The Hopeless Ways of Fools
by
Rosemary


Hutch sipped his beer, his appreciative gaze trailing the quick moving figure as it darted around the living room in a frenzy of domesticity. He checked his watch. Starsky had been at this for close to an hour now - sixty minutes of their precious off-duty time wasted on a room that had been spotless when they walked in the door.

Still, Hutch couldn't deny that he enjoyed watching his partner move. Even when engaged in such mundane acts as vacuuming, David Michael Starsky in motion beat anything television had to offer. Or the movies. Clubs or theatres . . .

Hutch grinned to himself. The cynical portion of his mind that had run amok last year sneered in disgust at this idiotic infatuation, warning him that sooner or later he was going to be let down again. Let down hard. But he ignored it, as he had all such cautions. Forty-three nights ago Starsky had come to his bed. Life had never been this good.

"Hutch!" From the plaintive tone, it was obvious that this wasn't the first time Starsky had attempted to attract his attention.

The sappy smile slipped from his mouth. "Yeah?" he asked, trying his best to ignore how appealing his lover looked when irritated.

"Did you move the Endust?" Starsky demanded in a lightly accusatory tone.

"The what?"

"The Endust - did you move it?"

"What the hell would I want with your Endust?" Hutch asked.

Starsky examined him skeptically before breaking into a grin. "Yeah, considerin' the state of your place, it was a stupid question."

Hutch ignored the insult, knowing that any protest would leave him on extremely shaky ground. "You're not really going to polish the furniture, are you?"

"Nicky is goin' to be here in less than 16 hours," Starsky reminded.

Nicky. Well, that sure killed his elation, but good. The thought of the younger Starsky always left a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. They'd met only once, four years ago when Hutch had accompanied his partner on Starsky's yearly visit back home to his mother. After hearing so much over the years about Starsky's mom and the legendary kid brother, Nicky, the experience had been worse than meeting his in-laws for the first time. Anna Starsky had been everything his partner had said and more, a truly wonderful woman. But Nicky . . .

Hutch's clearest memory of Nick Starsky was the resentful stage whisper outside the door to the room the three of them were sharing that week, the petulant, "What did you bring him home with you for? This was supposed to be a family reunion."

And Starsky's equally clear, no-nonsense reply of "Hutch is family."

Even now that memory still warmed him, as much as the thought of Nicky left him cold.

Everyone in New York that week kept remarking upon how alike the Starsky brothers were. Frankly, Hutch couldn't see that the resemblance went any further than dark curls and similar builds. They were both good talkers, but where his Starsky was beguilingly charming, Nick was fast, shallow. But Hutch's dislike went deeper than that; there was something about the dark-eyed Starsky brother that didn't sit right with him, something that put his cop's instincts on guard. Had he met the brown-eyed poseur any place other than Anna Starsky's living room, Hutch would have picked the kid out as a street punk, one of the low life they busted every day.

But blood was blood. Starsky was blind to his baby brother's character flaws, so Hutch was therefore mute about them.

An only child, Hutch knew he could never fully understand fraternal bonds. But it seemed to him that the least a brother could do when a guy was in the hospital with a bullet in his back was phone. When Starsky had been gunned down by the would-be hitmen in that Italian restaurant shortly after their return from the New York trip, Nicky hadn't called once. Although it had been all that Hutch could do to keep Starsky's mom from flying out immediately.

Nick just didn't deserve the affection Starsky held for him. It was that simple.

No more complicated than a simple case of jealousy, Hutchinson. Were he completely honest, he'd have to admit that the accusation was true. Hearing a proud Starsky chatter on incessantly about "the kid" was making him nauseous. He admitted that. But it was more than just jealousy. There was something not quite right about Nick Starsky, something his older brother refused to see. But until he had some concrete proof to back up his suspicions, Hutch was determined to at least try to keep an open mind about Nick. For his lover's sake.

"He's your kid brother for heaven's sake. Not your mother-in-law. What's he going to do? Go running back to your mom screaming about a dusty bookcase?"

"I'm not going to have a dusty bookcase to give him the chance." Starsky was entirely serious.

Mystified, Hutch shook his head. Maybe little brother Nick wasn't all sweetness and light after all. "He's a tattletale, huh?"

The broad shoulders shrugged. "You know how kids can be, especially kid brothers."

"No, babe," Hutch replied, "I don't, but . . . what can I do to help?"

The spark that leaped in the sapphire eyes made Hutch glad he'd asked. "If you'd start dinner . . ."

"Sure." Knowing better than to abandon his beer anywhere near a cleaning-crazed Starsky, he started for the kitchen, only to be halted by a hand on his arm.

"What's wrong?" Hutch asked, bewildered by the too-serious gaze fixed so intently upon him.

In response, his mouth was thoroughly kissed.

When Starsky stepped back a breathless time later, neither one of them was breathing evenly.

"What was that for?" Hutch marveled, the index finger of his free hand tracing a curl-obscured ear. The condensation on the beer can in his other hand had left identical dark patches on the front of both their shirts where it had been crushed between them, Hutch absently noted.

"Just felt like it. You mind?"

Mind? There were times Hutch wanted to shout his love for this man out on Mulholland Drive, so hard was it to contain these feelings. At first he didn't understand why Starsky would feel the need to even ask such a question . . . until he realized that this was the first time they'd kissed outside the privacy of their bedrooms.

"Of course I don't mind," Hutch hastened to assure.

Relief swamped over the tense features. "It's all so new, Hutch. Sometimes . . ."

"Yes?" the blond prompted, intrigued by the bashful streak his normally brash partner kept so well hidden.

"Sometimes it just sneaks up on me at the damnedest times."

"Tell me about it," Hutch chuckled.

"You, too?"

"Hey, don't look so surprised. Who was it that started all this?" Until his dying day, Hutch knew that he would never be entirely free of the shadow of that responsibility. His track record at romance was so bad that even he would be reluctant to wager on his chance of succeeding this time. Only Starsky would gamble on such a long shot.

"As I recall, the idea was yours, but you still had to be talked into it." Two hands gripped Hutch's shoulders, giving them an encouraging squeeze. "We're in this together, babe, so quit the soul searchin', huh?"

Hutch bristled, but deflated just as quickly under that piercing gaze. He'd been burnt so often in the past that he hated the thought of being transparent in a relationship, of being that vulnerable to the whims of another, but with Starsky there was no question of dissembling. His partner knew his darkest secrets and loved him anyhow. That was why even his doubting soul could almost believe that this time it might be different, that at long last love might work out for Kenneth Hutchinson. "You taking up mind reading, Starsk?"

"Nah, it's just . . . I don't like seeing you worry so much. Makes me wonder if there's something I should be worrying about, too."

"It was just a joke, Starsk," Hutch feebly protested. The last thing he wanted was to put any doubts into Starsky's mind.

"Maybe," the other man conceded, looking unconvinced and unhappier than he had in . . . one month and thirteen days.

All because of my dark humor, Hutch realized guiltily. There were a million questions he wanted to ask his partner, but knowing how Starsky detested soapy scenes, he thrust the questions aside and tried to reclaim their earlier light mood. "So, are you gonna refinish the furniture before tomorrow or content yourself with dusting?"

"Geez. I'd almost managed to forget. You sure you're all right, babe?"

A pit bull let go of things faster than Starsky where he was concerned, Hutch decided. "I'm fine." And, as he said it, it was almost true.

"I sure wish Nicky had picked another time to visit," Starsky admitted as he attacked the bookshelves with the damp dust cloth he'd left resting on the back of the couch.

"You do? Why?" This was the first hint of anything less than enthusiasm that Starsky had given since his brother's call three days ago.

Hutch didn't understand his partner's incredulous stare until Starsky spelt the problem out for him. "'Cause I'm gonna miss you, is why."

"Miss me? I'm not going . . . oh." Hutch hadn't even considered that angle. With Little Brother Nicky on the couch, there was no way they'd be sleeping together - at either of their places. So much for keeping an open mind where Nicky was concerned. "It - it'll only be a week, right?" Hutch tried to cover, tried to make it sound like the loss was no big deal.

"Right. A week, maybe less."

"Huh?" Hutch asked.

"Before Nicky called I was thinking of telling mama about us, Hutch."

The quiet admission whispered through his blood, answering many of the questions Hutch hadn't dared voice before. "You were?" he asked stupidly.

Starsky nodded. "She's always liked you."

"I don't think she had me in mind as a prospective spouse for you, babe. She mightn't be too happy about the news," Hutch cautioned, wondering if "spouse" might have been the wrong word choice. He needn't have worried. His error seemed to slip entirely past his partner unnoticed.

"Maybe not, but I don't feel right keeping something this . . . important to me a secret. If you approve, I'd like to tell her next time I call."

Hutch found himself lost in the depths of those bottomless sapphire pools, his mind almost numb with astonishment. Everything had changed so quickly over the past six weeks. Before that little teenage girl had shot him, their partnership had been on the verge of dissolution. Jealousy over Meredith and desperation had forced Hutch to confess his love for his partner in a moment of unguarded candor. He'd fully expected that admission to be the death knell of their friendship. Instead, it had been the beginning of the best days of his life. Yet, in spite of all the joy Starsky brought him, Hutch had never been sure of the nature of what they shared, or more precisely, how much relevance his partner placed on the sexual aspect of their altered relationship. Hearing Starsky even suggest informing his mother bespoke of a permanence Hutch wouldn't have dared dream possible.

"If I approve?" the blond finally thought to question, still too overwhelmed by his incredible good fortune to take anything for granted.

"It affects you, too. If you don't want mama to know . . ." Starsky faltered, sounding confused and more than slightly hurt.

In the closet or out of it - is that what you're asking, babe?

"Of course I approve. How could I not? Your mother's one special lady, babe." Whom he fervently prayed would live up to expectation and not break his lover's heart.

"You just looked so shocked that for a minute I thought . . . I should've known better."

"No, Starsk, it's my fault." At the open curiosity, Hutch struggled to explain. "I keep forgetting who I'm dealing with. And every time you remind me . . . it just takes some getting used to."

"Hutch, what are you talking about?" Starsky asked, the gentle phrasing telling Hutch that his partner had picked up the feeling behind the words, if not their actual meaning.

"I guess I'm just trying to tell you that I love you. And that I'm beginning to understand what it means when you say you love me."

"Huh?"

"Don't even try to figure that one out. I'm not making any sense right now." On impulse, he leaned forward to kiss the tip of his partner's nose. "Finish dusting. I'll get dinner. Then we'll both tackle the bathroom."

"Did you just volunteer for housework?"

Chuckling, Hutch fled to the kitchen before the appeal of a totally bemused Starsky could weaken his resolve to be useful.

Three hours later they stumbled into bed utterly exhausted. Even a shared shower had done little to revitalize their energies.

Still, even half-dead, the scent of a fresh washed Starsky snuggled in his arms was difficult to ignore. With a week of privation looming before him, resisting touch became downright impossible. Almost of its own volition, Hutch's right palm stroked its way across the broad back. As always, he was struck by his partner's inherent strength, and the incongruous softness of his lover's skin. It felt smooth as a young child's beneath his hands.

"Mmmm . . . that feels good," Starsky approved sleepily.

"Yeah?" Hutch smiled, his left hand joining the right. Finding unexpected energy reserves, he bent his head to nuzzle the long neck.

Hutch's hands dipped lower. Cupping the generous buttocks, he squeezed them gently together, eliciting a shocked hiss from his companion and a surge of fire through his own loins as the movement crushed their groins together.

"Too sleepy?" Hutch checked, although the tongue exploring his ear had already given him his answer.

"Not anymore."

Then Starsky turned his full attention on him and he was drowning, swirling in sensation, lost as a piece of driftwood in a whirlpool. Their flesh merged as magically as their personalities always had, bodies conducting a symphony of ecstasy.

Unharnessed delight sang through Hutch's nerves as they undulated together. He kept squeezing and releasing his partner's butt, the pleasure pulse stirring Starsky on.

Unable to forego temptation any longer, he allowed the fingers of his right hand to slip into the cleft between Starsky's cheeks.

Despite all the loving they'd done this past month or so, neither of them had yet to make any moves in this somewhat risky direction, both perhaps instinctively fearing that they'd destroy what they'd already found by asking too much.

Hutch was shaking with more than desire as his middle finger brushed tentatively across the tight bud of muscle hidden there. Any second now, Starsky was going to freeze in his arms, the chill no doubt to be immediately followed by a fast withdrawal.

As if in response to his anxious expectations, the warm lips stopped nuzzling his neck. Starsky's body stilled, his tangled curls lifting from where they'd warmed Hutch's chin to allow Starsky to peer into his partner's face.

The only sound Hutch could hear was the thunderous tattoo of his own racing heart. Starsky didn't appear to be breathing at the moment.

Staring up at familiar features that were abruptly, frighteningly unreadable, a part of Hutch wanted to look away, remove his hand from the offending territory and mumble some ridiculous apology - anything to avert the rejection he sensed brewing. But neither Hutch nor his partner had ever taken the coward's path.

