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A Body Worth Keeping
Starsky was having a fine day.
It was true that the sky had been a sullen, gunmetal grey all day, and even now was spitting lethargic drops of rain. And admittedly, he and Hutch had been on duty for nearly two weeks straight . . . and the case had been a particularly grisly one, with evidence photos that had made even their experienced stomachs turn.
But none of that mattered now. It was six p.m., and they were actually off the clock. Not only that, Dobey had called them into his office at 4:30 and told them he didn't want to see either of their faces until Tuesday. They had gaped at each other and him for several seconds, then nearly crushed each other trying to scoot through the doorway before he could change his mind. Three days off. It was virtually unheard of, and required celebrating . . . starting with a trip to the batting cages and ending with pool, beer, and a couple of Huggy's special burgers. Whistling his own version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame and feeling lighter than he had in days, Starsky swung a worn wooden bat to his shoulder, yanked a battered Dodgers cap over his dark curls, and leapt up the stairs to Hutch's apartment.
He banged perfunctorily on the door, then groped for the key on the sill. Not finding it, he knocked again, more seriously this time, then twisted the knob as Hutch's voice came from inside: "It's open!"
Expecting to find the blond detective lounging on his sofa, enjoying a beer or playing his guitar, Starsky was surprised when the living room was empty. He dropped his bat on Hutch's ancient couch and took a few steps toward the greenhouse, figuring Hutch was lavishing his plants with extra TLC after the long days away. Then he spotted Hutch in the bedroom . . . and stopped short.
A beer was in sight, but it sat forlornly on a night table, half-finished and dripping condensation onto the wood. Hutch was neither fingering his guitar nor obsessing over the newest "babies" on one of his countless spider plants. Instead, a gym bag lay open on the bed, and Hutch, for reasons passing Starsky's understanding, was sorting through dress shirts in his closet.
From the doorway, Starsky blinked. Hutch turned, favored the dark-haired detective with a somewhat distracted smile, then meticulously began folding the three shirts he had selected.
"What're you doin'?"
Hutch looked up, cast pointed glances from his partner to the bag on the bed, and raised an eyebrow. "Packing," he said, in that voice that said Obviously.
"Why?" Starsky asked, in an equally patient tone.
Hutch folded the last shirt and tucked the three garments carefully into the bag. As he crossed to his dresser and extracted a stack of underwear, his tone changed to one of careful nonchalance. "Well . . . you see, Starsk, it's like this . . . "
"We're supposed to be at the batting cage in . . . " Starsky threw a glance at his watch. "Twenty minutes, and I wanted to stop at the burger place on the way."
"Starsk . . . " Hutch stuffed the underwear in his bag, zipped the bag closed, then finally stopped, running his hands through his hair. "Listen . . . "
"You're ditchin', aren't you?" Starsky said in his best martyred tone. It wasn't the first time one or the other of them had cancelled plans at the last minute, generally for the company of a newly-arrived stewardess, but that wouldn't stop him from milking this for all it was worth.
"I'm going to San Francisco."
At that, Starsky was again reduced to stymied silence, and blinks he could practically hear in the quiet room. After a moment, he became aware that his mouth had fallen to half-mast, and shut it with a puzzled frown. "Huh?"
"I'm sorry," Hutch said rapidly, the words coming in a rush as he toyed with the zipper on his bag. "I don't mean to spring it on you like this . . . I tried to call as soon as I knew, but you'd already left."
"No need to leave town just so I won't kick your ass at the curve balls," Starsky pointed out, managing to recapture his teasing tone. Then he noticed the heightened color on Hutch's cheeks, and his voice gentled as the blond man sank down on the bed. "Hey. Is something wrong?"
Hutch opened his mouth. Closed it. Looked off into the middle distance, pale brows drawing together, then down at his hands. Starsky knew that sequence of looks. Something had happened. Nothing dramatic, but something that was important to Hutch. And Hutch wasn't sure Starsky would understand.
"Better spill it, pal," he coaxed, dropping onto a corner of the bed. "And it better be good . . . otherwise, I got a Louisville Slugger outside with your name on it."
Hutch's lips twitched in a smile, then stilled as he took a deep breath. "I'm sorry to do this at the last minute like this," he began, "but right after I got home, Anna called."
