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Part Four

Charlotte Frost


"How you holdin' up?"

Through the corner of his eye, Starsky saw Hutch turn to look at him from the passenger seat. The blond wore an expression that suggested annoyance with the question. He replied, "I'm holding. I'm great, in fact, considering we just wasted two hours trying to pump somebody for information who didn't even know Marquez."

"Yeah, but we wouldn't have known that for sure," Starsky said cheerfully, "unless we'd taken that time to pump for information."

"Should have believed him when he first told us he didn't know what we were talking about."

"Hey, if we believed everything every schmuck on the street told us, we'd never find out anything."

Hutch didn't respond.

Nevertheless, Starsky thought, the banter felt good, especially with it being Hutch's first day on the street since his convalescence. He'd been helicoptered back to Los Angeles, but he was allowed to leave without being admitted. The doctors had sutured both his bullet wounds and the worst of the barbed wire tears, and given him an antibiotic for good measure. He was ordered to stay home for a few days, then allowed to do desk work until the stitches were removed, which was yesterday.

Milford's estate had been thoroughly searched in the meantime. There was, indeed, further evidence of his gambling establishment, which was scheduled to be busted any day by the police in San Bernardino, and his involvement with the death of the two policemen. But none of that mattered as long as Milford couldn't be found.

Now they were back on the street at the usual routine, this day being an unproductive one of trying to run down leads on the murder of a gas station attendant.

Pulling up behind the LTD on Ocean, Starsky turned off the motor of the Torino, deciding to come up with Hutch to make sure he got settled in okay. It was always difficult to not be hovering after having seen to your partner's survival after a crisis. He knew that Hutch understood that, for the other didn't comment when Starsky followed him up the staircase.

Hutch had picked up his mail on the first floor, and he leafed through it after opening the door of his apartment and divesting himself of his jacket and holster.

Starsky removed his own jacket. "Anything in there that says your great, great uncle died and left you a million?"

"Funny you should ask." Hutch held up a large brown envelope. It had flamboyant print all over it.

Starsky took it. "Oh," he said, taking off his holster while reading the front of the envelope. "Who needs a great, great uncle when you've got Ed McMahon." Starsky made his voice booming. "'You may have just won one million dollars.'" He sat on the arm of the sofa. "You're going to mail it in, aren't ya?"

Hutch was tearing open another envelope, his back to his partner. "What would be the point? That's all a scam."

"No, it isn't. There's government committees that look into these things, make sure they stick to all their promises. Come on, you gotta enter. Otherwise, it's impossible to win."

"It's impossible, anyway," Hutch said, reading the newly-opened mail.

"Then I'll enter for ya," Starsky decided. "I'll even order some magazines for you so your entry gets put in the 'Yes' pile." He laid the envelope down, then watched Hutch, who was opening more of his mail.

Hutch was healed now. It had been twelve days since the events at Milford's estate. Other than a jagged scar on his leg, and more minor ones in the front and back of his left side, he had no external evidence of his ordeal.

Starsky walked up behind his partner, feeling he'd been waiting for this moment those entire twelve days.

"No way am I 'Past Due' on my phone bill," Hutch muttered, tossing the envelope in his hand to the table.

Starsky slipped his arms around Hutch's waist, careful to make sure they were high enough to not touch the area of the recent wounds.

"Hey--" Hutch started.

"Shh," Starsky admonished. He pressed his cheek against the taller man's back. "Just give me a minute."

Human warmth. Such a simple thing, but sometimes so very vital. Starsky felt the heat against his cheek, and he stepped closer, wanting his whole body to experience that same reassurance of Hutch's well-being.

Human strength. Starsky felt it, through all the parts of him that pressed against this powerful man who was his partner. So powerful that he had managed to elude his would-be killers, even when all had seemed lost.

Human tenderness. His arms applied it now as they pressed the body they held. Wanting to give tactile sensation as badly as he needed to receive it.

The warmth spread out from Starsky's cheek to his face and neck. Flowed from his arms and came back through them, filtering down into his chest. Surged from his groin to the buttocks he was pressed against, creating a circular effect.

Starsky closed his eyes. Powerful strength was building between his legs, coming alive to nudge against the snug flesh he was pressed against. He decided that he did not mind having that kind of reaction.

Hutch made a noise and tried to step away.

Starsky squeezed him tighter, holding him in place. "Let's not be ashamed of it," he whispered.

He felt the deep breath drawn by the other's chest. He knew, instinctively, why that breath was needed.

Squeezing tighter with his right arm, Starsky moved his left hand down Hutch's front. He came to a hump at the other's crotch and placed his hand firmly against it, cupping it.

He liked feeling it move. Liked feeling the proof of how healthy Hutch was, proof that he had taken good care of Hutch in the aftermath of his emotional trauma and physical abuse.

Starsky opened his hand and rubbed its flatness against the growing mound.

Hutch wrenched away, so quickly that Starsky was jolted by the cooler air that now taunted his body; the force of gravity that made him stand on his own two feet, which was such an unpleasant contrast to having leaned against the warmth of the tall, powerful frame.

Hutch walked stiffly to the kitchen and turned on the water--cold, Starsky knew--at full power. He ran his cupped hands beneath it, then bent and threw water at his face. He grabbed a hand towel and ran it underneath the stream. When it was thoroughly soaked he put it around his neck and pulled tight.

Slowly, he turned off the water. Then he turned around.

Starsky swallowed as those blue eyes met his own from across the kitchen. All he could read in them was confusion.

No words were uttered. By either of them. Starsky moved a few steps toward the kitchen and placed his hand on the back of a chair at the table, then lowered his eyes. He attempted to speak, but only an incomprehensible sound emerged, because he wasn't sure what he should say.