Actively courting disaster, Hutch met his partner's gaze straight on. Making certain that his expression revealed none of the uncertainty raging inside, his fingertip purposefully circled the perimeter of the muscular ring.

Starsky's eyes swept closed, his complete attention seeming to turn inward. Hutch couldn't decide if his friend were sampling the sensation to its fullest or simply searching for a kind way to tell him to stop. A nearly imperceptible tremor ran the length of the lithe body pressed against Hutch as his finger lightly tapped the tiny, close-guarded entrance.

Was it a shudder of revulsion or something else entirely? Hutch wondered.

For a frozen eternity, the blond awaited his answer.

His pounding heart stopped cold as Starsky's eyelids lifted. His dark-haired lover's features remained frighteningly impenetrable as Starsky's gaze scanned his face.

"There's hand cream in the night table."

Tension which Hutch hadn't even been aware of whooshed out of him with an exhaled breath. "You sure, Starsk?" he tested, knowing the depth of his own desire, the years spent waiting for this very moment, hungering without hope. Once they started, there would be no turning back. A smile spilled across Starsky's face, not the usual grin that warmed its recipient like California sunshine. This one was smaller, far less certain, like the glow of a distant campfire glimpsed through the shifting shadows of a forest night.

Hutch had never loved his partner more than at this moment.

"Yeah, I'm sure, only . . ."

"Yes?" Hutch softly encouraged.

"Nothin'. It's your show, babe. You call the shots."

His throat tightened almost too much for him to swallow. Hutch's left hand abandoned its resting place on his partner's silky buttock, the right retaining its intimate caress. The fingers of his free hand gently stroked the beloved face.

With those expressive eyes, Starsky need never give a word of explanation, at least to his partner. Hutch read it all in a glance. Uppermost was the trepidation, an uncertainty that bordered on fear. But it wasn't fear of him, Hutch realized. His partner was very conscious of his male image. This was quite a step for Starsky to take. The trust shining beneath the outer uncertainty shook Hutch to his soul.

"No one but you, Hutch, ever," Starsky whispered, just about finishing his partner completely.

Hutch's lips fastened on their succulent counterparts as if the act were his last chance for life itself. When the kiss ended, neither of them was breathing regularly - as if either of them had been before.

"I wanted to do it so that we could see each other's faces," Hutch began to explain, the relief that washed over his companion's tensed features telling him that Starsky found the possibility of eye contact equally assuring. "But the books I've read all say that's the most difficult position for . . . initiates."

"Initiate, hah?" Starsky chuckled. "No need to be diplomatic, babe. I sure as hell feel like a nervous virgin right now. I didn't know you'd been reading up on this."

"Yeah, well . . ." Hutch felt vaguely uneasy about the research he'd done. Sex wasn't something you could learn from a book. To his intense relief, Starsky didn't appear inclined to tease him about it.

"So what did the book suggest would be the best way first time out?" Starsky asked, almost completely serious. There was still the hint of laughter bubbling behind his gaze, as if he, too, found the thought of them needing a how-to manual at this stage and age in their lives a little amusing.

"A couple suggested that I stay like this and you, ah . . . lower yourself onto me. That way you'd be able to control how fast we go."

Starsky studied him for a moment before speaking. "You're not going to be able to thrust very much like that."

"That's the idea."

"What's Plan B?"

"Starsk . . ."

"Look, I know what you need. Layin' there passive ain't it. When I do you, babe, I wanna feel your body open up to me, welcome me deeper and deeper with each thrust. I wanna feel you rise up to meet me with every move, Hutch, feel you pushin' back to make us one until you can't take any more and I can't get any closer. That's what I want to give you now."

Hutch gasped, his cock jerking at the steamy description, thrusting helplessly up against his partner's matching hardness.

"See, he knows what you want." Starsky smiled in nervous triumph. "It won't be so hard if I lay on my stomach, will it?"

To demonstrate, Starsky rolled over onto his belly.

Hutch stared down the naked length of his partner, over the broad, masculine back to the exquisitely shaped ass. As he watched, Starsky's thighs splayed wide apart; the triangular patch of midnight blue sheet revealed below by that movement seemed to point like a sultry arrow at the object of Hutch's desire.

It was all Hutch could do at that point to remember the cream in the nightstand. He fumbled through the drawer's messy contents until he located the plastic tube. Clutching it in trembling fingers he turned back to his friend.

The fire scalding his veins was urging him to grease up and at long last claim for his own that for which he'd waited so many hopeless years. Starsky's vivid description had left him more than ready for it. He'd never burned like this for anyone in his life. But . . . he knew this man.

Nine-tenths of Starsky's bluster was pure bluff. His partner looked ready and willing. Starsky probably was - on a mental level. But emotionally? Though offered in jest, Starsky was no doubt being perfectly honest when he'd admitted to feeling like a scared virgin. Chances were, his partner probably wasn't even hard anymore, lying there waiting to reap the rewards of an overly persuasive tongue. Hutch knew all that hot talk had been designed to convince him his lover was capable of handling this final step, but even when trying to persuade him, Starsky had still phrased his desire from the taker's point of view - what it was going to be like when they changed places.

Instinct cautioned Hutch against accepting this gift too easily. Starsky was too precious to his heart to risk hurting for the sake of mere lust. Though God alone knew that no mere lust had ever left the blond aching as desperately as he was at this moment.

Garnering what control he could manage, Hutch put the tube of cream down within easy reach and stretched out on his side facing his partner.

The fact that Starsky had yet to look around to see what was delaying him confirmed Hutch's earlier suspicions. He was struck by how very much Starsky must really love him.

With his face buried deep in the pillow, spine stiff and every visible muscle tightly clenched, his partner's dread was an almost palpable presence. Yet Starsky showed no sign of withdrawing his offer.

The tenderness which flooded through Hutch strengthened his resolve to go slow where willpower alone might have failed him.

Hutch gripped a slender hip. Starsky was wound so tight that it was like rolling a granite statue over.

"What - what're you doin'?" Barely leashed panic met his unexpected move as Hutch snuggled in spoon style along the too tense back.

One glance down Starsky's front made Hutch very glad he'd delayed. His partner's cock, usually hard and attentive at even Hutch's verbal attentions or scent, was completely flaccid, almost listless to his proximity.

"Can't I just hold you for a few moments?" he murmured, nuzzling behind the nearby ear.

"Ahh-mmmmn . . . sure," Starsky agreed distractedly. "I didn't mean to sound so . . ."

"Ssssh," Hutch soothed, "I know."

His palm stroked down the well-defined chest. Starsky's body hair was surprisingly soft, as touchable as the fluffy down on a newly hatched chick. Hutch indulged himself, spending the longest time merely petting his partner, gentling the powerful man as he might a frightened puppy.

Gradually, Hutch felt the tension ebb from his friend, Starsky relaxing completely back against him with a deep sigh.

Only when he felt the other man's rump settle comfortably against his own erection did Hutch allow the nature of his caresses to alter.

The sure, flat-palmed strokes were replaced with the most delicate of finger-skimming. In turn, he circled both his partner's nipples, feeling them flower to pebble-hard buds. He traced the tapering path of chest hair down to Starsky's navel, silently rejoicing in the shiver that coursed through the close-held form as his index finger explored the shallow depression.

Shifting a little, Hutch maneuvered his partner onto his back again. Kneeling between the spread thighs, the blond lowered his head to kiss the tip of the straining shaft.

Starsky gasped, his entire body jolting in reaction.

Drawing on knowledge gained this last month, Hutch used his tongue to drive his lover wild. Tracing delicate patterns on the ultra-sensitive head, alternating with greedy licks down the bulk of his erection, he soon had Starsky thrashing as if his partner had gotten another whiff of Papa Theodore's voodoo dust. Time and again, he led Starsky to the brink of completion, always withholding that final touch, gentling his lover back down, only to begin the breathless climb again.

Finding his own arousal increasingly difficult to ignore, Hutch at last completely sucked his partner's length into his mouth. So freeing his hands, he groped blindly for the tube of cream. Once located, he squeezed a generous dab of the ointment onto his middle finger.

This was it, the moment of truth. Hutch knew he couldn't hold out much longer himself. Starsky looked as ready as he'd ever be. If it didn't happen now, it never would.

Releasing Starsky's cock, he raised his head to watch his companion's face as his finger probed the tight-guarded entrance between Starsky's generous buttocks.

Starsky's closed eyes snapped open, his release-hungry expression giving way to surprise. While his partner absorbed what was happening, Hutch eased his finger up inside him. As he did, he wondered if any woman had ever done this to Starsky. The channel gripping his finger was so tight, he doubted it had been probed before. This would be the first time, straight down the line, then.

Taking a deep breath - a useless measure to curb his own blazing need - Hutch rotated his finger in slow circles, patiently coaxing the beloved body to accept him.

"How's that feel, babe?" he asked once his larger joint slipped past the reluctant guardian.

"Different."

Though not exactly encouraging, Hutch took heart from the immediate reply. He was also relieved to note that Starsky's erection hadn't deflated. Yet. "Does it hurt?" he checked. He'd kept his lover waiting so long that he wasn't sure if it were the need for release or discomfort straining Starsky's features.

"No."

Hutch pushed deeper.

Starsky's grunt ended in a hiss.

"You okay?" Hutch asked.

"Do that again."

Hutch obeyed the terse command, a fine quiver running through him as he mentally begged his lover to loosen up and accept him. "Starsk?"

His partner's response was eloquent, if nonverbal.

Hutch almost laughed aloud in delight at the leap of excitement that sparked through those magnificent eyes. More than anything, he wanted Starsky to want him, to welcome him.

Ever so gradually, the tight vise squeezing the length of Hutch's finger eased up.

"Hutch?" Starsky questioned, sounding nearly disappointed as the blond's finger reluctantly withdrew.

"I'm not finished yet," Hutch promised, squeezing more of the cream onto his fingers. This time his index finger joined the middle one.

Starsky accommodated the increased bulk with surprising ease. When both fingers were in as far as they could reach, Hutch lowered his mouth once again to the pulsing shaft. Beginning to suck, he thrust his joined fingers in and out of Starsky's body, hoping to accustom the virgin-tight channel to the movement.

His partner was so tight around him, so beautiful, that Hutch felt that he'd come from just this. He'd sought only acceptance, perhaps patient tolerance if he were lucky, for in his wildest dreams he'd never viewed this as something Starsky would ever seek. What he received instead surpassed his greatest hopes.

Seeing Starsky light up under his ministrations, Hutch felt as if he'd just toppled a stone wall separating him from his normally uninhibited lover. His Starsky was back, the wild-hearted tempter who could carry him away in a rush of mind-melting passion like no other.

There was no time for breath or thought. The slender hips thrust the engorged cock deep into Hutch's throat, pushing back against the impaling fingers with even greater force. Hutch found himself spellbound by the marvel he'd unleashed. The sound effects alone were enough to undo his control. Never quiet in his pleasures, Starsky out-did even himself tonight. His partner's hoarse rasps for air and guttural grunts sounded like the audio track to a cheap skin flick.

Sensing how close Starsky was to explosion, Hutch withdrew his fingers and lifted his head to stare up at his friend's face. The anguished cry Starsky gave at this abrupt abandonment pierced him to the core.

As quickly as feasible, Hutch coated his own neglected shaft with the hand cream, even that light touch almost finishing him.

He guided Starsky onto his side, his passion-dazed companion offering no protest, though Hutch suspected that Starsky was so far gone that he would agree to anything at this point, so long as it guaranteed completion. He wasn't far from that state himself.

Long past subtlety, his impatient cock probed between the full cheeks the instant his partner settled against him. Locating the slick entrance, the flaring tip of his organ pushed up inside. Starsky was tighter than anything he'd ever known.

The small sound his partner made as his shaft penetrated that tiny aperture returned some of his reason, reminding Hutch of what was at stake here.

His hand found Starsky's deflating erection as the muscular passageway convulsed around him. Although the sensation was incredible from his end of the experience, Hutch knew that it was probably unbearably painful for his friend.

Sweat broke out all over the aroused blond's body as he forced himself to stop, to wait until Starsky was ready to accept more of him. He was barely in, his impatient need protested, his body screaming, hungering for more. He needed this, more than air, more than food, more than life itself. This moment was all that he'd been living for.

As strong as the urge was to just go ahead and thrust up that wonderfully snug passage, Hutch somehow held himself back.

His tongue licked behind Starsky's nearby ear, afterwards sucking down the length of soft throat the way his partner liked it. Meanwhile, Hutch's hand worked diligently on the softened cock, urging life and firmness back into the springy flesh.

"Come with me, beautiful man." Hutch murmured into his partner's neck. "Please, Starsk, it's so beautiful. Means so much. Share it with me . . . please?" he begged.

Starsky drew a deep, ragged breath, the muscle spasmodically clutching Hutch's cock seeming to relax through an act of will.

