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Paint It Gray

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Για τα Ματια μου.

Here is the night
No more running, hiding from the day
With the sun so bright, you paint it gray
To make it go away.

—"Little Junkie Girl" (1980), Author Unknown

Hutch thought about it sometimes, usually in the middle of the night when he'd waken from a dead sleep to sudden alertness and the utter certainty that his life was fucked beyond all recovery. He'd lie there in the thin light, his heart beating shallow and slow, and remember everything he had lost, and how he had lost it. Then the pain would come like a claw to tear at his heart and shred it again along all the old wounds, still unhealed. He was almost forty years old, and the best part of his life was over, with nothing before him but endless, gray days.

In those dark hours, he would revisit the turning point, hoping time and distance would have granted him new perspective or even a solution to the dilemma, but they never did. And neither did they ease the sadness, which always loomed stony and immutable as he, himself, had had to be when he'd broken the news.

"You're what?" Starsky's voice was high and disbelieving, and even held a trace of amusement, as if preparing for a punch line. But the punch line Hutch was delivering to his best friend was a blow to the gut, all the more vicious for being so totally unexpected. For Hutch had been hoping, even then, that some miracle would make it possible for him to stay.

"I'm leaving. I'm not going back, Starsk. I can't. I can't…be your partner anymore. And I can't stay here, to watch you—"

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Starsky almost stuttered, "What do you mean you can't—what the hell have we been working so hard for all this time, getting me better, getting me ready?"

That was the killer of it, really—how Hutch's joy in seeing his friend recovering at last from Gunther's near-deadly attack had risen in direct inverse proportion to his sinking despair as he realized he couldn't—wouldn't—be able to withstand seeing Starsky hurt again.

"I can't do it, Starsky. I can't go back on the streets with you and wait for you to…watch you get hit again. It's as simple as that." He delivered the bald truth in dry tones; it was the only way he could push the awful words past his stiff lips.

He went over to the couch and sat down, trying to give Starsky time to absorb his news. It was a tough go; that much was apparent from the series of emotions that played over Starsky's face in rapid succession: disbelief, pain, grief, and soon, anger. An explosion wasn't long in coming.

"You tell me this now? After we worked so goddamned hard for so long to get me back? After I sweated fucking blood week after week in physical therapy?" Starsky started shouting in his fury. "What the hell am I supposed to do with this, pal? Am I supposed to…you expect me to pack it in now? When I'm so close?"

"No. You're going back. I'm just not…coming with you." Hutch said it calmly, but inside he was quaking. This was the crux. To convince Starsky to go back without him, or his decision would be the more excruciating of the two roads. He had to know that he hadn't destroyed Starsky's dreams along with his own.

"But how—" Starsky's anger turned to helpless confusion. "How am I supposed to? Without you? And you're…leaving?" Starsky approached him, his eyes pleading. "Please, Hutch. Please. We gotta talk about this. You can't do this to us. Everything we've worked for…" His face hardened when Hutch didn't respond. "I see. I see. You decide, is that it? You decide everything for us? I thought this was a partnership. God, you selfish bastard!"

Starsky looked ready to slug him, and Hutch started to doubt this discussion would end with at least their friendship intact. But even that wouldn't matter.

"I'm sorry." He said it quietly, with his repentance plain, but his tone still firm.

Starsky winced and his fists clenched before he spun, grabbing his jacket from the chair. "We're not done with this, partner. Not by a long shot," he warned, and then slammed out the door. A short time later, the tires of the Torino squealed an emphasis to the parting statement.

Hutch lowered his head into his hands.

The pre-dawn light was just enough for him to navigate his tiny house. He went to the kitchen and started boiling water for tea. He'd try some chamomile, although it was doubtful he'd be able to fall asleep again. While he waited, he located his camera and screwed it onto the tripod, thinking of taking some low-light photos of his growing garden.

His jungle had come with him, packed carefully into the back of his newly acquired pick-up truck, along with some few belongings. There wasn't much of his old life left, with the exception of the plants and his guitar. And his Magnum, which still hung on the back of his wardrobe, waiting for the morning shift. He was on mornings right now—alone, since the tiny sheriff's department was still a man short after they'd lost a deputy a few months ago to the Park Service. As Captain, Hutch felt it was safer for him to be the one to work alone rather than risk one of his men on solo duty.

Hutch had only been here a year when Captain Dixon had stepped down, but his choice of Hutch as his replacement had been a given. It was one of the reasons they had taken him on. The other deputies were young and green. Not that his duties were any more difficult than theirs, just more filled with paperwork.

And there was little need for his detective skills here, either. This was a small coastal town, with small crimes. Only one murder in the two-plus years since Hutch had arrived, and that a domestic quarrel that had gotten out of hand. No real cases to solve, just your usual bar fights and small thievery. Hutch spent most of his time policing the accidents that occurred so frequently on the hairpin turns along their patch of coastal Highway 1, or participating in Search and Rescue efforts in the heavy woods nearby.

Starsky hadn't wanted to know where he was. Huggy knew, and if anything happened, he would inform Hutch. Part of him was constantly waiting for that call, waiting to hear that Starsky had been hurt, or killed. It was the same part that prevented him from stepping fully into his new life, even after all this time. That, and the endless need to see Starsky, to hear his voice, and to feel him close by. The empty space at Hutch's side was a constant, cold ache. It bled all the color from the world.

The last time he could remember being alive was when he had seen Starsky on that final day. After weeks of barraging Hutch with pleas, arguments and his unremitting anger, Starsky still had come to see Hutch off, as if he couldn't bear to lose one last chance to try to change his mind.

Hutch would never forget the expression in his best friend's eyes, the hurt and still-disbelieving look, as if this were the longest, cruelest practical joke Hutch had ever yet devised. They had stood by the truck, and the words had run out. There was nothing left to say. Hutch had failed repeatedly to effectively articulate to Starsky exactly why returning to the streets with him was so unthinkable, how certain he was that death was just biding its time after its last failed bid. Or how the mere thought made his heart pound like thunder. Of course, Starsky knew that same fear, had known it. But he didn't understand Hutch's current level of unreasoning panic. Perhaps it was because Hutch had held back the final secretthe depth of his love for his partner. But, even there, he was caught in a double bind, because he was afraid if he told Starsky, his friend might have decided to give in to Hutch's desires, thinking it might make him stay.

Hutch opened the driver-side door and threw in his duffle bag, then turned to face Starsky one last time. He found himself trying to memorize his friend's features, although he hardly needed to. Every detail had been etched indelibly in his mind, long ago. Now he watched as acceptance finally crept in, and with it, more anger.

Hutch pulled a folded slip of paper from his pocket and held it out. "Here's where I'm going—"

Starsky took it and crumpled it viciously in his hand. "I don't care. I don't wanna know. I can't believe you're fucking leaving." He flung the wad of paper away. Starsky looked almost in tears, though if they were of frustration or sadness, Hutch couldn't tell.

"You won't even stay long enough to try." Starsky choked on his words, then ground out, "You coward. You're nothing but a fucking coward, Hutch."

"Yes." Hutch said it easily, accepting the truth. He had no pride left. Maybe because of that, or because of the sudden freedom of this moment of letting go of his old life, he found himself doing the unplanned.

He raised his hand and laid it on Starsky's rigid face. Starsky twitched, but didn't pull back, even when Hutch's thumb dropped down to caress his angry mouth with a gentling stroke. Hutch saw Starsky's eyes begin to change, but he leaned forward quickly, not wanting to read the expression.

Instead, he put his lips near Starsky's ear and whispered, "I love you, Starsk. Always will." He touched his lips to the rough cheek for one single instant before stepping back and ducking into his waiting seat.

In the rear-view mirror, as he pulled away, he saw Starsky put his hand to his cheek, resting his fingers where Hutch's lips had touched him.

And then he was gone from view.

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The day passed slowly and predictably, a trade-off for the small-town existence he had chosen. Boredom, in exchange for possible imminent death. He rousted old Eddie, the town alcoholic, from the storefront where he'd collapsed, and got him into a warm cell and dry clothes. The cell door was unlocked. When Eddie woke up, he would be apologetic and swear off the juice again, but both of them would know this little scene would play out again and again for as long as Eddie's liver held out.

Other cases weren't so hopeless, and one of the other side benefits of his new, smaller life was he could actually help people here, where the numbers and problems weren't so overwhelming. The tough kids could usually be reasoned with, and their parents as well, for they tended to be eager for advice. There were no hard-cases, no pimps, no junkies or prostitutes. There were hardly any illegal drugs, and what there was of it was marijuana from over the county line in Humboldt, where some hippies had taken to growing the stuff.

But at least the hippies were kind. Everyone here was kind, and the people in this town tended to smile even at strangers. It had taken some getting used to, for a hard-bitten, burned-out city cop, and he knew sometimes they tsk-tsked at his standoffishness. Even after losing the moustache, he knew there was a forbidding look to his face that tended to keep people at bay. But he also knew he was respected for the things he did for the folks here, and that they knew him to be a fair man.

If anything, they liked him too much, kept trying to pull him in from the cold, not realizing that the cold was the only thing keeping him numb enough to go on.

So when one of them got too close—or worse, when he felt an overwhelming need to reach out and connect with someone—he would schedule a vacation and run for the hills for a weekend or so until the urge passed.

That was another strange thing about the job herepeople actually scheduled and took regular vacations. He remembered how his blank look of utter surprise had amused the old captain when Hutch had first, tentatively, proposed some time off. Dixon had granted his request with a laugh and a wave, and Hutch had left the next week for San Francisco.

He'd taken his camera with him. He had started the hobby mostly because it was something Starsky had loved. But the bug had bitten Hutch hard, and soon he was up to his elbows in lenses and paper and smelly darkroom chemicals.

After a while, he'd started sending some of the better shots to Starsky, via Huggy, unwilling to receive an envelope back marked 'Return to Sender.' He still wasn't certain why he did it. Out of guilt, perhaps, for breaking the partnership, for leaving. And he supposed it might even cause Starsky more pain to be reminded of him. But Hutch needed it as a final, albeit small, link between them. The contents of the pictures were never personal. 'I'm here,' was maybe the only message they conveyed. For the most part they were nature shots, or cityscapes from his infrequent trips to the City.

He enjoyed San Francisco. Unlike Bay City in so many ways, it still held the faint tang of the streets he remembered. Enough to prick, but not to wound.

On the evening of his first visit he'd driven to the gay neighborhood and went into a bar there. So strange to be doing so, not undercover, but as himself. He had thought he would try to learn, once and for all, if his attraction for Starsky were just a fluke of his love for the man, or if it were an indicator that his sexual tastes had changed.

He had been surprised at what he discovered. Yes, a good-looking dark-haired guy he'd talked to at the bar had stirred his interest, the well-packed jeans demanding an answering response from Hutch's groin. But, at the same time, Hutch recognized it was the man's passing resemblance to Starsky that was causing his dick to stir in his pants, and he didn't take it further than a flirting conversation.

He had only ever loved one woman at a time. Now, it seemed, in spite of his newly discovered tastes, the same internal rules held true. There was only one man he wanted. One unattainable, irreplaceable man. There would be no one else.

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The call finally came, just as he had feared, the more so since he'd learned that Starsky had teamed up with Linda Baylor. She had a real edge, and was more than man enough to challenge Starsky. Together, Hutch imagined, they would be fierce, and maybe a little wild.

Sure enough, Huggy called him with bad news. Hutch was grateful he was alone, at home, to hear it, for it almost brought him to his knees. Starsky was injured, badly. Gunshot to the thigh, artery nicked, lots of blood loss and damage to the bone and muscles.

"It could put him out of the action for real, Hutch," Huggy said, the firmness in his voice telegraphing the intent of his next words. "He needs you, man. You gotta come home."

Hutch's garbled laugh sounded more like a cry of despair, and he winced before responding, "And do what, exactly, Hug? Hold his hand while he tortures himself so he can go back out there and maybe kill himself next time?" His voice was rising and he had to take a sudden breath. He forced himself to calm, and apologized. "I'm sorry, Huggy. Thanks for letting me know. Tell him I said…" Please stop. "Good luck."

"'Good luck'?" Huggy repeated disbelievingly.

"Yeah. Good luck, and…'Have a nice trip.'" Hutch felt hysteria rising madly from his gut up to his throat.

"You know, I think you might be genuinely weird, my friend. I mean, real loony-toons time." Huggy sounded like he didn't know whether to laugh or be really, really pissed off.

"I know, Huggy," Hutch said, suddenly weary. "Just tell him, okay? And…thanks for calling me. Keep me posted?"

