This story was originally printed in NIGHTLIGHT, published by Amapola Press in 1986. Special thanks for scanning and proofing by Daphne, and final proofing by SHaron.

Terri Beckett, with Chris Power, is the author of TRIBUTE TRAIL.  See www.speculationpress.com for details!   Comments about this story can be sent to: kmankatz@CandW.ky

MERLIN'S KEEP

by

Terri Beckett & Chris Power

After a stormy night, it looked like it'd be a nice day—the sky was a new-washed blue, with cotton-puffs of cloud sailing serenely across, and the sun was bright and pleasantly warm. Unfortunately, the balmy weather was not in keeping with Starsky's mood. But since it would have taken a month of rainy Sundays to emulate Starsky's mood, it was probably just as well.

Hutch had given up trying to wheedle, reason, or coax him out of it. After all, Starsky had to learn that this relationship cut both ways—they'd had Starsky's idea of a vacation earlier in the year—two hectic weeks in Acapulco—and this was his. England. The country he'd always wanted to visit, perhaps prompted by a vague urge to discover his roots. Not the tourist traps like London or Edinburgh—which, if Starsky was to be believed, were the only two British cities he had ever heard of—but the real England. The Far-From-the-Madding-Crowd England. The movie of the same name had made a great impression on him, and somehow he had gotten the idea into his head that such a place still existed. Somewhere. Those tiny villages with names like Nether Wallop—"Where?" said Starsky—and Piddletrenthyde—"Oh, terrific!"—and Ottery St. Mary... Names that tripped off the tongue and conjured visions of picturesque thatched cottages with roses all around the door, and genial locals chewing straws while leaning on gates, and quiet green leafy lanes—"Hutch, we can have green and leafy and quiet in California, for Christ's sake!" "Not all at once. Will you quit bitching, Starsk?"—that meandered peacefully through the countryside... That was the England he was looking for. By the time Hutch had had to back their hire-car into laybys to allow lumbering tractors room to pass, six times in one morning, England's bucolic idiosyncrasies had lost some of their charm. But it was still beautiful. And quiet. Above all, quiet. Blissfully, restfully quiet.

It was boring Starsky to distraction. The nightlife in the small seaside town that was their current stopover seemed all but nonexistent, and what there was died when the pubs closed. To add insult to injury, the damn birds—feathered variety—got up at dawn and announced it loudly and with raucous and unnecessary enthusiasm. Starsky was rapidly reaching a state where he could commit mass avicide with no compunctions whatsoever. And all Hutch could say was—"Hey, willya listen to that blackbird?"—or lark, or crow, or whatever. Like it was something exotic. There were times when Starsky wondered just what it was that he thought he saw in Hutch.

He was only too pleased to leave Seaton, but things did not get any better.

"Beer?" he queried, reading the road sign incredulously. "Is that some kinda ad?"

"No. It's the name of the place. Old smuggler's haunt. Remember what that guy said? Jack Rattenbury?"

"Hell, I never got that familiar with him."

"No, Starsk. That was the name of the smuggler."

"Oh, terrific..." came the growl. Then, getting a look at the road ahead, "Hutch? We're not going down that?"

"Of course we are. How else do you expect to get there?"

"Take the other fork!"

"Too late," Hutch said blithely, shifting into low gear to tackle the descent. Starsky whimpered and closed his eyes tightly, praying aloud that they wouldn't meet anything coming up. His prayers were answered in that it turned out to be a one-way street, ending in a T-junction where the main street led down to a small harbor. Hutch turned left down the hill, and Starsky found more cause for complaint. This main thoroughfare was not wide, and not only were there cars parked along it indiscriminately, there was an added hazard in the shape of the stream, unfenced, in a deep narrow gully that ran down one side of the road. He was not given time to protest this new danger, since Hutch saw a Car Park sign, made a right, and then a left into a small parking lot.

"Well, we're here," he announced gratuitously. "Looks like an interesting place."

"You are crazy. You have to be," Starsky groaned. "A two-bit, one-horse town like this, an' you reckon it's interesting? Listen, I oughtta have you committed, you know that?"

"Quit bitching," Hutch sighed, climbing out of the car. "Isn't it about time you gave it a rest? You've done nothing but bitch since we walked out of Terminal 3 at Heathrow."

"It was raining," he defended himself.

Hutch glared at him across the car roof. "It's not raining now," he said between set teeth. "So can it!"

Starsky glared back, unrepentant. "So okay, what're we gonna do now, Hutch?"

"Get something to eat, then take a look around."

"I already did look around. We've seen all there is to see here."

Hutch did not dignify that last with an answer but headed back to the street, leaving Starsky to catch up to him at a run. He continued on, Starsky at his shoulder like a personal thundercloud, and not a word passed between them until Hutch halted outside the Anchor Hotel and studied the menu-card in its case by the door.

"Ham or cheese?" he said.

"Huh?" said Starsky. Hutch did not repeat himself but went in, and Starsky had no choice but to follow. "Hutch?" he prompted plaintively. "Ham or cheese what?"

"Ploughman's," said Hutch. "It's the specialty here."

"Christ! It's the specialty at every pub an' hotel I've seen in this godforsaken country! An' I'm gettin' awful sick of eatin' Ploughmen."