"That's right," Hutch approved, shaking under the strain of holding so still. "You feel so good, babe, so good."

Hutch knew he wasn't making any sense, but he was past coherency. Still, as his voice seemed to have a calming effect, he kept up the stream of loving nonsense.

With a control that surpassed anything he'd ever imagined himself capable of, Hutch gradually eased into the painfully tight passage. Hours seemed to pass before his balls pressed flat to Starsky's bottom and he could move no more. He lay still for a breathless eternity, savoring the sensation to its fullest. "So, so perfect, Starsk. So good, babe . . ."

The stasis was shattered by the most delightfully unexpected event. His pumping hand at last seemed to have some effect on his friend's organ. As if rediscovering his own pleasure, Starsky thrust forward, inadvertently pushing back to further impale himself on his partner's shaft.

Hutch gasped as Starsky's movement swept away the last of his restraints. His hips surged forward, plunging in deeper than he'd thought possible. All the way in, then all the way out again. Over and over.

Sound and sensation swirled through him like a raging tsunami. The only thing louder than the roar of Hutch's heart was the pounding slap of their flesh and the resultant grunts.

They were together as he'd never imagined they could be in this. With every inward thrust, Hutch felt as if his soul would keep plunging forward, that he would melt right through the walls of separating flesh as their bodies struggled to make them one entity.

Starsky stilled beneath him, giving an incoherent cry. Hutch felt the tight channel he was encased in ripple around him, then the warm, outpouring spurt over his hand and Starsky's belly.

One more fierce thrust and he was there himself. Exquisite ecstasy ripped its way through his loins. Starburst after starburst of delight novaed through him, his climax as traumatic in its own way as his very first, all those years ago. Coming inside Starsky, feeling that tight passage hug every inch of him . . . it was too much. Hutch felt remade, like he'd never known sex before. This was what it was to touch the sun, his numbed mind determined, how it felt to be consumed whole and still long to give more. Right now he'd give his lover anything Starsky desired - the still beating heart right out of his chest if that were his partner's fancy.

A sound rose above the thrumming of his heart, penetrating his emotion-dazed consciousness.

"Hutch?"

Reality sluggishly coming back into focus, the blond lifted his face from where he'd buried it in the sweaty curls at the back of Starsky's neck. His hand rose bemusedly to his own face, understanding neither the wetness there or the sobs still racking through him. From the way he was reacting one would have thought he was the one who'd just lost his virginity.

Now soft, he slipped from within Starsky's body.

His partner turned instantly to face him, confusion and concern shadowing his eyes. "Hutch, you all right? Wasn't it . . . okay?"

"O-okay . . .? Oh, Starsk . . ." The words died as he fell into his partner's startled gaze, then they were no longer necessary as understanding dawned. Strong arms enfolded Hutch and drew him close.

It was some time before the blond lifted his head to meet the barrage of questions that were no doubt waiting.

To his further bemusement, Starsky merely smiled, the acceptance and love in that gentle offering soothing Hutch's ragged nerves.

Hutch searched for the means to express what he was feeling, but all words seemed inadequate, if not downright trite. What could he possibly say that would cover his appreciation of what his friend had just given him?

"Me, too, babe," Starsky whispered.

"Huh?"

His partner reached out to brush the sweaty blond hair from his face, this seeming Starsky's favorite caress. "I love you, too. That was what you were trying to say, wasn't it?"

Hutch nodded, his mood oddly serious despite his normal inclination to give in to Starsky's humor. "Yeah, only . . . it didn't seem enough."

"What?"

"Just saying I love you. It's sort of like calling a giant sequoia an evergreen, Starsk. Basically, the classification's correct, but the scale's a little off."

Starsky chuckled. "You've got a way with words, Hutchinson."

"I do, you know."

"Do what?" Starsky asked, seemingly distracted by just looking at him.

"Love you," Hutch explained.

"Yeah, I felt it."

"It was . . . okay, then?" Hutch checked. For all that his instincts told him that his partner had enjoyed the experience as much as he, there was something within him that still had to hear the affirmation from Starsky's own lips.

"We both know that it was a hell of a lot more than okay, magic man, so quit fishin' for compliments."

"Magic man, huh?" Hutch repeated, not entirely sure what Starsky meant, but liking the sound of it.

"It's like that when you touch me, Hutch. Everything I think I feel or know about . . . all this . . . flies out the window the second you lay hands on me. Then you teach me what love really means."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," Starsky confirmed. "Now shut those eyes and get some sleep. We've got a big day tomorrow and an awful long week."

"Are you really going to tell Nick about us?" Hutch snuggled down against his partner, his nostrils filled with the familiar, musky scent of their love.

We'll see how it goes, okay?"

"Okay. G'night," Hutch mumbled sleepily, still overwhelmed by what they'd shared.

"Sweet dreams, babe."

The hand rubbing his back gentling him into slumber more than assured the nature of his dreams. Hutch was so content with how well the night had gone that he failed to note the tension which had returned to the body supporting him at the mention of the younger Starsky brother's name.

*~*~*

There was nothing harder than breaking out of old habits, Starsky realized miserably a little over twelve hours later as he left the squad room with Nick in tow.

It was good to see Nicky again. The kid looked great, nice clothes, expensive shoes, good manners, a definite improvement on the street tough of four years ago, but . . .

No sooner had he walked up to his brother, than Starsky found himself falling back into those old familiar patterns. This morning was some kind of a record for even him. It had taken him less than three minutes to talk that shapely stewardess into forgetting his kid brother ever existed. And now that he'd won Marlene of the bedroom eyes, Starsky had no idea what he was going to do with her.

He still didn't understand what had made him do it. He had more interest in climbing the Matterhorn mid-winter than taking Marlene to his bed at this point in his life. These days, Hutch was all he wanted or needed.

But the moment he'd seen Nicky making his move on the girl, he'd had to step in and show the kid how it was done. All his resolves to be up front with his brother about the changes in his life had flown out the proverbial window, leaving Starsky with a bad feeling about his actions and the even less pleasant prospect of telling his lover about tonight's plans.

All he could think about as he escorted Nick out of the station was his partner, the way Hutch had stood clear on the other side of the office the whole time Nick was there, his crossed arms and body language belying the friendly smile the blond had kept plastered on his face. Hutch was trying so hard to please him. Starsky had known from the moment they'd met four years ago that his partner and brother hadn't exactly hit it off, but he'd hoped they'd warm to each other in time.

"Look, here's the key to the house," Starsky said, fishing the spare from his key ring. "Make yourself at home. Take a shower, unpack your bags. There's beer in the icebox."

"Hey, any women there?"

This was it, the opening he'd been waiting for since Nicky stepped off the plane. The question wasn't even out of line. A man his age, it was unnatural for him to have no serious relationship. Nick was old enough to know the score. He drew a breath to speak, and found his confession lost to light-hearted evasion as he chickened out. "In the icebox?"

"Come on." Nicky was having none of it, punctuating the fact with a soft slap to Starsky's left cheek. "You're not living with anybody?"

Starsky stared into those curious brown eyes, wondering why it was so hard to be honest with this man. It was more than the fact that they were standing in the middle of Metro's corridor with dozens of cops hurrying by within hearing distance that prevented Starsky from giving a truthful response, for he knew he'd be experiencing the same difficulty in the privacy of his home.

There was just something about his younger brother that kept Starsky from opening up to him. Perhaps it was the memory of all those times he'd tried to get understanding from Nick and been met only with selfish preoccupation with how the changes in David's life would affect Nick. Maybe he was being unfair to his brother, seeing how much the kid had changed and all, but try as he would, Starsky couldn't bring himself to reveal something as precious as his relationship with Hutch to the oft-times judgmental younger man. So, instead of the truth, he said, "Well, I wanta get to know her better before I ask her to move in."

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah, well, she's more than willing. I just want to wait till I ask her."

"Well, come on, what's her name?" Nicky prodded, all eagerness.

"Marlene."

"Well, come on, Marlene who?"

"Marlene Stewardess," Starsky grinned, leaving his little brother with a tap on the cheek.

"Did Nick get off all right?" Hutch asked as Starsky returned to his desk.

The interest wasn't feigned. For all his personal dislike of Nick, anything that concerned Starsky mattered to the soft-spoken blond. That was the difference between his partner and his brother, Starsky realized. "Yeah."

Starsky sank down into his chair. The wince turned into a smile as his body reminded him of just what they'd been doing last night.

"You all right, partner?"

Surprised, he looked up at Hutch, who was now standing beside him, close enough for Starsky to smell the blond's aftershave and feel the reassuring warmth that would surround him even here in the middle of the squad room at a moment's notice. "Yeah."

"Something the matter?"

It was like radar, Hutch knowing when something was bothering him. "No . . . yeah . . . I, ah, did something stupid before."

Hutch's smile was the gentle touch of spring sunshine, promising a warmer tomorrow, no matter how bleak the winds of today. "Like what?"

"Nicky met this stewardess on the plane and I, ah . . . we're supposed to meet her and some friends at Tramps tonight."

"We're?" Hutch asked, the uncertain shadow Starsky had sought to dispel last night darkening his gaze once again.

"You, me and Nick."

"I see." Hutch's closed expression gave nothing away.

"Will you come?" Starsky asked.

"Do you want me there?"

Starsky stared up into that proud, vulnerable face, fully aware that he'd hurt his partner. "You know I do. Will you come?"

"Sure, why not?" But Hutch wasn't happy about it, not that Starsky could blame him.

Everything was happening too fast. Their love was so new, so fragile, fraught with unexpected pitfalls. Loving Hutch was like walking a tightrope sometimes. One wrong step, and Starsky knew he could blow everything they had, their partnership as well as their new relationship.

Hutch felt it as well, Starsky knew. As generous a lover as his partner was, Starsky could still sense Hutch holding a part of himself back from him. Not that the blond ever turned away from anything Starsky sought to share with him. Hutch was always more than eager to accept anything Starsky offered, only . . . that was quite possibly the root of the problem.

Hutch always waited for him to offer.

There was no doubt in his mind that Hutch was in love with him, that, despite the numerous disappointments in his past, Hutch was entirely committed to making this work. Starsky had been certain of that from their very first night together.

Only gradually had he come to realize that Hutch was nowhere as sure of him. That had hurt, more than he'd thought anything could. Without words, Hutch told him a hundred times a day that he doubted him. From his partner's reticence to assert his deepest desires to his cautious acceptance of Starsky's lead, it all added up to a lack of faith.

Starsky tried to pretend that nothing was wrong, tried to reassure his lover without actually addressing the problem outright. He'd learned very early in their partnership that tenderness and gentle words went a long way with Hutch, that the standoffish blond was surprisingly receptive to open shows of affection. So he'd gone out of his way to shower Hutch with love these last six weeks.

But no matter what he did, that whisper of uncertainty was still there in the silences between love words. He could hear it in Hutch's heartbeat as he cradled him close, feel it in the desperate kisses that spoke of imminent parting.

What it would take to convince Hutch that he was here to stay, Starsky was no longer certain. He'd truly thought that last night would have been enough.

God knew, it had been enough to settle everything for him. He'd been so scared of letting another man screw him, of taking that ultimate, unalterable step into this sometimes frightening lifestyle. His beautiful, gentle partner had taken something that he'd always thought would be horrible, and turned it into the most incredible sexual experience of Starsky's life. He was still sore back there, but all Starsky had to do was remember how it felt to have Hutch moving inside him and he wanted it again. He only wished that they'd tried it sooner. All that agonizing and soul-searching might have been avoided.

More than once in the past, Starsky had felt Hutch's hunger for that final completion, but his partner had always held back, Starsky's own ambivalence preventing him from pursuing the issue. From the start, he'd wanted Hutch that way as well. He sensed that the blond was a lot less uptight about that particular form of union than himself, but he hadn't been able to act on the desire, not with Hutch doubting him the way he did. It would have been too much like using his lover to take Hutch when his partner was still unsure of his intentions. For it to mean anything, Starsky had decided that he had to be the one to offer that first. He felt that last night he'd finally succeeded in showing Hutch how very much he meant to him.

This morning there had been a difference in Hutch's attitude, nothing concrete, but there all the same. The man was as faultlessly gentle as ever, yet there was a new assurance to the blond's every touch, a bright glow about the heart-stoppingly beautiful features that convinced Starsky that he had finally made some progress.

And with just one thoughtless action, Starsky had blown that newfound confidence to smithereens. Was it any wonder Hutch had trouble believing in him?

Disgusted with his train of thought, Starsky submerged himself in paperwork.

The hours dragged on, the silence between them deepening with every breath. Usually the 8 to 4 shift flew by, but today 4 p.m. was as long in coming as 8 a.m. on the night watch.

"Time to pack it in, buddy," Starsky announced at last, pushing his half-finished report away with a sigh of relief.

"Yeah. The day always seems twice as long pushing paper."

"Don't I know it," Starsky smiled.

