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Nine Day Fall

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    Hephaestus did fall for nine days and nights,
    Then forged his life anew from the ashes of ruin.

    —Eracles Paravantis, Lessons From the Gods

     

    Part One

     

    I'm not a cop anymore.

    Do you have any idea how bad it hurts to say that? In the beginning, when I first got the news, it was like someone had ripped out my guts and left nothing but a big empty. In fact, for the longest time, that's how I thought of myself—as nothing.

    They took everything away from me without blinking. It's pathetic in hindsight how Hutch and I had such big plans for getting me back in shape. He sat right next to me in my hospital bed and wrote up all these schedules for my physical therapy and recovery, and drew little charts, and made menu plans while I watched and tried to believe. Like poor kids scribbling a gift list to send to Santa Claus.

    What a joke.

    The guys in charge never gave me a chance to try. They had me pensioned out even before I escaped the hospital—it's just that I didn't know it at the time. It wasn't until I was home and starting to get back on my feet that I got the letter.

    When Hutch came by after work he found me sitting on the couch where I'd been for hours, just staring at the paper, my eyes not seeing anything at all. I was completely numb until he walked in the door.

    "Hey, Starsk, I brought you some cheesecake," he said to me as he came in. He knew cheesecake was easy on my new stomach.

    I looked up at him and I said, "I'm not a cop anymore."

    And that's when it hit me. Like I couldn't believe until he was there to hear it, too. And the look on his face…God. The anger, and the shock, and the fear for me were enough to make it the truth. It clogged my throat like cement. I felt like I was falling, no bottom in sight. I would've cried like a baby, but at that point I couldn't even do that without my chest screaming. So I just made this high sound, like a rat makes caught in a trap.

    He came over quickly to put his arms around me, and he said, "I'm here, partner. I'm here. We'll work it out. We'll fight it. We'll get you back."

    It was a load of crap, of course, but it got me through that first night.

    He stayed with me, and the next morning said he wanted to quit too, but the thought of it just pissed me off more. I told him I'd drop him like a bad penny if he tried. I told him if he wanted to be my friend, he wouldn't piss on everything we'd been just to make some stupid gesture.

    So he went to work. And I started sleeping. Fourteen, sixteen hours a day, sometimes. And I stopped eating very much. I just couldn't. That hollow place inside me didn't want to be filled, especially not by food. I got sick even thinking about it.

    For a while I tried to hide it from Hutch, but one day he called me on it. Walked right in with a big bag of groceries and this fake, cheery smile on his face.

    I started whaling on him like it was all his fault. And also because I knew, even if he didn't, that after how wrecked he'd been when I was in the hospital, he had to be relieved I wasn't going back out there to possibly get shot again. I thought he was a fucking coward for that. And I told him so, right to his face.

    "I guess you don't have to worry now. You can just keep me under your fucking thumb," I said, and he looked like I'd stabbed him in the chest. He even put his hand there, the palm flat against his green shirt.

    "You think I don't hate this?" he said, like the words hurt. "You think I wouldn't give anything for it to be me instead?"

    "Yeah, we both know what a big sacrifice that would be," I said, my voice real ugly.

    Well, I don't need to tell you things got worse after that. It wasn't a fair thing to say, anyway—Hutch loves being a cop as much as I do.

    It's just that he hates it more, too.

    I ended up saying some even shittier stuff before it was over, and Hutch called me a selfish prick, along with some other names I didn't even know he knew, and he stomped out of there, and I threw away the bag of groceries and started drinking my dinner.

    I'll tell you, it was a good thing that one of the slugs had done something to my stomach, because I discovered quick enough that I couldn't handle hard liquor without tossing it up again. Beer was about my speed, and even then I couldn't overdo it. If it weren't for that, I might've become a complete lush.

    The days passed slow and dark. Huggy stopped by a couple of times but I chased him off until he gave up.

    I couldn't seem to drag myself out of bed very easily. Everything was shit, and I didn't have the energy to figure out what to do about it. The short-term disability checks kept coming, but I knew the money'd dry up pretty soon if I didn't get off my ass and complete my pension paperwork.

    The papers that would make it official that I was no longer a cop. The death decree on my fucking career.

    I let 'em sit. I did a lot of sitting myself. I did manage to get cleaned up and downtown just once: when Hutch was scheduled to appear on the witness stand for the Gunther case. My case.

    I snuck in wearing a hat and glasses, hoping I wouldn't be recognized. And I wasn't—I guess I didn't look much like myself.

