Starsky stood outside the ICU observation window. It wasn't the same room he had been in after Gunther's shooting, not even the same room Hutch had nearly died in during the Plague, but it was close enough as made no difference. He stood tensely in front of the window, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet. His hands were closed fists, his whole body wound up tight. He wanted to do something, anything, not just stand here passively while a crew of nurses and technicians did things to his partner that he didn't understand.

Hutch's eyes were shut, a respiratory tube taped into his mouth. The tube led to a ventilator that clicked off breaths with mechanical regularity. Even from here Starsky could tell Hutch's lungs weren't working well. There were bandages around his chest, covering the tubes inserted there that helped inflate his lungs. His skin had a sickly pallor, his lips nearly blue. The throat wound wasn't visible any longer, hidden under bandages. There were tubes snaking from various bags and bottles all around the room, all of them leading to Hutch's body. Fluids and drugs and whole blood going into him. A catheter taking urine out of him.

Hutch's body suddenly convulsed hard and Starsky realized he was coughing violently, his body wracked with heaving spasms as his lungs struggled to eject the foreign matter suffocating him. One of the technicians shoved another tube down the ventilator tube, and Starsky could see dark stuff being suctioned out. Hutch's struggles were terrible to watch as he thrashed and coughed and fought. With a sickening jolt Starsky realized that Hutch's hands were tied down. The cords in Hutch's arms strained against his bonds, his hands either balling into fists or spreading out wide as if reaching for something, anything that could help him. His struggles stopped all at once, and the sudden cessation of movement was as frightening as the convulsive coughing.

Starsky felt Dobey and Huggy gripping his shoulders, holding his arms, and realized his own hands were pressed flat against the glass, as if he were trying to climb through it.

"Easy, Starsky," Huggy crooned gently, as he and Dobey pulled Starsky away from the window.

He nodded. If he didn't get his act together, they'd never let him in there. And he needed to get in there. Needed to touch Hutch, needed to tell him—

This is what it was like for you, Hutch, wasn't it? Standing behind this glass and watching me trying to die while you held this big important thing inside you. The thing you might never get a chance to say. Did you feel like it was killing you, like a big rock inside your heart that wouldn't let it beat right until you finally got to tell me?

He choked up and thought for a moment that he was going to lose it. But then one of the nurses left the ICU unit, and signaled to him.

"Sergeant Starsky? You can come in now."

Inside the room it was eerily quiet, with only the soft, rhythmic hissing and chuckling of the respirator for background music. The respiratory tech, a round-faced young man in his twenties, saw Starsky had entered, and stepped away from Hutch so that Starsky could move closer. Starsky stopped him for a minute. The nameplate on his scrubs said Weaver.

"Why—why is he tied down like that?" Starsky asked.

"He's sedated, but he drifts in and out. When the coughing gets bad, if he wakes up too much, he'll try to pull the tube out of his throat."

"Can he . . . hear me?"

The tech shrugged. "Maybe. Hard to say how aware he might be. Look, I'm gonna get some coffee, I'll be right back. If he starts coughing, just hit the buzzer. I'll only be a few doors away."

Starsky nodded as the tech stepped out of the room. Even though Dobey and Huggy were right outside the glass, he was alone with Hutch for the first time since the shooting. Alone with Hutch. It was just a few days ago that being alone with Hutch was something he longed for as much as he dreaded it. Even now, Hutch's body radiated life and a powerful sexuality. Starsky had a sudden flashback of Hutch manhandling him into the chair and taking him by storm. He shivered as he watched that powerful man reduced to being tied to his bed so complete strangers could do what they wanted with him.

For his own good, Starsky reminded himself. To save his life.

That life that was so precious. That life that was tied into Starsky's by bonds so powerful, even he couldn't deny them anymore.

Starsky tried to ignore the scary array of technology, but it was hard to, since a forest of equipment surrounded Hutch. He moved closer, stepping cautiously, trying to get near Hutch without disturbing anything. There was a chair near the head of the bed, and slowly, carefully, he sat and tried to decide what to say. For a long moment, he remained silent. How could he explain his feelings to Hutch while Hutch wasn't really conscious? Would Hutch even hear him? If he could, would he believe him?

"Hutch . . . it's me. Starsky." He reached over to where Hutch's right hand was tied to the bedrail. Covering it, he was startled by its chill and realized the blue color around Hutch's eyes and lips was also around his fingernails. He surrounded Hutch's hand, trying to warm it. "I'm here for you. You gotta believe that. I'm not going anywhere. From now on, it's just you and me. I love you, Hutch. Can you hear me? I love you."

Talk is cheap, he thought. Gotta prove myself . . . my heart . . . .

Impulsively, Starsky said, "Hutch . . . marry me, huh? You said yourself that I always wanted to settle down, get married. And you're right. I wanna get married to you. I need you to live, so we can do all those things newlyweds get to do—go on a honeymoon to Hawaii, or maybe Niagara Falls. Buy a house together. Pick out curtains. Come on, Hutch, I know you're dying to have a place with a really big greenhouse. Someplace where we wouldn't . . .  wouldn't have to keep driving back and forth between two different apartments. We need to be together, you and me, in our own home. Living our lives together, for whatever time we've got left. You gotta believe that, Hutch. You gotta come back to me, so we can have that life together . . . ."

Hutch's eyes fluttered slowly, his eyes roving sightlessly around the room, opening and closing sleepily. His hand opened, reaching, and Starsky slipped his fingers against Hutch's palm. Hutch grasped his hand hard.

Starsky moved into Hutch's line of vision, hoping Hutch could see him. "Easy, boy, easy," he soothed as Hutch struggled feebly, pulling at his bonds. "You're gonna be okay. You just gotta relax and get better. I love you, Hutch. You gotta get well, so I can love you as hard as you deserve for as long as you can stand—"

He watched the groggy fluttering of Hutch's eyelids, praying Hutch was aware of him somehow.

"Hutch, get down!" Starsky screamed.

Hutch turned, recognizing Starsky's call. But his mind was still focused outside of himself, on Starsky, on their conflict. Yet, even distracted, he knew his priorities.

Get down? Where's Starsky?

He reached for his Python, ready to protect his partner, then realized Starsky was flat against the tarmac of the police station garage, shouting at him.

"Hutch, get down, get down!" Starsky kept yelling.

Before Hutch could free his weapon, he felt the bullet hit him in the back, tearing its way through his flesh, then exiting his throat. The pain was stunning, spreading down his spine, across his shoulders and into his chest and neck. There was so much pain it was hard to figure out how many times he'd been hit. He fell to his knees as blood filled his mouth, his nose. He coughed as it seeped into his lungs. His throat was swelling shut and he found himself struggling for air. He tried to call to Starsky, but his voice wouldn't work and his throat was so tight, he could hardly swallow, hardly force air in.

I'm going to drown, he thought suddenly, on my own blood.

He clutched at his throat in spite of the pain to slow down the loss of blood, and saw air bubble out from between his fingers. That was bad, he knew, when air came out of a place that had no business leaking air.

Dimly, he heard Starsky calling to him, but was no longer sure where Starsky was. "Hutch . . . it's me . . .  Starsky . . . " The rest was lost in a maze of rhythmic background sounds Hutch couldn't recognize. It sounded like Starsky was talking to him from the end of a long tunnel, his voice echoing eerily. They weren't in the garage anymore . . . but Hutch couldn't tell where they were.

" . . . You just gotta relax and get better," he thought Starsky said. His voice sounded a little clearer, but still so far away. "I love you, Hutch. You gotta get well, so I can love you as hard as you deserve for as long as you can stand—"

No, that couldn't be right. He had to be dreaming. Starsky loved him, Hutch knew that, but he was going to marry Rosey. Hutch needed to let him go. That would be best, for Starsky's future . . . and for Hutch, too . . . . To just let go. To go . . . .

"Don't leave me, Hutch," Starsky begged. His voice sounded choked, as if he were crying. Hutch tried to imagine Starsky crying but couldn't figure out why. "I'll do anything if you just don't leave me."

Hutch wanted to speak, but there was something shoved down deep into his throat. I have to leave. It's the best thing to do . . . for me to leave . . . so you can be free . . . .

Hutch felt Starsky's breath close to his ear, heard him murmuring. He sounded desperate. Hutch couldn't figure out why. "I love you, Hutch. You know that, right? I love you so much. You can't leave me."

Hutch struggled to blink, and tried to swallow but couldn't. He needed to understand what was happening, what he was being told.

Hutch felt Starsky's breath on his face as Starsky said, "I love you, Hutch. I'll never love anyone else the way I love you. Not ever. You gotta believe me, Hutch."

Before Hutch could decide how he felt about that, he felt Starsky's lips brush his cheek. A drop of moisture fell onto his face, but a warm hand brushed it away. The touch of those gentle fingers tingled against his skin, reminding him of other dreams and other, wonderful awakenings.

Wake me up, Starsky. Love me awake. I hurt. I'm afraid. And I'm losing you. Make this dream end, babe, please . . . .

"I'm here, Hutch," Starsky's comforting voice promised. "I'm waiting for you. I'll wait forever. I'm never gonna leave you, not ever again. I love you. You've got to believe that."

Hutch heard the words and clung to them. If Starsky would only stay with him . . . . If he would only stay . . . .

Suddenly, the air dammed up in his throat, and he was overwhelmed with the need to breathe—

Hutch started that convulsive coughing again, thrashing wildly in the bed, but before Starsky could hit the call button, Weaver was there, moving him deftly to the side so he could tend to Hutch. The deep wracking coughs and the violent reaction of Hutch's body was almost more than Starsky could bear. But he wasn't about to leave. Not until they threw him out.

When Hutch stopped coughing and sagged back in the bed, drained and exhausted, Weaver looked at Starsky. "There's not going to be a lot of change for awhile. You might want to go on home for a few hours, get some sleep. He won't be awake for maybe 20-hours, or longer."

Starsky shook his head. "He needs to know I'm here, that I'm not leaving. If I can't stay in the room, I'll stay outside. But I'm not going anywhere."

"Okay," Weaver said, and went back to checking Hutch's ventilator, making sure his airway was clear.

"I guess we gotta be glad Starsky killed that guy," Huggy said to Dobey, who grunted his agreement. "I'd hate to think of him out there on the streets looking for the responsible party in the state he's in now."

"Think we'll be able to get him out of here for awhile?" Dobey asked.

Huggy just snorted a laugh. "Forget that. I'm goin' back to the Pits and put some food together, then go over to Starsky's place and find him a change of clothes. He won't be leaving."

Dobey sighed. "No, I guess not." He gave Huggy a crooked smile. In this place, they were comrades in arms. If Huggy had been another cop, Huggy knew, Dobey couldn't have felt any closer to him than when they shared space in this corridor. "I think I'll call Edith and let her know what's going on. She'll want to be here at some point."

"Tell her not to bother worrying about your meals," Huggy said. "I've got that covered, Captain."

Dobey just smiled sadly and patted Huggy on the back. They both knew the routine all too well.

The hours slid by in an exhausting monotony. Starsky knew if he were this tired, Hutch had to be drained. He worried about that, knowing what fatigue could do to you when you were trying to recover from something serious. Starsky caught catnaps in the hospital waiting room, but only if Huggy or Dobey or Dobey's wife, Edith, were willing to either stay with Hutch when the ICU staff would allow them, or keep watch outside his window. It was important to Starsky that people who loved Hutch surrounded him. Other cops were coming by, too, as they always did when one of their own was struck down—offering to donate blood, bringing food, giving whatever support they could. Under other circumstances, Starsky would've been relieved to have this much community around him, but right now, there was only person on the planet for him, and that person wasn't doing well.

It was around 5:00 the following evening when Dr. Levy told Starsky they were ready to take out the ventilator tube. "He's expressed a decent amount of the blood in his lungs, and he's struggling against the tube more. We don't want to keep him sedated any longer, and his fighting the tube is wearing him down. He'll have to wear an oxygen mask to help him get enough air in. His lungs are still compromised, and he'll develop pneumonia. There's no way around that. He's still going to be in ICU, but he'll be more awake, more aware. He'll probably be able to understand you now, and respond. But he still won't be able to speak. His vocal chords will still be paralyzed, which is just as well, since the effort to talk would probably be more than his lungs can handle."

Starsky nodded, taking all the information in. He'd get Dobey to update Hutch's family in Minnesota. Dobey had dutifully called them earlier and given them the grim report. They'd discussed coming out, but Dobey encouraged them to wait a little bit, until Hutch was more stabilized. He knew how hard it would be on Hutch's parents to see him like this.

"He'll still be in a lot of pain, won't he?" Starsky asked.

The doctor nodded. "We'll be managing the pain, so he won't be super-alert, if that's what you're wondering. He'll still need lots of rest, lots of sleep, to help him heal. And we'll be starting respiratory therapy with him to help him clear his lungs." He smiled a little then. "He's doing pretty well, though, Detective Starsky. He's strong, and he's a fighter."

Starsky flushed with pride. "Yeah, he is that."

The doctor looked at him with concern. "Listen, Detective, I know it's really none of my business, but . . . I talked to your doctor yesterday, and he told me what had happened to you a year ago. Apparently, you came very close to death. It's amazing you've recovered as well as you have."

Starsky waited, sensing this was leading to something.

"Detective Hutchinson has a good chance for a complete recovery, though, like your own injuries, it'll take time. As a doctor, I have to tell you that this was an extremely close call. Considering Detective Hutchinson's injury and you're own, as his doctor, I'd like to suggest the two of you consider some other line of work. Something a little less dangerous. As you get older, it's going to be a lot harder to recover from close calls like this. It seems to me you've given as much as any two men could be asked to. I'd hate to see either of you back in this ICU again."

Starsky smiled grimly. "Our captain's singin' the same song, Doc. Hutch and me, we've been partners for a really long time. It's hard to think of us doing something else. But, I'll tell you, I'm not ready to sit another vigil for him like this, and I know he's not up for doing the same thing for me. I think, when he's well enough, we're gonna be looking at some different options."

Dr. Levy gave Starsky a reassuring smile. "Good. I'm glad to hear that. You'll want to be there when we remove the tube?"

Starsky nodded.

It was a less eventful procedure than he'd expected. Hutch coughed a few times when it came out, but the convulsive coughing spells seemed to have subsided. It was a tremendous relief to Starsky to see them untie Hutch's hands once was the tube was removed. The ICU room was so much quieter once the respirator was turned off. Hutch's breathing, however, was noisy, because of the congestion still in his lungs.

After the doctor and the nurses and the techs had their way with Hutch, they let Starsky have a little time alone with him. He felt strangely nervous, aware that this would be the first time since the shooting that Hutch would be truly aware of him, if groggy. Suppose Hutch turned away from him? Suppose Hutch let him know he didn't want him there? He was absurdly grateful that Hutch still couldn't speak, couldn't order him to leave.

Hutch's bed was on a slight incline, his head raised. He still looked incredibly pale against the stark white sheets, but a little of the blue coloring around his eyes had subsided. Hutch's eyelids were fluttering, as if he were struggling to stay awake after the exhausting experience of having the tube removed.

"Hey," Starsky said softly.

Hutch blinked drowsily, looking around the room as if not quite aware.