"Where are we meeting tonight?" Hutch asked.

"The girls are supposed to meet us at Tramps at eight. I thought it would be good if we all went out to dinner first."

"You, me and Nick?"

"Yeah. What do you think?" Starsky asked, cautious of pushing his partner too hard.

"That you and your brother have a lot of catching up to do. Maybe it'd be best if I just met you at the club."

Starsky studied his partner, trying to determine what was behind the offer. "You wouldn't stop us from catching up," he protested.

Hutch's grin seemed genuine. "That's just the problem, babe. I don't know if I'm up to a night of 'do you remembers' that I've no part in."

Starsky recalled Hutch's forbearance back in New York four years ago. "We do get a little carried away sometimes."

"That's what reunions are for. You two go on and catch up on old times."

"What are you gonna do?" Starsky asked, still not feeling right about this.

"I'll grab a burger at Huggy's or something. Don't sweat it."

"You sure?"

"I'll see you at Tramps at eight." With that, Hutch rose and left the office, Starsky's gaze trailing the lanky blond all the way to the door.

*~*~*

Predictably enough, the Pits was packed when Hutch got there. The blond stood quietly within the door, scanning the crowd for an empty table or barstool.

Huggy altered the décor so frequently that he never knew what he would find from one day to the next. To his intense regret, the place looked much the same as it had for the past three weeks, a study in modern urban squalor. Spray-painted graffiti adorned any wall space not occupied by the out-of-place saloon nudes and boxing photos. The graffiti itself was rather colorful and tastefully done, meaning it was inoffensive nonsense on the whole. As he had for the last few weeks, Hutch tried to pick out the pieces that were his lover's handiwork. Starsky had embraced Huggy's offbeat idea with the enthusiasm of a delinquent school kid.

"Hail, fair knight, what brings thee to my humble eatery?" A bony hand squeezed his shoulder in greeting as a grinning Huggy Bear emerged from the crowd.

"Hunger." Hutch forced a smile.

"Well, this be the place to appease all such urges. Come along, my errant friend, and I'll find thee a table."

Hutch trailed the gaunt proprietor through the melee, none too confident of finding breathing space, let alone room to eat. To his amazement, Huggy led him straight to a table for two whose occupants rose to their feet a breath before they reached the table.

"One day you're going to have to let me in on how you do that," Hutch admired.

"Trade secret, Sir Knight." Huggy appropriated a couple of beers from a passing waitress and set one before the detective. The harassed looking girl didn't even appear to notice her boss's action.

"So, what's with the Chaucer?" Hutch asked, taking a grateful pull on the draft.

"Huh?" Huggy's face assumed a totally blank expression.

"The Knights of the Round Table routine you've been giving me since I walked in," Hutch elucidated. "Is it just for my benefit or . . ."

"Definitely 'or.' It occurs to me that it's time for a change. I was considerin' a Dark Ages slant to the décor. What do you think?" Huggy finally slipped back into his normal, if only slightly more understandable, patois.

Hutch considered the concept for a moment, repressing a shudder. Like his partner, Huggy had a way of going all out when struck with an idea. It took Hutch no effort at all to envision the Pits's Dark Ages décor: skeletons swinging in gibbets on the wall, the service staff staggering around as plague victims or monks, sounding like poorly coached extras on a Robin Hood set, the food . . . that was possibly the most horrifying aspect of all.

No, the Dark Ages was a definite no-go. But dissuading an enthused Huggy could be almost as daunting a task as changing Starsky's mind. It would take very delicate handling.

Still, Hutch had considerable experience at dealing with both his slightly eccentric friends. "I always considered you a man ahead of his time myself, Hug, but I guess you know what's best," Hutch remarked casually.

"Huh, what do you mean?"

"Only that people think of you as the man in the know. Something goes down on the street, who's the first person anyone turns to for the real story - Huggy Bear. It just strikes me that your new décor idea might damage that image . . . in the eyes of the unenlightened, of course," Hutch added, because it sounded like something his partner would say. Huggy and Starsk talked the same language, which Hutch had decided many years ago had little in common with English.

"You think?" Huggy appeared seriously alarmed.

It was all Hutch could do to stifle his smile. "I'd give it some thought if I were you, Hug."

"Yeah, you could be right. Thanks, man."

"Don't mention it," Hutch grinned.

"So where's your brother-in-arms?" Huggy changed the topic.

Hutch's improved mood fell like an executioner's ax. "With his brother-in-blood."

"Huh?"

"Little brother Nick is visiting," he explained, doing his best to keep his emotions from flavoring his response.

Huggy's gaze sharpened upon him for all his efforts. "And you ain't happy with his arrival." It wasn't a question.

"I - I don't know, Hug. It's just . . ." The words faltered. It's just what? How was he to even begin to explain why Nick upset him so without touching upon matters he was not yet free to discuss with Huggy, Hutch wondered morosely.

Staring into those compassionate brown eyes, with the secret of Starsky and his love lying like a wall between them, Hutch had never felt so alone.

"Bad timin'?" Huggy suggested in a tone that told Hutch that his earlier, half-serious claims of Huggy Bear being the most knowledgeable guy around hadn't been as exaggerated as he'd thought.

Hutch's throat tightened when he realized that Huggy knew about them. Not knowing what to say, he resisted the impulse to look away, meeting the other man's gaze squarely, despite the feeling of exposed vulnerability assailing him. He wished that he had his partner's affinity with Huggy, that he could pick up something from the Bear's expression besides the shared knowledge. "Yeah, you could say that. How long have you known?"

"For sure? About thirty seconds." Huggy grinned. "I knew something was up with you two for the last month or so. Just couldn't figure out what."

"What gave us away?" Hutch warily asked, needing to know if IA might have picked up on the same indiscretion Huggy had.

"Hey, it wasn't like that. If it was, you wouldn't've kept me guessing this long."

"Then how . . ."

"I know you both. Let's just say that for the last year or so, you and the man of steel ain't been operatin' like the well-oiled unit we all know and love. As a not-quite-disinterested third party, Huggy Bear had a front row seat to the trouble and strife. What he sees is that his blond brother has a problem, a big one, and that blondie's curly other half is somehow responsible, or takin' the heat for it. You dig?"

Hutch nodded, too thunderstruck to even attempt speech. In his own colorful way, Huggy had just detailed Zebra Three's situation prior to Meredith's entrance in their lives.

"Now, Huggy doesn't know what the problem is, but he don't like the way the team's been treatin' each other, so he keeps a close eye on them. Curly shows up at the Pits three, sometimes four nights a week wearin' the same look the White Knight walked in with tonight. Curly's hurtin' bad, but he can't say why. The White Knight, on the other hand, is noticeably absent. Time passes, with no end in sight. And then - bingo. One night the team comes in together - laughin', jokin', sharin' just like the good old days. Now, Huggy don't know what to think about this here turnaround, so he just waits to see how long it lasts. Contrary to expectation, it was still goin' strong at three o'clock yesterday afternoon. I hope you ain't about to tell me that's changed."

Hutch gave a bemused shake of his head. "No, not that I know of."

"So why the long face? This ain't just a reaction to Starsky havin' a house guest." Once again, Huggy's voice rang with absolute certainty.

"How can you be so sure?" he quizzed the Pits's owner.

"'Cause I knows my Hutch. He ain't the jealous kind. It's gotta be somethin' more."

It struck the worried blond as funny that Huggy could be so certain of his character motivations, while he himself harbored such doubts. "I wouldn't know how to say it that it wouldn't sound petty, Hug," Hutch confessed.

"In that case, could I offer a piece of unsolicited advice?"

Hutch shrugged. "Sure. Why not?"

"Play it cool."

"I try, but this . . . this isn't like anything I've ever known before." Hutch took a fast glance around to assure himself that the noise of the crowd still guaranteed their privacy before admitting, "Sometimes I feel like I'm in way over my head. Every time I think my feet have touched solid ground again, I find out that I've been reading the signals all wrong. The more I try to play it cool, the more I end up feeling like a fool," Hutch levelled, surprised by how good it felt to finally get this off his chest.

"Love makes fools of us all, my friend." Huggy, too, scanned the nearby crowd as if to be certain that no one was paying them any attention. "For what it's worth, I ain't never seen him shine the way he has with you this last month, not even with that pretty teacher that Prudholm put down. Whatever he needs, you seem to be the one that provides it."

"You think so?" Hutch questioned, warmed by the words but wanting to be sure they were true rather than offered as solace.

"Don't you?"

In keeping with the time-honored theory of bar keep as psychologist, Huggy had just put his finger on the heart of his problem. Hutch struggled to answer the question, aware that silences often gave more away than careless words.

"Sometimes. Most times, actually. Only . . ."

"Only?" Huggy cut in.

"I'm a selfish bastard, Hug. He . . . he gives me so much, more than I've any right to expect, considerin' the circumstances . . ."

"Which are?" Huggy encouraged.

"A hell of a lot different than with Teri or Rosie or any other person he's ever cared about." It was, Hutch realized, the distinction between having a gay or straight lover. Starsky could hold his love for any of those women up to the light of day and meet with instant approval. Whereas, if he did the same with Hutch, they'd be instantly unemployed.

"Did he say that?"

"What?" Hutch asked.

"That you rank different than the rest?"

Starsky had, but not the way Huggy meant. He blushed at the memory of some of the things Starsky had told him in the heat of passion. "No, you know him better than that."

"That's right. I know him. He don't play those kinds of games, Hutch. If he tells you he feels a certain way about you, he means it - without qualification. Now, maybe he ain't come out and told me what's going on with you, but he ain't been particularly careful about hidin' it either. It just shines off his whole face every time he looks at you. Focus on that and forget all those other worries."

Somehow, just hearing an encouraging word helped. Hutch relaxed into his seat, sipped his beer and asked the ultimate question. "You approve, then?"

Huggy's smile was oddly wry for that normally up-front bundle of bones. "I always approved, even when things weren't like IA thought they were."

Hutch sputtered, stopping short of spraying his companion with his drink. "Are you saying that you thought we were . . .?"

"If you wasn't, then you shoulda been. Any fool could see that you two were meant for each other, my man."

Poleaxed, he realized that Huggy was not pulling his leg. "You really thought we . . . for how long?"

"You want the truth?"

"Of course I want the truth," Hutch shot back.

"When's the first time he introduced you to me?" Huggy asked.

They'd been partners for nine years now, but Huggy's mismatched features had been familiar long before they were first teamed. Hutch recalled that he'd still been paired with Luke the first time Starsky had brought his old Academy buddy in to meet the legendary Huggy Bear. That had to be a good eleven, no, twelve years ago now.

"Hug -" Hutch started and stopped, having no idea what to say. Their closest friend had assumed that they'd been making it from the time they'd met. Hutch no longer found it any wonder that their team got up IA's noses the way they did if Huggy could think that.

"It wasn't you that started me thinkin' along those lines," Huggy assured, obviously misinterpreting the source of his consternation. "Starsky and me go back a lot of years, Hutch, and he never, ever took to no one like he did to you. Back then, he never used to take to people at all."

That had to be the understatement of the century. Hutch had no trouble recalling the aggressive street heavy he'd met in the Police Academy. David Michael Starsky had struck one slightly uptight Kenneth Hutchinson as a time bomb looking for a place to explode. Most of their classmates had decided the same and unobtrusively avoided the former New Yorker.

But Hutch had sensed the pain concealed behind the wall of fury. It was only Hutch and Colby, who'd always liked to juggle dynamite, who'd made the effort to include the mercurial but brilliant Starsky in their social circle. Those had been Hutch's idealistic, crusading days, when he'd been convinced that Kenneth Hutchinson would single-handedly save the universe.

Back then, he hadn't known the magnitude of what he was taking on, either with Starsky or the world. He hadn't known very much at all back then, Hutch reflected, least of all that Starsky had seen right through him from the first.

For some baffling reason of his own, Starsky had chosen to play along with the do-gooder candidate - who was hopelessly naïve when it came to the realities of street life. Considering their widely divergent backgrounds and philosophies - country boy versus street punk, soapbox optimism opposed to bleak cynicism - Starsky and he should have hated each other on sight. Yet they hadn't.

And when the street had shown Hutch things that no man should have to learn about, things that Luke had become inured to over the years but which Hutch couldn't accept, it had been Starsky who'd talked him through those sleepless nights, Starsky who'd nurtured Hutch's battered ideals, keeping them alive until the blond had the strength to believe in them again - as if they were something precious that the outwardly pessimistic Starsky couldn't bear to see crushed.

It was that first year in uniform that Hutch had learned what Starsky was really all about, seen the soft side that his friend kept hidden, as if it were something to be ashamed of.

"He had his reasons for not takin' to people then," Hutch defended against Huggy's suggestion of Starsky being anything less than wonderful, no matter how valid. "He'd just gotten back from 'Nam. He had a lot of horror and blood to try and forget."

"Yeah, but you were the first one to see that." Huggy smiled.

