Hutch had loved Starsky for years. Starsky was partner, friend, companion, confidante and brother. Hutch was never too sure exactly when Starsky also became the lover he could not have. Perhaps when Simon Marcos had stolen him away, or maybe when Terri had given him back. There was no moment he could point to and say 'That's when I fell in love with Starsky'. The knowledge had only come clear to him when Starsky had withdrawn to pursue Rosie Malone.

He had been struggling with it ever since. Most of the time, it stayed decently hidden in the darker corners of his heart and he could just love Starsky. Sometimes the being in love and the wanting were so fierce that he would almost give in. Over time, he had trained himself when that happened to throw himself into a new romance or rekindle an old one. He had even come close to making the fatal mistake of crawling back into bed with Van. That he had avoided falling into her web again only proved that his survival instinct was still good.

They distracted him for a while these temporary passions. The trouble was that most women have pretty good survival instincts, too. It never took them long, if they were in the market for more than free drinks and a hard cock, to look into Hutch's heart and find that it had property of Starsky tattooed all over it.

Laura Kanen had been one of the ones looking for more. Hutch supposed that was why she was not buying his act today at their victory celebration. She would not let him use her to sublimate the longing that had been eating at him since he had seen Starsky reflected in the mirror while Hector Silinas held a gun on him. It did have a habit of grabbing him by the throat, or the balls, at the oddest moments.

But Laura wasn't buying into the game, so Hutch was floundering around unanchored in the sea of wanting Starsky. When she had hit Starsky with the pie, something within Hutch had broken. He could still taste the sweet/tart flavor on his tongue from where he had scooped a sample from Starsky's face while all he could think of was how he wanted to lick it directly from the olive skin, watch Starsky's eyes go . . . 

One, two, three, four, turn. One, two, three, four, turn. If he kept pacing, he would count. If he kept counting, he couldn't think. If he couldn't think, he couldn't plan.

His apartment was too small. So was Bay City. So was California. So was the whole fucking country. He knew he was not going to resist this time. For a clumsy man, Hutch had walked his emotional tightrope for an admirably long time, but he had finally fallen. He began to plan.

"Tacos? You made me tacos?"

The incredulous tone, the disbelief on the beautiful features made Hutch smile. He let his gaze run over the plentitude of bowls that graced his table, each one filled with an ingredient he had labored over.

"Meat, peppers, cheese, tomatoes, onions. You remembered everything."

The smile turned into a grin as his partner slipped into his chair, laid an extra large tortilla on his plate and began to create a masterpiece. Starsky had gobbled down half of the bulging result before he noted Hutch's inaction.

"Ain'tcha havin' some?"

Hutch reached out from where he sat across the table and thumbed away a dribble of sour cream/taco sauce from the corner of Starsky's lips. He brought the smeared digit to his mouth and licked it clean, his gaze never wavering from his partner's.


Hutch ignored the question in eyes and tone. He reached for the bottle already uncorked and waiting. "Wine?"

"Wine and tacos?"

Hutch smiled softly. "Mexican wine."

Muscular shoulders shrugged. "Why not."

Filling Starsky's glass to the brim and splashing a dollop in his own glass, Hutch set the bottle aside. Noting Starsky's continued puzzlement, he began assembling his dinner. It would not do to engage Starsky's questioning nature tonight. It wasn't part of the plan. Eschewing some of the more suicidal ingredients to create a milder version, Hutch made his taco last while Starsky ate as if he had never seen food before.

"This is so good, Hutch. You're gonna spoil me, you know. Taco stands just ain't gonna cut it after this."

Smiling indulgently, Hutch refilled the depleted wine in his partner's glass. The tasty fruit of the vine was disappearing almost as fast as the food.

"It's not my birthday or nothin', you know, Hutch. How come you're doin' all this for me?"

Because I love you. The words were not spoken, of course. Not yet. No, not just yet.

Deep blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. "All right. Whadya want?"

You. The confession was made once again only within the silence of Hutch's mind. "If I wanted something, Starsk, I'd just ask for it." Liar.

When even Starsky was approaching his limit of gluttony, Hutch tipped the last of the wine into his partner's glass. He had given up all pretense of eating, his jittery stomach refusing to even consider it.

"Whatcha wanna do tonight?"

Have you. "The Fly is on."


The eagerness made Starsky look like a small boy. Hutch set that thought firmly aside. There was no room for boyish images tonight.

"Right now."

"That was a good one."


"How would you know? You've been lookin' at me all night."

Which was true. Having finally freed himself to look, Hutch had been unable to take his eyes off the other man. No coy dropping of eyes in case Starsky should see what he should never see. Not tonight.

"Have I?" he asked nonetheless.

"Are you all right, buddy?"

Ah, how that bright concern warmed him, swelled his heart in his chest until he thought it might burst. Hutch closed the small space between them so they sat hip-to-hip, thigh-to-thigh. He turned and rested his hand on one muscular shoulder. He licked his lips as the moment he had fantasized a thousand times approached. He could do it. He knew he could.

"Just fine." Spoken in a whisper, the reassurance was breathed almost into Starsky's ear. The slim body shivered. "Oh yeah. So fine."

Then the waiting was over. No more pretense. No more hiding. Hutch claimed the slightly parted lips. He used those first few moments of stunned surprise to bring to bear every scrap of his considerable experience. He kissed the man he loved as if his life depended on the persuasion of his lips. In so many ways, it did.

Slowly, reluctantly, Hutch lifted his head, opened his eyes to gaze down into indigo confusion.

"Hutch?" murmured lips reddened from his kiss.

"Sh. It's all right, baby," Hutch murmured, threading his fingers through the dark curls to prevent retreat. He lied. He knew it. If he carried on, perhaps even if he didn't, nothing was ever going to be all right again. Or, at least, never the same again. He covered the soft lips with his own again, feeling, after a moment's hesitation, their response to his kiss.

The kiss lasted a small eternity during which Hutch did his very best to take possession of the mouth that yielded to his and to coax it into vanquishing his own. After long pleasurable moments of clinging lips and twining tongues, Hutch raised his head once more to find the same confusion, the same questions, still there if slightly out of focus now.

"Ah, baby. Don't be scared. Love you. Want you," Hutch murmured, his thumbs stroking the satiny curls at the other man's temples while the fingers of both hands laced at the base of the skull.

"No." Whispered hesitantly through lips that remained parted, awaiting his next kiss.

One hand slipped through satin tendrils to slide flat-palmed down the long torso and settle over a denim-encased hardness. "Yes."

"Oh, God. Stop."

At odds with the husky plea, Starsky's hips arched off the couch, pressing the erection more firmly into Hutch's palm. His fingers closed and he squeezed deliciously. This time the mouth sought his.

With even greater reluctance, Hutch broke their third kiss. Fingers caught in his hair, mirroring his grip, trying to bring him back to the mouth that had finally lost all trace of uncertainty.

Triumph weaving itself amid the arousal heating his flesh, Hutch eased off the couch, shifting his grip until he could lift his partner's smaller frame into his arms. The fingers in his hair tightened and he smiled.

"Don't worry, baby. I won't drop you."

True to his word, Hutch managed the few steps to the bedroom and gently laid his soon-to-be lover on his big brass bed. He pressed his face into the smooth skin where neck met shoulder and nuzzled, tasting salt and cologne and the very essence of Starsky, before seeking out irresistible lips once again.

The fourth time Hutch parted their lips, he knew there would be no further protest. Starsky tried to follow the retreat, but Hutch refused to allow it. He sat up all the way, fingers already slipping free shirt buttons, unhooking a belt, easing a zipper over a throbbing protrusion.

"Oh, yeah," he whispered when he had stripped away the layers of cloth that denied him. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of times he had seen this body, but never like this. Never had he allowed himself to notice how the soft pelt of body hair lead the eye downward, narrowing as it arrowed toward the thick patch of coarser curls and the proud column that rose there. Never allowed himself to appreciate the sleek bulk of muscles in arm, breast, abdomen, thigh. He saw it all now and gloried that it should be spread upon his bed in sensual abandon. His. All his.

"Beautiful baby."

"Not a baby," Starsky protested softly, dark head pressing into the pillow as big strong hands stroked him from shoulders to knees and his body arched, chasing the touch.

"My baby." Hutch bent once again to taste, sampling shoulder, breast, belly and inner thigh, refusing to be coaxed to the urgent flesh that wept a creamy tear of denial. He nuzzled at the velvet sac drawn up tight with need, tongue probing at the hardened centers.

A deep-throated groan drew Hutch upwards once more.

"Want it, don't you, beautiful? Want me?"

Starsky moaned, thighs parting in wanton invitation.

His tongue tip lapped the dark crown just once, gathering up the salty tear. Hutch savored the distilled essence, moaning himself as the flavor became a part of his memory to be cherished. The fingers of two slender hands tangled in his hair, refusing to be denied again as they held his lips to the urgent flesh. Hungrily he opened his mouth, letting the unadorned crown slip inside, angling to take the length of the thick shaft all the way into his throat. He swallowed against the bulk, thrilled by its presence within him, thrilled further by the ecstatic cry that escaped Starsky's throat.

"Don't. Oh, God, Hutch."

A steady litany. Music for his soul. To be wanted as much as he wanted.

Tenderly, Hutch cradled the delicate sacs below the flesh he held in his mouth, squeezing ever so carefully that his love might know only pleasure. In retreat, he sucked strongly, lips tight around the demanding flesh until only the head remained within the hot cavern of his mouth. Both hands wrapped around the steely length, he lavished all his attention on the empurpled crown, tongue tip dipping again and again into the tiny opening, teeth nibbling ever so delicately.

No words issued forth now, just a steady stream of incoherent moans and whimpers. Starsky was his now. A slave to the sensations that only his hands, his mouth could provide.

The lean hips thrust rhythmically, trying to drive the core of all sensation back down into his throat. He accepted it, eager to be the receptacle of his lover's seed. Hands free once again, one returned to its loving caresses of the tight sac, while the other quested further back between the sprawled thighs. A saliva-slick finger-tip found the tight opening hidden in the dark crevice and circled delicately, not entering, only pressing until the body held fast within his sensual thrall began to thrust back against his hand then forward into his mouth.

He let the thick cock slip free of his lips, consoling it with a firmly stroking palm as he spoke. "Yes, baby. You like that. Want more?" he coaxed between lapping strokes of his tongue, his finger still circling.

The moment of incoherence had been reached. Starsky could no longer bring words to his lips, could answer only with his body. Demanding hands pressed down on the blond head while widespread thighs drew back, exposing his most secret place to probing fingers.

Hutch seized the moment, gobbling the throbbing cock to the root and thrusting up into the smooth, hot channel at the same moment. The tunnel spasmed and the cock spewed, finally quenching the thirst he had suffered far too long. Between his legs, trapped beneath the cruel constriction of tight denim, his sex pulsed, bathing him in the hot cream of his own semen.

Spent, Hutch sprawled on his back, listening to Starsky panting and savoring the salt bitterness that lingered on his tongue while he waited for retribution. It wasn't long in coming.

"You bastard," Starsky accused when he could do more than gasp for each breath. "I said no."

Hutch just closed his eyes. After all, what could you say to the truth?

Seven whole days. Not that Hutch needed any reminders. Every single minute of those seven silent, empty, tension wrought days was engraved on his heart. Starsky hadn't spoken to him once outside the line of duty, and, if their eyes had met even fleetingly in all that time, it had been purely accidental on Starsky's part.

Just about five minutes from now, it would be exactly one week since he had invited his partner home for dinner and, unknown to Starsky, a little seduction. Hutch had done what he had to do, and now he was paying the price.

Not that their professional partnership had suffered. Starsky wouldn't allow that, and neither would he. They still meshed on the streets like the workings of one of Starsky's expensive watches, still read each other's minds like psychics. Sitting beside Starsky in the Torino day after day, Hutch could almost forget that the wall of broken trust existed between them. When they signed off for the day, however, the Great Wall of Starsky went back up, sealing him out of his friend's life and into the emptiness of his own.

It couldn't go on, of course, but Hutch was determined to endure for as long as he could. He had endured loving Starsky in silence for three long years, surely he could tolerate being despised by Starsky for however long his partner chose to let this farce continue.

"Zebra 3, signing off shift."

Reluctantly, Hutch replaced the mike. It would start now, the silence that would continue throughout the drive home. Starsky would drive him to Venice Place and then leave without so much as a 'goodnight' or 'see ya in the morning'.

"You don't look so good, Hutch."

The unexpected personal remark caused Hutch to start in surprise. His head whipped around, eyes hopeful, to find Starsky's attention firmly on the road. It was true, he looked like hell. With reason. Couldn't eat. Couldn't sleep. Not that it was any more than he deserved. Not after the way he had taken advantage of Starsky. The worst of it, however, was that given the chance to do it over again, he would change nothing. He couldn't even say he was sorry, because he wasn't.

Hutch just shrugged.

The silence returned and continued all the way to Venice Place. Tiredly, Hutch climbed out of the car, pushed the door closed behind him and turned toward his lonely home. He had almost made it to the door when he realized he was not alone. He had been so engrossed in the rat's maze of his own thoughts, he had failed to notice when the growl of the Torino's engine ceased or the opening and closing of its door.

"Are you coming up?" he asked, stupidly stating the obvious.

Starsky made no effort to rescue him, just stepped around him and into the building. His partner was already half way up the stairs before Hutch even thought to move. By the time he reached his own door, Starsky was already inside. He crossed the threshold, automatically caught the key his friend flipped at him and stepped back out to deposit it on the lintel.

Inside his unlit home, the silence stretched so tautly that Hutch felt as if even the quiet inhalations of their breathing might fracture it. The near soundless click as Starsky turned on a table lamp almost succeeded in doing just that.

Feeling like a gangling teenager, Hutch took an awkward two steps into the living room, hoping he would not trip over feet that suddenly seemed far too big for his body.

