Comments about this novel can be sent to: kmankatz@CandW.ky

PART III

One More River
by
Terri Beckett and Chris Power

PART IV

Chapter IX.

Huggy Bear was not, by nature or inclination, an early riser. He was most at home with the night-people for whom daylight is a necessary evil to be endured between sunrise and sunset. He knew them and they knew him and it was from these twilight sources that he gathered much of his store of off-beat information. Huggy had skated the thin line between the criminal world and the law for more years than he cared to remember, but if he had enemies, he also had friends on both sides of the fence. Word came to him on a variety of subjects from a variety of sources, and he knew who would make best use of those words.

A particular set of words on a particular theme had him heading south down the freeway on a bright Thursday morning. He had tried to phone Starsky and Hutch, but there had been no answer. The phone company, when he complained, said the receiver was off the hook, and even their emergency attention-getting howler had won no response. Irritated and a little worried, Huggy had given himself the day off, and driven down the coast to see them face to face. Okay, Hutch was on vacation for another day or so yet, but some things didn't keep too good.

It was just before noon when he pulled up outside the cabin and it dawned on him to wonder what he would do if they weren't there -- but the Torino was parked on the gravel driveway out back. So they should be around, Huggy thought, obscurely reassured. So why hadn't they bothered to call him? Not even a postcard. "Some people," he told himself, "have no sensitivity for the feelings of others."

The screen door was open, the inner door ajar, and he could hear the foxy beat of the Moody Blues. Starsky's choice. He pushed the door open, stepped inside, and was arrested by the tableau before him.

Starsky was standing at the seaward window, and Hutch was beside him, one arm around him. As Huggy watched, Hutch said something in a murmur. Starsky's beautiful smile flashed as he turned, Hutch's hands on his shoulders, his own left hand reaching up to caress the blond nape in a gesture that was unmistakable. The bond between them was like a static electric charge; it crackled in the air, a power almost intense enough to be felt.

"Just open your eyes / and realize / the way it's always been," sang the lyrics.

But no. Huggy recollected his thoughts. This is new. God, this is so new they're both still high on it.

The wind caught the open door, and it slammed closed. Huggy jumped as if he'd been shot, and two pairs of blue eyes swung to him as he stood there, feeling uncomfortably like an interloper -- a Peeping Tom --

"Hiya, Hug." Starsky, unconcerned, grinned at him as they came towards him, Hutch's arm still around his shoulders in the most natural fashion possible. "How they hangin', man?"

"We weren't expecting anyone to come calling," Hutch said.

Starsky, with a wider grin, cut in, "Or we'd have baked a cake."

"You didn't call or nothin'." Huggy, embarrassed and unable to figure out why the hell he should be, was at a loss for words. "I tried to phone, but --"

"The phone's out," Hutch explained. "We wanted it that way." And the glance that flashed between him and Starsky was shared, silent communion. "Siddown, I'll get you a beer."

"Make that two," Starsky instructed, sprawling on the couch as Huggy took one of the chairs, still trying to adjust to this unforeseen situation. "So how's L.A., Hug? Still there?"

"Nothin' much changes," Huggy shrugged. "Uh -- you're looking good, Starsk."

Clad in nothing but the faded denim cut-offs, he was looking more than good. Huggy hadn't seen him looking so fit in almost a year. The scars that marred his upper body were almost completely hidden by the dark pelt that furred his chest and midriff. He was deeply tanned, relaxed, bright-eyed and looked happy. Or maybe the word was "radiant". Hutch came back with three cans of beer, and the awkward moment passed in the small ceremonies of drinking.

"Hug says I'm lookin' good," Starsky said casually, smiling at his partner. Hutch, sitting beside him, smiled back.

"Fresh air and exercise, babe. Mens sana in corpore sano."

"Sickening, isn't it?" Starsky grimaced, turning to Huggy for agreement. "Get him away from all that healthy smog an' air pollution, and he goes all John Denver on you..."

"I don't recall you complaining up at the lake."

"Yeah, that's what I mean. A ten-mile hike there, and another ten miles back -- he classes that as an afternoon stroll, y'know?"

But the banter was very much a surface thing, and Huggy was intensely aware of the charged undercurrent that flowed between them. They weren't touching, physically, yet... It came to him that they didn't need to. This, for all its newness, was a complete and fulfilling thing. Huggy was suddenly grateful that he was too black to blush. After all, interrupting a honeymoon for whatever reason was pretty crass.

"So what brought you down this way?" Hutch asked quietly. "You were hardly 'just passing'."

Huggy thought fast. Telling Hutch what little information that had come his way would almost certainly result in Hutch cutting short this vacation. He didn't want to be responsible for that. Duplessis didn't have rocks in his head -- he'd know what to do, how to handle it. These two needed their time together.

But he didn't need to say anything.

"Give the guy a break, Hutch," Starsky said. "I guess we kinda knocked him for a loop. S'okay, Hug -- take no notice of the Blintz. If the Archangel Gabriel dropped by for a chat, Hutch'd want to check his ID."

Huggy gave an elaborate shrug. "An' I left the wings'n'halo back in L.A...."

The last time he had seen Starsky, it had been the evening before the beginning of this vacation. Starsky had been maudlin drunk, desperately unhappy, and unwilling to talk about it. Hutch had arrived, spoken to Starsky in a one-sided conversation that was painful to watch. They had left together.

And this happened between then and now.

"You gonna stay for lunch, Hug?" Starsky offered. "What we got, Hutch? Make it something edible, huh? We got a guest."

"Up yours," said Hutch concisely, grinning. "I can throw a salad together --"

"And he means just that," Starsky groaned. "Hutch doesn't just toss a salad --"

"You'll go hungry if you're not careful," Hutch threatened mock-sternly.

Some things, however, never change.

"You're a sorehead," Starsky complained. "An' I'm up to here with salad. Go get us some people-food, huh? You said we were gonna shop today. Now you got even more reason. G'wan, let's pig out on something special, huh? Beef Stroganoff? Duck l'orange?" he suggested hopefully. In an aside to Huggy, "He's good at fancy dishes. You should taste his Coq au Vin."

Huggy, caught in the middle of a swallow, choked, spluttering. From Starsky's puzzled look, he realized that the man hadn't intended the double entendre. Hutch started snickering and Starsky gazed affronted from one to the other, which made Hutch laugh harder. Belated, Starsky began to grin.

"You're gross," he said. "Both of you."

But the accidental pun had removed the embarrassment and awkwardness for Huggy. Once he really thought about it, he wasn't surprised -- hell, this had been in the cards for years, the need just hadn't been there before. They'd have more of the problems than most, perhaps, living and working the way they did. But if anyone could make it work, these two could. He was sure of that. However...

"The Real World's still out there, fellas," he said quietly. Starsky's hand took Hutch's as if in a clasp of mutual reassurance. Me and thee, the gesture said.

"We know that, Hug," Hutch said, but the look in his eyes was for his partner.

Do you, Blondie? Do either of you know? Guess not -- you're still flyin' high and wide, and from up there everythin' mus' be pure and clean and clear. But I'm not gonna be the one to remind you of the crud down here. You'll come back to it soon enough.