    It was hard finding a corner to sit in. The courtroom was really crowded because it was such big news; everyone wanted to see the rich, powerful guy getting his. We all sat quietly while the lawyers talked their talk, back and forth, making about as much sense as parakeets squawking in a cage. What was the point? Everyone knew the bastard was guilty. And everyone knew his slick team of lawyers would do their damnedest to see their pet slimeball would never, ever have to pay for it.

    Finally, they called for Hutch. The double doors opened and in he came, striding tall. As he passed he didn't look right or left, just straight ahead, and his profile shocked me. He'd bitched to me over the phone that the D.A. had made him 'clean up his act', and finally I got to see what he meant.

    His hair was short, almost the shortest I'd ever seen it, and somehow the D.A. had convinced him to shave that ridiculous strip of hair off his lip. And instead of his usual court suit he was in full dress uniform, the medals he'd earned shining like stars over his heart.

    It turned my attitude around. I knew Gunther's guys would try to tear him to shreds on the stand, make him look like he was a liar, but I didn't see how they stood a chance. He was gleaming gold and true blue, and I started to believe they wouldn't be able to touch him.

    He stuck his cap under his left arm, put his right hand on the black book, and in a clear, even voice swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I saw Gunther's team lean over and start muttering to each other. They didn't look happy.

    I didn't stay for the whole thing, just long enough to see how poised and calm Hutch took it. He didn't stutter or hesitate on a single word, and every time one of the snakes tried to bite him with some little trick, he just tilted his eyebrow and looked amused, answering them back as if they were children trying to get away with some stupid prank.

    It was a good approach. A great one, really, because the lawyers just ended up looking more and more like they were trying to pull a fast one.

    Jesus, I was so proud of him.

    And it just made me hurt worse. We used to stand together like that. I used to be one half of the best team on the force.

    I snuck out again during recess and didn't come back. I took the phone off the hook and went right to bed.

    The wheels of justice creaked around slow and found Gunther guilty of one count of murder in the first degree, with an additional passel of conspiracy counts, including two for attempted murder of a police officer.

    Somehow, it didn't help much.

    The department awarded me a commendation, but I didn't show up for the ceremony. That's when the phone started ringing all the time. Hutch had forgiven me, or maybe was just tired of letting me stew. But I didn't pick up.

    So then he stopped by one afternoon. I wouldn't have let him in, of course, but he used his key. He'd always had it but hardly ever used it. He always liked to knock first.

    For once he didn't knock, though, and he caught me on the couch with a bottle of beer on my belly.

    "This place reeks," was the first thing he said.

    It was true I hadn't opened the windows in a while. I gave a sniff, but didn't smell anything. Hutch came over and dropped a folder on the table, then went to the fridge. He came back with a beer. My last one, I realized, frowning at him.

    He said, "I did some research on the pension stuff, talked to a gal in Personnel. You want to hear the breakdown?"

    "Not particularly," I said. "And if you're gonna drink that, you better pick me up some more."

    "Jesus," he muttered. He pulled up the wicker chair so he could sit opposite the sofa. "Starsky, you gotta pull yourself together, man."

    "I'm pulled together just fine and dandy," I said. "You're blocking my view, by the way."

    He looked over his shoulder. "Your view of what?"

    "I was looking at the fern over there. Actually, we were having a pretty good conversation." I drank some more of my beer and met his eyes in a challenge. "What're you doing off of work so early?"

    "Changeover. I'm on the morning shift starting tomorrow." He looked uncomfortable, just like he always did whenever he talked about work around me.

    "Yeah, huh? Well, better be on your way then. I bet you got a ton of things to do."

    "Starsk—"

    "When you get in tomorrow, say howdy from me. Tell the gang I'm having a gay old time here on easy street."

    "The hell I will." He cracked his beer and sipped at it for a little while, looking at me. I knew that look, that 'what angle am I gonna take on this perp' look.

    "You better work on your act, partner," I said. That particular word stuck in my throat. "In fact, I think you'd better let that pretty Detective Patton play the toughie from now on. You're just not up to the job."

    But thinking about Hutch's new partner just cut me deeper. Even having him in the same room with me was almost too much to take. I missed him. I missed us. But seeing him was like seeing what I'd lost, displayed in Technicolor. It hurt me in places I didn't understand.

    I started to think about how to get him out so I could mope in peace.

    He didn't respond to my dig. "I heard from Kiko the other day," he said, a little too casually. "He asked me where you've been lately. I told him you were pulling a turtle act. You know he didn't even know what that meant? So I took him to the zoo. He's really turning out okay, that kid. Anyway, he said to say hi."

    "Uh huh." I sounded real interested.