"Would you like a beer?" he asked, hating the formality of his own voice.

"Oh, I don't think I want any booze tonight."

Hutch winced. Of course, Starsky didn't trust him enough to drink around him anymore.

Starsky flopped into a chair and just sat there watching him. Doubly awkward beneath the less than benevolent gaze, Hutch moved stiffly to the couch and very nearly collapsed onto the cushion. He folded both big, clumsy hands around his knees and hung on for dear life, eyes intent upon every crease of his knuckles.

A dog barked. A car drove by outside. Muted music drifted up from the restaurant downstairs. Inside, nothing but breathing broke the stillness, driving Hutch, finally, into speech.

"I guess you want me to apologize." A deep breath before he raised his eyes to look the other man straight in the face. "I can't. I'm not sorry. I can't lie to you."

"Kinda fine line to draw, isn't it, Hutch? You can fuck me, but not lie to me."

"I didn't . . . I wouldn't have . . . "

"I said no. Do you know what that makes you?"

Hutch hung his head again. Yes, he knew. It made him a rapist. 86% of all rapes were committed by someone known to the victim. A statistic. He was a cop. Of course he knew the statistics. He had tried to call it seduction, but he was far too self-analytical to allow that lie to linger in his mind for long.

"Why, Hutch? We've known each other, what, 7, 8, years, and suddenly you got the hots for me? Or was it a lie all along? Buddy? Pal? None of that was ever true, it was always . . . "

"No!" The denial was dragged out of Hutch. He had never intended to defend himself, but the accusation goaded him to speech.

"No? So it was just a spur of the moment thing? LAX ran out of stewardesses, did they? You decided to make do with me."

"Stop it!"

"You didn't."

Crystal blue eyes met indigo and Hutch wanted to cry at the expression of pained bewilderment that hid behind the belligerence. It brought the truth to his lips. For good or ill, Starsky had the right to know it all.

"I don't know when loving you became being in love with you. There's no date, like January 21 or anything that I can point to. I just know I've been feeling this way for a while. But it has still been buddy and pal, too. You're the best friend I've ever had." A small pause while Hutch sought and found reluctant belief in Starsky's face. "But it's also been beloved."

"But all that time ya never hadta do anything about it. Why now?"

"Hector Silinas," Hutch said, but he was already shaking his head, negating that anything so specific had been the catalyst. "One too many close calls. One too many risks. Maybe it was Lionel Fitzgerald. Seeing you bleed."

Starsky's hand raised to lightly brush the still tender spot on his head where it had slammed into the window of the cab.

"I could lose you any day, Starsk, and . . . " Hutch's voice husked out, which suited him fine. It was bad enough to think such thoughts, they needed no greater validity by being voiced aloud.


Startled blue eyes flew up to meet their counterparts. Hope, that most persistent of all emotions, reared its battered head. "What?"

"Okay." Starsky got to his feet, stalking around the room. He paused at the bedroom door, coiled tight as an over wound spring. "I can understand that."

"You can?" Hope was now having a riot running rampant through every system.

"Yeah. Close call and all. It just caused an . . .  aberration." Deep blue innocence questioned the proper use of the word.

"Loving you isn't an aberration, Starsk. It's a big part, the better part, of who I am."

"But it doesn't hafta be . . . we don't hafta . . . couldn't we just . . . " The stuttering stumbled to a halt and a deep breath expanded the well-muscled chest. "I don't want that."

The panicked statement settled the calm around Hutch that he had been looking for all week but which had eluded him. Starsky didn't hate him, he was scared.

"I didn't particularly want it either, pal. You think I haven't done everything I can think of not to feel this way. We love each other and we have for a long time now. The simple truth is I don't know why how I feel about you has become what it is. It just has."

"Like it or lump it, huh, Hutch?"

Hutch's shoulders shifted under the soft cotton of his shirt. "I'm sorry, babe, but yeah. Can't seem to help it. The way my eyes wanna follow you every time you move. The way my breath sorta catches in my throat because you smile at me. The way my heart pounds when you touch me."

"Jesus." Wide-eyed amazement at the poetry Hutch had made of his feelings. "You make it sound so . . . beautiful."

"Wasn't it? Didn't it feel beautiful when I made love to you?"

The expression on the long face denied that such a possibility could exist.

"At the time, Starsk. Not after when you thought about why all my kisses, all my caresses were wrong. Not then, but when I held you in my arms. When I made you fly."

Starsky stood only a few paces from the door, back to it, arms outstretched as if to ward off an unseen attacker.

"What are you doin', Starsk? I haven't moved."

"It's like the words are touchin' me." The arms wrapped around his own waist now, still self-defensive, but no longer aggressive.

"Touching a part of you that you don't want to know?"

"Aw, Hutch. Whydja hafta change things?" A protest from the heart of confusion.

"It wasn't enough anymore." A simple truth.

"And it never will be again?" Faint hope, vanquished by the solemn nod of a blond head.

"Not for me."

"Damn!" Starsky spun on his heel and bolted.

The next morning, it became obvious very quickly that Starsky had made a decision and the decision he had made was to ignore the whole thing. From the moment he picked Hutch up for the drive in to Metro, Starsky behaved exactly like his old self again, except for one glaring omission—he kept his hands strictly to himself. He made it perfectly clear as they rode the streets that, as far as he was concerned, that fateful Friday night had never occurred.

All well and good, except Hutch couldn't go along with it. Like Adam, he had tasted forbidden fruit and could not pretend that the sweetness did not linger upon his mind and upon his tongue. He knew he was naked now, and that he would have to leave the garden.

Hutch spent the ride home that night memorizing every feature, every gesture, every nuance of emotion of the man he loved. When the Torino purred to a halt and Starsky turned to offer a goodnight, Hutch began the painful process of severance.

"It won't work, buddy. I can't pretend I don't love you. Not anymore."

"You won't even try." The accusation was snarled in a tone that revealed the cost of the daylong charade.

"I'm going to ask Dobey for a transfer in the morning."

Vehement protest sat trembling on parted lips for what seemed like a very long time and then died there. The dark head bowed. "Maybe that would be best."

Something tortured screamed denial inside Hutch but he trapped it to silence behind clenched teeth. He nodded acceptance. The sounds of the car door opening and closing exploded into the silence as he exited the Torino for the last time. "Good bye, Starsk," he murmured and walked away.

Left behind, Starsky gripped the steering wheel until it creaked in protest, then slammed an open palm against its sturdy curve. Bitter salt burned blue eyes and protests once again clogged his throat. He swallowed them both down, put his car in gear, and turned toward home.

"Hutchinson, would you get to the punch line of this bad joke and get out of here so I can get some work done," Captain Dobey demanded with his usual morning belligerence.

Hutch shifted in his chair, the painful awkwardness upon him again. "It's no joke."

Dobey glared at one half of his most useful/troublesome team. "You expect me to sacrifice one of my best men . . . no, scratch that, two of my best men because if you split like this Starsky's gonna be useless. And you expect me to go along with this with no more explanation that 'it's personal, Captain'?"

Heaving himself out from behind his desk, Dobey lumbered to the water cooler. He had already drawn a glass of the liquid and poured it down his throat before he remembered how much he hated cold drinks in the morning. He crumpled the cup and stalked back to his desk. He glared down at the blond who sat, head bowed, in such uncharacteristic submissiveness.

"You're not foolin' me for one minute, Hutchinson. I know damned well that the only damned thing 'personal' can mean is that damned partner of yours!" Crossing his arms over his ample girth, Dobey planted his butt on the edge of the desk and waited. He would wait all damned day if that was what it took.

"We're not going to be able to work together ever again," Hutch admitted. He met his superior's eyes, knowing his face was schooled to neutrality, equally certain that his eyes revealed every corner of his tormented soul.

Dobey took one look and all of the belligerence and most of the air left him in a rush. He should have known. It was like that in some partnerships. The lines just narrowed, shifted. He had seen the lines between this man and his vivacious partner begin to blur a long time ago, watched them fade until they were as indecipherable as the rain-washed chalk of a child's game upon a city sidewalk. Hutch had crossed what remained.

"Does Starsky know about this?" Dobey asked.

Hutch nodded silently, keeping his head down to veil the misery that had taken up permanent residence in his eyes.

Dobey leaned forward and punched his intercom. "Starsky, get in here!"

Hutch had half risen from his chair, putting out a hand to stop his captain, but subsided when he realized that Dobey had already cut the connection.

A few moments later, the door opened and Starsky entered the room, his usual exuberance made conspicuous by its absence. "You wanted me, Captain?"

And now Dobey knew where the trouble lay. Hutch had crossed that indefinable line, but Starsky had not. It was there in the cautious expression that settled on his partner, became even more apparent as he took his seat as far from Hutch as he could without being blatantly rude.

"Do you know why your partner's here?" Dobey asked nonetheless.

Starsky glanced at the blond sitting so dejectedly only a few feet away from him as if searching for the answer to Dobey's question, then, his eyes hardening, returned his attention to his superior. "Yes, sir."

Dobey sighed in defeat and reached for a file he had been debating over before Hutch had asked to see him.

"All right, Hutchinson," he muttered and handed over the file.

Hutch reached out a hand that shook ever so slightly and accepted the folder. He flipped it open and read the single sheet of paper inside. His head came up, a protest obviously sitting on his lips, but he swallowed it when he met Dobey's gaze. Slowly, he climbed to his feet, closing the file and tucking it under his arm indicating his acceptance of his captain's decision.

"I'll let Captain Fowler know you're coming," Dobey offered.

"Thanks, Captain," Hutch replied, then, without a word or look for his partner, turned and walked silently out of the room.

This time it was Starsky who came half way out of his chair, hand extended and mouth open as if to call a halt to the ridiculous farce being enacted. He, too, however, subsided into his chair when he realized that Hutch was already gone. He let the incomprehension on his face prompt Dobey to speech.

"Halton Hills precinct," Dobey announced succinctly. He watched the wounded expression creep across the long face and softened his tone, providing more information than he had intended. "They're short handed out there. Need a few extra officers for a month, or so."

Starsky seemed to have nothing to say to that, or, if he did, thought better of saying it.

"Which leaves me with the problem of what to do with you, Starsky,"

"Whadayamean, do with me? I worked my ass off to get into this division," Starsky protested.

"I mean, who am I going to partner you with?"

"Nobody!" Starsky protested almost as if it was an automatic defense. "I can manage just fine on my own."

"No man under me is gonna work solo. That's not the way I run my division and the last time I looked, I was still running this division!"

"My partner just split . . . "

Dobey almost opened his mouth to say 'and whose fault is that' but hesitated, realizing he was making several assumptions and judgments he had no business making. "You'll ride with Roberts as of today," he said instead.

Starsky shoved up out of his chair and headed for the door. "When hell freezes over."

"Dammit, Starsky, you either hit the streets with Roberts or I'll suspend you for insubordination."

For a moment, Starsky looked like he just might choose the latter option, his left hand delving inside his jacket. He paused there, taking the time to take a deep breath, then letting his hand slip away. Without words, he also accepted his captain's judgment.

"Get out of here and go get some work done."

"Are you sure you don't want to come in. It would only take a minute for me to make some coffee."

Hutch turned in the driver's seat, reminding himself that he needed to be polite. It was not Tina's fault that the title of the movie they had seen escaped him along with its plot, that whatever they had had for dinner was lying in his stomach like a solid lump of acid, or that every time she had so casually touched him throughout the evening, he had longed for the touch of a stronger, masculine hand.

"I can't tonight, Tina. I'm on duty early," he lied.

The pretty blonde slid a bit closer along the car's bench seat. She ran one long nail down the lapel of his jacket. "Maybe next time?"

"Definitely," Hutch lied again, knowing he would never call her again and thankful that he had never given her his number. He leaned down and brushed his lips as lightly as possible over the bright red lipstick coating her mouth. He drew back hastily when he felt her trying to deepen the kiss.

"I really need to get going," he hinted broadly, sternly resisting the temptation to wipe at his lips with the back of his hand. The smell and taste of perfume and cosmetics nearly choked him as he remembered the unadorned scent and flavor of Starsky.

Tina took the hint and got out of the car, demonstrating her disappointment by closing the door just a bit too firmly. Hutch waited until he saw her safely on the other side of the security door of her apartment, then put the car in gear. He had put her out of his mind before he had even pulled out into the light, late evening traffic and, without thinking, headed for the Pits.

As he entered the part of Bay City that was his usual beat, Hutch came off automatic pilot, recognizing his surroundings and his destination. Deliberately, he turned in the opposite direction. He didn't want to go to the Pits. It was only 11:00 p.m. At this time on a Friday night, the place would be hopping. Although his own company at the moment was so poor even he would avoid himself if he could, neither did he want to be bombarded. Besides, suppose Starsky was there? Suppose he was with a woman? Not something Hutch felt ready to deal with at the moment.

Prowling, turning at random, Hutch finally saw a bar he recognized and slid the LTD into a parking space a little ways down the block. Entering the small establishment, he went straight to one of the unoccupied tables and slid onto the chair. He ordered a beer from the waitress and, once it came, alternated between sipping at it and staring into it.

"Hi, Hutch honey. Buy a girl a drink?"

Sweet Alice. The southern working girl with the sweet young face and the sad old eyes had always evoked what Hutch considered some of his finer emotions. Compassion, chivalry, protectiveness all came rushing to the fore each time he saw her. That those were not the emotions she wanted from him, he understood and could certainly sympathize.

Hutch was on his feet in a moment, holding the chair at his table for the woman and signaling the waitress. The smile he offered Alice was far more genuine than the efforts he had managed all night for Tina, but looking into her eyes was like looking into his own mirror. They were two very sad, lonely people.

"Handsome Hutch, you look like you got the weight of this whole big old world sittin' right on your shoulders," Alice said, resting her hands on the table.

