This story was originally published in Playfellows #6, published by Merry Men Press. Special thanks go to SHaron for scanning and proof-reading. Comments can be sent to: email@example.com
Hutch trotted into the bedroom. "What's wrong?"
Starsky was hunched over, desperately trying to pull the snap together on his jeans. He had to take a breath before trying again.
"Did you get it caught in the zipper?"
"No," the smaller man grunted irritably. Finally, he looked at the blond accusingly. "These damn pants have shrunk. As I recall, the last time they got washed was when you were over here doing the laundry."
Hutch leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. "Maybe you've gained a few pounds, buddy. After all," he paused smoothly, "I washed my clothes in the same load, and they still fit."
Starsky was trying again. "This is impossible," he muttered through a tightly held breath. Then he released the hems, and suddenly pushed the offending jeans down his legs. He plopped back on the bed and viciously kicked them off.
"Come on, partner," Hutch said, moving to the dresser, "we're going to be late." He opened a drawer and pulled out another pair. "Try these. We haven't got all morning."
Starsky took the offered clothing and stood before stepping into them. "These are a little better," he mumbled as he pulled them up his legs. He had to take a short hop to get them over his butt. He felt a wave of relief when, with a firm pull, he was able to snap the two sides together. Just as he straightened, he felt familiar arms come around him, and he froze.
A hand patted along his cotton clad stomach, the mild voice noting, "I think you have put on a little weight, partner."
Starsky didn't comment, too busy wondering if anyone could really tell that way, and thinking, not for the first time, how glad he was that Hutch was taller than him. It was such a secure feeling to have that large body hovering near.
Hutch moved a few steps away, now watching him with hands on hips. "Come on, let's go."
Starsky sat on the bed and began pulling on his shoes. Something seemed missing, and it took him a moment to realize that Hutch hadn't badgered him about the possibility of putting on a pound or two. "Guess I ought to start working out harder," he offered, solely to force a reaction.
The blond's shoulders shrugged. "You can get bigger jeans, moron. Besides, it doesn't hurt to have a little padding. That way, the next time you take a slug, maybe it won't go in so deep."
Starsky finished tying the shoelaces, and he slowly looked up. His partner had been prone to mood swings since returning from Duluth three weeks previously. Now, the blond merely wore a calm expression, except for a twitch of impatience. In a quiet, precise tone, Starsky said, "If that was a joke, it's not very damn funny." Besides, he silently defended himself, he'd been shot in the back of the shoulder at the Italian restaurant two years ago, not in the stomach.
"It wasn't intended to be," Hutch stated seriously. Then he moved a couple of steps. "Come on. We can stop sometime today and get you some new duds."
The smaller detective felt an instinctive pull to follow the command. But he'd been putting up with little comments that didn't seem to make much sense for three weeks now. He turned toward Hutch, putting a knee on the bed, and crossed his arms. "Wait a minute. I want to know what's going on with you. You haven't been yourself ever since you came back from Duluth."
Hutch snorted harshly. "Gee, Starsk, you know my father died a few weeks ago. I didn't know there was a time limit on how long I have to mourn."
The other made a face. "Come off it, Hutch. You know what I mean. You have every right to mourn as long as you want. Never mind that you were insisting before you went that it wasn't a big deal anyway, but I knew it wasn't that simple. But," Starsky's voice softened, "why can't you tell me what's going on in that thick skull of yours? It might help to talk about it. Besides, it's hard being around you when you're like this."
Slowly, the muscles in the pale face fell, and the blond's eyes dropped. He took a deep, drawn-out breath, then looked about the room. He moved to sit hunched over in a chair in a far corner.
Starsky couldn't help but notice the way his partner distanced himself. But he waited without comment.
Hutch picked at a callous on one hand. When he looked up, he softly said, "It really isn't even 'mourning'."
The vulnerable tone pulled at Starsky, and his body relaxed. "Go on."
"I just," another sigh, then a glance in his partner's direction, "wish things could have worked out differently, that's all. I just wonder why it had to be that way between my Dad and I. Why couldn't we have just... talked to each other, understood each other? He really wasn't a bad guy."
"And you weren't a bad son," Starsky reminded gently. "But it sounds to me like he made you feel that you were."
"Yeah, well, maybe some of that was my fault."
"Probably was. But you were a kid, Hutch. Your parents were the adults. It was their responsibility to develop a good relationship with you."
"Yeah, but after I grew up..." The taller man trailed off then sighed again. "I guess I feel like maybe instead of feeling sorry for myself about how things were, I should have made more of an effort to reach out..."
Starsky rushed to assure. "But you did make an effort, considering everything you've always told me once you got back from there. It's not your fault if they didn't pick up the ball you threw them."
"Yeah," the blond agreed, but his tone was unconvinced.
Starsky hated seeing Hutch in these down moods, for they tended to feed on themselves. A brooding partner could lead to a melancholy partner, which in turn could lead to a depressed partner.
But he wasn't sure what else he could say that could penetrate the wall of self-blame.
Hutch worked more intently with the callous. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, and didn't look up. "I did a bad thing, Starsk."
Starsky scooted closer to the edge of the bed. "What do you mean?"
"When I was there in Duluth." Now Hutch straightened. "I tried talking to my mother. I mean, a few days after the funeral, and after things had quieted down a little, she started talking about how my sister and I were all that was left in the family, etcetera, etcetera. Since I'd told you a few months ago about what I did when I was seventeen, it's been on my mind more. And I thought I'd talk to her about it." A touch defensive, he clarified, "I just wanted to talk about it, not blame anybody, or anything like that."
"Sounds like a good idea," Starsky put in quickly.
Hutch shook his head in disbelief. "She just ... just ...." Suddenly the blond looked down, deflated. "She acted like she had no idea what I was talking about. She just brushed it off, almost like she thought I'd made it up."
The intense desire to tell Hutch's parents a thing or two was strong once again. But Starsky had to put his own wishes aside to concentrate on his partner. "Then why do you feel bad?" he asked in disbelief.
"Because," a short laugh, "she seemed to feel like I was attacking her, being 'mean' to make her feel bad." The blond shook his head. "l should have known better than to try talking to her about it. I did know better. For some reason, I thought things might be different. I always think that, whenever I've gone out there." He looked at Starsky hopefully, as though waiting for the other to say something that would make sense of it all.
Starsky complied as best he could, coming to his feet and approaching the seated man. "Hutch, you just answered your own question."
Animated, Starsky explained, "You started out saying you think you should have made more an effort to straighten things out between your father and yourself." He was now standing before his partner. "But don't you see? The same thing would have happened as happened with your mother. Your father would have brushed it off just like your mother did. You wouldn't have accomplished anything." He leaned down to Hutch as a way of driving his point home.
After a thoughtful moment, Hutch laughed softly and shrugged. "If that's true, what you're saying is that I was in a no-win situation."
Starsky nodded firmly, pleased with himself. "Right."
"Then why don't I feel any better?"
"Because they're your parents," Starsky gestured emphatically. "They have a hold on you, whether you like it or not. But for what it's worth, buddy," he knelt on the carpet before his partner, "I think you had the right idea when you were a kid. You walked away from it, made your own life." He reached up, patting a cheek. "And now you got me. So, who needs 'em?" Though Starsky believed the last statement sincerely, he was expecting Hutch to come up with a clever retort.
Instead, the blond merely said, "Yeah," with a soft smile. Then he abruptly rose and headed for the door. "Shit, we're going to be late."
