Journey's End

by

Rosemary

 

Starsky shivered and blew on his hands to warm them. He watched the white cloud of breath dissipate in the silence of the icy air. Nothing moved in the leafless trees around him; nothing moved, period. The utter quiet of the place unnerved him. All of his experiences with the wilderness had shown it to be a noisy, living thing. This out-of-season wasteland had the feel of death to it.

They had to be crazy. Every time he looked at these lifeless trees, that same thought planted itself firmly in his mind. He knew their dour 'neighbors' thought the same thing. Nobody, absolutely nobody, moved up into the back woods of Washington at the start of winter. Except Hutch.

And him. But then, he'd had no choice.

Starsky thrust that thought aside. True, this was possibly the last place on Earth he would have imagined spending the rest of his life, but the choice had been entirely his own. He couldn't blame anyone, least of all Hutch. The blond hadn't even asked him to come here.

Tiring of the overcast, dreary orchard, he started back towards the house. The small, white, two-story farmhouse was the thing he liked best about this sudden change of environment. It already felt like a real home; it even had a basement.

The kitchen door was warped and stuck a little in the damp weather, so he had to tug to get it open. The burst of warm air welcomed him like a long lost friend. He hung his jacket on a peg beside the door and looked around for his partner, but Hutch wasn't in the kitchen.

He found him a few minutes later asleep on the couch. Mildly disappointed, Starsky set down one of the steaming coffee mugs on the table, and took a chair next to the couch, close to the fire. The joyful flames warmed him, and for a while he sat there luxuriating in its gentle heat waves and sipping at his coffee.

Then his gaze turned toward his sleeping partner. They'd been working all morning on painting the upstairs bedrooms. Starsky realized that he should be tired, too, but after his enforced convalescence, the hard work seemed to invigorate him.

The peacefulness of the sleeping face struck him instantly. Hutch looked more relaxed than he had in a long time. Somehow younger, too. In the last two weeks the heavy circles that had hung under those clear blue eyes for so many months that Starsky couldn't see them anymore had disappeared. He'd noticed their going, though, and tried to remember when they'd first appeared. They'd just been an accepted part of Hutch's appearance since he'd opened his eyes in the intensive care unit following Gunther's attack. The long months of his recovery had done nothing to ease them; if anything, they'd seemed to darken. But they were gone now, and Hutch looked like a different man without them.

Starsky studied his partner, feeling in his heart for the first time that he'd made the right decision in coming here. This place had worked wonders on Hutch, and for that reason alone Starsky would love it always.

The orange firelight played across Hutch's heat-flushed cheeks, giving the tall blond the incongruously innocent air of a sleeping child. He watched the flickering light dance from one long golden strand to another. In the shadows of the curtain-draped room, Hutch was an island of light. The shimmering beams seemed to court his skin, even his clothes. The blues and reds of the plaid shirt shouldn't have seemed more vivid in what was essentially dimmer light. The white plastic buttons on it gleamed like pearls, even the button on the blue jeans glinting like copper. The transformation was incredible to Starsky.

He tried to find some trace of the unkempt, desperate man he'd fought with five weeks ago. Although almost the antithesis of the tranquil sleeper, that man was his partner too.

A chill that had nothing to do with the rising wind outside touched him as he remembered that horrible night. He found himself once again back in his LA apartment scared to death by the words of a man who'd been a major part of himself for all the important years of his life.

"You're what?" He heard himself demand, tone sharp with disbelief.

"You heard me." The taut form wasn't giving an inch. He'd seen that look before. Last stand, fight to the death, although Hutch looked far too weary to pull it oft. The glassy quality in the pained blue stare told him his partner hadn't slept at all last night, maybe even the night before that, though Starsky couldn't remember him being any more tired than usual. It was only then that it occurred to him just how tired Hutch always seemed to be lately.

"Why?"

"I can't take it anymore." There wasn't any hint of apology in the tone, nor any trace of emotion other than complete exhaustion.

Starsky considered the explanation. He could understand why his partner wanted out. His recovery had been gruelling. Hutch had been there every step of the way, helping with exercises, seeing that he ate right and got to doctor and therapy appointments on time, making all the unbearable more acceptable by his mere presence and undying faith in his recovery, and doing all this for him while working his regular job. It had sapped the blond's strength, draining him beyond endurance. Yet Hutch had endured. Now that that was behind them and things were marginally better, Hutch wanted out. It didn't make any sense. "Why now? I mean, why'd you wait till today? You coulda left last week, last month even..."

"It wasn't necessary then."

He could tell Hutch didn't like this any better than he did, but he couldn't let his partner run out on him without knowing all the whys of it. "Huh?"

"You weren't back on duty. The review board..."

"You mean you waited till you knew I was better to..."

Hutch shook his head, impatiently brushing back the tangle of straw that fell across his face. "No, I always knew you'd get better. I just didn't know they'd...let you go back."

That really confused him. Hutch had been the one who'd assured him that he'd be fit enough to resume duty. "You didn't want me to?" he asked, feeling he'd been betrayed down to the smallest fiber of his being.

"Starsk, I...I know what this means to you. I tried, tried to believe that it was all going to be the same again, but..."

"But what?" he demanded, seeing weakness and going for it.

"I can't watch you die again, Starsk." The tone pleaded for understanding, and in that moment Starsky comprehended the terrible struggle it must have been to bring his partner to this. But understanding didn't take away the pain. All that work for nothing. Hutch was running out on him.

"And it'll be easier hearing I got blown away when you weren't here to stop it?" It was a cheap shot. He could see it hit hard. Hutch trembled, his resolve visibly wavering. Then his back stiffened and all emotion left his eyes.

"I...I'm leaving, Starsk. Take care of yourself."

Then he was gone, and Starsky had stood there with that cold farewell ringing in his mind. He'd allowed his anger to seethe for perhaps twenty minutes, then he'd started to think. About Hutch.

It had been a long time since his partner had been happy on the force. Even his wanting to leave wasn't new. They'd thrown their badges away before they'd even heard of Gunther, and talked about it long before that. He'd always wondered why Hutch had taken his shield back, his disillusion had seemed so complete. Only slowly had he come to realize that it was for him, to remain by his side.

And it had cost the quiet blond. Just what, not even Starsky had understood. But Hutch couldn't pay the price any longer.

So he was leaving.

Why Hutch had waited until almost the very eve of the day before he was scheduled to return to duty to tell him Starsky also understood. All along he'd probably been hoping to find the strength to stay, to go on pretending for him. But there weren't any reserves left for Hutch to draw on. The last thirteen months had drained his partner completely, physically and emotionally.

Less than an hour had passed between the time Hutch had left his apartment, and Starsky found himself at Venice Place, his decision already made. Not expecting an answer to his knock, he let himself in the dark apartment. The unexpected silhouettes of already packed boxes cluttering the living room floor stopped him cold.

It took him a long time to distinguish the ghostlike figure watching him from the couch. He recognized the slumped position instantly. Gillian, Jack, Vanessa...Hutch standing guard over the dead.

"You might as well go. You won't change my mind." The voice sounded as dead as the pose.

"I didn't come here for that."

"No?"

Was it disappointment or only confusion wavering in the tense syllable? Starsky couldn't tell for certain, but he could sense his partner's uneasiness as he closed the distance between them. "No," he stated firmly, sitting close but not too close. He could just make out the drawn features in the eerie silver of the streetlight seeping through the window.

Hutch drew a deep, shuddering breath. "Starsk, I just can't..."

