"What happened then, Starsky?" Murphy, Metro's newest detective, asked eagerly.
Starsky grinned. With the batch of freckles and carrot-red curls, the younger man appeared no older than twelve. Murphy's expression wasn't helping the image any either. At the moment the solemn brown eyes were bugged out like a toddler's on his first trip to Disneyland. "I told them we were musicians."
"But what if they'd asked you to perform? The deal was going down in a recording studio, wasn't it?" Murphy inquired.
Hutch laughed beside him, the sound not entirely devoid of exasperation. "He didn't think of that at the time. Carstairs was still suspicious and asked us what instruments we played."
"What did you do?"
Now it was Starsky's turn to chuckle. He beamed at the denim clad blond beside him, admitting to himself that in the tight jeans, faded Levi jacket, pale moustache and longish hair, his partner really did look like a bona fide member of the counter culture.
"Hutch plugged in Alvy's six-string and squealed out some Zeppelin."
"What about you, Starsky?"
"He sang," Hutch supplied blandly. A master at effect, the blond didn't need to elaborate.
"You... sang? Zeppelin?"
"Yeah, what of it?" Starsky demanded, not understanding why everyone in the immediate area was suddenly convulsed in hysterical laughter.
"How did they take it?" Murphy asked, diplomatically stifling his response.
Hutch picked up the narrative, slinging an arm over Starsky's shoulder. Pressed so close, supporting a good deal of his partner's leaning weight, the dark-haired detective could feel the ripples of contained laugher convulsing the seemingly controlled blond. "The... performance was sufficient to explain why Carstairs had never heard of us, as well as why we had to deal on the side. Once we finished..."
"The engineer cut the power to his guitar," Starsky added grumpily.
"And to your mike," Hutch reminded, apparently determined to omit no detail of the fiasco. "Carstairs decided we were..."
"Hey, Hutch you got a call on one," Hernandez called from across the squad room.
"'Scuse me, folks. I'll let Carstairs latest find finish. Pity we had to bust him, Starsk. To think, a great career nipped in the bud."
"I'll give you nipped in the bud. You just wait..." Starsky grumbled, more for the principle of the issue than anything else.
He smiled at his partner's retreating back, his gaze lingering perhaps a bit too long on the over-tight jeans. Hutch hardly ever wore denims anymore and when he did, the pants were always baggy. Starsky was forced to admit that, undercover getup or not, today's clothes were a marked improvement on the bright orange and white Hawaiian print shirt and gray shapeless pants Hutch had worn yesterday.
As the conversation drifted onto Murphy's upcoming assignment, Starsky's gaze remained peripherally aware of his partner.
Hutch was still grinning as he picked up the phone at Starsky's desk, that wide smile dispersing the moment the caller had had the opportunity to identify himself. Hutch's face became instantly shuttered, defensive barriers firmly in place. It was not a reaction his partner was much given to, usually being the response to an emotional hurt. As if in answer to that thought, Starsky saw the blond stiffen, his eyes closing as if to block out his surroundings or hold in his pain. Hutch's vocal responses seemed terse, little more than single syllables were his mouth movements anything to go by. A long-fingered hand groped for a pen, scribbled something on a nearby pad and then abruptly hung up the phone.
Hutch seemed to stare directly at Starsky, without seeing him, Starsky would have sworn, for a long moment before the tall blond hurried from the squad room.
"What the... 'scuse me, Murph. I've got something to take care of," Starsky explained, rushing after his partner.
"Where's the fire, hon?" Minnie asked as they collided in the doorway.
"Huh?" He scanned the hall, but Hutch was nowhere in sight.
"He's in the men's room," Minnie supplied, just as he'd thought to ask her.
"How'd you know I was... Never mind, thanks, Min."
Slowing his pace as he neared the door, Starsky entered almost casually. The bathroom seemed deserted at first glance, then he noticed a pair of familiar cowboy boots in the last stall. The boot tips were pointing the wrong way for the toilet to be in use; Hutch seeming to be facing the side of the stall.
"Hutch, you all right?"
"St-arsk?" The soft voice sounded funny, tight.
"Yeah. What's wrong? You're not sick, are ya?"
"No. Nothing is..." The lie wasn't completed. "I'll be okay. Just give me... a minute."
The convulsive gulp in the last request told him how upset his partner was. Hutch was not an easy man to make cry.
"Hey, babe, this is me, Starsky. Let me in."
After the briefest of hesitations, the cubicle door swung open. Starsky stepped into the stall and closed the door behind him. He took one look at the tears silently streaming down the blond's reddened face before pulling Hutch close to him.
How long he stood there with his partner's quaking body pressed to him, Starsky couldn't say. At last Hutch drew a shaky breath and stepped back.
Unrolling a length of soft toilet tissue, Starsky carefully blotted the wet cheeks dry, doing his best to smile into the wounded eyes that met his own. Set in a sea of bloodshot white, Hutch's irises seemed vividly blue.
Hutch nodded. "Yeah. Thanks. Aren't you going to ask what that was all about?"
"When you're ready. It'll keep till then." The bemused smile that earned him made Starsky glad he hadn't pushed. "How 'bout some coffee?"
"Maybe later. I've... got to talk to Dobey. I just got a call from back home, Starsk. My... grandmother died this morning."
"Oh, God, babe, I'm sorry." As ever, the words seemed inadequate. He gripped the strong shoulders, hoping to communicate through touch what words couldn't convey.
"Yeah." Hutch's larger hand covered Starsky's left, still resting on his shoulder. "Gran was the only one who... still mattered back there, Starsk. I have to be there."
Starsky felt his own body tense at that. He didn't know much about Hutch's past, mainly because his partner was uncharacteristically reticent on that topic.
"You're going back to Duluth?" Starsky questioned, not sure why the thought made him so uneasy. Perhaps it was all those invisible barriers he'd sensed springing up around his partner the moment Hutch had recognized the speaker on the other end of the phone that had aroused his protective instincts.
"For the funeral. Gran hated the city. Her farm was way up North, but everyone else is in Duluth, so..." His partner's opinion of that was plainly visible in the hardening eyes and mouth.
"Yeah," Starsky agreed irrelevantly. He allowed his gaze to roam over the tense figure in front of him. Hutch looked prepared for battle, not a homecoming. Before he was consciously aware of his intent, he found himself asking, "Care for some company?"
"What?" Hutch asked, visibly stunned.
"I wouldn't horn in on any of the family gatherings, but I'd like to be there for you."
The change that overcame Hutch at that was remarkable. All the telltale traces of anger melted from the suddenly open face, the red-rimmed eyes misting up again. "You couldn't 'horn in' on family gatherings. You're the only real family I've got, Starsk."
Starsky gulped back his own emotional response. "I can come then?"
"It's going to be... an ordeal, Starsk," Hutch warned. "My parents and I have never seen eye to eye on anything, and the rest of the family is nearly as hostile."
"Hostile? Toward you? Why?"
Hutch sighed, seeming to be having trouble finding the words to explain properly. When at last he responded, the answer was offered in an emotionless, distanced tone. "I... was a disappointment to them, always."
"A disappointment? You?" He could not keep the incredulity out of his voice as he stared at his blond, blue-eyed partner. What more could parents want than this? The man was as close to physically perfect as a human could get and, more importantly, Hutch had the truest, gentlest heart Starsky had ever encountered.
"Yeah, a bitter failure in their eyes." The lowered head revealed how deeply the quiet admission still hurt his friend.
Starsky hooked his index finger under Hutch's chin and gently raised his head.
Hutch's eyes were almost too expressive to bear. Little wonder his partner rarely mentioned his relatives. Without meeting them, Starsky found himself hating them all, for the pain alone, if not the embarrassment dimming the wounded gaze.
"No offense, partner, but it sounds like your folks had more than a few screws loose." Without thinking, Starsky brushed back the fine fall of gold from his partner's face.
Hutch's mouth twisted into a small, sad smile. "None taken. That's what Gran always said, but they weren't crazy, just..."
"Stupid," Starsky completed. "Just look at you—who in their right mind would want anything different?"
"No 'buts'. You gonna let me come?"
Hutch slowly nodded. "I... need you there, Starsk. Think I always did."
Starsky grinned. "It's settled then. Let's go see Dobey and then sign out. You don't look like you're up to reports just yet. I'll call the airlines. Do you wanta leave tonight?"
"No. The morning's soon enough," Hutch decided. From the expression on his face, a millennium from now would have been too soon for Hutch.
Hutch glanced around the cramped cubicle. "We better get out of here, fast."
"Huh? What's the rush?" The affection radiating from the tear-reddened gaze warmed Starsky down to his toes.
"Starsk, have you considered how this looks?"
Starsky chuckled at his bashful partner. "Be a first, wouldn't it? Two detectives caught loitering in a station's men's room."
"Loitering, hell. This would be one up on it."
"The National Enquirer would love it, though." The response was automatic, but Starsky knew his laughter had a hollow ring to it. He was thankful Hutch appeared too absorbed to notice.
Hutch opened the stall door. Its interior not being designed for two adult men, the blond had to crush himself back against his partner in order to swing the door fully open.
That was the moment Starsky finally recognized what had been bothering him these last few months. With Hutch's long, hard-muscled body pressed down every inch of his own, there could be no denying what was tingling through his blood.
Horrified, Starsky froze, controlling every muscle he owned less there be a betraying twitch.
"What's wrong?" Hutch asked from outside the stall, staring back at his motionless figure with growing concern. "Is your chest bothering you?"
Reading the fear, Starsky released his withheld breath. Gunther's ghost haunted the sensitive blond far more mercilessly than his actual victim. "'m fine. Really. Let's go see the Captain."
"All right." But the worried gaze still lingered on him.
Assuming a mantle of normality, Starsky trailed the taller man into the squadroom.
Contrary to his fervent prayers, the feeling did not go away. Throughout the interview with Dobey, Starsky was uncomfortably aware of his partner. Every move, every breath Hutch took, even the pain of loss his friend was experiencing, it was if it were happening to him. A peculiar hypersensitivity had always existed between them, yet this was different, disturbing. But exciting, so damn enervating that Starsky was constantly forced to resist the temptation to reach out and touch the bereft blond.
Now, driving Hutch home, the urge was almost a compulsion.
Concentrating on the busy freeway, Starsky tried to understand what was happening to him. He was not gay. Not once in his adult life had a man's body stirred him sexually. Even in 'Nam where the stress and fear often drove a guy to the solace of another man's arms, Starsky had remained firmly hetero. Still, here he sat, wanting a man he had known for over twelve years. Were he honest with himself, it was not a new development. That indefinable yearning had been with him for some time now. Since before Gunther, perhaps longer, as he thought about it.
So what was it then, latent homosexuality? He considered the possibility, not nearly as disturbed by the thought as he would have been at one time. But, it didn't feel right. When he looked at a man he knew gays would find attractive, he felt nothing. A beautiful woman still turned him on (even though it had been quite some time since he'd acted upon the impulse). But Hutch—his partner twisted his guts in knots, the desire was that strong.
He started guiltily. "Ah, yeah, Hutch?"
"You don't have to come. I understand. If you're having second thoughts..."
Damn. Leave it to Hutch to misinterpret a heavy silence. Yet, Starsky figured he should be glad of the reprieve. He didn't have much experience at hiding things from his partner, and this was a hell of a secret to start with.
"Hey, I wanna come. I'm just... nervous, you know." That was truthful, if misleading.
Hutch's gaze softened with understanding. "Believe me, I know. I remember how on edge I was when you took me home to meet your mom when we were first partnered. I wasn't that twitchy meeting Van's folks." Gentle laughter bubbled forth.
"Yeah?" Starsky asked, intrigued by the comparison Hutch had made. "You didn't look it. Why would Mama worry you?"
"She didn't, not really. It was just that... she's important to you. Her opinion counted."
"Oh. So you do understand then."
"Starsk, it's not the same scene. What they think, it hasn't mattered to me in a very long time."
"But it's hurt you," Starsky protested softly.
The denim-clad shoulders shrugged. "They've always had that capacity." The Torino drew to a stop in front of Venice Place.
"Hey, will you be okay? You want me to stay?" Starsky offered, almost afraid of receiving a 'yes'.
Hutch gave a small smile and shook his head. The play of the setting sunlight through the thin blond length showered gold dust around Hutch's shoulders. "No, thanks. I'm going to need some time alone before... tomorrow."
"Okay, but if you change your mind you call me, hear?"
"All right. And, Starsk?"
"Pack warm and carry your ski jacket. November in Minnesota is a bit of a change from L.A."
Starsky grinned. "I'll bet."
"See you at seven."
"At seven. Remember, call..."
"If I need you. I'll be okay, Starsk. Sleep well."
Waiting until Hutch was safely inside, Starsky headed for home.
Predictably enough, there was little sleep to be had that night. Starsky had wrestled with his problem, Hutch as real to him as if he were sharing the bed with his partner. Now there was a thought.
"What are you grinning at? You usually hate landings."
Though calm, Starsky could hear the tension his friend was trying to overcome. They were closer now, the dreaded reunion more immediate.
"Just a daydream," Starsky confided.
"Care to share the thought? I could use a laugh or two right about now." That was an understatement if ever Hutch had made one.
Playing the moment for all it was worth, Starsky glanced secretively around. "Not here."
"Not rated for General Audiences, was it?"