Starsky stroked his cheek. "Hutch, it's me."

Hutch's eyes turned to him, his head moving slightly in the same direction. Even that slight motion obviously caused him pain, and he winced and held still. He seemed puzzled to see Starsky.

"Am I glad to see you," Starsky said, smiling. "It's been pretty lonely in here, talkin' to you while you slept. But I took advantage of the fact that you couldn't argue with me. Do you remember anything I said?"

Hutch still had that puzzled expression, like he wasn't sure he knew who Starsky was, or maybe why he was there.

"Yeah, I figured you weren't payin' any attention," Starsky said, "but that's okay. I'll just keep reminding you. I've figured it all out. When they finally spring you from this joint—and the doc says you might be outta here in a week if you do everything you're supposed to, your breathing exercises and all that—we'll go spend some time at the beach 'til you're really well. I got us this little beach house all lined up already. The fresh air will be great for your lungs. And then, when you're totally well, you and me are gonna go to San Francisco. I found this place up there, this non-denominational church, where a real minister will marry us, just like anyone else. I mean . . . it's not a legal ceremony, but we can still take the vows before God and witnesses. They'll even do a mixed-services thing—a canopy for my part, and the Christian stuff for you. Then, we can spend the weekend in San Francisco—go dancing together, that kinda stuff—and from there we can head over to Hawaii for a real honeymoon. Two weeks in Paradise. Doesn't that sound great, Hutch?"

Hutch was blinking sleepily, but his eyes never left Starsky's face. The bewildered expression didn't change either.

"Hutch, you can't talk yet, so don't even try, just . . . " he took hold of Hutch's hand, "squeeze my hand. Do you understand what I'm sayin'?"

Hutch didn't respond at first, then finally tried to nod slightly, but that hurt too much. He frowned, as an afterthought, as if trying to say no.

"I knew I was rushing things. You're probably so mixed up. Do you remember what happened to you? In the stakeout apartment?"

Hutch looked around the room, as if taking in his environment for the first time.

"You were shot, babe. We . . . we were talkin' and I wasn't paying attention to the monitor. Barstow got the drop on us, and . . . he shot you. The bullet hit your back, bounced off your shoulder blade, and," he had to swallow to be able to go on, "it exited out the front of your throat. That's why it's so hard for you to breathe, and why your throat hurts. That's why you can't talk. You took in a lot of blood. You've been in ICU around 24-hours. It's been pretty rough for you."

Hutch's brow furrowed as if he were struggling to remember. He squeezed Starsky's hand and looked questioningly at him.

"Barstow's dead, Hutch. I shot him from the window. Through all of this, I think that's the only thing I did right."

Hutch's eyes starting roaming again, as if he were trying to look through the ICU window.

"Dobey's here," Starsky told him. "You probably heard him talkin' to you. And Huggy, of course. Edith's been by a lot. Half the precinct's been through here at one time or other."

Hutch closed his eyes, as if weary. When he opened them again, he looked thoughtful. He released Starsky's hand and rubbed the palm with his finger.

It was Starsky's turn to look confused. Hutch kept doing it over and over, rubbing a spot in the center of Starsky's palm, until Starsky finally realized Hutch was trying to communicate with him. And then he realized Hutch was trying to finger-write on his palm. Starsky watched the effort more intensely.

"'R'? Is that the letter 'r'?" Starsky asked. "Blink once for yes, twice for no."

Hutch blinked slowly, then wrote again.

"'O'. R-o . . . Rosey? Are you asking about Rosey, Hutch?" Starsky felt that lump in his throat grow again. It felt like a semi-permanent condition by now, like he was always half on the verge of tears. "Rosey's gone. She left this morning." He still remembered that last phone call. Her loss was an ache inside, but one he was resigned to. He didn't regret his decision. He just wasn't sure Hutch would believe him anymore. "She's not coming back. Not ever."

Hutch closed his eyes, then turned away from Starsky, which alarmed him.

"Don't tune me out, Hutch!" But within seconds, Starsky realized Hutch had gone back to sleep.

He doesn't believe me. Doesn't believe in me. And why should he, after all we've gone through these last weeks?

Hutch's body went slack with sleep, and Starsky took the opportunity to brush some wispy blond strands out of his face.

I know I've got to prove myself to you. Prove my feelings.

He sighed and sat by Hutch's side and waited for him to wake up again.

"Hutch, get down! Get down!"

No, Hutch thought, I can't. I can't go through this again.

He felt the bullet hit him in the back, felt the terrible pain as the pellet ripped through his body and out his throat. Blood bubbled through his fingers and he fell to his knees.

I can't . . . not again.

He struggled to breath but it was agony. He just wanted to stop hurting.

I should've never told him how much I loved him, Hutch thought sadly. I should've never said anything. I was too afraid of his rejection, but losing him this way . . . now that I know what it could've been like . . . it's even worse.

He wanted to stop fighting, to stop struggling to breathe. He wanted it all to end. He wanted to die, to just fade away, and let all the pain go, the physical pain and the ache in his soul.

"Hutch, don't leave me."

It sounded like Starsky's voice, but Hutch told himself it was all part of the dream they kept having. The terrible dream of loss they had always turned into something beautiful. But that was before.

"Hutch, please . . . I'll do anything if you just don't leave me."

Hutch's mouth moved, he struggled to speak, but he couldn't spare the air. The effort exhausted him. He started drifting away. Everything would be easier if he just drifted away . . . 

"Hutch, come on. Don't leave me, now." Someone touched his cheek gently, but that hand was shaking. "Stay with me, buddy."

That almost made Hutch smile. Buddy . . . . We're still buddies . . . . Always that . . . .

He tried to open his eyes, struggled to focus on the face so close to his, but he was losing the battle.


Hutch felt lips close to his ear; the voice was loud now, clear. "I love you, Hutch. You know that, right? I love you so much. Don't leave me. Not now . . . when we're so close . . . "

Hutch felt Starsky's hand cupping his cheek. "I love you, Hutch. Never loved anyone else the way I love you. You believe me, don't you?"

Hutch blinked dazedly, trying to separate dream from whatever reality he was trapped in now. Weren't they supposed to be in the police garage? His hands registered the crisp sheets, the blanket covering him. Were they in bed? If they were in bed . . . why was he so uncomfortable? He was covered by clothes, and blankets, and bandages . . . .

And Starsky looked so worried. He wasn't in bed, either, but sitting beside it. And he was completely dressed. Hutch frowned.

It's time to wake me up, Starsky. I hate this dream. I know it's a dream because Rosey's not here . . . . But I need to wake up . . . .

Hutch felt his eyes tear up against his will, felt a warm drop of liquid slide down his face as he mourned the nights when Starsky would rouse him from his nightmares with love.

"Oh, Hutch, don't!" Starsky murmured, then leaned over and pressed his mouth to Hutch's cheek, where the tear fell. "Don't cry, babe. I'm right here beside you. And I'm not leaving you, not ever. Everything's gonna be okay. You're gonna get well . . . and we're gonna be happy again. I swear it, Hutch. So help me, God."

Then Starsky kissed him again, gently, on the lips. Dimly, Hutch was aware that they weren't home, that he must be in the hospital, that people had to be around, watching them. But Starsky didn't seem to care. He kissed Hutch again, so tenderly it nearly broke Hutch's heart. He closed his eyes, gasped, and drew the very breath from Starsky's mouth. That breath filled him as he tasted Starsky's sweet, familiar flavor. He felt more aware suddenly, and moved his hand up to touch Starsky's hair, as though needing more proof that this was no dream. Starsky kissed his palm, then put it back gently against the bed. Hutch realized that arm was bound to a board, that intravenous lines were going into it. He became more aware of pain, but the awareness seemed more important, so he clung to it. The gentle contact with Starsky seemed to give him strength.

"Hey, you really awake now?" Starsky said, smiling. "Or are you just ready to kiss any cute curly-headed guy who happens to sit down here? I need to know so I can warn Huggy."

"Starsk . . . ." He struggled to make the sound, but it was harsh and grating to his own ears, barely more than a whisper.

"Shhhh," Starsky admonished, "don't try to talk. You're a few days away yet from havin' the last word."

Hutch swallowed and that was an experience he would've been happy to not repeat any time soon. While he wanted more awareness, his body was quickly protesting the barrage of pain. But he had so much to find out . . . so much he wanted to know . . . .

"You want some ice chips, Hutch, to wet your mouth?" Starsky asked, reaching for a cup. "Your mouth has to be real dry, especially from the oxygen. They only took the oxygen mask off you an hour or so ago—"

"Starsk . . . where's . . . Rosey?"

Starsky looked weary, and a little sad. He toyed with the ice, then spooned a few chips into Hutch's mouth. Starsky was right, his mouth was incredibly dry and the ice chips felt wonderful. Starsky toyed with the ice chips some more. "I'm gonna have to go over this with you every time you wake up, huh? Okay. I can do that. You're entitled. Hutch, you remember what we were talking about just before you got shot?"

He frowned. The memories seemed out of reach.

"You were telling me you decided to take the lieutenant's test. You told me you needed to end the partnership . . . so I could be free to marry Rosey."

He closed his eyes. He remembered that. He wished he didn't. But he couldn't take those words back. They were the right words, anyway. Starsky needed to be free.

"Hey, don't go to sleep now," Starsky chided him, touching his face to get his attention.

Hutch didn't need to hear anymore. He remembered. He'd told Starsky he was taking the lieutenant's exam. That it was time they ended the partnership. Because Starsky needed to be free. And the only chance they had for maintaining some kind of lasting friendship was for Hutch to take charge of his own life—even if it meant he'd be living it alone. Hutch tried to evade Starsky's touch, but it hurt too much to turn his head.

"It's coming back, isn't it?" Starsky guessed. "You're remembering what we said, how it went down."

Don't cry, Hutch ordered himself, but the chronic pain and the medications wore down his defenses. His eyes filled against his will.

"Hutch, listen," Starsky said, sounding a little choked himself. "I know what you're thinking. You're remembering everything that happened right up to the moment when you got hit. But what you don't know is what I was thinking, what I was going through in my head. I want you to listen real careful, okay?"

Hutch blinked the tears away and looked at Starsky. He wasn't really up for another good-bye speech, but considering his condition there wasn't much he could do to stop it.

"When you told me you wanted to . . . end the partnership," Starsky said softly, "I . . . I had a lotta trouble accepting that. I mean, up to then, you'd been right by my side, working so hard to be the best friend you'd always been to me. Because you'd been so strong, and were there for me through everything, all my confusion, all my mixed up feelings . . . I just didn't expect that you'd . . . ever have to pull back, for your own good. You were right, too. It was only fair that you did that, that you made some kind of plans for your own life. But it took me by surprise and . . . I couldn't handle it! I never once thought about living my life without you by my side, my partner, my best friend . . . ." Hutch heard Starsky swallow. "And at that moment, realizing you were doing the only thing you could for your own well-being—I knew I couldn't let you go. I knew right then it wasn't worth it—Rosey, the fairy-tale marriage, the picket-fence fantasy—it was all an empty pipe dream . . . if you weren't part of it. Right then and there I knew I could walk away from it—had to walk away from it—just to keep you in my life. I knew I loved you more than anything, 'cause I just couldn't let you go."

Hutch squeezed his eyes shut. This is because I took a bullet. It's just a reaction to my nearly getting killed. In two weeks, he'll be sorry—

"Don't turn away from me!" Starsky demanded, sounding angry. "I know what you're thinking. You've gotta understand, this had nothing to do with you being shot. I went through all of that, made that decision about how I felt, before the first shot was fired. You've got to believe me! And . . . and when you were hit . . . all I could think . . .  was . . . if I lost you . . . I'd lose everything . . . and you'd never know how I really felt. I can't remember . . . ever being that scared."

The words struck a chord in Hutch. He remembered being that scared himself. He remembered bargaining with God and the devil both just to have one more chance to tell Starsky how he felt. He stared at his partner. Did they both have to live through that same moment to realize their true feelings?

Starsky turned his attention back to the ice chips. "And the worst part of it is . . . I was so wrapped up in my own misery, my own sense of loss, that I completely stopped paying attention to the monitor and all the equipment. If I'd been doing my job . . . I'd have seen Barstow enter the apartment. He wouldn't have gotten the drop on us . . . . You . . . you wouldn't have—"

Hutch saw Starsky's eyes squeeze shut as he battled his inner demons. Hutch remembered his own misgivings when Gunther's hit went down. If I'd been paying closer attention . . . . If I'd reacted sooner . . . .

He slid his free hand through the bars of the bed's restraint system and took Starsky's hand in his. Starsky gripped it as if he'd fall out of the chair if he didn't hold on with all his strength. He wouldn't look at Hutch for a long time, so they just sat like that, quietly, holding hands. Finally, Starsky let out a heavy sigh and seemed to get hold of himself.

"Look, Hutch, I know the words I'm sayin' to you are just that—words. Actions speak louder, right? And I'm a man of action!" Starsky smiled wanly, but some of the sauciness was back in his eyes. "I know I've got to win your heart back. Gotta prove myself—prove my feelings." He pulled Hutch's hand up and brushed his cheek against the back of it, then kissed the knuckles. "So, that's what I'm gonna do. And what a perfect opportunity with you here, stuck in this bed, nearly speechless. You won't even be able to argue with me, or throw me out, or yell, or anything." He grinned, but then his eyes softened. "I'm gonna take good care of you, Hutch. I'm gonna get you well, get you outta here . . . and then I'm gonna marry you. And we're gonna buy a house together and live happily ever after. We're entitled. And I'm gonna make it come true."

Happily ever after? Hutch thought, feeling sleep steal over him. That only happens in dreams.

Hutch moaned, swimming up from awareness and wishing he wasn't. His head was fogged with confused memories, dream fragments, but his body was in so much discomfort, he didn't know which was worse, sleeping or waking.

"Hey, there, son, how are you doing?"

He heard a familiar bass rumble and saw Dobey sitting beside his bed. His captain looked entirely too cheerful.

"Good to see you with us. We've all been really worried about you."

Hutch shifted in the bed, but that hurt too much.

"Want to sit up a little?" Dobey asked. "Change position?"

Hutch didn't know. He felt like he had just been born, incapable of making the simplest decisions, and hurting too much to even care about them.

"Let's try this," Dobey suggested helpfully, and cranked the bed up just a little.

To Hutch's surprise, it did feel more comfortable. He sighed and nodded at his captain, but that hurt like hell, reminding him of what had happened to him. He gingerly moved his head a little from side to side, but that was just as painful. He grimaced.

"Want some ice?" Dobey asked, reaching for a cup. "Starsky said your mouth would be dry, and that the doctor said you could have ice chips if you wanted."

That had felt so good before, Hutch wanted to nod yes, but had learned his lesson about that, so he waved his hand in what he'd hoped was an affirmative gesture. Dobey smiled, and fed him a small spoonful. Amazing how something so simple could bring such pleasure. Hutch closed his eyes and relished the cool, clean taste of the ice melting on his tongue.

Once his mouth was moistened, he tried to speak, tried to ask where Starsky was, but his voice wasn't much better than before.

"Starsky had to go down to the station to give his statement," Dobey explained. "Believe me, he didn't want to, but the feds were tired of waiting on him. I don't think he'll be too long. He insisted Huggy or I stay with you while he was gone."

