Chapter 15

Tonight our bed is cold
I'm lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man
Who doubts what he's sure of
      Brilliant Disguise—Bruce Springsteen

      Starsky lay on his back, one leg raised, foot on the mattress, knee bent, the other stretched out. One arm covered his eyes, the other lay lax at his side. In spite of the warm, quiet, female body beside him, he felt very much alone.

      Sensing a pair of eyes watching him, he peeked out from under his arm. A tiny tiger sat primly on the corner of a dresser, tail tucked tight around his feet, orange eyes narrowed to disapproving slits.

      If you're here to judge the event, save it. I know a losing performance when I've had one. 

      The cat blinked slowly, his face frozen in a ferocious cat scowl.

      And what the hell do you know about it anyway? You're neutered. But then again . . . apparently so am I.

      He tried to remember if he'd ever chided Hutch whenever he had this problem, and couldn't. If he had, he could at least blame this fiasco on bad karma he would've deserved. He remembered when Hutch and Vanessa were in the last stages of their embattled marriage. The tension and stress of their daily domestic war had left Hutch semi-impotent. It had always amazed Starsky how easily Hutch had talked about that, as though it had to be expected considering what he was going through. If it had been Starsky, he'd have died before admitting something like that, even to Hutch. He knew, too, that Hutch could never get it up if he'd had too much to drink. Those incidents never seemed to bother him much, but then again, Hutch was forever downplaying the importance of sex. Did he really feel that way, Starsky wondered, or was it the best face he could put on a problem he knew he'd have to deal with occasionally? He admired Hutch's guts, his sense of masculinity that was strong enough to withstand his body's sporadic failure.

      But Starsky wasn't like Hutch. Sex had always been intensely important to him. He prided himself on his virility, his ability to give and take pleasure in equal measure. Neither stress nor alcohol had ever diminished his ability to perform. Nothing had ever interfered with it. Ever. Before tonight.

      He had no experience with which to deal with this.

      "I've made a decision," Callahan said into the silence that had grown between them. She'd been lying with her back to him, covers drawn up to her neck. Now she turned to face him.

      He really didn't want to talk right now, but he couldn't shut her out, not after his abysmal failure. He dropped his arm and turned to look at her. He worried that she was about to quit their case, that throwing him out of her bed and her apartment wouldn't be enough to appease her disappointment.

      "I've decided that I really should make an ethical stand against sleeping with my clients," she said off-handedly.

      He was so startled by her attempt at humor, he had to laugh. It didn't help his pride though.

      "It's not the end of the world," she said softly, rubbing her knuckles against his cheek.

      It's not? he thought, wanting to argue that.

      "It was crazy for us to start something tonight," she insisted. "Between the shooting, our mixed-up feelings . . . Hutch . . . ."

      Her mentioning Hutch made him angry for some reason, even though his partner had never once left his mind since they'd parted company at the crime scene. His jaw clenched.

      "That has nothing to do with it." He sat up, pulling his knees to his chest, hugging them. "After a scene like the shooting, that's when you're all wired up, needing an outlet to let the adrenaline out. That's the last thing that should've . . . ." He couldn't talk about it. He was too upset. It was too personal.

      "Dave, you're tired. Don't be so hard on yourself. Why don't you try to sleep? You'll feel better after some rest."

      "Will you stop being so goddamned reasonable?" he snapped. There was no way he could sleep. He was as keyed up as he'd been after the shooting. He wanted to do something, run around the block, beat the crap out of someone . . . fuck . . . . He squeezed his eyes shut.

      She ran a hand lightly over his back, to comfort, not excite. "What do you want me to do? How should I react?"

      "You should be pissed. Yell or something. Slap me. Throw me out." It sounded lame even to him, but her understanding was the last thing he could bear.

      She seemed baffled. "Is that the way women have reacted the other times . . . ?"

      He turned around, furious. "There never were any other times!"

      Understanding dawned on her face. "Oh . . . . Well, I guess now I've been totally dethroned as the Holy Restorer of Sacred Masculinity, huh?"

      He couldn't hold onto his rage in the face of her good-natured attempts to jolly him out of it. He deflated with a sigh. "I don't know why I'm yelling at you. It's my problem." His expression softened. "I feel like I let you down. I'm sorry."