Anna. For a moment, Starsky's mind was blank; then an image clicked into place like a slide in a projector.
"You mean Anna What's-her-name? The dancer?"
And not just any dancer . . . she is the prima ballerina for the Kirov Ballet, whom he and Hutch had been assigned to guard after threats had been made to her life. Hutch had fallen hard for her, and Starsky had never had the heart to blame him. It hadn't been Hutch's best year for the ladies, between Diana the loon, his larcenous ex-wife, and a few air-headed lovelies who had had them both acting like idiots. But Anna . . . Anna was talented, she had a body that wouldn't quit, and she was one of the few women Hutch had dated who had the brains . . . not to mention the ego . . . to keep up with him.
Starsky knew they had stayed in touch for a few months after she had returned to Russia, but heavy phone bills and equally crushing schedules had eventually diminished the contact from weekly to monthly. The last time Hutch had mentioned her, Starsky had heard the wistfulness in his voice, and wondered idly if he would soon be putting his partner on a plane for the Iron Curtain.
"Anna Akhanatova," Hutch corrected, savoring the name as if it were the richest ice cream melting on his tongue.
Starsky sighed inwardly. Here we go.
"What'd she want?" And what's this got to do with you packing?
"She's in San Francisco." Hutch looked up, and suddenly his eyes had that gaze, that look they had held that morning, when Starsky had found him noticeably askew in the ballerina's hotel room.
Your eyes are the color of the Belaya River. How can I say no?
In that moment, without question, Starsky understood Anna's inability to refuse his tall, blond partner . . . anything. When Hutch's eyes took on that shine, that liquid expression of love and devotion, he was irresistible. The dark-haired detective sighed.
"I'm sorry," Hutch repeated guiltily, rising to his feet as if the sound had triggered his movement. "She's on a tour, and they're only in the state for the weekend. Then they go to New York, and Mexico . . . this'll probably be my last chance to see her, maybe even talk to her, for a long time." He slung the bag to his shoulder, then stopped abruptly at the sight of his partner's slumped figure. "Hey."
Starsky looked up, to be met by the full power of Hutch at his lovelorn finest.
"I can get another flight, if you want. Go to the batting cage, get some food, and then go later tonight."
His tone was utterly unconvincing, and Starsky snorted. "Naw. Wouldn't be any fun kickin' your tail when you're all distracted." He waved a hand at the blond man. "Go on. Get outta here. Send me a postcard of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's okay."
His lie was apparently more convincing than Hutch's, and the blinding smile was . . . almost . . . ample reward for his generosity and his aptitude for prevarication. "Thanks, partner," Hutch breathed gratefully, squeezing Starsky's shoulder and then, in a waft of aftershave, he strode from the bedroom and out the door. There was the sound of melodic whistling, accompanied by the thud of Hutch's feet as he ran down the stairs. Moments later, his ancient car coughed to life.
Starsky sat on the corner of Hutch's bed until he could no longer distinguish the Ford's engine from the other sounds on the street. He rose to his feet, half-heartedly moving to pick up the beer from the nightstand and automatically wipe away the ring of moisture, then sank back down onto the bed and took a long, deep swig from the bottle. Then he set the bottle on the floor, clasped his hands in his lap, and looked hard around the empty apartment.
He generally was not given to analyzing the events of his life. That was Hutch's department, and Starsky figured the blond man did enough for both of them. Dave Starsky was a man who thought on his feet, and his quick, fluid intelligence and considerable street smarts were the perfect complement to his more academic and contemplative partner. In working with Starsky, Hutch had learned that sometimes you couldn't sit and think about things, you just had to do.
But from Hutch, Starsky had learned there were certainly times, when the topic was important enough, that you couldn't solve a problem by chasing it and laying hands on it. Sometimes, you just had to sit down and wrap your brain around it until you got it puzzled through. He was used to having that kind of dig and search session with Hutch . . . but this time, that wasn't an option.
Because this was about Hutch. About Hutch and this feeling tickling in his gut that just wouldn't be ignored.
He took another sip of beer, got to his feet, and wandered into the living room. Looked at Hutch's stereo, his records, the jackets and other items that were scattered around the room in that absent-minded professor way that was uniquely Hutch. The articles in the room hadn't changed; his partner lived and worked much as he always had. But still . . . somewhere, something had changed.