You two are late," Dobey announced firmly as they entered the squad room. The black man jerked a thumb. "Get your tails in my office, now."
Starsky exchanged an apprehensive glance with his partner. They'd never known their occasional tardiness to have serious consequences. Upon entering Dobey's office, they found a slim, authoritative, middle-aged man waiting and understood their superior's tension.
"This is Lt. Jack Skylar from the 14th precinct," Dobey introduced, closing the door behind them. "Jack, Starsky, Hutchinson."
They all nodded at each other, Skylar seeming to have immediately given up on trying to address them correctly by name.
"Sit down, gentlemen," Skylar told them.
Starsky exchanged another glance with his partner then both men took the two remaining chairs in front of Dobey's desk.
The captain sat down behind his own desk. "Lt. Skylar is heading an investigation into the stabbing deaths of patrons at the Sail Away bar."
Starsky searched his memory, only vaguely familiar with places outside their own precinct. "Isn't the Sail Away a gay bar?"
Right," Skylar replied. "Though a little less risqué than most. I've had men undercover for three months, and nothing's turning. There's been two additional deaths since. What I need is more manpower, and Dobey has agreed to loan me you two, hopefully for as long as it takes to wrap this up."
The curly-haired man made an effort not to squirm at the idea of yet another investigation in one of those places. He and Hutch had done it two or three times the past few years, and he still hadn't gotten used to it. "What's the setup?"
"I need patrons. My men are already set up in bartender and janitorial positions. Two others are acting as regulars at the bar, but we need more customers."
Hutch spoke for the first time. "What's the killer's MO?"
"He comes on to couples," Skylar replied. "Apparently makes agreements with them for group sex. They agree on a meeting place, have sex, and then he leaves them dead. Slits their throats, their genitals, and—"
"Jesus," Starsky looked away.
"And what?" Hutch asked grimly.
"And leaves the dismembered parts beside the bodies."
"What's the psych profile?" the blond pursued.
"At first," Skylar replied, "we thought he hated gays. But since all eight murders have involved couples, we're now thinking he has something against relationships."
Starsky could feel the color start to return to his face. "With that many murders from one bar, you'd think all the customers would know better than to mix with someone who wanted to make it with them."
Skylar nodded. "That's probably why there hasn't been one in six weeks. The patrons are scared. Dobey tells me you two have worked well together for years. If you could pose as a couple from out of town, who maybe doesn't know better, we're hoping you'll be an easy target, and he'll move soon."
Starsky looked at Hutch, his professionalism over-riding his discomfort. "Worth a try."
The blond nodded.
"Good," Dobey said, handing Hutch a manila folder, but addressing both detectives. "Here's the case file. Study it, and then meet with Skylar and his other undercover men at four o'clock to fine-tune the covers you'll be assuming. You'll be going to the bar tonight."
* * * * *
"Why are you so uptight?" Hutch asked, looking past his reflection in the bathroom mirror to address his partner, who stood behind him. The blond was wiping residual shaving cream from his face.
"You know how I hate those places," Starsky complained. He was messing with the collar of his tight, silk blouse, feeling like some kind of Las Vegas show girl.
"Yeah, but at least we're going to have to stick together. If anyone lays a hand on you, it'll be to the benefit of our cover for me to belt them one."
"Yeah," Starsky sighed. He was unconvinced that it was going to be that simple, but he was grateful that the assignment required them to stick close together.
When he turned toward the hall, his partner's voice followed after him. "Why can't you just relax and have fun with it? Any other time we go under, you always make the best of it. What's so different about this?"
Starsky returned to lean against the doorframe, crossing his arms. Whenever they'd had this kind of assignment, he always felt like something of an outsider, for he never felt the ease that Hutch did in that kind of company. "Don't you ever get tired of those people pawing at you?"
Hutch shrugged, "Just saying 'no' usually works." He glanced back over his shoulder while opening a bottle of cologne. "Besides, they always 'paw' at me more than you, and I can handle it, so what are you so worried about?"
"Why are they always so much more interested in you?" Starsky asked seriously. He genuinely wanted to know the answer— or at least wanted to know what Hutch thought the answer was.
"Face it, buddy," Hutch patted the cologne against his cheeks, "I'm better looking."
Playing along, Starsky replied, "You'd think those people would be interested in other things besides looks. Like personality. We both know I'm heads and shoulders above you in that department."
Hutch straightened and turned toward his partner, his chuckle overly-sweet. "So says you."
The conversation hadn't helped. Starsky still felt uptight as he followed the blond to the living room. They both paused to put on their shoulder harnesses and jackets.
"Pants fit okay?" Hutch asked.
Starsky glanced down at the new, deep-blue jeans. "Yeah."
True to his promise, the blond had made sure they had gone shopping. Hutch had always been big on providing whatever he needed. Starsky couldn't help but smile fondly as his eyes sought the carpet. He wondered if the feeling in his chest was going to grow into one of those times when he felt like he was going to burst.
The smaller man looked up to see Hutch with his hand on the door knob. The pleasant feeling disintegrated, for Starsky had more immediate concerns. When they'd visited Skylar and the other undercover men for a more thorough briefing, they were told that they might have to get 'close'— as Skylar put it—to maintain a convincing cover. Of course, they'd both sat there and nodded their heads, professionals to the core.
But now, on the verge of going to do some very important work, they still had some privacy. And it was only under such conditions that Starsky felt comfortable enough to speak. "Uh, Hutch?"
The blond straightened, having obviously detected the vulnerable tone. "What?"
Starsky gestured helplessly. "Well, since we're supposed to be so close and such, don't you think we should... you know, practice. Kissing?" He hoped the other didn't think it a ridiculous suggestion. They'd pecked each other on the corner of the mouth once in a previous assignment, but this time they could be under for days on end, and their acting abilities would be put through a much more difficult test.
Obediently, the blond marched back to stand before his partner. Grimacing, he said, "Just don't slobber all over me, all right?"
Starsky grinned, feeling better all ready. "Okay."
Hutch moved closer. He placed a hand against Starsky's spine, put his other hand on Starsky's shoulder. He closed his eyes and bent his head.
Starsky closed his eyes, too. The hand on his back applied more pressure just as soft lips gently pressed against his own, Hutch's cologne penetrating his nostrils.
Good God, he thought as their mouths moved slowly from side to side. Butterflies danced in his stomach.
Hutch released him, and was grinning smugly when Starsky opened his eyes.
The smaller man took a deep breath, trying to keep a professional focus. "I'm not sure they do it like that in the bars. It's not usually that... you know, romantic, is it?"
The blond's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Then he abruptly bent, grabbed Starsky's mouth with his own, and, in one hand, grasped the firm rear, and put the other behind the curly head. He pulled back just as quickly. "Better?"
Starsky took another deep breath, looking away. "Yes and no," he replied honestly.
Hutch moved closer, voice gentle. "I'm going to keep my arm around you like this," he rested a hand at the small of Starsky's back, "maybe hook my thumb in your belt, or just inside your jeans. And when I pull you closer," he moved the hand to the other side of the waist, "I'll do it like this." He brought the other against his side, hugging firmly.
Starsky realized that Hutch was trying to make him feel more comfortable and secure. Rallying, he asked, "Want do you want me to do?"
"Just hold onto me a lot, cling to me. That should leave no question as to who you're with." Hutch released Starsky's waist, but picked up his hand, leading the way to the door. "Come on, beautiful."