Starsky chuckled at the thought. "Hardly. Triple X all the way, partner."
Their baggage and rent-a-car were collected in record time, Duluth not being quite the hive of confusion L.A. and New York were.
"You weren't kiddin' about the cold, were you?" Starsky asked between chattering teeth as they scanned the AVIS lot for their blue Dodge. The zipper of his ski jacket was done up to his chin and he was still freezing.
"You should see it in winter. This is still fall." Hutch's breath puffed in steamy clouds from his mouth.
"I'll pass on that if you don't mind." Once inside the car he thawed out enough to take notice of their surroundings.
Hutch driving, they left the airport, taking a round about route to their hotel, Starsky suspected.
"So this is where you grew up?" Starsky asked as they cruised down a tree-lined street. The houses were large, as were the well-kept yards around them usually; there were no more than two homes per block, often one. In California, they would have been mansions, but Starsky knew better than to assume the same here. Still, there were a fair number of Mercedes parked in the driveways, so the difference couldn't be that pronounced.
"Uh-huh. That one over there is the Mitchell's."
"Jack's family?" Starsky inquired, remembering the jet-set playboy they'd encountered in Las Vegas.
The huge building Hutch was pointing out was set further back from the street than most, bordered by an intimidating brick fence. As they drove past the iron entrance gates, Starsky saw a red Rolls pulling out of the garage beside a disused swing set.
"Yeah. Jack's folks always were a bit on the showy side."
Two blocks later Hutch slowed the car to a crawl. The blond's close-guarded features did not encourage communication. "The white one over there belongs to my parents."
Curious, Starsky stared at the place his partner had been raised in. A large white house, black trim and roof, the garden in front still attractive even this late in the year. The Hutchinson homestead seemed perfect, like a page out of "Better Homes and Gardens". But like many of those magazine showpieces, the house lacked warmth.
Starsky looked for some indication that a boy had been nurtured here, recalling how his own mother's apartment was still overflowing with souvenirs of Nicky and his childhood and adolescence. For all their visible wealth, even the Mitchell's had had a rusting testament to their youngsters lingering on the grounds. But there was nothing of the sort here. No swing set, no abandoned tree house, nothing.
"Was it always like this?" he asked casually.
Not casually enough, were Hutch's affectionate smile anything to go by. "Pretty much. There was a topiary bush in that corner when I was growing up. The gardener used to trim it into bears and birds for me when I was small, but it developed a disease when I was in high school and Mother had it dug out."
"Oh." There didn't seem to be much to say to that. "There's a car out front. Do you want to go in?"
"No. We'll see them soon enough. Let's go check into our hotel and then get something to eat. I'm sure you're hungry."
"All right," Starsky agreed, troubled despite his outer lack of concern. Where he came from, relatives didn't stay in hotels when they visited. When a wedding, death or birth brought the family together, they stayed together, sleepers filling couches, floors and often easy chairs in already cramped apartments. And it wasn't his presence here that had made Hutch opt for a hotel; Hutch had assured him, and meant every word of it, that he'd be rooming at the Best Western whether Starsky came or not.
The room was surprisingly nice for a family motel. The decor of muted blues and greens was soothing to the eye, if intentionally so. The television worked and the beds were comfortable. Beds, plural.
It was this last that was Starsky's greatest source of comfort. He hadn't worked his way through what he was feeling for his friend well enough for him to risk sharing a bed with Hutch yet.
Startled by the unexpected sound of soft laughter behind him, Starsky looked up from the cable TV stations he was flipping through with the remote. "What's up?"
Hutch left the bathroom doorway, reaching down to tousle Starsky's curls as he passed the bed. "Nothing. I'm just glad you came. I might actually enjoy some of this trip."
"You know, partner, you can be pretty weird at times. We're here for a funeral."
"Wake today. Funeral tomorrow. Speaking of which, you'd better change. Unless you're planning on going like that?"
He took in Hutch's suit, trying not to dwell on how the dark fabric accentuated his fair complexion and hair.
"Nah. I brought my suit."
"The blue one?" Hutch questioned, looking concerned.
"Of course the blue one. You didn't think I was planning on wearing disco clothes to a funeral parlor, did you?"
"It had crossed my mind."
"Though they do compliment my musculature. This thing just hangs on me." He gestured at the hapless suit in the doorless closet.
"Nothing has just 'hung' on you in your life," Hutch countered.
Something in the tone stopped him on his way to the bathroom. Starsky glanced at his partner, wondering. "Huh?"
"Nothing. Get dressed. We're going to be late."
Unsure what he sensed behind Hutch's suddenly guarded features, Starsky gathered his clothes together and did as bidden.
The funeral home was not far from Hutch's childhood home. As they pulled into the parking lot, Starsky studied the Victorian building, thinking how different it was from the undertaker's establishments he'd seen in L.A. Were it not for the sign out front and the extended parking facilities, he would have taken the place for just another private residence.
"Well, here goes," Hutch said, more to himself than his partner, as he turned off the ignition.
"Hey." Starsky stopped the blond as he made to exit the car, gripping a rock hard bicep. "I'm here. There ain't no reason to be nervous."
Irritation flared through the light blue eyes. Starsky could almost hear the justified, "What do you know about it?" Strangely, the fire muted to amusement. "Wait and see."
Finding this calm somewhat more disturbing, Starsky added, "How wild is this likely to get?" In his uniform days he'd witnessed some domestic disputes that made 'Nam look like a pacifists' convention.
"Don't worry, partner," Hutch soothed, offering a forced smile. "It will all be very 'civilized.' I'm the only one who ever loses their cool."
Not in the least reassured, Starsky followed his friend into the building.
A pretty blond receptionist directed them to Chapel A, where a sign beside the door listed the viewing hours and Anna Jorgenson's name in neat white pin up letters.
It was only as he looked through the open doors and saw the crowd of people within the elegantly furbished room that Starsky realized the inordinate number of blonds he'd seen since leaving the airport. Entering beside his partner, he couldn't help but feel his dark curls stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.
The subdued susurration that undulated through the crowd did little to dispel that impression. Uncomfortably aware of the number of curious cold blue gazes giving them the once over, Starsky could fully understand his partner's hesitance about returning 'home.' Yet to look at Hutch, one would think him unconscious of the attention they were generating.
His partner strode purposefully to the front row of chairs, pausing before an older couple who rose at their approach. Instinctively, Starsky knew that these were Hutch's parents, although the physical resemblance was slight. Both faces were noticeably devoid of welcome.
Starsky studied the pair, trying to see where Hutch had gotten the traits he so admired.
The tall, white-haired man was impressive. Starsky thought he saw his partner's stubbornness mirrored in the determined jut of the jaw and the strong-boned features. Certainly the aloofness and arrogance that had typified Hutch's attitude in their earliest encounters were present, but when he gazed into the senior Hutchinson's eyes there was no indication of buried warmth or hidden humanity. Those eyes were as icy as a frozen arctic sea as they settled upon their only son.
His wife's gaze was perhaps a little less bleak, looking out of a face that was remarkably smooth and young in appearance. Seeing the faultlessly attractive woman, Starsky was reminded of the perfect white house they had viewed in passing. There wasn't a hair out of place, not a single unsightly bulge showing in the close fitting dress she wore. She even managed to make black seem a cheerfully bright color. It was the makeup and accessories, of course. Still, Starsky couldn't help but think that a person should appear a little less composed when it was their mother lying in a casket ten feet away.
"Mother, Father," Hutch greeted with uncharacteristic formality. "This is my partner, David Starsky."
"I'm sorry we had to meet on such a sad occasion," Starsky said, determined to be sociable. He offered his hand to Hutch's father, who stood closest to him.
To his relief, the gesture was not refused. A strong grip, cool as the gaze, closed around his hand, giving a perfunctory shake. "Mr. Starsky."
Hutch made no such effort. Father and son stared silently at each other, no sign of melting on either side.
Starsky was a little chilled by the change in his partner. The two seemed very much alike at that moment. At long last, a spark of resentment shattered the ice crystal of Hutch's gaze, his next words heavily laden with sarcasm. "It is always such a comfort to return to the bosom of one's family."
"Kenneth." The white head gave a nearly imperceptible nod, something like satisfaction showing through the impassivity. "Mr. Starsky. My dear. If you'll excuse me, I must greet Tim Stanton."
"He's a very important client," Mrs. Hutchinson explained as her husband moved unhurriedly towards the door.
"Right," Hutch blazed.
"Really, dear," Hutch's mother pleaded, pasting a false smile on her lips, "after so long couldn't you at least try to be a bit more congenial?"
She still had made no move to embrace or kiss her only child. What was perhaps even more telling was the fact that Hutch didn't appear to expect anything from her.
"This isn't a beauty pageant."
"Obviously. You're looking very... hirsute these days, Kenneth."
Hutch shrugged. "In our line of work we often have to pose as criminals."
"I see. And are you very successful at such masquerades?"
Abruptly, Starsky decided he didn't like this pretentious woman, perhaps even less than he'd cared for her husband. "Hutch is good at his job, ma'am, but he's got too soft a heart sometimes."
"And what about yourself, Mr. Starky." Hutch winced.
"It's Stars-k-y, ma'am. As for me, I can always tell a con artist, no matter how fancy the window dressing."
The smile became even more brittle. Starsky was sure he'd been understood, but Mrs. Hutchinson didn't pursue the matter. "How very fortunate for you."
"Did she suffer much, Mother?" Hutch asked quietly, his gaze fixed on the open casket and its occupant.
Amazingly, the hardness left Mrs. Hutchinson's eyes. For a fleeting moment, she appeared almost maternal. "No, dear. She went quietly in her sleep. Reverend Benson and his wife found her when they came by for lunch yesterday. She'd been at the cake sale the night before and seemed just fine. It was quite a shock."
"How old was she, ma'am?" Starsky asked more politely. From where he stood, the woman in the casket didn't look much more than sixty-five, but common sense told him Hutch's mother had to be nearly that old herself.
"Gran would have turned ninety-three in May," Hutch supplied with a fondly reminiscent grin that seemed oblivious to the baleful glare his honesty had earned him from his mother. "When I was in last year, she was still walking the two miles to the grocery store in good weather."
"You were in last year?" Mrs. Hutchinson asked in a tone that visibly startled Hutch out of his reverie and made Starsky hold his breath. He hadn't known about Hutch's trip either, but now realized that must have been the business his partner had to take care of before joining him in New York last year when he'd gone back to visit his own mother.
Thinking fast, Starsky tried to cover for his partner. "We only had a couple of days off, Mrs. Hutchinson. There probably wasn't time..."
"Thank you, Mr. Starsky, but you needn't bother. Nothing's changed, Kenneth, has it? You're still the same."
The cold contempt in the voice was enough to make a grown man pause. Starsky could imagine what it must have been like for a young boy trying to withstand that disapproving perfection alone.
"Everything changes, Mother, if you're open enough to recognize it," Hutch replied, his father's ice in his gaze.
Starsky shivered, not liking this at all. Hutch was so closed in, even he was having difficulty sensing what was going on beneath the painfully sharp outer facade.
Hutch had been right about one thing; it was controlled. Starsky had the feeling that they could go on for hours this way, slashing each other to pieces emotionally without once ever raising voice or fist. Personally, he preferred his hate a bit more open than this oh-so-civilized verbal fencing.
"Hey, slugger, you think we could take off the heavy gloves long enough to pay our respects?" Starsky asked, tilting his chin towards the casket to remind Hutch of where they were, and why they were here.
An utterly stricken expression crossed Hutch's face as their gazes touched. Once again Starsky felt himself drowning in the other's gaze. "Come on, buddy. I'll go with you." Taking his partner's arm, he turned to the woman beside him. "We'll be right back, Mrs. Hutchinson."
Glad to be leaving her company, however temporarily, he steered Hutch to the kneeler in front of the casket.
Up close, Anna Jorgenson did appear older than Starsky had first thought, but nowhere near her ninety-three years.
He'd never liked attending stranger's wakes, finding it difficult to equate the wax-like figures in their satin-lined boxes with the vibrant, beloved people they must have been when living. But, somehow, that feeling didn't seem as intense in Hutch's grandmother's case. It was probably only his imagination, but Starsky thought he could see her inherent kindness reflected in the rigid facial features. There were many lines on the strong-boned face, but Starsky was willing to bet a good number of them were laugh lines. Also, her grandson's resemblance to her was more striking than it was to either of Hutch's parents. It didn't take Starsky much to imagine how lovely she must have been when young. Even now in her lacy pink dress she was still very attractive in an unliving way.
Hutch knelt, staring at the woman's face for an extremely long time. Finally, he tore his gaze away to focus on his partner. "I'm sorry to keep you so long. It's just... I don't want to say good-bye."
"Hey, that's what we came all this way for. You take your time," Starsky managed around the lump in his throat. The tears were bright in Hutch's eyes, but they wouldn't be shed. Not here, in front of his parents, Starsky realized. That more than anything made him angry.
Eventually, Hutch bent forward to brush a light kiss onto a rouge-covered cheek, then turned to him.
"Ready?" Starsky questioned.
"As ready as I'll ever be."