"Okay, Blondie. I'll keep you in the know."

Hutch frowned at the familiar nickname, then hung up and went to the little-used liquor cabinet to pour himself a stiff one. He drank some of it, holding the glass in his hand as he started pacing.

Starsky's in the hospital. When had his former partner ever been laid up that Hutch hadn’t been there to try to help him? The last time being the very worst.

Starsky shifted in the high hospital bed and moved his hands restlessly on the sheets over his chest. Alerted, Hutch put down his book and leaned forward.

"What is it, buddy? What do you need?"

Starsky gave a garbled reply, and Hutch put a hand on his forearm, careful not to tangle with the I.V. tube snaking across.

"Say again, partner?"

"Rough." Starsky coughed weakly and then groaned a little. "Why're they so rough?" he mumbled hoarsely. He was just barely out of the ICU, and the ventilator that had been breathing for him until two days ago seemed to have done a number on his voice. "Rough," he repeated.

Hutch was puzzled. "No one here but me, buddy. Who's rough?"

"Sheets. Rough. Need…softer sheets." Starsky moved his hands again, pushing at the bed sheets draped over his torso.

Hutch closed his eyes for a second. "It's not the sheets, buddy. It's your chest. You were shot, remember?" He repeated the news to his drug-befuddled friend for the third time that day.

Starsky raised his head in alarm and looked blearily at Hutch. "You…shot?"

Hutch gently squeezed the arm under his hand. "Not me, Starsk. You. You were shot. I'm just fine. Relax."

"Good." Starsky closed his eyes, "N'body better shoot my par-" Starsky hitched a breath and finished, "parner."

Hutch covered his mouth with his hand, smothering his expression, pain tearing his gut. As he watched, Starsky moaned and moved restlessly again.

"Hurts. Why's it hurt so bad, Hush?"

"Hang on, buddy. I'll see if the nurse can give you something. I'll be right back."

Hutch got out of his chair and went into the corridor instead of using the call button. It was usually faster to flag someone down than to wait for a response.

He found Starsky's nurse and asked her for more pain medication, keeping one ear still trained on the room. She said something about checking his chart, and Hutch bolted back.

Starsky was now moving agitatedly, his legs shifting under the blanket.

"I'm here. I'm here, Starsk." Hutch took his partner's hand. "The nurse will bring you something soon. Just hang on."

"Hurts."

"I know, I know," Hutch said in a rough whisper. He tried for diversion, "Hey, you know what?"

"Wha?" Starsky's blue eyes cracked open again, fixing foggily on him.

Hutch smiled broadly. "Dodgers got seven home runs today. Seven! In one game! It was a rout."

Starsky smiled, his eyes closing. "Who they beat?"

"The Reds. 17-6."

"Good. Hate the—" Starsky suddenly squeezed Hutch's hand before gasping, "Reds."

"Just hang on, Starsk. Just a few minutes." Hutch looked anxiously toward the door but the nurse did not magically appear. Not for another eleven excruciating minutes, during which Hutch talked nonsense and Starsky tried gamely to smile in response. Finally, she appeared with a syringe, which she injected directly into the I.V. port. Hutch watched in relief as Starsky's features smoothed.

"Better, Starsk?" Hutch had to ask.

"Mmm hmm." Starsky's hand went limp in his, and Hutch sagged back in his seat, his own tension easing.

"That's better," he whispered, to Starsky's soft breathing.

Hutch tossed back the memory with his shot of whiskey and poured another. He fully intended to get hammered, but soon got distracted by his time-lapse project. He was doing some experimental low-light photos of one of his night-blooming plants, and was trying to get a series of the blossoms opening over time. He used the tripod and a shutter cable so he wouldn't risk jarring the camera with his finger while making the exposures. The next time he looked up it was long past his bedtime, and his nagging concern over Starsky's newest injury had been relegated to the box in his mind reserved for nightmare fodder.

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Three months later he was still having trouble sleeping, even long after he'd heard Starsky was out of the hospital and on the serious mend. It didn't help that at the end of his last call a month earlier, Huggy had regretfully informed Hutch that he'd been directed not to give any more updates on Starsky's condition. Starsky had told Huggy to tell Hutch that his life was no longer Hutch's business.

"He's fine, my brother. That's all you need to know. He was pretty well ticked off when he figured out I'd been snitching on him all along."

"I see." Hutch sighed, upset to be losing even that much contact. But it was Starsky's prerogative. "Thanks, anyway, Huggy."

The time-lapse series had come out pretty well. Hutch decided to send a set to Starsky as a back-assed apology. He spent a week of late nights in the darkroom getting the prints perfect before mailing them off. Another month passed with no word, and finally Hutch called and left a message at The Pits. There was no response.

Hutch's nightmares got worse.

"You look like hell, Chief." One of his men, James Morris, poked his head in the door. For some reason the deputies all insisted on calling him 'Chief' although his official title was 'Captain.'

"Thanks for noticing, Jimmy." Hutch hid a smile. The blue-eyed, sandy-haired young deputy had a perpetually startled look about him. "What's up?"

"Complaint out at Cranston's. Sounds like their usual dispute over that half-acre. Cranston says someone spilled red paint all over his lawn."

Hutch turned his laugh into a cough. "Okay, kid, get on it. Call us if you need some back-up."

Jimmy grinned sardonically and then ducked back out, leaving Hutch to his paperwork. Two minutes later he was interrupted again.

"Uh, Chief?" Val Morgenstern, this time. He was a more serious kid, one who took his responsibilities to heart.

"Come in, Val. I'm just wrapping up here." Hutch waved him in and went over to the cooler for a cold cup of water. He drank it down and then folded the paper container, searching vainly for a garbage can. In the year and a half he'd had this office he still hadn't managed to requisition one.

"It's about when you're gone next week, sir."

Hutch had never broken the kid of his Army habit of calling Hutch 'sir.' "What about it? Should I reschedule?" The words were past his lips before thinking.

"No, uh. Of course not, sir. It's just, I've been talking to the State and they say they might finally send us the new personnel next week. Should I tell them to hold off until you get back?"

"Hell, no!" Hutch said. "We'll take what we can get. You know that."

Val nodded, but didn't move to leave.

"Something else, kid?" He knew he shouldn't call him that, but they were all so damned young. Of course, with his fortieth birthday looming in a few days, Hutch was feeling his age.

"Yeah. Chief, can I ask you something?" Val got up and surreptitiously closed the office door.

"Sounds serious. What's up?" Hutch spoke encouragingly.

"You spent a lot of time in Bay City, didn't you? That's what Jimmy says, anyway. Says you were a big detective down there for a lot of years."

Hutch merely nodded, feeling his face stiffen a little. Apparently Val noticed, for he lifted a hand to tug at his shirt collar.

"Thing is, sir, I've been thinking about it myself, a little. Being a detective, I mean. So I guess I wanted to know…why you left."

Why I left. Over two and a half years had passed and still the reminder struck him like a blow. Hutch felt the disorienting feeling of the blood rushing to his head and then deserting it again, all in a few moments. He held it together, not wanting the kid to notice his discomposure.

"Well, there were a lot of reasons, Val. Not sure I could go into them in a casual conversation. But I can tell you one thing: I did love being a detective. More than almost anything."

"But then, why—oh. I'm sorry, sir." The kid blushed to the roots of his straight black hair. "Never mind. I'm sorry I bothered you."

"It's okay, Val." Hutch took pity on the kid. "Look, if you’re serious about this, I can put you in touch with some people down in Bay City."

"Would you? Really? That'd be just swell," Val said, his excitement evident.

Hutch felt a pang of sorrow looking at him, thinking what a road he, himself, had traveled from this kid's innocent excitement to his own bitter parting with the BCPD. But his relationship with Dobey hadn't suffered in the breach. Hutch thought maybe Dobey understood better than anyone Hutch's reasons for leaving, since Dobey had once lost his own partner, Elmo Jackson. Hutch was sure his former captain would be willing to talk to the kid, at least.

"I really will, Val. Now, get outta here; your shift is over and so is mine."

Val rose at the dismissal and darted off, obviously still thrilled by the result of his boldness. Hutch shook his head with a sigh and stood to leave, absently adjusting his gun in its holster. It felt heavier tonight than it had in a good long while.

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He'd really needed this. Redwoods, ancient and tall, surrounded the little glade where Hutch had chosen to pitch his tent. After a long hike in the woods, he returned to camp to cook some dinner, making his seat against a sun-warmed rock. In between bites, he would tilt his head back and fall the dizzying height to the tops of the redwoods above him.

He was completely alone, this not being an area popular with tourists, but somehow he felt it less here than he did back in town. Maybe because the opportunities for human connection were absent altogether. But even in San Francisco he'd felt his loneliness eased by the press of strangers. It was his life in town that was the problem. Each individual he met knew him, and yet really didn't at all, and the constant reminder of his self-imposed isolation was a burden that could only be relieved by escaping once in a while.

Hutch closed his eyes and tilted his head back. He was forty years old today. This marked the halfway point of his life, supposedly. He remembered when he thought it was a joke to consider he might make fifty, let alone eighty. But that wasn't true, anymore. Even though in small towns officers could still be killed in the line of duty, the risk was so much lower as to be laughable.

He could live. He could live, and try to be happy here.

The beauty and peace of these surroundings calmed his restlessness, but they also lent themselves to profound thinking. For once, though, his thoughts didn't head toward melancholy. Instead, he pictured Starsky and himself as two of these trees, standing together for three hundred years or more, side by side, together, and safe. Of course, he didn’t imagine that, even as a tree, Starsky could manage to sit still for very long. Hutch smiled wryly and finished his dinner, then cleaned the pot and put out the fire.

In the darkness of his tent, he indulged himself in a rare fantasy, one that was too dangerous to his peace of mind to entertain too often. He remembered the brush of his lips against Starsky's cheek, and the smell of the man, that tempting blend of sandalwood and leather and sweat, as familiar to him as his own. And he let himself imagine that taut, lithe body touching his. He had never seen Starsky's penis erect, but his mind easily provided the feel of it in his hand, in his mouth, and the cries Starsky would let out as Hutch brought him to the edge. He took his stiff cock in his fist and stroked himself quickly, seeing those blue eyes close tight with pleasure, imagining the taste of that hard cock in his mouth. Hutch's head rolled back and his knees spread wide as he came into his hand.

That night, he dreamed Starsky came to him and said, "I've been waiting for you."

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He was late on his first morning back. His pick-up truck, incredibly reliable up 'till now, chose that day to get cranky for the first time since he'd purchased it. He struggled with the damned thing for at least half an hour, checking the battery, the fuel line, and even tapping on the carburetor for good measure. Finally, for no good reason that he could determine, it decided to have mercy on him and roared to life. He used his radio to explain the delay, then sped down the narrow road to the sheriff's station.

There was an odd hush as he entered, and he narrowed his eyes and looked hard at his deputies. There were too many of them here, at least four more than were on duty at the moment, and they all had the same dopey expressions of anticipation on their faces, as if Hutch were the victim of a surprise party.

Shit, they found out it was my birthday the other day, was his immediate thought. And it was the last coherent one he had for a while when, with a murmur of apology, a man in uniform pushed insistently from behind two of his officers to stand before him.

It was Starsky.

Hutch stared in disbelief and his brain froze up, the ice traveling down to his throat and fixing his tongue to the roof of his mouth.

"You're late, Blondie." Starsky was grinning at him, but his voice sounded like it was coming from the other end of a long tunnel, and the words took at least an eternity to register through Hutch’s misfiring synapses.

"Starsky." Proud of achieving that one word, Hutch tried another. "What?"

"'What?'" Starsky echoed, and there was a chatter of laughter around them. The sense of exposure brought Hutch back to himself in a rush.

"Office. Now." Hutch composed his face and turned toward the door, his heart marching quickly in his chest, as if someone had just pulled a piece on him. He managed to get his key in the lock and the damned thing open without incident and, once inside, almost collapsed into the chair behind his desk.

Apparently it was taking some little while for Starsky to extricate himself from the men, whom Hutch could hear congratulating him on 'getting one up on the old man.' Hutch was glad for the reprieve. Myriad questions teemed in his mind, his equilibrium shattered. He managed to drag one of them out of the tangle and had it ready on his lips when Starsky entered the room, pulling the door closed behind him with one foot.

"What are you doing here?" Hutch asked fiercely. The ball safely out of his court, he feasted his eyes on his friend.

He looked…perfect. Starsky looked a little bit older, of course—a few wrinkles had joined the familiar laugh lines around his deep-set eyes. His hair was short. He was a little thinner, too, but no more so than he had been in recovery from Gunther's attempt. And he was wearing a deputy uniform. Starsky was his new deputy.