"So you gonna stay and eat?" Starsky asked again. His hand still lay in Hutch's. "Do me the favor, huh? Maybe he'll fix something decent."

"Nag, nag, nag." Hutch got to his feet. "Okay, I'll go pick up some provisions while Hug keeps you company. Give him the guided tour."

"Don't be dumb," Starsky snorted. "He's been here before, y'know. I heard about the four-day weekend with the foxy lady, Hug."

Huggy gave his best lecherous leer. "You could say this little love-nest has seen some lovin' moments, yeah."

"Oh," said Hutch. "Well, reminisce, then. I'll be gone about an hour."

"Be good," Starsky ordered, and Hutch flipped him the finger. When he'd gone, Starsky looked at Huggy. "Okay," he said, serious now. "What's comin' down?"

"Nothin' heavy," Huggy said. "It can wait. Listen, I better be gettin' back."

"No lunch?"

"Raincheck." He got to his feet. "And you take care, you hear? Both of you. You don't have to come back yet. Make the most of it."

Dark blue eyes fixed him, understanding. "Thanks, Hug. We will."

A long time ago, Huggy had sensed the vulnerability hidden behind the street-wise facade. He had never been so aware of it as now. Guess you found what most of us are lookin' for, Starsky. You got lucky, man. Hang on to it.

*****

When Hutch returned, five minutes inside the promised hour, it was to find Huggy's car gone, and Starsky stretched on the lounger on the deck, dozing with Jonathan Livingston Seagull on his chest.

"Where's Huggy?" Hutch demanded. "Thought he was going to stay for lunch."

One blue eye opened, regarded him, and closed again. "He remembered an urgent appointment."

"That was -- discreet of him," Hutch acknowledged, taking the paper sacks of groceries through to the kitchen. Starsky, lured by the prospect of food, followed him, leaning on the doorjamb to watch him unpack.

"Yeah. Told you, we knocked him for a loop. What did y'get?"

"The basics and a few extras." Hutch opened a store-cupboard. "See for yourself."

Starsky wandered over, began sorting through the stacked goods.

"Tomatoes. Lettuce. Cheese. Scallions. Green peppers. More cheese," he recited, his voice becoming acid with displeasure. "Yogurt. Apples. Grapefruit. Bananas. Even more cheese. Eggs. My God, a pack of steak! Orange juice. Potatoes -- still in their skins, yet. Hutchinson, you're a louse. Not one pizza, corndog, or chili sauce. Terrific."

"They're no good for your stomach," Hutch said from the depths of the cupboard. "Put them away in the icebox, willya? Except the steak. We can have that now, if you want."

"Nothin' wrong with my stomach," Starsky spat. "Nothin' at all. How can I eat steak without chili sauce? Huh?"

"I suppose the slugs that went through you improved the function of your digestive system? Quit bitching. You've managed so far without the chili."

"So now I'm into withdrawal. Gotta have some junk food. Hutch?"

"No."

"You're a bastard, you know that?"

"Sure. You'll have steak and salad, apples for dessert. With cheese, if you like."

"I don't like. When I get through with that fuckin' Review Board, I'm gonna visit every taco stand and dog stall I can track down. Betcha didn't even buy any Coke. Or root-beer. Or even Bud."

"There's a six-pack in the trunk."

"Just one? That's all? Gee, you're all heart."

"And don't think you're gonna drink them all yourself," Hutch said. "You want to start peeling those potatoes--?"

"Nope. Skin 'em yourself."

"Starsk..."

"No way. Think I've just fallen out of love with you."

"Fickle," Hutch grinned.

Starsky shot him a pained glare. "Yeah, well, I'm not peelin' your lousy potatoes." And he stalked out of the kitchen.

"You'll eat them, though," floated after him.

"Don't make book on it." He grinned. He'd eat what was put in front of him, and he knew that Hutch knew it. Besides, he had to admit a partiality to small potatoes tossed in melted butter with black pepper and chopped parsley. "You're a lousy cook as well."

"As well as what?"

"You figure it out." He switched on the TV and flopped onto the couch with a sigh of contentment as the screen glowed into life. But he didn't watch it. Instead his gaze was fixed out of the window, on the path that led down to the beach, and a small serene smile curved his mouth. The sun was warm in the cloudless sky; there was virtually no wind. Tonight the moon would be almost at the full, and it would be a fine, clear night. A midnight, moonlight swim? He considered the idea, knowing Hutch would need little in the way of persuasion, and the smile grew. He got up and wandered over to prop himself against the window, thumbs hooked into his belt. If Huggy hadn't turned up, they would probably have spent the day on the beach. Why had Huggy turned up? Nothin' heavy. It can wait. But that didn't fit with Huggy taking the time to travel down here to see them.

The TV clicked off.

"I was watching that."

"Sure you were." Hutch stood close behind him, and Starsky leaned back until their bodies met, Hutch's arms closing around him.

"You sure you didn't buy any chili?"

"Positive."

"How 'bout mole?"

"Uh-uh."

"They don't come any lousier than you, Hutchinson."

"Guess not. Cryin' shame, isn't it?"

"Mmmm," said Starsky, closing his eyes as lips brushed the side of his neck. "What're you tryin' to do to me? Turn me into a withered husk? Man, you better quit takin' them monkey-gland tablets."

"Sure."

"Yeah. You gotta remember I'm not that long out of the hospital. I can't keep up the pace too well."

There was a slight pause. "Starsky, are you telling me you have a headache?"

"I'm not as fit as I used to be," he admitted soulfully, and the arms around him fell away so suddenly he caught his balance back with a yelp.

"Starsk, I'm -- I'm sorry." Hutch's voice was anguished. "I guess I did forget -- I'm sorry -- it won't happen again, I promise, not if you --" He broke off abruptly, and walked quickly away, shutting the kitchen door behind him. Jaw dropping, Starsky stared after him, astonished.

"Hey?!" he yelled, aggrieved. "You don't play fair!"

"No rules, babe," Hutch bellowed back, laughter unmistakable in his voice.

"Smartass."

"Go fetch the beer. There are a few bottles of vino as well."

"Now you're talkin'." Starsky brightened considerably. "It might even make up for the lack of chili, but don't count on it." And he co-operated cheerfully with setting the table, uncorking the wine, and finally demolishing his meal with only token gripes about the missing relishes.

The dirty crockery cleared away, they returned to the living room. Starsky went to the window, Hutch to the tape-deck. Quiet guitar music drifted into the room.

"Time for your nap, lover," Hutch said quietly, coming up behind him, resting his hands on the lean hips.

"Nap? Chrissakes, Hutch, you make it sound like I'm about three years old!"

"Siesta, then. Whatever you want to call it. In the bedroom, or out on the deck?"

Starsky leaned back, but the expected caress did not come, save in the almost asexual delicacy of Hutch's fingers touching across his shoulders and nape.

"Bedroom?" he suggested.

"Want a massage?" The gentle skill was finding knots of tension he had not been aware of. "Hey, what the hell went on while I was away? You're wired."

"No I'm not." It came out as a snapped denial, which he had not intended. "Sorry. Tired, I guess."

"And Hug turning up like that gave us both a jolt we weren't ready for."

Starsky pulled away and turned to look at him, his eyes fixing on the beloved contours of Hutch's face. "Hutch. I'm not ashamed of us."

