Remnants

By

Rosemary

AKA Tira Nog

 

"How'd it go, Starsky? Did they make you?" Captain Dobey asked around a mouthful of popcorn.

"No, I'm in."

Starsky watched the different way his three wooden syllables affected his two companions. The stouter and older of their group of three relaxed, resting his considerable girth against the slop sink of the broom closet they were crammed into. His captain was visibly pleased with a job well done.

Hutch, however, wasn't so easily fooled. Starsky saw the tall blond straighten, then those perceptive blue eyes dug into his face, as if trying to rip away all the layers of artifice the world forced upon him.

Normally, Starsky was more than happy to allow Hutch to read it all in his gaze, but not this afternoon. He turned his attention fully on Dobey, trying to block out his awareness of Hutch.

Shame was such a new thing between them, he didn't know how to deal. So, he just did his best to withdraw emotionally from the topic and report the facts, the way he'd fill out the details in an accident report—impersonal, like the events had nothing to do with him, like those cold hard facts hadn't stained his soul forever.

"Did Anderson check out your references?" their captain questioned the shakiest part of Starsky's cover, his pretense of being an ex-con. It was the weak link that was most likely to get him blown away. Starsky couldn't really blame his superior officer for worrying. Their entire set-up depended on the word of an imprisoned coke dealer who was trying to buy himself some good-will, and a shorter sentence, by cooperating. No cop could ever feel comfortable laying his life in the hands of an inside stoolie like Starsky had been forced to do this time out, but the group they were attempting to infiltrate wasn't your run-of-the-mill mob. Starsky couldn't work this case like a normal undercover setup. To get close to this particular mark, he was going to require an extensive, select background that couldn't be fabricated, so it had to be borrowed, which was always a risky proposition. The Schiller case had taught them the danger of impersonating living criminals.

"Yeah," Starsky nodded. "Delgado called from San Quentin last night. I was standing right in front of Anderson while he asked him about Villar. My cover held. They still don't know that Villar's dead."

Though he was downplaying how big a deal that phone call had been to keep up his captain's confidence in him, Hutch was probably able to see how he'd been scared spitless while his credentials were being verified.

"The story held, then?" Dobey probed, his dark, round face lined with concern. Dobey might be glad that Starsky was in, that his cover hadn't been blown now that they were actually getting close to their target, but it was clear their religious captain was having as much trouble handling this assignment as his inside man was. But that was only to be expected, Starsky supposed, unable to imagine what kind of cop wouldn't be creeped out by this particular undercover job.

"Yep. Villar's reputation for Satanism is legendary in C Block. Delgado confirmed everything," Starsky assured.

"Any trouble?" Dobey probed, visibly worried, as any good commanding officer should be.

Starsky shook his head. "No."

No trouble. Except, he still couldn't meet his partner's eye.

Hutch had been his back up last night, as on all the nights before that. His partner had been in a van around the block monitoring the transmission from the bug that Starsky had planted beneath the House of Satan's altar the previous week. Hutch had overheard every bit of last night's initiation ritual.

How he'd gotten this outré assignment, well, that was a whole other story in itself. Starsky was way out of his jurisdiction on this one, way out where the buses don't run. The Feds didn't want him in on it. Dobey didn't want him in there. Hutch didn't want him there. Hell, Starsky didn't want himself there, but when you had an in with the bad guys, you worked it for all it was worth.

This assignment was really his partner's fault, or, in truth, his partner's car's fault. A hot summer afternoon, an over-heated engine, an over-heated Hutch . . . they all made for a disastrous combination. Sensing imminent explosion, Starsky had wisely removed himself from the danger zone while Hutch and the Earl fought a battle royal over the resuscitation of Hutch's latest wreck. Of course, no one had told him to duck into that bar for shelter, but . . . it had seemed a good idea at the time. And like so many other good ideas, this one had led Starsky to the road to Hell.

Once, he'd seen that drug deal go down, the rest was history. He'd only caught the tail end of it, not enough to bust Baldino, but enough to convince Starsky that some pretty major action was going on in that bar. Maybe Starsky might've been able to just walk away from the scene and report it to the nearest precinct, if it had been anyone else but Vincent Baldino involved. His partner had a major jones for the creep, which pretty much meant that their jurisdiction rules went out the window until they could make an air-tight case against the guy.

After that first contact with Baldino all those months ago, all Starsky had been doing was paving the ground for your typical run-of-the-mill drug bust, working their mark in his off-duty hours because the child molestation charges Hutch had put the degenerate away on ten years ago hadn't been enough to keep the creep off the streets and his partner wanted the guy gone. Starsky's initial contacts hadn't been sanctioned. Hell, Dobey would have put them both on traffic for the rest of their lives if he'd ever found out what they were doing in their off-duty time, but Baldino being on the streets again had really bothered Hutch, so . . . .

So they did the kind of crap they used to do back in uniform when they were trying to persuade their superior officers to let two rookies work the streets together. He and Hutch had basically hot-dogged it on another precinct's turf, building a case against a guy they had no legal right to investigate until Starsky had become Baldino's best drinking bud. They'd been about to bust Baldino on the coke dealing charges when everything was turned around by the chance unveiling of the creep's arm during one of Starsky and Baldino's weekly drinking sessions.

It wasn't every cop who would remember a tattoo on a Jane Doe's body a year after the kid was buried. But the minute Starsky had seen that same ram-horned devil's-head tattoo on Baldino's arm, that mutilated dead girl had flashed through his mind. He'd known at that moment that the lowlife he was drinking with was involved in her killing, so they'd held off on the drug bust, done a bit more digging around and linked two other murdered kids to their first Jane Doe. A bit more poking around into Baldino's background had linked the lowlife to Anderson's cult, at which point they'd brought the entire mess to their captain. Hence, Starsky's undercover assignment. He'd gone under nine weeks ago when Baldino had gotten the unemployed Villar a care-taking job with the Church of Satan and had been under ever since.

Starsky didn't even want to think about the paperwork involved. The captain from the precinct closest to Anderson was on the line screaming to Dobey about their infringement in his territory at least once a day. Add to all that the fact that the Feds had been unsuccessfully trying to infiltrate Anderson's set-up for the last three years and were none too happy about some cowboy of a homicide detective horning in on their turf, and it made for bureaucratic hell for their boss. Dobey was ready to eat them both alive or sell them to gypsies. Poor Hutch had been running damage control for the past nine weeks trying to deflect the official heat while Starsky perfected his undercover persona, but right now, Starsky would have gladly stepped into the center of that bureaucratic battlefield just to avoid tomorrow night's ceremony. He just wasn't cut out for this crap. He knew it, even if he'd been able to fool their boss.

"Did you see anything we can use against Anderson and his followers?" the captain asked.

"Nothin' that points to homicide, Cap'. They might be twisted, but they ain't stupid. Anderson's not gonna let me see anything important this soon into the game, no matter what Delgado says about Villar. They're gonna want to give me a few test runs before they trust me with anything important. I'm gonna have to play it slow till they make a slip."

Dobey nodded. "Good. Make sure you're not the one that slips up. These boys play for keeps."

"Don't I know it. You should see Anderson, Cap'. Cool as ice and just as slippery. To look at him, you'd think he was a pillar of the community," Starsky reported, still having trouble consigning the head Satanist's benign, grandfatherly appearance with his depraved actions.

"That pillar of the community is suspected of committing more murders than Simon Marcus and Charles Manson combined," Dobey reminded him.

"And then some, I'll bet," Starsky agreed. After last night, nothing would surprise him. The fact that he hadn't even been entrusted with the cult's deepest secrets and had still participated in enough vice to get him 3 to 5 reassured Starsky not at all. "You should hear some of the things Baldino talks about doin': cutting people up, getting' it on with kids. Really sick stuff. But I haven't seen anything to back it up yet, nothin' that'll hold up in court, at least."

"You sure he isn't just yanking your chain, Starsky? Maybe he's just making this stuff up 'cause he sees you're interested in it," Dobey suggested.

"No, Cap'," Starsky insisted. "He's for real. He's done it. If I keep him talkin' long enough, he's sure to give me somethin' solid."

"You sure you weren't followed here?" Dobey checked for the fourth time in ten minutes.

About to snap at his boss' well-intentioned query, Starsky took a deep, calming breath and let the impulse pass. Now was most certainly not the time to lose it. He reminded himself that Dobey's concern was for his safety and not motivated by a lack of confidence in his abilities. Anderson and his friends weren't the kind you took chances with.

"I'm certain," he replied when he could trust his temper. "I left the apartment through the bathroom window, took a cab to the department store down the block, and entered the theater through the fire exit. I wasn't followed and no one saw me. Except an alley cat."

"Good." Dobey at last appeared satisfied. "The final initiation ceremony is tonight?"

"No. It's on Friday. Anderson's right hand man, Baldino, and me got plans to paint the town red tonight," Starsky reported, glad that Dobey hadn't asked the particulars of last night's ceremony and doubly grateful for his partner's silence.

"You let us know where you're goin' and I'll get a surveillance team set up . . . ."

"No can do, Cap'. We're goin' bar hoppin'. Dino's too much of a pro not to notice a tail. I'll be all right."

"Starsky . . . ." Dobey growled.

"Look, he's not gonna pull anything on me. He thinks I'm one of them. We're tight. Friends, even," Starsky admitted.

He wasn't proud of that last part. Baldino's feelings for him weren't faked. The creep really thought Starsky, a.k.a., Michael Villar, was his closest friend at this point.

"Friends?" Dobey repeated, his feelings on that subject clear on his troubled face.

"You know I've been hangin' out with him these last four months on my off-duty time tryin' to make that drug case. I hadta get close to him. The only way to do it was to pretend to like the sleaze," Starsky said, explaining the basic difference between this job and his previous undercover assignments. In most of his other cases, it was purely a business relationship. The dealers had a commodity they were trying to sell, Starsky and his partner had the cash to buy it with. Any socializing was usually purely superficial. All anyone ever wanted to do in a drug meet was to get out with their skin intact.

Taking a deep breath, Starsky offered his commanding officer his latest triumph. "I told Dino that I'm havin' trouble finding a job with my rap sheet. He's gonna ask Anderson if I can be his driver for a while."

"You what?" Dobey gaped, almost choking on his popcorn.

Starsky nodded, trying not to look too satisfied. "I thought you'd like that."

"I don't even want to know how you managed it," Dobey rumbled, but he looked relieved, like he wasn't so worried anymore about finding his man hanging on a meat hook somewhere.

Starsky himself was still ambivalent about that breakthrough. As much as it would help his case, he still wasn't sure how pleased he was that a bunch of psycho Satan-worshippers had taken him to their hearts as though he were their long lost son. Still, as far as police work went, it was quite a coup. It meant that he'd have a front row seat to all of Anderson's activities, which was a good thing. Only, the mere thought of being that close to that sicko on a daily basis gave him the willies.

"Will you be able to get away to meet us again tomorrow?" Dobey checked.

"I'll try. Better make it the Rivoli, though."

"Same time?" the captain asked.

"Same bat time, same bat channel." Starsky's grin was forced, but it was enough to fool their captain.

"Don't be cute. Be careful, Starsky," Dobey warned, prizing his bulk off the sink edge to leave.

"I'm always careful, Cap'. Hutch is cute." Starsky forced a smile, his heart sinking as Dobey's hand settled on the closet's doorknob. Something inside him twisted at the thought of these men he trusted with his life leaving. This was the first time he'd felt normal since their last meet four days ago.

"Hutchinson?" Dobey called.

"I'll be with you in a minute, Captain." Hutch spoke for the first time since he'd said hello.

Dobey nodded. "I'll wait for you in the car. Don't be too long."

The tiny room could not be said to be silent as the door closed behind Dobey, not with the action packed shoot 'em up blasting through the paper-thin walls from the nearest theater, but the lack of speech was disconcerting to the frazzled Starsky.

Starsky stared at the stained linoleum between his blue Adidas and tried to think of something to say. Hutch had heard everything last night.

"Hey."

Starsky actually jumped at the quiet greeting.

"It was part of the job, partner," Hutch continued. "You had no choice."

The understanding in the gentle tone enveloped him, reassuring him almost as much as the hand that gripped his shoulder did. His whole body seemed to relax under that touch, the way it would when he was holding his breath for a long time and finally let go and breathed.

"That's better," Hutch approved as Starsky finally dared his gaze. "Do you wanta talk about it?"

"What's to say? It isn't even my religion and I feel . . . dirty about what went on."

Those clear blue eyes were startlingly non-judgmental as they dug through Starsky's outer guards, seeming to sink straight through to his soul. "Last night was worse than I thought it'd be, Starsk."

Detecting the note of apology, Starsky shrugged. "We knew it wouldn't be easy. At least you were able to prepare me as to what I could expect in there. Could've been worse."

"Not by much," Hutch whispered.

"Someone could've died," Starsky reminded him.

"Yeah, you're right," Hutch agreed, then that hand that had yet to leave his shoulder was giving another encouraging squeeze.

As always, he found himself thankful for Hutch at the oddest of moments. Without his partner's briefing, he would have walked into that cult armed only with the lure culled from horror films—very little of which was accurate as he'd learned. Even the most daring of horror directors steered clear of the sexual perversions involved in the actual Satanic ceremonies. Hutch had done some research and warned him how things might go down. Without it . . . Starsky wasn't sure he would have held it together last night.

But he didn't want to think about last night right now, not with Hutch so near. He just wanted to enjoy the moment.

"There's that," Hutch agreed to his someone-could've-died comment.

A particularly loud explosion from the film playing on the other side of the wall filled the lull in conversation.

"I still wish I could've gone under," Hutch said at last, beating a long dead horse.

How that would have helped any, Starsky didn't know. He was having a hard enough time handling all this himself and he wasn't the one prone to head-trips in this partnership.

"Baldino would have made you in a minute. It might be ten years ago, but a guy don't forget the first cop that busts him."

"Yeah, but . . . ." Hutch sighed. "I don't like you in there alone."

"I ain't alone. You're my back up." His partner's worry somehow eclipsing his own apprehensions, Starsky tried to lighten the mood. "Besides, if you think I want anyone else on the other end of that bug, you're outta your mind."

A touch of pink blossomed in his partner's tanned cheeks. "That was . . . pretty wild last night, huh?"

Thinking of the mockery Anderson's group had made of the Christian communion ritual, Starsky shuddered. "You don't know the half of it. Hutch, they . . . put it inside her. I had to get it out with my mouth and tongue." Starsky could feel his own face flaming at the confession.

"I heard," Hutch admitted.

Calmed by his partner's non-judgmental acceptance of last night's depravity, Starsky asked the question that had been burning in his mind, but that he hadn't been able to voice last night because his ignorance was sure to have blown his cover. "Why couldn't I touch the wafer, Hutch?"

As always, Hutch seemed to have the answers Starsky needed. Going into his lecturing tone, he matter-of-factly explained, "In the Roman Catholic religion, it used to be sacrilege for anyone but a priest to touch the host with their hands."

"Why?"

"Because the host was supposed to have been transformed during the ceremony into the actual flesh of Christ, not just a symbolic transformation like in the Protestant religions," Hutch answered. "Only priests were allowed to touch it."

"You said 'used to be sacrilege'. Isn't it anymore?" Starsky asked, almost as confused by the explanation as the event.

"I don't know for sure, Starsk. I think the rules changed about ten years ago, but it isn't my religion, either."

"Then how do you know all this?" Starsky questioned, puzzled as ever by his partner's eclectic knowledge.

"I lived next to Nancy Blake and her mom for over fifteen years when I was a kid, Starsk. How could I not know?" Hutch chuckled.

Recalling the devout Irish lady, who'd wanted him for a son-in-law instead of the murderous Billy Desmond, Starsky gave an understanding nod. "Yeah, I guess that'd do it, and then some. What happened last night . . . it was . . . really gross, Hutch."

"It was meant to be," Hutch answered, then continued in a more philosophical line, "Sexual perversion, desecration, blasphemy . . . it's all for effect, Starsk."

Starsky, who'd been there, knew better. "No, it ain't just the shock value or even the sex. These flakes really believe that doin' that stuff gives 'em power."

"Are you . . . okay on this?" Hutch hesitantly questioned. "I mean, can you . . . ?"

"No, but I can cope. You weren't there, Hutch. To think of some innocent kid being put through that . . . I want them, partner. I want to tie this case up so tight that it'll take their high priced lawyers a hundred years just to make their bail."

"Okay, but remember that I'm out there if you need me."

Starsky found his first genuine smile of the day. "I've been doin' my damnedest to forget that, buddy."

Hutch grinned and gave a soft chuckle.

The joyful sound soothed Starsky's frayed nerves as little else had these last tension-wracked weeks. Being in Hutch's presence after the enforced separation was ridiculously comforting. Undercover, he found himself missing his partner for the strangest reasons.

Feeling the lack of the immediate steadfast support hadn't really surprised Starsky. All partners in a close-knit unit felt that emptiness on solo assignments, but it was the little things that got to Starsky most. Like the absence of that quiet laugh in moments when it was needed to break the stress, that silence was the loudest sound in the world. Or the way Hutch's forefinger would absently stroke his pale mustache when the blond detective was lost in thought. Or the way his partner would gripe incessantly about the inconsequential annoyances of day-to-day life and then clam up like a kid about the really awful blows. There were just so many things he missed about his friend.

But most of all, Starsky missed the out and out goodness of his partner. With the deviant persona this case had forced him to assume, he found himself craving the gentle compassion that characterized Hutch. He needed a good long dose of interacting with a normal, balanced personality. Five minutes stolen in a broom closet with Hutch just wasn't enough.

Looking at him, Hutch's expression sobered. "I know that you're coping with the cover, but under it . . . how are you doin'?"

It's like he reads my mind or something, Starsky thought, forcing a smile. "Hangin' in there. How 'bout you?"

"The same." Those expressive eyes gave the truth of that away. Hutch might be more contained about his emotions, but they were no less strong for all that they were controlled.

"Dobey still givin' you hell about all this?" Starsky questioned, still feeling guilty that Hutch had had to take the heat over this alone. His partner always underplayed the trouble their hot-dogging had brought down on him, but Starsky knew his captain well enough to know that Dobey wouldn't be forgetting this kind of infraction anytime soon.

Hutch shrugged. "I've been keepin' a low profile."

Translation—Hutch had been all but living in the surveillance van. Starsky didn't have to ask to know that if he were on Anderson's grounds, his partner was staked out in the van around the corner, regardless of what Hutch's actual work shift was. Hutch had been pulling double and sometimes triple shifts these last nine weeks, just to be close to him. They were both wrung out.

But Hutch obviously didn't want to discuss whatever was going down in the office. Instead, he said, "I watered your plants yesterday, dusted a bit . . . ."

"You don 't even dust your own place," Starsky pointed out with a laugh.

"Yeah, well . . . hell, Dobey's waitin'. I've gotta go, Starsk. Be careful, huh?"

"Always. That goes for you, too, you know. Watch your back, babe."

Hutch's eyes squeezed shut like he was in actual physical pain. When they reopened, the crystal blue depths were the slightest bit misty. "Watch my back, he says. I'm not the one rubbin' shoulders with a bunch of wackos."

"Yeah, well, I ain't out there to do my job. You're gonna have to do it for me."

Hutch's smile was shaky, but Starsky appreciated the effort. For a minute, they just stood there staring into each other's eyes, Hutch's big hand still gripping his shoulder, their bodies brushing close as lovers. All Starsky wanted to do was sag against Hutch's warmth and let his friend support him for a while, but . . . .

Hutch would never allow him to walk out of here if he were to let on how bad this assignment had really rattled him. If he gave into that weakness now, no matter what strides he might have made towards breaking this case, Hutch would force Dobey into pulling him in. There was a part of him that really wanted to do it, to let the whole damn depravity go, but there were those three kids in John Doe graves whose murderers were still running loose, and, God knew how many more would join them if he didn't follow through with this case.

So, as tempting as it was to draw comfort from Hutch's strength, Starsky held back.

He couldn't, of course, keep Hutch from reading the struggle in his face, but there was nothing he could do about that. As long as Hutch was convinced that his partner was strong enough to get through this, that was all that mattered.

At last, Hutch ripped his gaze away. Looking like it was tearing his heart out, Hutch raggedly whispered, "Dobey's waitin', buddy. I really gotta go. You sure you don't want back up tonight?"

Starsky nodded. "I'll be fine."

His bluff had been bought. He forced himself to be brave. His grin might be weak, but he kept it plastered on for his partner's sake. The last thing he wanted to see right now was Hutch walking away from him.

"Till tomorrow, partner." Another shoulder squeeze, then Hutch was gone.

"Tomorrow," Starsky agreed. His grin dropped the moment the door closed behind Hutch.

Absurdly enough, he felt like bawling his eyes out. Instead, he squeezed them closed and practiced that deep breathing Hutch had taught him until the impulse was mastered.

He couldn't afford to fall apart, not now, not when they were so close. If he could just hold out for a few more days, get the goods on Anderson and his flakes and bust them all to Kingdom come, everything would be fine.

Telling himself that over and over again, Starsky waited a few minutes in the closet that now seemed as huge and gaping as an empty sports arena. Once he was sure Hutch had had time to clear the building, Starsky slipped out of the room himself.

Having nothing better to occupy his time before tonight's scheduled performance as Villar the Malignant, Starsky stepped into the nearest theater. It was the first time he'd snuck into a movie since he was thirteen. He only wished that Hutch could have hung around long enough to join him.

*~*~*

Brrrrinnng . . . brrrinnng . . . brrrrinnnng . . . .

Hutch's hand blindly groped for the shrieking phone. Prying his sticky eyelids apart, he peered at the illuminated green numbers of his digital radio clock. 1:47. He'd been asleep for less than an hour. Not that anyone could call that restless tossing and turning he'd been doing sleeping.

"'lo," he growled into the receiver.

Silence, absolute silence was all he heard at the other end of the phone. Listening hard, Hutch thought he detected rapid breathing. About to tell the sicko to get his jollies somewhere else and hang up, Hutch froze, abruptly recalling another night, another call with nothing but breathing at first. Vic Bellamy and his god-damned needle . . . .

The memory of that nightmare of near death bringing him to complete wakefulness, Hutch sat up in the bed.

"Starsk," he greeted, knowing who was on the other end of the line.

"Yeah." The word was little more than another ragged breath.

He didn't ask how Starsky was. The fact that he was calling this late told him his partner was anything but okay, as if their interview this afternoon had left any doubt of that in his mind. So he asked the next important thing. "Where are you?"

"Villar's dump."

Hutch nodded, altering his approach. It was highly unlikely that Anderson had bugged the phone in Starsky's cover's apartment, but they were taking no chances. He couldn't call his partner by name again.

"Damn," Starsky cursed. "I just looked at the clock. You were sleepin', weren't you? Sorry, I'll . . . ."

"It's okay," Hutch quickly assured him in the most normal tone he could manage. All he could see in his mind's eye was Starsky's face as he'd looked in that broom closet this afternoon: tense, tired, haunted. Every instinct Hutch had owned had screamed at him to have Dobey pull his partner in then, but he couldn't let Starsky down that way. "I was thinkin' 'bout you. I'm glad you called."

"You were?"

Starsky's voice sounded so lost, so lonely.

"Yeah," Hutch said. Knowing from that tone what Starsky was needing, he took a chance that no one was listening to them and softly said, "Look, I know this is breaking all the rules here, but I really need to see you. Can I meet you somewhere?"

He put the need on his end, making it easy for Starsky to give in . . . and virtually impossible for his strung out partner to refuse. When had Starsk ever said no when he needed him?

There was silence at the other end of the phone, filled with such longing that Hutch could almost touch it.

It was a different kind of longing than the type that had been gnawing at Hutch's own guts for the past three years, but he recognized it for what it was all the same—the need for human contact. He'd been undercover himself, though not for nearly as long as Starsky was this time out. After a while, you got lost in your cover. You got to a point where you just had to have some contact with a healthy, normal person to remind you of who you really were.

He'd seen that Starsky had passed that point this afternoon, which was why Hutch had wanted to reel him in then. But if they pulled Starsky now, they might never get this close to Anderson again and more innocent lives would be lost. Until Starsky made the decision himself to come in, he was resolved to do everything in his power to protect his partner and back him up. Right now, all he could really do was maintenance. A quick fix of something normal to get Starsky firing on all cylinders again — if anyone could call clandestine meetings at 2 a.m. something normal.

"It's late. You're sleepin'. I shouldn't'a called—"

"It's not that late," Hutch argued. "Come on, we can meet for a quick drink."

"Where? It's Thursday night. Even Huggy's'll be closed by the time we get there. Sorry, Hutch, this was a stupid idea. I'm just gonna—"

"You're gonna get in your car and come over here," Hutch firmly interrupted him. "You are okay to drive—aren't you?"

Starsky didn't sound drunk, but his partner held his liquor well. Although he didn't think Starsky would be stupid enough to jeopardize his cover by overindulging, sometimes when you were that strung out you took your comfort where you could get it, regardless of consequences.

"Nah, I'm straight."

The words hit like the unexpected sting of salt in an ever-raw wound. Starsky was straight—always was, always would be. Hutch winced at the phrasing. That was the risk you took when you walked around with your bleeding soul wide open. He took a deep breath, reminded himself that this wasn't about his own pain and said, "Good, get over here. I can't come to you, partner, not at Villar's; you know that. Please?"

"Okay, I . . . ."

"Just get here. We'll talk when you arrive," Hutch promised.

He was up as soon as the phone clicked in his ear. For a moment, he stood naked by the bed, eyeing his ratty old orange robe. It was comfortable, but he needed more than that soft warm shield between his hungry flesh and his stressed-out partner. Recognizing that this meeting was an invitation to disaster, Hutch went to his bureau and pulled a pair of old gray running pants out of the bottom drawer. A clean white undershirt on top of them, and he was as ready to face Starsky as he'd ever be. If he put on more clothes than this, he knew there'd be awkward questions, but the jogging pants and undershirt were casual enough to be worn to bed.

Funny, four years ago he could have entertained Starsky stark naked and never have had a moment's worry, but the advent of this unanticipated and unwanted desire had altered his entire lifestyle. Tight jeans and cords were things of the past. These days it was baggy pants and over-sized button downs, anything with yards of fabric that would hide a problem he had no clue how to handle.

The freeways must have been pretty clear tonight, for it was less than twenty minutes later that Hutch heard a soft rap, then his door swung open.

Hutch took a long look at his friend as Starsky entered the apartment, evaluating Starsky's condition. It was bad, but not as bad as he'd feared. If you didn't know Starsky, you'd never be able to tell how close to the edge he was dancing. In his tight blue jeans, denim shirt, and white cotton jacket, Starsky looked his usual, casual elegant. His partner made more of a sartorial impression in Levis than most guys did in a tux. Despite the ghastly chest scars that were hidden at the moment, the mementos of Gunther's assassination attempt, Starsky was completely comfortable in his skin. The clothes he wore telegraphed his raw sexuality and his feline grace. Seeing him tonight in those soft blues and white jacket that so accentuated his incredible, magnetic gaze, that sex appeal was all a stranger would see.

Hutch, who was no stranger, saw far deeper. The lines that seemed etched into those normally relaxed features, the ten pounds that Starsk couldn't afford to lose that had been dropped in the last nine weeks, these telltale symptoms of extreme emotional stress were readily apparent. What was less visible was the tension that crackled with Starsky's every movement. An almost electrical charge seemed to tingle in the air as Starsky entered Venice Place.

Hutch, who was already over-sensitized to this man's mere presence, shivered in reaction. He knew that look, recognized that an emotional time bomb had just been dropped into his lap.

"Hi." Hutch smiled from the couch. He was glad he'd had the forethought to turn on the lamp on the end table. He didn't want to barrage his partner with too much light, but he didn't want to be alone in the dark with Starsky when his friend was this vulnerable. The golden lamplight cast a cozy glow over everything in the room, a safe, homey comfort that made the situation seem more normal and somehow reduced the intimacy.

"I shouldn't've come here," Starsky replied. He was poised by the greenhouse doors, tense and ready to flee.

"I'm glad you did," Hutch answered, keeping his tone soft. Feeling like he was dealing with a wounded wild creature, he cautiously approached his partner. "I've been worried about you out there alone."

"I can do my job, Hutch," Starsky snapped at him, almost challenging.

Hutch saw all those lean, hard muscles tense as if for a fight. Anger and desperation churned in his partner's tight features in equal measure.

"I know you can," Hutch soothed. "But, don't you worry about me when I'm under, even though you know I can do it?"

That scored a hit. Starsky's honest nature had him nodding. A little of the wariness left those strong, chiseled features.

"Sorry," Starsk muttered, appearing grudgingly appeased.

"'s okay," Hutch said, but he had no illusions here. He still had a wounded mountain lion in his living room. Hutch himself was simply no longer being viewed as the enemy, but this could still turn lethal. You couldn't play at being something like Villar for weeks on end and then just shrug it off like an old coat. This undercover role was doing things to Starsky, pulling out pieces of his darker side that Hutch knew his partner had spent years mastering. These days an air of violent menace clung to Starsky as tightly as his faded denim.

"You hungry?" Hutch asked, stepping up closer.

Starsky's dark head gave a negative shake, the overlong, loose curls bouncing against his cheek, catching in the dark stubble there. "I ate before."

Hutch heard the lie, let it pass. Arguing the small stuff wasn't gonna get them anywhere.

"How'd it go tonight with Baldino?" Hutch questioned as casually as he could manage.

That wary tension snapped back into Starsky's face, tenfold. "It went."

"What happened?" Something bad had gone down or Starsky wouldn't be here.

He watched that already tense face pinch tighter, Starsky's body language telling him that his partner wasn't going to answer.

"I asked you what happened, partner," Hutch put the slightest hint of a threat into his voice. It was a chancy proposition. Wild animals respected strength, but if he came on too strong, it would be seen as a challenge and met as such. Hutch had tangled with this feral side of Starsky once or twice in the past. It was never pleasant. But he couldn't back off on this. He had to know what had gone down, how bad Starsky was doing. If his partner wouldn't answer him, he was going to get Dobey to pull Starsky off the case first thing in the morning, consequences be damned. Anderson's flakes were too much into blood to let this wild cat prowl their ranks unrestrained. If Starsky was out of control, he needed to be pulled in now, before he snapped.

Being under that feline glare was never a pleasant experience, but Hutch met it with his own cool, blue ice. He almost wished things would get physical, so that this nerve-wracking contest of wills could be resolved in a burst of brute force. A couple of punches, and the tension would be broken, but so might a few bones.

Even Starsky, gone as he was, seemed to recognize the danger of moving their contest to a physical level. Though his partner's body stiffened and coiled further in on itself, practically vibrating with the force of his emotions, the violence remained in check.

So, the contest stayed a staring match. Hutch was certain he was losing, but finally, Starsky dropped his gaze. Deep down they both knew Starsky wanted to talk; that was why he'd come here. But after nine weeks of guarding his words and actions during every waking hour, trust didn't come easy.

Starsky sighed and began speaking, "Oh, Dino and me've had quite the night. First Baldino tried to pick up this underage kid in one of the discos on Ventura. She couldn't've been more than fifteen, Hutch. I don't even know how she got into the club."

The empty, tired tone sent a chill through him.

Neither he nor Starsky were very good at not playing the white knight when there was a damsel in distress. Hutch had a vivid memory of Starsky and himself poised on a hill, with orders to hold their position while that psycho JoJo Farrente worked a receptionist over. While Baldino probably wouldn't have killed the girl tonight, he would have been no gentler with her than that rapist. For Starsky to stand by and be a party to that would have been unbearable.

Hutch didn't even know how to voice his next question. Nine weeks ago, it would've been 'how did you stop him?'. Tonight, the question was did you, not how. The fact that he didn't know scared the shit out of him.

Starsky appeared to take pity on him, continuing without prompting, "I thought I was gonna have to blow my cover, but . . . I played on Villar's bein' an ex-con. I came on like King Kong. I was all over her, got a little rough to scare her the hell outta there before Baldino could get her alone."

Hutch almost sagged with relief. "That musta been hard."

Starsky snorted. "Not hard enough. There was a moment when it was a real question, whether I should risk blowin' my cover to step in, and it shouldn't've been, Hutch. There shouldn't've been any question to it at all, I shoulda just taken Baldino down . . . ."

"Starsky, we're trying ta catch a creep who's killed three kids that we know of, probably more. It mightn't have been the smoothest strategy, but you got that girl out of there without blowing nine weeks of solid police work. You did right, partner."

"Maybe," Starsky muttered, his eyes shifting away from Hutch's again. "That guy in intensive care ain't gonna think I did right, though."

Hutch froze. "What guy?"

"We moved on to Tico's on Hollywood Boulevard after that. You know Scarpaci?"

"Torregrossa's right hand man?" Hutch asked, putting a face to the name. Torregrossa was moving in on the West LA drug action. Scarpaci was his top goon. Starsky and he had been surveiling Torregrossa's operation when Anderson's first victim had been found. The drug case had been temporarily shelved last year in favor of the homicide. When they'd gotten back to Torregrossa, his operation had been so streamlined that there wasn't enough outside action to justify wasting the taxpayers' dollars on a long-term surveillance.

This was Hutch's worst nightmare given form—Starsky being recognized as a cop by some peripheral player. Fortunately, they'd just been surveiling Scarpaci, but it could just as easily have been someone they'd busted.

"Yeah, that's him. He was at Tico's. He had the most beautiful redhead I ever seen on his arm, Hutch. She looked like a movie star or somethin', really fine."

"And?"

"Baldino hit on her. Scarpaci didn't like it. They had words. Ended up takin' it out back to play High Noon."

"What happened?"

Starsky shrugged. "I talked them into keepin' guns outta it. Told 'em the noise'd bring down the heat. So they went at it like Foreman and Ali, minus the Marquis de Queensbury rules. I figured a gorilla like Scarpaci would knock Dino on his ass and that would be the end of it. In the end, I had to stop Baldino from snappin' Scarpaci's neck. I just stood there and watched, Hutch, while he beat a man half to death."

Hutch took a deep breath, searching for something to say. "Scarpaci was no angel, partner."

"Maybe not, but he didn't deserve that."

"We're after a murderer, Starsk—" Hutch began.

He was cut short by his partner's snappish, "And I almost became an accessory to manslaughter tonight."

"It's a thin line we're walkin' here, partner," Hutch answered, taking those vital two steps closer. He could feel Starsky's breath on his face now, was close enough to feel all that pent up tension beneath his partner's skin pummel his own. "I wish I could be right there beside ya, but I can't. For what it's worth, I think you did the best you could."

"I shoulda busted the sonuvabitch," Starsky insisted.

"We'll bust him, babe, I promise. But for murder one. Not for some piddling attempted manslaughter or assault charge. We'll sew Baldino and Anderson up so tight that they'll make the Gordian Knot look easy."

"The what knot?"

Hutch relaxed at the question, knowing that he'd won the battle—for tonight. If Starsky were willing to be distracted by some tangential anecdote, then his partner had enough resilience reserved to hold it together for a few more days, if no more of this stuff came up.

So he explained his comment in a soft lulling tone, watching how his voice almost seemed to visibly soothe the remaining tension out of his partner's lean form. "The Gordian Knot was this ancient riddle. It was a big rope tied in a million knots. It was said that the man smart enough to unravel it would rule the world. Thousands tried and thousands failed."

"Anyone ever do it?" Starsky asked, his eyes fixed so squarely on Hutch's nearby face that he could barely think, let alone breathe.

"Alexander the Great."

"He unraveled it?"

Hutch shook his head. "Not quite. He, ah, severed it with his sword and went on to rule the world."

"Do you think that's where it all went wrong, Hutch?" Starsk asked with a catch in his voice.

Hutch could hear how troubled his friend was, how hard Starsky was struggling to hold it together. "How what went all wrong?"

"Well, the Gordo . . . Gordian Knot, it was a riddle, right? A thinking man's problem."

"Yeah," Hutch cautiously confirmed, not knowing where this was going.

"Then some bozo with a sword comes along and just cuts it in half. Doesn't think at all, just uses brute strength to get what he wants. It's sorta like what we face on the street every day—isn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess it is at that," Hutch replied, amazed as ever at the way his partner's mind worked. In some ways, Starsky was his very own Gordian Knot. He'd spent over twelve years puzzling on all the twists in his partner's complicated character, but no matter how well he thought he knew his friend, Starsky always managed to surprise him.

Seeing that a measure of calm had entered Starsky's attitude, Hutch tentatively ventured, "How're you holdin' up, partner?"

Starsky took a moment to answer. Hutch expected to have his question blown off with some humorous reply, but those blue eyes skewered his soul and offered him the unadorned truth. "I'm hangin' on by a thread, but I'm still hangin' in there."

It wouldn't have mattered to Hutch right then what was jeopardized by his seeing his partner this way. He couldn't hold back anymore. As he'd ached to do from the moment he and Dobey had stepped into that stupid broom closet this afternoon and he'd seen how haggard Starsky looked, Hutch reached out and gathered his partner tight to his chest.

He must have done right, for Starsky sagged against him as though every bone in his body melted, trusting his full weight to his keeping.

Hutch held that trembling body close, inhaling the scent of Starsky's hair: shampoo, the sharp combined scents of tobacco and marijuana smoke from the clubs, a hint of sandalwood cologne, and, below it all, that irresistible aroma that was Starsky himself.

His partner clung to him like a lifeline, locking him in tight, gifting Hutch with the type of embrace he had fantasized about for years.

Holding Starsky close like this, feeling him safe in his arms . . . this would almost be enough, Hutch thought. He knew he could never have the whole enchilada, knew that even broaching the topic would ruin everything they had, but when he held Starsky like this, he could pretend for a few brief moments that the world was the way he wished it could be.

The guilt that came from deriving pleasure from these rare occasions when grief would drive Starsky to seek comfort in his arms was almost unbearable at times. But Hutch was an addict, and he knew it. He'd take his pleasures where and when he could. He never overstepped the bounds of comfort, never took advantage of his partner's vulnerability, though every selfish impulse he owned screamed 'go for it' every time Starsky was in his arms. He never had and never would give into those base impulses, because to do so would bring down the one constant in his partner's world. They were all each other had. It wasn't Starsky's fault or problem that he wanted their connection to be more than it was, and Hutch was determined to never contaminate the purity of what they shared by enlightening Starsky.

This was one relationship that Kenneth Hutchinson was not going to fuck up. If the day ever came that Starsky wanted it to be different, Hutch would be more than eager to oblige. And on that day, he'd probably see some pigs fly by.

So he stood there stroking Starsky's back in wide circles, offering the only comfort he knew to be acceptable. Every iota of his willpower was focused on control, on keeping his body in check, especially a certain six inches that wanted to expand and show his partner just how welcome Starsky was in his arms.

Starsky vented a deep sigh. His nose burrowed deeper into the collar of Hutch's undershirt as he seemed to breathe him deep into his lungs.

The play of warm air over Hutch's sensitive neck made him shudder. Starsky was a burning heat down his entire front . . . so hot . . . so perfect . . . .

Hutch viciously cut off that line of thought. His own muscles tensing with the strain of fighting his feelings, he dug his fingers into the soft white cotton of Starsky's jacket and held his friend tighter. It seemed to be what Starsky wanted. Stars knew, it was what he himself had been hungering for.

"God, Hutch, this is the first time I've felt safe in months," Starsky whispered, burying his face in the hollow where Hutch's neck and shoulder met, nosing through the long blond hair there the way his lovers would.

Those powerful arms hugged Hutch even tighter, the hold almost becoming painful.

"Me, too."

"I'm sorry to come here and lay all this on you in the middle of the friggin' night. I know I shouldn't be here . . ."

"Ssssh," Hutch soothed. "Dino's not likely to be lookin' for you tonight, is he?"

Starsky gave a negative shake of his head, his dark curls batting the side of Hutch's jaw in an intimate, ticklish barrage. "No, he said he'd call me in the morning about what time I should pick Anderson up for that chauffeur job."

Though it was a great breakthrough for the case, Hutch didn't like the idea much. "You got it, then?"

"Yeah. I'm not gonna be able to make our meet tomorrow, Hutch."

"Don't worry about it," Hutch ordered. "Come on. You need some shut eye, partner."

With that, Hutch started shuffling their linked forms towards the big double bed in the next room.

"I can't," Starsky's mouth protested, but his hands didn't let Hutch loose and his feet didn't stop moving at his partner's urging. "I'll blow my cover for sure. I—"

"I'll wake you before the sun comes up. I promise. But right now, you're going to sleep." Hutch paused them by the side of the bed, waiting for a more vehement protest.

When none was voiced, Hutch eased his exhausted partner down to sit on the mattress. Almost trembling at how close this was to his dearest fantasy, Hutch peeled Starsky's jacket and holster off with trembling hands. After placing them on the chair in the corner with his own stuff, he sank to his knees to dispense of the Adidas.

He shivered as he felt a strong, rough hand grip his shoulder. Almost afraid, Hutch looked up into his partner's down-bent face. Starsk's intense, serious expression liquefied what remained of his controls. He was nothing but mush inside, shaking, quaking mush, at that. Hutch could barely breathe under that gaze.

"You know that it's you that's holdin' me together—don't you? I wouldn't be able to do this at all if you weren't here to hold me up."

Starsky was so tired that he bordered on drunk at the moment. Hutch knew that. But even knowing that his partner was punch-drunk with exhaustion didn't take the sting out of those words. They were so close to what Hutch wanted, needed to hear from this man; yet, in reality, Hutch knew they were light-years away when it came to intent, no matter how much they sounded like a come-on.

So he ignored them and worked at unlacing the Adidas, which seemed to be tied with their very own Gordian knots. Unfortunately, Hutch didn't have a sword handy, so he had to work at the snags with his sweaty, trembling fingers.

If he'd had that blade, Hutch would have thrown himself on it when his partner's hand left his shoulder and started to comb through his tangled blond hair.

Starsky had always been fascinated with his hair. His partner often touched it, mussed it, or played with it. Hutch knew that it wasn't a sexual thing. Starsky just liked his hair the way a baby liked playing with a dangled set of keys or a crow liked shiny trinkets. It didn't mean anything, Hutch tried to tell himself, and it certainly wasn't sexual, no matter what his quivering insides or that piercing stare of Starsky's, which he was attempting to ignore, might be saying. Starsky was just out on his feet, blindly reaching out for some human contact.

But if Starsky didn't stop trickling his hair down onto his neck like that, his partner was gonna get a hell of a lot more human contact than he bargained on.

Despairing of ever opening those laces, Hutch gave in to desperation and just tugged the sneakers off. The scent of hot sweaty feet immediately assailed his senses. Knowing how far he was gone, that he had it so bad that even this man's sweaty feet turned him on, Hutch reached out a shaking hand to peel off the red socks his partner was wearing.

Red socks . . . only David Michael Starsky could get away with something like that. The man just oozed raw sexuality. You could put Starsky in red socks or a Santa costume and the guy would still turn heads. Even on the verge of physical and emotional exhaustion, Starsky still managed to look sexy. It didn't make a whit of sense getting turned on by a guy's red socks, for feet were quite possibly the least erogenous zone that Hutch could imagine, but once he'd dealt with the candy apple red footwear, the mere sight of those blue jeans above his partner's bare ankles made him hot, the way a woman removing her bra would once have turned him on.

"There we go, all set," he announced, almost weak with relief as he sat back on his heels.

"Thanks, part . . . ner," the last word was interrupted by a tremendous yawn.

"Okay, in you go," Hutch urged, lifting the nearby sheet.

"Pants," Starsky reminded. The hand abruptly left Hutch's hair so that Starsky could stand up to undo his jeans.

Alternately feeling like some perverted voyeur and a stupid clod, Hutch's mouth ran dry as he watched his tired partner attain the vertical and fumble with the button of the tight jeans. Though it was a valiant struggle, the uncoordinated man didn't seem able to open it.

"You, ah, want some help?" Hutch was forced to ask at last, trying to make light of the offer.

"Nah, I can get it," Starsky groused, then recommenced his battle.

Hutch almost passed out as those slender hips thrust in his direction as Starsky fiddled with the tight jeans' button. It shouldn't be erotic, but somehow it was, terribly, painfully exciting.

"God damn . . . can ya believe this . . . ?" Starsky struggled with the button while Hutch stood there salivating and quietly going insane. He simply could not take much more of this.

Deciding that the powers that be had a very sadistic sense of humor, Hutch watched the pathetic battle of the bulge, his own sweaty hands locked in the pockets of his sweatpants to keep him from reaching to help. It took every bit of self-restraint he possessed to keep his gaze—and fingers— off that impressive bulge beneath his partner's zipper. The flesh there was so big that if he didn't know any better, Hutch would almost say that his partner looked aroused, or interested at the very least.

But he did know better, so Hutch forced himself to stop thinking those kinds of thoughts.

To his intense relief, Starsky finally got the damned button open and stopped his gyrations.

By the time Hutch had gotten his own erratic breathing back under control, Starsky's jeans had been shucked off and the blue denim shirt removed. Ignoring his half-naked partner, Hutch picked shirt and jeans up from where they were tangled on the bottom of the bed and put them on the chair with their other stuff. When he turned back to the bed, Starsky was chastely beneath the covers.

Thank God. Hutch honestly hadn't known how much more of that kind of temptation he could have taken. Of course, the sight of Starsky waiting for him in his own bed wasn't exactly a turn off either.

Trying to get his racing heart under control, Hutch slipped into bed on the other side.

Totally overwhelmed, he was far too aware of his own excitement to get a handle on Starsky's mental state. Hutch was hard as a rock, and even with these jogging pants on, Starsky would feel it the first time their lower bodies touched. So, Hutch lay on his side for what felt like forever, willing his stubborn erection to subside, loathing himself with a passion. Getting turned on by his fatigued, stressed out partner was an all time low in his book.

If he were lucky, Starsky might be asleep already. The soft breathing at his back seemed to indicate that or Starsky might simply be lying there pretending sleep like he was doing himself.

What felt like an eternity or two later, the pressure at his groin finally let up. When he was sure he was once again innocently flaccid, Hutch turned over onto his back in a more comfortable position. Throwing an arm across his eyes, he released a deep sigh, wondering how he'd ever gotten this fucked up.

The unexpected shock of a warm hand easing down onto the tender flesh of the inner forearm of the arm that lay chastely at his side between Starsk and him several minutes later nearly propelled Hutch right out of his skin.

Completely overwhelmed by guilt, Hutch realized that his partner was still awake . . . and still upset. Starsky hadn't quite reached out to hold his hand, but it was a near thing.

Hutch understood fully well what had held his friend back. It was one thing to form a handclasp in the office when one of them was dying, but quite a different thing to hold hands here in the private intimacy of Hutch's double bed. The way Starsky had just left his hand lying on top of Hutch's arm in that seemingly accidental contact, it almost seemed as though his macho partner were uncertain how that act would be received were Hutch still awake.

For a moment, he debated whether or not it truly were an accidental touch, but the tension Hutch could feel vibrating off the slender figure beside him told him that the contact hadn't been accidental at all.

Releasing a deep breath, Hutch twisted his arm up until their hands touched, then entwined his and Starsky's fingers in a tight clasp.

"Hey," Hutch whispered into the semi-darkness, giving the sweaty palm a firm squeeze. The light from the lamp in the living room, which he'd forgotten to turn off, gave the bedroom a warm gold tint. "This is me—Hutch. I thought we got past all that macho bullshit years ago."