True to his word, Hutch protected Starsky from anyone who showed interest. It was accomplished merely with words and challenging eye contact. They posed as "Larry" and "Mike" from the East Coast, and having hit it big in Las Vegas, they had come to California for a few weeks of fun.
Each day, after the bar closed, MacMillian, an undercover cop who was acting as bartender, met the two in an alley outside a convenience store, which was located between the bar and the motel they were staying at. Their conversations consisted of little that was useful, until the fourth night.
"Someone came up to me, asking about you two," MacMillian stated as the trio stood beneath a small lamp. He was smoking a cigarette. "He was someone I've seen in there on occasion."
"What's his name?" Hutch asked.
"I just know him as Joey. He was watching you two, wondering how long you'd been around."
"Did he ask if we were a couple?"
MacMillian shook his head. "No, but he spent a lot of time watching you."
Starsky said, "What else did he ask?"
"Nothing specific." MacMillian blew out a lungful of smoke. "Listen, you two, I think you need to beef it up a bit. If this is our man, maybe he needs to see you be a little more convincing."
"What do you mean?" the curly haired detective asked in disbelief. "Hutch and me have been hanging all over each other. How much more convincing do we need to be?"
MacMillian grimaced at him. "You mean you have been hanging all over Hutchinson. He's obviously Ken to your Barbie." He ignored the offended look Starsky gave him. "For all anyone knows, you're some little faggot that 'Larry' picked up out the gutter, and who's keeping him happy so you can help him spend his money."
Hutch asked, "What are you saying, Mac? What else do you want us to do?"
"Act like you're in it for the long term, like you've been together a long time."
"We have," Starsky put in, puzzled. "Anyone we've talked to, we've told them—"
"No, no," Mac dumped the cigarette to the ground, and crushed it with his shoe. "You need to prove it, make a statement that's stronger than just words."
Heatedly, Hutch said, "What do you want me to do? Sodomize him in front of everyone else?"
Starsky looked away, shocked that Hutch had the nerve to say the word out loud, and desperately hoping it wasn't want MacMillian had in mind.
"Calm down, fellas." MacMillian held out his hands in a gesture of congeniality. "I'm just saying I think it would help you be more convincing, if, say, one of you strays a little bit, and the other makes it clear he's not going to put up with it. Maybe you can say something about having had some kind of wedding ceremony back East."
Starsky sighed with relief. When Hutch didn't speak, but merely looked thoughtful, he said, "Okay. I'll start checking out other customers, and Hutch can come after me."
MacMillian pulled out another cigarette and lit it. "No, it would be better if 'Larry' strayed and 'Mike' went after him." He puffed quickly, eyes on Starsky. "That way, it would show that you aren't such a Mary Jane. That you have rights to Larry just as much as Larry has to you. It would make it more convincing that you two are serious about your relationship."
Starsky looked at Hutch, waited for the blond to nod, then looked back at MacMillian. "Okay. We'll wait for your signal the next few nights. When Joey arrives, we'll make a scene."
* * * * *
When Hutch's arm went around the burly man's shoulders, Starsky knew it was time to move.
"Hey," he called as he made his way through the crowded bar, watching a tattooed arm go around Hutch. "Hey!"
Hutch turned to face Starsky just as the other reached him. He shrugged with indifference.
"Get your hands off him," Starsky snarled to Hutch's companion.
The burly man, who just now seemed to notice Starsky, looked down at him. "I think Blondie here has decided he prefers real men."
Hutch now shrugged petitely. "Yeah. Get lost, Mike."
Starsky lunged at Hutch, grabbing him by the shirt and throwing him to one side. The blond landed on the floor as onlookers scrambled to get out of the way.
"Hey," the burly man curled his fist, facing Starsky squarely.
The darker detective didn't spare a moment's hesitation. He pulled back and swung at the large man, cutting him across the nose.
The man staggered back, hands reaching to cover his face, eyes squinting shut. Blood started spurting out and the crowd muttered comments of surprise.
Starsky stood with his fist still poised. "You want more?" he taunted. "Larry belongs to me." He held up a hand showing his ring. "We've got this to prove it, courtesy of a special little chapel in Baltimore." The man seemed stunned, and Starsky decided he could risk taking his eyes off him to address the crowd that had gathered. "If any of you others think you prefer blonds, you'd better settle for just looking, and not touching." He slowly spun around, pleased with the impressed looks on the sea of faces. "You California people seem to think you can have anyone you want. Well, it doesn't work that way with us. Nobody lays a hand on Larry... except me."
He waited to see if anyone was going to argue. Everyone remained silent, and he leaned down to Hutch, who was still lying in an exaggerated sprawl. He grabbed the blond again by the shirt, hauling him to his feet. "Come on, we're going back to the hotel." He pulled none-too-gently on the shirt-front, leading Hutch through the crowd. He gritted his teeth. "And I'm going to teach you the meaning of 'Til death do us part.'" The crowd came alive then, "oohing" and "ahhing", but in a way that was encouraging... and envious.
Starsky threw Hutch into the passenger side of their rented car, then got in the driver's seat. He made sure they had driven at least a block before he spoke. "Did you have to come on to the biggest guy in the place?"
Hutch shrugged, delicately stretching various muscles. "You handled him all right."
"Yeah, but not before I saw my life flash before my eyes."
Hutch grinned. "Starsky, he was nothing but a big pussy cat. You probably didn't have to break his nose like that."
A shrug. "I had to be convincing."
* * * * *
"Well?" Hutch asked as MacMillian approached them in the alley.
"He watched, that's all I can tell you."
Starsky said, "Did he leave right after us?"
"No, he stuck around until closing time. He didn't drink much, but he seemed real preoccupied."
"Maybe he'll make a move tomorrow," Hutch said hopefully.
MacMillian was thoughtful. "Remember, we don't know what 'making a move' means for him. Since none of the other victims were seen with him, it's doubtful he'll approach you in the bar."
"So, what happens now?" Starsky wondered.
The other cop lit a cigarette. "First things first. Why don't you two make it clear that what happened tonight was just a spat? The next time I give you the signal that Joey's around, beef it up. Maybe start smooching in the corner or something." He nodded after a pause. "Yeah, start playing like you're getting hot and heavy, and I'll ask you to leave the bar, since anything heavy is against the rules. I'll ring you at your hotel room if he leaves before closing."
"Then what?" Hutch asked.
"We'll see how he approaches you. Remember, we don't know how much time passed between his propositioning those other couples, and when they actually got together. It could have all happened in the same night, or he might operate more slowly man that."
"And if operates quickly," the blond pursued, "he could make a move the next time he's sees us, and sees that we've made up."
"If he leaves the bar after you two," MacMillian assured, "and follows you, remember we'll have plainclothes units staying close. If things get rough, we'll close in. Just don't forget to turn on the tape recorder in your room."
"Right," Starsky said.
MacMillian threw the partially smoked cigarette aside and straightened. "Gentlemen, with any luck, if he comes back to the bar tomorrow, we could have this wrapped up by this time tomorrow night."
The next night, from where he was sitting with his chair leaning back against the far corner d the bar, Starsky could see MacMillian's signal that Joey had taken his place at the counter. He nodded once in acknowledgement, then glanced at his partner, who was watching the dance floor.
"Time to smooch," Starsky whispered, feeling nerves come to life in his stomach.
Hutch looked at him and leaned closer. "What?"
"Joey just arrived." Starsky took a deep breath, not able to meet his partner's eye. "Time to get it on." He wished they'd talked about how they were going to do this, but he'd been reluctant to bring it up, especially since Hutch didn't first. If it didn't bother Hutch, it shouldn't bother him.
