Timing is Everything


Sarah Cameron

    The huge crimson curtain seemed to Starsky to radiate warm, rich promise out to the expectant crowd. It had been a long while since he had been in a place so full of the hum of happy, pleasure-bent people. He closed his eyes to listen to their murmur, picking out the voices of excited young girls waiting to worship their ballerina idol; of silver-haired, moneyed men exercising their corporate privilege at the expense of a couple of hours of not unpleasant tedium; of plainer, but perhaps more knowledgeable folks in the rows behind.

   With the sounds came also wafts of exotic perfume, as the well-dressed rustled by. The aroma was occasionally tinged, agreeably enough, by a trace of alcohol or mint as the people immediately around him arrived from their lengthy, satisfying dinners. And then, of course, there was the clean, warm, slightly starched scent of the tall blond man who sat on his left in unaccustomed formal splendour. Not by any means for the first time that evening, Starsky sneaked a peek and grinned to himself. Hutch wore black tie as if he were born to it. Starsky himself felt a little choked by the costume, but he accepted the constriction cheerfully as a slightly exciting reminder to behave himself while they were in public. Still, he hoped he might manage to disengage at least one of the stiff waistcoat buttons under cover of darkness.

   The lights dimmed half-way in admonition to stragglers. Responding to a half-voiced whine of disappointment behind him, Hutch obligingly slouched a few inches further down; one long leg found the convenient aisle, while the other jammed even more tightly up against Starsky's. These seats were never built to accommodate one six-footer, let alone two adjacent ones.

   "Comfortable?" muttered Starsky sarcastically, but of course he didn't mind.

   "Very, thanks," replied Hutch, who knew.

   The auditorium sank into lively darkness. Hutch was among the aficionados who led the applause when the spotlight picked out the entrance of the orchestra conductor. Starsky mimicked him like an obedient child, enjoying the strange ritual.

   The music started, and Starsky was lost to the world immediately, to Hutch's mild amusement. It was one of his partner's better-kept secrets, that he was so susceptible to the Russian Romantics. Starsky kept his Rachmaninov hidden shamefacedly behind the country and the rock 'n' roll at home. But, when Hutch had been offered the choice of prime seats at any performance of the season, he had unhesitatingly chosen opening night of _Onegin_, with its lush but unhackneyed Tchaikovsky score, as the one that Starsky would most enjoy.

   Stop staring at him, Hutch, he warned himself, dragging his gaze reluctantly back from the shadowed profile. God, it was all so new.

   The crimson curtains swung back at last, drawing them into the world of the gods, perfect and beautiful, who needed no words but only Tchaikovsky's tumultuous music and their own expressive limbs to tell the sad, foolish, larger-than-life tale of Tatiana and her adolescent passion for the cynical Onegin. Sometime before the end of the first act, as Tatiana danced her dream of passion with her illusory lover, Starsky discovered that he had reached out in the blackness and was gripping Hutch's hand, warm and hard. No illusion there. Yet his emotion was strangely in tune with what was happening in the story; the music spoke to Tatiana and to Starsky of amazement, of light-headed joy, of sheer disbelief willingly thrown aside. He felt as weightless and heedless and abandoned as the slight figure tossed and lifted by the black-suited phantom on stage. As the music rose to a triumphant clamour, and the audience raptly watched Tatiana being thrust high into the air, Hutch slowly, audaciously brought Starsky's hand to his lips, and kissed it. Starsky held his breath, his gaze fixed forward on the dancers, until their joined hands dropped again to the darkness between them. Then he squeezed Hutch's fingers convulsively, and did not let go until the sudden, unwelcome light of the intermission prompted them to draw apart and applaud.

   Hutch looked up as a lithe man of middle height approached, all smiles and abundant dark hair. Blair Parkinson was the director of the ballet company, and he had provided their tickets tonight in gratitude for a nasty murder well and quickly solved.

   "Detective Hutchinson. And Detective Starsky." Both men rose to shake his hand. Parkinson's grin broadened in frank appreciation of the attractive spectacle they presented. He himself was idiosyncratically casual but somehow not underdressed in pure black slacks and turtleneck. "Won't you join us in the Patrons' Lounge for a drink?"

   "Delighted," responded Hutch sincerely. He had grown to like and respect Parkinson during the case. "It's a wonderful production, Blair."

   "Thanks, Hutch." The director expertly threaded a path for them through the loiterers. "Enjoying it, Starsky?" There was just the hint of a tease in his tone.

   Starsky rose to the occasion with an unexpected display of good-humoured irony. "It's a great story," he assured Blair with a straight face. "But I think you should hire some taller girls."

   Blair laughed aloud; he wasn't going to fall into the trap of underestimating Starsky. "Yeah, but seriously. I know it's not your thing ... "

   "I'm comin' around fast," Starsky told him. "Kim's just amazing. I had no idea she was such a good actress."

   Blair's smile softened. "She's something else, isn't she? We're going to miss her terribly when she retires next year." He pushed open the door to the green room, and was immediately ambushed by Kim herself, gloriously over-decorated in her stage makeup and costume. Up close, her forty years were far more apparent than on stage, but she was as gleeful as any adolescent.

   "Oh good," she laughed, "you found them!" She playfully circled Blair's waist with both arms, and he leaned forward to plant a grave kiss on the tip of her nose.

   "I'll do the toasts right away, so you can hurry back and change for the second act," he told her. "Where's my better half?"

   "Aubrey? I saw him over by the fireplace talking to the Fortescue-Smythes." Blair departed in the general direction of the fireplace, adeptly avoiding would-be conversationalists. Kim turned back to the two detectives, eyes sparkling with excitement. "I won't kiss you two -- don't want to get all this powder and pancake on you." She took one arm of each instead.

   "Heck, I wouldn't care." Starsky wore a flirtatious grin. "Would you like to kiss us?" He knew perfectly well that Kim was very, very married to a city banker.

   "Everybody in this whole room would like to kiss both of you tonight," she told him, squeezing his arm. "You saved the season; you saved Blair; you saved the company." The shadow of the disaster that might have been passed across her expressive face.

   "Jis' doin' our job, ma'am," declared Hutch. He followed Kim's glance across the room to Blair and his lover, greeting with an unself-conscious, almost automatic brush of the lips. The gesture passed completely without reaction or comment in this gathering of the city's artistic and moneyed elite. Hutch felt an unexpected little flare of envy. He could not for the life of him imagine ever being able to do the same to Starsky, so casually, so publicly. But then again, until a few days ago, he had never believed he would let himself formulate a conscious desire to do so. New. It was all so new, so terrifying, so damned exciting. Without realizing it, he moistened his own lips and his gaze raked over Starsky's.

   Starsky didn't notice, absorbed for the moment in Kim. "The case against Blair would never have stuck anyway," he was assuring her. "It was all circumstantial evidence. Any cop worth his salt would have dug that little bit deeper."

   "You're sure the case against Greta's ex-husband is strong enough?" she asked, seeking reassurance even though she knew the answer. Her eyes as she looked up at them were suddenly bright. "Oh God, I still find it hard to believe she's actually gone..."

   Hutch disentangled his arm and patted her gently on the shoulder. "We can't bring her back, Kim. But the worst is over. Believe *that*. And Blair is safe, and the company's strong, and the new production's wonderful, and *you* are dancing like an angel for us tonight..."

   She reached up and planted a grateful kiss on his cheek, leaving a bright red print. "Hey!" protested Starsky jokingly, and promptly received equal treatment.

   Kim gave a damp giggle. "Marked men. You can't escape us now. Corrupted forever by a vixen of the stage." She seized a pair of champagne flutes from a nearby tray, pressed them into their hands, and turned to join Blair, who was beckoning her from across the room.

