FEBRUARY 13, 1980
It was twenty-eight hours later, 3:06 in the morning, when he walked into his apartment. The phone was ringing. He answered it, found it dead, hung up again. He sank on the couch for ten minutes, then decided he should clean up before he gave in to exhaustion. He was undressed and ready to step in the shower when the phone rang once more. He picked it up.
"Hutch? Hutch, is that you?" There was a frantic note to Starsky's voice. "Hutch, you there?"
"Yeah, I'm here."
"Finally! You know how long I've been calling? Forgot how many times I stopped by. Don't hang upon me. Listen, Hutch, I'll keep callin' if you hang up, and if you leave again--"
"I'm not going to hang up, Starsky. I'm listening."
"--I'll find you. You know I can, Hutch. Sooner or later I will, and don't think--" Starsky finally seemed to register what Hutch had said and cut off. "Oh...okay." He fell silent.
"I'm listening," Hutch repeated, although he wished it could be postponed until the next day; he was tired enough to ache.
"Uh, yeah. Where were you?"
"Took a drive up the-- Never mind. Not important. How come you're calling this time of the night?"
"I've been calling all night, every night. I just let the phone ring and get up every half hour to check."
"See, when you answer, it gets disconnected. So I'd know. Figured you might not like it if I stayed at your place, I mean, considerin' -- didn't know what else to do."
Hutch shook his head. Only Starsky. "Well, I'm back now." Since that was settled, he waited for Starsky to get off the phone. When there was only silence on the wire, he added, "I'm not going anywhere." That didn't seem satisfactory enough, either; the line stayed open and silent. "What did you want?" he asked, and whatever it is, can it wait?
"What did I--? Uh... Hutch, listen, I don't wanna argue, I don't wanna fight. Whatever you want is okay with me. And if you want...still want -- I mean, I want whatever you want, okay?" He waited for a reply he didn't get. "Okay? Hutch, say something."
Hutch wasn't sure he liked the way that sounded. "What's that supposed to mean?" Don't do this to me, not when I've barely managed a semblance of order in my own head that I can live with.
"Whatever you want. You got it. Whenever. You know."
"Starsky, did you just say what I think you said?"
"Yeah, if you still want to, that is. Just... just don't--"
A martyr routine yet? What, mine wasn't enough? The minute I decide to survive it with some dignity intact, this is what you hit me with? "Don't what? Don't go away?"
There was a long silence, then Starsky answered softly. "Yeah."
"Goddamn you, Starsky! I should hang up. I should go the hell away, 'cause you sure aren't leaving anything to stick around for!"
"Hutch, I thought--"
"No, you didn't! You didn't think at all."
"Shut up and listen! I'm going to say this once and then I'm going to forget this insane conversation ever took place. What I feel for you, it isn't open to bargains, and it sure as hell isn't up for bribes, you hear me? It doesn't come that cheap. Dammit, I won't let you make me feel bad about this! What the hell's so wrong with it anyway? It came from years of caring, trust, respect, companionship, everything a relationship needs -- hell, even the chemistry works, and don't dare pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. Except nature threw us a curve. The joke's on us. So, okay. So you can't get past that. Fine. You will never have to worry about what I want. I lived with it for four years and I didn't abuse it. I'll live with it for another four or forty. So you can relax, and the joker who dealt this hand can keep right on laughing, but nobody will barter with it again. Ever. It's nobody's business, not even yours. It's mine." When he ran down only silence came through the wires. "You hear me?"
The reply was barely audible. "Yeah."
"Do you understand?"
Hutch took a deep breath, feeling shaken. It was time to close the subject forever and see what could be salvaged. "I have no gas in my car. Will you pick me up sometime around noon? I have some explaining to do to Dobey."
"Huh--? Oh. Yeah."
"Yeah," Starsky repeated, sounding absentminded.
Hutch didn't wait for the click from the other end to hang up. Refusing to even think about the conversation, he took his shower.