Hutch gathered up her small, manicured hands in both of his. "No. Just bits and pieces of Bay City," he reassured her, the gallantry she always stirred in him forbidding him to treat her as anything less than befitted a lady.

Now that he had touched her, Alice knew she was free to touch in return. She eased one hand from his grip and drew the tips of her fingers across the back of his hand.

"Coulda fooled me, honey. Where's that cute little old dark shadow of yours?" The hand moved to cup the side of his face at the stricken look in his eyes. "What's the matter? Starsky ain't sick, is he? Ain't hurt?"

Hutch covered her hand with his, turned to press his lips into the palm. "No, no. He's fine."

"Well, he seemed just fine when I saw him."

"You saw him?" Hutch asked, keeping his voice casual by force of will alone. He turned his face further into the palm of her hand to hide his avid expression.

"Yes, I surely did," Alice sighed. Her heart might belong to Hutch, but that did not mean she had gone blind, deaf, and fatally stupid. Starsky wasn't a man that a girl dismissed easily. "That man surely can dance."

"Dance?" Hutch echoed, releasing her hand and picking up his glass to hide behind.

"Yeah. Four nights this week at the Grange. Different gal on his arm every night."

That would be Starsky reaffirming his manhood, Hutch thought. At that rate, he would go through every single female in Bay City in no time, and probably wear out his . . . . Hutch refused to go where that thought was leading him.

"I ain't seen you around much," Alice probed gently.

Hutch snapped back from his inappropriate speculations. "I've been helping out in Halton Hills."

"Movin' on up, are ya, Hutch?" Alice teased. "And here I thought nothin' could drag you away from us." She sipped the last of her drink and put the glass down with a decisive little click. "Your work day's all done, and mine's just beginnin'. Gotta go, Handsome Hutch, unless . . . "

"I'd be poor company tonight, Alice," Hutch rejected her as gently as he possibly could.

Alice accepted the rejection philosophically. "Maybe some other time."

Dropping his wet towel on the bench, Randy Lake bent to step into his jockey shorts. "Damn, I wish Hutch hadn't split. Starsky's been acting like a rabid dog."

Lake's partner, Paul Taylor, was similarly occupied with getting his tired, damp body into fresh clothes. Which did not stop him from indulging in a little locker room speculation. "What do you think happened there?"

"Lover's quarrel?" suggested Rick Grant, digging around in his locker for his cleanest dirty shirt. One day he really was going to have to do some laundry.

Yanking at the stubborn zipper on his jeans, Lake offered an inelegant snort of derision. "Those two? You've gotta be kidding. Both of them have little black books that look like the unabridged version of the yellow pages."

"Cover?" Grant suggested, sticking to his guns despite the reputations of the men they were discussing. He liked playing devil's advocate.

"Not Starsky," Taylor said, planting his broad behind on the bench to deal with the business of shoes and socks. "I dated one of his rejects once. Got so tired of hearing Dave, Dave, Dave. And not at the best moments, if you get my drift."

"One of Hutch's went out with me just to see if I'd help her get him back," Lake piped in with offended male ego.

"So what the fuck is up with Starsky?" Grant asked as he stuffed the more malodorous contents of his locker into his gym bag. "Did you guys hear him this morning?"

"Hear who?" asked Jim Blake as he joined his colleagues. Older than the other three by a good fifteen years, Blake's interest in locker room gossip was minimal at best.

"Dobey Junior," Lake replied, much to his partner's amusement. "If it hadn't been for that Brooklyn accent, I'd've sworn it was the old man in fine form."

"We can laugh, but I tell you, I wouldn't want to be Roberts if they paid me double," Grant said sourly.

"Me neither," Taylor agreed. "If I was, I'd be sending Hutch an urgent memo to get his ass back here and bring a muzzle."

"Not me," Lake blustered. "I'd tell Starsky to go fuck himself and make Dobey give me another partner. I get enough aggravation from the bad guys, I don't need it from our own."

"Maybe the three of you ought to keep your opinions to yourselves until you've been partnered as long as he has and suddenly find yourself hitting the street with a stranger watching your back," Blake interjected quietly.

The other men present grimaced as they remembered that Jim Blake had had the bad luck to lose not one, but two, partners in the course of his career. They mumbled awkward apologies while stuffing odds and ends into their lockers and securing the locks.

"Hey, Jim. How about coming for a beer with us?" Taylor suggested.

"Sure. Why not," Blake agreed and, as the four men made their noisy exit, the talk turned to the most recent Laker's loss.

Behind them, Starsky stepped from his place of concealment and moved to his own locker. He had not meant to eavesdrop, but the sound of Hutch's name just as he had entered the locker room had frozen him in his tracks.

"Whoever said eavesdroppers never hear anything good about themselves sure knew what he was talkin' about," he told the empty room.

Starsky relaxed back against the perfume scented pillows, a soft sigh easing between his lips when Kelly tested the edge of her teeth against the tip of his aroused nipple. At least he thought her name was Kelly. It might have been Shelly or even Kerry. They had been dancing when she introduced herself and the music had been loud. It didn't really matter. All that mattered was the full soft weight of her breast in his hand, the waist length sweep of her hair draped over his belly, and the warm, wet place between her legs that waited to accept him.

"I love hairy men," Kelly murmured huskily as she slid down his body, rubbing her cheek against the soft hair that covered his chest and belly.

"Good thing, honey, 'cause I don't plan on shaving it off," Starsky rumbled back at her. "Ouch!" he complained and jumped just a little when her fingers crept around to pinch his ass in retaliation. "That hurt."

"Want me to kiss it better?" She asked, then dropped a soft, dry kiss on the tip of his cock.

Body jerking in reaction to the fleeting caress, Starsky caught a handful of the long chestnut hair and directed the teasing mouth back to the smooth heat of his cock. "Just as soon you stayed around the front," he panted.

Wriggling around until she was kneeling between his parted thighs, Kelly continued to drop kiss after kiss up and down the length of his cock, stoking the heat inside him. Purposefully, Starsky realized when she lifted her head after every kiss and he met the sparkling mischief in her eyes.

"Suck it," Starsky demanded because he knew she wanted him to.

The pretty lips swelled into a pout. "Ask me nicely."

Starsky grinned. "Want me to beg, do you?" he asked, raising up enough to slip both hands under her. He cupped her full breasts, thumbs rubbing firmly over the tight nipples until the pout disappeared and her lips parted.

"Suck me, honey," he repeated, more gently this time.

Starsky watched her head drop, the red lips parting as they neared his cock, and leaned back again, lifting his arms above his head and securing a grip on the headboard just in case Kelly sucked as well as she teased.

She did, gobbling down his hard shaft until her nose was buried in his coarse pubic curls. Starsky arched, nearly convulsing as she swallowed again and again around the sensitive crown of his cock.

"God, yes. Suck it, Hu . . . "

Blue eyes flew open as Starsky barely bit his lip over the rest of the name, and he lay frozen for a moment, remembered sensations of stronger lips, harder suction and a bold finger nearly carrying him over into orgasm. He fought the imperative, panting harshly as he dragged the dark head away from his groin.

He manhandled Kelly onto her back, experienced fingers seeking out the moist folds that guarded the entrance to her body. Finding her wet and ready, Starsky sheathed his cock in one long thrust that would have been brutal had the woman not been as eager for it as he was.

"Yessss," Kelly hissed, her fingers with their long, red-tipped nails scrabbling at his back and shoulders as he thrust and retreated in a rhythm as old as man while the long legs he had so admired while they were dancing wrapped around his thighs.

Elbows locked, eyes open, Starsky watched the woman beneath him as he thrust into her, driving her relentlessly closer to her climax. Then he felt it, the contractions squeezing his sheathed cock just before the ecstasy took over her face. Freed of obligation, he rammed deep and let orgasm take him with her.

A gentleman to the end, Starsky held his weight above the smaller body on trembling arms until he had the wherewithal to force his limp body over to her side. She whimpered as his still swollen cock slipped free, but made no effort to try to restrain him.

After a few minutes, Starsky felt her roll against him and opened his eyes to find her propped on an elbow.

"God, Kelly, that was good," he murmured, meaning it, refusing to acknowledge the memory that had been more than half responsible for his eagerness.


Starsky's satisfaction began to slip away as he prepared for the barrage of disparagement. "Kerry?" he tried again cautiously.

Pouting lips curved into a sly smile and her head dropped down to his shoulder. "Yeah, Pete. That was pretty good."

Although Starsky laughed obligingly, it depressed him to realize that what they had done meant as little to this woman as it did to him.

Fourteen days. It had been literally years since Hutch had gone fourteen days without at least talking to Starsky. He had been tempted, of course. Had picked up the phone a dozen times and had replaced it unused just as many times. As much as he wanted to hear Starsky's voice, he could think of no excuse, nothing to say that would justify the call.

Outwardly, however, Hutch was aware that none of his inner turmoil showed. At least the comments he had received from Captain Fowler seemed to indicate that he must look okay and was performing, if not at peak efficiency, at least well enough that the captain was now dropping hints that he would have no objections if Hutch wanted to make his transfer permanent. Some days he did and some he didn't, so Hutch was keeping quiet at the moment.

He knew he wasn't himself, however. For one thing, he had not had heartburn in weeks. Yes, he was eating again. Sleeping, too. The body only accepted so much abuse before it took over. No headaches from listening to the crazy, esoteric information Starsky so often spouted. As for sex, well, he was getting plenty. Every night, in fact. Now that his imagination had something to build on, it was going hog wild sending him wet dreams so hot that he wondered how his heart could stand the strain. Those were the best moments of the day. When he woke up, still tingling all over from making love to his beautiful partner/lover, it always took a few moments for him to remember that Starsky was neither his partner nor his lover. Those moments lasted for far too short a time.

He wondered if his facade would hold up with someone who knew him well. He was about to find out. His current case involved the very slick robbery of a home of one of the rich if not famous that had netted the thief a motherlode of jewels. Every lead had petered out to nothing, which had led Hutch, finally, to seeking out his most reliable source of information.

Before parking in the tiny parking lot behind the Pits, Hutch cruised a three block perimeter, checking every street and alley just to make sure the Torino was nowhere to be found. Starsky would never usually trust his pride and joy that far away, but sometimes even Starsky had to bow to the realities of full parking lots. Seeing no trace of the flashy car, Hutch parked and made his way into the Pits and to the bar where Huggy was serving.

"Hey, Hutch. What can I get you?" Huggy greeted.

"Beer," Hutch replied. He knew he had succeeded in putting a smile on his face, but, even without looking in the bar mirror, he knew by the stiff feeling around his mouth and eyes that it was a travesty of a smile that was going to give him away to Huggy in about a tenth of a second.

"I hear you've developed some lofty aspirations," Huggy accused good-naturedly as he returned with the brimming glass and placed if before Hutch. "Halton Hills. Woo hee."

Hutch felt some of the stiffness easing out of his face and body as Huggy mugged his way up and down the length of the bar. By the time the proprietor had returned to where Hutch half-sat, half-leaned on his bar stool, Hutch felt closer to normal than he had in far too long.

"I take it you don't think much of the upper crust," he postulated, receiving one of Huggy's most skeptical expressions in response. "So I guess you wouldn't have heard any rumors about just who might have broken the heart of Mrs. Smythe-Rogers by lifting all her jewelry?"

Huggy became serious and Hutch watched as the internal debate crossed the expressive face.

"If it was anybody but you . . . " Huggy hedged.

Hutch waited patiently while Huggy sorted out his loyalties.

Finally, Huggy gave a sharp nod. "All right. I'll see what I can find out."

"Thanks, Hug," Hutch said sincerely. He dug in his pocket and offered a card. "You can reach me there or at home."

Huggy held the small piece of white cardboard between his long fingers, his thumb stroking over the slightly raised print. What little relief from tension Hutch had managed to attain in his friend's company disappeared when Huggy finally raised his head and the large dark eyes sought answers from him.

"Word on the street is that you and Starsky are history. You've disappeared up into the Hills, and Starsky's cruisin' the streets with a new partner and a mean and moody attitude. I ain't seen hide nor hair of either one of you. What's goin' down, Hutch?"

Hutch looked into his beer, wishing he could find some answers in the golden brew.

"Is it true, Hutch?" Huggy persisted.

Hutch shrugged, lifted his head and looked into the eyes of the man he trusted almost as much as his partner. He could not lie to Huggy. "Maybe, Hug."

Which, from the shocked expression on Huggy's face, was the last thing he had expected to hear. "Oh, man."

Hutch stood up, pushing his glass gently toward Huggy, intent on making his escape before anything more could be said. "Call me if you hear anything, Hug?"

Starsky bit his tongue. Hard. Harder. He still wasn't certain he could hold back the verbal vitriol demanding release so he turned his back and put some space between himself and his partner. Let Roberts brief the uniforms.

Slamming into the front seat of the Torino, Starsky slumped behind the wheel and tried to talk himself out of his foul temper. Roberts was a damned good cop, he reminded himself. It wasn't the other man's fault that he was no mind reader. Did not know, without being told, that when Starsky hollered "cover me" he meant now. Had no way of guessing that the south-pawed Starsky, given a choice, would always break right, leaving his gun hand free. Could never seem to fathom, without an explanation, the thousand and one little quirks that Starsky possessed and Hutch knew so damned well.

Nor was Mark Roberts to blame because Starsky came to work in a lousy mood every morning and went downhill from there. Overhearing the locker room gossip had not helped any either. He knew his behavior was way out of line, but could not seem to get it back under control. Most of the time he felt as if his own skin did not even fit him quite right any more.

Two weeks now, during which Starsky had been telling himself that he would adjust. He wasn't.

The drip, drip, drip of something warm and wet on his thigh drew the brooding cop out of his dark thoughts. He felt the sting now on the back of his hand. He stared at the bright red blood for a moment, then brought his hand to his mouth, letting his tongue ease the hurt, wishing for something that would comfort the much greater pain of Hutch's absence.