Practically from the first day they'd been assigned together, there had been something unique between them. At first, it had sparked fireworks that nearly got both of them tossed out of the Academy, but then they had begun to relish it . . . and finally revel in it. Some years later, when Hutch followed Starsky to Metro, they moved into it wholeheartedly, like two beings crossing into a world all their own. And now, it was something not even they had a word for, that not even they could articulate and identify. It just was.
He and Hutch worked together, but it was more than that. They enjoyed spending their spare time together, too, but it was more than that. And Starsky knew that they loved each other, in a way neither had ever loved another soul, but it was even more than that. It had become more than that . . . at least for Starsky . . . but he wasn't sure how, or where, or when.
Starsky's brows drew together as he dropped onto the sofa, slumped down until his head rested on the back, and stretched his legs out in front of him. Another thoughtful sip of the beer, and he began to run the last several months through his head, trying to pinpoint just when things had . . . shifted.
Had it started with Diana, and the chill that had gone up Starsky's spine when she answered the phone at Hutch's place?
It's too late. He'll be dead before you get here.
He shook his head, dissatisfied with the facility of that explanation. It wasn't the first time either of them had burned literal and proverbial rubber to pull the other from imminent danger. Hell, it wasn't much later that Starsky had been playing beat the clock again, this time against a lethal plague that had nearly killed them both—Hutch from the virus itself, and Starsky from the exhaustion of trying to find the hitman who'd carried the cure.
Starsky took another swallow of beer as he tried to remember if the feeling had been there then, that night when he'd asked Judith for a lipstick and her silence (Do me a favor and don't ask any questions, huh?).
Maybe it had. But if so, it had only been a preliminary shadow of its current self.
But then when . . . ?
Annoyed, he drained the last swallow of beer from the bottle and pushed resolutely to his feet. Hutch was gone. He wouldn't be back until Monday, provided he didn't wheedle a few extra days out of Dobey, and there was no point in Starsky's moping around here like a jilted lover. He rinsed the empty bottle out in Hutch's kitchen, then turned to place it neatly next to the trash can under Hutch's sink, then paused.
His eyes roamed again over the apartment, over the benign chaos of living room, bedroom, and kitchen, then narrowed.
Every time he walked in the door of Hutch's apartment, he got the itch to put this and that away and see the darned place set to rights, just once. And every time, Hutch recognized the gleam in his eye and told him, in no uncertain terms, don't even think about it. He'd had a cleaning lady who had come in for a while, but she spent more time mooning over his laundry than scaring the dust bunnies from under his bed, and eventually Hutch had had to let her go.
But now Hutch wasn't here. Starsky knew he couldn't get away with a complete overhaul, but maybe he could do just enough that he would be satisfied, but Hutch would never notice a difference.
He felt the left side of his mouth curl up in a half-grin. Now that he thought of it, he kind of liked the challenge.
He started off with the dishes; there weren't very many, since they had been working so many nights and eating dinner on the run. Then he ransacked every closet and cabinet in the place to pull together Hutch's ragtag collection of cleaning supplies, shouldered the broom and a dustmop, and set to work with a cheerful and slightly smug whistle, the batting cage forgotten.
It was about three hours later when he turned his attention to the last task, tackling Hutch's bathroom. He'd saved this for the end because he figured it would be the least problematic, given Hutch's proclivity for personal fastidiousness—and he was right. There were only a few items scattered around, probably left in the whirlwind of Hutch's preparations for his trip, and the room was easily set to rights.
He picked up a final towel from the floor, and swung the bathroom door closed so he could hang it on its proper place.
The towel dropped to his feet, but he didn't notice as he reached out to touch the garishly colored bathrobe that swung gently from the hook . . . and remembered the accident.
They'd both been cranky and out-of-sorts that day, Hutch trying to glean bits of springtime from the fetid L.A. air, and Starsky completely absorbed in the mysterious noises emerging from the Torino's engine. They had had one of their countless arguments over the car, and when a 211 call had come in, Starsky had tried to put his engine where his mouth was . . . and put them both through a storage shed in the process. Hutch had retaliated, in what was perhaps the best undercover performance of his career, with a spectacular (though admittedly stupid) faking of amnesia that had fooled everyone from the nurses to Dobey, to Starsky himself.