    Hutch put his beer down on the coffee table with a clunk. "Damn it, Starsky, you used to care about people other than yourself."

    "Yeah, well, that was before. It's not my job these days." It hurt real bad in that moment. Hutch was looking at me like I'd grown a new head, but I was about two seconds from losing it. I had to get rid of him. "I'm not a cop anymore, so why should I give a shit?"

    "Starsky. That's...th-that's—"

    "What's the matter, Hutch? Cat got your tongue?" I said it real mean so he would know I was making fun of his stutter.

    It closed him up tight. He stood up, pushing his beer past the empties until it sat in front of me.

    "Here," he said. "I'll just leave you alone with your new best friend." Then he walked out.

    As exit lines go, I had to admit it was a pretty good one.

    ooOoo

    Dobey called to chew my ear off a few days later.

    "What's the big idea missing your commendation ceremony?" He sounded purple.

    "Sorry. I was busy. Hope I didn't embarrass you in front of the Chief," I muttered.

    "Starsky!"

    Boy, was he mad. I don't know why I answered the phone to begin with. Bored, I guess.

    "Sorry, Cap. Listen, I gotta go. The mailman is here." Pretty weak. I suddenly realized I'd even missed Dobey barking at me, that's how bad off I was.

    "Listen, Dave—"

    "Bye, Cap." I hung up and lay down on the couch to think for a while. Then I got up and took out my camera, deciding to go out to the park. It helped sometimes, taking pictures of other people, imagining their lives, so different from mine.

    Maybe even more fucked up.

    There was a little girl on a swing who looked about six years old. She was going as high as she could, and I caught her legs in blurry motion, swinging hard.

    A punk rocker with three piercings in his ear gave me the hairy eyeball, as if he was wondering what this skinny, creepy guy was doing taking pictures of a little girl. So I snapped a shot of him, capturing his scowl and the bright red crest of his Mohawk.

    An old lady sat on the bench next to me and unwrapped a boiled egg, complete with a little twist of salt in some wax paper. She pulled some bread out of her bag and broke off a piece, handing it over to me and gesturing toward the pigeons.

    I crumbled it up, tossed it to the birds, and brushed off my hands. And then I went home.

    ooOoo

    Maybe the worst part about having your entire life taken away from you is it leaves you with a hell of a lot of time on your hands. I couldn't remember ever having so much time. And I didn't want to do anything with it. Almost like doing something else would mean I'd given up, even though I had. Even though there wasn't prayer I could ever go back.

    I stopped going to physical therapy. They were pretty much done torturing me, anyway, and how many times can a guy swim-walk across the shallow end of the pool before he loses what's left of his tiny mind?

    I talked a little bit to Hutch every couple of days or so, just enough to let him know I was still kicking. It hurt like punch to the gut every time I talked to him, and I made the conversations as short as possible. He seemed to realize I wanted to be the one to call him, so the phone had stopped ringing as much.

    That's why I was surprised when it yanked me out of a couch nap one afternoon. I was grateful; my dream had been getting a little weird.

    "This is Starsky," I said.

    "Hi, Starsky. This is Laura Patton, Hutch's...Hutch's partner."

    I barely felt the sting of the little pause. I was too busy listening to my pulse pick up.

    "Something's happened," I said. There was no doubt in my mind. No other reason for Hutch's new partner to bother calling last year's model. No. No, I can't lose him, too, I thought, and then just as quickly realized if it were that bad, Dobey would've been the one to make the call.

    "Yeah, we had an incident. It's not serious, though," she said quickly when I started to interrupt.

    "What happened? Where are you?"

    "We're at the ER. A kid with a blade took a swipe at him. Not serious," she repeated, as if she knew where my head was automatically going.

    "Okay. Not serious. So why the call?"

    There was a pause. I could hear the usual hospital chatter on some speaker behind her, then she said, "My sister has an emergency with one of her kids. I have to go over there and baby-sit the others. So I was hoping you could come take him home. We were riding in my car today."

    It steamed me a little. "So I'm a fucking taxi service?"

    Another pause. "I just thought...I know you guys are tight, and there's no one else I can get hold of, so—"

    "Fine. Fine," I said impatiently. "Which ER?"

    "Good Samaritan." She sounded relieved.

    "I'll be there in thirty."

    After I hung up I realized I hadn't even gotten her to explain where she was when Hutch was getting sliced up. Some partner she had to be.

    At Good Sam, the nurse at the desk pointed me to treatment room three. I found Hutch sitting on the table, a young intern putting the finishing stitches on a long, deep cut across his ribs. Hutch had one arm raised and was looking down at the doctor's head.

    "Hi," I said.