Hutch did not speak for a moment. His hands alone moved, thumbs tracing the line of Starsky's cheekbones, fingers light on his hair. "Me neither," he said at last.

*****

Instinct and his own sure knowledge of Starsky guided Hutch after that. He made no attempt to initiate love-making, but concentrated on the massage that would relax his partner to the point of sleep, covering him finally with the light quilt and leaving him to drowse. The sun was full on the deck; he sat down on the lounger, discarding Starsky's abandoned book. But his thoughts were less easily dismissed.

The Real World, Huggy had called it. Contradiction in terms -- a world of shams and cover-up and hypocrisy. But the world that they lived in, none the less. Had to live in.

I'm not ashamed of us, Starsky had said, and Hutch knew it to be the truth. But the world wasn't going to see it that way. The majority of the world, at least, still stuck labels on people. Rich man, poor man, cop or criminal -- heterosexual, homosexual. Even if the labels didn't fit, they were there, a problem they would need to understand, face up to, maybe even contend with.

I'm not ashamed either. But I'm scared, a little. Not of what people think, but of what they do. I don't want you hurt, my love.

I have a dream... but I'm not a dreamer, not really. If I ever was. Dreamers don't last very long.

So what am I?

Helluva time to be having an identity crisis, Hutchinson!

I'm a cop. A good cop, I do the job I'm paid to do to the best of my ability. I do what I can with what I've got.

I'm also a man with a wrecked marriage behind him, a string of casual ladies and one special lady -- and I'm in love with the man who's been my partner for seven years, my best friend for as long as I've known him, and my lover for a space of weeks.

Find a label to stick on that, World.

*****

Starsky woke to the muted gold of late afternoon and the good smell of cooking. Yawning, he rolled onto his back, stretched and sat up. His watch told him it was past five. He felt as he usually did after a protracted daytime sleep, a little heavy-headed. If it came to it, this was a habit he could do without now -- he no longer needed the extra rest. At least, provided he got a good night's sleep, he didn't need it. He grinned to himself.

There are things better than a good night's sleep.

He wandered from the bedroom to the kitchen, where Hutch was engrossed in watching some savory-smelling mess simmering, and slid his arms around the blond man's waist from behind.

"Hey, Blondie. What's cookin'"?

"What's it smell like?" Hutch turned to complete the embrace.

"That's why I'm asking -- I don't believe my nose."

"Believe it," Hutch said simply. "When has your nose been mistaken?"

"There has to be a first time for everything. Is that really chili con carne?"

"Near as makes no difference."

"Hey," Starsky said reverently. "You really do love me."

"You haven't tasted it yet."

"True. But it's the thought that counts," Starsky pointed out, giving Hutch a quick hug and then hooking the spoon from the pan to taste the spicy mixture.

"Well?"

Starsky made a considering face. "On a scale of one to ten -- maybe a seven. I like it hot. This is kinda mild."

"I was thinking of your digestion. And that I have to sleep with you at night."

"My digestion can handle anything I want to throw at it. And there're two bedrooms."

"Bastard." Hutch pulled him close, taking a high-calorie kiss. "You still got that headache?"

"Comes from not being fed properly," Starsky told him earnestly.

"Sure, you're wasting away to a shadow. I can take the hint. This'll be ready by the time you are."

"Like now?"

"Like when you've showered."

"You're a clean-freak," Starsky grumbled, and headed in the direction of the bathroom.

"Maybe," Hutch's voice called after him. "But do you know what the incidence of hepatitis is among gay males on the West Coast?"

"That's gross!" He flipped on the spray. "Besides, it don't fit. A: we're not gay. B: neither of us has hepatitis. And C: I bet you don't know either."

"Better safe than sorry."

They ate as soon as Starsky had dried and dressed, and the dishwashing was carried out in companionable quiet, neither one quite managing to get in the other's way. As Hutch stacked the last pan, he said, "We're taking the day off tomorrow."

"Really?" Starsky stared at him. "Is it Sunday or something? You mean no hike, no work-out, no nothing?"

"It's Friday, and we'll go down to the beach. A lazy day won't hurt either of us." As Starsky grinned at this, Hutch smirked. "Pity I'm such a lousy cook. It really crippled me, watching you force yourself to eat that chili. Only a seven?"

"Didn't want to hurt your feelings, good buddy," Starsky drawled. "Maybe an eight."

"Better. How's the headache?"

"Headac-- oh, uh, still there. I guess."

"You don't sound too sure."

"So persuade me."

Hutch laughed and kissed Starsky's neck, lifting aside the shirt collar to trail his lips over the tan skin, biting gently. Starsky gasped, cursed -- but his own hands were in Hutch's hair, making sure he did not pull away.

"Well?" Hutch whispered.

"I think it's getting better," he managed, and felt lips, teeth and tongue again, starting a sensual frisson tingling over his body. "Ah, damn you --"

"Shouldn't try to play hard to get," came the breathless chuckle, and Hutch freed himself, reaching up and unbuttoning Starsky's shirt, easing it from him and unfastening belt and waistband. "How's the headache?" he asked again, lips against Starsky's ear, hand pushing down jeans.

"Uh, still there --"

"Really." He was now kissing the sensitive skin of Starsky's nape, nosing through his curls. "Maybe you better do something about it." And Starsky felt the delicate nip of teeth again.

"Oh, God..." Starsky moaned. "Will you quit it with the vampire act?" His knees gave out on him, Hutch supported his full weight, and then the rug was under his shoulders and Hutch was leaning over him, smiling.

"Still got that headache?"

"Guess what?" Starsky reached up and pulled the blond down beside him. "I think it's just gone."

"Sure?" Hutch was resisting the arm around his neck.

"Sure I'm sure. Will you get your clothes off and come here?"

"What's wrong with the bed? Or the couch?"

"Nothin', but I'm on the floor and I don't feel like traveling," Starsky snapped. "You keep me waiting much longer an' that headache'll come back."

And when Hutch stretched out beside him, weight on one elbow, Starsky relaxed with a sigh, moving his hand up to caress the blond nape, playing with the fine pale hair.

Neither spoke or moved for a while, eyes locked, faces calm, intent. Unvoiced, the same thought was in both minds -- Los Angeles was drawing very near. Unintentionally, Huggy had brought reality with him, and the knowledge that not many days like this were left to them. Or nights. Slowly the golden head bent to his. The kiss was almost passionless, the sealing of a covenant, and they drew apart a little way, unwilling to break the sudden solemnity of the moment.

My beloved is mine, and I am his.

"David..." Whispered reverence, fingertips drifting over his face. Starsky closed his eyes.

"You really know which buttons to push, doncha?" he said huskily.

"I'm finding out," Hutch admitted, one of his fingers tracing the line of Starsky's mouth. "Know something? You're beautiful."

"You're not so bad yourself." A little silence, as the urgency of a few minutes ago was suspended, mellowed into a deeper need and answering fulfillment. "Hutch?"

"Yeah?"

"Where do we go from here?"

The face above him, softened by twilight shadows, was serious. "I don't know," came the quiet answer. "We can't go back, babe. Can't forget this has happened."