"Not the first," Hutch denied, knowing Johnny Blaine, Jackson Walters and one or two others who'd also recognized the worth of what most others quickly discarded as being too volatile to investigate.

"Maybe, but you was the first without reason to suspect otherwise. That day Starsky first brought you to me, he was beamin' like a proud pappa when he told me that you 'n' him was gonna be partners some day. I never seen him shine like that with anyone but you, Hutch, before or since."

The blond detective smiled at his friend, absurdly grateful that Huggy had shared his thoughts with him, even more so that he appeared to have found an ally in the inscrutable barkeep. "Thanks, Hug. I really needed to hear something like that. I was at a low ebb when I walked in, I'm afraid."

"Low ebb? More like low blood sugar. What can I do you for?"

Hutch smiled. Not even Starsky had Huggy's flair for turning simple sentences around on themselves so that they sounded like something completely original. "How about a Huggerino Special with onions?"

"Onions?" Huggy's brow puckered before he burst into laughter. "That's right. He's pickles, you're onions. One Huggerino Special with onions it is. Hang tight, my friend."

It was good advice all around, Hutch decided. As Huggy left to arrange his order, his spirits felt strangely lifted.

*~*~*

The number ended. The sarcastic, leggy blonde - Carol or Katie, although 95% certain she was in fact called Katie, Starsky had refrained from addressing the girl by name all night - deigned to acknowledge his presence.

"I'm going to get a drink." With that she left him alone on the dance floor.

Starsky suppressed a sigh. He'd enjoyed the dance, mostly because it had offered him the chance to goof around with Nicky, who was a better dancer than the haughty Katie any day of the week. Starsky had hoped that Hutch and Marlene would get up and join the fun, but in retrospect he decided it was just as well they hadn't. When Starsky danced with his partner, he didn't want an audience.

"You really struck out with that one. Huh, big brother?" Nick grinned good-naturedly, slinging an arm across Starsky's shoulder.

Fact was, he hadn't been trying. But he could hardly admit that to his brother. "The night's still young, hotshot."

"Right. You thirsty, Carol?" Nick turned to his date.

"Not yet," the pretty brunette answered.

"Great. Let's stick out another number. Wanna join us, Davey?" Nick asked his brother.

"Nah, you two go ahead." Starsky left them to it, returning to the bar.

"You know, you're really a great dancer, David," Marlene praised, her eyes alight as they ran speculatively over him. The woman was as flighty as a nectar-drunk honeybee in a field of summer wild flowers, her interest hopping from one man to the next with an utter disregard to the feelings of whoever was presently trying to chaperone her. Starsky figured he should have guessed as much earlier from how easily he'd sweet-talked her away from Nicky. Hutch had done even better. All it had taken was one look at the tall blond and Nick and he might just have well been invisible.

Not that Starsky could fault her taste. Hutch looked edible tonight.

Seeing Marlene and his partner's heads bent close together in conversation did unpleasant things to his insides that Starsky would rather not dwell upon. As he approached the giggling pair, he reminded himself that this entire night had been his idea. It would hardly be fair to blame Hutch for being gallant. Still, it wasn't easy seeing his lover paying attention to another.

At least Hutch's temperament appeared to have improved in the hours between the office and the club. Though nowhere near his sunny self, his partner was no longer as darkly distant.

Starsky didn't delude himself for one moment that everything was all right between them. The business of taking Nicky's hand instead of his own outstretched palm when they'd arrived had told Starsky that Hutch was still miffed at him, if unconsciously so.

He gave his lover a smile as intimate as their surroundings would allow and asked, "How you doin', cowboy?"

Hutch's gaze focused squarely upon him, the blond's residual resentment and awareness of their respective dates melting slowly from his eyes. "Hi, yourself."

The helpless yearning he read there twisted Starsky's heart in his chest. He found himself wishing that the world were a different kind of place, one in which he could forego convention's hypercritical masquerades, take his partner into his arms and give Hutch the kiss those beautiful eyes were hungering for.

Instead, Starsky had to content himself with slinging an arm over Hutch's shoulder and leaning a good deal of his weight against his seated partner. No one watching would think twice of the gesture, probably figuring Starsky for slightly drunk. Only Hutch would know the truth.

"I missed you out there, buddy," Starsky admitted.

"Yeah, well . . ."

Hutch appeared temporarily flustered, as if he'd suddenly recalled their audience.

"One of these days I'm gonna teach you to dance, partner. Count on it," Starsky joked.

"Last time you almost hospitalized me," Hutch reminded, but his smile was sweet, unshadowed.

"That's because you violated Rule #1."

"Rule #1?" Hutch asked.

"Rule #1 of Starsky's 'Rules to Live Your Life By,'" Starsky proudly explained.

"Which is?" Hutch chuckled.

"Never, ever let go of your partner, babe."

The laughter died on Hutch's lips, his eyes going very wide. "You mean that, Starsk?"

It was suddenly very hard to speak. Starsky forced the words around the lump choking his throat. "More so than ever."

"What's Rule #2?" Hutch enquired.

Starsky took a quick glance around. From their days at the Academy, all they need ever do to isolate themselves from their surroundings was gaze into each other's eyes. Nowadays Starsky had to constantly remind himself that, although they might have lost their awareness of the world, the world was still very much aware of them.

Tonight he needn't have bothered. The two stewardesses were deep in their own private conversation, the rest of the bar oblivious to the two quietly speaking detectives.

Starsky met his partner's waiting gaze. "I broke Rule #2 this afternoon. Again."

"Huh?" Hutch's bewilderment didn't seem feigned.

"Never let your partner down. I'm sorry, babe. This was a pretty dumb idea."

"It hasn't turned out that bad," Hutch objected.

"No?"

"No," the blond confirmed with a smile and a decisive shake of his head.

The resultant tumble of gold over the shoulders of Hutch's vest made Starsky's fingers ache for the touch of it. Completely distracted, he noticed that the hair had swept over the sleeve of his own navy jacket where his arm was still resting over Hutch's shoulders.

"Hey, Ken, come on. That's my favorite number." Marlene's coy voice called them back from their own private world.

Jolted back to reality, it was all Starsky could do to remember his own supposed date's name. "Ah, Katie, you feel like . . ."

"Why not?" The tall blonde shrugged and headed back to the dance floor, once again leaving Starsky with his open hand in the air.

His cheeks warmed at Marlene's less than kind giggle.

"Come on, partner." Hutch's arm settled over his shoulder, the blond's other arm snuggled around Marlene's trim waist as Hutch led the way back to the dance floor.

*~*~*

The alarm clock sounded like an air raid siren as it howled through the early morning quiet of Venice Place. Hutch savagely silenced the gadget, groaning as he calculated how long he'd slept.

Five hours. Christ, he was getting too old for this all-night business, he lamented, sinking back against the pillows for just a few more minutes of precious inactivity. He'd really overdone it last night. His head was pounding so bad that, even if he'd had the time to snooze, his headache wouldn't have permitted it.

It wasn't like this was the first sleepless night recently, but somehow loving Starsky into the early morning hours didn't drain him quite the same way as last night's socializing had. His sleepy gaze strayed over the bed beside him, resenting its vacant state.

Starsky had spoiled him these past few weeks. They'd been lovers for just a little under two months, and already Hutch missed waking up with his partner.

This whole Nicky situation was leaving a sour taste in his mouth. Since his lover's younger brother had arrived yesterday, Hutch had felt himself feeling increasingly adrift. Last night had been the corker.

A year ago, a date with three hot stewardesses would have been a dream come true. But now . . . he didn't know what his role was in that kind of game anymore. The only thing he wanted was to be with Starsky. The short conversation he and his partner had shared at the bar seemed to indicate that Starsky felt the same way. And yet, his partner hadn't given him a single clue as to how he was supposed to handle the amorous attentions of his slightly drunk date.

It had been easy for Starsky. The stuck-up blonde his partner had been with had told Starsky in no uncertain terms that she was more than capable of getting her girlfriend and herself home.

But Marlene had been a different story. A little worse for drink, she'd taken his arm as they headed for Tramps' elevators, her steamy glances and sly innuendo making it plain that Hutch's bed was her next destination, Nicky's admiring "Way to go!" making an already awkward situation far worse.

Three months ago, Hutch would have been more than happy to indulge the beautiful lady, but that was before Starsky. Trapped, and wanting no part in the role he seemed to be being forced into, Hutch had looked to his partner for guidance or rescue. Starsky had just shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, "It's up to you."

Considering the circumstances, there wasn't much else his lover could have done, what with Nicky and the other two girls watching. But still, Hutch wished they'd talked this situation out ahead of time. He honestly didn't know what his partner had wanted him to do with the girl last night, how far he was supposed to go to keep up this pathetic charade they were putting on for Nick.

Had Starsky wanted him to lay her?

They both knew that sleeping with Marlene wouldn't have meant anything. There was no real emotion involved with her. Making it with her would have as much significance in the cosmic scheme of life as whacking off, maybe even less.

Only, meaningless as it might have been, he still couldn't do it. Even if Starsky and he hadn't made any fidelity promises yet, it still felt too much like cheating.

So Hutch had put Marlene off with some line about not being over a recent breakup and left her standing in her hotel lobby with nothing more than a chaste peck on the cheek.

In retrospect, Hutch realized he'd gotten off easy. If Marlene had wanted to, that sexy body could have made it difficult for him. No, he decided, the night hadn't gone nearly as bad as it might have. Nevertheless, Hutch still felt dirty about the entire affair.

Coming awake with a start, Hutch stopped himself on the edge of drifting back to sleep. Ignoring his aching head, he hauled himself out of bed, resolving to hash this out with his partner first thing.

As events transpired, "first thing" didn't happen until many hours later.

When Hutch first walked into the squad room and found Starsky waiting there, there'd been a moment of tension between them, a million questions lying unasked, separating them, a moment when Starsky seemed to be trying to read his very soul. Did you or didn't you? Starsky's subdued features seemed to shout at him.

Then, without a single word of explanation being offered, Starsky seemed to find his answer. The doubt dropped away, replaced by a beaming joy.

Before Hutch could say anything, Dobey had come out of his office to call them into that meeting with the Fed, Weldon. After that, the only thing Starsky could think of was the surveillance on Nicky.

It wasn't until they were in the Torino, on their way to check out the Fed's stakeout on the Velvet Slide, that Starsky calmed down enough for coherent conversation.

"This really stinks." Starsky repeated for at least the hundredth time, "I just can't believe that they've got my brother under surveillance for stopping into a bar."

Angry as he was with the situation itself, Hutch tried to defuse his partner's protective fury. "You've gotta see their point, babe. They don't know Nicky from Adam. As far as the Feds are concerned, he could've been the next courier. He had to be checked out."

"Don't tell me you're buying into this crap, too?" Starsky demanded, giving the steering wheel a more savage twist than was called for by the current turn.

Hutch took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "No, I'm not buying into it, but I think we better have a talk with Nicky and find out just what he was doing there."

"Yeah," Starsky agreed, outwardly appeased. After a quiet time, Starsky glanced over at him while they were stopped at an especially long light and said, "I - ah - never thanked you for coming last night. I . . . know it wasn't easy."

"I think we're overdue for a talk ourselves, Starsk," Hutch said carefully, aware that his underslept friend was on a very short fuse this morning.

"Huh?"

"It wasn't that last night wasn't easy. In some ways, it was too simple. We fall back into old patterns too fast in that kind of situation and . . ."

"And?" Starsky prompted as the Torino started moving again.

"It's dangerous."

"Dangerous?"

This wasn't exactly the time he would have chosen to have this particular conversation. But deciding that he'd rather get this off his chest and have it out in the open, regardless of the circumstances, Hutch plunged ahead. "This past month or so, we've been pretty much riding the wave, babe, going with what feels good. We haven't asked too many questions or looked too close at how what we're doing in our personal life affects everything else."

Road construction up ahead; the Torino was pretty much encased in non-moving traffic for the immediate future. Starsky turned to face him, barely giving the gridlocked street a glance.

"And?"

Hutch couldn't read anything that was going on behind the purposefully controlled face. "I think we need some definitions. We . . . I need to know what we're doing, Starsk."

"We're in love with each other, partner," Starsky explained simply, a small, fond smile softening his tense visage.

"Yeah . . . but . . . what does that mean?"

"Huh?" Starsky asked heatedly. "What do you mean - what does it mean? It means I love you, goddamn it."

"We're in love . . . but last night we were out on a date, partner, with other people." Hutch couldn't keep the hurt out of his voice.

"We were just having fun, Hutch. Dancin', for christ's sake! We couldn't do that with each other at Tramps," Starsky protested. "It wasn't like it was a real date."

"We were paired off with a woman apiece. In my book that qualifies as a date."

"So what are you saying?" Starsky demanded.

"That I need to know how far you're willing to have us go to maintain that kind of cover."

"Cover? Hutch, you're makin' it sound . . ."