"Okay. We can roll," Roberts said as he slid into the passenger seat. "Dobey wants us to come in now and do the report."

Starsky reached for the ignition.

"Hey. You're hurt," Roberts exclaimed, reaching out to catch at the sleeve of Starsky's jacket. "Is it bad?"

Starsky snatched his arm away violently. "For fuck's sake, it's a scratch," he snarled.

Rebuffed yet again, Roberts subsided to his side of the car and let the sullen silence carry them all the way to the squad room.

Roberts went straight to his side of the desk while Starsky poured two cups of coffee and moved to his own seat, setting the extra cup in front of Roberts.

"Thanks, partner," Roberts acknowledged, his attention already on his notes.

Starsky slammed his cup down on the desktop, spraying coffee all over the stacks of paper awaiting their attention. "Don't call me that!" he snapped.

"That's it!" Roberts shouted, slamming both palms down hard on his desk and shoving to his feet. He towered over Starsky across the narrow wooden barrier between them.

"I've had it with you up to here." Roberts hand slashed across his throat in demonstration. "You got a bad temper and a worse attitude, and I'm sick to death of being the brunt of it."

Starsky's short fuse got shorter still, but he forced himself to keep his temper, to remember that what Roberts was saying was true. Then the other cop crossed the line.

"I'm sorry I ain't Hutch. Hell, I'm sorry for Hutch, putting up with you all this time. The man must have the patience of a saint. No wonder he split."

A red haze began crowding into Starsky's vision, narrowing it down until the other cops, the squad room, and everything else around him disappeared except the angry face of his unwanted partner. Like a man in a trance, he uncoiled and gained his feet. "That so?" he whispered in a tone that sent shivers down the spine of every man present. Then he began to stalk his prey.


The bellow that could be heard three floors away bounced right off Starsky's single-minded focus. Two more steps and he cleared the desk.


Every officer in the room remained tensed to spring into action if this suddenly mad dog failed to heed his master's voice.

Dobey, either more fearless or more foolish, moved forward and laid a hand on a steel-tensioned bicep. "My office, Starsky. Now." After the bellow, the soft tone echoed like a shout in the charged silence.

All at once, the tension left Starsky's body and he slumped, becoming once again the slim, graceful athlete and leaving behind the colossus that his fury had made of him. Without a sound, he did as he was told.

"If none of you have anything to do, I've got plenty of work I can give you," Dobey threatened, letting his dark gaze touch each and every pair of eyes in the room, demanding and receiving the silent promise that no word of the disturbing scene would go beyond these walls.

The big man turned his attention to a very white Mark Roberts. "Go home."

"Captain, the report . . . " Roberts protested weakly, waving a vague gesture over the coffee stained papers on his desk.

"Leave it. Morning's soon enough."

"Captain, I can't . . . "

Not known for infinite patience at the best of times, Dobey chose to save what little he had left at the end of the day for the primed bomb sitting in his office. "You think I couldn't figure that out?" he snapped. "You'll ride with Stevens tomorrow. Now go home."

After watching Roberts beat a hasty retreat, Dobey once again cast his glance around the room. Satisfied with the level of studious industry, he took the time to pour a cup of coffee, then, wondering how much he remembered from bomb disposal class, he lumbered tiredly back into his office.

Starsky kept his head down when Dobey eased himself in behind his desk and slumped into his abused chair.

"Oh, for Christ's sake, sit down. This isn't high school, and I'm not the principal." It was all bluster, but Dobey would never admit it out loud. There were a hundred things he could say right now from 'are you out of your mind' to 'tell me all about it, son'. The events of only a few moments ago were almost as much his fault as Starsky's. He could see the man was unraveling and had done nothing about it, hoping that eventually Starsky would adjust to Roberts who Dobey had chosen based solely on the fact that he was one of the most patient, even tempered men in the division. Obviously, he had been wrong and was just damned lucky that he had not lost at least one of them. At the moment, however, he chose silence in the hopes that it would prompt Starsky more readily than any lecture might.

When Starsky did finally speak, it was to reiterate what he had said the morning of Hutch's departure. This time, however, the statement was said with resignation instead of belligerence. "You gotta let me go solo, Cap."

Dobey sighed windily.

"I know," Starsky cut in with the barest ghost of a smile. "Nobody works solo in your division."

"Especially not a man that's been partnered as long as you have," Dobey spoke just as softly as Starsky had, but with conviction nonetheless.

Starsky shrugged, ran his injured hand over his face and then through his hair, wincing as the curly strands caught at the barely congealing scab.

"Have you talked to Hutch?"

A silent shake of the head that, at the mention of his former partner's name, seemed to sink even lower into the powerful shoulders.

"What do you think you need, Starsky?"

My partner back. Except Dobey couldn't give him his partner back. No one could. The partner he wanted didn't exist anymore. There was only that stranger with Hutch's face.

Dobey read the answer in his face and shook his head. "All right. What do you think you can live with?"

Starsky looked down at his hands, compulsively poked at the small wound until it began to bleed again, and shrugged. "There's got to be something I can do alone for a while. Just until . . . "

"Until what? Hutch doesn't want to come back," Dobey reminded ruthlessly.

The dark head nodded just a little, acknowledging the truth and his understanding of it, if not acceptance. "When you lost your partner, Jackson, did it feel, well, sorta like somebody'd cut off your arm or somethin'?"

A solemn, unseen nod responded to the hesitant question.

"You see, Cap. I think maybe I just need a little time to . . . let it grow back."

"All right," Dobey replied. "Take the weekend off. I'll find something for you by Monday."

Accepting the dismissal, Starsky climbed to his feet with all the agility of an arthritic octogenarian.

"You probably won't like it," Dobey warned.

"That's okay, Cap. I don't seem to like much of anything right now."

"Go on. And get that hand taken care of," Dobey ordered gruffly.

David Starsky was not a man who was given to spending a lot of time exploring his own psyche. Not that he only ever cruised along on the surface of life—your stereotypical act and react man. No, he knew his own strengths and weaknesses fairly well. And one of those weaknesses had always been that when he had something on his mind, a problem to work through, a situation to resolve, he needed to talk it out. His own conscience, he had found over the years, made a lousy sounding board. Of course, over the course of most of those years, he had always had Hutch to advise, kick his ass, or just listen while Starsky talked himself out of a particularly nasty set of circular thoughts.

Sitting in his living room, stocking feet propped on the coffee table, a beer in his hand and totally oblivious to the mindless fare issuing from the TV, Starsky wondered what he was supposed to do when the problem was Hutch. His choices were pretty damned limited as far as he could see. He just was not close enough, did not trust anyone else enough, to let them listen while he dredged around in the cesspool his emotions had become.

Trying to do it in his head was accomplishing nothing except giving him the beginnings of what promised to be a very nasty headache. Unfortunately, he did not have much choice. He had until Monday to take his head apart and put it back together or he took the chance of pissing his career away right down the drain. It was not doing him any good to stand there stamping his feet and saying he wanted things back the way they were. The genie was out of the bottle, and he needed to deal with him.

Okay. So what he needed was a Hutch substitute. That was when Starsky had what he hoped would turn out to be a brilliant idea.

Heaving himself up off the couch, Starsky went into his bedroom and dug around in his closet until he found what he was looking for. Moving to the bed with his discoveries in hand, he laid the pair of jeans and shirt Hutch had left behind some time or other on the bed, then went and collected all the towels he could find. He dumped his armload on the bed and bent to his self appointed task. Ten minutes later, he had a pair of stuffed pants and a stuffed shirt to show for his efforts.

Carrying the two parts into the living room, he arranged the pants in a seated position on the wicker chair, stuffed the shirttails into the waist band and balanced the shirt on top. Satisfied after arranging the stuffed arms in a semi-natural position along the arms of the chair, Starsky returned to his own seat on the couch, took up his beer and tried to relax. He glanced over at his Hutch scarecrow and burst out laughing. Well, if nothing else, it had made him laugh, which he had not done in too damned long. However, if he was going to take this seriously, he needed another beer. Maybe two. Hell, maybe he better just make sure the whole case was in the fridge.

About to re-seat himself after collecting a cold six-pack, Starsky spied his basketball sitting in the corner by the bedroom door. Orbiting his self-made analyst, he fetched the ball and returned to balance it carefully in the open collar of the stuffed shirt. Flopping on the couch, he cracked open a fresh brew and glanced over at his patient companion.

"Maybe I oughta draw a face on ya?" he wondered aloud. "Nah. I'm just stallin'."

He leaned back, closed his eyes and managed to animate his construct within the boundaries of his own mind to the point where he could, at least, listen to him. Sort of like Hutch in one of his more tolerant father confessor moods.

"All right. Now where the hell do I start?" Starsky cracked open one blue eye in the hopes that his silent companion might have a suggestion.

"Okay. Okay. Start where this started." He took a long swallow from his bottle, leaned his head back against the cushions and closed his eyes again.

"Hutch raped me."

A minute ticked by during which the three simple words seemed to take on gigantic proportions, filling up the room until it felt like they pressed in upon him. He had to open his eyes then, just to be sure there really was no boulder sitting on his chest. He rolled his head to the side.

"What do you think of that, eh . . . . Hmmm, gotta give you a name. Charlie. Yeah, Charlie will do."

There was no answer forthcoming, and Starsky had none for himself.

"This ain't workin'. I think I need to be a whole lot drunker before this can work."

Sufficiently immersed in the game by now to be determined to make it work, Starsky spent the next hour watching the moronic drivel playing itself out on the television while he methodically poured the six pack down his throat.

By the time the credits rolled on Gilligan's Island, Starsky felt himself sufficiently mellowed to continue his one sided conversation.

"Okay, Charlie ole buddy, let's try that again." He paused for his own sense of the dramatic. "Hutch raped me."

This time the sentence just sat there appearing somehow wrong. Maybe it was the way he said it. He tried again.

"Hutch raped me."

"Hutch raped me."

"Hutch raped me."


Starsky's head whipped around searching out the source of the comment and making the room whirl. He managed to focus on Charlie, but found him every bit as inanimate as he had been before. A few moments of drunken deliberation brought him to the conclusion that the voice had come from inside his own head. This was a good thing. Now, if he could keep himself talking, he would just pretend it was Charlie.

"What? You don't think so? I said no."

The blank face stared back at him, goading him to dig deeper.

"Hmmmfp." Clearing his throat, Starsky spouted the textbook definition in as pedantic a tone as he could manage. "Rape. A forced sexual act perpetrated by one party against another.

"Ya see? I said no and he didn't stop. Now, it ain't what I always thought of as rape. Not what we've seen on the streets. But no is still no. N O."

So why didn't you just knock him on his ass?

Starsky shot an accusatory glare at Charlie. "Why didn't I hit Hutch?" he echoed.

It was such an alien concept that Starsky had to think about it for some time.

"Hit Hutch? Well, yeah, I coulda done that, I guess. But, hit Hutch? I mean, not for any reason?"

Rape isn't a reason?

"I didn't mean that. So, okay, it's my fault Hutch raped me 'cause I didn't hit him? Hmmmm. Wonder what the women's libbers'd do with a defense like that?"

Appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court.

Starsky sputtered, spraying his last mouthful of beer all over himself. "This is serious," he reminded Charlie. "But I think somewhere in there you . . . me . . . one of us has got a point."

Whatever it was, the insistent call of a beer-filled bladder was drowning it out. Struggling to his feet, Starsky stumbled to the bathroom. "Don't go anywhere, Charlie," he called over his shoulder, fumbling with his zipper and attempting to hold himself still long enough to hit the bowl. He made the return trip to the couch via the kitchen to collect another armload of bottled encouragement and flopped back onto the couch.

"Okay. I got it. I coulda made Hutch stop any time. Well, maybe not any time." Starsky, for the first time since it happened, let himself think about what exactly had transpired between him and Hutch on that fateful Friday. "But I coulda stopped him right up to when he . . . Christ . . . right up 'til he kissed me the third time."

Not after that, David Michael?

"Don't call me that! My mother calls me that. I couldn't tell my mother about this!"

Quit stalling.

"Whew, Charlie, you're mean." Starsky raised both hands as if to defend himself. "No. Not after that. Satisfied?"

Silence. Looked like Charlie was going to let him work this part through on his own, which was fine since he seemed to have a lot of thoughts just waiting for airtime.

"I never thought he was just foolin'. Hutch's got a weird sense of humor, but not that weird. I was feelin' pretty good. Kinda mellow and fulla good food, but I knew all night there was somethin' goin' on with him."

Starsky remembered how Hutch had moved in on him. How the touch of his body had felt . . . normal, natural, the way it did any time Hutch touched him.

"Could feel him . . . needing something. Me, I guess. He's a good kisser, Charlie. Everything he did felt good. He really did make me fly."

There. He had thought about it. Acknowledged it. Admitted that Hutch had given him one of the best sexual experiences of his life.

"Soooo, where's the problem, eh, Charlie ole buddy, ole pal? Does it mean I love Hutch? Wanna do it again?"

Starsky didn't need Charlie or anyone else to answer that question for him.

"Nope. Never thoughta layin' him before, don' get a twitch when I thinka it now." Not that he was likely to with the better part of a case of beer diluting his blood.

The frown that had been drawing heavy brows into a straight line suddenly cleared. "Thass it. Hutch wass makin' love, but me, I wass jusst havin' ssex."

The discovery seemed so momentous that Starsky just sat there and contemplated it until southerly signals reminded him once again of all the liquid he had consumed. Reluctantly, he struggled to his feet.

"Ya know, Charlie, one of these days 'm gonna cut out the middle man and juss pour it right inta the john."

That was the last Charlie heard from Starsky that night. Not trusting his aim, Starsky decided it would not kill him just once to squat to pee. That was where he fell asleep.