"Wouldn't want your partner thinkin' the guy who guards his back's a wimp— would ya?" Starsky asked in a light tone, that was so forced it must have almost choked him.

Hutch swallowed hard before answering. This guy ripped his guts out on a daily basis without even trying—but Hutch lived for those disembowelings.

"I know my partner's not a wimp," Hutch answered when he could trust his voice. "He's man enough to take what he needs and not worry about what people think about him."

Once he'd voiced the words, Hutch wanted to bite his tongue off at how close to a sexual offer his badly phrased response had sounded.

"What about what his partner thinks about him? That'd matter, right?" Starsky questioned, his tone small and strangely uncertain.

As Starsky gave voice to the very fear that had held him back all these years, Hutch's insides constricted until he thought his own internal organs would strangle him. He didn't know what they were talking about here, what Starsky might want that he'd be afraid to ask of his partner. All he knew was that, no matter how much it might seem that they were on the same channel, they could not be discussing the same thing.

"What do you need, Starsk?" Hutch asked as calmly as he could manage, trying not to read any meanings into this that weren't of Starsky's design.

"I'm . . . I'm out of my head here, babe, bouncing off the walls. I . . . I . . . ."

"Just say it, Starsk, just say it," Hutch soothed, giving the hand that was attempting to fracture every one of his fingers a tight squeeze of encouragement, trying to pretend that Starsky's next words wouldn't alter their entire universe.

"I . . . would you hold me, Hutch? Please? Just keep me from bouncing away?"

And still, he didn't know what Starsky was asking for. Unable to refuse whatever it was, Hutch used their joined hands to guide Starsky over to him. He turned on his side to face his partner, easing his right hand over the side of Starsky's rib cage and the elbow resting there.

"That better?" he questioned, shaking so hard he was surprised the whole bed wasn't rocking. He could feel Starsky's chest hair under his elbow, a little ticklish and absurdly soft. Starsky's sweaty scent was inundating in the closeness. Hutch could barely breathe, let alone think. The heat radiating off the body he was snuggling was hot enough to melt asbestos.

"Yeah . . . thanks."

The emotion behind the two tight syllables penetrated his haze of anxious excitation. Hutch knew that tone of voice. He'd lived for years within its frustrating, lonely parameters. It was the settle-for-what-you-could-get tone, because you just didn't have the words to ask for the kind of things you needed at the moment. Those kinds of needs went beyond vocalization.

There were a million responses Hutch could make here. The most sensible was to ignore it, to leave Starsky in that horrible nowhere land where he'd suffered himself these last few years.

Hutch knew he couldn't safely handle more than this simple embrace. Any closer contact than this and his body was sure to betray him.

He tried to assuage his conscience by telling himself that it wasn't like he was denying Starsky anything here. There wasn't a guy on the planet who'd be comfortable being even this close to his best buddy in bed. This tangled hug was all propriety could ask a friend to offer. Starsky wouldn't/couldn't ask for more, any more than Hutch had ever been able to. Hutch knew he could take the coward's route out and never know a moment's blame.

But since when had propriety ever dictated either of their actions when it came to each other, his smarting conscience demanded. This wasn't just some good time buddy here next to him. This was the man who'd crawled into bed with him and held his stinking, cramp-wracked body close as a lover's while he'd vomited all over them both when Forrest's horse had been burning its way out of his system. Propriety had no claim on either of them, no matter how attractive a safe out might be to Hutch at the moment.

As personally comforting as that easy path might be, it wouldn't do anything to ease his partner's troubled spirit. The stress of this undercover assignment was eating Starsky up inside, leaving his capable friend in desperate need of grounding.

There was nothing as good at breaking the tension or grounding a guy as getting laid. They both knew that.

Hutch knew that he could give his partner what he needed, help Starsky work the tension and anxiety out of his system. Good sex could focus a man in a way little else could, only . . . Hutch wanted this too badly himself to completely trust his motivations here.

Starsky was vulnerable tonight, the way he'd been after Helen and Terry died and Rosey Malone split. Hutch could very easily meet this need, but he couldn't be sure that by doing so, he wouldn't be taking advantage of his partner. And if he made a mistake here, if he forced something on his upset partner that Starsky didn't want or wasn't ready to accept, Hutch knew he'd ruin everything. Maybe even get Starsky killed on this assignment.

No, whatever he did, he couldn't fuck around here. He had to be clear that this was what Starsky wanted and that it was Starsky's choice. But he didn't have the words to ask that kind of question, anymore than Starsky did.

So, in the end, he reached out for Starsky's shoulders. Moving carefully, giving his friend every opportunity to object and bail out, Hutch tentatively guided his partner over until Starsky was lying right on top of him.

It should have been awkward and clumsy, pulling another man close like that, but Starsky's body settled on top of his own with almost frightening ease. Starsky came to him slowly, like he couldn't believe it was happening. His partner's features were so tense, Starsky looked like he was waiting for his world to explode.

But no explosion followed, nothing upsetting at all in fact. There was no painful bump of crotches or knees or elbows or noses. With something like fear etched into his face, Starsky simply tucked his head onto Hutch's right shoulder, the rest of his limbs seeming to just melt around Hutch. Most reassuring of all was the way Starsky's groin settled gently against his right hip.

Hutch almost sobbed with relief. Holding Starsky close like this was tempting as all hell, feeling his warm, heavy weight blanketing every inch of him was exquisite, but . . . Hutch thought he could live with this. It was a close call, but their groins weren't in direct contact. He was as braced for trouble as he could be. He had his body under iron control now. No matter what, he wouldn't give his feelings away.

Even though they were lying here tangled more closely than ever before, this still might not be about sex. Starsky could simply be needing a more satisfying embrace—in which case, Hutch knew he was in for one of the longest nights of his life.

Needing to relax them both, he laid his palm tentatively on Starsky's bare back.

"It's gonna be okay, Starsky," he whispered, his right hand stroking in wide, reassuring circles across that broad, sweat damp expanse of flesh.

There wasn't anything overtly sensual in his movement; Hutch made damn sure of it. He was working so hard to be good, to make damned sure that he didn't do anything tonight that he hadn't done a zillion times before.

Yet, Starsky hissed in a breath, a shudder seeming to quake through his tight-held form like the latest disturbance along the San Andreas Fault.

Stunned, Hutch felt the hardness nudging his hip pulse and swell to life. That burgeoning erection was the only movement at all in Starsky's body after that one convulsive shudder. Even Starsky's breathing seemed to stop at that moment.

A ten-ton weight seemed to lift off Hutch's chest when he felt his friend's physical reaction.

Good God . . . it wasn't just him!

Starsky was feeling it, too. Just knowing that he wasn't alone in this made a world of difference to his guilt-ridden conscience. They weren't out of the water yet. They were still in far too deep, but at least the shore was in sight now. Even if this were just an adrenaline-induced hard-on, Starsky had reacted first. He hadn't forced anything on his partner.

Recognizing the palpable dread that had frozen Starsky's whole body, Hutch quickly whispered, "It's all right. Everything's gonna be all right. I promise. Just . . . relax, okay?"

His partner's suppressed panic gave way to sudden movement. Starsky took his weight onto his arms, quickly lifting his lower body up off him and staring down into his face in horrified shock as he hung there above him. "I . . . I'm sorry, I . . . ."

"Ssssh," Hutch gripped those muscular shoulders, anchoring his partner in place as the mortified man tried to move back to his own side of the bed. "Don't . . . please. Just lie back down and . . . tryta relax, okay? For me?"

He gave another tug at Starsky's shoulders.

Starsky's face gritted in determination. Big beads of sweat popped out on his forehead as Starsky held himself aloft.

"You . . . you don't understand, Hutch. I just . . . ."

"It's all right, Starsk," he assured, putting as much calm and belief into the words as he could muster. Hutch's own courage was ready to jump ship in the face of his partner's shock.

"What is?" Starsky questioned, visibly on the verge of freaking out.

"Everything, anything," Hutch shakily replied, reaching up with a quivering hand to stroke Starsky's curls, calming him the way he would a scared kitten.

Those frantic eyes filled with confusion. Beneath their sexy, dark stubble, Starsky's cheeks flushed crimson as he sought to explain, "But . . . I just got a hard-on. Didn't ya feel it?"

"I felt it," Hutch tried a small smile on for size. Inside, he was scared so bad that he might run for the hills himself at any minute. They were going places here they wouldn't be able to get back from if they kept talking.

"Doesn't it . . . bother you?"

"It's a normal reaction, partner. You've been living on adrenaline and nerves for nine weeks now, Starsk. I'd hazard a guess that I'm the first warm body you've been close to in that time . . . ."

". . . and then some," Starsky muttered, his eyes not quite as wild in the face of Hutch's composure.

"It's just human physiology. A natural response to closeness after a long abstinence."

"So it doesn't mean anything?" Starsky asked, calming down some.

That hurt.

"I didn't say that," Hutch said, lowering his gaze, unable to lie about something so important to his heart, even if that lie were something Starsky wanted/needed to hear.

"Then let me get back to my own side of the bed and . . . ."

"I didn't say it meant something bad, Starsk," Hutch interrupted before the 'and we'll pretend this never happened' that was no doubt coming could be voiced.

He could feel that gaze digging into his face, searching for answers. Bracing himself with a deep, cleansing breath, Hutch opened his eyes and forced himself to meet Starsky's stare.

Allowing his perceptive partner to read those windows to his soul was probably the single most difficult thing he'd ever done in his life. There'd be no going back after this, no more pretenses, no more hiding. For better or worse, Starsky would know the truth.

Twelve years of friendship, their entire partnership, could dissolve here in the next three seconds. Hutch knew that, but he still opened his heart to Starsky.

For a moment, it seemed that Starsky was just too tired and caught up in his own embarrassment to truly understand. Then Hutch saw those dark-ringed eyes widen in comprehension.

A completely unnatural stillness claimed the tense figure above him.

Hutch prepared himself as best he could for his entire world to come crashing down around him. He didn't know how he'd make it through this, or even if he was meant to. Vanessa's leaving had totally shattered him, but to lose Starsky . . . .

"Hutch?" Starsky's voice was hoarse, shaky with disbelief.

"Yeah?" his own didn't sound much better, even to his own ears. He'd been ready for Armageddon, not this subdued shock.

"It . . . it really is . . . okay?"

For a moment, Hutch didn't know what the hell Starsky was talking about, then he realized that Starsky was referring to his own arousal, as though that was still the only topic on the table here.

Could it be, Hutch wondered, almost limp with relief. Could he have gotten off that easy? Starsky was completely exhausted. Perhaps his partner really wasn't able to see beyond the stress of the moment to any deeper truths.

"It's okay, Starsk. I . . . promise it'll be okay."

Those eyes watched him like a hungry wolf in a cage, who'd been taunted so often with the sight of raw meat beyond its reach that it couldn't believe the bounty that was freely offered to it now. Maybe if this had happened at another time, things might have gone the way Hutch had always feared they would, but it was suddenly clear that Starsky was so caught up in the need of the moment that he couldn't see beyond his own hurting.

Realizing that his hands were still gripping Starsky's bare, powerful shoulders to anchor him in place, Hutch took a chance and loosened his right hand. He let it roam slowly down Starsky's back, feeling how every single muscle was sharply delineated with sustained tension.

Starsky's entire body seemed to shudder in reaction at that single stroke.

Taking heart from the unexpected response, Hutch rested his palm against the small of his partner's back and exerted the lightest pressure to guide Starsky's hips back down again.

"It . . . it's really . . . all right, Hutch?" Starsky nervously repeated as he continued to resist, the entire concept obviously too much for his tired brain to absorb.

"It's okay, partner," Hutch gently assured, his heart almost breaking for his strung-out friend. "It's just you and me here. Me 'n' thee, the same as always. I swear."

Starsky released a raggedy, shuddering breath, then asked in an uncertain tone, "What do you want me to . . . I mean, what can I . . . ?"

"Take whatever you need, Starsk. Whatever it is, it'll be all right."

Hutch exerted a bit more pressure on his palm. This time, Starsky allowed himself to be swayed.

They both gasped as Starsky's hips descended again. Starsky's erection nestled right beside Hutch's own aching arousal.

Hutch felt his own upper arms clasped in a possessive hold, as his partner's head once again settled into the nook of his left shoulder. Hutch momentarily regretted his inability to see Starsky's face, but as those white brief covered hips began to pump against his own jogging pants, it was the only thing in his universe he regretted.

His hands scrimmaged down Starsky's back, getting a grip on those cotton-covered globes. They fit perfectly into his palms, like the curve of buttocks was designed precisely for his own big hands. God, how he longed to feel the silky skin under those briefs, but . . . this was Starsky's show. He couldn't rush things or force anything more onto his overwhelmed friend. If they were gonna get naked, his partner was gonna have to suggest it.

Unable to resist, Hutch dug his fingers carefully into the succulent flesh, pressing the soft mounds together under their chaste cotton shield.

Starsky jerked erratically in response, giving a deep, sexy moan.

"God, oh . . . God . . . Hutch . . . ." his partner practically sobbed as his hips pounded frantically down against Hutch's groin.

Hutch met his partner thrust for thrust, falling into the rhythm like it had been waiting there for them for a hundred years.

It shouldn't feel this good, this right, Hutch thought, reeling under the shock waves of pleasure. Maybe it had just been too long for him, but this simple belly rubbing—through two layers of clothing, none-the-less!—felt like nirvana to him. He sobbed with ecstasy, unable to keep his hips from pounding up to meet Starsky's driving force.

Not that he was trying to resist. It just seemed smarter to play it safe, to not let on how very much this meant to him. Only . . . his body was having none of that two-faced nonsense. Where he was normally totally in control, able to play head-games with the best of them, with Starsky, where he really needed such protective shields the most, he was absolutely defenseless. He was crying out Starsky's name like a guy who'd been in solitary confinement for three years straight.

His body was explosively responsive to Starsky's slightest caress. His partner didn't seem able to stop touching him. The hands running restlessly up and down Hutch's sides, occasionally jumping up to card through his hair . . . those simple touches sent his nerve endings sparking the way getting a blowjob normally did. For some reason, the skin in such non-erogenous zones as his elbows and biceps seemed to be hot-wired directly to his cock tonight.

It was, of course, all due to the fact that he knew this was Starsky caressing him. If his partner had so much as laid his hand over Hutch's erection and ordered him to come, he probably would have done so out of the sheer knowledge that it was Starsky wanting him to react that way.

He was like a run-away train, thrusting his hips shamelessly up at Starsky, panting and crying his partner's name out in desperate need, but then, Starsky was doing exactly the same thing, so it couldn't have been all that offensive to his buddy.

Hutch had wanted to keep it light, to keep things simple, to not complicate this night by throwing his own needs into the mix, but he couldn't have kept his feelings out of it if both their lives had depended on his restraint. Starsky was really here in his arms and making love to him. That was all the reality he knew.

On some level, Hutch was aware that there were still issues that needed to be dealt with here. If Starsky had been completely comfortable, they probably still wouldn't be wearing their clothes and yet . . . it felt so good that even such nagging reality checks held no sway over him.

Starsky could use him as he liked tonight, do anything he wanted to him, Hutchinson pride be damned. He'd pick up the pieces of his shattered self-respect in the morning, as he'd done on any number of occasions when his need for Starsky had forced him to give into the sordid fantasies that starred his oblivious partner.

"Hutch . . . Hutch . . . ?"

"Mmmmm?" Hearing the urgency, he muttered, opening his eyes as his thrashing head was caught and held still. Starsky's fingers had his hair tangled over his ears like he'd hold him like that forever. Hutch wasn't protesting, but it was obvious his partner wanted his attention, so he tried to think beyond the incredible sensations crashing through him. He'd never been this carried away by sex in his life and he was still fully dressed.

"I . . . ."

Whatever it was, Starsky didn't seem capable of voicing it. After a minute of just staring at him, Starsky gulped spasmodically.

Hutch opened his mouth to ask what was wrong . . . only to have his mouth covered by Starsky's quivering lips. It was . . . weird. Beyond the strangeness of the raspy, stubbled chin and masculine aggression, Hutch could feel the emotions vibrating through his partner. His own were pretty damn intense, but what Starsky was undergoing felt like it was trying to shake him apart. He wouldn't have exactly called Starsky's initial kiss rough, but it was frantic, like Starsky was scared out of his mind and hanging on by that thin thread he'd mentioned earlier.

Hutch didn't know what to say, how to calm the anxiety. All he could think of doing was to take it into himself. So he molded his mouth to Starsky's nervous force. His fingers were always hungry for the feel of his partner's skin, so he let them roam Starsky's back in soothing circles while his pliant mouth worked at communicating reassurance, and all the time those hips were pounding down into him like Starsk was trying to grind him through the mattress.

Though the passion never dimmed, the edge of fear seemed to blunt after a few minutes of lip-wrestling. He could almost feel the nervousness and uncertainty seeping out of Starsky as his partner absorbed his acceptance. After that, the urgency was like one pulsing need, throbbing between them.

Starsky's tongue poked out and entered his mouth, a sweet, succulent visitor that explored every nook and cranny. Hutch drank in Starsky's taste, his hands clutching at the powerful back as his ecstasy soared to unbearable heights. His hips thrust up in one final burst of need, then reality exploded around him.

Vaguely, he was aware of their mouths breaking free of each other.

"Huuuuttttccchhh!" The sobbing outcry seemed to fill the universe as Starsky's hips slammed down onto him with primal urgency. A spasmodic jerk of flesh, then a matching hot wetness bathed him from above.

Once the last convulsive shudder faded, Starsky collapsed against him like a marionette whose strings had been sliced. Hutch rubbed the sweat-slick back while Starsky panted into his neck, shivering as Starsky dribbled a little there.

He loved the boneless feel of the man, the musky scent of him. Hutch lay there simply savoring the closeness, for his fantasies had never taken him this far. This was all new territory to him, from the utter contentment weighing his limbs down to the raspy beard stubble scratching at his sensitive neck.

There was a part of him that wondered if Starsky were going to leap up any second, the picture of macho indignity, but as the minutes passed and the most Starsky did was snuggle more comfortably down onto him, that worry faded. Their heads mightn't have a clue about how to deal, Hutch realized, but their hearts knew.

Accepting this moment for the precious gift it was, Hutch tried to imprint the feel of Starsky in his arms in his memory before his partner pulled back in the inevitable withdrawal. The awkwardness would come, he knew, and then there'd be questions to answer and consequences to be met.

It didn't get this good in the real world. Maybe some people found this kind of lasting happiness, but Ken Hutchinson wasn't one of them. As soon as Starsky fully appreciated what they'd done here, he'd be up in the bed demanding explanations for the unforgivable trespass. Hutch had known that was how this would play out from the instant he'd allowed it to happen. He was gonna have to pay the piper, big time.

But, while he lay there braced for disaster, Starsky simply cuddled in his arms, his face pressed in the nook of his neck and shoulder.

Only slowly did it register on the anxious Hutch just how deeply his partner was breathing. There was no tension what-so-ever in the body blanketing him. In fact, Starsky felt limp as a rag doll.

Hutch focused his senses fully on his friend. Starsky didn't sound like he was lying there having an identity crisis. To the contrary, from the deep breathing, Starsky sounded like he was lying there fast asleep.

Well, he'd wanted to get rid of Starsky's tension. Grinning at his success, Hutch took a deep breath and gave the dark curls beneath his chin a kiss as he pressed his mouth into the crown of Starsky's head.

He knew that the confrontation had only been postponed, but he was grateful for any time he was given. Exhausted himself, Hutch closed his weary eyes, content to cuddle Starsky all night like this.

*~*~*

It seemed only minutes later that the sun was blazing against his closed eyes. He drifted in drowsy contentment for a few blissful moments, enjoying the feel of a body that had been loved to languor the previous night. That was such a rare occurrence these days that he wasn't used to it. Starsky had certainly . . . oh, God, Starsky . . . !

Hutch snapped up in the bed, stiff with terror. Beyond the knowledge that there'd be hell to pay for the reason behind his current lack of tension, was the awareness that he'd screwed up big time. He'd promised to wake Starsky in time to get back unnoticed to Villar's dump. The sun was already up. If someone was watching Villar's place . . . .

Only slowly did Hutch realize that he was alone in the bed. He glanced over at the chair where he'd put Starsky's holster and clothes last night. It was as empty as if Starsky had never been here.

For a moment, he questioned his own sanity. Maybe he had dreamed the entire thing. The itchy, flaky patch of semen crusted between his belly and jogging pants could have been the result of a mighty vivid wet dream. God knew, he'd had enough of them, only . . . he hadn't been wearing these sweatpants and tee shirt when he went to bed at midnight. He was sure of that. Also, the fear of rejection weighing him down was no holdover from a dream. Starsky had been here last night all right . . . and left without saying a word.

Hutch damned himself ten times a fool. How could he have been so stupid? The future of their partnership aside, he had no right laying all that on Starsky when his partner was barely holding it together in the most dangerous undercover assignment they'd ever taken on. Was he actively trying to get his partner killed?

Consumed with guilt, Hutch sank back down onto the bed. He didn't even have clue one as to what kind of mood Starsky had been in when he'd left here this morning. God, he hadn't even cared enough to be awake to see how freaked out Starsky was on the morning after. He wondered if Starsky hated him so much for taking advantage of him in a vulnerable moment that he didn't even want to talk to him before leaving.

How could he have fallen asleep like that and just left Starsky to deal with all the inevitable emotional baggage alone? Shattered, Hutch realized that he'd slept through one of the most important moments of his life. He was never going to get a second chance to explain, to apologize. If he was lucky, Starsky would be around to hate him tomorrow. If he wasn't . . . .

There were no ifs here. It was his job to see that Starsky was around tomorrow.

As the alarm started to blare, Hutch pulled himself up in the bed, silencing the radio clock with a viscous move. This was all his fault. He didn't know how he was going to make up for last night, but he was damn sure going to have to try. The last thing Starsky needed was this kind of additional stress in the middle of an undercover assignment.

Racking his brain for some way to make this up to his friend, Hutch stumbled to the bathroom to pee. No more enlightened, he wandered out into the kitchen, and froze at the sight of a white piece of paper taped to the coffee pot.

His insides clenched up like concrete was hardening in his guts. The blood in his veins certainly seemed to be solidifying. The very thought of breathing was even beyond him at that moment. All he could do was stand there and stare at that note, the way someone else might stare at finding an armed felon in their kitchen. The terror was certainly on that same level.

Hutch didn't even know how a person would phrase such morning-after thoughts on a piece of paper. Something like 'you betrayed our entire partnership last night; don't even think of showing your face at the station ever again' or something to that effect, perhaps? Even as furious as Starsky had every right to be with him under the circumstances, could his partner really finish their partnership on a note like that, Hutch wondered. Wouldn't he rather have the satisfaction of doing it in person?

Unable to stand the tension of not knowing another minute, Hutch reached out with a trembling hand to tear the note off the coffee pot. His stomach knotting in dread, he began to read the hastily scrawled words,

"Hutch,

You looked too peaceful to disturb. There's a million things I should say here, I know, but I'm not too good at these kind of scenes. Just didn't want you to think I snuck out on you without saying nothing. That just wouldn't be right. You really put my head back together last night, partner. Above and beyond the call of duty or friendship. I know we got to talk about this, but I got to get back to Villar's. It stinks. I want to be here when you wake up. We'll talk tonight.

Starsky"

His knees almost gave out on him when he read that first line. Too peaceful to disturb . . . like Starsk had actually been watching him sleep. He read and reread the note, looking for some hint of the anger or disgust he'd feared, but there just wasn't any. If anything, there was a flavor of wonder to the letter, like Starsky really didn't know how to verbalize what he was feeling.

Hutch could certainly appreciate that. He felt like crying himself, either that, or laughing his head off.

Starsky didn't hate him. Considering his luck when it came to love, it seemed almost impossible to believe, but he had it right there in black and white, written by Starsky's own hand. Starsky didn't hold last night against him. What's more, Starsky hadn't wanted to leave him this morning.

His heart racing, Hutch absorbed what the note seemed to be saying. No hate, no regrets, no guilt, just Starsky being his irrepressible self. And that last line. We'll talk tonight. The tacit promise of those words sent a shiver coursing through his long frame. He tried not to let his hopes run away with him, but it really sounded like Starsky might've been interested in more. Could it be true? Could he be that lucky?

He was going to have to wait through this long day to find out the answers to those questions, going to have to wait till their talk tonight. But even though he didn't think he'd survive another minute without knowing for sure, his heart was strangely light as he put the coffee on to brew. For the first time in years, he didn't have that cancer of secret longing eating away at his heart. His hopes might be shattered to hell and gone tonight, but . . . at least he wouldn't be hiding any dirty secrets anymore. Starsky would look him in the eye and know who he was . . . and take him or leave him as he might choose to do.

Although he knew it was foolish to entertain such hopes anymore, Hutch found himself strangely fearless. The fact that Starsky hadn't freaked out over this was an indication that his luck had already changed for the better. Feeling a confidence he hadn't experienced in ages, Hutch left the coffee brewing to go choose his clothes of the day, thinking that maybe, just maybe, it might be time to dig those tight cords out of the back of his closet.

*~*~*

Chapter Two

Sixteen hours after he'd crept from his partner's bed that morning, Starsky drove the battered blue Mustang that was the down-and-out Villar's only means of transportation into the crowded parking lot behind the House of Satan. The rusting Ford had put him in good stead with Baldino, for Starsky hadn't had to act when he was griping about his embarrassing wheels. A car enthusiast himself, Dino had understood his shame entirely.

Sitting there behind the wheel, staring up at the ugly black edifice, he took a moment to compose himself before leaving the car.

When he'd left Hutch's this morning, he'd felt like a new man. What Hutch had done for him last night was . . . unbelievable. At 2 a.m. when he'd shown up at Venice Place, Starsky had been prepared to admit defeat. He'd been fully ready to allow Hutch to call Dobey and pull him from the assignment. He just couldn't take another moment of being that lowlife Villar, of living in a world where sadism and violence were the norm. But instead of allowing him to blow nine weeks of hard work, to give up like that, Hutch had . . . .

Starsky still wasn't quite able to get his brain around precisely what Hutch had done for him last night.

Sex. He'd had sex with his male partner. They'd lain in each other's arms and brought each other to the heights of ecstasy.

If he'd ever thought about the idea of two guys together at all in the past, Starsky had always figured it'd be pretty gross, maybe even violent, what with both guys jockeying to see who'd be on top. The concept had always been alien to him, too scary to think too much about, let alone actively explore.

His contact with the gay scene had done nothing to improve his image of it. Hustlers, S&M clubs, pick-up joints, transvestites . . . Johnny Blaine.

As always, including his mentor in that sleaze parade troubled him immensely. Blaine just didn't fit in with that seedy crowd. His heart kept insisting, even now, that it couldn't have been true about Johnny, and, yet, Hutch had accepted Blaine being gay right from the start. Maggie had confirmed it, so it had to be true, even though Starsky still couldn't believe how a man that good, that . . . honorable could fit into that seedy world.

Johnny was the only exception that had refused to gel with Starsky's admittedly biased view of gays, and even poor Johnny had ended up a corpse in a sleazy dive. In his thirty-six years of life, Starsky had never seen one thing to make him think that there could be anything attractive or positive about two guys getting it on. It was just another kink, another sexual perversion that he'd run across in the line of duty, nothing that could ever apply to him or anyone he knew personally. Even in Johnny's case, it had killed him, so it couldn't have been good for him.

Only . . . what Hutch had given him last night had fed his soul. It was so far outside Starsky's previous experience of the gay lifestyle that his confused mind couldn't even begin to file what Hutch and he had done in with all that other scary stuff. There had been nothing dirty or seedy or predatory about it. The loving Hutch had bestowed upon him had been as bright and clean and pure as his partner.

There had been no struggle for domination. Hutch hadn't tried to overpower him and screw him into the mattress. To the contrary, Hutch had put him on top. He could still hear his partner's ragged whisper that everything, anything he might want was all right. That he should just take what he needed.

That wasn't perverted. That was love. The same kind of nurturing support Hutch had given him from day one, the type of cherishing regard Starsky had looked for in a hundred women and failed to find. Until last night.

Only he hadn't found it with a woman. He'd found it with Hutch, his beautiful, male partner.

He might not be sanguine about any of this gay stuff, but Starsky was man enough to admit when he was wrong. He didn't know squat about two guys together, that was clear. Fortunately, his partner seemed better informed. Hutch hadn't appeared panicked or disgusted by what had gone down last night. His partner's only true fear had seemed to be his concern that Starsky himself would freak. So maybe Hutch knew a bit more about this business than he did.

He sure as hell hoped so, because one thing had been perfectly clear to Starsky the entire time they'd been fumbling towards ecstasy—it wasn't just sex motivating them; it was love. And, no matter how unexpected or complicated the source, Starsky wasn't prepared to turn his back on something that good, that right. Not just because the person it came from was anatomically different from all his other sexual partners. Starsky figured that if he turned away from a feeling this strong just because it was coming from his guy partner, it'd be the same as refusing to date a woman because her skin color was darker than his own. He'd never held with that racist crap and, difficult as it was to accept, he was beginning to see that his attitudes towards homosexuality were just another kind of prejudice.

God, he wished that he'd had a chance to talk to Hutch, to see how his partner felt and maybe sort some of this stuff out. That'd just have to wait till tonight, till after his final initiation ceremony.

The thought of what he was about to walk into here drowned his elation like cold water on dying campfire embers.

Focus, he had to focus. Thinking about Hutch and him in this new light beat the hell out of imagining what he was gonna walk into here, but . . . if he didn't concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing in his undercover role, he was gonna end up dead. And he couldn't end up dead, not tonight, not when Hutch and he had so much to talk about.

So Starsky did his best to force last night's encounter with Hutch from his mind and fall back into character.

He was Michael Villar: rapist, ex-con, strong-arm thug, Satanist. What Hutch and he had shared last night had nothing to do with a lowlife like Villar. The guy he was pretending to be had probably never experienced an emotion that fragile, that gentle from his cradle on. Maybe that was what made degenerates like Villar into the sick bastards they were, Starsky thought, almost pitying the creature he was portraying.

The uneasiness that had plagued him throughout the assignment fell over him like a clammy shroud. He didn't have to work at bringing up the emotion that had been most prevalent throughout this assignment. He'd worn that terror so close to his heart that it settled back over him like a second skin.

Fear was something he was accustomed to handling, but normally, Starsky knew what he was scared of. Bullets, knives, drugs—in his line of work, he'd weaved his way through them all. Though he could never say that being at the wrong end of a loaded gun didn't bother him, he knew how to deal with that kind of fear, knew how to bluff his way through. This was different from anything he knew, far, far worse.

This assignment was the stuff his childhood nightmares were made of. Devil worshippers. Just the mere sight of that sculpted, painted goat horned godhead throughout the place gave him the heebie-jeebies. And those flakes who worshipped the monstrous looking thing! A scarier group of weirdoes, he'd never seen. They made Simon Marcus' crowd look mundane.

Starsky just didn't get it. What could make anyone want to worship the Prince of Darkness and propagate evil? And it wasn't all just show or cheap thrills, like Hutch had suggested. Starsky only wished it were. These creeps really believed this sick stuff gave them some kind of magical power.

What was even scarier was the fact that Starsky was no longer so sure it didn't.

Before this assignment, he'd considered himself a healthy agnostic. But now . . . .

Now he found himself thinking more and more of his childhood days at temple. He remembered how when everyone was together, raising their voices in prayer, there did seem to be some kind of weird buzz to the place. Starsky hadn't been to temple or felt that buzz in years . . . until two nights ago.

It scared the stuffing out of him to admit it, but in the midst of that ritualized depravity, when all those freaks were chanting their responses to the Black Mass, Starsky had felt an energy around him similar to that which he'd experienced in temple, only this particular energy was a lot stronger, a lot wilder . . . and just feeling it there in that horrible setup petrified him, for it made him wonder if maybe it wasn't all true, all that religious stuff he'd dismissed in his wild teenage years as just society's way of controlling people.

Starsky tried to push those thoughts out of his mind. He was too old to have a crisis of faith, for he didn't have any faith to destroy. He lived in the real world, worked the streets of LA. It didn't get much realer than that. He knew what was possible and what wasn't. Devils, demons and magical powers, they were all the props of a horror flick. They didn't exist any more than angels or Santa Claus did.

It was just a case of nerves, he told himself. Who wouldn't be freaked out dealing with this bunch of nuts? He had reason to be upset. If things got much more intense, he wasn't sure he'd be able to hack it, not and stay in character.

Wednesday's initiation was almost more than he could handle. Tonight's ceremony was supposed to be even more intense, if Baldino's brags were anything to go by. Anderson had assured Starsky/Villar that tonight's ceremony wouldn't be anything that Villar hadn't encountered in his former congregations, but that hadn't helped Starsky at all. He had no idea what these flakes were going to throw at him and, from everything he'd learned of the group's blood-thirsty leaders, he wasn't looking forward to illumination.

Still, Hutch was out there backing him up. If it got too heavy and he needed a fast out, his partner would be through the door in an instant with his Magnum drawn and half the LAPD behind him.

Reassured by that certainty, Starsky stepped out of the car. He hadn't seen the surveillance van when he'd driven up the road, but his coworkers wouldn't have been doing their jobs right if he had. They were probably still around the block.

His roving gaze reluctantly settled upon his destination. The building alone had almost been enough to completely unnerve him the first time he'd seen it. The house was huge, one of those hideous Victorian montages of cupolas, abutments and ornate gable-work that, had it been better maintained, might have qualified the place as a historical landmark.

In Starsky's admittedly biased opinion it was a landmark—in the most literal sense of the term—a blot upon the land.

As if the building's basic unsightliness wasn't enough, its current owners had added to its lack of appeal by painting it black, as dark and chilling as the void of deep space. Even the windowpanes were painted over in black, although they had the added charm of a blood-red, ram-horned devil's head painted on each of them.

Fortunately, the ghastly edifice was far enough back from the road and shielded by enough trees that its presence was rarely noticed by the neighbors, except for the mysterious disappearance of house pets. Nothing was ever proven against Anderson and his flakes, of course, which was why Starsky was here, wishing he were just about anywhere else on Earth tonight, preferably the center of his partner's big bed.

God only knew what they were gonna throw at him tonight. The only thing he was sure of was that God would have very little to do with it.

Trying to boost his courage, Starsky reminded himself that he'd gotten through the last ceremony. He could handle this one. And, if he couldn't, help was just a shout away. The bug he'd placed beneath the altar would have Hutch and half the police force in California in here in a minute should he give the word.

Buoyed by that thought, Starsky eyed the eerie black building and gathered his wits about him. Even though he was familiar with the structure, the place still gave him the creeps.

Oddly enough, the effect wasn't as bad at night. In darkness, the black building was swallowed by the surrounding shadows. Anderson's place was darker by night than its immediate neighbors, but not overtly perverse. It was only in the sunlight that the inherent evil of this place permeated the soul at mere sight.

Squaring his shoulders, Starsky took a deep breath and got out of the car. It was show time.

*~*~*

Hutch winced as his companion lit up yet another cigarette. That made three in the last half hour. Smoke didn't normally bother him. Like most everyone else, he'd smoked for a while in college in the sixties, when it was the cool thing to do. But since the General Surgeon had released their findings on the health risks of smoking, he hadn't lit up in years. In the past nine weeks he'd inhaled enough second hand smoke to undo his fifteen-year abstinence. His lungs probably had more tar in them than the blacktop they were parked on. The van smelt like an ashtray in a bus station. Hell, he smelt like one.

As much as he'd like to make an issue of it, Hutch held onto his temper and rolled down the window. Smoking was the least of Detective Joseph Lowery's shortcomings. Assessing the gray-haired, pot bellied cop, Hutch couldn't help but think that the man represented all that was wrong with the force. He hated cops like this, guys who were just coasting until they reached retirement age. He couldn't remember the last time the older man had made a legitimate bust or did anything beyond the minimum requirements of his duties. The most active thing Lowery did was clock in and clock out each day. Surveillance was all he was good for, and even there, Lowery wasn't exactly a pinch hitter.

Hutch stared up the street that intersected the one their van was parked on. They could just see Anderson's driveway from here and part of the path to the door.

In a short time, Starsky would be pulling into that driveway . . . and he was going to have to sit here and listen while his new lover screwed some twisted stranger. Hutch wasn't anticipating the burst of jealousy that tore through him at just the thought of Starsky making love to someone else. It had been hard enough sitting out here listening to his partner fuck that girl the other night when his love had been unrequited, but now that they were involved, the very idea of Starsky with someone else was unbearable.

Funny, with all the hoping and dreaming he'd done about this over the years, Hutch had never really considered how being Starsky's lover would affect them professionally. It didn't happen often, but the job had called upon them both to court someone for inside information in the past. Now, just the thought made him crazy.

He had no idea how this had happened so fast. Since when did he get so territorial after a one-night stand, even with someone he knew and cared about?

This development wasn't good. Hutch had known his partner long enough to know how Starsky responded to jealous lovers. If this was going to work out, Hutch knew he was going to have to get over this pettiness fast. But it was like asking someone to get over breathing. He wanted Starsky for his own, forever, period, and that was just not going to happen. Though his hedonistic friend might be up to broadening his sexual horizons with a little homosexual experimentation, Hutch honestly couldn't see his partner settling down with him the way Hutch longed for.

Stifling a sigh, Hutch returned his attention to the files he was sorting. He had all of DMV's records on the license plates of the participants in Wednesday night's ceremony. Minnie had pulled the records of any with a criminal history. He was now putting them together. So far, there was nothing too promising. It wasn't at all the kind of suspects they'd expected to be dealing with in a cult that had three known ritual murders to their credit this year alone. For the most part, the flakes at Wednesday night's ceremony seemed to be the same kind of pathetic thrill seekers that that loser Slade had conned when they were investigating those vampire slayings.

It didn't make any sense. In the nine weeks Starsky had been working as Anderson's groundskeeper and doing small jobs for the guy, they had logged at least six ex-cons with murder records coming and going, but not a one of them had been here Wednesday night.

"If you're gonna go for dinner, you better get outta here now," Lowery said, interrupting him a few minutes later. "Dobey said your partner would be showing up in about an hour."

Hutch nodded and met the older man's bored brown eyes through a thick cloud of smoke. He hated leaving the van for even short stretches, in case something broke. Lowery wasn't the kind to take risks, even when another officer's life was on the line. It wasn't likely that Starsky would show up early, but Hutch could take nothing for granted, not when they were out of contact like this. If Starsky were in trouble, he was gonna need more of a back up than this lazy slob.

But Lowery was right about one thing. If Hutch didn't go now, it would be hours before he could leave the van again. He needed to hit the rest room and get something to eat. Over seven hours had passed since Dobey had forced him to eat half of the sub their captain had ordered for lunch. Although he wanted to be here every minute, just in case, it wasn't humanly possible. Between the paperwork this long-term op generated, the court appearances for their pending cases, and his voluntary surveillance duty, Hutch was feeling stretched pretty thin himself. He knew that Dobey was right, that he wasn't going to be any use to his partner if he wore himself out worrying like this, but it was hard to let go, even for an hour. He didn't really relax until Starsk was back at Villar's dump at night, safe in bed.

"Don't know why you insist on sittin' here every night when you could be home watchin' the game," Lowery commented.

Normally, Hutch was as responsive to the other cop's verbal gambits as a dead trout, but this kind of remark got on his single remaining nerve.

"Starsky is my partner," Hutch snapped.

"Even so, it ain't like he's out there on his own. Maloney'n me've been watching this dump for over two months now. If there was any trouble, we'd—"

"Call it in?" Hutch couldn't contain his sarcasm.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Lowery bristled.

Recognizing that he was going to have to spend God knew how many more nights trapped in this man's company, Hutch made a conscious effort to tone down the aggression. "Nothin'. You want anything from the diner?"

Lowery might be a feckless waste of space, but he wasn't the worst cop on the force. When his partner Maloney was on duty, Hutch had to deal with the same apathy and listen to how the LAPD was going to hell in a hand basket since those affirmative action laws had put so many blacks on the force. Lowery might be a pig, but at least he wasn't a racist pig.

But Hutch's comment had apparently hit the other man where he lived. Truth had a way of doing that.

Lowery removed his headset and glared at him from the back of the van. "We can't all be hotdogs like you and your partner. Some of us want to live to see retirement, which you guys are never gonna do if you don't stop grandstanding the way you do."

Translation—stop making us look bad.

"Right," Hutch said, reaching for his jacket. "You want somethin' from the diner or what?"

For a moment it seemed that Lowery might actually have had enough balls left to be genuinely offended by a comment that would have landed Hutch a knuckle sandwich with another kind of cop, but the gray-haired cop relented and said, "Bring me back a jelly donut and a coke."

Hutch repressed a shudder and nodded. Not even Starsky would have asked for a coke with a jelly donut. Coffee, perhaps, but never a coke.

As he stepped out of the stuffy van, the cool evening air kissed his face. That first breath, lush with the scent of bunchgrass, California sagebrush, and blue gum eucalyptus trees, made him feel like he'd never breathed before; it was so fresh and clean. Drawing those growing scents deep into his lungs, Hutch was reminded of what California had been like when he'd first moved out here, before it became so developed.

It was an illusion, of course. This suburb was no less built up than any of its neighbors. Everything wild and free had been tamed decades ago. Their van just happened to be parked on a street that fronted a copse of woods that acted as a sound barrier between the residential neighborhood and the eight-lane highway behind it. But as he started down the block, he was grateful for the illusion.

Off duty for the next hour and free of Lowery's company, Hutch allowed his mind to wander as he walked to the diner three blocks away. It was hardly surprising that his thoughts bee-lined to the one subject he'd prohibited himself from dwelling on while on active duty—last night with Starsky. Though he'd been plagued by the potential disaster this change in their relationship could bring, Hutch hadn't allowed himself to relish how incredible last night had been. Now that he could do so in relative privacy, he let himself remember how good Starsk had felt in his arms, how right, how perfect, everything from their first kiss to the inevitable climax had been.

He still couldn't believe that it was real, that Starsky had kissed and held him, that they'd fallen asleep cuddled together, and, perhaps most unbelievable of all, that Starsk wanted more. Ken Hutchinson just didn't get this lucky.

He could hardly wait for this night to be over, so that they could have their talk. He wasn't sure what Starsky might have to say to him. He'd expected their relationship to fall apart this morning. It was just so hard to even imagine his macho partner wanting him. But Starsky's note had been encouraging and Hutch's own memories of last night reinforced the good feelings he had about this. Beyond his initial panic that he was going to freak over Starsky's arousal, Starsky had been fine with everything they did. No squeamishness, no obvious reservations or inhibitions . . . they hadn't been very adventurous, but they'd both been too exhausted and emotionally stressed out to handle much anyway. That would doubtless change, if not tonight, then after this case broke.

Damn, but it was hard waiting, Hutch thought as he walked through Tony's Place's swinging chrome door. Realizing that he had no conscious memory of the last two blocks, Hutch had to smile. It felt great to be in love.

The diner's interior was pure Americana, one of the thousands of cookie-cutter fifties joints that Starsky loved. The air was rife with the smell of sizzling hamburgers, laughing patrons, and clinking crockery. It was the nearest restaurant to County General Hospital, so the place was pretty much packed no matter what time you arrived.

Hutch detoured long enough to use the bathroom and then took the red vinyl booth he'd spent the last two months eating in. He was slowly working his way through Tony's Place's uninspired menu. He stared at tonight's entry, wondering if he had the stomach or the nerve to try the meatloaf. The last thing he needed later was indigestion.

Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Hutch smiled up at the matronly blonde waitress and ordered a large garden salad, which at least gave him a fifty-fifty chance of getting something green into him.

Glancing at his watch, he wondered what Starsky was doing right now. Considering traffic, he was probably on his way over. The tingle that ran through him at the thought of just glimpsing his partner as Starsky walked into Anderson's freak show was absolutely ridiculous. He'd known this man far too many years for this kind of reaction. What mystery or thrill could there be when you were with someone you'd listened to burp and snore for over a decade?

But reaction there was. Hutch couldn't remember feeling anything this strong for more years than he cared to think about. What he had felt for Gillian came close, but even that paled to the sheer thrill just the thought of loving David Starsky gave him.

"You're looking happy tonight," Mona, his usual waitress, commented as she came by to collect his empty plate a short time later. "Someone doing better?"

Hutch looked up, startled. "Huh?"

"You usually arrive right after County's visiting hours," Mona explained. "You usually look so worried that I figured someone close to you was in the hospital, long term, like."

Was that why she was always so kind to him, Hutch wondered, startled by how bad he must have looked if absolute strangers were reading his anxiety over his partner.

"No, no one's sick. Thanks for asking, though," Hutch said.

"I'm glad to hear that," the gracious blonde said with a huge smile. "You want some desert tonight? The lemon meringue is pretty good."

Normally, he wouldn't have even been tempted. The past two months eating had become something he had to force himself to do. But tonight, he had a real hunger. Still, the salad had been huge and his duties were far too sedentary of late to be stuffing himself with lemon meringue. Maybe when this case was over and he was back to his usual jogging routine, he and Starsky could splurge and buy a whole pie.

"No, pie tonight, but thanks, Mona," Hutch refused. Remembering Lowery's request, Hutch added, "Oh, if you could stick a coke and a jelly donut in a bag, that'd be great."

"Sure thing." Mona smiled. She was gone and back with his order and bill in an instant.

After another quick stop in the men's room, Hutch was on his way back to the van.

The sun had set while he was at Tony's Place. In the darkening twilight, Hutch watched a bat swoop across the street as he started back to the van.

It was strange. He'd walked this same street every night for the past two and a half months and never before noticed how beautiful it actually was with the row of neat little white and pink stucco ranch homes on his right and the woods on his left. It was a sleepy, peaceful neighborhood. The golden lamplight spilling out from the huge picture windows in the front rooms over the manicured lawns gave him a cozy feeling.

Shifting the paper bag with Lowery's donut in it, Hutch quickened his pace. Starsky would be arriving pretty soon.

Hutch squinted as a car turned down the street he was on, temporarily blinded by the light. Another faithful customer on the way to Tony's, no doubt, he thought.

He'd gone another few yards when a rustling in the woods behind him to his left drew his attention. Hutch had been thinking stray dog or raccoon when he heard the noise. The last thing on his mind as he turned was a mugger, but the huge shadow rushing him could be nothing but a man.

Hutch's hand leapt towards his gun . . . about ten seconds too late. Before he could get a clear view of his attacker, he felt a heavy weight smash into the back of his head. His last clear thought was shit, not again as he tumbled to the blacktop.

*~*~*

Starsky took his time as he left the car, postponing the inevitable as long as possible. He didn't want to do this, didn't want to deal with this scum. All he wanted to do was go back to Hutch's and crawl into bed with his big, blond partner and see what kind of magic they could make together.

Sighing, he shook off his hesitation and walked purposefully up the steps to a wide, circular porch supported by tall columns. Seventy or eighty years ago those columns would have been stark white. The lady of the house would probably have taken afternoon tea out here. Concentrating on that safe, normal image, Starsky worked the devil head doorknocker.