   "Sweetheart, you can say that again," murmured Starsky after her, with a smile.

   "What?" Hutch had caught the smile but not the words.

   "Oh nothing." Starsky's hand passed lightly across his partner's back in a surreptitious caress. Maybe someday he'd confess to Hutch just how much they both owed to Kim; how she had confronted Starsky with the feelings for Hutch he supposed he had disguised; how in long talk after long talk her insistent, romantic optimism had gradually worn away his stubborn, cynical, self-denial. Maybe someday I'll tell you that if it weren't for Kim I might have gone on loving you, wanting you, until the day I died, and never said a word. But who would have believed you could respond with more than pity or disgust? Who could have known that in the very act of turning to tell me I was an idiot, you would stumble across an answering feeling in yourself? And I stood there two nights ago and saw it flowering in your heart, watched the realization dawning in your eyes. Oh Hutch...

   "Your attention, please, ladies and gentlemen." Blair's smooth tones filled the room. "We have a few things, but more importantly a few special people, to celebrate tonight..."

   They raised their glasses to _Onegin_, to the sponsors of the new production, to Kim and her young partner Russ. Blair offered a brief, sombre tribute to the memory of the dead ballerina, victim of a twisted emotion that only called itself love. And then, to the embarrassment of both men, Blair offered an effusive, grateful toast to Starsky and Hutch for their work on the case. Loud cries of "hear, hear!" echoed through the room.

   Hutch for one was immensely relieved when the glasses were refilled and he and Starsky were no longer the centre of attention. "Oh no," said Starsky suddenly, with a noise somewhere between a chuckle and a groan. He pointed to the bright red lipstick still adorning his face, mercifully forgotten until that moment. He grabbed Hutch's sleeve and dragged him towards a door, any door. Hutch managed to catch Blair's eye and wave a quick farewell before they found themselves alone in a quiet hallway.

   "Let me get yours first." Starsky pulled out a crisp white handkerchief and soaked a corner of it in the champagne he was still carrying, then rubbed vigorously at Hutch's cheek.

   "Good solvent?" Hutch enquired with real curiosity. Starsky triumphantly displayed the red-streaked handkerchief as proof. Hutch seized it with a grin, dampened the opposite corner and made quick work of Starsky's lipstick-print. He wasn't finished with Starsky, though. One hand deftly disposed of the crumpled handkerchief into a pocket, while the other crept around his companion's nape, gently, insistently pulling them closer together.

   "You're crazy," breathed Starsky.

   "Yes," Hutch hissed back, somehow making it a demand instead of an admission. The champagne glass dropped unnoticed to the thick carpet from Starsky's nerveless hand. The world went white and warm in Hutch's kiss.

   Throwing his head back for air several aeons later, Starsky slitted open his eyes to meet the amused green gaze of Russ, Kim's partner. With a friendly wink, the dancer continued on his cat-footed way to the dressing-room. Hutch, involved in more important matters, didn't notice a thing. Doubtless he would have been mortified if he could have seen Russ in the dressing-room, ruefully proffering another dancer the fiver he had just lost on their long-standing bet.

   Very reluctantly, Starsky pushed Hutch away a few inches. "C'mon, Blintz," he murmured. "I think our tickets are good for more than just the first act..."

   Hutch ran a lingering finger across Starsky's upper lip. "You sure? We could just take off right now..."

   "No way," said Starsky decisively, surprising himself. "I want to see the rest of this thing." And I want to make this evening last as long as possible... He laughed. "Don't pout; it wrinkles up your face, beautiful."

   Hutch suddenly found the carpet worthy of study. To Starsky's interrogatory murmur, he muttered, "I just can't get used to hearing you call me that..."

   "Why not, blondie?" Starsky poked him in the ribs. "It's true." He poked him again. Hutch slapped his hand away, not hard, and moved back a step, chuckling. Starsky followed him, poke, poke, poke down the hall until he was sure Hutch had laughed himself out of his embarrassment.

   "Behave," Hutch growled under his breath at his errant partner as they emerged into the auditorium. But his eyes were twinkling.

   "Look who's talking," responded Starsky with the expected indignation.

   They took their seats again and sat in companionable silence watching the crowd. When that palled, Starsky fished out his programme from beneath the seat and found the plot summary for the rest of the ballet. He shook his head as he finished it. "I'll never remember all these twists," he complained. "Dances, parties, duels..."

   "Oh, I don't think this one's too hard to follow." Try as he might (and he *was* trying tonight), Hutch couldn't entirely keep the patronizing tone out of his voice. Old habits died hard, and in a world recently turned upside-down, the ballet was one place he was still sure he knew more than Starsky.

   As usual, Starsky tolerated him cheerfully, willingly. Shrugging, he said, "If I lose my place I guess I can just listen to the music."

   "And watch the moves," put in Hutch, smiling. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee..."

   They exchanged glances at the shared memory. Was it really less than two years since they had last been at the ballet together, since Starsky had compared Russian ballerina Anna Akhanatova to Muhammed Ali? The allusion to Anna made Starsky abruptly pensive. That's what he likes. Little, curvy girls with long yellow hair. A sweet-smelling, graceful wisp of a thing he can sweep up in those strong arms of his and protect. Not some muscle-bound, curly-haired dope... He looked dubiously again at Hutch, only to meet a steady gaze so full of adoration -- no, *desire* -- that his jaw dropped.

   Hutch reached a single finger under Starsky's chin, only for a second. "I know what you're thinking, buddy," he said softly. "And I've been waiting for two endless days to prove you wrong ... come on, Starsk, let's go home. Please?"

   Starsky hid his grin behind a hand, badly tempted to give in. But just at that moment the lights finally dimmed for the resumption of the ballet. Hutch settled down with a little groan of acquiescence. This time it was Starsky who helped lead the applause for the conductor.

   Hutch was mercifully distracted by the rapidly unfolding plot of the ballet's second act. Tatiana's childish love letter was ripped ruthlessly to shreds and placed back in her hands by Onegin, who then flirted endlessly, maliciously, with Tatiana's sister, Olga. Eventually Olga's hot-tempered young lover, Lensky, was driven into challenging Onegin to a duel.

   Dreary, disconsolate music introduced the duel scene. Alone against a bleak grey backdrop, Lensky danced his fear, his desire to escape the corner in which he was trapped, and his hopeless determination to carry through the farce that honour demanded. Pressed up against his partner, Hutch sensed muscles tensing and shifting, but when he stole a quick glance sideways, Starsky seemed anything but impatient; he was completely absorbed in the dancing. Hutch suddenly realized that Starsky, no mean dancer himself, was unconsciously empathizing with the dancer on a muscular, kinetic level. And by the look on his face, he was empathizing on more levels than that. *Knew* you'd love this if you gave it half a chance, turkey, thought Hutch affectionately.

   He jumped as two shots rang out and Lensky met his fate. Draped in a huge black cape, Onegin came skulking back on stage to read his sentence of perpetual loneliness and guilt in the eyes of the young woman who now saw him for what he was. And as Tatiana visibly grew taller, more erect, in her righteous indignation, he began to double over in self-loathing and hobbled away from her more like an animal, an accursed thing, than a man. Hutch swallowed hard. He had no particular reason to feel that way at the moment, but he knew all too well what it was to look in a woman's scornful eyes and see your guilt-ridden self reflected there: despised, worthless, less than human. He joined enthusiastically in the applause for the powerful performance, scarcely recognizing Russ (he of the green eyes and ingenuous grin) in that black, broken figure.