The phone was ringing again when he turned the water off. He didn't know how long it had been going on. He had just talked to Starsky and didn't care to talk to anybody else, so he let it ring. However, it persisted, although he took his time drying off and getting into a robe. Finally the sound got on his nerves enough to make him grab the phone. "Yes!"
Hutch gave an irritated sigh. How can I get myself together if you won't give me a break? "What is it now, Starsky?"
"Hutch...do you...love me?"
Hutch shook his head in exasperation. "Oh, no, Starsk, whatever gave you the idea?"
"Give me a straight answer, dammit."
"Isn't that a contradiction in terms under the circumstances?" Hutch managed the derisive tone, but couldn't summon the laugh the comment seemed to require.
"Please, Hutch, don't play games."
He gave up at the pleading tone in his partner's voice. However, saying it out loud to himself was one thing, being able to lay it out for Starsky something else. He couldn't help hedging a little bit. "That's a stupid question, Starsky. Of course I love you and you know it. I told you enough times."
"No, not like that. Not to take the sting off the rotten thing you're gonna say next. I'm talkin' about for real. The commitment kind? The kind that goes 'forsaking all others'?"
Hutch choked up.
"Do you?" his partner insisted.
"Starsky, leave it alone," the blond managed.
"Didn't I just say we won't talk about this anymore?" Let alone I give an inch and you want a mile.
"What the hell are you trying--?"
Starsky overrode him. "Do you?"
"Yes, goddammit, yes, I do! Are you happy now? What did that accomplish?" There was a mumble on the phone. "What was that?" he snapped.
"I said, you never told me."
"There was never sufficient reason to," Hutch said sarcastically, smarting from the knowledge that he hadn't even been able to say it to himself until recently and now it was being dragged out of him. "We know you need reasons for such things and--"
"Don't, Hutch, please. Don't spoil it. We gotta talk, I'm coming over."
Hutch suddenly felt afraid. "No!"
For some reason, he didn't want to be seen right then. "Whatever it is can wait until tomorrow."
"And you accuse me of needing reasons?"
Hutch didn't know how to respond to that. "I've been driving straight for...I don't know how long. I'm tired."
"Go to bed. I'll be over. I'll wait until whenever."
This time it was Starsky who didn't linger on the phone. As soon as he was through talking, Hutch heard the click. He stared at the receiver, then replaced it slowly. He cast about, somehow feeling caught, wanting to get away, then wrapped his robe more securely around himself, tied the belt tighter.
How could having given voice to feelings make him feel more naked, more exposed, than actual nudity, he didn't know. But it did. The body was easy to put on the line. He had opened up something much deeper, and it was no longer only skin deep.
He found himself at the window, watching the dark street.
Maybe he wouldn't show up.
No good. If Starsky said he'd be there, he'd he there.
He was still at the window when the Torino came to a stop in front of the building, and all too soon Starsky was inside his space.
Hands were on his arms, urging him to turn away from the window. He tried, but changing position made him feel faint.
"Hutch, what's wrong?"
Suddenly, Starsky was taking his weight and leading him to the couch. He was seated and his partner was pushing at his head. "Put your head down. Breathe deep."
He obeyed, and in a short while the hazy film lifted from his brain. He raised his head, saw Starsky sitting on the floor in front of him, holding him by the knees, and looking worried.
"You all right?"
"Nothing. Just tired. Must've locked my knees. Stupid. First thing they teach you."
Starsky's hand touched his cheek lightly, rubbed. "You look terrible. Growin' a partner to the caterpillar?"
He turned his face away from the touch, and Starsky's hand dropped back to Hutch's knee. "Nowhere to shave on the road. Just now, couldn't bother."
"How long since you've had any sleep?"
"Don't know. Been driving since last night. Before then, it was cold on the beach."
"Didn't have much money."
Starsky cursed under his breath, dug into his pocket, and brought out Hutch's wallet. He threw it on the couch. "Did you eat at least?"
"Did you eat anything today?"
"Breakfast. Then I had to keep getting gas."