"Hail, Satan," Vincent Baldino, the muscular, dark haired ball of belligerence that Starsky had been paling around with for the last six months or so, met him at the door. Dino was still in his street clothes, Starsky was glad to see. "Oh, it's you. Where the fuck've you been, Mikey?"

"Cool it, Dino. You will not believe the night I've been having," Starsky complained, slipping into his undercover persona with an ease that was beginning to worry him. He could feel everything about himself hardening as his body adopted the air of a man who got off on pain and torture.

"What's up?" Baldino asked, looking absurdly relieved to see Starsky/Villar, like the creep had some real attachment to him.

Even though Starsky knew what Baldino was, the scam still made him vaguely guilty. Dino thought he was a friend. Though a confirmed sociopath, there was something likable about Baldino. When he wasn't molesting underage kids or losing his hair-trigger temper, the guy had a sincerity about him that was appealing. But safe as he might seem at the moment, Dino was wired wrong. Sooner or later, Baldino would short-circuit, as all psychopaths eventually did, and then his friendship with Starsky wouldn't mean diddley, 'cause the Dino that joked and laughed would be gone and he'd be dealing with the pain freak that had hospitalized Scarpaci last night.

Still, at the moment Dino was in his buddy-buddy mode, so Starsky grinned and responded to him in kind, laughing as he explained, "The fuckin' Mustang stalled on me again."

"Fuck, man, we'll have to see about hooking you up with better wheels. Can't have Mr. Anderson's new driver late for duty." The shorter man laughed and slapped Starsky on the back. Baldino was built like a bouncer; although small of stature, he was all muscle.

Starsky nodded and followed the ex-con inside.

Starsky had learned long ago that there was more to undercover work than just mouthing the lines that would be natural to the criminal element you were portraying, more than making the required, token gestures at the appropriate moments. If you were going to live to see the other end of an undercover assignment, you had to become your persona—you had to walk like him, breathe like him, think like him, and even fuck like him. That was the only way you stayed alive.

Sometimes when playing a petty crook it was an aura of subdued desperation and dangerous, frustrated hunger Starsky had to project. But Villar was no petty criminal. The man was a cold blooded, sadistic murderer. This portrayal was far subtler than any which Starsky had taken on before. As Villar, he had the paradoxical task of appearing both controlled and unstable. Every breath had to exude menace, so that when he stood naked among these loonies later, they would know that he was the sickest bastard among them and not mess with him.

That he was very good at this was not something of which Starsky was proud. The change came almost too easily to him. He felt as if he were reverting to something, instead of assuming a role.

And maybe in some ways that wasn't so far from the truth. He'd walked this thin edge in the jungles of 'Nam, always just one breath away from snapping and learning to glory in the blood and the savagery. He'd flirted with his darker side only once since he'd returned Stateside, during the Hames kidnapping. He'd lost control of his killer instincts the day that he'd blown those two kidnappers away after he'd seen Hutch fly through a glass door when they shot him.

He knew that what he was doing here was dangerous. He'd never go in for the sick stuff these twisted perverts got off on, but Starsky knew if he let this dangerous side of himself out too often, the time would come when he wouldn't be able to stuff the predator back into the dark corner of his soul where he kept it caged.

The unconscious respect creeps like Baldino accorded him was testimony as to how successful Starsky's darker half was when let out to play. The ex-con treated Starsky/Villar like he was a warm bottle of nitroglycerine.

"Everyone's here already," Baldino reported as they moved to the changing room, which looked more like a high school locker room than anything else. Its presence was discordant here in this house of depravity.

"So? Didn't your mama ever tell you it's chic to be fashionably late?" Rule Number One of undercover work—never appear overeager. It was a dead give away to the bad guys, with the cop in question inevitably ending up that way.

Wishing for some privacy, Starsky nonchalantly disrobed beside the dark-haired pervert. Dino was busy shoving his own clothes into his locker, so he didn't see the .22 Starsky stuffed into his boot as he put it back on. Guns hadn't been a problem last night, but Starsky always liked to have a little extra firepower in case of trouble.

"Mr. Anderson was not amused," Baldino related as if this were the most horrible fate that could befall a man.

Knowing that it could very well be just that, Starsky shrugged with a monumental lack of concern. "Too bad. Short of sproutin' wings and flyin' here, this is the best I could do. He waited, didn't he?"

"Yeah, but . . . ."

"Come on. Quit your yappin'," Starsky ordered, pleased to note how Baldino shut up on cue.

Guys like Baldino puzzled Starsky. Like most mob bosses, Anderson would be nothing without someone like Baldino to do his dirty work for him. Yet, the Dinos of the world always deferred to these figureheads like their bosses were doing them some kind of favor by allowing them to work for them. It was more than an overgenerous paycheck. Baldino deferred to Starsky/Villar the same way when they were alone, like maybe the guy really felt better having someone there to tell him what to do with himself all of the time.

Naked save for his socks and boots, Starsky reached for his shoulder holster.

"Not tonight," Dino said, stopping his hand. Starsky was way too conscious of their nakedness as the thug stepped in close to him. "Leave the Beretta in your locker. Only ceremonial knives are allowed in for the final initiation."

It was only at this point that Starsky noted the wicked dagger secured to the belt of Baldino's robe. The blade had to be nine inches long.

"But I wore it the other night," Starsky protested. Every instinct he had was screaming that it was a bad move to leave his piece behind. Though nothing untoward had happened during Wednesday's kinky scene, this wasn't the kind of company you took chances with.

"Wednesday you qualified to play in the big league. Today's the World Series, man. No guns. Either you're one of us or you're out," Baldino said.

Starsky was abruptly aware of the .38 in the next locker, upon which Dino's hand was casually, or not so casually, resting. For all that Dino was struggling to keep things light, Starsky could sense the danger in the air, the possibility of sudden violence.

There was no way Starsky could get his Beretta unholstered or draw his backup before Dino fired.

"Come on, Mikey. I know none of us like to go without back up, but you know me. Nothin' bad's gonna happen to you. I swear. I'll be right there beside you." The earnestness was completely sincere.

"So what's gonna go down?" Starsky asked, his heart hammering wildly against his chest.

"Nothin' you ain't done before. Same as your last initiation ceremony, I bet. It's a piece of cake, man. You know the ropes."

Starsky, who didn't even know where the ropes were, let alone how they were rigged, gave an unconvinced nod. He had the .22. It wasn't much in the way of firepower, but it would have to do.

"This is just up your alley," Dino assured. "Chill out. You're gonna love it. I swear."

Trying to appear nonchalant, though his hackles were standing on end, Starsky took a step back from Baldino and put his holstered gun in on top of his folded clothes.

As he started to slam the locker door shut, Dino's hand halted him again. "The.22, too."

Shit.

Starsky froze. He couldn't do this naked. He could not walk into that freak show completely unarmed, even though he knew Hutch was listening just a block away. His throat could be slit before the surveillance van was even in motion.

"Come on, Mikey. We ain't got all night. You wanna do this or what?" Baldino challenged, losing patience.

This was, after all, what he'd spent the last nine weeks working for. There really wasn't any choice. Giving a mental prayer that Hutch would get here fast if the need arose, Starsky retrieved the .22 from his boot, put it in the locker beside his Beretta, slammed the door shut and snapped the combination lock closed.

"That's my man!" Baldino relaxed and clapped him on the shoulder.

Feeling more naked and vulnerable than he had in his entire life, Starsky slipped into one of the long black, hooded robes that were popular in this sort of circle.

As he did so, he noticed Baldino put his .38 into his boot. Apparently, the no guns directive applied only to newcomers. Not liking what that said about what was going to go down here tonight, Starsky concentrated on getting the robe to fall right.

Anderson's group's robes were more stylish than most. These had large, strategically placed holes at the genitalia. The things didn't look so much obscene as ludicrous in Starsky's embarrassed opinion. He didn't know how a guy was supposed to appear menacing and diabolical with his privates flopping around like a banked fish.

"Ready?" Baldino enquired.

Starsky nodded and started towards the adjoining ceremonial chamber where he'd screwed that chick in front of the congregation on Wednesday night. He turned the knob, only to find the door firmly locked.

"Not that way," Dino said.

"Huh?" Starsky paused.

"That room's for the day-trippers. You've graduated to the inner circle now."

Knowing that that was supposed to be a good thing, Starsky pasted a grin on his face and said, "No shit!"

In no way did he allow his body to telegraph the alarm he felt as they passed by the room where he'd planted his bug. Hutch and his back-up were going to be monitoring an empty room while he was doing God only knew what with these freaks. This was getting better by the moment. Now he was not only unarmed, he was completely without back-up.

He followed Dino down a set of stairs into what had probably originally been a wine cellar. The walls were thick, the staircase down pretty long. Not much in the way of sound was going to carry back up to the street from down here. Staring at the solid concrete blocks that formed the walls, Starsky doubted if a gunshot would even be heard on the street above.

The room Baldino led him to met with Starsky's cinema-induced expectations. The large chamber was a sick parody of the Roman Catholic churches that Starsky had visited. A white marble altar dominated the front of the hall, but the offerings made on this one weren't of bread and wine as in those traditional churches. The long slab was equipped with adjustable restraints that would allow a sacrificial victim to be manipulated as desired without releasing the bonds.

As he entered, Starsky could see that there was someone bound to the altar, but the robed cultists gathered around concealed everything but the sacrifice's feet.

So far, the offerings Starsky had seen bound in these sick ceremonies were purely symbolic. No one had lost their life, but he hadn't really been permitted into the cult's inner sanctum before tonight. Everything he'd seen and taken part in so far was fairly open to the public, at least to those with stomach enough to stand the perversions.

This room was far more disturbing than the hokey chamber he'd seen on Wednesday, which had had more in common with Ezra Bean's set-up. This room was the real thing. The very air seemed to throb with menace.

From the second he and Baldino entered, Starsky was freaked by the place.

Above the altar hung an upside down crucifix. The figure nailed to the cross was naked with highly disproportionate genitalia. On either of the sidewalls were thirteen evenly spaced plaster hangings that were the satanic counterpart to the Catholic's bewildering Stations of the Cross. In these, the characters were pictured as engaging in acts so obscene that they made even the street-wise cop uncomfortable.

Even to Starsky's agnostic viewpoint the set up was highly offensive, mostly because the chamber was consciously intended to do just that. Its major purpose was to offend and blaspheme by its very existence.

The air of gothic horror was made complete by the flickering candlelight which lit the scene. Dozens of standing iron sconces with six inch wide, circular black and red candles cluttered the room, casting a fluttering orange glow over everything that added a surreal edge to it all.

Starsky's gaze flickered over the pornographic religious regalia and the eight robed celebrants who'd come to enjoy this unholy gathering. Wednesday night there had been nearly thirty whackos, but tonight there was only this handful. Taking in the hard male faces that turned their way, Starsky gulped. Aside from Baldino, they were strangers to him. These weren't the twisted flakes that he'd partied with a couple of days ago. This group was hardcore. The real thing, not those jaded day-trippers. The shark inside Starsky stirred, recognizing its own kind.

All this passed by on an almost unconscious level as he scanned the room, for once Starsky got close enough to the group to distinguish their features, his eyes were riveted on the altar itself. Or, more precisely, on the offering pinned to the altar.

Wednesday night a shapely brunette had been strapped naked on the slab in the other, less ornate chamber. The girl had seemed as excited by the restraints and the cult's observation as by the ceremony that had followed. Tonight's supposedly voluntary, symbolic sacrifice was blond and male. Every feature of that tautly bound body was chillingly familiar.

Starsky froze at the sight of that golden nimbus surrounding the bound offering's head. Hair so gold it was almost white, those tiny curls in its sleek, shoulder length tumble of gold . . . last night he'd fallen asleep with his fingers tangled in those curls.

Hutch.

Remarkably enough, Starsky's step didn't falter too long when he beheld his partner spread-eagled on Satan's altar. Just a momentary pause and then he was moving again.

Despite Starsky's outer composure, his heart was pounding frantically as his mind tried to accept what he was seeing. What the hell was Hutch doing here? How had these freaks gotten their hands on his partner? Was his cover blown? Was that why Dino had taken his guns from him? Was everyone in the van dead? And, most importantly, how was he going to get them both out of this alive?

No, if his cover were blown, Dino wouldn't have been so friendly upstairs, Starsky told himself. He didn't know how these wackos had gotten Hutch, but as he took in Anderson's welcoming expression, he realized that his own cover was still intact.

He allowed no trace of recognition to touch his face as he studied the bound man and frantically reviewed their options, which were pathetically limited. The odds were nine-to-one. And he didn't even have the damned .22 on him. He knew Baldino was packing, but he had no way of knowing how many of the others were carrying. Every one of them had one of those long, wicked daggers sheathed at their waists.

Remaining unmoved under Hutch's wild, terrified stare was the hardest thing Starsky had ever had to do.

"Villar! You've joined us at last!" Anderson purred urbanely from beside the altar.

Starsky ripped his gaze away from his partner, transferring it to the reedy, grandfatherly figure looming over his friend. Anderson's face was almost kindly, his voice soft and lulling, his attitude nothing short of charming. It was only when one looked deep into those crazed blue eyes that the benevolent image shattered.

Despite the gentle visage and voice, the ludicrously gaping robe, high-lighting Anderson's gray-haired genitals, and the oh-so-pleasant smile, Starsky felt himself shudder. His earlier question was answered with a vengeance. This was how a guy appeared menacing and diabolical in these stupid gowns.

Starsky pulled himself together with an effort and tried to keep his head clear. If he panicked now, they were both dead. From the way Anderson was smiling at him, it was clear that his own cover hadn't been blown. He was going to have to work with that.

"Villar, let me introduce you to my companions—the inner circle of our little family here," Anderson said, in a tone that let Starsky know he was honored simply to be amongst these men. Anderson first gestured to the thin brunette on his right and then went on to introduce the entire group, "This is Father Anthony Balducci, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest. Beside him are Adam Tapscott, Will Marvel, and Rob Powers. To my left are Karl Beck, Mitchell Harding, and Ron Stevens. All have worked in our Lord's service for many years and are well favored in his sight." Anderson sounded as though he had that information straight from Satan himself, but, considering some of the crimes Anderson was suspected of committing, Starsky figured that was entirely possible.

He stared at the assembly. They weren't at all what he'd expected. With the exception of Mitchell Harding, who had long, glossy black hair, the men all looked like stockbrokers, clean cut, polished, successful and arrogant. Harding had black hair; Beck was nearly as golden as Hutch, but the rest were all brunettes or sandy blonds.

It was only their eyes that were the same. Though the color varied from man to man, their gazes all had that cold distance that Starsky had learned marked the deadliest of killers, the kind of wackos who could carve a dozen people up for fun and then go out for a pizza.

The shark inside him tensed as he came under the group's observation.

"Gentleman," Anderson continued, "this is our new initiate, Michael Villar. His credentials are impeccable. In the short time he has worked for me, he has more than proven his worthiness. Tonight, he will be elevated to our inner circle and accorded full honors thereafter."

"Welcome, brother," the group intoned as one.

Starsky nodded, trying to play it cool, trying to ignore Hutch's terrified stare. "Thanks," Starsky said, "it's good to be here." Recognizing that a question would not be out of place at this point, Starsky gestured to Hutch and asked, "What about Blondie here? Is he one of our inner circle?"

A pause followed, then Baldino stepped closer to him and grinned. "You're gonna love this one, Mikey. The guy's a cop. He busted me ten years or so ago. I did three years 'cause of this pig! I bagged him comin' outta the diner tonight. Can you imagine that? The guy musta been livin' around the block for years and I never knew it. Figure it's time for some payback!"

Baldino reached down Hutch's body and gave Hutch's balls a savage squeeze that made Hutch cry out in pain.

Starsky wanted to explode into action, tear the freak off his partner, and take Dino apart, but there were eight other armed wackos watching him. He had no gun, no back-up . . . no hope.

Schooling his features, Starsky stood stone still. Villar wouldn't react to Baldino's action and, for both Hutch and his sakes, Starsky couldn't, either. But it was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do. He'd never been so scared in his life. They were in deep shit here. If back-up didn't show up soon, Starsky had no idea how he was going to get them out of here.

"Really, Vincent, must you give away all our secrets!" Anderson reproved Baldino.

"Sorry, Mr. Anderson," Dino apologized. "But you said you were gonna offer him to Mikey and I thought . . . ."

"It's all right, Vincent. But in the future, please be more careful," Anderson cautioned. "What about it, Mr. Villar? Is this scene too heavy for you? Do you have any problem with our sacrifice being a cop?"

Starsky was almost preternaturally aware of Beck and Stevens' hands moving beneath their robes at that point. It didn't take a genius to know that they were arming themselves to deal with an incorrect answer.

If Hutch and he were going to live, there was only one reply he could give at this point. Drawing a deep breath, Starsky got himself as firmly back in character as he could manage under the circumstances. Shrugging his shoulders, he gave what he hoped was a convincing grin and replied, "I always have problems with cops, Mr. Anderson. This is the first chance I ever had to do anything about it, though."

Right answer. Anderson smiled, while Beck and Stevens' hands reemerged from their robes.

So far, so good.

"Very good, Villar. I knew you wouldn't disappoint us," Anderson approved. "Let us begin. Gentlemen, we come together to celebrate our Dark Lord's mystery. We welcome our brother Michael Villar to our fold and rejoice as he joins us in our celebration of our Lord's Black Mass. Now, if you will all join me, we will begin."

Stepping back so that he stood directly under the upside down crucifix, Anderson opened his arms towards the floor and said in the tone any rabbi or priest might use at services, "In the name of our father, who stands alone against sanctimony and hypocrisy, I begin this mass. Let us now recite the credo of our faith. We believe in the one god, and that god is Satan. We believe in . . . ."

It had been easier for Starsky to blend into that crowd of thirty on Wednesday night, when the fact that he didn't know the proper responses wasn't as important. Tonight, he felt as if all eyes were upon him as he stumbled through the perverted prayer, always a breath behind the group. Still, no one interrupted the ritual to draw attention to his lapse. Even though he felt as though he were screwing up, his performance seemed adequate to cover his ass. And, who knew, perhaps this perverted mass varied enough from group to group that the responses would be different, that he wouldn't be expected to know this stuff word for word straight off the bat.

As the cultist's voice droned on and Starsky felt that weird power building around him, he tried to keep his attention focused on the ceremony, but his eyes kept returning to the naked man in their midst. When their gazes touched, Hutch barely moved his lips, but Starsky saw him mouth the word gun. Hutch's raised eyebrows made the word a question.

Starsky gave a nearly imperceptible, negative shake of his head.

He felt the panic that shot through his partner as if it were his own. Hell, it was his own. No matter what went down, it wasn't going to be good.

The Black Mass progressed along the same lines as it had Wednesday night—a series of blasphemous prayers and bewildering bell ringing that should have been ridiculous, but which chilled Starsky's blood, because whether nerves or imagination were its source, he could feel that strange tingle in the air that grow stronger as the group progressed with their ritual, as though what they were doing here really did something on a psychic level. Starsky didn't want to think about that. He was freaked out enough just knowing how well armed his opponents were. He didn't need to attribute any super powers to them.

He wondered how long these wackos had had Hutch. Baldino had said they'd snatched him coming back from the diner. Starsky knew his worried partner had been taking his meal breaks a good hour and a half before Starsky was scheduled to arrive at Anderson's. Starsky had been here almost twenty minutes himself, which meant that Hutch had probably left the surveillance van close to two hours ago. Surely, their back up had noticed that Hutch was nearly an hour late? Someone had to be looking for him by now. For that matter, why hadn't they seen Baldino transport Hutch into the house?

But maybe they had seen Hutch get here and just not realized it. There was that attached garage. It opened directly into the kitchen. No doubt that was how Anderson's group had brought in all their victims. So, in the surveillance team's defense, maybe the cops in the van hadn't observed anything more unusual than Dino driving his car into the garage. But they had to know something had gone wrong. The cult had arrived, but the chamber they were monitoring where the ceremony had taken place on Wednesday, the room where Starsky had planted that bug weeks ago, was quiet as a tomb. Why weren't they checking out that silent mike? Hutch and he would've been scoping the place out almost an hour ago. How long was it going to take before their coworkers clued into the fact that there was an emergency situation going on here and that there were officers in need of assistance?

Maybe that would never happen. Maybe Dino had killed everyone in the van. But, no, if that had been the case, if the cop in the van had missed his check-in, there would've been a dozen cops in here ten minutes later. So, Starsky had to assume that the cop out there had made his regular contact with headquarters and was just too dense or distracted to realize that there was a problem. The only ceremony they'd taped was Wednesday night's, where more than thirty people had been in attendance. There was every possibility that the cop in the van might've thought the final initiation ceremony was cancelled, since only this handful of Satanists had shown up.

Starsky gnawed at the problem while the ritual progressed, giving the required responses along with the rest of the group while he tried to figure a way out of this mess.

All too soon, the chanting portion of the ceremony was over.

With a theatric flair, Anderson raised his arms up and intoned, "We will now celebrate the most sacred of our unholy sacraments, the celebration of the flesh. Our Dark Lord requires that we abandon all puritanical ethics and indulge our bodies in the darkest, most forbidden of pleasures, for only in that way do we truly free ourselves from our adversaries' chokehold on our will. As you took of his daughter the other night, Satan now asks you to take of his son, Michael Villar. Tonight you will break every commandment that has ever enslaved your will, including the first," Anderson warned. "Will you accept this final step and throw off our enemies chains? Once you make this commitment, there will be no backing out. Betrayal will be dealt with most effectively. If you speak of our rites outside of this building, punishment will be swift and final. Do I make myself understood?"

Starsky gave a slow nod, "Yes, sir."

"Conversely, the rewards of obedient, dedicated service will be many—starting with this prize before you. I offer this virgin sacrifice to you to welcome you to our circle. Will you accept it and all the responsibilities it entails?"

Feeling every eye upon him, Starsky gulped, hoping against hope that the bozos in the van would take this decision out of his hands and rush in like the cavalry. But, as usual, reality was nowhere near as fair as fiction. He let the moment stretch as long as possible.

There were two ways he could play this—refuse and pray that he lived long enough to make it to his guns in the locker and that Hutch survived long enough to be rescued once Starsky ran out of bullets and died, leaving his partner in the hands of these ghouls with their ceremonial daggers. Or, Starsky could play out the scenario as he had on Wednesday night, bide his time and then slip away unnoticed to the bugged chamber to get help once he'd been accepted as a bone fide son of Satan. Neither alternative was to his liking, but the latter had a slightly higher chance of succeeding.

It also meant that he was going to have to screw his partner here in front of this group of sickos. Starsky tried to absorb that thought, tried to look at it as a viable alternative, but his mind rebelled against it and spit it back at him.

He read the same realization transfixed on Hutch's horrified features.

Last night, with all its tenderness was a million years away, everything and anything Hutch had said then, meaning it at the time. But that offer was light-years away from what was going down here. There would be no tenderness here, no sharing, no giving—only taking, by force in front of these slavering voyeurs. They'd be lucky to even make it out of here alive.

And if they did survive . . . Starsky knew that if he went through with this now, that fragile dream that had been conceived between them last night would die stillborn, dead before it ever had the chance to see the light of day. This depravity would kill it more surely than Starsky's paranoid prejudices ever could have. If he went through with this, Hutch would fear his touch, be repulsed by him for all time. Starsky wasn't sure he wanted to live in a reality like that, a reality where Hutch would shirk from his hand. But what other choice had they?

It wasn't even his decision to make. Hutch was the one this was going to be hardest on, the one who was going to have to suffer the pain. So, it was his partner's right to decide how they would play this scene. He hadn't a clue what he would do if Hutch said no. There was no way he could take on all nine of these freaks unarmed.

Starsky waited before offering his answer to Anderson.

Hutch's eyelashes swept down as his cheeks filled with color. After a moment's pause, the strong, square chin gave an almost imperceptible nod of assent.

Agreement to what, Starsky wondered—refusing or playing along?

Everything in him wanted to just start punching and fight their way out, but Hutch was shackled to that damn altar, and, even on his best day, Starsky knew he couldn't have taken on eight guys as big and fit as Anderson's inner circle alone.

If he made any kind of a play now, they were both dead. Even if he just announced that he'd changed his mind and tried to bail, there was no way Anderson could let him walk out of here after announcing his plans to kill a cop. Starsky could see that Stevens and Beck now had their guns in their hands, though they were holding them out of sight down by their sides, concealed in the folds of their robes. Dissent was suicide. Hutch had to know that as well as he did.

The only chance they had at getting out of here alive was to play along. Sooner or later the cavalry would arrive to save them. If nothing else, Dobey would be calling the van in about a half hour to see how the ceremony went. The minute whoever was in the van told the captain that Hutch had gone out for lunch over two hours ago and not returned, Dobey would insist that they investigate. So, if they could hold out for thirty more minutes, they might just get out of here alive, if not unscathed.

Counting that Hutch's thought processes had followed their usual habit of mirroring his own, Starsky viewed that nod as permission to play along. Taking his chances, he drawled to Anderson, "I'm in. Like I said Wednesday, I've been looking for a group like this all my life."

It was the right thing to say. Anderson and Baldino relaxed immediately. A second later, Beck and Stevens discretely holstered their weapons.

"Very good. In reward of your decision, I offer you this sacrifice. Vincent here was quite eager to have it for his own, but since this is your initiation into our ranks and you are such close friends, he has agreed to offer you first dibs."

"Thanks, Dino," Starsky said, keeping in character.

"Don't mention it, Mikey. Enjoy. It might make up for some of the time you spent inside," Baldino said.

Realizing that the time had come, Starsky took a deep breath, praying that he'd be able to get it up under this kind of pressure. Garnering every ounce of his courage, he walked to the altar with an arrogant confidence and feigned sense of anticipation that took every ounce of his will and acting talent to project. Help would come, Starsky told himself. He just had to hold on till then.

"I assure you that our offering is a virgin to men and fully acceptable as a sacrifice to our lord," Anderson said as Starsky moved closer to the altar.

Starsky's gaze jumped to his partner's face. From the shamed blush that flushed through those familiar features, Starsky had a pretty fair idea of how Anderson had made that determination. Just the thought of that degenerate laying hand upon his partner's body that way made him want to kill.

But he couldn't think about that now. If he was going to get them out of here alive, he had a role to play.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked the Satanist leader.

"The same as last time." Anderson smiled benignly down at the wild-eyed detective bound on the altar. "As you embraced Satan's daughters, so shall you embrace his sons."

Starsky gulped. Same as last time.

Last time he'd gone down on that shapely brunette and gotten her off with his mouth. The knowledge that all those freaks were watching and the fact that he hadn't even known her name had made it kinky as all get out, but, basically, it wasn't anything he hadn't done a thousand times before. But Hutch wasn't a woman. He'd never touched another man's cock, let alone gone down on one. And now he was supposed to do it like a pro in front of these hardcore killers.

Don't think about it, his mind shouted at him, shaking him out of his incipient panic. Just do it.

Starsky reminded himself that he was supposed to be an ex-con and knowledgeable about these things. He just had to think of his initiation into kinky gay sex as part of the territory, same as doing that chick Wednesday night had been.

Only, Starsky was no longer certain that he could bluff his way through this terrain. That was his partner tied to that slab of marble—kind, wholesome Hutch, not some twisted stranger who got off on chains and sacrilege.

Starsky forced himself to divorce his idea of Hutch from what he was about to do here. They had to hold on until the good guys arrived. To do that, he had to play this game. So, he couldn't think of the man tied to that alter as his best friend. He just had to think of Hutch as another part of the assignment.

Wracking his brains, Starsky struggled to remember his encounter with that brunette Wednesday night, trying to figure out what was required of him. The first thing he'd been ordered to do was bring her to orgasm with his mouth and tongue.

Cold beads of sweat popped out on his brow. He'd never thought of Hutch that way before the past twenty-four hours. He'd gone down on any number of women in his day, but that was normal, expected. He'd never sucked cock; until last night, he'd never had the urge, impulse or even curiosity. Although he'd been exploring the concept in his daydreams all day today, this wasn't how he'd pictured it happening.

There was no time to gradually work his way past the inhibitions of a lifetime. He wasn't sure he could take even Hutch's cock-head into his mouth, let alone the other seven inches. Just thinking about sucking cock in front of all these people made him queasy.

But if he was going to get them out of here alive, he would have to go down on Hutch and do a lot more than that if the cavalry didn't get their asses here in the next sixty seconds.

Straining his ears for a siren, Starsky could detect nothing but his own rapid, panicked breathing. So much for the cavalry saving the day, he thought, taking a determined step towards the altar.

He was no novice to blowjobs. In his time, he'd received more than his share, but, knowing the mechanics did not necessarily ensure smooth technique. And, for both their lives' sakes, Starsky had to be smooth. He had to appear as ruthlessly efficient at sucking cock as he had at fucking that kinky chick Wednesday night or the gig was up.

Starsky had to admire his partner. Hutch's attitude was perfect. As Starsky crouched between his wide-spread legs, Hutch seemed to shrink in on himself as if to avoid him. Hutch's face settled into grimly determined lines of suppressed terror that was over-ridden only by his innate stubbornness.

Starsky recognized the expression. He'd worn it himself on many occasions. The stony tightness declared that whatever his enemies might throw at him, Hutch was determined to appear outwardly unaffected.

Hutch had listened in Wednesday night. His partner knew precisely what the game plan was. If Starsky was less than sanguine about fellating and fucking his partner, Hutch must be even more freaked by the concept of being on the receiving end. Starsky realized that Hutch's fear was no more feigned than his own would be if his partner were about to fuck him.

Starsky's stomach clenched in frustration. In his current role as the sadistic Villar, he couldn't offer Hutch any consolation. Hell, that sick bastard would probably get off on his victim's fear, would probably make a joke of it.

Inspired, Starsky began to talk. "Don't be lookin' to the audience for help, Blondie! I don't know where they got you from, but you're all mine now. It's just you and me from here on in. Just me 'n' thee." Starsky repeated the words Hutch had used to calm him last night, catching and holding Hutch's frightened gaze, allowing his own eyes to say everything the restrictions of his role wouldn't allow him to voice. The way they were positioned right now, Hutch was the only one who could clearly see his face.

Hutch's Adam's apple bobbed convulsively. His eyes shut tight—perhaps in dread, Starsky thought, or perhaps to block out his awareness of all those hot gazes breathlessly watching them.

"Mouth and tongue," Anderson sharply reminded Starsky as he began to reach for his friend.

Both partners flinched at the interruption.

Drawing a deep breath, Starsky rested his palms flat on the tops of Hutch's spread thighs, right below the prominently displayed hipbones. Starsky let his thumbs lightly skim down and inwards, ruffling the baby soft, nearly invisible blond hair. The subtle caress was visible only to himself.

Hutch felt it, though. Starsky could feel the unexpected pleasure ripple through the tense body, sensed how hard his partner fought against it.

Starsky lowered his head, ignoring how Hutch's body stiffened as Starsky's moist, hot breath wafted over his groin and inner thighs. If Hutch found his mere breath that repulsive, Starsky had no idea how his buddy was going to survive what was to come. He fervently willed their back-up to arrive.

Though he'd had no trouble at all today on getting off on the idea of Hutch sucking him off, he still hadn't been able to picture himself enjoying doing it to Hutch. But now, Starsky found himself strangely unrepulsed while staring down at his friend's vulnerable penis and balls, breathing Hutch's scent into his lungs with every shot of oxygen he took.

That warm Hutch scent was getting inside him, stirring responses that Starsky knew he shouldn't be having. Not here, not with Hutch being forced like this. Yet, the closer he came to that cock smell, the more excited his pulse grew. His heart was pounding, his blood rushing downwards. His response was so inappropriate that Starsky almost wished he'd failed.

He prayed that Hutch would know that this wasn't how he'd wanted things to go between them. But, even if Hutch did understand, how could he fail to be disgusted by someone who could get aroused by this kinky scenario? This was depraved by anyone's book, yet Starsky's cock leaped to attention like all the other degenerates around him. Hutch had to be hating him for that.

Still, his unanticipated excitement was a godsend of sorts. When he bent over Hutch, Starsky was shocked to realize that he was almost eager for the taste of him. Starsky knew his response was sufficient to fool his audience.

When Starsky opened his mouth wide to suck in the tip of Hutch's circumcised dick, he knew he looked like a pro. Or at least he hoped he did.

Hutch's bitter, salty flavor burned through him like a mouthful of scotch. Breathing became Starsky's immediate priority. Although Hutch was flaccid, he was still big.

Starsky discovered the trick of leaving his mouth wide enough to breathe around Hutch. A moment later, he discovered something else. He really liked the taste and bulk of Hutch filling his mouth. Hutch's unique, subtle flavor was making his own body respond in a very unsubtle manner.

This was supposed to be horrible, Starsky reminded himself. He tried to believe that it was fear making his cock go hard, but Starsky knew arousal when he felt it. It was touching Hutch that was doing it, and that was so wrong in this perverted situation. Only an absolute degenerate would get off on doing something like this to his tied up partner.

Hutch, at least, was behaving as expected. He was still fighting him, still stiff with terror everywhere but his cock.

Starsky lifted his head up to see Hutch's face.

Hutch's eyes were closed tight, his features creased with the strain of denial.

"Look at me, Blondie! Open those beautiful eyes of yours and look at me," Starsky ordered.

After a moment, Hutch hesitantly complied. There was a wild, desperate light brightening that familiar gaze that Starsky had never seen before. Hutch looked cornered, frantic.

"You want me to do this," Starsky said raggedly, drinking in Hutch's scent with each breath. He could hear the need in his own voice, could only imagine what his eyes must be telling Hutch. But he couldn't stop now. He had to get Hutch to relax enough to get through the rest without getting torn to pieces. They couldn't do that if Hutch kept fighting him.

Sensing the relaxing effect his voice was having on Hutch, Starsky kept up a stream of conversation.

"You want me to take you and own you," Starsky continued in a tone so gruff and thick with passion that he barely recognized it himself.

Hutch appeared almost hypnotized by it, however. Those crystal blue eyes were riveted on his face, as though Starsky were the only thing that was real to his partner at this moment.

Feeding into that illusory isolation, Starsky went on, "You've always wanted another man to do this to you, deep down in that dark place you never admit to. You don't get darker than this, baby-blue. They've given you to me and you're mine now. Fight me all you want, but we both know you're gonna submit to me in the end. 'Cause that's what you've always wanted to do—submit to me."

It was the sort of taunt that Villar might use in a situation like this, but it was working on focusing Hutch's attention solely on him, which was all that mattered to Starsky.

It had to be getting close to the time Dobey would make his nightly call. Their back-up would be here any minute, Starsky kept telling himself. They just had to hold it together for a few more minutes. They could do that—easy. Yeah, right.

Feeling the rapt attention of every eye in the room and his partner's near-mesmerized gaze heaviest of all, Stasrsky poked his tongue tip out and delicately flicked it across Hutch's saliva-slick glans.

Hutch gasped. Starsky felt him shudder.

"That's better," he said. "Let it go." Remembering where they were and what they were supposed to be doing, Starsky continued, "Our Dark Lord desires your submission, and I demand it. Submit to me, feel me, let me feel you shiver under me."

Starsky deployed his tongue again, this time in a more intricate pattern. He knew from being on the other side of this what that whisper light teasing did to a man, how it ripped a guy apart with ecstasy.

Hutch groaned, a long painful sound as the resistance seemed to be violently stripped from him by that delicate pleasure. Starsky's efforts were rewarded with an immediate stiffening of that long, thick shaft. Its color went from a pale, petal pink to a furious red in seconds as it filled with blood.

In that moment, there was only the two of them. Anderson and his devil-worshipper goons vanished from Starsky's reality, even the awareness that Hutch was bound and helpless faded. Fire, pure and wild, sizzled between them.

The totally focused, totally shocked expression on Hutch's face told him that his partner was feeling exactly the same thing.

Starsky could feel the threads of flame that were connecting them, reaching out to embrace Hutch's burning flesh. He felt connected to his partner at this moment as he'd been to no other lover, not even Terry.

Though their bodies were barely touching, Starsky could feel what was going on under his partner's skin—fear, horror, revulsion at being forced to perform this way, but fiercest of all was the over-riding, inappropriate want. Hutch's flesh was screaming out for his touch. That shocking need was there in Hutch's eyes, a hunger that the victim of this kind of depravity had no business experiencing.

It stunned Starsky as much as it excited him. He'd hoped to relax Hutch if possible. Though he'd wanted to, Starsky hadn't really believed that he'd be able to turn Hutch on in this situation, even if Hutch were attracted to him.

But there was no doubting Hutch's present arousal. When Starsky moved over Hutch this time, Hutch's hips surged up to meet him.

Hutch's gaze was fixed on him now, its intensity building an envelope of privacy. As Starsky worked his mouth up and down that pulsing cock, he could feel the unbound passion rampaging through Hutch.

Every time he glanced up the length of his partner's sweaty body, he would find that electric blue stare fixed on his mouth as if Hutch were memorizing every moment of the event, instead of hating it.

His hands cupping Hutch's lean backside, Starsky guided his partner's thrusts. The rhythm they found together was wild, as primal as a force of nature.

Hutch's thrusts abruptly faltered. Starsky felt the deep spasm that reverberated throughout Hutch's body and then the startling sensation of heated liquid splashing the back of his throat.

He was thrown by the unexpected feeling, the shock of a guy coming in his mouth. He froze for an instant, torn. Everything in him wanted him to spit the jism out, it tasted so gross. But Hutch's face, braced for rejection even as he climbed the ladder of release halted that impulse. Somehow, Starsky gulped down the bitter-salty outpouring around the impeding bulk of that massive cock.

He could feel the organ withering between his lips, deflating with every spurt. When it seemed Hutch had nothing more to give, Starsky released it.

Thunderstruck, Starsky gaped down at Hutch's upturned face, reading the incredulous wonder that was etched into every line of the strong features. That he could have derived that kind of pleasure in such horrific circumstances was incomprehensible . . . but there it was, shining bright from Hutch's face.

Starsky wasn't sure what that meant, all that he knew was that it made him feel soft inside . . . and that was the one thing he couldn't afford to be, not here, not now, not if he was gonna get them out of this alive. So he ripped his gaze away and hardened his features.

He couldn't be weak before Anderson. He had to be the psycho ex-con who thought only of his own pleasure and didn't give a fuck about anyone else.

When Starsky looked away and hardened his features, the body beneath him tensed.

Before he could look back to make amends to Hutch with his eyes, the private cocoon they'd forged between them was shattered.

Both detectives started at the sound of Anderson's lust thickened voice. "Very good, Villar. Very good, indeed. You worship his flesh with far more vigor than you displayed with Wednesday night's offering."

Lifting himself from Hutch's groin, Starsky shrugged. He redonned his undercover persona with difficulty. "I told you the other night, I prefer blonds."

"Ah, yes. If you'd be so kind as to move back a little," Anderson requested with perfect manners.

Still dazed from tasting Hutch that way, Starsky did as asked and leaned against the side of the altar, allowing Anderson to take his place between Hutch spread-eagled legs.

Starsky grew nervous. He didn't want this degenerate anywhere near Hutch.

How much longer would it be before their back-up realized they needed support? He'd thought they'd be here within a half hour, but, though it felt like an eternity, Starsky was dismayed to realize that little more than ten minutes could have passed in actual time since the ceremony started.

Anderson smiled down at Hutch before saying, "I told you that you would fall to our Dark Lord's power. No man can withstand His temptations. You give your flesh willingly to Him now. Though your mind resists, your body knows its lord and master. You will now offer the ultimate sacrifice to our Master, my friend."

Hutch grimaced with repugnance as he squeezed his eyes shut and turned away.

Starsky recognized Anderson's intentions too late.

The time to move had been in those moments right after he'd come, when everyone was a bit dazed from the vicarious thrill. Now the element of surprise was lost and Hutch was about to pay dearly for Starsky's stupidity.

Baldino stepped up to Anderson, offering a huge golden bowl. Inside was a thick, sweet scented, blood red gel.

The cult leader dipped his index and middle fingers deep into the tub, withdrawing a healthy amount.

Starsky shivered in fear as a Stevens rung the small brass bells again.

Anderson's free hand slipped under Hutch's butt and lifted his hips as high as the restraints would allow. Then, without warning, Anderson plunged his fingers deep into Hutch's body.

Hutch screamed at the brutal invasion, the sound reverberating eerily through the stone chamber. Sweat and tears dripped down Hutch's face as he grimaced in agony as Anderson continued to force his fingers up inside him.

Starsky felt that brutal invasion as though it were his own body being violated. The savagery of it and Hutch's pained outcries ripped him out of his shock-induced haze. His action was automatic, instinctive. Starsky lurched for the sadistic pain freak torturing his partner, and stopped when Hutch sobbed, "No . . . don't . . . not . . . augggghhh . . . not now!"

"My apologies, but your time has come," Anderson crooned, misunderstanding.

But Starsky knew he'd been ordered to stop, so he clenched his fists in his robe and just stood there, watching impotently as this degenerate raped Hutch with his fingers.

It seemed to go on forever. Anderson's long fingers continued to violate Hutch's rectum. The old bastard was relishing the torment.

With every sadistic twist those hidden digits made in Hutch's body, at every helpless cry his partner gave, Starsky's rage blazed brighter. He felt like he was going crazy, as if there were fire burning him from the inside out. He wanted to rip Anderson's throat out with his bare hands and watch the son of a bitch bleed to death.

He was a hair's breadth away from losing it completely. If he let go of that control now, there'd be no coming back. The savage he'd kept imprisoned for years would break free and the upstanding cop Starsky had fought to make himself would be gone.

Starsky had to defuse. He'd let his dark half out too often in the past nine weeks. He couldn't afford to lose it now. Hutch was counting on him.

While it might be personally satisfying to kill Anderson, Dino's gun would make certain that neither Hutch nor he made it out alive. Though he no longer cared about himself, he was determined to get Hutch out of this depravity alive. He owed Hutch that much.

So, he looked away from what was being done to his partner, allowing his gaze to rest on the one thing in the room that wouldn't incite him to murder—Hutch's face.

It was lined with pain, sweat and tears dripping down the tortured features. Hutch's eyes were squeezed shut, but they opened, almost as if Hutch had felt him staring at him.

Fever-bright with pain, those crystal blue eyes settled on his own. The pain and desperation were plain, as was the hopelessness. It was obvious that Hutch didn't believe they were getting out of this alive. But looking at him seemed to help. Hutch appeared to brace himself as their eyes met and held, seeming to take courage and comfort from his mere presence.

"You're a lucky man, Villar," Anderson said, calling Starsky's attention back. "Our offering is truly a virgin, tighter than that youth you were so eager for a few days ago."

"Blondie here will do fine. Move aside," Starsky forced roughness into his dry mouth, anxious to end his partner's ordeal.

"Not so quick," Anderson said, removing his fingers from inside Hutch so fast that Hutch grunted at their abrupt withdrawal. "Get down a minute, Villar."

Starsky hesitantly eased off the altar, then stepped back, reluctant to allow any distance between himself and Hutch.

Anderson moved to Hutch's feet, Baldino to his head. Both men did something to Hutch's restraints, and then flipped Hutch over onto his stomach. Within seconds Hutch was once again spread eagled across the altar, only this time face down.

Starsky gulped. He knew what would follow, but every iota of him rejected it. Please, not this way . . . let that damn squad car arrive . . .

But there were no sirens, only the excited breathing of the unholy congregation around them.

"Your assistance, please, Mr. Baldino," Anderson said sweetly.

Dino put the bowl of lubricant down on the altar beside Hutch and then reached out to cup Hutch's buttocks. Baldino roughly squeezed the pale cheeks, pressing his thumbs up the center of the crease, and pushing down until they pierced Hutch's anus.

"Uaagghh . . . ." Hutch grunted in pain.

Starsky bit down on his inner lip until he tasted blood as Baldino's hands moved again to brutally spread Hutch's buttocks to bare his anus to the light. He held the cheeks apart, pulling so hard to keep them separated that Starsky could see the line where they were joined turn white under the stress of it. The stretch alone had to hurt like hell.

It was too much for Hutch, who knew what was going to happen. He started screaming, "No! Please, no! Don't! Please!" The pathetic pleas degenerated into "God, oh, god, no, oh god . . . ." as Anderson's fingers moved in.

The tiny golden bells chimed as Anderson's greasy fingers once again violated Hutch's body. This time Hutch's scream was closer to a shriek. It shook Starsky to think how much it must have hurt, because he knew how hard Hutch was trying to control himself for his sake.

Anderson's hand withdrew almost immediately, but it left behind a souvenir. Starsky only got a brief glimpse of the tiny white wafer deposited there as Anderson and Baldino's hands simultaneously withdrew. The intruding wafer was small, but it had to be agonizing.

"Now you may begin, Villar," Anderson said, vacating the altar. "Remember, no hands. Mouth and tongue only."

"Gotchya," Starsky growled, silently promising his shuddering partner that he'd make this fiend pay for this.

Starsky climbed back up onto the altar. With less hesitation than before, he knelt between Hutch's forcibly splayed thighs. His own arousal was long dead, killed by Anderson's sadism.

Starsky futilely wished that he was able to see Hutch's eyes. He needed to feel that spark of unity now as he never had before. All he could see was Hutch's long back with its scar on the left shoulder, the sweaty tangle of hair at the back of Hutch's neck . . . and the way Hutch's sides were shaking, as if he were weeping silently with his face hidden against that cold white marble.

Starsky's nerve all but deserted him. How could he go through with this?

He glanced around the candlelit church of Satan. Anderson, Baldino and Tapscott were close enough to snap Hutch's neck the moment Starsky made a play, and, even if they hadn't been that near, there were still six other armed and aroused sickos watching them. There was no way they'd make it to the door alive. No way at all.

He had no choice here. It was do it or die. Even if he died, there was no guaranteeing that his death would spare Hutch the humiliation to come. Anderson or Baldino would be more than happy to take his place up here behind Hutch.

Hutch was gonna hate him forever for this. But at least if he went through with it and bided their time till rescue arrived, Hutch would be alive to hate him.

Not thinking about what he was doing, he put both his hands on Hutch's butt and spread those flat cheeks out wide. Sticking his tongue out, Starsky felt around for the wafer. Its sharp edge pricked his taste buds. Resisting the impulse to vomit, Starsky loosened the obscene thing with his tongue, then swallowed it down. The desecration made his stomach lurch.

It was all Starsky could do to keep the foul thing down inside him. It was only the knowledge that Hutch was in less pain now that it had been removed that made it at all bearable.

Feeling his own courage about to balk, Starsky put all thought from his mind. They were either going to do this or die and they sure as hell weren't gonna die here, not like this.

So Starsky tuned out his audience and tried to figure out how he would manage this with a limp cock.

Feeling the tension in Hutch's body, Starsky realized that if he entered Hutch when his partner was tensed like this, he would rip him to pieces.

He had to relax Hutch. But Anderson's insane restrictions forbade him from touching Hutch with his hands.

Starsky's heart froze at the helpless whimper Hutch gave as his buttocks were nudged apart. Every muscle in Hutch's body turned to lead as he seemed to brace himself for penetration.

Starsky's tongue darted out and tentatively licked at the red, swollen anus.

At that first touch, Hutch shrank away. But the unthreatening tickle of Starsky's tongue had some effect. Slowly, Hutch's body began to untense.