      She seemed only more confused. "Dave . . . what we shared . . . it was beautiful. You satisfied me . . . more than I ever expected. You're the one who must be disappointed. I feel . . . like maybe . . . if I was more feminine, or if I knew how to do some of those more exotic things . . . ."

      His heart twisted. She'd done everything for him, had worshipped his body and his cock with her hands, her mouth. She'd wrapped her beautiful hair around him, teased him and enticed him. She'd only stopped when he'd pushed her away, ashamed by his failure.

      "Don't say that." He lay back down and faced her. Moving a thick hank of hair behind her ear, he realized she needed consoling, too. "You're enough woman for two men. Beautiful, strong, loving . . . . You deserve so much better."

      She cupped his cheek with her palm. Her eyes searched his, and with the kind of unerring honesty he'd come to expect from her, she said, "Don't you think this might have something to do with your confused feelings for Hutch?"

      He felt his anger flare again and fought it. He wanted to insist his feelings for Hutch weren't the least bit confused, that he knew exactly how he felt about Hutch, but he couldn't lie about that anymore.

      "Dave," she asked, her voice surprisingly steady, "are you sleeping with Hutch?"

      He nodded, feeling that painful knot he got in his gut whenever he had to confront what happened between him and Hutch in the dark.

      "You two are doing more than sleeping, aren't you?" she said.

      She was leading him through it the way she would a reluctant witness she wanted to testify for her. He frowned. He didn't have to tell her anything. It wasn't any of her business . . . . "Yeah," he said.

      Her face didn't change expression, she just kept looking at him with understanding. She didn't bring up his earlier denials, his loud protestations about his heterosexuality.

      "You must feel pretty confused," she said.

      He wanted to cry, and swallowed hard to keep his careening emotions in rein. In self-defensive anger, he lashed out at her cruelly. "You sure know a hell of a lot about men for a woman who never sleeps with any." He regretted it instantly.

      She looked like she'd been slapped, but recovered quickly. "You don't have to sleep with men to learn about them. You just have to work with them every day, compete against them, and beat them at their own game to find out just what poor losers they can be."

      He was ashamed of his outburst. The only way he could ameliorate it was to give her an honest response. "I . . . I don't understand anything anymore. I don't understand my body, my brain, how I feel . . . who I am . . . . What I am . . . ."

      "You're Dave," she told him. "You're still David Starsky. Cop. Partner. Friend. Lover. That's all the same. You're a good man. Don't be confused about that."

      He had a sudden memory of Maggie Blaine saying that about her husband, John, after he and Hutch told her John had been found dead after spending the night with a male hustler. John was a good man, Maggie had insisted. Whatever else he was, John was a good man.

      "All those other words, they're just labels," she insisted. "You can't let other people's judgements determine how you feel, about yourself. About Hutch."

      He squeezed his eyes shut, took the hand she stroked his face with and held it. "I don't know how I feel about Hutch. In the day, he's still my partner. I know that hasn't changed. But at night, he turns to me and his wanting . . . his vulnerability . . . it's all right there. What am I supposed to do?"

      "Are you giving Hutch physical love just because he wants it?"

      "No," he said honestly. "I want it, too. He makes it so good. But for me . . . it's just the sex. It's so strong, so powerful between us. But my love for him isn't like his love for me. He thinks . . . he thinks at some point I'll remember the way I felt that first night, when we were drugged. He's waiting for me to remember that I'm in love with him. But I don't believe I ever felt that way. I feel like I'm just using him." He frowned. "Just the way I used you tonight."

      She shook her head. "I don't feel used . . . ."

      "You're just being nice," he insisted, not wanting to hide behind any more subterfuge. "I needed you tonight, to prove to myself I was still a man. That loving Hutch hadn't changed me. It was wrong to use you like that, to play on your feelings. I'm sorry. And I guess I proved to myself the one thing I was really afraid of."

      "Oh, come on! You're not going to tell me that one bout of partial impotence has convinced you you've lost your masculinity? You've been through an emotional war, one you're still fighting. You won't let yourself love Hutch because you're afraid to deal with the consequences, even though you're dealing with the consequences every day. You're clinging to this fantasy that if you just keep insisting on it, everything will go back to the way it was before. You've got to get past that. Things can never go back the way they were. You've got to build a new future for yourself. And Hutch is going to be some part of that. Until you can resolve, with Hutch, what part he has in it, you're just going to get more mixed-up."