He cut off the explanation. "Don't. I know you can't. You shouldn't haveta." That earned him Hutch's full attention. He felt rather than saw the blond's confusion. "It's been over a year." As if it explained everything; maybe it did. Thirteen months was a long time to be out of action. Although he knew he could never be entirely out of touch with the street, that year's absence would slow him down. Of course, he would have had his partner right there beside him, and Hutch hadn't been out of touch, but..."Could I ask you somethin', babe?"

He could feel Hutch stiffen, could almost hear him thinking he was going to break his word and ask him to stay after all. And he could sense the vulnerability, tell how easy it would be for him to do it. Not with angry words and accusations like before, but with gentleness and his all too real need to have Hutch there for him. Hutch's hesitant "Sure" brought a fierce stinging to his eyes. "Last year," he finally managed around the lump in his throat, "why didn't you..."

"Pack it in when they shot you?" Hutch finished, then continued at Starsky's nod. "I thought about it, but...knew you'd be coming back. Figured it'd be easier for you if I was there." And it had. Hutch had pushed to get him back till they'd given in. "And I thought that once you were...better, maybe it'd be better for me too, but...I'm sorry I let you down, partner." Hutch choked on that last word as it had hurt to say it.

"Let me down? You're the one thing that's held me up this last year. 'Sides, you ain't the one who done the lettin' down."

"Huh?"

"I shouldn't'a said some of the things I said before, yelled at you like that..."

"Starsky, I didn't expect you to take this calmly." Hutch sounded incredulous.

"Yeah, well, I just felt like...like you were runnin' out on me." His confession left the room strangely empty of sound.

"And now you don't?"

"It ain't me you're runnin' from, is it?"

His quiet question seemed to take his friend by surprise. Hutch stared at him, shaking his head solemnly. "No, never from you."

A part of him that he hadn't even realized was waiting for that answer relaxed. "Good." He let a grin break through, reached out to clasp his partner's shoulder.

"Starsk, why...why aren't you upset about...it?" Hutch finally asked, making Starsky realize just how discordant his good humor was with the present situation. Also, it reminded him that he hadn't mentioned his plans. Hutch could still refuse. Just because he'd accepted it as the only logical alternative didn't mean that his partner would see it the same way. "I ain't upset 'cause I want, I mean...could I come?" Last time it had been easier. There hadn't been any words to clutter it up. Just one explicit gesture. But there wasn't any ocean here this time, and for all he knew, Hutch might have already turned his badge over to Dobey.

A moment's silence, then, "Huh?"

"I want to come with you. I mean..." He didn't know what else he meant. His request seemed to say it all.

"Starsky, you don't even know where I'm going to." Hutch pointed out, shock vying with amusement in the soft voice.

"Uhh..." With more than a little startlement, Starsky realized this was true. Hutch hadn't said where, just that he was going away from LA. "Well, you gonna tell me or surprise me when we get there?" Assuming, of course, Hutch allowed him to go.

"Washington." The hint of eagerness in Hutch's voice dispelled any doubts he might have had about his partner's wanting him there. In fact, he sounded as if it were something he had wanted very much, but had been afraid to ask.

"Well, that ain't so bad," Starsky said, sensing a sudden burst of anxiety from the other end of the couch. "Always did want to see the White House."

"Not the Capitol, Starsk, the state."

"The state," he repeated as blankly as if their destination had been the dark side of the moon.

Hutch had told him about the apple orchard then, his excitement and vibrance at the prospect filling the dark room with the joy and excitement of Christmas Eve. Spellbound, Starsky listened. Not since the day he'd opened his eyes in ICU had Hutch been this exuberant over anything. "The house needs some repairs," Hutch explained, his excitement finally winding down. "Hasn't been lived in for a couple of years, but..."

"We'll fix her up."

"You...you still want to come?"

"Don't you want me to?" he asked, even though the hope ringing in Hutch's question had already answered his own.

"I just didn't think you'd...Starsk, it's in the middle of the woods. There aren't any real towns or cities nearby. No tacos or hamburgers or..."

"You know, I'm beginnin' to think you really don't want me along."

"It's not that. It's just that I want you to know what you're getting into."

"Hey, I wanta help you pick apples, okay?" He could feel Hutch's gaze digging into him, wondered how much his partner could see of him in the dark. He hoped the view wasn't too clear.

"Okay."

And so three weeks later they had moved up here to play Johnny Appleseed. Any reservations Starsky had had, he'd kept to himself. Hutch was happy. He didn't want anything disturbing that reality.

The fact that neither of them knew a thing about raising and harvesting an apple crop didn't seem to bother his partner at all. The intensive reading Hutch was doing on the subject since they'd arrived was slowly calming most of Starsky's worries, but he still couldn't help fearing the day when something would have to be done to all those dead trees that now belonged to them.

"Starsk." The sleepy voice jolted him to awareness. Hutch stretched, long legs swinging off the side of the couch as he pulled himself into a sitting position.

"Mornin'."

Hutch smiled sheepishly. "Guess I fell asleep, huh?"

"Guess so."

"What time is it?"

Starsky checked his watch, a little surprised at the hour. "Almost seven." Just how long had he been watching his partner sleep?

"You hungry?"

He nodded and followed Hutch into the kitchen. It was bigger than both their old ones put together, with plenty of room for two people to work.

As they sat down to eat, Starsky could feel an almost familiar uneasiness settling around them. It wasn't tension, exactly, Starsky realized, examining the feeling more closely as he bit into his hamburger. Not the kind that made you nervous in another's company, anyway. It was more like waiting, he decided, like when they were on stakeout waiting for something to break. Only he wasn't too sure what they were waiting for. Hutch's silence told him his partner felt it too. Maybe it was just the effect of their new environment. Everything else up here seemed to have wound down to a frosty calm, as it anticipating the first real snow fall. At least that's what Hutch said it was; Starsky wasn't so sure.

They finished the meal and cleanup in silence, but finally Starsky broke it. "What are we gonna do now?" They hadn't had a chance to put up the aerial yet, so they couldn't even watch TV. With each passing day he was becoming more and more aware of just how little there was to do up here.

"The little room needs..."

"I'm all painted out for today," he cut in firmly, not missing his partner's relief. The paint fumes were starting to get to Hutch's allergies.

Hutch dried his hands on a dishrag, then pushed the new curtain on the tiny window above the sink aside, peering speculatively out at the darkness. "Well, what do you want to do?"

"We could watch TV, but...can we put up the antenna?"

"In the dark?"

That effectively silenced any further persuasions he might have planned. "Guess it's reading again, then."

"Starsk, I have to do something or I'm never gonna get to sleep tonight. Didn't mean to flake off like that before. You shoulda woke me."

"You looked too peaceful," Starsky explained, preparing a 'Sleeping Beauty' comment. The flush which reddened Hutch's cheeks stopped it. An expression he couldn't place flickered across his partner's face, then Hutch turned back towards the window, a strange tightness controlling the lean figure.

"Want to go for a walk?"

"It's dark out," he reminded.

"Aw, come on, Starsk, you said you were bored."

"I did not!" The protest was too fast. Although he might have felt that way, he'd been careful not to say so.

"You telling me you're not?" Hutch turned to face him.

He'd never been able to look Hutch in the eye and tell him a direct lie. It was no different now. "I, ahh..." His eyes shifted to the blackness beyond the window. "Hutch, it's dark out there. We won't be able to see where we're goin'."

"I wasn't planning on a hike through the woods, Starsk."

That reassured some of his fears, but not all of them. "What about...I mean we won't be able to see it anything comes out of the woods."

"Everything's hibernating, for god's sake. There's nothing out there."