As the blond stood, gazing down at the stranger to Starsky who had been so important to Hutch in his formative years, Starsky thought he had never seen his partner so quietly bereft. Looking close, he could see a tremor running the length of the lean figure, but the determined set of the strong jaw told him Hutch was resolved to keep his emotions under tight rein. Unable to bear the isolation his partner's restraint engendered, Starsky slung his arm across the broad back and gave Hutch a comforting squeeze.
He hadn't been certain that such a gesture would be appreciated in view of all the onlookers present, but Hutch's unsteady try at a smile was reassurance enough. Not removing his arm, Starsky guided his friend back to the chairs, making certain he positioned himself between Hutch and his mother.
"Kenny? Is that you?" An unfamiliar but friendly voice asked from behind them. They turned to see an oversized man heading their way. The stranger was, of course, blond and built like a football player. Starsky had come to expect nothing else in Minnesota. "God, it is you! Look at that tan. You look great. When did you grow the moustache?"
"Hello, Jeff." Hutch smiled, rising to meet the newcomer. "Starsk, this is Jeff Michaels, an old college buddy. Jeff, Dave Starsky, my partner."
"A pleasure." Starsky smiled, accepting the outstretched hand. "So you and Hutch go back to college, huh?"
"We go back to nursery school, but Kenny never likes to mention that."
"How's that, Kenny?" Starsky grinned, knowing how much Hutch hated to be called by his first name. His blond partner winced but let it pass.
"I was always taking his toys off him. He got me back, though."
"He married my girl." The huge man laughed and slapped Hutch lightly on the back.
"Huh?" Starsky questioned.
"Van and Jeff were an item in high school," Hutch supplied, looking pained from more than the slap.
"Yes, sir. Van just couldn't resist Kenny's fatal charm. Ken did me a favor, though. If it weren't for him, I never would have met my Joanie. Our youngest starts school next September."
From his attitude it was obvious the giant didn't know about Van's death and was possibly even ignorant that Hutch and she had separated years before that.
"Ah, how many do you have now, Jeff?" Hutch asked, visibly glad to change the subject.
"Five. All girls."
"Five girls," Starsky repeated, a little awed by the man's good humor. Most fathers he knew were run ragged by one child.
"Jeff always did believe in doing things in a big way," Hutch smiled.
"Pity you didn't take his example." Mrs. Hutchinson joined the conversation. "How have you been, Jeff? It's been some time."
"Fine, ma'am," the muscle man beamed. "You certainly are looking pretty today."
"Why, thank you. You always did have lovely manners. How is business going?"
"Just great. We're having an end of year clearance sale right now."
"Are you still working at your father's car lot?" Though voiced innocently enough, there was a nuance to Mrs. Hutchinson's question that set Starsky's teeth on edge. Hutch's eyes narrowed in response.
Michaels' grin, conversely, became even broader. The implied slight then seemed all the more vicious for its intended victim's ignorance. "Yes, ma'am. Pop's thinking of retiring, but he's been thinking of retiring since I quit school."
"I see. Haven't you ever thought of..."
"Excuse me, Mother," Hutch interrupted, taking Michael's arm. "Isn't that Jimbo, over by the door, Jeff?"
"Damn, would you believe it? I haven't seen him for almost as long as I haven't seen you. Let's go give him a rousing welcome. What do you say, Kenny?"
"Sure. How 'bout it, Starsk?"
"I'll catch up. You two go ahead."
Hutch's questioning gaze searched his face. A brief nod and he turned to escort Michaels away.
The big man paused and looked at Hutch's mother. "Oh, ma'am. I nearly forgot. I'm heartily sorry for your loss. If there's anything I can do..."
"No, thank you, Jeff."
Once the two blonds had gone to greet their arriving friend, Starsky turned to his partner's mother. "That wasn't particularly kind, Mrs. Hutchinson," he observed without rancor.
The plastic smile twisted her lips again. "Jeff Michaels was never particularly bright, Mr. Starsky."
"He seemed nice enough. Hutch certainly seems to like him."
"My son has always had abysmal taste in friends."
Score one to Mrs. Hutchinson. Starsky let the implied insult pass, responding to the words at surface value. "If you mean that Hutch never chooses his friends for their IQ's or their tax bracket, then you're right. Most mothers would be proud of such a son."
"Most mothers are content to have their sons sell used cars. I had higher hopes for Kenneth, although even what that poor half-wit, Michaels, does would be respectable when compared to what he's doing now."
"Lady, you are really something." Starsky's patience snapped. "What do you know about what Hutch does for a living?"
"His name is Kenneth," Mrs. Hutchinson corrected.
"Have you any idea of the number of lives your son has saved? Does that even matter to someone like you?"
"I'm sure Kenneth is good at what he does, but we didn't raise our son to..."
"I don't know who raised him to be what he is, but it sure wasn't you. For your information, Hutch isn't just good at what he does. He's the best. He's been decorated for heroism more times than I can count. Even if he wasn't a cop, even if he sold cars, dug ditches or cleaned sewers for a living, you'd still have reason to be proud of him."
"You're hardly an objective observer, Mr. Starsky, being in the same class as him yourself. You'd have to believe what Kenneth does acceptable, as it justifies your own existence."
"You're wrong about both things. I don't need anyone to justify what I am or what I do, lady. Not even Hutch."
"And what was the other thing I was wrong about?" Mrs. Hutchinson paused, seeming no more than amused by his ire.
"If by that noise you mean 'what,' earlier you said I was wrong about both things. What was the other thing?"
Starsky felt his cheeks warm, not because he was uncomfortable with her correcting his grammar, but because he'd thought the other self-evident. "You said Hutch and me were in the same class. We're not. I'm a street cop, one of the best maybe, but just a street cop. Hutch could be anything if he didn't want to be a cop: a doctor, a lawyer, a physicist, anything."
"Then you do agree with me, after all, Mr. Starsky?" Hutch's mother demanded victoriously.
"No. You treat him like a failure because his idea of what matters doesn't match yours. What he does isn't prestigious as what he could've done in the eyes of people like you, but prestige wasn't why your son became a cop. He's taken on a dirty job that nine outta ten people are too sane to get stuck with. He's been shot, knifed, beaten up, drugged, kidnapped and even spat on in the line of duty. His job's cost him more girls and friendships than a man should have to lose. The one thing he should have is the support of his family. Haven't you ever thought about what your son might be feeling? How your attitude hurts him?" As Starsky was drawing breath to continue his carefully subdued tirade, two hands settled on his shoulders from behind.
"Forget it, babe. You're wasting your breath."
Starsky turned to gape at his partner. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough. Mother, just to set the record straight, you were both wrong. I'm the one who's outclassed in this partnership. You about ready to go, Starsk? Or do you want to put the heavy gloves back on and go another round?"
Amazingly, Hutch was smiling, appearing more relaxed than he had since they'd left LAX. Starsky had half-expected him to be furious, for his interference, if not his rudeness. "Ah, sure. You wanta leave now?"
"Kenneth, you can't be serious. What will our guests think?"
"Nothing worse than what they're already thinking."
"But your grandmother..."
"Gran would understand. We'll be here for the funeral. Starsk?"
"Mrs. Hutchinson." He couldn't bring himself to say it had been a pleasure, so he settled on, "It's been different."
They didn't even pause to bid farewell to Hutch's father on the way out.
Starsky sighed with relief as the car door closed behind him.
Hutch's profile had resumed that tight set. He now looked guilty, of all things. "Starsk, thanks for coming. I shouldn't have subjected you to that."
"It's my job to watch your back. God knows you never needed it more than with that bunch."
"That's the truth." Hutch gave him a sidelong, considering glance as he turned on the ignition. "Want to know something funny?"
"She liked you."
"Who?" The last female who'd been at all civil to him was the cute receptionist.
"Are you out of your mind?"
Hutch's eyes were full of laughter, but still Starsky could sense that his partner was completely serious in his claim.
"Nope. I've known her all my life. She liked you, though she didn't want to."
"How could you tell?" Starsky asked, sure he'd been despised on sight.
"She wasn't dive bombing you the way she was Jeff. She would've if she hadn't liked you."
"Could have fooled me. Hey, does he really sell used cars?" He couldn't imagine the open-faced hulk being capable of the misrepresentation salesmen like his own Uncle Al had to perform as a matter of course in that line of work.
Hutch chuckled. "No, but in her eyes it's almost as bad."
"He sells domestic. Fords, to be precise. What's more, his family makes almost as much doing it as Dad's law firm."
"What's wrong with Fords?" Starsky demanded heatedly.
"Nothin', babe. Nothin' at all."
"He didn't know about Van dying, did he?" Starsky asked after a few minutes had passed.
"No, I haven't seen him since school."
"Funny he should show up like that."
"Not really. I used to spend the summers up on Gran's farm. He and Jack used to come up for few weeks each year since we were in grammar school. They were both pretty close to Gran."
"I wish I'd known her," Starsky said softly.
"She'd have loved you."
"Hutch, why didn't you ever bring me to meet her?" he asked into the quiet.
A long pause, then, "I was afraid to."
"I couldn't very well bring you up to the back woods to meet my grandmother without making some kind of explanation as to why we weren't stopping to see my parents."
"I'd've understood, Hutch. Today didn't go so bad, did it?"
"No, you were fantastic. It's just that... I'd met your mother and all your aunts and uncles that first year we were together, Starsky. Maybe if I hadn't I could have brought you here."
"I don't understand," Starsky said, knowing that regardless of how it sounded, Hutch hadn't intended his words as any slight on his family. His partner loved his relatives. To his constant dismay, Hutch was always accepting Aunt Rosie's dinner invitations on their behalf. Starsky loved his Aunt Rosie dearly, but he always loved her better when he'd dined elsewhere first.
"They were so normal," Hutch explained.
"Normal? My relatives?" Starsky laughed, that being the last adjective he would have chosen to describe anyone of his bloodline. "Hutch, Uncle Al would sell a one-wheeled, engineless Studebaker to a blind man. Aunt Rosie musta been a Medici in her past life, she's poisoned us so often. Momma would get a yenta of the year award if they gave out such a thing. And Nick is aimin' at being the next self-made millionaire. You couldn't get normal from a Starsky if you used an electron microscope to find it."
"I didn't say you weren't a colorful clan," Hutch smiled.
"Colorful? We're psychedelic," Starsky corrected, taking a certain pride in the assertion.
"You are, at least. But don't you see how difficult that made it?" Hutch asked, turning serious again.
"I still don't understand what the one has to do with the other," Starsky insisted.
"Ah, babe, where you come from Mamas and Papas loved their children and a kid always loved his folks. If he didn't, there was something wrong with him."
"I ain't never been that naive, Hutch."
"No?" A world of disbelief rode in that syllable.
"What do you mean?"
"I just remember how... shocked you were when Susan put us onto that child abuse case," Hutch softly reminded.
"You mean Guy Mayer? Babe, what that sicko had done to that little boy's back would've shocked anyone." Except now that he thought about it, he remembered how it hadn't shocked his partner. Hutch had been quietly outraged by the abuse, but had been calm enough to explain the child's reasoning to him. 'They think it's normal,' Hutch had said all those years ago.
Only now did Starsky think to question where Hutch had gotten his insight from. "Babe, you ain't sayin' that they... " Because if he were, the Hutchinsons were going to find their perfect world drastically rearranged.
"No," Hutch quickly rushed to reassure. "They never laid a finger on me."
"Some kinds of abuse don't leave physical scars, babe," Starsky said thoughtfully. "You wanta talk about it?"
"There's not much to tell. They were just... cold and exacting. Nothing I ever did was good enough. They always had a way of making me feel bad without saying too much."
"Your mother wasn't exactly reticent today," Starsky observed.
"The silent act is only effective when the victim is striving to please. If the target doesn't care anymore, a more direct assault is needed to achieve the same effect."
"You make it sound like a war game."
"That's what it felt like most of my life; only it was never a game to me."
"I still don't see why any of that would have kept me from meeting your grandmother. Unless you were ashamed of me."
Hutch slammed on the brake. Fortunately, there were no cars directly behind him.
The blond turned to glare at him. "I was ashamed of me, partner. For not being what they wanted in the first place, for not having the kind of loving family I'd be proud to take you home to. Gran was a special lady, Starsky. She was the only one that made me feel really worthwhile when I was young. She would have adored you and you would have loved her, but she was too bitter about my folks to have kept them out of the picture for very long."
"You really didn't want me to know that bad?" Starsky asked, unable to believe how seriously Hutch was disturbed by this.
"Yeah," Hutch admitted and began driving again.
Hutch gave a weary sigh. "I suppose you wouldn't let it rest at a single 'because?"' His partner glanced at him and answered his own question. "No, I didn't think so. If you must know why, it's because of the way you look at me sometimes."
"Huh?" Starsky tensed, abruptly on the defensive himself.
But Hutch only smiled. "You get this grin sometimes, when I've done something outrageous, like you're bursting with pride. You sort of glow when you look at me. I didn't want anything to change that, Starsk."
Starsky gulped. If it hadn't happened yesterday afternoon in the men's room at headquarters, he would have fallen for his partner at this moment, sex notwithstanding.
"Did you think knowing about your folks could change that?"
"Knowing about them? No. But I know you too well, Starsk. You wouldn't have left it at that. You would have insisted on meeting them if we were out here."
"Maybe," Starsky conceded, knowing how stubborn he could be when his curiosity was piqued. There was nothing that made him more curious than his partner. From their first meeting he'd wanted to know everything about the man. "But do you think that would have changed anything, babe?"