Hutch started to feel queasy.

He realized Starsky hadn't responded, but was appraising him in kind, and Hutch swallowed, wondering what he saw. More lines, yes, and his own hair was shorter as well and had continued its inexorable desertion. Hutch had discarded his moustache when it was no longer needed as camouflage, adding a rough goatee in exchange. And he'd dropped a lot of weight in the months before moving up here, and had never quite succeeded in gaining it all back.

"You look good, Hutch," Starsky said, his voice sounding a little shaky as he responded to the unasked, instead of to the question still hanging between them.

"So do you." Hutch replied helplessly, and swallowed again, appalled to discover he was on the verge of losing it. He stood abruptly and grabbed a cup from the dispenser, using the opportunity to turn his back on his old partner. He heard Starsky sigh behind him.

"As to what I'm doing here, Blintz, well, if you'd keep up on your paperwork instead of running off to be Jungle Jim, you would have known I arranged to transfer up here a couple of weeks ago."

The matter-of-fact, almost humorous tone told Hutch how Starsky wanted to play this, and he was grateful Starsky was willing to keep it on that level, for now. Hutch knew, without a doubt, that at least six sets of ears were trained on his office door, straining for each word that passed between them. Now wasn't the time for either angry recriminations or tearful reunions. And since he wasn't sure which way he was hoping this would go down, it was probably for the best that they couldn't speak freely.

"You with me today?" was all Hutch said, turning from the cooler to face his new deputy.

"Always," Starsky replied softly, and Hutch felt a twist in his gut. He grimaced what he was sure was a poor excuse for a smile, and led the way out the door.

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In the patrol car, an expectant hush cloaked them, the unspoken words between them an almost physical pressure against Hutch's eardrums. Starsky seemed determined to make him take the lead, and as he drove on autopilot, Hutch searched his mind for something safe to say. Something that wouldn't open the can of worms that were his chaotic, wriggling thoughts, or break him wide open and spill his intestines all over the floor of the cruiser. Any deep discussion would have to wait until after shift.

Hutch cleared his throat and asked, roughly, "How've you been?" I missed you. So damned much.

There was a moment of silence, then, "I guess...okay," Starsky said slowly.

Hutch caught the shrug out of the corner of his eye. Obviously, Starsky was no more eager than Hutch was to start something they couldn't finish.

Christ, he's sitting right next to me. Starsky is here. In spite of years of late-night yearnings and almost-daily painful reminders, the reality of having his ex-partner sitting beside him in the flesh was almost too much to bear. Hutch felt a violent stab of elation and took a breath to quell it fast.

"How about you, Blintz?" There was warmth in Starsky's voice, warmth that hadn't been there the last weeks before Hutch had left. Could Starsky have forgiven him? He must have, or why was he here?

"I've been…keeping on." Barely. This time, he caught a doubtful glance from the corner of his eye. "Uh, this is our first stop," Hutch said, pulling the car into the parking lot and climbing out of the vehicle.

Every Monday morning, even though it wasn't on any official agenda, Hutch went by the high school to check in with the principal there. Eileen Dade was a short, pretty lady with a powerful personality. She'd headed the school for the past year, and ran it with a strong, yet compassionate touch. Checking in with her was his way of staying on top of any problems festering among the teens, and it didn't hurt that she was from San Francisco originally and so knew a good cup of coffee, which she always poured with a generous hand.

"Captain Hutchinson, so good to see you," she said, as if Hutch didn't show up every Monday at approximately the same time and for the same purpose.

"Eileen, I keep asking you to please call me 'Hutch'," he said, and watched as her eyes traveled curiously over his shoulder. "Uh, I would like to introduce you to my par—my new deputy, Dave Starsky." His hasty correction, he saw, didn't go unnoticed by Starsky, whose lips curled in an almost wolfish grin before he stepped forward to shake Eileen's hand.

"A pleasure to meet you, ma'am," Starsky said, turning on the charm.

"Oh, my, the pleasure's all mine, I assure you, Deputy." Eileen waved toward the coffeepot on her desk. "Can I pour you a cup of coffee?"

"Please, thank you," Starsky said politely.

Hutch took his usual seat on the right, and wasn't surprised when Starsky plopped down on his left. So familiar. They both accepted their coffees, and Starsky broke into a huge smile when he got his first taste.

"Ma'am, I hafta tell you, this is the first time in over a week I've had a good cup of joe," Starsky said. "You wouldn't believe the stuff that passes for coffee down at the sheriff's station."

Hutch grunted disapprovingly, and flicked a look out of the corner of his eye.

"I believe Captain Hutchinson used words to the same effect the first time he stopped by," Eileen replied, and then laughed a little when Starsky grinned triumphantly. Hutch shifted in his seat, leaning forward to change the subject.

"So, Eileen, let's have it: anything shaking we should know about?"

"Such colorful slang you officers use," Eileen commented.

With a start, Hutch realized he had dropped into the verbal shorthand they used to use in Dobey's office. Starsky had been back in his life for under an hour, and already old habits were reasserting themselves.

"What he means, ma'am, is, are any of the kids giving you trouble?" Starsky said with a glance at Hutch.

"There is one boy, Nathan, but I'm more worried about him than troubled. His grades have been dropping, which is always a bad sign, I've found. His father was laid off at the gypsum plant." Eileen looked saddened.

"Is that Nathan Willem?" Hutch asked, pulling out his notebook.

"Yes. Always such a good kid, and a very eager participant in the science fair. But lately he's been withdrawn. You see…" Eileen hesitated, and then stopped.

"Okay, Eileen, I understand."

They chatted a short while longer—Eileen asking curious questions about Starsky and his background—before they took their leave. Starsky gave thanks again for the coffee while Hutch stood back and watched the charmer do his worst. Irritated, Hutch finally cut off the conversation by moving toward leaving.

Once back in the car, as Hutch was turning the key, Starsky propped himself against the door and drew up one knee, saying, "Okay, who's the next snitch on the beat?"

Hutch shifted to face him. "Starsky. Eileen Dade is a respected member of this community, not some two-bit fink."

A sly grin greeted him. "Oh, she makes damned good coffee for a snitch, don't get me wrong, but that don't change what she is. She provides inside intelligence."

"But I don't pay her a thing," Hutch protested. "In fact, she's the one who treats me to coffee every Monday."

"C'mon! Haven't you figured it out? Every week she gets a visit from the handsome, blond police chief—that's her fix." Starsky laughed.

Hutch gaped, his mind hung on the word, 'handsome.' He decided to get a little of his own back. "Hey, I'm not the one she was cooing at, pal. 'Oh, Deputy Starsky, of course I know how to make schnitzel.'"

Hutch's lip quirked when Starsky's face got appreciably duskier. God, it felt good to be teasing Starsky again. The thought gave him pause, and his smile faded quickly. It felt good, yeah, but risky, too. He still didn't know what Starsky was doing here. The unknown demanded caution, and he fell silent as he drove them to their next destination.

"So?" Starsky's voice was subdued. "Who's next?"

"Jack Peters. He's the ex-mayor." Even as Hutch responded he realized Starsky was right, and it had taken him all of ten minutes to figure out what Hutch hadn't in two and a half years—that he'd created a network of informants on his 'beat' here just as they had in Bay City. He had never stopped to wonder why the job felt so familiar in spite of the radically different surroundings, or how it was he had slipped so easily into his new role.

Jack didn't have much for them other than a few choice words on the escalating feud between Dennis Cranston and his neighbor, Millie Carlton. He expounded pedantically on the history of property lines in the county for a while until, with a nod, he let them escape.

"Whew. That guy could talk the ear off a chipmunk," Starsky commented.

Again, Hutch found himself almost smiling, wondering why the day suddenly looked like it'd had a paint job. Everything seemed brighter. Dangerous, his mind cried warning. When the radio squawked, Hutch found he was glad for the interruption.

Starsky pulled the mike and held it up to his mouth. "This is Z-uh, Unit 22. What's the word? Over."

Hutch made no comment at Starsky's slip, but his heart gave a treacherous flip.

"Unit 22, your assistance requested on H-1 at Pine Grove. Single car accident. Over."

"Copy that, Dispatch. We're on our way."

Hutch had already turned the car toward the highway and flipped the siren. "We get this a lot on that particular stretch. Damned fools take the hairpins at speed in their shiny little toys," he said caustically, before remembering another shiny toy, one that his partner had adored. He peripherally detected a narrowed glance and asked, a little pointedly, "Did you bring the Torino with you?"

He caught Starsky's shrug. "Of course. Wouldn't leave my baby behind." Starsky's voice sounded a little cold. Hutch had obviously put his foot in it, but he wasn't sure how. Jerking Starsky about the Torino was practically religion.

They pulled up at the site of the accident and discovered they were first at the scene. Fortunately, the young blond man at the wheel of the damaged Corvette was relatively uninjured. He'd been wearing his seat belt, and it had saved him from a serious head trauma. As it was, he was bleeding some, and Hutch did minimal first aid while Starsky put down flares and handled traffic control. The ambulance and tow team arrived soon after and made short work of the mess.

"Lunch?" Hutch proposed when they got back to their car.

"Or what passes for it up here," Starsky said, sounding grumpy.

Better get some food in him soon, Hutch thought. He gets like this when he's hungry. He tried not to let the disparaging comment bother him. He knew the food here was bland stuff compared to what Starsky was used to. But it made him wonder how Starsky could possibly learn to like living up here.

Hutch took them to his favorite lunch spot, Dottie's Café. Dottie herself came to serve them, a courtesy she extended to Hutch and only a few others. Dottie was an ancient fixture in this town, and was one of the few people who called him by his first name instead of by his title. She also had a tendency to be a little familiar with him in other ways that always made him vaguely uncomfortable, as if she were constantly trying to suss him out. Today, the glance from over her bifocals was particularly probing.

"Dottie, this is Dave Starsky, a new deputy here," he said, hoping to divert her with the lure of fresh meat. But, though she gave Starsky the once-over and smiled her welcome, she soon turned her attention back to Hutch.

"There's something different about you today, Ken. I just can't put my finger on it." She tilted her head, and Hutch found himself nearly blushing at the perusal. "You almost look like—"

"Vegetables," he said, wildly, clutching at the first thing that came to mind. Both she and Starsky looked at him as if he'd taken leave of his senses. "I mean I was just about to explain to Starsky that you grow your own vegetables. It's one of the reasons I love eating here."

The deflection was a good one, for Dottie could never get enough of talking about her farming efforts. She was deep into an explanation of different types of manure when Starsky threw Hutch a pleading glance.

"Uh, Dottie, this is fascinating, but Starsky and I are pretty famished. Can we get a couple of your Burger Specials?" Hutch gave Starsky a reassuring look, "Just as good as Huggy's, Starsk."

Dottie looked at him sharply, then back at Starsky, before making apologetic noises and leaving with their order. Starsky turned against the wall of the booth and rested his right leg along the seat. He rubbed at it with one hand while he stared out the window at the passers-by.

Must be where he was shot. Over the course of the day Hutch had detected only a slight limp, usually just after Starsky had been sitting for a while. But obviously it was still bothering him. In another time and place, Hutch would have been after Starsky to find out how bad it was. But Hutch had abdicated his caretaking rights when he'd left, and so kept his unwilling silence.

The cheeseburgers and fries arrived in short order, and Starsky started consuming his ravenously, while Hutch ate more slowly, looking on in bemusement. He wondered how many burgers he had watched Starsky inhale over the years of their friendship. Hundreds? Thousands?

Finally, Starsky sat back with a belch, picking more slowly through the rest of his fries for the crispier ones he preferred.

"That was pretty good. I like this place," Starsky said, his good humor apparently restored.

Hutch flushed with pleasure. Ridiculous. Starsky liked his burger and Hutch felt like a proud father.

"I'm glad you liked it," was all he managed, and now he was the one to turn away to stare out the window.

"You know, Hutch, I—"

Whatever Starsky had been about to say was lost in Dottie's chirping tones as she said, approaching the table, "I think I've got it, Ken—that odd, new expression on your face—I do believe you're almost smiling."

Dottie's gentle tease hit the mark and this time Hutch did blush, feeling his ears start to pulse like beacons. He heard Starsky's deep chuckle, and Hutch reached for his wallet, pulling out enough to cover the bill and tossing it on the table.

"Back to work, Deputy," he growled, and their laughter chased him out the door.