Time was hanging heavy on Hutch's hands. Had been since he had left Metro. He had known all along that he and Starsky spent a lot of their time together. Seventy-five percent he had once estimated, but realized only lately that he had probably come in way low there. Since they tended to double date, it was probably more like 85 or 90.

There had been times, especially in the last year when he had been struggling with his feelings for Starsky, that Hutch had temporarily withdrawn from Starsky's continuous company. It usually happened when Hutch met someone new and promising. It was never that he feared Starsky trying to take the new interest away from him, it was more that he wanted to give each woman a chance to capture his heart free from the competition that Starsky represented. Every time they failed.

For the weeks he had been at Halton Hills, duty had been a convenient way to fill in the empty hours that loomed at the end of each shift. The division had been short staffed long enough that there was no shortage of backlogged cases. After his one disastrous, and, he realized only later, defiant date the night following his temporary transfer, Hutch had, without any fanfare at all, thrown himself into reducing the backlog until even he had to admit that working 16 out of every 24 hours was draining him dry. It had not been Captain Fowler's fatherly advice that maybe he should take the weekend off that had him sitting alone in his apartment on a Friday night; Hutch had already decided that enough was enough. So now the hours between Friday night and Monday morning stretched before him into infinity.

Cooking dinner and pushing most of it around on his plate took an hour, and that included washing all the dirty dishes that had accumulated since his transfer to the Hills. The hands on his pocket watch crept from seven to eight while he tried in vain to immerse himself in the living atmosphere of the greenhouse. Eventually, he dusted the soil from his hands and went back into the apartment, looked around at the mess. He could easily use up the entire weekend just setting the place to rights, but the prospect had all the appeal of periodontal surgery.

It was pretty sad when a young bachelor could come up with nothing more exciting to do on a free weekend than clean house. What was even sadder, he acknowledged as he pushed aside the pillow and sheet and sat down on the couch, was when a grown man with a bad back chose to sleep on a too-short couch rather than face down the ghost that lived in his own bed.

"Hutchinson, you're a mess," he told his reflection in the dusty TV screen. "You're miserable and lonely and you hate your work. All because your best friend won't sleep with you."

Running away had never got him what he wanted before and it was not working now. Maybe what he needed was to run toward something. Ever since he had realized that he was in love with his partner, Hutch had been questioning his own definition of his sexuality, so had looked around himself with different eyes. There were plenty of good looking men around, but none of them made his heart pound or his mouth dry or brought his cock up to throbbing attention just by the way they cupped a hand around the telephone receiver.

He did not try to kid himself that wanting only Starsky meant he was not gay. He figured daydreaming about wanting to suck Starsky dry while on stakeout and jerking off while he fantasized about that thick, cut cock ramming up his ass were pretty damned good indicators that little Kenny Hutchinson was no longer interested in plodding the straight and narrow. So, yes, definitely he was gay, or at least bi. But he was also in love. He had concluded during those months of soul searching that since he could not have Starsky, he did not want any man at all.

So he dated women, double dated with Starsky, and occasionally withdrew with some woman to try to give his lonely heart a chance to fixate on someone else. And all along he had been deluding himself because, he realized now, he had never accepted the utter impossibility that, if he was patient long enough, waited long enough, the love Starsky felt for him would change the same way his had for Starsky.

Holding his breath and stomping his feet had never gotten him what he wanted either. Maybe it was about time that he, with his eyes wide open, started looking for something he could have. Perhaps what he needed to banish the ghost from his bed was to fill it with the living presence of some willing woman.

Or. He hesitated a moment before letting the half born thought come to full bloom in his head. Or maybe the once dismissed presence of another man.

Arching his butt up off the couch, he dug into his pocket and pulled out his watch. Flipping it open, he was surprised to discover that almost two hours had passed while he had been plumbing the confused depths of his psyche. An hour to get cleaned up and drive back into the city would get him there, years of experience as a cop told him, just in time for the bars to really heat up.

But where exactly was there? Hutch knew of a few gay bars in the Metro district, none of which he would willingly set foot in without both his badge and his fully loaded Magnum. There was the Green Parrot, but he was known there, if only by Sugar and a few of the patrons. Did he really want to risk leaping out of the closet only to find out his newfound homosexuality really did only extend as far as Starsky?

"You're worse than a mess, you're pathetic."

The accusation got Hutch off the couch and moving toward the bathroom. If there was one thing Kenneth Hutchinson could not stand, it was being the object of anyone's pity, even his own.

When Starsky woke up Saturday morning, his first thought was for the twelve piece band playing an off-key rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in his head. That thought was a particularly filthy curse. Except for the music, his memory appeared to be a blank. Becoming sufficiently aware of his surroundings to realize that he was curled up on the bathroom floor with his jeans around his ankles, he decided that amnesia might not be a bad thing. Neither, considering the instant rebellion of his stomach when he moved, was his location. He managed to get to his knees in time to let nature resolve itself into the bowl, then sat there with his forehead pressed to the cool porcelain.

Something wanted very badly to be remembered, but right at the moment, Starsky felt he was doing well just to be breathing. He would leave the thinking for later when he was more certain he was going to survive. Somehow he managed to get his aching body into the shower and stood under the spray until the water ran cold. Puzzlement tried to wriggle its way into his mind when he found both the towel rack and the cupboard naked, but he refused to give in to coherency just yet. Pulling his robe over his wet body and dry-swallowing some aspirin he found in the medicine cabinet, Starsky then made his very cautious way to the kitchen.

Leaning on the counter, with his head on the arborite and his butt in the air, the shattered cop prayed to the coffee machine to deliver salvation. Scorning any additives, he stood and drank the answer to his prayer just as fast as the scalding heat would let him. Now marginally human again, he poured a second cup and moved slowly into the living room.

The cup hit the floor, the hot liquid splattering his bare legs and feet. Starsky did not notice as he stared at the apparition sitting so patiently in his chair. Memory returned, playing across his mind like some B class comedy right up to the moment he had decided to risk his macho reputation rather than have to scrub the bathroom floor.

"Dr. Freud, eat your heart out," he mumbled and went back to the kitchen for more coffee.

It had always been Starsky's policy that if something worked, you stuck with it. Charlie seemed to be working. At least Starsky did not feel quite so out of his head. So, however weird he might feel pouring his heart out to a scarecrow, Saturday afternoon found him once again parked on the couch across from Hutch's towel-stuffed clothing. He felt like a complete idiot trying to do this stone cold sober, but did not relish the thought of another night on the bathroom floor, nor a second hangover. One of each had been more than enough.

"All right, Charlie. Dobey said I hadta get my head together. He's right, ya know. He asked me what I wanted. Huh! Like he hadda ask. I want Hutch back. I want everything back the way it was. I want that night to go away."

Starsky covered his face with both hands and leaned his head back. "Jeez. I sound like a five year old. Grow up," he admonished himself. "Okay. I can't have what I want." He lifted his head to sneak a peek at Charlie. "Feel free to jump in any time here, pal."

So what can you live with?

"Tough question." Starsky let his arms drop to the cushions and stared at the ceiling. "But it ain't the right one. Can I live with Hutch loving me? Wanting me?"

Getting a little ahead of yourself there, aren't you, Davey? Hutch split.

"Shit. Dobey ain't gonna let him transfer. Maybe. Can't really stop him if he don't wanna stay. And he doesn't. Because I don't love him." The long face screwed up, attempting to hold back the emotions clamoring for expression. "But I do love ya, Hutch," he finally admitted to the empty room. "Just not the way ya want me to."

Sorrow settled into Starsky's chest, making breathing hard and tightening his throat. His hand lifted unconsciously to rub at the center of his chest, trying to ease the pain.

"The sex was okay. Nah, gotta be honest here, the sex was great." Which, as far as Starsky was concerned, proved he wasn't in love with Hutch as opposed to loving him. Starsky knew himself to be a very possessive man where his lovers were concerned, and he felt not the slightest twinge of jealousy at the thought of where Hutch might have learned to make a man fly.

If it meant getting your partner back . . . .

"Pretend?" The idea left a sour taste in his mouth worse than all the beer he had drunk the night before. "Play with Hutch's feelings? Let him have sex with me? Pretend to be his lover?"

Starsky knew he was not capable of that kind of betrayal. "Not that Hutch would buy it. Wouldn't take him five minutes to figure out all he was getting was a body. Just more meaningless sex."

That didn't seem to concern him the other night.

"That ain't fair," Starsky automatically defended his friend, even against his own thoughts. "I mean . . . ." He felt the remembered fury building again and tried to stay calm. After a couple of deep breaths, he straightened in his seat and stared at the blank television screen. "No, he didn't seem to care, did he?" And here was the source of the anger Starsky knew he had to deal with. "He just wanted at me. Hutch can be a pretty ruthless son of a bitch when he wants to be. I just ain't used to him turnin' that side of himself on me. It hurts, dammit, even if I can understand his reasons. Sorta."

Once again tears were threatening to clog Starsky's throat and he cleared it ruthlessly until the tightness eased. "It still hurts, and I don't know how to forgive him for that."

It took Starsky most of a pizza and all of the Saturday afternoon football game before he could work up the courage to go back to his soul searching. He did not like being mad at Hutch. The few times in the past he had had cause to be angry with his friend, he had either worked it through with Hutch or decided it was too trivial to let it threaten their relationship. There was nothing trivial about this, and there was no Hutch to argue it out with. There was only the ever-patient Charlie.

"He said he wasn't sorry. That ain't like Hutch. He feels guilty for stuff he ain't done. Always beatin' himself up over something. So how come he ain't sorry he did all that to me without even askin'? Maybe he didn't think he hadta ask. Maybe he thought I might wanna do it, too."

You said no.

"I thought we worked this out last night. Guess not, if I'm still mad. Don't seem to do me much good talkin' about it. Okay, let's look at somethin' else for a while. Like, okay, Hutch is gone. He don't wanna be my partner any more. I still wanna be a cop. I don't wanna leave Metro. That means I gotta have a new partner."

After a ten minute silence when neither he nor Charlie seemed to have anything to say about that, Starsky turned the television back on.

Friday night hadn't worked out so well. After an hour of cruising the streets, Hutch had finally found a place that looked fairly respectable. He had watched for a while and seen only men enter the place and no one had staggered out blind drunk. The music that reached him where he sat across the street in his car had not seemed overly loud. At least he judged the decibel level to be no higher than in the discos where he and Starsky had squired their ladies of the day, week or month. Yes, the Liberty definitely had possibilities, and if it turned out not to be a gay bar, he would have lost nothing by going in, ordering a beer and having a look around.

Decision made, he had reached for the door handle when his courage failed him. He had choked and hightailed it back to Venice Place.

But that was Friday night and this was Saturday and he was going in there because now he had to prove to himself that he could. That carried him as far as the door where he once again hesitated.

"Coming or going?" a pleasant voice asked from behind him.

"Pardon?" Hutch muttered automatically as he turned and stepped clear of the doorway.

"Are you coming in or going out?" asked the same voice, which belonged to one of the two men whose way he had been blocking. Two men who were neat and presentable and good looking enough without being knockouts. Men who were also quietly amused by his discomfort.

"I'm Rick," the speaker introduced himself then indicated his companion. "This is Steve." An understanding expression took up residence comfortably on his regular features. "And this is your first time."

Equal knowledge dwelt in Steve's brown eyes so Hutch made no attempt to dissemble. "Actually, I'm Ken, but you're right. I haven't been here before."

Rick waved a hand toward the door. "Wanna brave the den of iniquity with a couple of seasoned sinners or do you want us to leave you to work it out on your own?"

"Safety in numbers," Hutch quipped. He grabbed the handle and pushed the door open, letting the throb of the disco beat flood onto the street.

"Don't count on it," Steve warned, but nonetheless the two men shepherded him inside and around the crowded dance floor to one of the few remaining unoccupied tables.

Hutch tried not to stare, reminding himself that he had seen it all during the stakeout at the Green Parrot. Except he had been working then, concentrating hard on acting natural in an alien environment and keeping a sharp eye out for Corday.

They ordered drinks and while they waited for them to come, the music changed to a slow and sensual lament. On the dance floor there was the familiar confusion as some couples left the floor, others joined in and all of them slipped into the arms of their chosen partner. Familiar except totally unfamiliar because each couple consisted of a man getting just as close as he could to another man. Bodies swayed, hands caressed and lips met.

It took several moments for Hutch to realize that he was watching one particular couple who were making no pretense of dancing. They simply stood in the middle of the floor, arms tight around each other as they tried to devour each other's mouths. Hutch looked down at his folded hands where they rested on the table, feeling the heat of embarrassment flood his cheeks.

"You get used to it, Ken," Rick offered.

"If you want to," Steve qualified immediately.

"What if you don't?" Hutch asked. He lifted his gaze and focused on his two companions.

"Then you stay in the closet."

A second slow song followed the first and Rick and Steve got up to join the dancers, leaving Hutch feeling exposed and vulnerable. It took less than 60 seconds for him to find out the feeling was no product of his imagination.

"Hi there. Would you like to dance?"

Hutch caught the automatic refusal on the tip of his tongue, reminding himself that this was what he had come for. Awkwardly, he got to his feet and followed his dark haired suitor onto the floor. The awkwardness increased as he allowed himself to be taken into the other man's arms, sought a hold that felt comfortable on a back nearly as broad as his own and automatically began to lead. The third time he stepped on his partner's foot, he tried to pull away.

"It's okay," came the immediate protest, along with pressure from the arm across the small of his back bringing him in groin to groin with a stranger. "You can lead if you want. I'm easy."

"But I'm not cheap," Hutch countered, applying enough pressure to establish a full inch of space between their bodies.

His partner laughed obligingly, which took the edge of desperation off his face. It was a nice enough face, Hutch decided, as they moved together a little more naturally. The hazel eyes were a bit too bright and the nose kind of big, but that was balanced by the strong chin. The dark head came just high enough that it could have rested comfortably on his shoulder while the olive skin was . . . 