   "Is that all?" Hutch blurted as the house lights took him by surprise.

   "No, of course not," returned Starsky with the smug superiority of one who had actually read the programme. "There's still another act to go."

   "Another act." Hutch's face was almost comic in its anguish. "Starssssk..."

   "No," replied Starsky in a firm tone, enjoying himself immensely. "Let's go out to the lobby." He started up the aisle, Hutch close behind him.

   "Sadist," came the whisper in Starsky's ear as they were jammed together for a moment in the crowd. "Torturer." Starsky's grin only broadened, but he made some amends by fetching them each another glass of the omnipresent champagne and leading Hutch over to the table where fresh strawberries were laid out for dipping into gently bubbling chocolate.

   "Shoulda had these at dinner," he murmured, watching covertly as Hutch neatly manoeuvred a juicy morsel of strawberry from plate to chocolate to mouth. Hutch politely offered him the plate, knowing exactly what Starsky was thinking.

   "No thanks." Starsky declined to amuse the general public with a display of partner-feeding. He wandered a few feet away to inspect a bronze statuette of a ballerina bearing a marked resemblance to Kim. It was selling, according to a small white tag at its base, for about three times the current contents of Starsky's savings account. Attracted by the surface textures, he ran his fingertips along the ballerina's extended leg. That earned him a reproving glare from the presiding Women's Volunteer Committee member.

   Hutch had stuck with the strawberries, lapsing into pleasant and very recent memories of a private room in a restaurant (one that required a credit card number with your reservation). By the broad smile on his face, though, it wasn't the damage to his bank account that he was contemplating. The attractive blonde woman's touch on his arm took him completely by surprise.

   "Ken? Ken Hutchinson?"

   Hutch's police-trained memory for names and faces saved him. "Louise... yes, it's Louise Fletcher. How nice to see you again."

   It had been a lifetime since they met -- three months, to be exact, at a party of a friend of a friend. Louise was single, Hutch now recalled, and very definitely in the market. They had flirted. Had she not had a very early flight back to Boston the next morning, it might easily have been more.

   "What brings you out from Boston?" he asked, with more courtesy than interest.

   "Oh, I've moved here; my employers are expanding their west coast operations. I'm running the Sales Department for this area."

   Hutch congratulated her, amused by the slight surge of panic he'd had to repress at the news. Get used to it, Hutchinson. This won't be the last time it happens.

   "Are you enjoying the ballet as much as I am?" she went on. Hutch nodded his agreement, prepared to expand on the merits of the production, but Louise added, with a quick glance around, "And won't you introduce me to the lucky lady you're squiring this evening?"

   "Ah," replied Hutch gravely. "Well, our tickets came by way of police business. So Detective Sergeant Starsky is my date for tonight."

   Detective Sergeant Starsky, who had been following the exchange with not too obvious interest, stepped forward to be introduced. Louise favoured him with a complimentary once-over glance before turning back conspicuously to her principal object. Starsky obligingly took his cue and returned his attention to the bronzes. Only Hutch could have caught the minutely raised eyebrow that promised, "we'll talk about this later."

   Louise had adroitly manoeuvred herself behind a large standing ashtray, and now, bending slightly forward over it to talk to Hutch, displayed her charms to their best advantage. "I do hope," she proposed in confidential tones, "that we might find a less crowded place to talk about the ballet someday, Ken. Is lunch a possibility?"

   Hutch was surprised at how easy it was to say no. All he had to do was tell the truth. "I'm sorry, Louise," he replied, easing the sting with his most charming smile. "Maybe that would have been possible a few months ago. But since then I've fallen very much in love."

   Louise shrugged with the élan of a warrior accustomed to the vicissitudes of the battlefield. "Ah well, timing is everything, they say. It was wonderful to see you again, Ken." She squeezed a hand in both her own, then turned quickly away into the crowd. Any comment Starsky might have been planning to make was lost in the peal of the five-minute bell.

   Though he continued his game of pouts and martyred looks, Hutch was not unhappy to find himself back in the darkness with the third act overture playing. When Starsky reached out and gripped his hand, Hutch smiled at the obvious possessiveness of the gesture and gave himself over to the end of the story. The action started with yet another party scene (getting their money's worth out of the corps de ballet, Hutch commented mentally). There was something rather odd about the dance that followed, though - a duet for Tatiana and a rather elderly-looking partner. Eventually Hutch put his finger on it: in contrast to the intimate, rapturous duets with Onegin, this one was balanced, symmetrical, always in control, and very public. Surmising that the elderly gentleman was Tatiana's husband, Hutch pondered the picture of married life that was being portrayed through the dance. Poised and presented by her husband, Tatiana looked secure in every possible way; Kim had dropped the little-girl mannerisms of the first two acts and now carried herself with the dignity of a grown woman who knew her value and her place in the world. Yet there was something terribly staid and deliberate, both in the dance and in the gestures of affection that the dancers made to each other.

   Enter Onegin, visibly much older, and before long it was established that he had spent the intervening years in fruitless affairs, only now to discover that he had lost his heart to Tatiana. Hutch sat up a little straighter. He had a feeling he knew how this would end -- had he actually read Pushkin's _Eugene Onegin_ in one of those long-ago college literature courses? -- but he was very curious to see whether Tatiana would lose her grown-up poise when confronted with her adolescent fantasy come true. He squeezed the hand of his own fantasy. Will you hate me if I tell you how long ago I first thought about it, Starsk? If I confess that I've been saying "no" for both of us practically as long as I've known you?

   On the stage, Tatiana stood in her boudoir incredulously reading Onegin's love letter. A few seconds later, the author of the letter rushed in tempestuously, knelt, wept, and pleaded his case without shame. Now the inspired music seemed to speak directly from Tatiana's heart: her horror and reluctance, her pity for the tortured man, and the overwhelming rush of remembered passion revived. Time and time again, in the unmistakeable language of the dance, Onegin pulled her backwards - back in time, back into memory. Tatiana's balance slipped from her own control, and she flung herself willingly into Onegin's arms, to be lifted, tossed and dragged, always clinging, always dependent.

   A small part of Starsky's mind detached itself from the emotion of the performance to admire the athleticism and difficulty of what the dancers were doing. How she must trust him to let him fling her around like that. But just as much trust was needed in the other direction, he remembered Kim telling him. A ballerina's flailing elbow or knee could inflict painful damage if the partners were not completely, intuitively aware of each other at every moment. Starsky hadn't even had to complete the analogy to him and Hutch on the streets; Kim had done it for him. And then she had added, "You don't have to be in love with a partner for it to work, of course, but it sure doesn't hurt. I always think I'm a little bit in love with the man I'm dancing with, and I try to let it show so he can respond."

   "Nag, nag, nag," Starsky had replied cheerfully, acknowledging her ever-present agenda.

   "So tell him already, and shut me up."

   Watching her command the stage now, Starsky shook his head in admiration. That was one wonderful lady. And you find your real friends in the oddest places in this world.

   The music suddenly seemed familiar, and so did the steps of the dancers. Fantasy and reality had merged; Tatiana's dance with her imaginary lover in the first act was exactly echoed with a very real Onegin now. And as Hutch listened to the music building in excitement, he knew, knew with sickening certainty, that Tatiana was going to do the right thing, the responsible, the grown-up thing, just as he had done himself all these years. Sure enough, she wrenched herself free of Onegin's clasp just at the point of no return. Not out of cruelty or revenge, but from a desperate need to demonstrate her sincerity, she seized his letter, proffered it to him, and ripped it to pieces when he would not take it. One last frantic appeal from her lover who never was convulsed her with pity and yearning, but could not change her mind. Like an unyielding statue, like the angel who exiled the first man from Eden, she bade him leave and he left.

