Black and Bruised

by

Rosemary

 


"Next time my partner gets shot I'm gonna request you personally..."

Hutch looked uncertainly from Starsky's smiling face to Meredith's.

It was a joke. Of course it was. The sparkle in those sapphire eyes was that of pure mischief, Starsky never happier than when kidding him.

Hutch tried not to over-react. He smiled and tried to accept the teasing in the light vein in which it was offered, but it was no laughing matter. The thought of Starsky even joking about wanting a new partner twisted his insides with the sickening lurch of a rock climber who unexpectedly feels his surest hold give way, leaving nothing but open air beneath him. For almost fourteen months now he'd been dangling over that bottomless chasm, his secret relentlessly fraying his lifeline. It was simply hearing Starsky speak so casually of replacing him that brought his predicament to his conscious attention.

Catching sight of his own reflection in the mirror behind Dobey's door, he couldn't honestly blame Starsky for wanting a new partner.

The white knight who had once ridden so crisp and dedicated at the dark avenger's side was long gone. What remained of that idealistic man, Hutch was no longer certain.

Even his sling seemed to be just another symptom of the encroaching disintegration, well suited to the ragged, unkempt length of hair, mustache and sloppy clothes. But it was the eyes most of all that marked the change -- dead man's eyes, disillusioned, weary, even their color seemed washed out. Hutch realized that if he'd come across the man in Dobey's mirror in the line of duty a few years back, his instincts would have picked him out as a fugitive, the desperate air of the hunted hung that strongly about him. But then, he supposed that one could run from the inevitable for only so long before being physically overwhelmed by the constant strain.

"Hey, goldilocks, drag yourself away from that gorgeous reflection and give Meredith a proper good-bye," the inevitable demanded with its inimitable east coast subtlety, withdrawing from that seemingly endless kiss Dobey had wanted to witness.

Hutch barely resisted the impulse to tell his partner that good-bye was the one thing he'd wanted to tell the good-looking detective since first hearing of her. As it wasn't Meredith's fault he'd screwed up his life so royally, he tried to be gracious. "Beautiful lady, I thank you for baby-sitting my partner here. It can't have been easy."

"To the contrary. It was very... educational," Meredith replied.

Starsky's gaze shied away from Hutch's. The tension that replaced the cat-like stance announced how uncomfortable Starsky was with the present topic while confirming the blond's suspicious that the temporary partners had been much more than mere friends. As if that kiss had left any question.

Hutch knew he had no right to be jealous. Hell, he had no rights at all. Still, he couldn't manage to keep the resentment out of his voice. "I'll bet. He's a real..."

The rest was fortunately drowned out by the phone's blare.

"Hutchinson, for you."

He accepted the receiver from Dobey, even that simple action made awkward by the sling. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Meredith at last leave the office.

By the time his call was completed, his jealousy was almost under control. Not Meredith's fault, or even Starsky's. He had no one to blame for his misery but himself.

As Dobey recommenced the final leg of the debriefing of the case he'd been virtually a spectator to, Hutch found his mind wandering back to Starsky's joke.

Didn't the shrinks say that humor was often a thinly veiled disguise for truths that, for one reason or another, could not be openly expressed? Psych: 101. The Freudians would have a field day with even half of what Starsky and he said to each other in jest, Hutch knew. But never before had a joke of Starsky's hit so close to home, not even when his partner had blindfolded him and let him tumble down a flight of stairs.

Hutch couldn't help but admit -- to himself, for he could never envision telling his partner such a thing any more than he could telling Starsky what the real problem between them this last year had been -- that he felt threatened by this lovely substitute. And on more than an emotional level.

Meredith was unsettling on every level, including the professional. Never before had Hutch felt vulnerable there. Always in the past there had been the comforting knowledge that the job was the one thing he shared with Starsky that even the most treasured of his partner's lovers couldn't take from him. Starsky relied on him to cover his back. No amount of love play could ever replace the intimacy forged by flying bullets; it was the trust of which 'me and thee' was born. The Terri's and Rosie's could come as they would, but Hutch had always been confident of his place in Starsky's life.

Until now. Meredith had proven herself more than capable of filling, if not Hutch's boots, at least his function.

His own job performance these last few months offered little in the way of reassurance. His enthusiasm was as close to dead as made no difference. More and more, Hutch saw in himself a cynicism that ran far deeper than the typical disillusionment of veteran cops. Add to that the stress of constant denial and you got the picture of a cop dangerously close to burn out.

If it hadn't already happened. Hutch was painfully aware of his latest screw up. Literally painfully aware. Every time he moved his left arm, his damaged flesh throbbed its reminder.

The pig-tailed girl who'd shot him might have been just a kid, but she'd also been an armed felon, one who'd come less than an inch short of killing him. Although Hutch still felt he'd done the right thing morally by not taking the teenager out when he'd had the chance, he couldn't help but feel professionally embarrassed by soft-heartedness that in retrospect bordered on soft-headedness. Only while he lay in that damned hospital bed had the full possible consequences of his action struck home. Though young, the girl had been determined, hard beyond her meager collection of years. By refusing to defend himself, he'd not only come inches away from getting himself killed, but he'd left his partner wide open to an attack from behind. Was it really any wonder Starsky was dissatisfied with him?

"What do you think, Hutch?"

He started guiltily at the mention of his name, supremely conscious of both of the gazes leveled upon him. He had virtually no idea what the present topic of conversation was.

Starsky grinned, as if knowing fully well his partner had not been paying attention. Gradually, the laughter-bright gaze sharpened upon him, the grin slipping away. "Hey, you all right, partner?"

"Yeah, fine," Hutch covered automatically.

"You don't look fine," the captain's grumble announced decisively.

"The doctor said you weren't even supposed to be out of the hospital until tomorrow," Starsky reminded. "Why don't you sit down?"

"Starsky, I'm not..."

"Better yet, why don't you go home? Both of you. It's been a long case. You've both earned some time off," Dobey suggested, his worried gaze resting firmly upon Hutch. "Just be sure to get your fannies in here on time on Monday."

"Monday?" Starsky echoed in disbelief. "It's only Thursday, Cap..."

"Go on. Get out of here."

"Captain, that's not necessary. I feel..." Hutch began.

"Peaked. Just look how pale he is," Starsky completed, taking hold of his uninjured arm. "Come on, buddy. You heard the man. Let's get out of here."

Hutch allowed himself to be led from the office, wondering if the sole basis for Starsky's concern for him was an excuse for time off. He felt vaguely traitorous for even considering such an idea, yet... Starsky hadn't exactly been a fixture in his hospital room the last few days. Granted, his partner was up to his ears in a vital investigation, doing his best to hunt down the people responsible for turning underprivileged kids into robbers and would-be murders. Still, Hutch couldn't help but remember that this was the same man who'd risked infection with the plague to comfort him in the midst of a much more desperate case. Had that only been a year and half ago? Sometimes it felt like decades since they'd been that close, since Hutch had felt that cherished.

"Come on, partner. Let's get you home."

The hand on his arm hadn't left him. Hutch glanced down at it and then around the busy squadroom, realizing that he'd been standing here in Dobey's doorway staring off into space for some time.

Maybe Starsky and the captain were right about his needing some rest, Hutch reflected foggily. He felt utterly drained of energy and so curiously light-headed that the depletion didn't really bother him.

The guiding hand abandoned him. Bereft, Hutch turned to Starsky. Before he could say anything, that hand slipped around his waist, the other taking its place on his arm. The warm weight was welcome. Hutch shifted infinitesimally closer, soaking up as much of his partner's presence as possible.

As they settled into the Torino, Hutch braced himself for the series of nagging observations that were no doubt coming. If Starsky ran true to form it would start with a 'you should be in bed' as they left the garage and continue unabated until they reached Venice.

Too tired to even argue the point, Hutch leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes. Concentrating on the engine's fine-tuned hum, he allowed the car's lulling motion to seep into his aching body and waited for the inevitable, verbal barrage.

"Hey, partner, we're here." The words were almost as gentle as the fingers that brushed the hair back from his temple.

He blinked in surprise, startled as much by the touch as the time lapse.

Starsky hadn't lied. They were parked right in front of his place.

"You think you can make it up the stairs?"

"'Course. I'm fine." Hutch opened the door and swung his legs out, instantly regretting his haste. One thing the action writers never mentioned was that those swirling silver stars hurt the eyes.

"You're stubborn is what you are," Starsky corrected, now magically on the curb before him. "You shouldn't have come to work today, you know. By rights you should be in the hospital."