"Don't want to." The memory of this time out of time in this their private world was one thing he could store away, to cherish golden and untarnished for as long as he lived. Even if they never found this wonder again, it had been theirs, almost tangible between his two hands, like a precious jewel, or his lover's face. It was reality, it had been his, and it always would be, because nothing now could take it away from him.

Set me as a seal upon thy heart --

"You'd drive me crazy if we had to live together," he said, and ran his fingers through silken blond hair, loving the feel of it, light and soft, tangling and meshing under his touch. He let his hand slip down to cup the angle of jaw and cheek, aware of the strength of bone beneath. Blue eyes, pupils enlarged in the dimness, gazed down at him, and he could see himself doubly reflected in their depths.

"I was going to say that," Hutch told him, a smile quirking the wide mouth. There was no need to put their thoughts into words; they knew each other's minds, in this moment, without speech. Hutch touched his lips to Starsky's, and laid his head on his lover's shoulder. "Starsk? Do you believe in predestination?"

"Not sure."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm not sure what it is, college-boy," Starsky mumbled, not willing to think just now.

"Of course you know. Do you believe this was meant to happen? That's it's all planned out for us, right from the moment we're born?"

"Hutch, this is one helluva time to be having a discussion on philosophy," he chuckled sleepily.

"But do you?" Gently insistent.

"All this? You'n'me? I don't know -- makes it seem like we didn't have any choice. Think I'd prefer to believe I'm lyin' here like Mae West because I made the decision."

"Mae West was a blonde."

"Okay, you can be Mae West. The way I see it, your predestination brought us so far, free will took us the rest of the way. For better or for worse. C'mere."

"Uh-uh. You're half-asleep."

"So what's wrong with that?"

"Nothing, except where and when you're choosing to do it." Hutch got to his feet, extended a hand. Starsky took it and let himself be pulled up, complaining all the way.

"I was okay down there."

"The floor was hard." Hutch got him on his feet, an arm around his waist, and kissed him. "If I'm going to make love to you, it's going to be in bed."

"Didn't know you were so conventional, schweetheart."

"This is conventional?" Hutch said, one eyebrow slanting, and Starsky grinned.

"There's conventional and conventional, I guess," he allowed. "C'mon, Blintz. Bedtime."

Chapter X.

Afternoon sun on his back was tempered by a light breeze. The friendly rough texture of the Indian blanket under him, the soporific hush-hush-hush of the waves, helped to provide the perfect time to drift in and out of a doze of vegetable tranquility, unthinking. Except for the creeping persistence of his thoughts.

Hutch rolled over, sat up and reached for the beer can half-buried in the sand to stay cool. But it had been open too long, and the contents were flat. He tipped it out, watching the thirsty sand absorb the liquid.

The Real World, Huggy had said. Well, damn it, this was real, too. This incredible extension of friend and brother into lover, as vitally necessary as the air he breathed. But they did not live in a vacuum, and there were friends, more-than-friends, family, and acquaintances all out there. Waiting to find out. To accept. Or condemn.

Jaqi. She was part of the real world, and important to him. And he owed her. How would she react? Everyone had a different view of things. How would they -- she -- see him now? Dobey. Duplessis. Minnie. Friends and colleagues, people they knew and respected. What would their attitude be when they realized the change, recognized the nature of it? IA. When -- if -- they picked up on it, that would be both their badges down the tubes. No reprieve. Not for gay cops, not in the LAPD. The Blaine case had nixed any chance of that.

Suddenly he was cold, shivers rippling across his skin. So much at stake... An old Spanish proverb slipped unwanted into his head: Take what you want, God says. Take it and pay. He wanted -- needed -- all the facets of their friendship, from the quiet companionship to the newly-discovered wild eroticism, and all the many ways of sharing in between. It was a mutual need. Maybe they'd find out the full price before long.

Back in the real world. Is anything more real than love?

Okay, if the price was their jobs -- no, wait, he couldn't decide for them both.

How about it, Starsk? Is our loving worth your career?

He didn't need to ask. He could see it in his memory, the smog-hazed sunlight on the beach, the glitter of the ocean. Starsky's eyes narrowed against the glare, not looking at him, turning the gleaming metal of his badge between his fingers.

"Mind if I join you?"

So simple. And if you'd do that for me as a friend...

If the price was their jobs, they'd pay it. The respect of their friends was a tougher proposition, but -- yeah, they'd face that, too. It wouldn't be bright to advertise, but there was a part of him that was filled with an improbable mixture of humility and pride, wanting to stand up and tell the world 'this is my lover and my friend.' That was called 'coming out of the closet', wasn't it. Somehow he didn't think the LAPD was quite ready for that.

"It's going to change things," he broke the silence a little guiltily. Starsky rolled his head on his forearm, and a glitter of blue showed through lowered lashes.

"What's gonna change what?" he mumbled.

"When we get back to L.A. Tomorrow."

"So what's to change?" Starsky yawned and closed the eye. "You're the one said 'nothing's changed'."

"Not between us, it hasn't," Hutch said. "But -- Starsk, we have to talk."

"Do we have to? I'm wiped." He snickered. "Didn't get much sleep last night, if you remember." As Hutch reddened at the memory, the snicker became an evil chuckle. "God, Blondie, I love it when you blush."

"Starsky!" Face hot, Hutch hadn't intended to snap a rebuke, but it was effective. "I'm serious."

"Okay." Starsky relented, propping chin on wrists. "Talk. I'm listening."

And Hutch could not find the words, stammering at first as he searched for them. "It isn't going to be easy," he managed finally. "For us, nothing's changed, it's -- grown. But we can't let anybody know. Or even suspect."

"Yeah," Starsky agreed, voice quiet. "It'd mean our jobs, for sure. Okay, so we don't make any public announcements. No sweat. We'll be careful. And IA investigated us years ago."

"There was nothing to find, then," Hutch murmured. A lean brown hand closed over his.

"Hey, you get ulcers from worry, Hutch." The drawled words were warm and loving as the touch of the palm and the long fingers. "It's not gonna happen, babe. They'll have no reason to suspect we're anything but real good buddies. Hell, we're not crazy empty-headed kids, for God's sake. How often have we gone undercover? Huh?"

"It's not the same."

"No. But do you honestly think I'm gonna be walkin' around with my hand in your crotch?"

Hutch snorted, color rising again. "Gross," he growled, but his mouth twitched into a smile.

"You better believe it. Lighten up, lover. All we gotta do is live our lives the way we always did. On the surface, at least. It'll work out." But his voice trailed away into an uncomfortable silence, and the pain grew in Hutch.

"It shouldn't have to be like that." The whisper of protest was forced from him even as he acknowledged its futility.

"I know. But that's the way things are. In a perfect world, it'd be out in the open, and we wouldn't have to hide anything. But the world's not perfect, and neither are we."

"What we have here is something damn near it." To his own ears, he sounded like a child crying against the dark.

"And that's not gonna change just because we're back in L.A." Starsky's voice held confidence and certainty. "It's us, what we are, not where we are." That was a truth, Hutch acknowledged, but hearing Starsky put it into words gave it an added potency that closed his throat.

Please God, don't let that change, ever. Whatever else comes down.

"How come you always see things so clearly?"