The sea blue eyes turned on Starsky, and Hutch scooted his chair closer. "How many beers have you had?"
"That should have you mellow enough."
Starsky wasn't quite sure if the blond were serious or teasing. "How many have you had?"
"Still nursing the one." The tone was almost bragging.
Careful to talk beneath his breath, the smaller man said, "Well, mellow or not, you'd better get something going. The sooner we get started, the sooner Mac can throw us out."
Hutch smiled at him. "Your wish is my command," he whispered, leaning close.
Starsky watched his partner apprehensively as a hand was placed on his chest, the chair scooting closer. When the soft face was a bare centimeter from his own, his heart accelerated.
"Just relax and go with it," the blond directed.
That made sense. "Yeah," Starsky agreed, closing his eyes. A moment later so-soft lips pressed against his own. He did as directed, relaxing, letting the pleasant sensation drift through him. The hand on his sweater-clad chest began to rub, and his skin felt fuzzy around the edges.
The lips barely pulled back. "You doing okay?"
It was just like Hutch to show concern by asking, but Starsky wasn't sure how to answer. He couldn't have pulled this off with anyone else; yet, even with Hutch, he was aware that they were in a crowd of people... Impulsively, he replied, "Maybe we should really pet heavy, so Mac can hurry and throw us out." He heard the desperation in his own voice.
But Hutch remained calm. Lips moving to Starsky's ear, he whispered, "He probably wants to make sure Joey gets a good look. Why don't you start kissing back, put your arm around me?"
Oh, yeah. He should be doing something, too. Starsky found himself reluctant, for he felt a lot more secure letting Hutch do all the work. But he straightened slightly, and when the lips met his this time, he pressed back, putting one hand on Hutch's waist and the other behind the blond head. If he could just pretend no one else was around...
The hand on Starsky's chest drifted down, rubbing all the while, and when it came to the top of his jeans, the detective felt himself go light-headed. He shifted awkwardly in the chair, trying to keep a grip on himself. He realized with alarm that Hutch had misread the message, for now the blond's hand swept across his swelling crotch, pressing firmly.
Starsky couldn't restrain a grunt of protest, not sure whether he was embarrassed by his reaction, or angry at Hutch for being insensitive enough to cause it. But a moment later, he was beyond thought, for Hutch's mouth widened, and he seemed to devour Starsky's lips, nibbling at them, sucking them in.
Damn it, this had to stop. Desperately, Starsky's hand shot out, finding a firm stomach. He quickly felt lower, pressing vengefully against the soft pouch there, then lurched in shock when a hand closed on his ass.
"Hey, you guys."
Starsky's hands immediately dropped, but it seemed like forever before Hutch's lips finally released him. He collapsed back in his chair, blood racing through his veins, annoyed and disbelieving that this could happen to him in a place such as this, that it was happening when he was supposed to be a professional undercover cop, with no room for personal feelings. He opened his eyes to see MacMillian standing before them with a firm expression, hands on his hips.
"Hey, none of that in the bar. The owner doesn't like it."
A few of the closer patrons were looking at them. Smoothly, Hutch said, "Hey, pal, we're just having a little fun. We aren't hurting anybody. How about another beer?"
MacMillian pretended to consider. "Look, your business is always welcome. But why don't you two go somewhere more appropriate and finish what you started? You're causing a scene here."
It was a bit of an exaggeration, but through the corner of his eye, Starsky saw a man at the counter staring at them. He straightened, draping an arm over Hutch's shoulders. "Yeah, he's right, Larry. These are good people here. Let's not cause trouble. Let's get back to the hotel and...," he dropped his voice coyly, "you can finish me off in more appropriate surroundings."
Hutch took his hand. Threateningly, he said, "Maybe I'll make you beg for it first."
Starsky sighed wistfully. "You know how I like it, babe."
Hutch tugged on his arm and led him toward the door. Behind them, MacMillian apologetically said, "I appreciate it, fellas. The owner just doesn't like any trouble. He likes a nice, clean establishment."
Hutch placed Starsky in the passenger side of the car, then got in the driver's seat. After starting the motor, he put his hand on his partner's shoulder, then drove off.
Starsky waited a careful 30 seconds, then reached up and pushed the arm aside.
Hutch glanced at him. "What's wrong?"
The smaller man couldn't believe that the other thought it necessary to ask. Jaw tight, he muttered, "Just get us to the hotel, all right?" He was grateful when Hutch didn't speak further, and stared out his side of the window for the remainder of the five minute journey.
The arm went around him again when they got out of the car, Hutch pulling him close. Starsky kept his face lowered, so if anyone of account happened to be watching, they couldn't see him fighting off a scowl.
As soon as the door to their room was closed behind them, Hutch loosened his grip, but squeezed a taut shoulder with his hand. "Hopefully, Mac will be calling to say Joey's following, huh?"
Starsky pushed at the arm again, moving a few steps away. Irritably, he said, "Come on, cut it out."
Hutch put his hands on his hips, expression open. "What's wrong?"
It annoyed Starsky further that Hutch was asking him to explain. Yet, he knew it was better to be honest than obstinate. Face closed, he moved toward the window, "Just keep your hands off me, all right?"
The voice behind him was puzzled . . . and a trifle hurt. "Sure."
If Hutch were truly at a loss, then Starsky knew it was cruel to not explain himself. He turned around, voice tight. "My hormones have a long memory, that's all."
Hutch visibly relaxed then. With a tender smile, he headed toward the door. "Hey, why don't I take a hike for a few minutes? Maybe you can catch a shower... or something. I'll see if I can find some ice cream," he gently added, "maybe cool down your insides a bit?"
Damn, it was hard being mad at Hutch when the other was being so consoling. But the offer put Starsky's mind back on business. "Hutch, we can't separate. Joey could be following, and we don't want him meeting up with just one of us."
Hutch was thoughtful, then nodded reluctantly. "You're right." He moved away from the door.
Starsky watched the sleek form sit on the bed. Feeling the frustration well up, he demanded, "What is it with you?"
The blond looked up, mouth open. "What do you mean?"
Starsky gestured elaborately, dancing about the room. "How come you're so goddamn cool about all this? How come what we did back there didn't get you all worked up?"
Tenderness once again overtook the blond's features. "Aw, Starsk..."
Starsky waited. Then, "Yeah, I'm listening." His hands went to his hips.
Hutch shook his head, voice halting. "I just ... I was just too concerned about you to..." He tried again. "I just thought if you had to put up with doing that, I should try to make it as pleasant for you as I could. All my attention was on you, that's all."
Starsky didn't want to believe him, but that expression was too sincere. He turned away, muttering, "Well, you did a damn fine job."
"Sorry, buddy. I thought you'd be too scared to get that worked up."
The smaller man turned back around. "Scared? For God's sakes, Hutch, with you all over me like that, what difference did it make whether I was scared or not? My glands didn't give a goddamn who was stirring them up, or what the circumstances were." Hutch looked a bit sheepish, but didn't reply. Before his frustration drifted back to anger, Starsky grabbed a robe and went into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him.
He undressed while there and, though his arousal had eased, he started a cool shower. When the temperature had done its job, he let it warm up, then stood against the wall, letting the water rush over him.
It wasn't true, what he'd said. His glands wouldn't have responded like that to just anyone. It was his absolute trust in Hutch— to say nothing of the man's skill—that had allowed his reaction. It was wrong of him to blame his frustration all on his partner, or any of it, for that matter. Hutch had done the best he could—had played it superbly, in fact— and they had accomplished the mission at hand.