Strong, capable hands lifted him to his feet, Starsky somehow managing to avoid jolting his injury too much.

Lacking the energy for even a token protest, Hutch allowed his partner to maneuver him up the stairs. That interview with Dobey and Meredith had sapped his returning strength. He felt worse now than when he'd checked himself out of the hospital yesterday afternoon.

"Where we going?" he asked irritably as the fitter member of Zebra Three steered him past the living room couch.

"You are goin' to bed, where you should've stayed to begin with." Starsky's tone brooked no argument.

The dark-haired man didn't ask if his assistance were required or even desired peeling Hutch down to his undergarments with a minimum of fuss and pain.

Still more than a little dazed, Hutch watched the play of expressions across the mobile features. From his arrogant street attitude, one wouldn't think Starsky suited to such service. Hutch had made that mistake himself in the beginning. But the hands that undressed him now moved with tender care, Starsky's face intent as he focused his complete attention on what he was doing. Hutch figured he must have had over a hundred lovers in his life, but not one of them had ever touched him with Starsky's loving concentration.

"There we go," Starsky announced, guiding him down onto the huge brass bed.

The mattress seemed to soak up his tension, the sheet and blanket silkily flowing over him as Starsky tucked him in. "You need anything? Water, pain pill?"

Just you, he thought. For a horrified moment, Hutch thought he had actually spoken aloud, but his partner's uninterrupted calm told him that wasn't the case. "No, I'm fine. Where you going now?"

"Huh?"

"Three days off. Thought you must have made some pretty big plans for the weekend. You and Meredith..."

"I'm not goin' anywhere," Starsky cut in, his gaze locked in shadow.

"She did a pretty good job, huh?" The words were thick, sleep-fogged.

"Why all this sudden interest in Meredith? You're supposed to be restin'."

"...Never said you wanted 'nother partner before..." Hutch mumbled.

The last thing he saw before his eyelids drooped shut was the start Starsky gave as his words registered.

****************

Starsky sat on the bedside for a long time after his injured partner surrendered to sleep, quietly mulling over what Hutch had said before dropping off.

With anyone else he would have dismissed the words as the meaningless mutterings of a man pushed beyond his physical limits, but his complicated partner had so many defensive screens and barriers that it took that much just to get through to him. At least recently. There was a time not so long in the past when such extremes weren't necessary, when they still talked to each other about their problems. But Starsky couldn't even recall the last heart to heart they'd had.

After Vanessa's murder? Unbelievable as it seemed, that was that last solid recollection Starsky had of them opening up to one another.

Over a year. Twelve months packed with more trauma than most individuals experienced in a whole lifetime and they'd passed through it practically strangers to each other.

It wasn't like they didn't talk. They babbled on incessantly -- about inconsequentials, while everything that mattered was locked away deep inside.

Once he'd tried to trace this estrangement back to its beginning, thinking that maybe if he could find a solid cause the problem could be rectified.

The trail had taken him back to the time he'd driven his Torino into that construction shed and hospitalized them both. Hutch's faked amnesia. Somehow that seemed to be the beginning of it all. His partner's motivation for that joke had been incomprehensible to him. At the time emotion had blinded him; Starsky had been too hurt and angry to see anything but the cruelty of the prank. Even when he'd been trying to figure out when things had changed in their relationship almost a year later, thinking back on that sick joke had only made him angry all over again. Only now was he beginning to see the desperation that must have underlain the stunt; looking back, it was almost as if Hutch had been asking him to tell him how much he loved him, like the whole charade was some sort of test.

The idea was preposterous. Still, Starsky felt that it made a lot more sense than Hutch's proffered excuse or his own implausible explanation.

And whatever kind of test it had been, he'd obviously failed, Starsky realized. Hutch hadn't been satisfied with the results, so their situation had gone from bad to worse.

But how had he failed? He'd answered every one of Hutch's questions, even those that had opened raw wounds. What more could the man have wanted?

Starsky shook his head in bewilderment. He'd never been able to figure out Hutch's mindset. That stupid hide-and-seek game had pretty much proven that. A year ago he might have done it, but not anymore.

His eyes fixed upon his sleeping partner's face, searching for an answer. Even in repose Hutch didn't look relaxed. Maybe it was the pain from the bullet wound, but the lines of strain seemed almost chiseled into the handsome features.

What do you want, babe? You tell me and I'll give it to you, Starsky silently promised.

He was tired of them hurting each other. They'd always been competitive, but in the past, the love and respect of their partnership had overshadowed everything they did. Now their games were becoming progressively more vicious, their verbal interplay downright mean. That incident with Kira two months ago had nearly destroyed their partnership, and today in Dobey's office the look in Hutch's eyes right before he took his phone call had warned Starsky that something particularly nasty was about to be said -- and they'd only been horsing around.

Starsky hadn't understood why Hutch had reacted as he had in Dobey's office, not that the blond's response had been all that noticeable, being only a tightening of invisible defenses that no one save Starsky had picked up on. From the time he'd kissed Meredith good-bye and jokingly told her she was welcome back any time, Hutch had been quietly out of sorts.

And no one other than himself had been aware of it. It hurt Starsky to realize that he was the only one who knew Hutch well enough to recognize when something was wrong, but was no longer intimate enough to know what the problem was.

Hutch's words of a few minutes ago came back to him. His partner couldn't have taken that joke about wanting Meredith for a partner seriously. Hutch had more sense than that. And yet... Starsky's instincts told him he was on the right track.

Hutch wasn't himself. Hell, he was supposed to be in the hospital. His partner had checked himself out to save Starsky's act, the blond arriving not a minute too soon. Recalling what had gone down at Train's place yesterday, Starsky couldn't remember if he'd even thanked his partner properly. Hutch had been dead on his feet when the uniforms had arrived to pick up the prisoners and stolen merchandise, almost staggering. This morning he'd been only slightly better.

His own attitude had been more than a little cavalier, Starsky recognized uncomfortably. His callous disregard of his partner's welfare bordered on criminal negligence. The first thing he should have done when untied yesterday was drive Hutch back to the hospital. The blond was certainly in no state to be on active duty, either yesterday or today.

What had he done instead?

Accepted Hutch's heroism as if it were nothing and then joked about wanting a replacement for the finest partner a guy could have. Pretty shitty behavior no matter how you viewed it. From Hutch's angle, weak and hurting, that ill-conceived joke must have been like a kick in the teeth.

What the hell had he been thinking of, acting that way, Starsky wondered, his eyes stinging. Had a roll between the sheets with a beautiful woman blinded him to the most important person in his life?

That Hutch felt displaced, Starsky no longer doubted. Who wouldn't when made to feel so utterly unappreciated?

And this last year?

Unconsciously, Starsky had been blaming his partner for the distance between them, noting only Hutch's withdrawal. Now Starsky found himself wondering what he might have done, or failed to do to initiate such a retreat. What act of his would have been bad enough to merit that amnesia stunt or any of the more bizarre games of recent memory?

Unlike yesterday and this morning's fiascoes, nothing leaped immediately to mind, to Starsky's intense relief. Even though the lack of a concrete misdeed was more confusing, Starsky wouldn't have been very proud to discover that it had taken him over a year to realize he'd hurt his friend. So, something more subtle then. Hutch was always sensitive to nuance. Maybe another of his stupid jokes had been taken too much to heart.

Starsky reached out to smooth down the sleeper's hair. There was nothing softer in the world than his partner's fluffy gold crown, not even the llama's coat that he'd been so taken with when they'd visited the San Diego Zoo a couple of years back.

Starsky smiled at the memory. Hutch had wanted to see the world famous zoo, so the next vacation after his partner came up with the idea, that's where they'd gone, just the two of them. Back then it had automatically been 'their' vacation, back in the days when they were still a package deal. Saddened, he wondered what had changed that.

Starsky could find no viable explanation. Just another phase of their drifting apart, he supposed. Maybe Hutch knew, maybe that's what all those worry lines were about. Or maybe his partner was as bewildered by their situation as Starsky himself.

It didn't matter. Whatever the cause, Starsky was determined that things were going to change as of today. They mightn't be able to turn back time, but they damn sure could get their partnership back to where it was two years ago. Providing Hutch was still interested in that kind of commitment, of course. Starsky was taking nothing for granted anymore.

But where to start?

Getting Hutch back on his feet was their first priority. After that everything else would work itself out.

Starsky allowed his fingertips to leave Hutch's hair to brush down a smooth cheek that was only now beginning to regain some of its lost color. What his partner needed most was rest and good food, in that order.