   Suddenly alone, the angel crumpled, staggered and wept, paying the terrible price of her sacrifice. In the last few seconds of the drama an astonishing succession of emotions passed across the ballerina's face as she stood facing the audience. The last things they saw as the curtain came down were her tightly-clenched fists unfolding palms-out against her skirt in bitter acceptance.

   Hutch was glad that the ovation was so loud and prolonged. He didn't think much of being caught sniffling in a public place. The noise intensified as the dancers presented themselves in the age-old ritual of ascending rank for their share of the applause. When Kim finally appeared, Starsky stuck two fingers in his mouth and emitted a piercing whistle, while Hutch bellowed "Brava! Brava!" beside him. They grinned at each other. It didn't really matter how you said it.

   Many curtain calls later, the lights finally came up, catching a couple of stray droplets on Starsky's eyelashes. Correctly interpreting Hutch's interested gaze, Starsky brushed them away and muttered gruffly, "Great music." His partner knew better than to make an issue of it.

   Starsky started looking around as they reached the lobby. "I think the nearest one's at the top of that little staircase on the left," Hutch told him helpfully. It had been a long evening.

   Seizing his opportunity the blond man stepped over to the Volunteer Committee booth for a word with the dragon lady there. What he said brought forth some quite remarkable smiles. A quick exchange of signed paper, and Hutch walked away tucking a receipt in his pocket, proud new owner of a bronze statuette.

   He knew he had pushed way beyond the limits of his hard-won concession from Starsky -- that Hutch might bear the "incidental expenses" of this evening. Even as he castigated himself for a romantic fool, though, he could not help feeling he had made the right decision. The piece was good; even a cursory inspection had convinced him of that. It was worth the asking price, it would appreciate in value, and the ballet company would make good use of their commission. Those were the reasons he'd give to Starsky, anyway, when the inevitable explosion occurred.

   The real reason, of course, was simple: the look on Starsky's face when he'd touched the bronze. Detective Sergeant Hutchinson was not always as unobservant as he pretended to be.

   He smiled a guileless smile at his partner when they met up again at the outside door. "Any sign of our limo?" That was another extravagance he'd heard about at length from an appalled Starsky, but taxis could be so uncomfortable, and there was no way either one of them was driving tonight. Come to think of it, though, neither had ended up drinking very much. There were better intoxications at work.

   The limo appeared punctually, and a uniformed driver emerged from his glassed-in seat long enough to open the doors to the soundproofed cocoon behind. Remembering how Starsky had bridled at this courtesy earlier in the evening, Hutch's heart thumped painfully at the sight of his easy acceptance now. Wish I really *did* have the means to let you get used to this, sweetheart. But the thought of Starsky as some sort of kept pet was so sheerly ludicrous that he had to grin at himself yet again.

   "Yoo-hoo, Hutchinson - you comin'?" Hutch eased into the luxury of soft cushions, plentiful leg room and - hey! - an enfolding arm from Starsky.

   "Thought we agreed..." he hissed, casting an anxious glance at the driver's impassive back on the other side of the transparent glass. The inside lights flicked off and the car moved smoothly out into the traffic.

   "No makin' out in the car like a pair o' teenagers," concurred Starsky placidly. "That's not what I'm after, babe. Just don't feel like yelling all the way over to the other side of this monster-mobile o' yours. Stay close, OK?"

   Does he practise that crooked smile in front of the mirror, I wonder? "Can't say no to you..."

   "Well, that's good news," responded Starsky lazily, settling back. It was a long, long way back to Venice Place.

   With Starsky so warm and close, Hutch figured he'd better distract himself with some conversation. "So what did you think of the ballet?"

   Starsky frowned. "Like I said, the music was incredible. But Hutch, what a dumb story!"

   Hutch was intrigued. "Dumb? How was it dumb?"

   "Well, for pete's sake, why did she have to throw him out at the end like that? They were meant to be together - you could tell."

   "From the way they danced together, you mean?"

   Starsky considered it. "Yeah, mostly from that. And I guess I just always expect a happy ending..."

   Hutch said carefully, "Well, some people might say it *does* have a happy ending - or at least as happy as it could be, under the circumstances."

   Starsky's look said plainly that *that* was the dumbest thing he'd heard Hutch say in quite some time, and he'd better explain himself double quick.

   "Well, the timing was all wrong, wasn't it? First she wasn't really ready -- a teenager with a crush -- and then by the time he got it figured out, she had a life. Too much to give up; too much to lose just for someone who finally got around to speaking up."

   Starsky stiffened slightly, and Hutch suddenly and fervently wished he'd bitten his tongue. He'd been sitting in that audience all evening drawing parallels between themselves and the characters on stage; how could he not have realized that Starsky had been doing the same?

   Sure enough, Starsky's next words were about them. "Night before last, Hutch, I asked you to take a couple of days to think -- really *think* -- before we do anything. Are you sure you're not giving up too much for someone who finally got around to speaking up?" He could not help the quiet bitterness as he quoted the words back.

   Hutch didn't hesitate. "I've never been so sure of anything in my life. Hell, Starsky, you've practically had to fend me off with a stick for the last two days - do I *look* like a man who has any doubts?"

   Starsky's brow creased. "Hasn't always been that way though, has it?" he ventured. "If I'd asked you a year ago..."

   Oh God, here it comes. Hutch wondered if there were any way to gloss over it, but no, he owed Starsky the truth, no matter how much it hurt.

   "If you'd asked me a year ago, buddy, I would have shoved you away and run for the hills," he confessed, not at all proud of himself.

   "So what made the difference?"

   "You, of course."

   "That makes no sense. I'm just the same as I've always been. All I've done is tell you what I feel ... something you say you can deal with now, but couldn't have dealt with a year ago."

   Too damn logical for your own good, Detective Starsky. Hutch sighed. "Does it really matter how or why I changed, Starsk?"

   Starsky delayed replying until he had found and taken possession of Hutch's left hand. "Well yeah, it does, Hutch," he said slowly. "To me it does. Y'see, I wasn't trying to blackmail you into anything the other night..." The other made an inarticulate noise of protest. "OK, blackmail's maybe too strong a word. But you and me - we've had a good thing goin' here for seven years. It's worked for us. I don't think" -- God, it was difficult to say still, though not as hard as the first time - "I don't think I could love you any more than I do now even if we had shared a bed every night of those seven years."

   Hutch's hand turned beneath his partner's and gripped hard. "You've got to know I feel the same way," he replied, so low it was almost a whisper.

   "Yes. Yes, I *do* know. You've showed me how much, over and over again. So that's why I've got to be sure, Hutch, that you're not... not just accommodatin' me." There. It was said.

   Hutch smiled a little in the darkness. "You think I'm doing a complete one-eighty just to oblige you, Starsk? But I'm not, you know. I'm not 100% straight."

   "No kiddin'?" Starsky didn't even try to hide his laughter. "Ouch! That hurt."

   "So shut up and quit laughing at me. This is difficult enough."

   "Okay," agreed Starsky, though not very contritely. "Tell me, then."

   "I'm bi. And that's not a two-day-old revelation. I've known for a long, long time."

   "Yeah, me too," responded Starsky quietly.

   Hutch turned to look directly at him. "You too... I thought as much from the way you said it the other night. We're very alike in some ways."

   "Peas in a pod," agreed Starsky. "But I wasn't talkin' about me."


   "I meant, `me too, I've known a long time about you.'"

   Hutch pulled away in consternation. "What do you mean, you've known... Starsky, I haven't done anything with a man - not one thing - in all the years we've known each other."

