WARNING: The fiction of Alexis Rogers is homoerotic in nature and theme, and often contains explicit descriptions of sexual acts between two or more men. If this adult content offends you, please go play some place else. If you are under the age of consent where you live, please go away. If you don't like the laws where you live, change them. Remember, one person can make a difference.  RATING: This story carries the slash rating of "NC-17" because it contains explicit descriptions of sexual acts between two men.

This story contains two time lines: the present and a series of flashbacks. In print, the two timeline were separated by the use of different fonts. Here I use calendar headings at the top of each section to indicate the story lines. This story first appeared in "Code 7" and won a Huggy Award. Currently, it is available in print form from the author in "The Collected Starsky and Hutch Stories of Alexis Rogers," and in reprints of the Code 7 zines available from: zines@agentwithstyle.com or you can go to the website at: http://www.agentwithstyle.com  Please do not repost this story on another website, discussion list, or anywhere else.

SPECIAL THANKS: A lot of people made this story happen, even though they did it over a decade ago. Jeanie brought life to Nathan in a portrait that still holds a place of honor on my bedroom wall. Elaine did the typing and some of the editing, while Karen used an entire bottle of red ink on the first manuscript. (Any mistakes still in the text are my fault.) A special thank you to the Major who wears the "JACK OFF" dog tag for all the help with military stuff. I never drink a White Russian without thinking about him and those wonderful/terrible days in Athens.

DISCLAIMERS: This story exists solely for the enjoyment of those of us who care, and is not intended to infringe on any copyright or other legality of "Starsky and Hutch", Aaron Spelling, Leonard Goldberg, David Soul, Paul Michael Glaser, William Blinn, Michael Fisher or anydamnbody else that I might have overlooked. No money has been made from the story nor is there likely to be.

COMMENTS should be directed to Alexis Rogers at arogers@calweb.com

"Cost of Love"
Part 1

by

Alexis Rogers

Monday 13 August 1973 Los Angeles, California

    Covering his eyes with his arm, David Starsky shifted restlessly on the sofa as a dull ache throbbed in his lower back. Outside, a chorus of dogs howled, and a siren wailed in the distance. Groaning, he stood, stretched, then glanced toward the bedroom before opening the window and staring into the darkness. A mercury lamp threw a circle of yellow light onto the deserted street, creating elusive shapes and shadows along a line of parked cars. The air glued his nylon briefs to his damp skin.

    He took the small brown pharmacy bottle from its place in the bathroom medicine cabinet. Shaking two red capsules into his hand, he studied them before shoving them back. Seconal would not solve this problem. Staring into the mirror, he sighed and wished the world would go away.

    Hutch was sleeping -- finally -- in the middle of the bed. A first. Usually when Hutch crashed here, he took the sofa. But when your best friend's marriage breaks up, you give him your bed. Ha! Don't you just wish? Starsky watched the man for a few minutes, then lightly touched the deep scratches on the pale face. Hutch rolled away.

    Picking up a glass from the bedside table, Starsky swirled the bourbon, then drank it. He shuddered at the taste and wondered why he bothered. The fire in the pit of his stomach was his answer.

    In the kitchen he surveyed the contents of the whiskey bottle that sat on the cabinet. He downed the last swallow. One more dead soldier. A few hours ago the bottle had been full. He trashed the empty and settled into his rocking chair, the creaking steady and hypnotic.

Sunday 12 August 1973 Los Angeles, California

    Long day.

    Night shift.

    Liquor store holdup and shooting.

    "Hi." The car door shut and a cigarette lighter clicked.

    "Yeah." Starsky eased the Torino into afternoon traffic without looking at his partner. "Log us in. We're late."

    "My fault. Sorry." Hutch reached for the radio. "Hutchinson and Starsky, Zebra Three. Please log us in." Three deep furrows marred his left cheek, the unmistakable trail of long, sharp fingernails. Dark circles ringed ice blue eyes.

    At the first red light Starsky touched the injured face; Hutch flinched and pulled away. "Not your usual love marks, my friend." The vision was in his mind before he could stop it: Hutch under the shower, his beautiful body covered with the bites and bruises of passion.

    Hutch shrugged and concentrated on his cigarette.

    The light turned green.

    "Another fight?"

    Silent nod.

    "You gotta stop this. Hutch, straighten out your life before you really screw things up."

    Hutch crushed out the half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray. "If I was sure Vanessa was wrong, I'd pack up and leave. But she does have a point. I'm never there to be with her." He turned in the seat and looked at Starsky for a moment. "Do you know that I spend so much time with you that Van actually asked me if you were better in bed than she was?" He chuckled sadly. "Maybe she's got a right to complain, especially since I hate going home these days."

* * * * * *

Los Angeles, California Monday 13 August 1973

    The glass was empty and so was the cigarette carton. Starsky sighed. If he was going to be awake the rest of the night, he might as well support his habits. Struggling into his jeans, he slipped out the door and into the car. He pulled out fast. It's only three blocks to the Seven-Eleven. Maybe it'd be better if I walked. The car still echoed their last fight.

* * * * * *

    Twelve hour shifts.

    Pressure.

    Fear.

    Starsky kept quiet, his anger brewing inside, until they stopped outside of Hutch's apartment building. Turning off the engine, he faced his partner. "I don't want another day like today."

    "It wasn't my fault."

    "The hell it wasn't! You damn near got us both killed!" His fear intensified at the memory-image of Hutch lying face down in that alley.

    "We're cops. These things happen."

    "No, Hutchinson, they don't just happen. They happen when a cop gets sloppy. No sleep, and too many personal problems make a cop sloppy."

    "I--"

    "Don't make excuses." Anger flared, replacing the cold fear that knifed his stomach. "You fucked up."

    "What do you want me to say?" Hutch spread his hands, stared at them, then lifted his eyes to Starsky's.

    "That you're gonna get your life in order. That...." The anger faded. He wanted it back because he hated the fear; it scared him to death. Taking a deep breath, he put his hand on Hutch's shoulder. "Come home with me tonight. Get some sleep. We'll talk about it in the morning."

    "You know I can't. Vanessa's waiting. And I'm late--again."

    "So you have to go explain to her that you have a job to do." The anger was back, so he fed it.

    "Stay out of my life. I've got all I can handle right now."

    "Yeah, I guess you do. Work all day and fight all night so you can fuck up again tomorrow?"

    "That's enough." Cold, hard words. "Don't push me." Hutch opened the door. Starsky grabbed the man's arm, forcing himself to meet the blue eyes. He swallowed his bitterness. "Call in sick tomorrow. I don't want a repeat performance of today."

    Hutch yanked his arm free. "Go to hell!" He slammed the car door and walked away, head down, proud body slouched in exhaustion and defeat.

    The sight blurred to an image of Kenneth Hutchinson, face down in the alley -- still -- dead still. Dark shadows ebbed and swirled, turning the pavement to jungle slime and the blond hair brown.

    Nathan.

    Shaking his head and blanking his memory, Starsky started the car, squealing the tires as he sped away from the California plastic building and its plastic residents. He took the first freeway entrance, moved to the fast lane and jammed the accelerator to the floor. It required all of his skill and strength to control the Torino as the speedometer climbed to eighty -- ninety -- one hundred. The rhythm of the machine matched the pounding of his blood, shutting out all memories of lost friends and lost lovers.

    When the adrenaline flash subsided, he pulled the car to the right shoulder and stopped. Slumping over the steering wheel, he reached for a cigarette and watched the traffic go by. The world continued -- always. Nathan was gone, yet the world continued. Nothing could change that. But Hutch was still here. Starsky held the smoke in his lungs until it burned, then let it out slowly. Hutch is still here unless I do something really stupid -- like push too hard.

    Taking the first exit, he swung over the freeway, and headed back the way he had come, driving just as fast, a different demon pursuing him this time. He had to make things right with Hutch. Now. Tonight.

    He leaned hard on the buzzer marked Hutchinson. No answer. He pushed it again. Still nothing.

    Manager.

    He pressed the button.

    "Yeah?" Memory of dark eyes and suspicious glances.

    "Sergeant Starsky, sir. LAPD. Sorry to bother you, but Sergeant Hutchinson doesn't answer. It's important that I see him immediately."

    "You sure he's here?" The tone was a challenge.

    "He was a few minutes ago."

    The door buzzed and Starsky grabbed it. "Thanks."

    Hutch's door was ajar so Starsky pushed it open. The room was empty -- except for Hutch, who sat very still against the wall, burning cigarette in one hand, and a crumpled piece of paper clutched in the other. The blue eyes were blank.

    Making a quick survey of the apartment, Starsky saw that it contained only a pile of clothes and a few small items from the bedroom that Hutch had shared with his wife.. Kneeling beside the clothes, he folded a red sweater, a pair of jeans, a black plaid shirt -- the one he had given Hutch last Christmas.

    Hutch hadn't moved. Starsky took the piece of paper, acknowledged Vanessa's handwriting before stuffing it in his pocket. "This the way you found it?" Water dripped from the kitchen faucet; a hollow, lonely sound.

    "Yeah." Hutch wadded up an empty cigarette package with his right hand and tossed it into the middle of the room.

    "I've got plenty." He pulled the man to his feet. "C'mon, we're going home."

* * * * * *

    The small store was an oasis. Beer, wine, candy, cigarettes. Everything he needed, plus no one cared if he was barefoot and shirtless. The clerk took his money, returned some change, and mumbled something about a good day.

    Hutch was still sleeping when he returned, so Starsky opened a Bud and put the rest of the six-pack in the refrigerator. He lit a cigarette and remembered Vanessa's note. It was still in his pocket. Smoothing out the piece of heavy ivory parchment, he stared at the elegant script.

Your partner wants you. He can have you.

    After a moment, he flicked his lighter, held it to the corner of the paper and watched it burn. He washed the ashes down the sink, wishing he could be rid of Vanessa as easily. He had tried to like Vanessa, but there was always a subtle hostility. Other cops got along with their partner's wives, but Vanessa always acted as if he wasn't good enough. Maybe she hated Jews. Maybe she hated fag Jews. Maybe she was just afraid of losing her husband to something she couldn't fight. But he had buried that love for Hutch a long time ago, in another world. It had stayed buried, too, except for those occasional times when the images of Hutch as a lover taunted him. He lived with that. And usually handled it.

    Hutch cried out in his sleep. Starsky stood watch at the foot of the bed and waited until the man quieted, then returned to his rocking chair, beer can in one hand, cigarette in the other. Vanessa wanted to hurt Hutch and Starsky wasn't about to let her get away with it. Not anymore.

    A plane roared across the sky, the noise covering him like a tidal wave of sound. A cat howled, then all was quiet until a car backfired, the sound echoing in the night like a rifle shot in the jungle.

    Like Vietnam.

    Captain Nathan David Wise, United States Army, Special Forces. A man Starsky had loved -- and hated -- all bundled up in a few words. If only the memories could be bundled up as easily.

* * * * * *

Vietnam Tuesday 25 January 1966

    A twig snapped.

    Starsky dropped to his knees, rifle ready.

    Silence.

    He held his breath waiting for the soft call of a bird, then repeated it, listening for the echo. Air rushed out of his lungs as he readjusted his field pack and moved forward.

    Six weeks after being permanently assigned, his team had gone out on assignment: Starsky's first behind enemy lines. There were five of them: Nathan, himself, and three Laotians whose names he could not pronounce. He had christened them Sam, Joe, and Harry. His inability to master the language had cost Starsky several rounds of beer, but he just couldn't make the proper sounds. The men hadn't minded, and Nathan had rewarded him with a rare smile when Starsky had finally conceded defeat.

    Now they marched silently through the dripping jungle in a staggered pattern approximately six feet apart. Starsky could see Nathan in front of him, sense Sam behind him. It was a simple mission: locate a platoon of VC and eliminate its leader. Piece of cake, Nathan had said. But Starsky had his doubts as he followed the jungle trail.

    He thought about Nathan so he didn't have to think about how wet his feet were. Nothing kept out the damn water. Everything was soggy, even the little dried fish that were served in the local bars.

    Nathan stepped out from behind a tree just a few feet ahead of Starsky. A jungle green helmet covered his straight dark hair, and his camouflage uniform blended with the surroundings. The man moved with liquid grace through the twisted vegetation and Starsky wondered if it was natural ability or something one learned by spending an eternity in this Godforsaken place.

    He stopped. Ahead, the foliage seemed rearranged, unnatural. He signaled, waiting for the sound to be repeated four times, then repeated it himself. Everyone was stationary and ready. He took a deep breath before using his knife to probe the damp ground. There was a sound like a giant rubber band; then the thud of a spear ramming into a tree. Primitive. Effective.

    He explored further but found nothing, and signaled all clear before moving again. Tension made his head pound. He could smell the stink of his own fear. One wrong move and he could die, or worse, kill any one of his companions. He hated the responsibility.

    Wisps of smoke rose from a clearing several yards to his right. A village -- or what was left of it. And another odor: burning flesh. Bitterness exploded in the back of his throat while brightly colored spots danced in front of his eyes. He closed them.

    "Don't."

    Starsky jumped.

    Nathan was next to him. "Don't let that happen again. You could get us all killed."

    "What?"

    "You weren't paying attention. I made enough noise to wake the dead." Dark brown eyes glared.

    "I can't do this!" Starsky cried in panic.

    "Yes, you can. Your choice is death." Nathan's eyes never wavered. "By my hand, or the VC."

    "Please," Starsky pleaded.

    "This is not a church picnic. You will do as you are told, when you are told, or you will die."

    Not closing his eyes, Starsky tried to slow his heart and organize his thoughts. Nathan had already moved forward. Starsky took one step, then another. He thought about his wet feet.

    Inches, feet, miles. Seconds, minutes, hours. All were the same. There was no way to tell. There was no existence outside the jungle.

    A twig? No...louder, like air rushing out of a balloon. Dropping to one knee, rifle ready, he scanned the area. His gun slipped from his fingers, landed in jungle mud with a soft thud. Directly ahead, the Laotian was impaled on a bamboo cross, deadly spikes piercing his body. Blood seeped from a dozen wounds, dripping slowly onto the ground.

    No!

    Shifting his line of sight, Starsky caught Nathan's eyes; something flickered in the brown depths -- pain? Then it was gone and the hard glint returned.

    Nathan's hand rested on Starsky's shoulder, the fingers gripping hard. The whispered order was cold. "Put the bullet between his eyes, Davy."

    "I can't. That's Sam!" Starsky's stomach cramped, turned upside down.

    "That was an order, Sergeant."

    Starsky tried to pick up his rifle, but his arms had no strength. He could not lift it.

    Nathan stepped directly behind him, one hand on each shoulder, the fingers clamping like vises. "You have no choice. I know, you know -- and most importantly -- Sam knows what has to be done. We can't save him and we can't leave him here. Now, you pull that trigger, or I'll shoot you both."

    Starsky raised the M-16, tears blurring his vision.

    "Now, Davy."

    His finger pressed the trigger; the sound sliced through the thick air. He slumped over, the weapon falling from his hands as air rushed out of his lungs. His fieldpack angled wrong against the damp earth and he fell. He knew Sam was dead because he never missed. But this wasn't a target -- it was a man he'd dared call friend. He rolled over and vomited on Nathan's boots.

    Nathan slipped the fieldpack from Starsky's back, then hauled him to his feet and propelled him toward a large tree. Behind the tree was a cave, its interior dark and cool. Starsky sank to the ground, curling his arms around his stomach. Nathan's voice, soft Laotian words, drifted in behind him.