Hutch would have to see to the first, but Starsky could handle the second.

Reluctantly, he pried himself from the bedside.

Throughout the years his partner's kitchen had been a source of both anxiety and laughter. He never knew for sure what would be found there, or, worse still, what would emerge from this room under the guise of dinner.

Today there was no laughter as Starsky made a swift survey of his partner's larder. Shelves that a couple of years ago would have been crammed to capacity with boxes and jars of desiccated liver, butterfly bones and other less palatable health food faves were glaringly vacant. What items could be found there were a far cry from Hutch's nutrition-conscious days: a jar of instant coffee, a few cans of soup that even Starsky recognized as being high on sodium content, some pork and beans, and a box of chocolate chip cookies with an expiration date over two months old.

The refrigerator was even less encouraging. All Starsky found within were a pizza box with two remaining slices, a quarter loaf of Wonder bread that Starsky didn't have to open to tell it was green molded, a half bottle of white wine, some mayonnaise -- still good, amazingly enough -- and a jar of pickles.

With the hours they worked, Starsky knew from experience how difficult it could be to fit in such mundanities as food shopping and laundry, but the state of Hutch's kitchen spoke of long neglect. The room was neat enough, but Starsky suspected the orderliness was born of disuse rather than any conscious effort on his partner's part.

He couldn't understand how he could have failed to notice this, but considering his record of the past month, Starsky wasn't really surprised. Apparently a lot was going on with Hutch of which he was unaware.

*************************

The smell woke him, a deep, seductively delicious aroma he could almost taste. Hutch's mouth was watering before he identified either the scent or his circumstance. He opened his eyes, even more confused to be greeted by the sight of his own bedroom. Who -- ?

The tinny sound of a radio tuned in low registered as aural input, along with a clattering of dishes that was very much in tune with the domestic aroma of cooking.

Curious, Hutch decided to investigate.

The stab of pain from his first incautious movement sent the pleasant slumber haze fleeing, reminding him with incontestable persistence of the events of the last few days. The bitter awareness settled over his spirit, heavy as a falling snow on a forgotten tombstone.

Moving like an arthritic old man, Hutch left the bed and carefully donned his bathrobe. Barefoot, he silently made his way to the kitchen to discover his benefactor's identity.

Most likely, Sandi. She'd sworn they were through after the last broken date, but if the news had carried his name in the recently released shooting story the soft-hearted veterinarian might have changed her mind. Generally Hutch would have evinced a monumental lack of interest in reviving such an arbitrarily terminated relationship, but right now his spirits were so low that he welcomed any diversion.

"Hey, there. I was goin' ta bring a tray in to you in a few minutes. How you feelin'?"

Hutch stared at his partner and then at the steaming pots on the range top. "What are you doing here?" Whatever it was, Hutch didn't feel up to dealing with it.

"What's it look like?" Starsky grinned. "Cookin' you a beef stroganoff, of course. You better be hungry?"

"Why?" Hutch asked, his voice sounding small and confused even to his own ears.

"'Cause I made enough to feed us, Dobey and the entire day shift, that's why."

"No, why are you doing this?"

All motion stilled at his clarification. Starsky looked as if he'd just had the wind knocked out of him, standing stone still over the sink with a colander dangling from his left hand. The curl-crowded head lowered. "It's that bad, huh?"

"What?" Hutch asked, even more confused. He hadn't meant to hurt Starsky, but the unintentional hit had scored deep.

"The situation between us. If you gotta ask such a thing, then it's a lot worse than I thought."

"Starsk, I..." He didn't know what to say. An apology was out of place, for he'd honestly been surprised to find his partner here cooking for him.

Starsky dropped the colander and came to stand before him. The kitchen was well lit, but Hutch's partner's eyes seemed filled with shadows, dark as cobalt. "It's okay. It's not your fault, none of it." Starsky seemed to lose himself in his partner's eyes for a long moment before remembering what he wanted to say. "After these last few months you've got every right to wonder. If you want, I'll leave now. It's finished cookin'. All you haveta do is dish it out."

Starsky was entirely serious about leaving, Hutch realized. Although confused about what had brought on this change in attitude, he was far from unhappy with it. "No, I was just surprised is all. I don't want you to go."

"Good." Starsky's left hand gave his uninjured shoulder a gentle squeeze, his right reaching past the blond to snag one of the heavy oak chairs from the table. "Sit down. I'll get us some plates."

Hutch nodded bemusedly, sinking down on the hardwood chair with a grateful sigh. He'd only been up five minutes and already he felt ready for another six-hour nap.

Starsky returned momentarily with an armful of plates and cutlery, scurrying immediately back to the kitchen for glasses.

"Milk?" Hutch asked incredulously when he saw the contents of the tall glasses.

"One complaint and it's back to hospital food for you. Although, I bet you wouldn't mind trading me in for that sexy nurse of yours," Starsky grinned, dishing out his famous stroganoff.

Hutch's mouth was watering so much from the olfactory treat that he was having trouble keeping his mind on what was being said, but after the past few days that last comment struck a little too close to home for him to just let it pass.

"No, I wouldn't."

"Wouldn't what?" Starsky asked absently, placing a heavily laden dish on the table before his partner.

"Trade you in for that nurse," Hutch replied, concentrating on the food before him. The first morsel was sinfully delicious, its warmth and rich taste speaking all the way through his empty body. Suddenly ravenously hungry, Hutch gave the feast the attention it deserved.

It was some time before he realized that Starsky, usually the most passionate of eaters, had yet to lift his fork.

"What's wrong?" Hutch asked between chews, unable to trace the troubled expression.

"That dumb joke of mine really hurt you, didn't it?"

Hutch didn't ask which joke. "It's all right. I..."

"I was only kiddin' around, Hutch. You gotta know that. I'd never want another partner."

Hutch's gaze dropped from the too-serious face to his dinner. "Wouldn't blame you if you did."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

Forgetting, Hutch shrugged, wincing immediately at the resultant throbbing. "Seems like it's been one screw up after another these last few months."

"What are you talkin' about?" Starsky seemed genuinely puzzled.

"That idiotic hide and seek game in the middle of the Pardee case. That time I was stupid enough to let that Travers psychopath drug you and damn near kill you. That time..."

"Are you crazy?" Starsky cut in. "You couldn't have prevented any of that from happenin'."

"I was the one that goaded you into that stupid game," Hutch reminded relentlessly. "The bet was my idea, remember, to prove once and for all who was the brains of this outfit. The brains. What a joke." Although his appetite was deserting him, Hutch found the view of his stroganoff extremely fascinating.

"Hey, unless it's escaped your attention, I'd've been dead ten times over if it wasn't for that brain of yours."

"How's that?"

"You were the one who finally figured out that Monique Travers and Harry were the same person, partner. And yesterday you saved both Meredith and me with your quick thinkin'."

"What about the day before yesterday?" Hutch asked bitterly.

"Huh?"

"I wasn't acting like the brains of this outfit when I let that kid shoot me, was I? Another, better cop would've..."

"I don't care what another cop woulda done and there ain't a better one than you," Starsky insisted in a no-nonsense tone. "Do you think I'd want some cold-hearted brain for a partner who'd shoot down a kid too scared to know what she was doin'?"

"She knew what she was doing. You didn't see her eyes, Starsk. I just couldn't pull the trigger. Even though I knew she meant to kill me I couldn't shoot a little girl," Hutch confessed. Starsky's staunch support was unexpected, but he was determined to be truthful about the incident.

"Ah, babe, do you think I'd want you to shoot a kid? You listened to your heart, and that ain't never steered you wrong yet."

"No?" Hutch knew better. His heart had led him into the most desperate straits he'd ever tried to navigate this last year. The impossible destination of his terrifying course sat oblivious to his plight less than three feet away.

"No," Starsky affirmed. "One Lonnie Craig was enough in this partnership."

How could he have forgotten the sixteen-year-old Starsky had been forced to shoot in that holdup? The guilt of that necessity and Prudholm's insane murders had nearly destroyed his friend. With that weight still on his conscience, Starsky might very well figure that taking a bullet was a preferable choice.

"I'd nearly forgotten about that," Hutch said, taking another forkful of stroganoff.

"Don't sweat it," Starsky dismissed, continuing in a more serious tone. "We've both been forgettin' a lot of important things lately, partner."

Intrigued by the difference in this subdued Starsky from this morning's joker, Hutch asked, "Like what?"