Starsky's statement. Hutch groaned internally. He couldn't imagine what he'd say to the feds. They'd both been too distracted to do their jobs. He tried to remember something and couldn't. "Barstow . . . ?" he whispered.

Dobey shook his head. "Starsky took him out, Hutch. One shot. Right between the eyes. We still can't figure out how he did it without getting killed. The SWAT team members were stunned and a little deflated. They all assumed they'd have to do it. It was a one-in-a-million shot." Dobey smiled ruefully. "But he was pretty damned motivated and we both know that Starsky, motivated, is a formidable man. If he had any hope of saving your life, he had to stop Barstow, and he didn't have much time to do it in. So he did what an army of cops hadn't been able to do up to that point."

Hutch felt suffused with pride. He remembered how impotent he'd felt firing after the fleeing black and white filled with Gunther's assassins and not getting in a single good hit. One shot. He remembered Starsky saying it was the only thing he'd done right, and knew his partner was taking no pride in it.

"Hutch . . . " Dobey said quietly.

Hutch gave him his full attention. He couldn't imagine what Dobey had been going through between Barstow's assault, one of his detectives nearly getting killed, another of his detectives getting crazed—never mind having to deal with two seasoned male detectives falling in love with one another then going through a romantic crisis about it. As bad as he felt for himself, he couldn't help feeling bad for Dobey, too.

"Starsky told me you decided to take the lieutenant's exam after all. I know that couldn't have been easy. I want you to know that I'll support you in that decision. It's the right thing for you to do. I told Starsky that. He was mad as a hornet, but he needed to hear it. You've both paid your dues. It's time to move on. Starsky, too."

Hutch wished more than anything right now that he had his voice. He was still confused from the medications, but he did remember Starsky telling him that Rosey had left. Dobey would know what had really happened. He reached out for the captain's sleeve. Softly, he whispered, "What happened with Rosey? Why did she leave?"

The captain looked away. "Starsky said that when you told him about the lieutenant's exam, he couldn't handle it. He decided right then he was making a mistake. He was about to tell you that just before you got hit. Suddenly . . .  getting married, having a family—it just wasn't important to him anymore. When Huggy brought Rosey to the hospital, Starsky told her as soon as she got here. They talked for a long time. Then, she left."

That was the same thing Starsky had told him. But somehow, he was having trouble accepting it.

"You're not sure how you feel about that, are you?" Dobey asked.

Hutch looked at him and frowned.

"I . . . uh . . . feel kind of awkward trying to give you any advice about this, Hutch," Dobey admitted. "Your career, sure, I can advise you about this, but I'm out of my depth here. I don't really understand your relationship; it's just not part of my experience. But I know when someone's been hurt, really hurt, by someone they love, healing those kinds of fractures can take as long as healing the body. Take your time, Hutch. Don't let him charm you into anything you're not sure of. Be sure of how you feel, before you make any commitments."

Dobey paused, and looked around the room. "I don't know that I'd admit this to anyone else, but . . . when we were young, Edith and I . . . we had our problems. I . . .  uh . . . well, you know how foolish young men can be. I did some very stupid things. I was lucky that she forgave me, but I had to earn that forgiveness. She made me earn it. And earning it made me finally understand how precious she was and how lucky I was to have her."

Hutch thought about that and saw wisdom in it. But all the mental activity was wearing him out, and he felt his eyes grow heavy.

"You go on to sleep, son," Dobey said. "I'll be right here. You won't be alone."

No, that was one thing Hutch was comfortable with. They both were lucky to have such good friends to depend on.

"Detective Starsky," Joshua Epstein said warmly, holding out his hand for Starsky to shake. "I appreciate you making time to give us your statement. I know you'd much rather be with your partner during his recovery."

Starsky shook Epstein's hand with more than a little guilt. His screw up on the Barstow stakeout could have career repercussions for Epstein. The agent had never treated him or Hutch with anything less than genuine respect. Of all the feds he'd ever worked with, this was the first one he actually liked.

"Why don't you just have a seat there," Epstein said, indicating a comfortable armchair in the conference room at Parker they were using. There was another federal agent with them, one of Epstein's associates on the Barstow case. Another of the strong, silent, button-down types, this guy was just there to witness the statement and run the tape recorder, so basically stayed quietly out of the way.

"We can get this formality over with," Epstein continued, "and you can get back to your partner. By the way, I've been told Detective Hutchinson is on the mend, that he should be all right. I sure hope that's true."

No thanks to me. Starsky found his voice. "Hutch is doing great. He's a real fighter."

There was a sudden quiet knock on the door, and the other agent went and opened it. Starsky was startled by the appearance of Chief Danson, and immediately stood.

"Agent Epstein, Agent Hinz," Danson said in greeting to the two feds. Then he turned to Starsky. "Detective Starsky." He held out his hand. "It's good to see you. Captain Dobey has been giving me daily reports about Detective Hutchinson. I'm very happy to hear he's progressing so well. I'll be over to see him as soon as he's out of ICU."

Starsky nodded and shook the chief's hand. It wasn't often he had to deal with the man and was surprised to see him here. He wondered if he were about to be suspended for dereliction of duty. He wouldn't be able to argue about it if he were. "Thank you, sir. I'll tell Hutch you were asking for him."

Danson turned back to Epstein. "If you have no objections, Agent, I'd like to be present for Detective Starsky's statement. Captain Dobey isn't available, and I'd like someone here to represent the best interests of the department."

Starsky's heart sank. Maybe he was about to be fired.

"No problem, sir," Epstein assured him. "Please, take a seat." As he did, Epstein turned to Starsky. "We're taping your statement Detective Starsky. Is that all right with you?"

Starsky nodded, then remembered to say, "Yes, of course."

They went through the formalities then, having Starsky state his name, his rank, and his association with the Barstow case. Starsky took out his notepad and referred to specific dates and assignments, as he needed to.

But when it came time to explain exactly what had happened, he didn't need his notes. He looked Epstein in the eye and said what Dobey had suggested, which was simply the truth without all the personal details: he had gotten lax during the stakeout due to the continuing inactivity, and during an extended discussion regarding Hutch's future career options, Barstow had gotten the drop on them.

Epstein nodded, expressionlessly. "Okay, Detective Starsky. I know this will be difficult, but can you try to retrace exactly what happened once Barstow started shooting."

Starsky closed his eyes, wanting more than anything not to relive that again. But he went through it step-by-step just as he remembered it. The bullets flying, the apartment shattering around them, Hutch hit and endangering himself as he fought to breathe. Starsky's desperate attempt to save Hutch that ended with him killing Barstow.

There was silence in the room when he finished.

"I'm not sure you're aware of it, Detective," Epstein said, "but you stopped Barstow with one clean shot, in the middle of a furious fire-fight. The head of the SWAT team was impressed. So was everyone else."

Starsky swallowed. "Nothing to be impressed about. Barstow was reloading and I got lucky. Hutch was dying. I had to stop Barstow, and a bullet was the only thing that was going to do it. I knew if he killed me, Hutch was as good as dead. I had to do it and do it right. I've never taken pride in killing a man, even an animal like Barstow."

"Maybe not," Epstein conceded, "but in spite of your lapse on the stakeout, you ended the crime spree of one of the most violent criminals we've been up against in years. And," he turned to the chief and addressed him, "while I appreciate Detective Starsky's candor in admitting his lack of attentiveness, I have to take some responsibility for that as well. Every bit of information we had indicated that the chances of Barstow heading for that hide-out was the most remote possibility. The officers manning that station were aware of that. I'd encouraged that lax attitude myself." He turned back to Starsky. "I feel like I owe you an apology, and your partner more than that."

Starsky started to shake his head to argue with the man, but Eptstein continued talking, forestalling Starsky.

"Also," Epstein said, "I want to tell you that we screwed up, too. One of our agents failed to recognize an old associate of Barstow's who came to check out the neighborhood before Barstow claimed the apartment. He realized it after the shooting. In spite of all the research, the briefings, human error was largely responsible for Barstow showing up without warning at your assigned station. I'm sorry for that, too."

Starsky swallowed. He couldn't believe this. He screws up big time and everyone else is ready to take the fall for it. "You don't owe anyone an apology, Agent Epstein," he said. "I know what my job is. And if I'd been doing it, Hutch would be here giving a statement with me instead of lying in bed in the ICU."

The chief cleared his throat. "Well, Detective Starsky, it's going to be a little hard to put a letter of commendation and a letter of reprimand in your file at the same time. Your record, and that of your partner, speaks for itself. If Agent Epstein is satisfied with the way things went down, I'm not about to second guess him." He smiled a little. "I'd expect you to shoulder the blame for this, Starsky. I seem to remember when Hutch gave his statement about the Gunther shooting; he insisted that had he been paying more attention, you wouldn't have been shot." The chief hesitated, as if remembering. "So, to make amends, Hutch went out and brought down one of the largest crime syndicates in the country." He shook his head. "You know, Starsky, the odds were against you coming back on active duty after that. But Dobey told me Hutch would never work with anyone else, so he'd make sure you'd pass the review board. As I am sure you will make him."

Starsky couldn't look at him. I was dead wrong, and no one's gonna make me do any penance for it. God's gonna get me for this.

The men around him continued to make congratulatory noises, and eventually Epstein, his associate, and their tape-recorder left the conference room leaving him alone with the chief.

Maybe this was all a front for the feds, Starsky thought. Maybe he's gonna suspend now, or tell me I'm canned.

"So, Hutch is thinking about the lieutenant's exam, is he?" the chief said.

"Yeah," Starsky answered simply.

"I'm a little surprised. I figured you two would be partners until you retired."

Starsky shrugged. "That's what I thought, too."

The chief rubbed his chin. "What about you, Starsky? No interest in promotion?"

He looked Danson in the eye. "I don't have a college degree, sir. Hutch does."

The chief nodded. "Well, pretty soon every cop in LA is going to need a degree, including you, just to be qualified to serve. Once you had yours . . . you'd be just as eligible for lieutenancy as Hutch."

Starsky wasn't sure where this was going.

"Starsky," the chief said, "I've learned over the years that when something works, you don't change it. If you both decide to go out for promotion, I think it would be in the best interest of the department to find someway to make sure you two could still work together. Whether that's on a special task force or unique police unit, I don't know yet. Talk to Hutch about it when he's well. If you're both interested, we can talk about your careers in depth when he returns to active duty. I'll discuss it with Captain Dobey, as well. I'd like to keep you under his command. A winning team shouldn't be disrupted."

Starsky sat there dumbfounded. He screws up the Barstow case, let's Hutch get shot, finishes Barstow off with a lucky bullet . . . and everyone thought he was a hero.

The chief stood up to leave. He patted Starsky on the shoulder. "I'll tell you, Starsky, I lost a good partner a long time ago myself. It's something you never get over. I'm glad Hutch is going to make it." With that, he left the room.

Starsky sat there for another 10 minutes trying to figure out how it turned out that they were once again heroes, and were practically guaranteed their partnership for as long as they wanted it. He finally gave up and left Parker to go back to the hospital.

The next time Hutch woke up, it was for medical treatments. A respiratory therapist was there to make him start his breathing therapy, and it was time for more blood tests. The therapy wrung him out, even though breathing into that device seemed like such a small thing to do. The only thing about the ordeal that he enjoyed was they let him actually drink some liquid.

It wasn't until the medical staff finally left him alone that he realized Huggy was standing off to one side, a quiet observer. He acknowledged Huggy's presence with a slight wave. It was all he had the energy to do.

Huggy walked over to his bedside and sat down, his eyes shining. "Sure is good to see those baby blues open and aware again, bro'," Huggy said softly. "I'd ask how you're feelin', but that seems pretty obvious, 'specially after the way they worked you over just now. If you need to go to sleep, don't mind me. I'm just keepin' the seat warm 'til Starsky gets back. Seems Captain Dobey had to go to the office himself to talk to the feds."

Hutch remembered Dobey telling him about Starsky having to give his statement, and he felt cheered that his brain was starting to function more normally. He remembered something else. He tried swallowing—not the most comfortable experience—and whispered, "Hug—what happened with Rosey?"

Huggy shuffled his feet a little, then looked at him somberly. "I guess a lot of things happened with her. She was in the Pits talking to me when the action went down. We saw the report on the news and I brought her over here. At the time, we didn't know which one of you had been hit. She was pretty upset."

Hutch frowned. He wondered what Rosey would be doing in the Pits without Starsky. Something about that seemed odd to him.

As if Huggy could interpret his thoughts, he said, "She needed to get out of Starsky's place for awhile, so she came down and sat by herself, to think. You know there isn't a square foot in that apartment that doesn't have a piece of you in it, and I think it was starting to get to her. We talked about it for a while, but I don't think her mind was any better settled than when she came in. Then the news report came on, and we drove over here."

Huggy looked around the room as if remembering the car ride. "We were both really shook. The report made it sound like whoever had been shot might be dead already. It was while we were in the car, not knowing what had happened, that she began to understand what a cop's life could be like. I don't think she had any real idea before."

Hutch closed his eyes then whispered, "So she left him."

"That's not the way I heard it," Huggy said. "She took a cab on out of here not too long after I brought her. But I did end up taking her to the airport, to go back home to her father's place, near the Indians she works with. It was kind of amazing how little stuff she had with her; like she knew when she first came back that she probably wouldn't be staying . . . . But she told me that Starsky was real honest with her. Said he loved her a lot . . . but he needed to be with you. She knew he was hurting because you'd been shot, but he was real clear that he'd made his decision before you got hit. She told me part of her had been waiting for him to say that ever since she found out about you. And coming as it did after all that emotional turmoil, it was pretty overwhelming for her. Rosey said . . . she said she didn't think she had it in her to be a cop's wife. But she also said that if Starsky hadn't sent her away, she would've tried her best to handle it. She said that the most important thing to her was that he be happy. And knowing he'd be with you, that you'd always be by his side, she knew he would be and could stand to walk away for good. She was hurtin' real bad, Hutch, but she was bein' brave, too, you know?"

Hutch knew all about that kind of bravery, but realized he would've never been able to pack up his bags and physically depart. The closest he could come was simply taking another job. And that decision had taken everything he had. He couldn't imagine how empty Rosey had to be feeling, having actually left LA. And he didn't know how he should feel about all that had happened. He was more confused than ever.

He glanced around the room, wanting to focus on anything else, when he spotted something attached to the bed rails. He blinked and stared at it. It was a single red rose, with one of those little plastic water reservoirs attached to its cut stem. It was taped to the bedrail with adhesive tape. He reached out and touched its petals, which were cool and silky. The rose was fresh.

"They wouldn't let him bring in a dozen roses," Huggy explained. "No room for that stuff in ICU. So he snuck in this single bud, hoping they would leave it there where you could see it. If he could've, he'd have filled up this whole room with flowers. He says you need green things around you to help you heal, that the place is too sterile, too mechanical, to make you feel like getting better."

Hutch couldn't get over the tactile sensation of the rose petals. It was the only bit of natural life in this stark medical environment. Starsky knew him so well.

"If you ain't figured it out, blondie," Huggy said, with some of the old humor in his voice, "our boy Starsky's courtin' you. He intends to do whatever he has to, to convince you that for him, you're the only one. And if I was you, my blond brother, I'd let him."