   "Calm down, Blintz. No, you haven't. And you're not walkin' around with a sign on your forehead either." That seems to be more *my* style.

   "So what do you mean...?"

   "I mean, partner, that for seven years I've spent easily three-quarters of my waking hours in your company. I read you better than I do my own brother. *Considerably* better." Starsky made a wry face and dismissed the thought of Nicky. "I've loved you all this time too, y'know. I'm tuned to you. I know without looking when you come in a room. I beat you at chess 'cause I know how you think. I look where you're lookin' and I see what you see. Didn't take me all that long to figure out that you appreciate a well-filled pair o' jeans, regardless of who fills 'em or how."

   Hutch shook his head. "Starsk, I'm not saying you're lying. But I swear to God I didn't realize..."

   Starsky smiled sadly. "Y'know, blondie, I believe ya. You just had that whole side of you shut down, dintcha?"

   "Well, I thought I did, anyway." What occurred to Hutch next filled him with horror. "Starsk, you don't mean to say that I've been ... I've been looking at *you* that way too?"

   "Well, I should *hope* so. Why else do you think I suffered through the days with my circulation cut off in half a dozen crucial places?" Starsky's tone was light, but the humour was brittle, the strain of what had once seemed to be endless, hopeless waiting still all too close to the surface.

   Hutch heard the pain; he wanted nothing more at this moment than to bury himself in Starsky's arms and beg his forgiveness for all the years of selfish coldness. Starsky was there before him. "Hey, Blintz. You gave me what you could, all right? And what you gave to me was more than a lot of people get in a lifetime."

   Hutch bit back tears, not knowing whether he was angrier with himself or Starsky. "Why didn't you *say* something?" he asked shakily.

   Starsky's voice wasn't much steadier. "You don't know how many times I nearly did, partner. But they didn't make me Detective Sergeant First Class for overlooking the obvious. You looked, but you never followed up. Never with anyone male, that is, and certainly never with me. And there weren't enough hours left in the day for you to be having another life I didn't know about. You just didn't want it to be -- that's all there was to it. Hey, you told me that a year ago you would have run away from me. Do you think I was *ever* going to risk that?"

   But you did, eventually, Hutch puzzled. What changed your mind? He opened his mouth to ask.

   But Starsky was going on, "That's why I have to know, Hutch. Why I have to understand. You knew you were bi, but you closed down on men. All right, fair enough, a lot of us have done that to some extent; it's a bitch of a world, and why bother with the hassle if you have the choice..."

   "No," Hutch interrupted despite himself. He couldn't bear Starsky to think that wall had gone up between them just out of unmotivated, cowardly prudence. "There was a particular reason." He stopped short, not wanting to get into it after all. Too late. Starsky was listening expectantly. "Ah, hell." Hutch's shoulders slumped. "Did you ever really believe that it was bad grades that got me kicked out of college, Starsk?"

   "I don't think I ever knew you were kicked out. I always just assumed you got bored and moved on." Starsky's eyes were sympathetic.

   Hutch gave a mirthless chuckle. "My own fault for choosing to go to a private college run by a religious denomination, I suppose, though I don't know how much choice I really had, with my old man footing the bill."

   "Wanna talk about it?"

   "Not really." Starsky waited. "Oh, all right, the Readers' Digest version, then. There was an older student, a senior. He was the instigator. Also the first and only guy I ever went all the way with." He shot a shy smile at Starsky. "So far. Anyway, I was hungry for it, so hungry I eventually scared him off. He squealed to the authorities, making himself out a victim. I was tossed; no second chances."

   Don't tell me his name, babe. Just don't, or I'll find him and wring his neck.

   "Christ, my father was furious. He didn't talk to me for about two years. Actually cut me out of the will for a while, I'm told. Well, at least that can't be held over my head anymore." Hutch's father had passed away a few years before, leaving Hutch a wealthier man than he had ever really desired to be. It suddenly occurred to him that it was his father's money that had bought the bronze, his first real love-gift for Starsky. A delighted grin spread over his face. But he wasn't going to tell Starsky about that quite yet. "Anyway," he shrugged, "you know where I ended up. Police academy. I had made up my mind I was never going to screw up like that again, and I guess I figured being in the police would be good and macho; not likely to be tempted there."

   Starsky snorted. "That's how much you knew, hey chump?"

   Hutch smiled back, more relieved than he had expected to have finally told his partner that story. But Starsky had not lost sight of what he still wanted to know. "I'm glad you told me about that. It explains a lot about where you've been all these years." Hutch looked stricken. "And would you *stop* gazin' at me as though I'm some sort of poor little victim you've been beatin' up on? I've made choices too, you know; and, well, maybe some of them were based just a little too much on ... convenience. Or fear." It was a difficult admission.

   Hutch marvelled, not for the first time, at his partner's generosity, always seeking to shoulder half the burden. "You were right to be afraid. And I'm sorry."

   "Don't be sorry. Just tell me what made the difference."

   Hutch considered. "I don't completely understand it myself, Starsk. But it was Blair."

   "Blair! Did he..."

   Hutch laughed aloud. "Idiot. Of course not. We're going to have to find an off-switch for that jealousy-motor of yours, partner."

   Starsky sighed impatiently. "All right - so what did Blair do, then?"

   "It's not so much what he did, as what he was. Is." The words came slowly as Hutch put it together for himself. "You know I practically lived in Blair's pocket for that first little while when he was our prime suspect. Anywhere he went -- rehearsals, board meetings, cocktail parties -- I was in some corner watching him like a hawk. And if I wasn't near him, I was talking to all the people around him about who he was, how he operated, what he was like."

   Starsky began to understand where this was going. He had experienced Blair's powerful personality himself, though not at such close quarters. "And everything you saw was good, huh?"

   "Oh, I'm not trying to make him out to be a saint, Starsk. He had his off-moments, just like anybody. But I don't think I've ever met anyone who so thoroughly commands the respect of the people who have dealings with him. And I'm not just talking about the dancers. Some of them worship him, and that's hardly surprising. He was a big name when he was a dancer - still has that "star" aura - and what's more, he treats 'em right. No arbitrary decisions. Everything fair and above-board. He commands their loyalty, which not everybody could do."

   "But it's less surprising in that particular world, is that what you're saying? That he could lose the dancers' respect by being a bastard, but not 'cause he's openly gay?"

   "Yeah." Trust Starsk to get right to the point. "But what surprised me was how little time Blair actually spends in the dancers' world. I really had my eyes opened; I had no idea what the director of an arts company actually does with his days. The man's running a multi-million dollar corporation. He spends half his time trying to make sure it's managed as smoothly as possible, and the other half maintaining the good will of all sorts of outside people, most of them from business or government. Those people are no better or worse, no more or less tolerant, than anybody else. They have no vested interest in being polite, far less respectful, to someone who, when all's said and done, is begging for their money. And yet what I saw, time after time, was some grey-suited conservative looking Blair straight in the eye, shaking his hand, saying 'It's a pleasure doing business with you.' And even more telling, that's what they said behind his back too."

   "So Blair knows how to play the game..."

   "But that's just the point, you see - that's what fascinated me. Sure, Blair plays the game when it comes to wheeling and dealing, making "win-win" situations, exploiting every last corner of the tax laws. You wouldn't expect him to do any less for his company. But when it comes to *who he is*, he doesn't compromise. Ever seen him in a suit?"

   Starsky shook his head, grinning at the very idea.

   "Me neither. And he doesn't drop his voice an octave, cut his hair and square his shoulders for board meetings, either. He is who he is, take it or leave it. And Starsky - they take it."