"Shit! When you're feelin' better, I'm gonna kick your ass. You're too old to run away from home. And too young to be trusted alone, looks like."
He would've liked to be alone right then. He pulled the hem of the robe tightly around his legs and scooted back on the couch, trying to get away from Starsky's hands. His partner seemed to understand and dropped them to his own knees.
"You're beat. Go to bed."
If he went to bed, he knew, he wasn't going to wake up for a long time. He couldn't bear to stay in limbo for that long. "No. You came to talk, talk."
Starsky looked uncomfortable, too. "Stretch out on the couch, huh?"
"Will you stop with the mothering? I said no!"
His partner studied his hands. "You ain't makin' it easy."
"Tell me about easy!"
"Guess not," Starsky mumbled. "Look, uh, you want something to eat?"
Hutch realized he had to let Starsky take it at his own pace. "Yeah, all right."
His partner left with alacrity, but he was also back soon, with a bowl of soup. He held out a spoonful.
"Oh, for Christ's sake, I'm not a child," Hutch grumbled and took the bowl away.
Starsky said something under his breath that sounded like "Couldn't tell." He sat on the other end of the couch and didn't say another word until Hutch put the empty bowl on the coffee table.
The blond studied the table top. "So, why are you here?"
"Sometimes you ask the dumbest things, Hutch."
He decided to plunge straight into it. "What happened to 'I can't'?"
"That night at your place. You wanted all kinds of reasons. 'I can't', you said."
"Oh. That was different."
"Hutch, you'd never told me-- I mean, that time, if I let myself go, where could I stop?"
Confused, Hutch stared at him. "Stop what?"
Starsky found something worthy of vast interest in a loose thread on the arm of the couch. "Wantin' more. Again. Anytime. For no reason. It was hard enough anyway. You trample all over limits, and how do you stop?"
"Who asked you to?"
"You did. Oh, I know, not in so many words, but that was the message. At least, I thought it was. But then you go and...." He shrugged, a motion of resignation. "I don't know anymore, Hutch. Whatever you want, I'm here. Isn't that enough?"
"No, dammit! I told you that already."
"Yeah, you told me other things, too, but you're not..."
Acting like it, Hutch heard, and saw Starsky's hand make a hesitant move toward him. Carefully, he kept his own hands to himself until his partner pulled back. "Starsky, I'm exhausted. I can't see straight. My brain feels like it's been through a grinder. Spell it out for me. Why did you think I'd want you to stop?"
"Well...the first time...you wouldn't talk to me afterwards. I tried, but you wouldn't. It was like you couldn't handle it, didn't want to."
Hutch kept staring at him in astonishment. They couldn't possibly be thinking of the same time. He was exhausted enough to be hazy on a lot of things, but neither fatigue nor years could dull that memory. He could remember with perfect clarity. Beyond comparison to anything he'd experienced before or since -- even with Starsky. There had been no doubts then, no holding back, no fear... Fear? God, yes, there was fear. Almost paralyzing fear. Not of each other, but...
Suddenly, he understood. He had been so afraid of falling apart totally when Starsky needed his support and stability most that the only way he could handle it had been to clamp down on every emotion. He did, after all, remember thinking he was going to shatter if he let himself feel, and how he'd been speechless, helpless because of it. And that's when the signals crossed? Dear God, four years...
Starsky was continuing. "At the time, it was enough that you'd stuck by me, even across that line. When everything was okay again, and we'd still not said a word, I thought maybe we could go away somewhere, work it out. I mean, I wasn't sure of much myself, but I wanted to try. But you wouldn't come to the islands with me."
"The islands?" Hutch asked, dazed.
"Yeah. I kept askin', but you just got upset, couldn't wait for me to get lost."
"I was supposed to go with you?" Yes, Starsky had asked. And there had been a reason, then, why he wouldn't. He kept looking at his hands on his lap. Was his sight blurring, or were they shaking? He clasped them. "What, you and me and the New York secretaries?"