Hutch looked up at Huggy in surprise.

"I remember too well," Huggy said, "what you were like after Starsky got hit. Dobey and I, we were both really worried about you. But that night when we set the sprinklers off . . . I'm not sure what Dobey was thinkin', but I knew I was watchin' a man in love—you. I just had no way of knowin' when Starsky would finally wise up to what was goin' on right next to him. Don't know exactly when he did, either, but the whole time he was recovering, you were right there with your big heart wide open, giving him everything you were, everything you had. You made it real easy for him, Hutch. Sometimes . . . if we wanna appreciate the best things in life . . . it's good to work for 'em. You dig what I'm saying?"

Hutch frowned, wishing he were clear-headed.

"I mean . . . you both need this. Starsky needs to take time courtin' you for his own therapy. He needs to make that connection with you again, as a partner in every sense of the word. And you need to be courted—so you can be absolutely sure of him, and not spend the rest of your days questioning how he really feels. I know you, Hutch. You'll be looking over your shoulder at every pretty thing that smiles at him, never quite believing that it's you he could really be happy with."

Hutch squirmed, uncomfortable with Huggy's apt analysis.

"So, don't try to stop him," Huggy advised. "Not that I think you could. He's been like a man possessed since you got in here, making all kinds of plans, reservations, arrangements . . . . Sorta the way you did when he got shot, you know, how you worked out his health regimen, made sure he got all his therapy when he needed it, fussed over his diet? Well, Starsky's never gonna be into any kind of health scene, though I'm sure he'll be keeping a tight schedule over your recovery. His way, rather, is to take you away from the scene of the crime and start building a new life with you. And since he's not totally convinced he hasn't already lost your heart, he's gonna be working hard at this. It'll be good for him. And you, too, I think."

My heart . . . . Hutch tried to analyze how he really did feel about everything, but knew he was still too disoriented to make any decisions. Part of him had said goodbye to Starsky in the stakeout apartment, when he told Starsky about taking the lieutenant's exam. He'd become resigned to his course of action, and had been at peace with it. Too many things had happened to him since then to be sure of anything, never mind his heart. And he couldn't deny Huggy's words. He honestly didn't know if he'd ever feel secure of Starsky's feelings again.

But he knew his partner. If anyone could convince him, it would be Starsky. Huggy was right. He would just have to let him.



Hutch stood beside the sliding glass doors of their rented beach house and watched the ocean as the tide came in. It was a wonderful little bungalow, just the kind of thing that would appeal to him. Small, neat, simple. Tiny kitchen just big enough to make a few plain meals. Tidy living room with a little television, where Starsky currently sat, watching a grainy image with the sound down. One bedroom with two double beds, like any good hotel.

It had been almost four weeks since he'd been shot. Hutch had been out of the hospital about two weeks now. He was now well enough for them to take a trip together. He was off most of his medications, and was finally starting to feel more like himself. His shoulder still ached and his wounds itched as they healed, but it was tolerable, especially in comparison to that first week in the hospital. His lung capacity was still not back to normal, but his exercise regimen would improve that in time. It would be a while before he could return to active duty, but it looked like he would be able to . . . if he wanted to.

The stack of books he'd checked out of Parker to help him study for the lieutenant's exam sat quietly beckoning him. Next to them sat a shorter stack of college catalogs that Starsky had been browsing as he tried to decide what to do about getting his degree.

So much in our lives has changed, he thought ruefully. Where are we going? Will we be going together? And the much more important question rose up to challenge him: Do I want us to go together? He still did not know.

Shore birds wheeled and called over the rising tide as they scavenged for food. He watched their airborne grace wistfully. He felt old, physically handicapped, and as much as he understood that this was a normal reaction to the shooting, it was still hard to live with. He remembered Starsky getting depressed about the rate of his recovery after the Gunther shooting, and recalled how he prodded and poked his partner until he pushed him past his endurance to make another milestone. Of course, it helped that Starsky would talk about what was going on inside him. Hutch was finding that hard to do.

The weeks he and Starsky had lived apart had taken their toll. Hutch found himself holding back his fears, his concerns, even his joys, as if sharing them with Starsky would only burden his partner unnecessarily. That had never been their way before, and it bothered Hutch that he had retreated so far from their working rapport, but he couldn't seem to help it.

And Starsky couldn't seem to figure out how to help him get past it. As Huggy had predicted, he'd been courting Hutch tirelessly from those long, pain-filled days in the hospital, to the exhausting first days at home. He catered to Hutch's every need, much as Hutch had done with him after Gunther. But Hutch wasn't Starsky, and the constant attention only made him withdraw further. Starsky didn't let it faze him. He was obviously too happy to have Hutch alive and mending to let Hutch's despondency affect him. He'd weathered Hutch's moods before, Hutch remembered.

Starsky seemed so determined to weather this one out that he was giving Hutch all the room he needed emotionally and physically. While they still spent all their time together during Hutch's recovery, they weren't sleeping together. They had not once made love. They touched companionably. Held hands. Hugged. Even kissed at times, as friendly ex-lovers might. But there was no passion in it. Just comfort and love and reassurance. That was enough for Hutch right now.

He wasn't sure if it was enough for Starsky, but he wasn't well enough to worry about that. And Starsky wasn't pushing him. Starsky had slept on the couch in Hutch's apartment while he was on the mend. When they got to the beach house, Starsky let Hutch have the bed closest to the sliding glass doors that also led out onto the beach, and took the farther bed. He never complained, not once, didn't wheedle, didn't pout. Nor did he try to seduce. Starsky knew better than anyone when Hutch needed space, and he definitely needed it now.

In some ways, it was good for them both. Without their passion interfering, they had time to talk, to rediscover that aspect of their friendship that had always been the bedrock of their relationship. Unlike those times when they'd had to pass hours in boring police tasks and Starsky would keep up some inane prattle that both irritated and distracted Hutch, these days Starsky was quiet. Pensive. Waiting. He anticipated Hutch's needs and fulfilled them, whether it was for a meal, or a pain pill, or just some quiet companionship. When Hutch was feeling well enough, they went out to dinner on evenings that seemed a lot like dates.

Hutch began to wonder if the passion was gone, if they'd burned it up during their six-month romance before Rosey's reappearance. He wondered if he had any passion left inside him for anything at all. Most days it took enough energy just to get through his exercises. Starsky blamed his ennui on the medications, and no doubt, there was truth in that. If so, he expected to feel some change over the next few days as his prescriptions ran out. He was looking forward to being completely Hutch again, even if he wasn't sure what that might mean.

A cooling ocean breeze wafted through the open glass door, making his loose-fitting shirt flap around him and the lightweight drawstring pants cling to his thighs. His hair, much too long now, blew around his face. He pushed it out of his eyes, as he carefully drew in a breath as deeply as he could. It smelled great and felt rejuvenating.

"You're beautiful standing there like that," Starsky said softly from the couch. "The sun's highlighting your body and making it gleam. Your hair looks like some kind of halo."

Hutch turned in surprise, the words sounding poignant. He touched his throat wound self-consciously, then dropped his hand. The setting sun cast colors over the simple room, and made Starsky's burnished skin almost golden. The gray-blue flicker of the TV made him seem otherworldly, and turned his eyes into obsidian.

Starsky didn't move off the couch. He wouldn't pressure Hutch in anyway, though occasionally, he couldn't seem to help making some intimate comment like this one to let Hutch know his feelings.

At moments like this, Hutch felt like they were on a first date, and was never quite sure how to act. He smiled, feeling bashful, and said quietly, "Thanks."

Starsky just smiled back, never taking his eyes off Hutch.

"Uh . . . what are you watching?" Hutch asked just to make conversation.

Starsky shrugged. "On the TV? Nothing. I've just been watching you."

Hutch turned around completely, his back to the ocean, so he could face Starsky. "The sun's going down. It's really nice out. Maybe we should take a walk along the beach."

As confused as Hutch felt about their relationship, the one thing he was sure of was that he still craved Starsky's companionship. When he wasn't there, Hutch was lonely; he missed him. But when they were together, Hutch couldn't be sure of how he felt, or what he wanted. He hoped this time alone together, without doctors, or work interfering, or anything to deal with but themselves, would help him sort out the myriad emotions he was going through.

"A walk would be nice," Starsky agreed, without moving from the couch. "Then we can have some dinner. There's that cold pasta and vegetable salad in there and some ripe fruit. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

Hutch smiled. It has to be love, he thought. What else would keep Starsky from whining about the lack of red meat and the high percentage of vegetables and fruit they were eating? Hutch couldn't handle heavy foods; his stomach was still dealing with the repercussions of ingesting all that blood. "Yeah, that sounds like a fine dinner. Maybe I can even brave a half-glass of wine."

Starsky gave him that endearing crooked grin and leaned over to shut the TV off. Just before he did, something on the screen distracted him. There was a flicker of blue shadow against his face, then suddenly, Starsky's expression changed radically. He turned to Hutch, his eyes wide in alarm.

"Hutch, get down!" Starsky shouted.

Before Hutch had a chance to react, to try and understand what Starsky was warning him about, he felt the bullet hit him in the back, tearing its way through his body, then exiting his throat. The pain was shocking, spreading down his spine, across his shoulders, and into his chest and neck. There was so much pain it was hard to figure out how many times he'd been hit. He fell to his knees as blood filled his mouth, his nose. He coughed as it seeped into his lungs. His throat was swelling shut and he found himself struggling for air. He tried to call to Starsky, but his voice wouldn't work and his throat was so tight, he could hardly swallow, hardly force air in.

No, no, no! he thought desperately. This can't be happening here and now. It's over. I can't go through this again!

Blood was everywhere, all over him, pouring down his throat. I'm going to drown, he thought, on my own blood.

He clutched at his throat in spite of the pain to slow down the loss of blood, and saw air bubble out from between his fingers. That was bad, he knew, when air came out of a place that had no business leaking air.

Dimly, he heard Starsky calling to him, but was no longer sure where Starsky was. Weren't they at the beach house? How could this be happening here?

"Easy, Hutch, easy, I've got you!" Starsky's voice seemed to be coming from far away, from the end of a long tunnel. Then Starsky touched him. Starsky had crawled over to him, and was gathering up his broken, bleeding body into his arms. He pulled Hutch up into his lap, forcing him to sit up. Hutch groaned in pain, but suddenly he could breathe easier. Weakly, Hutch clutched at Starsky's shirt, the pain racking him, the terrible blood loss covering them both. Dimly, he thought, if he were going to die, at least it would be in Starsky's arms. As though Starsky sensed his thoughts, he hugged him tighter to his body, cradling his head against his shoulder.

"Ah, Hutch," Starsky crooned, "I love you so much. Never loved anyone the way I love you. You've got to believe that. Believe in my love, Hutch, and come back to me. Come on, Hutch, come on back to me."

Starsky's fingers stroked Hutch's face, wiping away his tears of pain. Then those long, slender fingers traveled over his jaw, onto his neck, gently, so gently, moving over his wound. Starsky didn't flinch at the blood pouring out of Hutch's throat or the spray of red droplets that exploded from the wound when he coughed. Starsky just continued stroking the terrible injury as tenderly as he could, and as he did, the bleeding slowed and then stopped as if by magic.

"Easy, Hutch," Starsky murmured. "Take a deep breath. You can do it. I know it's hard, but you can do it. Real deep breath. Come on."

Those incredible fingers continued their loving massage, and as they did, Hutch could feel the wound closing on its own. He shuddered and drew closer to Starsky's warmth and pulled in a shaky breath.

"You can do better than that," Starsky urged, his hand trailing down from the healing wound to roam over Hutch's chest. Starsky's fingers rubbed a comforting pattern over Hutch's ribs, and immediately he felt less congested. "Deep breath now. For me."

His throat wasn't swollen anymore, and his chest didn't hurt. He sucked in a deep lungful of clean air, and it felt liberating. As his lungs expanded to their limit, he felt a dull ache, but it was tolerable. It was nothing compared to the agony of the bullet wound.

"That's good, that's good," Starsky said encouragingly. The hand that had been stroking his chest moved so that Starsky could embrace Hutch tightly with both arms. Hutch felt Starsky's warm mouth brush his temple, then his eyes, and his cheek. "Hutch . . . I love you so much. So very much. Wake up and tell me you're okay, huh?"

Hutch opened his eyes, disoriented. He thought he'd been awake. His arms wrapped around Starsky in return, hugging him hard, as he tried to figure out what was happening, where they were. He didn't think he could bear it if he was still in the hospital. The scent and sounds of the ocean had been so real.

Blinking, he found himself peering out through sliding glass doors that opened onto a small deck. Beyond the deck was an empty beach. The ocean beyond that was gentle, lapping at the shore, making a lulling, rhythmic sound that was almost hypnotic. Hutch was afraid to believe what he was seeing. He reached up to touch his throat. The wound was still there, but closed and definitely healing. He swallowed and it didn't hurt.

Starsky rubbed his back comfortingly, and Hutch realized he was in bed, sitting across Starsky's outstretched legs, wrapped securely in his arms. His head nestled comfortably against Starsky's shoulder. It felt good. It felt safe. His breathing evened out and he stopped the panicked panting he hadn't even realized he'd been doing.

"Hutch, you awake?" Starsky asked, never slowing his comforting strokes.

Hutch realized that Starsky wasn't trying to seduce him, the way he used to when he had dreams about the Gunther shooting. He was just giving him simple comfort, the way he might a child, or a really sick person. Was he still that sick?

"Hutch?" Starsky said again.

"I'm awake," he finally said. His voice sounded funny, harsh, but much better than when he was in the hospital. "Where are we?"

"We're at the beach house," Starsky said softly. "We've been here two days. You've been finishing up your medications, remember, and you're not taking that pill that helped you sleep anymore. I should've known you might have bad dreams, being in a strange place and giving up those drugs. I'm sorry you had to go through that again, babe." He brushed his lips against the side of Hutch's face in a passionless kiss.

Memories of their arriving at the little beach house began to coalesce in Hutch's mind and he started becoming more awake and aware. He was in the double bed next to the sliding glass doors, so he could watch the ocean as he fell asleep. And Starsky had been sleeping in the other bed, next to his. They both wore simple, loose-fitting cotton shirts and thin, draw-string pants. Hutch's shirt was open where Starsky had parted the buttons to stroke his chest. Starsky's shirt was still buttoned, but not to the top. Hutch could see a thatch of dark hair teasing its way out.

Hutch realized that this was more body contact than they'd allowed themselves to have in a very long time, but he was still reacting from the intense affects of the dream. This isn't the way it used to be, he knew. He remembered how Starsky used to rouse him with passion, and would willingly give Hutch his body to help him shed the terrible dream images. This gentle comforting was nice, but it made it harder to give up the painful, realistic dream scenes.

"Starsk . . . " he said cautiously, his mind still sleep-fogged, "why didn't you kiss me?"

"I kissed you, Hutch," Starsky said, and pressed his lips to his cheek as if to remind him.

"Not like that," Hutch said. "I mean, why didn't you really kiss me. The way you used to when I was having the dream."