      He listened and mulled that over. He wanted to deny everything she said, but he couldn't. It was too honest.

      She looked at him sadly. "Dave, you couldn't perform tonight because you never wanted me. You don't want any woman. You want Hutch. Until you let yourself accept that fact, you'll never resolve any of this."

      He sighed, exhausted. He took her into his arms and rolled her against him. She put her arms around him, cuddling her head against his chest, her long hair flowing over them. Her skin was warm and still fragrant. She felt good lying in his arms, natural. She fit against him like a woman should fit against a man. And in spite of all that, he couldn't deny the need he felt inside. For Hutch. He closed his eyes.

      "Get some sleep," she urged.

      How could she be so damned understanding? Huggy had told him how seldom she dated, how little male companionship she had. How lonely was it for her, to be the only straight person in a world of gay people? That made him think of Johnny Blaine, a gay man living his life surrounded by straights. His brain ached from all the chaos inside it.

      He rolled them over gently, until she was beneath him. She gazed up at him trustingly. "I don't wanna sleep. I want to do something for you. Make you happy. Make you feel good, if only for this moment." He meant it. He wanted to kiss her everywhere, put his mouth on her sweetest secret, make her buck under him, pull his hair and scream. He wanted to make up for the disappointment. He wanted to rock her soul and leave her weak.

      "I already feel good," she insisted. "You don't have to—"

      "I know I don't have to. And to be honest, I can't . . . I mean . . . . I'm not hard and I'm not gonna get hard. My dick knows what it wants, I guess, and it's tired of my playin' games with it. But I don't need that to please you. There's lots of ways to make love."

      She looked wary, warring with her own conflicting feelings. Was it better to have a taste of something you could never have again, and always miss it, or enjoy whatever part of it you could have, just for the memories?

      "And afterwards . . . ?" she pressed.

      He didn't say anything, realizing he hadn't thought that far.

      So she told him. "Afterwards, you'll go home. Talk to Hutch. Make some decisions. You can't keep giving him something he can't keep. You can't keep denying his love for you."

      He nodded. Yes. That's what he would do. Maybe if they talked honestly, put everything right on the table, they could figure out how to work this out. Maybe if he faced his partner, he could figure out how he felt. Hutch always had the answers, didn't he?

      "But that's for later," he said. "Now is for you. Just you." He leaned down to kiss her and heard a soft cry of desire escape her. Her mouth was warm, pliant, and so willing. As her arms went around him, he heard her loneliness in that soft sound, tasted it on her tongue, in the urgency of her kiss. He couldn't cure it, but he could stave it off for a few hours. As his mouth moved gently down the column of her throat, he thought it was little enough to do for her.

      "I still find it hard to believe those guys were trying to kill your lawyer," Dobey said.

      "That's what Starsky said," Hutch reminded him. "He said they were trying to shoot her, not him. And I wasn't around, so we know they weren't trying to hit both of us."

      "Did Baylor and Meredith get anything out of the two hit men?" Dobey asked.

      "Name, rank, and serial number," Hutch said in disgust. "They're pros. One of 'em had escaped from a federal holding facility back east, and the other one got out of his last felony charge on a technicality. He had an impressive arrest record. They both knew that with their background there was little we could offer them, so there was no motivation for them to talk."

      Dobey looked at him slyly. "You weren't able to persuade them with the force of your personality?"

      Hutch smiled and ran a thumb over his moustache. "Well, it wasn't my case, Captain, and I am on suspension . . . ."

      "But . . . ." Dobey pushed.

      "But . . . when Meredith and Baylor stepped out for a minute to get some coffee . . . ." He had gripped the bruised face of the shooter with unmasked rage, explaining to the man that he was already on suspension and had nothing to lose as a cop. The shooter had been terrified and his battered face had to have been in agony.

      "I was my most persuasive, but, uh . . . they swore the entire transaction had been over phone-lines, with anonymous money drops. They never met the people who hired them. Though they were pretty confident they were the only professional mechanics involved. They said whoever made the arrangements was new at it and had trouble getting the right connections. So, with them out of action, I'd say Kelly is safe from another hit attempt. Nobody'll take the contract now, since these two guys got caught the way they did. Whoever's behind it is going to have to find another way to put her out of commission. Or us."