    "It doesn't get any worse than this." Nathan said in English.

    "Fuck you, fuck the army, fuck this place. I want out."

    Nathan's hands caressed Starsky's face. "No, Davy. You stay." Fingertips outlined his mouth. "You have to stay."

    The canteen was held to Starsky's lips. "Here. Don't swallow. Rinse your mouth, then spit it out." Nathan's hands trailed down Starsky's arms. "Good. Again."

    Starsky did as he was told, aware of only two things: The image of Sam impaled on that tree and the feel of Nathan's hands. He wanted to fall into Nathan's arms and cry, but when he saw Nathan's eyes, the thought vanished. For one instant, one lifetime, he was in Nathan's arms, his mouth pressed against Nathan's.

    "No!" Starsky pulled away. "No, I can't. I'm not...I...." The taste of Nathan lingered.

    Nathan's hand clamped around Starsky's chin. "Not what, Davy?" Fire burned in the brown eyes.

    "I'm not...ah...I can't...I'm not like that." Starsky jerked free and rubbed his hand across his face. "I just killed a man! Not the enemy, goddamnit, but a friend...mine and yours. And you ordered it." He found the strength to stand. "And now you want me to...to...."

    Nathan rose, standing between Starsky and the cave entrance. "I want you to what, Davy? Just who started what?"

    "I didn't do anything."

    "Oh, didn't you?" Nathan closed the gap between them. "Just what did you want when you--"

    Starsky raised his hand, clenching it into a fist. Nathan grabbed the wrist in mid-swing, held on tightly and backed Starsky against the cave wall. "You fuckin' son of a bitch!" Starsky yelled.

    Nathan's mouth covered his. Starsky fought, pushed, clawed...accepted. Nathan's thigh edged between his legs.

    "We can't. Not here, we...."

    "We need each other. Here. And now. See?" Starsky's hand was placed on the front of Nathan's pants. "I need--".

    Breaking away, he stumbled toward the entrance. "I don't give a flying fuck what you need. I want out of here!"

    Nathan tackled him from behind, then jerked him face up. "Don't you ever run from me again. Don't tease me or flaunt yourself in front of me -- and then tell me no." Emotions -- anger, hatred, or something else -- boiled in those brown eyes. This was not the cold-blooded soldier Starsky knew; this was a wild, raving maniac.

    Nathan yanked at Starsky's zipper. "I'll show you what you want. Then I'll show you what I want."

    Starsky struggled, but he was overpowered. His pants and shorts were pulled down around his knees, the debris on the ground irritating his bare skin. Writhing desperately, he tried to escape, but Nathan threw his leg over Starsky's and movement was hindered. Starsky grabbed for Nathan's head, pulled the helmet off.

    Nathan looked up. "You're just a baby," he said softly, "...a beautiful boy. You shouldn't be here, but you are. I shouldn't want you, but I do." His voice hardened. "And I want you now."

    "Don't. Please don't," Starsky pleaded. Nathan's tongue flicked across soft flesh just as Starsky's hand reached thick, smooth hair. The touch was exciting and repelling at the same time. "No!"

    "No?" Nathan didn't raise his head. "Your body tells me different."

    He tried not to respond, but it had been a long time and Nathan's mouth felt so good. He tried to think about anything else -- the last girl he had been with, the first girl he had been with -- but none of them had done what Nathan was doing. If he closed his eyes, he saw Sam; if he opened his eyes, he saw Nathan. He didn't want to see Sam.

    He didn't want this either, but it was too late. He couldn't stop it. Cramming his fist into his mouth, he reached for Nathan's head with his other hand and shoved hard. His hips lifted off the ground and he bit his fingers to stop the scream.

    For one glorious moment there was nothing -- no pain, no thought, no war.

    "You are beautiful." Nathan murmured, hands roaming Starsky's body. "I am what you need; you are all I need." The hands cupped Starsky's ass, squeezing the flesh. "Roll over, Davy."

    "What?" The moment was shattered. Starsky struggled, freeing his legs. "No!"

    Nathan's hands clamped tightly. "Don't fight me. I don't want to hurt you. But you're mine, and I'm going to take you."

    "No!" Starsky got up on one knee, but Nathan pulled him back down, twisted his arms behind his back, and secured his hands with the canteen strap.

    "Don't make me hurt you." Nathan's voice was cold. Starsky lay face down on the damp leaves, his head angled sideways. Nathan held the bound hands with one of his own. "You're all I need, Davy." His hips were gently lifted. "Don't make me hurt you." A tentative finger explored, forcing its way inside.

    "No, please, no." Starsky tried unsuccessfully to relax and the finger was withdrawn. "No," he pleaded again.

    The pain was red hot, radiating in circles. Starsky tasted his own sweat as it beaded around his mouth and glued decaying leaves to his face. The weight across his body pushed him into the soggy floor. He couldn't breathe. As Nathan moved, the pain increased. Starsky sobbed, closing his eyes and his heart.

    "Oh Christ, Davy, this isn't how I planned it. I wanted it to be special. But there's no time...never any time...I need....oh, Davy, please...I need you."

    He couldn't stop himself and the pain eased as he lifted his hips up and into the thrusting flesh.

    "Ah, Davy, that's the way. Oh God, move with me!"

    Hot, sticky fluid invaded him, infecting him, defiling him. He hurt inside and out. His anger coalesced into hatred.

    "I wanted to make it good for you, but we've been here too long." Nathan's breath was soft and warm against his neck. He sighed and withdrew from Starsky's body.

    Starsky struggled to his feet, his pants bunched around his ankles, his hands still bound. His fists doubled and undoubled until the strap broke. "You goddamn motherfucking...." He smashed his fist into Nathan's face. "I'll kill you!"

    Splayed fingers branded Starsky's face. Nathan's eyes were hard, his voice level. "You'll do as I say, when I say, or I'll leave you here, like this." Nathan gestured with his hand.

    Blushing, Starsky fumbled with his pants.

    "And I can leave you here dead...or alive. Of course you might not be alive long...."

    A cricket chirped in the sudden stillness.

    Starsky wanted to crawl under a rock, but there was no place to go.

    "Davy." Seduction turned the captain's voice to velvet. "I want you. We could be very important to each other." The brown eyes softened for a moment. "I'll have you, or no one will. You walk out of here with me or you don't walk out at all." Nathan buckled his belt and walked to the cave entrance.

    Fear gripped Starsky to be replaced immediately by the will to survive. "Nathan." Calm and controlled, Starsky surprised himself. The man turned to face him. "At least give me time to zip my pants."

    "I own you. Understand?"

    "Sure." There was confidence in having made a decision. Promise 'em anything. But one day, you lousy son-of-a-bitch, I'll get even.

* * * * * *

Los Angeles, California Monday 13 August 1973

    Starsky rocked in the chair, finishing off the last of his beer. The time had come when Nathan was vulnerable, but by then it had been too late. Hutch cried out, breaking the reverie. Starsky walked into the bedroom and stood at the foot of the bed once more. Hutch lay on his side, clutching a wadded ball of sheet and blanket to his stomach. Perspiration lined his forehead and upper lip. "Starsk?" Thready whisper, softer than his own muffled heartbeat.

    "I'm here."

    "I don't want to be alone."

    "You're not. I'm right here."

    Hutch's eyes were closed. "Please, here with me."

    "I can't."

    "Please."

    Do you know what you're asking? No, I don't suppose you do. "Okay, but just until you go to sleep."

    Hutch slid over. Starsky sat down, pulling the man into his arms, and hoped his jeans would insulate his feelings. Hutch snuggled close -- too close -- his head on Starsky's chest.

    "Feels good." Blue eyes opened, intense and innocent. "Always so good." Hutch's arms tightened, his head tilted upward, open mouth an invitation.

    No! Please, no! You don't know what you're asking. Hutch's mouth attracted him like a magnet, greeted him like a welcome guest. He was lost in the taste of Hutch, the feel of Hutch, the love of Hutch.

    "Easy. Shhhh." Starsky rolled them over. "Calm down. It's all right." What needed calming was his own body.

    "Hold me. Don't let me go."

    "I'm here. I won't let you go, but you need to sleep." Please go to sleep.

    "Don't wanna sleep. The dreams...." Hutch clung to him desperately.

    Might be better than the nightmare of staying awake. "Shhhh. Close your eyes. I won't let anything hurt you." Especially me.

    Hutch settled, was still for a few minutes. "David." The voice trembled. "I need you...please, I need you."

    "No--" But it was too late. Hutch's fingers tangled in his curls, pulling their mouths together. Hutch was frantic, his body twisting and turning, heat radiating from the tiny nylon briefs.

    The smell of a man. That sweet, earthy aroma that was so uniquely male. Always before this scent had been accompanied by the stench of the jungle. But here and now, it was just the sunlight of Hutch -- Hutch wanting him, needing him.

    Starsky ran his hands down Hutch's body, feeling the strength, the flat planes, the slick material. With one swift movement the briefs were gone. Hutch was his -- aroused and ready -- his. All Starsky had to do was lean forward and take him.

    Hutch moaned, lifting his hips, and pushed himself into Starsky's mouth. Maleness: Familiar, yet strange. A fantasy? No -- reality! Hard, warm, salty...there was nothing but Hutch.

    Starsky shifted, wrapping himself around Hutch's legs, caressing bare flesh. Wanting more, needing more, he thrust his denim-covered groin against Hutch's thigh. The sensations made his head spin. His fingers gained entrance to the man's body, found it smooth, tight, inviting.

    "Ahhhh, Starsk." Hutch tensed, moaned, exploded. The hot fluid slid down Starsky's throat as he pressed himself against the man, swallowing greedily.

    Starsky lay quietly, the soft cock securely in his mouth, his arms around Hutch's waist while he listened to the quiet snoring. He never wanted to move, never wanted to leave this place.

    He shifted slightly, ignoring the discomfort of his sticky-wet jeans and smiled to himself, reliving this moment of his life. Then Vanessa floated through his mind, draped in witch's garb, laughing. "Corespondent!" she howled. "I'll crucify him, and use you to nail him to the cross." Starsky bolted from the bed, stopping only long enough to change clothes before running from his apartment.

* * * * * *

Los Angeles, California Tuesday 14 August 1973

    Starsky sat in the early morning solitude of Captain Harold Dobey's office, his feet resting on the captain's desk, a cup of coffee in his hand. He stirred the tepid contents with his finger, then flipped a paper clip. It landed on the desk calendar. The page had already been turned: Tuesday, 14 August, 1973. The last day of the rest of his life. He downed the coffee, then crushed the Styrofoam cup.

    When he faced Hutch -- and he would have to face him -- it would be the end of a friendship, the end of a dream. When Hutch woke up and remembered what had happened, it would be over. Starsky had taken advantage of his best friend, acting on his own desires when the man had asked for comfort. And worse, he'd given Vanessa all the grounds she needed for the divorce. Hutch would hate him.

    Starsky uncurled another paper clip, staring at it for a long time before dropping it on the desk top with the others. He wondered if the sun was up yet, then decided he didn't want to know. It was going to be a lousy day.

    "Starsky?" Fluorescent light flooded his dark cave. "What the hell are you doing in my office?" A massive black man filled the doorway, his head almost touching the top.

    He shrugged. "Waitin' for you."

    "At seven-thirty in the morning?" Dobey knocked Starsky's feet to the floor. "You look like shit."

    "Gee, thanks, Cap'n."

    "Get out of my chair. Go clean up and change your clothes. Then get some breakfast from the commissary." Dobey dropped into the vacated chair. "And be back here with your partner by eight-fifteen."

    "Can't." Starsky went to the door.

    "Can't what?"

    "Be back with my partner."

    Dobey drummed his fingers on his desk. "Why?"

    "'Cause Hutch's sleeping."

    "So wake him up."

    Starsky walked back to the desk, placed his palms out flat and leaned over so that he stared into dark brown eyes. Liquid brown, like Nathan's. "I'm not gonna wake Hutch up 'cause he needs his sleep." And I'm not ready to face him. "His wife walked out on him last night and he's not takin' it so good."

    Starsky sank into a chair, rubbing his burning eyes, and tried not to think about Vanessa -- or Hutch. Or how good Hutch had felt in his arms, or in his mouth.

    Dobey sighed loudly. "Let me see if I have this straight. Hutchinson's wife left him, he's sleeping at your place and you spent the night in my office?"

    "Yeah, Hutch's at my place. I didn't want to disturb him. And I needed to be alone. Figured this was as good a place as any."

    "Well, this is my office and I have work to do. And I want you back in here with Hutchinson, ready for work in--" he checked his watch, "--forty minutes."

    "Hutch's in pretty bad shape. Can't you give him a couple of days off to get his head together?"

    "No, I can't, Starsky, we're short-handed. Bill Anderson wants help on a Narco stake-out. You've got a briefing at one."

    "Captain--"

    "Look, Starsky, I'm sorry about Hutchinson's marriage. But it's happened before and it'll happen again. A cop's life isn't easy. But I need you two and I need you today. We'll skip this morning, but I want the two of you here by noon. Do I make myself clear?"

    "Yes sir." There didn't seem to be any point in arguing.

    Starsky went to the locker room, took a long hot shower, shaved and changed clothes, but felt no better. First thing I gotta do is get you out of my apartment. Find you someplace to live. I can't face another night with you. I don't want to want you like this.

    He checked the "FOR RENT" cards on the bulletin board outside the commissary. A couple of them sounded promising. He pulled the three-by-five cards off and tucked them into his pocket before entering the cafeteria.

    The coffee was bitter and the cigarette stale. As he ground out the third one in half an hour, he promised himself yet again that he would quit. He lit a fourth.

    I gotta go home. But you're gonna hate me and I can't handle that. Oh, Christ, Hutch, I'm sorry.

    The sun was shining brightly as he nosed the Torino into morning traffic. Stake-out. Long night hours alone with Hutch. It had never been a problem before, but now he didn't think he could spend five minutes alone with Hutch. And how are you going to feel?

    His partner, dressed only in jeans, sat in a pool of sunlight, coffee and newspaper in front of him. His head was bent over the paper. Starsky stared, drinking in the sight. No one person should be allowed as much beauty as Hutch had. It wasn't fair. It was too easy to love him.

    Starsky shut the door. "Any coffee left?"

    "Yeah." Hutch didn't look up.

    Coffee sloshed over his hand, onto the drainboard, and into the cup. "Damn." Without cleaning up the mess, he took his cup and sat down across from Hutch. "How'dya feel?"

    Hutch raised dull blue eyes. "Better, thanks. And you?"

    Ah, Christ, Hutch, don't, not like this. "Hutch?"

    "Yeah?"

    "What're you gonna do?" Please, don't hate me.

    Pushing his chair back, Hutch walked to stare out the front window. "Don't know. I've got a call in to my lawyer."

    "Lawyer?"

    "Yeah, I gotta see where I stand. There are some things I won't give her."

    "Her?"

    Hutch turned to face Starsky. "Who else, Starsk? Jesus! Don't you remember?"

    I remember. And I remember last night. Don't you? "Did she call?"

    "Not hardly. She planned this very well. Set herself up nicely. And I thought she loved me -- hah! There ain't no such thing, buddy."

    The coffee soured in Starsky's stomach. No such thing. Yeah, I guess you're right. The pain in his heart was excruciating.

    Starsky pulled the crumpled index cards from his pocket. "Thought you might be interested."

    Hutch picked up the cards. "Apartment for rent. Cottage -- what's this? You throwing me out?"

    "No." Don't you want out? "I saw them on the bulletin board this morning."