He felt Starsky gulp and then take a deep breath. "I . . .  uh . . . I haven't had the impression that you would want me to do that. Especially when you weren't completely aware of what was happening."

Hutch thought about that for a minute. Starsky was right, of course, but somehow, the reappearance of the terrible dream seem to have its own set of rules about how they behaved.

"I . . . had the dream a lot in the hospital," Hutch said. "Or maybe it wasn't the dream but reality. I'm not sure. I remember, though, hearing you talking to me, telling me you loved me, that you'd never leave me, begging me to get well. And I kept waiting for you to kiss me awake, to pull me out of the dream and stop all the pain. I'd feel you kiss my cheek, touch my face, but I kept waiting for the kiss that would take it all away."

"That was probably while you were still semi-conscious," Starsky said. "That must've been terrifying . . .  and disappointing. I'm sorry I couldn't take it all away. Believe me, if I could have, I would've. Whenever your eyes starting moving under your lids I was afraid you were having bad dreams, but you were so badly hurt, all I could do was talk, kiss your cheek, and let you know I was there. I couldn't climb in bed with you and hold you in my arms, like I'm doing now." He hugged Hutch harder to his chest, and Hutch returned the hug.

Hutch pulled back slightly to look at Starsky. Realizing he'd been sitting with all his weight on Starsky's legs, he shifted so that the bed took his weight, and his legs only draped over Starsky's thighs. Starsky squirmed to get more comfortable, but never took his gaze from Hutch's. His eyes reflected the moonlight shining in through the glass doors. The silvery glow made Starsky's eyes look like violet crystals. Starsky's concern radiated through his worried expression, and touched Hutch in a way little else could.

"You could kiss me now," Hutch whispered.

"Do you want me to?" Starsky asked sounding surprised.

"Yes," Hutch said. And tilted his head to the side to make it easy for him.

When Starsky's lips met his, the kiss was surprisingly gentle, almost hesitant. It was a simple kiss, lips on lips, as though it were their very first. In some ways, it was. They kissed slowly, pulled apart, kissed again, soft, smooth, closed-mouth touches, intimate in their simplicity. Starsky's hands started to rub Hutch's arms, then stopped, as if he were afraid he was taking improper liberties. It was such a touching gesture; it nearly broke Hutch's heart. In response, he stroked Starsky's hair, and Starsky mirrored that, running his fingers through Hutch's over-long strands.

In spite of their chaste kisses, Hutch felt Starsky's arousal bloom against his thigh through the thin cloth of their pants. Starsky drew away from the kiss, and tried to pull out of Hutch's arms.

"Starsk . . . ?" Hutch asked, confused.

Starsky shook his head, clearly embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Hutch. It's been so long . . . . I just can't control it."

"Then don't," Hutch said, and touched his mouth to Starsky's again.

"It . . . doesn't bother you?" Starsky asked.

Hutch smiled. "No, of course not." He brushed his fingers against Starsky's cheek. "If it didn't happen, I'd be worried. It makes me feel good to know you still want me."

"Want you?" Starsky laughed ruefully. "That's one way of putting it."

Hutch kissed him again. "Is it going to be . . . too difficult for you . . . if this is all we do?"

"I can handle it if you can," Starsky assured him, returning the kiss.

"Starsk . . . right now it's all I can handle," Hutch said honestly.

His partner just smiled and kissed him tenderly again. "We oughta be in the front seat of the Torino," Starsky murmured. "In the drive-in. Or maybe watchin' the submarine races. That's where you're supposed to go necking."

Hutch smiled, finding Starsky's easy acceptance and his humor infectious. He was really enjoying this. It didn't matter if he couldn't get hard. This simple gesture between them was helping to re-establish their connection. It was like the first awkward steps of a convalescent. That's what our love affair is, Hutch thought. A damaged thing trying to recover. Recovery could be slow, he knew. Could Starsky bear the pace? Hutch would have to trust Starsky to be honest with him, to let him know.

They continued to kiss, petting each other's hair, hugging tight. Hutch could feel the heat radiating from Starsky's body, feel his arousal throbbing insistently against his leg. Starsky's breath hitched in little gasps as they kissed. It was impossibly romantic, Hutch thought, and Starsky's willingness to curb his passion said more to him than hours of frantic loving ever could.

"We can neck in the Torino tomorrow night," Hutch whispered against Starsky's mouth.

"Yeah?" Starsky said breathlessly. "That sounds nice. 'Course, we could get in trouble in the Torino. I might try to take advantage of you once I've got you in my car."

Hutch smiled. "You can try . . . . I'm not above slapping your face if you go too far."

Starsky suddenly got serious. "It's your party, Hutch. Your rules. As little or as much as you want. I love you. I'll do anything to make you happy."

The plaintive words nearly made Hutch weep. But he couldn't make himself say what he knew Starsky most longed to hear. He had not professed his love since he'd been shot, and he still couldn't make himself say it. Hutch tried to find his voice. "Anything? That could get complicated."

"Anything," Starsky said with heartbreaking sincerity. "You just ask, and it's yours. I won't go any farther than you want. I swear. But I'll give you the moon if you ask for it."

Hutch leaned his forehead against Starsky's, and the two of them just sat there for a moment, holding on to each other. "I might want the moon," Hutch confessed.

"Yeah?" Starsky said, stealing a quick kiss. "Try me."

Hutch drew back slightly to watch Starsky's expression in the silvery moonlight. "Will you sleep with me?"

Starsky's face lit up and Hutch realized he didn't understand what Hutch was asking. "If you think that's the moon, let's go for the sun—"

"Sleep with me . . . " Hutch said to clarify, "without making love? Can you sleep with me, if all we do is kiss? Like this?"

The disappointment hit Starsky, but he schooled his expression. "I'd love to sleep with you, Hutch. No bargains. No strings. Let me share your bed. I swear you won't regret it."

Hutch squeezed his eyes shut, then they kissed again and again. The kisses continued on and on, sweet and loving, as Hutch felt Starsky rein in his blazing passion. He never would have known his partner could exercise such amazing self-control, and it stirred him. At one point, when their kissing grew torrid, if still chaste, Hutch felt a small tingling in his groin. It only lasted a moment, but it cheered him anyway. For a while after the shooting he thought he might be dead down there. Still, even if he had been capable of complete arousal, he would not have traded this experience for anything.

He felt the fatigue of his interrupted sleep begin to steal over him and sagged in Starsky's arms.

"Hey, you're beat," Starsky said, recognizing the signs. "Come on, lay down. I'm right here, beside you."

The two of them stretched out, side by side. Hutch was closest to the glass doors, and he rolled onto his side to see where the moon had moved to while they'd been busy making out. He tried to remember the last time he'd been content with such simple foreplay with nothing following, and couldn't. Even in high school, he'd been sexually aggressive. He doubted Starsky could recall the last time he'd remained so virtuous either.

Starsky rubbed Hutch's back comfortingly through his shirt. Hutch could feel the incredible tension in Starsky's body and marveled at his control. "You feeling okay?" Starsky asked. His voice sounded a bit strained. "Think you can sleep?"

Hutch couldn't have been more relaxed if he'd had two orgasms. "Yeah. I'm fine. I'll be able to sleep." He wondered how Starsky would be able to, lying beside him with his hard-on demanding attention it wasn't going to get.

Starsky squeezed his shoulder. "I gotta use the john, Hutch. But I'll be right back."

Worried that Starsky had decided he couldn't handle it, Hutch grasped his hand. "You'll come back to bed? You'll sleep with me?"

Starsky's smile was wider than Hutch could remember it being in a long time. "You'll have to kick me out to keep me away. You relax. I won't be long."

It only occurred to Hutch after Starsky had closed the bathroom door that Starsky probably needed the privacy to relieve his aching erection, not his bladder. He thought about that through his sleepiness, and felt a stirring of jealousy that Starsky would hide from him like that. Of course, Hutch had set up the limitations. He couldn't very well expect Starsky to jerk off in front of him when all they'd been doing was simple, close-mouthed kisses. Realizing there was a lot about their relationship that was still nebulous and confusing to him, he decided Starsky deserved his privacy and the chance to decompress. But he couldn't close his eyes until Starsky returned and climbed back into bed with him.

Hutch rolled over, pulling Starsky against him, slinging an arm and a leg over him to afford maximum contact. It felt comforting and safe, not sexual, and he knew he'd sleep dreamlessly with Starsky protecting him.

Starsky purred a little in his throat as they snuggled together, and his nearly boneless lassitude told Hutch he'd been right about Starsky's bathroom sojourn. He decided to tease his partner a little.

"That didn't take long," Hutch murmured against Starsky's throat. "You didn't used to be so quick on the trigger."

He felt the body lying against him tense a little, then relax. "You mad?" Starsky asked softly, understanding completely what Hutch was referring to.

Hutch laughed lightly. "Just cause I can't get off, doesn't mean you're not allowed to. What kind of a bastard would I be if I denied you some relief?"

Starsky's expression relaxed, and he hugged Hutch tighter. "I love you, Hutch. With all my heart."

Hutch sighed, and brushed his lips against Starsky's jaw. "I'm glad," he said, then fell asleep seconds later.

When they woke in the morning, Hutch was wrapped around Starsky's body like a blanket. Starsky's morning erection was impossible to ignore, as much as they both tried to. Hutch couldn't help himself; even though he knew he was making things worse for Starsky, he couldn't keep away from his mouth. Hutch woke him with gentle but demanding kisses, still chaste, still close-mouthed, and Starsky yielded willingly to his need, giving Hutch exactly what he wanted, never asking for more. Hutch ached for the touch of Starsky's mouth against his, and wondered at the strange fixation he'd developed.

They kissed for long minutes, all the while Starsky's erection bobbed, soaking the front of his pants. Hutch knew the kindest thing he could do was to let Starsky go so he could take care of himself in the bathroom, but he kept putting it off until Starsky was panting and squirming in need. The kindest thing Hutch really could do, he knew, was reach into Starsky's pants and take care of the problem himself. But there was still too much between them unresolved. That seemed to cross some line in Hutch's mind he wasn't ready to cross.

Pulling out of their intense kisses, he pushed back in the bed. He couldn't deny Starsky any longer. He couldn't be that cruel.

"Go on," he rasped roughly, nodding toward the bathroom. "Go take care of it."

Starsky shook his head. "I'm okay. It can wait—"

"I can't," Hutch admitted. "It's driving me crazy. Go on. I'll put the coffee on. Start some breakfast."

Starsky's eyes bore into him, looking for answers. "Okay. But let me make breakfast. You need to rest."

Hutch shook his head. "Not this morning. I feel like cooking." He stroked Starsky's bristly jaw, falling into his blue-violet gaze. The passion banked in there nearly shattered him. "I want to feed you. Let me do that for you." It was the only way he felt he could make up for his lack of desire. I'll fill your belly since I can't fill your body, or let you fill mine.

"Okay," Starsky said, his breath coming short. "If that's what you want." Without another word, he slid out of bed, padding silently to the small bathroom they shared. The door closed with a snick and Hutch found himself staring at it, as if his eyes could bore through the wood and watch Starsky give himself what Hutch couldn't. You mean wouldn't, he reminded himself. Just because his cock didn't work didn't mean his hands didn't, or his mouth. He could've brought Starsky off with two strokes, he knew. So, why didn't he? He didn't know. Nor did he know why the thought of Starsky jerking off behind that door, without him, made him upset.

Before his chaotic thoughts drove him crazy, he got out of bed, made it quickly—Less of a temptation that way—straightened Starsky's, then pulled on jeans and a t-shirt. As he started getting the coffee ready, he heard Starsky leave the bathroom and go into the bedroom to dress. Even in this, they were thinking on the same wavelength.

We need to get out of the house, Hutch decided as the coffee brewed. Pulling eggs and bacon and bread out of the fridge, he thought, If we stay here all day, I won't be able to leave him alone. That's not fair. I don't even know why I suddenly need this from him. I don't even understand my own feelings. He put a cast iron stove on the pan and set the flame low before laying the bacon in it. We could go explore that little town nearby. There are places to shop there. Starsky will like that. We can have a nice lunch in a restaurant. Public places would be safe, give them a chance to cool off, clear their minds. Maybe later this evening, we can go to a movie. He buttered a pan and got it ready for the eggs.

I guess now we're courting each other, Hutch thought with some amusement as he heard Starsky come up behind him.

"Smells good enough to eat," Starsky murmured, squeezing his shoulders, and placing a gentle kiss on his cheek.

As Starsky moved away to set the kitchen table, Hutch realized he hadn't been talking about the bacon, and blushed to his roots.

It was off-season in the little coastal town, but only by a few weeks, so most of the seasonal businesses were still open, offering tantalizing sales before they closed down. Getting out of the house had been smart, Starsky thought, as he sucked up root beer through a straw. He was only human and didn't know how much more of Hutch's restrained ardor he could take. Part of him was prepared to live with it forever, if that's what Hutch wanted. Starsky owed him, after all he'd put Hutch through, and he wasn't about to forget that. But part of him, the very human part, couldn't help but hope that this was a new beginning for them. He'd wanted to court Hutch, and he had been doing just that. And now Hutch was accepting the courting, on his own terms. Starsky was both exhilarated and incredibly frustrated.

That's what your hand is for, he reminded himself sternly. He found himself reminiscing back to some of his early sexual conquests, to the time when "good girls" didn't do those kinds of things, even with boys they loved. He'd been the king of the front seat conquest, and proud of it. It was a rare girl who could hold him off indefinitely.

But this wasn't some high school romance. This was the most important relationship of his life. Hutch was telling him he was willing to try to rekindle the feelings between them, feelings Starsky had somehow walked away from for the illusion of normalcy and social acceptance. But Hutch was also telling him he couldn't guarantee that the flame was still there in his heart. Starsky would have to be patient. And more importantly, he'd have to let Hutch set the pace. That would be the hardest part. But he was determined to do it. It didn't matter if he grew hair on his palm or went blind from masturbating. All he had to do was imagine Hutch touching him and he came like rocket anyway.

They were walking down Main Street, browsing some of the antique stores and used bookshops. They'd each picked up a few things to read, and Hutch had spent some time lingering over some old furniture that appealed to him. Now, they were just strolling, Starsky working on his soda, while Hutch browsed the local paper. Hutch was so intent on the paper that several times Starsky had to take his elbow to guide him around obstacles in his path.

Finally, Starsky spied a public bench and steered Hutch to it, urging him to sit before he tripped over something and set his recovery back. Starsky sat a few feet away from him on the bench, watching the light traffic go by and the few people who, like them, were strolling from store to store.

Hutch turned a page of the paper. "I was thinking we might go to the movies tonight," he said.

Starsky turned to him, surprised. Hutch wasn't a big movie buff, preferring weird artsy films from foreign countries that Starsky never could understand, even when they had subtitles. He'd be surprised if this small town had those kinds of movies, except maybe at the height of the season when the moneyed crowd showed up. This time of year, there would probably be only a few local theatres with fairly pedestrian fare.

"You know me," Starsky said amiably. "I'm always ready to see a movie. Anything decent playing?"

He couldn't see Hutch's face behind the open paper—he never did manage to teach Hutch how to fold a newspaper to read it conveniently—but he could clearly hear the smile in his voice when Hutch said, "I'm thinking we should go see this double feature at the Rivoli. Two monster movies."