"You caught them at a bad time, Starsk, or maybe at the best time for seeing what they're really like. Usually, they're a lot more impressive. I'm the one that comes off looking like an ungrateful hothead while they carry on like parents of the year. I didn't want to risk it."
"You let me come today," Starsky voiced his bewilderment, realizing for the first time just how nerve-wracking the experience must have been for his partner.
Hutch shrugged off its importance. "It was time."
"Hey, partner," Starsky called softly as Hutch pulled into an empty spot in Best Western's parking lot.
"Yeah, Starsk?" Hutch answered with studied casualness.
"You still make me glow, buddy."
And wasn't it the understatement of his life? He'd never seen Hutch look as desirable as he did right now in that somber black suit and vulnerable openness to his features.
He'd expected to get a laugh out of his friend, but Hutch appeared all the more serious for his reassurance. "I know. I overheard everything you said to my mother."
"Yeah?" Starsky questioned, averting his gaze almost guiltily.
"Yeah. You're something special yourself, partner."
"I've been telling you that for years," he asserted with typical Starsky modesty. He glanced around the deserted parking lot, taking in the bare trees whose branches shivered in the wake of the howling north wind. There was a stretch of brown grass on the far side of the lot, and then a small pond. Sunlight glinted off the sheen of ice topping the water's unmoving surface. "So, what do you do in Duluth, Minnesota at 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon in early November?" Starsky asked, checking his wristwatch.
"Make plans to relocate to sunny California?" Hutch suggested.
"Very funny. Well?"
"There's not a heck of a lot to do in Duluth, Minnesota at 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon in early November, Starsk."
"I can think of something."
"Yeah?" Hutch asked.
The suggestive rise of the pale blond eyebrow sent a shiver through Starsky's unprepared body. "Yeah. I'm famished. Let's round up some steaks."
"This is Minnesota, Starsk, not Texas."
"Okay, let's round up some wheat, then."
"That's Kansas, I think."
"What about cheese? You got cheese in Minnesota, don't ya?"
"That could be arranged," Hutch agreed, snapping off the ignition. "Now all we have to do is decide where we'll eat."
Starsky groaned and sank back into the seat.
They settled on room service.
"I could get used to this real easy," Starsky commented as he carved the last edible morsel off his steak bone.
Hutch grunted, equally absorbed with his fried chicken. "You just like having your meals wheeled in to you." From the tone, one would think the cultured blond above such things, yet it was Hutch who'd suggested staying in.
"Beats arguing over whose turn it is to cook," Starsky pointed out.
"Ain't it the truth," Hutch agreed.
Starsky pushed the remains away, allowing himself to sink back onto the bed behind him. From his supine position, he looked across the table, watching as his partner finished his meal.
Hutch was looking too thoughtful, still wearing that hurt expression that had been with him since he'd heard about his grandmother yesterday.
"You know," Starsky observed cheerfully, "there's something abnormal about a guy who can look that neat eatin' fried chicken."
"We can't all have your table manners, Starsk," Hutch countered, a tiny smile courting his full lips.
"Maybe, but just look at you. There ain't a spot of grease or batter on your hands or mouth. I'm tellin' you, buddy, that ain't natural."
"No?" Hutch asked, feigning alarm.
"Well, what would you suggest?"
"Get rid of the fork and knife for starters. It's nerdly to use a fork on fried chicken."
"Nerdly?" Hutch repeated.
Hutch put down the silverware and picked up a juicy drumstick. "This better?"
"Much," Starsky approved. His gaze was riveted on his partner's mouth as it opened to accommodate the chicken leg. He was in a bad way, Starsky realized. There was nothing overtly provocative about the act, but it stirred such sensual imagery in his mind that he was glad the meal cart blocked Hutch's view of his lower body.
"Hey," Hutch asked gently, "What is it?"
"Huh?" Starsky was abruptly conscious of the concerned gaze upon him.
"You just looked so... sad all of a sudden."
"Nothin' important, partner," Starsky evaded. Now was hardly the time to lay this on Hutch's shoulders.
"Now you look guilty." Hutch smiled indulgently. "What was it, another one of those triple X daydreams?"
"Something like that."
"So, you going to tell me?"
The request was very unlike his partner. Hutch was usually almost prudish about such matters. Seeing the pain lurking at the depths of those mesmerizing eyes, Starsky realized it was a diversionary tactic, no doubt intended to take Hutch's mind off their reason for being in Duluth.
"In time, buddy, all in good time." It was a promise, spoken with a smile and an edge of dread to the words. Starsky knew he would have no choice. If this feeling did not go away, he would be forced to tell Hutch. Somehow he didn't think this kind of surprise was the sort of diversion Hutch was looking for.
Thrusting the disturbing thought aside, Starsky attacked his dessert with an enthusiasm that was wholly feigned.
Across the table, Hutch's eyes widened, narrowing immediately as a thoughtful frown puckered his brow.
Not having slept the previous night under the burden of his new reality, Starsky experienced no trouble tonight. The moment he'd slid between the crisp white sheets and placed his head upon the too-flat hotel pillow a deep comforting sleep overtook him. The dreams were few tonight, fortunately not of the feverish, guilt-ridden variety that had plagued him the previous evening. Quite to the contrary, in fact. These were so real and vivid that they made his guts ache with longing. There was nothing shocking in the first few. His partner was a frequent denizen of his dreams and most of these were just a recap of their everyday life.
It was the last that took a new route. Starsky found himself outside himself, observing his own actions as he would those of character in a play. It was an unusual perspective, for usually he was an active participant in his dreams even if he was no longer himself in them. At first, there seemed to be little to this dream to merit the unique viewpoint.
The setting was his own bedroom at home. Starsky saw himself in bed, soundly and boringly asleep. Several moments passed before he realized that the other side of the bed was occupied. The golden spill of hair from beneath the sheets left little doubt to his companion's identity. His heart gave an excited leap upon recognition. Voyeurism wasn't usually how he got his kicks, but Starsky couldn't help but anticipate what would happen next. As time stretched out and the sleepers continued undisturbed, his enthusiasm began to dull. His detective's mind took an interest in the proceedings long enough to point out the sheets and blankets were still neatly tucked in, certainly not the condition of any bed after he'd made love in it. Somehow he didn't think Hutch would be the lover to curb his acrobatic streak.
So what was this supposed to be, Starsky wondered. His unconscious' way of telling him to cool it, let matters rest? If so, why was Hutch there at all?
Pondering the strangeness and desperately wishing himself awake, Starsky's dream watcher froze as his slumbering counterpart moved at last. Never an easy sleeper, that seemed unchanged in his dream state. He watched as the dark-haired dreamer tossed about, his thrashings inevitably contacting his somnolent companion.
The blond stirred with a groggy, "Mmm?" Without opening his eyes, Hutch reached out to touch him, giving an automatic, "Starsk?" as if it were perfectly natural that his partner would be there beside him.
Starsky reeled as his viewpoint changed. As if with a flick of a switch, he was back inside himself, sharing his huge bed with the person with whom he most wanted to share his life.
His eyes opened and he just stared at his partner, drinking in the sight of him there beside him.
The bed was bathed in moonlight, Hutch's hair a silvery, gossamer veil about his head and shoulders.
His sleeping face was a poet's dream, an ineffable blend of strength and innocence that moved Starsky down to the smallest fiber of his being. The full lips were half parted. Dry and pink now, they seemed to plead for a kiss to redden them.
Had his life depended upon it, he could not have denied the lure.
Starsky's mouth covered his partner's, gently as a descending fog. The soft lips beneath his own remained quiescent so long that he feared Hutch wouldn't wake. Regretting the selfish impulse, he started to withdraw, only to feel fingers dig deep into his curls and guide him back down.
Hutch's eyes opened, a welcoming smile and spark of something more lighting the night-darkened depths. There was no surprise, no shock, Hutch behaving as if midnight kisses were a habit between them.
"Too sleepy?" Starsky heard himself ask, matter-of-factly, almost playfully. Behind his smile his heart was pounding like a thoroughbred's hooves on the home stretch.
"Depends on what you have in mind," Hutch countered smoothly, as if challenging Starsky to make it worth his while.
Starsky thought furiously, having no clue as to what would tempt his dream lover. From Hutch's attitude it was obvious they'd been here many times before, but this was a first for him.
It was a test of sorts, one he was bound to fail, for he hadn't the expertise to pull it off.
Once again, Starsky found himself an observer in the action, although this time he was still firmly fixed within his body. Without conscious volition, his face twisted into a smile, his shoulders giving a small shrug. "Well, in that case... " His body shifted as if to return to his own side of the bed, his weight awkwardly suspended on his forearms and knees.
"Get back here," Hutch demanded, all traces of his former insouciance forgotten.
"You sure?" He listened to his own voice question in a feigned tone of boredom while inside his mind was screaming unheeded commands to pounce upon Hutch's obviously willing form.
Hutch's left leg snaked over his waist, snagging his hip in the bend of his knee and forcing Starsky's precariously balanced body back over him. Starsky felt his insides turn to gel as he was gripped between the powerful thighs. He had the strongest awareness of Hutch's genitals pressed tight beneath his stomach, the bulge stirring as if eager for his touch.
"Bastard." The blond grinned, the hunger in his eyes belying the assertion.
The open longing on his partner's face would have taken his breath away had he the capacity to affect his dream self's behavior, but this Starsky only smiled the wider. "So what're you in the mood for, Blondie?"
Starsky gave a mental curse. The question sounded so cavalier, so crass when he felt he should be down on his knees worshipping this incredible creature.
But obviously it was just what Hutch wanted to hear.
A pair of heels dug into Starsky's rump while below him Hutch lifted up a little higher, his legs spreading even further apart.
His heart stopped, frozen in that moment of disbelieving understanding. Hutch wanted him to...
Then he was drowning in another kiss, this tongue deep in his partner's mouth, lost in the sensation, anticipating those to come.
With a stifled cry of despair, Starsky felt himself yanked from that wonderfully sensual dreamscape back to the lonely reality of his Best Western bed. Shocked, he lay there gasping, his heart thrumming as he clung desperately to the retreating fantasy tendrils.
Was this what it was going to be like for the rest of his life, he wondered? Could he maintain a facade of daytime buddies if his subconscious was going to torment him with such vivid possibilities? His flesh was burning for his partner's touch, his eyes ravenous for the sight of him.
Almost against his will, his gaze turned to the other bed, greedy for even a glimpse of his sleeping partner.
The light was on in the bathroom by the door to the main hall, brightly illuminating the bottoms of both their beds. Its suffused light gave just enough to see by at the tops.
Starsky's blood ran cold when he found Hutch sitting up wide-awake and staring directly at him. He experienced the unnerving sensation that his partner was completely aware of what had been on his sleeping mind moments ago. Dismissing the idea for the insanity it was, he met his friend's gaze.
He'd expected tears, Hutch having very little time to grieve, but the blond's face was dry, if unusually somber.
Strangely enough, it was Hutch's eyes that dropped first, a flush that Starsky's mind kept insisting on categorizing as embarrassment tinting his partner's cheeks.
"Hey, you all right?" Starsky asked.
Hutch's tight nod set his hair to shimmering like moonlit spider webs in the semi-darkness.
Starsky swallowed around the rock clogging his throat. Why did it have to be this hard, he wondered. He'd been attracted to people he knew he couldn't have several times before in his life and it hadn't hurt anywhere near this bad. Just looking at Hutch was like having a cold fist squeezing his innards. Every breath was a fight, each calm syllable uttered a victory. A week ago he could have climbed into the other's bed right now, gathered him close and given the solace he so obviously needed. Now, he was terrified to be alone in the same room with his friend after dark.
Why was Hutch so different from the others? He'd always been able to control himself when he'd had to in the past, even to the point of holding the subject of his desire close to offer comfort. Why couldn't it be the same with Hutch, his heart thundered?
The answer was slow in coming, but when it surfaced, it did so with all the glory and majesty of the unconquerable Neptune rising from the waves.
The hurt was different this time because Hutch was different from the rest. Hutch was no mere object of desire. He knew this man inside and out, every fault and weakness counterbalanced by the overwhelming goodness and inherent strengths. What he felt for his partner transcended simple sexual attraction. Hutch was in his blood. Starsky realized it would be easier to resist his next breath than fight this feeling.
But why in the name of sanity had it come on so strongly, so suddenly? And how was he going to handle it?
By ignoring it as best he could, common sense dictated. Starsky doubted the feeling was ever going to just go away now that he'd recognized its true nature, but if he refused to allow it to dominate his behavior their relationship might survive intact.
Knowing the silence had stretched too long and not content with Hutch's nod, Starsky asked, "Then what're you doing up?" He glanced at the digital clock affixed to the nightstand separating their two beds. The glowing red number read 2:35.
Hutch drew a deep breath and met his gaze.
His partner's expression and attitude mystified Starsky. Everything he knew about his friend was telling him that it had taken a great effort of will to look directly at him, to maintain that seemingly steady gaze.
"Couldn't sleep," Hutch explained, sounding perfectly normal.
"Today keep playing through your mind?" Starsky guessed. Hell, if it had been his family he knew he wouldn't have been able to keep his eyes closed either.
"No. Just a lot of could've-beens."