He had to concentrate for a minute, frowning. He was only peripherally aware of talking. "Huggy said you wanted to go where all the New York secretaries went. Didn't figure you wanted them to take dictation." Had it been important then? Sounded silly now. This is how wars are lost -- for want of a nail? He felt like laughing, controlled it; Starsky was looking bewildered enough already.
"I said that? I don't remember. Must've said it, but Hutch, if I was talkin' to Huggy, what was I supposed to say? You know it didn't mean anything." He looked intently at his partner. "You...you didn't know? Damn it, just a stupid remark, and that's why? All this time? And I thought--"
No, it hadn't been because of a stupid remark, or his even more stupid reaction to it. He'd thought Starsky was subtly but firmly stating his preference. But he couldn't explain anything at the moment, just wanted to hear Starsky's side of it. "What?" he prompted his partner, who'd fallen silent.
"I thought you'd rather forget it. I mean, I could understand that. Not your usual thing, is it? Just because I needed and you were there for me that once, it didn't give me any rights. I was grateful enough you didn't let it spoil everything else."
Grateful? I wanted to love you, make you happy, keep you safe, and you ended up feeling like a...supplicant? While I--
"So I forgot it, too," his partner continued. "Tried, anyway. And it worked just fine, most of the time, but every once in a while -- well, you know that. And every time it got away from me and I pushed it on you, it got...scarier. I thought it was gonna spill over into the rest, and one day you were gonna have enough of it all. I hated riskin' that, Hutch, but..."
"You didn't push it on me," Hutch commented, feeling he was going in the wrong direction on a familiar roller coaster, wondering how it was possible to get a sense of deja vu out of somebody else's eyes, wondering how two rights had added up to a wrong, or two wrongs to a farce. I'm too tired for this. Can't think.
"So how come I always made the first move?"
"When I did, you wouldn't." I sound like an idiot.
"Hutch, after Gunther, after all that time we spent livin' together... I tried to tell you once -- when you realize there's only one thing that feels right anymore, you can't be casual about it. I couldn't just take it now and then, and watch you do whatever else in between. I thought it'd really get heavy, and I'd say or do somethin' way outta line, 'n I'd lose you for good. But then you left anyway..."
Starsky paused. He extended his hand again tentatively, then seemed to regret the action, and covered up by flicking invisible specks off Hutch's sleeve before he drew back. "As you said, if you can't have what you want, you take what you can get. I ain't losin' you altogether. So, I'll take it on your terms. I'll deal with the rest. Somehow."
There was something incredibly intimidating about the strength required to bare one's soul. It was making Hutch feel inadequate. "But what would you want instead?"
"Sure you'd care to hear it?"
He nodded, not at all sure, but he nodded.
"I'd want it all," Starsky said simply, then seemed uncomfortable. "Don't get me wrong. I couldn't've said that without knowin' how you feel, but commitment-kinda-feeling don't necessarily mean you're willin' to make the commitment. I haven't been burned. You have. So, no strings." He looked at Hutch, evidently found something lacking in the blond's expression, and mumbled, "Well, you asked."
Be careful what you wish for - you just might get it.
It was expecting too much from a battered place deep within, something that had been walled in long ago, and constantly reinforced. He didn't know if he could expose it again, wasn't even sure he'd be doing Starsky a favor if he tried. He certainly hadn't been able to handle commitments before.
He realized he had been forbiddingly quiet for too long when Starsky shifted, nervously. It reminded Hutch that the next move was his. He couldn't even find it in him to reach across the short distance on the couch, let alone anything else. "I'm tired," he whispered. Back off, please. Give me space. I can't breathe.
"Go to bed."
"Want me to leave?"
"Want me to stay?"
Starsky seemed to sense his need for halfway measures. "How about if I stayed here, on the couch?"
He knew his total withdrawal had to be hurting Starsky, but anything else was beyond him at the moment. Without a word, without even a glance, he went to the bedroom. He sat on the bed and stared at the walls, feeling the presence of the man in the other room too heavily.