"What was that all about?"

Starsky looked up. Hutch was now facing him, his hands resting back on the edge of the sink. He'd pulled the towel from his neck and looked like he was serious about getting an answer.

Starsky let out a breath. "Nothin," he said.

Hutch looked as though he didn't believe him, and his voice was tinged with frustration. "You're one of the last people I'd ever expect to say a man shouldn't be ashamed of a sexual response to another man."

Those words sounded funny. "Man." "Sexual response." Like something out of a textbook. Like his and Hutch's feelings for each other could be explained with the proper academic enlightenment.

Starsky knew he had to say something. "I just needed to be close to you, Hutch. You know how it is...after a close call."

The words had an effect, for he could see Hutch's expression soften. "Yes," the blond said, "I know how it is." Now a frown. "But don't pretend this is anything other than what it is."

Those words were puzzling. "What do you mean?" Starsky asked, wondering what Hutch was talking about.

Now blatant frustration. "Ah, come on, Starsky! You know damn well what this is all about. I saw the look on your face at Milford's when I told him I'd give him what he wanted."

Starsky's eyes widened. He felt they were treading on dangerous ground...ground on which there were so many feelings that it seemed impossible to try to begin to sort through them. "Hutch," he protested, trying to stem the attempt, "I know you had to do the only thing you could do. And I was mad as hell," he admitted, feeling that anger now, "for being sent away like that. But I knew it was necessary. I knew it was the only chance of us both getting out of there alive, just like you did."

Louder, "I'm not talking about that."

The words were harsh and Starsky waited, feeling both a sense of dread and a desperate need to know what Hutch was going to say.

"I'm not talking about life and death," Hutch insisted. "We both know what we each had to do to stay alive." His jaw firmed. "But there was something else going on on a completely separate level that had nothing to do with life and death." He stabbed a finger toward Starsky. "What happened just now was because you needed to prove something, didn't you?"

Starsky flinched, surprised at the accusation.

"No, I take that back," Hutch corrected rapidly. "Not what you needed to prove. What you needed me to prove." He drew a deep breath, but the next sentence was no less harsh. "If I'm going to get it up for another man, that man had better be you. Right?"

Starsky sank into the chair he'd been standing beside. He'd never intended for his expression of love to have created such a storm of misunderstandings. Or confused feelings. "Hutch, I--"

"Ownership," Hutch interrupted. "Possessiveness. Territorialism. Whatever you want to call it. You can't stand the thought of men making it with each other, but when it gets down it, if your partner has any such ideas, he'd better reserve them for you. Right?"

Starsky made sure Hutch was finished speaking. Then he said, "Hutch, you've got it all wrong. I'm--I'm...sorry...that I--" he gestured helplessly, "things just got confused. That's all."

The tension had left Hutch's body. He reached up and rubbed wearily at his forehead. "Yeah," he finally agreed. "No kidding."

"Hutch, I--" Starsky knew he'd better finish a sentence. "Listen, I just...I just love you so damn much."

Hutch looked up sharply then, his hand dropping away from his face. There was something in his expression...something subtle, but nevertheless, the anger and confusion were slipping away.

Starsky was amazed at the transformation. He'd never felt very comfortable verbalizing his feelings. It had always made more sense to him to show how he felt instead of talking about it. But even he had to acknowledge the power of those three words over his partner, for Hutch had now lowered his eyes and looked outright bashful.

"Yeah. I know," Hutch finally said.

Starsky felt bashful himself and muttered, "Didn't mean to...upset you."

When he glanced up, Hutch was moving away from the sink. "Yeah, I know," he said again, this time softer. He came over to Starsky and reached down to his shoulder. Starsky closed his eyes as those fingers squeezed his flesh, and was gratified to feel Hutch's other hand on his other shoulder, also massaging.

"I wasn't ashamed," Hutch whispered. "Just...over-heated."

"I got a little carried away," Starsky admitted, feeling amusement now. The fingers were loosening him up nicely. "I'd been wanting to hold you like crazy ever since that morning at Milford's when you agreed to sacrifice yourself. Didn't have the chance until now."

The fingers stopped and an arm was now draped around his shoulders as Hutch knelt at his side. Those eyes were such a bright blue. "Buddy," he said, "you know...if I ever were do it with another could only be with you."

Starsky definitely felt bashful now. "Yeah," he mumbled, understanding what Hutch meant, and not feeling threatened by it because it was all academic. But then he said, "Of course, don't forget your buddies when you were fourteen."

Though Hutch had to know he was only joking, the blond seriously said, "Those were just kids. It was just sex play. It had nothing to do with love or feelings."

Starsky had to lower his gaze, for it was, indeed, so powerful, the love and feelings between them. Such a strong force. He reached out, put his hand on Hutch's head, loving the feel of the soft hair. "I don't want you gettin' the wrong idea. I don't want anything from you, Hutch. Just needed close. Everything's been...." Abruptly, Starsky pushed from his chair and marched a few steps away, before turning back around.

Hutch was looking up at him with concern.

"Everything's just seemed to crazy lately," Starsky said. Now that that fact had been admitted, he felt a flurry of words rush from within. "Not just you and Milford and how that whole thing played out, but meetin' Marianne again, of all people." His eyes lowered. "Brought back all that stuff about how things were between you and me then. How we'd...let ourselves drift apart. And also," he looked up quickly, "how sometimes when all you want to do is a good job, you still stumble and fall and get mixed up with the wrong person. You and I both know that." Starsky took a few steps away, unable to remain in one place. "And then just wanting to..." he swallowed thickly, "help you...after finding you in those woods. And having to..." he drew a deep, deep breath, "hurt you like I did in order to heal you." Starsky threw up his hands, and then let them drop to his sides. "Some things just don't seem to make a lotta sense anymore."