To give you something to think about the next time you double-clutch me into a truck.
He'd been pretty steamed at Hutch when the blond detective confessed, Starsky remembered, another smile teasing the corners of his lips. They'd been up the whole night, fuming at each other and apologizing by turns. Eventually, Starsky had had to admit that Hutch had gotten one over on him, and it had been a prizewinner. And the next morning, while a drained Starsky slept, Hutch had somehow slipped out of the room, and purchased the most hideous concoction of color and fabric he could find in the hospital gift shop. He had presented it to Starsky with a flourish and a genuinely contrite expression, they both had laughed themselves silly, and the world that had seemed tilted righted itself once again. And somehow, it became just one more thing that they had survived . . . together. Another slab of cement in this . . . whatever it was.
But afterward, it had made Starsky wonder about a lot of things . . . other than whether Hutch's brain had been permanently scrambled from its rendezvous with the windshield. He had been angrier at Hutch than he had ever been in the history of their relationship. Was it because Hutch had tricked him . . . or was it disappointment? Or was he angry at himself; had he trusted Hutch all these years, only to find the man had a cruel streak the size of the Grand Canyon?
But the biggest thing of all, the one that kept coming back to him at night when he first went to bed, was the image of himself sitting up, telling his partner about the things they had done . . . hell, been . . . together. With every passing moment, it seemed, he was overwhelmed by the big picture of their relationship. There was practically nothing they hadn't shared. They had cried on each other's shoulders, thrown up in each other's bathrooms, been weak, been strong, hit each other, hugged each other, and pretty much showed each other every damned wart and flaw and crack that existed.
He had been absolutely devastated at the thought that Hutch might never remember it . . . and absolutely furious at the idea that Hutch had shown him, in the guise of a game, the tremendous, engulfing void in his life that would ensue.
You just don't play with that shit, Hutch, he remembered railing at his partner.
With what? Hutch had responded, his face an almost comical combination of defensiveness, and genuine bewilderment and remorse. It was a joke, Starsk, just a joke, and I said I was sorry . . . Christ. Don't look at me like that, will you? It's not like I totaled the Torino or anything . . .
Standing in Hutch's bathroom, one hand stroking the gaudy terrycloth, Starsky felt his throat close up as it had that day, appalled and astounded that Hutch could think his car, beloved as it was, could even hold a candle to what the two of them had together, to this feeling, this . . .
Holy jumped-up Jehosophat.
His private joke forgotten, Starsky shoved the bathroom door open, grabbed his jacket from the back of the couch, and left the apartment with quick strides, pausing only to lock the door and slap the spare key back above the lintel. He fled down the stairs as if the thing hanging in Hutch's bathroom had been the Headless Horseman rather than someone's garish idea of a cheerful garment, scrambled over the Torino's hood, and swung himself into the driver's seat through the window, rather than opening the door.
He knew it was reckless, as was driving home at top speed and sweeping the car to within an inch of the apartment's exterior wall before screeching to a halt. But something was snapping at his heels, and it wasn't until he leapt up his own steps, entered his own home, and slammed the door shut that he realized the most daredevil driving in the world was not going to leave the truth behind.
I love Hutch.
Not in the buddy way they had had at first, or in the brother way that had quickly followed. Not even in the indescribable way that had been the center of their partnership for over seven years.
No. This was different.
Starsky snagged a beer from his own refrigerator, dropped onto his sofa, and propped his feet on his coffee table. Okay, he told himself sternly. You tried running from it. Now just look it in the face.
He loved Hutch. Like he had loved . . . Rosie . . . and Terri . . . and yet, in a way even deeper than that, and certainly deeper than he had loved any woman who had ever entered his life. It was so obvious to him, so enormous, he couldn't believe he had been oblivious to it for so long. And now, now it was filling him with new and exhilarating sensations. Eagerness. Excitement. A tenderness he had never experienced before, and a tingling that was absolutely delicious in its promise. He threw back his head and laughed out loud—
And then stopped abruptly, as he remembered.
At this magic moment, Hutch was on his way to meet a woman. Quite possibly, the woman.
Son of a bitch!