Hutch missed a step as he realized who the man reminded him of. The red lips were parting and, somehow, Hutch knew just what he was going to say.

"My name's Dave."

And Hutch burst out laughing, more from nerves than amusement. "Of course it is," he said and slipped out of arms that tried to restrain him. "Thanks for the dance," he added, turned his back and went back to his table.

The nervous jitters were gone now and Hutch was able to finish his drink while watching the men around him. The mystery was gone and this bar was no more intimidating than any other bar he had ever been in. The same lonely, horny people looking for other lonely, horny people. All of them were just hoping to find someone to fill up the empty spaces in their lives and, if not, at least fill the darkest hours before the dawn with a little casual sex. It did not disgust him, but neither did it particularly thrill him.

For the rest of the evening, he accepted invitations to dance and issued a few of his own. He held strange men in his arms. He even kissed Dave on the dance floor simply for having the tenacity to ask a second time after Hutch had walked away so abruptly. You had to give a man points for trying. None of it touched him. No well-muscled body gyrating slowly against his stirred so much as a flicker of response. For Starsky, he would be willing to change his lifestyle, perhaps even throw away his career. For these strangers, however, so much was far too much to ask.

When his feet began to hurt, Hutch finished his beer, said good night to Rick and Steve and went home. On his way past the couch, he picked up his pillow and carried on, tossing it on the bed before completing his trek to the bathroom.

"Move over, Starsk," he commanded the ghost that lingered between his sheets. "I've had enough of that fucking couch."

"Hutch betrayed me."

Starsky's first statement to his silent analyst on Sunday morning threatened to initiate a repeat of last night's thunderous silence.

Lying stretched out on the couch staring at the ceiling, Starsky forced himself to look at that statement straight on and feel the emotions it provoked.

"He betrayed my trust. He used me. He took advantage of my feelings for him."

Whew! He had certainly said a mouthful there, and it was so damned hard to chew it all up and swallow.

So why do you still want him as a partner?

Starsky snorted inelegantly. "All these years together on the streets and ya gotta ask that? There ain't no partners in the whole city that work together like me and Hutch."

Ah. It's your career you're worried about then.

Slanting a venomous glare at his companion, Starsky kicked out at the arm of the couch. "No, dammit! But there's enough goin' against you on the street without throwin' away an advantage like the way we work together. There ain't nothin' like the trust Hutch and I have got."

Except you haven't got that any more.

Starsky yanked the pillow out from under his head and whipped it at Charlie, knocking the basketball head flying. It dribbled around the room a few times, eventually coming to rest beside the bedroom door.

"Don't you dare say that!" Starsky snarled, glaring at the headless ghost of Hutch. "I don't trust my mother the way I trust Hutch."

Grow up.

Even headless, Charlie continued to force Starsky to dig.

Sitting up, the tormented cop buried his face in his hands. His goddamned alter ego was right. How could he say he trusted someone in one breath and then acknowledge their betrayal in the next?

"Because one's got nothin' to do with the other," Starsky insisted. Feeling guilty, he got up, retrieved the basketball and propped it back on Hutch's shirt. "Sorry about that," he muttered as he flopped back down on the couch.

"You keep asking me what I want. Okay. I want my partner back. I'd trust my partner to back me up in hell." There was a finality to that statement that felt so good that Starsky laid there and savored it for a while. The knowledge that he still trusted Hutch on the street where that trust had been born tasted so good he did not want to go any further, but knew he had to. After a few minutes, he sighed from the soles of his stocking feet and continued. "It's the friend I gotta figure out."

The friend who betrayed you.

"Okay. Okay. I'll admit it. I feel betrayed. I thought we were friends. Best friends. It ain't right to go around seducing your best friend . . . "

Seducing? When did rape become seduction?

"Shut up!" Starsky growled viciously. He covered his face with both hands, fingers digging into his scalp. He focused on the pain to bring his temper under control.

"Rape became seduction when I said it did," he ground out between clenched teeth.

You said no.

"Yeah, I did. With my mouth. While I rammed my cock down his throat and spread my legs so he could shove his fingers up my ass." The confession was almost sobbed.

He made you have gay sex and love it.

Starsky pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes to squeeze away the threatening tears. "Yes," he admitted, the sweet flavor of trusting Hutch the cop soured by mouthing the graphic details of the friend's betrayal.

Can you live with that?

Starsky didn't answer, just lay on his back, looking at the stars spattered behind his eyelids and struggling to find the eye of this emotional storm. There had to be some calm place in all of this. Some place where he could stop, just for a few minutes and not feel angry or hurt or lost. It came to him after a time that he didn't bother to try to measure.

"Yeah, I can," he decided, taking away his hands and blinking at the morning sun that still flooded his living room. Somehow it seemed like the glow should have gone off the day the way it had been stripped from his illusions.

You forgive him?

"Yes," Starsky said firmly, only he knew Hutch was not looking for his forgiveness. Hutch was looking for his love and it was a kind of love Starsky was sure he did not have to give.

You're sure about that?

Starsky swung himself up and glared at Charlie. "I'm sure I'm done talkin' to you," he growled. He got up off the couch and then went out into the sunshine before Charlie could torment him further. Never once did he consider simply putting his Hutch substitute away.

"I apologized to Roberts," Starsky told Dobey on Monday morning when the captain called him in to give him his new assignment.

Dobey's eyes widened a little at Starsky's admission.

The leather jacket creaked as Starsky shrugged. "Owed it to him."

Glad that Starsky had gotten there on his own, Dobey cleared his throat and gathered up a handful of papers.

"Is that the job I ain't gonna like?" Starsky asked, eyeing the handful of carbon copies warily.

"I did warn you."

"'S okay, Cap. Hit me with your best shot."

"Rookies. I want you to ride with them," Dobey said and braced himself for the barrage of complaints. It was not as bad as it sounded. He was not talking about fresh-faced academy graduates, but newly promoted detectives.


"Okay? That's all you've got to say?" Dobey shook his head. "You bitched and complained about going out with an experienced man like Roberts, but for rookies all you can say is okay?"

Once again, muscular shoulders shifted well-worn leather. "You know you gotta watch a rookie's back and your own, Cap. No expectations."

"All right. The first one starts this morning. Colin Bradley is his name."

Starsky got to his feet and headed for the door.

"Listen, Starsky, I don't expect you to handle him with kid gloves, just don't put him through the meat grinder. Okay?"

"Whatever you say, Captain."

"Zebra three."

Starsky signaled for Bradley to pick up the mike as he dumped the refuse of their late lunch into the garbage can beside them and put the Torino in gear.

"Zebra three," Bradley acknowledged.

Starsky only winced slightly at hearing their call sign claimed by a voice other than Hutch's. True to his word to Dobey, he was doing his best to be patient with his rookie charge. He had to acknowledge that it was not all that difficult. Bradley was eager and quick and, most important of all, knew he had a lot to learn.

"Hold for patch through from Captain Dobey," the dispatcher instructed.

Starsky concentrated on maneuvering the long nose of the Torino out of the parking space of the drive-in restaurant and into the stream of moderately heavy traffic.

"Starsky?" Dobey's much-diminished bellow crackled through the speaker.

Bradley held the mike closer and Starsky turned his head as much as he could and still keep an eye on the road. "Yeah, Cap."

"R&I's come up with an address for Welfare Willy."

"Shit," Starsky muttered, glancing at his watch. Less than an hour to go before the end of their shift and he was tired. He seemed to be tired every day now and knew it was because of the added strain of trying to make sure he covered all the bases all the time rather than being able to count on his partner for half the work and half the worry. "It figures," he groused.

"What was that?" Dobey asked.

Starsky exchanged a grin with Bradley. That was another good thing about this particular rookie, he had already acquired just the right amount of disrespect for authority that Starsky considered essential in a good street detective. Colin Bradley would go far if he just ended up teamed with the right partner. Starsky knew, however, that that partner was not going to be him. There was no spark, no instantaneous communication that he and Hutch had possessed right from the start.

"Nothin', Cap. Whacha got for me?" Starsky asked seeing that Bradley already had his notebook out and ready.

Making a quick right when he heard the address, Starsky mentally plotted the route and the time necessary to travel it as Bradley signed off.

"Welfare Willy? Isn't he the one that called in the report on Paco Rameros but refused to come in to make a statement?" Bradley asked, flipping through the meticulous notes Starsky knew he always made.

"Yeah. Either he figured he'd already done his civic duty, or he's just trying to clear a grudge by fingering the Rameros kid," Starsky replied, only part of his concentration on his driving as he thumbed through his own mental file.

Starsky spent the rest of the 20-minute ride passing on every detail he remembered about their quarry and laying out a simple plan of action. Starsky would wait around the back and let Bradley flush their quarry toward him.

"If you let him get past you, I hope you've got your track shoes on 'cause he's a runner," Starsky warned, which was why he was taking the back. Most rats ran away from a confrontation. They pulled up a block away from the run down hotel that Welfare Willy called home. "And don't forget to lean on the guy at the desk. Yank the phone cord if ya gotta."

"Isn't that illegal?" Bradley asked.

"So accidentally trip over it," Starsky said as they got out of the car. "Give me two minutes to get around the back," he added and moved ahead along the sidewalk until he came to the alley beside the hotel.

Once within the narrow space, Starsky picked up his pace, compulsively going over everything he knew and hoping like hell he had told Bradley everything he needed to know. He had barely got himself concealed behind a dumpster when he heard his name being called from the front of the hotel. Quick as he could, he retraced his steps, arriving on the street in time to see his partner turn into another alley on the other side of the street and half way down the block.

Pouring on the speed, Starsky shot after him, and the race was on.

Too many minutes later, the two panting cops stood over a somewhat worse for wear Willy who lay on the ground nursing a likely sprained wrist and scraped knee which were the result of Starsky's flying tackle.

When he had caught his breath, Starsky grabbed Willy's collar and hauled him to his feet. "Come on, you," he growled. Glancing at his winded partner, Starsky shook his head and forced himself not to think of Hutch nor the several hours it would take to coax a statement out of Willy. "Now the fun begins."

It was Friday night again before Hutch let himself feel how lonely he was. During the week, he had scaled back on the overtime and used the time off to clean up his place and spend a little quality time with his plants. His apartment had never been so tidy, nor his plants so happy, and Hutch had accepted the fact that he was simply marking time. Each day that passed was bringing him closer to the day when he would have to make a decision one way or the other. Was he going back to Metro, or was he leaving the force? There was no longer any question of his staying in Halton Hills or going to any other division. Metro was home.

But that decision was still a week away and in the meantime, he had a weekend to fill. He was not in the mood to try to find someone to share it with him, but neither did he want to sit alone in his apartment. He needed to get out, be around people even if not with them.

He got in the car and wandered, taking the freeway back into the city and cruising his old beat until he spotted a parking spot just steps away from a familiar bar. Easing the LTD into the spot that was almost too small for it, he made his way inside and chose a table at the back. When his first beer came, he picked it up and leaned back in his chair, content to just watch the world go by without necessarily becoming involved in it.

When he saw Sweet Alice come through the door, however, he smiled a welcome when their eyes met. He got to his feet as she joined him, noticing how she seemed to be tottering more than usual on her stiletto heels as she crossed the room, and that she swayed gently before taking the chair he held for her.

"Buy a girl a drink, Handsome Hutch," she asked in her sweet southern drawl.

"Seems like maybe you've had enough," Hutch cautioned as he sat down again and put his hand over the one she rested on the table.

"My, my, yes. I am just a little drunk," Alice admitted wistfully. "But maybe not drunk enough."

Hutch signaled the waitress, mouthing the word "coffee" over Alice's blonde head and holding up two fingers. He had no idea if Alice was just beginning her workday or ending it, but either way it certainly wasn't safe for her to be walking the streets in this condition.

"Haven't seen you around much, Hutch. Still makin' the world a better place to live up in the Hills?" There was an unexpected bitterness to the question and an accusation in the slightly unfocused eyes.

The waitress came with the coffee and, although she offered him a disappointed pout, Alice made no objection as Hutch added cream and sugar and nudged the cup toward her.

"Not for much longer," Hutch reassured Alice. He cupped the manicured fingers of her free hand between both of his.

"You comin' home soon?" Alice asked hopefully. "You and Starsky, too?"

"Starsky's still here," he soothed.

"Never see him anymore. Used to. Like I told you, out dancin' every night. Not anymore."

"Don't cry, honey. You'll smudge your make-up," Hutch warned, pity welling up so strong as he looked into her brimming eyes that he wanted to enfold her in his embrace, protect the sweet heart of her that still lived despite the sordid life she led. It was only White Knight Syndrome, and it only ever brought him grief. Still, it was as natural to him as breathing.

"I don't cry anymore, Hutch," Alice denied the accusation with one of her professional smiles. "My mama always told me there was no use cryin' for the moon."

Hutch could see in her eyes that he was the moon she couldn't help yearning for. He held her hand up between them, kissed the soft pads of her fingers with all the tenderness and apology he had inside him.

"Alice, let me take you home. It's late and it's too dangerous for you to be out like this," Hutch hastened to add when Alice's face lit with delight.

"You could stay just a little while, Hutch. I'd never tell nobody," Alice promised, the sad emptiness in her eyes far more compelling to Hutch than seduction ever could have been.

It was so tempting not to be alone. To touch someone and be touched in return. To know that each caress was imbued with her feelings for him. If he could offer some comfort to this sweet soul, so much the better.

"Drink your coffee, Alice," he instructed, releasing her hand and picking up his own cup. Over the rim, their eyes met and Hutch knew she understood.

But by the time Hutch pulled the LTD into a parking space outside Alice's apartment building, he knew he was not going to be able to go through with it. He could justify it all he wanted to his ever-alert conscience, but if he slept with Alice now, for no better reason than an abundance of loneliness, he would be no better than the men who rented her body for an hour or two of furtive groping. Worse, in fact, for those men at least were honest enough to pay her.