Hutch was on his feet. "Starsk," he said anxiously, moving to take his partner by the arms. "Buddy, we'll get through all this. Put it behind us. Because we've always got each other. That's why we'll always make it."

Starsky couldn't help but smile. Between the two of them, it was usually himself that was the eternal optimist, and he knew it threw Hutch for a loop those few times when it was himself who got down.

The blond squeezed the arms he held. "Don't know what I'd do without your strength." A pause. "Don't ever want to find out."

"As long as staying alive is our number one priority, neither of us will ever have to."

Hutch rested his forehead against Starsky. "Yeah," he drawled softly.

Starsky loved feeling that weight against him.

Abruptly, Hutch moved, and a wet kiss was planted on Starsky's cheek.

Starsky grinned. "If you're gonna start behavin' like that, I think it's time for me to go."

Hutch stepped away. "I was going to fix a Greek salad. Sure you don't want some?"

Starsky made a face. "No, thanks. Think I'll pass in favor of some real food." He went to the sofa and picked up his gun and holster. "See ya tomorrow, huh?"

Hutch waved while turning to the refrigerator.

* * *

"Starsky, Hutchinson."

Both men looked up at their superior.

"In my office."

They exchanged a glance, then obeyed.

"I have a report here from Interpol," Dobey said after both detectives were seated. "A few days ago a small plane crashed down on the southern tip of Mexico, apparently on its way to Brazil. All six people on board were killed. One of them was Louis Milford."

"Damn," Hutch said as he bowed his head.

Starsky felt the same. "That was better than he deserved, the lousy pervert." Dobey would know what he meant. Hutch hadn't been shy about reporting the details of what had happened after their covers were blown. The only vagueness in the report had been on his lack of ability to perform, which he'd simply described as "finding myself unable to participate in what I'd agreed to do."

The captain went on, "The other men killed were identified as his bodyguards, his personal secretary, and the pilot."

"Now we don't have a case," Hutch said morosely. They had hoped that someday they would be able to put all their solid evidence to use, if Milford dared set foot back in the U.S.

"We all know how it is," Dobey said. "Sometimes we put our time and effort into something important, to say nothing of putting our lives on the line, and it all comes to naught. We've got to put this disappointment behind us and go on." After a moment, he asked, "How's the leads on the gas station murder going?"

"None of the possible suspects have panned out," Hutch replied distantly. "It could just as easily have been a two-bit robber who got a little trigger-happy."

"I'm not convinced as yet," Dobey said. "Keeping running down what you have."

Both detectives nodded and got up from their chairs. They left the room and plopped down at their desk in the squadroom.

After a long moment, Hutch said, "I had hoped we could get justice."

"Yeah. Me, too.

"I hope he suffered a little before he died."

Starsky blinked and was so surprised by the statement that he didn't comment.

Hutch glanced up at his silence, then ducked his head. "I didn't mean that." His head tilted. Then, softly, "Yeah, maybe I did." He wadded up a piece of scrap paper and threw it into the trash can.

Starsky tried to be consoling. "Yeah, well, who'd blame you? Can't say I feel any different. Maybe we did get a certain sort of justice, and he was facing certain death while the plane was going down. Served him right to feel what it was like."

Hutch gazed at the desk top for a long time. Then he said, "I don't like feeling like this. It's not what I want." Abruptly, he was on his feet.

"Where you goin'?"

"I gotta take a leak."

Starsky watched him go, a memory tickling the back of his mind. What was it Marianne had told him? Something about...making pretty little speeches. Hutch telling her, "You've got to say 'This is me. And I like it.'" And what was it she had pointed out? Someone doesn't say things like that unless they've experienced something in their life that has taught them that. Or were those words some pretty little speech he read before his little undercover job?

No, those words definitely weren't part of any 'research' that Hutch had taken part in. So...they had to come from the heart.

His precious, blond little heart.

So, what are you saying, Marianne? Starsky wondered now. Are you saying that Hutch spent some portion of his life--perhaps a large portion of his life--not liking himself?

Starsky squirmed in his chair, not liking that thought at all. And simply not believing it. He'd always viewed his partner as tough and confident. Self-confident. Sure, there were moments when that confidence was challenged. Like when he had a scene with a line in a western movie. But most of the time Hutch was strong, bold, always ready with an answer. The right answer. Courageous. Powerful. Resilient. Charming. Bashful. Former college wrestler. Former collegiate dart champion. Hutch was all those things. He was also moody, fussy, and cantankerous. And he had grown very disillusioned in the past year or so.

But I haven't known him his whole life. Not even his whole adult life. Just most of it.

Starsky knew that Hutch had grown up in a household where material possessions were stressed more than love. Still, despite Hutch's grumblings on the rare occasions when the subject was brought up, Starsky couldn't bring himself to believe that Hutch had been unloved. In fact, when it got down to it, he didn't believe that Hutch truly believed he had been unloved, either. He just hadn't gotten as much as he felt he'd deserved. Still, Hutch had been a standout in just about every activity he'd participated in at school. He surely received a lot of encouragement and praise from teachers, coaches, and friends. He wouldn't be the confident man he was today if he hadn't.

So, where does not liking himself fit in? Starsky wondered. Why did he feel so strongly about the things he thought he needed to say to Marianne? He sure made an impression, because she sounded like she had memorized the things he said. She was such a sad person, being used unmercifully by her brother, the person she loved most. She felt helpless in the situation she was in, and Hutch was trying to rally her to take control of her life.