"That's not funny, Starsk."

"Five gets you ten the beer ain't cold, either."

"Picky, picky," Hutch said infuriatingly. And "Two pints of bitter, please, and two cheese Ploughman's," to the barman.

"I wanted ham," Starsky objected.

"Too bad. You're Jewish."

Starsky, stunned speechless by this blow beneath the belt, had to content himself with a horrendous scowl and a mental vow of vengeance. Quite how he was going to get revenge he wasn't yet sure, his most potent weapon being already in use. He'd decided to enforce celibacy as soon as the rain at Heathrow had slid down his neck—and he'd stuck rigidly to it. Hutch, predictably, had not been pleased, but lately had made no effort to persuade him to change his mind. Which was highly irritating, and left him with little else in his armory. Somehow, he felt, general non-cooperation and complaint were too tame for the situation, but so far he had failed to come up with anything more fitting. He was working on it, though. He glared at the cool blond profile of the man beside him. If Hutch felt the malevolence of it, he gave no sign.

"Do you have any vacancies?" he asked, and the barman nodded. "Two single rooms?" Hutch went on, before Starsky could cut in with it himself.

"No, sorry, sir. Just one double."

Hutch's slight grimace of annoyance was too clearly spontaneous to be feigned.

"Is there anywhere else we might get rooms?" he asked.

"Well, you can try," the man said doubtfully. "But I don't reckon you'll find anywhere in this season. Unless you try the Caravan Park up on the headland."

"No thanks." Hutch's expression was graphic. "I guess we don't have a choice. Starsky, get a couple more beers, will you? I'll sign us in."

"But—" he started. "Hell, Hutch, what do we want to—" But the door had closed on Hutch's departure. "Oh, shit," he muttered, reaching out and removing the cheese from Hutch's half-eaten roll and putting it in his own with a generous scoop of pickle, ignoring the somewhat startled gaze of the barman. "That guy is a louse," he said informatively. "A Grade A, 24 carat, one hundred percent certifiable louse."

"We get all kinds," he was told with a smile, and was left wondering if this was agreement or some subtle insult. "Enjoying your holiday, sir?"

"Not so's you'd notice," Starsky said, affronted. "This is his vacation, not mine. Like I said, he's a flake. Don't ever go on vacation with a guy you work with. It's a mistake. L.A. he can handle. England freaks him out. Guess I better get those beers—same again, Sam."

Hutch returned as the second beer was pushed across the bar. He eyed his disemboweled bread-roll but made no comment. He half-turned his back to his partner and engaged the barman in conversation.

"A guy over in Seaton was telling me about Jack Rattenbury," he said, and the jovial face lit up.

"Ah, he was a local man, was Jack," he responded immediately. "Called him the Rob Roy of the west, they did."

"No kidding?" said Hutch. Starsky pricked up his ears, too, remembering the ancient movie on that gentleman. "Why?"

He was told why, at length and in detail, and even Starsky could not pretend disinterest.

"...used to hide all the contraband in the old quarries," the man was saying, breaking off to serve another customer. "Now, where was I—"

"Stashing the loot in a quarry," Starsky said helpfully. "What happened to him, anyway? The local law ever catch him?"

"Catch our Jack?" The man seemed to take this personally. "Not bloody likely! Died in his bed, did Jack. Ninety-seven if he was a day, and still in the trade..."

Oddly enough, the little town did not seem to be cashing in on their infamous native son as much as they might have. There was a restaurant called the Smuggler's Haunt, and a gift shop rejoicing under the name of the Treasure Chest, but that was their limit. Still, it was a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. There was a flourishing fish-mart down on the harbor, for Beer sported a working beach, evidenced by the number of boats and the occasional oil spill on the shingle. There were boats for hire, too, but Hutch wasn't dressed for boating and decided that could wait. Starsky didn't think much of the beach. In fact, as a beach, it was a washout. A narrow curve of steeply-terraced pebbles, the tide-line marked with weed, was a far cry from California's sunny strands. His disillusionment was complete when he almost stepped on the gutted remains of what was indubitably a small shark, whereupon he muttered something about Jaws and "just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water." Hutch took no notice. He liked it here.

The sun sank below the headland, and the shadows lengthened, before Hutch allowed Starsky's increasing restlessness to get to him. There was a choice of places where they could eat, but he headed back for the Anchor—and that didn't please his partner either, who wanted to try a dish rather improbably called Duck Armada at the Chez Nous. He didn't get his way. The dinner was what one would expect from a three-star hotel, and afterwards they adjourned to the bar. Hutch was in one of his people-watching moods, but as yet there weren't many people around to watch, the sole occupant of the place besides themselves and the barman being a lady in an Indian-print dress with a miniature dachshund. Starsky eyed the dog distrustfully—it was looking thoughtfully at his ankles, as if considering a snack—and concentrated on his beer, while Hutch produced the map he'd bought in the Treasure Chest, detailing the locality with various walks marked, and spread it on their table.

"We could walk up to the quarry tomorrow," he ventured. "It's not far."

"There's a nice walk over to Branscombe," the barman put in, polishing glasses. "If you're at all interested in history. Church is one of the oldest in the country. And if you go over the cliff path, you pass the Peaks. Castle Rock, some call it. Or Merlin's Keep."