"What about wolves? The guy at the gas station said..." The all too vivid description the otherwise dull mechanic had given him when he'd taken the decaying pickup truck that came along with the place in for its weekly revitalization still hung in his mind.

"Starsky, he was trying to scare you. There aren't any wolves up here, haven't been for years."

"How do you know? You've only lived here two weeks."

Anger darkened Hutch's eyes, and for a moment Starsky thought they were going to have another argument, then a sad look replaced the flash of temper. "Okay, have it your way."

He recognized the cold retort, the almost palpable sense of being shut out. Without another word Hutch left the kitchen, returning a minute later with his boots on. He watched the blond tug his black leather jacket oft its hook and walk out the kitchen door into the night, alone.

"Hey, wait up!" he yelled to the closed door. By the time he'd shrugged into his own jacket and made it outside, Hutch was just turning the corner of the house.

"Hutch, wait!" His voice boomed through the frosty quiet. It was impossible that Hutch hadn't heard him; everything for three mountains over must have heard that yell. But his partner's stride didn't slow a bit. The only thing that answered his call was the north wind's whoosh through the bare trees. "Hutch!" His friend disappeared into the darkness on the other side of the corner. He raced forward, halting abruptly as he rounded the same corner.

Hutch was leaning against the wall, his still figure as much a part of the night that Starsky almost missed him in the shadows. He approached warily, cautious as a hunter stalking a dangerous prey.

"Thought you were afraid of the dark."

Starsky shrugged, glancing around nervously. Despite the now-clear sky, it was dark out here, the blackness of the moonless mountain night darker than the loneliest back alley LA had to offer. It wasn't too bad standing here in the shadow of the house, but somehow Starsky didn't think Hutch would want to stay here for too long. He grimly considered the choices.

The kitchen door they'd come out of faced north. If they went back that way they could walk through the orchard he'd been strolling through that afternoon. The thought of making their way among those stunted, gnarled apple trees in the dark was almost too much to take. Their empty branches seemed to reach for them in the daylight; he wasn't giving them a shot at them in the night when they couldn't be seen.

In front of them an empty field stretched for an acre or two. There wasn't too much menacing about the field itself, only some dead weeds and wild grass, but he didn't like the huge pines bordering its other three ends. The copse to his left didn't worry him too much. It only ran for about twenty yards or so before it turned into apple orchard, but the trees at the opposite end and to his right marked the beginning of a forest that covered more miles than he liked to think about. Regardless of what Hutch said, there were enough trees and caves out there to shelter an army of hungry wolves and bears.

Their last choice was to go around to the front of the house and follow the road, a totally inadequate dirt path that didn't even begin to live up to its title. Although it had high banks, Starsky wasn't going anywhere near that glorified deer trail at night on foot. Not only wouldn't they be able to see the deep ruts and boulders decorating the leaf-blanketed road, but whatever decided to join them from the woods lining its banks would remain unseen until it was upon them.

"It ain't the dark I'm afraid of," Starsky muttered as Hutch set out across the field. He followed, glad his partner had chosen the most innocuous of their alternatives.

"What did you say?" Hutch called back over his shoulder, the words rising in a huff of white breath.

"Nothin'." He didn't want to get Hutch mad at him again, so he walked in silence, trying to watch his footing and the trees on all three sides of them at the same time. Luckily, the ground was fairly even, and had apparently been well-ploughed at one time. He didn't trip on any unexpected obstacles or get his feet tangled in the grass. Instead Starsky found himself liking the feel of the dead grass. Though sere and crisp, it was welcome padding between the thin soles of his running shoes and the frozen ground.

Hutch stopped abruptly, almost exactly at the center of the frosted field.

With his eyes fixed on the fang-like fringe of swaying pines to their right, Starsky didn't notice his partner until he banged into him.

"Umpf!" Hutch grunted as he regained his balance. "Would you watch where you're going?"

"What are you stoppin' for?" Starsky demanded, beginning to feel the bite of the wind now that they were no longer moving. He pulled his zipper up closer to his neck, then dug his hands into his pockets, making a mental note to buy a new coat. Leather jackets might be more than enough for southern California's 'winter', but even with heavy wool sweaters beneath them they didn't keep you warm up here in Washington.

"I wanted to show you something."

Panicky, his eyes scanned the wooded horizons. "What?" Aside from the swaying shadows of the trees and the eerie keening of the wind, he didn't see or hear anything unusual. Then again, he wasn't sure if he'd know unusual out here if it jumped out and grabbed him. Starsky uneasily checked the grass around their feet. He didn't think snakes ran around loose in winter, but then they weren't supposed to run around in refrigerators either. "What's wrong, Hutch?" He tried to keep the anxiety out of his voice, but couldn't help taking another step or two closer to his partner.

"There's nothing wrong, Starsk. I told you before everything's hibernating this time of year, so you don't have to keep watching the woods."

He turned defiantly towards his partner, his defenses up and ready for an argument. He wasn't a child to be patronized. This wasn't his natural environment. He had every right to be unnerved by it.

The look on Hutch's face drowned his anger—amused, flooded with affection. His partner wasn't making fun of him. This was the same look Hutch had given him when he'd announced that he was taking his Torino to Washington with them.

He found himself, smiling back, not really thinking of the woods around them. "So what did you want to show me?" He noticed for the first time that night how the starlight affected his partner. Light usually turned Hutch's hair to gold, but tonight it shone silver against the surrounding blackness.

"You get a great view of the stars from out here," Hutch explained. "Thought you might want to take advantage of it while you're—" Starsky heard the unspoken 'here' echo through both their minds before Hutch tagged an unconvincing "standing here in the middle of a field" onto the broken sentence.

He looked questioningly at his partner, but was met with nothing but downcast eyes and silence. After a moment Hutch raised his head. The stubborn slant of his chin and guarded expression told Starsky that something had hurt him. That face also told him that Hutch wasn't ready to talk about it yet.

He nodded at the unvoiced request for time, his worry dissolving under Hutch's grateful smile. Whatever the problem was, he was almost certain the blond didn't want him to leave. Nevertheless, he determined to keep his childish phobias under firm control. Hutch wanted him to look at stars. With one last glance at the trees, he turned his gaze upward.

The sight literally tore the breath from his chest. On their past vacations to the wilds of Bear Lake, Hutch had occasionally coaxed him out into the darkness with this purpose in mind. But those vacation had always been in summer, when the riot of noise and activity in the trees around them had insured the sky nothing but the most cursory of glances. Now, in the dead of winter with nothing but Hutch and the wind for company, he finally comprehended what it was his partner had been trying to share with him all those times he couldn't take his eyes oft the woods.

Before, the sky had always been the sky. Sometimes cloudy, sometimes not, never anything to really take notice of, just something that was there. This sky wasn't just background. It asserted itself with a stunning clarity Starsky had never would have believed possible. The familiar faces of the few brave stars that had struggled through LA's smog were there, somewhere, but he couldn't find them. They might have been the brightest of the myriad of diamonds shimmering above him or maybe they had abandoned the lush velvet of this crowded ebony plain to brighten the pitiful city sky. The glitter sea above him could have parted with a million of its jewels and never have shown the loss.

As he drank in the sight, he became aware of the differences between the stars. Hutch had once gotten annoyed at him when after an hour's trying he still couldn't pick out the red star in Orion's belt or wherever it had been. He'd tried to find it, but they had all looked white to him. Now, with so many to compare, he could see how they varied. The differences weren't extreme as he'd first thought, just subtle tints. The so-called red stars had a slight orangish hue. There were yellowish ones too, and silver, and white ones that shone so bright they almost looked blue.

