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The sun sank behind the mountain, spreading hues of pink, orange, and red across the sky and radiating throughout the woods, casting dancing shadows on leaves and brushes. The silence was broken by the hum of creatures of the night singing to one another. Air filled lungs, chests rose and fell, and hearts beat in tandem as the land became theirs once more. The campsite the two men had chosen was a good one. A stream flowed off to the side, whooshing with a rush of sound. Droplets of water glittered like fine jewels in the waning sunlight on velvet beds of moss-covered rocks. The moss itself looked like emeralds scattered along the winding stream and up the trunks of trees. Thick patches of sweet grass offered food for the horses and a soft place in which to lay the bedrolls, enticing the exhausted riders.
They worked together as they always did. The dark haired man set up camp with learned efficiency while the blond took care of the horses and gathered an armload of wood. Soon, coffee heated above a crackling fire and the animals, tethered close to the stream, grazed their hearts content.
David Starsky sat down on his bedroll, resting his back against the saddle behind it, and stretched out his legs, crossing them at the ankles. He gazed into the mesmerizing yellow-orange flames for a few minutes, the weariness from the long ride seeping through his bones, then heaved a sigh and looked at his partner. A soft smile pulled at his lips. Hutch looked tired but more relaxed than he had in months. The Gunther-induced worry lines that normally creased his handsome face were gone and the expression of anxiousness in his eyes had been replaced by one of peace. He was calm and at one with himself and his surroundings. This demeanor alone made Starsky glad that he had agreed to give a vacation at Pine Lake another go, and although he had grumbled to high Heaven about the woes of horseback riding and creepy-crawlies that had tendencies to slime into places that should never--ever--be slimed, he was even gladder that they had borrowed the animals from Dobey's friend and had come out here tonight.
Anything that makes Hutch as happy as he is right now is more than worth it.
Ken Hutchinson hunkered down next to the fire and fed a few large sticks he had gathered into the flames. Now that the sun had disappeared, night was falling rapidly and the air was cooling. He wanted to get the fire extra hot as quickly as he could. The rich aroma of coffee tantalized him, and he snickered softly as it dawned on him that he and Starsky had been riding for nearly five hours and neither of them had had any caffeine or sugar.
Five hours of no coffee, soda, or candy bars. No wonder Starsky's out of it: His system is in shock and denial.
Just be glad you're alive to tell the tale. You know how he gets.
A small rock pinged off his shoulder, startling him. He spun around, uttering a low curse. Eyes flashing, he fixed his best withering glare upon Starsky--the one that had its usual effect, which was none at all--then shook his head and heaved a long suffering sigh as the man smiled impishly and threw another rock at him.
"That's it," he said, dropping the last few sticks. Grinning back, he launched himself onto the bedroll, grappling for Starsky and coming up with only an arm full of blankets as the man rolled, stood, and darted away in one fluid movement just in the nick of time. He looked up to see Starsky on the other side of the fire, laughing.
"You're gettin' slow in your old age, buddy."
"And you're really asking for it, pal."
Starsky folded his arms across his chest and frowned thoughtfully, tilting his head to one side and sliding his tongue over his lower lip. All the while, he stared at Hutch.
Finally, he said, "Funny, you've never made me ask for it before. If I recall correctly, you've always been--"
Pursing his lips into a tight line, Starsky sighed then leaned over, placing his hands on his knees, his eyes glittering in the firelight. "Poor baby," he said, shaking his head. "Must be hell gettin' old."
Hutch narrowed his eyes and arched a brow, one corner of his mouth curling upward in a slight smile. "If I recall correctly, you're the oldest. After all, it won't be long until you hit the big--"
"Forty is not old, Hutch," Starsky snapped through gritted teeth. "Besides," he said, tapping a forefinger against his temple, "it's all in your mind, buddy. I think young, so I am young. You, on the other hand . . . well, let's just say that you're-- Hutch!" he yelled, eyes widening as his partner roared and launched off the bedroll. Starsky whirled and sprinted for the safety of the trees. Damn! For a man who knew all about the way Hutch could move when he was so inspired, he had forgotten just how fast he really was. He cursed silently, knowing that he should have known better than to needle Hutch, especially since the man knew every vulnerable and ticklish spot on his body. Worse, Starsky knew that that knowledge would definitely be used against him as a means to gain the upper hand. He gasped sharply as a powerhouse dove against his legs and tackled him to the ground mere seconds before he would have reached the trees. He squirmed and wriggled madly as unyielding hands flipped him onto his back then ran up and down his ribs, reducing him to helpless laughter. Then his arms were caught in a firm grip and pinned above his head, fingers interlacing with his.
"You were saying?" Hutch asked gleefully.
Starsky decided that he could spend the rest of the night just gazing into Hutch's face, watching the ever changing play of emotions and expressions across it, memorizing every flicker of light and feeling in those fathomless blue eyes. But while it would give him no greater pleasure than to spend his night in that fashion, it would certainly ruin all the fun.
"I was saying . . ." he replied, wriggling again, ". . . I was saying, God, you're beautiful."
Hutch found he had to force himself to concentrate on Starsky's words rather than his dark blue eyes, and then had to stop himself from staring at the man's mouth. It did not help matters, though, when Starsky licked his lips in that slow, seductive way that he knew drove Hutch simply mad.
"Huh?" He blinked and tore his gaze away then shook his head to clear it, his grip relaxing. Too late, he realized his mistake as the tables turned and he found himself flat on his back, arms pinned above his head, and Starsky straddling him.
"I was saying," Starsky whispered, his voice husky, as he swooped down and captured Hutch in a tender kiss, then trailed his lips along that impossibly strong jaw line and traced his tongue around the shell of one ear, "got'cha!"