"Hey," Starsky left his bed and his problem behind him, drawn by his companion's pain. The despair in that quiet answer was too real to be assuaged from a distance. He sank down on the empty space beside Hutch's legs.
Confused, he sensed Hutch tense at his approach, defensive barriers snapping up all around him. He pretended not to notice. "Wanta talk about it?"
The square shoulders shrugged, golden strands brushing over bare skin in a silken caress. Starsky fixed his gaze on the profile of the averted face, doing his best not to give his secret away.
"Guess some of those could've-beens might seem pretty attractive. Sometimes I wonder myself what it would be like to make a living doing something where I didn't get shot at doing my job or where I didn't have to deal with the lowlife we traffic with everyday."
Hutch gave a tiny smile, his eyes warming with affection. "It'd be lonely without you, partner. That wasn't the kind of could've-been I was thinking about."
"Oh," Starsky replied, feeling a little out of his depth. There were many layers to his partner that sometimes even he, who knew Hutch better than anyone, had trouble unraveling the mental twists. "Okay, so it's not the obvious. What then?"
"Nothing important, Starsk," Hutch denied. Although his partner's tone was light, his gaze was so serious that Starsky felt as if he would drown in those troubled depths.
"That why you were sitting up alone in the dark? Cause it wasn't important?"
"I wasn't alone. You were here."
"I was asleep," Starsky protested. Asleep dreaming about the delights of his partner's body. And when he'd awoken it was to find Hutch watching him, the blond looking embarrassed at being caught at it.
"Will you do something for me, Starsk?" Hutch asked quietly. His right hand rose to frame Starsky's left cheek, his thumb tip lightly stroking the cheekbone.
Starsky froze, his heart thundering at every innocent brush of the finger across his face. "S-sure."
He stared at his partner, unable to comprehend the play of emotion through the shadowed eyes. Hutch appeared to be momentarily as speechless as himself. Then the blond gulped, the sound very loud in the stillness.
"Would you... just let it rest? I promise it's nothing to worry about. Do it for me, please?"
For something of such claimed unimportance, Hutch seemed unusually anxious. Starsky would almost have said desperate.
He was intrigued, more so then before. Yet, how could he refuse the request?
"You're not makin' this easy, partner," Starsky began. Hutch's eyes widened in alarm, an expression of such utter dread filling them that Starsky almost broke his resolve. "But for you—yes."
The blond sighed with relief, a radiant smile rewarding his decision. "Thanks, Starsk."
"I don't know what for," he complained with some asperity. "But... let's say you get some sleep now and we'll call it even, okay."
"You got yourself a deal, partner," Hutch grinned, sliding down under the sheets.
"Good night, babe," Starsky smiled, heading back to his own bed.
The morning dawned gray and cold. Full of secrets, Starsky had thought as he watched Hutch don his heavy sheepskin jacket over his funeral clothes. His own brightly-colored ski jacket was no more suitable than his partner's, but as ski and hunting jackets were all they owned warm enough for the environment, they'd have to do.
Apparently, a truce of sorts had been silently declared for the remainder of the ceremonies. Or maybe they were just invisible to the Hutchinsons now. Whatever the case, there was no repetition of yesterday's hostile confrontations. The church service went off without a snag, the graveside prayer reading almost an anti-climax in view of Starsky's nervous expectations. When Hutch bid farewell to his parents at the windblown cemetery, it was almost like the parting of strangers.
Hutch released a long, sibilant breath as he settled behind the steering wheel.
"You okay?" Starsky inquired, gripping a sturdy shoulder. Beneath his chilled fingertips the tan sheepskin felt indecently soft.
Hutch's gaze followed the elderly couple who'd borne him as they made their way back to the shiny stretch limo that had brought them out to the cemetery.
"Yeah. I only wish things could have been different," Hutch whispered.
"No sense dwelling on could've-beens, partner," Starsky counseled, tightening his grip on the shoulder. "Not when we've got what counts."
Hutch started uneasily at his mention of could-have-beens. "What's that?"
"Each other, of course, dummy. Start driving. I'm ready to go home now."
"Me, too, Starsk. Me, too."
Starsky had hoped that once he was back in familiar surroundings his emotions would fall back into a more normal groove as well, routine curing his exotic yen. However, there was nothing exotic about Hutch. How could there be when for over nine years they'd spent more than 75% of their time together?
To Starsky's growing dismay, he found that even the little habits that used to drive him crazy for all those years were somehow strangely endearing now. Hutch would toss an empty soda can in the back of his car and all he'd do these days was smile—and fight the ridiculous urge to keep the damned thing when he cleaned out the back seat. It couldn't last, he kept assuring himself. Sooner or later, one morning he'd wake up and everything would be as it was... before. He could look at his partner, then, know that he loved him, but was not in love with him. Or so he kept telling himself. But the days turned into weeks and still there was no reprieve in sight.
"Hey, partner, you all right?"
Starsky jumped as the object of his torment interrupted his mental ramblings. "Huh?"
The last thing he needed right now was to see the compassion flooding those tired blue eyes. Why couldn't Hutch be cold to him for once, not give a damn when something was twisting his guts in knots? Maybe then he could stop loving him.
"You've been staring at the table for over ten minutes. Ortega's not going to steal your cold burrito." The playful observation could not mask the other's concern.
Christ, now he was screwing up on the job. "Sorry." He quickly lifted the binoculars up and turned back towards the window.
So soft, the whisper quivered through his soul. He wanted to turn and shout, 'please, please, don't use that tone with me.' Instead, all that emerged was, "Yeah?" in a near mono-tone.
"That wasn't a criticism. Do you want to tell me what's bothering you?"
"I'll tell you what's bothering me. We've spent the last three days and nights holed up in this roach motel staring at an apartment that's probably empty."
"We saw Ortega take two shopping bags from the SAFEWAY up with him. He could still be there."
"Doin' what? Hutch, it's Christmas. Even scum like that's got to have somethin' better to do on Christmas."
Hutch shrugged, his calm unshakable. "Maybe he's planning his next shipment. Who knows? He went in. Neither we nor Hendricks and Munez out back saw him come out, so chances are he's still in there."
"It's been three friggin' days!" Starsky exploded. "How much longer are we just gonna sit here?"
Hutch sighed. "As long as it takes. Do you think I'm enjoying this any more than you are? If worse comes to worse, it'll just be another day before schedules get back to normal and we get some relief. Why don't you go lie down and catch some sleep. I'll take the glasses for a while."
"It's not your turn." Truculent to the last, Starsky wasn't giving an inch.
"Starsky, give me the damn binoculars and get some rest. You're driving me crazy."
Starsky opened his mouth to protest, took one look at the white edge of fury in his partner's pale features and silently handed over the binoculars. "The feelin's mutual." But he said it with a grin, aware that his partner would never know to what extent his mere presence in this claustrophobic flea bag was disturbing him.
To his surprise, the tension instantly defused. Hutch accepted the glasses with a sheepish smile. "Sleep tight. Don't let the bed bugs..."
"Don't give them any ideas, huh, partner."
Almost losing himself in the red-rimmed gaze, Starsky crossed to the rumpled bed. After toeing off his sneakers he climbed into the space Hutch had just vacated. He was exhausted, but there was little rest to be had upon sheets and a pillow that contained lingering traces of his partner's clean scent.
His gaze inevitably found its way to the window. Their room was dark, the only illumination being that which seeped through the flyspecked, grimy window from the street outside. Normally the light wouldn't have been much, but even the mean streets had been spruced up for the holiday season. The Christmas lights strung between the street lamps cast a rainbow of color through their second floor window. As Starsky lay there watching, unobserved, Hutch was a black silhouette against the bright glass. His partner sat in a hard back chair a foot or so back from the window, the binoculars held to his eyes, watching, as Starsky had before him, the closed drapes of the apartment across the street. The only movement Starsky could detect was the rainbow flicker of lights on the sliver sheen of Hutch's hair.
At last Starsky drowsed, drifting in and out of consciousness. Each time he awoke it was to find Hutch in the same position as when he'd closed his eyes, the thin figure so still that the shadowy sentinel became a part of his dreams.
His eyes opened once again; abrupt, unexpected motion from the window drew him fully awake. Hutch raised the walkie-talkie that had remained silent save for scheduled check-ins, to his mouth.
"Zebra Three to base. Subject leaving apartment. Heading east on Walter Street. He's on foot. Do you copy?"
A burst of static, then. "10-4 Zebra Three. Does it look as if it's a permanent move?"
"No suitcase. Could be a supply run... or the meet," Hutch suggested.
"Possible. We have a man on him."
"Instructions?" Hutch asked, his voice obscenely hopeful.
"Sit tight, Zebra Three. We'll alert you when he's in your perimeter again or when you're redundant."
"Thanks." Hutch's voice dripped sarcasm.
"My pleasure. Oh, and Hutch..."
"Merry Christmas, man."
"Up yours, Perrez," Hutch snapped, slamming the transmitter down onto the windowsill.
From across the room, Starsky could hear the subsequent deep breath being slowly expelled. After a moment, Hutch turned in his chair, looking back over his shoulder at the bed. Like wind-carved sculpture in desert rock, it seemed Hutch would sit there through eternity just staring.
"Come to bed, Hutch," Starsky said quietly. "It'll probably be hours before Ortega gets back."
The blond started. "I thought you were sleeping."
"No such luck. You look like you could use some though."
Hutch shrugged, rising to his feet, every slow movement seeming to underline his tiredness. Without further argument the tall blond removed his shirt and boots, then crossed to the other side of the double bed. He sank down with a deep sigh, too close for Starsky's liking yet entirely too far away.
"Some Christmas, huh, partner?" Starsky commented, too tense to relax with Hutch in the same bed as him.
"Beats last year," came the unexpected reply. Even more startling was the fact that Hutch sounded as if he meant the soft words.
"How's that? What was so bad about last year?"
A silence, then. "You were in the hospital last Christmas, remember? We didn't know if you'd be allowed back on the force or not."
"Oh, yeah," Starsky muttered, feeling an idiot. How had he forgotten something like that? To Starsky, that dark period seemed eons away, but it was still very much with his partner, he knew. For some reason, Hutch seemed to retain these hurts longer than Starsky did. Longer than was healthy for him. Wanting to lift the air of depression that seemed to have settled over his quiet companion, Starsky expanded upon the recollection. "Wanta know what I remember about last Christmas?"
"You sneaking up to my room in the Santa costume. Us crammed in that skinny bed all night. The look on that nurse's face when she brought my pill the next morning and found us asleep there."
As he'd hoped, Hutch chuckled. "You were wearing my beard."
"That was the best Christmas ever, Hutch," Starsky said solemnly.
"Yeah, maybe it wasn't so bad after all. And here we are a Christmas later crammed into bed together again. Looks like we've started a new tradition, partner," Hutch laughed.
After a moment, Hutch calmed, looking over at him in bewilderment. "Starsk? What is it?"
"No, what did I say wrong? One minute we were laughing and the next you look at me like I just kicked you below the belt. What did I say?" The confusion lingered, clearing the moment Starsky saw his partner recall his exact words. "I was only kidding, Starsk. You know that."
"I know," Starsky assured, unable to keep the hollow ring out of his voice. "It's okay, babe. Get some sleep." He turned to face the opposite wall, his back firmly to his partner.
"But... " He could hear the shock in Hutch's plea. "Starsk, I was only joking. You know I didn't mean anything by it."
"I know. Just go to sleep; will you, partner?"
He couldn't even hear Hutch breathing in the stony silence that followed.
"You're not angry with me, are you?"
"No, I ain't mad," Starsky answered. How could he be? Hutch couldn't help being what he was anymore than Starsky could help but feel as he did. But how was he supposed to hide that feeling now? He'd never been able to lie to Hutch.
"I... hurt you somehow, didn't I?" the blond observed, sounding as stricken as Starsky felt.
"Hutch, please... let it rest," he pleaded.
"I asked you that once. Remember, last month in Minnesota?" Hutch gently reminded.
"Yeah, what of it?"
"Starsk." Starsky held himself tight, immobile as a frozen lake, as a hand settled on his hip, lightly trying to turn him over. "Come on, babe. This is me—Hutch. Look at me. Please."
Bracing himself for the absolute worst, Starsky slid onto his back. In the street lamp illuminated half-light, his partner's hair was a silvery shimmer, the promise of its softness so tangible that he could almost feel its silken texture with his eyes. He concentrated on Hutch's face instead, the gaze that held no accusation.
"That's better," Hutch approved. "I didn't mean to hurt you, Starsk. You've got to know that. We've always fooled around like that."
"I know. Only..." He slammed his jaw shut, shaking at how close he'd come to giving himself away.
"Only it isn't funny anymore; is it, partner?" Hutch asked so gently that it was like a knife slicing the heart out of Starsky's chest.
He mutely shook his head, unwilling to trust words.
The blond's gaze flashed to the window. In the half-turned profile, Starsky could see a silent battle raging; only it wasn't quite the one Starsky had anticipated. There wasn't any disgust or anger in his partner's face. More than anything, Hutch looked as if he were struggling to make up his own mind. When he turned back to Starsky the strength of resolve had masked the momentary indecision, but beneath the outer calm, Starsky though he sensed nervousness, maybe even fear.
What could he say to make it better, Starsky wondered. There was no way he could apologize for what he felt. Nor had he said anything he could take back. Yet the last thing he wanted on this earth was for Hutch to be afraid of him, for any reason.