"Really?" Hutch said. "I thought Merlin belonged in Cornwall. With King Arthur?"

"By no means," the lady with the dog said softly. "He got around, you know. After all, look at Stonehenge. That was called Merlin's Dance."

"Was it?" Starsky was bemused.

"So the legends say."

"Why?" Hutch sat down at her table. "Uh—you don't mind—?"

"Not at all. The legends say Merlin brought the stones from Treland by magic, and erected the whole thing in a single night."

"Fascinating," said Hutch, meaning it. "So what was he doing around these parts?"

"Again, it's all legend. But there's a cave a little way up from the Castle Rock that's known as Nimue's Roost—and the story goes that she was the witch who cast Merlin into his enchanted sleep and locked him away from the world."

"I saw Camelot," Hutch agreed. "She was in that."

"More or less. You're American—on holiday...?"

It was a pleasant evening. The lady with the dog was full of remarkable stories about the area, and was quite happy to talk to them. Starsky fed the dog with potato crisps to keep its mind off his ankles, and Hutch continued to ignore him, but that didn't really matter—his mood was improving. This only lasted until he retired to their room at eleven o'clock, to discover that the bed was a double. He groaned inwardly. Well, he wasn't going to let proximity undermine his resolution—even if it was becoming harder all the time to keep up his Noli me Tangere front. Watching Hutch turn on the charm for the lady with the dog had reminded him of what he was missing—being the center of Hutch's world, basking in his unabashed adoration. The Magician, Hutch had called him.

But that had been before Heathrow had rained on him. It wasn't that he didn't like England—not really. It was okay, if small, and they didn't seem able to serve beer at a civilized temperature. But it was pretty, and quaint, and very old. He'd been intrigued by Avebury, could have stayed another day or so at the New Forest, and could have got lyrical about Glastonbury if Hutch hadn't been lyrical already. He'd concealed his enjoyment under a camouflage of non-stop niggle, but if he was honest with himself, he was getting awful tired of it. With a small twinge of guilt, he imagined how it could have been—sharing this as they had shared everything—but right then Hutch came in and he quashed his conscience firmly. They prepared for sleep in silence, climbed into opposite sides of the bed. Hutch opened a paperback. Starsky, hunched on his side, his back to his partner, reflected on the miseries of the coming week. The ache of yearning grew stronger by the minute. He longed to roll over, snatch that damn paperback from Hutch's hands, throw it out the window, and take his lover in his arms. So why didn't he? It would be apology and reward in one—

"Can't you lie still?" Hutch snapped.

Oh, the hell with it. He needed the sleep, anyway.

* * * * *

The distant susurration of surf on shingle floated Hutch out of sleep, an easy, gentle awakening. Warm and comfortable, he stretched and turned over, reaching out his arm to wrap Starsky in a morning embrace. Then he remembered and sighed, rolling onto his back, the new day already lacking some of its promise. Well, he told himself, it's no use moping about might-have-beens. Starsky would get over his mad eventually—please, God—and in the meantime he was not going to risk another rejection. They hurt too much, and he was no masochist. Carefully, so as not to waken the sleeper, Hutch slid out of bed, pulled on his robe, and padded along to the bathroom, washbag and towel tucked under one arm.

The way he saw it, Starsky was being uncharacteristically childish and unfair, and there was no excusing it. They had had their two weeks in Acapulco, done all the things Starsky had wanted to do, and had he, Hutch, bitched about that? Of course not. Not even when Starsky had gone chasing after that sexy brunette from Texas and was AWOL from their hotel bedroom for three nights running. Not that Hutch objected, his own attention being claimed by a redhead from Idaho. It was part of their mutual agreement that their social—and otherwise—intercourse with the opposite sex should go on as it always had. It hadn't altered their relationship. He cleaned his teeth thoughtfully, gazing unseeing at his reflection. There was always the chance that Starsky was losing interest in their love affair.

It was now more than a year since that earth-shattering night when the realization had hit them both for the first time, and the white-hot emotional intensity had to have a cooling-off. He supposed so, anyway. But did it have to end completely? He didn't want it to end—in Starsky's love he had found contentment and completion, and he believed Starsky, too, had found an equal satisfaction in this new angle on their friendship. They had discovered a deeper need for each other, and a new security in having that need answered.

But it was different now. A whole new ballgame. The stresses, tensions of their everyday life and the job they did, being cops—of having to hide their loving behind a fašade of a more acceptable buddy-buddy friendship—in a way, it all helped to keep the passion alive. Now, on vacation, with no stress, able to take their pleasure as and when they pleased, it was gone, and nothing he did seemed able to recapture it.

