The Right Beholder


"You're sure we're on the right road, Hutch?" Starsky's nervousness cut across the night-dark interior of the car like a searchlight.

The tall blonde detective glanced from the winding road over to his partner. Starsky was still staring out at the pitch-black woods lining the road the way a cowboy riding shotgun on a stagecoach would be watching the terrain for hostile natives in a western.

Not that Hutch could really blame his friend. As far as vacation spots went, their history was a little fraught at best. True, most of the time when they encountered trouble at these kinds of places, it was because they'd been sent there on a case, but that time they'd stumbled across those Satanists on the other side of the lake at Dobey's cabin had been sheer luck. They just seemed to have a magnet for attracting trouble. It seemed like every time they got away to some place remote, weird stuff went down. So, if there were rampaging outlaws in these hills, it only stood to reason that the newly resuscitated Torino would be the car they'd choose to attack.

Once, Hutch would have capitalized on his partner's near-fear, but that would defeat the purpose of this vacation. This little getaway was intended to finally put all those hang-ups resulting from Gunther's near successful assassination attempt to rest. They were going to kick off their shoes and have a good time together, enjoy life to its fullest without any shadows of mortality hulking over their shoulders. This was a celebration of life. Fear and nervousness had no place here.

So, instead of feeding into Starsky's paranoia about all things wild, Hutch calmly assured, "Yeah, it's the right road, Starsk."

"How can you be so sure? We were going thirty miles the wrong way down that last highway..."

"I'm sure, okay. It's the right road." Hutch sighed, but held on to his temper. California's mostly unmarked roadways were a challenge to even those who'd been here long enough to qualify as native. Hutch didn't know how the tourists ever found their way back out of the state. To his way of thinking, the freeways were set up to purposefully befuddle those who didn't know exactly where they were going. Their last wrong turn was a case in point. If Hutch hadn't been able to tell north from the stars, they'd still be driving in the wrong direction.

Up ahead, a white-tailed deer was momentarily lit by the headlights. The small doe jumped quickly from the slick black-tarred road up onto the snowy bank to disappear between the pines, faster than a passing wind.

"What was that?" Starsky asked on a rising note of panic, his left hand reaching inside his black leather jacket for his piece.

"A deer. It was a deer," Hutch informed him calmly.

"You sure?" Starsky's enormous eyes were almost all pupil, black as the night outside the window as they stared fretfully out into the dark.

"Yes, I'm positive. I thought you wanted to come up here, partner. It was your idea," Hutch mildly reminded. These days, he never suggested trips to the woods for their joint vacations. When Hutch felt the need to get back in touch with nature, he packed up Kiko and Molly and took them camping, or went alone. These past few years, whenever he traveled with Starsk, it was to vacation spots like Club Med or Acapulco.

This ski trip had been Starsky's idea. Hutch had been prepared for another singles scene. Not that the ski lodge was going to be that different from the beach with all its inevitable ski bunnies, but the fact that the lodge was cloistered here in these otherwise pristine mountains made the place seem less like a meat market than most of the tropical clubs.

Hutch couldn't pinpoint exactly when being around bikinied beauty queens had become so stale to him. Maybe he was just getting old, but all he knew was that these days the singles scene didn't hold the fascination it once had. Hutch didn't know if it had always been there and he was just seeing it now, but there seemed to be a desperation permeating those pick-up spots that now struck him as pathetic. All those girls and guys trying to look beautiful to attract someone just as shallow as themselves; it was heartbreaking at times.

But not as tragic as the secret Hutch nursed close to his heart. No, that unrequited and hopeless love made those singles joints seem positively rosy by comparison.

For the briefest second, Hutch indulged himself, allowing his gaze to linger on his partner's profile. The strong, pointy jaw, long sloping nose, thick brows, thin lips - viewed separately, the features could almost be deemed unattractive. But when you put them together and added that crooked grin and caught the mischievous glint in those indigo eyes, well, there wasn't a more moving sight on the planet. A bevy of bathing beauties couldn't hold a candle to Starsky's smile. Hutch had long ago accepted this fact of life, as well as the impossibility of obtaining that particular dream. He was old enough to know the score. Some things you could have in life; some things you couldn't. It was as simple as that.

Most times.

Of course, there were those moments of weakness like this, when Hutch was sure he'd die if he didn't reach out to touch his partner. But he'd gotten used to living with his guts tied in knots. It was like working the streets in a way, just another kind of pain you pushed down deep inside you and never let anyone know existed.

When Starsky turned back to him with a smile, Hutch guiltily returned his gaze to the road. He might be able to get away with Starsky-watching on those long straight stretches of flat LA highway, but if he did it on these curvy mountain roads, he was going to end up wrapping them around a tree.

"Sorry," Starsky said.

"Huh?" Hutch questioned, having no clue what his friend was apologizing for.

"You're right. This trip was my idea. I got no business taking it out on you. That last wrong turn was even my fault," Starsky graciously allowed.

Starsky had been driving at the time, but they'd both agreed north was left instead of the correct right turn. "Nah, it was highway commission's fault. As soon as we get home, I'm writing a letter to my congressman demanding better road signs."

"What, and ruin the grand plan?" Starsky laughed.

"The grand plan?" Hutch cautiously repeated. He knew that tone. He was being set up.

"We got enough tourists as it is, Hutch. Do you know how many people would be flooding the state if they had a chance of actually finding all of California's tourist attractions?"

Love healed, even when it was unrequited. Just being alone with Starsk made Hutch feel a thousand times better. Driving down this dark deserted road, crawling over the ice at a whopping thirty miles an hours, this drive should have been one of the tortures of the damned. But Hutch knew with unshakable certainty that it was probably this time he had Starsky solely to himself that he'd remember as the best part of the trip. So, he threw back his head and chuckled at Starsky's stupid joke, somehow feeling like a carefree kid again, like Gunther and the filth of the city had never happened to him. "You may just have a point there, buddy."

"Damned right, I do. We'd be up to our ears in sightseers. As it is, we need wading boots to get through them."

"What wading boots?" Hutch laughed. "You just wave your badge and gun around till they go scurrying out of your way."

Starsky's answering laugh was cut short on a gasp, "What - "

"It was a shadow, Starsky," Hutch supplied in a reassuring tone.

"Of what? Did you see the size of that thing? It musta been as big as a pterodacto..." Starsky craned his neck at an impossible angle to stare up into the tall snow-laced pines lining the road.

"It was a shadow from the moon behind the shifting branches of the trees. For God's sake, Starsky, what's got you so jumpy? I know it's dark up here, but we've driven these roads at night before and you've never been this bad."

I, ah...sorry, Hutch," his partner mumbled. A quick glance from the road showed that Starsky was staring out the side window as though too ashamed to meet Hutch's eyes.

Cursing himself, Hutch quickly countered, "No, I'm sorry, partner. I guess you got your reasons for being a little jumpy. You've been feeling so much better lately that sometimes I kinda forget that it was less than a year ago that you were lying in a hospital bed with three bullets in you," Hutch lied. He never forgot about Gunther, never would, but for Starsky's sake, he had to pretend amnesia on a daily basis. Sometimes the charade was a bit easier to keep up than others. Like now. For whatever reason, Hutch's own nerves were worn pretty thin tonight. He'd be glad when they got to the lodge and could relax.

"Nah, that's not it," Starsky quickly denied, looking back at him.

"It's not?"

"No, it's....well, I was reading the news last week and something I read disturbed me. They were talking about it on a call-in show late last Saturday night, too. I guess I was just thinking about it, that's all."

Hutch knew he was going to regret asking this question, could feel it in his bones, but when Starsky got that troubled look on his face, nothing short of a bullet directly to the heart could prevent Hutch from finding out what was bothering his partner. "Thinking about what?"

"Well, I know it's gonna sound dumb, but...there's this stretch of Highway 101 just outside of LA. Apparently, a hundred years or so ago, there was some big battle fought there."

Thinking back on his history, Hutch swiftly challenged, "Starsky, the Civil War ended over a hundred and ten years ago and there were no battles found this side of the Mississippi."

"It wasn't the Civil War, Hutch. It was the US Calvary fighting the local Indians."

"Oh." Well, that made some sense at least. In Starsky's universe, it always boded well when a story started based in the real world. Whenever Starsky talked about things he'd read or heard, it could get pretty weird. The only thing more surreal was listening to Huggy, or God forbid, listening to Huggy and Starsky discuss a book they'd both read. "So, what's so special about this stretch of highway where this battle was fought, except that it's got a few more bodies buried beneath it than your typical road?"

"Well, that's just it. Apparently, the bodies aren't all buried."

"I'm losing you, Starsk," Hutch admitted, navigating a particularly treacherous turn. Now they were doing about twelve miles an hour. At this rate, they'd be better off walking.

"There's been people who...who've seen things out there, Hutch."

The blond fought very hard to keep the amusement off his face and out of his voice as he asked, "What sort of things?"

"Well, there was this minivan full of people who swear they were attacked by a band of Indians in war paint on horseback," Starsky confided in a hushed whisper, sounding like a kid who was scared of speaking the bogeyman's name too loudly for fear of calling him up.

"Oh, for - are you serious?"

"Yeah, Hutch. This one guy even had an arrow that was shot in his window to prove it."

"And you believe this?"

"I didn't until the guy showed off that arrow. The paper had a picture, but..."

"Are you even listening to yourself?" Hutch laughed.

"Hutch, if you'd seen the news article..."

"Starsk, it's a hoax to excite the tourists. Okay? Nothing to worry about..."

"So where'd the guy get the arrow from, then, smartie-pants?" Starsky demanded in a genuinely aggrieved tone.

"The same place Cal Dobey got his bow and arrows from - that Old West town outside Santa Ana, I expect."

"You know, you really are something. You're so sure of yourself, so cynical that you can't even believe - "

"In dead Indians attacking minivans?" Hutch supplied with suspect sweetness. There was something truly wonderful about inciting Starsky to this state of outraged indignation over something so utterly ridiculous. Though they bickered constantly, they rarely quarreled about the important things. It was only the sublime that got them arguing like this. Things like Bigfoot and tooth fairies, and packs of man-eating, ravenous monkeys.

"There, you see," Starsky crowed as though his point had just been proven.

"See what?"

"You won't even consider for one minute that it's possible; will you?" Starsky challenged.

"That what's possible? That we're going to be attacked by Geronimo's ghost while driving up this mountain?"

"Well, it wouldn't be Geronimo's ghost. The Sioux didn't live around here...."

"Apache," Hutch absently corrected.


"Geronimo was an Apache war chief, from what was then known as the Arizona Territories. And, historically, the Apache did have a foothold in California...."

"That's not the point," Starsky interrupted.

"What's not the point?"

"Whether Geronimo was an Apache."

It was conversations like this that sometimes made Hutch pause to seriously consider the fact that he entrusted his life into this man's keeping on a daily basis. "It isn't?"


When he got his courage back up, Hutch persevered with, "So, what is the point then?"