Surely, a few minutes of personal discomfort was small enough a price to pay for the potential of capturing a mass murderer.
But Hutch's coolness about the whole case still rankled him.
He got out of the shower, briskly ran a towel threw his hair, then put on his robe and came out, carrying a bundle of clothes. Hutch was also in his robe and was sitting back against the headboard of the bed, regarding his partner timidly.
The phone rang, and they looked at each other. Then Hutch reached for the receiver. "Hello?" Almost immediately, the blond said, "Hi, Mac." He listened a moment, then sighed. "Okay, looks like we're going to have to hope for tomorrow." He hung up the phone and looked at Starsky. "Mac said Joey stayed until closing. They had a tail follow him home." He shrugged. "Looks like he doesn't want to move yet."
Starsky threw his clothes to one side. He was getting damned tired of the whole case.
Hesitantly, Hutch said, "Uh, since you're mad at me, does that mean I'm going to have to sleep in a chair?"
Starsky blinked, feeling himself deflate. "No, of course not," he answered quietly, then moved to the other side of the bed. "Besides, you know it's not really you I'm mad at."
Carefully, the blond replied, "No, I don't know that."
Starsky made a face while reaching to a drawer to pull out a pair of briefs. He slipped them on beneath his robe, then discarded the outer garment. He grabbed a t-shirt from another drawer and pulled it over his head. Then he got into bed, slipping beneath the covers. "Well, I'm not mad at you." He propped a pillow behind him, Lying back against it. "There's just something I don't understand."
Hutch, hands folded across his middle, looked over at him.
Starsky turned on his side to face his partner, chin propped on an elbow. "I just keep wondering: is it me, or is it you?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, am I abnormally uptight about being around gays, or are you abnormally relaxed around them?"
"Oh, Jesus, Starsk. How in the world can you define 'abnormal'?"
A typical Hutch response. "Come on, Hutch. You know what I mean. I just can't figure out how you're able to mingle with them so easily. How you can come on to me like a pro, and not even get all hot and bothered yourself?"
"I explained that," Hutch began.
"Only in part," Starsky told him firmly. "I just don't get how you're so cool about it all."
Hutch looked away a moment, sighing heavily. Then he returned his attention to his partner. "What's not to be cool about? I don't have anything against those people."
The smaller man shrugged. "Neither do I. But that doesn't mean I want to hang out with them."
Now Hutch shrugged. "Neither do I."
"But you don't mind it when you have to."
"What's to mind? This is the seventies, buddy. The sexual revolution is on. Everyone has their hang-ups, their special turn-ons. I accept that. Even if I don't endorse it, I can allow anyone else the freedom to be what they want, do what they want. As long as they don't hurt anyone else, what's the harm?"
Starsky refused to let frustration claim him. "That's all well and noble of you, partner, but you still aren't answering the question."
Hutch started to speak, then abruptly closed his mouth. After a moment's thought, he asked, "Just what is the question? What are you waiting for me to say?"
Now it was Starsky's turn to hesitate. He realized it was a legitimate question, for he was guilty of going the long way around, trying to make a point. Still, he found himself shying away from the center of the circle. He shuffled his feet nervously, "Well, you know what the Frudan people have always said about everyone being bisexual, deep down."
Hutch rolled his eyes. "Freudian, dirtball."
"Whatever. But you know what I'm talking about, right?"
"That deep down everyone is bisexual, sure." The blond shrugged easily. "He claimed it was cultural conditioning that makes us choose heterosexuality."
Starsky didn't like those big words. Quickly, he said, "Well, don't you think some people are probably more bisexual than others, even if they don't act on it?"
"Well...," Starsky trailed off, putting a lid on the next question that came to mind, sealing it tight. He wondered what had made him start this conversation.
"I don't know," Starsky said quietly, settling back and snuggling beneath the covers.
Hutch looked down at him. "You started this conversation, moron."
"I know," came the sheepish reply. "Never mind. Get the light, will ya?"
Hutch's teeth were gritted. "Starsky, I swear." He got up, went to the door, and flipped the switch next to it. He was still muttering as he discarded the robe in the darkness and donned a pair of briefs. "Sometimes I don't know about you, partner."
Starsky didn't reply. He waited to feel the bed dip with Hutch's weight. The other man wriggled a few moments, then was still. Though the motel wasn't particularly expensive, they had been able to obtain a room with a king-sized bed, and they were usually able to sleep without ever disturbing each other with an accidental brush of limbs.
The room fell quiet, and Starsky tried to focus on sleep, but the silence too disturbing. After an anxious ten minutes, he finally whispered, "Hutch?"
"What?" The voice was fully awake.
Starsky rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling. "Can I ask you something?"
The reply was guarded. "About what?"
"About your father."
A deep breath was his answer. Then a resigned, "What about him?"
Starsky plunged. "How come he asked you what he asked you? About being a faggot?"
He heard the blond head jerk toward him. "What do you mean? I thought I explained all that."
Starsky frowned sympathetically. "I mean, do you think he thought you really were one?"
"I don't know," came the brusque reply. "When it gets down to it," a bitter snort, "I don't know what he thought about anything. Except I know he wasn't very pleased with how I turned out."
Starsky wondered if it were cruel to pursue it. But it had stayed in the back of his mind ever since Hutch mentioned it, and he wanted so badly to understand... "But don't you ever wonder? I mean, if he really thought that?"
A long pause, then a quiet, "I used to. Then I decided it didn't matter. He was going to believe whatever he believed. Anything I said wasn't ever going to change his mind."
"So...how did you feel about it?"
Finally, annoyance surfaced, the tone deadly calm. "Well, psychiatrist Starsky, I thought I made that clear once before. I did try to kill myself, you know."
Starsky fought a twinge of guilt, but the fact that Hutch was answering his questions encouraged him. "But you said you would have tried to kill yourself anyway. You said anything could have been the last straw."
"Yeah, I suppose."
"So, forgetting that, how did you feel about it?"
The mattress moved, and a moment later a lamp came on next to Hutch. The blond leaned back on an elbow, looking at Starsky, blinking rapidly. Then the eyes hardened. "All right, you've got something to say. Why don't you quit pussyfooting around and just come right out with it?"
It was more difficult in the light. But Starsky could hardly blame Hutch for his impatience. The dark haired man met the pained eyes, forcing himself to not look away. But his shrug was feeble. "Well... did your father have a specific reason for asking that?"
Now a tight frown. "How the hell would I know?"
Starsky's gaze didn't waver.
Hutch looked away, sighing heavily. Then he scooted toward Starsky and leaned over him. "I'm not an idiot, pal," he said firmly. "I'm just wondering how long it's going to take you to come right out and ask it."
Starsky's eyes slowly lowered as he gulped sheepishly. But he persisted. "So, why don't you just answer, if you already know the question?"
Hutch straightened, sitting up in bed, looking at Starsky calculatingly.
The smaller man reached up and grasped a pale forearm. "Hutch, it doesn't matter. You know? I mean," he snorted in disbelief that he could ever feel otherwise, "we've been through too much together. There's nothing I can find out now that's going to make me feel any differently about you."
The other didn't move. "Then why is it so important to know?"
"I just need to, buddy, that's all. I just need to understand."
Hutch shook his head, rolling his eyes and looking at the ceiling. Levelly, he said, "I hate to disappoint you, but I'm not gay."