Hutch regarded him a moment longer before shaking his head, an exasperated smile touching his lips. "It's all right, partner. Believe me, I know how you feel."
"You... can't." There was no way Hutch could understand fully and be this calm.
"No? A month ago, I was sure you had me figured out. But when you didn't say anything and treated me the same, I thought I was wrong after all. It never even crossed my mind that this could be the reason," Hutch chuckled, a joyous, relieved sound.
"Huh?" The insecure thought that Hutch was laughing at him played through his mind. Immediately, he dismissed it. Hutch might break his bones or his heart, but the one thing Starsky had never doubted was that his feelings would be taken seriously. "I don't understand."
"You caught me red-handed, Starsk, watching you sleep. Don't you remember?"
"You were watching me sleep?" And all that he'd been able to think at the time was that Hutch was witness to his guilty secret. "Why?"
"Why do you think?"
Neither the soft-spoken reply nor the serious face held an answer, Hutch giving nothing away. But thinking back on that night, Starsky recalled his partner speaking so sadly of could-have-beens. "I was the could-have-been you were talkin' about?"
"Why didn't you tell me?" Starsky asked in confusion, too stunned to take in what Hutch was telling him on any but the most superficial level.
"Why didn't you?" Hutch countered.
"Your grandmother had just died, babe. I couldn't lay that kind of trip on you at a time like that."
"And before that?"
"Before?" Starsky realized what his partner was thinking. "There wasn't anything to tell before that. It only happened that day in the men's room when you told me about your grandmother."
"In the men's room?" Hutch repeated in disbelief.
"Yeah, in the men's room. What about you?"
Hutch's gaze dropped to the threadbare bedspread. "It's been years, Starsk. Years and years."
"Years?" Incredible as the claim was, there was no doubt in Starsky's mind as to its veracity. "How could you stay quiet that long, Hutch? It's only been a month for me and already I was slippin', losing' my mind."
"What was I supposed to do?" the blond asked fiercely, sounding as if Starsky had backed him to the wall rather than just having asked a simple question. Or not so simple, in this case.
"You might have trusted me enough to tell me." He tried to keep the hurt out of his voice, but it was still there.
"I couldn't tell you. Can't you see that?"
When Hutch looked away, Starsky prepared himself for the revelation of some hard to face truths. Yet when his partner finally spoke the words were all the more shattering for their unexpectedness.
"Because I knew the answer wouldn't be no."
"That—that doesn't make any sense."
"No?" Hutch's slender body seemed to draw in upon itself. "If I needed something, needed it so desperately that I told you I couldn't live without it, would you have been able to refuse, no matter how much you wanted to say no?"
An icy shiver blew down his spine as he absorbed the question. With all the soul-searching he'd done this last month, Starsky had believed that there was no aspect to this situation he hadn't considered fully. He'd weighed all the pros and cons, keeping his silence mainly out of apprehension about what this new emotion might do to alter their present relationship and Hutch's regard for him. The idea that a refusal would not be possible had never even entered the picture. Leave it to Hutch to come up with such a unique, unassailable perspective.
"I don't know," Starsky replied, remembering himself five or six years ago. In some ways he'd been very narrow-minded. Although never as bigoted as some, there had still been certain concepts that he simply could not comprehend. Homosexuality had been right up there at the top of the list.
"I do. You would have done it for me."
"You sound pretty sure of yourself." Starsky, who lived inside his own mind, was not nearly as certain.
"I know you, Starsk," Hutch insisted.
"So what you're sayin' is that you traded your own happiness for my peace of mind."
And at last so many things made sense to Starsky: undercurrents to conversations he could never quite interpret, quicksilver changes in his partner's mood that bore little resemblance to the even-tempered country boy he'd befriended in the Academy, maybe even the growing streak of cynicism Starsky had been so fast to blame on the job. Pieces of the puzzle that had eluded him for years at last began to fit together.
"I wasn't unhappy," Hutch protested.
"Like you said, partner, I know you." He reached out to touch a finely-stubbled cheek, intending nothing but comfort by the gesture.
There was an almost wary expression in Hutch's eye as it followed his hand, as if his partner expected to be hurt in some way.
"What is it?" Starsky asked.
"I need to know what you want, Starsk," Hutch offered reluctantly.
"Thought you already figured that out."
Hutch actually blushed at that. "Besides the obvious."
"Are you askin' my intentions, babe?" Starsky questioned, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Hutch was so deadly serious.
"I'd like to know," the blond quietly persisted.
"What happens if you don't like what you hear?" Starsky sobered, wondering if Hutch would just call it off before they started. What did his sophisticated partner want for them? From what little Starsky had seen of the gay lifestyle and literature, permanence and exclusivity were almost alien concepts. Would what was in his heart scare Hutch off?
The translucent lids dropped down to veil the expressive eyes. When Hutch looked up again, the joy had died in their depths. "I told you how... long I've wanted this. I'll take you on any terms you name, Starsk. I just need them stated up front."
Starsky gulped, his eyes stinging. "There aren't any terms, Hutch. I'm in love with you. If I could give you my name or take yours, I would. All I wanta do is love you, for as long and as often as you'll let me."
Starsky gathered his partner into his arms, pressing their bodies together. He discovered that Hutch was shaking even harder than he was himself.
They clutched each other that way until the trembling subsided. Slowly Starsky raised his face from the golden strands in which it was buried. For the longest time he simply stared at his partner's familiar features. The extended stake-out and emotion-fraught night had taken their toll on his friend, visible in every weary line. Still, Hutch had never looked as beautiful to him as at this very moment.
There was no thought to Starsky's next move, instinct carrying him that final step. Their first kiss was a delicate affair, not so much exploration as affirmation.
Reluctantly, he withdrew for breath, lost in the chalcedony depths of his companion's eyes.
Hutch's fingers rose to his mouth, his free hand reaching for Starsky's face. "You are real, aren't you?"
Starsky kissed the approaching fingertips, burying his mouth in the palm. His tongue peeked out to tickle the warm, salty skin. He felt like a kid again, in some respects unsure what moves were appropriate, but eager to explore every one of them.
"As real as they come, Hutch," Starsky answered at last when the need for air forced his head up.
Starsky watched the rise and fall of Hutch's Adam's apple as he gulped. The unfocused, heated quality to Hutch's usually sharp gaze excited him. "You liked that, huh?"
The tall blond nodded wordlessly, seemingly hypnotized by the mere sight of him.
His own attention riveted on the long neck, Starsky lowered his head again. The skin here was cooler than that of Hutch's palm, the curve of his partner's neck an almost perfect fit to Starsky's open mouth. He lavished kisses and sucking caresses on the length of the throat, halting only when Hutch's lips fastened on his earlobe. The warm breath against his neck was a shiversome breeze that tingled through his every nerve ending.
Hutch's fingers settled on Starsky's shirtfront, the red and black of the plaid pattern appearing very bright against the blond's night-pale flesh. "Do you always wear this many clothes to bed, Starsk?"
"Makes it more interesting. Don't you think?" Starsky grinned, watching Hutch's slender, normally nimble fingers fumble with the tiny white shirt buttons.
They froze in place as a raucous burst of static crackled from the walkie-talkie on the windowsill across the room.
"No," Starsky groaned, "Not now."
Horrified, they stared into each other's eyes, their breath whistling in the closeness between them. At that moment there was a unity to their feelings that truly astounded him. Starsky felt Hutch's disappointment as keenly as his own.
They waited, but the sound was not repeated.
"False alarm," Starsky sighed, sagging onto Hutch's warm form.
"This time," Hutch said, his reluctance to speak almost a palpable presence. "Starsk, maybe this isn't such a good idea."
"What?" His body tensed, overtired mind hearing only the rejection.
"I mean here, now. Ortega could be back any minute. If we've got to move fast..."
A protest sprang to his lips. Hutch couldn't be serious. To stop now when they were so close...
Starsky stared down at the familiar face, reading both the determination and the apprehension in the firm set of jaw and brow, like Hutch was expecting an argument or dreading that he'd give in to temptation.
How much would it take to change his conscientious partner's mind, Starsky wondered. Hutch could be intractable when he wanted to, at times even more stubborn than Starsky himself. That was one of the things he respected most about his friend, Hutch's iron will.
That will didn't seem quite so steely now, the wide eyes almost frightened as they watched his face.
Unable to bear that guarded look, Starsky reached out to reassure, only to have the worry deepen as he touched Hutch's cheek.
Was that all it would take, one touch? No wonder Hutch looked so scared.
"It's a good thing that one of us's got some sense," Starsky drawled, grinning at the whoosh of expelled breath.
"I don't want to stop, Starsk. It's just that..."
"Hey, I ain't stupid, just frustrated. This crummy stake-out..."
"Don't start that again. Please," Hutch smiled, the promise in his glowing eyes testing Starsky's resolve.
"Okay, but only 'cause it's for you."
"So what do you wanta do instead?" Starsky asked at his most innocent.
"I don't want to do anything 'instead'!" Hutch's outer calm snapped. "I just wish..."
"Yeah, me, too." He looked into the red-ribboned eyes. "Why don't you catch yourself some shut-eye?"
"What are you going to do?"
"Watch. Hold you if you'll let me." Starsky grinned at the skeptical glance. "I'll behave. Cross my heart."
To his utter astonishment, Hutch shook his head in denial. "Won't work, Starsk."
"I said I'd be good," Starsky protested, needing to touch this golden dream so badly that the longing was a throbbing ache in his gut.
"That was never in question," Hutch assured, purposefully misinterpreting his meaning.
"That wasn't what I meant." The hot flush in his cheeks was not embarrassment, Starsky told himself.
"I know. Maybe you can behave. I know I can't. If you touch me like you did before... Do you think it was easy for me to stop?" The hoarse whisper grated between them, fuelling the sexual tension.
A little stunned, Starsky beheld a hunger that eclipsed his own, a raw need of almost savage intensity. Years and years Hutch had said he'd wanted this, the hunger building all the while. What it must have taken to put duty before desire, especially in the light of Starsky's own reluctance to stop. The will power, the iron control was more than he could conceive, but then, any man capable of remaining silent for years with such a tormenting secret burning inside him had a formidable will indeed.
Fleetingly, Starsky wondered what type of lover such a man would make. A shiver, not one entirely of desire, coursed through him as he considered the possibilities. Once again, he was reminded that Hutch was a man, fully as masculine as himself, physically stronger and larger, wanting probably exactly the same things that Starsky had been yearning for. If it came down to an all out clash of wills...
Pinned by that fierce gaze, unnerved by his own mental scenarios, Starsky swallowed shakily.
Almost, he could fear this.
Except, he couldn't shake the memory of Hutch confessing that he'd accept Starsky on any terms he set. Furthermore, it had been his partner's concern for his independence that had engendered that inhuman control. Who else would care enough about him to suffer in silence like that but Hutch? How the blond had managed to keep his secret so long was still beyond him.
"No, babe," Starsky conceded. "I know it wasn't easy. I'll keep my hands to myself."
Hutch lay on his back watching him with that same tense control. His bedmate vented a sigh after a few moments, then shifted so that they were eyeing each other over the forbidden expanse of pillows. "This isn't much better; is it?" Hutch asked, giving his partner a rueful smile.
"Huh?" Starsky questioned, completely absorbed by the play of emotion through the crystal clear gaze.
"You've taken thirty-two breaths since you laid back, shifted twice and scratched your nose once."
"How many heart beats?" Starsky laughed.
"More than usual if mine's anything to go by. Starsk... " Words seemed to desert the articulate blond.
No matter, Starsky read it all in the bloodshot eyes. The frustration, desire, fear, it was all there, underscored by the less turbulent, more abiding love that Starsky must have been blind not to have recognized until now. Not taking Hutch in his arms at that point was sheer torture, but he'd given his word.
Instead, his gaze scoured the familiar features. No more objective than before, this time Starsky did more than simply notice Hutch's condition. Almost grey with exhaustion, the blond looked inches away from collapse. The strain of the last half hour hadn't helped any either, Starsky silently reproached himself.
"Hey, you get some sleep. I'm gonna go watch the lights blink for awhile."
"No." Tired as he was, Hutch was still fast. He'd caught Starsky's arm before the dark-haired man could so much as turn.
Starsky stared down at the hand clamped on his sleeve. Even through the heavy flannel hunting shirt, his partner's warmth burned his flesh.
"Okay. Close your eyes, babe."
"Yes." He covered Hutch's hand with his own, then lay back against his pillow. "I'll be here when you wake up, partner. I love you. A couple of hours aren't gonna change that."
"Guess not." Hutch smiled sheepishly. "I just can't believe any of this is real yet, Starsk."
"Me, either. Maybe things will be realer once we've had some sleep."
"I kinda like it this way, Starsk," Hutch admitted.
"Well, I'll like it better when you look as though you won't fall asleep on me, buddy."
"Fall asleep? I won't..."
"We already decided to wait, so you might as well," Starsky stilled the protest.
Hutch's finger relaxed from their death grip on his forearm, resting lightly on the shirt fabric. Starsky did not remove the hand that covered Hutch's. The fair-headed detective eyed their joined hands questioningly.