He sighed. Whatever, he was determined he wasn't going to let it spoil his vacation. Rinsing out his toothbrush, he took out his razor and started to shave.

~~~

Starsky had been kept awake by the sea-sound for what had seemed like hours, and when at last he had managed to doze off, had been plagued by confused dreams in which he was trapped somewhere and couldn't seem to free himself. Now he surfaced sluggishly from heavy sleep to discover a large gull sitting on the windowsill, regarding him out of contemptuous cold yellow eyes. It looked at him as if he knew everything there was to know about him, and wasn't particularly impressed. He'd had a high-school teacher who used to look at him like that, he recalled, and said what he had never said to the teacher:

"Piss off."

The gull gave him another look, opened its beak in a raucous yap, and launched itself off the sill. Starsky tried to resume his slumbers, but the room was full of sunlight. Empty of Hutch, however, he realized belatedly. Another of the Hutchinson Habits he didn't much go for was the early rising. On the other hand, he thought with a snicker, it did have its compensations, remembering the times he'd been woken by warm lips on his skin, hands caressing belly and thighs. That kind of early rise... was a thing of the past, he thought wistfully. Thanks to his own stupidity. The last time Hutch had initiated such a pleasant awakening had been the morning after they'd arrived in England. And he, not wanting to be in England, and not exactly overjoyed at being dragged here by someone who professed to love him, had given Hutch to understand, in no uncertain terms, that Lent had been declared. Which meant that he could just keep his hands—and any other parts of his anatomy—to himself. Hutch had got the message pretty fast—with only a couple of reminders. And now Starsky was beginning to regret the extent of his veto.

At breakfast, Hutch disappeared behind a copy of the Telegraph, emerging only to demolish grapefruit, cereal, bacon and egg, and toast and marmalade, washed down with several cups of coffee. Starsky didn't attempt to break the deadlock, and ate in morose silence until Hutch, folding the paper, said:

"We'll walk over to Branscombe this morning."

"Why?" Starsky wanted to know.

"Because the fresh air and exercise will do you good. You've been sitting in a car all week, dammit."

"Have not. I walked in the New Forest, didn't I? And up that hill in Glastonbury."

"The Tor," Hutch corrected automatically. "Yes. You did. Bitching about it every step of the way."

"My feet hurt."

"Today you'll wear the right kind of shoes. And if you bitch your way to Branscombe, so help me, I'll maroon you there." Hutch punctuated the sentence by getting up from the table—Starsky, gulping down the last of his coffee and stuffing half a slice of toast into his mouth to follow it, headed after him.

The way to the headland was a road up a steep hill to the Caravan Park, and from there a footpath through rough pasture. The sky was quilted with high clouds, but the sea ahead was a wide arc of slate-blue from horizon to horizon. There was a stiff breeze, too—"Invigorating," said Hutch. "Cold," said Starsky, turning up the collar of his windbreaker jacket, in spite of the fact that the brisk up-hill walking had him breaking out in a sweat.

"This is not one of your better ideas, Hutchinson," he said at the stile that gave access to the cliff-path down. "We're not going down there, are we?"

"Yes," said Hutch, winging athletically across. "Come on. It says in the guidebook it's an easy walk even for the older generation. And you're not geriatric. Yet."

"Christ!" said Starsky, getting a better look at their intended route. "In case you haven't noticed, this turkey ain't no mountain goat."

"I warned you about bitching," Hutch snapped. "Now come on." And he carried on down the precipitous trail without waiting for him. Starsky did not hurry to catch up. He didn't dare. He had the feeling that if he broke his ankle, Hutch would believe he'd done it on purpose. He didn't look down, except at where he was putting his feet—one glance at the drop had been enough. At least a hundred feet, and only rock... He gulped down a rush of vertigo and concentrated on his balance.

The trail did even off, eventually—but now it cut through a thick tangle of bramble and scrub, muddy underfoot and dense with insect life, the sort that bit or stung or hung around in clouds waiting for the chance to do either. The nettles proliferated, chest-high in places, and vicious as rattlesnakes.

"Dear God," Starsky moaned to himself. "It's the friggin' Amazon..."

"Will you haul ass, Starsky?" floated back from an invisible Hutch. "Quit dawdling!"

"You bastard," Starsky told him silently. "I hate your guts."

Suddenly the trail ended in an undignified slither, opening onto what seemed like a vast expanse of shingle. This proved no easier to walk on than the mud-slides. Hutch got his bearings and turned to his left, heading for the foot of the massive outcrop of limestone that was Castle Rock—Merlin's Keep—and Starsky trudged in his wake. The effort of walking over the sliding stones dragged at calf muscles unused to coping with them, but perversely Starsky didn't complain about this real discomfort. Instead he picked on the view. The wind. The insect bites. The bramble scratches, nettle-rash, and the amount of mud that had collected on his jeans. He was ignored.

Hutch was, in fact, paying more attention to the seagulls as they wheeled and mewled across the sky, and to the play of light and shadow patterning the sea as clouds crossed the sun's path. Merlin's Keep. From the beach, it did indeed resemble a ruined castle; keep, barbican, and towering walls built of limestone blocks and bands of dark flint, blurred with vegetation and raucous with gulls.

"Hey, Starsk," he said. "This place is—something else."

Starsky did not hear him. He had had enough. Somehow a stone had gotten into his shoe and was creating painful havoc on an already abused foot. So he sat down in the lee of a rock, removed both shoes, and tilted his head back, squinting up at the acrobatics of the gulls.