"That you don't have any faith in anything." Though voiced in a childishly petulant tone, Hutch didn't pretend for one second that it was anything but a serious observation. Starsky knew him too well to take the open path in such discussions. A master of manipulation, Starsky fully knew that it was the roundabout approach that worked best with Hutch. It had taken the blond nearly a dozen years to figure this out, but now that he had, Hutch never mistook their interplay for mere surface banter anymore.

Hutch slowed down to five mph., glanced over, and boldly challenged, "I do so have faith."

And for once the manipulator walked blindly into the trap set for him. Sounding totally skeptical, Starsky asked, "In what?" From his expression, it was clear that Starsky was waiting for some improbably example like UFO abductions or Elvis sightings.

Game, set and match. Hutch grinned and boldly proclaimed, "I still have faith in me 'n' thee. It might be the only thing I still believe in, buddy, but as long as it's true, you can't say I don't have faith."

Delighted, he watched the bad temper melt from Starsky's face, the dark-haired man's expression mutable as quicksilver. This was the only magic Hutch believed in, the only magic he'd ever need. And it was more than enough for him.

"Well..." Starsky stammered. Visibly thrown, he gave Hutch a small, endearingly bashful smile. "That's all right, then."

"That's what I figure, partner," Hutch agreed, almost floating on the feelings this man could inspire with a simple smile.

Starsky's left arm rose to rest against the back of the seat. Starsky's fingers accidentally, or not so accidentally, brushing into Hutch's hair. Over the past twelve years, that seemingly unintended caress had become almost a tradition with them. Whenever they were in the car and the other needed some type of emotional bolstering that couldn't always be done openly, they always found a way to have this type of seemingly accidental contact. The fact that the toucher didn't pull immediately away always revealed that the contact was intentional. It was amazing really how much strength could be drawn from the light press of someone's knuckles against your hair and collar. Hutch couldn't help himself. He shivered at that touch, just as he did every chance meeting of their flesh.

"Want the heat turned up?" Starsky obligingly questioned.

"Nah, we should be there soon." Biting his lip, Hutch shook his head at his own susceptibility. Damn, one of these days Starsk was going to figure out just what was going on if he weren't careful. But what was he going to do, Hutch wondered. Start shrinking away from Starsky's innocent touches? That would be as big a death knell to their friendship as revelation. The Torino turned the next bend in the road, and, sure enough, the lodge appeared before them with no forewarning whatsoever.

At night, it was an impressive, totally charming sight. The lodge was a huge two-story structure with a sloping roof, all dark wood and white plaster. It had huge beveled windows, the majority of which were lit with a warm golden glow. Bushy spruce trees and long-needled pines fronted the lodge.

There were several smaller buildings clustered in the back, but they were all dark. Further off to the left, moonlight shimmered off an open stretch of mountain between the trees, glinting off wires running up the side of the incline. Hutch couldn't see the bulk of the machinery from here, but that was doubtless the ski lift and main slope over there.

"Hey, this is really nice," Starsky enthused as they pulled into an empty space in the parking lot out front. Most of the lot was taken, but it didn't look overcrowded like many of the other ski lodges they'd tried in the past.

In less than a minute, he had the car parked and doors open. Starsky jumped out of the passenger side as though those ghost Indians he'd been babbling about were hot on his tail, but Hutch's partner was only eager to take in the sights.

"This is cool. Look at these gnomes!" Starsky grinned, pointing to a gaudy collection of hip-high decorations staring out at them from the yew bushes lining the car lot.

The blond did as directed. The statues were your typical collection of garishly painted dwarfs in red and green suits with angry looking faces. "They look evil."

"Evil! What is it with you? They're garden gnomes, Hutch. They're cute and friendly and - "

"They're glowering at us, Starsk. It's clear they aren't happy and don't want us here."

"You need to get yourself some help, man." Starsky was almost doubled over with laughter.

"That's what I think every time you talk me into trying one of your new restaurants," Hutch quipped back, enjoying the exchange.

Distracted from his appreciation of the malevolent ornaments, Starsky stared around the moonlit alpine view. "Just look at this! It's gorgeous. Looks just like a Christmas card."

"Yeah, and smell that pine." Hutch grinned, taking a deep breath of the icy mountain air as he exited the car. He locked the doors. Bringing the keys around with him, he started for the back of the car.

"Brrrr....It's freezin' up here," Starsky complained as he hurried around the back of the Ford to the trunk.

It took great control, but Hutch just managed to stop himself from reminding Starsk how he'd suggested his friend wear his warmer jacket. If he started 'mother henning' this early in the game, they'd be at each other's throats again by Sunday. Hutch was all too aware that most of the problems they'd been having lately were a result of his own over-protectiveness. But after seeing his partner through Starsky's torturous convalescence, it was hard to accept that his friend was all better now. Hutch was trying, though. God knew, was he trying.

The suitcases out, they closed up the trunk and headed for the lodge's main doors. After passing a row of racks set up in the foyer that were lined with dripping skis and poles, they entered the hotel proper.

The inside proved even more picturesque than the charming exterior. Heat hit them first, a blast of warm air kissing their chilled faces like a lover's lips.

The reception desk was a fieldstone counter at the far end of the enormous, lofty room. The lobby was walled with warm wood paneling. Large comfy-looking sofas and armchairs crowded the area in front of a huge hearth. Shadows from the dancing fire shifted warmly across the plush burgundy rugs carpeting the floor.

A stunning display of oil paintings depicting the surrounding mountains during all four seasons lined the walls, interspersed with some grisly mounted deer heads and old black and white photos from earlier renditions of the lodge. If Hutch had designed a lodge from imagination, it probably would have looked like the Bald Eagle Lodge.

Off to the right were a pair of closed wooden doors. The loud music and laughter spilling forth declared that there was some kind of disco or bar within.

Hutch took it all in with a glance, then crossed to the attractive redhead manning the reception desk.

"Hi, my name's Amy. May I help you?" the girl asked, displaying a dazzling number of pearly white teeth. If her smile had been any toothier, she could have passed for an Osmond.

"Well, hello there." Starsky tuned on the charm, sidling up to the counter.

Trying very hard to keep his jealousy in check, Hutch gave the receptionist a polite smile and said, "Yes, we have a reservation. Hutchinson, Ken."

"Well, Hutchinson, Ken," she smiled flirtatiously, "we've got your room all ready for you. Two double beds, private bath. It's upstairs to the left. Room 223. Breakfast starts at six a.m. and ends at ten o'clock. The restaurant is over there." She indicated a door opposite the noisy room.

"And that?" Hutch indicated the loud entryway.

"That's the bar. Tonight we're having a disco contest. The winners get a free pass to the slopes for the weekend."

"And where would the losers get their lift pass?"

"I don't think you need to worry about that, Hutchinson, Ken. You look like a real winner to me," she assured. Her warm brown gaze was totally fixed on the blond detective, as though his curly haired partner weren't even standing there.

This had been happening for years, and it drove Hutch nuts. It was worse now that he'd shaved his moustache. Even when they'd been much younger and had been actively competing for the same women, Hutch had always hated the ones who saw only his Nordic good looks and nothing else. He supposed it was pretty much the same feeling some women got when a guy addressed his conversation to her bosom. All Hutch knew was that it was rude, and that it hurt his friend's feelings, especially since Gunther. Neither of them had been exactly dating this past year. He knew his partner was hoping to rectify that this weekend. This girl snubbing Starsky was going to be hell on his partner's already dented self-image.

"Just in case we don't win, where do we get a lift pass?" Hutch asked, his smile disappearing as he subconsciously closed ranks.

Her artificial smile dimmed as well, but it was plain form her confused air that Amy had no clue as to what had gone wrong. "They'll be selling lift passes at a stand on the other side of the lobby from six a.m. till noon tomorrow."

"Thank you." Signing the register in both their names, Hutch took the keys she proffered.

"Would you like me to show you up?" the receptionist offered in a hopeful tone.

"No, thanks," Hutch said coldly. "We'll be fine on our own."

He was halfway up the stairs, with Starsk rushing to catch up before she got out the required, "Have a good night."

"Hey, slow down, would ya?" Starsky called, clumping up with both their suitcases behind him. "What was that all about?"

Hutch stared at the guileless features. He knew Starsky was aware of what had happened. No guy trying to be noticed would have missed it. But there was no resentment in Starsky's face or attitude.

"She just ticked me off, that's all," Hutch explained.

"She just gave us our room key, Hutch," Starsky mildly countered.

"She was acting like you were invisible," Hutch quietly raged as they wandered down the hall, checking room numbers.

"As far as she was concerned, I was invisible," Starsky actually laughed, then tried to change the subject. "Here, I think this is our room."

"How can you laugh about that!" Hutch demanded. "She was rude and - "

"She took one look at your baby blues and fell head over heels," Starsky smiled. "How am I gonna fault her for that? I told you you'd be devastating once you got rid of the cookie duster."

"Starsky, how can you be so...."

"So, what?" Starsky probed. "What am I gonna do? Get all twisted up 'cause some girl likes the way you look? It's not like you encourage it or anything. Maybe if you were arrogant about it, it'd be a different story, but it bothers you more than me. Lighten up, partner. We came here to have fun."

Stunned, Hutch realized that Starsky wasn't giving him a snow job. His partner really didn't resent him for it.

"Starsk..." Staring into those understanding eyes, Hutch didn't even know what he wanted to say.

"You gonna open the door or are we gonna stand here all night?" Starsky complained, then reached out to take the key from the blond's hand and open the door.

The room was wonderfully appointed with quaint green and white patterned wallpaper and matching bedspreads, with a thick forest green carpet. The double beds were enormous. The foot and headboards were huge affairs of dark carved wood - mahogany or maybe cherry. The night tables and dressers were in a matching finish.

"Looks like Huggy's cousin did right by us this time; huh, partner?" Starsky commented as he dumped their bags in front of the one of the bureaus and bounced onto the nearest bed.

"After that debacle in Acapulco, he owed us," Hutch reminded.

"Yeah, well, he did fine this time out. Just look at that pitcher!" Starsky was pointing to the pottery on top of a side table.

"Ah, Starsk, that's a chamber pot," Hutch grinned.

"A what? Oh, God, don't tell me - there's no indoor plumbing?" Starsky was up on his feet again and rushing to check the other doors in the room. The first he opened proved to be a closet.

Hutch was laughing like a school kid at Starsky's alarmed expression. The relief that washed over the handsome, chiseled features when the second door revealed a fully modern bath was even funnier. He loved traveling with Starsk; everything was an adventure.

"Well, that's a relief! I thought we were gonna have to hold it the whole weekend."

"You know, you're really crude sometimes," Hutch stated as he began to unpack.

"Yeah, well, we can't all have such refined sensibilities, oh ye who have eaten fallen pizza off the kitchen floor."

"Have not."

Ducking his head to hide his smile as he all-out lied, Hutch counted down the seconds till the outraged, "Have, too. I've seen ya do it," rang through the quiet room.