    Hutch looked up, surprised.

    Christ, he looked as bad as I felt. It had been a while since I'd seen him, and the short hair and naked lip were still a shock. He was skinny and pale, and looked not at all happy to see me.

    "What're you doing here?" he said, confirming it. But there was a wry expression on his face, and a familiar note in his glance. We'd been there too many times before.

    "I came to see the freak show," I said, suddenly feeling a little more upbeat. "What do you think?"

    A thoughtful look crossed Hutch's face, but just then the doc made a snip and lifted his head.

    He said as he taped a bandage in place, "I want you to keep this dry. Keep it covered when you shower. And come back—"

    "Yeah, yeah. Back in a week. I know the drill," Hutch said. "Thanks."

    The intern frowned at him. "Well, in case you forget anything, here's some information." He handed Hutch a mimeographed sheet and then left, bumping by me on his way out.

    Hutch wasn't looking at me, instead was fussing with the bloody tear in his shirt. Trying to figure out if it was salvageable, I guessed. I hoped so. It was one of my favorites of his, worn and soft and blue. I thought he'd stopped wearing it in favor of those dumb bowling shirts, but there it was, resurrected from his closet just to take a knife cut.

    He winced as he started to pull it on, and turned his head away. "You don't have to stick around," he said. "I'll stop by this weekend, help you with that paperwork like I promised."

    "Don't be stupid. I'll take you over to my place." Real dumb. Habit had made me say it, but I realized as he shot me a look out of the corner of his eye that I wasn't offering much. A stinking mess of an apartment, and I think I was even out of beer again.

    "Or maybe I'll just drop you home," I admitted. "But I'm your ride. Patton had to take off—her sister had a little emergency with the kids. She asked me to apologize." The words were stiff on my tongue. I hated her for letting Hutch get hurt.

    I hated her for taking my place.

    "That won't be necessary," Hutch said, all formal. "I can take a cab."

    "Screw that." I went over to the chair and picked up the Magnum wrapped in its harness. I handed it to him, and he held it as if he'd never seen it before. I found myself wondering what the hell was going on in his head. I realized I didn't know, and that, more than anything, told me how far away we'd gotten from each other.

    I took him home. I knew he didn't really want me following him in, but I got a hair up my ass about it. Mainly because of that cut on his ribs, and how it got there. Hutch had let some punk kid pull a knife on him. A dangerous lapse of attention.

    He disappeared into his bedroom and came back minus the shirt, a clean one in his hands. The big bandage across his ribs was already red in the middle.

    Maybe I was on shaky ground with the way I'd been running my life lately, but I opened my mouth and said, "Tell me how the hell it happened you let some creep take a stab at you."

    His mouth tightened and he pulled on the fresh shirt, then went to his fridge. He came back with a beer. I noticed he didn't offer me one.

    "He had it hidden in his sleeve," Hutch said. He didn't look embarrassed at his fuck up. He didn't look...anything.

    I started to get really mad. "That's supposed to be an excuse? What if it had been a gun?"

    Hutch shrugged. His eyes sort of glimmered sideways at me, but he didn't look at me directly.

    "Hutch, look at me, dammit."

    My voice had gotten a little loud, and he winced before he said, really low, "I can't. It hurts too damned much. You-you look like a fucking scarecrow."

    I looked down at myself. Yeah, I'd lost a lot of weight by that point. And maybe it hurt him that I wasn't the same person. Maybe neither of us were.

    But I wouldn't let him change the subject. "What if it had been a gun, Hutch? Or what if he'd turned it and shoved that fucking knife right between your ribs? What then, huh?"

    Hutch shrugged again. "It's bound to happen sooner or later," he said. "That, or something else."

    Jesus. The tone of his voice...he sounded like my Uncle Herb did right before the cancer finished him.

    "Hutch...."

    Hutch drank some of his beer and sat there staring at the bottle hanging from his hands. I thought about it. I thought about the both of us, and what a sorry mess we were. Just a few months ago, we'd been kicking ass and taking names. We were on top of the world and we knew it.

    But looking at him then, I thought maybe the world had just laughed and turned, spinning us right off the edge.

    Something deep inside me said Nuh-uh. No way. Not if it meant Hutch would go down with me. I could take losing a lot of things, but not him.

    I walked over and sat on the coffee table right across from him.

    "I'll make you a deal," I said. I waited for him to lift his head. Finally he did—slowly, like it weighed a ton. He still didn't meet my eyes, but I went ahead anyway.

    "You gotta promise me you'll try harder not to die. And I...I promise I'll try harder to live."