"Like it's our partnership that counts, me and thee workin' together as one. Two, three years ago we never would've been bickerin' about who was 'the brains' in our team. We had too much respect for each other for that kind of childishness."

Hutch felt his cheeks warm under a rush of shame. "One of my dumber ideas," he agreed, knowing fully well who had initiated that juvenile contest.

Hutch didn't himself understand what motivated those stupid competitions. He loved Starsky, in the conventional sense of the word as well as in the unacceptable sense of his secret desires. Why then, was he always driven to try to prove himself better than the man? Was it Starsky's confidence that got to him? There were no pretenses to his friend, no worries about what others might think. Starsky had the courage to be himself. He could act like a carefree child when the impulse came upon him and in the flick of an eyelash mutate into a deadly predator, sensitive listener or seductive mystery man -- whatever the situation required. Nor was Starsky intimidated by his partner's different approach to life. He accepted Hutch's book learning and more analytical style with a sometimes-infuriating equanimity. Starsky might tell him in no uncertain terms that he was weird, but never once had he attempted to eradicate their differences. Hutch couldn't understand why he himself felt compelled to do so. He didn't like to think of himself as being so insecure that his partner's differences would threaten his self-image, but reviewing his behavior of the past year he was left with very little choice but to consider the possibility.

"Hey, that ain't what I mean," Starsky interrupted his partner's self-analysis. "It just isn't you. A year or so ago I wouldn't've made that stupid joke about wantin' someone else for a partner. And if I had been that much of a jerk, you would've known I didn't mean it. If there's any blame to be portioned out, we've both got an equal hand in it. But that isn't what's important."

"What is?" Hutch asked, his throat very tight as he gazed into the over-bright eyes.

"We're on our way to becomin' strangers, babe. Maybe even enemies. I don't want that for us. I don't think you do, either."

"No, I never want that to happen," Hutch agreed, shaking all over at how close they must have come to that point for Starsky to have brought it up at all.

"Okay then." Starsky grinned like a demented leprechaun.

"Okay, what?" Hutch asked, not understanding.

"Just okay. If we both know that we're still for each other, on each other's side, everything will work out fine."

"Did you think I wasn't on your side anymore, Starsk?" Hutch asked carefully, hiding his uncertainty behind a mouthful of beef.

Starsky concentrated on his meal for a thoughtful moment before answering. When he did speak he was relentlessly honest. "I... wasn't sure. We've been pretty hard on each other these past few months, buddy. Half the time it seemed like you were tryin' to push me away."

"And the other half?"

"Like you were tryin' to run away from me. In the end all it seemed to boil down to was that you didn't want me around you anymore."

"I... " Distance had seemed his safest bet at the time, but Hutch had no idea how to explain that.

"It's okay," Starsky rushed to reassure. "After this morning I figure you must've had your reasons. Only..."

"Yes?"

"Can we move on from there? Put whatever it is behind us?"

Hutch honestly didn't know if he could put these feelings behind him. For over a year he'd tried pulling back from temptation, but all he'd succeeded in doing was to almost alienate Starsky's affections. Even when they were at each other's throats the desire had still been there, fierce as ever.

Could he truthfully promise that things would be different in the future? All he had to do was say 'yes' and a truce would be declared. They would try to go back to being what they were, only it would be based on lies. Starsky had just offered him an easy out, his partner assuming that one of his actions had caused the breach. It was a convenient smoke screen, but...

Me and thee wasn't based on expediency. Easy outs, lies of omission, deep dark secrets, they were what had brought them to this state.

"I'm afraid it's not that simple, partner," Hutch said at last, reluctant yet determined at the same time.

The metaphor of someone's face falling had never struck Hutch as a particularly accurate one, but watching his partner's hopeful expression crumple to bleak despair he began to understand where it had been culled from.

Starsky's tone was almost desperate as he made his reply. "Hutch, I spent all morning tryin' to figure out what I did to hurt you and..."

"It's nothing you did," Hutch cut in, forestalling the rest of his partner's plea. "I'm the problem. It's something in me."

"Are you bored with me?"

"Huh?" The ridiculous statement threw Hutch completely.

"This past year you've more than gone out of your way to tell me that I ain't exactly your mental match. You tired of bein' saddled with a simple street cop, babe, want someone more stimulatin'?" Amazingly, it wasn't an angry accusation. Starsky was visibly upset, but controlled.

"More... God, no, Starsk. I'm sorry," Hutch stammered, appalled that Starsky would even consider such a thing. "I don't want anyone but you. I swear it," he vowed, voicing his heart's first and final truth.

Starsky's doubtful gaze studied him for what seemed an eternity before the dark head nodded its acceptance. "Then what's all this about, partner? I think I've got a right to know."

"All right. But can we finish eating first?"

"Hutch..." Starsky's tone held a warning note.

"I'm not trying to put you off, Starsk. I need time." The attempt was pretty lame as far as explanations went, but Hutch couldn't spit a thing like this out across the dinner table.

"That bad, huh?" Starsky asked with a smile, a spark of mischief returning to his eyes.

At the moment, Hutch wanted nothing so much as to lean over and kiss those seductive lips. Instead, he found an answering smile. He realized that these might be the last minutes of their partnership, but it had been so long since he'd felt this close to his partner that not even that knowledge could completely dampen his spirits. "You don't know the half of it, Starsk."

"But I will. Count on it."

Wishing his friend was a bit less enthusiastic about this subject, Hutch continued eating.

***************************

The next thirty minutes were the longest in the history of the world as far as Starsky was concerned; Hutch stretched them out to their fullest.

Whatever Hutch was holding back, Starsky knew he wasn't going to like it, not after that kind of a build-up. So far tonight at this table, they'd grappled with such impossible problems as the dissolution of their partnership, both their hidden fears of their partner wanting a replacement for them, and the sick head games they'd been putting each other through. After all that, Starsky couldn't imagine a subject too rough to handle.

Obviously, Hutch could.

But maybe it wouldn't be too bad, Starsky consoled himself, knowing his partner's tendency towards needless worry. Like before when Hutch had convinced himself that not immediately seeing through Monique Travers' disguise or being able to gun down a scared kid were grounds for replacement. This was probably something equally outrageous.

"Want some more?" Starsky asked as Hutch scraped the last of his stroganoff onto his fork. Though consumed with curiosity, he wasn't about to forget the purpose of his presence here.

"No," Hutch softly refused. "That was fantastic. Thank you."

"Wait till you get a look at tomorrow's menu."

"Tomorrow?"

"We've got three days to get you back on your feet."

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

"I want to," Starsky interrupted. "You about ready for that talk now?"

Hutch nodded dismally. "I guess."

"Wanta move inside where it's more comfortable?"

Hutch settled himself in the comer of the couch. Huddled in his orange terry cloth robe, the pallid blond looked oddly vulnerable.

Starsky sat down next to his friend, wishing Hutch didn't appear quite so nervous. "Hey, it's only me, partner."

"I know," Hutch said, appearing at a loss as to where to start.

"You said I hadn't done anything to hurt you," Starsky prompted, not understanding how that could be so.

"Right." Hutch fell silent again, but it was the silence of many thoughts. Starsky could see the chaos of possibilities reflected in the crystal gaze.

"But you didn't deny that you were pushin' me away or hidin' from me. Can you tell me why?" That's what he needed to know, for once he found out what he'd done to drive Hutch away from him he could guarantee that it never happened again.

"I... was scared."

"Of what?" Starsky tensed inwardly, this not at all what he'd expected. "Of me?"

Hutch didn't answer him directly. "Something happened last year, Starsk. I didn't want it to happen. I tried to pretend it hadn't and when I couldn't fool myself anymore I tried to hide it from you. I didn't mean for it to come between us as it has. I swear. But I don't know what else to do."

"It's all right," Starsky soothed remembering the only other time he'd seen Hutch so upset that he'd pleaded for understanding -- strung out on Forest's junk, Hutch had sounded this way when he'd admitted he'd told the creep where he'd hidden Jeannie. "Whatever it is, it's all right, partner. Just spit it out and between us we'll handle the problem. Same as always."

Hutch took a deep breath and continued more calmly. "I don't expect you to accept this or act upon it in any way, but you were right before. You do have the right to know." Hutch bit his lower lip, the emotion in his huge eyes leaping straight at Starsky's heart. "About a year ago I... I discovered that I had somehow managed to fall in love with my partner."