Allowing the aspersion to pass, mostly because it was true, Hutch completed his unpacking while Starsky disposed of his luggage by the simple expedient of dragging the fully packed suitcase to the far side of the room and hiding it behind the bed where no one would see it. Hutch knew from experience that his friend would live out of the bag for the remainder of the weekend.

"So what do you want to do now?" he asked as soon as he'd stowed his clothing away.

"How 'bout we go down and check out the disco contest?" Starsky suggested.

Hutch nodded. He'd hoped he'd get a little more time alone with his partner before they joined the party life, but Starsky's enforced convalescence this past year had left him chomping at the bit. "Sure, that sounds fine."

For the dance floor of a small ski lodge, the Bald Eagle's barroom wasn't half bad. The decibel level was almost enough to melt eardrums. The strobe light on the ceiling created a dizzying chiaroscuro effect that was downright blinding. All in all, the usual disco scene. After the quiet and staid dignity of the rest of the hotel, the bar was viscerally shocking.

They both paused in the doorway, trying to get their bearings.

Once his eyes had adjusted enough to find a seat without getting them killed, Hutch grabbed hold of his partner's elbow and steered his friend to a table on the far side of the room, as far away as he could get from the bank of speakers that were taller than him.

A brunette in a short black miniskirt came by to take their orders as they settled in. They had just gotten their beers and were taking in the moves of the dancers bouncing around in the open space near the speakers when the inevitable happened.

From the table behind them, a soft feminine voice tentatively asked, "Did you guys just get in?"

Hutch winced at the wide grin that spilled over Starsky's features as his partner turned to greet the speaker. So much for their shared weekend.

Once introduced, Hutch had no choice but to turn around.

The three girls at the nearest table were quite lovely, really. The speaker was a shapely blonde wearing skintight jeans, elevated, knee high black boots and a tight red sweater that hugged her ample figure. Her companions were a stunning brunette of the Jacqueline Smith type and a petite strawberry blonde. The Jacqueline Smith ringer was wearing a sleek black maxi skirt, the tiny redhead a swirling tie dyed ensemble.

A few years ago, Starsky and he would have both been turning handstands vying for any of the three's attention, but tonight Hutch resented the fact that they were even breathing the same air as his partner and him. It was funny, really, the difference a few years could make.

"I'm Marni," the knockout blonde in the red sweater said, then gestured to the brunette and smaller girl in turn, "This is Maggie and Angie."

"Hello, Marni, Maggie and Angie." Starsky grinned, turning up the charm to lethal levels. Starsky waggled his eyebrows and asked in a Groucho Marx voice while pretending to finger an imaginary cigar in his mouth, "Do you girls come here often?"

The three exploded into laughter as though Chevy Chase had just fallen down in front of them in one of his famous Saturday Night Live routines.

Acknowledging that it was going to be a very long night, Hutch took another sip of his beer. Sitting back in his chair, he just watched as Starsky enchanted the three.

Marni unconsciously set the stage for Starsky's next winning gambit when she asked, "You said you and Ken were partners, Dave. What line of work are you in?"

Hutch held his breath, waiting. Starsky's answer would tell him a lot about how serious his friend was in pursuing the girl. If Starsky blew the question off with their usual oblique 'We're civil servants,' there was nothing to worry about.

Hutch all but groaned when Starsky replied with overplayed reluctance, "We're cops. Homicide detectives."

Neither of them usually made it a habit of capitalizing on their profession in sexual situations, and in certain quarters, admitting to being a copy could nip a developing relationship in the bud, but, on the whole, the sure way to get into a woman's bed was to tell them you were a cop. There was something about the danger that just turned women on, Hutch supposed.

All three girls were suitably impressed, then Marni, apparently the boldest of the three, asked in a voice hushed with excitement, "Do you carry a gun, Dave?"

Starsky gave one of his terse nods, a secretive air of mystery seeming to permeate the air around him. Hutch would have fallen for the act himself, if he weren't so annoyed with the pick up.

"Are you carrying it now?" Maggie questioned.

"It's locked in the car," Starsky confided.

Just like some high school jock trying to lure his date out to the back seat, Hutch sourly thought. This had been a definite mistake, he decided. He wasn't up to this.

"Would you care to join us?" Marni asked, moving her chair over for the two detectives to scoot closer.

Hutch no more wanted to join them than he did a nudist colony, but he could tell by Starsky's eager expression that his partner was on the make.

And who could blame Starsky? It had been over a year since the poor guy had been well enough to date. Though Starsky had been back to work these past two months, he'd just been too tired for any extracurricular activities.

So, Hutch pushed aside his own petty desires and obligingly shifted his chair to the girls' table. Starsky was already nestled between Marni and Angie, and looking quite pleased to be there.

Maggie gave him an encouraging smile as he settled beside her chair, but it was wasted on him. His focus on Starsky aside, Maggie bore too close a resemblance to his dead wife for Hutch to feel comfortable pursuing her.

"This is nice and cozy; isn't it?" Starsky approved, then went on to ask, "So tell us, what town is lucky enough to have three such incredible beauties living in it, or are you girls local?"

"No, we drove down from Frisco last night," Marni replied, then went on to tell Starsky what neighborhoods she and her friends were from.

Turning his mind off of the insipid conversation, Hutch concentrated on his beer and tried to distract himself from Starsky's moves by asking the lovely Maggie what she did for a living. When he'd learned more than he ever wanted to know about the life of a shoe sales person, Hutch tuned that discussion out as well.

Not ten minutes had passed before Starsky and Marni of the tight red sweater were up on the dance floor tripping the light fantastic. Or, in this case, shaking their booties.

"You don't dance, Ken?" Maggie asked with pitiful transparency.

"No," he answered, his tone leaving no room for further discussion. It was petty and it was rude, but he just wasn't up to making small talk tonight.

Though he tried to control himself, his gaze kept straying to the dance floor.

Starsky and Marni were certainly a striking couple. With her long blonde hair and tight red sweater, she was every man's dream. While one could dance like his partner. Starsky threw 110% of himself into every move. The way those slender hips and butt gyrated in time with the beat was enough to make a person climax.

In his bright blue sweater, button-down white shirt and skin tight blue jeans, Starsky looked exquisite out there, his dark curls and tan truly a stunning complement to Marni's lighter complexion.

They certainly made a hot-looking couple. Viewing Starsky's bold, sexual approach to dancing was rather like watching the mating dance of an exotic bird, the blond thought. There was nothing contrived or pretentious to his partner's movements. Starsky was just supremely comfortable in his body and it showed.

Hutch was transfixed with the sight, so into Starsky that he could see the beads of sweat dripping down his partner's face from straight across the room. It made him ache deep inside. He wanted to lick those salty drops form his partner's cheek, follow them as they trailed down the graceful white neck to the warm dusting of chest hair and then -


The distracted detective actually jumped at the interruption of his thoughts. Angry, but relieved, because he really didn't like to get caught doing this, he turned to Angie, who had broken his concentration by calling his name. "Yeah?"

"Would you like some nachos?"

Stunned, Hutch stared down at the steaming melted cheese and salsa dips on the chip-laden silver tray in front of him. He hadn't even sent he food arrive! His once-again full mug showed that his own beer had been topped off, and he'd never even noticed it.

Realizing that he'd better quit daydreaming over his partner before one of his companions figured out the obvious, Hutch nodded, "Ah, yeah, sure. So, do you girls actually ski or are you here just to enjoy the night scene?"

"Marni and Maggie just like the club, but I've been skiing since college," Angie answered.

Looking at her ridiculously young freckled face, Hutch figured that she couldn't have been out of school for more than a year or so. In fact, now that he really looked at his new companions, he realized that not a one of them could be over twenty-three. At thirty-eight, Hutch felt centuries older, but then, he figured it probably wasn't the years, so much as the mileage. He'd aged about twenty years in the hours following Gunther's hit on Starsky. Nothing had been the same since, probably never would. No matter how hard he tried, he just never seemed to be able to lighten up.

But at least Angie's words had given him a conversational opening. "What did you study in school?"

He didn't know what he was expecting. Psych or English Lit, maybe.

Her reluctant answer of "Astrophysics" threw him for a loop.

"For real?" he gaped.

"Yeah, for real. I worked my butt off to graduate top of my class," Angie confided.

"Well, that's great. Where are you working now? The Bennet Observatory?" Hutch asked, citing the name of one of the places a buddy from his own college days had worked for a while.

"I wish," she sighed. "No, I, ah, work in the shoe store with Maggie. I'm hoping to maybe teach high school science next fall, if they'll let me."

"Huh?" Hutch blinked.

"I've got the right credentials for Bennet, I just don't have the right equipment," Angie explained.

His continued confusion must have been obvious, for Maggie chipped in with, "She's the wrong sex. The good old boys are real reluctant to let women into a club like Bennet."

"But, this is science we're talking about here, not - " Hutch protested.

"They're still men; aren't they? They don't feel comfortable sharing the workplace with women," Maggie explained hotly. "I'm sure you can understand that, being a cop yourself. You guys aren't all too keen on us doing the same job as you, either."

"Hey, there, lady, don't go puttin' any labels on me just because I carry a badge. Some of the finest cops I've worked with are women," Hutch shot back, thinking of Lizzie, Minnie, Sally Hagen and, for all her personal faults, Kira.

"I'll bet," Maggie snorted.

Most men might have found the conversation the cop was dragged into at that point hell, but Hutch found it oddly energizing. It took him back to his college days when such philosophical debates had been a part of his daily life. And, once you got beyond the girls' makeup and party dresses, they proved surprisingly bright.

Hutch was so caught up in the lively discussion that he was almost able to forget about Starsky being all over that blonde out there on the dance floor. That was until a slow song came up. When Marni melted against his partner and their lips met, Hutch found himself openly staring. The way the two were going at it, Starsk's tongue had to be halfway down her throat.

"They look good together; don't they?" Angie admired.

"Yeah," Hutch grudgingly conceded, "they look good."

"They look any better, we're gonna have to hose them down," Maggie giggled.

As if realizing the spectacle they were making, Starsky and Marni broke apart.

Hutch saw his partner lean his full front against Marni as Starsky breathed something directly into her ear. With no great surprise, Hutch saw the girl give a consenting nod. Like anybody could deny Starsky anything when he looked into their eyes like that.

It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what the question had been. Sure enough, less than a minute later the pair were hurrying back to the table, arms locked around each other's waists. Laughing and glowing with sexual excitement, the soon-to-be-lovers reclaimed their seats.

"I'll be back in a minute, Davey," Marni murmured with a coquettish glance from beneath her fake eyelashes before scurrying off to the rest room with Angie and Maggie in tow, no doubt off for a joint revamping of their faces.

Hutch couldn't help but respond to the raw sexuality that was practically oozing from his partner. Starsky's skin was flushed from his exertions, sheened with a light glow of sweat. The dark-haired man looked well pleased with himself and with life in general. This was how Starsk was meant to look, Hutch decided, healthy, confident and secure. The recovering invalid of last year was the anomaly, not this sexy man.