~~~

Hutch continued his meander without realizing his partner had fallen by the wayside, rounding a tumbled boulder the size of a small house. He found himself in a natural sun-trap. He climbed up onto it and sat down on a rock worn smooth by years of sea and wind, looking out over the seascape—the tide was out, and cormorants aired their wings on flat slabs of stone where skirts of weed dipped and swished in the rise and fall of the waves. The rhythmic wash of sea-on-shore was almost hypnotic. Certainly it was restful, if not exactly sleep-inducing. He stretched out full-length, shifted hips and shoulders until they found hollows to mould with, and then closed his eyes, relaxing in the sheltered warmth.

~~~

The sweeping circles described by the gulls made Starsky quite giddy after a while—he dropped his gaze to the sea and surf-creamed rocks. Hutch was nowhere in sight. So who needs it? he asked himself. It was okay here, though he wasn't going to admit that to Hutch—and although it wasn't Santa Monica Beach, it was still kinda pretty. Not so many people, either. He looked along the curve of the bay—there were perhaps half a dozen figures dotted at random along about a mile of shoreline. None of them within hailing distance. Just as well. He was feeling decidedly misanthropic. The sea looked inviting—he eyed the scalloping waves that lapped at the pebbles. So okay, he wasn't wearing his swim shorts, but what was wrong with skinny-dipping? And his feet could do with cooling off. He levered himself to his feet, glanced around, spotted a suitable rock to use as a screen, and took a step towards it. Then he sat down again, abruptly changing his mind. Walking barefoot on these damn pebbles was downright impossible.

Thoroughly disgusted with this added annoyance, he looked around for Hutch, scowling, to tell him exactly what he thought of his so-called great idea. A beach a guy couldn't walk on, and a sea you couldn't swim in because you couldn't get at it without inflicting dire damage on your feet—what kind of a place was that, huh?

But Hutch was not to be seen. Starsky's frown deepened. Typical of Hutch to disappear when he wanted to bitch at him. He picked up a handful of pebbles, tossed them one by one at a large grey one some yards away, and missed with all but two. Then he found one with a hole clear through it, which held his attention for several minutes before it followed its fellows. He got up, replaced his shoes, and wandered to the base of the cliff, looking up at the crags above. The stone was deeply fissured, crumbling and soft—great chunks were tumbled around where they'd fallen. Recently, too, by the look of them. Not the safest place to go climbing, he reflected—and a sudden cold shiver that owed nothing to the wind rippled his spine. Knowing Hutch's predilection for scrambling around the rockier places of the wilderness he loved, this was a natural-made temptation to that Hutchinson Spirit of Adventure.

"Hutch!" His voice was lost in the rattle of the sea on stones, the ceaseless song of the wind. "Hutch!" Scenes flashed onto the screen of his imagination—Hutch climbing the uncertain cliff-face to reach Merlin's Keep. The rock crumbling under his feet—a bone-splintering fall of God-knows how far—"Hutch!" And the silent sprawl of a broken body beneath the uncaring bastions... "Oh, Christ, Hutch—" It was almost a sob, and he began to run.

It was nightmare made reality, trying to run over the shifting rounded stones. Lung-tearing effort only gained him a floundering progress, desperately slow, that had him lurching to hands and knees every few yards, balance lost. It was a shock he wasn't ready for when he skidded into the lee of a rocky outcrop to see Hutch lying there comfortably, eyes closed, the blond hair lightly stirred by the breeze—and the unexpected relief made his knees weak and mingled a rush of love with his anger.

"You dumb bastard, you had me scared shitless!" he yelled.

"What?" wondered Hutch blankly, sitting up.

"I thought—" he began, and broke the sentence off short, suddenly realizing how crazy it would sound. "I didn't know where you were," he finished lamely. The blue eyes flicked to his face, and then away. Starsky inched gingerly around the sliding pebbles and sat down near him, hugging drawn-up knees, craning his neck to look up at the sun-washed cliff. "Hey. It is kinda like a castle," he discovered. "Look. There's a tower. With windows, even. Well, they could be. S'that where they locked the old guy up, you think?"

"That's only a legend," Hutch said coolly. "Stories for kids and tourists." His voice dropped. "There's no magic left anymore."

Starsky's heart gave a lurch, and he flinched. God but he'd been a fool. The quiet pain in that last sentence had nothing to do with aged magicians. He was the whole cause of it.

"That's not true, Hutch," he said tentatively.

"No?" Hutch sounded almost cynical. Then shrugged. "Time's getting on. We may as well move out."

"Uh, hold on," Starsky put in quickly. "I—um—kinda like it here." No response. "And anyhow, I haven't got my breath back yet."

"Okay." Hutch settled his shoulders once more and concentrated on the cormorants. Starsky chewed on his lower lip. He was trying to say he was sorry, but it was hard to find the right words, and Hutch wasn't even listening. He fixed his gaze on the blond profile, cut clear as a cameo against the background of sky. Eyes that matched the meridian, blue for blue. The wide, sensitive mouth. Strong curve of jaw and throat. One hand lay relaxed almost within reach of his own, fingers spread. So much that was fine and true and beautiful—all adding up to this one man, Hutch, the uniqueness of him, familiar, beyond price, this combination of strength and gentleness—so easy to love, too easy to hurt.

"Hey," he said again. "I'm a tourist, right? So why shouldn't I believe in magic if I want to?"

"And do you?" Hutch said absently.

"Yeah," Starsky said softly. "I do. I guess you're responsible for that, babe." And the little endearment brought Hutch's eyes to his face, and the flare of hope and joy Starsky saw in them made his heart lurch again. He held out a hand, hesitant, lost for words—and Hutch's fingers closed on his, gripping hard, and Starsky turned, lifting himself to his knees so they were almost on a level. "Hutch." His lips formed the name, soundless—his free hand came up to caress the fine windblown silk-blond hair, slipped down to stroke the angle of cheekbone; Hutch's fingers tangling in his own dark curls, he was drawn closer until mouth met mouth.