The words took a long time to penetrate. When they did, Starsky's jaw fell laxly open, his blood seeming to solidify in his veins. Hutch could simply not have said what he'd just heard, but Starsky could find no other interpretation for the words but the one his shell-shocked mind had fixed upon. "You..."

"I didn't want you to ever find out. Figured I could keep it from you and keep things the way they were. Only..." Hutch paused in his rushed explanation, nervousness turning to defeat. "I just don't know how to handle it anymore, Starsk. I'm sorry."

He hadn't turned the kitchen faucet fully off, Starsky realized numbly, the steady dripping into a half-full pot of water in the sink the only sound in the ensuing silence. Needing to move, to expend some energy, Starsky bounced to his feet. He felt Hutch's gaze boring into his back all the way to the kitchen.

A vicious twist silenced the irritant. Starsky paused over the sink, trying to collect himself. Out of all the jumpy, irresolute emotions swirling through his mind, he couldn't latch onto a single coherent thought.

"Starsk?" The uncertain voice so close behind him made him start. Hutch was always light on his feet in a dangerous situation, but put the tall blond on a dance floor....

Strangely calmed by the thought, Starsky turned to his partner. This was Hutch. No matter what was said or done, nothing would ever alter that familiar reality.

"It's all right," Starsky hastened to assure, having no idea of what he was saying.

"Starsky, did you hear what I just said," Hutch demanded irritably. "I told you..."

"I heard you." Starsky cut his friend off.

The familiar hardness of the past few months returned to Hutch's eyes, Starsky at last seeing the reaction for what it was -- a denial of pain. "Is that all you have to say about it -- 'I heard you'? Isn't it even worth getting angry about? Aren't you..."

"It's worth everything," Starsky corrected, sounding vague and disoriented to even his own ears. "Now shut up a second and let me think."

Hutch's protests subsided, tense anxiety settling over abruptly readable features. The hardships of the last three days and preceding few minutes weighed heavily on the broad shoulders.

"Sit down, babe," Starsky instructed, consciously choosing that particular endearment from the myriad range of possibilities. "I'm gonna fix us some coffee."

With a puzzled air, Hutch returned to the living room; although Starsky could feel his bewildered gaze following his every movement as he set about his self-appointed task.

The normalcy of the procedure comforted him, the familiarity of the every day routine assuring him that the world wasn't coming to an end, regardless of what his racing heart insisted.

All too soon the water was boiled and there was nothing else to fuss over. With no more idea of how to handle this than he'd had at Hutch's announcement, Starsky rejoined his partner.

Hutch accepted the offered mug with a mumbled thanks, not even bothering to ask if it had been prepared to his liking.

They knew each other so well in so many ways, Starsky realized, and not at all in so many others.

"I always thought your reaction would be a bit more volatile than this, Starsk," Hutch said, giving a small, nervous smile.

"So did I," Starsky admitted. "Or would've if I'd thought of such a thing."

"You never have?" Hutch asked, sounding so much his old familiar self that Starsky was only slightly uneased by the subject matter.

"Not seriously. After Johnny Blaine..."

"Yes?" Hutch prompted, his voice gentle and somehow undemanding despite the open curiosity.

"I thought about the idea some."

"Between us?" Hutch asked, managing to sound both hopeful and dubious at the same time.

Starsky wished he could lie, wished he could say 'no, never,' but after Hutch's ruthless self-honesty there was no possibility of such dissembling. So he gave his partner the bald truth. "You were the only guy that the idea of doin' some of those things to didn't make me barf."

Hutch's eyes widened as if in surprise. "But it didn't interest you enough to mention it to me?"

"It ain't a subject that's quickly forgotten once you bring it up," Starsky said. "I didn't think you'd go for the idea."

"But I told you just a minute ago."

"That was different."

"How?"

"You had no choice," Starsky explained. "Besides, we weren't talkin' about the same thing; were we?"

"Huh?"

"Before, you said that you discovered that you had fallen in love with your partner," Starsky reminded, a strange tingling winding through his insides as he recalled Hutch's exact phrasing, "not that you wanted a quick roll between the sheets. There's a difference."

"Is there?" Hutch asked hollowly, his cheeks bright spots of red in an otherwise ashen face. "It's what it all comes down to in the end; isn't it?"

"Maybe," Starsky conceded, refusing to be intimidated by the other's cynicism.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Behind the defensive bluster, Starsky could clearly see that his friend had been pushed to his limit -- physically and emotionally.

"It means that there's a hell of a lot more to it than sex for starters," he enunciated slowly and clearly, stating the fact as much for himself as his over-strained companion. "If sex were all there were to it, you would've been comin' on to me before."

"Is that why you aren't angry, because I didn't?"

"Partially," Starsky confessed.

"Just for the record, if I had... tried to seduce you would you be talking to me like this now?"

It took guts to ask that kind of question, but his partner had more than his share of courage.

Gazing into the waiting eyes, Starsky gulped, trying to find his voice. "No," he answered, then in a subdued whisper. "Just for the record, we'd probably be in bed."

He saw his words shiver through the slender blond, his own body shaking as well.

"What are you saying, Starsky?" Hutch asked with a forced harshness, his yearning eyes telling a completely different tale.

Starsky considered his partner's question. What was he saying... offering? Though his mind was still numbed by all of this, his body was far from it. "I - I'm not sure."

"Of what? Me?" Hutch asked.

Starsky found a smile for his friend. "No, you're the one thing I'm certain of."

"Starsky, I don't understand any of this." Hutch offered him a tenuous smile. "You're supposed to be furious. How can you say something like that after the way we've been treating each other lately?"

"'Cause it's true. All this, it's not just part of the problem. It is the problem."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Hutch demanded, on the defensive again.

"You haven't just been runnin' from me, Hutch. You've been blamin' me for makin' you feel this way; haven't you? The same way I've been blamin' you for pullin' back from me. That's why we've been so mean to each other."

An unnatural stillness claimed Hutch's already tense form. "You... could be right," the blond admitted at last. "There were times I almost... hated you for not seeing how I felt about you."

Starsky shivered at hearing the words so calmly voiced, even though he'd suspected as much. Hutch hating him -- it wasn't a reality he liked to consider.

"My behavior didn't help any either," he considered, remembering the number of times he'd played up to some lovely woman in his partner's presence, only to have Hutch come between them. He'd been attributing those incidents to the superiority contest they constantly seemed caught up in, but in light of this evening's revelation, Starsky reconsidered all of his assessments. Hutch hadn't been trying to win those girls as much as eliminate the competition. "I've been hurtin' you a long time, haven't I?"

"You didn't know," Hutch dismissed, as if the pain he'd suffered was meaningless.

"I should've. That ain't no excuse."

"Hey," Hutch interrupted, his voice and eyes strangely bright, "I was doing my best to hide it from you. I wouldn't have appreciated your guessing the truth. It was hard enough just telling you."

Starsky hadn't considered that angle. "Yeah, I guess you're right, but... pride ain't no consolation, babe," he pointed out, aching for what his friend must have gone through. All those women, each a barb in his partner's heart, this morning's floor show with Meredith in Dobey's office perhaps the bitterest blow of all.

"It was all I had."

Starsky winced at the stark admission, realizing how alone Hutch must have felt this last year existing with all that suffering bottled up inside. He wanted to tell his friend that it wasn't true, that Hutch had always had him, but recalling the distance between them these past months, Starsky recognized that such an assurance would only be empty sound.

"I'm sorry," he said inadequately.

"Don't be." Hutch shrugged, his face instantly scrunching with pain.

Starsky gripped Hutch's unhurt shoulder, holding on till the pain passed. Slowly the tension ebbed. Hutch released a shaky breath and leaned back against the couch's support, his expression indicating that he wanted nothing said about the incident.

"I can't help but feel bad," Starsky explained, giving in to the silent request. "I wish things could have been different for you."

"It can be now." Hutch paused before continuing in a somewhat cautious tone. "I'm not asking you to change your life for me, but... assuming you still want me for your partner, that is... could you try to keep your love life off duty?"

"Assuming?" Starsky stared at the too-pale man beside him, the way Hutch looked at this moment burning itself indelibly into his memory. Hutch was in love with him, David Starsky. It was hard to believe, but surprisingly easy to accept. "We already settled that before, Hutch. You're my partner. As for the rest... anything you want."

"Just that. As long as I don't have to see you with... it'll be all right."

"All right for who?" Starsky asked.

"Huh?"

"What about you? You told me you were in love with me before. Am I supposed to just forget that?"

"If you can. I was hoping we could work around it." Hutch said deflatedly, looking past Starsky's left ear rather than at his face.