"Are they always like this?" he whispered, head still thrown back to catch it all. The sound of his own voice made him feel little and alone in the presence of all that cold beauty. He instinctively took another side step closer to Hutch, not realizing there wasn't room for it till he collided with the tall blond again. Instead of sliding away, Hutch's hand slipped around his waist.

"Pretty much." Hutch's tone was also subdued. "But I think they look brighter when it's cold like this."

He nodded solemnly. With his head tilted in that unaccustomed position, the small motion jarred his equilibrium, flooding him with a sudden sense of vertigo. Hutch's hold tightened around him, supporting him until the dizziness stopped.

Starsky was grateful for the support and warmth afforded by the light embrace. Gradually he became aware of something else: a sense of being watched. His first instinct was to spin around and check the woods, but somehow it wasn't that kind of surveillance. Nothing menacing, when he examined it carefully; he didn't even find it all that unfamiliar.

One glance at Hutch confirmed his suspicion. Hutch wasn't even looking at the sky. His eyes were fixed firmly on Starsky, the blond seemingly as mesmerized by the sight before him as Starsky was by the stars. For a second their eyes met. Whether it was a sudden gust of wind or whatever was burning in those too-bright eyes, Starsky shuddered, looking quickly away. Hutch's grip tightened, drawing him still closer. Though it was only their sides pressed so tightly together, Starsky realized with a shock that their positions now had more of the intimacy of a lover's embrace than a friendly clasp. He tried to ignore that awareness, tried to return his attention to the stars, but the intensity of that stare was burning right through him.

He turned back at last, mouth open to ask a question he had no idea how to phrase. He'd miscalculated. They were closer than he'd thought, faces barely two inches apart, and he had to look up to see Hutch's eyes. They were still very bright, and totally unfocused. As he watched, they seemed to come closer, and he let them, as fascinated by the light in the blue depths as he'd been by the starlight moments earlier.

The next seconds were the most shocking of his life, in their own way as jarring as Gunther's bullets. With a strangled gasp, Hutch's mouth covered his. Starsky stood there, listening to the loud crinkle as the leather jackets squeaked together, letting himself be kissed, barely aware of what was happening. He felt only the sudden warmth as that slender body strained against him, the demanding pull of strong hands on his butt, forcing him closer, and above all the desperation in the lips that had taken his own.

When they parted, it was Hutch who did the separating. His hands freed him as abruptly as they'd clutched him, springing loose as if burned. The blond pulled back, far back, his chest heaving as he fought to capture the icy air.

Starsky stood still, stunned, knowing nothing but the tingle that continued to sing along his nerves. He could see that Hutch was as shocked by what he'd done as he, staring at him as if he'd just dropped from the stars. There was a growing wildness in that stare, easily identified as disbelief. "I...I...I'm sorry..." Hutch mumbled, then fled before Starsky could move.

He watched his partner run, his windblown hair trailing behind him. He should have been angry, frightened, even disgusted by what Hutch had done, yet the only thing he felt at the sight of his fleeing friend was confusion, and a lonely hurt that felt a hell of a lot like rejection. It was crazy. Three minutes ago he'd been standing in this exact spot marveling at the beauty of nature. Now he was standing here with a man's kiss burning his lips and feeling deserted.

Starsky watched the tall blond for a moment longer. Hutch was running in the wrong direction, away from the house straight for the woods. "Hutch!" he shouted, then took off after him, flying as though he had a pack of ravenous wolves nipping at his heels. The blond looked over his shoulder once, then increased his speed.

Starsky soon found himself, gaining on the runner, probably from sheer desperation. He wasn't sure why he was chasing Hutch, or what he was going to say when he caught up with him. He knew he should let him go and wait until he was ready to talk this out calmly. But something told him it wouldn't go down that way. If he let Hutch keep going he wouldn't be back. Oh, he might come back bodily when he'd tired himself out, but the fear Starsky had seen in those eyes promised there'd be a wall between them too thick to breach.

"Wait up!" he gasped when he got within yelling distance. They were on the fringe of the woods. Before them was nothing but a tall, black living wall. He could smell the pines, feel the change in the rocky ground beneath his feet. And Hutch wasn't slowing; if anything, he was trying to run faster. Starsky knew he was no runner. The suicidal sprint he'd made was already taking its toll in his aching side. Hutch was not only a runner but was in better condition than him. With a last desperate effort he plunged forward, flinging himself at Hutch's back.

He hit hard. Hutch's legs went out from under him, sending them both sprawling into the dark shadows of the pines in a confused tangle. A tree trunk stopped their roll, knocking the breath out of the pair of them.

When Starsky opened his eyes, Hutch was under him, his eyes screwed shut. "You alright?" The question was a sharp gasp. Hutch nodded tightly, then the eyelids raised. The blue eyes gazed up at him emptied of all emotion. Starsky cautiously rolled off, not having the strength to do more than sprawl beside the lean form. At least it made breathing a little easier.

"Well?" Hutch demanded between pants, sounding almost impatient.

"Huh?" He wasn't up to conversation yet. The way he felt at the moment Starsky wasn't even sure he was up to respiration.

"Get it over with! Hit me, yell, do whatever it is you're gonna do." The eyes were as icy as the night air, daring.

Starsky looked away, slightly amazed at what his partner could do with two sentences. Already the air between them felt charged with energy, almost crackling. Too tired for games, he shrugged and concentrated on gathering enough breath to answer. "Don't know what I wanna do."

With anyone else, he'd know for sure. A glib 'I don't go that route' usually discouraged the few unwanted passes he'd gotten from men in the past. Yet that blazing kiss didn't qualify as a pass by any stretch of the imagination. It was a statement with no question behind it. With anyone else his refusal would have been fast, furious and physical. But no one else, man or woman, had ever kissed him like that, so he'd still feel the sting of their lips even now, with each breath of air stabbing his lungs in daggers of pain and a cramp running through his guts and up his side so bad that the hamburger threatened a reappearance.

"What the hell's that supposed to mean—you don't know'??" Hutch's words came to him as if from a great distance, the anger and fear in them muted by time and space or the great wad of cotton shrouding his senses. "I just kissed you and you don't know? What kind of answer is that?!" A moment's silence in which he was very aware of the song of the wind and the sharp bite of the brittle pine needles in the flesh of his palms followed the outburst. With every sea-like whoosh of air overhead, a dark, long-needled branch would slap the back of the angry blond's head and try to steal a few of the silvery strands on its return. Starsky watched the tree struggle for a part of his friend, not really hearing the angry tirade or feeling much beyond his own desperate grapple for breath until Hutch's voice finally cut through the cotton wool. "Starsky? Starsk, what's wrong?" No more anger, just cold fear. The fear caught his attention.

Hutch wasn't sitting beside him anymore or yelling at him. The tall form was crouched over him. Strong hands unzipped his jacket, opening him to the cold. They began to firmly knead the muscles on the side of his chest. Their steady motion seemed to loosen the vice on his lungs. "That's it," Hutch encouraged. "Relax; just breathe. It's okay. You're going to be all right." Hutch kept up the steady stream of crooning words and magical touches until Starsky's breathing had settled to nearly normal. Then he sat back on his heels and pulled shirt and sweater back down over the chilled skin.

"Better?"

Starsky could feel those eyes watching him again. He nodded, then tried out his voice. "Yeah, thanks."

"Don't thank me."

He flinched at the sharpness in the voice, pulling back from the blond. Hutch's hand caught his arm before he could move away. That hand was shaking.

"No, please, are you sure you're all right, Starsk?" The voice belonged to the Hutch they'd left behind in LA, the Hutch his death haunted.