His apartment was suddenly empty, and echoing with a loneliness he had never felt before. The silence rang unbearably in his ears, and for a moment, he thought he was going to burst into noisy tears like a deprived child. Then he took a deep breath and a firm grip on himself, and scrambled to his feet. Marching to his bedroom, beer in hand, he sat on the edge of his bed, turned on the television, and flipped the channels with the determination of a man on a quest.
Commercial . . . commercial . . . stupid comedy show . . . test pattern . . . ah.
In black and white, three terrified townspeople were shoving furniture against a farmhouse door, ignoring the fact that zombie'd hands were crashing through the window to one side. Perfect . . . he had only missed the first fifteen minutes of the Friday night "creature feature," as Hutch had airily dubbed it.
He padded back to the kitchen; returned moments later with a bowl heaped with ice cream in his hand. Scooting back on his bed to rest against the pillows, he glued his eyes to the set, hoping the images of a monster marathon would erase the other movie playing in his mind . . . that of two golden heads bending closer together, then tilting and merging for a kiss.
He set his lips, crawled to the foot of the bed, and turned up the television until it dominated the room and drowned out his unruly thoughts.
It was Monday afternoon.
Once again, the sky was dark and overcast, glowering into the windows of Starsky's apartment with an occasional flash of lightning teeth and disgruntled grumbling of thunder. Starsky scowled back, a beer sunk between his legs and his heels planted in front of him, trying to clear the grit from his sleep-deprived eyes. Listlessly, he pushed himself to his feet and wandered into the kitchen, where he half-heartedly began to wash the juice glass and spoon—the only dishes that remained after his cleaning frenzy had extended from Hutch's place to his own.
The Creature Feature had served as a temporary and amusing distraction. But all good things come to an end, even a double feature, and when the movie ended he was too lazy and too comfortable to get up and change the channel. The network swung into syrupy strings, and before he knew it, a romance novel was coming alive on the screen. He rolled his eyes, and sat up with a jaw-cracking yawn to turn the dial—or better yet, turn off the set—but became interested . . . absorbed . . . and then transfixed, by the leading man who bore a strong resemblance to his lean blond partner.
And so the weekend had gone. Despite doing everything he could to try to forget about Hutch and where he was now and who he was with. He had gone to Huggy's and played several rounds of pool, beating the bar owner so resoundingly and repeatedly that he had cleared up his and Hutch's tab for the last six months. Bored with that, he had turned to pinball, but the machine was apparently out of whack, for after the sixth tilt in as many minutes, Huggy none-too-gently steered him to a corner and tried to wheedle out of him what was wrong.
"It's weird enough to have you here without the blond one, Starsky," he commented wryly, pushing a beer in front of the dark-haired detective. "But do you got to be looking so woe-be-gone at the same time? Face like that, you make me wanna steer clear."
Starsky sighed, as his hands obliviously washed the juice glass for the fifth time. He couldn't tell Huggy what was eating him; no one had the right to know about this before Hutch. But could he tell Hutch? And when? And how, for Christ's sake?
Starsky froze, hands half-immersed in the sudsy water, heart thudding, ears straining to hear. Silence throbbed through the house, broken only by the rumble of the approaching storm.
Someone was in the house.
Body tense and unmoving, Starsky's pulse accelerated, as his eyes flicked across the sink and counter for something that might be used as a weapon. But he'd been too thorough that morning; every potentially lethal utensil was cleaned and tidily tucked away.
Then his body relaxed, and his eyes rolled to the ceiling as he realized what a dunce he was, that there was only one person who could be in the living room. His heart began to slow . . . and then to thump again.
Hutch. It's gotta be Hutch.
There was no sound from his living room. He could practically feel his ears reaching, trying to detect some hint, some clue as to Hutch's demeanor. As if in collusion, he set the unrinsed glass silently on the counter and dried his hands on the towel hanging from his cabinet door. Feeling like a thief stealing through his own house, he turned and padded silently to the entrance of his living room.
Hutch was there, sunk into Starsky's armchair, head bent, lashes draped on his cheeks.
Starsky took a moment to see his friend, his partner, in the light of his new realization. He saw the hair that turned to dark gold in the winter and luminescent silver in the summer. The lean hands that were equally talented at drawing breathtaking music from a guitar, or the tension from Starsky's own muscles. The long, slender frame that was beginning to regain its strength after the deadly plague.