Hutch smiled over at his friend as Starsky took a thirsty gulp from Hutch's beer mug, Starsky only belatedly remembering to ask, "Okay?"

"Be my guest," Hutch shrugged, then softly commented, "Guess I'll be finding other sleeping accommodations tonight, partner, huh?"

Guilt lanced through the previously relaxed features. "You mind? They're all three sharing the same room and - "

"Hey," Hutch cut in, not wanting to spoil this for his friend. He knew how long it had been for Starsky. "That's what we came up here for - to relax and enjoy ourselves. You go and have a good time with Marni." Still seeing a lingering shadow in Starsky's eyes, Hutch lied, "Things are going pretty good with Maggie and Angie. Maybe I'll just spend the night with them."

As he'd known it would, the proposal appealed to Starsky's cruder side. His partner's face lit up with glee. "Maggie and Angie, huh? That's my Hutch! Go for it, boy!"

As he returned Starsky's smile, Hutch experienced a momentary twang of guilt himself. He hated to deceive his partner, but he had said 'maybe.' Two years ago, Hutch might have done it; he might have screwed one or even both women out of boredom or to take the edge off his frustration with his hopeless situation with Starsky. But he was past that stage now. Meaningless one night stands just left him cold these days. But Starsk didn't know that. With all the trauma Starsky had been through lately, his partner seemed oblivious to the changes Hutch had gone through. He knew that most times, Starsky saw the Hutch he used to be, instead of the troubled man he'd become. For once, that blind spot worked in Hutch's favor.

Before Hutch could add the finishing touches to his deception, the girls returned amidst a flurry of perfumed laughter. Then Hutch found himself waving his partner off, the smile sitting on his face like a death rictus when Marni snuggled up to Starsky as they made their way through the crowd on the dance floor.

"Getting back to our discussion on sexual inequities," Angie picked up as the lovers departed, "did you ever notice how...."

Hutch didn't hear the rest of her question. His gaze was still trailing his partner.

If they wanted to talk sexual inequities, Hutch could tell them about it firsthand. He wondered if either of them knew what it felt like to love someone with all their heart and soul, and have to sit there powerless and smile, having no right to protest as the object of their affections walked away to have sex with some stranger they'd just met an hour ago. Any tramp they met in a bar had more rights to his partner, simply by virtue of her gender. That was true sexual inequity.

It had to be the most unfair, cosmic joke Hutch had ever encountered. But that was just the way things were, and Hutch knew that nothing he ever did or said was going to change that, because the bottom line was, Starsky wanted to walk away with a pretty girl under his arm. As long as that was true, they could make up all the laws they wanted and turn society upside down with new liberal social standards, but as long as Starsky wanted a woman in his bed, Hutch's cause was hopeless.

On that melancholy note, Hutch rejoined the conversation. Not that he was having any more luck there. It was damn hard to defend his gender when every one of the accusations its detractors were making were legitimate gripes. Finally, Hutch forfeited his feeble attempt by throwing up his hands and announcing, "All right. You win, already. You're right. We've oppressed you for centuries. Can we bury the hatchet somewhere other than my head and move on to another subject?" He tried his most winning smile. He hadn't really expected it to go anywhere, but he was pleasantly surprised to see both girls melt under it.

"Sure." Angie gave a quick grin. "You can tell us all about yourself."

"What would you like to know?" he asked, not quite as armored against them as he'd been when Starsky and he had first moved to share the girls' table.

Maggie and Angie exchanged a meaningful glance, then answered in unison, "Everything." Both girls reached out to lay their hands upon Hutch's where his rested on the table top. An electric charge seemed to spark straight through him from that laden contact.

And suddenly, it seemed as though the lie he'd told Starsky fifteen or twenty minutes ago wasn't the complete fabrication he'd believed it to be.

Hutch stared at his flagging morals, which were reminding him of the discrepancy between his own and his companions' ages. He might have taken this kind of walk on the wild side before, but it was clear from the nervousness both girls were trying to disguise that this was a first time venture for them.

Hutch knew he should graciously refuse. After all that talk about men using women, that was all this would be. Although he wished neither of them harm, he couldn't care less about these women as people. He didn't want to get to know either or both of them better. If he were to bed them, all it would be was fucking. And, even though there was nothing wrong with that when everyone was honest and upfront about what they wanted, they were so damn young that Hutch didn't feel comfortable in this situation.

And, yet, when the alternative was staring down a night alone in a strange place with nothing but his despair for company, it was damn hard to turn away from any offered warmth. So, Hutch didn't pull his hand back or make any kind of gesture that could be interpreted as a rejection.

"You sure you're up to that?" Hutch questioned, superficially addressing their vocal response. It was clear that they both picked up on his hidden meaning.

Another glance passed between the girls, then Angie, who seemed to be the more mature of the pair, arched a ginger eyebrow over her level pale blue gaze and answered, "Totally. Why don't we take this conversation upstairs where we can - "

As Angie broke off mid-sentence, her eyes widening in shock, Hutch's hand unconsciously reached for the weapon which, despite Starsky's claim to the opposite, there were both still packing.

"Marni!" Angie exclaimed, staring past the cop's shoulder. Maggie was already up on her feet and hurrying towards their returning friend.

Hutch turned.

Sure enough, a disheveled looking Marni was approaching their table. The long blonde hair, which had been so nicely styled earlier, was a mess, as though passionate fingers had been carding wildly through it. Her face was white as chalk in contrast to her tight cherry red sweater, her lipstick standing out like blood on her mouth.

Confused, Hutch looked for his partner, but there was no sign of Starsky. The pair had been gone less than thirty minutes. Starsky might like to drive his cars fast, but Hutch had double-dated with his partner more than enough times to know that Starsk took his time in the bedroom. Obviously, something had gone wrong.

If Marni had gone off with any man besides his partner, her obvious, if underplayed, distress would have made Hutch fear the worst, but.... Starsky could no more hurt a woman than a puppy. No matter how long it had been since his last time, Hutch knew his partner would never get out of line with a date.

But Angie and Maggie didn't know that. From the protective, worried way they ushered their friend to a chair, it was clear what they were thinking - that Marni had been raped.

"Honey, what happened?" Maggie questioned while Angie simultaneously demanded, "Did he hurt you?"

Although he hadn't a clue what had actually gone down, Hutch knew Starsky hadn't laid an unwanted hand on her. Nevertheless, he found himself tensing as the unkempt woman struggled to reply. Their tangle with the beautiful man-killer Monique Travers had taught Hutch a grim lesson about the darker side of the singles scene. A pretty face could often conceal a twisted mind.

"No, Dave didn't hurt me," Marni immediately answered.

Both her friends left off their hovering at that and sank down into the chairs flanking their upset companion.

"So what are you doing back here, honey?" Maggie asked. "I thought you and Dave were know, spend some time together?"

"Yeah, we were. I... We just changed our minds," Marni explained breathlessly.

Hutch didn't know why, but Marni's evasion of the question made his blood run cold. There was something about her manner, something almost furtive, that put him on guard.

"You're not gonna try to tell us nothing's wrong; are you?" Angie asked.

"Nothing is wrong," the upset girl insisted, sounding as though she was going to break into tears at any second.

"So what happened?" Angie probed almost maternally, her features hardening as though ready to take someone - probably Starsky - apart for causing her friend this distress.

"It's no big deal, really," Marni tried to dismiss, but, like a guilty suspect, her gaze strayed to the blond detective who was watching the exchange, almost as though checking to see if her story had been bought.

Tiring of the build-up, Hutch interjected in his best interrogation voice, "If it's no big deal, then what are you doing back here?"

"What? A girl can't change her mind?" Marni challenged.

"Of course a girl's entitled to change her mind," Hutch smoothly assured. "But you come back all upset, it gets your friends to worrying; that's all. If nothing happened, then what's with the dramatics?"

Marni's gaze flashed fire at his use of the word 'dramatics'.

"Yeah, honey," Maggie seconded him. "You and Dave hit it off great. It only stands to reason that we'd be worried with you coming back so soon, upset as you are."

As if realizing that an oblique evasion was no longer going to cut it, Marni confessed in a resentful tone, "He scared me, all right? I had to get out of there."

"Scared you how?" Angie asked, all protective.

Hutch's glare was locked on the girl. He didn't know how he knew what this gorgeous beauty queen was going to say before she said it, but he already knew what had gone down.

"You superficial - "

He let the expletive go unsaid, Maggie's horrified, "Hutch!" ringing over even the disco music's baseline.

"How dare you talk to her like that," Angie fumed.

Hutch's gaze skewered the woman who'd left with his partner less than an hour ago. "Go ahead, Marni, tell them what scared you. Tell them why you ran out on him," he challenged.

"Marni, what the hell happened?" Angie insisted, staring from her friend's ashen face to Hutch's furious one in open confusion.

"It was Dave. His chest was all torn apart. It looked like Frankenstein's monster." The girl gave a visible shudder at the memory, her greenish complexion threatening that she might vomit yet.

"Oh, no, Marni...." Angie's soft, horrified voice revealed her disappointment in her friend.

"The only monster here is you, lady - and I use that term loosely," Hutch sneered, so livid that he wanted to take her and shake her till her teeth rattled out onto the dance floor. Poor Starsky, this was the last thing his recuperating partner had needed tonight. Frankenstein's monster....what a bitch! "Haven't you got a shred of human compassion in you? How could you do that to someone?"

"He was - " Her blue eyes filled with tears.

"He was shot in the heart by an assassin less than a year ago. He was in a coma for over a week and in the hospital for two and a half months. He hasn't been close to a woman since the shooting. This was his first night out and then you go and...." Realizing that he was wasting his energy on this pitiful excuse for a human being, Hutch dismissed her and turned to her two friends, "Maggie, Angie, it was nice meeting you. As for you...." Hutch let his rage flow through his features as he jabbed an accusing finger at her. "If you were a man, you'd be dead right now. Stay out of my way, and stay away from my partner. You hurt him again, and I just might forget you're a woman."

Marni burst into a full-fledged crying jag, but Hutch was already turning on his heel and storming out of the bar. It was only as he got to the foot of the stairs that he realized he hadn't paid Starsky and his bar bill before leaving. Figuring that it could keep till morning, where Starsky couldn't, Hutch charged up the stairs.

He was almost afraid to enter their room. He didn't have a clue as to what he was going to say to his friend.

After standing there with his forehead pressed against the cool wood for a time, listening to the ominous, absolute silence on the other side of the door, Hutch finally dug out his key and opened the lock.

Hutch didn't know what he'd been expecting. Starsky in tears or trying to pretend he was asleep were his first guesses. The quiet, composed figure standing in front of the window in the dark room came as a shock. Starsky was just standing there between the parted white curtains with his back to the room. There was a stream of silver moonlight spilling over him, the illumination made even brighter by all the new-fallen snow outside the glass.

