own mind proved incapable of apprehending the degree of his response. The power, the uninhibited ferocity with which Hutch rode him was frighteningly raw, like a primal force of nature. Wild mustangs cavorting in a clover field, the reckless leap of a stag from one rocky Alpine ledge to the next embodied some of the spirit of their union, but even those images were lacking. As Starsky's mind vainly sought a more fitting analogy, his body exploded, his seed being buried deep in the secret recesses of his lover's body.

Shaking in reaction, Starsky's next awareness was of a thin stream of sticky liquid spraying his belly. Hutch froze above him, his tiny, stunned cry the only sound in the room.

Starsky lay still, listening to the roar of his heartbeat in his ears and his partner's raspy breaths. He was struck with an unaccountable pang of sadness as Hutch disengaged from his limp organ. The sense of loss faded as the sweaty blond snuggled up to him. Their lips found each other, the joining of their mouths and tongues expressing all the tenderness that had been overlooked in the heat of previous urgency.

"God, how I love you," Starsky sighed as they parted for much-needed air. "You're... incredible. You just about blew me away."

Hutch chuckled.

"You know what I mean." Starsky laughed at his slip.

"Yeah, I do. Talk about reviving the dead, Starsk. They should bottle you."

"I didn't do anything," Starsky denied, unsure if he could match his partner's expertise in this area. Hutch had known precisely what to do every step of the way. Starsky was all too conscious of his own inexperience in that particular department.

"That's what you think." Hutch's fingers traced the bone structure of his partner's face in the darkness. "I've never felt so... free with a lover before, Starsk. You made me feel like anything I wanted to show you was all right. Thank you for that."

A warm glow spread through his already rubbery insides at his partner's words. "I didn't know you could cut loose like that."

"Yeah, well... did it bother you?"

Starsky tightened his embrace. "Bother me--you kiddin'? You act out some of my darkest fantasies, things I don't think I would've had the nerve to ask you to do for me a month from now... how could that bother me?"

Hutch allowed his head to settle on Starsky's chest. The tongue that peeked out to sample the cooling sweat there sent a shiver coursing through him.

At first Starsky was struck by the strangeness of cuddling his taller partner. The strong protective feelings that trusting warmth aroused in him seemed oddly incongruent to Hutch's inarguable masculinity and yet... nothing had ever felt this right, this natural.

"Hutch?"

"Mmmm?"

"I like us like this."

He felt Hutch smile against his chest. "So do I, Starsk."

"Enough to live with me?"

The quiet was absolute.

Starsky hadn't meant to come out with that particular question so soon, but he figured it probably best that his partner know up front the degree of commitment he wanted for them.

"I.A. mightn't be too pleased with that kind of arrangement, babe," Hutch said gently.

But it wasn't a no. There were a million reasons, all of them valid, as to why they shouldn't, yet Hutch had chosen the least personal of them all to voice.

"What about you? Would you be pleased by it?"

"It would go a long way toward fulfilling some of my fantasies," Hutch admitted.

"That settles it then." Starsky grinned up at the night-black ceiling.

"Do you think it will be that easy?" Hutch asked, sounding like he was building up to a major worry.

"No, but it'll be worth it. You get some sleep now, partner. We'll iron out the small print in the morning."

"I'll look forward to it, Starsk. And everything else. Love you."

"Me, too."

Ridiculously pleased by the note of contentment in Hutch's voice, Starsky followed him down into sleep. All in all, it had been a thoroughly exhausting day, but the thought of what waited for them tomorrow....


The End

Comment to Author