"Was just a cramp, babe. It's gone now."

A tight nod, eyes averted. He knew Hutch wasn't looking at him because he couldn't feel it. The starlight was too faint under the tree to see much else of his partner besides the silver web of hair. He'd have to get very close like before in order to catch any of his facial expressions. A quiver stirred his newly stilled innards at that thought.

"Think you can make it back to the house?"

Starsky looked in that direction. He could just make out the yellow glow of the kitchen windows at the end of the field. The small trees they had crashed through blocked out most of his view of the house and, luckily, most of the howling wind whipping the empty ground before them. Those yellow patches of light looked awfully warm and inviting to Starsky, but something made him hesitate.

That little white farmhouse had a lot of rooms in it. The moment they crossed its worn threshold it would put space between them. Hutch had already slipped away from him. He didn't want him to slip any further until they'd had a chance to talk about whatever it was that had just happened between them. "Give me a minute or two to catch my breath, will ya?" he stalled, knowing the way to get the time he needed and ensure the blond's staying with him.

"Sure." Hutch sank to the needle-blanketed floor of the forest from his crouch.

"Why'd you run away from me?" Starsky realized that the silence was stretched so taut between them that he began to imagine he could feel the protests of his partner's nerves as well as his own.

Hutch's body stiffened as if doused with ice water, but there was no verbal response.

"Hutch?"

Stinging sarcasm pelted him out of the darkness. "Don't you really mean why'd I do it?"

That should have been the question to ask, Starsky thought. Why, and indignant how-could-yous. Even though Hutch's fear had already told him the kiss wasn't planned, the question should have been asked. "No." He was disconcerted by his own lack of anger.

"Why not? You..."

He cut into the defensive tirade, too weary to wait it out. "I was there, remember. That wasn't in the game plan."

"How do you know?" Hutch demanded. He seemed to want a fight very badly. "I could've..."

"You coulda, but you didn't. That wasn't exactly the ideal place for a seduction." He could feel his face burning and tried to cover his uneasiness. "Now if it were in front of the fireplace..."

The silence was absolute. Even the wind seemed to have shut up for the occasion. Mentally he continued the trail his words had left, little scared by where it led.

Hutch turned to him finally, looking at him directly for the first time since he'd started breathing again. "You don't seem very shaken by any of this."

Shaken. Starsky told himself that it was just the coldness of the resin-scented, frost-hardened ground that made him shiver. The wind shrieked off the field with renewed mania, and the eavesdropping pine tree made another play for his partner's hair. This time the bough firmly entangled itself in the glimmering mass and didn't fall back. When Hutch didn't immediately shake it loose, Starsky reached out and brushed the branch free from its target.

Hutch sat very still as Starsky let the silver-white cascade liberated from the tree sift through his fingers. Even to his numbed flesh the hair felt exquisitely soft, like rabbit fur or fine sable.

His gesture had brought him close enough to see Hutch's face again. The dappled starlight streaked unevenly across his partner's closed features. In the ghostly light he could see how firmly guarded that face was, frozen with a tight control hiding all emotion. A Viking king couldn't have had a visage that was more unreadable, more coldly intimidating than the blond's stony mask.

Yet something about that hard face told Starsky just how much his friend was hiding. Hutch didn't wear that look unless he was awfully vulnerable. The wall of ice was meant to protect more than offend. Starsky wavered uncertainly, unsure about just what that barrier was protecting his partner from—either Hutch wanted this very badly or he didn't want it at all.

He waited, watching the clouds of steamy breath meld then vanish in the frozen night. Strangely victorious excitement rushed through him as he noticed that the blond's breaths were coming quicker than his own, with shorter intervals between the foggy puffs.

Determined, he leaned forward and covered the full lips with his own, silently praying he'd made the right choice. At first there was no reaction and he was sure he'd blown it, then something seemed to crumble and his questing kiss was answered with the ferocious passion he remembered.

The abrupt change startled him for a moment, leaving him motionless against the sudden fervor. But his partner's awakening body seemed to call to his own, bypassing his startled mind as it had done on the field a short time ago. This was something that a part of him wanted that had nothing to do with thought. His arms clutched his friend, pulling him closer, tumbling them both over onto the nostril-tickling blanket of needles and pinecones.

For a few wonderful moments they stayed there on the ground, mouths occasionally parting for air but always returning to the inevitable kiss, bodies squirming against each other in instinctive eagerness to shed clothes.

Suddenly Hutch pulled back, almost gasping for breath.

"Wh-what...?"

"Not here," Hutch whispered hoarsely, rising shakily to his feet and giving Starsky a hand up. "Your skin's as cold as ice." Hutch laughed, making his way up the incline they'd rolled down.

"You're right," Starsky agreed, barely managing to get the words out between chattering teeth. "It it's too c...cold."

Once they'd struggled through the small trees at the field's edge, Hutch's hand dropped away from him. Starsky buried his near-frozen fingers deep in his pockets, wishing he could stick his head in there too, out of the bitter wind's reach. The blackness of the field hadn't lessened. The wind seemed stronger than before, teasing small patches of gray clouds in front of the glimmering clouds.

The darkness suited Starsky. His body was already too aware of his partner, sensitive to even the slightest movement in the lean form beside him. He didn't need the light. Without watching, he knew almost exactly where Hutch was placing each foot, how close each step brought his partner near him. It was an unusual sensation, a weird sort of peripheral awareness.

The silence wasn't broken until the kitchen door was closed behind them. "Go ahead and thaw out by the fire," Hutch suggested. "I'll be in in a minute."

Not really wanting to be out of his partner's presence, but still feeling the bite of the cold in every one of his fingers and his runny nose, Starsky plodded into the living room. The crackling fire drew him like the proverbial moth. He stood statue-like before the hearth, leather jacket still zipped all the way up to his neck, arms outstretched so far that his fingertips nearly dipped into the dancing flames.

As the heat seeped through him, Starsky took inventory. Everything still seemed to be there, although it was all somehow changed. His fingers smarted, but didn't hurt nearly as much as his stiff toes. There was a peculiar tingling in his thighs and butt that was almost painful. But, surprisingly, the thing that bothered him the most was his ears. They seemed to be burning.

"How you doing?" Hutch was suddenly beside him. His nose was still red, but at least he had his jacket oft.

"My ears sting. What's that?" Starsky asked, noticing the two steaming, foam-topped mugs.

"Hot chocolate." Hutch slipped a cup into his bright red hands. "Be careful; it's awful hot."

"Thanks." Starsky slipped carefully down onto the bare floorboards in front of the fire. After a moment's hesitation, Hutch joined him. The blond seemed different; not distant, just skittish, as if it wouldn't take very much to scare him away. His eyes on the flames, Starsky sipped at his mug, listening to the roar of the wind outside the windows and the distracting rhythm of Hutch's breathing.

Eventually the warmth became uncomfortable. Starsky put his mug down beside his knee, almost succeeding in ignoring the nearby leg, and unzipped his jacket. The still-cold metal stuck stubbornly at the bottom. His shaky fingers finally got the thing open. He shrugged it oft impatiently and tossed it up at the couch, missing it by a couple of inches.

He smiled bitterly at the near miss. So far his luck was consistent, if nothing else. He realized now that his instincts had been right. They should never have come back to the house. What had happened out there was an accident, not something that could be carried back home with them.

The sense of loss he felt startled him. It wasn't as if this was something he'd longed for, craved with a hungry heart for months or even years. A sudden passion was all it was, nothing more. A wild, impetuous act that would never, could never be repeated. It was probably best forgotten, but...