      "The two of you and Callahan," Dobey warned, "better be careful. Where is she, anyway?"

      Hutch swallowed so the words wouldn't stick in his throat. "She's home. Starsky's with her. She'll be okay." He was proud of how casual he sounded.

      Dobey's expression was comical. Hutch imagined he was as confused by his problematic detectives as he had ever been. A week ago, the thought of Starsky protecting a pretty woman would've brought a derisive bray of laughter from Dobey and a pertinent remark about the fox in the hen house. Now, Dobey couldn't figure out what to think, what to say. He finally said, worriedly, "He's unarmed. Has no badge. It doesn't seem right . . . . I could find someone to—"

      "It's fine, Captain. We'll handle it. We were unarmed when the hit went down, too, and we got through it."

      Dobey's eyes met his solidly. "How's Starsky handling . . . everything. You know, the press, working at the Parrot . . . the case . . . ?"

      "A minute at a time, Cap'," Hutch said. "You know Starsky. He copes. The, uh . . . the young girl that died outside the bar— She was a . . . car enthusiast. They'd made friends. Her death really affected him."

      Dobey nodded, appreciating that. "Baylor and Meredith, they're good detectives. This case belongs to them, no question. I expect . . . it might lead them to other areas . . . ."

      This was his way of telling Hutch that he had good people working to uncover the tangled web surrounding them.

      "There's been a homicide," he continued. "A violent shooting. The mayor's office can't stop me from doing my job. They wouldn't dare. Have faith in those two detectives, Hutch. You know they're on your side."

      He nodded. "Too bad not all my fellow cops are, huh?" He knew Baylor had complained long and loud to Dobey about Russo's behavior, but since he had backed off at the scene, there wasn't much Dobey could do.

      "I appreciate your help on this, Hutch. I'll make sure the chief hears about it." Then his eyes sparkled mischievously. "Sure wish I was there when the chief saw the eleven o'clock news! You guys usually aren't caught on film in action! The reporter made a pretty big fuss over Russo's 'erroneous' attempt to arrest you, too. Came down pretty hard on the police force over it. I know the Chief'll be having fits about that."

      They both laughed and it felt good to Hutch to have Dobey conspiring with them again.

      Then Dobey sobered. "The chief can be a heavy adversary, Hutch. Walk lightly."

      Hutch nodded. "Well, I'd better go. It's been a long night, and I'm beat."

      "Need to check in with Starsky before you go?" Dobey asked. It was a routine question, something he'd say whenever the two of them were separated, working shifts guarding a witness. It was so familiar, Hutch almost nodded and reached for the phone.

      He stopped just in time. "No, uh . . . don't think I will. He knows where I am. If he needs anything, he'll call me." He smiled sheepishly. "You know it's never a good idea to bother Starsky when he's with a young lady."

      Dobey looked blank for a minute, then confused. "Sure. Okay. Well, take it easy. Hope the rest of your night is uneventful."

      Hutch nodded as he left the office. Without Starsky in my bed, that's a guarantee. He pushed the bitterness down, refusing to yield to it. This was your idea. No sense crying over it.

      He was surprised when Joan Meredith, waiting in the empty squadroom, offered him a lift home. "Isn't that a little out of your way?"

      She shrugged. "I'd have been here till dawn if you hadn't come down to help. Figure it's a small gesture of gratitude, Hutch."

      He smiled. "Sure. That'd be great. I'm ready to call it a day, that's for sure."

      They were settled in her tidy, plain car and on their way back to Venice Place when she said, "Is Starsky handling all this okay? I . . . didn't get a chance to talk to him. I guess I'm a little worried about him."

      You still have feelings for him, don't you? He has that power over people. Especially when he's shared his love with them. It's like some kind of psychic glue. Afterwards, there always seems to be parts of him still stuck to your soul.

      "He's doing as well as he can," he said noncommittally. "I know he was really grateful to you tonight. He thought there wasn't a cop in the country that wanted anything to do with him. That's been one of the hardest things for him to deal with, that rejection."