"I'm not disappointed," Starsky replied quickly. He was surprised, however, at the calm, outright denial. And felt a bit guilty that Hutch had, not for the first time tonight, resorted to sarcasm.
Hutch looked at him now, voice hard. "Isn't that what you wanted to hear?"
"I wanted to hear the truth, Hutch."
"Why now? Why didn't you ask me seven years ago, when we first met?"
It was only fair now that the blond was asking all the questions. Gently, Starsky said, "Because I had no reason to. It's just, ever since you told me what you're father said that one day, it seems like little bits and pieces have started clicking into place. Like the way you're so comfortable about the subject of gays. I wasn't sure if you were even aware of it."
The blue eyes narrowed. "You mean like maybe I was gay and didn't even know it?"
"Something like that."
"I'm not, Starsky. That's something I know as much as any man ever knows anything about himself."
Starsky shrugged, accepting. "Okay." He also became aware of a feeling of relief that Hutch did indeed know his inner self that well.
Hutch shifted again, settling beneath the covers. More congenially he said, "Besides, you're the one who got all worked up tonight. Maybe that's a question you should be asking yourself."
Starsky had to smile as he studied the ceiling. He'd never intended to say anything, but nor had he ever expected to be presented with such a perfect opportunity. "I have." He looked over in time to see Hutch's face fall.
"And?" the other asked with poorly concealed anxiety.
Starsky shrugged, feeling good that it was all going to be out in the open. "I've been thinkin' that maybe I could have bisexual tendencies."
The blond's face became an art form of concern. He inched closer to his partner. "Starsk, did—did something happen? Do you want to talk about it?"
Now the smile was almost smug. "Nothing in particular. But, obviously, I can respond to you."
"But, but," Hutch sputtered, "that's different. Any man, who gets his buttons pushed in the right way, is going to respond."
Braggart, Starsky scolded silently. He put his hands behind his head. "Maybe."
Hutch's eyes narrowed. "Starsk, are you... are you okay about it? You don't seem too distressed."
"Why should I be? Like you said, this is the seventies. Gay people aren't exactly welcomed with open arms, but things are changing. And, comparatively, I figure being bisexual is no big deal. I mean, it's not like anyone can just look at you and know."
The sea blue eyes were still narrowed, the faced twisted in the search for understanding. "W-What made you come to this— this conclusion?"
It wasn't often that Hutch tripped over his own silver tongue. Starsky had to restrain a chuckle, for he felt giddy that his revelation had come about so easily. He shrugged. "I've just been thinking about it, that's all. I guess it's fair to say I don't quite know for sure, but..." he trailed off.
"I don't know. I guess I just figure someday the truth will hit me, and then I'll know for sure."
"And then what?"
A brief shrug. "I don't know. I guess I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it."
The blond's jaw flexed, closed, flexed again. "Starsk, are you—are you thinking, you know," an exaggerated shrug, "about— about—maybe experimenting or something to—to help you find out?"
Starsky heart swelled and threatened to flip over. Hutch was trying so hard. "No. That's kind of a cold way to go about it, don't you think?"
Hutch looked thoughtfully at the bed spread, then, "Well, yeah, I guess so."
"When you think about it, even if I am bisexual, it doesn't necessarily mean anything has to change. I mean, I like women, so... I'd just keep having relationships with them. It wouldn't mean I'd have to do anything with a guy, just because the tendency is there."
Hutch's eyes shuffled back and forth, as he absorbed this latest declaration. "You're right. You're right. Nothing would have to change."
Starsky made sure his expression had the proper puppy-dog effect. "Hutch, you aren't afraid of sleeping in the same bed with me, are you? Now that you know?"
Hutch inched closer, a hand coming to rest on top of his partner's blanketed body. "Of course not. Like you said, it doesn't change anything. You're still the person you've always been." Hutch reached behind him, stretching to turn off the lamp. Then he snuggled beneath the covers, pulling his partner against him, as though to prove the truth of his words.
Starsky let himself be maneuvered so that he was resting with his head on Hutch's bare shoulder, facing the blond, his left arm draped across the other's body. Hutch had both arms around him, the blond's protective aura radiating like a beacon. Starsky closed his eyes, let the warm feelings the closeness evoked consume him. One would think I'd just told him I found out my mother was an axe murderer. Aw, Hutch... It was humbling to be cared about so damn much. And good to know that they could still be this close without his hormones acting up.
After many minutes, the firm grip relaxed, and Starsky could sense the aura changing. A soft voice drifted through the darkness. "Starsk?"
"You wouldn't get another partner, would you?" The fear in the voice wasn't well concealed. "If you found someone in the department who had the same tendencies as you?"
Starsky's heart lurched. In a deep nasal tone, he whispered, "What are you talkin' about? Of course not."
Hutch didn't respond.
Guiltily, Starsky shifted to prop himself on an elbow. He reached out, bumped into an ear, and his hand drifted down until his could feel the protrusion of the chin. He gripped it gently, fingers stroking.
"I would never get another partner." He realized that wasn't saying enough, and his voice softened "Hutch, you are the person I love most in this world."
An uneasy laugh. "I don't even run second to your mother?"
Starsky pulled threateningly at the chin, grumbling, "If you want me to make comparisons like that, then you don't deserve an answer."
Another brief, hesitant chuckle.
Starsky leaned close to the other, keeping his voice as tender as possible. "Hutch, I love you." He bent and planted a quick kiss on the smooth forehead. "What I've said tonight doesn't change any of that."
Now I resigned sigh. "Yeah."
A long pause, then a hesitant, "Starsk?"
"You haven't... You haven't been...been uncomfortable around me...right? I mean, you haven't had the hots for me or anything, have you?"
The smaller man felt his heart beat with tenderness, even as guilt that Hutch needed to ask simmered beneath. "No. At least, not like you mean."
A pause, then, "What does that mean?"
"It means I love you."
"And nothing. I love you. But, no, I haven't been hot for your body."
A relieved sigh. Then, "I guess we should try to get some sleep, huh?"
Starsky was uneasy with the abrupt end to the conversation, but they did need to get some sleep. "Yeah." He settled against his pillow, facing Hutch, and closed his eyes. Within moments, he had drifted into an in-between state, dreams just starting to form.
Starsky's eyes popped open. The tone had been just shy of hard. "What?"
The mattress wriggled, and a moment later the sleeping area was illuminated by the bedside lamp. Jaw firm, Hutch looked down at his partner, who was still blinking.
"All those questions about being gay; you were hoping I'd say 'Yes', weren't you?"
Starsky blinked a final time, took a deep breath, and met the gaze of the steel-blue eyes. "I was hoping for the truth. That's all."
The voice was unwavering. "But if I were gay, then everything would be simple, wouldn't it?"
Starsky shook his head, and with firm softness, replied, "No, it wouldn't."
Hutch seemed to consider that, eyes still holding his partner's captive. Finally, he asked, "You ever thought about us doing it?"
This time Starsky's gaze dropped to the mattress, but a mouth corner smiled at the answer that formed in his head. "In a manner of speaking."
The blond's eyes narrowed. "Which means what?"
"Which means it would take a while for me to try to explain it. And Hutch," Starsky shook his head, "this is not the time to get into it." He pulled his arms from beneath the blankets to gesture, hoping Hutch wouldn't argue with his reasoning. "We need distance from this case. We can't have our feelings from playing a couple of gay lovers interfere with how we feel. We've got to be able to separate the play acting from the real thing."
Hutch bowed his head. "Yeah. You're right."