Like any good cop, Hutch took the room in at a glance. Both beds were still perfectly made. There wasn't even an indentation in the comforters to indicate that Starsky and Marni had made it that far. The only clue to what might have gone on was Starsky's cobalt blue sweater, which was lying in a tangled heap right inside the door. His partner's gun was holstered and resting in the middle of a lacy while doily on the bureau top. That instrument of death looked chillingly out of place in the cozy room.

Closing the door softly behind him, Hutch bent to pick up the soft wool garment. Folding it carefully, he laid it across the back of the chair by the desk, wishing that he could fix Starsky's pain as easily.

That stupid bitch...

"Hey, buddy," Hutch greeted in a low tone, easing nearer to the subdued man with the slow care one would approach a jumper poised on a rooftop. Emotionally, it felt very much like that. Hutch knew if he made the wrong move here, he could push his partner off a ledge into a downward spiral that Starsky might never survive, not intact.

"Hey, yourself," Starsky returned in a lifeless tone.

Not knowing what to say, Hutch just stood there, staring out at the snowy night, sharing Starsky's silence.

Finally, the other man commented, "You're back early."

"Yeah...well, there wasn't all that much going on."

"What about Maggie and Angie?"

"What about them?" Hutch replied, wishing to God that he'd followed his first impulse and kept Starsky up here in the room with him.

"I thought you were gonna play Oscar Mayer to their Wonderbread tonight," Starsky said. He still hadn't looked over at Hutch or met the blond's eyes in the night-dark glass of the window.

"Nah, too much work," Hutch denied, looking over, desperate for the eye contact that Starsky seemed equally determined to avoid.

His partner didn't even glance his way. Hutch took in Starsky's profile, so clean and strong. Starsky was absolutely beautiful bathed in that eldritch moonlight, like some life-like perfect statue carved from marble. Only, if Hutch had sculpted this masterpiece, he would never have put such guarded pain in its expression. Not even stone should have to suffer that kind of hurt.

The silver light made Starsky's shirt glow as white as the snow outside. Hutch noticed that the buttons were still all undone, though Starsky had pulled the folds of his shirt closed to cover his chest. Hutch wasn't sure whether that was a good or bad sign.

Maybe Marni had shown some smarts and kept her reasons for bolting to herself. Hutch didn't think the selfish bitch had that kind of tact, but he could only hope for his partner's sake that he was wrong about her. But he didn't know how to ask. If she had left without destroying his friend's ego, anything Hutch said now would give the game away.

So, Hutch simply stood there for the longest time, aching for the remote man at his side.

"It's funny how...subjective beauty is; isn't it, partner?" Starsky commented at last in that same chillingly uninflected tone.

So much for hoping the bitch had been kind, Hutch thought. "How's that?"

"Well, take all those old paintings for instance. All the chicks in them were all round, big tits and asses. They were considered beautiful in their day, but, if we met 'em in a club tonight, we'd think of them as fat," Starsky stated.

"I guess," Hutch agreed, having no idea where this was going.

"And those woods over there. Looking out the window from this nice warm room, they're beautiful, like a Christmas card or Currier and Ives painting, right?"


"But if we were out there hungry and freezing in those trees, we mightn't think they were so pretty."

"I guess not. I suppose that it's that old 'beauty being in the eye of the beholder' thing," Hutch said. "What's on your mind, babe?"

"Well, it just doesn't seem right, ya know?"

"What doesn't?" Hutch gently probed.

"Well, there was a time when fat girls were hot and frozen woods beautiful. But there ain't never been a time in history when something like this," - here Starsky paused to bare his chest to the cold silver light - "was ever anything but ugly."

Hutch wanted to kill Marni at that moment. Temporarily struck dumb, he stared down at Starsky's chest. The moonlight was just as mercilessly revealing as sunlight would have been. Every stitch in the incision scars was lividly detailed. The bullet entry wounds were still terrifyingly raw and painful looking. Starsky's chest looked like a patchwork quilt with the scars interspersing his chest hair. There was no disguising those frightening souvenirs of Gunther's hit, no underplaying or hiding them. They just covered too damn huge an area. Starsky would carry those physical mementos for the remainder of his life.

But if Hutch had a thing to say about it, his friend wasn't going to go through the next sixty or seventy years considering himself unattractive. They could live with these scars, but not with that.

"They're not ugly," Hutch insisted.

"Right," Starsky snorted. "You didn't see her face, Hutch. The way she flew outta here, it was like I had a rotting corpse on the bed or something...."

"She was a brainless slut, Starsky. You can't - "

"She was scared. This was so ugly that she couldn't even look at it or touch it. I - I never...."

Hutch didn't wait to hear any more. He just stepped up and wrapped Starsky tight in his arms.

"Sssh," he soothed as Starsky tensed even further, "it's gonna be okay."

Rather than comforting, his words seemed to perturb his partner. The tension-wracked body in his arms began to tremble.

Hiding his face deep in Hutch's plaid lumberjack shirt, Starsky mumbled, "It ain't never gonna be okay again. These things are never gonna go away. I'm gonna be a monster for the rest of my life, Hutch."

Although it broke his heart to break body contact even momentarily, Hutch forced his partner far enough away so that he could stare down into those emotion-torn features. He needed Starsky to see his eyes, to know that he was telling the truth. "You are not a monster. You are not ugly. You've got some scars, but we all have scars, Starsk. They're not horrible or frightening -"

"Girls used to really dig my chest," Starsky said, staring him straight in the eye. "Look at it, Hutch!"

"I'm looking," he whispered, tears pricking his eyes at the pain his partner was suffering because of that brainless twit.

"It was, like, my best feature. Now it's.... I can't blame Marni for runnin'. I can barely force myself to wash it in the shower. Who's gonna wanta touch it now?"

Starsky was dead serious in that part about not wanting to touch the grisly scars himself, Hutch realized. He remembered his partner dancing down in the bar less than an hour ago, Starsky's bold sexuality, his confidence - that was his Starsky. And that bitch Marni had destroyed all of that in less than a minute. How did you fix something like that? How could you alter someone's view of themselves so that they could see themselves as you saw them?

"Lots of people are gonna wanta touch you, babe," Hutch choked out.

"Name one," Starsky snorted.

Hutch paused, considering. He could lose everything with this one word, but Starsky had already lost himself. If no one else in the universe thought David Starsky desirable, there was one person who always would. At a low ebb like this, Starsky needed to know that - even if that one person's appreciation mightn't count. He couldn't leave his partner suffering like this, no matter what the cost to himself.

"Me," he confessed at last, trembling so hard at what it had cost him to get that simple word out that he felt the flesh would shake right off his bones.

For better or worse, his secret was out now. There would be no more hiding, no more pretenses. Starsky knew now. Hutch recognized that in the next sixty seconds his entire world might be blown to smithereens. He felt naked and totally exposed as he waited to be blasted away by his straight partner's scorn. But in that moment of silence that followed his declaration, to prove his point, that he wasn't just mouthing the words to make Starsky feel better about himself, Hutch forced himself to reach out to lay his right hand over the most livid of the wounds, the hard angry scars directly above Starsky's heart.

Admitting his deepest secret had almost killed Hutch, but he needn't have worried. His true meaning passed right over his oblivious partner's head.

"That ain't the same, babe," Starsky denied, but his tone was softer, affectionate.

"Isn't it?" Hutch rasped.

It was almost comical, really. He'd finally screwed up enough courage to come clean with Starsky, and his partner couldn't even hear what he was trying to say, the concept was so alien to him.

Becoming aware of the warm flesh and soft furry body hair beneath his palm, Hutch couldn't help himself. His fingertips began to slowly explore the territory he'd ached to touch for more years than he could count. Maybe Starsky would understand this, Hutch thought, as he eagerly explored.

It was heaven, warm and soft and Starsky-scented.

Feeling that wide-eyed gaze watching his face, Hutch made no effort to disguise the joy he got from this simple contact. He charted all the ribs, moving upwards to where the hair was thicker - when it wasn't interrupted by those long trails of stitches. Hutch found the texture between the uninjured flesh and those bumpy hard incision scars intriguing. Within a month after Gunther, Hutch had memorized them all by sight. Now his fingers took the opportunity to do so by feel.

"They are not ugly," Hutch repeated as he stroked his partner's chest. Finding a nipple at the end of one of those hard trails of stitches, Hutch paused to finger it. "You are not ugly."

Starsky gasped.

Immediately thereafter, Hutch felt the nipple between his right thumb and index finger harden into a tight little knot.

"Hutch, don't! I'm...that feels...ahhhh...." The protest ended on a sigh as Hutch gave the nub of flesh between his fingers a careful squeeze. "God, Hutch...that feels so good, babe...." Starsky whispered in a breathy tone as the tension drained from his muscles.

Hutch looked up at his partner's face. He'd felt Starsky's body relax, but he still wasn't sure that he wasn't forcing something on his vulnerable friend.

The view that met his searching gaze was one Hutch would never forget. Starsky's eyes were closed tight, his head thrown back, his lips slightly parted. The man was obviously lost in sensation. It had been over a year since anyone had touched Starsky this way. No matter what Starsky's mind might be telling him, there was obviously no way he could turn away from the pleasure of this touch.

Hell, Hutch knew exactly where his friend was coming from. It had been more than a year since Hutch had touched anyone himself, so he figured he was probably just as susceptible. Vaguely, he fretted about the morality of this, whether or not he was taking advantage of his partner in a moment of weakness.

Hutch's gaze scoured those features he knew and loved so well, looking for a sign that this was unwelcome or repulsive to Starsky. Yet, search as he did, Hutch couldn't read anything beyond Starsky's physical response to the touch. But at least that horrible pain and self-doubt had been vanquished from Starsky's face. In its place was the softness of open pleasure. That couldn't be all bad.

So, even though he didn't really have permission and they hadn't discussed this, Hutch continued to indulge his own longings. Lowering his head to his partner's chest, Hutch replaced his fingers with his mouth.

Starsky could have pushed him away here, could have halted things, but he didn't. Starsky's loud breathing was harsh and erratic, like waiting for this touch was killing him.

Feeling the anticipation in Starsky's body, as though it were his own, Hutch relaxed. His partner was a hedonist at heart. Whatever went down tonight, Starsky would be in with it.

It was tomorrow Hutch was going to have to fear, when morning's light brought a return to sanity and the inevitable, awkward questions.

But tomorrow was a million years away. And, if only for tonight, Starsky was his. Hutch didn't intend to waste a single second of this opportunity.

He poked his tongue tip out to rim the hard ball of tight pink flesh. It was salty and hard and wonderful as he cautiously sucked on it. His nose was pressed tight to Starsky's left breast, his forehead resting tight right above it as the flavor and scent of Starsky's skin rocked through him. He'd never been this up close and personal with Starsky before. It was almost more than he could take. Still, nothing had ever felt better or more right than sucking on Starsky's flesh.

But the worrier in Hutch couldn't just let it go. He wondered how Starsk was feeling about it. Was he repulsing his partner or, even worse, scaring him?

As if in answer to his mental question, a guttural groan reverberated through the body he was so close to. Hutch smiled around his tasty mouthful. There was no mistaking the honest delight in that sound. Starsky might kill him later for this, but Hutch was obviously pushing all the right buttons at the moment.