"Think it'll just blow over, huh?" Starsky asked, his stomach tight with something strangely like anticipation. He breathed a sigh into the ensuing, prolonged silence, relieved that Hutch wasn't trying to kid either of them by suggesting the feeling would just go away. "That's what I thought."

"So what happens now?"

Starsky smiled at the peevish demand. "That depends."

"On what?" Hutch was visibly armored against him again.

"On how much you're up to."

"Huh?" Hutch's blank expression gave way to a rush of color. Though it was good to see something other than the ash grey tinge in his partner's cheeks, Starsky would have preferred joy to have put the color there rather than anger. "Spare me the noble sacrifice. I don't need your pity."

"Who said anything about pity?" Starsky demanded, trying to keep a tight reign on his temper despite the provocative tone. Hutch had always been infuriatingly good at irritating him, but this past year his partner had perfected that natural talent into an art form.

"What the hell else could it be? You already told me that the idea of making it with another man makes you barf. Your wording, not mine," Hutch reminded.

"Not with you," Starsky objected quietly, feeling very small and vulnerable. "I'd do anything with you."

"Right," Hutch snorted.

"Don't do that to me," Starsky commanded, some of his anger snapping free.

"Do what?" The question was cold as ice sculpture, Hutch at his most condescending.

"Dismiss what I'm feelin' just 'cause it's not somethin' you planned on. Whatever went down this past year, I'm not in the habit of lyin' to you."

The chill glare challenged him a moment before faltering. Hutch swallowed noisily, seeming at a loss for words. "What do you feel, Starsk?" the blond finally asked in an entirely different tone, one which told Starsky how easy it would be to hurt his friend right now.

Starsky didn't answer immediately, taking the time to carefully sort through the maelstrom of conflicting emotion. "Tingly, but warm inside. Maybe a little scared. You... mean too much to me."

"Too much?"

Starsky shrugged, unsure if he could adequately explain. "To risk, to hurt, to lose... my life revolves around you. You're my... anchor."

"An anchor's just a piece of dead metal, Starsk." With any other inflection, the words would have been a repudiation, but Hutch's soft voice, so close to wonder, stirred a sweet yearning ache in his loins.

"And you're just bein' difficult," Starsky chuckled affectionately.

His smile slipped slowly from his face as the mood shifted. Starsky wasn't sure what the tender longing piercing his heart was, but he didn't try to hide it from his partner. Hutch could read it in his face and interpret it for himself.

Whatever the emotion, it seemed to circumvent Hutch's barriers. Although those magnificent eyes would never be other than their startling crystalline blue, they no longer seemed hard as gemstones to Starsky. Hutch's gaze had always been expressive, but tonight his eyes seemed to reach out to embrace Starsky's spirit, reading all, rejecting nothing.

In that instant everything changed for Starsky. Breathing became a conscious and difficult act. Struggling futilely to catch the elusive oxygen, he felt as if he were falling, spiraling down into endless blue, his blood roaring in his ears.

He gasped as a sweep of pale-lashed lids released him. Like a drowning sailor surfacing at last, Starsky's lungs sucked in the sweet air. Unnerved, he found he was shaking all over. Hutch had said nothing, hadn't even laid a finger on him, and he was trembling worse than the first time he'd realized that a girl was about to touch him and make sex more than the solitary, furtive pursuit it had been. The feeling was even the same, that of bridges being burned behind him, of unalterable crossings. The last time Starsky had felt this way he'd been nervous, but he'd understood the cause: the passage from childhood to maturity. What it signified now, he couldn't begin to determine, aware only that something had changed forever in that unguarded moment.

"Hutch?" he questioned in a small, hushed whisper. He was almost afraid to dare the siren eyes again, fearful of where they would lead him, knowing that despite his formidable will, he was powerless to resist the lure. His pride was stung by his weakness, part of him worried that after the competitions of the last year he would behold the triumphant gaze of a conqueror.

To Starsky's astonishment, Hutch appeared as trepidant as he felt, perhaps even more so. Starsky abruptly recalled that it had been his partner who had initially laid his heart on the line with his courageous confession.

"Yeah?" Hutch asked guardedly, everything Starsky knew about his partner telling him that Hutch was poised on the edge of shutting him out permanently.

Starsky couldn't blame him. Anyone with a lick of sense would draw back from such an awesome power. It would be too easy to lose oneself in the overwhelming drive, to be irretrievably washed away under the flood of emotion, virtually enslaved by desire. Only...

There was a joy to it, the undiluted ecstasy of life. The feeling might be overwhelming, Starsky realized, might take all that he was, but it promised to give back in equal measure. If he could open himself up to it fully, persuade his rejection-scarred companion to do the same. Right now Hutch looked as receptive to approach as a startled buck, his golden head held high as if to test the air, ready to flee at the first scent of danger.

"Don't leave me alone here, Hutch," Starsky pleaded, sensing that that glimpse of what could be between them had been almost more than his partner was prepared to deal with.

The quiet was deafening. When Hutch finally spoke the silence seemed to absorb his words, muffling them, creating a distance between them that was of neither time nor space, but something of both.

"There isn't any way back, is there?" Hutch asked, his golden strands glistening like the first daffodils of spring while all the shadows in that corner of the room seemed to collect in his eyes.

"Do you want one?"

It was important that Starsky know, although what he'd do at this point if Hutch had changed his mind he had no idea. Starsky felt as if they had somehow traded places, with him wanting what Hutch wouldn't or couldn't give.

"Don't you?"

"Not if it means goin' back to yesterday."

"And if it meant going back to a year ago?"

Starsky considered. His stomach lurched at the shattering conclusion. "Not even then."

"You can't mean that," Hutch denied, his gaze uneasy.

"Can't I?" Starsky stared into the doubting face, not understanding the degree of disbelief he found there. This was not the Hutch he was used to dealing with. From their first meeting in the Academy, the characteristic of this man's personality that had struck him strongest was Hutch's confidence. In looks, brains and style Kenneth Hutchinson had it all, the blond's assurance often bordering on arrogance. With those angelic features, Hutch needed that kind of drive simply to survive on the streets. This last year that confidence had been an obnoxious barricade between them, but right now not a trace of it remained in the bloodless features. Maybe the pain from the bullet wound was responsible for this unsettling change, but Starsky didn't think so. He kept recalling aspects of their dinner conversation, most notably Hutch's certainty that Starsky was ready to replace him. Could that blustery confidence have been a front, the constant claims of superiority an indication that Hutch felt differently inside?

Seeing that the injured man was struggling to answer his rhetorical question, Starsky rushed on. "You didn't even touch me and I felt the floor drop out from under me. My whole life, no one's ever moved me like that, babe. I don't think anyone but you could. We could have something really special together, Hutch."

"But you don't like men," Hutch objected, sounding as if he were reminding himself of that fact.

"Neither do you, but that didn't stop you from fallin'. Why should it be any different for me?" It didn't make any sense, but somehow to Hutch there obviously was a difference. "Hutch?"

"Because I'm not like you, Stark. People don't fall in love with me..."

"What're you talkin' about?" Starsky cut in, too amazed to hold back until Hutch finished speaking. "I can't even begin to count the women that've thrown themselves at your feet this month alone."

"Because they liked the wrapping, partner. It's like a shiny diamond ring or a new fur coat, as soon as the novelty wears off they're in the market for something better."

"You're crazy!"

"Am I? Since I was two, all I had to do was walk into a room and women would be tripping all over themselves to admire me." There was no immodesty in his partner's claim, only the concise statement of fact. "It used to make me really self-conscious growing up. When I got older, I learned to use it to my advantage, but..."

"But?" Starsky prompted, beginning to understand. Initially, he'd had trouble taking the idea of being born beautiful as a serious impediment to anything but police work. Like most ordinarily attractive people, Starsky had been conscious only of the advantages his partner's extraordinary looks brought him. He'd never considered the reverse side of the coin. Hutch was not a superficial person, yet his appearance was a beacon to the shallow.

"But it was never really me they were loving, just whatever fantasy of me they'd cooked up to go with the body."

Starsky tried to understand what this had to do with their earlier topic, and failed miserably. Grasping in the dark, he asked, "Are you tryin' to say I just want you for your body?" He didn't even attempt to keep a straight face at the ludicrous suggestion.

He'd expected Hutch to deny the idea instantly, or if he was really successful, maybe even laugh, but his partner's drawn face became even more serious. "No, what I'm trying to say is that you're the first person I can totally believe doesn't."