Sometime later, Starsky went to the bathroom. The sound of the door closing him off felt like a parole. Without thinking, Hutch rose, crossed the apartment and let himself out of it. Two steps down, and he realized he wasn't dressed for the street, so he went up to the roof instead. He approached the side, hands in pockets, finally able to breathe deeply. Then he looked around. The roof was only two stories high, and too securely enclosed by three-feet-high cement blocks.
He climbed up on the parapet. Dawn was breaking. Typical for the time and place, the air was a little chilly, laden with moisture, tasting of salt and bearing wisps of fog. Pale colors had made a tentative appearance on the horizon, getting ready to burst full-blown on the gray city.
It was irritatingly tranquil.
He wondered how it would feel to stand up there during a fury of nature, in blinding rain. He imagined the wind whipping and pulling while he was precariously balanced on the edge, fighting a force greater than himself. If it would drag him down or if he'd make the decision to jump himself; if he'd even know the difference in that split second, or if he'd simply feel the fear of falling.
The damned job -- a thrill-junkie looking for an adrenaline fix. But still too afraid to jump where you know damned well you'll be caught. Eight years of experience isn't enough guarantee?
"Come on down, babe." A whisper as insubstantial as the sluggish breeze.
He turned his head slightly. Starsky was standing there, looking confused and worried, his hands out but not touching him. Starsky, who had the good sense to be afraid of heights, who preferred to be grounded firmly, but took the chances anyway.
"Relax, I'm not going over the edge." In either sense, he thought, actually feeling more clear-headed than he had in a long while. "Just wanted to know what it feels like."
"Okay, but will you please come down now?"
"Sure," he said and stepped down easily. As soon as he did, though, he stumbled.
Starsky instantly steadied him. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. A little dizzy. It's gone."
Starsky looked terrified, and Hutch knew he was envisioning what would've have happened if the dizzy spell had hit a little sooner.
"Damn, Hutch!" He let go abruptly, spun around, took a few steps in one direction, stopped, paced a few more restless steps in another, changed direction again. "Damn, damn, damn!"
Suddenly he was back in front of Hutch. His hands, angry and impatient, tore at the blond's belt, pulled at the front of the robe.
"Hey, what're you--? Starsky, anybody can see!" He looked at their open space, at the taller buildings around, becoming more visible by the minute. "Stop it!"
Just parting the robe seemed to be enough for Starsky. Arms sliding under it, around his partner, he hid the nakedness with his own body, a frantic edge to his embrace. Hutch suddenly understood. He pulled at the robe to enclose Starsky as well, his arms holding it in place around his partner.
I know, I know. Too many layers around me.
You can remove the rest, too. But slowly. Defenses come down hard. So, please, slowly.
"You're not getting a bargain," he whispered into the dark curls. "But you got it, for as long as you can stand it." He thought the crushing grip couldn't possibly tighten. He was wrong.
"Don't make other plans for the rest o' those 148 years, and we'll be fine," was whispered back.
They stood holding each other for long minutes, until Hutch felt himself falling asleep on his feet. "Better put me to bed before we both fall."
Starsky's arms loosened. He became aware of their surroundings, and quickly pulled away to tie the robe around Hutch. That seemed to be the extent of his self-consciousness, though. He put his arm around his partner's waist and led him down the stairs, across the apartment and into his bed. He tugged off the robe, then started undressing himself. Hutch found he wasn't in that great a hurry to close his eyes after all. I can look now, all I want. Just wish my eyes weren't glazing over.
Starsky glanced down at his scarred body. "You're not getting that much of a bargain, either."
Hutch frowned at the uncharacteristic comment. "Come on, Starsky, that doesn't sound like you."
"It isn't. Point is, just because mine can be seen, don't mean I can't live with yours."
"Now that sounds like you. It makes no sense." He shook his head and added with a sigh as Starsky climbed into the bed, "Except, maybe to me."
"Come here." Arms gathered him.
"You're not going to work either?" Hutch asked.
"Today? Hell, no."
"I must be already on Dobey's shit list. He'll crucify us both."