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They took a few more calls. One was for a treed cat. Starsky hated heights, so Hutch did the honors, trying to ignore the avid grin that followed him as he shimmied his way out onto the branch. Moxie had her claws tenaciously engaged in his left arm the entire way back down, and Hutch suppressed a wince as he disentangled himself and handed the cat back to its owner, little ten year-old Maggie. He ducked her thanks in order to go back to the patrol car and the waiting first aid kit.

Near end of shift, Hutch drove them back to the sheriff's station and Starsky got out stiffly, closing his door. Hutch thought, Soon. Soon we can talk, and he hung back a second before leaving the car. He noticed his hand was shaking slightly, and stuck it in his pocket.

Once within, he retired to his office, purportedly to do his paperwork. He could hear the murmur of the men just outside. Suddenly there was laughter, Starsky's the deepest, and Hutch went to stand by the door. He heard Starsky's mumble and the words "Torino" and "transvestite," to the ripple of more laughter.

Hutch suddenly felt naked, exposed. Worse than at Dottie's. Starsky was out there, telling stories about the two of them. He swung back to his desk and hastily gathered his jacket and keys before stalking out the door of his office. In order to leave, he had to pass between the men, who were clustered in a rough circle on both sides of the aisle-way where Starsky was holding court.

Hutch paused in his step and nodded. "Good night," he said curtly before escaping through the front door. He could feel Starsky's curious glance following him, and realized he didn't even know Starsky's phone number—had no way to arrange to meet him later. But it didn't matter. He had to get out. It was too much, too soon, and his every nerve-ending was screaming flight. He strode quickly to his truck and threw himself into the seat, turning the key even before he had the door closed.

Of course, the damned thing wouldn't start. "No, no, no," he moaned and tried again, the engine turning over with a whine and a couple of coughs but still not catching. Hutch released the key to pound the steering wheel in frustration before grasping it with both hands and shaking it. "Shit!"

There was a tap on his window and, dread slowing his movements, he turned his head to see Starsky standing by his door.

"Need a lift?" The question was muffled through the glass but, even so, Hutch could tell it lacked the mocking lilt he had been expecting. It sounded more hesitant than anything, and Starsky's expression was neutral.

Hutch rolled down the window. "Won't turn over," he mumbled unnecessarily.

"Yeah, I kinda figured."

Hutch turned to stare out the front window.

"C'mon, Hutch," Starsky said, his voice gentle. "I'll give you a ride home."

Hutch nodded and slowly got out of the truck to follow him. His eyes were stuck on Starsky's back, and when Starsky stepped away into the street, the Torino, glowing in all its candy apple glory, filled Hutch's vision. He stopped dead, memories crowding his brain. He didn't know if he could do this—get into that car, right now. He looked up to see Starsky eyeing him carefully.

Their gazes locked.

After an eternity, Hutch broke the glance with a sigh, then went over to the passenger door. It was unlocked, and he slung himself in, telling himself this was only a dream, and he wasn't really here to feel this overwhelming rightness that was so terribly wrong, nothing but a hollow cheat. He slouched down low and closed his eyes as the familiar rumble filled his ears and vibrated beneath his feet.

Starsky drove for a while, silent, while Hutch struggled with his fragmented thoughts. Finally he mustered himself to ask, "You know where I live?"

A wary chuckle accompanied Starsky's next words. "Of course. 13 Del Vista. About three doors down from my new place."

Hutch's eyes snapped open and he turned to look at the dark profile. "You live…down the street from me?"

"Yeah," Starsky responded easily. "We're neighbors. Should make it easier when one of us has had one too many. No more sleeping on the couch," he said, a reminder of a hundred late-night Monopoly games and intense, drunken conversations.

Hutch took a sharp breath, and once again closed his eyes.

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"Have a seat, Hutch. Take a load off."

Hutch startled where he stood uneasily in the center of Starsky's living room. He had followed in a bit of a daze and watched while Starsky took off his uniform jacket and dropped his keys on a side-table. At Starsky's questioning look, Hutch moved to sit gingerly on the ragged couch, obviously older than the house itself. The springs squeaked alarmingly as he shifted to find a firmer spot.

"Man, these gun belts are a bitch. I don't remember them being such a pain from our uniform days," Starsky complained, unholstering his Beretta and laying it down next to his keys.

Hutch just stared at him, the one question that had been burning his lips all day finally escaping them once again. "Starsky, what're you doing here?"

A doubtful grin crooked Starsky's mouth, and Hutch could have predicted the half-joke that came out. "I came to be your deputy, Blintz. Haven't you figured that out yet? After me riding shotgun with you in this stupid uniform all day?"

"Please. Don't. Just…please, Starsky." Hutch was at the end of something—his patience, or his rope, or very nearly his sanity, at this point—and he had to beg for straight words before he lost it completely.

Starsky sighed. "I should ask you the same damned question, Hutch. What're you doing here?" He looked exasperated. "I mean, what've you been doing with yourself? You've been here over two years and your men still don't know you. Your deputies joke that you're not even human, you know that? Thomkins swears you're some kind of robot cop sent by the government." Starsky paused, his tone a little amused but mostly angry and sad.

Rocked by the unexpected attack, Hutch answered defensively, "I've been doing just fine. Doing my job, aren't I? Living my goddamn life."

"Not very well, though. I mean, look at you." Starsky waved his hand in Hutch's direction.

"I thought you said I looked good," Hutch said, stung.

"Yeah, you look fine but, Christ, it's like Dottie said: I haven't seen you smile once all day. Not once. You're like a goddamn automaton or something." Starsky looked embarrassed, saying, his voice low, "You know, way back when, when you'd smile it was like…I dunno. A sunny day, maybe."

Hutch swallowed the words that wanted to leap from his mouth. Didn't you notice when the sun went out? He set his jaw against the sudden anger that filled him. What right did Starsky have to criticize him for what he'd had to do to survive these past two-and-a-half years?

Hutch looked away. "Why're you here, Starsky?" he asked again, wearily.

Starsky just shook his head. "No. You ain't ready to talk about this. In fact, you look about two steps away from busting me in the chops. Let's just…call it a night. It ain't like I'm going anywhere."

Hutch considered the proposal, his exhaustion, and the state of his frayed nerves, and nodded once before rising tiredly to his feet and walking to the door.

"Give you a ride tomorrow?" Starsky's voice came from behind.

"Sure." Hutch's throat made a clicking noise. "Thanks."

He went outside, hearing the door close softly behind him, and walked three houses down to his own. He was sleeping here last night, only a hundred yards away. Hutch shivered, and felt the painful tingling again that he'd felt back at Dottie's, a pins-and-needles sensation in his limbs.

He slunk into his house and, although it was far too early, went to bed to lie in the quiet dark. Starsky was right: Hutch wasn't ready for this. He'd been wrong about one thing, though—Hutch hadn't been ready to slug him, but had been about two steps away from high-tailing it out the door, never to return. The sensation of warmth after the long freeze was just too much to bear.

You don’t just pour hot water over frostbite. You have to start with lukewarm. Right now, lukewarm was about all he could handle.

And even so—oh, it burned.

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Hutch awoke far too early the next morning, and to bleed off some of his nervous energy, went for an extra long run.

His feet flashed over the dirt trail, and the dusty scent of summer teased his nostrils. He felt the familiar joy of working his body, a pleasure that had never failed him, even when his life had been at its lowest ebb.

Hutch ran six miles in under fifty minutes—not bad for an old man of forty. But he'd made the mistake of skipping breakfast, and was definitely struggling toward the end.

As he came around the corner of his block he found Starsky kicking back on his own porch, a cup of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in the other, looking for all the world as if he'd lived there for years. Hutch shook his head and came to a panting stop just at the foot of Starsky's walkway.

"Mornin', sunshine," Starsky said cheerfully. "Come up for a cup of coffee?"

Hutch found himself nodding, and walked up on wobbly legs to join him. He felt somewhat self-conscious of his sweaty, flushed state, especially when Starsky appeared to give him the once-over.

"Long run?" was all Starsky said, but there was something funny tainting his tone. Hutch examined his face but couldn't identify anything in his expression.

"Yeah," he said shortly.

"Lemme get you that coffee, and maybe something to eat." Starsky disappeared inside with his cup, and after a moment's hesitation, Hutch followed him in.

Starsky's house was equally as small as his, with a similar layout. Although housing wasn't sky-high up here, neither was a deputy's salary. Hutch hadn't had the opportunity the night before, but now he looked around, experiencing a feeling of déjà vu seeing Starsky's old belongings in this new space.

Hutch's eye caught on a black and white photo of the two of them, the pose unfamiliar to him for some reason. Starsky was hoisted on Hutch's back, arms wrapped around his neck, grinning at the camera. Hutch was in profile looking down, a smile on his face. He recognized the buildings of Century City behind them, and suddenly remembered the day it was taken.

Starsky had bought a new camera and wanted to test it out, so they went where he could hope to find some good black and white architectural shots. Hutch vaguely remembered Starsky handing over his newly prized possession to some old lady and asking her to take a picture of the two of them. Maybe Starsky had come across the old photo when he was packing for his move.

Looking at those strong arms wrapped around his younger self, Hutch suddenly realized that, since Starsky's arrival, they had yet to touch. A second later a heart-stopping memory followed—Hutch touching Starsky's lips, kissing his cheek, speaking words of love. Not the most explicit declaration, but certainly not among their usual gestures of affection. In the shock of having his friend restored to him, Hutch had forgotten that final, irrevocable moment of their parting.

The room grew cold around him and Hutch shivered, his sweaty skin going clammy. Is that the way it's going to be, Starsk? Chief and Deputy, partners and pals, but not too close? No touching? The thought was unacceptable. Such closeness had always been part of their friendship.

Only one way to find out.

Hutch walked into the tiny kitchen, his nose registering the welcome smell of eggs frying and toasted bread. He stepped up behind Starsky, saying, "Smells good."

"Nothing special—just scrambled eggs. We don’t have time for much more."

"That'll be fine," Hutch responded absently, and then deliberately laid his hand on Starsky's shoulder, squeezing gently.

Starsky stiffened, tension radiating from his neck down to the muscle resting under Hutch's hand. Hutch's stomach dropped and he released his grip, backing away.

"I-I guess I better…should get cleaned up." He turned hastily and plunged toward the door, his face flaming, the blood having deserted his heart, freezing it with loss. He heard Starsky's quick steps following behind him.

"Hutch—" Starsky sounded anxious, almost panicked.

"Some other time," Hutch interrupted, roughly turning the knob and retreating into the open air. His step quickened until he found himself running down the sidewalk to the safety of his home. He stripped and got into the shower, steadfastly refusing to think about the rejection implicit in those rigid muscles. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

By the time he'd finished his shower and dressed, his mind was calm and numb once again. He adopted his usual holding pattern, greeting Starsky with equanimity when he gave his familiar knock.

"Let's roll," Hutch said, proud of his even tone. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he noted Starsky's appearance in the crisp uniformhow his short hair curled up beneath his hat, and how his deep eyes looked even bluer against the khaki.

Starsky was looking at him too intently, but Hutch brushed by him to walk toward the Torino. He felt it as Starsky caught up to him and they fell into step, like a key in a lock.

They spent most of the day in the office, Hutch at his desk and Starsky being lectured on Search & Rescue procedures by Thomkins. Hutch could hear the murmur of voices, and Starsky's eager questions, and felt a pull to join them that he had to suppress repeatedly over the hours, especially when he heard Starsky's occasional laugh. He found himself grateful when they had to go out on the periodic call and he had an excuse to at least be next to the man, although they didn't speak much. Starsky had tried to banter with him but Hutch couldn't respond, the brittle calm still holding him, trapping him. Beside him, he could sense Starsky's increasing impatience.

Late in their shift, a call came while Starsky was hitting the john—some things, apparently, hadn't changed, and one of them was the diminutive size of Starsky's bladder. When he got back to the unit, Hutch steered them down to the Calypso, a trucker's bar out on the highway. Someone had reported a disturbance.

Before they got out of the car, Hutch checked his piece carefully. Not that he anticipated the situation would be very dangerous, but there was no telling, where truckers and whiskey were concerned.

He raised his head and looked over at Starsky, who appeared almost eager. Hutch admitted privately he was a little excited, as well. But not scared, he realized. Something had happened to him while they were apart. Somehow the terrible dread had left him; perhaps it had stayed behind in Bay City, not able to pass the small-town limits. He felt only a tingle in his veins now, and a familiar sense of comfort knowing it was Starsky who would be at his back.

Together, they left the car, their belts jingling a little as they stepped in tandem to the front door of the bar. Hutch pushed in first, tilting his hat back a little on his head so his vision wouldn't be impaired. He saw Starsky mimic the movement as Hutch walked up to the bar.