Hutch froze in his sucking as two hands settled on his shoulders. Thinking Starsky was going to push him away, he held still and waited for the inevitable rejection. He'd know that he was taking a chance here, that Starsky's inhibitions might rally at any moment to cut this stolen pleasure short.

Those fingers, whose strength and gentleness Hutch knew so well, clamped onto his shoulders, as if grappling for the right hold. But, despite Hutch's anxiety, there was no wild scene, no burst of outraged machismo. After clinging to him for the briefest moment with his nails digging painfully through Hutch's jacket and shirt, the hold loosened to a comfortable level. Instead of pushing him away, Starsky's hands drew him closer, then moved to rub over his back in wide, familiar circles.

Though Hutch liked the increased contact, it was hard on his neck and back to keep bending over Starsky's chest like this with so little room between them.

But, despite the discomfort, he stayed close like that for another moment or two, relishing the caresses. Starsky had touched him like this a thousand times before, whenever circumstances had driven them to seek shelter in each other's arms. Never had Hutch been more grateful for that soothing touch.

When he felt the moment was right, Hutch stepped back a bit to reclaim his former position. He was glad that Starsky's hands didn't desert him. His partner kept up that rubbing as Hutch returned to his former activity.

Interpreting the gesture as tacit permission to continue, Hutch released Starsky's left nipple, then trailed a line of mushy kisses across the shattered skin to its mate.

"You're not ugly," Hutch repeated before he sucked in that pert nub of flesh. It was already erect and hungry for his touch. "You're beautiful, babe, inside and out."

Starsky's legs seemed to turn to rubber at those words or maybe it was whatever sensations Hutch inspired at his right breast working through him. The busy blond didn't really care about its cause. All he knew was that Starsky was enjoying this. As his friend started to sag, Hutch lifted his head and caught hold of his partner's hips, pulling Starsk closer and holding him up.

"Sorry," Starsky mumbled, "I..."

For once his motor-mouth partner didn't seem to know what to say. Starsky's eyes were huge, all pupil and smoky desire.

"Ssssh," Hutch soothed. "Don't worry. I've got ya."

And that seemed to be enough for Starsky, whose mouth slowly closed on the rest of whatever he'd been about to say.

Moving slowly, giving every opportunity for his friend to object and extract himself from the embrace, Hutch shuffled them over to the bed. Their feet blindly moved in sync, their tight pressed bodies flowing as one. It was almost like a dance. Not one of those wildly exuberant disco numbers that Starsky had been hustling to earlier tonight. No, this was a slow, silky waltz. The kind people used to fall in love to for life.

Poised over the mattress, Hutch waited for an objection.

His partner appeared slightly uncertain, but there was no fear, no instinctive rebellion. No protest was voiced. He watched Starsky's Adam's apple bob as the nervous man swallowed hard.

The motion drew him like the proverbial moth to a flame. Hutch opened his mouth and latched onto that knobby protuberance, gently sucking it. His partner like that - a lot - were his gasps anything to go by.

Starsky's neck was a smorgasbord of aromas and tastes. Soap, the salt of sweat, sweet skin oils, fragrant shampoo - Hutch absorbed them all like a dried out sponge sucking in moisture. He couldn't get enough of his partner. Starsky's taste was burning through his blood, sending him higher and freer than Forest's horse ever had. Hutch's heart was pounding a deafening beat as his insides convulsed with a tender yearning.

His soul had needed this contact from the day he was born. No matter where this went, or what it might cost him tomorrow, a whole life of suffering had been justified by this moment.

While Hutch sucked and kissed the length of that slim throat, his hands moved upwards from where they were supporting Starsky's hips. Needing increased tactile contact more than air, his palms slipped inside Starsky's open shirt to explore the wonders within.

For all that Starsky might be self-conscious of the way his torso looked now, he still seemed to be extremely sensitive to stimulation there. That was, if the sound effects were anything to go by. From their shared dates, Hutch had always known that his partner was vocal in his appreciation of his pleasures. But hearing those moans and sighs, and knowing that he was the cause of them, that Starsky was expressing his delight with Hutch touching his body, made the blond's heart soar with joy.

This was all he'd ever asked for, all he ever wanted, just to be free to touch and comfort. Starsky didn't even have to touch him back, not sexually. Though he would have given his world if somehow Starsky might learn to love him, he understood that his partner was straight. This was more than enough.

As Hutch moved to slide the shirt off his partner's broad, powerful shoulders, Starsky's hands stopped him.

Hutch halted immediately, raising his head from Starsky's neck to meet his friend's gaze.

It was a fragile moment. Knowing that words would have ruined it, had he even been able to find the right ones to ask what he needed to know, Hutch refrained from speech, allowing his eyes to do his talking for him.

As if reading his silent plea, a torn expression crossed Starsky's face, the emotions wavering somewhere between temptation and dread.

Starsky swallowed noisily, then said in the gruff tones of a confession, "I - I'm not up to any kind of comparisons tonight, Hutch. I can't stand naked in front of anyone's eyes right now - not even yours."

Starsky's words, when combined with the pleading, hopeful expression in his face, just about finished Hutch. His throat closed up so tight with emotion that he could barely breathe.

Gulping past the obstruction, Hutch nodded. "Okay." He would have liked Starsky to feel confident enough with him to remove that final barrier between Hutch and his scars, but there was no way Hutch was going to force the issue. "Can I work around it?"

Starsky seemed stunned. "You really wanta?"

"I really wanta," Hutch assured before moving the encounter to a whole new level. If someone had put a gun to his head at that instant, he couldn't have stopped himself from leaning forward to cover his partner's mouth with his own. He'd never seen anyone who looked like they needed a kiss more than Starsky did at that moment.

He could feel the astonishment that sparked through Starsky's body in the suddenly tense and frozen muscles. After the blatantly sexual way he'd been caressing his friend, Hutch couldn't fully comprehend why this kiss should so startle his partner, but it was clear that Starsky hadn't been expecting it.

For a few seconds that stretched out for eons, Hutch fretted that he'd made a mistake, that he'd pushed the envelope too far. A lot of guys could accept a hand job from a buddy and still maintain that it wasn't really sex, but being kissed by another man, that was different. There was something intimate about kissing, something too romantic to be easily dismissed or shrugged off.

Hutch was on the verge of pulling back from those frozen lips and apologizing for his offense when Starsky's shocked resistance appeared to crumble. A powerful wave of desire swept through Hutch as he felt those thin, sensual lips soften against his, becoming amenable to the contact.

And then the unanticipated happened. With a strangled moan, Starsky's hands jumped to frame Hutch's cheeks, holding the blond firmly in place while a tongue poked boldly into Hutch's mouth to hungrily explore him.

The shock of being kissed back, the sweet flavor of Starsky's mouth, and the sudden passion with which Starsky devoured him was literally breath taking. His partner seemed almost desperate for that sharing. Willing to give Starsky anything - and everything - he needed, Hutch's hands roved blindly over his back.

He'd meant to calm Starsky, to let him know that it was okay, but his touches only seemed to stoke the fire. Starsky's mouth was actually kneading against his own, sucking and almost nibbling as they swapped spit. Hutch had never been kissed like this, with such hunger, such need, such masculine aggression.

They must have stood there locked together kissing for a good fifteen minutes or so, both their hands charting each others' backs and scalps as they tried to slake the loneliness in their thirsty souls. Hutch still had the impression that Starsky couldn't quite believe what they were doing, but his partner's body seemed to be so in sync with the passion that Starsky couldn't refuse - even if he'd wanted to.

When Hutch's own knees seemed to lose their solidity, he guided them down to the mattress. Still kissing, they sat side by side, hands moving more frantically now that they didn't have the added burden of retaining enough presence of mind to stay on their feet. Hutch felt his shirt pulled out of his waistband, then Starsky's hands slipped up underneath it, searching out warm skin. Because they hadn't bothered undoing the buttons, Starsky's caresses were somewhat restricted. Even so, feeling Starsky's palms rubbing over his sides and lower belly liquefied Hutch to a state similar to warm Jell-O.

His own hands reciprocated, Starsky's open shirt giving the blond much more leeway. But soon Hutch grew hungry for more. His searching fingers kept bumping into the waistband of Starsky's jeans. Feeling restricted, Hutch tried to steer his partner down to lie on his back on the mattress.

And, as he made that move, everything seemed to freeze. Starsky's body went dead still, even his breathing seeming to stop.

Hutch abruptly found himself pinned by his partner's gaze. The Orient had nothing on David Michael Starsky when it came to being inscrutable. Though he thought he knew every nuance of expression well enough to translate any mood his partner might be in, the one in those sapphire hard eyes was new to him. It didn't welcome; it didn't reject. It just seemed to watch, and study. For the life of him, Hutch couldn't tell if he'd offended his partner by too bold a move or if Starsky were experiencing second thoughts.

Either way, the halt made Hutch want to curl up and die. If he'd ruined this, he'd never forgive himself.

If Starsky were looking for something specific, he seemed to find it. After several eternities, the strangeness seeped from his feature like melt waters.

Almost weak with relief, Hutch saw the change, the softening that took place.

Starsky's gaze locked onto his own, holding his eyes with the same unbreakable grip this man had on his heart. Then Starsky reached down to his feet to pull off his Adidas. Afterward, he shifted his long legs past where Hutch was sitting beside him and lay back flat on the bed.

Hutch could almost feel his friend's nervousness. He didn't need to be told that Starsky had never been with another man before. His partner's body language was signaling to Hutch how difficult this was. He could almost sense how many questions Starsky was stifling. His partner was running on trust here, that was obvious. But Hutch had no clue how to assure. He was just as new to this himself. All he had was his love, and he didn't know if Starsky would ever want to hear about that.

So Hutch tried to use touch instead, gentling fears with the tenderest caresses of mouth and fingers to that watchful face. Hutch left no feature unloved. He kissed Starsky's high, intelligent forehead while running his hands through the incredible softness of the lush dark curls. As he kissed each eyebrow and closed eye in turn, Hutch's tongue peeked out to swipe up the tasty salt there. The flavor was different than that of his partner's sweat, stronger and sweeter, somehow.

Then he was kissing the moles beneath Starsk's left eye, and licking down the slope of his partner's adorable nose. As he worked his way back towards his friend's mouth, Hutch could feel a fine quiver running through Starsky's entire body.

When he came within kissing distance, Starsky's mouth latched onto him again, epoxying their lips together like he'd never let Hutch go. And even though it was murder on his back, sitting up and bending over so low like this, Hutch was willing to suffer that pain for eternity if it meant Starsky would kiss him like this.

Finally, his partner seemed content to cease the tongue tag and allow Hutch to sample other quarters. Starsky's neck was familiar territory now. Hutch made sure he hit all the hot spots, paying special attention to the ultra-sensitive area behind Starsky's ears as he worked his way back down to the chest.