He began to speak—but he didn't have to. Without surprise, without lifting his head, Hutch spoke. "Hey," he said softly, and a part of Starsky noted the damp flatness of his voice.
"You're back," was all he could manage at the moment.
The left side of Hutch's mouth curled up ironically, then drooped. "Yeah."
There was silence as Starsky searched for something to say. Then Hutch looked up at him, and his own awkwardness was forgotten, lost in the confused sadness in his partner's eyes. That bewildered apprehension that echoed the look Starsky had seen in the mirror, just hours before.
"Hey," he murmured, moving swiftly to the couch and reaching out to touch his partner's arm. "You okay?"
Hutch frowned, and Starsky watched as the dent between his brows grew deeper, as it did when he was puzzled or troubled. "I'm not sure," he said slowly. "I'm—" He broke off, and looked away from Starsky, as he had in his bedroom before he had left.
"I'm not sure," Hutch repeated . . . and then fell silent. "Starsk . . . I'm confused."
Join the club, Starsky wanted to reply, but instead he said only, "What about?"
Eventually, Hutch dropped his eyes to the hands that were clasped in front of him. Speaking as much to them as to his partner, he said quietly, "Us."
Starsky's heart began to pound again. Uncharacteristically, he tried to squelch its premature optimism, stop it before it turned crazy handsprings right out of his chest.
"Me. Anna." An agonizing pause, in which Starsky's heart prepared to plummet to his knees . . . and then . . . "You."
Jesus Christ, I'm gonna die of cardiac arrest if he doesn't quit the melancholy Dane routine and spit this out!
But somehow, he restrained himself, and managed to ask in a relatively normal tone, "What're you talkin' about, Hutch?"
"Starsk, something . . . weird is going on."
Hutch took in a deep breath, released it soundlessly; then another. "I went . . . and I saw her . . . and it was . . . " He shook his head. "It's hard to describe."
Starsky tightened his grip on Hutch's arm, trying hard to forget how badly he wanted Hutch to just come out with it. Whatever he was thinking, even if he'd decided that he wanted to marry Anna and spend the rest of his life flying around the world with her, Starsky needed to know.
"It was . . . I would be kissing her, or . . . " His voice dropped. " . . . making love with her . . . and it felt . . . like . . . "
Wrong. Say it felt wrong, and strange, and like . . .
"Like . . . I was being unfaithful." The words sighed out of Hutch's chest.
"Unfaithful," Starsky repeated. His heart, exhausted and somewhat annoyed by its own gymnastics, gave a small jump, then prudently chose to wait for more. Inches from him, Hutch's lips turned again in self-deprecation.
"To . . . Abby, or Gillian . . . ?"
Hutch half-laughed, half-snorted deep in his throat, a sound that was uniquely his own. "No, that's the thing . . . the whole time, I felt like I was being unfaithful to you." He shook his head. "Weird, huh?"
Starsky saw him steal a glance, and tried unsuccessfully to hold it with his own. "What're you saying, Hutch?"
"Shit." Suddenly, vehemently, Hutch was on his feet, pacing, hands trembling through his hair. "I don't know what to do, Starsk," he said plaintively. "I don't. Know what. To do."
Starsky stood; blocking his path, he gripped both biceps and leveled his eyes to his partner's. "About what?"
"Starsk," Hutch said hoarsely, and now the words began to pour out, chasing each other like children tumbling out of school at the end of the day. "You know you're the best friend I've ever had. There's no one in this world I'm closer to, and I've known for a long time that I loved you like a brother. But now . . . I . . . "
His lips moved, but nothing emerged. Starsky watched him struggle to articulate, to verbalize the feeling, the same one he had been trying to identify and define all weekend long.
His heart now beating steadily, strongly, confidently, he released Hutch's arms. His hands moved up, past Hutch's shoulders, stroking gently, lovingly up his neck, to cup his face. The blue eyes blinked at him, startled, frightened, and yet . . . hungry. Slowly, Starsky leaned in, and pulled Hutch toward him at the same time.
Their lips met.
Yep. Sometimes you had to sit down and wrap your mind around something, try to figure it out.
But sometimes, you just had to do.