Hutch, what's the parallel to your own life? Was there some point when you decided to take control, too? Because you felt you were being controlled by someone else?

Of course, most teenagers felt controlled by their parents and were full of frustration as a result. But that stuff usually worked itself out as the teenager grew into adulthood. Starsky found it difficult to believe that Hutch hadn't worked the same stuff out himself.

So, buddy, if it's not your parents who were controlling you, then who was it? And when and how did you break free?

Starsky left the squadroom, heading down the hall to the men's room. He'd started the trip without thought as to why he was going there or what he wanted to say. He just knew that he felt a strong need to be close to Hutch.

Starsky swung open the door. "Hey, Peterson," he muttered to the man who was drying his hands.

The man nodded in return, tossed the towel in the vicinity of the wastebasket, and left the room.

Starsky looked down the row of urinals. No one else there. He looked down the row of doorless stalls. Legs clothed in blue jeans could be seen beneath the one on the far end. The jeans weren't bunched at the ankles.

"Hutch?" Starsky said beneath his breath. He strode down the row, and turned to face the open stall at the end.

Hutch was sitting on the toilet, fully clothed, his head in his hands. Except now he looked up in surprise.

Starsky gripped each side of the stall. "What are you doin' sitting here?"

Those pale lashes fluttered at the irony. "Trying to get some privacy."

It would have been funny in other circumstances. But this wasn't other circumstances. "Privacy from what?" Starsky wanted to know.

"Not from anything in particular," Hutch replied blandly. "Just privacy."

"What's goin' on?" Starsky whispered.

"I don't know," Hutch told him. "I just...don't know."

"Can't you go be private somewhere your car or somethin'?" He heard the door open and glanced back to see an unfamiliar man step up to the urinals.

Hutch's eyes were asking who it was and Starsky shrugged.

Now the blond's voice was tinged with frustration. "In most cases," he said in a low but very distinct voice, "bathroom stalls are great places for privacy. Unless you have a partner who's a little too eager to stick his nose into your business."

Starsky flinched, even though he had to admit that Hutch had a point. Nevertheless, he said, "I'm just concerned about you, buddy."

"Starsky, if I want to talk to you, I'll talk to you."

The door opened again and Starsky cringed at the large black form he saw enter through the corner of his eye. "Dobey," he whispered through gritted teeth.

Hutch glared at Starsky. "Imagine how this must look," he whispered back, just as tightly.

Starsky hoped their superior was too focused on his own needs to notice, but in heading for the urinals, Dobey had already spotted them. "Starsky...Hutchinson?" he asked with concern. "Is there a problem?"

"Uh, no, Captain, no problem at all," Starsky said with exaggerated cheerfulness. "Me and Hutch are just havin'...a private conversation."

Dobey grunted as he turned toward the urinals. "Funny place for a conversation."

Starsky looked back at his partner and the glare from those blue eyes was just as strong. No kidding, Hutch mouthed to him.

Starsky sighed, knowing that whatever he said wasn't going to score any points with his partners' sensibilities. Just the opposite, in fact. Frowning, he turned away and left the room.

* * *

Starsky didn't feel any better over the fact that they'd driven separate cars to work. If they'd shared, he could have at least tried to talk to Hutch on the way home.

But he was alone in the Torino as he drove toward his apartment. He could understand Hutch's frustration. Usually, they were respectful of each other's space to whatever degree was necessary. But Starsky felt extra sensitive about making sure he and Hutch didn't become distant from each other, as had happened before. And with what had almost happened with Milford, and what he'd learned from Marianne, he felt as though there was some part of Hutch that was a stranger to him.

And he didn't want that part--or any part of Hutch--to be a stranger. He gave himself wholeheartedly to his partner, and he wanted to know all of Hutch in return. He wanted to comfort and protect that elusive part as much as the rest of Hutch. He wanted to know that his partner was whole and intact. He wanted to be secure that there were no surprises lurking down the road.

He wanted Hutch to tell him everything, and he thought he had a right to expect him to.

But Hutch couldn't ask for his help if the blond himself didn't know what help was needed. He'd looked like such a forlorn figure, sitting on the john with his head in his hands.

What was going through your mind, Hutch? What was tormenting you that I couldn't help with?

"I don't know," had been Hutch's reply.

Then let me help you figure it out, Starsky pleaded silently. And then maybe you can help me figure out some of my feelings about everything that's happened the past few weeks.

Few months?

Starsky's jaw firmed. Or had it been a few years?

* * *

"Stop here," Hutch gestured to the sidewalk next to the park.


"I want a pretzel."

Starsky pulled the Torino to the curb next to the closest vendor, thinking it an odd request on his partner's behalf.

It was two days since they'd gotten the news of Milford's death. Starsky had mentioned the incident in the men's room once, and had been met with a terse, "Will you quit making such a big deal out of everything?" Much as it went against his instincts, Starsky decided to take a step back and give Hutch the space requested.

Hutch got his over-sized pretzel and Starsky ordered a raspberry snow cone. While Starsky was taking his first bite, Hutch started walking in a direction away from the Torino. Starsky followed.

They were silent for a few moments. Then Hutch nudged his partner with an elbow. "You open to a truce?"

Despite his frustration the past two days, Starsky felt himself go soft all over. "Hutch, that isn't necessary." He worked intently with his straw, trying to crush the ice of his cone into smaller pieces. "I just need to learn to step back sometimes, that's all. After everything we've been through together, it's hard not to feel over-protective at times."

"Yeah," Hutch said softly. Then, "I'm not trying to shut you out, buddy."

"I know."

"I just have some issues I need to work through."