"Too much?" Starsky checked, remembering his hands-off promise. The flattened ridge of knuckle and back of hand beneath his palm weren't exactly the portions of Hutch he'd been hankering to hold, but even that simple contact went a long way in fulfilling the hunger to touch. Still, he'd given Hutch his word. Innocent as the touch was with no erogenous zones involved, Hutch might find it too distracting.
"No, I like it, Starsk."
He felt his brow pucker as a new thought came to mind. "Hutch?"
"Do you want me to call you Ken now?"
A long quiet, then, "Do you want me to call you David?"
"I don't know." Starsky considered the idea. Most partners dispensed with the formality of surnames after a few weeks, if they lasted that long. Yet, Hutch had always been Hutch to him. Changing it after all these years would feel mighty weird. "What do you think?"
"I think that we've been closer than first name basis since the moment we met, partner."
"I don't like Kenneth. You know that."
Starsky remembered Mrs. Hutchinson calling her son by his full name. It had grated on his nerves almost as much as Hutch's. "What about Ken?"
Hutch shrugged. "If you like."
"What do you like?" Starsky persisted.
"I like Hutch. You were the first to call me that and it's always had a nice ring to it. Is this all your way of telling me that you want me to call you David?" Hutch's smile was gentle, full of affection and laughter.
"You don't think it'd be more... intimate?" Starsky asked, not sure that it would himself.
"More intimate than Starsk? Who else calls you Starsk but me?"
Now that he thought about it, not even Huggy called him Starsk.
"You don't like David?" he asked doubtfully.
"I like it fine. If I'd ever had a son, that's what I would have called him."
"After me?" Starsky marveled.
"If we go this route, babe, there won't be any David Hutchinson," Starsky pointed out in a hushed tone, imagining the little blond-haired bundle of energy that would never be because of what they were about to do here tonight.
"Or Kenny Starsky," Hutch countered, then asked a bit uncertainly, "If?"
"I shoulda said after. There won't be any going back, partner. Least for me," he amended, realizing that he could be assuming too much.
"Or me. I realized that David Hutchinson was a pipe dream after Gillian... died." Even now that wound was still raw.
Astonished, Starsky realized how long it had been since his partner had given his heart over to a woman's care. Gillian had been the last. Abbey before that. And Jeannie before Abbey, for whose sake Forest had turned Hutch into a junkie. Prior to Jeannie there was only Vanessa and the broken dreams she'd left behind. After Gillian? A series of stunning blondes, some Hutch had been fond of, but all he had kept at an emotional distance.
And now, almost five years after that last crippling loss, Hutch was entrusting his heart and everything else he was into his hands. Humbled by the trust involved, Starsky accepted the heavy responsibility that went hand in hand with it.
"No more pipe dreams, partner. This is the real thing." He gave Hutch's hand a quick squeeze.
"So are you gonna call me Starsk or David?" Starsky persisted.
"There are a million Davids, but only one Starsk. When I hear the name David, nothing happens, partner. All someone in the squadroom has to do is whisper Starsky to make my ears prick up and my heart start pounding."
"Yeah?" Starsky questioned, not quite able to believe any of this.
"Oh, yeah. That's the least of it."
"Things best left unsaid if we're going to behave," Hutch evaded.
"Quit fishing, Starsk. We're not off duty yet." The last observation was punctuated by a tremendous yawn.
"In that case, you'd better grab some shut eye."
Hutch gave a tired smile, heavy eyelids already beginning to sink shut. "Maybe you're right."
Within minutes, Hutch's breathing had deepened, the blond slipping quietly into sleep.
Starsky watched, for a long time, wondering if there would ever come a time when he'd get his fill of this sight. He doubted it.
Watching Hutch sleep, he was reminded of the time his partner had been isolated in quarantine with Callendar's plague. That lady doctor from Alabama had compared Hutch to a little boy, going on about his vulnerable mouth. Now, as then, Starsky thought that she was mistaken. Hutch asleep aroused his protective instincts just as fast as they had Judith's maternal ones, but not for the same reasons. Even asleep, Hutch's face was one of strength and determination. Years ago when they'd first been partnered, Starsky used to imagine that he could see Hutch's idealism shining through the sleep-gentled features. Now, centuries later, Starsky at last saw the vulnerability Judith had spoken of, but it wasn't childhood's innocence that was reflected there, it was the shadow of too many hurts and disillusionments. Hutch had been through so much pain in his life, more than most people could handle. It always amazed Starsky how a man who felt things as deeply as his partner did would have been able to endure as much hurt as Hutch had without caving in. For, whatever else the slumbering man beside him might or might not be, Hutch was a fighter. He never gave up, no matter the odds. Even when his chances seemed hopeless, when time limits such as Vic Bellamy's poison or seemingly insurmountable obstacles like the tangled morass of James Gunther's organization were pitted against them, Starsky's partner always came through for him. That was what me and thee was all about. The world might fall to pieces around them, but they always stood strong for each other.
Not for the first time, Starsky found himself wondering what it would be like having a lover capable of such determination. A new experience for them both, no doubt. Hutch's beautiful ladies had never been the steadfast kind. As for Starsky's own lost loves, only three of them had ever gotten close enough to matter: Helen, whose own career in police work had been more important to her than their relationship; Rosie Malone, whose duty to her father had taken precedence to whatever she felt for him; and, as always, Terri. Even now he still missed her. Had it not been for Prudholm's bullet, she would have been the one. Aside from Hutch, he'd never met anyone that good, or understanding... or perceptive, Starsky realized, a new thought bringing him up short.
Starsky's throat tightened as he remembered the note Terri had left for Hutch... after. She'd bequeathed both Ollie and Starsky to Hutch's care, imploring Hutch to love them both and keep them as they were. At the time, it had seemed a heart-breakingly poignant gesture. Now, years down the line, Starsky reached an understanding he never would have been capable of accepting all those years ago. Terri had known—maybe not that Starsky would one day come to feel this way about his partner but certainly about Hutch's feelings for him, probably just new-born in that phase of their relationship. Of that, Starsky was certain. In some strange way, he was pleased to know that she'd approved enough to entrust him to Hutch, even with the injunction not to change him.
Well, he was changed now, forever. There would be no going back, or desire to. It was so like himself, Starsky thought ruefully, to take almost twelve years to realize that everything he'd searched for had been right there by his side all along. He felt something like Dorothy on her return from Oz. Everything was still exactly the same as he'd left it, but so very different now.
That's how it must have been for Hutch, but miserably so, Starsky thought. He remembered how horrible things had been for him since their return from Minnesota. Every aspect of their every day relationship had become a nerve-wracking trial, from their weekly basketball game with Junior Jackson, to the mundanity of riding in the Torino beside Hutch day to day. A simple change in perspective could be a truly earth-shattering occurrence.
Another burst of irritating crackles sounded from the window. This time, the static was accompanied by Perrez's hollow baritone. "Zebra Three, come in, Zebra Three..."
Starsky slipped from the bed and crossed soundlessly to the window. "Zebra Three. Talk to me, Perrez."
"You can pack up your things and go home, man."
"What about Ortega?"
"Safe and sound behind bars. The deal went down at 10:15. By 10:33 he was in booking."
"I thought the deal was three keys. Who'd be stupid enough to go to somethin' that big on foot with no back up?"
"Five kilos, and I already answered your question. Dobey said not to show your faces for at least three days."
Starsky immediately shut up. That was one day more than they had coming. "Thanks, Perrez. Happy Holidays."
"You, too. Good night."
Starsky switched off the transmitter and slowly replaced it on the windowsill. He stood there looking thoughtfully back at the bed, the glow from the blinking Christmas lights beyond the window alternately tinting the skin of his hands red and green.
Hutch was still out cold. Starsky considered waking him, then cast the idea aside. They were both too tired to drive anywhere. Might as well get some sleep before...
Grinning, Starsky peeled down to his briefs. After a second's debate, he removed those as well.
His skin breaking into prickly goose flesh from the seasonal chill, Starsky climbed hastily into bed. Settling beneath the bedclothes, he regarded his companion uncertainly. He could feel Hutch's warmth seeping across the sheet, and it was arousing a hell of a lot more than his goose bumps. Still, he was freezing. Giving no more than a thought to the liberty he was taking, he cuddled close to the sleeper.
Hutch shifted as Starsky laid his hand over his waist. For a frozen moment, Starsky thought that he'd awoken him, but Hutch only turned away from him.
Starsky snuggled in tight. His bare chest pressed into the warm, white t-shirt, his budding erection prodding at the supple ass beneath the baggy jeans. Felt so good, even just this. He wondered if Hutch would ever allow him to take him this way, imagined what it would be like. Tight, no doubt. Starsky had never even done a woman from behind, but from the few times he'd inserted a finger into that particular orifice, he knew how fiercely tight the guarding muscles could be.
He had so much to learn, Starsky realized, burying his face in the hair at Hutch's neck. The fragrant blend of herbal shampoo, sweat and lingering traces of after-shave did little to allay his enthusiasm.
I could take you while you slept. That's how bad I want you, Starsky thought, awed by the unexpected intensity of his desire.
Sensing the danger in their proximity, Starsky put a little space between their lower bodies, moving far enough back so that Hutch's warmth tantalized without threatening his control. Glorying in this new sensation, Starsky was not aware of the moment in which he slipped over into sleep.
"Mmmmmn... " Sleep beckoned him almost as demandingly as the fingers skimming through his chest hair. Those delicate touches kept dipping lower, over his pelvis, down his leg almost to his knee, then up his inner thigh—maddeningly thorough. His thighs flapped open, granting easier access.
Starsky's eyelids fluttered apart as an intent mouth fastened upon his own. The tongue explored him right down to his toenails, bristly hairs pricking at his sensitive lips.
"Hutch?" Starsky gasped, drawing away in amazement. He blinked at his surroundings, panicked, at last remembering.
Hutch's smile was like the first hint of sunlight on the night-weary horizon, clean and full of promise. "Who else? Answer carefully."
He smiled back sleepily, awake enough to begin to appreciate the heavy body leaning over him.
"What happened to your clothes, Starsk?"
"If you're hopin' for coherency, babe, you better give your fingers a rest."
"That better?" Hutch asked, his palm settling on a dark-downed thigh.
"Wasn't bad to start off with, but I can think now. Perrez called to say they got Ortega. We're off duty... for the next three days."
"All that overtime paid off, partner."
"That still doesn't explain what happened to your clothes, Starsk," Hutch reminded.
"Oh, I, ahh... left them on the floor."
"I could barely keep my hands off you when I woke up and found you like this. Thought Santa came early."
"That was the idea, babe. Hutch, you don't want to wait till we get home, do you?"
"I couldn't even wait till you woke up, Starsk. We probably wouldn't make it off the block."
"I know I wouldn't. You going to get rid of these?" Starsky inclined his head towards the t-shirt and jeans.
Hutch's expression was almost shy as he shouldered his way out of the undershirt.
Starsky's eyes feasted on the bare skin revealed. Hutch's summer tan was just beginning to fade, his flesh still the deep golden shade of spilled honey.
"You're exquisite," Starsky murmured, running an appreciative finger across a well-defined collarbone.
Hutch swallowed, his eyes going very large. Long, delicate fingers struggled with the jeans fastening, their atypically uncoordinated movements ceasing as Starsky leaned forward to displace them. "May I?"
Even with the baggy pants, Starsky could see the swelling at his partner's crotch.
He undid the fastening, easing jeans and briefs smoothly over Hutch's upraised butt. At the first view of his partner's nakedness, Starsky fully understood how smoldering coals must feel when squirted with lighter fluid. One moment his arousal was no more than a subtle undercurrent, the next a blaze of desire so fierce that it left him shaking, charred to his soul.
It was all he could do to remember to peel Hutch's socks off before tossing the handful to the corner of the room.
His breath caught in his chest at Hutch's unexpectedly moving beauty. Tall and lean, unquestionably masculine. Hutch's body tones seemed to blend from one shade of gold to another, highlighted here and there with a touch of pink. The tangle of wiry blond fuzz at the base of his partner's cock intrigued him, as did the organ itself. They were almost of a size, Hutch being perhaps a bit longer and thicker there. Starsky regarded the rising shaft, his response a fevered mixture of desire, relief and amusement.
"What's so funny?" Hutch asked mildly, picking up on the one emotion that was out of place.
Starsky grinned, overjoyed. With anyone else, that would have been a defensive demand. Hutch understood him well enough to trust what lay beneath outer appearances.
"Was just thinkin' how foolish people can be."
"How's that?" Hutch still didn't sound upset.
"The feelin' ain't any different, but an extra nine inches below the belt has kept us apart for all our lives."
Hutch chuckled. "You're insane. It's seven, tops."
Starsky regarded the inches in question. "You've measured it?"
"Not with a ruler, no."
"Looks bigger than that to me."
"It's the novelty."
"What novelty? I've got one myself."
Hutch broke into deep, throaty laughter at that, reaching out to hug him so tight that Starsky was sure he felt a couple of ribs crack. "God, you make me feel good, Starsk. This is just like I'd always imagined it'd be."
"How's that?" Starsky asked, careful not to draw too deep a breath.
"Full of laughter and love."
Starsky drew back far enough to look into the strangely serious eyes. "You ain't seen nothin' yet, baby blue," he promised, drawing his partner to his side of the bed.
Surveying the long, male body, Starsky was momentarily at a loss as to what to do, unsure what Hutch, another man, would accept or permit.