"Not always. Sometimes I need to have my nose rubbed in it." Starsky paused. "I know what's buggin' you. But we don't know yet what we're going to be up against when we get back. Not until we do get back. Shadows on the wall, babe. In the immortal words of my grandmother, 'Nothing's as bad as you thought it would be, except when it's worse.'"

"That's supposed to make me feel better?"

Starsky's wry grin answered his own. "Sure," he said. "Homily from the Home Country. Sounds different in Polish."

"Maybe it loses something in the translation," Hutch suggested. But - dammit, Starsk, we have to think about it. About the future."

"Do we?" Starsky asked softly, not looking at him. "The future takes care of itself, Hutch. We don't make plans. Not in our line of work."

It was knowledge that had always been there, but rarely brought out into the open before. Hutch had never shied away from the fact of their mortality, and Gunther's hit-squad had brought it home to him even more strongly. No plans, no hopeful forecasting. Merely the gift of another dawn, another day. Some things are more precious than plans.

Starsky was watching him patiently, eyes steady, quiet and understanding.

"Okay," Hutch said, "but what about those dreams of yours? The roses-around-the-door cottage and the four curly-haired kids?"

Starsky pushed up on one elbow. "What do you want me to say, love?" The endearment brought Hutch's gaze to his face. "Right now, you're all I want. When that changes, I'll let you know. Sure I would have liked a good marriage -- kids, maybe -- but I know the odds against it, in our careers. And I only ever met lady I could really have made it work with."

"So maybe you'll meet another like Terry."

"No way. They broke the mold, Hutch. Anyhow, why're we talking about me? What about you?"

"What about me?" he echoed. He hadn't been thinking along that particular line.

"One day you could meet the lady you've been looking for. The one who'll love you for what you are and who you are, not try to change you, who'll take your job as well because it's a part of you --"

"Maybe not." He dropped his gaze to the sand, brushed absently at the encroaching trickles on the blanket. "Don't think she exists, Starsk. Not outside my head."

"You don't know that for sure."

"I'm as sure as I can be." There isn't any room for anyone else in my life. Don't want to try and make room. All the days and nights -- you fill them, my love. And each day is a bonus. But he couldn't push the words past the ache in him. Starsky leaned forward, and spoke against his mouth, each movement of his lips a separate caress.

"Then be sure of yourself. Of me. Of what we have. No one is gonna take that away, lover. No matter what comes down. Let it ride, Hutch. Sufficient unto the day, an' like that."

So wise. So sure. Give me a tenth of your faith, beloved, and let the world do what it will.

*****

The long-legged sprawl on the couch had been silent for some time, Starsky realized belatedly. Since supper, in fact. He glanced up from the page to catch the expression on the beloved face -- a vague kind of despondency, unspecific unhappiness. And that didn't belong here and now.

"Hey," he said, closing the book as he got to his feet, and perched himself on the back of the couch sidewise, his thigh beside the blond head. "Penny for 'em?"

Hutch's smile was almost a success. "What about inflation?"

"A quarter, then, but I better get value for money." He dropped his hand to the crown of Hutch's head, stroked the shining strands that caught in the pile of the bulrush-brown velvet upholstery. "Come on. Talk it out, huh? A trouble shared?"

"S'nothing," Hutch said. Starsky felt like telling him that was bullshit, but restrained himself.

"Really." He continued stroking, sensing as if through his fingertips the troubled mind -- and the source of that trouble. He didn't really need to ask, but an oblique approach seemed called for. Hutch doesn't have the monopoly on subtle. "Guess we ought to map out a plan of campaign."

"What/"

"Well, if we're gonna pull a snow-job, we better work out something won't thaw too fast."

"About us, you mean?"

"What else?"

"Sounds awful clinical."

You could at least listen first, before you start in with the criticism.

"No, it's not. Look at it this way -- we carry on the way we did before. That lifestyle doesn't have to change. How long do you think you could manage without me?"

Hutch's expression was nonplussed. "Five minutes. If you push it."

"Get serious."

"I am."

"You're not being exactly constructive, Hutch."

"So what's constructive? I need you around. As simple as that. Hell, I just plain need you." He reached up, enfolded Starsky's hand in his own.

"So you got me. Gonna be around, once I get past the board, just the way we were. 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. 75% of the time."

"How'd you like to try for 100%?"

"Fine by me. But let's be realistic. People are gonna start to notice if we hold hands in the john."

Hutch gave him the long-suffering look he had aimed for. "What have you got in mind?"

"We live our lives the way we always did. Date the ladies an' all. You've got Jaqi. I've got -- well enough -- and when we're back to playing Departmental Lotharios, no one's gonna suspect."

"I don't think I want to use anyone to -- camouflage what we have." Hutch stumbled over his words, not responding to the gentle note of fun Starsky had put into his voice. "Here and now, in this place, there's only you. I can't imagine anyone else in my life. Back there it may be different. But I don't know. And I don't want to lose what we have now."

"We won't." Starsky spoke the words with complete and utter certainty. "It'll always be like this for us. All we have to do is -- reach out."

"But that's just it. We couldn't just reach out. Always having to look over our shoulders, check if we're being watched -- Starsk, even thinking about it leaves a bad taste."

"Hey, it's okay, lover..." Starsky slipped his hands down to cup Hutch's face. "Everything is gonna work out. Things will be different when we're back in L.A. -- haveta be. but we won't be changed. We'll have more facets of living to handle. We're kinda tunnel-visioned here, because we can afford to be." Hutch didn't answer. "I know how you feel. All I want and need is you." The blue eyes locked with his seemed to take on a glow, and he smiled tenderly. "Maybe when we get back to the Real World, we won't need this --" Hutch made an inarticulate sound of protest. "No, listen. Here, the whole of our existence is bound up in one another. There, there'll be -- well, distractions. Like Jaqi. Like that redhead in Traffic, if she's still available. Anyhow, add to that pressure of work. You remember how it can be sometimes. Thirty-six hours straight duty, and all you want to do is hit the sack. But none of that is going to alter what we feel, is it?" He had felt a small twinge of -- was it nostalgia? -- for hours like those. I must be going crazy! It had been almost a year.

"No," Hutch agreed.

"We could make it with half the female population of L.A. and that wouldn't change us either. Right?"

"Right. But not for camouflage."

I don't have your scruples, babe. To protect what we have, I'll use anyone and anything.

"It's a deal. So we can't spend all our time together, that'd start IA's nose twitching like a jackrabbit's. But weekends -- weekends we can take off somewhere, if you want. Or stay home. Or -- whatever."

"Fine. Just tell me how I get through the week."

"Haven't you been listening to me? Jaqi's gonna need some of your time, too, y'know," he said softly. Hutch's hair slipped through his fingers, silk-light, silvery. You think I'll like it, giving up even minutes of time I could spend with you? Giving you to her? Hutch's eyes were saying all that he couldn't find the words to express. "Hey, I'm not gonna be missing out, lover. There's the Starsky Seraglio, all ready'n'waiting."

"That what you want, Starsk?" Hutch whispered. "Thought we didn't like the idea of camouflage."

"Who's talking camouflage? We're what we are. No different. Right? But now -- I'm always going to be here for you, my Hutch. First, last, and always."