Working between the open folds of Starsky's shirt, Hutch spent forever stroking and kissing the scars that had caused Starsky such distress earlier. He loved the damaged flesh until there could be no doubt in Starsky's mind that this part of his body was as touchable and desirable as any of the unmarred areas.

Hutch thought he might be overplaying it a bit as he laved a pert nipple yet again and blew over it, but Starsky was gasping and trembling so fiercely that there could be no doubt that he was moved by the contact.

More than moved, Starsky seemed blown away by it. Every now and then, he'd let out this small, helpless cry of delight that all but melted the blond's bones. Just as he'd hoped, Starsky was loving this. That was his only priority here.

When Hutch felt he was on the verge of over stimulating the area, he followed the trail of body hair that arrowed downward, moving slowly past the train tracks of incision scars to where the hair grew thick and undisturbed below Starsky's ribs.

He'd seen his partner's stomach a zillion times in the past year of slow recovery, but only now as he bent over to kiss that flesh did Hutch realize just how much weight his partner had dropped over his past year. Starsk's hips and thighs were thin as a teenager's in his jeans. Not even when they'd met in the Academy twelve years ago had Starsky been this slender. The weight loss was almost scary. Another ten pounds or so, and Starsky wouldn't be thin; he'd be emaciated. It was almost as though the pain Gunther's bullets had left behind had eaten the flesh right off his bones.

Hutch hoped that if he played his cards right tonight, Starsky would give him another opportunity to touch him this way. Maybe with some good loving and judicious use of ice cream and candy, Hutch could put the weight back on his friend. It hurt too much to look at Starsky this thin.

While he was nuzzling his way to the dark mystery of the hollow navel, Hutch's right hand stroked blindly downwards. Intent on the taste blasts he was getting, Hutch wasn't really paying attention to what his hand was doing below. Vaguely, he was aware of the texture of silky naked skin changing to rougher denim, but he didn't notice much more than that.

Until Starsky's entire body jerked in reaction as Hutch stroked lower over the metal of zipper above hardening flesh.

The shocked pleasure in Starsky's outcry pierced Hutch to the core. There was so much raw need in it, so much hunger. Starsky almost sounded as if it had been decades and not just months since he'd been touched there.

Though the contact had been accidental, Hutch took his cue from the reaction and raised his head up to watch Starsky's face for any sign of objection as he cautiously progressed.

Starsky seemed more than slightly out of it at first. With his eyes tight shut, his head thrown back and tossing against the green and white patterned pillowcase, and his kiss-reddened lips parted in a soundless 'oh', Starsky was almost a study in ecstasy. He'd never seen Starsky look so beautiful. There was a fierce power to Starsky at this moment, and yet also a heart-wrenching vulnerability.

Moving as though he knew he could destroy everything with too much haste, Hutch took hold of either side of the jeans' button and slowly undid it.

Starsky's eyes snapped open then.

"Aaaahhhh, Hutch..." he sighed as the zipper was carefully lowered. The breathy exhalation sounded like both a prayer and a promise.

Once the zipper was undone, Hutch slid his hand beneath the slender butt, urging his partner to lift his hips higher.

After the incident with the shirt, Hutch was uncertain how Starsky felt about removing the pants completely. He could still hear that hesitant 'I can't stand naked in front of anyone's eyes tonight' ringing through his head.

So, Hutch played it safe and slid the jeans and briefs halfway down Starsky's hairy thighs, leaving them tangled above his knees.

All thought just stopped there for the longest time. Hutch wasn't capable of doing anything but staring, as fantasy and reality became indistinguishable.

He'd seen his partner's penis at least three times every day in the men's room. But furtive once-overs had in no way prepared him.

Thick and long, blood-red with arousal, Starsky's shaft was nothing short of magnificent. The large vein pulsing along its impressive length seemed to beat in time with Hutch's own racing pulse.

His mouth inexplicably dry, Hutch's gaze drifted to the heavy sacs hanging below that engorged penis, taking in the dark forest of pubic hair as well. He'd never truly believed he'd see Starsky's erection, let alone be free to touch it.

Realizing that he was allowed, if only for this one magical night, Hutch reached out a trembling hand for his friend.

Starsky hissed at that first touch, his entire body jerking upwards on the bed.

Hutch was ninety percent sure that the sound was one of pleasure, but his gaze nevertheless shifted nervously to his partner's face. He was almost paranoid about displeasing now.

But, no, there was nothing wrong. Starsky's eyes were slitted with pleasure, his face sheened with sweat, illuminated by an inner glow Hutch had never seen before, not even after Starsky had spent a night with his beloved Terry.

Made aware of what he was holding as the flesh jerked and expanded, Hutch concentrated on the feel of that moist organ in his hand. Although there were basic similarities to handling his own flesh, everything was strangely off. The angle was wrong, first of all, and, though he wasn't quite as long as Hutch, Starsky was meatier than he was, heavier and thicker in his palm.

A fierce tenderness swept through Hutch at the helpless whimper Starsky gave when he experimentally tightened his fist around his friend.

"Ahhh...Hutch...Hutch...please, Hutch, baby, please...." Starsky begged, his hips arching up towards the dazed and overwhelmed blond.

Jerked back to his senses by the desperation in that hoarse entreaty, Hutch recognized that this delay was horribly cruel. It had been so long since Starsky's last time that this was obviously terribly painful. His partner needed motion and friction right now.

But...this was a first time for him, too. He'd had a million fantasies about this moment, but not a one of them had prepared him for the reality of that hard, musky shaft in his hand that was demanding his attention. And, even though Hutch knew what he wanted to do with that shaft in theory, his lack of actual experience was taking its toll. More than anything, he wanted to do this right. He wanted to give Starsky something that his partner would always remember. Hutch simply wasn't sure if he had the skill to pull it off.

Well, enthusiasm was simply going to have to cover for his lack of prior experience, he decided. God knew, he had plenty of eagerness. Starsky had him so turned on that he could barely think straight. Just the scent of Starsky was almost enough to make him cream his cords.

That unmistakable aroma was quite noticeable right now. Even without bending, Hutch could smell the thick, heady bouquet of his partner's arousal. He breathed the musk deep into his lungs, savoring its every nuance. It percolated through his blood like a hit of marijuana, a quick, dizzying rush that left his senses swirling.

Hutch went rock hard in response, popping up like someone had just squeezed his cock. It wasn't really a comfortable experience, however. These pants were a little on the tight side. His erection was painfully constricted, straining against the stranglehold the front of his black cords had on him.

Starsky groaned, more in pain than pleasure, Hutch realized, watching the slender hips thrust up towards him again in a tacit plea for action. The cock in Hutch's hand was seeping precum like tears of frustration, all but vocally crying for some stimulation. Starsky's enraptured expression was way past pleasure, somewhere in the depths of tortured pain.

That acknowledgement spurred him to action. Now allowing himself time to think, he moved on instinct, lowering his head.

He heard Starsky whimper as his breath fell on that burning handful of needy flesh. Then Hutch stuck his tongue out to tentatively sample the fat bead of liquid crowning the slit in the circumcised cock head. His ears rang with Starsky's piercing shout as the taste of that salty drop flashed through him like a nuclear blast.

Hooked by that first taste, Hutch's mouth opened to suck in his partner's cock head. He didn't know where to put his tongue or what to do with his teeth at first, but somehow he managed to keep from scratching the sensitive glans as he made room in his mouth.

It seemed like everything was going okay. Hutch had found something like a rhythm for his sucking. But then Starsky threw everything off by thrusting up at him.

Hutch just managed to keep from biting down as Starsky's shaft jabbed down his throat, as though trying to choke him. Tears stinging his eyes, he gagged and pulled away.

He'd thought Starsky too far gone to notice anything but his own need. However, Hutch immediately felt gentle hands stroking his cheeks and brow as he struggled to get control of his protesting esophagus.

"Sorry. You okay, babe?" Starsky's voice was so thick with emotion it was barely recognizable.

As Hutch himself wasn't able to speak right then, he just nodded through teary eyes. He felt as if he'd taken a punch to the throat. Only this hit was on the inside. When he'd gotten his body back under control, he hoarsely requested, "Go easy there, okay, buddy? This is new territory we're charting here."

"Sorry, babe," Starsky repeated in that thick gruff tone. "It felt way too good."

"Yeah?" Hutch grinned.


Finding himself able to breathe and swallow normally, Hutch asked, "Ready to try again?"

"Ready when you are," Starsky gamely rallied.

Hutch reached out to reclaim his saliva-slick treasure. "Good. But let me do all the work, okay?"

"'Kay," Starsky answered, the strange expression shadowing his eyes making Hutch a little nervous.

Opening his mouth till his jaws ached, Hutch took in as much of Starsky's cock as he could manage. Shielding his teeth with his lips, he started to suck again.

True to his promise, Starsk didn't try to thrust up at him again, but Hutch could see how hard that restraint was for his friend. Finding a way to breathe around the thick, sexy obstruction in his throat, Hutch experimented, bobbing his head up and down the length of the shaft while he sucked.

That seemed to be just what his partner needed. Starsky moaned at the friction, burying his fingers in Hutch's hair to guide his rhythm.

It was an addictive cycle. Pull up almost until the very tip of the cock might slip from his mouth, then back down until his nose was buried in the sweaty pubic curls and that mighty cock was spearing his throat like the harpoon shaft that took Moby Dick.

Tempted by the wavelike motion of the pink sacs below his chin, Hutch's fingers rushed to discover the incredible softness of the velvety testes. Starsky liked that. The moans were coming nonstop now.

"Gotta...gotta move, Hutch...please?" Starsky sobbed.

With his mouth full of cock, there was no way he could answer. Thinking that maybe he could manage it, Hutch slipped his left hand under his partner's butt as his right hand abandoned Starsky's ball to guide the motion of his hips. It wasn't easy, but Hutch accommodated the powerful thrusts - just barely.

Starsky's raspy breathing grew wilder, faster, falling into sync with his pistoning hips. Watching, Starsky approach orgasm was one of the most erotic, primal sights Hutch had ever beheld. As his head bobbed in his service, Hutch strained his eyes trying to catch glimpses of his partner's emotion-torn expression. Starsky's face was ripped apart with passion. The guy looked like he was dying....

And then the little death was upon them.

Starsky was muttering a stunned litany of "Oh, God, babe...Oh, God, Hutch..." over and over again. It was hoarse and raspy and guttural; it was also the sweetest music Hutch had ever heard. Starsky was calling his name at the height of orgasm. Mindless with pleasure, that one word "Hutch" seemed to be all he knew.

Then his partner gave one final thrust that threatened to send his cock straight through Hutch's body. The stunned blond felt the back of his throat sprayed with burning fluid. The hot seed actually seemed to sting, mostly in the place where that first wild thrust had hurt him. It was the most peculiar sensation Hutch had ever experienced, feeling that scalding semen spray his raw throat.

His body must have thought it was pretty wild and arousing as well, for Hutch felt his own cock shoot its load into the tight-packed front of his cords. It was all could do to keep his wits about him enough to refrain from biting down on that geysering cock as his own nervous system exploded with delight.