Starsky concentrated on what his tongue was doing. He'd never done this to another person in his life. But if he could make this better for Hutch, he'd do it, gladly. And, the more his tongue worked, the less strange it seemed. His own breathing and pulse rates increased as he submerged himself in Hutch.

Starsky pushed his tongue up through that tight bud of muscle, forcing it to cede to his will.

Hutch moaned at the penetration. It was painful, Starsky could hear that. His partner was sore as hell.

Starsky kept rimming as long as he could, stopping only when Anderson's harsh, breathless, "Get on with it!" shattered the strange, sensual haze into which he'd managed to sink.

At least Hutch's shoulders weren't shaking anymore, Starsky thought, hoping that Hutch was no longer crying.

To his intense shame, Starsky found his body more than ready to meet Anderson's demand. The circumstances had very little to do with his present state. It was touching Hutch that had gotten him so hot. And there was no way for him to tell Hutch the truth, that it was touching him that had aroused him, not the sick circumstances.

If they survived this, Hutch would always believe that he'd gotten turned on by this depravity. But, at least Hutch would be alive to hate him, Starsky told himself as he shifted to position himself for entry.

To his shame, his cock was aching, throbbing with need as Starsky dipped his own fingers into the lubricant bowl Dino had left on the side of the altar. He coated his pulsing shaft, almost coming at the feel of his own hand.

Hutch drew in a deep breath as Starsky laid hands on his butt and positioned himself. Hating how much he wanted Hutch, Starsky slowly forced the blunt head of his circumcised cock past that tight ring of guarding muscle. Although he knew Hutch would derive no pleasure from this, Starsky's own body couldn't help but respond to the tight heat that immediately gripped his cock-head. Hutch was perfect around him, a blazing, squeezing fire that set his own flesh burning.

There was no mistaking Hutch's grunt at the penetration as anything but pain.

Beads of fresh sweat burst out all over Hutch's pale back and he went rigid under the hurtful entry.

"Oh, Christ . . . ." Hutch sobbed.

Mocking laughter met Hutch's cry, then Anderson said urbanely, "I'm afraid He won't help you here, my friend."

Shocked out of his body's visceral reaction to the penetration, Starsky prepared to withdraw. He'd take his chances with the wackos.

"Don't," Hutch gasped. The order, though said softly, was distinct. A second later, Hutch's body tightened around his invading cock.

Don't what, Starsky wondered, his body ready to nova at that delightful squeezing. Don't continue? Don't move? Don't stop?

The pause stretched far beyond Starsky's endurance. He glanced over his shoulder to see that the other men present were coupling as well. It was at about this point on Wednesday that the ceremony had degenerated into an orgy, Starsky remembered, wondering if he could make his move now.

But then he saw that Stevens was standing off to the side, out of immediate range. His gun was drawn. His aroused cock looked nearly as hard as his automatic.

Starsky's attention was called back to what he was doing when Hutch gave him another squeeze. He took the small hump Hutch's butt made up at him as tacit permission to continue.

With a relieved sigh, Starsky loosened his controls. He carefully lowered his weight, sinking into his partner as gently and unhurriedly as he could manage.

It still hurt Hutch like hell. Starsky could tell that from the fresh sheen of sweat that dewed his partner's skin and the way the passage would constrict around him when the pain became too much. He wanted to stop when that happened and wait for Hutch's body to accept him, but there was no way a creep like Villar would be that considerate of his victim. Although almost everyone was absorbed with their own celebrations of the flesh, Stevens was standing guard and might notice if Starsky were too gentle. He did his damnedest not to purposefully hurt Hutch, but it was almost impossible not to. His role aside, there was a point in the sex act where a man simply could not stop, and Starsky was at it.

That squeezing sensation was incredible. Hutch was so tight, so hot and slick around him. The fit was perfect, like Hutch had been built for him.

As Starsky plowed that virgin channel, he knew that every inch was paid for by his partner's pain. And he did it anyway, and it still felt great, even though he hated himself every second.

His controls finally caved in. Starsky found himself thrusting for all he was worth, owning Hutch as he'd owned no other lover in his life. He laid claim to Hutch's body. The chains holding Hutch only accentuated his ownership.

His wild, no doubt agonizing ride halted as Starsky's hips finally molded into the muscular buttocks beneath him. He'd opened Hutch all the way. He could go no deeper. Hutch was his, all his.

Coherent enough to notice how Hutch shivered beneath him at the play of breath over his neck, Starsky impulsively licked the soft, slightly sweet skin beneath Hutch's nearby ear.

"You hangin' in there, babe?" The whisper was almost a sub-vocalization, breathed directly into his partner's ear.

Hutch's entire body shook beneath him as he nodded, then Hutch's hips gave a little squiggle, which Starsky translated as an order to get things over with.

The friction that movement caused was enough to take the matter completely out of Starsky's hands. Instinct took over and he started to thrust again.

He lost himself to the fire in his blood, riding Hutch hard. Under the combined fear and prolonged anxiety, Starsky's body exploded within moments. He slumped down onto Hutch, too exhausted to withdraw.

Around them, Starsky could hear the sounds of other couples uniting in a similar fashion as the orgy continued.

Hutch drew a ragged breath and turned his head as far towards Starsky as his restraints would allow.

"Don't stop," Hutch urgently whispered, his voice ragged.

"What?" Starsky asked.

"Only you. Please. Only you . . . ."

Of course. On Wednesday, Anderson had mounted the sacrificial offering once Villar was through with her.

As if on cue, a heavy hand gripped Starsky's shoulder.

"Well, done, Villar, but it's my turn now," Anderson said.

Starsky glared up at the cult leader, making sure that it was irritation alone that showed in his brusque attitude. "I ain't done yet. You said the offering was mine as long as I could keep it up."

"You honor our lord with your virility. Continue, please." Anderson laughed, running his hand up the inside of Hutch's thigh, right beside where Starsky's knee was planted.

Both men flinched at the contact.

"Like I said the other night, it's been a while," Starsky said.

Anderson gave an evil chuckle and drew a less than enthusiastic Baldino close to him. "Carry on, then, by all means."

Relieved, Starsky turned back to his partner. He could still feel Anderson's curious stare scorching his back.

Starsky resumed pumping his half-erect cock into that tight body, counting on the friction to bring him up again. He fell into rhythm as he pumped himself to fullness deep inside Hutch's tight heat.

There was no sobbing from Hutch this time, his partner lay there, apparently limp with relief at being spared becoming a party favor.

It took longer to achieve completion this time, which was good, because it kept Hutch from having to endure another partner. Starsky could hear the coarse cries around him as the Satanists reached orgasm, and a short time later, his own body was convulsing with pleasure for the second time that night. Since Gunther's hit, that hardly happened anymore.

When the haze of climax cleared, Starsky gazed dazedly around to find that the others had completed their celebrations of the flesh and were once again watching the couple on the altar.

Anderson laughed at Starsky almost good-naturedly. "If you're quite through, Villar, we'd like to complete the service. You've made our Dark Lord very proud tonight. Perhaps in the future you may serve Him in other areas."

"You only have to ask," Starsky gasped, reluctantly disengaging from Hutch's body.

Hutch hissed as Starsky's cock eased out of him.

Anderson slapped Hutch's buttocks the second Starsky had pulled clear of him, laughing with malignant glee. "If you think that's bad, Mr. Policeman, wait until you see what we have planned for you later."

Pretending not to hear Hutch's stifled sob, Starsky carefully climbed down from the altar and turned his back on his partner. Villar wouldn't care about Hutch's pain, and Starsky wasn't sure he could hold it together if he looked directly at Hutch after what he'd just done and knew he was the source of that pain.

So, he concentrated on the mundane, like standing up. He wasn't entirely certain if his legs would hold his weight. They did, just barely, with residual protests and wobbles.

Starsky glanced around the candlelit chamber. Tonight's ceremony was following the same pattern as Wednesday night's. The sated, disheveled celebrants were gathered together, drifting towards a golden box on the far side of the altar. Baldino had told him it was the unholy tabernacle where the ingredients for the final rite were stored. Starsky didn't know what a regular tabernacle looked like or was used for, but he was willing to wager that the originals didn't have filigree demons sexually cavorting with humans worked into their surfaces.

The only difference between tonight's main event and the one starring that kinky brunette was the fact that the offering on the altar hadn't been cut loose yet. Anderson had freed the girl right after Starsky and he had finished mounting her the other night.

Figuring that it wasn't an unreasonable question for Villar to be posing, Starsky asked as innocently as possible, "What about Blondie?"

The group halted at his overloud inquiry.

"We'll get back to him, don't worry. Right now, we have your baptism to get through before we can finish the ceremony with the final sacrifice." Anderson said.

"Come this way, please."

"Ah, right," Starsky pulled himself together and rejoined the group.

When they had all assembled before the golden box on its pedestal, Anderson addressed his followers. "We welcome Michael Villar to our elite ranks and recognize him as one of our own. We invite our new brother to finalize his commitment to our Dark Lord and seal his bond with our most sacred sharing—the baptism of blood. We will begin with this token ritual and advance to the ultimate gift we can give our lord."

A respectful hush fell over the following.

Starsky knew that that final gift was probably going to be Hutch's life. Whatever he did, he was going to have to do it soon.

At Anderson's cue, Baldino moved forward to the tabernacle and withdrew a golden basin. Starsky's stomach roiled as he saw the basin's thick, red contents lap up and down the bowl's sides as Baldino moved, leaving a glistening red trail staining the gold. The blood was just starting to thicken. Whatever they had taken it from couldn't have been killed too long before the ceremony had started.

Baldino stopped before Starsky. Tapscott stepped up to Starsky and quickly undid the front of his robe.

Starsky's body was tensed to explode into action, but Stevens was still standing guard just out of range.

Starsky tried not to shiver at the unveiling, but he'd never felt so exposed in his life. His panic level was in the red zone as Anderson dipped his hand deep into the basin and brought forth a handful of the sickening gore.

Human blood . . . they'd said it was human blood . . . .

His skin was crawling as that hand approached, a scream growing in his chest. Was he going to let them put that crap on him? Villar would have done this in the past as a matter of course, Starsky knew that. He understood that he had to hold it together just a little bit longer, but . . . it was human blood!

Or maybe not. On the point of freaking, Staraky reminded himself about the last bunch of sickos Hutch and he had encountered who were into this stuff. They'd used goat's blood. And Simon Marcus' followers had used cattle.

Starsky stared at the basin. There was an awful lot of the stuff in that huge dish, maybe a gallon or more. Baldino could barely hold it up straight. It had been over six months since the LAPD had buried those John Doe kids. No way was this fresh red bounty that old. Since they hadn't found any new corpses in the last few days, chances were it was just animal blood. Unless, of course, there was another missing runaway's body waiting to be dumped in one of the back rooms.

No, Dino would've said something if they'd had a new toy. It had to be animal blood.

Not that that made it less disgusting. Starsky was standing here with his nude front exposed, waiting for some wacko to paint him with blood that might or might not be human. On any level, that was hard to accept.

As that gore-slicked hand was about to touch his chest, a scream formed in his throat. He couldn't do this, he just couldn't . . . .

On the verge of losing it, Starsky felt every panic impulse brutally shut down as the part of him he struggled to keep submerged fought free and took control. The shark wasn't afraid of the sight of blood; it hungered for it. That dark killer turned Starsky's grimace into a legitimate grin, forcing him to behave like the ex-con he was pretending to be.

So he held stone still, not even flinching as Anderson painted his chest and genitals with the sickening gore. The blood was cold and clammy against his skin, sticking like spent semen . . . or spilled blood.

Inside the dark corner of his mind where the real Starsky had been relegated, he mentally shuddered in revulsion as the Satanist's hand gathered his cock and balls in his palm, then caressed them almost lovingly as he spread the noisome liquid over him. But the shark didn't betray any of his disgust. To the contrary, the shark's shaft blossomed under the attention, as Villar's no doubt would have.

It was pure physiology, Starsky told himself. Anytime a guy got fondled, he got hard. That was just human nature.

Even so, Starsky was ready to choke on his own vomit; he was so repulsed by the scene.

He stared down at his blood-slick, engorged cock, wanting to disown it. First it had raped his partner and now it was getting turned on by some sadistic Satanist. His cock would never feel clean again.

Anderson kept talking while his hands moved over Starsky, but he filtered most of it out. Anderson seemed to be saying something about claiming him in the name of Satan.

Pushing the horror out of his mind, he concentrated on one important fact—that Hutch was temporarily safe.

Wondering if Hutch were even conscious, Starsky stared past Anderson's left shoulder, at the altar.

Hutch was conscious. He had craned his head around, so that he could see what was going on. Hutch had never looked so pale. His handsome face appeared bloodless as he watched the proceedings.

For the briefest instant, their gazes locked. There was no hope left in Hutch's eyes, but they seemed to offer Starsky strength none-the-less. Hutch seemed to be sending him the message that, no matter what went down, Starsky wasn't alone. They might be going to die in this corner of Hell, but they'd be going out together.

Starsky would have sworn that nothing could have made this situation bearable, but Hutch's courage gave him the strength he needed to pull himself together and get the shark back under control.

If Starsky had to let the shark slaughter every one of these sickos, he would. No matter what it took, he was getting Hutch out of here. He just hade to bide his time and make his move when the moment was right. The shark would know when.

Sensing that Anderson's initiation spiel was winding down, Starsky pulled his gaze away from Hutch.

Baldino returned the basin to the tabernacle, while Anderson led them back to the altar. Tapscott and Stevens were already there, turning Hutch over so that he was face up again.

Taking his place beside Stevens, Starsky stood there with the front of his body dripping cold, smelly blood, doing his best not to pass out.

"You did good, man," Dino said as he stepped up to his other side, giving Starsky's shoulder a brotherly pat. "I knew you wouldn't let me down. Now comes the sweet part. You're gonna love this."

Starsky gave a tight nod. He could feel the change in the air. The shark was stirring inside him, aroused by the smell of blood and the fear on the wind.

Baldino gave his shoulder a squeeze, smiled and moved to take his place at Anderson's right hand side.

His predator instincts on overdrive, Starsky watched Dino pass something wrapped in black satin to Anderson.

Anderson took the long, cylindrical bundle in his hands and then reverently unwrapped it. The object turned out to be a dagger identical to those worn at all the cultists' waists. Offering it first to the ground and then to the four quarters, naming Satan and four demons as he did so, Anderson blessed the object as Starsky had seen Roman Catholic priests bless the host in their sacrament. When he was done, Anderson looked over at him.

"Michael Villar, it is with great happiness that I present this to you. As our newest member, the honor of first blood is yours," Anderson said.

Starsky swallowed hard. He could feel Hutch's hopeless gaze digging into his face. The cavalry wasn't coming; that much was clear. If Hutch and he were going to get out of here, it was up to him. But at least he wasn't unarmed now.

Accepting the dagger, Starsky said, "Thanks. You, ah, want me to kill the cop?"

He indulged himself and met Hutch's eyes. Everything in him tightened up as Hutch gave another of those barely perceptible nods of assent. He knew what it meant. Hutch was telling him to play along and save himself. He'd have done the same thing if their positions had been reversed. But that was not happening. Live or die, they were in this together.

The pressure mounting inside him until every nerve was ready to snap, Starsky tore his eyes away from Hutch.

It was Dino who answered him from the head of the altar. "Not right away, Mikey. We wanna have some more fun with him—you dig?"

"Yeah, I dig," Starsky said. His nerves stretched that tiniest bit further before he hit his breaking point. One minute he was standing there perfectly in character, and the next, the shark was loose.

Stevens didn't even see the move that buried Starsky's dagger in his chest. Starsky pulled the knife back out as fast as it had gone in.

He moved so quickly that the rest of the Satanists didn't have time to react as their guard was taken out.

Stevens went down like a ton of bricks, but not before Starsky had relieved him of his automatic. With a dagger in his right hand and the automatic in his left, Starsky felt safe for the first time since he'd entered this infernal room.

There was no time to check the clip. Starsky just thumbed off the automatic's safety and started firing. Father Balducci, Tapscott, and Will Marvel, whom Starsky had never even heard speak, dropped almost simultaneously. The shots reverberated through the room like thunder, practically deafening him.

Rob Powers lurched at him with his dagger, but the shark took care of both him and the blond, Karl Beck, with chilling efficiency.

Two shots, two bodies. It didn't get more perfect than that in the shark's world.

That left only Mitchell Harding, Dino and Anderson, who had all had the sense to scatter to the wooden pews when the feeding frenzy started.

A shot whizzed by Starsky as Baldino and Harding opened fire. Anderson didn't appear to be carrying a gun. He just stayed down low in the pews on the left side of the chamber and let his henchmen protect him.

Starsky dived for cover, only realizing when he was down and shielded by the altar that his partner was still trapped out there in the open. Shit. That wasn't going to work.

Taking his chances, Starsky scampered for cover behind the nearest pew.

Baldino obviously hadn't seen him move. Dino was still shooting at the altar.

Harding, however, rose to get a better angle on Starsky, and lost his life to the shark in that nanosecond he was unprotected.

Seven down. Two to go. But Baldino was still firing at the altar. Hutch hadn't been hit . . . yet, for Dino was aiming at Starsky's last position.

Starsky could see that his partner's eyes were focused squarely on him. Hutch was obviously aware of his own vulnerability. He was lying quiet and motionless to keep attention off himself. But he flinched every time one of Dino's bullets ricocheted off the altar.

Knowing only one way to draw the fire from his helpless partner, Starsky rose to his feet and let Dino get a beam on him.

"Hey, Dino!" he shouted as he dived further down the pew, flattening himself against the hard marble floor.

Dino missed him, barely.

"Police, give it up, man," Starsky shouted.

Three shots thwacked through the wooden pew an inch from his face. This wasn't good. While Dino had him pinned down like this, Anderson could be moving to get Harding's gun. He couldn't let that happen. Starsky glanced around the side of the bench to see what Anderson was up to.

He'd moved, all right, but not for the gun. Anderson had risen and was standing over Hutch. Catching Starsky's eyes, Anderson grinned at him. The malice in his expression chilled Starsky's blood.

"Too late, Villar!" Anderson said, raising his dagger high above his head, directly over Hutch's chest.

Starsky didn't think. He just fired.

Peripherally, he was aware of Dino moving, but Hutch's peril outweighed his own.

Starsky's bullet pierced Anderson's lined brow before the Satanist had time to move. The impact sent the dagger clattering into a nearby pew as Anderson toppled over backwards.

Dino froze, Starsky temporarily forgotten as he stared down at his boss.

"What the . . . ! Mr. Anderson! No!" an insane howl filled the room, then Baldino went off into a tirade of, "You fuckin' traitor! You're a cop! A cop," Baldino blazed, his face livid, almost as red as the blood dripping from Anderson's shattered skull.

From day one, Starsky had known it would come to this. The only question that remained in his mind was whether he'd have the time left to chamber his next round before Dino started shooting.

With no more thought than Starsky would give to killing a mosquito, Starsky took aim at his drinking buddy and pulled the trigger. Only an ominous click followed, no gunfire. The clip was empty.

Baldino had him cold, his gun centered right on the crouching Starsky's chest.

"Tough break, fucker!" Dino grinned and fired.

Starsky threw himself to the side and made the only offensive move he could. Dino was more than ten feet away and Starsky had never had any talent with knives, but apparently the shark was capable of extraordinary acts when pressed to the wall.

Dino's bullet pierced Starsky's trailing robe, far too close for comfort.

A breath later, Starsky's dagger pierced Dino's chest on the left side. Not through the heart, but close as made no difference.

Baldino's gun fell from his limp hand. He dropped to his knees, a shocked expression on his face as blood drenched the front of his robe. Starsky saw Dino's hands fumble to the dagger's hilt, which was buried deep in his chest. As he groaned and struggled for breath, pink bubbles emerged from Baldino's mouth and nose with every outward breath.

The silence in the chamber was complete.

Staring at the carnage around him, Starsky took a couple of deep breaths and tried to calm his racing heart.

Standing, he stumbled over to Baldino and picked up Dino's .38.

The suspect was down, disarmed, and no longer a threat. Proper procedure demanded that Starsky cuff his prisoner and call for an ambulance.

He clicked back the gun's hammer.

"Starsky!" Hutch called from the altar.

Starsky glanced behind him.

"Don't," Hutch said.

Those blue eyes pleaded with him as they hadn't when Starsky had raped him less than fifteen minutes ago.

He'd die for this man. So would the shark. Whenever Hutch asked him for anything, he usually gave it to him. So did the shark. But tonight the memory of Baldino forcing Hutch's buttocks apart so that Anderson could bury that wafer inside Hutch was too much with him.

There was no thought to Starsky's next action. He just raised the gun and put a bullet through Dino's forehead. Breathing hard, he stared at the grisly results.

He should have been sickened by the blood and splattered gray matter that was spreading all over the pew and floor, but all he felt was a grim sense satisfaction. Now it was over.

The shark lived in a world where moral obstructions didn't exist. That simple reality was a seductive place to visit. Which was no doubt why the world was plagued with psychopaths, Starsky realized as he gazed down that tempting path of that perfect existence. It would be so easy to . . . .

"S-St-tarsk . . . ." the one voice that had never feared the conscienceless monster that dwelt within him called Starsky back from the brink.

Recalled to his circumstances, Starsky focused on his partner. Hutch was still shackled to that cold slab.

He was almost afraid of what he'd see in Hutch's eyes now. Starsky wanted to run and hide, but . . . his partner needed him.

Starsky gruffly asked, "How you doin', partner?"

Though he looked inches away from losing it, Hutch gave a weak, obviously forced smile. "I've been better. You gonna let me up from here or what?"

Starsky looked at the restraints on Hutch's right wrist. In his struggles, the metal clamps had bitten deep into his flesh, leaving Hutch's wrists a bloody mess. But aside from the gore, the manacles appeared pretty straight-forward. Lock and key.

"They need a key to open," Starsky said. "You wouldn't know where . . . ?"

"I think Baldino put the key in that box over there," Hutch said, his chin gesturing towards the box the basin of blood had been stored in.

Starsky left his partner, stepped over three of the bodies, and crossed to the tabernacle.

Hutch was right. The key was beside the golden basin. Starsky was back with it in a moment. He carefully undid the locks at Hutch's wrists.

He winced just looking at the puffy flesh, knowing that those hands had to hurt like hell.

The moment he lowered his arms, Hutch's face twisted in pain and he groaned.

Without thinking, Starsky reached out to rub his arms, knowing it was the only thing that'd help. Hutch's flinch was hardly surprising, considering the circumstances, but it hurt like a kick to the balls.

Starsky pulled his hands back. Consumed by guilt he muttered, "Sorry," at exactly the same moment Hutch did.

A chasm of pain gaping between them, they stared into each other's eyes for a long moment. Unable to even think about what he'd done, let alone face Hutch in the aftermath of it, Starsky pulled his gaze away first, closing his hurt away.

This wasn't about him. He wasn't the victim here. He had no right to lay his pain on Hutch now, not after he'd . . . .

Shutting that thought down, Starsky unlocked the shackles at Hutch's ankles. He did his best to minimize the contact. He couldn't stand to feel Hutch shrink away from him again.

"Starsk?"

He tensed at Hutch's soft tone, hardening himself, knowing gentleness would finish him. He didn't deserve compassion. What he deserved was . . . well, once he found Hutch's gun, his partner could administer what he deserved.

"Do you know what they did with your clothes?" Starsky asked in a dead tone, not even glancing at Hutch's face.

There was a long silence, then Hutch reported in pretty much the same voice Starsky had used, "There's a storage room behind the altar. They kept me in there till I woke up, then took my clothes. They're on an orange crate back there. I can get them . . . ."

"You can't even stand yet," Starsky said. "I'll be right back."

"Starsky . . . ."

He heard Hutch, but he was already moving and didn't stop. If he slowed down, he'd crack.

The room was a small, disorganized broom closet. Starsky switched on the overhead light and stared around. Piles of delivery boxes, stacks of candles, mops, brooms, and bottles of cleaning supplies littered the limited space.

Hutch's clothes were rolled up in a ball on a Golden Groves orange crate. His holstered Magnum rested on top of a five-gallon plastic paint bucket.

Starsky gathered them up into his arms and returned to the ceremonial chamber.

Hutch was sitting up when he returned, rubbing at his legs. Even from across the room, Starsky could see the goose flesh prickling his partner's tanned skin.

Starsky forced his gaze away. If things had gone as planned tonight, he might have had the right to look at that beautiful golden body, but . . . that particular what if had been buried here tonight. He'd count himself lucky if he maintained the honor of calling this man his friend after what had gone down here, and he wasn't even banking on that. Hutch would be fully within his rights to shoot him dead on the spot.

"Starsk?"

He almost jumped at the soft sound. Shaking himself, he brought the clothes over to the marble altar.

"Here," he said as normally as he could manage.

Starsky's hand shot out to steady Hutch as he slid off the altar and his unsteady legs swayed beneath him. "You all right?"

Hutch nodded, looking vague and shell-shocked as he clutched Starsky's arm. Starsky could feel the heat of those fingers through his robe.

"Yeah," Hutch replied, gravel-voiced. He sounded like he'd screamed or cried himself hoarse, which, of course, he had. The slightly-dazed, blue gaze fluttered about the obscene furnishings of the chamber before coming to rest on Starsky.

"I'm going to get dressed," Hutch said, releasing Starsky to fumble with his clothing.

Hutch's swollen hands were shaking too badly to work right, so Starsky helped him get into his tan cords and black button down shirt.

"I, ah, guess I better get outta this thing," Starsky said once Hutch was dressed. "And find out what the hell happened to those bozos in the van. Anderson's freaks didn't do anything to the van—did they?"

"No." Hutch shook his head, still seeming out of it. "It was just me they caught. I was coming back from dinner. Lowery should be all right."

"He's not gonna be when I get through with him," Starsky said.

He was no longer surprised that no one had come looking for Hutch. Starsky had worked with Lowery before. Lowery's lunch hour often stretched out to two or three. He'd probably just figured Hutch was doing the same thing.

"You, ah, wanta wait upstairs?" Starsky offered, not wanting to leave Hutch alone in this chamber of horrors.

"One of us should stay on the scene till forensics arrives," Hutch said. "Go clean up. I'll be okay."

Starsky nodded. The perps were all dead and it was unlikely the evidence would be disturbed, but it was never a good idea to leave a crime scene unattended.

"I'll be right back," he promised and hurried for the stairs.

He debated whether he should shower first or go into the other chamber where the mike was to call in back-up, but he didn't want Hutch to have to deal with the inevitable questions in his current state. They'd been waiting for back up for over a half hour now. They could wait another five minutes.

Once in the locker room, Starsky quickly slipped off his robe and ran to the shower stalls in the adjoining room.

Looking down at his blood-smeared body, he felt like he was going to puke. The scars from Gunther's assassination attempt looked particularly lurid with all that blood darkening them. It was crusting brown in his chest hair, like his own blood would when it would begin to dry.

He sluiced himself off with burning hot water. Using the harsh brown soap in the stall, he scrubbed at the red gore on his torso hard enough to take the skin off.

Much as he wanted to, he couldn't afford to linger. In less than three minutes, he was back at his locker, frantically trying to don his clothes while still soaking wet. He had to get back to Hutch.

His jeans and red corduroy shirt were completely drenched by the time he got them on. He pulled his white jacket on top. He'd started to turn to the door when he realized he was barefoot and unarmed.

Once he had his boots and holster on, Starsky went to the room where Wednesday night's ceremony had taken place and kicked in the door.

"Lowery," he shouted into the dark room, "call for a coupla meat wagons and then get your ass down to the basement!"

Turning, he raced back to the stairs and down to Hutch.

He needn't have been so frantic. He found Hutch sitting in the last pew by the door, looking down at his clasped hands.

"Hi," Starsky said, for want of anything more intelligent.

Hutch looked up at him and forced a weak smile. He looked rough, but nowhere near as bad as he had a right to.

"How you doin'?"

"You gonna keep asking me that?" Hutch snapped with his usual short temper.

Starsky bit his tongue.

"Sorry," Hutch said a second later.

"No, I shouldn't've—"

Hutch's eyes weren't meeting his. "I'm gonna use the can. I think there's one over there." Hutch pointed to the door beside the storage room. "I'll be right back."

Starsky took a couple of steps after his partner, but Hutch never looked back as he walked stiffly to that other door.

It had just closed behind Hutch when there was a commotion behind Starsky.

"Freeze, police!" the authoritative command was conveyed by a voice far too young and uncertain to carry it off properly.

Starsky sighed as he recognized the speaker. Of all the patrol cars out there, it was just their luck that it would have to be this one that got their call. It figured that Lowery had waited for the uniforms to give him the all clear before coming in.

Starsky took a deep breath. He didn't have the patience to deal with the over-eager rookie right now. "Cool it, Baker. It's me, Starsky. Go out and call for a coroner's wagon if Lowery hasn't done it yet."

"Yes, sir, right away, sir," Baker snapped, reholstering his weapon. It was only after the uniformed rookie had left that Starsky belatedly realized that he should have also requested an ambulance for Hutch.

Patrolman Mitchell, a big muscular black man who looked like the ideal police officer with the clean cut figure he presented in uniform, entered the chamber. "Starsky? What happened?"

"You don't wanta know. What the hell happened to Lowery? He stop for donuts on the way over?" Starsky snarled, disgusted with the world in general right now.

"I'm right here," Lowery said as he entered the room.

Starsky saw red when he laid eyes on the older detective.

"What's that donut crack supposed to mean?" Lowery demanded.

Starsky was on him before Lowery had even finished speaking. Starsky slammed the older man into the wall beside the door, the hard bone of his forearm pressed tight to the other cop's windpipe. Satisfied, he watched Lowery's eyes bulge with terror as his face filled with blood.

"It means that my partner was missing for over an hour and you never bothered to call it in. It means that we almost died in here while you were sittin' on your fat—"

"Detective Starsky?" Mitchell interrupted his tirade, tugging on his arm.

Starsky didn't even hear Mitchell. All that existed in his universe at the moment was the jerk whose negligence had nearly gotten Hutch and him killed. If this loser had been on the ball, that silent mike would have been investigated before the ceremony had even had a chance to start.

Starsky couldn't ignore Mitchell when the uniformed cop used all of his 6'4" strength to physically haul Starsky off of Lowery.

Separated from his target, Starsky turned on Mitchell, ready to go through him to complete the job. He wasn't sane at that moment. He'd kill to get to Lowery.

Mitchell's handsome face showed that he was fully aware of the danger he was in. "Detective! Detective Starsky!"

Finally recognizing that Mitchell wasn't his target, Starsky tried to go around the man. Mitchell blocked him, holding Starsky in place.

"It's not worth it," Mitchell said. "Captain Dobey's on his way. Let him deal with it."

"What's going on?" Hutch asked, startling Starsky when he pushed Mitchell off him. Hutch's eyes moved over the scene, quickly interpreting what was going on. Freed, Starsky lurched for Lowery, but Hutch's hands replaced Mitchell's on his arms. He was not getting loose without hurting Hutch. "Get the hell out of here, Lowery. Now."

Lowery didn't have to be told twice. He was gone before Hutch had stopped speaking.

Hutch held onto him while he took some deep breaths. When the bloodlust had passed, Hutch let go and took a step back.

The forensics team arrived at that moment and they all cleared out of the doorway to let them in.

Mitchell followed them towards the front of the room. When the uniform finally got a good look at his surroundings, Mitchell gaped at the candlelit chamber in open shock. "What the hell is this place?" His dark gaze settled on Anderson and Baldino, who were crumpled in spreading pools of their own blood, then moved on to the other seven corpses. "Son of a . . . what in the name of God happened here, Starsky?"

"God had very little to do with it. You don't want the details. Take my word on it. Just go upstairs and get that damned coroner's wagon here, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, Starsky," Mitchell agreed, his attitude slightly bewildered.

"Thanks, Stew," Starsky thought to add. "I, ah, I'm sorry about before."

"Don't mention it. Lowery had it coming."

Starsky nodded.

"I'll go see what's keeping those wagons," Mitchell said, seeming in a hurry to get out of the basement.

Not that Starsky could blame him.

He stepped to the front of the chamber, staring at his handiwork while the forensics team started photographing the corpses. The shots had been flawless, all nine of them kill shots. Though every one of the bastards had deserved to die, it was scary to know that he was capable of killing like this, so fast and efficiently. The firefight hadn't lasted more than three minutes.

"Starsk?"

He looked around at the soft call. Hutch was standing right behind him, watching him with a worried expression.

The snug tan cords, black button down shirt and lustrous black leather jacket only accentuated Hutch's unusual pallor. Hutch's moustache stood out like a dark slash above his upper lip. Standing there amid all those bodies, right next to the altar he'd been raped on, Hutch appeared vulnerable, lost.

Starsky stepped closer to him.

"How you doin', partner?" he asked, forcing himself to meet Hutch's gaze.

Hutch looked like he was barely holding it together.

Even though he felt he no longer had the right to touch, Starsky took a firm grip on Hutch's muscular upper arm, sensing that, despite the awkwardness between them, Hutch needed something real to hold onto right now. Starsky prayed that Hutch wouldn't flinch away from him again.

He felt the shiver that coursed through Hutch's long frame, but other than that, Hutch held firm. No flinch, no pulling back, in fact, something seemed to relax in Hutch's eyes at his touch.

"'M fine."

Though it was the last thing Starsky wanted to talk about, he knew he had to check. "I, ah, didn't think to call an ambulance. Are you . . . I mean . . . ."

Hutch turned bright red. "No, I'm fine. I checked. I don't think I'm bleeding. I'm just . . . sore."

Remembering that the lubricant had been red, Starsky challenged, "How could you even tell if you were bleedin'? You gotta let someone check you out . . . ." Halfway through his protest, Starsky's gaze dropped to his scuffed boots. He was unable to discuss this subject while looking directly at Hutch's face.

Neither of them took chances with their health. When they were injured, they always went to the doctor. It hurt to hear Hutch argue against common sense. "I don't need a doctor, Starsk, or any tests. It wasn't Anderson, thank God. It was you and you were careful. No doctors, Starsk, please. I just wanna go home."

Starsky nearly choked, his throat closed up so tight with emotion when he heard Hutch thanking God that his partner had been the one to rape him.

"I'm sorry, Hutch. You gotta let the doctors check you out. If something were to happen to you . . . ."

Panic flared in Hutch's eyes, and with it his temper. Taking a vicious shot, Hutch hissed, "Something did happen to me tonight. You owe me. No doctors. That's final."

Though he knew he should stick to his resolve to have Hutch checked out medically, he wavered under that implacable tone. Unable to stop himself, he glanced up at his partner's face. At first all he could see was Hutch's anger. But as their gazes held, that dropped away. He'd never seen Hutch look so . . . scared, so defenseless. Every shred of dignity had been torn from him. Was it any wonder Hutch wanted to hold on to what little pride he had left?

"Starsky, I swear. I'm just . . . sore," Hutch insisted, pleading again.

Like he could tell, Starsky thought. By the time Hutch was aware of a problem, it would be too late. Starsky had seen enough peritonitis in 'Nam to know that.

"There's no way you can tell, babe. You can't even see . . . there. I'm sorry, but you gotta be checked out." Starsky stuck to his guns.

Hutch bit his lip, his eyes going wild. "I can't, Starsk. I just can't. Please . . . ."

This was fully as bad as being forced to rape his partner.

"Hutch, you know I'm right. Don't do this. We can't take that kinda chance. It's your life."

It was there in Hutch's eyes that it didn't matter to him right now that he might die. The desperation flared, then Hutch said, "Okay. You check me out then."

"What?"

"If I'm bleeding, you can call for an ambulance. If not, we drop the subject. Deal?" Hutch asked.

The last thing Starsky wanted was to see what he'd done to Hutch, but if he refused this request, Hutch was going to hate him. That was crystal clear in those tense blue eyes.

Starsky looked around the chamber. The forensics team was occupied taking pictures of the corpses. No one else was around.

"Okay. Bathroom, now."

Moving around the exterior of the crime scene, they quietly slipped into the room beside the broom closet.

Hutch snapped on the overhead light. Starsky closed the door firmly behind them and moved to the sink to wash his hands. He could feel Hutch watching his face as he dried his hands with a paper towel off the roll beside the sink.

As soon as Starsky was done, Hutch turned away from him, dropped his pants down around his ankles and bent over to lean across the wet sink.

Starsky crouched down to get a better perspective. His hands were trembling as he reached out to part Hutch's buttocks. It didn't help that he could see bruises forming on the pale flesh.

Thankfully, the light was good in here.

Bending close, Starsky stared at Hutch's rectum . . . and nearly lost his cookies. The entire area was swollen, a bright angry red, and there was something red seeping out . . . .

"God, Hutch, you're bleeding all over the place," Starsky said.

"It's the lubricant. Here, check . . . ." Hutch reached to the side for something, handing Starsky a long length of toilet paper a moment later. "It scared the hell out of me, too."

His hand shaking, Starsky took the paper and reached forward to clear the area, realizing a second or so before he made contact how abrasive that paper was going to be against the abused flesh.

Bringing the toilet tissue to his mouth, Starsky soaked it with spit and then gently wiped away the red stuff. When he saw it against the white toilet paper, he could see that its color was wrong for blood.

Still nervous, Starsky carefully examined Hutch's anus. It was swollen and way too red, but he could see no rips or tears. Bracing himself, Starsky made a more intrusive exploration, pretending not to notice how tense Hutch was around his finger as he did so. He couldn't feel anything out of place. No rips in the passage's slick surface. And when he withdrew his finger, all that was on it was more of the lubricant.

"Well?" Hutch asked, holding onto the sides of the sink with a white knuckled grip. His face was as red as the lubricant on Starsky's finger.

Feeling as though he'd just raped Hutch a second time, Starsky gulped and got to his feet. "I don't know, Hutch. I'm not a doctor . . . ."

"Was there any blood?" Hutch demanded, rising back up and tugging his pants into place.

Starsky sidled around him to wash his hands again.

"Not that I can see, but . . . ."

"No buts. This subject is closed. Now get the hell outta here."

Ready to puke at the cold anger in Hutch's voice, Starsky slipped out the door.

The forensics team was still hard at work a few yards away. Dobey hadn't gotten here yet. Not knowing what to do with himself, Starsky gravitated to the back of the room and stood there staring down at the scuffed marble floor. He felt, rather than saw, Hutch join him a few minutes later.

"Hey," Hutch said after a long silence.

Starsky looked over at him.

"I, ah, I'm sorry," Hutch said softly, touching his arm. " I shouldn't've gone off on you like that. I never even thanked you for saving my life."

"Don't thank me," Starsky snapped. Seeing how Hutch tensed at his outburst, he immediately apologized. "I'm sorry. It's just . . . you're the one who kept us alive. I should be thankin' you."

"Huh?"

"You didn't give us away, partner. Even when things got rough, you kept it together."

Hutch shrugged. "We didn't have any choice."

"You really believe that?" Starsky asked, swamped with his own guilt again.

"We both would have ended up as sacrifices and dead any other way. With you . . . doin' it . . . it wasn't so bad." That last was offered in a tight voice.

He was amazed that Hutch could discuss it at all, much less tolerate his touch.

Hutch's courage was more than he could take. Starsky felt his own guards falter. His voice shaking as bad as his insides, Starsky choked out, "Wasn't so bad? They-they made me rape you, babe."

Hutch's control appeared to falter. A rapid-fire barrage of emotion flashed through the bright eyes before Hutch's expression stilled into something that Starsky could only define as abiding gentleness. "We were both forced."

"You don't . . . blame me?" Now he felt like he was going to start bawling any second.

Hutch's eyes widened in unfeigned shock. "Ahh, Starsk . . . of course I don't blame you."

For an astonishing instant, Starsky thought his partner was leaning forward to kiss him on the mouth, but Hutch merely rested their foreheads together.

Breathing the same moist air, Starsky took comfort from the intimate contact.

"You're shakin' all over," Starsky said when Hutch finally drew back.

"Nerves," Hutch said, shrugging the reaction off.

"It . . . hasn't hit me yet," Starsky confessed. Hearing a disturbance outside the chamber door and Dobey's voice raised in anger, he drew Hutch to a nearby pew. "Sit those shakes out here while I handle this bunch."

The next hour and a half passed in a jumble of questions, endless verbal reports, with everything culminating with Starsky handing over the gun he'd stolen from Stevens to IA for them to investigate the nine shootings.

A faint pink light was beginning to play along the eastern horizon when they were finally dismissed. Weary, they stumbled to Hutch's battered black Ford, the latest in his friend's infamous line of wrecks.

"I'll drive," Starsky offered.

"I'm all—" A wide yawn interrupted Hutch's protest. Giving Starsky a sheepish smile, Hutch opened the passenger door. "Maybe you'd better."

Starsky started the ignition. The motor's constant rattle sounded especially grating this morning. Letting it pass, Starsky carefully guided the banged up heap away from the odious building.

The atmosphere in the car became unbearably strained once they'd left the Church of Satan's police-car-clogged driveway behind them and turned on to the deserted suburban streets.

The time before sunrise when the late night revelers had found their way home and the morning rush had yet to start was, in Starsky's opinion, the most desolate hour of the day. The stillness seemed unnatural. Starsky's impression wasn't helped any by the tension in the car.

"Starsk?"

"Yeah?" Though the roads hardly required his concentration, Starsky didn't move his eyes from the blacktop.

"What did you tell Dobey?" Hutch's control was incredible. He sounded entirely professional.

"It was only a verbal report," Starsky said. Then realizing that stalling would only make things more difficult, he continued, "I told them you were kidnapped and tied to the altar against your will. Then I told them about Stevens tryin' to shoot me and Anderson tryin'ta stab you."

"And . . . the rest? Did you . . . ?"

"No, I didn't mention . . . the rest." Starsky wondered if that was how they were gonna refer to it from now on. The rest. Neat and unemotional, those two words covered a plethora of horror.

"It's gonna have to go into Dobey's report tomorrow," Hutch said in a dead tone.

Starsky schooled his face and voice to a calm blankness as he responded, "Only if you want it in there, partner."

Starsky glanced over to see how Hutch had handled his unprecedented suggestion.

Too much had happened to his partner tonight for anything to go easy on Hutch at this late hour. Tears stood out brightly in his partner's eyes. When Hutch spoke, it was in a tone of hopeless desperation. "What do you mean 'want it in there'? We don't have a choice. We've got to report it."

"Give me one good reason why," Starsky calmly demanded.

"Huh?"

"You heard me," Starsky said.

Hutch's voice dropped. "Starsky, do you know what you're suggestin' here?"

"Yeah, I know. I'm not sayin' we should make anything up, Hutch, just not mention everything that went down. Unless, of course, you're plannin' on bringin' me up on charges?" It would be within Hutch's rights, and Starsky wouldn't blame him if he did.

Hutch gaped at him for a moment, then fixed his stare on the fists he had balled up in his lap. "Don't be an idiot. Of course, I'm not gonna press charges. You were forced . . . ."

Starsky cut in, detailing the cold facts of the case, "Hutch, I still did it. If you recall, Anderson even gave me the opportunity to walk before things . . . got too heavy. We both know that lettin' me go wasn't in that sicko's game plan, but we got no way to prove that now. We put everything in that report and it becomes official, public record. The scandel sheets're gonna have a field day with it. I don't want that. Not for you or me or for the force."

It all seemed too much for Hutch to handle. His voice shaking, Hutch said, "I don't know, Starsk. It feels . . . dishonest, like we're falsifying a shooting report or something."

"I know . . . ." Starsky raggedly confessed. "It feels that way to me, too. Hell, that is what we're doin', but what the hell else are we gonna do, buddy? We tell all, it'll be around the precinct before the mornin' shift starts and out on the street two hours later. Our credibility's gonna be shot to hell. And for what? It ain't like tellin's gonna add some years to a sentence. All it's gonna do is wreck our careers."

"You're . . . right. It just seems so . . . ."

"It stinks. I just don't know what else to do. We . . . we could tell the captain before we make our report . . . ask him what he thinks we should do," Starsky said. He didn't like the idea, but he realized that they were both too close to this situation to see it clearly. All Starsky wanted to do was turn back the clock and make like last night never happened. Hutch had to be feeling that even stronger than him.

"Tell Dobey . . . ." Hutch repeated, like the words were something out of a foreign language.

"Babe, if we can't handle tellin' him, how we gonna field the heat from the whole world knowin'?" Starsky heart broke at the pain in his partner's face. Normally, Hutch could face any trial without quelling, but this was a lot for even the White Knight to handle. Knowing what was right and living up to it were often two entirely different things. His partner had always done the right thing, as far as his professional ethics went. It was wrong that Hutch had to be put through this now.

"You're . . . you're right . . . . We should tell Dobey. Let him decide," Hutch whispered, seeming to deflate, as though the last of his pride had been physically ripped from him.

Something snapped inside Starsky at that look. This was not happening. Every joker on the street was not gonna have some comment to throw at Hutch about his partner loving to take it up the ass, for that was what this was all gonna eventually translate into if it ever got into an official report. Starsky knew it, even if Hutch couldn't see it yet. As much as he trusted their captain, Starsky was unwilling to risk even a whisper of this floating around the precinct.

And, since Hutch was too noble to take it upon his own conscience, Starsky decided to take it upon himself. He already had a rape and nine deaths on his scorecard tonight. What was a little withholding information on top of that?

Decision made, Starsky pulled the Ford over to the side of the road and turned to face his partner.

"Okay. This is how we're gonna play this. Look at me, Hutch," Starsky commanded of the shaken man at his side. "We're gonna tell them that you were kidnapped, stripped, and bound to that altar and that Anderson and Baldino were gonna kill you. That ain't no lie. It's the truth. I'm askin' you, as a personal favor to me, to leave the rest out. I take full responsibility for it. Can you do that for me, partner?"

Hutch's eyes sank shut as his full lower lip was caught between his teeth.

Starsky's heart twisted in his chest as a single silver tear seeped out of Hutch's left eye and ran down his cheek. He waited for the rest to follow that first escapee, but Hutch ruthlessly held his emotions in check. After the night they'd put in, Starsky didn't know how his partner held his sorrow back. Both his own eyes were stinging and he knew he'd be joining Hutch if his partner broke down, but somehow, Hutch held it together yet again.

Not opening his eyes, Hutch gave a defeated nod, then his head sank back against the headrest, leaving a totally upset Starsky staring at the vulnerable line of that long, tanned throat and at the two moles there. Starsky ached to lean forward and nuzzle those moles, but . . . that was never gonna happen. Not in this lifetime. Tonight had made sure of that, if nothing else.

Taking a deep breath, Starsky got hold of himself and muttered, "Thanks, partner."

Another nod, and still those eyes didn't open, like Hutch could no longer stand the sight of him. Not that anyone could really blame him, least of all Starsky, who just accepted the silent repudiation and restarted the car.

As far as he could tell, Hutch's eyes remained closed for the entire trip back to Venice Place, but he wasn't asleep; Starsky would swear to that.

"We're here, partner," Starsky announced as he pulled to a stop in front of the restaurant. He was too tired to think coherently and before he could consider the consequences, he asked, "You want me to come up for a while?"