"David..." Hutch's hand caught the back of his neck, pulling his head down. And in a kind of free-form slow somersault, Starsky felt himself falling exquisitely into Hutch's arms, his mouth never leaving Hutch's until he lay cradled across Hutch's lap, one leg still hooked over the back of the couch.

Lover. Love me.

*****

Griffith Park, night, the silence of the dark deserted landscape broken only by leaf-rustle and the wind stirring in the dry grasses. The city was bright with neon and street-lighting, but the busy, noisy hum was only a faint whisper, carried up by the vagary of the breeze.

He stirred out of unconsciousness, and woke to pain. Couldn't isolate it -- his whole body hurt. Even lying still, he hurt. It filled him, body and mind, with an all-consuming intensity.

He tried to straighten his cramped limbs, then cried out, sobbing, as broken bones made their presence known. Breathing was broken glass; he coughed, choked on a thick salty mouthful, and spat it out, seeing it dark on the dusty ground. His tongue found broken surfaces, missing teeth. They were the least of his injuries.

Help. He had to get help. He'd die up here alone. He didn't want to die. His left arm was functional, and his right leg moved when he tried it. He could crawl.

Movement woke a whole catalogue of new pain. from shoulders to hips, his back felt raw. There was a deep agony chewing, gnawing, at his middle. He was hurt bad.

But he wasn't dead. Not yet. Not yet....

Chapter XI.

Accuracy and speed in typing were not among Dave Duplessis' many talents -- besides, typewriters didn't like him. And the much-abused machines in Squadroom 519 liked him least of all. He was involved in his usual battle with the surly IBM late that Friday afternoon when the phone rang at his elbow. "Yeah -- Duplessis." He wedged the receiver between jaw and shoulder, wrestling with the recalcitrant carriage return.

"Huggy," said a familiar voice. "Thought you might be interested in some words I heard, m'man. Since Hutch an' you been workin' the case of the dead pretty-boys, an' Hutch bein' away an' all--"

"Uh, yeah." He felt pleased that Huggy had felt able to trust him in lieu of the absent Hutch. "What you got, Huggy?"

"Some detail might interest you. Can we meet?"

"Sure."

"Okay. Come on down to The Pits this evenin'?"

"Will do. Around six?" He'd have to call Sal, tell her to hold dinner for him.

"See you then."

The typewriter carriage came abruptly free. Duplessis grinned.

*****

The evening rush hadn't started when he arrived, but the place was busy. Dave shouldered his way to the bar, leaned there until able to catch Huggy's eye, and the Bear ambled over. "What it is," he drawled, with a grin. "You on time, anyways. What you drinkin'?"

"Beer, Hug, thanks. You said on the phone --"

"Hey, ease up. You gotta observe the proprieties, y'know?" Huggy put the glass in front of him, accepted the bill he passed over. "Make y'self at home, an' I'll be right with you, dig?" He indicated one of the tables.

"Okay." Duplessis took his beer to the more dimly-lit area, and sat down to wait. As promised, within a few minutes Huggy was sliding into the seat opposite.

"Joint's startin' to jump," he said, "so I'll make this fast. You got two kids dead, an' Hutch was talkin' Murder One, last I heard. You got names -- Connery and Villiers?"

"Right. What have you turned up?"

"Maybe somethin'. Connery I couldn't get nothing on -- Mr. Squeaky Clean, so far as the street knows. But Chris Villiers was one busy boy before he got mixed up with the wrong crowd."

"Busy," Duplessis repeated, taking a drink. Huggy might be the L.A. Oracle, but the more Delphic utterances took time to untangle.

"Busy. Y'know." Huggy glanced over his shoulder, a swift check of the clientele. "Swung both ways. AC/DC."

"So what did you find out?"

"Got a name for you. Friend of Villiers -- Francis Ellis. Here's the address."

"You're sure he'll talk to us?"

"That's the word I got, m'man. 'Cept he don't know Villiers by that name. We're talkin' about Robin Parrish with this dude."

Duplessis noted the alias on the scrap of paper bearing Ellis's address. "Anything else I should know?"

"Only that Ellis and the kid were more than good friends." Huggy got to his feet. "If you know what I mean. So -- go easy on him. He's kinda cut up."

"Gotcha," Duplessis said, pocketing the note. "Thanks, Huggy."

"De nada, compadre." Huggy tossed him a casual salute, sauntering back to the trade. Duplessis downed the rest of his beer and headed out.

The address was in Trousdale, a condo of plush singles apartments, the mortgage payment on any one of which could have swallowed Duplessis' whole salary without leaving more than pocket-change. But he wasn't going to be intimidated by that. He squared his shoulders, located Ellis's apartment, and after seeing his ID, the security guard buzzed the intercom. The voice that answered was male, cultured, crisp, with the hint of a British accent.

"Officer Duplessis, Metro Division, Mr. Ellis," the guard said briskly.

"Yes, thank you, I was expecting him. Ask him to come up, please."

Duplessis stepped across the threshold into luxury. Thick long-pile cream carpet, the kind that showed every footprint, stretched in a seemingly endless prairie throughout the whole open-plan apartment. Ellis stood to greet him. He was shorter than Duplessis by perhaps a couple of inches, with dark short hair, expensively styled, a good tan, and looked generally in good shape. "Officer Duplessis?"

"Good of you to see me, sir," Duplessis said. Ellis's age was maybe late thirties, but he might have been older. The casual shirt looked like silk.

"Yes. Well, how can I help you?"

"A friend of yours," Duplessis said carefully. "Known to you as Robin Parrish. We're checking all his known contacts. We were told you might be able to help us."

"I see." Ellis avoided his eyes for a moment. "Can I get you a drink? Or coffee, perhaps."

Information, for starters, Duplessis thought, but said merely: "Coffee, thanks." At Ellis's gesture, he found himself a seat on the couch; its texture and his nose agreed that it was natural hide, cream in color, deep-buttoned. "Mr. Ellis -- did you know that Parrish wasn't his real name?"

"I knew." Ellis brought the coffee through from the kitchen, poured a cup and handed it to the detective. "Cream? Sugar? Yes, he trusted me with that. But we agreed that Robin suited him so much better. So that was what I called him. From when we first met, six months ago."

Duplessis filed that. "How did you meet him, Mr. Ellis?"

Ellis was concentrating on his coffee cup. "He never cruised. Too dangerous. You never know, you see... And I can't afford to, of course. The risk. It was through Hidalgo."

"Hidalgo," Duplessis repeated. "What is that? A gay -- a club? Bar?"

"It's an Escort Service," Ellis corrected, appearing not to notice Duplessis' slip. "All perfectly respectable. I was hosting a dinner party. The numbers were wrong, so I contacted the agency, asked them to send someone."

"Robin Parrish."

"Yes. After we -- got to know each other, I tried to persuade him to quit. He was very popular. Very much in demand."

"The job paid well?"

"It wasn't the money," Ellis said sharply. "Robin didn't need that. I'd have taken care of everything. He liked the variety. The excitement. He wasn't ready to settle down."

Duplessis cleared his throat. "Did he ever talk to you about his work? The other clients?"

"Not to me." Ellis got up, moving jerkily, and crossed to the window. "I didn't want to know what he did when he wasn't with me."