He was too blown away by the ecstasy dancing through his blood to learn any new tricks at this point. Although he had mastered the art of breathing around that thick cock, he hadn't learned how to swallow around it yet. All that hot cum came gushing back up his throat, almost like vomit.

The taste was...unique. Bitter and salty as a mouthful of seawater. Everything in Hutch wanted to spit the viscous fluid out, but there was something compelling about it, too. This was part of Starsky. If ever there would be any little Starskys, they would be born of this bitter, magical elixir. Everything Starsky was was contained in this liquid gene code. And Hutch wanted to make everything Starsky was a part of himself, until they were indistinguishable and inseparable.

So, instead of allowing that slick Starsky juice to slide past lips and escape forever, Hutch forced himself to learn just one more trick. Somehow, he found a way to drink Starsky's gift down, to swallow around that shrinking shaft without choking himself again. And once the liquid was ingested, a part of Starsky would always be with him...

All too soon, it was over. The thundering pulse roaring in Hutch's ears stilled until he could once again hear. The climax that had sent his senses reeling with delight passed, leaving only a contented lethargy in its wake.

Uncertain what this moment would bring, Hutch just lay there with his head pillowed on Starsky's pale lower belly and waited. He was content to listen to the secret, intimate gurgles of his partner's digestive system, the deeper rhythms of heart and breath. He might never be granted this liberty again, but it had been his tonight. Until the inevitable turning away came, Hutch would stay in the moment, drifting on sleepy afterglow. He wouldn't poison it with fear.

The moment stretched into minutes. Three, maybe five passed before Starsky even stirred.

Hutch closed his eyes tight at the movement, prepared for anything - except the tender hand that brushed over his hair. The touch was timid, almost as if Starsky were testing Hutch's solidity.

Stunned into a silence, which he wasn't sure he could have broken even if he'd had to, Hutch moved with Starsky as his partner's hands guided the sleepy blond further up in the bed. He was content to settle his head on Starsky's sturdy chest.

Hutch's limbs felt leaden with exhaustion, his mind delightfully fuzzy with incipient sleep. He could tell by Starsky's slow breathing and the lazy stroking of his back that his partner was similarly affected.

His right check pressed into those livid, rough scars, Hutch turned his face enough to kiss them, gently, savoring the action for the rare, precious gift that it was. Although he couldn't keep his eyes open any longer, there was one more thing Hutch knew he needed to do, needed to say.

"You're not ugly. You're beautiful. Like those fat chicks in those paintings and those snowy woods, all you need is the right beholder, babe," Hutch declared in a voice so thick with sleep that he wasn't certain Starsky would even understand him, if his partner were even awake to hear him.

But Starsky was awake. The chest that had been slowly moving in the rhythm of steady breathing froze beneath Hutch's pillowed head.

Hutch could almost hear his partner's mind absorbing his words.

Starsky didn't make any verbal response. Maybe he couldn't. But his arms locked around Hutch, squeezing the emotionally exhausted blond tight to his chest as though he'd never let him go.

That was just fine with Hutch. He was on the very verge of sleep when he felt Starsky's mouth press a soft, tender kiss to the crown of his head. He wanted to reciprocate, say something to acknowledge that sweet offering, but slumber crashed over him like a tall, black wave, taking him down to float in warm depths that were the same blue as a certain detective's eyes.


Hutch slept deeply that night, for once undisturbed by nightmares. He only came close to awaking once, when he felt himself being shifted around.

But Starsky's sleep-thick voice soothed, "Ssssh, just getting the covers around us, babe."

Finding himself wrapped in the warmth of both comforter and partner, Hutch drifted immediately back to sleep, aware only of those sheltering arms around him and the furry, scar-rough chest beneath his cheek.

True awakening seemed to come centuries later. Hutch was immediately aware of it, because he was no longer cocooned in a loving embrace. He was lying fully clothed, straight down to his shoes, under the comforter. His right cheek was resting against the cool linen of the pillowcase, while his left was being bombarded by bright morning sunlight. He already felt gritty and rumpled from sleeping in his clothes.

There was no hazy period of not remembering what he'd done last night. His encounter with Starsky was branded into his soul. As was his sudden state of aloneness.

Trying very hard not to read anything into that last awareness, Hutch slowly opened his eyes. It was time to face the moment of truth. Starsky mightn't still be in the bed with him, but Hutch could sense his partner nearby.

Sure enough, Starsky was over by the window, almost in the same position Hutch had found him in last night.

Attempting to be objective, Hutch ran his eyes over his partner's form. Starsky was still wearing yesterday's jeans and white cotton button-down shirt. Both were incredibly wrinkled. Even so, the quiet man looked incredibly sexy standing there before the window, bathed in morning sunlight. The pensive expression on his partner's face captivated Hutch, even as it worried him. He could see the beard stubble darkening his friend's chin. And looking close between the folds of the open shirt, he could see the scars that had started all this last night.

Taking in those livid marks, Hutch felt himself tremble - but not from fear. Even with all those garish wounds marking it, the breadth and power of that strong chest excited him. Hutch remembered how wonderful it was to rest his face against it, how protected he'd felt lying in that strong embrace.

Last night his sweetest dream had been realized. Now it was time to find out if it would cost him his whole world. In the heat of passion, Hutch had considered it a worthy exchange, but staring at his partner's troubled profile, he was no longer quite so certain.

This man was the focal point of his existence. If Starsky closed him out of his world, Hutch would have nothing left.

"Morning," he greeted, the tensing of Starsky's back having told him his partner was aware of his observation.

To his intense relief, Starsk turned to face him. Although he looked nervous; he didn't appear mad. That was good.

"Hi, yourself." The words sounded shy, uncertain, almost as though Starsky wasn't sure how to talk to him right now.

"You been up long?" Hutch stumbled for a topic to breach the awkward distance.


Hutch sat up in the rumpled bed as Starsky moved closer to it.

Not knowing what to say, Hutch rubbed his hands over his face, which was in desperate need of a shave, and tried to smooth his mussed, over-long hair back into place. Ridiculously, he found himself wishing that he'd had time to fix himself up a little before Starsky saw him. His partner's curls never looked any different from one end of the day to the other, but Hutch knew what a fright his own hair was before it had seen a comb.

Hutch's insides clenched up as he saw Starsky's face harden with resolve. His partner's eyes were dark with shadows, and not just because Starsky now had his back to the window.

Starsk looked almost haunted as he said, "Last night."

Hutch drew in a deep breath. This could have been much worse. Starsky could have been furious. But even knowing that the scenario could have been disastrous didn't make it any easier for Hutch to deal with it now.

Starsky was standing there waiting for some type of explanation. Hutch had nothing to offer beyond the confession he'd already made last night, which his partner hadn't even been able to hear, let alone comprehend.

As always happened when he was on the defensive, Hutch's voice got deeper, almost angry as he shot back, "What about it?"

Great move, Hutchinson. He wasn't angry to start off with, but you know just the right buttons to push to get him there, don't you? Because you know if he's mad and yelling at you, that lost look will disappear from his eyes.

But his diversionary tactic failed. Starsky didn't react at all to the tone. All that happened was that his expression became even more thoughtful.

After the longest pause Hutch had ever suffered through in his entire existence, Starsky stated in a guarded tone, as if testing the veracity of his conclusions, "It wasn't about pity."

That fist gripping Hutch's heart squeezed even tighter. Almost wishing he had a shouting Starsky in front of him instead of this quiet thinker he couldn't figure out, Hutch gave a mute, negative shake of his head. The last thing it was about was pity, but if he said that, Starsky was sure to ask him what the first thing it was about was. Hutch wasn't ready for that yet. Wouldn't be until he could read how Starsky felt about what had passed between them.

"When I first woke up this morning, I was furious with you," Starsky commented almost casually, "'cause I thought you felt sorry for me, but..."

Hearing the emotion in the broken word, Hutch gently prompted, "But?"

Starsky's eyes speared him. "I been around enough to know when someone feels sorry for me. Last night, that wasn't pity. That was..."

Hutch didn't think the next word was going to be 'disgusting' or 'unnatural', but he wasn't sure. Starsky was sitting on so much emotion here that it was frightening. When he thought he could live with whatever his partner might have to say, Hutch quietly encouraged, "That was?"

"That was worship, Hutch. No one ever touched me like that, like I meant so much to them." The way Starsky said it, it was almost an accusation.

Hutch swallowed past the hard, painful lump choking him. "Yeah, I guess it was."

"You guess it was? What the hell does that mean?" Starsky's frustration finally broke through.

"I'm not sure what you're askin' from me here," Hutch answered, feeling like he was back on the witness stand that awful day he'd had to give Lionel up to that crooked judge, like his back was to the wall and there was nothing but him and the truth out there naked and vulnerable.

"I wanna know how you could do that to someone? I know that you wanted to make me feel better, but how could you...pretend? How could you fake..." Starsky stuttered for words for a moment, then finished with, "Sex that good can kill someone when it's not for real. Break their heart into a thousand pieces..."

There was no turning back now. Taking a deep breath, Hutch softly questioned, "What makes you think that it wasn't for real?" At Starsky's shocked, blank stare, he concluded with, "I'm not that good of an actor, babe."

Starsky's open mouth snapped shut. He just stood there staring at Hutch, his eyes churning with emotion.

"Beauty's in the eye of the beholder, Starsk," he softly reminded.

And all Starsky's confusion seemed to still at that soft-spoken truism. Understanding spared in his steady gaze, but he appeared almost incapable of believing the conclusion Hutch's words had led him to. Looking as though he was braced for failure, Starsky tentatively asked, "The right beholder?"

Hutch swallowed hard and nodded. "That would be me."

It was offer as well as a confession. Hutch watched his partner stand there and absorb the implications of both.

While that diamond-sharp mind was at work, Hutch added, "You can stand naked before me babe. There aren't any comparisons. Haven't been for years. Everyone else falls short next to you."

"Awww, Hutch...."

And then somehow his arms were full of a shaking Starsky.

Hutch found his cheeks framed, a tear-wet face pushing right into his line vision as Starsky whispered, "I love you. You know that, don'tcha?"

Before he could reply or process the abrupt changes, Hutch was pushed back flat onto the bed. His partner's warm weight blanketed him, flattening him into the mattress. This mightn't have been how he'd pictured things going, but Hutch was nothing if not adaptable. On those rare instances in the past when he'd indulged himself in fantasizing how seducing Starsky might go, his visions had always included long talks and gut-wrenching avowals.

But Starsky's way was better. Much better, Hutch concluded as he gave himself over to the hungry mouth that seemed determined to make him its own. Yesterday was a million miles away, and suddenly, Hutch didn't dread tomorrow, not when he had this to brighten his world.

Going down for the third and last time, Hutch pushed the shirt from his partner's shoulders, determined to spend the rest of his life proving how desirable this incredible man was. Maybe after sixty or seventy years of loving, Starsky might just come to believe him.

The End

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