They'd entered a path that led into the park, and Starsky leaned back against a drinking fountain. "Yeah, I know. It's just that I also know that sometimes--most of the time--working things out goes a lot faster when you have somebody you trust to bounce things off of."

Hutch took the last bite of his pretzel and used a napkin to dab at his mouth as he chewed. Then he wadded it up and tossed it into the nearby trash can. He stood back, looking at Starsky thoughtfully. "You want the real truth?"

Starsky straightened, surprised that there was a 'real truth' to be revealed. "What?"

Hutch lowered his eyes a moment. Then he looked up and said, "I can't talk to you about the things on my mind because I don't think you've confronted the truth about how you feel. In fact, I know you haven't."

Starsky blinked, more puzzled than ever. "What truth?"

Hutch shook his head. "Ah, Starsk, you're" he threw up his hands.

"So...what?" Starsky prompted, uneasy with his partner's hesitation. Wondering what he could have possibly done to make Hutch not want to talk to him.

"This whole thing," Hutch finally replied in a small voice. "The issue...with Milford."

Starsky searched his partner's eyes, more uneasy than ever. "What about it?"

Hutch snorted. "Starsky, stop and think about it. You don't make any sense. For as long as I've known you, you've had an issue with guys making it with each other. You're completely uncomfortable with the whole subject. Yet, the minute Milford gave you vibes that he had a crush on me, you were totally obsessed with the idea. It was practically all you thought about." Hutch stepped closer, his voice lowering to the point of almost being apologetic. "And then, when I took the one option I had to try to get us out of there alive, you were angry as hell with me. And I don't mean for sending you away, though you were understandably angry about that, too."

Starsky felt his heart beating faster. Hutch sounded so sure of himself. Starsky wanted to protest the words, but he didn't have the same self-assurance about what he would say.

"Don't you see?" Hutch was still leaning toward Starsky, as if to drive his point home. "Milford was coming onto your territory. And I was letting him. Never mind that you'd never in a million years claim what you felt to be your rights to me that way. But that doesn't change the fact that you don't feel any other man should have a right to me, either."

In disbelief that he should have to point it out, Starsky sputtered, "He didn't have rights to you, Hutch! By definition, coerced sex is the same thing as rape. He had no right to do to you what we both thought he was going to do. Even with what it turned out he really wanted to do, it was coercion. Completely. What's wrong with me objecting to my partner being subjected to that?"

Hutch threw up his hands. "Because that's not what you were objecting to!" He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, then looked around him, as though conscious of being in public. He nodded toward a vacant gazebo ahead.

They both started walking.

"Don't you see?" Hutch pleaded as they reached it. "Are you trying to tell me you would have felt any different if I'd wanted to do it with him?"

Starsky felt a cold fear latch onto his throat. He swallowed thickly and his voice was high-pitched in disbelief. "There's no way you coulda wanted to do it with him."

"Right. But I'm talking philosophically," Hutch said quickly. "Just pretend for a minute that I go through a midlife crisis and decide I'm going to join the sexual revolution and try anything and everything. And I make it with guys. Voluntarily. How would you feel about that?" He plopped down onto a cement bench.

Starsky turned his back and placed his hands on the railing. He realized, then, the point Hutch was trying to make. He was puzzled as to why it was so important, but there was no way he wouldn't give Hutch what he wanted.

He swung around. "All right, all right. You want to hear me say it?" he challenged. "Okay. Even voluntarily, I wouldn't want to think about you doing it with other guys." He drew a ragged breath. "There. I admit it. I'm not proud of it, but how else do ya expect me to feel when--you're right--I don't like the thought of guys doin' it with each other. I don't want to think about my partner doin' those things, either."

Hutch was looking up at him with eyes that grew wider as Starsky spoke. Then the blond snorted harshly and was on his feet. "That is bull...shit!"

Starsky blinked and stepped back, confused that he seemed to be misreading Hutch so badly.

"You still can't face the truth," the blond accused. "Don't stand there and tell me the reason you don't like the thought of me doing it is because you don't approve of the act itself. Not when, just a few days ago, you were standing against me with your boner pressed against my ass, and telling me we shouldn't be 'ashamed'. And then rubbing your hand against me like you were wanting to start something."

Starsky realized his mouth was open. He could see, now, how mixed up it all seemed on the surface. Hutch was still misunderstanding his intent from that night.

Hutch slumped back on the bench again. His voice was now quiet and pleading. "Don't you see, buddy? I can't talk to you about any of this, because you won't even admit that it's an issue. You want to make everything black or white. But I feel like we're straddling a fine line. But since you want to pretend that you're safely to one side of the line, I've got to figure out what's going on all by myself."

"Hutch," Starsky moved to him, unable to bear that he had somehow made Hutch feel so isolated. He sat beside his partner, intentionally close enough so that their arms were pressed together. "Hutch, you sound like you think I want us to make it together." His voice softened. "Geez, it's nothin' like that. Like I told ya the other night, I don't want anything from you. Things just got a little mixed up that night, and I guess I can see how you'd--"

"Why did they get mixed up?" Hutch pressed, looking at him. "If you're so damn sure of how you feel, then how did your feelings get mixed up in the first place?"

Starsky's mouth fell open because he realized it was a good question and he didn't have an answer.

"Buddy, don't get me wrong," Hutch implored, more gently, "I--I'm not blaming you for anything. I'm just...trying to figure out what's been going on inside me since that day at Milford's. And you aren't helping when you aren't being honest about your side of it."

Starsky sighed. He did, indeed, want very badly to help. Hutch didn't deserve to have his life shaken up by a two-bit, murdering, perverted creep like Milford. He just didn't know what more he could say that wouldn't continue to frustrate Hutch. But he did want badly to understand. "Well, why don't you just tell me some of the stuff that's goin' through your mind, and I'll just listen."