"So you wouldn't know if he had any enemies."

"No. No one who'd want to kill him."

"Did he ever mention a Drew Connery?" It was a long shot, but worth trying.

"No. Should he have?"

"No reason, sir. Connery was found dead in much the same circumstances as Villiers. We're trying to establish whether or not there's a link."

"We didn't talk about his work," Ellis repeated. Then he swung to look at Duplessis. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"Are you going to get whoever did this? I mean, are the police really going to try?"

"Have you got any reason for thinking we're not trying, Mr. Ellis?"

"I know the attitude you have towards us. One less on the street -- oh, I know. Why bother to find out who did it? He was doing society a favor, wasn't he?"

The bitterness in the man's voice didn't surprise Dave Duplessis. What did was the note of grief. As if he really cared -- as if Robin Parrish had been something more than a paid stud.

"Mr. Ellis," he said quietly, using all the authority he could command, "I don't care what Villiers' lifestyle was. But I do care that he's dead. Murdered. And I want to catch who did it."

"Yes. Of course. I'm sorry." Ellis said quietly, the momentary outburst over. Duplessis waited for a moment before going on, but now he had an angle he intended to check out.

"That's okay, sir. Uh -- I'm sure you're anxious to help us as much as you can. Would you answer a few questions?"

"If I can. Certainly."

"Okay. When was the last time you saw Robin Parrish?"

"The last time I saw him -- that would be at the Greek Theatre, on the 30th of last month. He was with a friend. We had a date set up for the week after, but he never turned up. A few days after that, I heard he was dead."

"Yes. It's been established that he died sometime between April 2nd and 5th. Can you give me an account of your own movements during that period?"

"2nd and 5th--" Ellis came to an abrupt realization. "Just what are you implying, Officer?"

"Nothing, sir." Duplessis matched the icy resentment with his own calm confidence. "We are simply establishing facts. I'm sure you appreciate that a successful investigation is conducted along certain lines. Your movements during that time?"

"I was out of state. I flew to Detroit on April 1st. On business. I didn't return until the 9th."

"I see." Duplessis made notes.

"And I have evidence of that trip. If you're interested."

"Not at present." Duplessis took the chill off with a smile. "Thank you. Will you be available for any further questions, should we need to go further?"

"I imagine so. You can contact me at my office. Or they will be able to tell you where I am." Not much of a thaw.

"Yes. Oh, one last thing -- when you last contacted Robin, did he give you any indication of his itinerary? Who he'd be seeing, what he'd be doing?"

"No. As I told you, we didn't discuss things like that."

Duplessis closed the notebook, replaced it in his pocket, and smiled again, apologetically. "Of course. I won't intrude any further. But if you can think of anything else that might help us, would you call me at this number?"

Ellis accepted Duplessis' card coolly and a few minutes later, the detective walked out of the air-conditioned luxury into the arid L.A. evening. He had something to think about now.

Looks like we scratch Suspect Number One. Ellis was out of state, with any number of alibis. And didn't talk about 'work' with Parrish. Jealous, yeah. Hadn't heard of Connery -- wait a minute, there's something there.

Duplessis ran the conversation again in his head.

Maybe Connery worked for Hidalgo as well? An Escort Service, after all, was like 'massage parlor', the label often hiding a multitude of state violations. It would be worth checking with Vice, see if they had anything on this particular one.

Duplessis headed back towards Metro, but Babcock called him over the radio. "Dave, Griffith Park. Could be we got another like Connery. Only this is a live one."

"On my way." He slapped the Mars light on the roof. This could be the break they needed. Another like Drew Connery, but still alive. Poor bastard.

There was a small crowd, an ambulance, and half a dozen uniforms clustered around a blanketed form on a gurney. The paramedics were just fixing an IV as Duplessis pushed through the spectators.

Blood was the first thing he saw, dark on the grey blanket. The victim's breathing was short, harsh and gasping -- and from what Duplessis could see of him, he carried the same appallingly familiar bruises and lash marks.

"Same M.O.," said Babcock, appearing at his side. "But this time we could get lucky."

"Who found him?"

"The guy over there, sitting in my car," Babcock gestured at the track-suited figure hunched in the front passenger seat. "Or rather, his dog did. Crime Lab is on the way. Thing is, the kid wasn't dumped where he was found. He'd crawled there. There's a pretty clear trail. Come on."

For a quarter of a mile, Duplessis scrambled through scrub and over rough ground, following the line of smears and stained scuff-marks that traced the injured man's progress. Babcock filled him in on the medic's brief diagnosis, a horror story that would not stay neatly to one side of his mind. The man had been beaten, lashed, raped and drugged -- yet this meandering Via Dolorosa was a tribute to his blind stubbornness and refusal to let go of life.

"Poor bastard," Duplessis said aloud.

"Amen," Babcock growled. "Ah-hah, looks like this was where he started from." Tire marks on grass and mud, some broken undergrowth, and a dark area where blood had pooled on dust and stone. "There's a track up here, about half a mile away. By the look of it, the car could have come from that direction." Disappointment was in his voice, and Duplessis could guess why. If the victim had been assaulted here, they might have had a chance of picking up some clues. Still, casts of tire prints, even soil samples, were better than nothing.

"Any ID on him?" Duplessis asked.

"Nope. All he was wearing was levis and sneakers. There could be something around here, though -- maybe they dumped the rest of his clothes with him." He was looking around as he spoke, and they saw the crumple of dark fabric at the same time, caught on the branches of a thorn some yards from the small clearing where the body had been left. Carefully, Babcock lifted it down. "Keep your fingers crossed, kid," he muttered. "At least it's his, that's for sure." Little doubt of that. It was a reversible windbreaker, black and white, and the once white nylon was stained with dried blood. But there was no name tag, and the pockets were empty. "Shit," Babcock muttered -- then his face changed, tightening into a grin. "Pocket lining's torn," he announced, and from between the fabric layers produced a few small coins, some gum wrappers, and a laminated plastic rectangle. A library card. "Our luck just turned. Richard Sandoval."

They had an address, too, within the hour, but as it turned out, it gave them little help. Sandoval had lived alone -- a young unattached male in an anonymous apartment block, like Connery and Villiers. No family, no close friends, the neighbors around him unaware of him, no letters in his rooms, no evident links with any agency or a gay lifestyle. He didn't seem to have a steady job, but his rent was always paid on time, and he didn't seem to be short on cash.

Another blank.

But it filled Saturday morning. Duplessis didn't need to put in those hours on his checking, but he'd never been a nine-to-five cop, anyway. He logged off at three with the beginning of a tension headache and the need to sit and talk about the case -- bounce some ideas around. Babcock was unlikely to take kindly to interference with his weekend. But Hutch was due back from vacation sometime today, he recalled, and was driving towards Venice Place before he'd consciously made the decision.

*****

Like Damocles' Sword, the inescapable fact of their imminent return to L.A. hung over them, and deepened Hutch's mood of depression. By mid-afternoon, he was all but mute; and worse, could not have talked about it if he'd wanted to. Reason told him that Starsky was right, nothing could really separate them, but his reason and his fears were at odds with each other. And he couldn't hide it from his lover. Their increased rapport meant they were each aware of every subtle change of mood, and this time, Starsky wasn't trying to talk him out of it. Instead he simply stayed close, giving Hutch the security of his nearness and his love in silent companionship.