   "What, everybody?" Starsky was sceptical.

   "Very nearly," said Hutch, but his face darkened as he remembered the one really ugly incident he had witnessed.

   It looked like being a very boring morning. Hutch sat in a secluded corner of Blair's office, working his way conscientiously through a pile of account books, complicated but as far as he could see scrupulously correct. Blair was involved in an animated discussion with the company's resident designer about the refurbishment of the "Sleeping Beauty" sets.

   Blair sighed as his secretary buzzed. "OK, thanks Monica. Give me two minutes and show him in. Sorry, Pasquale." Pasquale shrugged good-naturedly - he was used to Blair's impossible schedule - and left.

   It was with another heavy sigh that Blair pulled a well-filled file folder from the "Corporate Sponsors" drawer. "Not a favourite visitor?" hazarded Hutch.

   "I wish people wouldn't sign contracts they're not prepared to fulfil," grumbled Blair. "This guy has had every possible consideration, and now he wants to withdraw his sponsorship. Not just cut it short; he wants his money back. Completely unreasonable."

   There was a knock at the door, and a large balding man made his entrance. At first the conversation was polite enough. Blair laid out a number of options for concluding the sponsorship in a businesslike manner. Indeed, Hutch opined to himself that most of the choices were exceedingly generous. All were briskly rejected. As it became clear that Blair would not budge on the return of donated monies, the man flushed and glowered. Within ten minutes they were at an impasse.

   "I'll say it one more time, Parkinson. I want my money back - all of it. I don't want my company's name associated with your damned ballet."

   "Your company is already associated with us, Mr. Rutherford." Blair's tone was eminently reasonable. "You have accepted and used free advertising space in our program. Several persons from your company have taken advantage of free tickets, invitations to dress rehearsals, discounted merchandise and the other benefits we offer at your level of sponsorship..."

   "I tell you, I want nothing to do with it!" interrupted Rutherford in a roar. "None of this was my doing - it was that prancing faggot in our PR department!" Blair did not so much as blink. "Well, he's gone for good, and I'm having to run about undoing all the damage he's done."

   For a second, Blair did not reply as he flipped through a few pages in his file. "Your signature is on this contract, Mr. Rutherford," he confirmed levelly. Reaching into a drawer, he pulled out a business card, handed it to the other man and rose gracefully to his feet. "I cannot see that this discussion is getting us anywhere, sir. If you'd care to have your lawyer contact ours," (he indicated the card), "perhaps they can work out a mutually acceptable solution."

   Rutherford lumbered out of his chair, ripping the card to pieces as he did so. Patiently, Blair retrieved another one from the drawer and, finding he was presenting it to Rutherford's back, reached over and tapped his elbow.

   The big man spun around suddenly, spewing forth a torrent of invective as loud as it was lengthy. Every possible gutter insult was heaped upon the ballet, the hapless PR man, and most especially Blair. Through the worst of the abuse, Blair stood as if made of marble, only the deadly whiteness of his face belying his apparent indifference, even though the epithets were delivered with all the force of physical blows.

   When at last it seemed that the man had exhausted his vituperation, Blair moved to the door, opened it, and without a word ushered him out. He closed the door again, gently. Then he sat down on the arm of a nearby chair, sinking his face into a hand.

   "How could you let him talk to you like that?" asked Hutch in a strangled voice.

   Blair looked up with a weary smile. "Oh, are you still here, my big blond shadow? I'm getting so used to having you around..."

   Hutch emerged from his corner, brow furrowed and fists unconsciously clenched. "He had no business saying those things to you. I would've..."

   "Yes?" Blair seemed mildly amused at this sudden transformation from investigator to champion. "What would you have done in my place, Hutch?"

   "Slammed him up against a wall!"

   "Ah, youth," murmured Blair, but it was a kindly mockery. "Well, not that it didn't cross my mind - but, under my present circumstances, perhaps it wouldn't have been the wisest thing to lay myself open to assault charges. Not with a policeman so very conveniently close by."

   Hutch had the grace to look ashamed.

   Blair went on (but more to himself than to Hutch now, it seemed), "I sometimes wonder whether it's a failing in me, not to be more angry. I see them on TV, the angry ones: in gay liberation marches, trying to change the world. And, you know, I think they will, eventually. They'll never get rid of bullies like Rutherford completely, of course, but someday they may be able to shame him into being a little ... quieter." He gave a wry smile. Hutch had seated himself nearby, and was listening intently.

   "Maybe I'm just old and selfish," Blair continued. "I've been so incredibly lucky. How many people find a career they're exactly suited for, something they love doing and do well, not once but twice in a lifetime? I have a lot to lose by fighting back, antagonizing people. I'm the first to admit that. But I honestly do believe there's a role for us pragmatists. There's a middle ground between taking to the streets and letting the bigots win. There really is something to be said for just using your own gifts as best you can, until they can't overlook you, can't dismiss you." Blair wondered briefly why he was prattling on this way, and found his answer in the younger man's face. Hutch wanted to hear this. For the case? Or was it more personal? Blair couldn't tell.

   "Anyway, Hutch, I've only ever managed to find one way to deal with the Rutherfords of this world. Let them have their little victories, spew their venom. You stand your ground. You don't let them tell you who you are, and you don't let them take away the important things."

   "What are the important things?" Hutch asked quietly.

   Blair scarcely paused. "Aubrey. My health, physical and mental. My dancers. This job. In that order." He stopped, considering the man he was talking to. "And lately, my freedom has acquired a certain significance, somehow. How about you, Hutch? What are your important things?"

   Before Hutch had time to open his mouth, the phone rang. A little relieved, he snagged the receiver and passed it over.

   "Yes, he's here," said Blair. "Do you want to speak to him? ... All right, I'll tell him. 'Bye." He turned to Hutch. "That was your partner. He'd like you to meet him at the station as soon as possible." Hutch got up, looking uncertainly at the messy pile of ledgers he had left in the corner. "Never mind about those. I'll deal with them."

   "OK," replied Hutch a little absently, as he moved to the door. He turned abruptly. "Blair..."


   Hutch stepped forward towards his prime suspect, seized his hand and shook it vigorously. "Thank you."

   "You're welcome," murmured Blair automatically. For what, exactly? But Hutch was already gone.

   "It's not that what Blair said that day was any great revelation," explained Hutch to the hand that was toying gently with his jacket buttons. "And it didn't even occur to me then that what he was saying could have anything to do with you and me. I was just impressed by his honesty, more and more sure that he wasn't our man. And that same day was when we got our first pieces of evidence against the real killer, remember? So everything was crazy after that, till the case was finished."

   "And then I handed ya a beer and laid it on ya," Starsky supplied.

   "You turned my world upside-down and confused the living daylights out of me, is what you did. How could I possibly have been so blind all these years?"

   "Hey, you were trying *not* to see. And I was doing my best to hide it from you. We're a good team, Blintz."

   "You know I very nearly told you to go to hell."

   "I know."

   They were companionably silent for a few minutes.

   "It wasn't just finding out what *you* wanted, all of a sudden like that," Hutch went on. "It was realizing that I wanted to give it back, *really* wanted to. Like it was the answer to some huge question I'd never been smart enough to ask. And everything inside me was screaming 'Run, run....'

   "Mm-hmm." Starsky understood. The toying fingers abandoned the jacket for a moment to smooth out the wrinkles on Hutch's brow. Hutch captured them there and brought them back close to his heart.

   "And then, in the midst of all that confusion, I realized it was only myself that was saying no. Me and my painful ghosts of the past. And I remembered Blair. Stand your ground. Don't let them tell you who you are. Don't let them take away the important things."