"You know," Starsky said abruptly, the sound of his voice surprising even himself. Beside him Hutch jumped a little. "...Before, when you said we should go back to the house, I thought we were going to bed."

The blunt, uncomfortable statement seemed to hang unanswered for a very long time.

"Is that what you want?" Hutch finally asked.

The curly-haired man looked over at the fire-lit blond and didn't turn away this time, not caring what Hutch read in his face. The unyielding stubborn strength in those guarded Nordic features, meant to ward off the topic, only intrigued Starsky. "I think so," he answered slowly, watching the slender man shiver at the quiet response. "What about you?"

Hutch nervously ran his tongue across his dry upper lip.

Starsky found himself staring at the glistening trail left by the pink flesh, his body aching for its taste.

"It...it'll change everything."

"Maybe," Starsky conceded, not even sure if it were a protest. "But I still want it, partner."

"You've never wanted it before," Hutch reminded, his eyes fixed on the mug in his hands.

"So? I never wanted to live on a farm either, but I'm here with you."

"For me, you mean."

"Huh?" The dispirited tone puzzled Starsky.

"Never mind."

"Why've you always got to worry about the whys, Hutch? Can't you just...enjoy it?"

The gentle questions seemed to trouble his friend, instead of relaxing him as intended. "No, not without...Starsk, I don't even know why I...did that to you."

"Does the reason matter that much?" He was curious, the bent head telling him that it did.

"Doesn't it bother you?" Hutch demanded. "I was sure you'd be angry, but..."

Starsky considered his answer carefully. Out on the field, he'd been shocked, but the surprise had been followed by excitement, not anger. "I ain't mad. Maybe if we were still on the force, back in the city, with all the hassles it'd cause, it'd bother me. I don't know. But out here...it's just us. It feels too good to just forget about it 'cause it ain't somethin' we planned on, ya know?"

Hutch nodded. "Yeah, but we aren't exactly alone up here either, Starsk. We've still got neighbors—neighbors with small town values. They..."

"Probably think it anyway. How many single guys you think retire together out here in the boondocks? They'd have to think it's a little weird to begin with, us not knowin' nothin' 'bout farms and all."

"You thought of that?" Hutch sounded astonished.

Starsky shrugged. "When we were gettin' ready to go it sorta crossed my mind."

"And you still came?"

"It wasn't the apples I was comin' for, Hutch, or the neighbors."

"But..."

"Didn't you think of it?"

"Yeah, I did."

"You didn't mention it either, and you're here."

Starsky watched his partner's cheeks turn almost the same bright color his own hands had been a few minutes ago.

"I wanted you to come." It sounded like an apology.

"You thought I wouldn't?"

"No, not exactly. I just thought that you already had enough to deal with without...worrying about that."

"So you've been doin' the worryin' for me the past few days?" Starsky wondered if that could be the cause of all the tension between them.

"No. Like I said, it just crossed my mind."

"But somethin's been different."

Hutch drained off the rest of his hot chocolate. Starsky stared at the exposed neck, his body telling him just how different things were between them now. He was almost relieved when the blond bent his head to gaze into the empty mug. When almost two minutes had gone by and Hutch still hadn't raised his head, he began to worry. He'd seen that hurt look too many times this week. Before, he'd let his partner alone because Hutch seemed to want it that way, but now he couldn't ignore it anymore. "Hey," Starsky lowered his voice to utter gentleness, raising Hutch's chin with his hand, "what is it?"

There was nothing hidden in the face this time. The blue eyes were huge and very vulnerable. They seemed to be pleading with him, asking something he just wasn't picking up. Finally, the blond spoke.

"Do you really want me, Starsk?"

What he really wanted was an answer, but his partner's question melted every ounce of his control. His willpower wavered under a rush of heat and a frightful excitement he hadn't felt since he was a kid. It was more than wanting; this yearning was need, frantic as the lungs' demand for air. The feeling choked his vocal chords, so that all he could do was nod helplessly.

"Then come on." Hutch was decisive, bouncing to his feet and leading the way up the shadowed creaky staircase. Starsky followed, confused and slightly unnerved by the sudden change in his friend. Hutch paused in the doorway to the only finished bedroom, glancing over his shoulder as if to make sure Starsky was still with him. Now that they were actually here in the dark room, some of the blond's determination seem to have slipped away. Starsky could almost feel Hutch's muscles tensing at his approach, the nervousness in his slender partner almost a tangible presence.

Starsky paused, uncertain. Something was bothering Hutch, had been for days. He realized now that the suggestion which had brought them up here to the bedroom was a calculated attempt at changing the subject, not motivated by passion. He was sure that Hutch wanted him, but he sensed that even that wanting was somehow tied up with whatever had been bugging his friend in the first place.

Common sense told him that he should put a stop to this right now and find out what was troubling the blond, but once again his instincts warned him away from it. Whatever it was, Hutch didn't want to tell him. Trying to force it would only drive him away.

Starsky stepped closer, half-expecting Hutch to move away, but his partner only tensed more. The blond was still standing in the doorway, looking back at him like a nervous parachutist on his first jump. Starsky eyed the stiff back, surprised at the appreciative stirring he felt when his gaze touched the firm-looking butt. Spurred by the feeling, he reached out and lightly encircled Hutch's hips from behind, waiting to see what would happen.

For a long moment Hutch stood totally still, statue-like in his embrace. Then Starsky felt a hand settle upon his entwined fingers that were resting on Hutch's waistband. The hot, damp palm covered his knuckles, pressing down as if trying to prevent him from removing his hands.

The joy that burst through him at even that small response made Starsky want to grab his friend and crush him to himself, but he waited instead, willing his body to relax. He could feel the tautness easing from Hutch's muscles. After a few more minutes he saw his partner's squared shoulders arch backwards, straining until one of them touched Starsky's chin. He rubbed his chin against the blond's plaid shirt like a cat, stopping only to raise it a little so that the shoulder could nestle against his neck.

The rest of Hutch's body followed his shoulder, leaning back until they were pressed tightly together. Starsky squeezed his partner tighter, unconsciously grinding his hips against the nearby ass. At Hutch's gasp he stopped, ashamed at having pushed things. He'd only intended to hug his friend until Hutch was relaxed enough to turn around and pick up where they'd left oft in the woods, but once again his body was two steps ahead of his conscious intentions.

Amazed, he felt Hutch's butt wiggle against him, as if encouraging him. Nevertheless, Starsky took a step back, giving them some room. Already he could feel his flesh surging against his now uncomfortably tight pants. It he stayed this close, he'd come in minutes.

"Starsk?"

"It's okay." He buried his face in the hair beside his nose. He nuzzled through the silky strands that smelled of Hutch and pine, searching for the hidden ear. He licked behind it, kissing his way down to the shirt collar, enjoying the shivers he was causing.

His hands, restless at being held in place so long with nothing to touch but each other, slipped out from beneath Hutch's palm. They slowly moved up the front of his partner's shirt, rubbing in wide circles. The flatness of the chest intrigued him. The flesh beneath his palms wasn't soft and bouncy like a woman. The plate-like breasts were hard, like muscle. A bump under the shirt caught his attention. He squeezed it through the fabric, feeling it harden.

At that point, Hutch pressed back against him again, swaying seductively. This time it was Starsky who gasped. Even through two pairs of dungarees his straining shaft could feel the heat of Hutch's body. Curious, he let his hand drop down the blond's front. He lightly covered the denim-sheathed bulge, feeling it move and press against his palm. Starsky knew he should have been uncomfortable doing that to another man. It was sort of weird feeling that bulge grow and move, but knowing that Hutch was feeling the same thing happening to his own cock as it rubbed against his ass, and knowing that his partner had to be fully aware of the implication of that position yet was still allowing him to do it, any inhibitions he might have had died quietly. Experimentally he gently pushed down against the bulge.