The last night. Tomorrow, Los Angeles and another kind of reality. The light of common day, hard and uncompromising. But nothing lasts forever.

Neither man had much appetite for the special meal they'd planned. Hutch was just not hungry, and knew that the sight of himself picking at the food was probably killing what was left of Starsky's appetite.

"Hutch?" The quiet voice slid into his thoughts like balm, and he looked up into dark blue eyes. Starsky raised a wine glass. "To us?"

Hutch managed a smile, and lifted his own glass. "To us," he echoed.

"It's going to be okay."

"Yeah. Sure." Wanting to believe, but unable to shrug off the shadows.

"I mean it, babe," Starsky insisted. "So lighten up. It's going to be okay. Me'n'thee. Like it's always been."

"Yeah. Hey, I'm sorry. This was going to be a special evening, something to remember, and I've spoiled it."

"No, you haven't." A quiet assurance. "I know how you feel, Hutch. I feel the same way. Leaving here -- it's been out of this world, hasn't it? But sooner or later the real world would have caught up with us. This way we meet it on our terms."

Hutch's eyes were locked on the beloved face, and he did not answer. Our terms. Hiding what should not have to be hidden.

Abruptly he remembered his feelings an age of the world away, when Starsky had walked out on him after that first night of loving. He had clung to the memory of that sweetness, a talisman against the pain of loss, a jewel untarnishable by any dross. How much more so, then, was the reality of their freely acknowledged love and need for each other? It would be tarnished only if they let it. Try to remember that, Hutchinson. But he also knew that although they were stronger now, paradoxically they were -- he was -- more vulnerable than ever before.

"Hutch?" Starsky murmured. "To hell with this. Let's go to bed?"

The room was in deep shadow, the half-seen expanse of bed and dark fur cover, the subtle scents of their living and loving, a haven from the world. Starsky did not put on the light. Instead he moved to the window, opened the drapes and let in the moonlight.

It touched his dark head with eldritch fingers, silver on the heavy curls, a pearl gloss on planes of face and throat, deepening the contrast shadows. The sight filled Hutch's eyes and heart, and the beauty of him stopped the breath in his lover's throat.

"Babe?" Soft-breathed endearment as Starsky came to him, eyes sapphire-dark, looking into his face. "What's wrong?"

Hutch caught him into a convulsive embrace, burying his face in the silken hair, holding him tightly, unable to speak. Starsky was supple and yielding in his arms, the strong body melting against him, long fingers drifting over the tautness of his back and shoulders and nape, every gentle touch telling of understanding and love. Nor did he try to pull away. It was Hutch who moved back at last, though not letting go. He tried to master his emotions, the flood that threatened to drown him, eyes screwed shut. And fingertips brushed his face.

"Hutch? It'll be all right. Come on, babe. Come to bed."

The feel of Starsky, the taste of his mouth, the lightest touch burned him. He wanted more, though of what he didn't know, could not have said; only that he was dying of thirst in a desert, and here was his oasis. Adrift on a raging sea, and here was his harbor. Lost in endless night, here was his beacon star.

Mine. Always and forever, mine. No one can take this away from me. No one.

I won't let it happen.

*****

It had been a silent drive home -- mainly because Hutch had dropped asleep soon after they left the cabin, leaving Starsky the pleasure of driving. And it wasn't until he swung the car into the curving uphill street to his apartment that Hutch surfaced enough to recognize his surroundings. "Thought we were going back to Venice Place," he objected drowsily.

"Sure. Later. I want to pick up a few things." Starsky braked to a neat halt. "You want to come on up an' wait?"

"Uh-huh. Why not?" Hutch's jaw cracked on a yawn as he levered himself out of the seat and followed on Starsky's heels. "You got any beer in?"

Starsky's small secret smile widened as he fitted the key in the lock, swung the door wide and gestured Hutch to precede him. "Probably."

"Terrific, because I -- Starsk?"

The table was set for two, with crisp pale green linen, gleaming crystal and silver. Starsky chuckled, sidled past the stunned Hutch into the kitchen, and opened the fridge. As per instruction, the salad was prepared in its bowl, platters of sliced chicken, ham and pastrami beside it, and a carafe of Pinot Noir Blanc, nicely chilled, on the lower shelf. The note folded around it read simply, 'Enjoy the chow,' and was signed 'Huggy'.

"Welcome home, lover," Starsky said.

"When -- how -- I mean --"

"Arranged it with Huggy, when you were shopping that day," Starsky said with satisfaction. "Guessed you'd be on a downer, coming back. Thought this might cheer you up. And I wanted to get back at you for that surprise party."

"You idiot --" Hutch managed. "You crazy --"

"Yeah, I know." The grin was pure self-congratulation. "Besides," and his voice deepened to a throaty purr, "want t' see what you look like on blue sheets, lover --" And watched Hutch's eyes widen and darken to a smoky azure.

"Bastard..." It was a husky whisper.

"Better believe it," Starsky agreed complacently before Hutch's mouth stifled his next words. When he was allowed to speak, "What about the salad?"

"We'll have it for breakfast," Hutch said absently, unwilling to be sidetracked from the matter in hand.

*****

Starsky came awake with a distinctly odd feeling that bits of him were coated with glue. Or library paste. He wasn't sure he felt equal to finding out what the tacky stuff was until he got his eyes open and saw that Hutch's hair, a soft glistening tangle against the dark blue of the pillow, was also adorned by a sprig of parsley. There was a coagulated blotch of coleslaw not an inch from his ear, and an icky stain that might have had a close relationship with a slice of tomato.

He remembered then the midnight feast which had taken place last night, direct contradiction of the belief that anyone can live on love. They had gotten slightly rowdy -- there are many ways of drinking chilled white wine, many of them not involving glasses -- and they must have fallen asleep very quickly in the middle of the debris afterwards.

"Trashy..." Starsky said to himself, realizing that the greasy residue was nothing more reprehensible than spilled mayonnaise. He started to untangle himself from Hutch's arms and legs, but Hutch woke up, his grip tightening instinctively, and Starsky didn't fight it. "Hi," he said softly.

"Mmm. H'llo, babe." Hutch, eyes still closed, nuzzled into his chest, but the difference in texture between silky pelt and the patches matted by salad dressing must have registered enough to rouse his curiosity. "What the hell--" he got his eyes open and focused. "Starsk --?" And chuckled, licking at the spill. "Hors d'oeuvres?" he whispered. "That was kinda wild, huh? You taste terrific."

"Even covered with rancid mayonnaise?" Starsky grinned. "Guess you really do love me. We both need a shower, Hutch."

"Later," Hutch said huskily against his neck. "S'not rancid, either."

Starsky's only answer was a soft moan as tongue and lips and fingers worked a shivering magic on his skin and Hutch reversed their roles of the previous night.

"... and now we definitely do need a shower," Starsky murmured contentedly. "Y'want to come wash my back?"

"Sure thing," Hutch kissed him. "And -- thanks, babe."

"No more downer?"

"Nope."

"S'good."

PART V