The silence that followed was long and painful. As it stretched, Starsky realized the stupidity of what he'd just said. Like Hutch could possibly want him around after tonight . . . .

For an articulate man, Hutch was doing a lot of stammering tonight. The understandable refusal came out reluctantly, but the hesitation didn't lessen the hurt any when Hutch answered, "No, I-I-I'd like to be alone, if you don't mind."

"You sure you're gonna be all right? You want I should call Huggy?"

"No, I'll . . . be okay. I'll see you tomorrow. Bring the car back when you pick me up."

"Okay."

Without even looking back at him, Hutch fled the front seat. Starsky watched until Hutch was safely inside his door, then peeled away from the curb.

He was so tired his bones hurt, but instead of heading home, he turned on Fourth for Metro. There was no time like the present. He had some creative writing to do before he lost his nerve. That way, when Hutch came in tomorrow, the report'd be a fait accompli'. Hutch would either have to file a report that went along with his, or shop him to Dobey.

The way Starsky felt right now, he didn't give a rat's ass which way it went down. The thing he'd cherished most in his entire life had been destroyed tonight. He had nothing left to lose and even less to live for.

*~*~*

You could only try to force sleep for so long. The fourth time that Hutch woke with a scream, he gave sleeping up as a lost cause. Gulping in a sobbing breath, he fought his way clear of the sweat-drenched bedding. It was tangled around him from elbow to feet, all but hog-tying him, and after last night, he couldn't take the idea of being forcibly restrained.

Last night . . . .

He shied away from the memory, but he couldn't shake it, not with the way it had been replaying in his dreams.

Hutch could barely get his mind around it all. Even now, he could feel Anderson's fingers shoving up into his body, feel that obscene wafer the Satanist had forced into him, its sharp pointy end digging into him . . . .

His stomach lurched in revulsion at what had been done to him. Bile stinging the back of his scream-roughened throat, Hutch shot out of the bed, making for the bathroom.

But the sheet was still tangled around him. It brought his legs out from under him and he hit the floor with a painful thud. He lay convulsed with dry heaves.

Damn, damn, damn.

He couldn't decide which was worse: the cramps as his empty stomach tried to expel its lining or the chills wracking him as his sweat dried in the cold morning air. Pain, shudder, shiver, retch, over and over.

Taking deep breaths, Hutch tried to work his way through the spasms. He had to calm his body, keep those dark thoughts at bay long enough to pull himself together. He was a cop, for God's sake, not some vestal virgin . . . .

But he'd been a virgin. And now . . . now Starsky didn't even want to meet his eyes, never mind touch him. He knew that shouldn't be his major concern in all this, but the change in Starsky's attitude towards him only seemed to ram home all that he'd lost last night.

Just thinking about the horror Starsky hadn't been able to keep out of his expression made him cramp up all over again. He couldn't hold in a groan as the new spasm twisted through him.

He was gasping in its wake. Nausea, cramps and fever were all symptoms of peritonitis. He tried to tell himself that they were also the symptoms of about a million other things, including shock, but his ragged mind was having none of that. As he lay there shuddering on the carpet, he could almost feel the infection growing in him . . . .

Stop, right now.

Hutch gave himself a mental shake. Starsky had checked him out. There were no tears or rips. But, as his partner had said last night, Starsky wasn't a doctor. How was his partner supposed to know what was and wasn't acceptable after being anally violated?

Rape was such an alien concept. The department didn't even train cops to counsel victims, let alone teach them how to handle that kind of assault on a personal level.

Not that this was your typical rape. There were mitigating factors in this case that put last night into a category all its own.

Mentally sidetracked by trying to classify just what last night's events qualified as on a legal level, Hutch was almost unaware of his stomach finally unclenching, his body relaxing as it responded to all those deep breaths he forced himself to take. After a few more minutes, the cramps finally let up.

He was still shivering, but that was from lying on a cold floor.

Hutch realized that the dry heaves were probably the result of a combination of shock and too little sleep.

Glad that no one had been present to witness his breakdown, Hutch hauled himself to his feet. He was still shaky, but at least he was standing.

His first step towards the bathroom reminded him of exactly what had been done to him. His . . . anus hurt like a son of a bitch, like there were sand granules embedded in the sensitive area that were rubbing together and abrading the already abused flesh with every chance movement.

He'd been hurt worse. It was just that this hurt was in a part of his body he hardly ever thought about, a part of his body that was so intimate that only doctors had ever touched him there before—the part of him that Anderson had shoved his fingers into and left that hideous wafer in—the part of him that Starsky had been forced to fuck last night . . . the part of him whose violation made him feel less than a man. It left him shaking again, barely able to hold his emotions in check.

All he could see was that look in Starsky's face, like something precious had been sullied beyond redemption. Maybe it had. He certainly felt that way.

The reality he'd been running from all morning slammed into him like a punch to the gut. He'd been fucked last night. Fucked against his will. Another man had stuck his cock up inside him and taken him in front of an audience while he'd been tied helpless. It was every man's worse nightmare, but it was his reality now. That the man who'd done all those things to him was his partner made it all too much to handle.

On the verge of panicking again, Hutch wondered how a person lived with that kind of reality. How did you just pick up the pieces and go on with your life after something like that? Thousands of women did it every day, but standing shivering in the shattered remains of his self-respect, Hutch couldn't fathom how.

He'd never really given much thought to the effect rape had on the female victims he'd dealt with over the years. He'd seen how it hurt them physically, even understood how it messed them up mentally, but he'd never really thought about what it was like for them afterwards, after the scars faded and it was back to day-to-day life. Every now and then in the course of the case, he'd been forced to deal with the issue on a superficial level. Linda Moscelli had been in his face about it during the Farenti case, as had Slate's daughter's roommate. Their viewpoints had stirred both his and Starsky's sympathy, but it wasn't really a situation most men could truly relate to.

No man ever believed that rape could happen to him. Although he'd been injected with drugs, kidnapped, shot with bullets, beaten and stabbed, it had never once occurred to Hutch that he could be raped. Now that the unthinkable had happened, he had no reference points, no past experience at handling the problem. All he had was pain . . . and shame, more shame than he'd ever felt.

How did a person live with something like this? He was unable to see his way clear of the pain.

Trapped in that hurtful morass, he jumped as a sudden sound pierced the early morning silence. The ringing of the telephone seemed too coincidental to be anything but a cosmic response to his plight.

As he listened to the blare of the phone, knowing who it must be on the other end of the line, Hutch had his answer as to how he'd get through this—the same way he got through every other curve life threw at him—together with Starsky.

Hutch hurried to the ringing phone.

Abruptly nervous about what he could say after last night, Hutch hovered indecisively over the phone. But if Starsky had the courage to make that call, he sure as hell had to find the nerve to pick the receiver up.

His hand was trembling, his guts tightening up, but he got the receiver to his ear and managed to respond with a nearly normal, "H'lo?"

"Hutch, my man. How ya doin'?" The voice that greeted him was familiar and concerned, but it wasn't the voice he was expecting . . . the voice his shattered self-image so desperately needed to hear.

"Hug?" he asked, thrown by the surprise.

"Yeah. How's my White Knight doin'?"

Huggy's laid-back attitude told Hutch that this wasn't a business call. Huggy calling to enquire after his health out of the blue was so weird that it put him immediately on the defensive, arousing all his cop instincts, despite the fact that Huggy Bear was his closest friend after Starsky. The call was just too conveniently timed to be sheer coincidence.

"You didn't call just to ask how I'm feelin'—didjya, Hug?" he challenged.

"Actually, I did."

"And why would you do that?" Hutch knew that his demand was less than gracious, but he was barely up to civil this morning. Polite was going to have to wait in line until he was in a better state of mind.

"I got a freaky call from your partner at some ungodly hour of the a.m. asking me to call 'n check up on you first thing. So this is your check up call. You okay, man?"

"Why wouldn't I be?" Hutch stonewalled. He hated himself for being so rude, but he couldn't risk anything else. His control was so fragile that he feared he'd shatter at the first kind word.

His attitude worked. Huggy went from a concerned friend to an irritated man awoken out of a sound sleep in zero to sixty.

"I don't know," Huggy shot back. "Why don't'chya tell me what this is all about? Your partner calls here soundin' like his dog just died and now you're actin' like Dobey on a bad day. Why didn't Starsky just call you hisself?"

Hutch froze. That wasn't a question he was able to answer. He had his suspicions, of course, but, he hoped he was wrong about most of them.

Starsk was probably in the same headspace he was occupying himself—freaked out and barely functional. Starsky had the added burden of having to make sure that his partner was all right after last night's . . . activities. Since he obviously wasn't up to doing it himself right now, Starsky had commissioned Huggy to act in his place. Thoughtful, but right now Hutch needed to hear from his partner, not a stand in.

"Sorry, Hug." Hutch tried to tone his aggression down. None of this was Huggy's fault. "We had a bad night. That's all."

"Bad night, huh?" Huggy seemed instantly mollified. "So why ain't the man of steel lookin' after you hisself?"

"That's complicated, Hug," Hutch hedged.

"Uh-huh. So, do any of these here . . . complications involve broken bones, bullet holes or bleedin' wounds?"

"No. We're fine—physically." It was one word too many. The moment he uttered it, Hutch knew that he'd committed a tactical error.

"Wha's that s'posed to mean, and don't'chya even try the word nothin' on me." Huggy knew them both too well to be fooled by any evasion Hutch might try to concoct. They both knew that something extreme had to have gone down for Starsky to have delegated Hutch's care to a third party, even one as close to them as Huggy was.

"Starsky's undercover assignment went bad last night," Hutch said by way of explanation.

The tension on the other end of the line became palpable.

"That devil worship gig?" Hug asked. By nature of his position as their main source of street information, Huggy often knew more about their on-going, sensitive investigations than most of the other detectives in their division.

"Yeah," Hutch replied.

""His cover get blown?"

"Not exactly. Mine did."

"Huh?"

"I was gettin' dinner at that burger joint two blocks down from Anderson's church. Baldino musta seen me in there, 'cause on the way back to the van, someone stepped out of the woods on the side of the road behind me and knocked me out. When I woke up, I was in the Church of Satan."

"Damn. Did Dino mess you up bad? That dude is one scary operator."

"No, he didn't hurt me, just tied me up," Hutch said. "They, ah, were gonna use me as the sacrificial victim in one of their private ceremonies before Starsk came to the rescue."

Though grossly abbreviated, what he'd told Huggy was technically the truth.

Unfortunately, Hutch had forgotten whom he was speaking with. It was Huggy who had given them the low down on some of the kinkier aspects of Anderson's cult in the first place. The silence that stretched on the other end of the line told Hutch that Huggy was putting one and one together and coming up with the correct answer.

"Ahhh . . . ." It was clear that Huggy was having trouble phrasing his next question. Finally, he just spat out, "How long did those sickos have ya?"

Hutch appreciated the discretion, even as he tensed at the necessity of answering. How he responded would set a precedent as to how he was going to handle the issue. As tempting as it was to simply blow off Huggy's question and hide from the truth, Hug was a part of their team. He'd helped wean him from smack. Huggy had more than earned the truth. Gritting his teeth, Hutch confessed, "They had me about an hour too long."

"Shit," Huggy cursed. Though possibly the most street savvy person Hutch knew, Hug rarely used profanity. That he did so now was an indication of how upset he was. The pause that followed was so rife with tension. At last, Huggy made a hissing sound like a punctured balloon and gruffly offered, "I'm sorry, man, so sorry."

There was no doubt from Huggy's tone that he knew precisely what had happened while Hutch was in Anderson's clutches last night.

Hutch waited for the inevitable probe into the gory details, but it never came.

Instead, Huggy asked, "How ya holdin' up?"

"I'm here," Hutch replied, so overwhelmed with gratitude that he thought his knees might give out. He'd never been so thankful for anyone's discretion in his entire life.

"You want some company?"

The offer was genuine. Hutch could feel Huggy's concern enveloping him over the phone.

"Thanks, but . . . ."

"Yeah, I know," Huggy said softly. "The last thing ya want at a time like this is sight-seers."

There was so much raw emotion in Huggy's voice that Hutch felt confused. He sensed that there was a hell of a lot more imparted by Huggy's acknowledgement than a simple expression of sympathy. Not sure just what they were talking about right now, Hutch asked, "You do?"

"Yeah, man. The world don't always run in the straight line you think it's gonna. When it takes one of these detours, it can really mess ya up. Ya dig?"

"You, ah, been down this kinda detour yourself?" Hutch asked.

Huggy was quiet for so long that Hutch wasn't sure he was going to answer, but then he admitted, "Yeah, a time or two."

A time or two? Christ, that meant that Huggy . . . .

"Hug, I-I didn't know. I don't know what to say . . . ."

"There ain't nothin' to say, my friend," Huggy cut in before Hutch could even phrase the emotions forming in his mind into some kind of coherent statement. "It was a million years ago, part of the past. That's what you gotta make this, part of the past. It happened, you got through it—that's all that counts. The bottom line is survival. You dig?"

"Yeah, I hear you." Hutch's pitiful attempt at evasion went over just about as well as it would have with Starsky.

"Uh-huh." Huggy sounded spectacularly unimpressed. "I know you 'n the man of steel like to make like super-heroes, but this ain't somethin' you can handle alone. If ya try to keep this inside, it's gonna twist ya up. Take my word for it. If you can't talk to your partner about this, you come to me. You got that? There ain't nothin' ya can say that'll shock me, man. I wish I wasn't, but I been where you are 'n I knows the drill. So you call me when you feel up to talkin'. You hear?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Hug."

"You'd do the same for me," Huggy said.

"I sure as hell hope I never have to," Hutch replied.

"Yeah." Huggy was quiet for a moment, then asked, "You sure ya don't want me to come around?"

"No. I gotta check into the office and . . . find Starsk."

"He ain't takin' it so good, huh?"

"You could say that."

"He gonna be takin' any heat on this one?" Huggy asked.

"Huh?" Hutch didn't know if it were his stressed out condition that was to blame, but he felt as if he'd just missed a vital part of the conversation.

"I'm assumin' that the doer ain't gonna be around to chit chat about what went down. Is my man Starsky up on charges?"

Hutch started shivering again. The assumption that the perp would automatically be dead shouldn't be their best friend's first thought, but, once again, Huggy knew them both too well.

"No, Starsk's in the clear," Hutch answered. "It was a righteous shoot. Anderson was about to stab me; one of his henchmen had a loaded gun on Starsky through the whole ceremony. There was no question that deadly force was called for."

"Good." Huggy sounded satisfied. "That ties it all up neat'n'clean like. The world sure ain't gonna be missin' the likes of them."

"Yeah." Tiring of the conversation, Hutch said, "I gotta get movin' now, Hug."

"You remember—ya need me, ya call. It don't matter how late it is."

"Thanks, Hug."

"I'll see ya around, my friend. Stay strong."

"Will do," Hutch answered.

The conversation had been getting too deep, when there was only dead air in his ear, Hutch felt bereft and isolated. He stared around the sunlit apartment for a minute, not knowing what to do, or even what he should be feeling.

Normally, when the morning sun drenched the room like this, it was his favorite time of the day, but right now his apartment was too quiet. His own breathing echoed through the silence like a crank caller's. The only other sounds were a clock ticking with maddening regularity and the bathroom faucet's synchronized drip. All three seemed to be building to some type of ominous crescendo.

Hutch reached an unsteady hand for the phone.

When he got a dial tone, he put his index finger in the tiny round hole of the first digit and dialed the number his fingers knew by heart.

Ten . . . fifteen rings . . . there was no answer.

Thinking that maybe he'd misdialed in his nervousness, Hutch tried again. After thirty rings, there was still no response. Feeling those walls he'd constructed around his urge to panic begin to crumble, Hutch hung up the phone.

His entire body was shaking. He was just a heartbeat away from cracking up completely. All because Starsky wasn't there to pick up his phone.

How could Starsky not be there? Starsky had said to call him if he needed him. Surely, his partner had to have some idea as to how Hutch would be feeling this morning, how badly Hutch would need to see him . . . but, maybe that was just it. Perhaps Starsky did know and wasn't interested in being there for him. Maybe Starsky really did see him as the piece of human garbage he felt like right now.

And why wouldn't Starsky feel that way? His partner had been there, had seen what Anderson had done to him. Who wouldn't be totally disgusted by that freaky scene? Who would want to hang around with Anderson's leftovers, let alone go the places Hutch had hoped they were heading before last night? No one else had ever wanted him enough to stick it out in the past. Perhaps last night had been enough to finally drive Starsky away as well.

Hutch stood there locked in the grip of self-doubt. Then his frantic gaze fell upon the black vinyl guitar case standing in the corner, the Martin Starsky had bought him for his birthday a few years back to replace the Fender Diane Harmon had destroyed. Starsky had spent the last twelve years trying to make life better for him. There was no way his partner was just going to run out on him, even after a scene like last night.

Though it was hard to shake those shameful doubts, Hutch forced himself to think clearly. If Starsky weren't at home or here, and he wasn't at Huggy's, where else could he be?

There was only one possible answer. Work.

He had a bleary memory of Starsky saying that he'd handle the paperwork . . . that Starsky would be the one to perpetrate the lie in their report. Although Hutch was pretty sure that they'd agreed to go in together this morning, Starsky might have decided to go it alone, to make it easier on both of them. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed that that was exactly what his friend would do.

Taking a deep breath, Hutch dialed headquarters. This time the phone was answered on the fifth ring.

"Willful, homicide," a bored voice answered.

"Hi, Joe." Hutch was amazed by how normal his voice sounded. Starsky would be able to read through his front, but casual acquaintances wouldn't.

"Hey, Hutchinson, what's up?" Joe asked. "Great job you guys did last night! It's about time somebody closed that bunch down."

With everything that had happened, Hutch had lost sight of the importance of the case they'd solved. Anderson and his wackos would never hurt another kid again.

"Ah, thanks, Joe. Have you seen Starsky around?" Hutch tried not to feel stupid asking the question. It was so rare that they lost track of each other's whereabouts that Hutch couldn't even recall the last time he'd had to locate Starsky.

"He was here at eight when I got in," Willful said. "Dobey sent him home around nine, thank God."

"Huh?"

"He was in some mood. Looked like . . . I don't know. Sorta like that time we were lookin' for Tito Calendar. Strung out, like he was gonna snap any minute. That was one hell of a long undercover job he had, huh?"

Hutch's blood turned to ice. He couldn't help but wonder how much Willful and the others knew about last night's . . . events. Starsky had talked about editing their report, but Hutch couldn't quite remember if he'd talked Starsky out of the dishonest idea or not. His memories of everything after Starsky shot Anderson and Baldino were sketchy at best. He thought Starsky had said they weren't gonna talk about it, but now he wasn't so sure. All he could recall with any certainty was that horrified expression in Starsky's eyes.

Police stations were like any other organization. The only thing that spread faster than secrets were rumors. If Starsky had been honest in his written report, then it would all be common knowledge by now. Everyone from his fellow detectives to the file clerks would know what had been done to him.

On the verge of losing it, Hutch stopped himself short. If Joe'd had any idea of what went down last night, he wouldn't have been his normal self on the phone. There wouldn't have been any mystery surrounding the cause of Starsky's bad mood, let alone comment upon it. If Willful had known about . . . the rape, he would have freaked out when hearing Hutch on the phone.

"Hutch, you all right?" Willful's concerned question called Hutch back from his anxious fugue.

"Yeah, fine, Joe. Like you said, it was some case." Hutch replied. "So Starsky went home, then?"

"I guess. Last I saw of him he was asking a uniform to drop your car off for you. Didya get it all right?"

With everything else going on, Hutch had all but forgotten that he was without wheels.

"Ahh, hang on a minute." Hutch picked up the phone and reeled its cord as far as it would go from the jack. Leaning over sideways, he could just make the window that overlooked Ocean Avenue. Sure enough, his banged up black Ford was sitting out front in its usual spot. "Yeah, the car's there. Guess I'll try him at home again."

"Sounds good. See ya later, Hutchinson."

"Yeah. Thanks, Joe."

Once again, Hutch hung up the phone. He tried to sort it out in his mind. Starsky had been at work, but had apparently left hours ago. There wasn't any place else Starsky would have gone, other than home. That meant that Starsky either didn't want to or wasn't up to speaking with him at the moment. Either way, it meant that Starsky was there and ignoring his call.

Hutch couldn't deal with it. He'd felt like dirt since he'd woken up this morning. Now he felt worse than that. If Starsky wouldn't even talk to him, what the hell was he going to do? How were they going to get through this?

If only to torture himself further, Hutch tried his partner's number one more time. He let it ring fifty times before he hung up. Not even Starsky could sleep through that.

At a loss as to what to do, Hutch stared around his empty apartment. Huggy was right. He needed to talk to someone. If he stayed here in these lonely rooms, listening to that clock tick and that faucet drip, he'd end up eating his gun.

He considered calling Huggy back, but Huggy was too close to them both. He didn't want Huggy in the middle of this.

Which left . . . who?

Hutch had never had it driven home to him so sharply how few friends he had once he eliminated Starsky and Huggy. There were dozens of people they hung out with, but it was always as a matched pair. He and his partner were like some old married couple. They didn't know anybody individually anymore, only as a doubles act. And, out of all the people they did know, who could he go to with something like this? Jackson Walter's family? Kiko and his mom? One of the girls he used to date or one of their fellow cops? That idea was ludicrous.

The only other relationship that he'd maintained was Luke Huntley . . . and Luke had been in prison now for over a year and a half, doing time primarily because of his testimony.

Hutch was on the point of despair when he thought of the person he should have taken this to the minute he woke up; the one person who wouldn't be scandalized by anything he had to say. The only person he'd ever entrusted his secret to.

He didn't know this number by heart. He had to check it in his address book. Even when he had the name and number in front of him, he hesitated before dialing. It was Saturday morning; his friend wasn't going to be in the office or on the job today. Even though he'd had the home number in case of emergencies, Hutch had never used it before.

A sleepy, Southern voice picked up on the second ring. "Hullo?"

"Hi, Hank. Sorry to call you so early," Hutch said,. He still wasn't sure that he was doing the right thing. "It's Hutch—Ken Hutchinson."

"Hutch!" The genuine warmth in the older man's voice was instantly reassuring. "It's been too long. How are you?"

Instinct almost had him stonewall again, but he managed to force out an honest, "Not so good, Doc. That's, ahh . . . sorta why I'm callin'."

"Oh?" Even awakened from a sound sleep, Hank Bouchelle was good. He was instantly in professional mode, that one inquisitive syllable inviting a world of discussion, without forcing the issue.

"I, ahh, know I let you down last time, not comin' back after that last session . . . ." Hutch cut himself off when he realized he was blithering. He was too nervous to think straight. He'd only taken the coward's route once in his life. Bouchelle was the only man who could pin that label on him, if the psychiatrist were so inclined.

"We'd merely reached an impasse on that particular front, Ken," the doctor quickly assured him in that calming voice that made him so good at his job. "What you did or didn't choose to do in your personal life would hardly affect our friendship."

Hutch could remember that same voice from a year in the past, telling him how he was wasting both their time. There was no point in continuing their sessions if Hutch were determined to wallow in the agony of unrequited love. He either had to tell Starsky how he felt about him or find someone else to focus his romantic interests on . . . .

"I should have returned your phone calls," Hutch said, wondering why he'd thought calling Bouchelle would help. Apparently, there wasn't a single relationship he had that didn't come with a truckload of emotional baggage. He'd known from the start that he never should have chosen a friend for his shrink, but there hadn't been anyone else he could trust with his secret. So, in typical Hutchinson style, he'd fucked up yet another relationship. The guilt he felt for avoiding his friend while avoiding his shrink was almost more than he could handle at the moment. Hank Bouchelle was a good, decent man. He'd deserved better than that.

"And I shouldn't have played hard ball that last time we met," Hank said. "We both made some mistakes. Can we take the apologies as read?" Hank seemed willing to let bygones be bygones.

"You don't have anything to apologize for, Hank. I shoulda called . . . ."

"You're doing it now. Let's not sweat the small stuff, Ken. All right?"

"Okay . . . thanks," Hutch said when it became clear he wasn't going to get off the hook that way. He'd called Hank to talk; Hank was willing to listen. He was going to have to go through with this.

"So, what's up with you, my friend?" Hank asked.

Hutch hadn't a clue as to how to even approach the issue. After a long silence, he said, "Something happened at work that I need to talk about."

"Is it as bad as the last time the job brought you to my door with that poor Terry Nash fellow?" Hank asked.

Hutch swallowed. "It's worse, Doc. This is . . . personal . . . . As bad as it gets . . . ."

"In that case, I think you better get over here. I don't have any plans today, so don't even try any evasion tactics. You remember where the house is?"

"Yeah, on that hill overlooking the water."

"Good. I'll see you in a short while, then."

Though the idea of probing at all this stuff made him even more anxious, Hutch knew he'd go crazy if he didn't sort this through with an objective outsider. So, he forced himself to answer, "Yeah, I'll be there. Thank you, Hank. Thanks a lot."

"You're welcome. I'll see you soon. Drive safe."

An hour later, Hutch found himself climbing the white painted wooden staircase to the porch of a compact beach house not too far from where the assassin/professor Gage had kept a house. Bouchelle's place was a lot less ornate than Gage's. The simple wood building was nestled amidst a tangle of naturally occurring bushes and tall grasses that would have driven most homeowners insane. The psychiatrist had made no attempt to tame his surroundings to his tastes. Hutch didn't know how Hank kept the raccoons and other wildlife out of the house with the landscape coming right up to his front door, but it sure was pretty. Bouchelle's home blended in with the cliffside scenery, rather than standing out from it like most of these beach houses did.

Hutch had always loved the place and today its wild beauty touched him on a level he wouldn't have dreamed possible this morning. Instead of knocking on the door immediately, Hutch found himself crossing to where the ocean view was best, in the corner beside a couple of beat up wooden lawn chairs. For a long moment, he just stood at the far end of the porch, staring off past the side of the house to the turbulent sea out behind it.

The wind was high today and the white-capped breakers were roaring in on the rocky coast a hundred or so feet below in furious, foamy plumes. He took a deep breath of the cold, briny air, holding it in his lungs for a long moment as the wind battered his face and whipped his longish hair around his head. He could hear the gulls and terns crying down below, but drowning out that and everything else was the ever-present thunder of the rushing tide.

Even though his life was still as screwed up as it had been when he pulled into the weedy driveway, Hutch felt better inside after watching the water for a few minutes with the warm sun beating down on him.

When he turned around to go in, he jumped to see Hank Bouchelle sitting perched on the porch fence behind him.

His friend hadn't changed that much in the time they'd been apart. Big and burly, Hank Bouchelle still looked like he belonged more at home on a horse with a cowboy hat on his head than in his tasteful office in the big city. At least today he wasn't wearing the tweed jacket and formal wear he wore when seeing his patients. Bouchelle actually looked comfortable for once. In his sneakers, loose white cotton pants, blue denim shirt and gray sweatshirt jacket, Hank might be mistaken for any other beach bum.

"It never changes, does it?" Hutch said by way of greeting, his words encompassing more than the spectacular view below.

His double meaning wasn't wasted on his companion. Hank's craggy face split into laugh lines as the psychiatrist chuckled and said, "Cryptic lines are supposed to be my forte. It's damn good to see you again, Ken."

Hutch accepted the out-stretched hand, his nervousness melting under the force of Hank's amiable charm. "You, too, Hank."

The light, hazel eyes scoured Hutch's face. "You look like hell. What's been going on with you?"

And as easy as that, they'd gone from small talk to therapy. It was one of the things Hutch loved and hated most about Hank. Bouchelle worked psychiatry the way Starsky and he worked the streets. The man never beat around the bush, never let his patients waste their time bull-shitting. It was cut to the chase, down to business and on with life. Hutch only wished they could get to the on-with-life part without the gut-wrenching soul-searching that usually preceded it. But that was what he was here for—to talk this out and see if he could find his way back to normality again. Right now, normal was feeling about as far away and out of sight as the other side of that ocean down there.

Unable to find a tactful way of leading into the events that had brought him here this morning, Hutch found himself answering sharply, "Well, let's see. Thursday night I seduced my strung-out partner and last night he was forced to rape me in a Black Mass while undercover. It's been a hell'uv'a week, Hank."

There was a part of himself that took a sadistic glee in trying to shock this imperturbable man, but, as usual, he failed dismally. The only reaction that showed in Hank's wide, chiseled face was a little twitching around the eyebrows, as though Hutch had really shocked him for once. But Bouchelle didn't loose his cool. For all the outer reaction he gave, Hank might as well have been one of the wind-carved rocks below. The waves would crash over him eternally, but it would take almost that long to alter him in any perceivable manner. Hutch had never met anyone so together, and it wasn't just an act to impress his patients. Hutch had known the man for over fifteen years now; he was literally unshakable.

"I see. I'm glad you came to see me. Do you want to go inside and discuss this or would you prefer to talk out here?" Hank asked.

Hutch stared out over the tortured water. It was hardly a day to be outside. The wind was cold, the sun's glare punishing, but it was sort of cleansing and he didn't want to be locked away from it. Besides, inside, he'd be forced to look at Hank directly, and he wasn't sure he was up to it. His answer bordered on the truculent. "Out here is fine."

"Can I get you anything before we start?" Bouchelle asked.

"Peace of mind might be nice. Think you can give me that, Doc?" Hutch sneered. He must have been crazy to come all the way out here. This wasn't going to work. What could Hank possibly do to make any of this more bearable?

His attitude bounced off Hank as the waves did on those rocks below. Though he wasn't outwardly perturbed by Hutch's sarcasm, Bouchelle wasn't entirely unmoved by it. Hank wasn't ungiving like the rocks. Instead of allowing the angry tide to recede in its senseless pattern of attack and withdraw, Bouchelle seemed to take a little of Hutch's pain into himself when he gently pointed out, "You know I can't give you peace of mind, Ken. No one can do that. But I can help you try to find it for yourself, if you want to give it a shot. Since you're here, talking to me, I think you do, so let's just get to it, shall we? The last time we met, you were convinced that revealing your feelings for your partner would destroy your relationship. How do you feel about the alteration of your friendship from a purely platonic one?"

Answering one question led to twenty more. Before he knew it, Hank had him sorting through the morass of confusion and fear surrounding Thursday night's seduction.

Finally, Hank summarized the whole situation with, "So, what you're saying is that your partner was the first one to reveal his sexual feelings, that Starsky seemed to enjoy what you shared Thursday night and that Starsky did, in fact, leave an encouraging note hinting that he was interested in pursuing a sexual relationship with you. I'm not understanding how any of this jives with your insistence that you took unfair advantage of him."

"He was strung out with tension, vulnerable. I misused his trust . . . ."

"Did you force yourself upon him?" Hank demanded in a harsh tone.

"Of course not!" Hutch said, meeting Hank's evaluating eyes, furious at the very suggestion. Physically, he was backed into the corner of the porch, with Hank blocking the way to freedom on one side and a hundred foot drop or so on the other side. Emotionally, he felt the same.

"Did you do anything to purposefully arouse him sexually?"

"No!" Hutch answered, trembling at the idea that this man who'd known him for fifteen years would think he'd take advantage of his best friend that way.

"Then how did you misuse him? He turned to you in need and you met his need with compassion. Would it have been better for either of you if you had ignored his need or rejected him outright?"

Hutch thought back to that night, to how close Starsky had been walking the edge. "If I'd turned him down or made a big fuss of it . . . it might have gotten him killed. He needed someone . . . but I took advantage of that."

"You gave him something that he needed. That you needed it as well in no way diminished your gift. Do you think he would have felt half as good afterwards if you hadn't enjoyed it, if it was something you hated and suffered through just to make him feel better? If your positions had been reversed, would you want him to have sex with you just to humor you?"

Hutch's chin snapped up so fast that the angry motion almost hurt. "No, of course, I wouldn't!"

"Then grant him the same privilege. He's not a child, Hutch. He's a grown man. From the one time I met him and from everything you've told me about him, it's clear he knows his own mind. His need initiated the alteration in the nature of your relationship. Even though it signified a tremendous change in his lifestyle and self-image, he was mature enough to take responsibility for his action and handle it in an adult manner the next morning. He could have left you without a word or even 'freaked out'. But he didn't do that. He didn't blame you. To the contrary, he went out of his way to reassure you the next morning and thank you. If he doesn't see your response as a misuse of his trust, then why do you persist in seeing it that way?"

Hutch watched a sandpiper scuttle along the angry water's edge on the rocky sand far below. Finally, he said, "I guess I just wanted it so long that I couldn't believe it could be that easy, that I could actually have it without losing everything."

"You don't think you deserve to be happy?" Hank asked what Hutch always considered to be the typical shrink question.

Hutch's lack of patience with that approach made him respond testily, "Not at the cost of our relationship."

"And what if that change in your relationship was something that your partner needed as well and just never recognized till that night? As you've said, he had a very traditional upbringing. Isn't it possible that it might take something like that to bring the possibility to his conscious attention?"

"I guess, only . . . everything's ruined now, Hank. Starsky can't even look at me anymore . . . ." To his horror, he felt himself begin to shake as the tears he'd successfully kept at bay welled up in his stinging eyes. There was no mastering them this time. The grief claimed him as it hadn't in years, not since Gillian died.

Hutch didn't know how long he stood there with his head bowed, facing the sea, with the icy wind drying the hot tears on his face almost as soon as they fell. All he knew was that it felt good to just let it all go. A strong hand squeezed his shoulder, and then patted the back of his black leather jacket until he'd gotten control of himself again.

"Do you feel up to telling me about last night?" Hank asked softly after Hutch used a wad of tissues the psychiatrist handed him to dry his eyes and blow his nose.

Hutch didn't feel up to thinking about last night, let alone talking about it, but that wasn't going to get him through this. He looked up into Hank's worried, shadowed face, reading nothing but compassion and empathy there.

The fact that he had to look up revealed how shaken he was. Though he didn't recall making the move, he was sitting on the wide arm of one of the heavy redwood deck chairs, with his arms wrapped tight around his middle. Hutch forced himself to unfold his arms and take a few deep breaths.

When he felt like he could talk without his voice catching, he nodded and turned his gaze back towards the sea. In the tone he'd use to make a verbal report to Dobey, Hutch detailed the events of the previous night. For once, Bouchelle didn't interrupt him.

Hank really didn't have to ask. Hutch had started his narrative almost as a formal dissertation, but now that he was at its end, his voice was hoarse and raspy, almost crying again.

"I've been trying to get in contact with Starsky all morning, but he's not answering his phone. I-I don't know what I'm gonna do if he won't . . . if he doesn't want me around anymore . . . ."

When the silence behind him stretched much longer than was normal, Hutch turned back to face Bouchelle. Although it had been over a year since he'd quit coming, he was used to Hank just observing him during these kinds of sessions. To find Hanks' back turned to him was something of a surprise, but Hank was looking out over the overgrown front yard, the same way Hutch had been staring out to sea.

"Doc?" Hutch said nervously.

Hank started and turned around immediately. "I'm sorry, Ken. I . . . It's not always easy to remain objective when it's a friend you're dealing with."

Bouchelle's face was no longer so inscrutable. There were fault lines to his calm. He looked green, like he was trying hard not to be sick.

Although Hank had offered the words in the form of an apology, Hutch was deeply touched by his empathy. "I guess it's not your everyday kinda couch conversation, huh?"

"No, thank God. You've been through an appalling trauma that would have destroyed most men, Hutch." Hank seemed to be speaking as a friend at the moment, "You should be proud of your perseverance."

"I don't feel proud, Doc. I feel . . . dirty . . . and ashamed. Even if Starsk did want to see me, I don't know if I could look him in the eye . . . ."

He couldn't even hold Hank's gentle hazel gaze.

Hank's voice interrupted him as he sought the solace of the sea. "Hutch!"

"Yeah?" Hutch forced his eyes back, braced for anything.

Pure steel met his uncertainty. After a moment of staring down at him, Bouchelle moved to the chair beside Hutch's and sat down in its seat, so that their gazes were level.

Hutch hadn't even been aware that their positions were bothering him, but the change made him feel immediately better.

"None of this is your fault," Hank said in his best shrink voice. "It could have happened to anyone. Your partner, me, any man. You know that—don't you?"

"It doesn't make it any easier . . . ." Hutch whispered.

"Why don't we talk a little about how you feel about your partner right now. Do you hate him? Are you angry at him?"

"What?" Hutch gasped as if he'd been doused with ice water.

"There are some who would blame their partner in such a situation . . . ."

"Starsky was just as forced as I was," Hutch snapped, unable to believe how protective and enraged he felt all of a sudden. "He did everything he could to get me through it okay."

"But he didn't get you out of it. He still did it . . . ."

"It was my choice!" Hutch found himself shouting. "I made the decision. He just followed through."

"Your choice?" Hank asked.

"When he first walked in and saw me there, he was ready to take them on. One against nine. He had no back up. Hell, he wasn't even armed. They would have killed us both. We both knew it was a no win situation, but he gave me the chance to end it fast . . . ."

"And you think he holds that choice against you?"

"What?" Hutch froze in his chair, sensing a trap. But he was unable to see it clearly.

"Do you think your partner is holding what happened against you? Do you think that Starsky is blaming you for being taken hostage, for choosing the course that gave you both some hope of survival, even though it entailed great suffering on your part? Does that seem at all something that the man you've called your best friend for the last fifteen years would do?" Bouchelle asked in a gentle, reasonable tone.

"He won't answer his phone . . . ."

"Hutch, you are barely twelve hours out of this trauma. Isn't it possible that your friend might be needing some recovery time himself? You described at great length how over-stressed your partner was because of this long-term undercover assignment. Do you think he's seeing things any more clearly than you at the moment?"

"You didn't see his face, Doc. He . . .he was so disgusted he couldn't even meet my eyes," Hutch said, before voicing his deepest fear. "It's like . . . what they forced him to do ruined me for him . . . ."

"You were both under a great deal of stress at that moment, Ken. Is it really wise to allow something so fleeting as an expression to color your entire view of the situation? Wouldn't it be better to wait and speak to your partner before deciding how he feels?"

Hutch dragged in a lungful of the icy air. He wished his mind were clear, but his emotions had left him feeling more like the breaker-battered shore.

Part of him knew he could never make an outsider understand what was between Starsky and him, that it was useless to even try. But he had to give it a shot, because if he didn't get his head together, this situation wasn't going to get any better, for either Starsky or himself.

"You don't understand. Starsk and me . . . We've always had this connection. Almost from the first time we met, we understood each other. It's like . . . I know how he feels under his skin. He can fool everyone else, but never me . . . ."

"And this . . . emotional radar you have on each other can never be wrong? You've never misjudged what he's feeling? Your own emotions have never clouded your perceptions?"

Hutch recalled the Kira debacle. He'd never read Starsky that wrong in his entire life.

As if sensing his sudden uncertainty, Bouchelle said, "Expressions can be very misleading, Hutch. No matter how well you know a person, you can never really tell what they're thinking. You can make a guess, but that's about it."

"Hank, it doesn't take much brains to know what anyone'd be thinking after . . . what we went through last night."

"Oh?"

"Don't give me that 'oh' crap. You know . . . ."

Hank cut into his tirade calmly. "Shall I tell you a story about how easy it is to misinterpret a friend's expression? You play a major role in this tale, by the way."

Intrigued in spite of himself, Hutch dropped the attitude. "I'm listening."

"The day we became real friends would be a perfect example of a misinterpretation of expression," Bouchelle said, as if Hutch were immediately going to know what he was talking about.

Hutch searched his memory, but could find nothing the least bit controversial in their first meeting. "You mean when we talked after the Denton case?"

Bouchelle's testimony had been instrumental in putting that psycho behind bars where he belonged, instead of in the mental hospital Denton's lawyer was aiming at with the insanity plea he'd copped.

Hank's craggy face gentled, something almost self-deprecatory entering his attitude as he shook his head. "No, that night we met again about eight months later. I was in a bar I had no business frequenting, working out some personal issues in far too public a forum."

"You mean the raid on the Goldenrod?" Hutch finally remembered.

"Yes, the Goldenrod." Hank bit his lower lip, and then stared out over the ocean for a moment before meeting Hutch's gaze again. "I was mortified when the cops came crashing through the door. I knew there was no point in running . . . I'd seen what happened to those who tried to escape. So I just sat there and waited to see how much my stupidity was going to cost me. When you laid your hand on my shoulder and said 'Come along with me, sir.' in that official voice of yours, and I looked up and realized the arresting cop was someone I knew, I saw my entire career go down the tubes. You looked so perfect in your uniform, so cool and removed from everything around you, like some untouchable Aryan storm trooper. In my fear, I assigned certain attitudes to you, based on what I thought your expression was telling me. I thought you were disgusted at finding someone you knew in that gay bar. When you put the cuffs on me and marched me out, I thought you were going to beat the tar out of me like some of the other cops were doing to the other patrons."

Hutch shifted against the chair's uncomfortably cold wooden slats and pushed the windblown hair out of his eyes again. "That was the first time I was ever ashamed to wear my badge."

From the start, he'd known that the raid on the gay bar was total harassment. There were more drugs being dealt at the go-go club down the block. He'd told his sergeant that, but the brass didn't want to hear it.

Before Lionel Rieger's death, that raid had been the closest Hutch had come to turning in his badge. Sometimes, even after all these years, he still had nightmares about his partner at the time bringing his billy club down across the face of a petite, blond transvestite. Bouchelle's storm trooper comment had been apt. They'd been blood drunk monsters that night. Hutch had spent the night running interference between the worst offenders and their would-be victims. He'd called for more ambulances after that raid than he had in his entire career.

"When we got outside," Hank said, "and you took the cuffs off me and told me to go home in that soft voice of yours, I swear to God, I thought you were going to shoot me in the back. I could tell from your face that you were suppressing so much rage . . . and I thought it was directed at me."

Hutch stiffened in shock. "You thought I'd . . . ."

As he remembered the bloodbath he'd escorted Hank out of, he realized Bouchelle had a point. He'd been afraid himself that a couple of the patrons weren't going to make it alive to the paddy wagon.

"Remember, I'd only met you a couple of times before that and . . . I was going through a difficult period back then. I could barely accept who I was. It seemed impossible to me that someone as . . . upstanding as yourself wouldn't despise me. It took every ounce of courage I had to turn my back on you and walk to my car. None of that was your doing, Ken; it was all me. You were trying to help me. Probably anybody else in the same situation would have seen that you were a decent man in a bad position trying to do the right thing, but my fear colored my entire perception of the event."

"You never let on. You were cool as a cucumber," Hutch admired. He remembered how in that chaos of noise, violence and panic, Bouchelle had sat there at his table, calmly sipping his drink while the world exploded around him. That quiet dignity was what had spurred Hutch to break his resolve to remain on the periphery of the events that night. He'd broken the letter of the law for the first time in his career when he released Bouchelle outside the club, and, had there been a way he could have done it, Hutch would have done the same with each of the other suspects they'd rounded up—or hospitalized—that night.

"Like I said, looks can be deceiving," Hank pointedly reminded him with an arch of his brow.

"Touché." Hutch forced a small smile, then quickly added, "But the situations aren't comparable . . . ."

"You're right. By choice, I was in a place most respectable people wouldn't be caught dead in. You were a bound hostage last night," Bouchelle corrected.

"You're twisting things around again . . . ."

"I'm merely giving you an outside viewpoint."

"Outside viewpoints don't count. All that matters to me right now is Starsky. You didn't see his face, Hank," Hutch said. "He . . . ."

"He'd just been forced to brutalize his closest friend. They forced him to do things to you that he'd never do to anyone under normal circumstances. Hutch, you described at great length how over-stressed your partner was because of this long-term undercover assignment. Do you think he's seeing things any more clearly than you at the moment? Think about it, man. This is hard for you, and you are incontestably the victim in this situation. How do you think he must be feeling after being forced to do those horrible things to you? Do you think it is you he despises right now? Could it not, in fact, be himself he hates and blames? If your situations were reversed, how would you be feeling about yourself right now? Would you think your partner would even want to see you after something like that?"

Hutch was glad he was sitting down. He felt as if his legs had just been chopped out from under him. Stunned, he listened to Hank's totally logical evaluations, unable to believe he hadn't thought about those things himself.

Of course, Starsky was feeling guilty. What man wouldn't after what went down last night? How could he have failed to see this himself?

"I . . . you're right, Hank. He must feel like shit. How could I have not seen . . . ?"

"It isn't like you didn't have your own problems to deal with, Hutch," Bouchelle reminded him softly. "You've got a lot you have to work through . . . ."

Hutch had stopped listening and was up on his feet. "I've gotta go see him. I have to . . . ."

"You have to sit down and finish what you started. You're going to be no good to anyone until you've sorted yourself out."

"You don't understand . . . ."

"I understand fully. Come on inside. I'm going to make us some lunch. We'll talk some more. You can't help him until you've helped yourself."

Hutch was ready to dispute the appraisal. Only, deep down, he knew Hank was right. If he was too screwed up to understand how bad Starsky must have been feeling about himself after last night, how could he possibly hope to be clear enough to lead them through this situation? Starsky had been at his breaking point Thursday night. God only knew what emotional state his partner was in today. Hutch knew he would have to be strong for them both, but right now he just didn't have it in him. Maybe if he sat here a while and talked to Hank, the rest might become less cloudy.

"I . . . . "

"Come on inside, Ken," Hank urged him, taking his arm.

With one last look at the roiling face of the sea, Hutch allowed himself to be led into the shelter of the beach house.

*~*~*

Chapter Four

Seven hours later, Hutch felt physically improved, if nothing else. Two meals and a five-hour nap on Hank's couch had done wonders for him. After he'd forced down a lunch of some hot tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, Hank had let him talk himself out. He didn't remember nodding off, but the deep, dreamless sleep he'd achieved seemed to be just what his body needed. He'd awakened confused, but energized, to the delectable aroma of a nearly cooked pot roast.

As he drove back to the city, Hutch considered how nothing had really changed, but somehow, just talking everything out with Hank had unburdened him immensely. Bouchelle was right. His problems were far from over, but at least he felt like he could function again. He was still nervous about seeing Starsky, but it was nothing like this morning's crippling fear.

But before he faced that challenge, there was one thing he had to take care of first.

Headquarters was hopping when he walked through the double doors. There were at least three phones ringing off the hook. Bayliss and Randall each had a suspect sitting by their desk. Minnie had the phone propped between her shoulder and ear, while both hands flew over the Selectrix in front of her in a dazzling burst of sound and motion. The usual flow of clerical staff and uniformed officers in and out added a dizzying air of busyness to offset the aural barrage of phones and voices. All in all, it was a typical Saturday night.

Hutch paused inside the doors to drink in the normality of the hectic scene.

"Hey, there, Hutch! How's it hanging?" Randall greeted when he noticed him.

After stepping aside to allow a uniformed officer to escort Randall's prisoner away, Hutch looked over at the muscular black detective and had to smile. Randall was the best of the new crop of recently promoted detectives. Normally, he came across as a fairly dangerous dude, but his huge body looked totally absurd when he hunched over the manual typewriter at his desk to laboriously finger pick his way through a report. Positioned as he was next to Minnie of the lightning fingers, his dearth of typing skills was more accentuated than it might have been had he been seated on the other side of the room, say next to Starsky, who had a way of making even Hutch's own inadequate typing skills look polished.