"So what's the problem, then?"

"Starsk, I never felt anything like what just happened. Not even with Gillian. I don't know how to... handle it."

"You think I do?" Starsky countered, those brilliant, emotion-fraught eyes even now making him tremble. "This isn't something we can handle or control, Hutch. It's like our partnership was -- unstoppable. We go this route and that feeling's gonna shape and mold us, not the other way around."

"And you still want it?"

"I want you. More than anything."

"But as your lover?"

Starsky's hand stole out to brush the living gold from Hutch's cheek, the warmth from his partner's hair and skin blazing up the unprepared nerves of his arm. Like touching living flame, he thought.

"Who better? Who could love me the way you do, give me as much of himself as you do every day without even tryin'? You're in my blood, Hutch."

It was the sound that Hutch made then that finalized everything for Starsky. The tiny, almost wounded gasp sliced straight through his heart.

Without thinking about it, he closed the distance between them. Starsky knew he should have felt funny leaning over to kiss Hutch's mouth, but there was nothing awkward to that melting together, the only thing jarring being his response.

Starsky's senses were swimming as the tentative press of dry lips changed, altered into something deeper and far more mature. His searching tongue was immediately welcomed, sucked deep into the wet heat of his partner's mouth. The taste and scent of him was like nothing Starsky had ever experienced, familiar in their Hutch-ness and masculinity, but utterly alien in a sexual context. His body thrilled at the contact, flying madly where with anyone else he'd just be beginning to warm. He wanted to know more of the man, everything there was to know.

Lost in the intoxicating sensation, Starsky pressed closer, jerking back immediately at the involuntary moan Hutch gave. It wasn't one of pleasure.

Acutely aware that less than 48 hours had passed since his partner's surgery, Starsky's eyes snapped open. "Hutch? I forgot... "

Slowly the distress eased from Hutch's tensed features. A smile, weak, but welcome as a single bright sunbeam bursting from a cloud-bank broke across his face. "So did I."

"I'm sor--"

The fingers of Hutch's unconfined right hand covered his mouth. "I'm not. Don't you be."

The fingertips lightly traced his lips, Hutch's gaze intent on their progress. They dipped down his chin to his sensitive neck.

Shivering under the sensual assault, Starsky tried to keep his priorities straight. "Maybe... maybe we should... hold... ummm... " Hutch's head dipped to nuzzle his throat, "hold off until you're up to this."

"I'm up to it." The engrossed detective breathed down Starsky's neck, Hutch's tongue peeking out to taste his flesh.

"Hutch, please. I can't think when you do that." Think or breathe, Starsky silently amended, reaching out to firmly guide Hutch off of him. The blond's cheeks were flushed, but he was still too pale, the purple webwork under his eyes seeming as bright as makeup against his skin. "I don't want to do anything to hurt you."

"Then don't stop. I've waited forever for this, Starsk." Hutch's fingers reached for his companion's curls.

Starsky tried to be strong for his partner's sake, but he'd never seen anything quite as beautiful as the absorbed concentration with which Hutch touched him. The injured blond behaved as if every inch of Starsky's body were sacred to him, his fingers cherishing everything he touched. Under the worst of circumstances Starsky wasn't very good at denying his partner anything; when faced with such obvious delight, it became impossible.

"Okay, but we do things my way," Starsky insisted, catching Hutch's hand before it could dissuade him.

The blue eyes snapped to his face, their expression unreadable.

Starsky braced himself for an argument, all too aware that Hutch wasn't someone who could be dictated to.

"All right," Hutch allowed, disarming his partner totally. "What did you have in mind?"

"That's it -- 'all right'? No fight, no argument?" Starsky tested, distrusting this easy compliance.

Hutch's smile was gentle, filled with understanding. "We've done enough bickering. Anyway, as you pointed out, I'm not up to a fight. What was your idea?"

"Bed. And you agree to let me handle the acrobatics."

"You can handle anything you want -- so long as it's attached to me."

It had been so long since Starsky had seen that carefree grin that it robbed him of his breath. Years had passed since Hutch had appeared this uncomplicatedly joyous, with no whisper of disillusionment or malice shadowing his grin. Those years seemed to drop away from the blond before his eyes; Hutch, the sun-kissed lover of life emerging from that chrysalis of despair.

What awed Starsky most was that he could be responsible for such a transformation, that a single kiss from little Davey Starsky could make this complex, gorgeous man shine brighter than the stars of winter. The idea of having such power over anyone, let alone someone as dear to his heart as Hutch, was nothing short of terrifying.

"Hutch?"

"Yeah, Starsk?"

"I want you to know that I... really love you. More than anything." He had trouble getting the words out, not because they were hard to admit, but because the lump lodged in his throat refused to cooperate.

Hutch's Adam's apple bobbed convulsively, as if he were experiencing similar operational difficulties. "Me, too."

Starsky trailed his forefinger down the ridges of his friend's trachea, letting his thumb flick out to brush the twin moles near Hutch's jugular vein. Funny, he'd never noticed how sexy those moles were before.

"Starsk?"

"Mmmm?" Starsky murmured, concentrating on the sensory impressions his fingertips were transmitting. That unbelievably soft skin was affecting his entire body.

"If you want to move inside we'd better do it now," Hutch reminded, more than a hint of laughter in his voice.

That was his Hutch, always sensible.

"Oh, yeah. Right."

Starsky rose to his feet, then assisted his partner up. Hutch tried to hide the wince even that small movement caused, but Starsky picked up on it. His arm slipped around the thin waist, Hutch entrusting more of his weight to his partner than he had when he was out on his feet earlier.

Undressing Hutch was more difficult this time. The sling and robe came off easily enough, but the damned undershirt proved pure torture. Hutch was white around the lips when it was finally removed, all but oblivious to Starsky sliding the remaining briefs down his long legs.

"Where you going?" Hutch rasped out when Starsky left him sitting on the bedside in nothing but his bandages.

"Pain pill."

"I don't want a..."

"You agreed to do this my way," Starsky reminded. "If you pass out on me I want it to be from passion, not pain."

"Lunatic." But Hutch was smiling again, his eyes avidly following Starsky's every movement.

The blond downed the pill without protest, handing the empty water glass back to Starsky with an oddly expectant air.

Belatedly, Starsky realized its cause. It was his turn to undress.

Suddenly nervous, he stalled for the few moments it took to return Hutch's glass to the kitchen.

Once back in the bedroom he found his partner exactly as he had left him: sitting on the bedside watching him move.

"Would you turn on the lamp, Starsk?"

Great, just what he needed, more light. "Sure."

A grown man should not be this uptight about undressing for his lover, Starsky told himself as he started to undo his shirt buttons. Never in the past had he been the least bit uncertain of his body's ability to please, but when contrasted with all that blond perfection he could simply not understand what Hutch saw in him. Puzzled, he peeked over at the bed without raising his face from the task at hand, his curls blocking out the top of Hutch's head.

His partner's harshly indrawn breath was audible from where he stood.

"What?" He was at the bedside instantly, worried by what had sounded like pain.

"You don't know, do you?" Hutch asked, sounding incredulous.

"Know what? Are you all right?"

"Fine." Hutch smiled absently up at him. "It was just that look."

"Huh?"

"Like a little boy, sort of lost and innocent, but your body... god, your body, Starsk, so sensual." Hutch's right hand slid between the folds of his half-open shirt, the flat palm stroking over his chest hair. "You're like silk. So sexy."

"Always told you that," Starsky insisted, because Hutch expected it of him. Inside, he was a quivering wreck, a million nerve endings exploding under that gentle petting. Hutch had barely touched him yet and he was on fire. He'd never felt this susceptible to anyone in his life.

Hungry, strong hands reached for the fastening of Starsky's jeans, Hutch's right hand immediately leaping up to his left shoulder.

"Gonna have to do somethin' 'bout that memory of yours, partner," Starsky scolded gently, not making too much of the issue. "Come on. Lie back."

He eased the lanky blond back onto the pillows, smiling his reassurance. Starsky paused above his partner, stopped dead by his new perspective of the familiar body.

He'd always been aware of Hutch's physical beauty -- one would have to be completely blind to miss it -- but for the first time in almost a decade of constant exposure, Starsky found himself moved by it. The blood seemed to freeze in his veins, his stomach becoming light and fluttery as he surveyed the familiar form.