"Nah. He'll yell a lot, dock our pay, make noises about Traffic or Records. With the workload, how long can he keep us sittin' on our cans? It'll blow over soon."
Hutch wriggled into the warmth enfolding him. "You have such an easy grasp of basics, Starsk," he commented drowsily.
"Speakin' of which, left something basic undone." He tilted Hutch's head up, softly stroked the chin and cupped it in one palm.
Hutch anticipated the next move, saw the too-sincere intent in the deep blue eyes, and couldn't help grinning wickedly, wondering if a comment like 'sealing it with a kiss' would be sufficiently mushy to annoy Starsky.
His partner didn't seem to have any trouble reading his intentions. "One crack, and you're wakin' up to ice cubes. Not down your back, either."
Hutch quickly swallowed the remark, and let Starsky kiss him, wanting to respond, but too wiped out at the moment. And adding insult to injury, he ended up yawning into the kiss.
Starsky found it amusing. "Oh, go to sleep," he said, chuckling, then added with mock-sarcasm, "lover."
At first Hutch was perfectly comfortable with taking the comment in the manner offered and settling into Starsky's embrace. However, he had thrown a leg over his partner, and could feel the quickening reaction against the inside of his thigh. Right then, he couldn't match the arousal to save his life, but still, Starsky's needs and desires were given into his care. Knowing that was a high in itself. He started to slide down to do something about it, was halted.
"Where're you goin'?" Hutch stroked the erection. Starsky caught his hand and pulled it away. "It'll keep."
"Let me..." He rubbed his face on Starsky's chest, feeling the hairs catch on his stubbled cheek.
"You can't keep your eyes open. Besides, I've had it with solitaire. When you can join me, okay?"
"The spirit..." Hutch mumbled.
"Is willing, I know. We'll just wait until the rest o' you can get into the act."
Hutch let Starsky pull him back up and settle him again, but he was still distracted. He nudged the erection with his knee, rubbed it.
Starsky gently pushed his leg down. "Will you forget about that? It hasn't had a warm body for so long it don't know how to behave."
Hutch was jolted out of sleep again. "How long?"
"Oh, a while."
"How long a while?"
"Since last time."
Only for a second did Hutch think Starsky was playing with words. "You mean...with me?"
"No, with Miss America. Of course that's what I mean, dummy."
"Starsk, that was almost a year ago!"
"Yeah, well. I wasn't up to it most o' the time anyway. And later..." He shrugged.
The blond couldn't speak for a minute. "Why?" he asked finally.
"Dunno. Once or twice I started out to -- but just didn't feel right anymore. The beast gets discriminatin' sometimes."
Hutch found the energy to hug him tight. "Wasted so much time."
"Not really, babe. I think it's true that there's a season for everythin' under the sun. When it's right, it happens."
"Four years, Starsk?"
"Whatever it takes. Think about it. We just made a decision. But we didn't say anything about how it's gonna look to others, the hell we're bound to catch sooner or later. There's a big bad world out there, babe, are you scared?"
Although he was getting too groggy, Hutch considered it seriously. Amidst all kinds of fear, that one hadn't even occurred to him. Amazing. "I...I don't think so. I don't think I care. But if you feel--"
Starsky's hand covered his mouth. "I can hear those nasty gears clicking in your head again, Hutch. Turn 'em off. That's not why I brought it up. I'm tryin' to make a point here. You don't care, I don't care, either. But I cared four years ago. Hell, I cared until after Gunther. I mean, I'm complainin' about your silence, but I didn't exactly have the guts to open my own mouth, did I? Dying's a good swift kick to dislodge your brains from where they don't belong. Before then, I'm not sure I wouldn't've spoiled it."
"Me, neither," Hutch admitted.
"See, it takes time to separate the wheat from the chaff, and know which to keep 'n which to throw away."
Hutch burrowed even closer into his partner, muttered, "I'll keep you, thanks."
"Not at the moment."
"Whadda you know? Go to sleep."
The sequel to A Fine Storm is The Sweetest Taboo