Hutch forced a smile and said, "I'm hangin' in there. How 'bout you?"

"Been better," Randall replied with a lugubrious sigh and ran a hand through his full Afro. "Thought you were out on leave today?"

"I am. There's just one or two things I need to clear up," Hutch answered, trying to keep things light.

"Man, that is dedicated." Randall shook his head, his amazement obvious.

"No, that's called not havin' the sense to come in outta the rain," Minnie's voice joined in as she replaced the phone's receiver on its hook. "You do not want these boys for your role model, Joel. Take my word for it. Hutch, what are you doin' here?"

Her exasperated demand was just so blessedly normal that he had to smile at her bespectacled face.

"I missed seein' your sweet face, Minnie. Which is looking especially fine tonight, I must say," Hutch said.

"Don't you be gettin' fresh with me!" Minnie warned.

"You let Starsky sweet talk you all the time," Hutch reminded her, needing this interaction. Just being here in the middle of the squad room, partaking in the regular repartee made last night seem a million miles away. He knew it was only a temporary reprieve, but he grabbed it like a lifeline.

"Yeah, well . . . that trashy boy's a law onto himself and don't be givin' me those baby blues. I got too much of my own work to do here without worryin' 'bout yours as well . . . ."

"I wasn't . . . ." Hutch began to protest.

"No, of course, you weren't," Minnie sassed, appearing totally unappeased. "What are you doin' here, anyway? You should be home. You're white as a ghost, except for those pink cheeks. You got a fever, Hutch?"

Confused for a moment, he belatedly remembered the windburn he'd gotten on Hank's porch this morning. "Ah, no, it's windburn."

Her dark eyes studied his face. Gentleness overcoming her streetwise features, Minnie said, "Well, don't be sayin' I never done nothin' for you. Just leave whatever it is on top of my inbox and I'll get it back to you by mornin'," she promised.

"Leave what?" Hutch asked, totally distracted now.

"Whatever you were trying to sweet talk me into typin' for you. And you can save that butter-won't-melt-in-my-mouth look. I know a snow job when I hear one," Minnie said.

"Minnie, honestly, I don't have anything for you to type," Hutch swore.

"Then what's with the jive talkin'?" she demanded.

"No jive, honey. Just the truth. You're lookin' fine this evening," Hutch said.

The way her bony face lit up at his throwaway compliment made him feel more than a little guilty.

"Yeah, well . . . ." she seemed totally flustered by the small kindness.

"Hey, Minnie?" Randall called from beside her, his dark, boyish features nearly bursting with amusement.

"Yeah?" she answered.

"That's a really lovely ring you've got there. Do you think you could find the time to . . . ?" Randall could barely get his question out, he was laughing so hard.

"Don't even try it!" Minnie snapped with her usual ire. "You gotta pay your dues before you can impose on Minnie and, boy, you ain't come near to that point yet!" Minnie was in rare form tonight. "Boy, you gotta learn some style. You don't just come out 'n ask someone to do your work for ya. Ya gotta make them wanta . . . ."

Hutch was smiling as he hurried past the battlefield to the safety of his own desk. His good humor faded abruptly when his gaze fell upon the whiteout-pocked carbon of last night's report sitting on top of his inbox. The note paper-clipped to it was easily identified as Starsky's hurried scrawl, which made his usual illegible handwriting look like calligraphy by comparison.

The note was brief and came straight to the point—"Hutch, Captain Dobey's got my original. Your statement's below mine, waiting for your signature."

The note was signed only "S".

Hutch took a few minutes to read the documents before him. In his own report, Starsky had detailed every facet of yesterday's chauffer job, listing all the names and addresses of the places Anderson had visited throughout the business day. Starsky's entrance into the Church of Satan was equally well documented. What followed after the moment Starsky stepped into the ceremonial chamber and found his partner held hostage there was perhaps the most brilliant report writing Hutch had ever seen. Starsky related the chanting and the non-sexual elements of the ceremony in which the participants mocked the Christian ritual with such vivid detail that the reader would never realize that a major portion of the events had been severely edited.

What Starsky had done with Hutch's own report was worthy of a Pulitzer. Hutch's statement mainly outlined the arrival of the satanic congregation, and then told how Hutch had been taken hostage by Baldino. Starsky never once mentioned how his clothes had been removed or how he'd been tied to the altar. It just said that he'd been tied up and witnessed the events. The report went on to give an outsider's view of the ceremony Starsky had related in his own version. Starsky made it sound like Hutch was just a trussed up witness to the event, rather than the main attraction. The astounding thing was that Starsky didn't tell a single lie. He just omitted mentioning the fact that he'd been forced to sodomize his partner before an audience.

When he finished reading, Hutch sat staring at the pages, torn apart inside.

Starsk had told no lies, but . . . a lie of omission was just as damning as an actual prevarication. Not telling what they'd been forced to do was the same as not mentioning seeing your partner plant a gun on an unarmed suspect's dead body after a shooting.

And yet . . . Starsky was right. What purpose would be served by telling all? The perps were dead. There'd be a few hearings, but there wasn't any case to further.

The opposing viewpoints chased themselves around in his head in an endless debate. Neither option felt right. Hutch didn't want this getting around anymore than Starsky did, but lying on a report went totally against his grain, just as it had when Dolan had asked him to verify that the casualties at the Goldenrod had been the result of the police defending themselves, instead of the outright brutality it had been.

And once again Hutch found himself facing down that familiar foe—the wall of silence. Tell the truth or go with the flow and keep your mouth shut. It was usually the first crisis of conscience every rookie ran up against. Did you shop your partner when you saw him take that graft or did you look the other way like everyone told you to and do your best to keep your own nose clean?

Hutch had been lucky throughout the years. Most of his former partners had been pretty straight-laced; if they'd done anything illegal, they'd been damn careful to keep it out of his sight. His brief stint with Dolan had been the only time he'd ever been put to the test that way. In that situation, Hutch had done what everyone had told him was the right thing. He'd signed the damned report and put in his transfer request the very next day. Then he'd spent the next two months on Bouchelle's couch twice a week, trying to live with his decision.

Was he going to put himself through that all over again?

The situations weren't the same. Hutch recognized that fact. They weren't trying to hide any impropriety or criminal actions. They were just trying to maintain the respect of their peers, which would be lost if he told the truth.

Normally, Hutch would take this type of moral dilemma to his partner's door. For all his bad boy image, David Michael Starsky was the most honest, straight arrow Hutch had ever met. Once he'd been partnered with Starsky, the problems he'd had with his former partners were a thing of the past. He didn't have to worry about payoffs, police brutality, or wrongful shootings with Starsky. His partner just seemed to know what the right thing to do was—and did it. So, if Starsky could make this decision and take full responsibility for the omission, who was Hutch to say that it wasn't the correct course?

It wasn't even the first time Starsky had done this. When Forrest had hooked him on horse, Starsky had moved heaven and earth to keep his partner's heroin addiction out of the official report. He hadn't made a big stink about that, then. In fact, he'd been guiltily relieved that Starsky had protected him that way and that he'd only learned about it after the fact.

But this was different. It wasn't after the fact. He wasn't incapacitated in some hidden locale while his friends decided what was best for him and did it. This time he was being called upon to actively conceal the truth. If he put his signature on that annotated report, he would be part of an official conspiracy. He hadn't even been able to conceal the $28,000 he'd won at the Vegas craps tables in his report on the Mitchell case. How was he ever going to hide something this big?

Hutch sat there agonizing over his choices for nearly an hour. Finally, he took both reports to Dobey's door. A last deep breath, a single knock, and he was committed.

"Yeah?" came the captain's unwelcoming rumble from within.

Hutch cracked the door open and asked, "You got a minute, Cap'?"

Dobey sat at his desk, lit by an island of light from his desk lamp in the darkening room. In his rolled up shirt sleeves and thick five o'clock shadow, Dobey looked like he'd been working longer than the thirteen hours he'd been here.

"What are you doing here, Hutchinson? You're supposed to be out on leave." Dobey stared at him a moment, then ordered, "Well, come in already. Don't just stand there."

Closing the door firmly behind him, Hutch entered his superior's office and took one of the familiar chairs in front of Dobey's desk. For the briefest instant, he wondered if Starsky had told Dobey, but their captain's irritated scowl made it clear that the man wasn't privy to the truth about last night.

"So what are you doin' here when I'm payin' you to be home recuperatin'?" Dobey demanded, dividing his attention between a stack of paperwork thicker than the phone book and his detective.

"I, ahh . . . need to talk to you about something."

"So talk," Dobey said, his gaze fixed on a piece of paper with more whiteouts than even Starsky managed.

Hutch gathered his flailing courage around him and continued with, "I need to talk to you about our report on last night."

"Yeah?" the captain's bored voice encouraged him as he signed the scarred sheet before him. "What about it?"

"We, ahhh . . . left somethin' out that . . . ."

Dobey's head snapped immediately up. Slowly, very deliberately, the captain lowered his pen to his desk. Dobey cleared his throat in that nervous way he had. His face going very still and serious, he asked, "This something you're talkin' about, it wouldn't have to do with the shootings—would it?"

"Huh?" Hutch was confused by the near palpable dread emanating from his superior officer.

"You tellin' me that the shootings weren't righteous?"

Understanding Dobey's concerns, Hutch opened his mouth to answer, and hesitated as the image of Starsky shooting the knifed Baldino flashed through his mind.

"Hutch?"

"I wasn't talking about the shootings. Deadly force was called for. Starsk had to take all of them on. It was nine to one. He lost it at the end a bit, but even there, the kill was righteous," Hutch admitted.

"Baldino?" Dobey guessed.

"How'd you know?"

"The bodies were out of there when I arrived, but I saw the report. A knife in the chest and a bullet through the forehead. It seemed like overkill," Dobey said.

Hutch met Dobey's gaze. "Baldino was down, but he still had a dagger on him. Two, if you count the one in his chest. If Starsky hadn't shot them, we might not be here."

Even though Hutch knew that Baldino had been no threat when Starsky killed him, Starsky had still followed regulations. The suspect was armed and dangerous. Therefore, deadly force was merited.

Dobey seemed mollified. "Thank God. So, if not the shooting, then what exactly did you leave out of your report that's eatin' at your conscience now?"

Those dark eyes bore into him, waiting.

"First, can I say that the . . . omission wasn't Starsky's fault. He-he was trying to protect me . . . ." Hutch floundered.

"He was trying to protect you by lyin' on his official statement?" Dobey challenged him.

"He didn't lie," Hutch snapped. "He just . . . failed to mention something."

"Cut to the chase, Hutchinson. What are we talking about here?"

Hutch tried, but he didn't have it in him to just spit it out. He could tell Hank, whom he saw so infrequently, the full details, but to vividly outline what had been done to him with someone he worked with on a daily basis was beyond him. So he tried a roundabout explanation. "Do you remember the ceremony we taped on Wednesday night?"

Their captain was a deeply religious man, a good Baptist. Dobey shifted uncomfortably in his chair. A guarded expression coming over his joweled features. He nodded. "Vividly."

"After Baldino captured me, they took my clothes and tied me to that altar." Hutch looked down at his scuffed brown cowboy boots. "I was an unwilling participant in the same kind of ceremony we taped Wednesday night."

"You mean Anderson and Baldino . . . ." Dobey stammered, his horrified shock coming through in his gruff tone.

Still not meeting Dobey's gaze, Hutch shook his head. "No. It was just like Wednesday. Starsky was forced to . . . ."

"Oh my God . . . ." Dobey whispered.

"He didn't have any choice, Captain. He didn't dare make a play. It was nine-to-one, and we didn't know how many of them were armed. If he'd left me there to go call backup . . . Anderson would've taken his place before he got back . . . ." Hutch banked down his rising panic with a deep breath. That hadn't happened. It could have, but Starsky had spared him that.

"Are you . . . ?"

Reading Dobey's almost fatherly concern in his pained gaze, Hutch answered the question his captain hadn't been able to voice. "I'm . . . dealing with it." Just to set the record straight, he preempted the next inevitable question. "I wasn't hurt physically."

Dobey seemed to appreciate his stonewalling. Hutch could only imagine how his captain was feeling, how he would feel if he'd sent two of his men into a situation like that.

"Do you need to . . . talk to someone? You know the Force has . . . ."

Hutch interrupted his awkward offer. "I spent the day with Hank Bouchelle. I'll be seeing him again tomorrow."

"He's a good man," Dobey said. Most cops knew Bouchelle by his reputation as a reliable psychiatric consultant on cases.

"Yeah."

"What about Starsky?" Dobey asked. "Did he go with you to Dr. Bouchelle's?"

"No, I, ah, haven't seen him since he dropped me off this morning. He came in to write the reports and . . . . About the report . . . ."

Dobey coughed, almost as though his usual throat clearing weren't enough to deal with discomfort of this magnitude. "The report is fine."

Despite Dobey's words, Hutch felt compelled to try to explain Starsky's action. "Starsky didn't want to do it, Captain, but the alternative . . . ."

"Some things go into official reports, Ken," Dobey said, his expression pained. "Some things don't. Starsky made the right choice. Your partner's report contains all the pertinent details. The rest is . . . personal."

It was childish, Hutch knew, but he felt like a ten-ton weight had been removed from his conscience. "Thanks, Captain."

Dobey nodded. "You and Starsky are a right pain in the butt sometimes, but . . . you're two of the best officers I've worked with."

Hutch felt his face heat at the rare praise. He knew Dobey appreciated them, knew the three of them had more than a simple working relationship, but in the stress of day-to-day police work, that simple fact often got lost in the shuffle. "Ahh . . . thanks."

Dobey looked guiltier than Hutch had ever seen him. "I'm sorry this happened to either of you. If it's any comfort, Lowery's gonna lose his badge over this. It was only pure luck that you both survived his negligence."

Needing to know, Hutch asked, "What happened to him? Why didn't he look for me or report the silent mike?"

Appearing intensely uncomfortable, Dobey said, "It appears that Detective Lowery fell asleep shortly after you left the van. He didn't wake up until Starsky shouted his name into the mike after . . . everything was over."

"Oh," Hutch said.

After another quiet moment, Dobey asked, "Is . . . what happened going to affect your ability to work with Starsky?"

"Huh?" Hutch stared blankly at his captain.

Hutch was aware that Dobey's gruff exterior hid a gentle, compassionate heart. He just wasn't used to seeing that side of his captain. He certainly wasn't used to having the protective, concerned expression that Dobey was currently wearing turned on him.

"Some officers would have understandable difficulty working with their partner after . . . something like this. If you want, I can give you a temporary . . . ."

Hutch hadn't even seen Starsky yet. He didn't know for a fact that his partner felt the same way about this as he did. For all he knew, Starsky might want a temporary partner. That was his greatest worry, that Starsky would see him as being as sullied as he felt and not want him around anymore, but, like Hank had said, that was just his fear talking. He had to trust his heart, and his heart was telling him that Starsky wouldn't just dump him like that, no matter what.

So, he cut Dobey's words off, not even wanting to think about splitting the team. "No, no temporary partners. It wasn't Starsky's fault. It wasn't mine. It just . . . happened. We'll work through this. We just need some time . . . ."

"That's not a problem. I'm puttin' you both on leave, as of today. Take a week, take a month, take whatever you need," Dobey said.

"A week'd be good, Cap'. He's . . . he was walking the edge before this happened. I don't know where his head's at now . . . ."

"What about you?"

How did you tell someone that your own mental health was completely dependent upon someone else's? No matter what, this wasn't going to be easy, but Hutch knew if he could work things out with Starsky, they would be all right in the end.

"Hutch?" Dobey prodded.

He shook himself out of his daze and sat up a little straighter in his chair. "I don't know where I'm at right now, either, Captain. One minute, I think I'm okay and the next . . . . Last night was . . . pretty extreme . . . ."

Dobey nodded, not even trying to pretend he understood. Hutch could tell from his troubled face how far outside Dobey's experience all of this was.

"You know you don't have to ask. If there's anything I can do . . . ." Dobey said.

"Yeah, I know. Thanks . . . I, ahh, better get movin'," Hutch said.

"You goin' home?"

Hutch gave a slow shake of his head. "I gotta find Starsk."

Dobey looked like he had something to add. That pinched, worried expression he sometimes got was working overtime right now, but all he said was, "Well, if anyone has a chance of salvaging some good out of all this, it's the two of you. Good luck."

"Thanks, Cap'."

Dobey's voice momentarily stopped him as he started to rise to his feet. "Oh, and, Hutch?"

"Yeah?"

Dobey squarely met his gaze. "I appreciate your integrity."

"Huh?"

"About the report," the captain reminded.

Hutch sighed. "That wasn't integrity. I just . . . couldn't handle that on top of everything else. Besides . . . you needed to know . . . in case we can't work through this . . . ."

He wished Dobey would voice some comforting nonsense, something that would give him hope that things weren't as bleak as they felt, but their captain was too honest a man for that. Dobey's misgivings were as plain as his emotional distress. They both knew Starsky too well. Last night's events might have been too big a blow to Starsky's machismo for even the man of steel to shrug off. Dobey wasn't the type to patronize him by saying everything would be okay when they both knew damn well that there was every chance his best team might never be able to work smoothly together again.

So instead of giving him some comforting lie, Dobey just nodded his understanding and said, "If you need anything . . . ."

"I'll call. Good night, Cap'."

"Take it easy, Hutch." Dobey's liquid brown gaze relayed what his simple words couldn't. He looked about ten years older than he had when Hutch had entered his office.

For a moment, Hutch wondered if he'd done the right thing by taking this to Dobey's door, but their captain had a right to know what had gone down. Hutch didn't know what toll this incident was going to take on Starsky and his relationship. It could definitely affect their job performance. At least if the captain knew the cause behind the problem, it might give them some leeway to work things out.

Wishing that he could have spared Dobey the grief, Hutch forced an unconvincing smile and made his exit.

*~*~*

The true test of his courage came a half hour later when he pulled his Ford to a stop in front of Starsky's place, which was situated at the end of a cul de sac, set back from his neighbors. Despite the fact that the Torino was parked in the driveway, the house looked deserted. Every window was dark. Normally, when an unannounced visitor arrived this late, Starsky would be at the window, gun in hand, checking to see who'd pulled up. Tonight, the shades never stirred.

That meant one of three things. Either Starsky was zonked out and too deeply asleep to have noticed his arrival or he'd recognized the noise his Ford's motor habitually made and already knew who it was. Hutch wasn't willing to even think about the third reason why Starsky might not have responded to his arrival or any of his calls this morning. If he'd been thinking about eating his gun this morning, how must Starsky have been feeling?

Hutch cut off the dark thought. His nerves were just shot to hell and he was over-reacting to everything.

For a long moment after he turned off the lights and motor, he sat in the car, staring up at the silent house. Maybe Hank was right and he should have waited until tomorrow, given them both a chance to recuperate. But his instincts had kept insisting that he had to see Starsky tonight. Now that he was here, he was no longer so sure. The house was so dark and quiet. Whenever Starsky was home, there were lights on, music playing, the television chattering away. This silent pall was completely unnerving.

Garnering his nerve, Hutch removed his keys from the ignition and left the car. As he approached the house, he watched the windows. There was no response what-so-ever to the car door slamming.

He climbed the stairs and hesitated before the front door. Normally, since Starsky's convalescence, he'd use his key, but nothing felt normal right now. Still, if he knocked, that would seem even more strained, and if Starsky were simply asleep, it would disturb him.

Deciding to just slip in and leave immediately if Starsky were resting, Hutch used his key and opened the door.

It was dark inside, but Hutch knew the place well enough to navigate by streetlight without injuring himself too severely.

When the door snicked closed behind him, he left the overhead off and entered the shadowed living room. The rattan chair, coffee table, lamps, bookcases, end tables and couch were all familiar silhouettes. Hutch paused in the middle of the room, studying the heavy shadow that was the couch for any sign of habitation. Most times when Starsk was depressed and in retreat, he'd hole up on the sofa for the duration. Tonight, that comfy couch appeared to be vacant.

Hutch wasn't sure how to interpret that.

Feeling like a thief, he crossed to the bedroom doorway. Starsky's brown leather jacket, empty holster and the boots he'd worn last night lay in a tangled mess on the carpet beside the bookcase that divided the living room and bedroom.

Hutch peered through the open door.

It was darker in the bedroom, but the sheets were white and picked up the available light. His partner's new brass headboard glinted against the far wall. A mound of pillows obscured the sturdy bars at its bottom right corner, the side closest to the door.

In the dim light, Hutch could see a still figure huddled there. Starsky's dark curls were a sharp contrast against the pillowcases, but everything else was cloaked in deep shadows.

Straining his eyes, Hutch could make out yesterday's bright red corduroy shirt and rumpled blue jeans, but he couldn't tell if Starsky were awake. His partner was propped up on the pillows with his right arm resting across his forehead. The skin of the wrist sticking out from the sleeve of the red corduroy shirt was almost eerily white in the dimness. The pose left Starsky's eyes hidden and possibly blocked his partner's view.

For the longest time, Hutch just stood there, staring at his friend. Even in repose, there was a sense of power, of danger, about Starsky. Starsk's broad shoulders, well-defined chest, slender, blue-jean covered hips, and lean-muscled thighs all appeared prepared to leap into action at a second's notice. Even Starsky's sprawl was feline, provocative, but potentially lethal.

The very air seemed to catch in Hutch's lungs and freeze there, while his heart pounded against the wall of his chest. He could feel a cold, dank sweat break out all over him as an icy shiver blew down his spine. His stomach was clenched up tight with a nervousness that was almost fear at just the sight of his partner.

He hadn't counted on his body's physical reaction to being in Starsky's presence again. At that first sight of Starsky, he was lost in time, trapped in memories of last night that weren't nearly far enough away for him to deal with this with his normal cool.

Starsky's mouth going down on him, Starsky's cock penetrating him . . . .

He shook under the flashbacks, frightened by their visceral impact.

He'd fantasized both those things happening for years, but the shame and horror of the reality, not to mention the pain of it, left him almost subconsciously afraid of his friend. Mentally, he knew that Starsky wasn't responsible for what went down last night, but his body couldn't seem to forget that it was his partner who had taken him while he lay bound helpless on that obscene altar.

"Starsk?" he whispered. He needed to hear his friend's voice, to know that he was with his familiar partner and not the degenerate Villar persona Starsky had donned these past few months.

"Yeah," came the uninflected reply.

Shivering at the dull monotone, Hutch stated the obvious. "You're awake."

"Yeah. The alternative ain't too appealin'—ya know?"

"Yeah, I know," Hutch replied. "You . . . ahh . . . been awake in here all this time?"

No matter how bad things had gotten in the past, Starsky had always made it out of bed.

"Pretty much. What're you doin' here, Hutch?"

Though not exactly unwelcoming, the soft question put him even more on edge. "I came to see how you were."

The fact that Starsky was lying here in a pitch-black apartment, unable to sleep, still wearing yesterday's clothes gave him a pretty fair grasp of his partner's mental state.

"I should be askin' you that," Starsky said after a long silence.

But he didn't ask and that damn arm still hadn't moved from where it was shielding Starsky's upper face. Hutch felt like he was talking to an eyeless sphinx.

"Did you eat at all today?" Hutch asked. He scanned the night table for dirty dishes and found not even a water glass in sight.

He wasn't surprised when he received no response. Starsky was probably the strongest person he knew emotionally, but even he had his limits. When Starsk was pushed past his emotional capacity, he just seemed to collapse inside. Hutch never knew how to handle these infrequent funks Starsky suffered. At the best of times, they left him feeling useless. Tonight was most definitely not the best of times.

Forcing a cheer he didn't feel into his tone, Hutch asked, "How 'bout I make you some eggs or—"

"How 'bout you just go home?"

Hutch stiffened. He tried very hard not to respond to the words. He knew how Starsky got when he was depressed, but his own emotions were too raw tonight to just roll with the punches.

"That's great, Starsk. That'll solve everything. Why don't you get up and we'll try to deal with . . . ."

Once again, he received no verbal response.

There was an answer of sorts, however. Starsky rolled over onto his right side to face the far wall, turning his back on him.

It was more than Starsky just closing him out. Hutch had caught the barest glimpse of his face. He'd never seen Starsky look that upset, that miserable.

Keeping his rising frustration firmly in check, Hutch decided to try again. He crossed to the bed and tentatively eased down onto the mattress behind Starsky's back. That simple gesture took almost every bit of courage he possessed.

It was ridiculous, but he felt like he was courting death here. Last night was still too close. His fear was out of control and he was seconds away from panicking. There was a part of him that expected Starsky to turn around and brutalize him if he got too near. He knew how absurd the anxiety was, but his body remembered all too vividly the feel of Starsky's engorged cock violating him. He could smell Starsky all around him here on his bed. Where once that would have comforted or even excited him, tonight it unnerved him.

Suddenly, he understood why Hank had been pushing him so hard to examine his feelings for Starsky this afternoon. He hadn't expected to feel this way. He knew Starsky had been forced last night. He'd thought that knowing the truth would be enough to get him through this, but he'd had less fear when he was sitting alone in that interrogation room with the psychotic Simon Marcus than he did right now.

Forcing the incipient terror from his mind, Hutch tried to concentrate on his partner.

Either his eyes were adjusting to the dimness or the proximity afforded him a better view; in either case, he could see Starsky far more clearly. Not only could he feel the increase of Starsky's tension through the mattress, he could see it in the stiffening of the muscles of his back.

"Come on, Starsk. Please. We gotta try to get a handle on this . . . ."

"Go home, Hutch. Please . . . ." Starsky's voice was low and gravelly. Not cried out, just hard from lack of use.

As much as his own nerves were urging him to bail, Starsky's raw pain made it impossible for him to even consider doing as requested. Starsky looked like he was still in that scary headspace Hutch himself had woken up in this morning, like he'd spent the whole day trapped in its tormenting web without even allowing himself the release of tears.

Starsky's pain was the one thing he'd never been able to ignore. Drawn, in spite of his body's instinctive fear, he inched closer. He kept telling himself that this was Starsky—his best friend. Starsk would never knowingly hurt him, would die to protect him. His fear was stupid and had no place here.

Aching for a return to normality, Hutch did the only thing he could that had ever helped either of them when they were hurting this way—he tried to ease the pain with touch. The long fringe on his jacket played over the soft corduroy of Starsky's shirt as he reached out to give a reassuring rub. It was a simple gesture, asexual, one they'd shared from almost the start of their friendship.

Never before had the world exploded around him because of such a small action. His fingertips had barely made contact with the soft corduroy when suddenly it wasn't there anymore.

Starsky rolled to the other side of the bed almost quicker than the eye could follow.

"Don't . . . ." Starsky growled.

Hutch couldn't have felt any more hurt if his partner had delivered a kick to his balls. He sat there staring at his outstretched hand, watching his jacket's fringe rock back and forth in the empty air beneath it, shocked beyond reaction.

Nothing was said for the longest time.

He looked to where Starsky was poised at the top of the bed. Starsky's head was lowered, his broad shoulders hunched down, his knees pulled up to his chest with his arms wrapped tight around them in a classic defensive posture . . . all because he'd laid a single hand on him.

Finally, Hutch gathered what strength he had left and said hollowly, "Okay. You gotta tell me how we're gonna play this, 'cause I haven't got a clue."

The tangled mass of curls slowly lifted as Starsky raised his face from where he had it buried between his kneecaps. The light was so dim that Hutch couldn't clearly see Starsky's gaze, couldn't get a handle on his expression. His partner's eyes looked like pools of shadows, staring out of a haggard, stone-blank face.

Hutch really wished he could have read more from his expression. Having to settle for Starsky's attention, he continued, carefully restrained. "I've been feelin' like human trash all day, buddy. I don't need that kinda reaction."

It took every bit of his courage to be that honest, to lay it out that openly.

"So go home," Starsky answered.

Instead of wounding or scaring him, the nasty response sparked Hutch's own temper. "How's that gonna help?"

"How's anything gonna help this? I don't understand you. How can you even wanna be here after last night?" Starsky whispered raggedly.

Hutch almost passed out under the relief that flushed though him like a fever. Hank was right. It was guilt Starsky was feeling. "I thought we went over this territory last night, Starsk. None of it was your fault."

"That don't change nothin'. Hutch, I still . . . ."

"Yes?" Hutch prompted when Starsky fell silent again. Anything had to be better than this strained silence between them.

To his consternation, Starsky just released a weary sigh and repeated, "Go home. Just go home."

"Not until we've talked this out."

"There ain't nothin' to say."

His patience snapped. "Is that so? Well, you left me a note yesterday mornin' that seemed to indicate somethin' different."

That took the wind out of Starsky's sails. Wincing like he'd actually hurt him physically, Starsky quickly averted his gaze. "That was a million years ago, Hutch."

It felt that way to him, too, like they'd gone someplace they couldn't get back from. Thursday's innocent beginning had been all but shattered by last night's savagery.

"So that's it? We pack it in without even trying? Throw the baby out with the bath water?"

"Why are you doin' this to me?" Starsky lowered his face back to the shelter of his bony knees.

"Doin' what? I'm just trying to—"

"Torture me?" Starsky suggested. "I know you got the right, but . . . ."

The dull monotone was gone. What replaced it almost made Hutch wish for it back. His heart twisted in his chest at the abject misery in Starsky's voice. "I don't wanta hurt you, Starsk."

"Then go home, Hutch, please . . . ." Starsky all out begged him, raising his head back up, as if that tormented tone weren't enough to rip his heart out without the added benefit of that torn expression. "I can't . . . ."

"You can't what?" Hutch encouraged him in his least contentious voice.

"I can't . . . handle this . . . ."

"You think you're gonna be able to handle it any better tomorrow, or Monday, or a week from Monday if we don't discuss this now?"

Starsky's gaze shied away from him again, but at least he didn't hide his face in his knees. "You don't wanta be here . . . ."

"Starsk," Hutch cut in, only to be over-ridden when Starsky demanded, "You looked at your face in the mirror? You're white as a sheet. I never seen you so scared, not that anyone could blame ya . . . ."

Hutch tensed up again. He'd thought he'd hidden that, but when had he ever been able to really hide from Starsky? His partner's failure to recognize his feelings for him during these past few years was more from a lack of reference points rather than a failure to observe.

Taking a deep breath, Hutch tried again. "I'm scared everything's gonna fall apart if we don't work this out now."

"Everything has fallen apart, Hutch," Starsky argued.

Hutch could see that his partner took no joy in that acknowledgement, that Starsky was possibly even more hurt by all this than even he was himself.

And why wouldn't he be? Hutch tried to imagine how he'd feel if the scales had been turned last night, if he'd been forced to rape Starsky. Like Hank had said this morning, Hutch was unquestionably the victim; his role was clear. But Starsky's . . . his friend had been forced to brutalize the person he'd sworn to protect. Not only was Starsky's victim his working partner and closest friend, but also his brand new lover. That was more pain and guilt than any one human being should be asked to shoulder.

"No," Hutch said, correcting him gently, "it only feels that way."

He took a chance and shifted closer to his partner, moving up the top of the bed until he was sitting, facing Starsky.

As Starsky turned his gaze on him, Hutch almost wished for a return of the masking shadows. That bleak despair was so hopeless. Starsky really looked as though he believed everything in his world had been destroyed. His face was all haggard lines, harsh angles and plains. The deep red shirt he wore, which usually offset his color, dark hair, and laughing blue eyes perfectly, only seemed to accentuate his sickly pallor. Hutch couldn't recall Starsky looking this bad since the weeks immediately following Gunther's assassination attempt.

"How can you say that?" Starsky asked, his eyes spearing him out of the darkness.

"Because it's true." Hutch made sure that his face was calm, his voice soft and reassuring. If Starsky had been close to the edge Thursday night, he was over it tonight, dangling there, waiting to fall. There was no way in hell Hutch was going to push him. He didn't know what would be left once he crumbled. The parts of Starsky that got him through intense traumas weren't always easy to deal with—if you were his friend. And if you weren't . . . aside from Prudholm, Hutch didn't know very many of Starsky's enemies who'd survived meeting that side of him. Anderson and Baldino certainly hadn't.

Starsky gave a ragged inhalation that was more sob than intake of air, but he was looking at him directly again, no longer averting his gaze.

"Listen to me," Hutch pleaded. "You pulled us through that last night. I was outta my head, Starsk. If you hadn't held it together, we wouldn't be alive right now."

Starsky bit his lip, lowered his gaze, and whispered, "But they made me . . . ."

"They made you. It wasn't you, buddy."

"It was my body. My . . . cock," Starsky almost choked on the last word, like it was something he hated now and not the part of his body that brought him his greatest pleasure.

"Do you think I would've wanted it to be anyone else but you?" Hutch questioned, shifting closer. "Do you think I could've lived with one of those degenerates doin' it?"

"No, it's so much better from a friend," Starsky sneered. His sarcasm seemed to hurt himself more than him, if his wince were anything to go by.

"Starsk . . . ."

Starsky cut him off again, "I-I . . . can't even apologize to you. How do ya say you're sorry for somethin' like that? How could ya even ask somebody to forgive . . . that?"

"There's nothin' to forgive," Hutch insisted. "The way I see it, you kept us alive. Please, babe, don't do this to yourself."

"I don't know how you can even look at me now. Only a sicko would've been able to get it up in that kinda scene. I was no better than the rest of those freaks. Worse, even, because—"

"That's enough!" Hutch let his frustration out. A certain amount of guilt, he could deal with here. Listening to his partner compare himself to those freaks was beyond his capacity to endure. "You're not like those weirdos, so don't even go there."

"I got it up the same as they did," Starsky bitterly reminded him. "What does that say about me, that I could get turned on in that kinda freak show?"

"It wasn't the same for you."

"No?" Starsky's whisper sounded devoid of hope. "I came the same as they did. You know that, better than anybody."

Hutch grimaced at the indelicate reference. "Yeah, but your motivations were different."

It was dangerous ground. Even mentioning Thursday night's intimacy when his partner was this overwrought might be enough to ruin everything forever if Starsky weren't up to facing it. Hutch knew it, even as he said the words, but he didn't know any other way to get them through this.

"How's that?" There was no curiosity in Starsky's tone. They were just hollow words, put out to keep the silence at bay.

"You weren't getting off on the chains and the pain and the humiliation, partner."

"No?" Starsky sounded unconvinced. "Then how'd I . . . ?"

"The same way you did Thursday night, babe," Hutch gently said. "We got close to each other and our bodies did our thinkin' for us."

"You . . . didn't," Starsky denied, his disbelief obvious.

"I might have . . . if Anderson hadn't . . . he hurt me too much for me to think of anything else," Hutch admitted reluctantly.

His confession seemed to hang in the quiet for an extremely long time. All he could hear was their breathing.

Starsky still looked more upset than he could ever remember seeing him, but he no longer appeared as distraught. Starsky was listening, at least, not disputing every word he said.

"Don't let Anderson win, Starsk, please," Hutch pleaded, not knowing what else he could say to make this any better.

Starsky's eyes locked with his own. They looked lost. "You don't think he already has?"

Hutch felt too naked for this. Everything inside him was still too raw and vulnerable for any kind of bluffing. There was no way he could hide his heart from Starsky tonight. He knew Starsk could read everything he was feeling right now. If that truth weren't to Starsky's liking . . . Hutch didn't know if he could take it if Starsky no longer wanted to explore the route they'd been heading for Thursday night.

Taking a shaky breath, Hutch answered, "Anderson can't destroy me 'n' thee. We're the only two people who can do that."

To his horror, tears welled up in Starsky's eyes. For an agonizing minute or two, Hutch thought he'd lost everything. They hung frozen there in place like two flies trapped forever together, yet apart, in amber. Then, Starsky vented a ragged sob and launched himself at him.

Hutch caught his warm weight and pulled Starsky close to his chest. He wrapped his arms around Starsky's strong, shaking back and held on. After a slight hesitation, Starsky melted against him, slipping his hands around his waist to return the hug. Starsky rested his head on his left shoulder, burying his wet face in the hair at his neck.

Hutch's palms rubbed reassuringly over the velvety corduroy covering Starsky's spine. He buried his nose in his sweaty curls and whispered, "Everything's gonna be all right, Starsk, I promise. Everything's gonna be all right . . . ." while Starsky cried his heart out against his chest.

For some reason, his acceptance seemed to make Starsky shake even harder, like gentleness was the last thing he'd expected. The sounds of his grief grew more intense. His helpless sobs were interrupted only when Starsky called his name out over and over again.

Hutch shivered as hot tears trickled down his neck.

He hadn't seen Starsky cry in years. Now, he'd held Starsk while he fell apart twice in three days. Tonight seemed worse than Thursday, which was pretty understandable. The kind of damage they had sustained last night could break a man forever. Hurt like that wasn't easily purged from the soul. Starsky's tears streamed like they'd never stop, just like his had when he'd lost control on Hank's porch this morning.

Hutch eased back until he was resting against the headboard. He supported both their weights there, while Starsky's tears soaked the front of his fringe jacket. He just held on and hugged back, so grateful for this normal contact.

Starsky didn't exactly stop crying. One moment, the grieving was intense, then a heartbeat later, all sound ceased. When Hutch looked down at the tear ravaged face on his shoulder, he found Starsky's eyes shut, Starsky's shuddery breathing giving over to the steady rhythm of sleep like a cried out baby's.

Exhausted and emotionally drained himself, Hutch sat still for a long time. He watched Starsky sleep, making sure that he was finally resting. When it became clear that it was no brief catnap, Hutch's right hand slipped from his warm hair. He groped around on the bed beside him until he snagged one of the tangled blankets. Pulling it over them both, he shifted down in the bed and tilted them over to the right, where the pillows were.

He still wasn't sure what, if anything, had been solved. But holding Starsky beat facing it alone.

His own exhaustion overtaking him, Hutch rested his windburned cheek against Starsky's curls and closed his eyes. For a long time he lay there listening to the rhythm of their breathing, then there was only blessed darkness and much-needed sleep.

*~*~*

He was hot, hot all over. Everything was sweaty and itchy, totally uncomfortable. A burning heat pressed down his perspiration drenched front. A merciless barrage of light assaulted his left eye, while the right was pushed into whatever that soft furnace was. His head was pounding like he had history's worst hangover, his stomach roiling in teeth-clenching waves.

Starsky took a deep breath to clear his head. The air brought with it the heavy scent of suede and a subtler, tangy, yet sweet fragrance that was immediately recognizable as a sweaty Hutch. Barely able to manage, he lifted his pounding head and opened his eyes, momentarily confused at finding himself clutching Hutch like a teddy bear. Then he remembered last night and . . . and Friday.

God . . . .

His mind balked at the images, horror and self-loathing all but choking him.

What he'd done to Hutch that night was beyond his capacity to handle. That Hutch could have come here last night and comforted him the way he did after being savaged was unbelievable.

His wondering gaze settled on Hutch. His already queasy stomach just seemed to melt at the tender feelings that swept through him. Hutch lay in a rumpled mess beside him. Hutch was still fully dressed, including his cowboy boots and fringe jacket. His face was turned away from the intruding sunlight, facing Starsky, but that didn't stop the morning sun from having its way with him. Around his sleep-flushed face, Hutch's hair was a blaze of gold, almost blinding. Even his scruffy mustache had an almost angelic aura to it in the bright light.

Starsky stared, marveling at the peace on Hutch's sleeping features. Aside from his over-red cheeks, which looked sore and sun-burned, Hutch seemed the same as any other day . . . the same as he had when Starsky had woken up beside him on Friday morning. Then, as now, Starsky couldn't pull his eyes from his face.

It didn't make any sense. He'd known this man for more than thirteen years. Hutch's Nordic features were as familiar to him as those he shaved in the mirror every morning and yet . . . he felt like he'd never seen Hutch before. How could he have missed how beautiful Hutch was? Oh, he'd known he was handsome in the matter-of-fact way that he'd known Hutch was blond, but he'd never been moved by that beauty before. Now . . . .

Now it made him feel all soft inside.

Only, it was too late for those kinds of feelings. Any chance he'd had of making Hutch his was shot to hell Friday night. You didn't do something like that and get a happy ever after. He didn't have any rights anymore. He couldn't take anything for granted. He'd be lucky, and more than grateful, just to keep Hutch's respect and friendship. But, it hurt like hell to lie here beside him and see Hutch this way, knowing what could never be.

If he hadn't already known that Hutch was the bravest man he'd ever met, last night would have proven it to him. The courage it had taken for Hutch to even come here, let alone spend the night trying to console his rapist, astounded him. He didn't know how Hutch could even stand to look at him.

That sufferance was about to be put to the test. Hutch gave a restless toss. His peaceful features creased into an irritated frown. Hutch moaned a little, then rolled onto his back, sure signs of imminent waking.

Starsky held his breath as Hutch's wheat-pale eyelashes fluttered, then parted. For a second, panic gripped Hutch's expression, then his gaze settled on him and the fear receded.

"Starsk."

Hutch's sleepy smile was so uncomplicatedly happy that it took Starsky's breath away.

"Hi," he answered, so nervous he could barely hold his gaze.

"Hi, yourself." Hutch's voice was thick with sleep, his brain obviously not fully functional. He couldn't have remembered yet, not and still be looking at him like that. "You been awake long?"

"A few minutes."

"How you feelin'?" Hutch asked, like that was the only thing that mattered to him in the world, like maybe it had been Starsky who'd been put through the ringer instead of him.

The worry in his sleepy eyes made Starsky feel about two-feet tall. Hutch shouldn't be asking those kinds of questions. Hutch was the one who'd been hurt on Friday, the one who needed comforting. Starsky lowered his eyes, trying to find a way to say all that.

"Starsk?"

As much as he wanted to crawl into a hole and pull the ground in over him, Starsky couldn't do what he'd done last night. He couldn't close Hutch out again like that. He didn't understand it, but it was clear that Hutch needed to be with him right now.

So he forced himself to meet Hutch's concerned gaze and answer, "I feel hung over. My head hurts. Stomach's jumpy."

"Did you eat at all yesterday?"

Eat? He'd barely been able to stand breathing yesterday. He'd come as close to packing it in as he ever had in his life. It was only thinking of the effect that would have on Hutch that had stopped him. Hutch had already been through living hell; he didn't need to have to clean up that kind of mess. He might not give a damn about himself, but he sure as hell wasn't going to screw up Hutch's life anymore than he already had.

But Hutch didn't need to hear any of that right now. Deciding to play this as light as he could, Starsky gave a negative shake of his head.

Those eyes were making him nervous as hell. It was like they could read straight through to his soul and see everything he was attempting to hide. The undeserved compassion at their depths ate at his guilty conscience like acid, sharp and painful.

"You'll feel better once you've had something to eat," Hutch said, watching him as though Hutch thought he was going to fall apart at any moment.

Since Starsky wasn't so sure he wouldn't, he allowed the attention.

There was so much he wanted to say, so much that needed saying, but Starsky didn't have the words for what he felt. Apologies were absurd when dealing with this level of offense. The only thing that could make this all better was a time machine.

Trapped by the worry in Hutch's beautiful eyes, Starsky looked away. He didn't understand this at all. How could Hutch be this together? How could he even want to breathe the same air as him?

"Hey," Hutch said gently.

Hearing the kindly tone made Starsky's guts do flip-flops. Tensing, he forced his gaze back to squarely meet Hutch's.

"We're gonna be okay, partner," Hutch promised. He sounded confident, but there was something lurking in his eyes that belied that assurance.

Before, Starsky hadn't wanted to know the truth about what Hutch was feeling for him, but now he forced himself to dig past those outer shields of buffering optimism, made himself look at what Hutch was trying to hide from him. It wasn't hard to see. He could almost smell Hutch's nervousness. Under that outer facade, Hutch was just as scared and desperate as he felt himself. He could read it in the way Hutch forced himself to keep a level gaze, from the tilt of his proud chin and the tense lines of his full mouth. Hutch was bluffing for all that he was worth.

The way Hutch's eyes strayed away from his own once Hutch realized what he was betraying only confirmed his suspicions. When Hutch spoke, he seemed to be addressing something on the dresser top. "We gotta try. Please, Starsk . . . ."

And once again, Starsky felt like a total monster. Here Hutch was practically begging him to act like an adult, to make the effort at healing this horrible situation, but all he wanted to do was hide. He wasn't that brave. He couldn't do what Hutch was doing, pretend like it was business as usual.

Something had broken inside him on Friday night and he wasn't sure if it was ever going to mend. He looked at this beautiful, brave man, and all he could see was the smoking ashes of his most bitter might-have-been—no matter what Hutch might be saying, Starsky could still read the naked fear in his eyes, the uneasiness that not even all of Hutch's considerable courage and acting abilities could mask.

Fear of him, fear of his touch, fear of his body . . . that was his reality now, would always be.

"Starsk?"

The anxious, pleading tone got to him. Even though he felt so twisted up inside that he thought he'd strangle if he didn't break free of this situation immediately, Starsky found himself nodding his assent. He couldn't lay this on Hutch, not after everything Hutch had already been through. If Hutch could tough it out, he was going to have to find the strength to do the same.

"Okay," Starsky agreed gruffly.

"Okay—what?" Though cautious, some of the obvious trepidation had receded from Hutch's features.

"Whatever you need. You tell me what it's gonna take to make this better for ya, and I swear it's yours." Up to, and including, a bullet through my brain, Starsky added mentally. He had the sense to keep the words to himself, however.

"How 'bout I make us some breakfast while you grab a shower?" Hutch suggested as tentative as a deflowered virgin on the morning after.

Starsky couldn't remember a time when they'd had to awkwardly feel their way through a conversation this way. He didn't even know how to look at Hutch now, couldn't fathom how Hutch would want to look at him.

Hutch's suggestion at least offered a temporary reprieve from the deepening tension. So he gave another terse nod and crawled out of the bed. He didn't look back for fear of what he might read in Hutch's face.

He stripped off Friday's malodorous clothes and left them in a heap on the bathroom floor. Then he stepped into the tub, dialed the water up ten degrees hotter than he could take it and scrubbed at his skin with a soaped up washcloth until his flesh stung like sandpaper had been rubbed over it.

But for all that punishment, he didn't feel any cleaner. The stains were still there, maybe not on his red skin, but certainly in his soul. What he'd done was burned into his body now, as irreparably as the scars from Gunther's assassination attempt. No amount of washing was going to help. Briefly, he wondered how hard Hutch had had to scrub to remove the traces of the rape from his body, wondered if such a thing could even be done.

Hutch would carry those invisible stains the same way he would, victim and rapist tied forever together by these unseen scars.

Starsky lingered under the near-scalding spray for as long as he could before jerking the taps closed and stepping free of the tub. Once he'd roughly rubbed the moisture off, he stared around the bathroom, belatedly realizing the he'd failed to bring a fresh change of clothing in with him.

What should have been a minor inconvenience abruptly felt like an unpardonable social gaffe, like another misdeed to add to his other unforgivable transgressions. He'd never had an iota of self-consciousness when it came to Hutch. Like the easy familiarity he'd shared with his brother Nicky, Hutch and he had always been completely at ease sharing bathrooms and other facilities. Only now . . . .