The shock of contact was electric—Starsky heard a stifled moan, knew it had been his, and tasted the sweetness he had been denying himself this last week. Their lips drew apart fractionally, only to meet again with desperate need.

"Oh, God, Hutch—"

Hutch's arms around his shoulders, his own arms around Hutch's waist, he rested his head against the broad chest, hearing the beat of his lover's heart, the racing pulse of his own. There was no need to speak, to say the words—apology was given and accepted, reconciliation sealed—but something had to be said.

"D'you still not believe in magic?" he whispered.

"I never said I didn't believe. Only that it seemed it was all gone."

"I'm sorry."

"Yeah. Me, too."

"I'll make it up to you," he promised huskily.

"I can't wait."

"You don't have to."

Hutch gave a small breathless chuckle.

"Babe, this is a public beach."

"So? There's no one around. This could almost be that private bay where you were supposed to make me fit enough for the Review Board, remember?"

"Yeah," Hutch whispered.

"'Cept for these damn pebbles."

"You still bitching?"

"How're you gonna stop me?" he demanded, and Hutch's hands caught in his hair, lifting his head and taking his mouth in a kiss that didn't need words to tell of hunger and love. Starsky moved closer, wanting the contact with Hutch's body, his own flesh aching for the touch that would heighten and enhance desire until at last it brought the release he craved. His head was spinning, the world shrunk to the circle of Hutch's arms, of the seeking hunger of his mouth—he was oblivious of the pebbles bruising his knees. What might have happened next became a point of purely academic interest, however, as the first coin-sized pellets of rain hit them both.

"What—" Starsky mumbled dazedly. "Oh, shit—Hutch, wouldn't you know it? It's fuckin' raining on us!"

Hutch was pulling him to his feet, laughing.

"So we'll get wet," he offered intelligently. "Come here, tiger—"

"Hutch," Starsky protested, verbally if not physically. "We can't. Not in the rain, dammit!"

"We did in the shower," Hutch murmured into the side of his neck.

"Oh, Christ..." moaned Starsky, knees going weak. "Don't do that, Hutch... You know what happens when you do that..."

"Uh-huh," Hutch said indistinctly. And a clap of thunder startled them both and heralded the start of the cloudburst.

"D'you think someone's trying to tell us something?" Starsky demanded. "Hutch, we're gonna get soaked—it's miles back to the hotel."

"There has to be some kind of shelter around here." Hutch became aware of the wet discomfort of his shirt sticking to his shoulders. "A cave, or overhang—look, there are beach-chalets along the bay. Maybe—"

"—some friendly native will offer us a roof," Starsky finished for him, the words all but drowned in a second crash from the lowering sky. "Come on!"

The hundred-yard dash along the shingle left them breathless, exhausted, and soaked to the skin, but above them was a small beach-hut, windows shuttered, with a small porch that would provide some protection. Or so they thought. They scrabbled up worn and rickety steps to find the porch was no shelter from rain that was driven by a wind from the sea. The door was locked—but it was a Yale lock, and Hutch's credit card proved a useful tool. The lock snicked open.

"American Express," said Hutch. "Works every time."

"Yeah? Whatya get for breaking and entering over here?" Starsky wanted to know, grinning at him.

"Oh, about twenty to life, I should think," Hutch said confidently. "Hey, willya look at this place. All mod cons." It was, in fact, little more than a basic shell, four walls and a roof, but a padded seat along one wall lifted to reveal polythene-wrapped packages that proved to be blankets. "You better get those wet clothes off before you catch a chill," Hutch said over his shoulder, finding a box of candles in a corner of the kitchen area and hunting for matches.

"That the only reason you want me to strip?" Starsky inquired innocently.

"Purely for your health, Starsk," Hutch told him virtuously but spoiled it with a smile.

"Okay, we can play 'Doctor,'" Starsky agreed, grinning lasciviously, all teeth, and peeling off his jacket and shirt. Hutch lit a pair of candles, mounting them carefully on the window-sill, and shut the door against the wind and rain. Starsky, down to his shorts, picked up a blanket and tossed it to him. "Your turn to peel, partner." He spread one blanket on the floor, another on top, shucked off his shorts, and crawled between them. "Hurry up, blintz. 'S cold." And lay propped on one elbow, watching.

The soft golden light of the candles gilded the play of muscle under smooth golden skin, shadowing Hutch's eyes and the curve of his mouth, catching glints in the damp pale hair. He had the controlled grace of an athlete, even in such a mundane occupation as removing clothes, and Starsky relished every movement. A cougar, he thought—a golden lion of the high sierras, poured into man-shape and given compassion along with the pride, gentleness with the strength, the ability to cherish with the ruthlessness of the hunter that was in them both. And his. Giving or receiving, his more-than-friend, more-than-lover.

Hutch joined him under the blanket, and he yelped as chilled flesh made contact.

"Hey, geddoff! You're all froggy!"

"So kiss me and see what happens," Hutch suggested, the cool touch of his body making Starsky shiver, and not with cold.

"Don't tell me. You turn into a prince."

"You're the one who makes the magic, babe. Doesn't work without you."

"Uh-uh. Our kind of magic takes two. Me an' you. No one else," Starsky murmured, pressing his length against him, instinctively finding the position that let them fit together like two shaped parts of one whole.

"You said something about making it up to me?" Hutch suggested, holding him closer.

"Mmmm," said Starsky, into his neck. "Anyway you want it, lover."

"How about," said Hutch, "every which way, including loose?" And bit him, gently, on the shoulder.

"Christ, not the vampire," Starsky moaned, hips moving involuntarily against the slow thrust of Hutch's. The blond man chuckled and raised his head.

"So what happened to the 'any way'? Huh? Indian giver."

"I don't give to no Indian," Starsky began, indignant, then reached up to pull Hutch's head down for his kiss, opening his mouth for the probing tongue. The time for verbal teasing was over.