      She nodded. "Well . . . it's not like my concern for him is simply as one cop to another."

      Hutch smiled. "I know."

      "Are you okay, Hutch? I mean, really? You've got such a tight lid on everything, it's hard to tell."

      He almost laughed out loud. He felt like a shattered piece of crockery, held together by loose bands of thin wire, all the cracks showing, ready to fall apart if he were shaken just right. "I'll be fine . . . if we can just get through this together." He was surprised that he was willing to admit that much, but it was the simple truth.

      "Listen, Linda and I are officially on this case now," Meredith reminded him. "I know you and Starsky are looking at leads about the film lab involved with this. Stay in touch with us. If you need any information, something from the computer, consider it done."

      He smiled at her. "Thanks. That's great. Working without the resources of the department could've really hampered us."

      She nodded. "There are a few more of us pushing to get you guys reinstated. So, we've got the help if we need it." She glanced at him. "And, uh . . . we know about Tomas."

      He stared at her surprised. "You know . . . ?"

      "Russo's determined to get you guys canned. We're a little worried about his fanaticism on the topic. Tomas is gonna be a hell of a good cop some day. It didn't take him long to figure out who he could safely confide in."

      Hutch shook his head. The tendrils of this traveled in so many directions . . . .

      She pulled up in front of Venice Place. He glanced up at his dark apartment. He'd be there tonight alone for the first time since Starsky came home from the hospital. Sleep alone for the first time since then, too.

      Meredith turned to face him and he started to mouth a casual thank you. Before he could, she placed a warm, small hand on his larger one. "I hope you both can get through it together, Hutch. You two belong together. I've known that for a long time."

      He knew his expression showed his surprise. He recovered, leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Thanks, Joan," he said, his voice husky. "For the ride. For everything."

      He got out of the car before he could say anything he might regret.

      Without Starsky in it, the dark apartment seemed as if it belonged to someone else. Hutch went through every room, turning on every light. The brightness dispelled some of the gloom, but the essence, the scent of Starsky was everywhere. The shirt he wore before changing into the Parrot's leathers was tossed casually over the back of a kitchen chair. The glass he'd drunk his last beer in still sat in the sink. An empty bottle of root beer stood on the sideboard.

      And in a run-down, fifth-floor apartment, Starsky guarded a woman who wanted him.

      Quit playing with your head and do something constructive.

      He could change, shower, get ready for bed, but he was too restless, his mind and body churning from the evening's activity. They both got so keyed up after that kind of action. Usually, they'd be up all night, wired, with so much energy to burn they'd keep each other going, usually in some kind of competitive game, until they'd drop from exhaustion sometime around sunrise. That was assuming they couldn't find a couple of willing women to help them out. There had been one night with Starsky and a particularly adventurous lovely . . . . Hutch couldn't remember her name, her face. He couldn't remember anything about her at all. But he vividly recalled how Starsky looked as he took her with an intensity that seemed as if it could never be satisfied. The memory was too disturbing, so he pushed it from his mind. The last thing Hutch wanted to think about was what Starsky might be doing to work off his nervous energy tonight.

      You've been neglecting your plants, he thought guiltily. He'd put on some music, water everyone and check for bugs, dead leaves, go through every plant in the place methodically. Then he'd strip, get in the shower, then try to sleep. Alone. Like an adult.

      Moving to the stereo, he spied the new demo album Sugar had given him. It was Bonnie Tyler's next release, Faster Than The Speed of Night. He liked the play on words and was too keyed up to play bluegrass or anything mellow. Maybe this would distract him.

      He put it on the stereo, moved the arm away so it would repeat and he wouldn't have to tend to it. Just for background noise.

      After watering everything in the greenhouse, he had to question his decision on playing the album. Tyler's smoky, tortured voice lent a poignancy to anything she sang, but this album seemed to be specifically designed for the broken-hearted. Every selection mourned failed relationships, shattered dreams, lovers slipping away from each other, just going through the motions, or clinging to desperate meetings with strangers in singles' bars. The lyrics were clever and convoluted, which made it worse. The music demanded that you really listen to it so that the meaning of the words wouldn't be lost. There were several good dance numbers that he knew he'd be hearing in the Parrot soon enough. But there was a despondency in the entire album that worked on him. What was it about people suffering from failed relationships that they wanted to surround themselves with music that reminded them of their loss? If this album were an indication, there must be a big market for exactly this kind of music. All those sad and lonely people focusing on their pain.