But he had been raised to always play the gentleman in the presence of a lady, so he got out of the car to escort her to her door. She clung to his arm, still unsteady on her feet despite the coffee, her inebriated state only reinforcing Hutch's decision. Nevertheless, when he opened her door for her and helped her over to her sofa, Hutch allowed himself to be drawn down onto the cushion beside her.

Alice's hands held him in a surprisingly firm grip and a world-weary smile touched her lips. "Changed your mind, haven't you Hutch?" she accused gently. "I understand. A man like you, why he can have anybody he wants." One hand released Hutch's, sweeping down her own body, a small shrug disparaging her shop worn goods.

It was almost enough to make Hutch change his mind again. "You're a beautiful lady, Alice, and I really care about you. But I don't . . . I can't give you what you want from me."

Alice's free hand came up to offer a butterfly touch to his lips, an angel's wing kiss to his cheek. "You think I don't know that, Hutch? It's just, well, honey, I'd be willin' to settle for whatever you do have to give."

Temptation came in many forms and sometimes the hardest to resist of all was pity. Hutch leaned into her caress for a moment, then dropped his head to kiss her, his lips pressing gently onto her forehead. Not a lover's kiss, but a father's, a brother's, a friend's.

"It's too little," he murmured softly. "You deserve more."

"We all do," Alice said, leaning into him and Hutch allowed it, easing back into the corner of the sofa and cradling her against his chest. "Doesn't mean we're ever gonna get it. Cryin' for the moon, handsome Hutch," she murmured sleepily.

That was really what it all came down to. Not necessarily having everything you wanted, but learning to be happy with what you have. Somewhere along the line, Hutch had forgotten just how much he already possessed in his friendship with Starsky. He had been crying for the moon and ended up alone. It had taken the wisdom of this woman who had seen far too much of this hard, cruel world to bring that home to him. Life without Starsky was a damned empty place and Hutch was tired of living in it. Starsky could not give him everything he wanted, but Starsky gave him everything he had to give.

Hutch's arm tightened around the woman who now slept in his arms, pressing his cheek against her soft, perfumed hair. "Sleep safe, Sweet Alice. The moon's gonna set and the sun's gonna rise. No more crying for the moon."

Starsky sat himself down on the couch, plunked the taco bag and root beer cans on the table and forced himself to notice the scarecrow sitting patiently in the wicker chair. He had been ignoring his improvised confessor/devil's advocate for better than a week now, telling himself each night that he was too tired after babysitting yet another rookie, this one not quite so promising, all day long to go digging into the dark corners of his psyche half the night. It was true. He was tired. It was also a lie. He had found a measure of peace and had guarded it jealously. With only three days left of Hutch's temporary transfer, however, it was time for him to make sure that he had his head together.

"Evening, Charlie," he greeted the doppelganger. "Wanna taco?" he offered as he dug into the bag and pulled out his dinner. Idly he wondered just how much longer he would get away with eating like this before his belly rebelled. He took a hefty bite and chewed thoughtfully, washing it down with a swig from the can.

"Hutch'll be back on Monday," he said with satisfaction.

Sure about that, are you?

"Sure I'm sure," Starsky insisted. He had come to a place where he knew he could not stand it any other way. He knew everyone thought of him as the eternal optimist, but the mean streets had been wearing him down too.

How long before he "seduces" you again?

"He won't," Starsky insisted with a confidence he did not feel. Starsky still really did not understand why Hutch had done what he had done, because Starsky had never loved anyone like that who had not wanted him too. He had come close with Rosie, but had recognized after she left that part of his passion had been generated by his competitive nature. Right from the start, he had been pitted against her father with Rosie as the prize.

"We'll talk it out."

When? He hasn't called you and you haven't called him.

"We will. Hutch and I have always been able to work things out between us. We'll do it again."

Maybe he'll agree to worship you from afar. You'd like that, wouldn't you? Hutch's heart in your pocket while you screw every woman that comes your way.

Starsky choked on his mouthful of taco and it was several moments before he could clear the obstruction and get a full breath. He glared into the blank, orange face and shook his head emphatically.

"No way. All he, I mean we, needed was a little time to cool down. Sort out our own heads, so we can get together and talk it out between us."

You think all Hutch needed was a little out of sight, out of mind and he won't be in love with you anymore?

Charlie's accusation touched Starsky on the raw. He rolled up the remains of his taco in the greasy paper bag, unconsciously squeezing it between clenched fists.

"Why not? He's done it before," he countered, feeling so guilty and disloyal that he had to look around the room before continuing to make sure that only Charlie was privy to his accusation.

"I agonized more over Gillian than he did," he muttered. "Christ, I thought finding out about her would break his heart, was sure seeing her dead would kill him. A month later, he's banging that little blonde bowling bimbo right on this couch while Nancy and me are going at it in the bedroom."

You could hardly blame him. The woman he thought he was in love with never existed. Did you want him to mourn a stranger?

"What about Jeannie?" Starsky waved his own words aside. "Never mind about her." He shook his head. "Jeez, Hutch can really pick 'em. Hookers and psychos, and now he says he's in love with me. Wonder where I fit in there?"

Charlie did not seem to have any more idea of Starsky's place in the scheme of Hutch's love life than Starsky did, so Starsky got up to dispose of the remains of his dinner. He washed the grease from his fingers, puttered in the kitchen for a while and then wandered back to sprawl on the couch again.

What do you want from Hutch?

Starsky rolled his eyes. "Same thing I've wanted all along, for him to just . . . go back to being my best friend."

What do you want for Hutch?

"For Hutch to be happy," Starsky answered simply and immediately.

What would you do to make Hutch happy?

Starsky thought about the miserable man who had run away from Metro and Starsky just as fast as he could.

"Anything," he finally answered softly.

Even fall in love with him?

A lot of thought went into Starsky's reply, but, in the end, it really was pretty simple. "If I could, I guess I would have long ago."

With a soft sigh, Hutch tucked away the last pencil and pushed in the desk drawer. The desk. Not his desk. Even after a month of sitting behind it, scrupulously keeping his paperwork up to date, the desk he had been assigned to here at Halton Hills did not feel even remotely like a place he belonged. No more than he belonged in the Hills at all. If the previous month had brought him no other conclusions, it had given him that sure and certain knowledge. If he was going to remain a cop at all, then the familiar mean streets of Metro division was the only place he wanted to do it.

"Sergeant Hutchinson, could I see you in my office for a few minutes before you go?"

Hutch focused on the brightly lit squad room and the man seeking his attention. Captain Fowler was as complete an opposite of Harold Dobey as anyone could ask for. White, fit, well groomed and aging gracefully, just looking at Fowler made Hutch long to see Dobey's rotund form leaning over him. Listening to the well-modulated tone that was always reasonable also made Hutch nearly ache to hear his former superior in full-throated tirade. Nevertheless, Hutch obediently followed Fowler into the captain's neat, airy office.

"Sit down, Ken," Fowler invited.

Once again, Hutch obediently followed the polite instruction.

"Your temporary assignment with us is over today," Fowler began as he circled his wide desk and settled into the chair behind it.

Hutch's lips twitched. He was fully aware of the fact that in ten more minutes exactly he could leave Halton Hills behind. Hopefully forever. Today he had been counting every damned minute before he could get back to St . . .  Ruthlessly, Hutch cut off that thought and focused on Fowler.

" . . . pleased with your performance. I've been hoping you were considering making your transfer permanent?" Fowler's half-heard speech ended on a hopeful note.

Hutch shook his head, lips forming a polite smile. The kind of smile his parents smiled. The kind he had learned was an excellent mask to hide his true feelings behind. "I'm sorry, Captain Fowler. I'm glad I could help out here for a while, but . . . "

"But you belong at Metro," Fowler picked up the unfinished sentence. He got to his feet and extended his hand across the shiny, uncluttered expanse of his desk.

Hutch scrambled to his feet and accepted the offered hand, shook it firmly and with great relief, and then took his hand back.

"I hope Dobey realizes how lucky he is to have you."

That provoked the first honest amusement that Hutch had felt since well before his transfer. He laughed softly. "I don't suppose you'd like to send him an interdivision memo to that effect, would you?"

"I don't know that I'd go that far, Sergeant, but I might give him a call. Good-bye, Hutchinson. Best of luck."

Starsky fiddled away the last few minutes of his shift on Friday night. He had spent the entire afternoon industriously typing and filing and sorting so that his desk was now uncharacteristically tidy, his in-box empty and his out-box full to overflowing. It had been an effort in sheer willpower rather than any true sudden impulse toward efficiency that had kept his butt planted in the chair as the hours crept by and Dobey passed again and again without comment. Obviously, the captain was not in the mood for information sharing. Starsky, however, was determined not to leave the building until he had some idea of where he stood.

"Starsky, come in here a minute," Dobey ordered on his way past the unusually tidy desk.

Since he had been hoping for the summons all day, Starsky jumped to his feet and followed Dobey obediently, the fact that his shift had ended five minutes ago the furthest thing from his mind.

"Close the door," Dobey instructed as he sank into his chair and ran both hands over his face. "Have you talked to Hutch?" he asked just as he had asked a dozen times in the past two weeks.

"No," Starsky replied, sullen because it was the last day of Hutch's temporary transfer and the question meant Dobey had not heard from him either.

Dobey swiveled his chair around to look out the window behind him as he began to speak. "You and Hutch are the best detectives I've ever had work under me," he admitted as he turned back to face his unhappy subordinate. "But I can't run my division, can't keep rostering my men, based on who isn't talking to who. If I haven't heard from one of you by Sunday, I'm going to confirm Hutch's permanent transfer to Halton Hills and you are going to hit the streets on Monday with a new partner. If that means one or both of you feel you have to leave the force, then that's your decision."

The dark glare fixed on Starsky, demanding that the blue eyes meet his and understand that this was no empty threat. "Do I make myself clear?"

"As crystal, Captain," Starsky agreed with relief. He was tired of the uncertainty and wanted an end to it. There was only one way to bring that about.

Starsky picked up the phone and sat it in his lap, staring down at the innocent mechanism as if it might explode in his face. After a few minutes, when it made no threatening gestures, he picked up the receiver and slowly dialed 5-5-5. He cradled the receiver and put the phone back on the table.

"I need a beer," he announced and went out into the kitchen. He took his time about it, rummaging through the refrigerator and throwing out a few things that more closely resembled pharmaceutical experiments than food.

Seated back on the couch, beer in hand, he picked up the receiver a second time, then, without dialing even the first part of Hutch's number, he dropped it back into the cradle.

You're stalling.

"I'll do it," Starsky growled, switching his glare from the phone to his analytical construct and back again. "In a minute."

Less than an hour after leaving Halton Hills for the last time, Hutch sat in his own living room staring at his blank TV screen. The small feeling of satisfaction that had warmed him upon walking through the station doors for the last time had, however, been steadily eroding away beneath the steady drip, drip, drip of self-doubt. He knew he wanted to stay on the streets of Metro division, but whether he and Starsky would cruise those streets together was going to have to be settled before they faced Dobey bright and early on Monday morning.

His temporary assignment had given them both a breathing space. Now it was time to find out if it had been enough. He picked up the phone from the table beside him and brought it to sit on his lap. It took several more minutes for him to work up the courage to pick up the receiver and dial the long-familiar number.


The sound of the beloved voice clogged the casual greeting in Hutch's throat.

"Star . . . " he croaked, coughed and tried again. "Starsky, it's Hutch."

The prolonged silence at the other end of the line made him fear/hope that the other man had hung up.

"Yeah. I was just gonna call you. Uh . . . how ya doin'?"

Hutch clutched the phone tighter. "Okay. Good. Fine." He realized he was babbling and clamped his jaws together, took a deep breath and tried again. "I'll be back at Metro on Monday."

"Yeah? That's . . . that's great. Guess you'll be glad to quit wearin' that noose around your neck every day."

Hutch tried to laugh, produced something that sounded more like a strangulated sneeze.

"God bless you."


"You sneezed?"

"Ah, no." A long silence, awkward and painful the way it never had been before. Hutch remembered a time when their silences were filled with communication. Now they were just empty air.

"Uhm, listen Hutch. I gotta . . . "

"Wait!" Hutch coughed again, this time to bring his voice down out of the higher ranges of panic. "Starsk, we gotta talk. Before Monday, I mean."



"Yeah, Hutch, okay. That's what I was gonna say. Uhm . . . why doncha come over here. Ah . . . have dinner or something."

"Th-th-that'd b-be great." Hutch felt himself flushing and cringed. He bit his lip, then forged on. "Can I bring something?" Now he was reduced to polite inanities. "Pizza or . . . ?"

There was a long pause during which Hutch could hear Starsky breathing into the phone and tried to imagine the expression Starsky might be wearing now. Was it the hard mask he sometimes wore on the street, the uncertain boy, or the bewildered, sometimes-vulnerable, man? Once, he would have known just by the inflection of his partner's voice.

"Pizza sounds good. An hour?"

"Sure. I can be there in an hour."

"Okay. See you . . . "

"Starsk, wait." Another stretch of silence down the line.

"Yeah? What?"

Desperate for some small acknowledgment that there was hope for them, Hutch blurted, "I missed you."

Another echoing emptiness, during which Hutch could picture Starsky squirming. His partner always had hated soapy scenes. Trouble was, simple statements like that had always been fair game. Before. Before Hutch got greedy.

"Me, too," Starsky finally admitted in a mumble that made the words nearly incomprehensible. "See ya in an hour."