    "Maybe we could look at some this afternoon." Hutch glanced up, but Starsky couldn't meet his eyes.

    "Sorry. We have to go to work. Dobey wants us in by noon."

    "I can't. Not today. Call him, tell him."

    "Already did. Bought you four hours. Got a song and dance about short-handed, and a stake-out."

    "Shit! I need some time."

    "I know. Can't be helped."

    "The hell it can't!" Anger flared in the room like a mushroom cloud. Hutch reached for the phone and dialed three numbers before slamming down the receiver. "Damn it all to hell!" He took a deep breath. "I'll handle this one step at a time."

    He disappeared into the bathroom. Starsky picked up the coffee cups and ashtray and carried them to the sink. He was numb, maybe dead. Maybe last night hadn't happened. Maybe he was losing his mind.

    One step at a time. Maybe he'd even survive.

* * * * *

    "You awake?"

    Starsky stretched his legs in the confined space of the back seat and covered his eyes with his arm. "Yeah. This car's no place to sleep." And you're so close that I can't stop the fantasies. If I sleep, they turn into dreams.

    "Don't remember it ever bothering you before and we've spent a lot of time on deserted streets just like this one. See, the same street light is burned out."

    "Just can't get comfortable." He sat up, staring past Hutch who was hunched over the steering wheel.

    "Wanna talk?" Hutch sounded preoccupied.

    No. Starsky reached for his cigarettes, then shoved them back in his pocket. The light might attract unwanted attention. "Sure." Please, not about last night. I think I could handle your accusations in the sunlight, but in the dark, with you so close, I don't know that I can control myself. My body wants to love you and my mind won't let me. "What's up?" Oh, good start, Davy. Let's talk about the first thing that comes up. A block of ice settled in the pit of his stomach and he shivered in the August heat.

    "I talked to my attorney this afternoon." Hutch pivoted in the front seat, stretching his legs until they touched the passenger door. He looked at Starsky. "He wants three grand up front."

    "Jesus Christ! What're you gonna do?"

    "Pay it."

    "Three thousand dollars? I could buy a new car with that kind of money. Well, almost. Saw this really flashy--" Starsky shrugged. "Do you really need a lawyer?"

    "Afraid I do. I have to protect myself. Vanessa has my -- well, some things I want back. And she wants Hutchinson money."

    "Ah, yes, Hutchinson money."

    "It buys things -- people and power."

    "So which does the beautiful Mrs. Hutchinson want?"

    If Hutch noticed the sarcasm, he ignored it. "She wants it all. The money and what it buys. She'd make a damn fine Hutchinson. Too bad I can't give her my place." The bitterness mixed with stale smoke and coated the inside of the car.

    "I've never understood, Hutch. What's wrong with the money?"

    Hutch turned away, mumbling, "It's dirty. I hate it. It ruins everything it touches. I thought Vanessa loved me, but all she loved was the money and when I refused to give it to her -- Christ, I want a cigarette."

    "Yeah, me too. Soon."

    Hutch was silent for a while, his shoulders slumped. "Hey, look, I'm sorry to dump all this on you. It's just that I've got a lot of things on my mind right now and I can only handle one problem at a time."

    Yeah, your wife walks out on you and your best friend takes advantage of you and if anyone ever finds out, Vanessa will take it right to the newspaper and we'll lose everything -- even each other. "I'm here, for what it's worth."

    "I know."

    Hutch didn't speak for several minutes. Starsky watched the back of the blond head and wondered what thoughts were chasing each other around in there. "You going to file for divorce?"

    "No." Hutch turned, facing Starsky once more.

    "Why not?"

    "Because it's to my advantage to stay married."

    "Even if you don't love her?"

    "If we're divorced, she's entitled to half of everything. This is California." He shrugged. "And she wants everything."

    "But you've only been married a few years."

    "Doesn't matter. Not here." Hutch's laugh was ugly. "She's gonna be in for a hell of a surprise when she tries to sue for Hutchinson money. It's not mine, not in my name, so it can never be hers. But -- oh shit!"

    "What?"

    "Venice Place."

    "Venice Place?" Starsky pulled his knees to his chest, then spread out as much as the cramped quarters allowed. He could almost see Hutch's face in the darkness.

    "Property I own in Venice. A couple of apartments over commercial space. Bought it when I worked the territory. It was a mattress warehouse that didn't make it."

    "Sounds nifty." Even in buildings you pick the underdogs.

    "It's not bad now. I picked it up cheap. Maybe the building wasn't so good, but the neighborhood's stable. Thought maybe I'd live there someday."

    "Always the savior of the downtrodden," Starsky smiled.

    "Well, it's close to the beach. Besides, a nice couple was interested in the area. They helped me get the place fixed up. Now the guys live upstairs and they have a Country French restaurant downstairs with European style garden dining nicely secluded behind the building. Some of L.A.'s most interesting couples eat there."

    "French, huh? Can we eat there sometime?"

    "Sure, Starsk, sometime." Hutch's voice trailed off and he stared out into the night for a while. "Vanessa doesn't know about Venice Place, but it's recorded in my name. Even a dumb lawyer could find it. Not one of my brighter moves."

    "So?"

    "It's community property. She gets half."

    "Doesn't sound fair to me."

    "Starsky, haven't you learned there's no such thing as fair?" The words were sharp with anger. Hutch paused, took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. Didn't mean to yell at you." His hand rested on Starsky's arm.

    Oh God, don't. Starsky steeled himself, knowing he couldn't pull away from the touch that burned his skin and twisted his heart. He couldn't speak, he couldn't even breath. No, there's nothing fair in this world.

    Hutch finally moved his hand and rubbed it across his face. "Guess I better get my act together. Find a place to live. Pick up the pieces." He twisted in the seat and lifted his head. "What'd you do with those cards you brought home?"

    "I guess they're still on the table." Starsky combed his fingers through his thick, curly hair. "Why?"

    "Any of them furnished?"

    "Don't remember."

    "I think one of them was in Venice. Will you go with me tomorrow and help me look?" There was a note of pleading in Hutch's voice.

    "Venice and the beach? You're really hooked on the place, aren't you?"

    "Guess so."

    Starsky hesitated, then reached up and touched his partner's arm. "Of course I'll go with you." Don't you know I'd do anything for you?

    "Zebra Three, move into position." Anderson's whispered command over the radio.

    "Roger." Hutch opened his door and eased out, holding the seat as Starsky climbed out of the back.

    A single shot sliced through the night.

    Jungle dark.

    A scream echoed in the stillness.

    Rapid automatic fire left a trail of holes in the side of a deserted building.

    "Zebra Three, advance from the south." Words and static from the radio.

    They moved. Hutch right, Starsky left, as always. Anderson directed the placement of each man on the team. Hutch crept forward. Starsky watched the blond head held high, shining in the blackness. Goddamn fool.

    His sneakered feet thudded against the pavement, blood pounded in his ears. He stopped beside Hutch and whispered, "Keep your fuckin' head down before it gets blown off!" Then he dashed through an open sector, hugged a dirty brick wall.

    Another blast of automatic fire toppled the empty boxes in front of him. He tumbled, rolled and slid behind a battered, graffitied garbage bin. "I'm here," he threw over his shoulder.

    When Hutch was next to him, they approached the side door of the warehouse. Hutch nodded, taking the right side of the entrance, while Starsky took the left.

    Anderson's voice on the receiver: "On the count of three --one."

    They looked at each other for a moment.

    "Two."

    Deep breath.

    "Three."

    Starsky went in and under, rolling through the door Hutch had kicked open. On his feet, gun level.

    "Don't move, gentlemen," Anderson said. "It might prove hazardous to your health."

    Anderson's team encircled the group and the net was pulled in.

    The captain slapped Starsky on the back. "Nice work, guys. We'll wrap up here. However, I want a report first thing in the morning."

    "Yes sir." Hutch led the way back to the car.

    "You drive. I'm bushed." Starsky slumped on the passenger side, his head in his hands. "Home, James."

* * * * * *

Los Angeles, California Wednesday 15 August 1973

    Hutch headed for the refrigerator and grabbed a beer. Through the foam he said, "I'll take the couch tonight. You look beat."

    You don't know the half of it, partner of mine. "Sounds good. I'm gonna hit the shower."

    The radio crackled to life and the concluding strains of "The Unknown Soldier" followed him through the bathroom door. Morrison's music's always personified depression.

    "This is KRLA. The time is two fifty-eight on this beautiful Wednesday morning. In the news, top level officials said that despite President Nixon's concern with Watergate, he plans to meet with Soviet officials to discuss arms control. The White House hopes to set the meeting sometime before Christmas.

    "In Southeast Asia a halt has been called to the bombing in Cambodia. Fighting in the area of Phnom Phen is expected to continue until the end of the month. No attack on the city is predicted.

    "Yesterday's attempt to overthrow Laotian Premier Prince Souvana Phouma has failed. Official sources said the incident may have given the Communists reason to demand further concessions in the peace talks.

    "The volunteer army...."

    Flushing the toilet, Starsky tried to shut out the announcer. He did not want to hear about the army, Vietnam, or any of it.

    "On a final note, Henri Charriere, Papillon, is dead at the age of sixty-seven, of throat cancer in Madrid. Best known...."

    Starsky turned on the shower. Water pounded against the porcelain, drowning the offensive noises of death, destruction, violence. Tomorrow he could hear about tonight's bust, with whatever embellishment the news media gave it. His body sagged under the weight of exhaustion, of hated memories, and Hutch's presence on the other side of the door. He fumbled in the medicine cabinet, located the little red capsules and dropped two into his hand. Hoped I'd never need you again. He swallowed the pills and stepped under the warm spray. Work your magic, pretty little dolls. I have to make it through the night. His body responded to unbidden erotic images of the blond man sprawled on blue sheets, ready and eager.

    Twisting the knob violently, he swallowed a scream as cold water punished him. No more, ever! Not Hutch!

    Towel around his waist, Starsky opened the bathroom door. The seconal slid through his veins, promising sleep, escape into Never-never Land.

    In the living room, Hutch had made his bed, kicked off his shoes and turned off the radio. "Even the music is depressing."

    "Yeah." He couldn't suppress the yawn. Beautiful dolls. "'Night."

    Hutch turned off the lights as Starsky dropped his towel and slid between fresh, cool sheets. He wondered who had made the bed, but it did not matter as black velvet surrounded him, took him, cradled him.

    He can not move.
    Bound to a bed of solid blue fire
    by arcing bonds of matching blue electricity.
    Flame blazes all around him
                            over him
                            through him.
    He shivers.
    Above him rises a golden god
                                hair of flame
                                eyes of fire.
    They burn him
             sear him
             mesmerize him.
             Touch him.
    Long, tapered fingers reach out
                          branding his flesh
                          demanding response.
    Fire leaps within him.
                    White-hot. Kindling, burning....
                     Incandescent.
    The blazing eyes touch him.
    The god speaks:
    "You must pay...."
    The golden fingers possess him.
                      Firepain envelopes him,
                      surrounds him
                      inside and out.
    "You must pay!"
    He looks upon the face of his golden god and screams:
                   "Hutch!"

    Starsky landed on the floor, the sweat-soaked sheets crumpled around him. His body throbbed with unreleased sexual tension and ached from lack of sleep. He took a deep breath, and wrapped the sheet around him. "Hutch." It was a whispered prayer.

    Nothing.

    You couldn't possibly sleep through that. He pushed himself up from the floor and tip-toed to the sofa. No Hutch. Fear gripped his heart. "Hutch?" No response.

    He wasn't in the bathroom or the kitchen. Starsky flipped on a lamp and dropped his sheet. The bed on the couch was undisturbed. An ashtray overflowed onto the table. Three crushed red Marlboro boxes lay nearby. Starsky breathed a sigh of relief. Hutch had gone for cigarettes.

    Christ, he could walk in any minute. Starsky wrapped himself in a terry robe and stuffed the sweat-damp sheets in the hamper, then removed the last clean set from the linen closet. White sheets. He needed new ones. Blue maybe. The color of Hutch's eyes. Stop it!

    Forcing himself to remember army procedure for making a bed, he completed perfect hospital corners, tight enough to bounce a quarter.

    Still no Hutch.

    Starsky took a long shower, then made coffee, listening for the door to open all the while. He wanted a cigarette, but knew without looking that there weren't any. It was too early for the paper, so he took a cup of coffee to the bedroom, turned out the light and waited for the sun.

* * * * * *

    "You're late!" Dobey bellowed as Starsky followed Hutch into the captain's office.

    "Two-eleven on our way in." Hutch dropped into a chair. "Didn't you get our message?"

    "No, and Anderson's been on me since eight." He dialed four digits. "They're here." After replacing the receiver, he picked up his coffee cup and emptied it.

    Starsky jumped to his feet. "I'll get more coffee." He needed to put some space between himself and Hutch. The closeness made breathing difficult.

    "Better get four, Captain Anderson'll want some," Hutch suggested.

    Taking as much time as possible, he poured coffee, then added sugar and cream. When he returned, Anderson was in mid-sentence.

    "...Cleaned up a warehouse -- thank you -- last night, but we missed Kraft, Randolf Kraft," Anderson waved his arm. "Sit down, Starsky. The lab is still operating and we've got a fairly solid lead on the location -- an abandoned storefront on Fifth Street. We think the operator is a juvenile, kid by the name of -- " he pulled a notebook from his pocket of his dark blue polyester jacket, flipping through several pages, "John McGuire. A California Corp owns the building. A James McGuire is listed on the Board of Directors. Possible connection."

    Starsky propped his ankle on his knee. "Any priors?"

    "None." Anderson checked his notes. "As far as we can tell, the kid's clean. He comes from an upper middle class family. His school reports that he's a model student, above average in intelligence and has a knack for chemistry."

    "Terrific." Starsky retied his shoe laces.

    "So, what's the set up?" Hutch walked to the window, his back to the room.

    Anderson looked in Hutch's direction. "We can't find Kraft, we can't approach the kid and we can't search without probable cause, which we don't have."

    Moving away from the window, Hutch picked up his cup and perched on the edge of Dobey's desk. "Stake-out?"

    "Afraid so. And it could be a long one. Ray has assigned you to my department for the time being."

    Hutch sipped his coffee. "What's the plan?"

    "Two teams. You and Starsky, Joe Hix and Alan Baker. They're already on location, setting up. You'll relieve them at six-thirty this evening. Official schedule will be seven to seven."

    "Captain, that's twelve hours!" Starsky dropped his foot to the floor and surveyed the faces of the men in the room. "We've," he indicated Hutch, "been putting in some long hours lately, we're tired -- "

    "Look, Starsky..." Anderson lit a cigarette. "The department's short-handed." He blew smoke toward the ceiling. "We never seem to have enough trained personnel. We're all tired; it's terminal in this business. But we're too close to Kraft to back off now."

    Starsky slumped back into his chair and stole a glance at his partner, who seemed to be sharing a private joke with Dobey. "Sorry, Captain."

    "Starsky's always bitchy when he's tired." Hutch smiled. "We'll be there."

    "Good." Anderson picked up a file from the corner of Dobey's desk and handed it to Hutchinson. "Here's everything we've got, including layouts of the buildings. Good luck." He left through the corridor door.

    "Well?" Starsky crumpled his empty Styrofoam cup.

    Dobey folded his hands over a stack of file folders. "Hutchinson, I'm sorry about your situation. I wish I could give you some time off -- but there's nothing I can do."

    "It's all right, Captain." Hutch slid off the desk. "Getting Kraft is more important than my broken marriage." He placed his hand on Starsky's knee. "Besides, I think Starsk's taking it harder than I am."