"Staaaarsk," Hutch moaned, wobbling as if dizzy.

Starsky steadied his partner, realizing they were still standing. "Come on, Hutch. This ain't gonna work standin' in the doorway."

Hutch allowed him to guide them into the bedroom. Once there, the curly-haired man pulled the spread and blankets down on the bed. Starlight splashed across the white sheets, making them as stark as a snow-covered field.

"You want the light on?" Hutch was reaching for the lamp on the night table.

"Could we leave it like this?" Starsky asked, suddenly self-conscious. Much as he wanted to see all of Hutch as clearly as possible, there were parts of himself he'd rather Hutch not see at all. It was stupid, he knew. Hutch had seen those scars a thousand times, but he couldn't help wishing they weren't there.

"Sure, I like the starlight," Hutch agreed, starting to unbutton his shirt. "You know, Starsk, I think that's what made me...kiss you before." The blond's voice sounded shy, uncertain.

"Yeah?" He looked up from the sneaker he was unlacing. From his seat on the bed Hutch was very tall, like a giant silver and gold god from ancient folklore.

"Uh-huh. Your eyes were so bright it was like all those stars were up there just to make them shine."

A warm glow spread through Starsky at his partner's words. He relaxed a little, and started unbuttoning his shirt. "You didn't look so bad out there yourself, partner. Even the tree wanted you."

"Huh?"

"Never mind." He returned to unbuttoning his shirt, but stopped to watch Hutch slide his jeans down those long legs. The briefs followed soon after, revealing his still-erect cock. Starsky stared in amazement. How often had he seen Hutch naked before and yet never noticed how beautiful his body was? Remembering how long he'd spent watching his sleeping partner this afternoon, Starsky realized that he'd probably been aware of it all along. It had just never moved him like this before.

"You're still dressed," Hutch observed disappointedly.

"I took my shoes and socks off," Starsky protested, wiggling his bare toes.

"I'm not into feet, Starsk." The amusement in the soft voice made him feel good. Hutch sounded happy. Once again he started on the buttons.

"Let me help," Hutch said softly, sitting down beside him. Within seconds his partner had the last button opened. Looking down, Starsky caught the hands before they could pull the sides apart and reveal his chest.

"What is it?"

"You...you look so good without clothes." A lame excuse; he felt like a foolish child.

"What?" For a moment Hutch seemed bewildered by the compliment, then a hand cupped his cheek, lightly lifting his head. "Look at me, Starsk. They mightn't be where you can see them, but I've got some scars from that, too."

"I...I know." He tried to escape that understanding gaze, but the almost hypnotic brightness he'd seen on the field was back in Hutch's eyes. If a herd of hungry bears had crashed through the bedroom door at that point Starsky didn't think he'd be able to break free of that look.

"I want you, Starsk. Okay?"

He nodded, shivering, unsure if it were caused by the question itself or the thumb that was lightly rubbing the moles under his eye. Blond hair brushed across his cheek as Hutch's head lowered for a kiss. The tender almost questioning gentleness in those full lips was just what he needed. He marveled at the unrushed quality of the kiss, remembering how they'd both been burning minutes ago. His insecurities had temporarily doused his own desires, but Hutch had still been hard. Yet there was nothing demanding in those lips. They gave him the impression that Hutch was willing to spend all night just kissing him like that.

After a while he slipped his arms around Hutch, pulling the naked blond closer. The skin under his hands was warm, smooth as the softest suede or velvet. He stroked down the bare back, enjoying the tingling sensation of the deepening kiss.

Hutch's kiss moved from his lips to his chin, and from there down his neck. Starsky was so caught up in the spell of those kneading lips that he almost didn't notice the hands moving to his shirt. When he felt the sides lifted away he pulled back, suddenly tense again.

Hutch looked up, a question in his eyes.

A cold lump of fear had solidified Starsky's insides. Thirteen months since he'd last allowed someone to touch him. It had been going so well with Hutch that he thought it wouldn't bother him. He'd wanted his partner so much that he hadn't even thought about it until they'd gotten up here. Now all those doubts were back. Trembling to the bone, Starsky nodded, keeping a close watch on his partner's face as Hutch drew the shirt off his rigid shoulders.

With chest hair growing only on undamaged skin, it seemed to accentuate the scars more than disguise them. The red bullet holes and incision marks stood out fierce and ugly, marring the skin on the left side of his body from his ribs all the way up to above his breast. They were hideous, even frightening, but Hutch's expression didn't change at all.

The blond head bent to slowly kiss its way down his chest, spreading loving touches all over the mutilated flesh. Hutch didn't act as if it were an unpleasant chore done only to make him feel better. Those perfect lips pressed down on the hard red skin just as fervently as they had caressed his mouth and throat, and the blue eyes were still hot and unfocussed, as if the blond were really enjoying it. Eyes stinging, Starsky had to look away, staring out the window at the deserted field as his body shook under Hutch's mouth and hands. Palms brushed against his chest, urging him down onto the sheets. He lay back obediently, shivering at the cool touch of linen.

At last Hutch finished with his chest and reached for the top button of his jeans. Starsky watched the long fingers fumble with the clasp, surprised at their trembling. He reached out to stroke the mussed hair clear of his partner's eyes, lightly brushing the smooth cheek afterwards. Hutch turned into the caress, burying his mouth in the sweaty palm. The stiff mustache hairs tickled.

Eventually the recalcitrant button gave way. Starsky raised his hips as Hutch unzipped him. The jeans and briefs were skimmed off with one tug, and the blond sat back on his heels to look up at him. The smile Hutch wore was eager, playful, filled with promise.

Something very like hunger entered Hutch's face as his eves moved slowly down the exposed body. Starsky felt himself responding to that gaze as he would another's touch, his insides quivering with anticipation. He offered his hand, feeling it grasped before he had even finished reaching. Hutch allowed himself to be pulled up to the top of the bed and into another kiss. They lay side-by-side, nothing but mouths and hands touching at first.

Starsky drew a deep breath as they parted for air. His partner's scent was familiar, but in this new closeness, it was almost intoxicating. Hutch inched closer to him, the silver light from the window caressing his flawless form, accentuating the corded thigh muscles, flat stomach and strong chest. But it wasn't these Starsky noticed. His eyes fixed on the arcing cock, rising almost perpendicular to Hutch's prone body. Without even touching Hutch there he'd done that to his friend.

Momentarily intimidated, Starsky paused, unsure of what he was supposed to do next. A glance at Hutch, whose uncertain gaze rested on his own rising erection, reassured him a bit. At least he wasn't alone in this.

Even in the dimness he could see a blush color the fine skin as their eyes met.

"Together, babe?" Starsky suggested, opening his arms.

"Together," Hutch agreed, snuggling down on top of him into a kiss.

Starsky wasn't prepared for his body's reaction. Jolted by an exhilarating burst of excitement, he clung to the long body as it covered his own, forcing Hutch even closer. He encircled Hutch's chest, let his hands roam the smooth hot back until they reached the blond's butt. It was the first time he'd touched his friend here. His fingers skimmed the firm mounds, noticing how much cooler the skin seemed here than up near Hutch's shoulders, softer too. Cupping both cheeks, he gently squeezed, sharing the moan in their kiss.