    His eyes jerked up and finally, finally I saw those baby blues. God, they looked tired, but there was something in them now, something I remembered from way back. It hurt my chest to see it.

    He cleared his throat. "Okay," he said in a sandy whisper.

    So that's when we started.

    ooOoo

    Turning it around was a lot harder than you'd think. I tried with the small stuff at first, and it was almost more than I could handle. Just clearing up all the bottles and vacuuming the carpet took everything I had.

    Then I slept some more.

    But when I woke up I went to the Pits and ordered a burger. Huggy was cool and didn't give me grief about what a shit I'd been when he'd stopped by those times. He just nodded at me with that cat's grin of his, and he doubled the fries. So I knew we were okay.

    The fries tasted good.

    When I got home I called Hutch and he came over. He helped me with all the fucking forms that still needed filling out, because every time I'd even thought about dealing with them in the past it just made me more tired. But I had to do it or my payments would disappear like a mirage slick on the highway. And the hospital would be after me for bills that should've been taken care of by my insurance.

    We dealt with all the paperwork and then he took off again. As he was leaving he reminded me the board required I make at least three appointments with their shrink before they'd finalize my pension. I promised I would do it, even though it really galled me.

    But before he walked out the door, he squeezed my shoulder. And his eyes had that look of hope again. So I swallowed my pride and my anger and made the call.

    ooOoo

    The doc's name, if you can believe it, was Carl Hutchinson. But I told him it would drive me crazy to call him that, and settled on 'Dr. H.'

    Dr. H. was old, and didn't look anything like Hutch. But he had a soft voice, like Hutch's, and he saw through all my bullshit, too. Pretty amazing.

    At first, I treated him like I do any shrink—as the enemy. I don't like anyone getting inside my head unless they're Hutch. So I stuck to telling him about the shooting, since that was the reason I was supposed to see him: to get over the trauma of it, or whatever. And talking about it was easy if I stuck to just the event. After all, those three bullets hadn't hurt nearly as much as what came after.

    But Doc H. figured that out half an hour into our first session, and he asked me, point blank, how I was dealing with not being a cop anymore.

    I wanted to slug him when he said that. It wasn't like I really needed a reminder that my life was useless, completely empty.

    "I'm dealing," I said. The chair I was sitting in suddenly felt uncomfortable.

    "How're you sleeping?" he asked.

    "I sleep fine."

    He must've seen me smile a little, because he changed his question. "How much are you sleeping?"

    "A lot," I admitted.

    "Why do you think that is?" Doc H. wasn't like other shrinks I'd been forced to see over the years. He didn't make Mmm hmm noises or write little notes in a notebook or anything; he just folded his hands across his big belly and waited for me to answer.

    "It's the only time I feel good," I said. "When I'm in bed, sleeping...it's the only time I don't feel like I'm falling."

    I hadn't expected to say that part, and it took me by surprise that I was so far off the script already. But he just raised his eyebrows.

    I said, "It's like I'm in free-fall, and my stomach keeps dropping like there's no bottom low enough. And I'm fucking tired all the time...."

    "Why are you falling?"

    "'Cause I'm so damned empty there's nothing to hold me up." I felt like crying like a little kid when I said that last part, so I stopped right there and just breathed for a while.

    Dr. H. didn't make a sound until I looked up at him, and then he said, "So let's find something to fill you up."

    I think I was a little angry when he said that, like it would be that simple. "There's nothing—nothing—could fill up that space. It's too big. Too important. I'm never gonna be a cop again, and it was the only thing that fit."

    "That's true. Nothing can fit that exact shape in your life. But maybe you can start by finding little things that do. Just pick one or two small things to throw into the space. Let them rattle around in there for a while."

    It seemed pointless. "I was a good cop," I whispered.

    "I know." He looked sad. "I've read your file, Dave. You were an exceptional cop. One of the best. And that's never going to change. But I've been through this with other cops, and I've learned the important thing is to find stuff to do that makes you feel like you're still helping people. How else in your life have you helped people?"

    We talked about it a little. I told him about Terry's kids. He thought I should start there, and go talk to whoever was running the program. I promised I'd do it.

    He got up to walk me to the door after our session, and I noticed he had a heavy limp. I gave him a pointed look.

    "Took some lead there," he said, his big brown eyes smiling sad. "Back when I was a cop. Back before they told me I couldn't be anymore."

    Oh.

    So I worked at it. Little bit by little bit. Started by going back to Terry's kids and helping the teachers during activity hour. I couldn't play basketball yet, but I could do sit-down games with them. And I talked to Peterson at Child Protective Services and joined a volunteer group of theirs. I liked working with kids. Kids aren't as complicated. Or if they are, it's the kind of complication I can understand.