Hutch laughed softly and looked away a moment, as though he really didn't think that would help, but he was amused by the effort. Amused enough to indulge it, apparently, for he looked thoughtfully at the ground. After a long moment, he said, "I--I was scared. I don't just mean about if Milford was going to keep his word or not and let me live. But also about what I thought we were going" He swallowed thickly. "I kept telling myself I could handle it. I should be able to handle it. I mean, guys get raped every day; much more than most people realize. But..." his brows pulled together as his voice became more unsteady, "I was afraid of how much it might hurt. How degraded I'd feel. I knew I'd live through it--and I kept trying to focus on the fact that it's what allowed you to live--but I was still...." His head bowed and it was a long moment before he spoke. "And, yet...I was even more afraid when I realized what he wanted from me. Even before it was obvious I couldn't perform, I was afraid that...."

Starsky pressed his body closer to his partner's, anxious for the rest. "That what?" he whispered.

"That...that he would like it," Hutch replied in a choked breath. He closed his eyes. "I didn't want to do anything to that bastard that he was going to enjoy. At least, if it were rape, I knew I didn't have a choice, and it would be something he took and not something I gave."

"But you didn't give him anything," Starsky said quickly, more puzzled than ever at Hutch's dilemma; yet not doubting for a moment that what Hutch had gone through was capable of wreaking a great deal of havoc with one's mental and emotional state of mind. "And, besides which, it wasn't your fault that you didn't. I mean, technically, it was still rape because you were being forced into a sexual act, but you couldn't respond, through no fault of your own. So," he added gently, "when you look at it that way, it still wasn't your choice. And you didn't give him anything."

Hutch lowered his head in his hands. When he looked up again, he firmly, said, "But I wish I'd had a choice. I wanted to respond...even more than I hated the thought of giving him what he wanted. Between the two, that would have been a lesser evil--because I'd made the decision of my own free will. I sure as hell didn't want to be..." his jaw firmed, "taken out and shot."

"Damned if you do and damned if you don't," Starsky muttered. He supposed that, ultimately, that's what it all came down to. That was what Hutch had been wrestling with. Trying to forgive himself for what he hadn't been able to do; and trying to forgive himself for what he would have done if he had been able to.

Starsky had to restrain himself from putting his arms around Hutch. They were in a public place, and he was afraid of sparking another round of misunderstandings. But he also hated knowing what was going through Hutch's mind...running for his life while severely handicapped, absolutely scared out of his wits. They both had had close calls before, but never before had either of them been so completely helpless while in enemy hands. Starsky's closest parallel experience had been when Simon's goons had had him scheduled for sacrifice at sun-up. But he'd known Hutch was looking for him, and had also worked tirelessly at talking the girl into helping him escape. It had been terrifying, particularly in those final moments, but the fact that he'd been able to face his would-be killers had been part of what had given him the strength to keep working on the girl. Hutch had been deprived of any such dignity. Milford's goons had blindfolded him so they wouldn't have to look into his eyes when they murdered him. It was, in Starsky's opinion, the ultimate in cowardice.

He did place his hand in the middle of Hutch's back. "Hey, pal," he whispered gently, "bottom line is, we're both still here, and not too worse for the wear. You gotta focus on that."

Hutch straightened a little and let out a deep breath. "I am focusing on it," he said, then admitted, "I just hate feeling this way. I know I can't change any of it. I just...want to learn to accept it."

Starsky squeezed his shoulder. "Time's all that's needed."

"Yeah." Hutch managed a smile, then he stood.

They returned to the Torino.

* * *

Hutch sipped from his beer and watched the tennis ball bounce lightly a few times before diving off the edge of the table. After a long moment of considering, he decided not to retrieve it. Instead, he took his beer to the sofa and sat heavily upon it. He tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling.

It had helped...talking with Starsky earlier today. Helped to put what he was feeling into exact words. Helped to know that somebody else now knew the dilemma he was wrestling with, even though it shouldn't matter because, as Starsky had pointed out, the fact that they were both alive and none too worse for the wear was what was most important.

Except feelings about Milford and what had happened/might have happened in his bedroom were only part of the problem. Hutch shook his head in exasperation, still gazing at the ceiling. He'd babbled harshly to Starsky about his frustrations with his partner's refusal to examine his own feelings, and had gotten nowhere. As the conversation went on, the subject was forgotten. He wondered if that was clever manipulation on Starsky's part and, if so, if the other were even conscious of it.

What do I want from you? Hutch asked himself now. It was only fair, if he was going to rag on his partner about not being honest, that he be honest with himself.

I want to know what you want from me, he decided. The look on Starsky's face at Milford's was burned into his memory. Less intense, but no less important, was Starsky's obsessive behavior concerning Milford's interest in his partner.

So protective, Hutch marveled now. But protecting me from what? You never quite answered that question--did you, buddy?--when I pointed out that you were treating me like I was your territory.

So what? he asked himself. Why am I making such a big deal out of it now? Why can't I let your reactions go? You certainly seem to want to.

Because we should be able to talk about this, he insisted to himself. After all those months ago when we realized we had gotten so distant and we both made a conscious decision to put more effort into us...why shy away from it now? Why, buddy, do you have to be so uptight about the subject of sex if it isn't your basic male-female relationship? Why are you so threatened by it?

But why were you so unthreatened by it that you were encouraging us both to be aroused that night?

Hutch sighed, straightening to take another sip of beer. Why is it so hard to be open about how we feel? It doesn't mean anything has to happen, you know.

Is that what you're afraid of, buddy? That I might want something from you, when you don't want anything from me? But if you don't want anything from me, then what was going on the other night?