Hutch's hard flesh that had been trapped between the blond's belly and his own hip seemed to twitch in response. Hutch squirmed in the tight hold Starsky had on him, moving to fit their bodies properly together. Their cocks bumped in the tight press of hips and testes. Fire leapt through Starsky at that first touch, building in relentless waves of passion. Those dizzying, melting spurts of pleasure raced through him, claiming and bearing all he was.

Their joined hips rocked in a gentle rhythm at first. However, the effect of that steady motion was anything but gentle. It ripped the feeling from them, making each breath a fight, demanding each thrust be harder than the one before, each burst of pleasure sharper than the last. The tempo of the rocking increased to a frantic beat. Their mouths separated to pant for air that couldn't be caught. Starsky buried his face in the sweaty hollow between Hutch's neck and shoulder. It he died, he'd do it here, breathing in Hutch, feeling that sweet agony.

There was a cry. Starsky wasn't sure who it had come from, but his attention was wrenched away by an instant of blackness and insurmountable ecstasy in which he was certain both of them died.

Slowly that certainty faded. The roaring in his ears subsided to a steady pounding that he eventually recognized as his heartbeat. Starsky listened to the sound of their joint gasps for breath, feeling Hutch's heart race where their chests met.

"How you doing, Starsk?"

Starsky was impressed. His partner had gotten through the question without a single break for air. He considered his reply. His body felt as if every iota of energy had been drained from it, and his heart was drumming like it would never slow down to normal. Other than that he felt wonderful. There was a warm jumpy feeling inside him that wanted to surround the man in his arms and never let loose. Not even Teri had made him feel anything like this love and complete contentment. It was a lot like the usual joy he felt in his partner's company, only stronger. Yet he didn't know how to say any of that without sounding soapy.

"Great. You?"

"The same." Hutch looked up at him. The warmth behind the soft smile convinced him that the feelings he'd been unable to express really were shared. There was a look to Hutch's face, an open, somehow shy pleasure that Starsky had never seen there before tonight.

He hugged his armload tighter, delighted by the eagerness with which Hutch cuddled against him. The blond head pillowed itself on his chest. With the creamy soft skin of Hutch's right cheek pressed against the hard scar tissue of a bullet wound and the golden hair draping an incision, Starsky closed his eyes and let exhaustion claim him.

*~*~*

The wind woke him again. Usually it had him up two or three times a night. He'd lie there in the dark, listening to it shriek, the old windowpanes rattling like they would fly in at him any second. Once it woke him it generally took almost an hour for Starsky to get back to sleep. But last night had been different. When he'd awakened in the dark, the room hadn't been cold and empty. The body sharing his bed was warm and didn't mind his curling around it, even though his moving woke Hutch too. Now he reached for that warmth, only to find it missing. "Hutch?" He sat up, blinking in the brightness.

"Right here." Huddled in his orange terrycloth robe, Hutch stood before the window. Behind him billions of huge white flakes swirled madly around.

"It's snowin'!" Starsky crowed with glee, bouncing off the bed. The floorboards were cold, and the old oil burner still hadn't taken the morning chill out of the air, but he hardly noticed. Overcome with a childlike joy, Starsky stared out the window. After so many winters spent in LA, he had almost forgotten how beautiful snow could be. He hadn't seen much of it in the last few years. Back in New York it fell and made everything clean and fluffy, until the people and cars got at it and turned it to slush. Up here there was nothing to mar it. He looked at the woods he'd been so frightened of since he'd got here. The bear and wolf sanctuary had been turned into a Christmas card.

"It's...beautiful. Can we build a snowman?"

"If you want."

Starsky looked at his amused partner, found himself grinning at the sudden burst of color in Hutch's cheeks. It sure was strange having the blond shy around him. "Good mornin', partner."

"Mornin', Starsk."

A little uncertain, he reached for the slender man, needing to reassert the feelings they'd shared. Hutch came to him without hesitation, seemingly relieved by his action. The kiss they shared was gentle and unrushed, in harmony with the sleepy feel of the snowy morning.

Hutch sighed as they parted. "I was afraid you'd..."

"Forget," Starsky supplied, reading the diffidence in the pale blue eyes.

"No, want to forget."

"No such luck, babe," Starsky assured, tousling the already tangled hair. "You're stuck with me."

Hutch hugged him tight.

"Hey, what's the matter?" Starsky sensed more than joy in the embrace.

"I...I've been thinking, Starsk."

He shivered a little at the hesitance in the soft voice, wondering if he might have read his partner wrong. Maybe Hutch was hoping that he would've wanted to forget. "Yeah?" He prompted when it seemed the blond man wasn't going to elucidate on his own.

"It you want, maybe...maybe we could move back to the city."

"Huh?" He pulled free of the embrace. "What're you talkin' about? We just moved outta the city."

"I know, but..."

"But what?" Starsky demanded, unnerved by the ludicrous suggestion. "You're the one who wanted to be out here with the rocks and trees, communin' with Mother Nature."

"Yeah, but there...there really isn't all that much to do up here, and..."

And absolutely everything he knew about this man was telling Starsky that his partner was lying. Hutch wasn't even looking at him. The faraway gaze was fixed on the white-laced pine trees. "What are you talkin' about? You love it up here. What's got into you?"

"You." The soft whisper was almost drowned under the wind's roar. "I...I liked us last night, Starsk. I don't want to lose that."

"Who said anythin' 'bout losin' it? All I said was I wanted to build a snowman." The absurd comeback brought a small smile to Hutch's face. Starsky stared at his partner, not knowing where any of this was coming from.

"You're not comfortable here," Hutch stated quietly. It wasn't a question, not even an accusation.

"I ain't complainin'," Starsky protested, mad at himself for spoiling this for Hutch.

"No, you haven't, and that's why I didn't bring it up before. Starsk, when I bought this place I thought you'd be mad at me, hate me for runnin' out on you. I never expected you to be coming with me. When you did come, I was happy, but I always got the feeling you wouldn't be staying. I don't want to be worrying about that for the rest of my life."

"So that's what's been botherin' you—waitin' for me to leave." Despite his confusion, Starsky was pleased by the matter of fact way Hutch talked about them staying together.

Hutch nodded slowly. "Should've said something before, but now I've got to, can't be that selfish anymore."

"Selfish?" Starsky goggled with disbelief. "I keep you on the force years after you're ready to quit, risk your life every day, and you're talkin' to me 'bout bein' selfish 'cause you like to live where there're trees???"

"You didn't keep me," Hutch insisted. "I chose to stay."

"Well, I chose to come out here with you and grow apples."

"You're not comfortable here," Hutch repeated stubbornly.

"Look, it's true that there are things out here that I'm not comfortable with, same way there were things in the city you weren't comfortable with. But that don't mean it's always gonna stay that way. I'll get used to it. Just takes time."

"You...you really want to stay?" Hutch managed to sound both overjoyed and incredulous at the same time.

"I never said I wanted to go," Starsky reminded, his eyes clouding at the hope shining in those bright eyes. That offer must have ripped him apart. "I wanna build a snowman today, put one of those big pines in the living room at Christmas, see those apple blossoms you been blabbin' about, and spend every single night with you in my bed. Is that plain enough?"

"Yes."

"Good. Come on," Starsky urged, tugging at his surprised partner's hand.

"Where?" Hutch looked like he was afraid he was going to be forced into an early morning snowball fight.

"Before it stops snowin'," Starsky began, smiling wickedly at the look of dismay on Hutch's face, knowing deep down that anything he suggested Hutch would do without protest, "...there are a few more things I want to see, and taste." With that, he toppled them both onto the bed and began sampling the squirming, laughing man beneath him.

The End

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