The cause of the disturbance was easily identified as one very large drunken man. Hutch recognized him almost immediately as Jess Willem, Nathan's dad. All six feet, two inches of him were tottering dangerously back and forth, a bottle in his hand and curses on his lips.

The bartender looked over at Hutch and an expression of relief crossed his face. It was enough to tip Jess off, and he spun around to face them, rage and sorrow battling for dominance on his craggy features.

"Twenty-two years ought to show the value of a man, don'tcha think?" Obviously continuing his rant, Jess peered at them with bloodshot gaze, his head sunken on his neck like a stork's.

"Yeah, of course, Jess," Hutch said, soothingly, both hands up in a calming gesture. Jess wasn't appeased, though. Spittle ran from his mouth, and Hutch could swear there were tears in the man's eyes.

Hutch sensed Starsky edging to his right, putting some distance between them and splitting Jess's focus. Their usual move.

Right on cue, Starsky spoke up. "That's right, Jess. Seems like people think they can just throw someone away when they're done with 'im. Like a pair of shoes that don't fit anymore." Jess's head swiveled to track Starsky, and he gave a grunt of agreement.

"One lousy injury and they didn't wait for me to git better," Jess slurred. "Just hired some new kid to take my place. My place! Bastids!" Jess took a sobbing breath and spun toward the bar, smashing the bottle by its neck.

Hutch jumped at the sound and moved in fast, wanting to end this quick and clean. He picked up Starsky moving in sync out of the corner of his eye.

Then things started happening, fast. Jess swung back and, seeing Hutch close, raised the hand holding the glass. He lunged sideways just as Hutch reached for his hand, the unexpected move putting Hutch's arm on an intersect course with the jagged edge. He felt the cut just as Starsky's hand came down, trapping Jess's arm against the surface of the bar. Hutch ignored the flare of pain and swung around behind Jess to thrust him forward against the wood. Then Starsky grabbed the man's free arm and twisted it back. Hutch grabbed it and completed the hold, pushing the drunk's hand up tight between his shoulder blades.

Now painfully immobilized, Jess's head sank down and he started sobbing harshly, his body relaxing under Hutch's and his hand releasing the broken bottle. Starsky moved in and cuffed him while Hutch stepped back. He felt the sting and dampness of his wound, but it didn't feel too bad. His heartbeat returned to normal.

Together, they walked Jess to the patrol car and manhandled him into the back, to the measured sound of Starsky reading him his rights.

"Lemme drive," Starsky said, his voice oddly rough, and Hutch nodded, getting in on the passenger side, one hand wrapped firmly around his wounded forearm.

On the road to the sheriff's station, Hutch turned to look at Jess, who was still sobbing drunkenly, his breath escaping in little hitches. Hutch wanted to read him the riot act, but he was obviously too drunk to make sense of anything Hutch would say. He would stick Jess in the county lock-up and talk to him when he was sober.

Hutch reached for the radio mike, wincing when new wetness joined the old still dampening his sleeve. "This is 22. We are bringing in Jess Willem on a drunk and disorderly."

Starsky gave him an odd look.

"Copy that, 22."

Hutch hung up the radio.

"What about the other charge, Hutch? Assault on an officer—remember that part?" Starsky asked mildly.

Hutch turned to face him and said, seriously, "I don’t think he meant to hurt me, Starsk. It just was a bad confluence of circumstances."

Starsky shot him a glance that said he was nuts, but only said, sympathy darkening his tone, "I guess he's had it rough enough already." He added, his voice knowing, "Of course, that's five to ten if he gets behind an Officer Assault wrap."

"Yeah. There is that." Hutch looked back at the road, smiling quietly. He thought about getting Jess some help. Nathan needed his dad sober.

Starsky drove them smoothly back to town.

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They got Jess booked and in the lock-up before another hour had passed. Hutch retired to his office to type up the report, but discovered quickly that his cut was still oozing. He was trying, awkwardly, to tie a bandage around it when there was a knock at his door.

"Come in," he said, still wrestling with his task. He heard the door open.

"Hey, Chief—need a hand with that?"

Hutch looked up, startled and a little dismayed at hearing the nickname on Starsky's lips.

"Yeah. Uh, thanks." Hutch watched him approach, feeling a wave of the familiar. Tonight had been almost like a return to the early days of their partnership, when he'd felt such assuredness that the two of them could handle anything and everything that came down. It had felt right, just like Starsky's hands did now, touching his wrist gently, turning it so he could remove the clumsy bandaging and assess the wound. Hutch shivered a little.

"Could use a couple stitches, you know." Starsky's voice was carefultoo careful, as if the slightest misstep would dampen the fragile warmth between them.

I've been acting like such an asshole, Hutch thought. He sighed. "It's okay; just try some butterfly tape."

Hutch hissed a little as Starsky applied some antiseptic and then worked deftly, pulling the edges of skin together and taping them evenly with small strips before wrapping Hutch's forearm tightly in fresh gauze. They had both gotten pretty good at such minor repairs over the years. When he was done, he left his hand resting on Hutch's wrist.

Hutch looked down at it and spoke, his voice low. "I'm sorry I was such a jerk today. Hell, yesterday, too." He took a deep breath, and jumped. "I'm glad you're here."

He expected some non-serious response, a return to their usual give-and-take, but Starsky raised his eyes and met Hutch's, his expression open.

"And I'm sorry about this morning. You…surprised me. I wasn't expecting you to…warm up so quick." Starsky patted Hutch's wrist, looking thoughtful. "We did okay today, didn't we?"

"Yeah." Hutch smiled hesitantly.

"You weren't…worried?" Starsky asked circumspectly.

"No." Hutch lowered his eyes. "It was…I was fine."

He looked up to see Starsky smiling with relief. Starsky stood stiffly and said, "Look, Hutch, come over tonight and I'll make us dinner. I wanna talk to you. Really talk to you." His eyes were pleading.

Hutch looked inside himself for the jitters that been making him want to climb out of his skin for the past two days, but they were strangely absent. He felt nothing but warm acceptance, and a tiny quiver of almost-anticipation.

"Okay."

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Some things really didn't ever change. Such as Starsky's idea of 'making dinner,' which involved nothing more than a call to the town pizza joint and a pick-up on the way to his place.

There was beer, too, of course, and Hutch was glad for it, wanting something to feed his mood of relaxation and goodwill, so precious and rare of late. Also, his arm was burning like a sonofabitch. They made short work of the pizza and a couple of beers, and Hutch started to feel almost normal. He settled back on the couch, hunting for words that would start them talking.

"Feels like I've been asking you this for days, Starsk," he said, "but I never really got an answer out of you. I need to understand. Please, tell me: what're you doing here?" He noted Starsky's grimace, and shook his head. "I mean the last thing I heard, you were…injured." His voice chose that particular moment to crack horribly, and he cleared his throat, avoiding Starsky's eyes. "You were hurt, and trying to make it back again."

Starsky sighed from where he sprawled in his easy chair, and he reached down to rub his leg absently. "Yeah. I was. I did try, for a little while, to get back up to BCPD standards, but then I realized there was no fucking point. I mean, the first time I worked so damned hard at it, I didn't even have to think about why. For the job, I figured, and to show Gunther he didn't win, and to get back my life. But it turned out that wasn't why; it just took me a long time to realize it."

Hutch listened, amazed. He could hardly remember Starsky putting this many words together on a personal subject before, and he almost didn't dare to breathe, or move, as he listened, for fear it might stop. He just gave his full attention, not letting his eyes leave Starsky's earnest expression.

"See, I wasn't coming back for the job, Hutch. I was coming back for you, trying to get back to us, to the way we were. Like that schmaltzy Redford movie, huh? Only, this time you weren't even there to fight back to, so…I decided to hang it up."

Hutch nodded, understanding, although he found it hard to believe that Starsky hadn't wanted it anyway. It was all Starsky had ever wanted—to be a detective.

Hutch's chest ached as he said, "Maybe that explains why you didn't go back to the force, but not why you're here, now. You were so damned angry…you told Huggy you would never forgive me. You told him to tell me your life was n-none of my business." It hurt to say the words out loud, the shameful stutter only making it worse.

Starsky nodded his head twice and looked down at his hands. "Yeah, I was pretty angry, Hutch. I even…hated you for a while."

Hutch swallowed hard around the lump the ugly words caused. He deserved every one of them.

"I was mad at you for such a long time, so mad at what you did, and how you did it, that I couldn't ever get through to really understanding the why. I just couldn't. It was like this big wall in front of me, and every time I tried to think about why, I would just get pissed again." Starsky's voice dropped almost to a whisper. "It hurt so bad when you weren't there."

Guilt ran through Hutch like ice through cracks in stone. He rubbed at his chest, trying to soothe the growing ache there, and almost missed Starsky's next, quiet words.

"And then I saw the picture."

Hutch raised his head, puzzled. The only pictures he had sent recently were the time-lapse ones. Hardly material to soften Starsky's anger. But Starsky rose and went over to his desk, taking out a brown folder. He pulled a photograph from it and handed it to him.

It was a recent picture of himself, all right, but very grainy. He was certain he hadn't sent it to Starsky. For a brief, crazy moment he wondered if Starsky had put a gumshoe on him.

"I never sent you this," he said, letting his puzzlement show.

Starsky grinned, looking proud and pleased with himself. For a second, Hutch's heart stopped as he traveled back in time, seeing that smile and matching it against a thousand others.

"You did, Blintz." Starsky's voice brought him back. "See, look—" He slid another picture out of the folder, this one of the night-bloomer. It was the sole daytime shot Hutch had taken of the plant, showing it with the blossom tightly tucked away. Starsky tapped his finger in the upper left corner and then Hutch saw it: a tiny replica of himself, reflected in the bathroom mirror. Starsky had obviously taken it and blown it up.

"Okay. So I did send it, although not intentionally. But what—"

Starsky sighed and pulled out the blow-up again to stare at it. "You don't see it, do you? I guess you didn't even realize yourself how awful you looked, Hutch, that last year. Looking after me, going after Gunther and his people overtime, all day, and then coming to my place to do chores and egg me on with my physio, and the whole time looking like you were carrying everything, the entire world, on your back."

Yeah, that was how it had felt, all right. Sometimes Hutch had thought he would crack under the strain of it. But he stifled his agreement and said simply, "I wanted to do it, Starsk. Nobody made me."

"I know. But what I didn't understand was, just as it was getting better, I was almost better, it seemed to get even worse for you. You started walking around like a zombie, these big circles under your eyes, looking like pure death. And still, even when you told me you had to get out, I didn't get clued in. It wasn't until I saw this…" He handed the picture back. "That I finally figured it out." Starsky paused for breath before saying, "You look good here, Hutch. Not really happy, but still, more peaceful, somehow. Not like you're being torn apart anymore. Not like you're carrying the weight of the world around with you." He stepped back and nodded, still pointing at the picture. "That's when I finally got it, see. That's when I knew I had been a total prick."

Hutch's mouth had dropped open as he listened mutely, but he shook his head at the self-denunciation. "Not your fault. Not anybody's fault," he finally got out. "Except maybe mine, for not being strong enough. But I just couldn't see any other way—"

"There was no other way, Hutch. Not for you, and not for me, either, because I don’t think I was ready to let go of it, not just yet. But you asked why I'm here now, and that's what I wanted to tell you. I'm here because I missed you, so damned much. Because this is where I belong. With you." Starsky looked suddenly hesitant. "If you'll have me, that is. It's not like I've given you much of a choice."

The ache in Hutch's chest eased into something else. It felt a little like hope, but it was too tiny and inchoate to be certain. He took a breath. "I didn't give you any, either," he said, "so let's just call it even, okay?"

Starsky smiled wide, and the something grew into a warm buzz, and Hutch found himself smiling back, feeling it pull at his lips like some difficult new exercise he was trying. But then Starsky's smile faltered, and Hutch let his own drop, uncertain at the change.

"Been a long day, huh?" Starsky said, his voice strangely husky, and Hutch realized he had been demanding a lot from a guy who professed to hate soapy scenes. Time to call it a night. They could talk more, later.

Later. He'll be here. Tomorrow, and the day after that. It was too close to perfect to believe, so Hutch didn't. He'd stick with trusting in tomorrow, and take it one day at a time.

"Okay, I guess I'll head home. I'll…see you tomorrow." He couldn't help the ring of joy in his voice, but from the quick grin that flashed across Starsky's face, it was acceptable.

"Okay, partner."

Hutch got out quick, before his reaction to the familiar appellation could bust his face wide open.