~~~

Again Hutch took his time, easing back at last to gaze down into his lover's eyes, sky-blue meeting sea-blue, sky darkening to slate, sea to indigo, glazed with helpless desire. He kissed Starsky's throat, feeling the leaping trapped-bird flutter of his pulse-beat—touched tongue-tip to the hollow of his collarbone, tasting the salt of his sweat, and bit into the taut flesh, hearing Starsky's moan of pain and perversely welcoming it. There was nothing he could not do, and that knowledge was heady wine. Using his strength as he rarely did during their lovemaking, he pinned the writhing body under him.

"Hold out on me, would you?" he said softly. "I don't like that, David. You hear me?"

"Hutch—"

"Oh, no, first you're going to listen. What you did—using the way I feel about you as a weapon against me—that's not fair. I can't be happy unless you're happy. More than anything, I want—I need—to be able to please you. You're the center of my life, and that's right, that's how it should be—but when you use my love to get what you want, then you're misusing it. And it's a two-edged blade, lover." He grazed his teeth over the quivering tautness of Starsky's chest, nuzzling into the soft dark pelt, teasing the tight buds of the nipples with his tongue, suckling—moving down to belly and thighs, licking, biting. Starsky's struggles became more frantic, his breathing ragged.

"Hutch—oh, God, Hutch, please—"

"Yeah, that's it, tiger. Beg for it..."

Starsky's hands were urgent on him, his body pressing close, arching blindly for his touch. There was nothing in his world now but his over-riding need, and only Hutch could fulfill it.

"Please..." It was a shaken gasp.

"No. Not yet," Hutch whispered. "When I'm ready, tiger. I'm calling the tune now. Roll over. I want you on your belly."

"No—" Starsky somewhere found the will to protest. "I don't want—"