    Starsky felt the blood rise in his face and hoped no one noticed. The hand moved away.

    "C'mon, partner, I'll buy you an early lunch." Hutch opened the door.

    "Keep me posted." Dobey's words didn't include the silent be careful that showed in his eyes. Brown eyes, somber now.

    "Yes sir." In unison.

    Hutch rested his hand on Starsky's shoulder as they stopped to check their IN basket and phone messages. Starsky fought it, but had to press himself into the desk to hide his reaction to the touch.

* * * * * *

    Traffic was moderate on the San Diego freeway as Starsky checked his mirrors, then moved right. Fingertips touched the back of his neck and he tingled all over. He wanted to lean back into the caress. He couldn't. He changed lanes again. "Which exit?"

    "Let's take Venice. The place is near the Eastern Canal."

    "Hope it's better than the last two places."

    "Has to be. It's close to the ocean. Besides, it's only temporary." Hutch flipped the three by five cards. "If it's livable, I'll take it. House hunting's for the birds."

    "Yeah--"

    "Next exit. Turn right on Venice Boulevard. We'll take a left at the first canal."

    Starsky parked his car beside a short, white picket fence. Slamming the door, he stretched like a cat in the afternoon sun. He shook the fence and found it wasn't very stable. "Kinda dumpy. Maybe this is a waste of time."

    "Don't be so quick to judge. It looks kind of cozy." Sunlight sparkled on the water in the canal that ran in front of the fence. A single duck quacked, then quickly paddled away to rejoin a group. "It's certainly different from the others we've looked at. Let's go inside."

    The air was musty and cobwebs festooned the walls. A large spider swung in front of Starsky as he walked through the doorway. "Yuk!" He batted the thing away.

    "Starsk, it's just a bug. C'mon." Hutch opened a closet door, glanced at the bathroom.

    "This place is a dump," Starsky mumbled.

    Hutch raked his fingertip across the dusty mirror. "It feels good." There was an excited note in his voice.

    "Huh?" Starsky stared at his partner, then at the room. It contained a sagging bed, a battered bureau and one dilapidated chair. Nothing to deserve anyone's interest.

    "This room. It feels right."

    "The furniture's falling apart."

    "It'll do until I can replace it. Van took everything, remember?" Pain glinted in the blue eyes.

    "Yeah, but...."

    Hutch explored the room, then bounced on the bare mattress, sending dust to dance in pale sunlight. The springs squeaked. "This will do. I might even get some of our stuff back, but I don't want that bed. I like this one." He bounced again.

    The kitchen was small, with a tiny stove and refrigerator. In the only other room was a battered sofa. "Hutch, you can't live here, it's--" It's not good enough for someone like you.

    "What's wrong with it?" Sudden flash of anger. "You sound just like Vanessa."

    "Don't you compare me with her!" He turned, staring out at the canal through a grimy window, tears stinging his eyes.

    A presence behind him. Hutch's hand on his neck, then his short curls were ruffled. "I'm sorry. I let it get to me sometimes."

    "S'okay." He pressed himself against the wall. He couldn't control his body, and he didn't dare let Hutch see.

    The door opened. "C'mon. I want to find a phone booth, then we gotta relieve Hix and Baker. Too bad we don't have time for a nice French dinner."

    "Yeah." Starsky sighed and followed his partner out the door. "Hey, this fence could use a coat of paint."

    "Sure could. Wanna play Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn?"

    "Can we float a raft down your canal?" The light laughter that followed soothed his jangled nerves.

* * * * * *

    Starsky circled the block; the street was deserted. The area had the look and feel of a ghost town, but underneath, out of sight, was a culture of slime. It made him wary.

    "I spotted a place to leave the car -- down that alley." Hutch didn't turn his face from the window. "Classy neighborhood."

    "Yeah. Gives me the creeps." The car shimmied as it took a tight corner. "I want a new car." He gripped the wheel.

    "Me too. Van took the Jag. She can have the goddamn thing and all the bills that go with it."

    "You think this is okay? No one can see the car from the street?"

    "Let me check." Hutch eased out of the car, keeping close to the old brown building that looked as if a heavy wind would blow it away. After a few minutes, he signaled. Starsky locked the door and followed Hutch inside, brushing at the cobwebs that attacked his face and watching the roaches scurry out of his way. The dusty air made him sneeze, the whole place made his skin crawl. He whispered. "You bring that map?"

    "Yeah. Room's on the second floor. Stairs oughta be at the end of this hall."

    Doorways gaped like blackened eye sockets as Starsky followed his partner down a dim hallway. Rickety stairs led to the second floor. Hutch tapped lightly on the third door before pushing it open. "You guys ready to call it a day?"

    Joe Hix, a tall black man in his mid-forties, turned from his position beside a boarded up window. "You bet. The Academy should teach a class in how to handle boredom."

    A rat raced across the room, adding to the heat and pressure that grated on Starsky's raw nerves. "Is this the best you people can do?" He touched the dilapidated card table which held an old black telephone.

    "Can it, man," Alan Baker hissed. "We've been here since seven this morning and it's been a long, hot, miserable day. At least you two get the night shift, when it's cooler. You got any complaints, you can just stuff 'em."

    "Easy, buddy." Hix stood beside his partner, a young white man with sandy blond hair.

    "Where did you guys dig up this place?" Hutch wrote his initials in the layer of dust on the canvas cot, army green, that was set up in one corner of the tiny room. The only other piece of furniture was a folding chair that might have once matched the table.

    "We're not any happier about it than you are." Baker stared at Hutchinson. "But the lab's across the street, in that first floor storefront."

    "Somebody oughta condemn this place," Starsky grumbled.

    Hix's hand was on the door knob. "Complaint department's on the sixteenth floor."

    "Yeah? Where's the john?"

    "Wherever you feel like lettin' it hang out."

    Starsky's stomach tightened with anger. Hutch's hand brushed his shoulder. "Calm down, we've got a job to do. Baker?"

    "No action yet. The kid showed up about three, been down there ever since. No word on Kraft. No one's seen him."

    Hutch took the field glasses. "Okay, see you in the morning."

* * * * * *

    Dust resettled as the door clicked shut. After a few minutes of silence, Hutch put the glasses down. "Shit, the kid could be making chicken soup for all I know."

    Suddenly the room was too small, too crowded, too hot. Starsky had to get out of it. "You keep an eye on the kid while I check out this piece of urban blight."

    "You're in rare form tonight."

    "Heat's gettin' to me." Yeah, in more ways than one. He had to find something to keep his mind off his partner's body. Maybe he'd get lucky and the bust would go down tonight. With his luck, they'd be here forever.

    The corridors were shadowed and spooky despite the heat and light of the late evening sun. "Christ!" He pulled frantically at the strands of cobwebs that clung to him, tickled his face. I don't wanna meet the mother that built this thing.

    Five floors of rotting walls, pungent with decay, were inhabited by monstrous spiders, maneating rats and other creatures he refused to name. Outside, the air was hot and smoggy; he could taste the stuff. He wiped gritty sweat off his face.

    Across the street the buildings were no better: a block of storefronts with connecting walls that were partially decayed. Starsky surveyed the littered alley and the storage area or living quarters above the stores. There was no apparent way to get to the second floor from outside. He worked his way around the remaining stores, locating possible entrances to the ground floor. He didn't go inside where he could possibly alert the kid -- and he didn't want to go back upstairs. Slowly he rounded the corner, checking the street. It was empty except for the trash in the filthy gutters. He stayed out of sight of the lab front and returned to the apartment building. It was hot outside, but inside, without any air flow, it was stifling. He retreated to the open air, leaned against a grimy wall, and lit a cigarette.

    Ah, Hutch. I wish I knew how to handle the way I feel about you. I wish we could talk about the other night, but like you said, one problem at a time. And I guess Vanessa and the money and everything are more important than us. Us! That's a laugh. There's never been an 'us', never will be. I've known that from the beginning. What is it they say about another time, another place? How about another gender? What's the old saying? Never fall in love with a straight man...?

    He ground out his cigarette, then shredded it to look like the other debris. Old habits died hard. He felt guilty about taking so much time, about leaving Hutch alone. But then, maybe it was better if he left Hutch alone. Better for Hutch anyway, he decided, as he climbed the obstacle-course stairway.

    "Well?" Blues eyes pierced him. Blond lashes drifted down to lie briefly on tanned cheeks.

    "Nothing." Starsky gulped. Dear God in Heaven, I'm losing my mind. "Checked for back entrances, found bugs and rats."

    "Starsk? Are you all right? You're flushed." Hutch stepped closer. "Starsk?" Concern shone in his glance.

    "Just hot." Please, don't touch me. I won't be responsible. "I could use some water." He was guided to the dusty cot.

    "You better lie down. I'll get some from the water can."

    The cot creaked, but supported Starsky's weight.

    "Here."

    The water was cool. Hutch's hand wasn't. Starsky relaxed when his partner moved back to the window.

    "Better?"

    "Yeah, thanks." Closing his eyes, Starsky tried to get comfortable.

    "Dobey called while you were out, wanted to know how we were doing. He said he'd send food over later. I thought you'd like pizza."

    "Yeah." He yawned.

    "Why don't you grab some sleep? I'll yell if I need you."

    "Okay." Maybe this time he wouldn't dream.

    "I'll call you when the pizza gets here."

** * * * *

    "Ummmm."

    "Starsk." Warm breath on his face. "David." Fingertips sliding down his arm, leaving cold chills in their wake. "Starsk."

    His name was a love chant, the song of a siren. Come to me. Take me. His body tensed. No!

    Hutch was kneeling beside the cot. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. Food's here."

    Starsky opened his eyes. Closed them fast. Even in the dim light he could see that Hutch's mouth was too near, the lips slightly parted; he could feel warm breath on his face. Starsky's stomach knotted. He was not going to survive this night.

    "C'mon, pizza's here." Hutch didn't move.

    "Pizza?"

    "Yeah. Pepperoni and mushroom."

    Trapped. If he moved, Starsky knew he could never get by that mouth. "We'd better eat it while it's hot."

    "Yeah." Still not moving.

    "Well, are you gonna let me up?"

    The blue eyes didn't waver.

    Hutch, please don't. Pushing the man away gently, he fled to the opposite corner, but the room was too small and Hutch filled it too full.

    Unable to stand still, Starsky grabbed the field glasses and stared through the small hole in the large piece of plywood. "So what's our suspect been up to?" He refocused the glasses and watched the kid pour blue liquid from one test tube into another.

    "Not much. Could be distilling gin."

    Starsky chuckled. It helped to laugh. "No, too blasť for today's kids." He turned to face his partner. "Remember when we had to sneak cigarettes?"

    Hutch laughed, and the world was right side up again. "Yeah. Does that make us old?"

    "Guess it does." Starsky opened the pizza box. "Too bad we can't have beer."

    "Yeah, but Dobey did send you a gallon of root beer." Hutch produced a Styrofoam container. The cold, sweet stuff washed down the hot pizza and the hot night. Somehow, it helped to know there were people in this world who cared about him. He stationed himself in the chair so he could see the lab, then propped his feet on the rickety table and sipped his root beer. "I'll watch for a while. You get some sleep. Maybe Kraft'll show before morning."

    Hutch's hand rested on Starsky's shoulder. Lingered. "Yeah, okay." There was something else, something in Hutch's eyes, but there wasn't enough light to see clearly. It flickered, then was gone.

* * * * * *

    Ten forty-five. The only sound in the room was Hutch's quiet breathing. Across the street the lights went out. Starsky watched as the kid locked the door and walked south. He rounded the corner and was lost from sight. Starsky called in, reported his observation and lit a cigarette. Inhaling, he settled back for a long night.

* * * * * *

Vietnam Tuesday 3 October 1967

    Jungle darkness.

    Unnatural quiet.

    Early morning chill.

    Starsky burrowed deeper into his pillow as a gentle hand caressed his ass while he chased an illusive dream. A sharp slap dissolved the images completely. He bolted upright on the cot when a hand fondled his cock, darkness covering the action and his response. Nathan. Starsky smiled.

    "Time to get up, Davy. We gotta rescue a fuckin' desk-bound general and his joy-riding staff."

    "I am up." Starsky thrust into the hand that rested in the junction of his thighs.

    "Not now, lover boy, we have work to do. And a long way to walk."

    The thought of persuading Nathan otherwise crossed Starsky's mind, but when the man said there was work to do, he meant it. He swung his feet to the floor. Christ, I hate this place. "What time is it?"

    "Four-thirty. I want to be on the trail by first light." Nathan lit a cigarette, the orange glow bright in the pre-dawn blackness.

    Starsky reached for his pants and pulled them on. They smelled of mold. He longed for the smell of coffee. Freshly ground and served in a ceramic mug. And the morning paper. L.A. Times. In L.A. "So, who's this general? Worth saving?"

    "Probably not. The stupid jackass managed to crash his plane twenty miles behind enemy lines. He and his aides crashed -- not shot down, mind you, but crashed -- behind enemy lines."

    "Army or Air Force?" He took Nathan's cigarette and inhaled deeply.

    "Army general, Army aides, Air Force plane and flight crew."

    "So why us?" He buttoned his shirt, then reached for his boots.

    "Colonel Greene said HQ told him that General Williams would look impressive to the VC. They would not know the SOB was just sight-seeing and they'd probably hang onto him for trading. I understand we've got something of theirs that's worth at least a general. That should give us time to get him out. After all, we're the best team in the whole fuckin' army."

    "He important enough to bring out alive?" Starsky had visions of dragging a fat-assed general through the jungle, and he didn't like the idea. Non-combat personnel were dangerous.

    "The colonel says Williams has important friends. He's only got one star, but that still makes him a general. And brown-nosing in D.C. makes interesting bedfellows." Nathan dropped an arm around Starsky's shoulder and kissed his ear. "Speaking of which, it's gonna be a while."

    "Yeah." They stepped into the early morning chill. Starsky wondered what he'd ever done to deserve being sentenced to this place. The camp was silent and dark, not even any sign of life from the mess tent. That meant breakfast on the trail and no coffee. Goddamn cold crap out of a can, not fit for human consumption -- but he'd gotten used to it. "What's this General Williams doing here anyway?"

    "Inspection tour. You know, these paper pushers use the tax payers' money for a wild excursion to the Orient, then go home and tell the press what a fucked-up war this is."

    The rest of the team, all Laotian, was waiting at the north gate. Not a gate, really, just an exit in the barbed wire fence that separated this piece of local real estate from the rest of the local real estate. Starsky said a proper good morning to the three men, then checked his field pack. Since Sam, he had refused to know these men other than professionally. He learned the proper pronunciation of their names and used formal address when speaking to them. In eighteen long months here, he'd picked up enough Laotian to survive, become familiar with the strange customs of this country, and, most importantly, learned how not to care about anyone. Except Nathan.

    Nathan completed his check of supplies, field packs, and weapons. "Ready?" he asked in Laotian. From this point they'd speak only when necessary, and never in English. Alien sounds could give them away. And that meant death -- or worse. Starsky shuddered, shouldering his equipment and supplies.

    He watched the others disappear into the thick vegetation, then followed in his turn, spacing himself approximately six feet from the man in front of him. They crept through the forest like Indians tracking Red Coats, each covering their own sector. The jungle: underbrush, booby traps, bugs, filth and slime. And over all, like onions on liver, the stench of death. He'd never gotten used to it and he knew he never would.