Stretched out against those blue sheets, Hutch's tanned flesh looked like a golden Kansas wheat field against a summer sky. His hair was a silken fluff of solidified sunlight dancing across the pillows, his eyes a paler, more enchanting shade of blue than the surrounding sheets, the expression softening the proud Nordic features the physical embodiment of love.

Starsky gulped, his gaze falling to his partner's chest. Not quite as muscular or hairy as his own, it was still very masculine -- the only thing marring its sleek perfection the awkward white gauze hiding the left breast and shoulder.

His eyes dipped lower, over the flat stomach to less familiar territory. He'd seen Hutch naked a million times, but he'd never really taken the opportunity to actually look at his partner's body, at least not this particular section of it. Even only partially erect, Hutch was big, the thick shaft blushed with arousal. The wiry curls at the base of it were the same shade of gold as Hutch's mustache, Starsky noted fondly.

"Well," Hutch asked almost nervously.

"Well indeed," Starsky agreed. "You're incredible, like some beautiful sun god."

That earned him a blush. "And you're still dressed."

Reminded of what he was supposed to be doing, Starsky stripped down, no longer self-conscious under the watching eyes. After removing his jeans and briefs Starsky stood still, allowing Hutch to look his fill.

When it felt right, Starsky slipped into bed, turning on his side to face his partner. Once again he reminded himself of his partner's physical restrictions.

The heat of Hutch's body radiated across the inch or two of cool sheet separating them, sending a jittery tingle straight through Starsky. Each breath brought with it Hutch's clean musky scent, long familiar, suddenly earth-shatteringly arousing.

Their eyes met in the breathy stillness.

"This should feel strange," Hutch remarked.

"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Starsky agreed, running his hand down Hutch's right arm, unable to touch or breathe in enough of him. "You don't feel strange, babe."

"How do I feel?" Seductive challenge.

Fast becoming addicted to the glow in Hutch's eyes, Starsky answered, "Delectable."

"Yeah?"

"Oh, yeah." Starsky's head swooped down for the first of many kisses.

Hutch's mouth was designed for kissing, Starsky decided some time later, coming up for air.

Shivering as Hutch's right hand traced his spine, Starsky transferred his attention to the long neck, delighting in the helpless shudders he caused.

It felt so right doing this to Hutch, almost as if he'd been loving him all his life. Or longer.

His lips wandered over the throat's hollow, down to Hutch's chest. Completely hairless, the skin was as soft and supple as a freshly bathed infant's, irresistibly appealing. With tender care, Starsky explored every unbandaged inch, his light touches not so much demanding response as seducing it.

Not surprisingly, the single uncovered nipple claimed precedence in his attentions. His fingertips tentatively brushed over the tawny pucker of flesh, eliciting a breathy gasp from Hutch. As his tongue took over, the nipple hardened, budding to full erection. Hutch's body jerked with pleasure, the golden head thrown back, lips parted, lost in sensation.

Starsky's heart welled with love at the sight. He wanted to take Hutch into his very soul at that moment, keep him safe and happy there forever.

His tongue slid lower, down to the sexy navel. By the time Starsky was finished exploring there, his partner was panting, the white belly quivering expectantly, the rosey cock frantic with need.

Moment of truth.

This was what it was to be desired by a man, Starsky realized, grappling with a lifetime of inhibitions and misunderstandings. He stared at the thick organ, considering. He'd never touched another man's cock before, much less performed the act he was now contemplating. A day ago, the idea of going down on another man, even Hutch, would have been beyond his comprehension, but now...

Starsky discovered that he was trembling... with want. The scent and feel of this incredible creature were making Starsky hungry for the taste of him, cock or no cock. With unfeigned eagerness, he moved forward.

"Hey." Hutch's right hand intercepted his lowering head.

"Yeah?" Starsky was surprised by how gruff his own voice sounded, ragged with need, as if he were the one who had suffered so long waiting for this union.

"I know I promised you could handle the acrobatics, partner, but don't cut me out of the fun."

"Huh?" Starsky asked, too distracted by the sensual tone of the words to disentangle their meaning.

Apparently reading his state, Hutch dropped all pretense of subtlety. "Shift up so I can do my part, Starsk." A tug at Starsky's waist accompanied the request.

Light years beyond refusing Hutch anything, Starsky moved his lower half where his partner seemed to want him and returned to his pleasure.

Stroking the springy flesh brought some wonderful moaning from up above, as well as increasing the shaft's length. Wondering how much bigger Hutch could get, Starsky tickled the flaring head with his tonguetip. Hutch's entire body jolted in reaction, as if galvanized by a sudden burst of high voltage electricity.

"Stars-s-s-sk..." Hutch hissed. A raspy breath and then the blond retaliated, with a vengeance.

Hutch's first touch took him like brush fire, tingling through every synapse Starsky owned, leaving no nerve untouched. In his delight at pleasing his partner, Starsky hadn't realized how aroused just touching Hutch had gotten him. He felt ready to burst, quaking under the almost unbearable shocks of ecstasy that followed, his bones liquefying. Hutch's mouth was hot as it took him, but against Starsky's mind-melting heat he felt almost cool.

Hutch was good at this, Starsky silently conceded, damned good. What the blond's mouth was doing to his cock and balls made all previous experiences seem practice runs by clumsy amateurs. This was the real thing, the rightest feeling Starsky had ever felt. Hutch was perfect...

What's more, his partner didn't seem to be encountering a single one of the difficulties against which Starsky was struggling.

Breathing around his partner's bulk proved his paramount concern once he'd gotten past the impulse to gag. After those minor considerations, his next concern was keeping his teeth clear of the sensitive skin. The distracting view of the bobbing length of shiny hair working so masterfully at his own groin wasn't helping any either. Starsky alternately found himself transfixed by the erotic image of Hutch moving on him and then made to feel inadequate because his own technique didn't seem as polished.

Still, his efforts couldn't be that ineffective, Starsky decided. If they had been, the golden body wouldn't be nearly as wild as it was.

Each bob of Starsky's head was matched by an identical, perfectly synchronized movement of his partner's, the fire rushing through his veins almost a response to his own actions, as if Starsky were sucking himself off. Except Hutch's distinctive flavor was almost as big a turn on as the sex itself.

Neither of them lasted very long as the rhythm thundered through them. The climb was brief, but spell-bindingly high.

He felt Hutch still momentarily, then warm spurts of salty, bitter semen were showering his throat. Starsky gulped down the offering, just stopping short of biting down as his own body convulsed and exploded.

Starsky clung to the slender hips for dear life after that, Hutch's bedroom and reality spirally around him.

His next coherent impression was that of the flesh in his mouth going lax. With a soft parting kiss, Starsky raised his head to meet the sated gaze that was already searching for him.

That was what contentment would look like if it had a physical form, Starsky thought, taking in his partner's passion-flushed cheeks and the brilliant sparkle of his gaze.

Deciding that the full mouth looked as though it was lonely for another kiss, Starsky garnered his strength to crawl up the bed to his lover's side. Lovers. That was what they were now. The feeling was like coming home, or finding the place he'd always been meant to be.

His reaching hand snagged the bed covers on his way up, tugging them over them both as he snuggled close to the sweat-sheened, golden warmth. Careful of Hutch's injury, he tightened his embrace.

"I think," Starsky smiled at the sleepy face, "that you are the most perfect thing I've ever found."

Obviously their loving had had a beneficial effect on his partner's rocky emotional equilibrium. Hutch's gaze gentled, but his reply was filled with laughter. "Can I have that in writing?"

Starsky chuckled, then indulged himself in a kiss.

A long, breathless moment later, he raised his head to answer. "If you want. Anything you want."

Hutch's fingers brushed his cheek, the wide gaze seeming to memorize his features.

Starsky shivered at even that uncomplicated touch, his reaction telling him how different things were going to be in the future.

"There'll be hassles," Hutch warned, not bothering to voice the desire his touch and gaze had so explicitly communicated.

"No doubt. But there'll be you. That's all that counts. I ain't ever gonna leave you alone on the edge again, Hutch. Promise."

I don't need a promise from you, Starsk." Hutch's voice was thick, his hand shaky as it burrowed into Starsky's curls. The faith in his eyes was unexpected and seemingly unshakable.

"I love you, babe," Starsky reconfirmed when he could trust his voice.

"I like the sound of that," Hutch murmured, pillowing his head on Starsky's chest.

Starsky brushed a kiss into the fragrant gold and dosed his eyes. "Not as much as I like the feel of it," he whispered, treasuring his drowsing armload. Starsky was still marveling in the delights of simply holding his partner when sleep finally claimed him.

The End

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