    But I couldn't drink and work with the kids, so I stopped buying as much beer. Started sleeping less, which was good, because my dreams were getting real strange on me. I was eating more, too. I began to feel better as soon as I started putting some real food in my belly.

    Funny thing is, the better I got, the better Hutch looked when he'd stop by. Which started to be more and more. We were still real careful around each other, though, as if it would all break in a heartbeat and we'd be back where we were.

    And the Nothing was still there, but at least it felt a little smaller, like the edges had pulled in some.

    Then one day Hutch came over early. He was supposed to come with me later to go look at the Torino. To tell the truth, I was dreading it. Ever since the shooting I'd been driving around in a Datsun I'd borrowed from Merle.

    "Grab your jacket. You're coming with me," Hutch said as soon as he walked in the door, and his face had a roller coaster look, like he was scared and excited at the same time.

    "Where're we going?" I asked him, suspicious.

    He tilted his head and smiled a little. "It's a surprise."

    "Well, I hate to break it to you, pal, but I'm not much for surprises anymore. Had enough of those."

    I regretted saying it a second later, because the little smile had disappeared like it never was.

    "But I suppose I can go along," I said. "Lead the way, Ahab." I put down Moby Dick, which I was reading at the time. I'd figured out that reading was a good thing to fill the space, too, and it made me feel better than sleeping did. Like an escape.

    So Hutch took me in his junker a long way north on I-5. He pulled into a small airport, White Air Field, in Burbank. It looked familiar to me, and then I realized it was where we'd interviewed a guy when we were hunting down Leo Moon, a crooked ex-cop who was out to kill Dobey.

    I gave Hutch a look to tell him I was close to ditching the whole thing. I was doing a little better, but I sure the hell didn't need any reminders of what we used to be.

    "Trust me," was all he said. And he put a hand on my arm just above the elbow and squeezed a little. He hadn't been touching me a lot lately, part of the carefulness I guess, so when he did that, I couldn't let him down.

    "Okay." We got out of the car, and he took me to one of the little cardboard offices that fronted the hangers. There was a tall, beefy guy sitting at the desk. He had reddish hair and more freckles than a dog has fleas.

    "Hi," Hutch said, "I'm Hutchinson. I have an appointment. Are you Stew?"

    "Yeah," the guy said and stood up, holding out his hand. "Am I taking the two of you up?"

    Up? I didn't like the sound of that. I've always hated flying, ever since my first trip out West when my momma sent me away. I hated the feeling of being in a big machine somehow suspending itself in the air like magic, and not having any control over it.

    But Hutch was looking at me with a hopeful expression.

    "Yeah, the two of us," I said.

    It wasn't anything like I'd thought. Stew took us up in his little Cessna, me sitting next to him in the copilot's seat, and Hutch squeezed into the back. And when we took off, it was like...well, like flying. It seemed natural. I could feel the air pushing us up from underneath. And it was a little scary, but nothing like a jumbo jet. Instead, it was more like being in the Torino, feeling the eager power as the little plane pulled itself forward and, once we were up, just floated. We floated, way above everything, and it felt...free.

    I looked back at Hutch, smiling at him, and his face broke into a huge grin, the biggest I'd seen on him since I woke up from the coma.

    We flew around for about an hour, and Stew even let me talk to the control tower over the radio and let me handle the stick for a few minutes. It was crazy. I felt like a god.

    Once we were down I couldn't stop talking about it all the way home, and Hutch just kept smiling and smiling, every so often putting in a word about this or that, but mostly just smiling.

    When we got back to my place I didn't want him to leave, so I ordered us in some Chinese food and sat next to him on the couch, still talking. He had his head tilted back and his feet propped up on the coffee table, and one of his hands was on the cushion between us, just a few inches from my leg. At one point, I got so excited talking about what it felt like to fly the little plane, saying, "I wonder when we can go back and have Stew take us up again?" that I put my hand on his and squeezed.

    His head rolled over and his eyes opened to look at me.

    Something made me let go of his hand then. I lost my train of thought for a second.

    But he said, "So, when do we start our lessons?"

    "Lessons?" He'd lost me.

    "Yeah, flying lessons. When do we start?"

    And, you know, with all my yammering, it hadn't even occurred to me that I could be the one in the pilot's seat.

    "Flying lessons." I said it, and it tasted so good in my mouth that I said it again. "Flying lessons!"