Starsky's eyebrows rose. Hutch wanted to go see two monster movies? Normally, Starsky would have to wheedle for hours to get him to go to one with him, even a classy one like Alien. "You sure? I don't mind if we go see something else, something you'd prefer."

"No," said Hutch, still sounding amused. "No, I think this sounds like something we shouldn't miss. The first one is 'Cannibal Girls,' and the second is a British film called, 'Raw Meat.'"

Starsky blinked dazedly at the wall of newsprint separating him and Hutch. "Are you running a fever again? Maybe I should take your temperature. You might need to go back on those antibiotics, Hutch . . . . 'Cannibal Girls' and 'Raw Meat'?" His voice nearly ended on a squeak of consternation.

"No, I feel fine, Starsk. I just think the films sound intriguing. It says here that 'Cannibal Girls' had no written script; it was completely improvised by the actors as they followed a rough outline of the story. Sounds fascinating, doesn't it? And 'Raw Meat' is a British film with a fairly decent cast. I think they just gave it a sensational title when it came over here to market it better. Donald Pleasance is in it, and he's a good actor. Says it's about some secret subterranean dwellers in the British subway system. More of a suspense film than a monster movie. I think we should go."

Starsky began to fear that Hutch's mental state was more impaired than he'd first thought. This didn't sound like his partner at all. These were more the kind of films Starsky was always dying to see. Hutch might go with him, but he'd complain and bitch the whole way, even if he ended up enjoying himself, just to maintain his veneer of sophisticated filmgoer.

Deciding that he might as well give in and take advantage of Hutch's willingness to indulge in his kind of film, Starsky shrugged, and said, "Yeah, sounds great, Hutch. We should go. Where's this double feature playing anyway?"

Starsky took a long pull off the soda as Hutch said casually, "At the Rivoli, like I said." There was a pause and then he added, "It's the local drive-in."

Starsky was so startled he inhaled soda up into his nose, then coughed and sneezed it out again all over his shirt and jeans. The carbonation burned like crazy, and Hutch had to pound him on the back to help him clear his sinuses.

Starsky's palms started sweating as soon as they pulled into a space at the back of drive-in's lot. Hutch had picked out the spot, way in the back, in a dark corner. It was the kind of space they'd pick for a stakeout. The car was almost invisible here. They were both wearing dark clothes, as if by some unspoken agreement they wanted to blend into the black upholstery of the car and become invisible. Of course, Hutch's hair made that almost impossible, but it was so long now, that if viewed from the back, it could possibly be mistaken for a woman's.

Shortly after Starsky got the speaker settled on the car door, the screen flickered to life, and they sat through a collection of cartoons that helped tame the rowdy children the local married couples had brought with them. By the time the main features started, the kids would fall asleep in the back seat and the harried parents would have a few hours of quiet togetherness at a modest price.

As the cartoons played, a few classic Looney Tunes from Warner Brothers, Hutch slouched low in the passenger seat, noisily crunching the popcorn they'd bought. That was weird all by itself. Normally, Starsky was the popcorn eater. Hutch insisted that eating popcorn during a film was nearly sacrilege. You were supposed to just sit there watching it, paying attention, admiring the art and craft of it, even sitting through the world's most tedious credits as though anyone could remember all the obscure names of the gaffers and stunt men and film editors. Starsky didn't know how to enjoy a film without a big tub of buttered popcorn. It brought back memories of ten-cent matinees that showed endless monster movies on Saturday that all the neighborhood kids would sit through until the evening adult features came on. It gave their hard-working parents a needed break from them, and kept them cool and occupied during relentlessly hot summer days. That was in Brooklyn, when he was young. Once he started living with his aunt and uncle in LA, movies were a little more civilized. But once he hit 16, well, then there were the drive-ins.

Which brought him right back to his own front seat, where Hutch rummaged in a dwindling tub of buttered popcorn and laughed, enjoying the inane cartoons, while Starsky's palms sweated helplessly.

He was rubbing them on his thighs again to dry them off, when Hutch said, "How come you're not eating any popcorn, Starsk? You feeling all right?"

He swallowed, praying his voice wouldn't crack. He felt like he was 16, on his first date with Mary Lou Schimmerhorn, the girl with the biggest boobs in high school. "Yeah. I'm fine. Just not hungry . . . for popcorn." He could've bit his tongue for that last remark. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the sly look on Hutch's face. He was enjoying this way too much.

You set up the scene, buddy, Starsky thought at him. But you're gonna have to make the first move. And every one after that. I'll give you whatever you want, but I'm not guessing. You're gonna have to tell me. He rubbed his palms on his thighs again.

They were maybe a half hour into "Cannibal Girls", and Starsky had finally started to relax a little. Hutch stayed on his side of the car, still working on the popcorn, if slowly, and actually seemed to be watching the silly film with the same intense concentration he would've given something by Fellini. The girls in it were young, slender, and busty, and there wasn't a one of them that would ever be called on to make another film after this ridiculous improvisational mess. Maybe Hutch was digging the girls, Starsky thought, a little disappointedly. They were certainly easy on the eyes, not that he cared. He remembered that after they'd become lovers, after the Gunther hit, Hutch seemed to lose all interest in women, much to Starsky's dismay. He no longer followed a long set of legs, never stared after a gorgeous woman, and LA sure was ripe with them. Starsky hadn't lost his roving eye, but Hutch was tolerant of it. Starsky hadn't been interested in doing more than look, but a beautiful woman could still turn his head after he and Hutch hit the sheets.

So maybe Hutch had found that interest again. Funny, but Starsky could've cared less about the girls on the screen, even when they took their clothes off. His mind kept wandering; he tried to remember what Hutch looked like nude, then tried to jerk his mind away from that before he threw another rod. He was so engrossed in his own mental conflicts that he jumped when Hutch spoke.

"You sure you don't want some popcorn, Starsky?" he asked solicitously.

Starsky's mind was so tied in knots he couldn't even answer.

"Dinner was a long time ago," Hutch said, as he dug around in the tub. "And I've just hit this spot where the butter landed just right, coating every kernel. It's still warm down here, too. Come on, try some." He pulled up some of the corn and held it out to Starsky, clearly intending to feed it to him.

Starsky could see butter glistening on the ends of Hutch's broad fingertips as he held the morsel near his mouth. The urge to reach out and lick those fingertips clean was nearly overwhelming.

"Come on, Starsk," Hutch cajoled quietly, his voice low and raspy, impossibly sexy. "Try some. Do it for me."

Dirty pool, Starsky thought, and helplessly opened his mouth. He stopped breathing as Hutch pushed the corn between his lips. Starsky took the salty, slick pieces into his mouth, chewed them twice then swallowed.

"Want more?" Hutch said, and Starsky knew damned well he wasn't talking about popcorn anymore.

He started to tremble and fought to control it. "Whatever you wanna give me," he said, wanting Hutch to know he wouldn't go back on the word he'd given him the night before.

Hutch swallowed, and Starsky saw the still tender wound on his throat bob. Reaching into the tub, Hutch brought out a heavily buttered piece and held it out. Starsky opened his mouth and waited. Hutch rubbed the slippery kernel against Starsky's lower lip until Starsky couldn't stand it anymore and reached for the food with his tongue. Hutch placed it there reverently, his own mouth open, as Starsky took it from him. Slowly, carefully, so he wouldn't startle Hutch and make him pull away, Starsky encased the tip of Hutch's fingers in his mouth and ran his tongue over them, cleaning them of the butter clinging to them. He sucked them gently, washing them with his tongue, and Hutch pushed them in farther, asking for more. They sat there for long minutes, with Starsky tonguing and sucking on Hutch's hand while Hutch watched his every move, as if fascinated by something he'd never seen before.

"Does that taste good?" Hutch asked roughly, as if they were still talking about the popcorn.

"You taste good," Starsky rasped back, as Hutch pulled his hand back. "You always did. Every part of you. Any part you ever let me have."

Hutch seemed to withdraw for a moment and Starsky felt his whole body throb with disappointment and longing. I can wait, he told himself. Until you're ready, I can wait. Forever if I have to.

Hutch pulled some napkins from under the popcorn tub and cleaned his hand thoroughly, then reached up to wipe the butter off Starsky's mouth. Once he was done, Hutch carefully sat the nearly empty tub on the floor behind the front seat. At this moment, Starsky wouldn't have cared if he'd tossed the whole mess all over his back seat, runny butter and all. He sat, as tense as a cat, waiting for whatever might or might not happen. It was Hutch's party.

"Come here," Hutch said once he'd finished putting away the tub. He sat with his back against the passenger door, watching Starsky with eyes that bore into him.

Starsky found it impossible to move.

Hutch reached over, grabbed the lapel of his black leather jacket. "I said, come here," he repeated, towing on the leather, urging Starsky to move closer towards him on the bench seat. Hutch stared into his eyes, seeming puzzled. "What's the matter?"

Starsky had to wet his mouth. "I don't know what you want from me. I don't know what to do."

Hutch smiled. "You'll figure it out." And leaned in to kiss him.

Oh, god, Starsky groaned to himself. Hutch's lips met his, slightly wet, warm, and so inviting. He forced himself to keep his mouth closed and kiss Hutch back lightly, somehow trying to convey his pent-up passion without going farther than Hutch wanted.

They made out on the front seat like teenagers, and it was one of the hottest things Starsky had ever done. Hutch couldn't seem to stop kissing him, and moved from his mouth, to his cheek, to his eyes, to his ears—which nearly did him in—then back to his mouth as if rediscovering him all over again. Starsky panted for air, and clutched Hutch's leather jacket at the same time Hutch gripped his. The two jackets creaked and groaned as they kissed, making the sounds neither of them seemed able to utter.

Suddenly, Hutch pulled back and Starsky thought for sure he'd faint if Hutch's mouth didn't come back to his. Hutch had that fierce look on his face again, the one that made him look like he was angry when what it really meant was that he was hot. Starsky loved that look and had feared that after the night of their runaway passion in the stakeout apartment, that he'd never see it again.

"Are you hard?" Hutch demanded suddenly.

Starsky didn't even consider lying. "Like a fuckin' phone pole."

Hutch's eyes sparkled dangerously. "I'm glad. I like making you hard."

Starsky's stomach clenched, and his cock jumped in his tight jeans. He couldn't help himself; he had to ask. "Are you? Hard?"

Hutch shook his head, but he didn't seem to really care about that. He seemed totally focused on Starsky's reactions. "We're making out in a public place," he told Starsky, "like a couple of kids. We could get busted . . . . Don't you care?"

He shook his head. Right now he'd go down on Hutch's in Macy's window if he'd let him. He brushed his knuckles against Hutch's cheek. "I love you," he whispered, and found his mouth kissed again, harder this time, more insistently.

Then, suddenly, Hutch's tongue brushed against his lips. Starsky shuddered all over and opened his mouth, letting Hutch do whatever he wanted. Hutch's tongue toyed with Starsky's lips, running over them as if still tasting butter there. Then finally, when Starsky thought he couldn't bear it any longer, Hutch's tongue snaked into his mouth and took possession of it. It was impossible for Starsky to hold back his groan. Hutch's tongue stroked along Starsky's inviting it to play and then things got serious.

Hutch buried his fingers in Starsky's hair and held his head so he could kiss him just the way he wanted to. Their tongues wrestled wetly while Starsky fought the urge he had to fondle Hutch, touch him intimately, start taking his clothes off. They were in the front seat of the Torino in a public place, and if they got caught kissing, they'd be in plenty of trouble without adding lewd acts to the charges. But as Hutch kept kissing him aggressively, it became harder for Starsky to be passive. He allowed himself to slide his hands up under Hutch's jacket and roam over the soft fabric of his tee shirt. He didn't dare touch below the waist, though. Though the thought of Hutch slapping him for taking liberties suddenly seemed incredibly hot.

His erection was killing him. It wasn't so bad last night in the loose cotton pants, but he'd worn his tightest jeans on impulse. Hutch used to love his ass, and he hoped the jeans would remind him of his former desire. But the constricting material now felt like a steel cock-cage restraining him uncomfortably while his hard-on tried to drill its way through his zipper. Several steamy kisses later, he couldn't stand it anymore, and shifted in the seat, wrestling with himself through the fabric to make his cock more comfortable. But that was a joke. The only way he could get more comfortable now was if he took it out and put it in Hutch's hand. And that wasn't happening.

"It's really hurting now, isn't it?" Hutch murmured against his cheek.

He knows me too damned well, Starsky thought. "No, it's okay. I'm fine."

Hutch kissed him again, then looked at him worriedly. "Not in those pants you're not. You must be strangling in them."

Starsky swallowed hard. He couldn't stand talking about it like this. It was too reminiscent of the intimacy they used to have. He'd rather just ignore it and wait for it to go away.

Suddenly, Hutch shucked out of his jacket, and tucked it around Starsky's lap. "Go on. No one can see now. Take it out. Take care of it. You'll feel better."

Starsky looked at him, stupefied. "Right here?"

"I think it would be safer here than standing outside next to the car," Hutch said, with a smirk, "but that's up to you. Go on. I mean it. Take care of it." His eyes grew soft then, with that look of hazy passion that Starsky yearned to see. "'Cause I can't stop kissing you. And there's a whole other movie yet to see."

Please don't stop kissing me, Starsky thought, as he fumbled under Hutch's jacket for his zipper. He had to battle to get it down, and he was convinced that everyone in the drive in had to know what he was doing even though there wasn't another car near them for three rows.

Hutch watched his every move as if trying to learn some new complicated dance. When Starsky finally got the zipper down and released himself, his whole body sagged in relief. Hutch wet his mouth, and that nearly did Starsky in right there.

Suddenly, Hutch reached into his back pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. Opening it up, he handed it to Starsky. "Here. You'll need this. That's my best jacket. I don't need the lining ruined."

The Hutch-normalcy of that comment nearly made Starsky burst into laughter. He took the handkerchief and covered himself with it under the leather.

His erection was raging, aching for some relief. As soon as he took hold of himself under the coat, Hutch moved in on him for an especially powerful kiss, his tongue shoving hard into Starsky's mouth, taking possession of it, of him. Hutch was breathing hard, too, so Starsky knew that even if he couldn't get a hard-on, kissing him was getting him excited. Hutch gripped his shoulders roughly, pushing him back against the seat as they kissed, then wrapped his arms around him as tight as he could. It felt incredible to have Hutch's strength encasing him, and Starsky couldn't hold back a groan of passion.

Hutch's mouth left his for a second, leaving him gasping. "Do it. Right now," he ordered. "Right here." Then his mouth captured Starsky's again, and all he could do was yield.

Hutch's kisses were so torrid that it only took a few strokes before his entire body shook with release. He held the handkerchief tight over his sensitive cockhead and captured the semen that felt like it was exploding from his body. As his hips jerked in the seat, Hutch grew more passionate, kissing his mouth raw, gripping him with arms of steel. It was amazingly exciting, and even with the windows open, they were steaming up the windshield. Starsky could barely breathe, and when he was finished coming, he could only sag back against the seat bonelessly.

Hutch pulled away, grinning wolfishly. "So quick on the trigger," he admonished playfully. His face was flushed, with bright spots of color on his cheeks. He looked so beautiful Starsky could barely stand it.