    In one section of his mind he carried his dreams -- his key to sanity. And those dreams included Nathan. He smiled. Nathan had become the center of his universe, his reason to live. Starsky sighed and double checked his area. He wanted a future with Nathan, not just dreams, but he didn't quite know how such a future would work. When he tried to crystallize his fantasies, they dissolved into smoke.

    "Nathan, will we ever go home?" The afterglow of loving had the same jungle stench as everything else here. "Will we ever have just one night to spend as lovers? You know, satin sheets -- hell, I'd take just clean sheets on a real bed -- and champagne?"
    But Nathan never talked about tomorrow:
    "Love me, Davy, now."
    "Move your ass, boy. Now."
    "Put the bullet between his eyes, Davy. Now!"

    Maybe Nathan had no past, no future -- only the present. Starsky sighed again, shifted the weight of his backpack, then checked his rifle. He watched the eastern sky layer pink on blue. If the present was all Nathan could offer, then Starsky would accept it. Cherish it. But his heart ached a little at the thought. He still wanted a future.

* * * * * *

Vietnam Wednesday 4 October 1967

    Damp stinking clothes encased Starsky's body and mold sealed his feet to his shoes as he made his way through thick vegetation. To be alone in this wet hell was worse than any death.

    To his left, a village -- or what was left of a village -- smoldered. If he looked, he knew he would see contorted, mutilated bodies. Death. It lurked in every tree, in every rat hole. He did not look, just like he refused to see a dead cat on the road. If he did not acknowledge the death, he did not have to think about it.

    He had long since given up remembering the village names. He had tried once, but before he could learn what was where, the people were gone. Or dead. This was a way of life he had not known existed before he had flown in from Okinawa and landed at Cam Ranh Bay. God, what an experience. The horrible smells -- and that had been the food. Palm oil and spices he had never seen. It smelled like fried dog shit. At least the beer in the NCO club had been American. It had sustained him for several days. Da Nang had been worse -- and by then he had learned to handle the odors.

    Still, nothing had prepared him for the inland jungle. To reach Hell, turn left at Da Nang, South Vietnam.

    The jungle was forever; it had no end, no beginning. There was no way out. He put one foot in front of the other and watched the ground, the air, and the trees because his life depended on it.

    Lunch out of a can, a leak behind a tree, a sip of tepid water from his canteen. He sat against a tree and reached for a pleasant memory. McDonald's. Those beautiful golden arches. Cheeseburger, fries, chocolate shake.

* * * * * *

Vietnam Friday 6 October 1967

    It took two days of walking before they found the plane, or what was left of it. It had been dismantled; all that remained was scrap metal and two bodies with no identification heaped in a pile like garbage. Scorched blue uniforms indicated they were probably the pilot and the co-pilot. There were no signs of torture. The crash had killed them. Lucky bastards.

    The odor of decay filled his nostrils and coated his mouth as he helped bury two more casualties. Somewhere along the line he'd lost count of how many people he'd buried. A body rots fast in this stinking heat.

    With a light tap on his shoulder, Nathan pointed to a tree and took the collapsible shovel. Starsky sank onto the damp ground, grateful for the reprieve. He drank more stale water from his canteen and lit a cigarette.

    How many more dead bodies do I have to find? He watched Nathan bend and straighten, digging the shallow grave. The lean, hard muscles rippled as he worked, perspiration streaking the back of the jungle camouflage shirt and running into the pants. How many more holes in the ground before one of them is for you? Or me? Or both of us? Is that our future?

    He finished his cigarette and went back to work. An eternity in Nathan's arms. Would that be so bad?

    There were still more bodies to find -- or maybe, just maybe, living, breathing men. Five of them: A general, two colonels, a major and a goddamn green second lieutenant. Probably a ninety-day wonder. All a man needed to be an officer in this army was a college degree. No wonder it was a fucked up war.

    Searching his area, Starsky pushed a large vine out of his way. He hoped he would not be the one to find the others. Heat and humidity did terrible things to a body. Arms and legs came off at the slightest touch. Please, not today. Let someone else find the poor bastards.

    Ahead, a clump of trees bordered a small clearing. Crouching low behind it, he slipped his pack off, then aimed his rifle. An enemy soldier emerged from a cave and walked into the clearing. He tracked the man's movements through his gun sight. Three more soldiers joined the first. Their conversation was too low and too fast for him to follow. A fifth man came from the far side of the clearing, dragging a man in U.S. Army uniform. The American's eyes were closed, and blood trickled from his mouth. An oak leaf dangled from his shirt collar. It was impossible to tell if he was alive or dead.

    Not daring to move, Starsky waited several minutes before signaling his team. An answering whistle told him Nathan was near. Within minutes, answering signals announced that the team had surrounded the area. Starsky aimed his gun at the nearest enemy soldier.

    At the sound of a two-toned whistle, five rifles fired. He watched the five V.C. drop to the ground, then he waited.

    Quiet.

    Jungle stench of death.

    A heartbeat. A lifetime.

    Nathan moved first. Once in the clearing he raised his arm. Starsky joined him. Together they examined the American major. He was alive. Barely.

    "Put the bullet between his eyes, Davy."

    More graves to dig.

    The other members of the team started to work. Starsky and Nathan headed for the cave entrance, Starsky on the left. He held his breath for a silent count of three. In, down, rifle level and steady.

    A ridiculous picture as a scared young blond sat against the moldy wall holding an older man's head in his lap. The silver head rose, locked eyes with Nathan. Two voices spoke in unison: "Who took the series in '61?"

    Bitter laughter from both men.

    "General Williams? The Yankees, sir."

    "They were unbeatable that year."

    ...Hot dogs and soda pop...Roger Maris...sixtieth home run...an autographed ball....

    "I'm Captain Wise, sir. This is Sergeant Starsky."

    "I am truly glad to meet you gentlemen. This is my aide, Lieutenant Hutchinson."

    Hutchinson was blond, blue eyed, pretty -- and scared shitless. Obviously nobody had prepared him for the realities of Hell.

    The general's voice was weak and strained. "Report, Captain."

    "Five V.C. dead, sir. And an army major, dead."

    "Colonel Boucher and Colonel Stevens are also dead. I don't know where the bodies are." Williams closed his eyes. "The pilot and co- pilot are also dead."

    "I know, sir. We found the plane. We'll find your other officers and verify. Your condition, General?"

    Starsky didn't want to hear the answer. There was enough blood on his hands.

    The general took a deep breath and looked directly at Nathan. "Both knee caps shattered. Some internal injuries...." He choked, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. The rattle of death. Hutchinson cradled the man, rocking him. After a moment, Williams could talk again. "Standard procedure, Captain?"

    "Yes, sir."

    "Somebody get the lieutenant out of here."

    "Starsky."

    Where? Out of the cave, out of the jungle, or out of the war? It didn't matter. Starsky shouldered his rifle, took four steps, helped the general into an upright position. Getting Hutchinson to his feet was a problem. The man was a zombie.

    "Sergeant, I can't walk." General Williams paused for breath. "You can't carry me out. Please have Lieutenant Hutchinson file my recommendations for your unit."

    Nathan stood very still. "General, you have to give the order, sir."

    Starsky had Hutchinson on his feet.

    "Goddamnit man, can't I die in peace?"

    "Yes, sir. Starsky never misses, sir."

    Nathan took Hutchinson's arm and shoved the man out the cave. A whisper brushed Starsky's face. "Put the bullet between his eyes, Davy."

    Starsky raised his rifle. The general closed his eyes, resigned, his pain obvious. "I'm sorry, sir. God, I'm sorry for all of us". He closed his mind. Pulled the trigger. One more dead cat in the street.

    He let the quiet hold him for a moment then reached for the General's identification. Along with the military issued tags was a small silver disk engraved with the words JACK OFF. It was worn and smooth, as if the General had carried it a long time. Overpowered by the stench of death, he ran from the cave, dropping to his knees in the mud. It never got any easier.

    Nathan's hand rested on his shoulder. No words were necessary. They'd all been said.

    The metal cut into his hand and the stickiness of blood mixed with stale sweat. His stomach tightened. "I hate this fuckin' place." Plain English. He didn't care who heard him.

    "Of course you do. We all do." Quiet Laotian words whispered in his ear. "I need his dog tags, Davy."

    Starsky broke free and threw the general's identification to the ground. Shiny metal dulled with blood and jungle mud.

    Hutchinson's mouth hung open. His fair skin was blotchy, his eyes wide and unfocused. Nathan pushed him back inside the cave.

    "You...you...you just killed...a United States General!" Hutchinson stumbled, fell to his knees.

    The Laotians had removed the bodies from the immediate area and were searching for the missing Americans. Starsky surveyed the activity, then followed Nathan inside the cave.

    "Yes, Lieutenant, we did." Nathan's voice was soft. "That's standard procedure here."

    "No one can order that." The voice was too calm.

    "Lieutenant, in the normal world that might be true, but here in this place and time, the rules are different."

    "Now just a minute--" the young voice was rising with fear.

    "No, YOU just a minute. We're behind enemy lines, remember? Shut up before you bring the entire North Vietnamese army down on us."

    "I want to speak to your commanding officer," Hutchinson stated loudly.

    The sound echoed like a rifle shot; the print of Nathan's fingers glowed red on Hutchinson's face. The man's eyes registered shock, then anger. "Striking a fellow officer is a court-martial offense."

    Nathan shoved Hutchinson to the ground and placed his foot on the man's back. "Shoot him, Davy."

    "No."

    "Davy?"

    "No. There's been enough killing for one day."

    Nathan whirled to face him. "Now."

    Hutchinson rolled over, sitting up with a leaf clinging to his left ear, in the grimy mud, terrified. The blond hair hung limp around the pale face. The wide blue eyes were the color of a clear lake on a spring morning. The mouth...no, he wouldn't...he couldn't. Blondie shouldn't even be here. And he shouldn't have to die here.

    "He'll get us all killed."

    "I don't think so."

    "Your responsibility, Davy. Trouble from him and I'll shoot you both." Nathan glared at Starsky, then stalked out of the cave.

    Defiance. It was a first. Starsky froze for a moment, shaken by his own actions, then turned to the young lieutenant. Taking the man's hand, he studied it. The long, beautiful fingers were stained with blood, probably the General's. These hands should never deal with death. They weren't designed for taking life. His flesh tingled at the idea of what pleasure these hands could bring, but he quickly dismissed the thought.

    All the filth of the jungle seemed to have settled on Hutchinson. He didn't wear it well. You shouldn't be stained like this. Starsky removed his own shirt, found a tiny clean spot and dampened it with precious water from his canteen. He washed the beautiful face, careful of the cheek that would be bruised. Their eyes met, and Starsky knew then there could be something very special between them, knew also the other man knew. In another time, another place, another lifetime he could love this man.

    Hutchinson tried to speak, then reached for Starsky's canteen. "Just a swallow." We'll have to share. Nathan won't give me anything now.

    "He can't," Hutchinson sputtered.

    "Nathan? Can't what? Kill us? He makes the rules here." Starsky capped the canteen, then looked directly into the blue eyes. "Do you want to stay alive? Do you want to get out of here? I mean, really want to?"

    Hutchinson nodded slowly.

    "Okay. Two rules. No sound, no noise, no nothing after we leave this cave. And you do exactly what I say, when I say or we could all end up dead." He paused and looked outside. "I won't sacrifice those men to save you. Do you understand?"

    "No. I don't understand anything."

    "Will you do exactly as I tell you?"

    "Do I have a choice?" The glance was suddenly wary, assessing.

    "No."

    Nathan reappeared and glared at the two of them. "All right, let's move it. We gotta walk twenty miles, most of it behind enemy lines. Do you think you can handle that, Lieutenant?" Cold brown eyes glared at Starsky. "He makes one mistake and it's your ass."

    Starsky wondered what it would take to appease his lover. He looked at Hutchinson and wondered if Nathan mattered. But when Hutchinson was gone -- and the man would leave -- and the nights were long and empty, and there was no place to go, Starsky knew he'd return to Nathan's arms.

* * * * * *

    Hutchinson walked in front of Starsky, stumbling over his own feet at every irregular rise in the terrain. If there were any booby traps, he would find them -- the hard way. Nathan had a right to worry. This greenhorn could get them all killed.

    The sun set and Nathan didn't stop. Night in the jungle could be deadly; it was impossible to see trip wires or pits or large tree roots.

    Hutchinson tripped, sprawling, and didn't get up. End of the line? Starsky shrugged, pulled the man off the trail and propped him against a tree. The lieutenant leaned back, limp, his hands folded in his lap, the blond hair bright even in the darkness. A beacon. A target. Christ, I should have thought of that before.

    Dropping to his knees, Starsky touched Hutchinson's hands. No response. Slipping his hands through layers of decaying vegetation, he found damp soil and mud -- slimy, stinking jungle mud: Two parts blood, one part sweat, terrific fertilizer. It glued his fingers together and nauseated him. This place would be a fucking rose garden a hundred years from now.

    A single rifle shot sounded in the distance. Reality.

    "Lieutenant?" Cautious whisper. Nothing.

    Mud dripping from his fingers, Starsky reached again for Hutchinson's hands. They were ice cold. He took a deep breath, then found a pulse. It was weak and thready. The dog tag chain rolled through his fingers. He pulled the tags up and read: Lieutenant Kenneth Hutchinson, E87936755, Catholic, Blood type B-. Not much to know about a person.

    Dropping the tags, he grabbed fresh handfuls of mud and spread the jungle filth over the blond strands. Sacrilege. What are you doing here?

    A cricket chirped, the sound louder than the rifle shot.

    Starsky hated the grime that defiled this man. He envisioned the two of them bathing in a clear mountain stream, the sun haloing that shiny hair, a fish splashing water over the golden skin. His body responded to the thoughts. He shoved them away. No time for fantasies.

    He trailed his fingers over Hutchinson's face and throat, spreading mud. The pulse fluttered under his touch, matching his own.

    "What the hell are you doing?" The voice was choked.

    Blood rose in his cheeks as Starsky leaned forward, placed his mouth close to Hutchinson's ear and whispered, "Trying to keep you alive. You have to get up -- we can't stay here."

    Soft coo of a night bird.

    After answering the signal, he pulled Hutchinson to his feet, and placed a muddy finger across the man's lips. The lieutenant nodded.

    A sharp whistle.

    Taking Hutchinson's hand, as much to support the man as to comfort himself, Starsky led on the trail, all of his senses working overtime. The jungle was like any other place, once it had been explored. Vine-covered trails were the same as small, winding streets, and caves like deserted warehouses. Knowledge alleviated some of the fear, but Starsky was relieved when he realized Nathan had pushed forward so they could have the protection of this cave.

    Nathan waited just inside the entrance, glanced at Starsky briefly, then left. First watch? Not your usual procedure. But then neither is moving after dark.

    Guiding Hutchinson to the rear of the cave, Starsky settled the lieutenant against a rock wall. He slipped off his field pack and rubbed his stiff shoulder, then dropped to the dirt floor. Weariness washed over him. Three days on the trail felt like three weeks. He wanted a shower, hot food...and Nathan. Starsky stretched his arms and sighed. He might as well wish for the moon.

    At least he could be thankful for the cave and the protection it offered. It could be a death trap if the man out there was careless, but Nathan was on guard so Starsky relaxed and accepted the opportunity for rest.

    He wondered how much sleep Hutchinson had had in the last three days. Starsky covered his face with his hands. In this place dreams were worse than reality. Decaying, stinking bodies with blackened holes for eyes stalked him. They kept coming and coming by the thousands...there was no end to those dreams. He would wake up, drenched in sweat and jungle dampness. Then he would search out Nathan, to find strength and comfort in the man's arms. Starsky let his breath out in a sigh. Nathan. Always Nathan.