Hutch snorted into his beer. Out loud he grumbled, "Circles."

* * *

"Wanna get a beer?"

Hutch glanced over at him. "I don't have any at my place."

"No, dummy, I meant stop somewhere." Starsky pulled over to the curb. "Like here, for instance." It was an unfamiliar bar. But The Pits was out of the question because the air conditioning there had broken overnight and it was a sweltering day.

They went up to the bar and ordered their beers. Then they both focused their attention on the pool game in progress.


Starsky turned at the voice and then realized it had been directed at Hutch. A petite woman with dark red hair and bright lipstick was looking up at his blond partner. "I haven't seen you around here before."

Hutch stuttered, "Uh, not really our neighborhood. The air conditioning's broke at our usual hangout."

She slipped into the stool next to him that someone just vacated. "My name is Cathy." She held out her hand.

"Uh, Cathy," Hutch said, belatedly bringing up his hand to shake hers, "I'm Ken." He touched Starsky's shoulder. "This is Dave."

Starsky grinned at her, thinking it had been awhile since he'd been laid. In fact, not since before the Milford assignment. "Hi, Cathy."

She nodded politely but her eyes went right back to Hutch. "So, what do you do?"

"Uh," Hutch's eyes were on the pool table, "we're detectives with the LAPD."

"Oh, like policemen?"

"Right. Plainclothes."

She was silent for a moment, then asked, "You married?"

"Uh, no." Hutch's eyes were riveted to the pool table.

Starsky looked over at Cathy and met her eye. He shrugged to indicate his puzzlement at Hutch's disinterest. Then he smiled, wondering if she might find himself more to her liking.

She glanced up at Hutch once more, who was still focused on the pool table, then took her drink and left the bar.

Starsky frowned at his partner. "Boy, aren't you the charmer." He finished his beer and placed it on the counter. "I'm ready to split."

Hutch finished his own beer and they moved toward the door.

"Man," Starsky said when they were back in the sunshine, "if a pretty lady like her had come on to me like that, I'd have wasted no time in picking her up."

"Then why didn't you?" Hutch countered.

"I guess you didn't notice, but she had eyes only for you. And I know it's been at least as long for you as it has been for me." He started around to the driver's side of the Torino.

Angrily, Hutch said, "So, now you're in charge of my sex life with women, too?"

A bolt went through Starsky. He felt a flash of anger in return--anger that things seemed so wrong between them--but a moment later it was replaced with compassion. And determination.

"Sorry," he said, after Hutch had closed the door.

Hutch was looking out the window and didn't respond.

Starsky started the motor. "We're goin' to my place. And we're going to talk. And we aren't going to stop until this whole thing is worked out."

The blond head turned to him with a tight jaw. "This ought to be interesting. If you really mean it."

Starsky skidded the Torino away from the curb. He felt the thump-thump-thump of his heart, but his voice was no less firm. "I mean it."

* * *

Hutch had his jacket flung off first. "Okay, start," he demanded as he unbuckled his shoulder harness. "In fact, why don't you begin with why I should have to explain to you why I didn't want to sleep with a stranger trying to pick me up in a bar."

Starsky leaned back against the sofa. "You don't," he said meekly. "I said I was sorry."

"Oh," Hutch shrugged with exaggeration. He went to the refrigerator and poured a glass of milk. "Then I suppose that's all you have to say and that's the end of the conversation."

That hurt. Starsky swallowed and said, "That milk might be old. Look at the date on the carton."

Hutch carefully sipped from the glass. "It tastes all right." He came out of the kitchen and looked at Starsky pointedly. "So?" he prompted.

It seemed like Hutch had put him on this very spot so many times in recent days. Starsky demanded, "What is it you want, huh? What is it you keep waiting for me to say?"

"I want the truth," Hutch replied.

"Since you don't believe anything I tell you, then what do you think the truth is?"

"I don't know," Hutch said, pacing along the living room. "If I knew that, I'd be telling you instead of waiting for you to tell me."

Starsky decided to continue, though he wasn't sure why he should have to. He thought he'd explained himself earlier. "Look, if this is all about the other night...I--" he stopped abruptly. Then started again, more softly. "All I wanted, babe, was to be close to you. And, yeah, I know, I got aroused. But so what? What would any guy expect to happen when he brushes close enough to a warm body? But...I meant what I said. I didn't want to be ashamed of it. Because I'd rather be holding you that close and not ashamed, than not being quite so close and keeping some sort of 'proper' distance."

The blond's voice was also softer...though also more anxious. "We've been plenty close before without that happening," he pointed out.

"Well, all right," Starsky relented, sinking to the carpet and leaning against the couch, "then...blame it on the mood. The atmosphere. Hell, blame it on the alignment of the stars. But, bottom line," his voice grew more intense, "it-it didn't mean anything more than it was. It was That's all. It didn't mean anything needed to happen. Or that I wanted anything to happen." He hesitated, then thought he might need to add, "Which I didn't." Hutch looked as though he was going to speak, but Starsky wanted to finish and be done with the subject. "And as for...your reaction...Hutch, I admit, maybe it wasn't the most sensitive thing for me to do, but if you wanna know the truth, I just downright liked knowing that you were all right. Is that so wrong? I mean..." he drew a deep breath, then raised his voice as the memory came to him full force, "I got outta there without a scratch. What do you think that was like for me, seeing the condition my partner was in--the man I'm responsible for keeping alive--while I got away scot free?" His voice softened again. "I wanted to make it up to you, Hutch. For everything. For everything that had happened to you, I wanted to make it better. And the other night..." he drew a deep, deep breath, then released it, " was just...proof...that you were all better. That I'd taken good care of you. That's all."