Hutch swallowed hard, his throat and jeans tightening at the same time. He had always prided himself as having unyielding resolve, of possessing a strong will and iron control. And then David Starsky had come along and shown him that he could snap him as easily as a twig. He knew he should resent that kind of power, but he could not. Not when Starsky snapped him only in play and then put him back together into a whole that was more complete and satisfied than ever before. And especially not when Starsky fiercely protected him against any other that dared to try.
"Always," he whispered back.
Starsky gave a triumphant smile, laughter spilling over his eyes, as he took in the evidence of Hutch's arousal. Then he stood and held out his hand. "Come on, old man. I'm sorry. I'll behave."
"Smart ass," Hutch grumbled as he reached out and grasped the offered hand then hoisted himself up. "You're just lucky I like the way you kiss."
"Oh, you do, do you?"
Gazing into eyes that twinkled with unrepentant mischief, Hutch narrowed his own eyes, licked his lips, and shook his head. Behaving was not a word in the Starsky vocabulary, and he knew that there was nothing sorry in the man's ways at all.
"Yeah, I do."
They moved back to the bedrolls and lay down side by side. Night had completely engulfed them. They could hear water rushing over rocks. The wind played through the trees, the underbrush, and stirred leaves on the ground. The stars glittered overhead like millions of brilliant jewels radiating prisms of color. An owl slipped silently across the moon's path, its wingspan incredibly long, feathers rustling faintly. The dust had settled, their breathing had calmed, and the horses had returned to their grazing after watching their riders' odd behavior.
"Hutch? What do you see in me?"
Hutch sat up, scowling darkly. Starsky's voice had lost its playfulness, and in its underlying tone, he could hear a vulnerability that had reared its head many times in the year since Gunther.
"I was lucky enough to fall in love with my best friend, and even luckier when he fell in love with me."
"That's just what I mean," Starsky said softly. "How did we become friends? Why did you choose me?" He folded one arm beneath his head and sighed. "Hutch, you come from a strong, stable background. You had opportunities that I never even thought to dream of. You have money. I've never had any of that."
Hutch was stunned. He had no idea what to say. Sure, he and Starsky had totally different backgrounds. But what did that matter? They were more akin to each other than they were to members of their own families.
"I don't understand where this is coming from, Starsk," he said, shaking his head. "Having money doesn't mean a damn thing. And who cares about backgrounds? It doesn't matter what kind of opportunities a person had while growing up. It's the choices that that person makes in the here and now that matters. I thought you knew that."
Starsky closed his eyes and chuckled hollowly. "A part of me does know that," he said. After a moment, he opened his eyes and gazed into the shadows. "A cop's paycheck is lousy at best; a cop's disability check is even worse." He sighed. "You think I don't know how all my prescriptions got filled and how all my bills were paid, and I still had money left over?" He sighed again and turned his head away. Hutch had to strain to hear him. "You could have anyone. If you'd been the one shot, I wouldn't have been able to take care of you financially like you did me. Why would you want me?"
Hutch leaned over and gently turned Starsky's head toward him. His gaze lovingly traced over those strong features, lingering on the impossibly blue eyes, straight nose, and jaw. His hand slipped into the wealth of dark hair and caressed gently. Slowly, he leaned down and touched his lips to Starsky's forehead, then trailed down his face to nuzzle and nip his throat, then returned to his lips. Their mouths touched in a feather-light caress, Hutch's teeth scraping over the plump lower lip, teasing, playing, enticing.
Darts of fire raced through Starsky's blood. His stomach clenched as it always did when this beautiful man loved him so well. Hutch's teeth tugged; his tongue followed soothingly. He gasped at the tender torture, and Hutch immediately took advantage, locking their mouths together, his tongue diving inside to explore every inch. The kiss was full of love, promise, and devotion. And Starsky returned it without hesitance or question.
"That's why," Hutch whispered when they parted.
"No. You listen. You're right. I had advantages as I was growing up. But there's one thing I didn't have. And I don't know how I lived without it. Do you want to know what it is?"
"You. I didn't have you. I had schooling, I had my choice of friends and women, I had money, but I didn't have you." He sighed. "So, I had nothing."
Starsky sat up. "My father was an honest shopkeeper in a neighborhood owned by the syndicate. Pop's worst crime was being childhood friends with a mob boss and speaking his own mind. He refused protection and died because of his views. I was sent away from home because I was my father's son. I lost everything, and I spent a lot of years just existing. I forgot how to live." He reached out and stroked Hutch's face. "Then I met you, and I had everything."
"So, I provide all that you need?"
"Of course you do," Starsky replied.
Hutch leaned over and captured Starsky's lips once more. "Then will you please believe that you do the same for me?" he whispered against them. "A background is just a stepping stone and money is nothing. It's what we are to each other that matters."
Starsky smiled. It might seem simple to Hutch, but to him it was the most profound thing he had ever known. Everything he had lost and had been certain he would never have again was right here, wrapped in a golden package that meant more to him than his own soul.
Hutch was his soul.
"Guess we better get some sleep. We'll need to get an early start back to the cabin."
Hutch nodded. They banked the fire to last through the night, then lay back and joined first their bedrolls and then their bodies into a tangle of love and togetherness.
Later, Starsky felt Hutch shiver and snuggle closer, and gave a soft laugh. "I told you to put your clothes back on." With his free hand, he tucked the blankets about them, then slid his hand beneath the cover and stroked Hutch's back, smiling as he shifted closer still and drifted off to sleep.
Starsky held him, lovingly stroked him, watched him, and decided this was the absolute perfect way he could think of to spend his night.