    Hutch just kept smiling.

    ooOoo

    Part Two

     


    There is an art, or, rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

    —Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982)

     

    So that's when I really turned the corner. Nowadays I'm doing a lot better, not that I don't still think about it, and miss the hell out of it, and miss being Hutch's partner. But after a beat I push it away and go on. Like when Terry died, only this time it was me.

    And Hutch and I start taking flying lessons. It's a little like being in the Academy with him again. We have a couple of lessons, and we take all our books home and study together the first couple of weekends, and then Hutch falls behind because of work. But I just keep going, cramming in as much flight time as Stew can fit into his schedule. I can't seem to get enough of it.

    The first time I make a crosswind landing, Stew slaps me on the back so hard I almost bang my forehead into the instrument panel.

    I tell Dr. H. about it, about what it feels like to hold everything in my hands that way and just know that if I lift the left flap just this much the wind will kiss us down so gently....

    "Sounds like you found a bigger something," he says.

    And he's right about that. But it wasn't me that found it—it was Hutch. Hutch who knew somehow that I would take to it, would love it. What're you gonna do with a guy who knows you that well? Who cares so much that he'd do anything to fix things for you? Even the things that can't really be fixed.

    It makes me think of something that's been bothering me for a long time now, and I look at the doc, trying to figure out if I have the balls to talk about it.

    "Doc, what we say here, it never goes anywhere, right?" I know it, of course, but it's my way of telling him I have something to say that's going to be hard.

    Dr. H. just nods, his eyes waiting.

    "I've been having some dreams." I mutter it into the collar of my shirt, feeling a tingle of heat on my face.

    "What kind of dreams? Nightmares?"

    "No, no. Good ones. Well, not good but...well, they’re good when I dream them, but when I wake up I'm...confused." And scared, but I don't tell the doc that.

    "Why are you confused?"

    So that's it. I'm going to have to say something. Funny thing is, I'm not worried so much about what the doc will think of me—even though he used to be a cop, he doesn't strike me as rigid about things. I'm more scared of what he'll tell me it means.

    "I've been dreaming about Hutch a lot lately. And a couple of times the dreams have been, um...real...physical." I say it to my collar, and my hands, which are clenched on my legs.

    I had told Dr. H. about Hutch the very first day, so he knows about us, how tight we had been, and how it hurts sometimes that we aren't as close now that we aren't partners anymore. So I think maybe the doc will say this is my brain's way of telling me I need to spend more time with Hutch, like we used to.

    But the doc asks, his voice really mild, "Dave, do you have feelings for Hutch?"

    What a question. Sure, I have feelings for Hutch. Lots of 'em, and all of them different. I feel he's the best friend I'll ever have. I feel like sometimes I could kill him when he gets that stubborn look on his face and won't tell me what's going on with him. I feel disgusted when I look into the back seat of his car. And sometimes I feel, when we're sitting next to each other on the couch watching an old movie, and he makes some dumb joke like I just knew he was gonna, that he's all I need in this crummy world.

    But I don't say any of that to Doc H. I just ask, "You're the doc, aren't you? What does it mean that I'm dreaming about him like that? I mean, I've never been...I don't think about guys like that."

    "Is there something wrong with thinking about a guy like that?" Again, his voice is mild, but I can hear a challenge in there.

    "No...not wrong. Although it sure wouldn't be normal, would it?" I'm kind of pissed that he makes me feel like I'm arguing the wrong side.

    "What's normal?" The doc shrugs. "Is it normal to miss going out on the streets and getting shot at? Do you think your average, everyday Joe would miss having perps pull a gun on him? How normal is it to want to get into an airplane and go up ten thousand feet with nothing between you and the ground but thin air?"

    He has a point. A couple of 'em. "But this is different. This is...we're talking about...."

    But I guess it really isn't all that different. People already think I'm strange to want those other things. How much crazier is it that I want to get physical with my best friend?

    I just never thought about it that way.

    And I realize all of a sudden that I've as much as admitted to myself my dreams mean more than psycho-mumbo-jumbo about missing Hutch. I want to be with him, as weird as that is. I want to feel those things I've felt in my dreams, so hot and close. I want to touch him like that, even though I just can't see him letting me.

    "I guess maybe you're right."

    Doc H. smiles when I say that, a big grin, and I smile back.

    "You like being right, huh?"

    "It's the most important thing in the world," he says, laughing.

    "But even if I let myself want that from Hutch, there's no saying he wouldn't bust me across the chops for suggesting it."

    "Is he the kind of guy who might?"

    Of course not. At least, I don't see Hutch hitting me over something like that. But I could imagine him getting all pitying and uncomfortable and embarrassed for me, which would be worse. I'd prefer a shot to the kisser.