Partner.

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The next morning the sun rose. Not an unexpected event, except for some reason it felt entirely novel to Hutch. Starsky made him an omelet, and this time Hutch stayed for it, and didn't even complain about the addition of spicy chorizo—acquired from the owner of the sole Mexican restaurant in town—even though it burned his sinuses and caused his eyes to tear up wildly, making Starsky laugh.

Actually, the 'making Starsky laugh' part was pretty terrific.

So was the coffee. Apparently, sometime in the last two days Starsky had contacted Eileen Dade and managed to get hooked up with her secret supplier of good, dark beans.

Starsky had been in town a little over a week, and he was already in tighter with these people than Hutch had ever been. But that was Starsky’s way. Always having odd conversations at checkout counters that led to invitations to happening parties, or making Hutch go to terrible out-of-the-way restaurants that he wouldn't take his own mother to, as much as he disliked her. Starsky accumulated interesting people and places the way other people acquired ceramic pigs. He collected Life.

He had picked up Hutch along the way, too, like a stray cat he didn't have the heart to send packing. And now the stray had run away, and Starsky had come to reclaim him. Hutch would've felt guilty about it, if he weren't so busy enjoying the unaccustomed sensation of feeling really, really good.

Unfortunately, over the passing weeks people started to notice. The smiles appearing periodically on his face were probably a dead giveaway. He started getting some really odd looks; old Mayor Peters even went so far as to ask him if he were feeling all right. Hutch blushed and stammered until Starsky rescued him by asking about the history of the old gun battlements over by the cliffs. That was good for a twenty-minute lecture, and the old salt even brought out a dish of butterscotch candies, which Starsky sucked on while they listened.

His men started noticing, too, of course, and Hutch began to get a little worried they would think he was a big pushover now. But Starsky himself helped keep them in line. He had become their ringleader; they looked to him for how to behave toward Hutch and, although Starsky ribbed him constantly in private, he accorded him the same respect he always did while on the job.

Nobody picks on my partner but me.

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"Aren't you gonna eat those?" Hutch had wandered out of his office, taking a break from the government-required paperwork that had tied him up since morning. He sat down across from Starsky and asked, "How come you ordered double, then?"

Starsky didn't look up from reading the local paper. "What, these?" He pushed the container about two inches closer to Hutch, and continued reading.

Hutch smiled and reached across the desk for some fries.

"Says here the Fire Chief wants to have some sort of parade." Starsky waved the paper. "Think I got a shot at being Grand Marshall?"

"Uh." Hutch tried to think of something constructive to say and failed utterly. He stuffed a couple more French fries in his mouth.

"Always wanted to be in a parade," Starsky said musingly.

"Buddy, you are a parade," Hutch muttered under his breath.

Starsky ignored him.

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"Say, Dottie, how come you call Hutch 'Ken,' while everyone else still calls him 'Captain Hutchinson'?"

It was a Friday night, and Starsky was munching on Dottie's latest experiment, an 'open-faced burrito.' When she had discovered his omnivorous tastes, she had taken it as a challenge to see if there were anything she could make that Starsky wouldn't eat. So far, she had failed.

Dottie seemed to ponder Starsky's question, but Hutch knew she was only dragging out the anticipation of some zinger that would put him on the hot seat again. He tried to forestall it.

"Dottie calls everyone by their first name. I think it's her way of keeping us in line. Also, when she was a teacher, she must've taught half the people in this town."

"Nope, that ain't it," Dottie said, her eyes glinting wickedly. "Guess again, blue eyes."

Hutch shook his head and awaited his doom.

But Dottie just tilted her head and said, almost sadly, "Maybe I decided he needed a friend."

Hutch's mouth dropped open. "Dottie…."

"Turned out I was right, of course. Only I wasn’t the friend he needed." Dottie winked and left them to their dinner.

Starsky made no comment, but his eyes burned with mischief over his forkful. He wasn't smiling, though, when a few minutes later Dottie returned to refill their coffee. This time she turned her attention on Starsky, and Hutch found himself starting to grin.

"You know who you remind me of, with that curly dark hair?" Dottie asked him.

"Paul Muni?" Hutch interjected helpfully, to Dottie's snort and Starsky's unamused glare.

"No," Dottie said, putting her finger to her lips. "I think more…Tony Curtis in 'Goodbye Charlie.' You got a girl here in town, Dave?"

Starsky turned beet red, and Hutch had to swallow his laugh, chasing it down with some coffee.

"No, I-uh…c'mon, Dottie, I just got here three weeks ago. Give a guy a break."

"No time like the present," Dottie said, shifting her coffeepot to her other hand and leaning on the table. "Anytime you want me to set you up, you just give ol' Dottie a wink."

Hutch clenched his jaw shut, determined not to add to Starsky's embarrassment. Unfortunately, his traitorous lips stretched into a grin.

The intense look Starsky shot him made his smile fade, though. It wasn't quite angry, but somehow similar. Hutch couldn't put his finger on it before the expression was gone.

"Thanks, Dottie. I'll be sure to let you know," Starsky said politely and Dottie, perhaps sensing he was no longer an easy target, seemed satisfied to leave him in peace.

"Dinner's over, Blintz," Starsky said, wiping his mouth and dropping a bill on the table. "Let's go home."

Hutch nodded, a little mystified, and followed his partner out the door.

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The Torino was pinging some as Starsky drove them toward Del Vista. Hutch wondered if it might be pining for Merle the Earl. He started to rib Starsky about it but stopped when he remembered he was on shaky ground, himself; his damned pick-up truck was in the shop again.

Starsky cleared his throat. "So…Dottie ever try to set you up?" he asked. Hutch jumped a little at the tone—a little distant and probing.

Oh, boy. Over the past weeks, Hutch had successfully put out of his head his unease about Starsky's possible reaction to his goodbye kiss. He figured if it didn't affect them, it didn't matter. He'd been in love with Starsky for a long time. A God's age. He'd done pretty much everything he possibly could to screw up their friendship before he had finally figured out how to handle it. But he'd never tried to consider what might happen if Starsky knew.

And now, of course, Starsky did. Or, at least, Hutch feared, he had a pretty good inkling. And he was about to discover the whole sorry truth of it, because Hutch didn't see how he could evade the follow-up questions that soon would be dropping from his partner's mouth.

"Sure, she tried," Hutch answered at last.

"But failed?" Starsky sounded as if he were already sure of the answer. He pulled the Torino up and parked it halfway between his house and Hutch's.

"Yes." Hutch got out of the car, hoping for a short stay of execution. He started to walk toward his place, but Starsky headed him off.

"My place. Beer." He tugged at Hutch's arm, getting him moving in the right direction, and then pulled ahead of Hutch's dragging steps.

By the time Hutch reached his door, Starsky had already made his way in and turned on the lights. He had a cold one opened and waiting, offering it to Hutch as he entered.

"Hang on, lemme get my gun off," Hutch said irritably, taking his time removing his jacket and his revolver. Then the cold can was being nudged against his forearm. He sighed and accepted it, taking the easy chair. He sprawled low, affecting unconcern, and rested the beer on his belly, waiting for the interrogation to begin again. As he knew it would.

"So, uh. Nobody in town, huh?" Starsky sat down on the couch opposite and picked up the questioning right where he'd left off.

Hutch shook his head. "Why, you want me to set you up with someone?" Standard evasive maneuver—put the pressure back on your interrogator. It was ineffective, because Starsky simply answered him instead of being outraged at the unnecessary offer.

"No." Starsky looked at him a moment longer, and Hutch saw his Adam's apple dance in his throat like a Mexican jumping bean. Hutch felt his shoulders stiffen.

"What about…" Starsky voice came hesitantly, "You spent a lot of time in San Francisco, sent me all those pictures." His eyes slid away.

Hutch sighed again and bit the bullet. "No," he said gently, "nobody there, either."

Starsky's eyes leapt back to his, wide with disbelief. "Nobody? In two-and-a-half years, Hutch?"

Hutch shook his head miserably. Nobody except for ten minutes talking to a brunet who looked like you. Why are you digging, buddy? Is this going to come between us, now? Now, when we finally have it together?

"What about you, Starsk? Hutch asked, turning the tables again. "I wondered if maybe you and Linda Baylor—"

"Of course not! " Starsky denied hurriedly. "Linda was my partner—" His mouth closed with a click.

Hutch winced and looked down, feeling a telltale rise of blood swamp his neck, heating his face. He swallowed back some of the cold beer as the silence stretched between them. Finally, he couldn't resist the stare he felt pressing insistently against him, and he let his eyes return to his partner.

Starsky's expression was unexpected. He was looking at Hutch almost with wonder. The reaction was so curious Hutch let himself stare back for too long, until he lost himself completely in the dark blue.

He came back to himself gradually, like rising from a deep sleep, when he heard Starsky ask, "Is it…that you were waiting? For…someone special?"

Still too oblique, as if Starsky were testing one toe at a time. Was he afraid the water was too cold? Suddenly, Hutch was tired of dancing around it. Ever since that night in San Francisco, he had grown more comfortable with the changes to his sexual tastes. He had started fantasizing about Starsky, about his body, about doing things to him—delicious, impossible things. If Starsky couldn't handle the thought of his partner being queer for him, well—he was just going to have to. He captured Starsky's eyes dead on.

"You know who I was waiting for." Hutch's voice came out strange, so low and rough, as if he'd taken up drinking battery acid.

The stare widened. "Who?" Starsky had apparently swallowed some of the same deadly cocktail. "I…I need you to say it, Hutch."

Defensively, Hutch lashed out. "Why? Huh? Why do I have to say it? You enjoy humiliating me or something?" He swigged the last of his beer, trying to moisten the desert in his throat.

"No. Well, yeah—of course I enjoy humiliatin' you." Starsky tilted him a wavering grin. "But that's not why I'm askin'."

From somewhere deep, maybe from the same place he had obtained the strength that had gotten him through the last few years, Hutch found his courage. He would confront Starsky with the full weight of his feelings and let the damned chips fall. He put aside the beer and stood, a little unsteadily, taking three steps to stand before Starsky before sinking down to his knees right in front of his partner.

"I told you before…" he said huskily, and put his hand on Starsky's warm cheek. Starsky didn't pull away. Hutch closed his eyes, the sensory memory so vivid he was almost back there, on that day of final despair, saying goodbye to the only goddamn person in the world he couldn't bear to say goodbye to. He opened his eyes again, and found Starsky was swimming before him, drowning in a wave of colors refracted from the prisms of his unshed tears.

Hutch blinked them back, then leaned in and said it at last, whispering into Starsky's ear, "I love you, Starsk. Always will." Heart heavy, he turned his head to complete the ritual and kiss Starsky's cheek.

And found Starsky's lips waiting.

For one glorious second he met them, pressed his own against them, tested their soft, willing texture, before his brain caught up with his desire and wrestled it into the chokehold of reason. He pulled back, barely registering Starsky's mouth chasing after his retreat.

"Wha—" Hutch's lips were numb, as if from an impact. "You—"

Starsky was staring at him silently, his mouth parted, breathing quickened. Hutch felt the puffs of exhalation striking his face.

"No." Hutch lurched shakily to his feet. "No. No."

"Yes, Hutch." Starsky hadn't moved, and Hutch heard a sigh of resignation in the too-patient voice.

"No. This is a bad joke. Or a really good practical one. Shit." Hutch choked on semi-hysterical laughter. "Maybe the longest-running, most complicated practical joke in history. Going for the Guinness Record Book, Starsk?" His voice was cracking, shattering, and his thoughts were running away from him like a jackrabbit sprinting for a bolthole.

"Christ," Starsky said unevenly, drawing Hutch's eyes inexorably back, "you forgotten how to be a detective?" Starsky stood and Hutch found himself backing away, mesmerized by the low, insistent tone. "Occam's Razor, Hutch. What's the simplest possible explanation for me kissing you dead on the lips?"

The backs of Hutch's calves hit the front of the easy chair and he stood stock still for a moment before sinking down. And then, to his total surprise, he found himself laughing hard, his stomach twisting with convulsions. Starsky just stood there watching, his eyes a little narrowed as Hutch wiped away the tears of amusement. The simplest explanation? He took a couple of gasping breaths before trying to answer Starsky's question.

"Aliens have abducted your brain?" he hazarded, coughing. "No, wait: you were bitten by a gay radioactive spider?" Hutch looked up, still laughing, and saw that Starsky had started smiling—a wide, delighted grin that shortly broke into chuckles.

"Actually, Satan rose from Hell to put starch in my shorts." The words had barely escaped Starsky's lips before Hutch was convulsing again, his stomach starting seriously to hurt with it.