"That's what you do to me, and you know it," he gasped. He was so grateful for the relief, he wanted to weep.

"I'm glad," Hutch whispered, petting his cheek. "You wearing underwear?"

Touch me and find out, Starsky begged silently, but Hutch's hands never went near the jacket. "No."

"You should be ashamed," Hutch scolded, but his breathing picked up a little, which thrilled Starsky. "Gonna make it through the next movie?"

"Or die tryin'," Starsky confessed. That made Hutch laugh. Starsky wiped himself with the handkerchief, and tossed the come-filled fabric into the back seat. Hutch pulled out more napkins he'd taken from the concession stand when he'd bought the popcorn.

"I hope this'll be enough to get us through both features," Hutch said, his eyes sparkling dangerously.

Starsky's mind reeled. He wants me to get off again . . . and again? He wet his mouth, trembling with anticipation, and felt his cock stirring already. This is worse than high school, he decided. Lots worse. But I can handle it. I've got to.

Hutch moved closer to him again, clearly ready to kiss him some more. On impulse, Starsky blurted, "Marry me, Hutch." His voice was ragged, but his heart was beating double time, it was so filled with love for this man. "I mean it. Marry me, and make an honest man out of me, will ya?"

The words stopped Hutch cold. He looked perplexed and drew back a little. "Starsky . . . I don't get this marriage thing. What's the point? It's not like it's legal or binding or anything."

"It'd be binding to me," Starsky said, wanting so hard to convince Hutch. "You're the one who kept talking about how I deserved a 'normal' life with marriage and all that. And you're right. I've always wanted it. I still want it. Only now I want it with you. I don't want to settle for a life in the shadows. People build their own closets. I want to marry you. Profess my love in front of witnesses. Forsaking all others. 'Til death do us part. I want to shatter the glass with you. Alla that stuff. Then I want us to make a life together, a real life. Get a house—"

"Have a couple of kids?" Hutch said pointedly.

"Who says we can't have kids?" Starsky argued. "We've already got two—Kiko and Molly! Who says we won't find others to share our lives with if that's what we want to do? LA's a really progressive place, and we've both got good jobs, good incomes. You and me, Hutch, we've done anything we ever set our minds to doing. If we decide to build a family, it'll happen."

Hutch drew back, as if retreating from Starsky's argument. "This is a pipe-dream, Starsky. We could never be that open about our relationship at work and you know it. We don't have to build a closet. Everyone's built it for us."

Starsky shook his head and moved closer to him, careful not to dislodge the jacket hiding his exposure. "If we both end up lieutenants, Hutch, we'll have a lot more authority. After what we've gone through in the last year, we can write our own ticket. When I gave my statement while you were in the hospital, the chief talked to me abut it. He thinks our partnership is too valuable to the department to let it go to waste. The chief thinks he can find some innovative way for us to keep working together even after we become lieutenants, like putting us on a special task force. We're better at everything together, and everyone knows it. Dobey already knows about us, Hutch. He'd still be our superior even if we get promoted. And he's got too much seniority for anyone to put him in a corner about this."

He found Hutch watching him with a hopeful expression.

"Look, Hutch, I'm not saying we should start making out in the hallways at Parker. But a lot of cops share housing together to save money, and no one thinks anything about it. Remember when we bought that investment property together? Nobody raised an eyebrow. And frankly, I don't think anyone will say anything to us even if we wear wedding bands in public."

"You'd go that far?" Hutch said incredulously.

Starsky nodded. "I'm not hiding my feelings for you anymore, Hutch. I'm not living a shadow existence with you. We deserve better. We deserve a real life together. And we're gonna have it."

Hutch's expression softened. "You almost make me believe it."

Starsky touched Hutch's mouth tenderly. "Believe it, Hutch. Believe in me, in the way that I love you."

Hutch made a small sound of longing then moved back into Starsky's arms, taking possession of him again, meshing their mouths together. Starsky felt his erection bloom under Hutch's jacket, and reached for the wad of napkins to be safe. As joyful as he felt from Hutch's kisses, he knew it was going to be the longest double feature of his life.

They lay together in bed later that night, and held onto each other as the moon rose over the water. Starsky was exhausted. He'd had to jerk off two more times as Donald Pleasance chased a deranged subhuman troglodyte through the London underground while Hutch kissed him to his soul. They didn't say anything to each other on the way home, and even when they got in the house, they just showered separately, changed into their sleepwear, and got ready for bed. For a few minutes Starsky thought Hutch might not want to sleep with him, but Hutch took his hand and pulled him into his bed.

Suddenly, Hutch broke their silence. "Starsk . . .  suppose . . . I never fully recover . . . ."

Starsky read between the lines with no problem. Suppose I can never get it up again. "That's what 'in sickness and in health' covers, remember? Besides, you'll recover. You're too strong not to. You're still replacing the blood you lost, and I know damned well that you need a full tank to raise that monster!" Starsky grinned, and got a small smile in answer. "Remember, it took a while before I was fully functional again. You waited. I can wait, too."

Hutch shook his head. "It's not just that. I mean, I can't figure out how I feel about anything. About you. About us. I'm not even sure . . . if I'm still in love with you. I know I love you, but that's not the same."

"You had a terrible trauma. It makes you reevaluate a lot of things. Some things get real clear. Others get all confused. You need time, Hutch, that's all. And I can wait. I know your love for me is still there. But I've got to earn it this time. I can do that. I can wait for as long as it takes."

"Suppose . . . it takes forever . . . ?" Hutch looked anguished as he asked the question.

Starsky sighed. "Is this a test? Fine. Spending forever side-by-side with you is no test at all. I'm too busy bein' grateful that we've got a 'forever' to look forward to. I love you, Hutch. Love isn't supposed to come with limits, or specific demands. Just let me love you the way I'm doing, and we'll let nature take its course . . . whatever that happens to be."

Hutch looked puzzled as he stared into Starsky's eyes. Then he leaned in to kiss him gently, close-mouthed, a simple gesture of friendship and love. Then Hutch rolled over and Starsky spooned around him and they watched the moon over the water until sleep took them.

Starsky woke up abruptly the next morning with a painful erection and his arms full of Hutch. Hutch was half-way on top of him and was already kissing him feverishly. He's gonna kill me if he keeps this up, Starsky thought with a helpless groan. Hutch swallowed the sound and plunged into Starsky's mouth, heedless of morning breath or any other obstacles. Starsky shifted and Hutch must've interpreted that as an attempt to evade him, because he rolled completely on top of him, pinning him to the bed. Helplessly in thrall, Starsky felt his hips surging uncontrollably as he tried to strop himself against Hutch's belly. Then he realized Hutch wasn't hard, so he forced himself to stop. He couldn't stop trembling though, especially when he realized Hutch had opened all the buttons on Starsky's shirt and exposed his chest. Suddenly, that seemed like the most licentious thing they'd ever done.

"Still think you can wait?" Hutch growled into his mouth, as if challenging him.

Gasping, Starsky said, "I can wait. It ain't even half-past forever yet."

Hutch took his mouth ruthlessly, his tongue plunging in deep, drinking from Starsky as his hands roved the sides of Starsky's chest. Hutch's hips moved slowly over his groin, deliberately teasing. Starsky thought he might actually faint, he felt so light-headed.

"You want me?" Hutch demanded to know, then kissed Starsky again before he could answer.

When he could catch his breath, Starsky said, "I'm burning up with wanting for you. I'm dying with it. Look at me. That's all I am, all I'm about anymore—wanting you. But I can wait. I swear it, Hutch. You're worth waiting for." He realized he was clutching at Hutch's lightweight shirt, gripping it in both fists to keep some kind of tenuous control over himself.

"I want you to want me," Hutch admitted. "I love it that you do." He rolled his groin over Starsky's raging hard-on, tantalizing him beyond his controls.

"Oh, god, Hutch," he gasped helplessly. "Lemme go to the bathroom, huh?"

"No," Hutch panted back at him, clutching him harder. He slid his hands down Starsky's arms and grabbed his wrists, pinning him to the bed.

Starsky thought for a minute he might actually come, but he fought the feeling down. "Hutch, please . . . have some mercy, willya? Let me go, just for a minute."

"No! Don't go. I don't . . . I can't be separated from you right now. I feel like . . . it's important that we stay together."

Starsky got a grip on his raging hormones, and tried to crank his desire down to a simmer. "Okay . . . ! Okay. I'm here. I won't leave." He didn't know how much longer he could last. And he didn't know how Hutch would feel about it if he came all over him. The thin cotton pants they were both wearing would hardly hold back the flood he was capable of after all this foreplay. He was so confused, so fogged with desire, he didn't know what to do. Hutch kept rolling his hips and kissing his mouth, his face, his eyes.

When Hutch slid his mouth down to Starsky's throat, he thought he might go nova, it felt so good. Hutch kissed him lightly there, then touched his skin with his tongue, drawing out a flush of goosebumps and a passionate shudder Starsky didn't even attempt to hide. You want me to want you? You're doin' a damn good job of keeping me interested.

Hutch's teeth touched Starsky's shoulder and he bit down gently. Unable to control the surge of desire that elicited, Starsky ground his hips hard against Hutch's quiescent groin and gasped out his name in helpless need.

"Do it here," Hutch whispered in his ear.


"Like in the drive-in . . . ."

Starsky's eyes widened in surprise. He was suddenly a lot more alert. Every hair on his body lifted. "Uh . . .  where's your jacket?" he said inanely.

"No jacket. This time . . . let me see you." Hutch's whisper grew softer, as if he could barely get the words out.

"Hutch . . . ?"

"Show me, Starsk. Show me how bad you want me. Let me watch you." Hutch's eyes were fever-bright.

They'd never done anything like this before and Starsky wasn't sure he could. Helluva time for you to get shy! He hesitated, then finally said, "Okay. If that's what you want." He began to reach for himself, but Hutch stopped him.

"No, not like that. I want to watch you. I want to really see you. Stand up." Hutch's breathing was erratic, Starsky realized. He didn't know if Hutch's cock was responding at all, but he knew damned well the rest of his body was wired.

Starsky pulled away from Hutch's arms with some reluctance, but finally stood a few feet from the bed where Hutch would have a good view. Hutch moved back in the bed so that he could sit up against the headboard. Starsky realized he was fully dressed in his nightwear: drawstring pants tied securely, nightshirt buttoned to the throat. Hutch clearly woke up conflicted this morning, if he felt he had to be so well armored.

Starsky felt the early morning sunlight streaking across his body, warming his chest where his shirt lay open. Even so, a flush of goosebumps rose along his arms. His cock leaked pre-come through his thin pants, making him shudder. He took hold of himself through the cloth and rubbed his cock, trying to soothe the ache. Hutch's eyes visibly dilate.

"Not like that," Hutch said, eyes roving him hungrily. "Starsk . . . undress for me . . . please?"

Only the fact that he was gripping himself kept him from coming right then. He wants me to strip for him? Oh, jeezus! Hutch's skin was flushed, he was panting lightly, and his nipples were hardened peaks pushing against the fabric of his nightshirt. Without moving his eyes, Starsky could see nothing was happening below Hutch's waist, but clearly, he was physically excited. Give the man what he wants, Starsky told himself. Releasing his erection, Starsky slowly removed his shirt, rolling his shoulders out of it and letting it drop to the floor behind him.

Hutch wet his lips, his eyes boring into Starsky, barely blinking.

It was almost too much to bear, to have Hutch staring at him like this, as though he were a steak on the hoof. At the same time, it was wonderfully exciting. Want me, Hutch. Want to touch me, want to taste me. I'm waiting here for you, needing you, wanting you so much. With careful, deliberate moves Starsky untied the drawstring at his waist, loosened the waistband of the pants and let the loose fabric slither down his hips. The soft cotton whispered down his legs, pooling around his ankles. He stepped out of them, and pushed them away. Nude, he stood before Hutch, offering himself, middle-aged cop with a decent bod, a great tan, and a roadwork of scars.

Hutch's eyes couldn't remain still, moving all over him, gazing hungrily. His scrutiny excited Starsky nearly past his own endurance. His own respiration was strained, and his cock, tantalized at its freedom, and at being observed by the man he loved, stood at strict attention, bobbing against his belly, dripping wetly over his crown.

Hutch swallowed, and Starsky wondered if his mouth was watering. That made him remember all the times Hutch had gone down on him, his incredible mouth bringing him to earth-shattering climaxes. He yanked his mind away from that image abruptly. He couldn't afford that kind of fantasy right now; he was too close.

"Go on," Hutch urged, his voice rough. "Touch yourself."

Desperately trying to pull his attention away from the man he loved, Starsky gripped himself hard at the base of his cock with his right hand, trying to rein in the orgasm that boiled so near the surface. If Hutch wanted to watch him, if it excited him to do that, Starsky wanted to make the show worthwhile. Then, with his left hand, he stroked the very tip of his cockhead, rubbing the fluid there all around, making his glans slick with pre-come. The sensations rocketed through him, nearly making his legs buckle.

When Hutch groaned softly, Starsky nearly lost it all together.

He began fisting himself slowly, drawing it out, making it last. His orgasm held at bay, at least for the moment, he slid his right hand down to cup his balls and roll them gently. That made shivers shoot up his spine and into his cock. It felt great, but it would've felt so much better if Hutch had been doing it to him.

Hutch barely blinked as Starsky displayed himself, just stared silently, completely rapt. He kept swallowing convulsively, making Starsky shudder.

You want me, Starsky realized. You want me so bad it's killing you, but you're afraid, too. That's okay, Hutch. You'll get over that in time. And I can wait for you.

The friction of his hand was almost distracting now, not as pleasing. The fluid from his cock wasn't nearly enough to keep him lubricated.

With the same kind of mind-reading ability they'd always had on the streets, Hutch reached back to the nearest nightstand and pulled something out of the drawer. He never took his eyes off Starsky; he never needed to. He knew exactly where it was, removed it, then brought it in front of him. It was a pristine tube of lubricant; Starsky could see that from where he was standing. Again, without changing the focus of his attention, Hutch removed the cap and handed the tube out to Starsky.

You knew that was there because you put it there, Starsky realized with a jolt. You must've done that before I woke up. When did you start planning this? Last night? What else have you got in mind for me? And am I gonna have to do it all by myself?

He realized his hand was shaking almost uncontrollably with both excitement and anticipation. It was a miracle his legs were holding him upright. "Hutch . . . I . . . it's . . . ." He swallowed and tried to regain his voice. "Please . . . can you put it on me?"

Hutch started at the statement, then focused on Starsky's eyes. He must've seen the incredible need banked in there, because without a word he got to his knees and leaned closer to him. Taking the tube, Hutch squeezed it from the bottom, laying a trail of lube across the head of Starsky's cock, and down the shaft. He didn't touch him, but just the fact that Hutch was putting lube on him was tremendously exciting.

The lube was cool, and the sensation of it against his heated, sensitized skin was electrifying. It started to melt, to drip down around his cock, so he spread it quickly over his length. It made his dark cock glisten in the sunlight. And it felt wonderful. He started stroking himself, long, slow strokes, just the way he liked it, and felt every nerve in his body respond. He was panting hard now, but so was Hutch.