    Would Nathan always be there?

    "Can I please have some water?" Opening the canteen, Starsky helped the lieutenant hold it. "Easy. That's all we have." It was a strange feeling to be in the role of protector. "Think you can eat something?"

    The man shook his head.

    "You should try." Starsky rummaged in his pack, but didn't find anything appealing. "Will you tell me what a greenhorn, desk-bound paper pusher is doing behind enemy lines?"

    "Can we talk? I mean, is it safe?"

    "I've broken more rules of the jungle today than in all the months I've been here. Guess one more won't hurt. Might even help." Both of us. "But we have to talk quietly."

    "I can't believe this is really happening." A shaky hand touched Starsky's face, his hair. "Please tell me that you didn't kill the General." Hutchinson's voice cracked on the last word and his eyes filled with wild panic.

    Starsky extracted an aluminum packet which contained a crumpled joint and matches. Another rule, but who the hell is counting? He turned and faced the cave wall. Leaning his head almost to the ground and covering the brief flare with his hands, he lit the cigarette and inhaled the pungent smoke.

    "We'll talk about the general in the sunlight. Not now." Cupping the cigarette in his hands, he passed it to Hutchinson. "Here. Like this so it can't be seen."

    "No. I don't like that stuff. It makes me sick."

    "If I had booze, I'd give you that, but here we gotta be practical. Booze's heavy, grass isn't. You need this now." Hutchinson took the joint. "So do I."

    Starsky watched him, then looked at the entrance. "No, no. Hold the smoke longer. It'll help you relax." He took another drag and prayed the stuff would work its magic.

    They shared the silence and the company. Starsky exhaled into his cupped hands, then breathed the spicy smoke. He relaxed and remembered those times when he had shared the pain and anger and horror with Nathan. And then they would make love. For Hutchinson, there would be no such relief -- at least not in this place and time.

    Eyes closed, Starsky reviewed his favorite fantasy: the honeymoon suite of the Waikiki-Hilton...a fountain of champagne...white satin sheets...and Hutchinson. No! He shook his head. Not Hutchinson. Nathan. Always and only Nathan.

    The last of the joint -- best part. Hutchinson's fingers touched his as they exchanged the butt the final time. For a moment Starsky couldn't speak. He shredded the remaining fragment of ash. "How long since you've had any sleep?"

    "Don't know. Maybe forever."

    "Well, Lieutenant, tomorrow's gonna be one hell of a long day. Close your eyes and don't think -- about anything. If you don't sleep, you'll drop from exhaustion and I can't carry you."

    "Would he really shoot me?"

    "Yes." Both of us.

    Hutchinson leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, shivering. Starsky hoped the man would try to accept reality, but maybe he would be better off if he did not.

    Nathan came in and settled at the opposite side of the cave as one of the Laotians went out. Starsky checked the time, assuming he would pull last watch. Nathan was as silent as the jungle. Jungle quiet was different from city quiet. Here the noises that should have been natural were overpowered by man's war. But with the help of a little weed, the right company and some good hard fucking, even the turmoil was muted. Don't think about anything...bad advice, Starsky old man. Think about Nathan...tall, lean, hard...fuckin' beautiful. And ready. Christ, he's always ready, always good. Long, probing fingers that knew his body inside and out. Strong sensuous mouth that drove him crazy. Hard cock jutting proudly from dark curls, darker than his own. If only Nathan would let me fuck him. Just once.

    Starsky's pants were tight across his groin. He was trying to ease the constriction when Hutchinson stirred, crying out. Starsky covered the man's mouth with his hand, pulling the blond head into his lap. The lieutenant whimpered, his body tense and sweaty, then he tightened his arms around Starsky's thigh. Starsky moved his hand away from the trembling mouth and stroked Hutchinson's back. Nightmares. In this goddamn place, they were a part of life.

    "Sshh. It's all right. Relax. Sleep. That's good." A practiced litany. Starsky had decided it was part of basic training: How to save your sanity with lies.

    But it worked.

    This time was no exception. Hutchinson's body relaxed, his breathing slowed. He rested his head on Starsky's leg; the grip on Starsky's thigh remained an iron band.

    Trapped. Starsky settled back against the wall. He was trapped by the young -- ha! he's no younger than me; it just seems that way -- lieutenant whose hand should have been anywhere else, trapped by his love for Nathan and by the forces that had condemned him to this war.

    Flare of a match across the cave. Nathan? Another jungle rule broken. But Nathan never broke the rules. Starsky stared at the orange glow, then touched the face of the man sleeping in his lap. A lot of things have happened that have kept you alive. I hope you're worth it.

    The point of light disappeared and darkness reigned. Closing his eyes, he knew he should sleep, but knew he couldn't. He tried to see his lover, but the man had been swallowed by the night. Only the blond remained. Both men tormented his thoughts.

* * * * * *

Los Angeles, California Wednesday 15 October 1973

    Starsky stood by the window and stretched, staring out into the deserted street. "Hutch?"

    No response.

    He glanced at his sleeping partner, then went in search of a suitable john. A cat shrieked its displeasure at his choice and fled into the night. Stupid cat. How the hell was I supposed to know this spot was occupied?

    Leaning against the door frame, he lingered over a cigarette. At least he wasn't cooped up in the car with Hutch. This little room was confining enough, he didn't think he could handle anything closer.

    He poured the last of the root beer into his Styrofoam cup, wishing it was coffee. Long, dull nights needed coffee. It went well with the memories that drifted to the surface.

* * * * * *

Vietnam Sunday 8 October 1967

    Home?

    No.

    Never that.

    But the camp was a familiar place, somewhere Starsky could rest without fear of the enemy, the jungle, or the awesome responsibility he, and every member of his team, carried each time they went out together. This trip had been worse with the added burden of Hutchinson. But now it was over. He felt the weight lift from his shoulders as he pointed the lieutenant in the direction of the officers' quarters, hoping the man had sense enough to find the shower and a bed, and he headed to the shower himself.

    Hot water pounded his body, removing the surface mud and slime. But jungle water couldn't wash away jungle stench. And nothing washed away the blood. "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood from my hands?"

    The water turned cold and he grabbed his towel. He stared at his hands, imagining the blood, remembering the friends and the enemies dead by his hand. His reflection stared accusingly at him from the cracked, mildewed mirror. How many dead, Starsky? How many more? He closed his eyes and saw a vision of Lieutenant Hutchinson. At least your blood won't be on my hands.

    Nathan appeared behind him, image swimming in the distorted glass. He took Starsky's hand, and laid two red capsules on the palm. "Take them, Davy. I need you functioning, not dead on your feet."

    Throwing the pills across the room, he yelled, "Fuck off, you lousy sonuvabitch. All you need me for is the dirty work. 'Put the bullet between his eyes, Davy,' and then to make it better you roll me over and fuck me through the floor."

    "Guilt's a little strong this time, isn't it?" The sarcasm was obvious.

    He whirled to face Nathan. "Don't patronize me you goddamn cocksucker. What would you know about guilt? I do the killing. All of it."

    "Don't raise your voice to me, soldier. This is still the army."

    "Terrific. Pull rank. Your bars over my stripes. Well, Captain Wise, you can have my fuckin' stripes. I don't give a shit if you have stars on your shoulders. I've had it up to here," Starsky waved his hand over his head, "with you and your fuckin' orders and this fucked up place...."

    "He really got to you, didn't he?"

    He hated the sneer on the handsome face. "Who?"

    "Don't play coy. It doesn't become you."

    "Fuck off!"

    "You broke a lot of rules for that lieutenant. You could have gotten us all killed."

    "I'm not stupid -- or careless. And Hutchinson didn't deserve to die. He followed orders -- he kept his mouth shut and did as he was told. Goddamnit! He walked out of the fucking jungle, I didn't carry him. I only did what I had to do. If you think I endangered the team, then you transfer my ass out of here. I can be packed in five minutes."

    "The colonel's gonna want to know why I let Hutchinson walk out. He's a risk."

    "Why don't you tell him the truth: that you don't have the guts to do your own killing." Starsky jerked his pants over damp skin. Then caution ignored, he jeered, "Or you got another reason he should die?"

* * * * * *

    Starsky's eyes were dry, and his mouth felt like cotton. His body screamed for rest, but his mind refused. He wandered around the camp like a zombie, unable to sleep, unable to eat. Mike Saunders had provided a flip-top box of Marlboros still sealed in cellophane. He clutched the treasure in his hand. Maybe he could smoke them before the jungle dampness contaminated them.

    On the west side of the camp was a secluded area where a huge, dead tree had fallen in front of a living one. It was his favorite spot because it was a place where he could be comfortable and alone. He perched on the dead tree with his back against the live one. Slowly, he pulled the little gold tab that undid the cellophane, ran his thumb across the slit in the red box and pushed the lid open. Under the foil stood twenty round white filters. The mark of civilization.

    The cigarette had the rich taste its bouquet had promised. Starsky leaned into the tree, closed his eyes to think about the Marlboro man, wild and free and in control of his destiny. Maybe the good fairy would go through the camp and change all the Camels to....

    "Colonel Greene, I want to file a formal protest. Sir, do you know what happened out there?" Hutchinson's voice cut through the evening air like an ice storm.

    "Yes, Lieutenant. I know exactly what happened."

    "Aren't you going to do anything about it, sir?" Hutchinson shouted.

    "If it were possible, I'd recommend the team for a medal. It isn't."

    "A medal? But Colonel--"

    "Lieutenant Hutchinson, I assume you didn't make this much noise on the trail. Captain Wise would have shot you on the spot. I'm still not sure why he brought you back."

    "Wasn't Wise, sir. It was Sergeant Starsky."

    "Then if I were you, Lieutenant, I'd get down on my knees and thank the man for saving your life. I know Dave Starsky and he took one hell of a chance. Navigating enemy territory is tricky business. We don't usually waste time on useless personnel."

    "Colonel, I resent--"

    "Let me explain some facts of life, Lieutenant. Wise and his team were assigned to rescue a general -- you know, a guy with stars where you have that shiny little bar -- if possible. If not, Wise was to follow the general's orders. You were there, Lieutenant. What were General Williams' final orders?"

    "Are you telling me that he actually ordered his own execution?"

    "What shape was the general in?"

    "He couldn't stand. They shattered his knee caps. It was awful, sir. He was bleeding inside...."

    "What choice did he have?"

    "Jesus Christ!" A door slammed.

    "Welcome to Vietnam, Lieutenant."

    In the jungle silence Starsky lit another cigarette. He watched the smoke curl upwards to mingle with the dust in the rays of the setting sun. The jungle didn't have real sunsets, where a man could sit and watch the sky change color as the sun grew into a large orange ball, then slipped into the ocean. No, here the sunsets were obscured by the trees. The light came at lower and lower angles until it just disappeared.

    Starsky missed the sunsets. He'd never really enjoyed this particular splendor of nature until his first summer in L.A. He'd sat on the beach, complaining that the water was on the wrong side of the land. The west was all backwards -- but then Californians did a lot of things differently. He liked California and he liked sunsets, especially September sunsets.

    A twig snapped. Automatically he rolled off the log, using it for cover, and ground out his cigarette.

    Hutchinson stopped and stared with empty blue eyes.

    "Lieutenant?"

    Deep gasping breath. "Am I going crazy?"

    Settling back on his log bench, Starsky lit two cigarettes, "No, you're not going crazy." Hutchinson stepped forward and extended his hand. But maybe I am. Starsky's fingers burned as they touched Hutchinson's. The man was clean, his blond hair shining in the soft light. The full mouth quivered and Starsky wondered how sweet the lips would taste. He watched the lieutenant's cigarette and sighed. The light shifted, the effect of the sun on gold lessening.

    Hutchinson sat down on the other end of the log. "What are we doing here?"

    "Not going to Canada."

    "Huh?" Hutchinson studied his hands, then looked up. "Why didn't you go to Canada?"

    "I guess I wasn't bright enough to understand what this place's all about."

    "Would you run if you could choose again?"

    "I guess that would depend on if I knew how rotten this place really is. I thought the guys who went to Canada were cowards. Afraid to fight. Maybe they were just smarter 'an me." The cigarette burned too fast. "You?"

    "I got bored with school. Philosophy's a crock of shit. Law's the same thing -- they're both designed for the rich. Nothing was interesting or challenging, so I quit going to class. Can I have another one of these?" He ground out the butt. "What I really wanted to do was bum around Europe for a while and get my act together. There was this ...ah...girl...." He stared off into the jungle and was silent.

    Starsky lit two more Marlboros and waited. "So what happened?" Hutchinson took the cigarette, letting his hand linger. But when Starsky searched the beautiful blue eyes, there was no sign of interest or intent.

    "Dad bought me a place in O.T.S. James Robert Hutchinson, attorney-at-law. Power behind the throne in New Mexico politics, or at least he will be when he finishes building the Republican party in his own image."

    Starsky winced at the hostility.

    "Oh, I had to promise to finish school -- sometime." He waved the cigarette. "I've decided to pursue a career in basket weaving. Could be a real asset in a place like this." The laughter was bitter. "This place. I wasn't supposed to be touched by this war. My mother fucked half the staff on Capitol Hill to secure me a safe job in D.C. 'Course I was supposed to make something of myself." He shredded the white filter, sprinkling it over the ground. "Politics suck!"

    "Why did the army send you over here? We're not supposed to get untrained personnel."

    "I volunteered."

    "You what?"

    "The way General Williams described it, it sounded like a pleasure trip. Honolulu, Tokyo, Saigon, Bangkok, Manila...we were supposed to fly over the fighting, make a report. No big deal. There was no mention of crashing in this fucking jungle."

    "Don't suppose he planned it that way."

    "No, I guess not. He's dead and...." Hutchinson concentrated on a dry leaf, then he crushed it. He watched a spider crawl over the log. "How could you? I mean...you just...."

    Starsky opened the flip-top box. Closed it. He fumbled in his shirt pocket, pulled out a small bundle of aluminum foil and unrolled it. The joint was damp, but he was able to light it. He handed it to Hutchinson.

    "Your answer to everything?"

    "Maybe. Lieutenant, have you ever killed a man?"

    "Of course not."

    "Then don't pass judgment on something you don't understand."

    "Do you understand it? The killing, I mean. Do you...?" Hutchinson looked at the ground. "Do you...get off on it?"

    "No, Lieutenant, I don't understand. I only know that here, in this place, I have to take lives -- of friends, of enemies, of people like General Williams. I hate it. I hate the killing -- I hate this whole fuckin' place." The sweet smoke tickled his nose, burning deep in his lungs, finally blurring his pain.

    "Why do you do it?"

    "Because it has to be done." He thought about an endless highway littered with dead cats. He shook his head and took the joint, greedy for its solace.

    "You could stop. Run away."

    "Yeah. And spend the rest of my life running. I can't live like that -- I want a future, and that means staying here for a while longer."

    "Do you think you can handle the ghosts?"

    "Don't know. I might even be one of 'em." Starsky laid his hand over Hutchinson's, ignoring the resulting sensations. He forced himself to look directly at the lieutenant. "Get out. Get out of this place before it destroys you."

    Rustle of leaves. "Davy?"

    "Here."

    A hand settled on his shoulder, a kiss touched his ear. "Thought I'd find you here. Why aren't you sleeping?"

    "Can't."

    "I'm sorry about earlier. I shouldn't have been so rough on you." Nathan took the joint from Starsky's fingers, inhaled deeply.