"Or maybe it's because I love you, too."

Hutch's laughter cut off as if someone had slit his throat. The sudden silence was shocking.

"Yeah."

Hutch's eyes were still wet, and he brushed away the rainbows so he could more clearly read the expression on Starsky's face. It sure the hell looked a lot like love, and want, and all the things Hutch had never dreamed he would see on those familiar features—at least, not aimed his way.

"Well, how do you like that?" Hutch said absently, still trying to absorb the incredible.

"I like it fine, Hutch," Starsky replied; then, accusatory, "I'd like it even better if you would really fucking believe it. I can think of a bunch of ways to try to convince you, but most of them involve nailing you to the bed in one position or another."

Hutch flushed hot, the blush tingling in his ears and sweeping down to his cock, which, apparently, was willing to take it on faith. He shifted his legs apart involuntarily to relieve the sudden pressure, and buried his face in his hands when he heard Starsky's low chuckle.

Then Starsky's own laughter must've caught in his throat, because he made a strange sound. Curious, Hutch warily raised his heated face to see the smoky blue of his partner's eyes as he approached him. Starsky squatted down by the chair and rested his hands on Hutch's knees. He knelt there, silent, until Hutch finally found his voice.

"Did you really mean it, Starsk?" Could you really love me?

"What, about nailing you to the bed?" Starsky's brow lifted at Hutch's involuntary snort. "Yeah, I meant it. I've been…thinking about nailing you to the bed for a long, long time. In fact, it's one of the reasons I moved up here—to nail you to the bed."

Hutch's throat hurt too much to laugh again, but he gasped a little in wonder.

"What about you, Hutch?" Starsky's hands moved restlessly up and down Hutch's thighs in a very distracting way. Hutch saw Starsky swallow hard, and it moved him to think his self-assured partner could have a moment of doubt.

"Me, too, Starsk. I promise I will nail you to the bed for the rest of my life."

Starsky's lips twitched. "Well. I sure hope you plan to kiss me, first."

Oh, right. I'm allowed to do that. He pushed forward and Starsky gave way as Hutch slid from the easy chair to kneel against him, thigh-to-thigh, chest-to-chest. "Yes, please," he murmured, and then he was kissing Starsky.

So easy, to match his lips against wet, ready softness; so right, the taste of him, somehow familiar yet strange. And so strong, the wild passion of those lips that moved to consume him in turn, and the tongue that thrust possessively into his mouth. Hutch felt the hard press of Starsky's cock rubbing against his leg, and he squeezed his eyes tighter at the proof of Starsky's desire. Wants me. Wants me, wants me.

Hutch broke the kiss to breathe, to ease the thunder of his heart. "Starsk, Starsk." He rubbed his cheek against Starsky's, and a husky laugh shivered across his ear.

"What?" Hutch asked, still continuing the caress.

"Blintz. This goatee of yours…" Starsky pulled back to stroke his jaw, his eyes bright. "I like the way it feels. Weird, huh?"

Hutch's breath stuttered and brought a return of the thunder. "Gonna get you naked and rub it all over you," he promised. "See if I can't start a fire." He took Starsky's mouth again, unable to refrain from nipping a little at the lips playing so sweetly against his.

"Fire. Fire." Starsky laughed and the sound was like music. Hutch boldly ran his hands down Starsky's back to wrap them around the full, round flesh of his butt, squeezing it through the thin material of his khakis. Starsky groaned a little against his mouth, a hum of desire that made Hutch's cock surge again until he had to pull Starsky in tight or lose his mind. He spread his knees a little on the carpet, and then he was lifting Starsky against him, their groins fitting together, meshing in matching desire.

"Oh, God, Hutch," Starsky pulled away his lips long enough to whisper.

Hutch felt his chest pound with wild joy. Everything he had ever wanted was in his arms, wrapped around him, pressing against him with the same, insistent hunger. He felt his eyes tear up again and he ducked his head against Starsky's shoulder, still moving against him.

"Oh, babe," Starsky said, and Hutch's eyes leaked a little. He wiped the moisture on Starsky's shirt and a hand came up to tangle in his hair. "Can we move this action to the bedroom?" Starsky sounded as if he were in need of an oxygen mask.

Bedroom. Implying 'bed' within. Hutch hauled himself to his feet, nearly losing his balance as the chair behind him tried to tango with his ass. He put down his hands to pull Starsky up, and they bumped against each other drunkenly as they staggered to Starsky's bedroom.

"Take your clothes off," Starsky commanded gruffly. "Wanna see you, lover."

Hutch turned toward the bureau, an ache of confusion washing over him at the unfamiliar endearment spoken in the oh-so-familiar voice. He paused with his hand on the buttons of his uniform, his brain whirling.

He felt a gentle smack to the back of his head. "What's going on in there, Blondie?" Starsky asked, a tease in his tone.

"Spinning like those wheels on a slot machine," Hutch confessed shakily.

"Yeah, huh?" Starsky gave another dry laugh and Hutch shivered as he spread open his shirt to slide his palms across Hutch's chest over his undershirt. "Bet I know how they land."

"Uh?" Hutch asked incoherently, and Starsky impatiently tugged off his t-shirt.

"Cherries," Starsky said, pinching both of Hutch's nipples between his strong fingers, making him lurch. It wasn't the bad pun that made him groan, but the tingle that spread from his chest down to his groin like a lightning strike.

"Two cherries. That's us, Hutch," Starsky said. "And we get to take each other's."

"Jesus," Hutch moaned. "Stop talking. Gonna make me come in m'pants."

"Go ahead," Starsky said, his voice agreeable, but his hands doing crazy things that were making Hutch see stars. "Loosen you up nice so I can do some nailing."

Hutch shuddered and roused a little from the lusty haze enveloping him. "How come you get to go first?"

"Buncha reasons," Starsky replied, his voice almost detached, his attention apparently directed toward the bulge in Hutch's pants as he unhooked them and unbuckled Hutch's gun belt, letting the weight of it pull them off his hips. Automatically, Hutch kicked off his shoes and lifted his feet from the folds.

"Mainly," Starsky continued, "because it was my idea to get us back together."

He grasped Hutch's cock through the material of his shorts and Hutch gasped, "Your idea. Yours."

"Second," Starsky said, squeezing lightly, making Hutch groan and push against him, "I moved alllll the way up here to the middle of nowhere...on a wing and a prayer, Hutch. Just for the sake of our friendship." Starsky released his cock and pushed off Hutch's underwear, exposing him to the air.

"Best buddy a guy could have," Hutch admitted, his eyes closing and his body flushing with heat. He heard Starsky scrambling out of his own clothing, but he resisted jumping in to help. Starsky had a plan, apparently, and, seeing as it was working, Hutch didn't intend to monkey with it. Besides, he hadn't the faintest idea what to do. His own fantasies had never gotten past sucking Starsky's cock until he screamed.

A moment later he felt Starsky's nude body press against his all along the front, his warm, hairy chest rubbing against Hutch's. "Good Christ," Hutch sighed, wrapping his arms around his partner.

Starsky rumbled appreciatively. "You're so smooth, like a baby." He stroked Hutch's back with his hands and rubbed his torso slowly, achingly back and forth against his, the feel of his chest hair like a silky pelt against Hutch's skin. "Baby," Starsky repeated in a whisper, and Hutch felt him cant his hips forward until that firm, hairy abdomen was brushing against Hutch's stiff cock, Starsky's own erection moving tantalizingly next to it.

"Sweet Jesus," Hutch moaned, to Starsky's gasping chuckle.

"You're getting awfully religious on me, babe." The dark whisper made Hutch's nuts ache. "Gonna make you see God, I guess."

"Please."

Starsky gently pushed him backward until the bed caught him and welcomed him into a sprawl. He finally opened his eyes; it took some effort because even his lids felt swollen. But it was worth it. Starsky stood above him, perfectly nude, his lean, sculpted body holding a slight sheen of sweat. Just beautiful.

Only then did Hutch notice the scars. He skimmed over the old ones on Starsky's chest, their pale trails half-hidden by his chest hair, until his eyes caught on the new one, a puckered twist of red crawling up the inside of Starsky's thigh. Hutch's eyelids closed against the reminder. Not now....

"Reason number three," Starsky's voice continued relentlessly, and Hutch's eyes popped open again to watch him prowl over to his bed stand and reach into the drawer while he spoke. "I'm the one who bothered to prepare. Honestly, Hutch, do you know how much this stuff costs by the case?" Starsky grinned wickedly as he pulled a tube of K-Y jelly from the drawer. "I figured it would be smarter to mail-order it rather than buy it at the pharmacy in town."

"C-c-case?" Hutch stared at Starsky, feeling his eyes bulge.

"Hell, yes." The wicked grin turned positively evil. "And we're gonna need every ounce of it."

Hutch shuddered.

"This isn't the only preparin' I've done, either," Starsky continued airily, the tone at odds with his devilish sideways look. "I've been watching lots of porn. Gay porn, Hutch."

"Jesus would you SHUT UP," Hutch moaned, and reached down to soothe his prick, which had started nodding to the pulse of his booming heart.

"Hands off the merchandise," Starsky growled and, putting the tube beside Hutch, leapt upon him, pulling his hand away and covering him with his body. Hutch gave a low growl of his own and reached up to grab the curly head, pulling Starsky's mouth to his. He wanted more of the kissing, less of the talking.

They played their teasing tongues against sucking lips until Starsky ended the kiss to give a rumbling command in his ear.

"Turn over for me, baby blue."

Hutch felt a frisson of fear, but he complied eagerly, fully into the game plan, now. Strong hands kneaded momentarily at his shoulders before smoothing down his back to his ass where they took possessive hold.

"But none of those reasons are really important," Starsky whispered low and serious. "See, you left me. You left me, Hutch." Sly fingers slid between his buttocks, and Hutch's ass muscles clenched at the intimate touch. "You're not allowed to leave me, ever. You belong to me, babe. I'm gonna prove that to us both." The fingers withdrew, but only so that Starsky could take both of Hutch's cheeks in his hands and spread them wide, exposing him fully.

"Mine," Starsky whispered.

The words, as much as the sensual play, made Hutch moan and push his hips into the bed, rubbing himself in heated abandon against the soft cover. A sudden pinch on his ass made him jolt with surprise.

"No leaving without me," Starsky reminded him, and Hutch nodded, dropping his head into the pillow where his hands had fisted themselves in the plump folds.

"Whatever you're gonna do, you better do it, then," he mumbled. "Before I die."

"You ain't gonna die, Hutch. Not unless you've been skipping your health shakes." There was a significant pause, and then a slickened hand was stroking the crease of his ass, up and down, forcing cold lubricant into his anus as it passed. Hutch panted.

"Spread your legs," Starsky said.

Oh, God. A subtle shaking had taken him, but he did as he was told. Two warm, hairy thighs brushed between his legs, and then the hands were spreading him open again, thumbs pressing dangerously close to the vulnerable center of him. His fists tightened in anticipation.

"Relax, babe." But it was Starsky's voice that was trembling—with tension, with need—and he sounded suddenly younger, uncertain. Hutch twisted his upper body to look back at his friend.

"Hutch, I…." Starsky's eyes dropped. He seemed immobilized.

"Hey, hey." Hutch got to his knees, ignoring the sticky lubricant dripping down his thighs, and took Starsky's shoulders in his hands, craning to kiss his forehead. "You know, Starsk, there's something I've been wanting to do for a long, long time…" He kissed the down-turned face, and gently steered Starsky up on the bed to force him flat on his back. Hutch then lay beside him and rubbed his chin softly against Starsky's nipple, making him hiss and arch.

Hutch waived all the gentle torment he had imagined in so many different scenarios, opting instead to go right to the main event. There would be time for teasing, later. They had forever.

Hutch smiled again, and then lifted the hard column of Starsky's cock and took it into his mouth. He heard Starsky's delighted gasp of pleasure and disbelief as he began to suck, moving his tongue strongly against the shaft. Hands gripped his head tight.

"Oh! Babe."

Hutch gave a hum of approval at the taste and feel of his partner in his mouth. As far as his fantasies went, this far outstripped even the wildest. For it was real—the hot meat of Starsky's cock, the slight musk and salty taste of it, and the cries of pleasure now streaming from above his head—all real.

Aware of his inexperience, Hutch didn't try anything fancy, just applied moist pressure and sucking to the tender flesh. Judging from the frantic lifting of the hips beneath him, Starsky had no complaints. Come in my mouth. Please, come in my mouth, Hutch thought. He raised his head to pause and tickle the head with the tip of his tongue, tasting the small, slick emission of pre-come before bobbing his head down once again. Starsky was groaning loudly, now, his voice a pleading babble, his words conflicting.