"What - sordid? Dishonest? That's how I felt with Marlene last night after we split that club. I don't like that feeling, babe," Hutch admitted, his self-conscious gaze dropping to his clenched fists.

"Nothin' happened with her last night, Hutch," Starsky insisted, sounding as certain as if he'd witnessed the awkward parting in the stewardess's hotel lobby.

Hutch didn't question how his partner could be so sure. All his life, he'd longed for a lover who could read his soul. Now that he'd found that lover, Hutch was determined to do everything in his power to hang onto him. "Something could have. If I'd been a little angrier or more confused, I might've slept with her." The blond stared at his partner's uncommunicative profile and softly confessed. "Yesterday morning I felt like I was on top of the world when I woke up next to you. What you gave me, it was so . . . so perfect, Starsk. But then last night, playing the game with those girls and making like we were just pals in front of Nicky, it was like none of that ever happened, like what we shared was just another dream."

"It wasn't a dream, Hutch," Starsky promised, no longer sounding so angry. After a too-silent moment, the older Starsky brother said, "I tried to tell Nicky about us last night when we got home from the club, Hutch, and . . ."

"And?" Hutch encouraged.

"It was like we're from different worlds or somethin'. I just don't know how to reach him. He can't even understand why I'm a cop. I tried to tell him how happy I am where I am in my life now, you know, kinda ease into the subject, only . . . all Nick was interested in was where the girls were and how much bread I'm making. It's always been that way with him. I try, but it's like baring your heart to an unfeeling, judgmental stranger."

"Wish I coulda been there to back you up, partner," Hutch said, giving Starsky's tense arm an encouraging squeeze.

"So did I. I missed you last night, Hutch."

Feeling his worries lighten under that honest expression, Hutch found a smile for his lover. "Yeah, me, too. I think that's why what happened last night bugged me so much. The only thing I was interested in on that dance floor was Carol's date."

"Katie's," Starsky corrected, his smile shy but pleased.

"Whatever."

The shared laughter felt good after the tension of the morning.

"I'll try to tell Nick again tonight," Starsky promised.

"Whenever," Hutch shrugged. "He's your brother, babe, you do what you think is best." Recalling some news he'd forgotten to apprise his partner of, Hutch added, "Ah, there's someone we won't have to worry about telling."

"Huh?"

"I was at Huggy's last night. He knows," Hutch said.

"Yeah?" Starsky commented, not appearing overly concerned. "That's good . . . ain't it? Hug didn't . . ."

Heading off the rising protective streak, Hutch instantly assured, "No, Huggy was great. He . . . he said he thought I was good for you."

"He was right, babe," Starsky beamed. "So what gave us away?"

"Aside from the fact that I can't take my eyes off you?" Hutch laughed, then shrugged. "Hug knows us. He took a stab in the dark and it turned out to be correct."

"Ah, good. I've been trying to figure out how to bring it up with Hug, without turning the scene into a major production. I'm glad he figured it out for himself. Now if I could just tell Nick . . ."

Starsky's attention returning to the Fed's surveillance on his brother after that, Hutch allowed his own to roam over the familiar scenery for a few minutes before realizing that they'd never really addressed his original concern. "Starsk?"

"Hmmm?"

"You never did say how you felt about handling girls," Hutch reminded.

"Huh? I thought you said that it bothered you goin' out like that."

"Yeah, it does, but that's just me. You've always loved to dance and . . ." Hutch floundered, overcome by the complexities of this new lifestyle they were living. What was he going to do - ask his thirty-two year old partner to go steady with him?

"You weren't the only one havin' trouble concentratin' on their official date last night, babe," Starsky offered. "I didn't think it would be that hard." The Torino inched forward a few more feet before those tired, cerulean eyes once again fixed upon him. "This ain't just about last night, is it, Hutch? This is what's been bothering you since we started, isn't it?"

Hutch froze. "It's not like you don't show me how much you love me, partner, it's just . . ."

"It's not enough?" Starsky suggested in a tight tone.

"Don't be stupid!" Hutch snapped, overtired himself.

"Anyone ever tell you you've got a real way with words, Hutchinson?" Starsky chuckled, visibly relaxing. "This is more of that definitions business, isn't it? Okay."

"Okay, what?" Hutch asked, not quite trusting the mischievous air that settled over his friend.

"I'll spell it out for you in four-letter words. "I love you. You're mine, I'm yours. Got it?"

"There's more than four letters in some of those words," Hutch pointed out, but he was grinning.

"You complainin'?" Starsky demanded.

"Nope."

"Anything else you need clarified, partner?"

"Just one thing." Hutch fastened his gaze on that chiseled profile, so that he'd be sure to catch the faintest hint of hesitation. "Are we exclusive?"

"The '64 Thousand Dollar Question,' huh? So that's what you've been sittin' on all these weeks."

"Are we or aren't we?" Hutch questioned, having little patience for levity at the moment.

"What do you think?" Starsky turned his inquiry back on him with some asperity.

"That I'm gonna strangle you if you don't answer the damn question."

"Is that any way to talk to the love of your life?" Starsky demanded with mock sorrow, flashing wounded, lugubrious eyes his way before seeming to relent. "For your verification, we're highly exclusive. It's just me and thee, babe. Always. And just so's there'll be no more misunderstandings, it's been that way for me from the first night. Is that clear enough?"

Trust had always been the basic foundation of their entire partnership. Maybe this wasn't something he should have had to ask Starsky about, maybe he should have just accepted things on faith alone, but he felt good having his partner spell it out for him.

"Yeah," Hutch gruffly answered, then, "Thanks, partner."

"Anytime, babe, anytime at all."

"How 'bout tonight in the middle of my bed?" Hutch joked, wanting to kiss his friend so bad right here in the middle of traffic that it was a physical ache in his gut.

"I wish. Maybe if I sort things out with Nicky . . ."

Considering the younger Starsky's personality, there was as much chance of that as pigs flying, but Hutch kept the thought to himself, content with what he'd been given as they finally pulled up across from the Velvet Slide. Starsky was exclusively his. He couldn't ask for much more than that from life.

Despite his physical exhaustion, there was a bounce to Hutch's step as Starsky and he left the car to check in with the surveillance detail on Stryker.

Within two minutes, that happy bounce turned into an airborne plunge as a concussion of moving air flung the two detectives off the staircase they were mounting.

Not knowing what happened or how he'd gotten there, Hutch suddenly found himself flung into a pile of cardboard boxes and malodorous garbage. Blackness reeled in on him as his pounding head struggled to hold onto consciousness. He had a vague impression of smoke and the unmistakable roar of living flame.

"HUTCH!"

There was no mistaking or ignoring that frantic cry.

"Wha . . . Starsk?" His incoherent mumble lost in a mound of styro-foam packaging, he rolled onto his back, feeling the pull of a dozen strained muscles. "Starsk?"

The louder call brought immediate response. The cardboard around him began to fly apart as the tornado of worry and fear that was his partner found its way to his side.

"HUTCH . . . Hutch . . . you okay, babe?" a smoke-stained Starsky demanded as shaking, scraped hands lifted the blond's pounding head from its cushion of trash.

"'M okay," Hutch assured, not certain if it were true, but knowing that he had to make Starsky believe it at the moment. "Wha-what happened?"

"I don't . . ." Starsky twisted around to look in the direction of the building they'd been approaching, horror widening his eyes to saucers. "Oh, my god, no . . ."

Hutch found his head carefully returned to the Styrofoam, then Starsky jumped to his feet. His bruised and battered body didn't feel up to it, but Hutch forced himself to his feet as well, alarmed by the unconscious signals his partner's body was putting out.

One glance at the stakeout was enough for him to take in the wall of flames and the clouds of smoke billowing out of the glassless side windows. It didn't take a fireman to know that the entire building was consumed with walls of flame.

Sensing what was about to happen at his side, Hutch flung himself at Starsky, forcibly grounding his friend in place. "Forget it, Starsk, the whole place is gone. There's no one alive in there."

"No . . ."

A fire truck's unmistakable siren howled from nearby.

Neither member of Zebra Three quite steady on their feet yet, the pair supported each other as they turned to meet the arriving emergency vehicles.

*~*~*

Twelve hours later, the entire Stryker drama was history. The Feds got their missing plates back, the LAPD had Stryker and company behind bars, and Starsky got his kid brother back. Selfish as it might be, it was this last which was of paramount concern to Starsky.

Almost viscerally relieved that his brother was safe, Starsky sat in a corner of his captain's office, quietly watching as Dobey, Weldon and Hutch debriefed Nick. For the first time in his life, Starsky didn't consider himself objective enough to do his job. He was torn between the normal, familiar impulse to defend his younger brother, and a stranger, troubling desire to stand aside and let Nicky take the heat his actions had brought down on him. There was even a childish, hurt part of him that wanted to see Nicky pay for all the lies and deceit. Since his desires kept jumping from one camp to the other as the interrogation proceeded, Starsky decided it was best if he remain a spectator and allow the experts to do their job.

It was obvious from how cooperative Nicky was being that the close brush with death had scared his brother. Just how much, only time would tell.

Difficult as it was to sit there and watch his co-workers grill his little brother on Nick's involvement in this mess, Starsky was determined to keep his mouth shut. Were Nick anybody else, he would have been down in lock-up with Stryker and his boys on co-conspiracy charges, perhaps even as accessory to Murder 1, after the fact. It might be true that Nick hadn't known it was stolen federal plates that he'd delivered to that exotic femme fatale for Stryker, but Nick had been completely aware that the package he was carrying was illegal. The fact that it turned out to be stolen printing plates and not cocaine was only incidental. Nick had knowingly agreed to act as a mule for Stryker. Even were the merchandise in question drugs and not stolen federal property, Nick's complicity was good for at least three to five years. The department was going easy on the younger Starsky brother, cutting a deal in exchange for the testimony Nick would provide against Stryker.

And that was one of the things that Starsky found so troubling. Nick was cutting a deal like any of the countless parade of penny-ante, small-time hoodlums Starsky had busted over the years. Nick was cutting a deal like the small-time crook he was, Starsky bitterly acknowledged.

He couldn't forget the fight they'd had this afternoon after Starsky walked into his apartment to find his brother and partner squared off in front of the television, a furious Hutch telling an unrepentant Nick that he didn't care what happened to Nick, but that he did care about his brother. Poor, sweet Hutch, looking so guilty at being caught in even that small lie about leaving his wallet at Huggy's. Nicky, in sharp contrast, hadn't appeared the least bit guilty, seeming only angry about having been found out.

The way Nicky had shrugged off dealing weed . . . the way he'd bragged about peddling stolen property. Just remembering that boasting tone, Starsky knew that their papa must be rolling over in his grave. This afternoon, he'd come to the chilling realization that Nick was right; he and Nicky might've grown up in the same room as kids, but they didn't know each other at all anymore.

His mother had tried to tell him. All those Friday night phone calls when she'd confided her worries about Nick. Her pleas of, "He's hanging out with a bad crowd; couldn't you talk to him, Davey?"

And then his own stupidity of buying into Nicky's easy outs. "It's not as bad as she's making out, big brother. You remember how she used to worry when you lived at home?"

His mother had been so concerned about his own run-ins with the local heavies that she'd shipped the fourteen-year-old David out to live with her brother Al in LA to get him away from the street scene. To this day, Starsky still hadn't completely forgiven her for that lonely exile . . . which Nicky knew and capitalized upon. Nick had played him like a maestro would his violin.

Even this afternoon at Huggy's he'd fallen for the act. With his own eyes, Starsky had seen Nick chumming around with Sly Stryker, a known dealer. Rather than investigating his suspicions or even pursuing their inquiries about Nick's relation to Stryker, as Hutch had done, Starsky himself had been all too willing to fall for the charm and the "anything you want, big brother" crock. Christ, according to Stryker and Nick's own testimony, Nick had gone straight to the Velvet Slide after swearing he'd steer clear of Stryker. Stuck on that one betrayal, Starsky couldn't help but wonder what kind of man his baby brother had grown into.

His partner had known all along, Starsky realized. Four years ago in New York when he'd introduced Nick, he'd seen the change that had come over Hutch's eyes, seen the tightness that had entered those strong Nordic features, that subtle wariness that came over his partner whenever the blond cop's instincts were aroused. If they'd been on the job, that reaction would have warned Starsky to beware of whomever they were dealing with. But since it was Nicky, Starsky had just shrugged the response off as the result of the unavoidable tensions that often arose in such situations. Hutch had taken one look at Nick and known what he was, but his partner had been too loyal to come right out and tell him.

Nevertheless, Hutch had tried to prepare him for the truth. Even this afternoon after the bombing. "He probably wouldn't want you to know what he was doing."

Yeah, Hutch had known all right. Remembering how hard his partner had tried to protect him from finding out that Nick was dealing, a warm glow suffused his churning emotions. That was love, pure and simple.