Since kissing seemed to be something that they both enjoyed, he started with that. Instinct took over as soon as their lips met. Starsky was halfway down the slender, endless neck before he realized that he'd graduated from his safe starting point.
The smooth chest area beckoned to him like an oasis to a weary desert traveler. He paused in his ministrations to consider his next move. Only slowly did he notice the heaving breaths that Hutch was taking. His partner's fingers had stilled in their explorations, Hutch seemingly frozen in place, waiting for Starsky to set the pace.
Curious, his left hand reached for his companion's chest. His index finger lightly tapped the pinkish brown nub of thicker tissue on a flat breast, and was instantly rewarded by the nipple popping up, firmly erect. Its companion budded even before Starsky could touch it, fired by anticipation alone. Hutch gave a small, animal cry as Starsky lowered his head to tongue the rising flesh. Almost a whimper, the noise hung in the air, spurring him on.
The taste of Hutch's flesh was something to which he was fast becoming addicted. His tongue wasn't content with merely circling the hard nipples. Both flat breasts and the hairless skin in between were thoroughly explored. Wherever he moved, there was a different taste, a different feel.
He followed the hollow incline between the upraised ribcage downwards. Beneath his gliding tongue he could feel where flesh gave way to muscle, Hutch's diaphragm and stomach muscles firm beneath their thin padding of skin.
There wasn't an ounce of spare flesh on his friend, no tummy bulge, no love handles. Starsky had had models who had more meat on their bones than his partner. Hutch's hips were indecently slender, the pelvic bones jutting out almost angrily over Hutch's concave stomach. His partner had never regained the weight he'd dropped while Starsky was in the hospital. Hutch was so thin now that if he looked at the man's waist alone, he would take his partner to be little more than a boy. Of course, that illusion would shatter the instant the eye settled upon the rising shaft or the powerful athlete's thighs. There was nothing immature or lacking in either of those features.
In those first, assessing moments, Starsky's concepts of what was sexually stimulating were radically realigned, his preference for curvaceous females eclipsed by what he felt for this skinny, lanky man. Never in his life had the view of an erect cock other than his own held the slightest attraction for Starsky. Now, he could barely keep his mind focused on what he was doing, so tempting was it to observe the rising fruit of his efforts. Though new to this, there was no doubt in his mind that Hutch was loving every second of this, for there could be no questioning, or faking, the hard, organic proof before him.
Hutch's body jolted up as Starsky's tongue slipped into the shallow navel.
Starsky was stunned by how responsive Hutch was to him. His earlier concerns about what his partner would or wouldn't allow were vanishing fast. He was beginning to suspect that Hutch would deny him nothing, would follow any lead he made, so strong was Hutch's desire for him. The knowledge that the feeling was mutual was in no way helpful in this instance.
Starsky found himself afraid as he'd never been in a sexual situation. Not of what Hutch would do to him, but that he might unthinkingly hurt his partner. This was new to them both. Starsky knew he should be going slowly and carefully, but the scent and taste of Hutch were burning all caution from his mind.
Desperate for some thinking space, Starsky laid his cheek against the flat belly, his eyes facing upward rather than towards the distracting lower body. A fine sheen of sweat had broken out on the hairless expanse of gold-tinted skin. It was all Starsky could do to resist licking up the glistening beads.
"Starsk, you all right?"
Hearing the strain in the throaty question, he raised himself up on an elbow so that Hutch could see his face.
"Hell of a time to take a nap, partner," Hutch smiled, but the effort it cost was obvious. Hutch was hurting bad.
"Things were... moving too fast," Starsky mumbled, feeling a fool.
To Starsky's astonishment, there was nothing accusative in his partner's attitude. Hutch appeared concerned more than anything, worried about him.
"No, I... my control was slipping," Starsky confessed.
That little indentation that Hutch got in his brow whenever he was puzzled or confused by something appeared between the pale eyebrows. "I thought that was the idea."
Starsky looked away, uncomfortable under the too-perceptive gaze. There were times he was certain that Hutch could read his soul. "You—you don't understand, Hutch. For a moment there I wanted..."
Even when looking away from his partner he was unable to confess that he'd wanted to bury himself in that accommodating body.
A finger hooked his chin, drawing him back. There was nothing but compassion in his friend's wide-set eyes. "Is that what you want, Starsk?"
Try as he would, Starsky could detect no fear in the steady gaze.
"Yeah, but... not tonight."
"Why not tonight?" Hutch paused. "I wouldn't mind." In fact, the blond sounded almost eager for it.
"We're still new to each other here, Hutch," Starsky reminded. "'S too soon for something that heavy."
"If I were a woman you wouldn't think it too soon," Hutch argued.
Starsky could see his partner's hatred of labels and stereotypes flaring.
"You're not a woman. You're my partner. My oldest and dearest love... and I don't know a thing about pleasin' you. I ain't gonna risk anything that might hurt you until I know what I'm doin'."
"But... " Hutch protested.
"You really want that tonight, Hutch?" Starsky asked, a new tactic forming in his mind.
"Yes," Hutch stubbornly insisted.
"Then you do me first."
Starsky grinned at the sagging jaw. His partner looked nowhere near as determined as he had a moment ago, much to Starsky's relief. "Makes a difference bein' on the other side, doesn't it?"
Hutch gave a rueful smile. "Sure does. Even if you were willin' to let me do it..."
"No 'if' involved. This is a partnership, babe, straight down the line."
Hutch's gaze became incredibly gentle at that. "Even so, I'd be afraid of hurting you."
"You won't, not if the time is right," Starsky assured, surprised to discover that he actually meant the words. Although the idea made him more than slightly nervous, he was no longer afraid of the thought.
"So what would feel right now?" Hutch asked, running his finger down his partner's side.
Starsky shivered, leaning back to invite further investigation. He was not disappointed. Hutch followed him down, the blond's fingertips and mouth charting every inch of his neck and scarred chest. "Mmmn... why not... mmmm... use your... 'magination?" Starsky suggested, reaching out to stroke the sable-soft hair.
He wasn't ready for what he unleashed, Starsky blurrily admitted to himself between gasps, sometime later. He'd always suspected his partner's sensuality ran deep, but not in his wildest fantasies had he imagined anything like what Hutch did for him.
A shrink would have no doubt diagnosed his partner as having an oral fixation, but to Starsky it was sheer paradise. Hutch's mouth never left his body, his partner seemingly determined to sample every inch of him. Nothing was left out: his elbows, both sides of his knees, ankles, wrists, even his underarms and the skin between his toes received the same attention. The sensation was nothing short of incredible, that soft wet tongue lapping here, tickling playfully there, exploring areas both mundane and embarrassing with equal relish. Starsky had never experienced anything like it in his life. Hutch left places he would have sworn impervious to erotic stimulation tingling with a delicious yearning for more, and when his partner finally reached the more traditional sites, Starsky was shaking beyond control.
"I've never done this before, Starsk," Hutch admitted as he at last reached for his partner's blazing erection.
Of all things, Hutch actually sounded self-conscious. The man had just had his nose squashed against his backside, his tongue tickling a place that made Starsky's face burn almost as hot as his groin. How could Hutch possibly be self-conscious?
Hutch's mouth closed over him. Starsky watched the fair head slowly descend, felt the unbelievable wet heat. Then the suction started.
Starsky's body jolted up like a coronary patient undergoing CPR. With an incoherent cry, he buried himself deep in Hutch's throat. Felt so good, so right, perfect...
Abruptly, everything went wrong. Hutch pulled back, his cheeks scarlet against his sweat-plastered hair, tears streaming unnoticed down his face as an ugly gagging noise interrupted his labored breathing.
Almost whimpering from the sudden cut-off, it was all Starsky could do to reach out and grip his partner's elbows, sheltering Hutch until the spasm ceased.
When it did, Hutch pulled free of his embrace. "I—I don't think I can, Starsk."
From the sound of it, Starsky would have thought the world was ending—although he had to admit it felt pretty much that way from inside his burning need.
Never had Starsky seen his confident partner appear quite this dejected. "Hey," he called softly, laying his palm flat on a tense shoulder. "You all right, partner?"
Hutch stiffened. "I... ruined it. Wanted everything to be perfect for you and..."
"Nothin's ruined," Starsky insisted. "I moved too fast is all. Don't shut me out, babe."
That caught the distracted blond's attention.
Starsky was in his partner's arms the moment Hutch reached for him, clinging to the lean frame as if his very life depended on it. "Ah, Hutch, just hold me. You feel so good... that's right..." he approved as his partner's body returned the pressure.
Withdrawing from a fevered kiss, Starsky could still see the shadows marring his friend's enjoyment. Hutch always seemed to need to prove himself. Obviously, he was still troubled.
"Have you any idea how wonderful you feel in my arms?" Starsky murmured, nuzzling the sweaty neck. "Feels like you were made to be there. What you did to me before... was like magic. No one ever touched me like that. Everywhere you kissed me, it tingled. Still does."
"Does it?" The expression was less distant now, the self-reproach receding. Hutch sighed, seeming to calm even though his arms tightened around Starsky's back. "For so many years I've wanted to do that to you, Starsk. I promised myself that if I ever got the chance, I'd love you from head to toe, make it so perfect that..."
"That?" Starsky gently prompted, resting his forehead against his partner's beneath him so that their noses were squashed almost comically together.
Hutch pushed him up a little. The ghost of a smile courted his full lips as his hands framed Starsky's face. "That you'd never stop wanting me." Hutch's voice held a more familiar, ironic flair now, his partner much more himself.
Something inside melted at that point. Starsky had almost forgotten how much longer Hutch had waited for this moment. His partner had probably felt that he had to make every second count, perhaps believing that he only had the one shot for happiness. As if Starsky could actually turn away from him if everything didn't work out to plan on first try.
"Listen up. I don't think I could stop wantin' you now. So you better get used to me lovin' you, 'cause I'm gonna be doin' it for a long, long time."
Starsky's dislike of soapy scenes was cast aside under the brilliance of the smile his open declaration earned him.
Hutch drew him into a kiss.
Starsky shifted in the strong arms until their waists were pressed together. The sensation of their cocks rubbing each other that very first time was both stranger and more exciting than Starsky had imagined. Hutch gasped at his initial movement, tightening his hold.
Starsky rocked his hips exploratively, and tumbled into a rhythm that seemed to have been waiting for them since the dawn of time. The sweet undulation felt so right, so natural. Hutch was with him completely, their sweat and breath mingling between them as their essences fused with their bodies.
Hutch's hands slid down the length of his back to his butt. The long fingers glided across both cheeks, fingertips dipping down into the well-defined cleft. Even knowing what was coming next, Starsky was overwhelmed by his response to the gentle squeeze. Spirals of delight danced drunkenly along his nerve endings, challenging even the more primal pleasure pulses at his groin for supremacy. Starsky's whole body throbbed to the rhythm of their love, his heart and lungs racing insanely to keep up with the driving passion.
It shouldn't have felt this good, Starsky thought distractedly. What they were doing wasn't all that fancy, just a little basic hip grinding. Yet it was all he could do to hang onto reality from one dizzying pleasure burst to the next. The experience was like nothing he'd known, the joy so intense that it threatened to disconnect him from his body and send him swirling into some endless whirlpool of ecstasy never to return. And he wasn't worried about letting go, not so long as Hutch still held him tight.
He only had to look into his partner's fiery gaze to know that Hutch felt the same.
As Hutch's moist lips sought his own again, Starsky at last understood why this particular union was so unique to their experience. It was, he realized, the difference between lust and love. This was the reality-altering feeling that technical expertise and exotic fetishes attempted to duplicate... but never could.
Starsky reached that final crest of sensation and didn't come down. The energy howled through his system, sweeping him along in its wake. Vaguely, he was conscious of his body stilling before that ultimate spasm. His seed spurted forth, a warm, sticky offering between their bodies. Off in the distance, Starsky seemed to hear an oddly melodic ringing, the sound almost as loud as the heartbeat roaring in his ears.
Never having bedded a man before, Starsky was uniquely aware of Hutch's outpouring. The sensation of that hot liquid squirting against his lower belly gave him almost as big a charge as the rubbing of their bodies had.
Gradually, the passion faded, his dazed senses and breathing sluggishly returning to normal. That weird, melodic ringing lingered, however, actually seeming to become clearer now that his heartbeat had stopped vying for air time. The sound was quite lovely, ethereal chimes.
"What...?" Starsky murmured.
Hutch looked at his face, obviously reading his confusion and burst into laughter. "Merry Christmas, babe."
"Oh, yeah, right. I thought it was us," Starsky explained, oddly disappointed. "Merry Christmas, partner."
He snuggled down onto Hutch, listening to the church bells and his partner's almost steady breathing. Contentment breathed through him, his heart swelling to contain all he felt for this man.
"That was a good idea you had, Hutch," he commented between kisses.
"Which one was that?" Hutch asked absently, the absorbed light in his eyes making Starsky hope that what they'd just shared was a precursor of things to come later tonight.
"Starting a new tradition. Wonder if we'll get the timing right next year." His lips gave in to the lure of the tempting neck.
"If the bells will go off the same time we do," Starsky explained, loving the effect he was having on his habitually controlled partner.
"We'll just have to work at it, Starsk."
"Yeah," he agreed, fast losing his train of thought, "work on it."
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