"No, Hutch! Oh, God, yes, so good." A heaving breath. "Wait, Hutch, wait. Oh GOD, yes!"

Hutch understood his ambivalence, but had no intention of releasing Starsky until he had given all of himself to Hutch's hunger. He removed his hand from where it had been stroking the shaft in counter-point and momentarily squeezed and rolled Starsky's testicles in his fingers, tugging at the sac gently before returning to jerk him fast, faster. He opened his eyes long enough to see Starsky's slitted ones staring down at him, fixed on his mouth, and he moaned, himself, imagining what they must see.

I'm sucking your cock, babe. I love your cock. And he did, he loved it with all the mastery he could muster, tonguing and stroking and pleasuring it until the hands clenched even tighter on his head in warning, pulling the hair painfully, and then Starsky was yelling something, and pumping upward with uneven movements until he suddenly stilled and filled Hutch's mouth.

Starsky came endlessly, it seemed to Hutch, who hadn't planned ahead for this part, where thick fluid was pulsing into his mouth in ever-decreasing waves. He pulled his lips back to just the tip to make room for the liquid, savoring it, bitter and tangy and slippery-sweet, and his eyes closed again in pleasure. Tasting you. When the organ stopped jerking and Starsky gave a final, poignant sigh, Hutch carefully pulled his lips away and belatedly swallowed. He lifted his head to see Starsky raise his arm and rub at his face, still groaning quietly.

Hutch scooted up the bed to join him, resting his arm over his head so he could run a hand into the short curls of Starsky's hair while his partner recovered.

"Jesus, Hutch." Starsky's voice sounded broken. "Why'd you hafta go and do that? Wanted to love you good." But the recrimination lacked force, the pleasure-laden quality having sucked the emphasis right out of it.

"Time for that later. Besides, I know all about you, stud. Think Kathy or the other stewardesses never told me things? About your…uh…endurance?" But the reminder of women made Hutch's voice go uncertain.

Starsky cracked his eyes open and turned his head to regard him. "Kiss me?"

Hutch's heart throbbed warningly. Love, I am lost. The blue eyes beseeching him looked so painfully vulnerable, and Hutch knew, then, how much courage it had taken for Starsky to leave everything he knew, his whole life in Bay City, to come up here and take a chance on Hutch—on them, together. What if he hadn't taken that chance? The thought made Hutch shiver, the memory of an endlessly gray future returning like a specter, and he leaned into the warmth of Starsky's lips to banish it forever.

Starsky sighed with him as they kissed, this time more leisurely, although Hutch's erection was urging haste. He ignored it, softening the kisses even further until Starsky's head fell back against his pillow and his eyes drifted shut.

"M'gonna take care of you, Hutch. Gonna make you squirm. It's all part of m'plan." But the drowsy voice trailed off and Starsky slept.

Hutch watched him, banking his excitement in favor of having this precious time to absorb what had just happened, what was going to happen. He's going to fuck me. Again, the trembling started, but Hutch couldn't define it as fear. He looked deep and admitted to himself it was raw anticipation of the unknown. Starsky would be staking his claim. Hutch had never wanted anything more.

Decided, he looked over at Starsky's face, at the stubble on the strong jaw and the long, dark lashes that traced his cheeks. Starsky's lips were swollen red from kissing. Hutch planned to keep them that way for a long, long time.

"Jesus!" Starsky's exclamation roused Hutch from his daydreaming, and he watched as Starsky rolled his head toward his. "Fell asleep.... Christ, I'm sorry."

"Only for a few minutes…babe." Hutch used the endearment hesitantly, startled when Starsky's lunged forward to kiss him, his mouth as hungry as it had been earlier.

"Can't believe it," Starsky stopped to say, then kissed at Hutch a few more times before hugging him hard, their cheeks touching. "Didn't think…after all this time, you still felt the same way. Wasn't even sure if I could really believe what you said just before you left."

"Believe it." Hutch pulled his cheek away, the sandpapery surface rasping him as he did so. "Ow! Jesus, Starsk, you've got some serious shadow going on there."

"Different, huh?" Starsky grinned. "Maybe I should grow my own goatee."

Hutch laughed at the image, and Starsky's eyes dropped to his lips, his expression turning decidedly smoky. Hutch swallowed at the hunger revealed.

Hutch nodded mutely, his pulse doing a minuet in his temples, his cock rising to its former state of excitement within two bars. He rolled onto his belly, Starsky getting up to make room for him. He heard the pad of footsteps as Starsky walked to the foot of the bed. Then warm hands descended on his calves, kneading them a little before pulling them apart in silent command.

Hutch spread his legs wide and instinctively bent his knees, raising his ass a little. He heard an indrawn breath behind him, and felt his whole body flush. What I must look like.

"So beautiful," Starsky whispered again, and then the mattress dipped and his hands reclaimed Hutch's buttocks, thumbs sliding down to move against his lubricated anus, beginning to massage there.

Hutch groaned and turned his forehead into the mattress, taking a shocked breath a moment later when those thumbs pushed into his opening. They paused just inside, continuing the seductive massage, this time internally, the sensation unreal. "Oh, dear Lord."

Starsky gave a breathless laugh. "Blintz, you ain't seen nothing, yet." The thumbs moved deeper, stretching him, and Hutch groaned his pleasure that it was Starsky doing this to him, getting him ready for the taking.

The thumbs spread him apart slowly, making his breath catch, and then the pressure disappeared and he was invaded by one long finger, the thumb sliding below to trap and squeeze the flesh of his perineum between, the feeling unique, insanity-inducing. He moaned out loud as the finger went deeper, and felt his body relaxing to accommodate the new intrusion.

"You're taking to this real nice," Starsky whispered, his voice husky and eager, and Hutch shivered again, the trembling traveling to his legs. He shifted a little and suddenly there was a bright flare of sensation that made him cry out in disbelief.

"Like that, do you?"

Hutch shook his head against the mattress, but his traitorous body twisted back against the stroking finger and a grunting sound escaped his lips.

"Mmm hmmm," came the skeptical reply, and sweat broke out on Hutch's back as the one finger became two, moving in and out of him more quickly now, an erotic invasion that made his cock tear up and drip pre-come.

"Want it. Oh, God, want you, Starsk. Please," Hutch gasped out a few minutes later, and the fingers left him.

"That's good," Starsky said thickly. "Because I can't wait anymore. Need to make you mine."

Hutch nodded, wiping his forehead against the mattress before pulling down a pillow to tuck it under his chest. He heard Starsky preparing himself, heard the slick sound of lubricant on flesh, shockingly loud in the dead waiting silence, and deep emotion filled his chest, blurring his eyes. Take me. I'm already yours. Always have been.

Strong hands gripped his hips, tugging him upward slightly, and he went with them eagerly, ready now.

"Oh, babe," he heard Starsky sigh, and Hutch smiled involuntarily at the tremble of joy in the beloved voice. He felt a warm, rock-hard presence making its acquaintance with his anus, and Starsky's fingers just below, pressing downward, stretching him. Then came a hard push, and he was entered.

"Christ," he muttered as Starsky's cock claimed him. Unbelievable. Not a pain, per se, but a stretching ache, and a pleasure too powerful, a vivid blast of color appearing behind his lids as he squeezed his eyes shut tight, lost in the inexorable sensation. He heaved a breath, and then another, panting in gulps as he was spread open.

"Ohhh…" A satisfied groan from Starsky made Hutch's cock throb, and suddenly his muscles loosened, taking the head in, pulling it in as if his ass had a mind to swallow the gift of Starsky's cock.

Hutch moaned low, his panting slowing to deep, groaning breaths as Starsky started to move. So slowly, in and then out, a dense, powerful rhythm, each thrust inward claiming more of his passage.

"Ahh. Ahhh." Hutch couldn't stop the sounds of ecstasy streaming from his mouth at the feel of that hard shaft taking him, owning him.

"Hutch. Hutch." Starsky's grunting turned into a chant as he thrust again and again, his voice rising as he started to seriously fuck. Harder and harder, endlessly pumping in and out, the shock of his groin hitting Hutch's ass making his hips start to ache, but Hutch couldn't give a damn. The repeated slip and glide across his prostate was pushing him ever closer to the edge, but never quite tipping him over, so that he teetered on the cliff, eternally about to take flight. He knew, when it came, the fall would be too much, and he started shaking again, wanting it and fearing it, both. Wanting to come so badly, but wanting this moment to last forever. This moment when Starsky was loving him.

"Never," Starsky cried out suddenly, his voice low and guttural as he pounded his cock into Hutch's ass. "Never. Leave me."

"Never. Never, babe." Hutch's promise was buried in his forearm as he smothered his mouth against it, a high keening starting in his mind. He felt the muscles of his ass start to flutter and tremble involuntarily with each pass of that heavy flesh over his prostate. Dear God. I can't take this. I can't. He made a garbled plea for release, humping the mattress jaggedly as Starsky continued to thrust and thrust; Hutch started to fear it would never end, and he would be trapped forever on this edge of incredible pleasure.

But then the rhythm of Starsky's hips changed—sped up, became shallower—and the quick bump and slide of the head of his cock drove Hutch at last over the red line. He felt himself clench involuntarily, tightening impossibly around the thickness inside him, and he heard himself yell Starsky's name as if far away, his voice agonized. There was an answering shout from Starsky, and then he felt the deepest thrust of all, straight into his soul, flattening him against the bed, and his cock started jerking against the mattress as he shouted his pleasure. He felt the pulsing release of Starsky's cock deep inside him, filling him, and he felt dizzy as his body continued to spasm mindlessly.

"Jesus. Jesus." He could only gasp, and then his head slumped into the pillow.

He lay utterly flat, his ass still giving an occasional flutter, causing Starsky to groan piteously.

"Don't leave," Hutch begged, fearing Starsky would withdraw.

"Never, babe." Starsky echoed his promise, and lowered himself on top of Hutch to nuzzle at the back of his neck, his sweaty torso covering him protectively. A peaceful lassitude overtook Hutch, and he started to drift.

"Wanna fall asleep inside you, Hutch," Starsky mumbled, sounding equally relaxed. "Fall asleep, and wake up fucking you."

"Okay." Hutch said agreeably, and felt Starsky's cock twitch inside him. He hissed a little.

"Jesus, Hutch." Starsky laughed, and gently withdrew to the side. Hutch mourned the loss only a little, envisioning the next time. And the time after that. He opened his eyes to see Starsky staring at his face from barely a foot away.

"What the hell you grinnin' about?" Starsky's words were harsh but his tone unutterably tender.

"Thinking about my turn." Hutch arched his brow.

"Yeah, huh? Well, that's fine, but I hafta warn you, Chief—in order to redress the inherent inequity in our working relationship, I might have to demand more than equal time here in bed."

Hutch laughed in surprise at the lawyerly turn of phrase, but the mention of work made the tumblers start spinning again. Starsky noticed immediately.

"Now what's shakin' in that noggin'?"

"Work. People are bound to figure it out, Starsk. I mean we were working together for maybe two days before I started walking around grinning like a damned fool. How can I possibly hide what you mean to me, now?" Hutch paused to clear his throat. "Maybe I don't even want to."

"So?" Starsky sounded unconcerned, and he dropped his hand onto Hutch's back, starting a soothing stroke. "We're respected, here. Think this town might be ready for a couple of queer sheriffs. I mean, assuming we don't go around holding hands and smooching in the squad car."

"And if they're not? Ready?"

The petting hand rose to the space between Hutch's brows, trying to smooth away his concern.

"Then we move on to the next town. And the next. Until we find one not populated by morons." Starsky sounded assured.

"Just up and move again? Until we find a place?" It seemed terrifyingly easy, so of course Hutch had to question it.

"Why not? I got everything I need, long as I take you with me."

Starsky's simple statement struck him in the heart, and Hutch had to lean in for a kiss. Everything I need. So easy. So simple. Hutch smiled with delight, and he continued to kiss Starsky until his impossible cock started perking up again as if he hadn't been completely fucked out mere minutes before.

"So, how about it, Deputy," Hutch asked, his voice dropping with desire, "you gonna let me have my chance in the saddle?"

Starsky's eyes widened and then he grinned. "Hell, yeah, if you're up for it. After all, we got a whole case of this stuff to get through."

Hutch laughed and tumbled Starsky in his arms.

They were still making headway when the sun rose to paint the day.

Finis.

May, 2005
San Francisco, CA