Eight years of daily interaction with Hutch told him that his partner and Nick had pretty much detested each other on sight, but because his partner loved Starsky, the blond was willing to perpetuate Starsky's illusions about his kid brother, and even go so far as to extend surface friendliness to the man to make Nick's stay easier on Starsky.

Even now, Hutch was doing it. Since Starsky had unofficially sidelined himself for the interrogation, Hutch was taking his part, making all the moves that a concerned older brother would make in such a situation. Time and again, Starsky's lover had intervened on Nick's behalf, either by stopping the kid from incriminating himself or preventing Weldon from giving Nick leading questions. Watching his partner in action, Starsky couldn't help but think that Hutch had missed his calling. The idealistic blond would have made a brilliant defense attorney.

"Look," Hutch said at last, the hours of questioning visibly wearing him thin; he'd been pale and moving like his back was bothering him since the explosion had blown them off that staircase this morning. "We've been over this a dozen times. Nick didn't know what was in the package. Maybe he should've been a little smarter about agreeing to do favors for friends of friends, but he didn't know the kind of man he was dealing with in Stryker. Stryker's testimony confirmed that Nick didn't know he had the plates. Stryker also states that Nick refused to traffic coke for him."

"After asking for a couple of keys of pot to sell," Weldon reminded.

"But there wasn't an ounce of marijuana on Nick when he was found. There are no drug charges involving Nick. Furthermore, the moment Nick discovered that Stryker was planning on making a move on the police, Nick called us immediately and almost got himself killed for his troubles. We've already agreed that we're not pressing charges against him, so why don't we just break up this little tea party and head home?" Hutch pleaded.

"Detective Hutchinson's right," Dobey agreed, rubbing his hands across his tired features. "Let's call it a night. We can pick up again in the morning, if you want, Agent Weldon."

"That won't be necessary," the Fed surprised them all by declaring. "I think we've got enough here. Thank you for your cooperation, Captain," Weldon said, pointedly excluding the two homicide detectives. "If you'll excuse me, Captain, I've got a funeral to arrange." With a disgusted look Starsky's way, the Fed left the office.

"Thank God," Nick sighed as his chief persecutor left, sinking gratefully back into his chair.

"As for you, young man, you'd better be more careful in the future who you become involved with. You were very lucky today," Dobey warned in a fatherly fashion, giving Nick a stern glance.

"Yes, sir," Nicholas meekly agreed.

Reading the insincerity beneath his brother's contrite façade, Starsky bit his lip and looked away. How could he not have seen it all these years? Had that insincerity always been there, or was it a new development?

"If it's all the same to you, Captain, we'll pack it in, too. It's been a long day," Hutch said, running a hand through hair that shone like liquid gold beneath the fluorescent lights.

"Yeah, get some rest, you two. I don't want to see either of your faces in here before noon tomorrow," Dobey ordered.

Starsky suspected that the captain had guessed how Hutch's back was hurting, but for some reason their boss's concerned gaze kept straying to Starsky's corner.

"Thanks, Captain. You ready, partner?" Hutch asked, coming to stand directly before him.

"Ah, yeah . . . sure," Starsky started, as if from a dream. He rose tiredly to his feet, stretched, and started to automatically trail his taller partner to the door before stopping as he realized he was missing something. "You coming, Nick?" he turned to ask, not at all surprised that Nick would be shell-shocked after the interrogation he'd just undergone.

There was nothing insincere or forced about the uncertainty in Nicky's eyes now. "Do you want me to, Davey? I could check into a motel if it'd be easier."

All the spiteful things Nicky had thrown at him in their earlier argument lay heavy in the air between them. Those words had hurt Starsky, bad. They both knew it.

But as real as that pain still was to Starsky, it was superseded by a deeper awareness - something Starsky had which he could only hope Nicky would find one day. As he stared at those oh-so-familiar features, acknowledging how lost and alone his brother looked, the revelation came upon Starsky with astounding clarity.

The thing which made David Starsky one kind of man and his younger brother something so similar but utterly opposite, didn't have anything to do with such intangibles as morals or upbringings. The answer was defined physically, right there before Starsky's tired eyes.

What it all came down to as they faced each other was the fact that Nick was a solitary unit, self-centered, alone, desperately grasping in the dark for some way to shine. Whereas, wherever David Starsky went, whatever he did in his life, it was with the knowledge that he was part of a team. Starsky wasn't grasping in the dark anymore. Most everywhere he went, a golden presence glowed at his side. If things had gone differently all those years ago at the Academy, Nicky and he might be exactly the same. Lost and searching, without a clue as to where to turn or what to look to for guidance. When things got rough, Starsky had always had Hutch to depend on, while Nick had no one.

Nick had spelled it out for him this afternoon. "You were never there for me."

Those words had hurt as nothing else Nick had said. He was Nicky's older brother. It was his responsibility to be there for him, to guide the kid. God knows he'd tried, but Starsky had been a kid himself when his mother had shipped him out here. Starsky had barely been able to guide himself back then, let alone a little brother two thousand miles away. And once he'd come back from 'Nam, he'd been so mixed up that it had taken years to get his head on straight, to redefine himself in a civilian reality - a reality clear across the country from the one his brother was facing. As often as Starsky called home, it just wasn't enough. Young Nick got lost in the shuffle. Fraternal bonds couldn't be forged over the phone.

Nick wasn't the only one who'd lost out by the separation. During his entire adolescence, Starsky had felt the lack. Not until he'd met Hutch had all those old wounds begun to heal.

Yet it wasn't like his partner had replaced Nick. What Hutch and he had found had never been the traditional bonding between brothers. There had always been a lot more layers to it, layers Starsky had only begun to explore this month. It had never been a contest between Nick and Hutch for his affections, mainly because what he felt for Hutch hadn't left much room for anyone else from the very start.

Staring at his brother now, reading all those doubts, Starsky felt some of his earlier resentments melt away. They'd both said things before that they didn't really mean. The kid looked like he expected to be told to go to hell. Feeling his eyes mist up, Starsky reached out for Nicky and muttered, "Don't be an idiot. We're goin' home, little brother." Then they were hugging and the events of the day seemed even further away. When they finally broke the embrace, Starsky kept one arm slung over Nick's shoulders, then reached the other for Hutch. "Come on, partner."

Like the Three Musketeers, they marched out of Dobey's office. Zebra Three's reputation was such that nobody in the squad room even gave them a second glance.

Sometimes Starsky wondered if anyone out here would even notice if he and Hutch forgot where they were and committed some indiscretion or the other. God knew, they had hugged, touched and embraced enough before they'd actually become lovers to keep the rumor mill fueled for the next decade or so.

"I see you found your kid brother." Minnie, on late shift tonight, grinned as the three passed her. "Don't lose him again, Starsky, or I might adopt him."

"He's a bit of a handful, sweetheart," Starsky warned.

"Ah, but the handling would be so fun," Minnie joked.

"Any time, ma'am, you just name the time and place," Nicky rallied.

"Ah, another trashy boy. That's what I love." The busy officer's giggle turned to a scowl as her ringing phone demanded immediate response.

"See you, Min," Starsky called.

They left to a chorus of cheerful goodnights and well wishes from fellow officers who knew about the kidnapping.

Starsky didn't give up his hold on either of his companions until the crowded elevator forced them apart.

Stepping into the gloomy, deserted garage an unexpected sense of depression hit Starsky.

Just looking at his partner, Starsky could tell that Hutch was as reluctant to go home alone tonight as Starsky was to separate from him. An explosion and a shootout in a single work shift made for a busy entry in even their lively diaries. In the past, such a traumatic day would have kept them together most of the night. Their altered relationship made the thought of parting all the more difficult, but they'd started out the morning on less than five hours sleep. What they needed most right now was some serious down time.

"Well, I guess we'd better say goodnight," Hutch finally said, his voice rough from lack of sleep and overuse.

"Yeah, guess so," Starsky quietly agreed, unable to break free of that weary blue gaze. Hutch looked so . . . sad, like he needed the company and a kiss. Craving the surety of a shared night himself, Starsky was hard-pressed to desert him. "You, ah, take care of that back of yours. If it gives you any trouble, you give me a call," he ordered, unable to resist cradling his partner's cheek. The prickly golden beard stubble tickled his palm. Remembering how it felt beneath his tongue, Starsky gruffly said, "I still give the best backrubs in town."

The blond started almost guiltily, a charmingly astonished expression claiming his pale face. "How'd you know that I . . . oh, what the hell." Hutch chuckled. Sobering abruptly, as if recalling their companion, the tall cop reluctantly stepped back. "I, ah, better go now."

"You call if you need me, you hear," Starsky repeated.

"I will. Goodnight, partner. G'night, Nick." Hutch nodded and started for the wreck he lovingly called his car.

"Hutch," Nick called suddenly.

"Yeah?" The lanky detective halted, staring uncertainly back at the dark-eyed Starsky brother.

"Thanks for . . . sticking up for me in there. I, ah . . . appreciate it," Nick said, sounding as if he meant it.

Starsky could almost hear the series of possible responses reeling through his partner's mind. He knew that Hutch was still deeply angry with Nick for what he'd put his older brother through today. After the day they'd had, Starsky wouldn't blame his overtired partner for losing his temper with Nick and reading him the riot act, but the blond apparently opted for diplomacy, deciding to accept the offered olive branch.

"You're welcome," Hutch answered. "Have a good night."

"Yeah, you, too," Nick replied, seeming to have sensed the possible reactions brewing which Starsky had expected.

"Good night, babe," Starsky repeated, proud of his partner. Inside he was churning, aching at the sight of Hutch walking away. Perhaps he shouldn't have been, but Starsky was surprised by how sharp the longing was.

Casting a sweet, exhausted smile his lover's way, Hutch turned to his car.

The Torino felt very cold as the two Starsky brothers climbed into it. Chill leather and night damp left Starsky shivering. The heavy silence inside didn't do much to improve the temperature.

"Hutch is okay," Nick announced into the strained quiet when they were more than halfway home.

"He's a lot more than okay," Starsky replied, hoping this wouldn't turn into an instant replay of this afternoon's fight.

"I . . . ah . . . I'd be in a lot of trouble now if Hutch hadn't spoken to Weldon for me, wouldn't I?" Nicky asked. To his credit, he didn't remark on his older brother's silence during the interrogation.

"You'd be in jail waiting for the judge to set bail," Starsky clarified.

"After the way he talked to me this afternoon, I thought Hutch would be glad to see me go down." Nick added, "We've never been what you'd call tight. I don't know why he . . ."

"Hutch did it for me," Starsky explained.

"Huh?"

"He knew I was too close to the situation to be objective, so he did what he knew I'd eventually wish I'd done."

Nick gave a strangely chastened "Oh" before commenting, "The poor guy was really out on his feet back there. For a minute there, I thought he was gonna kiss you, big brother. I must really be losing it."

"Nick," Starsky cut into the amused, grating laughter, unable to bear it a second longer. Making his decision, he pulled off the freeway into a nearby rest stop. All the ambivalence and anxiety he'd undergone anticipating this event, and now that the long dreaded moment of truth was upon him, the only thing the thoroughly exhausted cop felt was irritation. "Can the laughter."

Something in his tone wiped the merriment immediately off Nicky's face. Brown eyes peered out the window at the dark semis and highway shrubbery decorating their unexpected surroundings before the younger Starsky asked, "Huh . . . why? Whu'd ya stop for? What's up, Davey?"

"You're a big boy now, Nick, old enough to know the score. There's something I gotta tell you. I didn't want to do it like this, but . . . Hutch ain't just my partner. He's my lover, the best part of my life. So don't joke about us like that." Starsky didn't know what was going to happen now that he'd said it, but it felt damn good having everything out in the open between them.

The frozen shock that followed Starsky's announcement seemed to last forever.

"You 'n' Hutch are . . . gay?" his stunned brother asked at last.

Starsky, who'd expected WWIII to erupt in the front seat of the Torino, breathed a sigh of relief. "I guess," he shrugged, "though neither one of us is big on labels. We just . . . fell in love with each other."

Visibly discomforted, Nick glanced away at Starsky's open avowal, before seeming to force himself to meet his brother's gaze. "I've gotta tell you, Dave, it's hard to believe . . . I . . . ah, never expected to hear anything like this from you," Nicky confessed, looking as if he were desperately searching for something, anything to fill the silence with.

"Yeah, me neither," Starsky acknowledged with a wry smile. Relaxing back into his seat, he turned to get a better view of his nervous companion. "It's all kinda new territory to me, too, Nick."

"It is?"

"Yeah, I guess you could say it took both Hutch and me by surprise. You're the first person I've actually told."

"I am?" The brunet still appeared numbed by Starsky's disclosure, but beneath it Nicky seemed pleased.

Seeing an echo of the hero-worshipping kid Nicky had once been in the other's pleasure, Starsky was glad he was able to give his brother that distinction. Once, before circumstances had forced them to live apart, nothing had mattered more to Nick than being important in his big brother's eyes. Maybe that was what this entire episode was about, Starsky thought. "You're my only brother," Starsky asserted, wanting to reinforce Nick's place in his life. "Who else would I want to tell first?"