Now the thought of stepping naked from the bathroom felt like a boorish trespass. Starsky hesitated, debating on whether he should redon the stinking clothes or just settle on a towel. Though the clothes felt like the safer choice, he realized that they would only accentuate just how bad things were between them right now. Hutch was struggling to act normal. If he walked out of here in Friday's soggy, smelly clothes, it would undo all the hard work Hutch had put in. So, he settled on wrapping one towel chastely around his hips and draping another so that it fell across his shoulders to conceal his chest, lest Hutch find the sight of any part of him naked disturbing.

In the end, he needn't have worried. The bedroom was glaringly empty.

He chided his own stupidity . . . like Hutch would really want to hang around in his bed after Friday. Was it any surprise that Hutch had high-tailed it out of there the first chance he'd gotten? The only miracle was that Hutch had entered the room at all.

Not knowing why he felt depressed when avoiding the dreaded confrontation should have left him relieved, Starsky crossed to his dresser. Pulling on underwear, socks, jeans and a blue sweatshirt only took up a few moments. All too soon, Starsky was left with no choice but to go find Hutch.

The mouth-watering aroma of frying bacon that was filling the air left little doubt as to Hutch's location.

He came to an abrupt halt as he took in the state of his kitchen. In the twenty minutes he'd been in the shower, his pristine kitchen had been transformed into a war zone. From the number of stains, dirty bowls, pots and pans littering the countertop and table, it looked like an argument between Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet had degenerated into a frat house food fight.

Starsky stood in the kitchen doorway, watching Hutch tend the sizzling bacon and eggs. There was a greased skillet on the other burner, with a huge Pyrex measuring cup full of pancake batter.

The morning light was no less brilliant here than it had been in the bedroom. Hutch's hair was still a blinding, if disheveled, halo around his head.

Somewhere between the bedroom and kitchen, Hutch had lost his suede jacket and boots. The lanky blond was wearing his white socks, blue jeans and yesterday's rumpled black long-sleeved, button-down shirt, which was tucked into the jeans, except for one corner in back where the tails had escaped their confines. The rumpled shirt and stockinged feet made Hutch look absurdly young, less the action-hardened, efficient street cop and more the starry-eyed idealist Starsky had met in the Academy.

There was such a domestic, cozy air to finding Hutch out here cooking breakfast for him, looking like he'd lived here forever, that it stopped Starsky in his tracks. There was a rightness to the scene that almost took his breath away. He tried to remember if any woman he'd ever dated had ever looked like she belonged while making him breakfast in his kitchen and couldn't come up with a one. Not even Terry. There had always been the feeling that those girls were just visiting, playing house with him; whereas Hutch . . . Hutch was home.

Or would have been if Friday had never happened. As it was, Starsky felt like a complete pervert for entertaining those kinds of feelings after what had happened the other night.

It didn't help that Hutch jumped when a stray glance at the door revealed that he was under observation.

Reality crashing back on him, Starsky forcibly evicted the domestic fantasies from his mind. He didn't have the right to those kinds of thoughts, not anymore.

So he straightened his spine, blanked his features and tried to pretend he didn't see the fear lurking in Hutch's eyes. He could feel his mouth tighten into a straight line, his body tensing like it would whenever he entered a funeral home. It felt that way now, like something cherished had died and only the formality of the burial details remained to be gotten through.

"Sorry," Hutch said, flushing, as though he'd done something wrong.

Not meeting Hutch's too-vulnerable eyes, Starsky shook his head and admitted, "I shoulda let you know I was there."

"It wasn't you, Starsk. I was just startled to see someone standing there . . . ."

"Forget it. All right? You don't gotta explain anything," Starsky said less than graciously. Then, to change the subject, he looked at Hutch and offered, "That smells good."

"Yeah."

Hating the guilty look on Hutch's face, Starsky stepped into the kitchen. "I'll get the plates. You feel like juice? I think there's a can of concentrate in the freezer."

With a horrible, alien awkwardness, they moved around each other in a hollow parody of their usual camaraderie. They both felt the difference, were both straining to play it normal. Starsky could tell how nervous Hutch was by the number of things he dropped while sorting out the table. The surreptitious glances Hutch kept shooting his way when he thought he wasn't looking told him Hutch was equally aware of his own anxious state.

Silverware, dishes, food, coffee and juice sorted out, they were left with no choice but to sit down across from each other. It was then that the changes became most noticeable, when there was no activity to mask the heavy silences. Normally, they could be stuck together on a stakeout for twenty hours straight and never run out of things to say.

How could the words have dried up so fast between them?

He tried to remember the kinds of things they would have talked about last Wednesday before any of this had gone down. There had to be something safe to discuss. Starsky searched for something—anything—to say and drew a complete blank. All the trivial, gossipy stuff seemed too frivolous to voice with these unstated problems looming in the silence between them. Hutch seemed equally hard-pressed for conversational topics.

So, they ate with that choking quiet between them. Although it had been nearly forty-eight hours since food had passed his lips, Starsky had trouble forcing down the eggs and bacon. Hutch was so distracted that he'd never even cooked the pancakes. The batter was still standing there in the measuring cup on the stove.

Starsky didn't know where to put his eyes, how to look at Hutch without the observation bleeding over into threat.

Hutch finally broke the nerve-rending silence when he said hesitantly, "I, ah, spent the day up at Hank Bouchelle's yesterday."

Something very like relief rushed through him. Bouchelle was the best in his field. If anyone could help Hutch recover from this, it'd be him. Bouchelle had even helped Terry Nash get back on his feet. Though the psychiatrist had never been able to get Terry to remember his lost life, he'd helped the amnesiac carve out a new existence.

"Yeah?" Starsky said, chewing a slice of bacon with slightly more enthusiasm than he had the others. Hutch had spoken to him. Any kind of communication had to beat that weighty silence.

"Yeah. He's got that great beach house, remember? You could hear the waves crashing all through the house. It's like a different world up there."

"Is that where you got the sunburn?" Starsky questioned.

"Windburn, actually. It was pretty windy up there. We spent a lot of time talking out on the porch."

Starsky debated holding back his next observation, then decided to risk the personal comment. "It seems to have done you a world of good."

To his relief, Hutch didn't seem offended. To the contrary, he gave a shy smile and nodded. "Yeah, it sure felt like it. I'm goin' back this afternoon. I, ahh . . . I'd like you to come with me."

Starsky froze. He hadn't expected that. As usual, his mouth operated independently of his brain and he heard himself ask perhaps the stupidest thing he'd ever voiced in his life. "What for?"

Hutch just about choked on the mouthful of egg he was chewing. "You can't be serious?"

Put on the spot, his stubbornness wouldn't allow Starsky to back down. "'Course, I'm serious."

"To stare at our navels and contemplate the meaning of life," Hutch snapped. "What the hell do you think what for! We can't even look at each other without squirming."

"And you think Hank Bouchelle is going to wave some magic wand and make it all go away?" Starsky sneered, not understanding why he was suddenly so angry and on the defensive. His guts had tightened up like he was going into a gunfight, and all Hutch had done was suggest they go visit someone. He knew he was being unreasonable, but he wasn't able to keep those foolish words from spilling out of his mouth.

Hutch angry sure as hell beat Hutch scared any day of the week. Those electric blue eyes sparking fire, Hutch shot back, "No, but I think it'll give us both a chance to unload some crap and figure out how we're gonna deal with this. What're you scared of, partner?"

Caught off guard, Starsky looked away for a moment. He knew what he was scared of, but how could he ever explain it to Hutch? How could you tell someone that you were afraid to look below the happy face they were wearing, scared of seeing the hate, anger and disgust that had to be hiding beneath it? How did you tell your truth-loving partner that you couldn't handle honesty right now, that you were barely managing breathing?

The answer was simple—you couldn't. So, Starsky hardened his features, met those angry eyes and all out lied. "I ain't scared of nothin'. I'm just not goin'."

"Starsk . . . ."

Hutch had obviously decided to change his tactics. Knowing that that mild, reasonable tone was far more dangerous than a snitty Hutch, Starsky quickly interrupted him. "Forget it. You wanna go talk about Oedipal Complexes and the like, be my guest. Just leave me outta it."

Hutch's face drained of all color. Against his sudden pallor, his red cheeks looked fever-bright. The ominous stillness that came over Hutch was almost terrifying. With slow, deliberate care, Hutch lowered his fork and knife to the table. "You can be a real S.O.B. sometimes—you know that, partner?"

Glad to see the fury, knowing that righteous pride could pull his stubborn partner through anything, Starsky pasted his most irritating, offensive expression on his face, and went one better. "Some might even say I'm a real cocksucker. The label would fit these days."

The reaction was instantaneous, as predictable as if they were both following some unwritten script.

Without another word, Hutch lurched to his feet.

It was only here that Starsky wasn't sure what would follow. There was a fifty-fifty chance that he'd end up with a mouthful of knuckles. You could only push Kenneth Hutchinson so far before he left you lying flat on your back in the dust. And Starsky knew exactly which buttons to push to get Hutch beyond the thinking stage to the fighting stage.

Hutch loomed over him, contempt and fury clear in his blazing eyes.

Starsky willed Hutch to lose it. He wanted Hutch to haul off and slug him, wanted Hutch to hurt him. There was some childish part of himself that believed that Hutch beating the crap out of him would somehow even the score.

He met Hutch's fire with his own challenging disdain, giving Hutch the patented look that had catalyzed many a brawl.

But if he knew Hutch, the reverse was also true; Hutch knew him just as well. Hutch stood there breathing hard and loud, glaring down at him.

Finally, Hutch broke the tableau. With a contemptuous shake of his head, Hutch said, "No, we're not playing it this way."

A breath later, Hutch turned on his heel and stormed out of the kitchen.

Starsky sat motionless at the table, listening as the floorboards creaked under Hutch's weight as he blew through the living room like an angry hurricane. There was some rustling as Hutch donned boots and jacket. Hard leather clunks on the carpet replaced the muffled sounds of socked feet, and then the front door rattled open, to slam almost instantaneously shut in Hutch's wake.

It was only when the whirlwind of justified fury had cleared his place that Starsky actually paused to question why he'd done it. Hutch had just wanted to help. Obviously, Hank Bouchelle had been of great assistance to Hutch and, just as clearly, Hutch wanted Hank to help him, too, or he would never have suggested a joint visit. Hutch's suggestion had made perfect sense, while his own response had been almost criminally cruel. Starsky still wasn't sure what had motivated his behavior. All he'd known was that he couldn't face the idea of baring any of this to a stranger, anymore than he could face Hutch's fear. His guilt told him that there were other ways he could have handled it, gentler ways, only . . . if he'd let Hutch talk, Hutch would have persuaded him. He'd've gone out of guilt and then . . . .

Then there would be no more polite pretenses. The bare facts of what he'd done to Hutch would be right out there in the open and there'd be no more hiding from them.

At least now there'd be no more reason to pretend. It wasn't like Hutch was going to be coming back here anytime soon.

Sick at heart at his deliberate cruelty, Starsky let his own fork fall to the plate.

He sat there watching the runny egg yolk congeal on his plate for a long time, before finally rising to stagger back to his bedroom.

He had no idea what he was going to do now, but at least he wouldn't have to worry about keeping up a false front for Hutch's sake. Hell, the way he'd played out that final, dismal scene, he might never have to worry about keeping up any kind of front for Hutch ever again.

*~*~*

The day passed in the same miserable manner yesterday had. Starsky took to his bed and did his best to keep the world at bay. Only problem was, what he was hiding from wasn't out there in the world. It was in his head. The memories from Friday night kept circling around in an endless loop. Nothing he tried seemed capable of excising them. Every time he succeeded in removing his attention from Anderson's horror show, what he'd done to Hutch this morning reared up its ugly head to haunt him.

Damn, but he'd screwed up big time this morning. Maybe he wasn't ready to go bare his soul to Hank Bouchelle, but there had to have been some better way of getting out of it.

He'd reached for the phone about a dozen times to call Hutch and apologize, but . . . .

What was the use? One lame apology wasn't gonna make a bit of difference. He might've saved Hutch's life on Friday night, but he'd pretty much buried their partnership. If not with Friday night's events, then certainly with this morning's savage cruelty. Hutch had been trying so damn hard, and all he'd done was kick his best friend in the teeth. He didn't deserve Hutch's kindness or worry—not that he was going to have much chance to sample either again any time soon, because after this morning, Hutch sure as hell wasn't going to be back for more.

By slow degrees, daylight ceded to gloomy shadows. Starsky's apathetic gaze registered the dying of the light. He didn't bother turning on the bedside lamp; the dark suited him. Suddenly, he began to understand why monsters inhabited lightless places. It wasn't so much to hide from their prospective victims, but to conceal the truth of what they'd become from themselves. Not that there was enough darkness in all of creation to make him forget what he'd become, but it helped, Starsky decided.

Finally, the guilt and grief gave way to slumber. Starsky slept fitfully, tossing in the too hot bed. Each time he'd wake distressed in the dark, he'd press his face into the pillow on the far side of the bed. Hutch had only slept on it for a few hours, so it was probably mostly his imagination, but Starsky swore he could pick up lingering traces of Hutch's shampoo and sweat in the pale pillowcase.

He didn't know how long he spent drowsing between nightmares. Since he hadn't set foot out of the bed all day, except for bathroom runs, he was very thirsty, but he didn't bother getting up to get a glass of water.

His thirst slowly worked its way into the fabric of his dreams. His whole body felt dried out like an old sponge, just aching for moisture as he stepped once again into the nightmare of Friday's scenario. Hutch was lying there, tied naked to the altar, sweat and tears running down his pale skin. Only, this time when Starsky mounted Hutch, he didn't just drink Hutch's semen. His tongue licked the beads of salty sweat from the perfect flesh, and then delved deep into Hutch's succulent mouth to suck in his saliva. He didn't just sip it, he sucked it all into his mouth until Hutch had no more to give. When Hutch's mouth was dry, he went on to lick all the sweat off his neck and the rest of his body, leaving big red sucking marks in his wake. He drank similarly of all Hutch's juices—sweat, saliva, semen, blood . . . he took it all and swallowed it down, drank until he was almost drunk on Hutch's essences, drank until there was nothing left to devour.

When he had slaked his thirst, his engorged penis pulsed to life and he took Hutch's body with the same guilty pleasure he'd experienced Friday, pounding in and out in brutal rhythm until climax. Only then did he sag with exhaustion, dropping down onto his still partner. Eventually, the nature of that stillness penetrated. Slowly, he pulled out of Hutch's body and looked down at his victim. There wasn't any doubt that Hutch was anything but that. Where on Friday night he had beheld a weeping Hutch, tonight his eyes fell upon an ominously motionless form. Frightened by what he'd done, Starsky reached out to touch Hutch's pale skin, only to have it wrinkle into a million creases. Like ancient parchment, Hutch's dry flesh flaked apart, crumbling like a vampire in sunlight. Horrified, he stared at the ashes that were all that was left of Hutch, his closest friend . . . .

"Hutch!" The shriek came out as a sob, muffled against a wet pillowcase.

Starsky ripped his face clear of the suffocating linen and gulped in lungfuls of the cool night air. His clothes were soaked with sweat and clinging to him like a dank shroud. Shivering and shuddering, he tried to pull himself together. It was just a dream. He'd had millions of them; this one would pass the same as the others had. It was just his imagination, he told himself over and over. He hadn't killed Hutch. Hutch was fine . . . but the reassurances felt as empty as his heart.

Who was he trying to kid? Hutch wasn't fine, anymore than he was. Friday night had broken him, in a way that nothing that had happened on the job before ever had. There was no way he was gonna make it like this. Hutch hated him. He hated himself. What the hell did he have left?

Despair overwhelming him, he dragged in another shaky breath, and froze at the scent it carried.

His empty stomach growled, his dry mouth filling with saliva at the delectable smell of steak cooking. That wonderful aroma was coming from nearby. Nearby, like in his own kitchen.

Bewildered, he stared out the open bedroom door, only now noticing the light that was spilling in. The lamps in the living room were both lit.

Who?

Normally, Hutch would have been his first guess, but after this morning, there was no way Hutch would be back this soon for a second round. Which left who? He hadn't had a girlfriend steady enough to merit a key to his place since long before Gunther. Hug had a key, but it was really unlikely that Huggy would just drop by to cook for him unannounced like this.

His curiosity winning out over his depression, Starsky hauled himself from the bed and headed for the kitchen.

It was Hutch.

For the longest time, Starsky could just stare. It was like this morning's blowup had never happened. Hutch looked perfectly at ease as he messed with the steaming pots and pans on the stove. Hutch was wearing a red plaid lumberjack shirt and a pair of tight black jeans that Starsky hadn't seen Hutch wear in years. Hutch looked great in them, younger, much more his old self. If it weren't for the moustache, Starsky would have thought that he'd stepped back in time two or three years.

He'd never understood what had brought about the advent of the baggy pants and shirts Hutch favored these days. Hutch's attitude had matched the clothes for the most part, sarcasm and cynicism hiding the idealist Starsky had taken to his heart years ago. That hardened Hutch would never have come back here so soon without an apology from him. It was weird, but looking at Hutch now, it really seemed as if Hutch had dropped the layers of cynicism he'd worn these last few years when he'd ditched the baggy wardrobe a few days ago. It was his imagination, of course, but Starsky couldn't help but think he saw a difference in the way Hutch moved—confident, fluid and graceful, which after Friday was nothing short of amazing.

Something like that was supposed to dent a man's self-confidence, not bolster it. Though Starsky was glad to see Hutch looking so lively and revitalized, the source of the change mystified him.

He rested his hand on the back of the nearest chair without looking. Cool, slick leather brushed his palm. Glancing down, he saw Hutch's black leather jacket and holstered Magnum hung on the chair—sure signs that Hutch was at ease. Hutch never went anywhere without his piece. Hutch physically parted from his gun only when he was completely certain of his safety. The only accouterments of their trade visible on Hutch at the moment were the handcuffs the big blond had hanging from the back right belt loop of his jeans. The overhead light glinted off them every time Hutch shifted position at the stove.

As if sensing the observation, Hutch glanced his way.

Starsky braced himself, but Hutch didn't jump this time, nor did anger fill his features. To the contrary, a shy, tentative expression gentled his handsome face as Hutch said, "Hi."

"Hi, yourself," Starsky answered, hoping his voice didn't sound as scared as he felt. "Ahh . . .not that I mind, but . . . what're you doin' here?"

"I was hungry," Hutch answered in a distractingly soft voice. "Thought you might be, too."

Starsky gulped. He recognized that tone; although it had never been directed at him before. It was that quiet, tender voice Hutch usually used with his dates.

"Are you? Hungry?" Hutch prodded after an uncomfortable silence.

"I . . . yeah, I guess," Starsky finally managed, totally bewildered. Hutch should've been furious with him, not here cooking him dinner. Still, the happy smile his response earned him told him that he'd made the right choice. Seeing this as an opportunity to address his earlier bad manners, Starsky said, "About this mornin' . . . ."

Hutch's features hardened with resolve. "Let's not talk about this morning or Friday night right now, okay?"

This wasn't a complete pardon then, merely a stay of execution. His stomach tightening up on him again, Starsky gave a miserable nod.

Still unbearably thirsty, Starsky crossed to the sink and quickly downed two large glasses of water. It made him feel more human, like he might be able to face whatever was coming.

What came was a mundane request.

"You wanta get a couple of beers from the fridge?" Hutch suggested.

Feeling like he was walking on eggshells, Starsky did as bidden. When he got back to the table with the beers, Hutch was busy dishing the steaks and side dishes out. Despite himself, Starsky's mouth was watering as the French fries, spinach, and onion-drenched steak were placed before him.

"Looks good," Starsky said, at a loss for words.

"Well, it's not there to be looked at. Dig in, buddy," Hutch said with a real grin that didn't seem either forced or faked.

To his surprise, his hunger kicked in. The steak was cooked to perfection, singed on the outside, but rare and juicy in the middle, just the way he liked it. Unlike breakfast, the silence wasn't strained. They both ate like they'd been stranded on a desert island for months, the only sounds grunts of approval or requests for various condiments to be passed. Soon there was nothing but some gristle, a few spinach leaves, a scrawny fry and a ketchup stain left on Starsky's plate. Hutch's was in a similar state, with only the gristle and an overcooked, blackened onion bit.

"God, that was great," Starsky said as he popped the top on another can of beer. His thirst had made the first disappear within seconds. "Thanks."

"My pleasure," Hutch said with a satisfied looking smile.

"No, definitely my pleasure," Starsky tried for humor, not really expecting much. Hutch's hearty chuckle nearly propelled him out of his chair.

"We, ah, got some things we need to talk about, partner," Hutch said after a few comfortably quiet minutes in which they sat there companionably sipping their Coors.

"Yeah," Starsky agreed. He wished that things could be put off, that he could sit here forever with this happy looking Hutch, but sooner or later reality would rear its head. He supposed it was better to get it over with fast. There'd be plenty of time to count his losses later.

"Maybe we should move inside where it's more comfortable," Hutch suggested tentatively.

Starsky followed Hutch into the living room. Hutch sat down on the couch's closest end. Normally, when Hutch took that position, Starsky would sprawl in the middle, but tonight he found himself sitting primly at the far end, his feet firmly planted on the floor, with over a three-foot buffer zone between them. Even with all that space, he could feel Hutch's sudden tension.

Wondering why Hutch was insisting on doing this when it was obviously just as hard for him, Starsky asked the only question he could think of. "Did Hank tell you to come here tonight?" he tried to keep his voice non-combative, but he hated the idea of Hutch being forced into seeing him.

Hutch gave a nervous chuckle at the question. "Hardly. He thought I should let you stew. He didn't put it that way, of course. 'Give him some time to come to terms with the situation,' was the way he phrased it, I think."

"You didn't listen to him," Starsky said, wondering if he sounded as confused as he felt.

"No . . . distance . . . felt wrong." Hutch sighed, leaning his head against the back of the couch until Starsky was left to stare at the sharp profile of his face. "Did I make the wrong choice? You want me to clear outta here?"

Starsky was startled to notice that Hutch appeared uncertain again. Almost afraid, if the bobbing of his Adam's apple were anything to go by.

"No," Starsky said instantly. He didn't need any time to think about his response to that question. "I don't want ya to go. I just . . . don't understand how you can want to be around me after . . . ."

"It all keeps coming back to Friday night for you—doesn't it?" Hutch asked in a quiet, subdued voice.

"Doesn't it for you?" Starsky shot back, not understanding how it couldn't.

"Friday was bad, Starsk, don't get me wrong, but . . . it wasn't the worst we've seen in the thirteen years we been together."

"Name one thing that was worse," Starsky demanded. He was trying to keep a tight reign on his anger and defensiveness, but he was beginning to feel like he was being patronized. Hutch had been there. How could he possibly dispute the severity of what they'd been through?

Hutch answered this one just as quickly. "Gunther's hit on you. Those days that you were in the coma were the worst thing I ever lived through."

Hutch wasn't lying. Though he was still leaning back with his longish blond hair spilling over the bright afghan Starsky's mom had made, Hutch had tilted his head so that his eyes met his. There was no doubting the truth in their steady depths.

When Starsky made no protest, Hutch went on. "To tell you the truth, Bellamy's poison was worse and so was Forrest hookin' me on horse."

"How-how can you say that?" Starsky asked in a voice that sounded like a confused child's to his own ears. "You . . . you were raped . . . ."

Hutch released a long, sibilant breath before correcting Starsky in a gentle tone. "We were forced to have sex in a manner neither of us was prepared for yet. Anderson may have . . . raped me with his fingers," Hutch's control sounded shaky, as if what Anderson had done was harder to take than Starsky's penis violating him, "but I don't consider what went down between us as rape. I wish you'd try to do the same."

"How can you not . . . ?" Starsky shut his mouth, realizing how stupid he was being. If Hutch had found some peace in all of this, who was he to go blasting it away because he couldn't salve his own guilty conscience?

Hutch straightened up with a sudden burst of movement, as though the topic were all too much for him. "Look, can we change the subject for a few minutes? Please?"

"Sure. What d'ya wanta talk about instead?"

"I want to talk about Thursday night, not Friday," Hutch said in a strangely intense tone.

Starsky felt like a pit full of snakes had just opened up in front of him. There was no place to retreat to, and if he took a single step forward, he was going to go tumbling down into their slimy depths.

"What about Thursday night?" Starsky found himself using the hostile tone he'd been determined to avoid tonight.

Hutch was nowhere near as collected as he'd let on. Starsky saw Hutch's resolve almost visibly waver under his less than hospitable response.

Good. Maybe Hutch would have the sense to let this particular sleeping dog lie.

But once again Hutch's courage astounded him.

After taking a deep breath, Hutch said carefully, "I guess you could say that we went someplace that neither of us planned on visiting that night."

Somehow this was scarier than talking about the rape. Starsky's mouth dried up in a second, his stomach tightening in a stranglehold he could barely breathe around.

"What do ya want me to say?" Starsky asked at last.

"The note you left me seemed to suggest that you had something you wanted to talk to me about." Hutch's calm was forced. Starsky could see a faint, nervous tremor running through his tightly held, muscular body, like it was taking every ounce of strength Hutch possessed to sit there and ask that question.

For the life of him, Starsky didn't know what Hutch was fishing for. Finally, he settled on a reply that seemed suitable in light of Friday's events. "I, ahh, guess this is my night for insufficient apologies, huh? I know it doesn't mean nothin' now, but . . . I'm sorry: really, really sorry any of this ever happened to you."

Hutch froze, as if the wind had been knocked out of him. "Is that what you planned on telling me on Friday night if things'd gone differently—that you were sorry?"

Without warning, the emotional atmosphere changed between them again. Starsky hadn't a clue as to what he'd said wrong, but there was a dangerous air of controlled fury about Hutch now. It reminded him of that time Hutch had gone for him when he'd told Hutch about Gillian being a hooker. Only, Hutch wasn't distraught now, just silently vibrating with tension.

"Hutch, let's not do this . . . please?" he all but begged.

"Answer the question, Starsky," Hutch snapped, every bit of the hard-edged cynic back in his face. "Were you gonna tell me you were sorry?"

"What does it matter now what I was gonna say?" Starsky shot back, feeling trapped. "Friday blew everything to hell. There ain't nothin' left to talk about."

Hutch's body jerked as if he'd been flicked with the razor sharp edge of a whip. "Is that so?"

Shivering at the cold and dangerous tone, Starsky tried again, "Hutch, please . . . ."

"I wanna hear whatever you were gonna say, Starsky," Hutch insisted.

Starsky searched for the words, ripping his soul apart for a polite way to tell the truth. How was he supposed to tell Hutch that what they'd done Thursday had made him want what Anderson had forced him to take from Hutch? How could he tell this man he'd raped that he'd desired to know him that way—without it sounding like he'd enjoyed what Anderson had made him do?

Maybe there was some way to explain all that, but Starsky couldn't articulate it. All he knew was that he felt like a monster for feeling these things after Friday and if he told Hutch the truth, Hutch was gonna see him as a monster, too.

"I can't do this," Starsky whispered, hauling himself to his feet. "I'm goin' back to bed. Thanks for dinner. Let yourself out."

Before the visibly startled man on the other side of the couch had time to reply, Starsky was back in his bedroom. It was the coward's way out, he knew, but he couldn't face baring these horrible truths to the person he'd sexually brutalized two nights ago. He just couldn't.

So he crawled back into the shadowed womb of his tangled sheets, safe in the dark lair of his lightless existence like all the other monsters.

What he hadn't counted on was the sheer perversity of his contrary, thick-as-a-brick partner.

Starsky wasn't in there two minutes when he saw the tall silhouette outside his door. Hutch paused there, backlit by the golden light of the living room lamps. Starsky prayed that Hutch would have the sense to just let it be, but when had Hutch ever taken the easy route out of anything in his life? The idealist may have turned cynic, but Hutch still had that dreamer's determination—and the pig-headed ability to forge forward, even when common sense and decency demanded a withdrawal.

Hutch didn't just brave the monster's den. He did the unthinkable and flipped on the overhead light as he entered.

Starsky groaned at the blinding barrage, flinging his arm over his eyes to shield them from the merciless glare. "Would you turn that damn thing off?"

"We're through hidin' this in the dark, Starsk. We're gonna talk this through now."

"There ain't nothin' to talk through. Go home, Hutch."

"No such luck. You left me a note on Friday morning sayin' we had to talk. We're gonna talk—now."

"Hutch . . . ." he gave a warning growl.

Most men would have fled at the monster's emergence, but Hutch wasn't most men. Hutch showed as little fear of the monster as he did when the shark inside Starsky surfaced. Like a thirty-three and a third record stuck in an endless groove, Hutch angrily repeated, "Were you planning on tellin' me that you were sorry?"

Furious at Hutch for following him in here and getting in his face like this when all he wanted was to maintain the fragile status quo between them, Starsky found his anger overcoming his better sense. Before he could think of editing his response, the truth came spilling out in an angry, "No, I wasn't gonna say I was sorry. You happy now? Go home."

"What were you gonna say?" Hutch asked in a less argumentative tone.

Starsky couldn't see Hutch because his wrist was still shielding his eyes from the unforgiving light, but he could almost feel Hutch as he slowly approached the bed. Hutch's boots made soft sounds in the carpet as he moved.

"Nothin' that makes any difference now," Starsky answered. It was easier this way, talking without looking at Hutch. Even so, he could feel Hutch's gaze watching him, the way he'd feel the California sun on every inch of his skin.

"Starsk, were you . . . mad about what we did?" Hutch asked in a softer tone that was as seductive as velvet.

His throat too tight to even try speaking, Starsky gave a negative shake of his head. No matter how much he wanted to hide and put Hutch off the scent, he wasn't about to lie about something like that. Better Hutch saw him for the monster he was than that Hutch be misled into thinking his generous gift had offended.

"Did it . . . turn you off when you thought about it afterwards . . . disgust you?" Hutch tentatively probed, as if trying to help him sort out his feelings.

That snake pit was back in front of him once more, only, this time there was a cliff edge at his back. No move he made here was going to be either safe or right.

"Let's not do this, Hutch," he pleaded.

"Answer the goddamn question, Starsky!" Hutch snapped, from less than two feet away.

Starsky tensed at the proximity. "Why? What good'll it do now?"

The silence stretched. Though he was sorely tempted to peek out from under his shielding forearm, Starsky refrained form doing so. Hutch was too persuasive. If he gave an inch here, there'd be no holding his ground. And then . . . Hutch would know what a sick pervert he really was.

"Maybe . . ." Hutch's quiet voice was suddenly so soft and young that it hardly sounded like him; intensely uncertain just wasn't an attribute of Hutch, ". . . maybe I need to hear it. Maybe I want to hear it."

Starsky gulped. It was either that or choke. His heart was suddenly pounding so loud that he couldn't hear beyond its thunderous roar.

Hutch still wanted to hear how he felt about what they'd done Thursday?

He caught his breath. Still hiding behind his arm, Starsky forced himself to answer honestly. "It didn't disgust me. I-I really dug it."

There, that was safe. It didn't belittle Hutch's gift; it wasn't offensive, but at the same time, it didn't reveal too much of the truth, as in how much he had cherished what they'd done.

"I, ahh, don't see the problem here, Starsk. If you liked it and I liked it . . . ."

"Friday ruined everything," Starsky cut in before Hutch could say something he couldn't ignore.

"How?"

"What do you mean 'how'! They made me rape you."

"Friday had nothin' to do with me 'n thee, babe," Hutch answered in an insidiously mild and reasonable tone. "Thursday is what we're about, not Friday."

Starsky quivered all over at the soft argument. He pressed his arm tighter to his eyes to block out the rest of the room.

"Look," Hutch continued, "if I can try to move beyond Friday, can't you?"

"I don't know how," Starsky confessed, squeezing his eyes shut even tighter, wishing he could do the same with his ears.

"We could talk. We . . . we could try to make like Friday never happened and pick up where we left off Thursday . . . I-I'd really like that, babe."

Hutch couldn't have hurt him more if he'd thrust his fist through his chest cavity and ripped out his still-beating heart. Hutch's confession felt like that much of a vivisection. And it shouldn't have. Friday morning Starsky would have given his world to hear those words. Only now, they were like salt on an open wound.

"I . . . can't . . . ." he hissed, barely able to get the words out.

"Why not?" Hutch demanded.

Starsky couldn't comprehend how Hutch couldn't understand his hesitation. In truth, he couldn't fathom how Hutch would want his touch at all now.

As much as he wished that he could just crawl away from this conversation and die, he couldn't leave Hutch hanging there in this horrible silence after Hutch had been so brave and admitted his feelings, incomprehensible as they were to him. So, he forced himself to be honest again. "I . . . I can't stand myself right now, Hutch. What they made me do to you . . . I don't know how to live with that."

Starsky tensed all over as the bed sagged beside his left hip, the sudden heat announcing Hutch's presence there.

"I know it hurts," Hutch said in that soft, healing tone. "I've felt like hell myself these last couple of days, but . . . we can't let what Anderson did to us destroy us, partner."

Starsky shivered as a warm palm settled gently on his shoulder. There wasn't anything suggestive or sexual in the contact, but it was like that shoulder had a direct circuit to his groin. Starsky's insides liquefied under the sudden heat that pulsed through him. His whole body seemed to throb with need in reaction to the simple gesture. He turned on harder and faster than he ever had in his life, like some hormonal sixteen-year-old about to cream his jeans at the thought of getting laid.

Normally, he would have delighted in such instant chemistry, but tonight it only made him feel more miserable. Hutch might have said that he wanted to pick up where they'd left off Thursday, but Starsky didn't feel it was right for him to get turned on like this by such an innocent touch.

"It ain't what Anderson did, it's what I did that I can't live with," Starsky tried to explain, his body tensing, his lungs constricting as he tried to fight off this nearly irresistible surge of longing. It was ridiculous. This was Hutch; the man he'd worked with every day for over thirteen years. He shouldn't be reacting this way, but even the faint traces of Hutch's manly aftershave was making his stomach do flip-flops.

He raised the knee nearest Hutch up, hoping to conceal his problem and give his straining erection some room. He didn't dare open his eyes now 'cause he'd probably come just from the sight of Hutch bending so close over him.

"Starsk, I know it's hard, but you gotta try to forgive yourself, just like I'm tryin'."

"I don't know how you can forgive me . . . ."

"I wasn't talking about forgivin' you, babe," Hutch corrected gently. "As far as I'm concerned, there isn't anything to forgive. Anderson was the culprit that night. You were just another victim."

"Then what're you talkin' about?" Starsky asked, wondering if his raging hard-on had made him miss a major part of the conversation.

"Forgiving myself."

"For what?" Starsky was still mystified.

"A lot of stuff. For being stupid enough to get caught. For not being able to prevent it from happening."

"Hutch, none of this is your fault," Starsky insisted, unable to believe what he was hearing. He dropped his arm away from his face and opened his eyes to stare up into that nearby face so that Hutch would read the truth of what he was saying. The troubled expression pinching those handsome features squeezed at his heart, even as the sight of Hutch sent an almost electric charge coursing through his groin.

"And it isn't yours, either. I know that doesn't stop it from hurting, but we can't throw everything away just because of one run of bad luck. I really want us to go back to where we were before Friday night happened, Starsk. Couldn't we try, please?"

Starsky abruptly understood where the electricity sparking through his loins emanated from —Hutch's eyes. They were such an incredibly vivid, incandescent blue that they almost seemed to be glowing with an inner light. Every time they touched his own gaze, electric sparks flew between them. Starsky knew he didn't have a chance in hell of resisting them, so he turned away.

He tried to think about this subject objectively, unemotionally, but as much as he wanted Hutch, every time he thought about acting on that impulse, his conscience flayed him with the burning image of raping his bound partner.

"I wish it were that easy, Hutch," he said at last.

"Why can't it be? If we're both willing . . . ."

"Every time I look at you now, I see what they made me do to you . . . ." he met Hutch's eyes again and tried to explain.

He wasn't prepared for Hutch's reaction. The light in that brilliant gaze died as if a switch had been thrown. Hutch looked devastated by that single remark. A bleak despair darkened his face. It made Starsky hate himself all the more. He was almost grateful when the emotions sparked over into anger.

"So I'm ruined for life because of that?" Hutch sneered.

"Hutch," Starsky tried to reason, "please, I didn't mean that you . . . ."

"Do you know what it's been like for me these last two days?" Hutch demanded. "I felt so dirty after what had been done to me . . . so . . . worthless. I was scared to death that you were never gonna be able to look at me the same again. It took Hank two days to come close to convincing me that it wasn't my fault . . . and now you're tellin' me that I was right, that you're never gonna be able to look at me again without seeing . . . God, Starsk . . . ."

"No, Hutch, I didn't mean it like that. It's just . . .they forced me to take something that should've been a gift . . . ruined something that should've been good for you."

"So you think that punishing me for the rest of our lives is gonna make up for what Anderson forced you to do? How's that gonna make it better?"

"Punishing you?" Starsky blankly repeated.

"What else do you call this?"

"Hutch, you can't really want me that way. Not after Friday," Starsky insisted.

"Who says I can't? Wanting you was the only thing that got me through that," Hutch argued. He looked like he wasn't too sure he should have voiced those words, like maybe he thought he was admitting too much with them.

Even reading Hutch's hesitation, Starsky couldn't believe it could possibly be true. "Yeah, right."

"Don't blow me off like that!" Hutch flared.

"Then don't insult my intelligence. There wasn't nothin' in that night you liked or wanted."

"Not the way it went down, but . . . those things you said that night . . . they were true, every one of them. You . . . freaked me out when you said it out loud. It was . . . like you'd read the darkest secrets in my soul or somethin'."

"What did I say?" Starsky asked, totally at a loss once again.

Hutch's cheeks flamed a brighter red than even his windburn, but he boldly answered the question. "That deep down I always wanted you to do that."

"Huh? What're you talkin' about?"

Hutch's gaze shied away for a moment, before he seemed to force it back to meet Starsky's. "That's what you said when . . . when you were inside me."

His dinner roiled in his stomach, threatening a reappearance as Hutch reminded him of the stupid, arrogant garbage he'd spewed while in Villar's persona. "Hutch . . . I was just talkin', trying to get you to relax. I didn't mean any of that stuff."

Appearing totally uncomfortable, Hutch nodded slowly before saying, "Maybe so, but it was true all the same."

It was all too much to take in. Obviously, the fact that it was him did make a difference to Hutch, though Starsky couldn't fathom how it could. He'd taken a seminar at the local community college once where a shrink had spoken about a lot of psychological mumbo jumbo. He remembered how the guy had said that when something too horrible happened, the human mind was capable of blotting it out completely or twisting the event into something more manageable—the psychologist had called it denial, Starsky thought. Hutch might be doing that denial stuff, but . . . it didn't feel right.

Too confused to even begin to understand, Starsky took a deep breath and rallied his arguments. "Maybe what you're sayin' is true, but that don't change what I did. I hurt you bad. You-you jumped when I touched you yesterday . . . ."

Hutch winced. "I know. I'm . . . I'm jumpy."

"Hutch, that means that deep down you don't want me to touch you . . . ."

"How the hell do you know what I want? Did you ask me?"

The angry demand sparked off Starsky's own anger and his patience snapped. "Ask you what – did you want another go round with your rapist?"

"Stop callin' it that," Hutch ordered.

"What the hell else can I call it? You were tied down and cryin' . . . and I shoved my cock up inside you and took you by force . . . I can't ever take that first time back or make it up to you . . . never make things even between us again . . . . Whenever I touch you, that first time would always be there. We'd never be . . . equal again. I'm always gonna be a monster . . . ." he looked up at Hutch, hoping that he was understanding what he was trying to say.

The cold, hard features sent an icy shiver straight down his spine. It was almost a stranger sitting beside his hip, looking down at him out of Hutch's eyes—a desperate, angry stranger.

"So what you're saying is that if there was some way to make this even, we could get past this bullshit and get on with life?"

About to protest the 'bullshit' comment, the dangerous glint in Hutch's eye made him think better of it. So, Starsky nodded and said, "If there was a way to make it even again, I wouldn't feel like such a . . . pervert. But there ain't, so . . . ."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Hutch drawled in a deceptively mild tone. His expression was still chilling, his fierce control reining in God knew what.

"Huh?" Starsky questioned, totally unnerved by the super-charged atmosphere. If they were undercover and going into a drug meet, his instincts would have been telling him that they'd been set up. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up straight, the shark inside sending out a warning burst of adrenaline. Something was seriously wrong here, but . . . there were no hidden dangers here. It was only him and Hutch talking . . . .

"I can think of a way to even the score."

And before even the shark could decipher the meaning of the words, Hutch pounced.

Starsky gasped as both his hands were grabbed and roughly pulled up above his head. Before he could react, there was an ominous snick and he found himself handcuffed to his new brass headboard.

And, God help him, even then he didn't have the sense to be alarmed. When he looked up at Hutch looming above him, it was still mostly confusion running through him.

Hutch had the weirdest expression on his face—resolved, but almost sick at the same time.

"What the hell are you doin'?" Starsky demanded, more annoyed than actively scared.

"Evening the score."

"This ain't funny, Hutch," he protested angrily, unable to believe that Hutch could be serious.

"It's not supposed to be."

"I ain't kiddin'. Let me up! Now!" Starsky ordered, his voice and panic rising in equal measures. He'd seen that expression on Hutch's face only once before, in court that time they'd been forced to shop Lionel Reiger. Rarely in the thirteen years he'd known this man had Hutch forced himself to go against his better judgment.

Biting his lower lip, Hutch's expression hardened to stone. "Sorry, Starsk. No can do."

"Are you out of your mind?"

"Quite possibly," Hutch replied, running a hand through his longish blond hair, looking like he was trying to pump up his courage to actually act now that he'd set the stage.

"You can't do this! This is . . . ." Really beginning to fear for his safety, Starsky gave the cuffs a savage jerk. They were designed to restrain prisoners more than twice his weight. The cuffs held, of course, as did the sturdy brass headboard rung to which Hutch had attached them.

"You're gonna hurt yourself if you keep that up," Hutch advised in a frighteningly normal tone.

"Let me up from here!"

Hutch didn't even look at him this time; he seemed intent on finding something in his side pants pocket.

Furious, Starsky used Hutch's temporary distraction to aim a kick at Hutch.

Hutch intercepted his foot one-handed, calm as you please, and forced his leg back down to the bed. "Don't do that again, Starsk."

"Or what?" Starsky demanded, arching himself up, trying to free a leg. But Hutch just leaned sideways until his torso supported the left arm restraining him, superior weight and position winning out over his frantic determination. "You've snapped, you know that? Certifiable."

"Probably," Hutch agreed, unperturbed, finally pulling his hand from his pocket.

"When I get up from here . . . ."

"You can shoot me dead," Hutch said in the tone of a promise, looking like he really didn't care if he took him up on the option or not.

Hutch shifted around on the bed a bit, hooking his right leg over Starsky's thighs to hold his legs down, freeing up his hands.

Starsky's heart was racing a mile a minute, his pulse pounding a deafening beat in his ears as this unbelievable reality began to sink in. Hutch was really going to . . . to rape him. He gulped nervously, fighting back the ridiculous impulse to burst into tears.

Starsky knew he had it coming, in spades, but . . . he'd never thought Hutch would do something like this. It violated all the precepts of trust upon which their partnership was grounded.

Their bodies were pressed closer than lovers in an almost mocking parody of all the times they'd comforted each other with touch. But never before had being near Hutch made his flesh crawl like this.

Because of the enforced proximity, Starsky had no choice but to look down when Hutch brought whatever he'd hauled out of his pocket between them.

Goose flesh pricked up every inch of his skin when he saw the bone-handled scout knife that his clumsy partner was fumbling to open.

"What-what're you gonna do with that?" he questioned as Hutch finally opened the blade. Whatever it was, he didn't want to hang around to find out. He jerked at the cuffs again, fear and hysteria giving him almost super-human strength. All he managed to do was bruise his sweaty wrists. The right cuff actually nicked his skin, so hot blood dripped down among the clammy sweat that seemed to have broken out all over his body.

"Hold still," Hutch ordered in a no-nonsense tone.

Since that shiny, lethal little blade was coming straight for his neck, Starsky did as bidden and froze. Even the air seemed to solidify in his lungs as the weapon in Hutch's hand moved for him.

God, was Hutch gonna maim him? Did Hutch hate him that much for what he'd done Friday? He'd known it was freaky that Hutch hadn't blamed him for what had happened. Had all that repressed fury broken loose in this homicidal burst?

Hutch's left hand settled on his throat.

Instinct made Starsky press back against the pillows, but he could only move so far with Hutch pinning his lower body to the mattress and those cuffs binding him to the high headboard. Having his arms pulled up so far had been becoming uncomfortable, but it was beginning to look like he wasn't going to be around to suffer that long.

He gulped in fear at the determined light in Hutch's eyes, wondering if Hutch would stab through his recently healed chest or just slice his throat open . . . .

The familiar-featured stranger menacing him did neither. The thumb and middle fingers of Hutch's left hand gripped the collar of Starsky's navy blue sweatshirt and undershirt, lifting them up, away from his chest.

"Hey!" Starsky couldn't help but yelp as the knife cleanly sliced both his shirt and undershirt straight open. The sound of the material shredding sent a shudder through him. Starsky looked down as the ends fell back onto his chest, almost in their original position. There was just the tiniest trace of skin visible between the rent ends.

Holding the open jackknife between his teeth, Hutch reached out to grab the shirt ends. He pulled them far apart, baring his chest to the cool night air.

The only sounds in the room at all at that moment were that of both their labored breathing.

Hutch retrieved the knife from between his teeth.

Less terrified this time, Starsky silently watched as Hutch cut the clothes from his shoulders and arms. All that was left when Hutch was done was the back of his shirts, which he was laying on. Hutch calmly closed the knife and tossed it away, pausing to stare down at his captive.

Starsky wondered what he saw to interest him so. He looked down at himself, at the lurid collection of bullet holes and suture tracks marring his chest. The scars ran like a mad patchwork from his collarbones almost to his naval, his chest hair seeming to accentuate the damn things rather than conceal them. Suddenly, he was intensely aware that this was the first time he was naked in a sexual situation since Gunther. Thursday night hadn't really been threatening this way because he'd had his clothes on. Why he should care what Hutch thought about his disfigurement when Hutch was about to forcibly rape him bewildered him. All he knew was that he suddenly felt naked and incredibly vulnerable, and with his arms tied like this, he couldn't even cover himself. It was . . . humiliating.

"Guess it's enough to turn even a rapist off, huh?" he asked in a shaky voice. Though this kind of kinky bondage scene was the last thing he wanted to go down between Hutch and him, Starsky seriously didn't know if he'd survive if Hutch turned his back and walked away from him now.

"Don't." The palm that cupped Starsky's cheek belied the gruff tone of the command.

Starsky tried to jerk away and keep his eyes down, but that gentle pressure inexorably guided his gaze back up.

Part of him knew that he should turn his head, dig his teeth deep into that nearby hand and take a piece out of anyone who'd dare tie him up like this, but the understanding and raw pain in Hutch's eyes killed that impulse.

"There's nothin' about you that'd turn anyone off," Hutch whispered, trailing his thumb slowly down his thickly stubbled jaw and over his sensitive neck.

Starsky shuddered again; only this time it wasn't from repulsion.

Hutch's eyes were focused on his mouth with an intensity that was more than longing, more like actual physical hunger. Hutch was watching his mouth like it was killing him not to kiss him. For a moment Starsky couldn't figure out why Hutch was holding back, but then he realized that Hutch was probably afraid of getting bitten.