Hutch squatted in the sand and picked up the cone-shaped shell. His blue sweats and t-shirt billowed in the sun-lit breeze as he ran his finger along the smoothness of the exterior. It was a particularly beautiful specimen, pale white mottled with brown, and he considered taking it home, imagined placing it on top of the small bookshelf located beside the stereo.
He stood, rolling the shell within his palm, feeling the sharp points, the dips and valleys. Then he turned toward the ocean and watched a mother take her small, clinging daughter's hand and gently prompt her to get close to the water's edge. He tried to remember being that young, being guided by a parent to the edge of the roaring water.
He had many childhood recollections of the shore of Lake Superior, but couldn't remember the first time he'd dipped his toe in the water. Couldn't remember clinging to an adult's hand.
Hutch knelt and gently dropped the shell to the sand, leaving it for someone else to find.
He straightened again, drawing the salty air into his lungs, and resumed walking. Eyes closing, he searched inward, trying to find the center of self. His imaginary path traveled down the middle of body, stopping when it reached the proof of his maleness.
He'd never questioned that he was male.
And, yet, a stab of impotency disrupted the fantasy, for there was such pain, knowing that he was never a man in his father's eyes.
And he wondered why it mattered. And, at the same time, acknowledged that it did.
And wondered what he could have ever done to change it. What thing he could have said, accomplished, or perhaps simply thought, to see a glint of pride, or even satisfaction, in Stephen Hutchinson's eyes. To take away the questions he saw, his father's occasional stares, the dark eyes asking, "Who is this person my wife and I have created? Where did he come from? Why must he be ours?"
Hutch bit his lower lip, throwing his face to the wind, feeling it race through his hair. He paused, looking off in the distance, toward the city.
A few blocks away—one left, then another, then a right—sanctuary awaited. In the weeks since the conclusion of the case of the gay murderer, he and his partner had drifted back into the same mold as before, their little secrets tucked away as information each knew about the other, and protected with the same determination as everything else.
He wondered why it hurt so much that his father thought him less than a man, but why it didn't that Starsky had suspected the same thing.
Hutch paused, bowing his head, snorting with affection.
Starsky had approached the question with love. And, of course, his partner didn't truly think any less of him. It was ironic that, during the case, the smaller detective had clung to Hutch almost as tightly as the little girl being lead to water's edge clung to her mother. And, yet, had Hutch claimed that he was, indeed, gay, or at least partially so, Starsky would have protected him just as fiercely—if not more so—from all the bad things life would try to throw at him as a result.
Hutch looked out toward the distance again. And began walking toward it.
* * * * *
Ten minutes later he was knocking on the door. He used the pattern that had become a signal between them, without there having ever being an agreement about it. Knock, pause, knock-knock, pause, knock-knock. He was sure Starsky didn't have a date this weekend, for the other probably would have told him about it.
Footsteps, then the door opened. Starsky smiled at him, a dish-cloth draped over one shoulder, and stepped back. "Hey. What are you doing in this neck of the woods?"
Hutch remained standing at the threshold. It felt funny giving a poetic answer to the question, when he really didn't feel anything except numb. "Do you remember," he began softly, glancing down before looking back up, "right after my father died, when I promised to tell you if there was going to be a waterfall?"
Starsky stared at him as the words registered, and then the muscles of the rugged face twisted and turned, settling into an expression of concern. An arm shot out, reaching for him. "Hutch."
The blond moved past, ignoring the arm. He could feel the defenses snapping into place as he halted in the middle of the living room. He wished whatever subconscious part of him was causing it would learn to let go.
He heard the door shut behind him, then the soft, bare footsteps across the short-napped carpet. A gentle voice asked, "What happened?"
Hutch placed his hands in his pockets, staring at the floor. "Nothing."
"Where have you been?"
"And?" Starsky moved to his right.
Hutch turned away, snorting and waving a hand. "Just been thinking, that's all." The quiver was there in his voice. He knew that all he had to do was give in. Allow himself a moment of extreme vulnerability, and he would be smothered in the greatest imaginable strength.
A soft whisper. "Hey." Arms circled about his waist.
Hutch stared at where the hands clasped across his stomach, Starsky having taken a position behind him.
It was such a funny thing about them. When they had met, Hutch had been the toucher, though more quiet and laid-back. Starsky had been energetic, a lightning bolt of movement and sound, more the joker. But also self-contained, less trusting in situations where Hutch was more inclined to reach out, to listen, to understand. But somewhere along the line, the contact Hutch had been so willing to dish out had come back around, to be given in return. Starsky still wasn't a tactile person.... except where it concerned the one person he claimed to love most.
The clasped flesh blurred before the blond man's eyes.
The arms squeezed and a cheek pressed against his back. "Hey, I'm right here."
And then it was easy to give in, for he knew that once love was offered, it was in his nature to take, take, take. He felt himself crumble, and the arms tightened further. He allowed himself, with a mighty heave from behind, to be pulled over to the couch.
They landed in a heap on top of it, Starsky partially lying down, Hutch a tangle in his arms. The taller man grabbed the sides of Starsky's t-shirt with both hands, clinging desperately, pressing his face against the warmth of the other's chest, as a held-in sob emerged in a desperate choke, and the tears gushed down his face.
Arms pressed him close, gripping tightly, a hand reaching to press against the back of his head.
He let the bleakness claim him, knowing that there was a light to guide him back when he was ready. And as sob after sob racked his body, he didn't think it had ever been this bad, even with Gillian. It seemed as if every inkling of grief, bitterness, and hopelessness he'd ever possessed was being ejected from him in the form of choked breaths, runny mucus, and liquid salt.
There was no hurry, and he knew Starsky would wait. And when the time came when he thought each sob might be the last, another wave would gush forth. And when exhaustion set in, and he could no longer move, his muscles still twitched involuntarily, continuing with the purging.
After a time, he realized he had emerged to the surface, and his senses could detect the world outside himself. The cotton he was pressed against was cold and wet, and when yet more tears fell, now silent, they created a stinging sensation all the way down his face.
He swallowed, surprised at how loud it sounded, and felt a rawness at the back of his throat. His arms relaxed their desperate hold on the body that was his anchor, muscles almost sighing with relief. He kept his eyes closed as he tried to move his face higher up the shirt, where it was dry and warm.
The hand pressed against his hair dropped down to his back. It rubbed in large, delicate circles.
He felt the chin above his head move. "Think you're all done?" So soft.
Hutch made the effort to breathe, so he could answer. "Don't know." His voice was as weary as his body. Finally, he opened his eyes, looking in a direction toward the door, and not quite able to bring it into focus. He realized how quiet the room felt.
"Think you can lay down?"
He thought he was laying down, but when he finally made an effort to straighten, saw that he'd been sitting up, upper body curled in Starsky's lap. It seemed to take a moment to send the correct messages to his limbs, but eventually he was able to stretch out one leg, then the other. As he did so, the legs beneath him shifted gratefully, and Hutch realized that a good deal of his weight had been resting upon them.
While one arm supported from behind, a hand pressed on his chest, encouraging him to lie back. He did so, hips shifting again, and ended up stretched out on the sofa, head resting in Starsky's lap, cheek pressed against the softness of the other's stomach.
He couldn't yet meet his partner's eye, so studied the far wall, the ceiling, the coffee table.
A hand was placed on his forehead, fingers entwining into the thin strands of hair, the palm resting over his eyes.