      He didn't like thinking that he was one of them. He should take the album off, but it was too much trouble to stop what he was doing. He wouldn't consider the possibility that the songs spoke personally to him. He let it play.

      He was muttering soft apologies to a neglected fern in the bedroom when he heard someone at the door. At this hour? He tensed, regretting once again having to give up his gun. He grabbed hold of Starsky's sturdy root beer bottle and stood to one side of the door frame. "Who's there?"

      "It's Peter."

      Startled by Whitelaw's voice, Hutch tossed the bottle, then opened the door. "Peter?"

      The tall man stood awkwardly in the hall. He looked anxious. "Ken, are you okay?"

      Hutch must've looked as confused as he felt. Realizing he was keeping Peter marooned on the landing, he stepped back, gestured for him to come in. "Did someone call you about—?"

      "Are you kidding?" Whitelaw said, his voice agitated. "My phone's been ringing off the hook! The entire gay community's in an uproar. It's national news. Unarmed Gay Cops, On Suspension, Apprehend Mob Killers, Save Hundreds. Live Footage To Follow! The television keeps showing it over and over again. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A blur of white, a streak of black— The two of you, running down a car full of armed killers on foot! David attacking that car with nothing more than a baseball bat! And you, barehanded, wrestling a man with an automatic weapon!" He stared at Hutch uncomprehendingly. "Are you both crazy? You could've been killed!"

      Hutch was dismayed as Peter relayed the events through the eyes of an average citizen. It did sound crazy. But he and Starsky had never hesitated to do what they could to solve a problem. He shrugged. "It's our job."

      "No, it's not!" Peter was almost shouting. "You're suspended! You could've stayed to help the wounded and let cops on duty pursue those dangerous killers! It was not your job!"

      Hutch raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Yeah, it was. It doesn't matter if we're wearing the badge or not. We took a vow to serve and protect. I didn't take my marriage vows as seriously as I take that one. Even after we threw our badges in the ocean, we couldn't turn our backs on that vow. It's a part of me. Maybe the only thing I ever held sacred in my life. We knew what our job was out there and we did it. And we'd do it again. I know that might be hard for you to understand, but—"

      "Just like John . . . ." Peter muttered. He wandered through the apartment, as if searching for an escape from the memories. "He always said things like that, too."

      Hutch felt awkward, unsure of what to say. He felt bad that his actions had upset Peter, but he didn't regret what they'd done.

      The music drifted through the apartment, snatches of mournful lyrics wandering through his awareness. Tears falling about love, falling without love . . . . He really ought to shut that damned thing off.

      Peter seemed to be lost in his memories, so Hutch picked up his watering can and went back to his bedroom dresser to finish the fern.

      After a moment, Peter followed him and stood at the far end of the dresser. He shoved his hands in his pockets. He still looked upset, but his voice was more subdued. "He used to talk about you and David all the time, y'know."

      Hutch looked up from the plant, startled. "You mean John? Used to talk to you about us?"

      Peter nodded. "He thought the world of you both. Said you had more integrity and guts than the rest of the force put together. He especially thought the world of David."

      "Johnny helped raise Starsky," Hutch said. "After his dad was killed, Starsky's mom couldn't handle him. He had a lot of anger; he was running the streets in New York. Getting into trouble." He had no intentions of revealing what kind of trouble, though the irony of his hiding the truth of those events from this man didn't escape him. "His mom sent him to live with his Uncle Al and Aunt Rose. So he could have a man's influence. John lived next door. Took a lot of interest in him. It was John's influence that made him want to go into the Academy."

      "He was the son John never had," Peter admitted. "He worried about David. Said he took too many chances." He looked aggravated. "I never knew what he meant until I saw the news tonight. You two—" He couldn't find the words.

      Hutch shrugged. They were just being themselves. And, he admitted to himself, it had felt good. It always felt that way, being there with Starsky, on the street, fighting the good fight. He'd do anything to keep that part of their relationship together. Including sending him off to another lover's arms. He sighed and pulled a browning leaf off the fern.