Starsky wanted to tell him not to worry and go for the kiss, but pride held him back. As much as he was enjoying this, Hutch had still forced him into it. It wasn't right that he make things too easy for his partner.

After a moment's indecision, Hutch took the safe route. He lowered his head and nuzzled Starsky's throat instead . . . which turned out to be even more devastating to his battered pride than the kiss would have been. Though he wasn't sure if it would have worked with Hutch, he knew how to hold himself back in a kiss. Years of necking had taught him how to go through the motions without getting totally lost in the experience and retain sovereignty over his body. But when it came to his throat, he was utterly helpless. With the pulsing exception of his penis, his neck was his most sensitive area. No one could touch him there or breathe on the skin there without turning him on hard and fast.

Hutch was already playing havoc with his controls just by being Hutch. When those lips touched the hypersensitive skin under his jaw, Starsky lost it completely.

The hot suction and warm breath playing over his most vulnerable erotic zone reduced him to a quivering heap in seconds. His erection, which had wilted at the sight of that knife coming for him, was abruptly back again, growing harder and needier as Hutch continued to kiss and nibble his neck.

This was supposed to be payback. Rape. He wasn't supposed to enjoy it, wasn't supposed to long for his attacker's touch, but Hutch was caressing him as he had on Thursday night, with that near-worshipful tenderness. By the time Hutch had finished with his neck, there was no pretending that he wasn't affected. Every nerve ending in his body was screaming out for similar attention.

His partner didn't disappoint him. Hutch moved from the hollow of his throat to the gory patchwork of scars with an eagerness that couldn't be disguised.

Starsky couldn't hold back his groan as Hutch's tongue explored each and every one of the horrid mementos with delicate precision. Hutch's fingertips played over the rough scars with cherishing gentleness, moving like they couldn't get enough of the feel of him.

"God, Hutch," he sobbed as his partner sucked his left nipple into his mouth. Hutch was fingering the incision mark trailing up to the pink nub as though that scar were an incredibly sexy erotic highlight instead of the gruesome disfigurement it was. His emotions were running so high that Starsky felt hot tears sting his eyes as Hutch suckled there. No matter what Hutch did to him after this, he'd be grateful for this moment for the rest of his life.

What Hutch did to him was move to the other nipple and repeat the pleasure. As if that weren't enough to drive him crazy, Hutch's fingers got into the act. While Hutch's mouth was occupied at his chest, Hutch's hands did a little extracurricular exploring of their own.

"Aaaaaahhhh . . . ." Starsky cried out as Hutch's right hand followed the trail of body hair down the center of his chest, over his solar plexus to the waistband of his jeans.

His belly button was right above the denim obstruction. Hutch paused at the fabric roadblock, taking a few minutes for his index finger to investigate the shallow depression of his navel and do its damnedest to drive Starsky out of what was left of his mind.

Then Hutch's mouth was on the move again and sanity was only a fond memory.

Feeling as though he were nothing but a mass of pulsing, tingling protoplasm, Starsky prayed that his partner's succulent mouth would follow the trail that his fingers had blazed. But instead of moving downwards, Hutch wandered to the side. His tongue lapped the curve of his breast, skimming the muscles of his ribs, which were taut and well-defined because of the way his arms were pinned over his head. Finally, Hutch homed in on his objective—a place Starsky could recall no other lover purposefully touching.

Starsky's eyes snapped open and he focused on his partner's face as the fingers of Hutch's left hand carded through the dark, moist hair of his armpit. Hutch's expression was so intense, so captivated that he hardly knew what to make of it.

Hutch had him trussed up here at his mercy, and the guy was gonna waste his time playing with his smelly armpit?

Unusual as it was, the attention there was exciting. Starsky shivered as Hutch's fingernails lightly grazed the skin below as they carded through the perspiration beaded body hair. Then Hutch lowered his head to suck and nip there and Starsky's nervous system went wild.

While Hutch's mouth was busy getting intimate with the flavor of his sweat, his fingers played down Starsky's exposed sides—also a place few lovers spent much time investigating, except for chance brush-overs. As with the armpit, the fingertips took their time there, stroking, circling, teaching him that this was a place that could take enjoyment, too.

His lower body bucked up at Hutch like a current of raw electricity had just jolted through him; it certainly felt that way. He was almost thirty-eight years old. It was a hell of an age to discover a whole new pleasure zone. The fact that he was tied here, unable to stop Hutch from exploring these bizarre areas, made the whole thing even more titillating.

He wasn't even surprised when Hutch nibbled up the tender skin on the underside of his bicep and kept going. His partner seemed intent on discovering the taste and texture of every inch of him, no matter how mundane.

He gasped when Hutch licked the crease of his elbow. It, too, seemed to be hotwired straight to his groin. His gasp mutated into a pleading moan under the starbursts of delight that flashed along his neural path. It was all too much. He'd expected pain and angry retribution, not this transcendental ecstasy. Hutch seemed to take body parts that he had been only nominally aware of before and turn them into stunningly sensitive pleasure receptors. When his suddenly vitalized forearm received the same nibbling attention, he was left a needy wreck, twisting helplessly in his bonds as Hutch methodically destroyed him.

It was there that they got to the point where Hutch couldn't comfortably reach much more of him. Thinking that the wonderful journey into previously unexplored territories was over, Starsky closed his eyes and waited to find out what would come next.

This was supposed to be payback, after all. Pretty soon, they were going to have to get to something unpleasant that he wasn't going to enjoy. As much as he appreciated it, he didn't understand why Hutch was being so gentle with him, but it was almost as if tender was the only way Hutch knew how to do sex.

His eyes snapped open as Hutch's weight shifted off his lower body. Their gazes met, both acknowledging the moment of vulnerability when Starsky had the opportunity to kick or knee Hutch in the groin, were he so inclined. Hutch took his time shifting, seeming to give Starsky every chance to make his move, but . . . Starsky couldn't do it, not after how good Hutch had been to him.

Starsky didn't know what this was, but it sure as hell didn't fit his definition of rape.

So he lay there and watched Hutch shift around until his knees were straddling his captive's chest and Hutch could now reach further. The black denim of Hutch's jeans felt hard and coarse against the bare skin of his sides. After all that unprecedented attention, the skin there seemed unusually alert, but he lost all awareness of the small discomfort almost immediately.

He squirmed as Hutch's mouth reattached to his hypersensitive inner elbow, twisting helplessly against his bonds. Hutch took his time there before moving higher up his bound arms. Though not quite as reactive as his inner elbows, a shivery delight coursed through him as his forearms received the same loving attention. Hutch played his fingertips over the pale skin of his inner arm, the tickly touch tracing the trails of blue veins below the translucent skin. Then Hutch's tongue would lightly skim the same path. The cool stream of breath Hutch directed over the slick skin was Starsky's complete undoing. Nothing had ever felt like that. Even his neck didn't have that kind of shuddery response. That this incredible sensation could come from a place no one else had ever even thought of touching totally blew him away.

God, it was like he'd never felt his body before. He felt as if Hutch were introducing him to some exotic narcotic, instead of acquainting him with the same boring flesh he'd inhabited for the last thirty-seven years.

It was only as he approached Starsky's wrists that Hutch hesitated.

Too lost in a sexual haze to be anything but confused, Starsky watched as guilt swept over those passion-flushed features as Hutch's eyes scanned the bruised and bloody flesh under the cuffs. Not liking either the tension or guilt, Starsky was temporarily at a loss as to what to do.

He knew if he opened his mouth right now and asked to be released, the cuffs would be gone in a second . . . but then the sex would probably grind to a halt and Hutch would be off on the granddaddy of all guilt-trips. As much as his arms were hurting like a son-of-a-bitch and he longed for the freedom to touch in return, Starsky wasn't willing to jeopardize destroying this precious moment, but he didn't know how to communicate that without bringing about the very events he feared. So, in the end, he mutely thrust his bound wrists towards his partner. At the same time, he slowly lifted his left leg up behind Hutch, using his knee to press into the small of his partner's back. Exerting the slightest pressure, he urged Hutch forward.

Hutch seemed to be so overcome with remorse that he completely misinterpreted Starsky's message. Hutch's hand jumped to his right side pants pocket, where Starsky knew his friend's key ring resided.

Realizing that speech would be necessary, after all, Starsky shook his head and pleaded, "No, don't."

"Huh?" Hutch abruptly appeared nervous and self-conscious, everything Starsky didn't want him to be right now. He liked this Hutch who had taken control of the situation, tied him down and forced this pleasure upon him. It was kinky as all hell, but thrilling at the same time. He didn't want it to devolve into a guilt fest.

"Finish what you started," Starsky commanded, shivering at the incredulous wonder that suffused his partner's face. Hutch looked stunned and relieved at the same time, like he couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Once again, Starsky offered his shackled wrists, using his knee to propel Hutch forward.

Hutch's chest heaved beneath the still primly buttoned red, white and black plaid lumberjack shirt as Hutch gasped in utter shock. His words visibly knocked the wind out of Hutch. He really looked as though he'd believed that Starsky was still desperate to be freed.

Starsky didn't know who his partner had been sleeping with lately, but he didn't know a human being on the planet with the strength or moral fiber to turn their back on the unmitigated delight Hutch was dispensing. If word ever got out at how good Hutch was at this, there would be riots in the street as people fought to be the first in line to be shackled to Kenneth Hutchinson's bed.

The most incredible part was that Hutch just didn't get it. Starsky had never been able to understand how a guy with his partner's good looks could be as clueless to his sexual appeal as Hutch was, but his attractive best friend never acted like his appearance was anything special. It was one of the things he loved most about the man. From the day he'd met him, Hutch had been a virtual Adonis, but Hutch had never once displayed a bit of the arrogance that so characterized the other California golden boys Starsky had run across.

Take now, for instance. Anyone else would have been smug over the obvious conquest they had made by suborning their bound victim's will, but Hutch's expression was one of complete bewilderment as he moved to comply with Starsky's request.

He sighed in relief as Hutch's warm, wet tongue returned to his forearm and the disaster was diverted. The sucking kisses worked their way steadily towards the handcuff. Once he reached the damaged area, Hutch's tongue peeked out again to carefully lap. Starsky shivered all over when he realized that Hutch was cleaning the blood from his abraded wrist.

Starsky thought that Hutch would be finished with that arm when it seemed that the injured area had been thoroughly taken care of, but instead of pulling back, Hutch's tongue just worked its way up into his palm. Hutch began to lick steadily right over his lifeline, lapping rhythmically as a contented cat.

Starsky couldn't recall ever having any particular sensitivity in that area, even though many a lover had caressed him there before, but this time he lit up like a Christmas tree.

"My, God . . . Huuuutchhh!"

He felt the full lips smile against his palm. He closed his hand so that he could cup Hutch's cheek in the closest thing he could manage to a caress.

Hutch's reaction wasn't exactly what he was anticipating. His partner's groin was directly in his line of sight. When Starsky flicked his fingers across Hutch's temple, he saw the front of Hutch's pants bulge forward, as though he'd just blown down Hutch's neck or something equally stimulating.

Starsky eyed that straining erection, calculated the distance involved and decided it was worth giving it a shot. When Hutch's attention seemed to be focused once again on his oral investigation of his left hand, Starsky leaned his head forward as far as he could . . . and bumped his face into that tempting basket dangled before him.

Above him, Hutch hissed and sat straight up, abandoning his ministrations, while below Starsky's nose . . . the flesh jerked and expanded to impressive proportions. Starsky knew from painful experience that it wasn't easy to tent denim that was as new as the jeans Hutch was wearing.

He pulled back to see how Hutch was doing and sucked in a surprised breath at the stunned joy on his partner's face. Unable to resist, Starsky leaned forward again and rubbed his cheek back and forth against Hutch's erection, feeling the flesh strain and pulse beneath the thick denim against his cheek. The heat there was phenomenal. He was so attuned to his partner that he could almost smell Hutch's arousal through the clothing separating them. The guttural groan Hutch gave from up above was one of the sweetest sounds he'd ever heard.

Next time he looked up, Hutch's gaze was hot and unfocused.

"Open your fly," Starsky ordered gruffly.

"W-what?" Hutch asked with a shocked air about him, as though he weren't straddling a half-naked man whom he'd handcuffed to the bed for the express purpose of forced sex.

"Open your fly," Starsky repeated, wondering what Hutch saw in his gaze to make him shiver so.

Hutch's face blazed bright red. He gave a nervous gulp, then moved his fingers to his pants' fastening to undo the button. A moment later the zipper jdjurred down.

Starsky felt his own pulse pound harder at the flash of stark white briefs that showed through the V of the open jeans. Appearing way too self-conscious for a guy who'd just tied another man to a bed, Hutch slowly pushed his jeans and underpants off his narrow hips, peeling them halfway down his thighs.

Starsky gulped as his partner's genitals bounced free. The blood-flushed cock, heavy pink balls and golden thatch of wiry pubic hair were exactly as Starsky remembered them from the other night—almost too beautiful to be on a man. Starsky had never thought of anything on another guy as particularly arousing, but Hutch was exquisitely formed, like some kind of organic sculpture. Just watching that throbbing vein on the long, thick cock rhythmically pulse made his own blood beat with the same need.

His mouth suddenly dry, Starsky swallowed hard. He licked his lips, and glanced up at his partner's face. His heart twisted at the open doubt there. No one should be that uncertain when having sex, Starsky thought, taking in the pained expression. Hutch looked like he had no idea what to do now with this raging hard-on and his partner tied here at his mercy. Any other man would have been all over him long before now, but Hutch appeared almost embarrassed by his erection. Blue eyes skittering nervously away, Hutch took a deep breath as though attempting to gain some control over his body.

Some rapist, Starsky thought affectionately. Orneriness might've been enough to drive Hutch to tying him down this way, but it just wasn't in his partner's character to go through with it all the way, to force sex upon him. If it hadn't already happened on Thursday night, Starsky would have fallen in love with his partner all over again right then and there. As it was, he felt himself going under for the third time as he rasped out, "Go for it, babe."

"Huh?" Hutch truly looked clueless.

Mentally shaking his head, Starsky leaned forward and rubbed his cheek against the moist cock. It was weird and exciting all at the same time. The bulk and scent of Hutch were unique, as was the fierce longing that rushed through him.

Hutch's hands jumped to Starsky's head.

Starsky squeezed his eyes shut as the fingers dug deep into his curls, gripping them in a death hold. He kept expecting to be forced to give head, but Hutch just continued to hold on to him as he rubbed his cheek against his partner's genitals, almost as if Hutch were using Starsky to keep himself upright.

Knowing what he had to do, Starsky swallowed hard. He'd only done this once, and then their positions had been reversed. Hutch had been tied down and Starsky had had total control of the situation. If he took Hutch into his mouth now, he'd have no way of moderating what went down. But if he kept on going like this, Hutch was gonna come all over his face in about two seconds flat if his leaking cock were anything to go by.

Bracing himself, Starsky pulled back a bit. He winced as Hutch's fingers frantically gripped his hair to hold him in place.

Up close like this, Hutch's cock seemed monstrously huge. Scratch huge, his partner was immense . . . and frightening, because he knew that before this night was over, Hutch was gonna put that thing up inside him.

Starsky shivered. Even if Hutch were willing to release him, there was no way he could ask for an out now, not and be able to face Hutch ever again. He'd taken this from Hutch on Friday; it was only fair that Hutch do the same to him. But, God, just the thought of that monster prick entering him made his stomach clench up in dread.

On the verge of panicking again, Starsky took a deep breath. If he couldn't even give head, how was he ever gonna survive what would follow?

Feeling the anxiety begin to take hold, Starsky concentrated on his breathing, the way he had the other night in Anderson's chamber.

Every breath he took carried the over-whelming aroma of Hutch's need. At first that smell only increased his fear, but after a few moments, his racing panic began to recede. That fragrance was just so Hutch that Starsky couldn't hold onto his mindless terror. That scent had been the background of his life for so long that it was almost like a part of himself. Hutch's smell had come to represent safety to him, and even tied here, it still comforted him on an unconscious level.

After a time, the musky, fresh scent of Hutch's hot flesh began to make Starsky's senses reel. It wasn't half-remembered moments of comfort that musk brought to mind now, but physical reminiscences of Thursday and Friday night. It got into his blood and danced there like some potent amphetamine, making him so hot that he had no problem opening his mouth and sucking in that nearby shaft. His jaw still ached at the stretch, but at least this time his body recalled how to breathe around that major obstruction.

He remembered the flavor from Friday night, but now that he wasn't scared out of his mind, he actually had the opportunity to appreciate it. Hutch was salty, yet sweetish at the same time. He tasted hot. Starsky didn't know how else to describe it. No matter what part of a body you put in your mouth, it had its own distinctive taste, as did people. Teri had been like dark chocolate, bitter and lush. Rosie'd been like soda pop, sweet at the time, but with an after-bite. While Hutch . . . Hutch was just hot, tasty, totally addictive.

Starsky stared at the golden fluff downing the pale belly in front of his face as he made the flavor of that cock a part of himself. It was killing him that he couldn't touch Hutch's balls or butt, that he could do nothing but lay here.

When Hutch began to move, his whole world changed. He had no time to angst about what was going to happen down the line. His only concern became his next breath, which was problematical with the way those pumping hips kept thrusting that huge shaft in and out of his mouth. He also had to think about his teeth. Hutch was pumping into his mouth with such wild abandon that Starsky was terrified that he was going to end up scraping the skin right off of that beautiful cock.

But even though it was hard going, Starsky still found himself enjoying it.

Hutch losing it so completely called to a part of himself that Starsky had always kept firmly in control, if he'd recognized it was there at all. There was something wild and savage about Hutch fucking his mouth like this when he could only lay here and take it. In the few domination fantasies Starsky had indulged in over the years, he'd never pictured himself on this side of it. It was always him taking some beautiful, bound, totally hot and willing female. He'd never been powerless in a sexual situation before—the very thought had always creeped him out. The idea that he could get off on his male partner thrusting into his mouth while he lay chained helpless to the bed totally blew his self-image, but . . . he loved it. The rush was unbelievable, totally mind-blowing.

Starsky almost laughed at the bad pun. If Hutch kept thrusting into him like this, it was going to be a lot more than metaphor. What remained of his brains and everything in all parts south was going to be nothing but melted protoplasm.

He didn't know if he'd have felt this way with anyone other than his partner, but the fact that he was totally at Hutch's mercy while Hutch used him like this floated his boat like little else had in his entire life. He wasn't sure if he was going to feel quite this excited when Hutch penetrated him later, but right now, he was hotter than he'd ever been.

His own cock was loaded with every bit of blood in his body. As Hutch thrust into his mouth, Starsky's hips pumped upwards in time, but it just wasn't enough. He couldn't get enough friction to come, so he tried to ignore his own need and concentrate on Hutch's. It wasn't exactly hard to do. Servicing Hutch's cock was the only thing in his world right now.

Starsky couldn't see Hutch's face, but judging from his actions, Hutch was totally gone. Hutch's hips were thrusting into his mouth with a savage selfishness Starsky knew his thoughtful partner would never have employed if he were in his right mind. He'd never seen Hutch so out of control. It scared him a bit, but somehow, he kept up with Hutch and didn't choke.

All too soon, he felt Hutch's body tense. Starsky knew what was about to happen even before he felt the balls beneath his chin tightening up.

The pulsing, fiery seed erupted forth, and it was all Starsky could do to swallow and breathe. It was like getting hit with an unending stream of hot seawater. The slick, mucousy substance was bitter and briny and full of power, just like the ocean. Even though he tried, he couldn't take it all. Hutch's semen gushed out of his mouth around the squirting cock, running over his chin and jaw in hot, slick rivulets.

This was where he really began to resent those cuffs, since he couldn't even move to clean himself up. He just had to lay there while Hutch continued to come. When Hutch collapsed above him with his softening cock still deep in Starsky's mouth, Starsky had to wait until Hutch pulled himself together enough to move, which seemed to take forever and a day.

What was even more frustrating was the fact that he couldn't even touch himself. He was about to drill a hole through the ungiving material of his jeans. He couldn't even adjust his penis to make it more comfortable in the denim vise. The blue jeans were hard, but it wasn't enough to get him off . . . and if he didn't get a little relief soon, he was going to die from the ache of it.

Finally, Hutch stirred. The lax cock pulled out of Starsky's mouth and Hutch was just straddling him again instead of collapsed all over him.

Starsky felt himself blush as Hutch's gaze moved over him. He felt like . . . he didn't know what. A cheap whore, maybe. He still had come and spittle dripping down his face and he couldn't even wipe it off. His hard-on was probably visible from Jupiter.

But Hutch wasn't looking at him like he was a used condom. There was a light in those vivid blue eyes, a sense of wonder that Starsky couldn't equate with the view before them.

Those brilliant eyes got closer and closer. Hutch tilted his head a little to the left, and then their lips were touching. It didn't seem to occur to either of them that Hutch might get bitten now. All there was, was the kiss, soft and tentative at first, growing deeper as no resistance was met. They seemed to just melt right into each other.

Starsky didn't know who opened his mouth first, but suddenly he had a hungry tongue poking around. Their tongues touched and frolicked with each other. Starsky shivered as the saliva was sucked out of his mouth, Hutch seemingly intent on absorbing as much of the bitter aftertaste of his coming as possible.

How long Hutch fed at his mouth, Starsky couldn't say. All he knew was that he needed to be touched and this kiss was feeding that need.

He moaned a little when Hutch's mouth finally pulled away a long time later, the sound of protest turning to one of shock as Hutch's tongue dutifully lapped every bit of lingering semen and dribble off Starsky's chin and neck. His stomach clenched up so tight that Starsky felt as if someone were physically squeezing his guts.

He arched up off the bed, needing more, needing everything. A frantic cry escaped his lips and for the first time tonight, he felt utterly helpless. He couldn't touch either Hutch or himself, couldn't move this any faster, all he could do was try to withstand this precious torture.

He knew this was payback and he didn't have any right to ask for any favors, but he still found himself pleading mindlessly, "Please, Hutch, please," as he shamelessly thrust his erection up at Hutch. If something wasn't done about his hard-on soon, Starsky was sure his cock was literally gonna burst apart from the pressure.

Hutch swung his knee back over Starsky until he was kneeling on Starsky's right side, on the inside of the bed.

Starsky cried out as Hutch stroked down his chest, petting him. Hutch's palm followed the trail of body hair down his stomach, then skimmed over the waistband of his jeans and continued further down.

Starsky couldn't even describe the sound that came out of him when that hot palm settled over his throbbing groin. A roar, or maybe a scream. All he knew was that it felt as loud as that hand felt hot.

When Hutch began to feel him up through his jeans, it was all Starsky could do to keep from creaming himself.

"Please, please, please . . ." he begged, and, finally, finally, Hutch fumbled his jeans' button open and undid the zipper.

Starsky was almost sobbing as his pants were peeled away. He was thankful that Hutch pulled them all the way off. He already felt too confined to have his legs tangled up in his pants.

Hutch sat back on his heels and just stared at him for the longest time. Starsky should have been nervous, but the gentle expression in Hutch's features assured him that Hutch liked what he saw.

At this point, Starsky didn't care what Hutch did to him, just so long as he got off on it. When it felt like that observation had gone on for centuries, Starsky decided to get things back on track. Thrusting his pelvis up at Hutch, he rasped, "It's in the nightstand drawer."

"What is?" Hutch asked, managing to look both blank and dazed at the same time.

"The Vaseline. You're gonna need it—aren't ya?"

A shiver went through him at the thought of Hutch taking him dry. Even that freak Anderson had provided lube. Hutch had been so gentle with him so far that he couldn't imagine Hutch purposefully hurting him at this point in the game.

Hutch gave a physical start at his words. "Oh, yeah, right."

Without further ado, Hutch leaned over his supine, bound form to open the nightstand drawer and fumble through its contents.

The contact was too much, too tantalizing for restraint. Of their own accord, Starsky's hips thrust up at the warm body on top of them.

Hutch gave a small, almost bashful smile as Starsky bucked into him. Still hunting through the drawer with his left hand, Hutch blindly reached down to give what was probably meant to be a reassuring pat to Starsky's thigh. What Hutch came up with was a handful of cock.

Starsky's entire body convulsed at the contact. He tried to keep the whimper in, but couldn't. He'd been hard when Hutch followed him in here an hour ago. He was beyond need now, well into the arena of insanity. He honestly didn't care if Hutch fucked him at this point, just so long as he came in the process.

"Don't . . . ." Starsky begged as Hutch pulled back, moving totally off him again. He knew he was over-reacting, but he felt utterly abandoned by the loss of contact. If Hutch got up off this bed and walked away and left him here like this, he'd die. There was just no way he could survive this much wanting. Even if he weren't restrained, his own hand wouldn't have been enough to save him at this point.

"I'm not goin' anywhere," Hutch gently promised.

Starsky took a deep breath and nodded, relaxing just a little. Hutch wasn't going to abandon him . . . which meant that Hutch was going to fuck him now.

The realization brought him to a new peak of intensity.

His gaze settled on the blue and white-labeled jar in Hutch's right fist. Starsky had thought he was beyond caring, but a frisson of nervousness shuddered down his spine now that the moment of truth was upon him.

As much as he wanted Hutch to do him any way he wanted, Starsky still found he couldn't watch it happen. He took another deep breath, screwed his eyes shut and spread his legs.

Although his cock was still hard as an iron pipe, every muscle in Starsky's body tensed up as the mattress shook when he felt Hutch scramble between his splayed legs. He wasn't sure if he successfully held in his shiver as he heard the Vaseline lid open with that distinctive, tinny pop.

A breathy silence was followed by something that sounded like fabric being hastily shifted.

Starsky couldn't have opened his eyes then if his life had depended upon it. He was aware of every millimeter of his body as never before. It was like Hutch had opened the door to his self-awareness. He didn't even want to consider what the pain was gonna feel like with this heightened sensitivity when Hutch pushed up inside him. After how thorough Hutch had been everywhere else, Starsky had really expected Hutch to spend some time preparing him back there, relaxing the muscles and opening him up, but as he lay there in growing dread, Hutch never even lifted his legs to touch his backside. From the sound of the raspy breathing, Hutch was just kneeling there, greasing himself up, probably too far gone to think about trivialities like foreplay and the need to stretch virgin territory.

Well, he'd wanted things even. Payback was only fair. He couldn't really expect Hutch to forget what had been done to him on Friday night. This had been too good to be true so far. Sooner or later it was going to have to get back to the original game plan. He'd just begun to hope that . . . .

Starsky literally jumped as a warm hand settled on his right thigh. All thought stopped cold in his brain. His whole body seemed to turn to a block of ice; even the breath froze in his lungs.

This was it, the moment of truth.

He gave an unconscious shudder as Hutch's fingertips skimmed lightly over his hairy inner thigh. Even in this, Hutch was tender.

Starsky spread his legs even wider as more blood flooded his straining cock and he needed more room down there. His erection didn't know what was about to go down. As scared as he was—and he was plenty frightened—he was still fiercely aroused, his body having missed his mental panic attack. He was still nearly frantic with suppressed lust and anxiety. He couldn't figure out what the hell Hutch was waiting for, why Hutch didn't just get on with it. But those fingers kept stroking his inner thighs, lulling him, easing him, acting like they had all of eternity to get through this.

Starsky gasped as a sticky hand collected his cock. Hutch must have just finished lubing himself up, because his palm and fingers were covered with the petroleum gel. Starsky was practically coated in the stuff as Hutch pumped the tortured organ in his hand.

Lust eclipsing his fear, Starsky just whimpered in need and went with it, his hips surging up at Hutch with all his heart and soul.

Hutch was a genius. He knew exactly how to get him back into that headspace of not caring what happened to him, so long as orgasm was involved. Hutch also apparently understood how close to coming he was, for moments before he was sure he was gonna shower them both, that greasy hand withdrew.

His body tensing up once more, Starsky held his breath as he felt Hutch shuffling around again. After some more clothes rustling, there was a soft whoosh, as if something had landed on the floor. The moment stretched out into eternity, anticipation, anxiety and sheer terror waging a brutal war with waning lust. Starsky tried to mentally prepare himself for the next few minutes. His legs would be lifted up, his buttocks parted, and then . . . and then Hutch would have his revenge and they'd be even.

The bed dipped again and . . . and . . . .

Starsky's eyes snapped open as something totally not in the game plan went down. His legs weren't lifted. He wasn't penetrated by either cock or fingers. He wasn't even sucked off. Instead, a warm, slick, chokingly tight, living heat pulled him in.

Stunned, Starsky looked up to see his squatting partner slowly lower himself onto his engorged penis. Hutch's clothes were gone. He was as naked as jaybird . . . and as beautiful as an angel.

Hutch's expression was one of intense concentration as he sank down onto his shaft, like he was memorizing every aspect of the impalement.

Starsky could feel the resistance in his lover's flesh, could hear it in the pain-filled grunts his brave partner couldn't quite hold in. Friday night had no doubt left its mark on his virgin passage. Starsky could see how much that initial stretch hurt by the grimace Hutch gave. Hutch still had to be sore there; this had to be hurting like hell. But Hutch wasn't stopping. When the pain seemed to become too much, Hutch would pause and hold himself still while he sobbed in some air before beginning his relentless descent once again.

Too shocked to even think, Starsky held himself stone still and simply watched. He'd been ready to be raped, but this . . . this was heaven. He'd been certain that Friday night had forever destroyed any chance of this happening ever again, but here Hutch was, willingly giving himself to him at his own initiative.

Why Hutch would do it at all was beyond him. All he knew was that it was sublime from his end. He'd never felt anything to match this slow absorption.

When he was about halfway in, something happened. Hutch gave a gasp, his sudden stillness somehow different this time. Hutch's eyes lit with a fierce fire and he rocked himself carefully back and forth as he held himself in place.

The grunt this time was definitely not one of pain.

Hearing the startled pleasure, Starsky thrust his hips forward, hitting the spot that Hutch had discovered.

This time the cry from above was unmistakably one of sheer ecstasy.

"Oh, God, Starsk. Yeah . . . therrree!"

Barely able to credit Hutch's ecstatic expression, Starsky watched Hutch's eyes sink closed as his partner focused inwards. Hutch's head tilted back, the harsh overhead light starkly illuminating the unmistakable rapture twisting his features. He'd never seen Hutch look like this, like he was melting with pleasure from the inside out. Sweat beads popped out like diamonds on Hutch's forehead, beading on his moustache as well under the internal meltdown.

It killed Starsky that he couldn't touch Hutch in any other way at that moment. He wanted to hug Hutch tight and drill into that spot until he drove Hutch out of his mind with delight, until Hutch passed out from the feelings. But all he could do was thrust up and hope that he continued to find that magic spot.

And that just wasn't enough. Desperate for more contact, Starsky bent his knees up until they were gripping Hutch's sweat-slick sides, then he fumbled until his feet were flat on the bed. When he thrust up from this position, it put all their combined weight on his shoulders and almost ripped his arms right out of their sockets, but it did give him more maneuverability, which was all that mattered at the moment.

Hutch gave a surprised grunt at that first forceful thrust.

Starsky came up so strong that he seemed to unbalance Hutch. Hutch's arms shot out, his hands landing on his already stressed out shoulders to brace himself. The pressure on his back was phenomenal. He'd be lucky if he could walk when he was done with this, but right now, none of it mattered.

It should have been agony, would have been if his cock weren't running his life at the moment, but that thrust had buried him so deep in Hutch's body that he was barely aware of the pain. He was encased in Hutch, and that was as close to heaven as he could imagine. It was certainly closer than he'd ever gotten to it at any other time in his life. This was the perfect connection—his cock, Hutch's virgin-tight ass; they fit each other like they'd been sculpted for this moment, like their whole lives had been lived simply to bring them to this union.

Starsky's mind blanked out on him at that point and all there was, was sensation. The slap of their bodies together, their harsh, ragged breathing and guttural groans filled the room as fucking Hutch filled his reality. That tight, receptive body was all he was living for. There was nothing else that mattered in his world, nothing else that ever would again. Hutch was it for him. Hutch could leave him chained here to perish or put a bullet through his brain as soon as they were done and Starsky would die a happy, grateful man. This moment of ecstasy was worth any price to him. He wanted to hold on to it, make it last forever.

It sounded like a great game plan, and from the avid way Hutch was riding him, it seemed Hutch was equally content to string the experience out as long as humanly possible.

But time and flesh being what they were, the moment passed. You could only suspend time for so long. When it inevitably moved forward again, it came crashing down upon them both like a great sea wall. Starsky had never felt anything like it. Most times the feelings came hot and fast, fading almost as quickly as his body expelled his seed, but this time . . . it was like he'd stoked his pleasure centers with dry kindling and when Hutch sparked off his climax, it just lit the fire. He ignited all over, feeling it from his head to his toes. Every nerve ending that Hutch had called to life sizzled like they were burning up. Above him, Hutch was screaming as though the skin were being ripped off him, like he was dying of ecstasy, and maybe he was, for Starsky surely felt that way.

It went on and on and on, until there was no place else to go, until all that was left was hollow flesh and shaking limbs . . . and the reverberations of what had just passed, and what might be again in time, with proper handling.

Starsky felt like crying as the climax faded and reality sluggishly intruded with its mundane concerns—like the fact that his arms were stretched out like he was on a rack and that their combined weights were about to rip his hands right off. His back was totally wrecked. The least of his concerns was the mess on his chest. He was splashed with streaks of sticky semen straight up to his collarbones, the remnants of Hutch's second climax of the night.

Hutch was slumped over him like he'd lost consciousness. All Starsky could see was the crown of the golden head and the broad expanse of heaving shoulders as Hutch sobbed in deep breaths with his face plastered against his scarred, sticky chest.

After what felt like forever, Hutch raised his head to look at him. Hutch had this blown-away expression on his features that Starsky had never seen before. It made his stomach flutter and sections further south start thinking thoughts they had no right considering after such an earth-shattering orgasm.

"God, Starsk . . . ."

Knowing exactly what Hutch was trying to say, Starsky gave a bashful smile and said, "Yeah, me, too."

It was weird. They'd just scaled the highest peaks of passion together. He was lying here with his flaccid cock still stuck up inside Hutch's anus, and he felt . . . shy. It didn't make a whit of sense, but it was what he felt and he couldn't deny it.

"I, ah, guess I oughta get off you . . . ." Hutch said, working on self-conscious again, if his blush were anything to go by.

Not wanting the incredible closeness of moments ago to be lost in a maze of post-coital indecision, Starsky consciously worked to change the tone, "Don't do anything on my account. I kinda like it this way."

The blush deepened some, but his gambit worked. Hutch's burgeoning nervousness seemed to die stillborn. "Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Seriously, it's getting' a little . . . uncomfortable like this," Hutch finally admitted.

"Oh, well, in that case, be my guest." Starsky would have added the flourish of a wave to his statement, but his arms were otherwise occupied at the moment.

They both gasped as Hutch detached from him with a vaguely obscene sucking sound. If he'd thought his chest was messy, it had nothing on his Vaseline and semen coated cock. He didn't even want to think what Hutch's backside must be feeling like.

Hutch settled on the mattress by his hip, sitting right beside him, but after the closeness, it felt too far away. Hutch looked a little lost, like he didn't know how to deal with this scene now that the sex was over.

Starsky knew exactly how his lover felt.

But he was feeling something else at the moment that wasn't as welcome. His back and shoulders were in agony.

"Hey," Starsky said softly, letting the affection he felt show as he gave the handcuffs a playful rustle, "is there any chance of you uncuffing me any time in the near future?"

"Jeez . . . I'm sorry. I forgot," Hutch stammered, before turning to find the key.

Amused, he watched Hutch search the tangled bedding for his clothes. After about three minutes, Hutch finally looked over the side of the bed, where the black jeans were apparently hiding.

Starsky held his breath as Hutch scrambled up the bed to release him, his body tensing in anticipation. He'd been here before. He knew the drill.

As expected, as soon as his hands were released and he tentatively lowered his arms, every muscle in his entire body cramped up in reaction. His back was totally stressed out, but his chest was especially bad. The muscles there hadn't been the same since Gunther's attack.

He tried to hold in the groan, but it was literally impossible under the white-hot agony that coursed through him.

"God, Starsk, I'm sorry, so sorry . . . ." Hutch sounded miserable as he hovered over him.

Forcing back the tears, Starsky gazed up at his guilt-ridden lover. "I ain't, so shut up, okay?"

"You're not—what?" Hutch looked like he was afraid to touch him. The normally contained cop appeared a heartbeat away from losing it completely. His guilt-ridden partner was staring at his bruised wrists in open horror and obvious self-loathing. Hutch was really an absurd, pathetic sight at the moment.

"I ain't – sorry. Any time . . . you want . . . a . . . repeat . . . performance . . . let me know," Starsky gasped out between deep breaths.

"You sound like you mean that." Hutch's expression was beyond shock, well into the realms of disbelief.

"I do." Feeling that he had to say something more, Starsky continued. "That was . . . I never felt anything like that in my life, Hutch."

For once, he didn't mess it up. Every last trace of uncertainty vanished from Hutch's handsome features, something warm and wonderful taking its place. "Me, neither."

Starsky looked up into those glowing blue eyes and had to ask, because he couldn't hold back any longer, "Hutch, why-why'd ya do it that way? Why didn't ya go through with it and even the score?"

"Truth?" Hutch questioned, as though it might not be something Starsky wanted to hear. At his nod, his once again uneasy partner explained, "I did it the way I wanted it."

Starsky couldn't get his brain around what Hutch seemed to be saying, "But you coulda . . . had me . . . ."

Hutch's smile was small and gentle, calm, despite his scarlet cheeks. "I did have you, babe."

"But not that way. You coulda . . . taken me," Starsky could feel his own face warming as they discussed details he usually never voiced.

"No, I couldn't," Hutch corrected.

"Why?" Starsky felt like a moron for asking, but he was totally lost here. For once Hutch's motivations were unfathomable, and he usually could read volumes in the flicker of this man's eyelashes. Most days, all Hutch had to do was meet his gaze and he'd know precisely how his complicated partner was feeling. That Hutch hadn't taken him when he was at his mercy completely bewildered him.

"Because that isn't what we're about. What we did here tonight, that's who and what we are. Friday was . . . an aberration, not something we need to repeat."

The words hit him like Hutch had just bounced on his chest and knocked all the air out of his lungs. When he'd gotten his brain around everything Hutch hadn't come clear out and said—like the degree of absolute love this man had to hold for him to be able to just put aside what had happened on Friday night – Starsky felt humbled by Hutch's courage. He didn't know if he could've done this if their positions had been reversed. Hell, he didn't even know if he was ready to reciprocate even now, after he'd taken Hutch twice, but here was Hutch tranquilly telling him that it didn't matter. It made perfect sense to his heart, but no sense at all to his mind.

"You don't understand, do you?" Hutch didn't sound angry or even disappointed.

"I'm tryin'," Starsky confessed, hoping he wasn't blowing everything here.

"Anderson almost ruined something that . . . that I've been wanting to happen for years. I needed to know that it could be good between us like that . . . that it didn't have to hurt or shame either of us. And . . . I guess I still needed to be in control of it at the same time. Hence, the hand cuffs."

"Hence, huh?" Starsky gently teased, hating the nervousness that was encroaching upon Hutch's joy.

Not surprisingly, Hutch flushed again.

That was one thing he did like, being able to get Hutch to blush on cue. It probably wouldn't last, but he was enjoying the hell out of it right now.

"It was stupid, though," Hutch said. "I wasn't thinking about how much the cuffs would hurt. You're still uncomfortable, aren't you?"

He didn't want Hutch feeling guilty again, but he couldn't lie. "A little. Do me a favor, huh?"

"Anything. What . . . ?" Hutch looked like he was waiting to be told to cut off an arm or something, but there was an eagerness there too, like he wanted the punishment.

The need for punishing either Hutch or himself finally gone, Starsky looked up at his friend in complete understanding. He knew how it felt to have hurt the last person on the Earth he ever wanted to see harmed. He'd spent the last two days trapped in that awful reality.

"Would ya rub my arms and chest like you usedta after the surgery?" Starsky requested, feeling utterly ridiculous for asking. Those gentle massages were the only good memories he had of those pain-filled months after he'd been released from the hospital.

That obviously wasn't what Hutch had been expecting. Appearing stunned, Hutch slid closer and murmured, "Yeah . . . sure . . . ."

With painful awkwardness, Hutch reached for him.

Starsky closed his eyes as Hutch's palms settled upon his shoulders and began to carefully rub. He could feel the tension in Hutch's body. It didn't belong there, not after what they'd just shared . . . not after what his generous partner had just given him.

It was weird, but the fact that Hutch had mounted him that way when it was well within his rights to have screwed him mercilessly had turned Starsky's entire world around. He couldn't say why. Friday with all its nightmares was still all too vivid in his mind; only . . . only the loving of the last hour eclipsed even the depravity that Anderson had forced upon them.

Relaxing as Hutch's fingers worked their magic, Starsky decided that it was time to have that talk he'd promised in his note the other morning.

"Hutch?"

"Yeah?"

The hands didn't pause in their ministrations, much to Starsky's joy. Those fingers seemed to be reaching into every aching muscle and forcibly extracting the pain. Only now was he beginning to realize that he'd always loved this man's touch, in ways that he probably shouldn't have if they were nothing more than platonic friends and buddies.

"Before, you said that Anderson almost ruined something that you'd wanted for years. Did you mean that?" Starsky asked. He didn't open his eyes, didn't put Hutch on the spot with the added pressure of being under observation.

He didn't need to. He could feel Hutch's hesitation in the alteration of the easy rhythm of his fingers.

"Yes," Hutch answered and kept rubbing Starsky's chest. Even so, Starsky could tell how tense his new lover had become, how . . . on guard.

On guard against him, he realized, like even now Hutch was afraid he was gonna go ballistic on him or something.

"You never said," Starsky remarked. He was careful to keep his tone mild, making it a question, not an accusation.

Even though he wasn't looking at Hutch, he could sense that he'd surprised him, that this wasn't the line of questioning Hutch had envisioned this discussion following.

"I didn't think it was something you'd ever wanta hear," Hutch admitted, all his attention seemingly focused on what his fingers were doing. Even so, his nervousness was almost a physical wall between them.

That had to be the saddest thing he'd ever heard.

Starsky thought about what it must've been like for Hutch all that time: to want to be someone's lover that you saw every day; someone who touched you all the time, but not the way you needed them to; someone who basically lived in your pocket, who you couldn't get away from . . . it must've been torture, every hour of every day. And Hutch had never let on or made a single move on him. Starsky knew that if he hadn't started it on Thursday night that Hutch would have probably gone to his grave with his secret. That was love, pure and simple.

"I don't know that I woulda ever thought of us that way, if not for Thursday," Starsky felt the need to confess. He wished he could say that he would have been receptive to Hutch's feelings before that, but . . . he honestly didn't know. It had taken touching Hutch, loving Hutch, for him to overcome his misconceptions. If Hutch had told him how he was feeling and put him on the spot before that, he knew it would have scared him.

"Starsk, I know that I've . . . said a lot, and a lot's gone down between us these last few days, but . . . that doesn't mean this is the way we've gotta go. I know you never, that this isn't something . . . ."

His heart breaking at the floundering offer, Starsky's eyes snapped open, homing in on Hutch's gaze like a heat seeking missile. The poor guy looked like he was seeing his entire world crumble around him again, and Hutch was willing to let it happen because it was what he wanted or needed.

It wasn't fair that someone should love that much, with so little return. Starsky gulped around his tight throat and found his voice, "I don't know how to unlove you, Hutch. I don't wanta learn how. This is who and what we are now."

Hutch's gaze lowered almost guiltily, "I . . . feel like you've been blackmailed into all this. You didn't choose, didn't . . . ."

Starsky sat up so that they were level and reached a still shaky, aching arm out to raise Hutch's down bent chin. He left his hand there, his thumb gently stroking that strong jaw, causing visible shivers in this incredible man. "Friday morning I was gonna tell you that I wanted to . . . see where this route would lead us. I chose, Hutch. Anderson just threw a monkey wrench into the works."

"Yeah," Hutch gulped and seemed to force himself to meet his gaze. "You, ah, think we'll ever get past what he made you do to me that night?"

Starsky took a deep breath and gave Hutch the truth, "I feel better, but . . . I'm still all twisted up inside, babe."

Hutch nodded, "Me, too. I, ahh, never should've used those handcuffs. I just . . . snapped. I was . . . outta my head."

"Yeah, well, you had some help getting there." Starsky took full responsibility for his own role in what had occurred. He'd been the one who'd pushed all those buttons that had driven Hutch over the edge. He was lucky Hutch was the man he was. Otherwise, he might have driven his already traumatized partner to an act Hutch might never have been able to live with.

"And I'm gonna need some help getting back," Hutch said, firmly adding, "So are you, I think."

"You're talking about Bouchelle again," Starsky latched onto Hutch's thought process faster than light.

Hutch looked like he was scared of losing everything again, but he nodded and held his gaze. "Yeah."

His insides froze up again at the thought of airing all this before a virtual stranger, but . . . his lover had asked it of him. Hutch had given so much and had so much ripped from him these last few days, that Starsky didn't know how to deny him this time out – not without losing everything they'd found in the past couple of hours.

"All right," Starsky agreed.

"You'll go?" Hutch appeared utterly stunned.

"Yeah . . . I . . . I want this to work for us, Hutch." And, because, against all expectations, he did have the right, Starsky leaned forward and covered Hutch's mouth with his own.

There was so much surprise in Hutch that it felt almost like a first kiss, tentative, fragile . . . unforgettable. Starsky's mouth kneaded those startled lips until they softened and molded to him, until they were feeding hungrily on each other, until they couldn't tell whose tongue was whose. Only then did he draw back, breathless and wobbly-limbed.

It still blew his mind that it was his male partner making him feel this way, but the feeling was too right to question, let alone resist.

Hutch sank down onto his back on the bed, the strong hands on his shoulders trying to pull him down on top of him. Starsky didn't know how much his body would be capable of after that amazing orgasm, but it felt too good to hold back.

Before Starsky allowed himself to be persuaded, he hovered over his friend, staring down into those tired, joy-filled features.

"There's something you should know before we go any farther," Starsky said, not realizing how his words must have sounded till he saw concern suffuse the heat in Hutch's eyes.

"What's that?" Hutch seemed braced for the worst.

His mouth ran dry as he stared into Hutch's eyes. It was . . . hard with a guy. He didn't know how much of a mushy scene Hutch was ready for, how much of what he was feeling that it was acceptable to voice before it would be too much. So, he played it safe and nervously offered, "I'm playin' for keeps here, babe."

All the hastily erected barriers seemed to melt from Hutch face. Looking ridiculously young, ridiculously innocent for someone of his age and profession, Hutch answered, "God, Starsk, I sure as hell hope so."

And then they were kissing again and the words didn't matter any more. Their bodies said it all, and Hutch seemed inclined to listen to anything Starsky's flesh wanted to say to him. Starsky closed his mind to everything else and concentrated solely on that reassuring reality.

He knew their problems weren't gone by a long shot, but right now, they didn't seem so important. Content to live from this type of moment to the next, Starsky gave himself over to the kiss, following Hutch down onto the bed, happy to follow wherever this feeling led them.


The End

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