    "What's with you two?" The startled gasp was only a whisper.

    "Thought you'd be gone by now, pretty boy." Nathan's voice was full of contempt.

    "Nathan, please." Starsky took the man's hand, squeezing his fingers.

    Hutchinson stood and glared at Starsky. "Now I know why you don't run. I thought you were a man -- you're just a lousy cocksucker!"

    Nathan's hand cracked across the lieutenant's face, knocking him to the ground. Nathan's voice was quiet, laced with anger. Deadly. "How many of those pretty little girls did you fuck while you were in Saigon, Lieutenant? I'll just bet they fell all over themselves trying to please you. They're fascinated by pretty blond German gods--"

    "I'm not German--"

    "Are you a real blond?" He reached for Hutchinson's pants. "One way to find out--"

    "Get your fuckin' hands off me!" Hutchinson was on his feet, hands balled into fists. "You goddamn, fucking queer." He swung wide; Nathan threw a punch to the abdomen. Hutchinson dropped to his knees.

    "Every time you fuck one of those pretty little girls--" Nathan stood over the lieutenant, finger punctuating each word, "--you leave a pretty blond baby behind. Do you know what happens to blonde blue-eyed Oriental girls, Lieutenant? They're half-breeds, outcasts. By age thirteen they're out on the streets fucking soldiers, trying to stay alive."

    Nathan stepped away, draping an arm around Starsky's shoulders. Hutchinson was still. "If Davy and I wanna fool around, what business is it of yours? If I fuck him seven times a week, what difference does it make? We don't hurt anyone. We don't leave a trail of babies. Think about it, Lieutenant. How many fourteen year olds have you fucked?"

    Hutchinson struggled to his feet.

    "Get out of here, Lieutenant. Stay away from me and stay away from Davy. Just get the hell out of here before you fuck up anything else."

    Stumbling toward the camp, Hutchinson tripped over a tree root. A sharp pain sliced into Starsky's heart. "Why'd you have to do that?"

    "I don't like him." Nathan's fingers caressed Starsky's shoulder. "He's been nothing but trouble since I first laid eyes on him. His type always are. Goddamn Aryan superiority."

    "I don't think that's--"

    The rest of it was lost as his head was tipped back, his neck stroked, his mouth captured. Slipping his arms around Nathan, Starsky dissolved into the heady sensations. Time stood still. Reality faded.

    Pulling Starsky up, Nathan undid the shirt buttons and ran his fingers through the dark chest hair. He traced lightly over an exposed nipple and it hardened under the touch.

    "C'mon lover, I'll take you to bed. Make you forget all about Blondie, the war, everything. Everything 'cept me. Don't ever want you to forget me."

    "I love you." Starsky pulled himself up and swayed into the strong arms, accepting another kiss. "Love me."

* * * * * *

Vietnam Tuesday 10 October 1967

    Starsky woke, opened his eyes a tiny slit, and stretched his body. It was the wrong thing to do. The pain intensified, traveling down his legs, up his spine, wrapping around his heart and bringing tears to his eyes. He reached out, wanting the comfort of Nathan's arms.

    He was alone. It was a privilege he rated for being so good at his job.

    The room inside the canvas walls was a barren cell, green on drab olive green. It offered little protection and no comfort. The cot was small and confining. He closed his eyes, longing for a real bed and Nathan's arms. He needed a little love now because he hurt, inside and out.

    Nathan could be so gentle at times, his fingers and mouth knowing exactly how to please. It had been that way last night--in the beginning. Nathan's mouth had worked its magic, pulling the soul from Starsky's body.

    And then....

    And then something had changed. Nathan changed -- into a brutalizing beast. Starsky hated his lover in that mood. Punishment and possession at the same time. He moved again, trying to relax into the pain. There was a terrible emptiness in him now. If only Nathan was here, it would be all right. A few soft words, an I love you, maybe, would make all the pain bearable.

    But the words had not been spoken.

    The hard cock had rammed into his body again and again until Starsky had lost count, and the pain had ruled supreme. For those endless hours he had hated his tormentor. And now, alone, that hatred mingled with agony.

    He pushed himself off the cot, sweat stinging the long welts across his back and down his legs. Rummaging through the contents of his battered foot-locker, he found the bottle of pills, and swallowed two red capsules with a gulp of tepid water. He curled into a ball on the tiny cot, and closed his eyes and his heart.

    It was late afternoon when he woke again. The pain had not eased. Forcing his feet to the floor, he made himself stand. It hurt.

    In the shower he stood motionless under a stream of tepid water, hoping it would have the power to soothe the aches. It didn't work today. As he toweled his hair, sunlight seeped through a crack in the wall and touched a puddle of water, creating a rainbow. Hutchinson. Starsky wanted to see the man who somehow managed to carry sunlight in his smile.

* * * * * *

    "Gone? Gone where, Colonel?"

    "Airlifted out early this morning. Medic's report listed high fever, delirium, numerous mosquito bites. Probable diagnosis: dengue fever."

    Starsky wasn't sure if the Colonel had said anything else. He fled from the office, refusing to think, refusing to acknowledge the pain in his heart. He stumbled over to his log, sat down, and began to strip leaves from a twig.

    The sun slipped between the trees, lower and lower, the muted light softening the jungle. He wanted to cry; he prayed to be able to cry. He hoped it would take away the dull pain in his chest. The light shifted, reflected off something...the Marlboro box from last night. Twenty four hours. An entire lifetime.

    The package had been trampled and buried, covered with mud. Inside, among the crushed remains, were two cigarettes nestled together -- stained and wet, but undamaged. The paper was white where they had been touching.

    Starsky laid the cigarettes on the log, staring at them until the sunlight was gone.

* * * * * *

Vietnam Thursday 12 October 1967

    "Davy."

    "Here." His depression deepened. Nathan was his only hope, his only reason for living -- and right now he didn't like Nathan very much.

    "You haven't eaten in two days."

    "I'm not hungry."

    "I don't want you to get sick." The gentle touch on his arm made Starsky shiver.

    "Please, just leave me alone."

    "But the cook made this especially for you."

    "I don't want it."

    "Sergeant, I'll make it an order if I have to."

    Anger boiled inside of Starsky. He hadn't hated Nathan this much since the first time, when Nathan had violated him. "You always fall back on that, don't you? If you can't seduce me, then you order me." Starsky twisted away, his back to the man. "Now's not the time for either."

    "What do you want from me, David?"

    He turn to faced his lover, unable to see clearly in the deepening gloom. "To hear you say 'I love you'...." He shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe just to wake up in your arms. I wanna sleep with you, Nathan, not just get fucked by you." The weight of the world descended on his shoulders. He had no energy left to stand.

    Strong arms caught him as he fell, easing him onto the log, supporting his back against the tree. "You could have made your point without the dramatics," Nathan whispered softly.

    "Sorry. I'll be all right in a minute."

    "You'll be all right after you've eaten. Here, open your mouth." Tiny bits of cheeseburger were poked into Starsky's mouth.

    "Did you cook this?"

    "Who, me? You know I don't know one end of the kitchen from another." Another morsel. "I just supervised."

    "It's good." And so was the service -- pieces of food lovingly placed in his mouth. When it was gone, he licked all traces from Nathan's fingers.

    "Better?"

    "Yeah." Starsky smiled.

    "Good. C'mere." Nathan settled himself onto the log and spread his legs, inviting Starsky to sit. He straddled the log, leaning back until his head rested against the broad chest and Nathan's arms encircled his waist.

    "Ummmm." Teeth nibbled at Starsky's ear. Together, they sat in silence, Starsky enjoying the quiet. The war went away for a little while.

    Nathan's arms tightened and Starsky stirred. He barely heard the soft question. "What'd you see in him?"

    "Him who?" He snuggled deeper into Nathan's embrace.

    "That blond lieutenant."

    Starsky closed his eyes, fighting the memory of Nathan's abuse. "Nothing really." Please, let it go.

    "I know you better than that, Davy. You were aching for him to fuck you."

    "He's beautiful. Okay, so I turn on to beautiful blonds." Starsky sighed, attempting to pacify his lover but the mood was shattered, his dream gone. "He's straight."

    "You sure?"

    "I'm sure." Bright golden fantasy eclipsed by dark reality. He patted Nathan's hand. "Besides, he's gone. Neither of us will ever see him again."

    The silence was no longer peaceful, and Starsky could feel another storm brewing. He didn't think he could handle another emotional scene, physically or mentally. He turned his head so that his mouth was just inches from Nathan's. "I love you. Just you. No one else." He sealed his pledge with a kiss.

    Starsky squirmed as his lover's hands roamed his body, then covered his crotch. He pushed into the contact, drowning in the images: Nathan holding him, rocking him, loving him, fucking him. It wasn't enough. "No!" Starsky pulled free of the embrace and stood up, clinging to a tree trunk. "I can't."

    Nathan was beside him again, hands running down his back, across his ass. Starsky flinched at the memory and its pain. "What's happening to us, Davy?"

    "I'm not sure there is an us. Is there?"

    "You have to ask?"

    "After last night I have to ask a lot of things. You could have stayed with me. I think I could handle the pain if you'd sleep with me."

    Arms encircled Starsky, pulling him away from the safety of the tree. "Does it mean that much to you?"

    "Yes."

    They stood silent, bodies pressed together. Starsky felt the fire kindle in the pit of his stomach, spreading to his fingers and toes. He hated it, and Nathan, and the jungle. He hated the spasm of pain that shot through his body as Nathan lowered him to the damp ground. Nathan's mouth touched his lips and ears, and neck, Nathan's fingers undid shirt buttons and stroked his chest.

    "Nathan, don't," he pleaded. "I can't. Don't you know what you did to me last night?"

    "I won't hurt you. Davy, please trust me. Let me make it better." Nathan's hand tugged at his zipper. "Relax. You want me. You always want me."

    Nathan pulled the cock free, stroked the shaft, ran a fingertip across the head. "Yes." Starsky arched into the caress. I always want you. I always will. He gasped as Nathan's mouth took him, the clever tongue outlining ridges and valleys. Trembling, Starsky tangled his fingers in Nathan's dark hair. Gentle fingers massaged his balls, but strayed no further.

    Afterwards, Nathan stretched beside him, licking his lips. "Good?"

    Starsky raised his hand, stroked the man's face. "Always." He drifted, happy, as he settled into Nathan's warm arms and let sleep overrule the problems that lurked in the back of his mind.

    Damp. He tried to roll away but the wetness surrounded him. Warmth. "Ummm." He snuggled into it. His hair was stroked.

    "You awake?"

    "Ummmm." Don't wanna be.

    Fingers tugged at his short curls. "C'mon, lover boy, I better get you home. Can't let you sleep on the damp ground when you've got a bed."

    Twining his arms around Nathan, Starsky buried his face in the man's chest. "Rather stay here with you. Forever."

    "I know." Starsky's chin was lifted and he tried to see clearly in the jungle gloom. "But there's a war on."

    "Fuck the war," Starsky muttered.

    "I'd rather fuck you." Starsky cringed and Nathan hugged him tightly.

    "Why won't you let me make love to you?" The question escaped before he could stop it.

    The silence was deadly.

    "I could make it so good for you," Starsky purred. "I could start with my tongue, eat you alive...touch you, explore you, make you fly...." He leaned over to nibble at the cock that bulged against the khaki.

    "No!" Jumping to his feet, Nathan left Starsky sprawled on the ground. "I can't, goddamnit! Leave me alone."

    Standing, he faced Nathan, making no attempt to contain his bitterness. "What's the matter big man, you think my fuckin' you makes you queer? Your ass ain't no different than anyone el--" An open hand branded his face. "That make you feel more like a man? Can't you get off unless you hurt me? I hate you, you lousy son of a bitch." Trouble is, I love you too. He took a step towards the main part of the camp; Nathan gripped his arm. Without breaking stride, Starsky tore himself free. "Go to hell!"

    Restless in the sticky jungle night, Starsky cuddled a pillow to his chest and indulged in fantasy. Beautiful blond man, gold and blue and white, pinioned on the bed, begging to be loved.

    He hugged the pillow tighter. Right now an impossible fantasy was better than his bitter reality.

* * * * * *

Los Angeles, California Wednesday 15 August 1973

    Impossible fantasy. Starsky watched his partner sleep. The man was sprawled across the small cot, one arm covering his eyes, the other resting on faded denim. Beautiful man. From the first moment I saw you I knew you were special. I wanted you so badly I hurt. I still do. But I couldn't have you then and I can't have you now. Our friendship and partnership is more than I ever dreamed we could have when you disappeared from my life as fast as you appeared....

* * * * * *

Vietnam Saturday 14 October 1967

    One fifteen.

    One sixteen.

    One seventeen.

    The time crawled and staring at his watch didn't help. He moved the cot around the small tent, then put it back. This war was either hot or cold. He was either running himself to death or doing nothing. The long stretches of boring nothingness were the hardest to handle because there was so much time to think. These days he had too many things he didn't want to think about. Like Nathan.

    Starsky had not seen the man for three days. If anyone, including the colonel, knew where Nathan was, they were not talking. He shrugged his shoulders. Maybe it was just as well. Maybe he and Nathan did not have any reason to see each other anymore.

    The unmistakable sound of a helicopter interrupted his misery and he brightened. Mail. Maybe a box of cookies from his mother. He wondered if she knew how much those cookies meant. Probably. She was a very perceptive lady. Chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, sugar...Maybe a box of sugar cookies cut in his favorite shapes and decorated with colored frosting. He smiled in anticipation.

    The chopper was full; four men returning from various points and assignments. A young Negro grabbed his arm. "Hey man, good to see you again."

    "Yeah, Reed. Nice to see you back. How's the arm?"

    "Good as new." Allen Reed moved his left arm in a large circle. "Wasn't as bad as I thought. The MASH unit fixed me right up."

    "Too bad it didn't get you outta here."

    "Yeah," Reed sighed. "But dead'd get me out, too. I'd just as soon walk out of this stinkin' place." He draped his arm around Starsky's shoulders. "How about some coffee?"

    "Sounds good. Let me check the mail, maybe Ma sent cookies."

    While he waited for the mail to be sorted, he thought about his home in the middle of noisy New York. The smell of food cooking was constant: Italian, French, Jewish in a wild mixture. Holiday smells were the best. Added to that were the family sounds of people he loved. His father carving the roast or making a toast. His mother in her cotton dresses and bright aprons. Those sounds and smells and feelings had carried him through some rough times, but none as rough as now.

* * * * * *

    In the mess tent, Starsky spooned more sugar into his cup. It helped make up for no cookies.

    "Do you know a guy named Hutchinson?" Reed asked.

    "A lieutenant?"

    Reed nodded.

    "Yeah. He was here for a few days. Why?"

    "He came to the hospital while I was there. He was feverish, kept screaming your name."

    "What happened?"

    Reed lit a cigarette and studied if for a moment. "I'm not sure. The doctors didn't seem to be able to handle him. He fought the IVs, broke the restraints and screamed your name over and over. Some time during the night they carried him out of the ward."

    "Where'd they take him?"

    "Don't know. Nobody seemed to know anything. This morning I asked a couple of the nurses and they acted like they didn't even know what I was talkin' about. Strange, you know?"

    The cup fell from his hand, dripping coffee over the table and onto his pants.

    "Hey man, you know what's goin' on?"

    "No." Of course I do. So that's where you've been. He bolted from the room.