"Thanks, Dave . . . after today I - I thought you'd want nothing to do with me again."

Maybe Nick was playing him for a fool again, but the regret looked genuine to Starsky. "You made a mistake. We all make them. I made one by not being there for you when you needed me. I know you don't believe it, but . . . I am sorry, Nick. If I could've been there for you, I would've."

His brother gulped, blinked his eyes, and looked away, obviously on the verge of tears. "Forget it, Dave. It's not . . . your fault. You're a cop, not Superman . . . it's just . . . I missed you so much when they sent you to live out here . . . so much."

Not knowing if Nick would be comfortable with his touch after his confession, Starsky carefully laid his hand on his brother's powerful bicep. "Hey, I missed you, too," he choked out. "Every day."

And then, somehow Nick was in his arms and they were hugging. "It's okay, Nick," Starsky soothed, realizing that Nicky's shaking was due to more than the low temperature.

The warm weight of Nick in his arms, the living heat, brought back many childhood memories of comforting Nicky when his little brother was upset. Only, this time it was different for Starsky, too. He'd needed to know that what he'd told Nick wasn't going to make a difference between them. No amount of talking could be more convincing than the honesty of touch.

It was a long time before they separated. When Nick finally pulled back to his own side of the car, he ran a self-conscious hand over his wet cheeks.

"Th-thanks, Dave. I love you, brother."

"I know. You almost got yourself killed protecting me today." Starsky reached out to ruffle the tight brown curls. "Just for the record, the feeling's mutual. I'm really proud of you, Nick."

"Proud - for what? Dealing pot and selling stolen property? For transporting hot printing plates and getting myself kidnapped?" Nick asked with some trace of bitterness, obviously not feeling too good about himself at the moment.

"No, you know how I feel about all that. I'm proud of the person you've grown up to be."

"You making fun of me, Dave?" Nick asked, a hurt look in his eyes.

"Never."

"Then why . . ."

"Lots of reasons. But mostly for not making me regret telling you about Hutch and me. You coulda made me feel pretty shitty a few minutes ago, but you didn't."

"I'm hardly in a position to judge anyone right now, Davey," Nick dismissed, looking down at his clasped hands. Then he shrugged and met Starsky's gaze squarely. "Besides, it's no big deal. I don't myself, but a lot of the guys back home swing both ways. It's your business, no one else's." Nick seemed to decide before giving an amused chuckle. "Anyway, you were always a lot more uptight about that particular subject than me, big brother. That's why it's such a surprise."

Hit with a sudden recollection, Starsky could see the same scene rerunning behind Nick's eyes. Starsky had been perhaps thirteen at the time. Nick, a very impressionable nine. They'd been over in Manhattan's Little Italy section, on their way from their grandmother's house on Orchard Street to a nearby grocery store, when they'd passed two gays necking in a doorway. Starsky could still recall his own contemptuous comments of "fucking fags" as he dragged his curious baby brother across the street to steer clear of the degenerates. Nicky hadn't been able to comprehend his anger, then or later.

Nick's ability to just shrug off what a younger David Starsky had called perversions as meaningless differences would be a constant source of discord throughout their adolescent years.

"I guess I was a bit of a prig back then," Starsky admitted, smiling to himself at the absurdities of fate.

"Nah, you just always saw things as black or white, Dave. There was never any middle ground with you."

Whereas, Nick conducted his entire life in that grey area in between right and wrong, Starsky recognized. In retrospect, Starsky realized that he needn't have worried about his brother's reaction to his new lifestyle at all. The adaptable principles which would allow Nick to fence stolen property also seemed to prevent his brother from making snap judgments about things which didn't personally concern him.

Not sure how he felt about Nick's accurate assessment of his character, and uncertain if he'd changed all that much over the years, Starsky shrugged, "I suppose."

"That's okay, Dave, it's part of your charm," Nick laughed, obviously reading right through him. A serious expression wiped most of the cheer away. "Is - is Hutch good for you? Are you happy?" the younger man asked a little awkwardly, returning to their former topic and surprising Starsky with the question. Nick sounded like he was really concerned about the answer.

"Hutch is the best thing that ever happened to me, Nick. No one could love me more than he does. I know it's hard for you to understand . . ."

"It's not that hard. Hutch and me mightn't have ever hit it off, but I can see he cares about you. He must if he was willing to go to bat for me today," Nick joked, then sobered. "I really screwed up today, Dave. I - I don't know how much I can change my life, but . . . I want you to know that I'm gonna be more careful in the future."

Appreciating the honesty, Starsky nodded. "I'm not gonna tell you how to run your life, Nick, but can I give you some unsolicited advice, as your big brother?"

"Sure."

"I deal with . . ." Starsky stopped himself from saying the word criminals. ". . . people who skirt the law everyday, Nick. There are two kinds in that world. People like you who don't want to hurt anyone, who are just looking to try and make a fast buck. And then there are those like Stryker. Men like him, Nick, they don't care who they hurt . . ."

"I could never be like him," Nick denied.

"I know that, brother," Starsky assured, "but men like Stryker, they use the other kind of guy. They get the nice guy to take all the risks for a little bit of flash money. And when the heat comes down, it's never the Strykers that go under, Nick, it's always the middle guy who hasn't got the stomach for blood. I'm not tryin' to preach to you, brother. I just don't want to see you end up dead."

Perhaps Nick was just humoring him, or maybe he was really listening, Starsky couldn't tell, but the emotion behind his response seemed legit. "I'm gonna try to stay clean, Dave. I give you my word on that."

"That's all I can ask," Starsky replied, giving Nick's shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "What do you say we get on home, little brother?" Starsky questioned, starting the car.

"Sure," Nick smiled.

"I was gonna tell mama about Hutch and me next time I called. How do you think she'll take it?" Starsky wondered aloud, asking Nick because he'd lived with their mother a lot longer than he. His yearly visits back home were great; Starsky and his mother getting on wonderfully, but he just didn't have the day-to-day experience of her that his younger brother did. He had no idea how his normally supportive mother would react to this surprising news.

The silence from the passenger seat seemed to stretch on for an inordinately long time, finally forcing Starsky to glance over and prod, "Nick?"

The strongly chiseled face seemed to be lost in thought, as if Nick were searching for the best way to tell him something.

"You think it's gonna be that bad, huh?" Starsky questioned.

"No, Dave, I don't think it's gonna come as any big surprise to her. I think she already suspects," Nick said at last.

"That's not possible. I talked to her just last week and she didn't say nothin' . . ."

"Dave, I think she's known for years."

"Nick," Starsky protested, "Hutch and me haven't been . . . together that way for that long."

"Maybe not, but I think she saw the way things were going. Think about it. When you first went on the police force and got your own place, she was always giving you the third degree about who you were dating. What her name was, what her folks did, the whole nine yards. Remember those conversations? Just listening from her end, I used to feel sorry for you." Nick chuckled.

"So?" Starsky asked, smiling himself as he recalled some of those incredibly irritating conversations.

"So when's the last time she even asked you if you were seeing someone? Has she sent you any magazines lately with Sharman's picture in it or made the usual 'when are you gonna make me a grandmother' spiel?"

Starsky tried to remember the last time he'd had one of those aggravating, long-distance inquisitions, and came up dead blank.

The fact in itself was extraordinarily telling. Jewish mothers simply don't forget to ask those kinds of questions, and if others were so lax in their maternal duties, his had never been . . . until . . . until when . . .?

"I - I don't remember the last time she asked me anything about my love life, Nick," Starsky confessed, astounded.

"I can tell you when, if you really want to know."

"All right already, get on with it," Starsky ordered, both intrigued and nervous.

"As a listener, I noticed the phone calls changing after you brought your partner home to meet us."

"That was four years ago, Nick," Starsky weakly protested, floored to realize that Nicky was right. After that, his mom generally asked about what Hutch and he were up to, rather than whom Starsky was dating. He'd been so relieved to be out of the witness chair that he'd never questioned the significance of the welcome change. "Did - did she ever say anything to you about us?"

"No . . . but she likes Hutch a lot, Dave. A hell of a lot more than I ever did," Nick admitted.

Not sure he wanted to ask any more questions of his brother, Starsky fell into silence, digesting everything Nicky had told him.

When they were pulling up to Starsky's driveway, Nick asked, "Dave?"

"Hmmm?"

"Do you want to just drop me off? I've got the key."

"Huh?" Starsky asked stupidly, not understanding the tentative tone of his brother's request or the suggestive, almost lecherous smile.

"It looked like you and your partner had some unfinished business to take care of. Why don't you head on back there?"

Starsky gaped into those laughing eyes that were filled with contagious good humor, amazed that Nick could be so . . . casual about this new development in his brother's life. "You're my guest. I ain't gonna go off and abandon you," he denied, in spite of his leaping heart.

"What abandon? This is a purely selfish request, big brother. All I wanna do is crash. If you go back to Hutch's, I can sleep in your big, comfy bed instead of on that lumpy couch."

"I shouldn't . . ."

"Why not? All we're gonna do is sleep when we get home, Dave."

"But . . ."

"We can meet at Huggy's for dinner tomorrow, if you want. Your treat," a grinning Nick specified.

Starsky glanced at his watch. Once he located the correct dial for California time on its complicated, high-tech face, he saw it read 12:33 A.M. At this late hour on a weeknight, LA's infamous traffic was almost decent. It would take less than 30 minutes to make it back to Hutch's. That would give them almost eleven whole hours together.

"You sure you don't mind?" Starsky checked, giving into temptation after only the briefest struggle with his conscience.

"I wanna sleep in that comfortable bed, man. Go on, get out of here, Dave," Nick said, opening the car door. "And have yourself a good night, big brother."

Reading the affection and genuine approval in Nick's comic leer, Starsky felt his throat choke up. He'd really underestimated his brother. "Hey," he called, "thanks, Nick."

"Have fun." Nick winked, slammed the door and jogged up to the house.

Starsky, who was having serious doubts that he'd be able to keep his eyes open long enough to make it back to Venice, admired the energy.

Somehow, he managed. Twenty-four minutes later, the Torino was parked in front of the battered Ford that Starsky fervently wished his partner would abandon, and he was climbing the steps to Hutch's place.

The apartment was completely dark when he let himself in. Seeing the streetlight reflect off his partner's holster where it lay atop the messy pile of clothes his lover had worn today, Starsky paused to consider. Hutch must have been really beat if he didn't even have the energy to hang up his gun. The fact that the blond wasn't out here with the Magnum in his unexpected night-caller's face told him how much Hutch needed the rest. Starsky felt guilty about even considering disturbing him. Only . . .

Starsky wasn't in much better shape himself. All he could think about was the soft bed and warm body waiting in the other room.

Exhaustion overcoming altruism, Starsky stripped down, leaving his own things in an equally untidy heap beside his partner's clothes, and entered the bedroom.

There was no reaction at all to his intrusion from the sleeper buried beneath the cream-colored comforter in the middle of the huge bed.

It wasn't until Starsky actually lifted the covers to crawl in beside his friend that he got a response.

As the cold air hit him, Hutch shot straight up on the mattress, nowhere near awake but ready to deal with whatever danger awaited.

"It's just me, babe," Starsky soothed. "Shift over."

"S-Starsk?" The bleary eyes tried to focus.

The streetlight coming in from the living room windows behind him, Starsky knew that his face was totally a shadow, his partner undoubtedly incapable of seeing a thing. "What other naked guy have you got crawling into your bed at one a.m.? Answer carefully." Starsky chuckled, then whispered, "Sorry I woke you, partner."

"What are you doing here? Where's Nick?" Hutch asked with surprising coherency as he snuggled himself around his midnight visitor.

Soaking in the luxurious feel of that long, sleek body, Starsky sighed in satisfaction. "At my place, taking up my bed." Pulling the covers over them, Starsky updated his partner. "I told him about us on the way home, Hutch."

The sleep-heavy body tensed in his arms. "How'd he take it?" Hutch asked, sounding as if he anticipated the worst.

Starsky nuzzled at that long, delectable neck. "Like a real trooper, babe. I was proud of him."

Anyone else would have some comment about Nick's brush with the law today or his less than upright profession, but Starsky's lover kept any such thoughts to himself and gave his partner a deep, relieved kiss. "'M glad for you, babe."

"You ready for some shut-eye?" Starsky chuckled, his heart swelling as he saw how hard his half-awake partner was rallying to rouse himself. "I'm out on my feet."

"No, you're not. You're in bed," Hutch corrected, the words so sleep-fogged they sounded like they were in a foreign language.

"Pick, pick, pick . . ." Starsky fondly grumbled, cuddling close as he could get. "Love ya, partner."

"'S mush . . . mutu . . ." The blond was asleep before he could finish the declaration.

Smiling, Starsky buried his nose in soft golden hair that still smelled of smoke and followed his lover down into sleep.


The End


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