      "John used to . . . marvel at your partnership," Peter said quietly.

      Hutch thought he heard something odd in his voice.

      "He used to say he'd seen a lot of partners, but he'd never seen two straight men as devoted to each other as you two. He said the love between you was palpable." Peter sounded wistful.

      Hutch had to ask. "He thought—?"

      "No," Peter said quickly. "He saw you as brothers, nothing else. You were sons to him. And . . . that's the last thing he would've wanted for his sons."

      The statement surprised Hutch. "Why do you say that?"

      "John was a different generation," Peter said, and the wistfulness in his voice couldn't be missed. "To John, being gay was something shameful. He would've never been able to take any pride in his sexuality. In his day, there was only one way for a gay man to survive. Find a good wife, settle down, be as straight as possible. Lock away your real desires. Survive on furtive meetings in private places to keep the loneliness at bay."

      Hutch had never really thought about what John's life had to have been like. The revelation was painful. He'd cared a great deal about John, and it hurt to think that he'd never known John's inner self. That there had been a dark, painful secret so carefully hidden by the mask of his perfect, middle-class life that neither he nor Starsky ever even suspected.

      "Of course, John had never gone in for tea-room dalliances," Peter said quickly, as though afraid to tarnish his memory. "He had too much integrity for that. I was lucky to hook up with a decent man like that. For however long it lasted . . . what John and I shared was real." As though he'd revealed too much of himself, Peter turned away from Hutch. Prowling past the end of the bed, Peter walked to the window that looked down onto the street.

      At this hour, Hutch knew, there wasn't much to see. It was dark, and late enough so that even Venice was quiet. His car was parked out there, alone. The tiny compact probably looked lonely without her burly candy-cane colored companion to keep her company.

      He put down the watering can and bits of dead leaf and moved closer to Peter. Leaning against the window frame across from him, he watched Whitelaw's tense features in the silvery streetlight. Talking about John hadn't brought him any comfort. It just reminded him of what he was missing. His loneliness was as palpable as Hutch's.

      We're a pair, he thought. Each of us yearning to be with the one person we can't have—the only person we truly long for.

      Wanting to comfort, Hutch said, "I miss John, too. He was one of the finest men I've ever known."

      "He died because he was a cop," Peter said, never taking his eyes from the empty street. "It didn't look that way at first, but you guys wouldn't let up until you found the truth, so you could clear his name. You almost died proving it. You gave John back his dignity. It would've meant everything to him. And it meant a lot to me. Even though . . . we hadn't been together in a while . . . I still . . . I still loved him."

      "I could tell that the day we talked to you. That might've been the first time I'd ever had to face that kind of reality—that you might not get to live happily ever after just because your true love wasn't accepted by the rest of the world. It was a sobering experience."

      Peter finally looked at him. "And that was before . . . . How do you feel about it now?"

      Hutch frowned. "Baffled. Angry. Bitter. Sad. But I can't deny what's real. I can't pretend there's a magic island in this apartment that'll make the rest of the world go away."

      With unerring accuracy, Peter said, "And you can't make David love you."

      Hutch faced that truth and gave Peter back one of his own. "Any more than you could expect John to leave his wife."

      "That's right," Whitelaw said without rancor.

      Hutch found the strength to say something he couldn't have said to any other man. "I don't know if I'm strong enough to live in that world. A world where I have to deny who I really love, who I really want—who I might really be. I don't know if I'm brave enough."

      Peter laughed mirthlessly. "You can face armed killers without hesitation, but you're afraid of closets. Interesting. That's why I ran for office on an open platform. I knew, after I was exposed at school, lost my job, and had to give up John, that my own complicity in staying in that closet had contributed to what had happened to me. No one was going to let me sneak back into that closet. If I was going to be forced out, well, then I could show the world I was the same man who'd been locked in there. A man of honor. A good teacher. A person who wanted to serve his community."

      Hutch nodded. "John would've been proud of that."

      "He was," Peter said. "We talked on the phone a few times. He called me after I started my campaign. Said he was proud. I knew . . . his feelings for me . . . hadn't changed. It helped."

      Enough? Hutch wondered. When you were all alone? When the bed was cold? When your body ached to feel him all around you? Inside you? Hutch suddenly felt hollow. And he realized that Peter understood that feeling.