Hutch continued holding the phone long after the non-sound of disconnection had been replaced by the annoying drone of the dial tone. Eventually, he returned the phone to its cradle, his hand moving to his chest, pressing against the pounding organ that was racing so fast it felt ready to leap out of his body. Despair welled within him. How could he ever hope to go back to the way things had been with Starsky if just the sound of the beloved voice was enough to make the adrenaline pump through his veins? He couldn't, and yet he knew somehow he had to.

If hearing Starsky's voice had rattled Hutch, then facing the man on his doorstep really undid his composure. He battled to regain it while he drank in the cautious welcome on Starsky's face, seeing the greeting die on Starsky's lips as a stunned expression took its place.

"Ah, goin' for a new look, are ya, Hutch?"

Hutch had to hand it to Starsky. His partner could be feeling no less uncomfortable and had obviously been surprised by Hutch's altered appearance, yet he had managed to find words and an ironic tone to deliver them in. Hutch was grateful. A speechless Starsky was too much of an aberration to even consider. In response, Hutch ducked his head, feeling his longer hair sweep forward around his face. He raised a hand to automatically smooth his newly minted mustache.

"Hope the pizza's as cheesy as that thing is," Starsky pronounced, relieving Hutch of the pizza box and bag of sodas he had brought for dinner. "Come on in."

Hutch stepped into the apartment, closing the door behind him and turned to follow Starsky into the kitchen, but was stopped in his tracks by the apparition sitting in the big wicker chair.

Starsky looked back over his shoulder, followed Hutch's gaze and waved a dismissal with the hand holding the bag of sodas. "Tell ya later," he dismissed the subject and continued on to the kitchen.

Sidling past the chair, Hutch realized that it was his shirt and jeans that made up the body of Starsky's houseguest. The white shirt with the guitar on the back. Because he had been dressing more upscale while assigned to Halton Hills, Hutch had not even realized that the shirt was missing. Anxiety superceded for the moment by curiosity, he nonetheless accepted Starsky's decree and joined him at the table where Starsky had already laid the pizza box.

"Brought plenty of antacids with you, huh," Starsky commented when he flipped open the lid of the box.

Small talk. They were reduced to small talk, and Starsky, who Hutch had believed did not even know the meaning of the term personal space, was practically dancing a ballet to keep a measured distance between them. Despair battled for dominance again as Hutch pulled out a chair and slumped into it.

"You can sit down, Starsk. I'm not gonna jump you," he said wearily.

As if to deny the accusation, Starsky yanked out the chair closest to Hutch and plunked down into it. "I didn't think you were," he mumbled.

Hutch accepted the lie.

"This looks good," Starsky changed the subject, pulling a slice of the pizza from the box and laying it on the napkin in front of him.

Hutch also allowed the evasion. "Yeah. Guaranteed heartburn or your money cheerfully refunded." He bit his lip as Starsky lay a slice in front of him as well, his belly rebelling. The chances of him getting down a Starsky special and keeping it down, Hutch estimated to be virtually zero. Even the smell of it was making him wish he had skipped lunch, and maybe breakfast, too.

Starsky's appetite seemed less than ravenous as well. He picked an olive off his slice and popped it into his mouth, but seemed far more interested in staring at his food than in eating it.

Hutch put both hands on the table to push himself to his feet. "Listen, Starsk. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea . . . "

Starsky's hand flashed out and locked around his forearm, holding Hutch in his seat.

"Are you just coming back to Metro, or are you coming back to me?" he asked bluntly.

Hutch almost smiled. Leave it to Starsky to cut through the crap and lay it all out on the table. "Cut to the chase, huh, buddy."

"Don't see the sense in wasting a perfectly good pizza," Starsky agreed. "It'll taste a whole lot better after we sort this all out."

"Think we can?" Hutch asked, trying to filter the needy whine out of his voice, but hearing some of his desperation coming through.

"Think we gotta." Starsky nodded toward the living room. "Go get comfortable. I think this could take a while."

Starsky put the rejected pizza into the refrigerator and then followed Hutch into the living room where he found Hutch tucked into one corner of the sofa. He squashed his first impulse, which was to toss Charlie into the bedroom and curl up in the chair. If they were going to be partners again, he was going to have to get over this touch-me-not fixation. There was only so much room in the front seat of the Torino, and Starsky wanted this evening to end with them willing to share that space again.

So, as naturally as he could, he sat himself down at the other end of the sofa, extending his arm along the back of it toward Hutch.

Hutch's attention was on Charlie. "You gonna tell me about that?" he asked, nodding toward the silent construct.

Starsky grimaced. This was embarrassing. He wished he had thought to put the damned thing away before Hutch arrived. Charlie, however, had become, in a strange way, a part of his life. Just as Hutch had been. When he could not have Hutch, he had Charlie to talk to instead. Yes, Charlie was embarrassing, but what he represented was also pretty damned sad.

"I didn't realize it before, Hutch, but I don't have any friends," Starsky admitted. He shook his head at the expression of doubt that crossed Hutch's face. "I don't mean guys I could go bowling with or watch the game with. I mean somebody I can talk to. About the important stuff." He nodded toward Charlie. "Charlie is you, Hutch. You know I can't work some things out in my head. I gotta talk it out. You weren't here."

"I'm sorry," Hutch apologized in a whisper so low that Starsky could barely hear him.

Starsky tapped sharply at the back of the couch with the hand he had extended toward Hutch. "Hey. I didn't say that to make you feel bad. It's just the way it is."

It was easy to see that Hutch was choking on his attempt to swallow that one. "Did it work?" he finally asked, forcing himself to meet Starsky's eyes.

Starsky shrugged. "Kept me from going off at anybody else like a stick of dynamite so, yeah, I guess Charlie did his job."

"Anybody else?" Hutch echoed.

Starsky focused on the bit of lint he was picking off the back of the couch. "I was kinda off the rails for a while there."

"Ah, Starsk. I'm so sorry. If I could go back and undo it all, I would."

"That's kinda different from what you hadta say that last time we talked," Starsky offered cautiously. "What happened?"

Hutch's expression became bleak. "Living without you happened."

It was all Starsky could do not to cross the distance between them, reach out to comfort as was his nature, especially with this man. He had always been defenseless in the face of Hutch's pain. Seeing it cut into his soul deeper than his own. He was not yet at a place, however, and sensed that neither was Hutch, where he could take him in his arms with the easy freedom they had once shared. He wondered if they ever would have that again. What he had to offer now—an awkward, self-conscious embrace at best—would only do more harm than good.

The opportunity was lost in any case as Hutch went on with his tortured confession. "So, I'm sorry. Sorry I was such a self-centered, egotistical bastard. Sorry I risked our friendship, our partnership, because I couldn't control myself. Sorry I hurt you. Sorry I . . . " There was a pause while Hutch battled to bring forth the ugly word. " . . . raped you. But . . . "

"But?" Starsky prompted, keeping a tight rein on the emotions Hutch evoked in him with his self-hatred.

"But I'm not sorry I love you. There's nothing to be ashamed of in loving a man like you. Just in what I did with that love."

Starsky did reach out then, not with the embrace he might once have offered but with a simple touch, his hand covering one of Hutch's where it was gripped around his knee.

"I wish I could understand better, babe. I love ya, too. You know that. But . . . " Starsky let the rest trail away with a shrug of his shoulders.

"None of this is your fault."

Starsky sat back abruptly, his fingers going back to ensuring the lint-free condition of his sofa. He found he could not take his eyes off his busy fingers. "Isn't it?"

He could feel Hutch's questioning gaze on him, but could not make himself meet it. "I've been asking myself about that. I mean, did I do something to make you think I'd wanna . . . " He made a vague gesture with his hand as he struggled to express himself.

Hutch started to laugh, sounding for the first time in far too long like the real Hutch rather than some stranger, the sound full of affection and gentle irony.

"You mean like flirt with me?" Hutch asked. "Starsky, you flirt with everybody. Me, Dobey, Huggy, any lovely lady you happen to meet. Hell, you even flirt with half the perps we bring in." Hutch shook his head as if he could not believe that Starsky did not know all this about himself. "Your personal space doesn't extend beyond your own skin. You get up close and personal with everyone. As for the way you dress and walk and stand . . . "

Much to Starsky's relief, Hutch shut himself up with a visible effort. He took a couple of deep breaths, then continued more calmly.

"But that's just the way you are. There's nothing wrong with it. So, no, you didn't invite me to rape you if that's what you're worried about. I came up with that idea all by myself," he added bitterly.

"Rape," Starsky murmured thoughtfully.

"Don't start that, Starsky," Hutch demanded. "You can't whitewash it. I raped you. You said no."

Starsky's lips quirked just a little as he realized just how much of Hutch he had invested in Charlie. The same questions, the same probing. If Starsky closed his eyes, he could believe that he was still alone, digging into his subconscious as best he could on his own.

"You didn't hurt me," he defended his friend against his friend, just as he had defended him against his own subconscious and anything or anyone else that wanted to hurt Hutch.

"Didn't I?" Hutch asked, back to bleak now, every trace of his earlier amusement gone. He waved a hand toward Charlie in illustration.

Starsky made a slashing motion with his hand. "Okay. Okay. I said no. You did it anyway. That's rape. It was also pretty good sex. I can deal with that," he insisted although he was still uncertain of his ability to live up to that statement. "You say you're sorry and I'm gonna assume that means you're pretty sure you won't try and do it again. But, Hutch, the last time we talked you said what we had before wasn't enough for you anymore. You said it never would be again. Has that changed? I mean, you said you still love me . . . "

To Starsky's eyes, it seemed that Hutch aged ten years in the same number of seconds. If loving him was doing this to his friend, Starsky decided, then they needed to find an antidote soon.

"I never wanted to lose what we already had, I just wanted more. Like a greedy kid. It took me almost this whole last month to figure it out. Nobody gets everything they want. If you're lucky, you get some of what you need. I need you. On whatever terms I can have you. I promise, I'll never touch you like that again no matter what it takes."

Starsky's throat wanted to close. He had wanted the reassurance from Hutch that he was safe from future sexual advances, but now that he had it, it was a bitter thing, bought at the expense of Hutch's peace of mind.

"I'll just be your partner, if that's what you want. I'll . . . "

"Stop it, Hutch," Starsky growled and now he did move across those few inches of cushion that separated them. He caught at both of Hutch's arms in a fierce grip and gave him a shake. He tried to pull Hutch into his arms, but the big man resisted, holding him out at arm's length.

"Don't. Please, Starsk. I'm not crotchless."

Starsky's grip tightened. "If it's what you really need from me, babe . . . "

Breaking the grip, Hutch got up, turned his back and walked away.

Hutch almost kept going right out the door, but forced himself to stop short of actually opening it, of clambering down the long staircase to his car and running way to someplace where he could pretend that the offer Starsky just made was only a figment of his fevered imagination. Instead, he flipped open the grate covering the small window and leaned his forehead against the cool glass.

"Do you have any idea how much I hate myself right now?" he asked rhetorically. "I've turned my best friend into someone who's willing to prostitute himself to me."

"Hutch, I . . . "

Hutch swung around. "Shut up, Starsk. Just shut up, okay. I already told you I can live without the sex. But . . . " Both hands came up, palms pressed tight against his temples before running back through his hair. "But you can't know how tempted I am. I thought I had it all figured out. Then I heard your voice. Came here and saw you again. It's like a sucker punch in the gut, babe, but I'm getting my wind back. I can live without loving you, I don't want to live without being your friend."

"It's never gonna be the same again, is it, Hutch?" Starsky asked. He too had come up off the couch, but for once in his life he was keeping to his own space.

"Probably not, but I think there's still enough to make it worth saving. Do you?"

Starsky's head bowed, his blue eyes studying the carpet for so long that Hutch thought he would never reply. Finally, ever so slowly, he straightened up. "Yeah. I do."

Hutch accepted the verdict with a nod, one quick up and down motion of his head that was just about all he could manage. "It's a place to start. Now, I'm gonna go home and call Dobey. You want me to meet you here Monday morning?"

Starsky seemed about to protest the abrupt departure, but after a moment, he bit his lip and then nodded. "Yeah. What about the pizza?"

"You eat it," Hutch offered. "I'm a little low on Rolaids right now." He half turned so he could get his hand on the doorknob, turned it and pulled.


The sound of his name stopped him from taking that first step. "Night, Starsk. I'll be here at 7:00. Don't be late," he said and walked out the door, closed it behind him and paused for just a moment at the head of the stairs, feeling as if it would take the strength of ten men to lift his foot and take that first step down. He took the first one, and then the second, the third one easier and by the fourth feeling almost as if his body was his own once again. Starsky was right, they were never going to be the same again. But they were going to be something.

Never the same, but something. Hutch's own conclusion was echoing through his head several nights later as he stood with Judith in the Fever disco, watching his partner dry humping a skinny little bitch poured into a white halter and red satin shorts. Speaking of bitches, Hutch chastised himself, little Miss Hot Pants wasn't the only one in the room. He was doing a fair imitation himself, if only in the privacy of his own thoughts. Hutch forced himself to drag his attention off Starsky's gyrating pelvis and back to the pitifully desperate woman beside him. He wondered if his own misery showed as clearly in his eyes as hers did behind the outsized frames of her glasses.

He reminded himself that he was undercover looking for a vicious serial killer. He should be keeping an eye on Lizzie who fit the profile of the victims so perfectly, but, no, his attention was once again on his partner as Starsky shed his jacket and yanked up his sleeves. Could Starsky feel his gaze? Was he sending Hutch a message by flaunting the hard-on outlined by the snug white pants? Or was Starsky just being Starsky, immersed in the role and doing one of the things he loved most—dancing? Hutch's perspective was too skewed to know, and that terrified him.

Never the same, but something. And Hutch knew now what that something was going to be. Torture. Day in, day out of wanting what he could not have and making the best of what he could. Until never the same became more than Starsky could live with, and something became less than Hutch could stand. That he and Starsky would fall apart wasn't an if anymore, it was only a matter of when. A year? A month? A week? Maybe tomorrow.