"You ever do this before?" Hutch asked suddenly.

"Sure," Starsky said, with a short laugh. "About two million times, I guess."

Hutch had to grin as he rolled his eyes. "Not alone. This way. In front of someone."

"Oh." He could feel every square inch of his hand as he stroked himself steadily. He didn't want to rush this. He wanted to make sure Hutch got everything he needed out of it. "No, Hutch. I never did this in front of anyone before. But I'll do it for you anytime you want."

Hutch's breath hitched in his chest, and his mouth dropped open as if he couldn't get enough air in.

Starsky was aching to have Hutch touch him. He indicated his cock and said softly, "I need more lube, babe. Will you . . . ?"

Hutch leaned forward to comply, once again pushing out a thick line of lubricant from the tube along Starsky's length, without ever touching Starsky directly.

Starsky throbbed with disappointment.

"What are you waiting for?" Hutch said suddenly. "You didn't take nearly this long last night." His eyes glittered wickedly as he reminded Starsky of his repeat performances in the Torino.

"You weren't watching me last night," Starsky said huskily. "I want to be sure you get your fill, see everything you want, get everything out of this you can. I'm not doing this for me, Hutch. I'm doin' it for you."

Hutch swallowed hard again, his jaw clenching. "You bastard," he murmured low, but the words had no heat in them. "Go on. Do it now. I want to watch you get off for me."

Starsky closed his eyes and quivered. Opening them, he had to ask, "Is it good for you, Hutch? What I'm doin'? Is it turnin' you on?"

"Yes," Hutch whispered, as if he were afraid to admit it too loud. "Come on, Starsky. Now!"

It was a direct order and he found his body had to obey. With a groan, his cock jerked hard, his balls tightened, and he came hard, shooting all over the foot of the bed. He felt like he hadn't come in a year, which was nuts, especially after last night.

Hutch watched him as if what he'd just done was some incredible magic trick performed just for him. Then all of a sudden he gasped, shuddering, and fell back across the headboard, as if shot.

Alarmed, Starsky shook off his post-orgasmic lassitude and climbed back in the bed, clambering over to where Hutch lay. "Hutch? Hutch, you okay?"

Hutch was breathing hard, as if he'd run a mile. Or just come. He blinked dazedly, then reached up to touch Starsky's cheek gently. "That was incredible . . . . I felt like . . . we came together." He looked down at himself in confusion. His groin appeared unchanged, as quiescent as it had been. But clearly something had happened inside Hutch, something good. His eyes came back to Starsky's. "Goddamn, you're incredible," he swore, slinging his arms around Starsky's neck and towing him down to the bed with him as he kissed him frantically.

Reluctantly, Starsky tried to pull out of the embrace, which only confused Hutch. "Easy, babe," Starsky soothed. "I'm covered in lube and come; it'll get it all over you. Let me go wash up. I'll be right back."

"No," Hutch said, pushing him down in the bed, onto his back. "You stay here. I'll take care of it."

Starsky stared at him in confusion as Hutch went off to the bathroom, returning quickly with a towel and warm washcloth. He proceeded to wash Starsky from his throat to his navel, cleaning off each spatter of come from his hairy chest. Then, to Starsky's dismay, Hutch tenderly washed his genitals. It was the first time he'd touched him this intimately since they'd stopped being lovers. If he hadn't just come moments before, Starsky knew the familiar contact would be enough to get him off again. He groaned in delight as Hutch bathed his testicles, his perineum, then carefully washed his cock. He dried him there with just as much care, until Starsky was weak-kneed.

He can do it now because I'm safe after coming. He doesn't have to worry about me growing hard in his hand, or wanting something from him he doesn't think he can give yet. That was okay, Starsky thought. Whatever Hutch wanted to do was okay with him.

"Feel good?" Hutch murmured, smiling.

"Good doesn't even touch it," Starsky confessed. He eyed Hutch's still-complete attire, and said, "I guess I better get dressed—"

But Hutch shook his head. "No, don't get dressed." He reached for the cover sheet and drew it half-way up Starsky's chest. "I . . . love looking at you. Starsky . . . you're beautiful!" He sound choked for a minute, then ran a hand over Starsky's chest. "I want to keep you here just like this, just to hold you, look at you— Is that too crazy?"

"If that's what you want, that's fine with me," Starsky admitted. His eyes were growing heavy and he felt like his body weighed a million pounds, that he was sinking into the center of the bed.

"You're so tired," Hutch said, smiling. He lay down beside Starsky and pulled his bare body against his clothed one. Spooning around him, Hutch murmured in his ear, "You sleep. I'll just stay here and hold you, okay?"

As Hutch's arms snaked around him, Starsky wrapped his arms over them. He purred agreement and then fell dead asleep.

When Starsky woke up alone in the double bed, he was almost relieved. He stretched under the sheets and looked out the sliding glass doors. The sun was up high and bright. Mid-afternoon, he assumed. It was warm, with a pleasant breeze wafting through the bedroom.

"You're finally awake, huh?" Hutch asked, coming in from the kitchen.

"I'm surprised myself," Starsky confessed. "You're trying to turn me into a shrunken old husk."

"Oh, there's a lot more life left in you yet," Hutch teased, grinning, handing him a glass of orange juice.

"I was afraid you were gonna say that," Starsky mock-groused. Hutch was bright-eyed, looking happy, and his joy filled Starsky's heart.

"I packed a picnic lunch," Hutch said. "Or early supper, however you look at it."

"Or extremely late breakfast," Starsky chided.

"I thought maybe we could go sit on the beach for awhile," Hutch said.

Starsky nodded. He noted Hutch was still dressed in his form-covering nightwear. "Want to hand me my pants?" he asked, indicating his drawstring pants Hutch had picked up from the floor and thrown over a chair.

"We're gonna be on the beach, Starsk," Hutch said, tossing him something else. "Wear those."

Starsky peered at the small red Speedos he'd brought to swim in. "What are you wearing?" he asked bluntly.

"You know I burn too much," Hutch said, wandering back into the kitchen. "I'll be comfortable in these. It means I won't have to be covered in two pounds of sunscreen."

Starsky sighed. Whatever you say, babe. It's your party. I just hope I can survive it.

Hutch sat on their beach blanket with his arms wrapped around his knees. It was a perfect California day. Bright sun, not too hot, and just enough breeze. Starsky had devoured their picnic like a starving man, which had pleased Hutch enormously. He'd always loved feeding Starsky, especially after sex had made him ravenous. I just wish the sex we were having was more mutual, Hutch thought. Then he reconsidered.

There was no denying that Starsky's magnificent display had affected him profoundly. He'd felt drained after it, as though he'd come, not Starsky. He wasn't sure he could explain that, unless it was that phenomena Masters and Johnson had once called the "dry orgasm." Something definitely was happening south of his navel, he just wasn't sure what it was. It was enough that it felt good, though. He definitely felt sated right now, which was probably a tremendous relief to his partner.

He glanced over at Starsky, who was stretched out on his back, eyes closed, a towel behind his head for a pillow, with a cold bottle of beer in his left hand. His body gleamed from the sunscreen Hutch had insisted on rubbing on him, and he was barely covered by the leaves-nothing-to-the-imagination Speedo bathing suit. Hutch was once again grateful for the private beach that came with the rental house. He would have had to fence Starsky off to keep him safe from nearby females.

Starsky let out a discreet burp. He looked sinfully satisfied. "That was a great meal, Hutch."

"Tell the truth, Starsk. That's really why you want to marry me. Because I can cook."

Starsky eyed him warily, as if surprised he was willingly bringing up the topic. "No, that's not it. Huggy can cook, too. I'm not proposin' to him, am I?"

Hutch nodded, conceding the point. "Well, it can't be my body, at least not the way it is right now."

"I like your body just fine," Starsky insisted, "just the way it is right now. You're not a circus pony, Hutch, who has to perform every night or get sent to the glue factory."

That made Hutch laugh, it was such a classic Starsky statement.

"I told you why I wanna marry you. I'm in love with you. I want to make a life with you."

Hutch frowned. He had a sudden memory of Starsky saying to him, "That's what you're supposed to do with a woman you love . . . ." Just before I was hit. He'd lost some of those memories after the shooting. It wasn't unusual after such an intense trauma. Starsky no longer remembered the ping-pong game they'd been playing before he'd been shot.

"You know, Starsk," Hutch said quietly, not looking at him, "I don't remember everything that happened before the shooting."

Starsky paused, then said, "When you started waking up, I had to keep going over it with you again and again. You had trouble holding on to it."

Hutch nodded. "I remember we were talking about the future of our partnership. I remember telling you I wanted to take the lieutenant's exam. I don't remember everything you said, but I remember thinking the best thing I could do was to back out of your life, so that you could be happy—with Rosey. That was one of the few things I'd remember whenever I'd wake up. That the best thing I could do for you was leave you."

Looking out over the ocean, Hutch struggled to piece together his fractured memories. "Maybe . . . maybe that's why I'm having so much trouble reconnecting with you now. Because that memory is so strong. Maybe part of me is still trying to leave . . . for your own good." He rolled that around in his mind, finding an odd comfort in it. It wasn't unusual for trauma victims to latch onto prominent memories and have trouble putting them in perspective. Bringing it to the forefront of his mind, facing the origin of that one insidious thought, might be what he needed to purge it. To try to find the memories he wanted to have—the memories of loving this man and of believing that they could have a life together.

He turned to Starsky to get his input and was startled to find that Starsky was no longer lying relaxed beside him. Instead, he was sitting, hunched over, his back to Hutch. The beer was forgotten, spilling onto the sand. The muscles in Starsky's back rippled with tension. His head was bowed.

"Starsk . . . you okay?" Hutch asked. He'd been so involved in his own introspection that he hadn't given a thought to what was going through Starsky's head. "Come on . . . talk to me, huh?"

He touched Starsky's shoulder, only to have him pull away. Starsky's shoulders shook a moment, and a startling thought occurred to Hutch. Is he crying?

Starsky didn't cry easily. Hutch did, too often he thought, but Starsky never made him feel like less of a man for it. But Starsky always hid his tears, even from Hutch if he could.

He moved around in front of Starsky and found his face contorted painfully. His heart lurched, and he gathered Starsky in his arms. "Starsk . . . what is it? Something I said? Please, tell me."

He felt Starsky swallow as if he were shoving a boulder down his throat. All he could do was shake his head.

Hutch rocked him in his arms, but Starsky wouldn't yield, wouldn't embrace him in return. "Come on, partner. Talk to me. Tell me what's wrong."

Starsky shook his head, then finally reached up, like a drowning man, and clutched Hutch's shirt. "I was so scared. When I was in the ICU, watchin' over you. I kept worrying that the last thought in your head before the bullet hit was that leaving me was the best thing you could do for me. You could've died thinkin' that! You could've just given up." He shuddered hard, and Hutch thought he saw a tear fall to the blanket. Starsky was fighting his body's need to grieve with everything he had.

"I didn't die, Starsk," Hutch said with a wry smile. "You wouldn't let me. You stayed by my side, talking to me, pestering me to life, making sure I didn't wallow in my own morbid thoughts."

It was the wrong thing to say. Starsky shoved himself away, his grief transmuting into anger. Anger at himself. "Don't you remember?" he shouted. "I put that thought in your head. Me. Talking about marrying Rosey the night after you nailed me to the chair. The night after you showed me who I really wanted. I was still so fuckin' stupid I couldn't get it. I talked about marriage and kids and 'normal' lives while my ass still ached from you claiming me. I wanted you and I was too much of a coward to face it.

"But you weren't. You were brave enough to let me go. That's how much you loved me. And I . . . I was so worried about what I was gonna lose, that I stopped paying attention to everything but my own little drama. You got shot because all I could think about was what I would have to give up. You were nearly killed, you suffered all that pain in your recovery, all because I couldn't get my head straight about loving you. Because I let my emotions override my duty, my responsibility. Even Dobey called me on it, and he was right to do it. I'll carry that forever, the memory of just how badly I failed you."

Starsky sucked in a ragged breath like a sob. "I gotta lot of nerve asking you to marry me. I don't deserve your love, Hutch. I didn't deserve it before, and I sure don't deserve it now."

Then, as if drained by his confession, Starsky turned his face away and cried silently.

Hutch gathered Starsky in his arms and held him while he wept. "Go on," he urged gently. "Let it all out. It's been eating you up inside all this time. Let it go."

Starsky went limp in his arms after a few minutes and they just sat there on the beach for long minutes with nothing but the call of the gulls overhead to disturb them.

When Hutch thought Starsky might finally be ready to hear what he had to say, he said quietly, "My getting shot was just as much my fault as it was yours. I was the one who took the first watch, and when we started discussing our situation, I walked away from the monitor. You took my place, but it was my watch. Hell, Starsky, we were in just as much danger the night before when I . . . when I lost control. We were both damned lucky Barstow didn't hit us then. We'd have both been killed, and Barstow would've gotten away. And Dobey would've had some time explaining that scene to Epstein." He kissed the side of Starsky's face and felt Starsky's arms weakly go around him.

"The brain goes through a lot of changes during a trauma," Hutch said. "You of all people should know that. The dreams we've both had for months after your shooting were rough enough. The shrinks told us to expect those kinds of problems."

Starsky pulled away slightly. "Talk all you want, Hutch. It doesn't change the fact that if I'd been paying attention, I could've saved you from being shot. Or that I was talking about marrying someone else, while doing everything I could to keep you by my side. And Rosey . . . I broke that woman's heart, all because I was trying to have it all. I don't deserve your love or anyone else's. The fact that you can't reconnect with me about that, that you can't find that feeling inside you . . . . That's God's punishment for me. I brought it on myself. And I'm getting off easy at that. I've got no rights to you, Hutch. But I swear to God, it doesn't matter if you never feel that way again. I'll love you for the rest of my life, and do everything I can to make you happy. It's what you deserve."

"Oh, you crazy bastard," Hutch swore, and pulled Starsky to him, holding him tight. "When you got shot I was convinced that if I'd only reacted faster, I could've saved you. It tortured my every waking thought, tortured my dreams. And you suffered for months. You never blamed me. Not once. The thought never crossed your mind. You've got to believe me, Starsk. It never occurred to me to hold you responsible for what happened. We both screwed up—like the good partners we are. We take the glory together. This time, we took the fall, too."

He moved back and took Starsky's face between his hands, forcing Starsky to look at him. His thick eyelashes were clotted with tears, and his expression was still anguished. Hutch felt as if his heart would break in two. The pain there was like a knife in his soul. "Forgive yourself, Starsky. Then forgive me, too. We've got to get past this, if we hope to ever have any kind of life together."

"I swear, Hutch, I love you with all my heart," Starsky said brokenly.

Hutch felt a bubble of emotion crest inside him and burst. He felt himself flooded with the feelings he'd held in secret for this man for so long. He felt all of this as though it were the first time dawning on him, ever. But he didn't dare profess his love now. Starsky would assume he was doing it out of pity for his grief.

Starsky said he was willing to wait. Hutch decided it would be best to let him wait a little longer. But he knew now that he wouldn't have to wait forever.

He hugged Starsky tight again. "We're gonna be okay, love," he whispered. "I promise you, we're gonna be okay."