   "And you kissed me," Starsky whispered.

   Hutch did it again.

   The limo driver successfully manoeuvred his way past a slow-moving truck, and discreetly checked his mirror to see how his passengers were doing. In a clinch, by the looks of it, which meant good odds that this was the last trip of the night. He was pleased. He had nothing against gay customers; rather liked them in fact. Good tippers. And not rowdy like those teenage prom parties. Nothing he hated worse than customers who scuffed and stained the seats. By comparison, these two were a class act. He picked up his radio to ask dispatch to let his wife know he'd be home within the hour.

   After a while, Hutch remembered something he'd wanted to ask earlier. "Your turn, buddy. What made you all of a sudden put it on the line like that? Not that I'm complaining..."

   Starsky smiled a secret smile. "A nagging woman. A vixen of the stage."

   "Starsk, talk Engl... Oh, you mean Kim." Starsky nodded. "How on earth did she find out?"

   "She had me pegged within a couple of days, Hutch. Seems I'm not a very good liar."

   "I've always told you that."

   "She says I get a goofy look on my face when I'm watching you."

   "Wouldn't know, partner. You always look kinda goofy to me." Hutch was enjoying this lazy teasing.

   "It's always the women who notice. Well, except Huggy, of course. He's been on my case for years."

   "Really?" Well, Huggy always had been a master at keeping secrets. But this was a big one. Hutch decided he and the Bear were due for a little chat. "What about Dobey?"

   "I don't think so. But from a couple of things she's said, I'd lay even money that Edith suspects something. Like I said, it's the women. Gillian was on to me too, y'know." Starsky sighed. "Not among my prouder moments, buddy."

   "Listen, I've told you before and I'll keep telling you till you believe it, Starsky. Grossman pulled the trigger on Gillian. He's the *only* one responsible for her death. I've never understood why you keep blaming yourself for that."

   "Maybe that's 'cause you never knew I tried to buy her off." It seemed to be a night for painful confessions. "But she wouldn't go for it, Hutch. Jis' like I told you, she was ready to give everything up for you. And I was jealous, god help me."

   "Or maybe, just maybe, you were trying to protect me from the pain of her lies, looking after me like you always do, partner."

   Starsky accepted the offered comfort as best he could. "Bit of both, p'raps," he conceded. "But..."

   "But nothin'," responded Hutch firmly. "Water under the bridge. What *I* want to know is how Kim ever convinced you to speak up."

   "Sheer, dogged persistence," admitted Starsky. "And she always seemed so very sure that you'd be ready to hear it - almost as if she knew the kind of effect Blair was having on you. Hey..."

   "Conspiracy theory, Starsk?"

   "I dunno... From what you say, doesn't sound like Blair had an agenda. But they're very close."

   "Whaddaya say we have 'em over for dinner sometime and give 'em the third degree?"

   "Good idea. *You* cook. That way they can't accuse us of 'cruel and unusual'..."

   Hutch laughed and leaned over Starsky to peer out the window. Almost home. With the thought, the excitement that had ebbed and flowed all evening rushed suddenly back. Hutch's body catalogued every familiar corner they turned, counted out every second until they should arrive.

   At long, long last the limo pulled up in front of Venice Place. At Hutch's urging, Starsky went on up to the apartment while his partner tipped and dismissed the driver. Then Hutch took a deep breath and, barely able to contain himself, hurtled up the steps three at a time.

   Just inside the door, he stopped to look. His partner had turned on only a small table lamp and was standing in near-darkness staring out the far window. In his formal clothes he looked striking, distinguished, powerful, perhaps even a little forbidding. For a moment Hutch wondered at his own audacity in desiring this man. Then Starsky turned ... and was Starsky again.

   "Hiya, buddy," he smiled, kicking off his shoes where he stood. "Boy do I feel overdressed in here." He started to shrug off the jacket.

   "Don't do that." The words came out more sharply than Hutch intended. "I've been waiting for this all evening." He crossed the room as he spoke. One hand reached behind Starsky to pull the blinds closed. The other paused momentarily on the shoulder of Starsky's jacket, wordlessly asking permission that was as wordlessly granted.

   That was the last permission Hutch sought. Jacket, bow-tie, arm clips, cufflinks, waistcoat, shirt - everything gave way and was discarded under his frenzied hands. Starsky soon gave up trying to reciprocate and co-operated instead in his own disrobing. Hutch's ardour was making him feel light-headed, a little unreal. He hung on for dear life to the broad shoulders, running a hand amazedly through blond strands as Hutch dipped his head to make fierce claim to new territories with lips and tongue. Starsky felt an answering fire pulse through his groin, and was grateful when the big, feverish, demanding hands freed him from his nether garments. He kicked and fought his way out of garters and socks without looking, caring only about pressing himself closer to Hutch's heat, frustrated by the cool starched cloth that still came between them. For a second, he managed to seize the other's jaw, make their eyes meet, demanding a kiss. Hutch bent forward and plundered his mouth for a few breath-robbing seconds. Then with a groan he slipped slowly down out of the circle of Starsky's arms onto his knees, leaving a hot wet path of nibbles and kisses as he seized greedily upon Starsky's hardening cock, first with his hands, and then, finally, with his mouth.

   Starsky was already dizzy, his knees wobbling beneath him. But at the first wet touch of Hutch's mouth around him, he felt a surge of indescribable emotion so powerful, so frightening, that he cried out and involuntarily stepped backwards out of Hutch's grasp.

   Hutch stopped dead.

   The next second he was on his feet, all concern. "Starsk? Starsky, are you all right? God, did I hurt you?"

   Starsky wrapped himself around his partner as tight as he could and murmured shakily, "Sorry, sorry," into the nearest shoulder. Hutch shook his head, and returned the embrace hard, protectively. "I panicked," Starsky confessed. After a few seconds he added, "I want this as much as you do, Blintz. I really do." It was very, very important that his partner understand that.

   Hutch knew that already from the undiminished erection crammed against his own. But his first savage greed was submerged for now in a wave of tenderness; his hand was gentle in Starsky's curls. Starsky looked up, traced a wondering finger over the fair features, and found a way to explain. "All these years, I been tellin' myself I can't have you, beautiful. That if I let myself want you, react to you, reach out for you, that would be the end of everything." His fingers stopped Hutch's reassurances at his lips. "Yes, I know that's not true any more. In my head. Guess my gut is just takin' a while catchin' up..." He didn't have to say any more. Couldn't, in fact. Hutch's mouth on his was sending an unmistakeable message. I'm here. I'm yours. Don't doubt it.

   As they drew apart, Hutch became guiltily aware of his partner's nakedness. "Oops, looks like we got a bit out of sync there, buddy," he said shamefacedly. "C'mon - let's get more comfortable through here." He grasped a hand and led Starsky into the bedroom, turning on the bright overhead light. Starsky followed and sat on the edge of the bed, watching him intently and without comment, obviously wondering what was about to happen next, though still apparently content to let him take the lead.

   Very aware of that keen gaze, Hutch stripped efficiently, wondering why he was feeling so incredibly self-conscious after all the dozens of times Starsky had seen him without clothes, yes, sometimes even with a hard-on. He resisted a craven temptation to climb into bed and hide under the covers. Instead, he stacked a couple of pillows against the headboard and sat back against them; he deliberately let his arms and legs go slack and open, offering himself. Look. You can look. And touch. He caught and held Starsky's gaze, ran his tongue provocatively around his lips. "Nothing bad is going to happen," he said softly. "Any way you want, Starsk. *Every* way you want. As fast or slow as you like. And I promise you, nothing bad will happen."