"Anything I want, you said," Hutch reminded him, and flipped him easily over, kneeling astride to hold him down, stroking both hands over the strong back, shoulders to hips, caressing the in-hollowed curve of the spine with feather-touches. "And I want. So don't fight me, Starsk."

~~~

Starsky was beyond fighting. He was also beyond any kind of reasoned thought. He was an instrument for skilled hands to play on, vibrating to one man's desires, his own urgency counterpointing the surging flood of sensation. Hutch's weight shifted back as he knelt between spread thighs—hands lifted his hips and he went with the compulsion, suddenly hungry for this culmination, wanting to submit, to surrender—to yield to his lover's mastery, reaffirming his own commitment by giving everything that he was. Hutch recognized his eagerness and gave a breathless laugh of triumph, taking possession of him with ruthless strength, forcing a cry from him as he tried to twist away from the lancing stab of pain, but holding him fast, thrusting deeper, giving him no choice but to respond in the fashion he dictated. And respond he did, meeting each thrust, accepting and welcoming the penetration not in subjugation but in sharing—always a sharing of mutual delight, aware even in his wildfire flight of all his lover experienced. For as bodies were joined in this most absolute of human intimacies, so the rapport between their minds was intensified, fusing them into a single entity. Whose voice—either or both—sobbing wordlessly with pleasure and pain or lifting in a paean of soaring ecstasy.

"Now, babe, now—love you I love you oh god I love you..."

Kaleidoscopic brilliance, dazzling, as their together-reached climax peaked and crested, the wave of orgasm breaking over them both, drawing back to leave them cast up, spent and dazed, once more on the shore of reality.

* * * * *

Hutch was the first to stir as sleep loosed its hold on him. His limbs were heavy, aching a little from exertion—but his blood was running sweet and silken through his veins, and his bones felt polished. He propped himself on one elbow, looking down at Starsky. The last glow of the candles picked out the silver trace of tears, the moisture spiking the long thick lashes—his mouth was swollen where he'd bitten his lip. But he was smiling, and the lean body, velvet-sheened with sweat, was warm and pliant and relaxed. Hutch's love welled up in a rush of tenderness.

"Rivet-rivet," he whispered. "It didn't work."

"What—" Indigo-shaded, Starsky's eyes were clouded with the aftermath.

"It didn't work," Hutch repeated. "You'll have to do it again."

"Whatcha talkin' at, Hutch?" Starsky mumbled, bemused and drowsy, reaching for him in blind instinct.

"Breaking the spell on the frog, remember?"

"Oh. An' it did too work. Y're a prince, ain't'cha?"

"Feels pretty good, whatever." Hutch kissed him lightly, lovingly. "My magician hasn't lost his touch."

Starsky burrowed closer. "Mmmm," he said.

"It's the wrong time of year for hibernation," Hutch told him. "Besides, the rain's stopped."

"What rain?"

"The rain that forced us in here, dummy."

"I didn't notice you needing any forcing," Starsky muttered. "Then again, if you'da gotten your way, we'd be makin' it on that friggin' beach, on those friggin' pebbles. An' I was underneath!"

"Yeah," said Hutch, complacently. "You were, weren't you?"

"Don't get any ideas, schweetheart. That's one habit you ain't gonna practice too often."

Hutch, understanding him perfectly, chuckled and kissed his hair.

"You don't have a monopoly, schweetheart," he said. "Remember? No rules. So why shouldn't I get to—uh—reverse the situation?"

"Mmmm," said Starsky. "Because it sends me into orbit is why not. And I could forget how to get down."

"So you think you were alone up there?"

"Know damn well I wasn't." Smug and still sleepy, Starsky wrapped as much of himself as he could around Hutch. "Why don'cha shut up and go back to sleep, huh? You always talk too much."

"Starsk. It's stopped raining. We can't stay here."

Starsky, his face against Hutch's neck, just grunted.

Hutch sighed. "Come on, Starsk..."

"Can't. Clothes are still wet."

"How can you possibly tell?" Hutch demanded, exasperated. "And even if they are, we still have to get back to the hotel. Before they start sending out search-parties."

"Oh, Christ. They wouldn't?"

"They would. Come on."

Starsky contemplated further argument and delaying tactics, then remembered the expanse of double bed at the hotel.

"Okay," he capitulated, planning future maneuvers. He'd like to find out if Hutch could keep quiet in a respectable family hotel while he was being screwed through the mattress.

Hutch looked at him. That sweet innocent butter-wouldn't-melt expression always hid his more evil intentions.

"It's a respectable family hotel, Starsk," he warned.

"Yeah, I know that."

"Oh, God." Hutch hooked Starsky's shirt from where it was draped and dropped it accurately over his head. "Shift your ass, willya?"

Their clothes were by no means dry, but neither were they wet enough to be uncomfortable—and once blankets had been refolded and put away, and the place returned to the condition in which they had found it, Starsky went to the door.

"Hey, I bet there's a fantastic—" The door swung open. "—sunset..." His voice trailed into silence.

The sea was black velvet, shimmered with moving molten silver. The sky was dark blue, sprinkled with stars.

Hutch joined him in the doorway.

"We overslept," he said. "It's later than we thought."

"It's always later than you think," Starsky said. "Christ, Hutch, you're not gonna make me climb that cliff in the dark?"

"No, we'll walk along the beach to Branscombe and call a cab. You'd break your neck going up that path. And watch those steps—"

Starsky was down on the shingle first.

"There ought to be a moon—sky's light enough, and—" He broke off, stopping dead in his tracks.

Dusty-orange, the moon was still low in the sky, and from the horizon almost to their feet a shining sea-path lay over the water, a rippling causeway of hammered gold. To their left, Merlin's Keep towered black against the stars, standing eternal vigil over the ancient sorcerer's secrets as he slept his enchanted sleep.

Starsky drew in a deep breath. There were no words for this—or if there were, they were not to be spoken. Hutch's arm was around him, his eyes, too, on the surrealistic beauty of moon-and-sea, and that was as it should be, for this was theirs alone. If it had not been created especially for them, then they claimed it as of right.

"It is magic," Starsky breathed. "Tourist-tales or not, Hutch—there is something here."

Hutch's arm tightened around him.

"Like you said, lover, we make our own kind of magic."

"Something else besides that. Can't you feel it?"

"Yes," Hutch said quietly. "But right now, all the magic I need in my life is you. Come on, it's a long walk to Branscombe. And I'm starving."

"So'm I," Starsky discovered. And they started along the beach, not hurrying, two darker silhouettes in the night, moonshadows stretching before them, two merging into one.

But before they reached the bay, by common unspoken consent they turned to look back. The moon was high now, gold transmuted to silver, silver limning the crenellations and turrets of the magician's resting-place, and its light was a pure white benediction on their upturned faces.

* * * * *

There was time, the barman said, for a meal, if they'd didn't mind salad.

"Anything," said Hutch fervently.

"Right you are, sir. Sea air given you an appetite, I'll be bound."

"Something like that," Starsky grinned. "I'll have double portions of everything. Twice. An' if you got any of that clotted cream—"

"Not on salad, Starsk!"

"Why not? They stick it everywhere else."

They ate at the bar as trade thinned out—and the barman, taking their cleared plates, said casually:

"Those two single rooms you asked about, sir—some guests moved on today and there are a couple vacant, if you want to take them."

Hutch kept his eyes firmly on his beer, and Starsky glanced swiftly at him. A faint tide of color tinged the ear half-hidden by untidy blond hair.

"S'okay." Starsky's limpid gaze met the barman's polite look of inquiry. "I guess we'll make do..."