    The log and tree retreat was both heaven and hell: Shared moments with a blond god; last fight with Nathan. Shredding a Camel, he spilled the tobacco onto the damp ground, then buried his face in his hands. Oh, God, why did I think I could save you? I should have killed you when I killed General Williams. Would have saved us all a lot of grief. And no matter who did the job, your blood stains my hands. He raised his head. Why, Nathan? To punish me or clean up after me?

    He stared into the thick ceiling of leaves and watched the light filter through the branches. There was a piece of the sun he would never see again. Of course Reed couldn't find Hutchinson. The man was dead. The U. S. Army couldn't afford to let Hutchinson live, a brash young lieutenant who knew too much about too many things. If he breathed one word of the Williams incident--

    "Davy?" The sound was as warm as the hand that stroked his neck.

    Jumping from his seat, he faced his lover. "You goddamned son of a bitch. Why you? Couldn't they find anyone else -- or did you volunteer?"

    "Volunteer for what?"

    "Don't give me that shit. Where have you been for the past three days?"

    "Da Nang. Davy, what's wrong?" Nathan held out his arms.

    "Go to hell! That's where you sent Hutchinson."

    "Are you telling me he's dead?"

    "As if you didn't know. What do you do with a man suffering from high fever and delirium? A little potassium chloride, maybe? Quick, effective and damn hard to trace. Or do you just dump the body in the jungle and lie to the family--"

    The blow knocked him to the ground. "You're hysterical, Sergeant. Now shut up and listen to me."

    Nathan extended his hand. Starsky looked at it, then pulled himself up. "You...didn't do it?"

    "No, Davy. I didn't do it. I didn't even know he was dead. I was in Da Nang -- I had to give a complete report, including Hutchinson, to General Peterson about the Williams incident. Davy, oh Davy, I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had to find out." He tipped Starsky's head back and caressed his chin and neck.

    "Why did he have to die?"

    "You know the answer to that." Fingers combed Starsky's curls.

    "You don't think there's a chance he's still alive?"

    "Davy, don't. Please don't do this to yourself, don't tear yourself apart. Hutchinson was a casualty. You tried to defy Fate and you lost. You can't save the world." Strong arms wrapped around Starsky and breath fluttered against his ear. "What made him so special?"

    Starsky shrugged, then pulled Nathan closer. "Don't really know. Except he was so beautiful. One man shouldn't have that much beauty."

    "Maybe that's why he had to die."

    "It's just not fair."

    "There's no such thing as fair." Nathan rested his chin on Starsky's head. "I'm sorry, Davy. Sorry about the whole mess."

    "Yeah."

    Silence settled between them, comforting and companionable, an atmosphere they had not shared since Hutchinson and General Williams. Starsky sighed. Had Nathan known what the outcome would be? Of course he had. Starsky, you stupid fool. You knew, too. You just refused to admit it. He pulled back and studied Nathan's face. What about you? How much of what you did on the trail and right here in this spot was to protect me? And how much was jealousy? He would never know. He would never understand -- not Nathan nor the war nor his part in it nor why Hutchinson had to die.

    All he knew was the warmth of Nathan's arms as they held him and the soft breath against his neck. He closed his eyes and allowed the false euphoria to weave its web around him. Maybe the love he felt for Nathan would ease the pain of guilt and loss. Maybe Hutchinson's kind of beauty was always destined to die young. He tried to forget, to let it go but the few memories and the golden fantasies remained.

    "Davy."

    Starsky looked up and accepted the invitation of Nathan's parted lips. "Ummmm." He floated in the blissfulness. "Love me. Please." Make me forget.

    "Not here." Nathan tugged at his arms. "Let's go."

    "What's wrong with here?"

    "Nothing. But I've got a better place." Nathan kissed him again, then led the way back to camp.

    Your tent? Not usual procedure, but then usual procedure seemed to vanish when Hutchinson appeared. He followed Nathan to his quarters, a small green canvas enclosure with no personality. There was nothing in this room that made it Nathan's. It was stark, bare, almost cold.

    "Gotta surprise for you, Davy."

    Starsky turned his mouth for a kiss. Nathan's lips brushed his lightly. He closed his eyes, hungry for more.

    "Look at me."

    Paper rustled, tickling his nose. He opened his eyes. "What?"

    "A three day pass. Three days in Da Nang. Just the two of us."

    "A three day pass?! How? Why?"

    "We earned it, Davy-boy. There won't be any medals for us -- General Williams isn't something we can ever talk about." Warm arms surrounded Starsky, pulled him close. "So I asked the colonel for a pass. I kinda hoped it would help you forget this mess."

    Starsky shivered and Nathan's embrace tightened.

    "Death is a part of life, Davy," he said softly. "You've learned that, but I don't think you'll ever accept it."

* * * * * *

Vietnam Friday 20 October 1967

    The evening air was jungle damp and tasted of sea spray and spicy Oriental food. Starsky pinched fried mee from the warm banana leaf in his hands and stuffed it into his mouth. He wondered why he'd ever shunned this terrific stuff. He looked around the market place, watching people go about their lives in the midst of chaos. He decided that when the war was over, he'd come back and see Asia as a tourist.

    A light tap on his shoulder. Nathan snagged the last of the mee and tossed the leaf to the ground. "Here. Local beer."

    The bottle was cold in Starsky's hand, the liquid soothing to his throat. "This is good."

    "And powerful. It's not Colorado kool-aid."

    Happiness bubbled through Starsky. I love you. He lifted his head, lowering his eyelashes. "Why, soldier, are you trying to get me drunk?" He giggled and drained the bottle.

    Nathan tousled his short curls. "Of course not, beautiful."

    Blushing, he looked up. "Do you really think I'm beautiful?"

    "You are the most beautiful man in the whole world. C'mon, I want to show you something."

    The Da Nang Holiday Inn. Three floors of rooms that housed more lice and rats than people. Most of the glass was gone from the windows and the walls held only the memory of paint.

    In the middle of the room stood a double bed, its tall bamboo headboard splintered and cracked. The faded batik spread had a large hole on one side. Curtains, stirring in the humid breeze, might once have matched the spread. Paper was peeling behind the rickety bureau. It was the most beautiful room Starsky had ever seen.

    He eased onto the edge of the bed, expecting the mirage to fade. When the surface proved solid underneath him, he smiled. He lifted the spread and found clean sheets. He felt warm all over.

    A champagne cork popped.

    "Where'd you get that?"

    The wine sang as it touched crystal. "I've got friends."

    Fondling the wine glass, he watched the tiny bubbles rise to the surface. "Do you know what you're doing to me?"

    Nathan's finger outlined his lips. "Making you happy." The finger moved to his ear. "Am I succeeding?"

    His heart skipped a beat. "Yes, but...."

    "But what?"

    Starsky rose and moved to the window, peered out into the night. "It's too perfect and I feel--" A flush stained his cheeks. "Nathan, I feel like a virgin."

    Nathan rarely laughed, but when he did it was like a shaft of sunlight in a storm. He laughed now. "Davy, oh my Davy -- you were a virgin. C'mon. Sit with me on the bed. Our bed."

    Glass in hand, Starsky relaxed on the faded spread, the texture like fine silk. The champagne tickled his nose. He looked up at his lover. "It's good."

    "Only the best for you." Nathan dropped to his knees. Nathan. Their eyes met and held, then he took Starsky's glass and sipped the golden liquid. "I've wanted this since I first saw you. I wanted to seduce you and make love to you. You deserve more than the floor of a cave or a second class hotel." He pushed Starsky gently down onto the bed.

    A real bed. It squeaked, and he giggled. His body trembled with indefinable happiness until Nathan turned the laughter into passion.

* * * * * *

    In the darkness, their bodies still joined, Nathan's rapid breathing was hot on Starsky's shoulder. When the panting slowed, it was replaced by hesitant words. "This...this should have been our first time, Davy. I wanted everything to be perfect for us. I should never have raped you." Shaky breath. "You did not deserve to be treated like a whore. But...I thought it was the only way. I hand-picked Sam, you know, trained him, taught him English -- knowing I'd lose him to this fuckin war."

    Starsky drew a shaky breathe and waited.

    The confession continued. "I used you and I'm sorry. I wanted you, needed you, so I took you. All I ever wanted was to love you."

    Stroking the strong hands, Starsky let the words wash over him, erasing the pain of their first coupling. He knew and understood so much more now -- about himself and about the man he loved. He accepted what Nathan offered: these words, this bed, this night. Our wedding night.

* * * * * *

Vietnam Saturday 21 October 1967

    The first rays of sun touched his eyelids, the life giving force warming his blood. Starsky snuggled deeper into the bed, and Nathan's arms. He smiled. The world had taken on new color, new life, new hope. The arms tightened and a hard cock pressed against Starsky's thigh. He wiggled. He could still feel Nathan's presence inside his body. Soon I will make love to you. Show you the pleasure of being loved, being possessed. I want you screaming for me the way you make me scream for you.

    Nathan's eyes opened. Beautiful eyes, chocolate brown, heavy with sleep. The sunlight added specks of gold. "Morning, lover."

    "Morning. Welcome to the first day of the rest of our lives."

    "Happy?" Lips grazed Starsky's.

    "Happier than I've ever been. I can handle anything as long as I start each day like this."

    A sharp rap at the door interrupted the idyll. "Captain Wise?"

    Nathan sighed and pulled away from Starsky. "Yes."

    "Message for you."

    "Just a minute." Nathan pulled on his pants and went to the door.

    Starsky could see a Marine uniform through the slightly opened door. He realized the soldier must be able to see everything, know what he and Nathan -- he pulled the covers up around his neck and felt color climb in his face.

    The door shut quietly; Nathan turned to face the bed. He laughed -- the same soft intimate laugh from last night. "You're incredibly beautiful when you blush."

    Starsky looked at his hands, then held out his arms to Nathan. "Doesn't it bother you when people see us, know...."

    "Davy, there are a lot of things in this world that bother me, but loving you isn't one of them. And I do love you."

    "I love you, too. So what's the bad news?" Starsky asked as Nathan opened the envelope and extracted a single sheet of paper.

    "Shit! Honeymoon's over. We gotta be back in camp by tonight. New assignment tomorrow."

    "It's not fair," Starsky protested.

    "I know." Nathan reached for him, then stopped. His face grew dark, his eyes unfocused.

    "Nathan?"

    "It's okay. I'm fine."

    Starsky pulled him close. "What's wrong?"

    "Nothing. I guess the war's finally catching up with me."

    Hutchinson's face floated across Starsky's mind. Truly the most beautiful man in the world. Or he had been. "Yeah." His heart twisted. "Do we have to leave right now?"

    Pants dropped to the floor. "No."

* * * * * *

Los Angeles, California Thursday 16 August 1973

    "Starsk?"

    The sound of Hutch's voice brought him back to the present. "Yeah?"

    "Where've you been?"

    "Huh?" Dropping his feet to the floor, he straightened in the chair and lit a cigarette.

    "I just asked where you'd been."

    "Right here. Hutch? Are you awake?"

    Shoes thumped on the floor. "Have been for quite a while."

    "Why didn't you get up?" I'm glad you didn't. When you're asleep, I can look at you, dream about you, and you never know. But when you're awake -- I just don't know how much longer I can control myself.

    "Didn't seem to be any reason to. Besides, it was so quiet and peaceful -- I hated to disturb you." Hutch moved to stand beside the chair. "What were you thinking about?"

    "Nothing." Trapped. Hutch was too close. The window was a reasonable escape. Starsky stood and stared through the hole at the pink tinged sky.

    He felt the heat from Hutch's body as the words were a soft breath on the back of his neck. "What's going on?"

    "Nothing. Absolutely nothing." He pushed himself against the wall, trying to quiet his screaming body. For one moment he thought he felt Hutch's arousal -- but, no, it couldn't be.

    "Gotta take a leak." And Hutch was gone.

    Starsky leaned his forehead to the wall. Pain tightened around his heart. Hutch couldn't possibly want him as a lover. And he was so afraid of loving Hutch as much as he did. There was just no way he could stand to watch Hutch die in his arms -- and there was no way he could stand having Hutch so close and not having him. One night, the kisses, the -- No, I won't think about it.

* * * * * *

    The early morning heat promised a miserable day. Baker and Hix were late, which probably meant the traffic was backed up all the way to San Diego. He glanced at his watch; Hutch had been gone forty-five minutes. Staring at his overflowing ashtray, he refused to count the butts. They were both smoking too much. They had to quit. Soon.

    Peering out the window, he wondered if the man was consciously aware of teasing him -- the closeness, the looks, the caresses -- but he decided it was just a reaction on Hutch's part to the strain of Vanessa's actions. And his own sensitivity to his partner.

    "Sorry. Didn't mean to be gone so long."

    Turning, Starsky saw eyes the color of a clear mountain lake. He swallowed, refusing to think. "S'okay. Find anything?"

    "Not really. I circled the block -- saw Hix and Baker." Hutch stared at the ashtray and shrugged. "I'll buy your breakfast. How about IHOP? Maybe some chocolate chip pancakes."

    Stubbing out a half-finished Marlboro, Starsky managed a smile. "What're we celebrating?"

    "Oh, I dunno. How about the first Friday this week?"

    Starsky relaxed. "Okay. You drive."

    "Sure. Would you mind if I use the car today? I've got to see my lawyer."

    "Okay."

    "And then sign the lease on the cottage. I know you don't approve--"

    "Hutch--"

    "No, it's okay. That place just feels right to me and I have to go with that." He paused and looked down. "Will you help me move when we're through with this stake-out?"

    "Of course I will."

    "I'll drop you at your place. You look like you could use some rest. Why'd you let me sleep all night anyway?"

    "Wasn't tired. Am now though." He yawned and stretched. "Wish Hix and Baker would get up here."

    "Take it easy, they'll be here in a minute."

* * * * * *

    He had waited nervously while Hutch showered and changed, then left for his appointment. Having the man here was driving him crazy, but he could not bear the thought of Hutch any place else. Finally, he had collapsed on the bed, finding the sheets cool and inviting as he slid between them. Dear God, please let me sleep.

   Darkness.
    Thick, complete, total.
                    Surrounding him
                    covering him
                    concealing him.
    Smooth rock beneath bare skin.
    He cannot move.
    Links of gold chain around his wrists
    arms pulled over his head.
    Links of gold chain around his ankles
    legs spread wide.
    Open.
    Exposed.
    He waits.
                Firelight gleams
                glitters
                glows.
                Approaches .
    They surround him.
    Tall, beautiful, golden.
    Goddesses.

          Hutch.
    He is here.
    Tall, beautiful, golden.
    Perfect.
          Hutch.
    Blue fire burns at His throat, in His eyes.
    Those eyes look at him, touch him, caress him.
    The god smiles.
    He is engorged, blood-filled, bursting.
    A mouth touches him, then another, and another.
    They feed upon him, the goddesses.
    The god watches.
          Hutch.
    He cannot tear his eyes away from the burning ones.
    He looks upon the face of his god and screams.
    The lifeforce flows from him.
    Essence of being taken from him.
    He closes his eyes.
        Hutch.
    The altar is cold beneath him.
    Sudden warmth touches his skin, his legs freed, his knees spread wide.
    Open.
    Exposed.
    The god kneels between, golden hairskincock burning, burning.
    He is touched, prepared, explored.
        Hutch.
    No, god, no you can't I can't let you do this--
    He twists away, knocking his god to the floor, rough cold stone cutting into his back.
    He falls.

    The pain intensified as his feet touched the floor -- carpeted floor. The sheet was twisted around his ankle and his hands still gripped the headboard. The room reeked of sex.

Part Two

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