   Starsky gave a little gasp, as though he had been forgetting to breathe, and stretched out a hand. He stroked across Hutch's belly, drinking in the sight of Hutch's suddenly closed eyes, his shudder at the intimate touch. Drawing closer, Starsky took full advantage of the license he had been given, exploring the broad, flat chest and massive thighs, teasing his way around the oh-so-visibly responsive cock, returning always to that expressive face, on which he could not resist showering dancing little kisses. Eventually, finding one of Hutch's hands tangled in the bedclothes beside him, he picked it up, rubbed it briefly against his face, then wrapped the fingers around his own eager organ. Hutch smiled up at him, and tugged him closer.

   That was enough for Starsky. He couldn't keep his distance any longer. He urged Hutch to lie flat and flung himself down on top.

   "Oooof!" said Hutch, pleased to be flattened. His hands wrapped around Starsky's back, then found their way to the solid, fleshy mounds below. Starsky groaned happily and began to move against his partner, planting kiss after kiss on the sensitive flesh beneath Hutch's jaw.

   Both of them completely ignored the first three rings of the telephone. It didn't stop.

   Hutch uttered a grisly curse. But he and Starsky both knew that at this time of night it could only be one person. He reached for the receiver. Starsky rolled off and listened briefly.

   "Yes, Cap'n. Yup, he's here. I'll tell him too... By midnight? We'll do our best..."

   By the time Hutch got off the phone, Starsky was already nearly through with his shower. The blond made himself useful laying out street clothes and holsters, and checking their weapons. Starsky emerged, shivering in his towels.

   "Big drug bust, in the warehouse district," Hutch told him. "Narco's been caught short of officers; Dobey wants us down there on backup within half an hour."

   "Right." Starsky was all business as he tossed Hutch some clean towels from the closet behind him. But as Hutch stepped into the bathroom, he added, "Hey, blondie..."


   "You're not off the hook, boy. Any way I want it. *Every* way I want it. Remember that."

   Hutch grinned. "Count on it."

   They arrived in twenty-five minutes, not thirty, and the madness was already in progress. In fact, the main event was already over: the drug deal had been effectively interrupted and arrests were rapidly being made. Starsky and Hutch were sent on clean-up detail into the gloomy warehouse where one of the goons had fled with some dope.

   With the usual minimum of words, the partners established where and how they would split their search. Hutch began a methodical sweep up and down the crooked aisles between huge pallets of unidentifiable goods, while Starsky worked the perimeter, checking doorways and bays that might hide a lurker.

   There were only two shots. It was all over in less than a second. As Starsky ran to and bent over the man he had just downed (unconscious, not dead; looked like a bad shoulder wound), he knew he would have to reconstruct the events of that second for his report. No slo-mo instant replays here, he thought with grim amusement. He automatically removed the sizable package of white powder and applied the cuffs. But something far more important had claim on his attention.

   He looked around for his partner. Hutch was sitting awkwardly on the floor, wide-eyed, in shock. "You OK?" Starsky asked. The familiar, laconic formula.

   Hutch was unable to speak for a few seconds. Finally he managed, "Yeah. You?"

   "Yeah, I'm fine."

   Pulling himself together, Hutch added, "Hey, partner. Thanks."

   Starsky nodded, swallowing hard. He was having a slo-mo instant replay after all.

   A shot barked down one of the aisles, ricocheting near Starsky's head. He swung around from the locked door he was checking, and on a hunch moved one aisle over to look for his attacker. Straight ahead of him but at a considerable distance Hutch's golden crown was clearly visible - and very close behind that blond head, skittering across the aisle, was a dark shadow, betrayed only by the deadly gleam of a gun now aimed at Hutch's back. Starsky had a moving target and a mere fraction of a second as a window of opportunity. He yelled a warning to Hutch then, without hesitation, fired his gun directly at his partner.

   Oh God, I had no choice. But if you hadn't moved... The bullet had whistled by Hutch with inches to spare, and reached its intended target, Starsky himself in hot pursuit. The sounds of the felon's single shouted curse and heavy collapse to the floor still seemed to echo in the unnaturally quiet gloom. And Starsky realized belatedly that he had *known* that Hutch would dodge in response to his voice, had even known how far, how fast, and in which direction. "Too close," he muttered. "Too damn close."

   "You can say that again, buddy," replied the blond, as Starsky helped him to his feet. Both of them were trembling; both did their best to ignore it. A couple of uniformed officers appeared at the end of the aisle, and Starsky gratefully relinquished his prisoner and the cocaine.

   "Let's get the hell out of here," he said as they walked out of the warehouse.

   Dobey harrumphed unexpectedly at his side. "Are you two injured?" Reassured, he went on, "In that case, get your butts down to the squad room. I promised Narco that they wouldn't have to wait for our part of the paperwork. In fact, take me with you, and I'll brief you on the operation as we go. Finish it faster that way."

   "Thanks, Cap'n," replied Hutch resignedly. Better to get it over with.

   In the end, it didn't take too long. With Dobey's help, all six of his officers had their reports done within an hour or so. Starsky was uncharacteristically silent throughout the process, composing grimly, tongue between teeth, without consultation with Hutch.

   Only once did he look up, as Hutch passed behind him for a coffee. "He couldn't have missed you from that distance..." Starsky's words were quiet, almost ashamed.

   Hutch paused, hand dropping automatically to the other's shoulder. "I *know* that, partner." Absolution unnecessary, but granted anyway. Under his hand, the tense muscles relaxed a little.

   A few minutes later, Dobey jubilantly hung up the phone and emerged from his office to pass on the good news. The seized drugs had a street value of more than seven million dollars, and the principals of both sides of the deal had been arrested. The D.A. was delighted; the charges would stick like glue. Just as importantly, there had been no loss of life that day. Three of the suspects were in hospital, but none with life-threatening injuries, and all the cops had escaped unscathed, except for an enthusiastic rookie's sprained ankle. It was an occasion for celebration all round. Gathering up the reports, he shooed the men out, forbidding them to show their faces before noon the next day.

   Back behind the wheel of the Torino, Starsky remained withdrawn. Hutch didn't press him, letting him work through it by himself. Eventually about half-way back to Venice Place, Starsky's hand left the steering wheel long enough to reach over and grip Hutch's arm briefly, firmly. Not a caress. Are you really still here?

   Though the hand had retreated, Hutch understood now. Starsky still needed his reassurance. He raised his own left arm along the back of the seat and let his hand rest lightly, not at all casually, at the back of Starsky's neck. Not a caress. This was something deeper, more fundamental, more necessary to them. Me and thee. I'm here, buddy. I'm here.

   Hutch did not move his hand until the car drew up in front of his apartment. Starsky did not wait for an invitation to come in. They were long past that.

   Inside, Hutch turned on a few lights and mechanically began picking up the mess they had left in their hasty departure. Starsky retrieved his own bow-tie from the corner where it had been flung and fiddled with it absently.

   It was very late; they were both grimy and exhausted. If they were going to take this next step together... but no, there was no "if" anymore. It was going to happen. The civilized thing to do would be to say good-night now, get some much-needed sleep, and bring themselves together tomorrow, fully aware and ready, capable of giving the event the significance it deserved. Civilized... Starsky smiled wryly down at the bow-tie. That wasn't them. Other people with more ordinary lives might be able to delude themselves that they had forever to play games, forever to be sure that the timing was just right. Not Starsky and Hutch; not when any day you could get caught in the cross-fire.

   He crossed the room to Hutch in three decisive steps and seized his partner's face in both hands. The blue of Hutch's eyes deepened, acquiescent and joyful. As Starsky pulled himself closer, Hutch whispered, "Now?"


The End