Hutch had stopped pacing and was leaning against the back of the sofa, his gaze on the floor. "What about the rest of it?" he demanded softly. "What about everything that happened at Milford's? How protective you were of me when you knew Milford wanted me? How..." he pushed away from the couch, "betrayed you felt when I told him I'd give him what he wanted."

Betrayed. No, it wasn't the right word. Or, maybe it was. Perhaps in the sense that Hutch was forcing them to be separated, so he would have to face the worst possible humiliation alone. A betrayal of their partnership in that they were supposed to face everything together...even though there had been no choice.

"Hutch," he said, meeting his partner's eye, "what I felt at Milford's had nothing to do I just didn't want him to...use you. Before or after our covers were blown. Maybe I feel over-protective about that sort of thing because you act so open-minded about it. Maybe too open-minded. But it had nothing to do with...." Starsky trailed off, a new thought coming to mind. His heart quickened as he debated about whether or not to voice it. He had been determined to talk this thing through, so now he was going to face the consequences. "Hutch?" he murmured, not wanting to ask but knowing he had to. "Is it that you wish I would have felt...betrayed or whatever? That way?"

The taller man sat down heavily on the arm of the sofa, his head bowed. "Buddy, it's not a matter of wishing. It's just...I thought you were thinking along those lines, even if you wouldn't admit it to yourself. Between how you were behaving before our covers were blown, how you reacted when I said I'd sleep with him, and the other just seemed like two and two was adding up to four."

Starsky swallowed. "Yeah?" he prompted, afraid once again of the answer. "How did you feel about thinkin' I felt that way?"

His partner's face softened and Starsky knew then that everything was going to be all right. "That's what I've been tryin' so hard to figure out. It's not something I'd--I'd ever considered before. And then, all of a sudden, it seems like my partner--the man who practically barfs outside a porno house after seeing a scene with two guys together--has ideas about me. About us. So I have to say to myself, 'If he wants to do it, then what do I want? Am I willing to? What does it all mean in the long run? Or, is it just some kind of phase that's going to burn itself out?'"

Starsky felt much calmer now. "Hutch?" He waited until the other's bright eyes met his own. "You don't have to worry about that stuff anymore. Because that's not what was goin' on. Let it rest, babe."

Hutch pushed off the sofa arm, and moved to sit down next to Starsky on the carpet. Starsky loved the other's closeness, the fact that their arms were brushing together.

"Okay," Hutch said. But his head was tilted toward the other direction and he was silent for a long time.

"What?" Starsky wondered.

Now a bashful snort. "I," Hutch glanced at Starsky briefly, " be honest, buddy, I guess I'm a little disappointed."

Starsky straightened, surprised at the admittance, but determined to face it head on. "You mean, like, maybe...try something together?" He didn't know what other words to use.

Hutch was contemplative another moment. "Yeah," he admitted, still bashful. "I guess I'd sort of talked myself into the idea. Gotten used to it while I was trying to figure everything out." Now it was he who swallowed. "If you would have wanted to, I would have said yes."

Starsky took a moment to absorb that. Then he, too, felt shy. "Ah, Hutch, you're too good to me. Even when you have crazy ideas that I don't want any part of."

The blond shifted a little so that his cheek rested against the sofa. "Yeah."

Starsky also rested his cheek against the cushion, facing his partner. "Do you believe me now about what was goin' on inside me concerning this whole thing?"

A hand reached out, brushed along Starsky's hair. "Yeah." Then, "I know it's not easy for you to talk about those things, buddy. But I was going crazy, wondering what you were really thinking. Feeling."

"S'okay. You went through something that no one should ever have to go through. Potential rape and almost getting executed...for nothing. Your brain can get full of cobwebs after stuff like that."

"Maybe everything's okay now, huh?" the other suggested hopefully.

Starsky grinned to show his agreement. But then he felt serious again. "I love you, Hutch. Like crazy."

An arm snaked out and Starsky felt it come around his body, pulling him close against his partner.

"Yeah," the other said softly. "I love you, too, you big goof."

Starsky moved his head so he could look up at the other. "Don't want things to ever get to where we're afraid of bein' close to each other."

Hutch ran a finger down his nose. "I don't, either."

Starsky pressed his face closer against Hutch, absorbing the familiar musky fragrance. "Don't wanna ever have to be without you."

"You won't." Hutch held him closer. "Not as long as staying alive is always our first priority."

Starsky felt his stomach growl. "We need to eat."

Hutch took his hands away. "Don't confuse 'need' with 'want'."

Starsky pushed at the other man's chest. "Now I know everything's normal, since you're back to bein' a smartass."

Hutch fell sideways from the pressure, then seemed to decide to go ahead and fall all the way back until he was lying on the floor. Starsky scrambled to the other man's side, placing his arm against his collarbone in a playful gesture of restraint. "We gonna order pizza?"

Hutch sighed. "I've gotta leave. It's my mother's birthday and I need to call her."

"Oh." Starsky eased his hold. "Can't you do that from here?"

"It might take awhile. I haven't talked to her since my birthday."

"Oh." That had been four months ago. Hutch so rarely brought up any mention of his parents.

You've got to say, "This is me. And I like it." Marianne's recollection of Hutch's words came back to Starsky.

The blond was on his feet and picking up his jacket and holster. "Don't forget to pick me up from Merle's tomorrow because my car has to get tuned."

Starsky nodded but didn't say anything, his mind fiercely trying to remember other things Marianne had said. More puzzle pieces that made up the brilliant complexity of his partner.

"Enjoy your pizza." With that, Hutch was gone.

Part Six

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