      "What about the future?" Hutch asked. Peter didn't seem to understand. It became intensely important for Hutch to know, to have some idea of what he was facing without Starsky. He couldn't imagine endless years of this emptiness. A life without love.

      "John's been dead over two years," Hutch said. "In all that time, hasn't there been anyone else? You're a young, attractive man, with a good future. Surely, you've had other lovers?"

      Peter shook his head. His even features told Hutch he wasn't looking for pity. "No. I've been busy with my work. Helping my constituents. There's been no one since John." He smiled wanly. "Who could measure up?"

      "Peter," Hutch said irritably, "LA is full of gay men. I've waited on most of them over the last few days! In two years there hasn't been anyone you looked at twice? Not one man who turned your head, who attracted you, made you think maybe it could happen again?" He was arguing for himself. Trying to find a way to prepare himself for life without Starsky's love.

      Peter's dark eyes shone in the reflected light as he gazed steadily at Hutch, his handsome face showing its strength. He didn't answer, and that almost made Hutch press the issue again, until he realized that Peter's lack of response was the answer.

      Hutch heard Starsky's warning. He wants you.

      It nearly broke his heart. After two years of mourning, Peter's fragile feelings had finally emerged, only to run headlong into Hutch. Couldn't he tell that Hutch didn't own his own heart, that Starsky had it locked in his glove compartment?

      Then he thought, Does this have to involve your heart? You had relationships after Van left. They helped blunt the pain. They were pleasurable for you and the women involved. They knew you were recovering from a bad break-up. You never hid that from them.

      His mind was in overdrive, confused, searching for solutions to a problem he'd never faced before. In the living room, Bonnie Tyler was insisting that forever's gonna start tonight . . . . The phrase distracted him.

      You like Peter, Hutch admitted. You like him more than a friend. You know that's true. Why are you so afraid of that? Because he was in enough pain without complicating this even more. And because Peter had had enough pain. He didn't need Hutch toying with him.

      "Ken," Peter said softly, "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

      Hutch shook his head. "I'm not uncomfortable."

      Peter moved away from the window frame. He approached Hutch, who was amazed when he found himself meeting that approach halfway. He didn't worry about standing in front of the window when Peter's arms went around him. If anyone was awake to see, he didn't care. There would be no closet for him any longer. It felt good to grab onto an honest bit of emotion and flaunt it in front of the world.

      Peter's long arms wound around him, pulling him close. Whitelaw was several inches taller than Hutch, an unusual situation for someone who was usually the tallest man in the room. It was unnerving to be held by someone he had to look up to. There was strength in Peter's slender form, power in his arms. It was odd, too, to tuck his head against Peter's neck, feel Peter's cheek press against his head. But it felt good. He could admit that as they fitted themselves to each other's bodies. It felt good to be held by another man, be comforted, even desired. Hutch tightened his hold on Peter, wanting to lend his own strength to their embrace.

      Peter's breath blew across his ear. It was warm. Moist. Peter whispered his name. It was a hungry sound. Hungry for him. It felt good to be wanted at a moment when he felt so alone.

      Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time, Bonnie cried out plaintively. Why hadn't he shut that damned thing off when he'd first thought of it?

      There was nothing about Peter that reminded Hutch of Starsky, and of that he was grateful. Holding onto Peter felt completely different. His frame, his build, his clothes, his moustache, his straight brown hair—there'd be no pretending, no substituting. No shadows of Starsky.

      Peter said his name again. "Ken?"

      He pulled back slightly, looked up—and felt odd that he had to. "Yes?" he asked, unsure of what Peter wanted. Then he saw the question evident in Peter's eyes. He wanted to be sure. He wouldn't assume anything.

      Hutch's inner self was in turmoil. But Peter's soft brown eyes were still asking. He had to decide. Now. He said it again, without the question. "Yes."

      After a moment's hesitation, Peter's mouth came down to touch his lips tenderly. He melted into the kiss, only realizing now how very much he needed someone's honest caring. He opened his mouth, asking for more.

Once upon a time I was fallin' in love
But now I'm only fallin' apart
There's nothing I can do
A total eclipse of the heart
      Total Eclipse of the Heart—Bonnie Tyler