Hutch remembered the first time he'd cried in front of Starsky. They'd been partners a couple of years, and his marriage was falling apart. Of course, Starsky had made all the sympathetic noises the previous weeks and months—making it clear he was on his partner's side—but Hutch knew, deep down, that one who had never been married couldn't ever really understand. After one particularly long, stressful day, they had been alone in the locker room. Despite his weariness, Hutch hadn't looked forward to going home. He and Starsky talked a little, and then all the grief, bitterness and frustration bubbled to the surface. Hutch had turned away, horribly embarrassed, knowing that the only thing worse than crying in front of another man was having to see another man cry, and he hadn't wanted to do that to Starsky. And so, as he had sat hunched over the cold, cement bench, hiding his face in his hands, he had expected his partner to politely turn away and pretend not to notice. Instead, he had felt hands settle on his shoulders, then squeeze. Before he'd had a chance to figure out how to respond, the arms had circled about his chest, embracing from behind.
It was the greatest warmth Hutch had ever known, and it had seemed strange to be receiving it in a time of such distress. Even with Vanessa, that kind of affection only happened right before or right after the sex act. In the difficult weeks that followed, he came to realize that Starsky represented a whole element of existence that he hadn't previously been aware of. For Starsky did not give love casually. The recipients had to earn it.
It was then, Hutch realized now, that Starsky became the most important person in his life. And, five years later, still was.
Yet another tear welled up in his left eye, and his lids were so swollen that it took a long time for it to spill over. He mentally traced the burning sensation as it made its way down, finally stopping at a point where Starsky's hand rested against his face.
The hand started to lift, and Hutch reached to grab it with both of his own, bringing their combined fist to his chest. He squeezed the hand against him as hard as he could, as if by embracing it, he was embracing all of the man to whom it belonged.
When he opened his eyes, which still provided a somewhat blurry view, he saw Starsky looking down at him, a mixture of sympathy and concern on the rugged features.
Hutch relaxed his grip on the hand, but still held it, and continued to watch the face above him. He waited for Starsky to speak, for he was too drained to do anything except answer questions.
The captured hand moved enough to rub at the blond's cotton-clad chest, and a soft, tender voice asked, "Was all that for your father?"
Hutch swallowed thickly, voice still a gruff whisper. "No. For me." His vision was clearing, and he thought he saw a glint of approval at his honesty.
"Because of your father?"
"Everything. Everything that," he searched for the right way to say it, and his tone softened as he did, "that has ever made me doubt myself."
A tiny smile. "You've done pretty good for someone who's been full of self-doubt."
Hutch managed to hint at a nod. "I know."
The sky-blue eyes intensified. "I love you."
"I know. That's why I came here."
"You need to blow your nose."
"I know." In fact, Hutch realized, his whole face probably looked like hell. It certainly felt like hell. It was nice of Starsky to not be repelled by looking at him.
"Think you can move just enough to let me up?"
"Uh-huh." But Hutch had no interest in doing so, so remained where he was, his fingers rubbing at the hand they still held.
Starsky's head cocked to one side, the expression slightly scolding. Then he offered a bribe. "I can take care of ya a lot better if you let me up."
Hutch blinked. Being taken care of was an appealing idea. But he wasn't sure what more Starsky could do. And it didn't change the fact that he didn't want to move. "I love you."
Starsky closed his eyes briefly, smile broadening. "I know."
For some reason, Hutch thought, the three words didn't seem to say enough. "No, really. I love you."
Starsky leaned down and whispered, "Really. I know."
Hutch reluctantly let it go. He wished there were something more he could say, for he still wasn't quite convinced that Starsky realized how deeply he meant it. Maybe, someday, he could throw him a special party, give him a special gift, say just the right thing.
"Hutch, honestly, there's nothing more I'd love to do than let you fall asleep right here, but I gotta move."
Hutch wasn't sure how to go about moving, because it seemed like such a long time since he'd done so.
"Let go of my hand, and I'll help you up."
Hutch did, and that break in contact helped motivate him. He pushed with his hands against whatever couch he could reach around Starsky's body.
Starsky grabbed him, helping lift. When Hutch was sitting up, the smaller man wriggled from beneath him, momentarily hoisting himself on the arm of the sofa, then finally standing. He bent forward a moment, rubbing at his legs, then reached to lay a hand on Hutch, who was straightening further.
"Hey, go ahead and lay back down," he said, pressing gently, "I'll be right back." Starsky reached to the other end of the sofa, taking a small pillow. He placed it against the arm of the sofa, then pulled an afghan from the back of the couch. He settled it around his partner, who was stretching back out, having discarded his sandals.
Hutch let the peace surround him as he snuggled against the thick cloth of the afghan, turning away slightly. He had already drifted into a light doze when awakened by Starsky's nearness.
The other man knelt on the floor. "Here's some Kleenex." He held out the box.
Hutch raised up a little, twisting to pull a few tissues from the box. He placed them against his nose and blew, closing his eyes with the effort. A cool, wet wash cloth dabbed about his face. The coolness felt good, and he couldn't restrain a grunt of approval.
He tossed the used tissues behind him, to land on the end table. He started to lay back down, but Starsky said, "Wait a sec. Hold out your hand."
Hutch did, and three small tablets dropped into his palm. He looked at his partner with puzzlement.
"Doesn't your head hurt?" Starsky asked.
Now that Starsky mentioned it, Hutch realized it did. Throbbing, in fact. He nodded, curling his fingers around the aspirin.
"Here, take this." Starsky held out a tall glass of ice water, which Hutch accepted. "And keep drinking it even after you swallow them, so you don't get dehydrated."
Hutch had to pause an instant, for he'd never heard of anyone suffering dehydration from merely bawling their eyes out. But if Starsky was willing to fuss over him, the least he could do was obey without protest. He downed the pills one at a time, taking a healthy swallow of water after each, then took a moment to finish off the rest of the glass. It tasted good.
Starsky took the glass from him, then resumed with the wash cloth. While Hutch lay against the pillow, burrowing beneath the afghan, Starsky wiped gently it his cheeks and eyes. When the cloth scrubbed at his nostrils, Hutch realized he hadn't done a very clean job of blowing his nose. But he let it ride, feeling too peaceful to complain about being treated like an infant.
The cloth was put aside, and a hand was placed against his upper chest. Starsky rubbed a moment. Then, "Is there anything you want to tell me?"
He was too tired to talk, and wasn't convinced that there was even anything left to say. "Not right now." His voice was barely above a whisper, but it had lost its gruffness.
The inquisitive eyes of his partner continue to watch him, as though not quite sure that Hutch was sure.
The blond man thought a moment. Then, in a tone of finality, "I know that I can't change anything about the past." But even as he said the words, he realized that he'd always known that. And Starsky's narrowed eyes encouraged Hutch to stare at the ceiling, try to find the truth... the thing that made a difference now. And the answer was there within a matter of moments, and he smiled at having discovered it in so short a time, and at being able to share it. "I accept that I can't change anything about the past." He supposed all the crying was for his grief at the realization he could never change any of it.
Starsky nodded, smiling kindly. "Good." Then, "Anything else?"
Hutch wanted to say, "I love you" again, but, as before, feared it would be inadequate. Plus, he knew that to do so would strain the line that bordered excessive sentiment. Sighing peacefully, he replied, "No." He met his partner's eye, then rolled away to press his face against the corner where the back of the sofa met the arm.
Hands clasped a protruding shoulder. "A nap sounds good to me, too."
Hutch listened to soft footsteps move toward the bedroom. Unconsciousness claimed him a moment later.