    "Well, you don't have to do anything about it if you don't want," Dr. H. says when I don't respond. "But maybe you can try just feeling him out on the subject."

    And then he turns a little red, and I'm so amused to finally see him rattled that I laugh out loud.

    "Time's up," he growls, and I get out of there.

    ooOoo

    So I start to really think about it for the first time. While I'm awake, I mean. I start looking at Hutch, trying to make the connection between what I felt in my dreams and this big blond guy sitting next to me on the couch filling out his crossword puzzle. And at first, it's like I can't even see it.

    I've been looking at Hutch most of my adult life, for one reason or another. Seen him naked in the showers and it didn't really do anything for me at the time, that I can remember. Only, when I flash on that now, thinking of the soap and water traveling down his sides to catch on the crease of his hips and that funny muscle there, I get a tingle in my nuts. And I look down at his waist to where his shirt has ridden up over his cords, showing some skin, and the tingle turns into a burn. And I throw my first hard-on ever, while awake and looking at a guy. Looking at Hutch.

    Suddenly I'm afraid to breathe.

    "Smew? What the hell is a 'smew'?" Hutch grumbles at his paper, and he gets up to grab his dictionary from the bookshelf. I watch his ass as he walks away, and I think about putting my hands on it. Hutch has a terrific ass. Full, except where it cuts in at the sides with that sharp muscle. Nothing extra there, and what he does have would curve perfectly in my palms. I just know it.

    "Get this: 'a smew is a small merganser,'" he says, shutting the dictionary with a thump. "I swear that's a cheesy excuse for a word." He folds himself back down on the couch and picks up his paper again.

    While his attention is on the crossword I get up, muttering something about too much beer, and go to the bathroom to jack off. It doesn't take me long, and when I come out again, Hutch is rubbing his neck, still staring down at the crossword. He gets so damned intense about those things.

    "Neck bugging you?"

    "Yeah. Patton's crappy little import is too damned small."

    I sit next to him on the couch and slide my hand onto the back of his neck, squeezing the muscles, and he lets out a sigh and drops his head forward.

    "Turn," I say, and he shifts on the couch, giving me his back. I start to massage him, a little worried he can tell how much I'm enjoying it—touching him this way, listening to him groan a little when my fingers get him just right. My dick is already responding to it as if I hadn't just baptized the edge of his sink five minutes earlier.

    "You're really tight," I hear myself saying, and my voice has gone a little too deep.

    He straightens his shoulders as if he's listening.

    "You know, Hutch, they say that seventy-five percent of all backrubs end in sex."

    He gives a laugh and pulls away. "Meathead," he says, not looking at me.

    I'm not sure if this is what Doc H. meant by 'feeling him out', but Hutch sounded a little bit nervous.

    I just can't tell if that's a good sign or not.

    ooOoo

    The next day is Sunday and my last solo flight exam. Hutch comes with me to the airfield, and he's sweating, looking anxious as hell. I make a lot of jokes, like we always used to when going into a tough situation, and he kids back, but I know this is hard on him.

    Makes me feel a little warm that he's so worried about me.

    And I do it. I take off, textbook smooth, and do my flight. And it's beautiful up here, and I feel so strong and light, just me and the sky. You don't need to be able to run a hundred yards in fifteen seconds up here. You don't have to be able to boost yourself over a fence to back up your partner, or be able to cuff a perp two times bigger than you.

    Up here you just glide, easy as breathing, the land rolling out beneath you like a checkerboard. I tell you, it's like nothing in the world. And there's something else, too, something I had missed, but never really understood I needed—that feeling I'm holding my life in my hands, and it's mine to drop, but I won't let it. Like I'm testing my courage, and winning.

    Hutch gave this to me.

    I make an almost-perfect no-flap landing and my tail sinks down. Hutch is already jogging out to the plane, a huge grin on his face, and Stew is following behind, going a lot slower. I climb out of the craft and before I know it Hutch has wrapped me up in a big hug.

    He squeezes me hard, saying, "You did it! You looked fantastic up there. I'm so goddamn proud of you."

    I feel like my heart will explode.

    He lets me go, and Stew comes up with a sheet of paper: my Airman's Certificate. He holds it out, shaking my other hand with that big paw of his.

    "I'm a pilot?" I say. It's like I can't believe it.

    "Yup," Stew says. "Maybe you should start thinking about getting a plane of your own."

    I look over at Hutch, whose mouth has dropped open.

    "Sure enough," I say. "And I know just what colors I'm gonna paint it."

    I can't help laughing at Hutch's expression.

    ooOoo

    "All I'm saying is can't you get one lousy day?" I ask, trying to keep my temper. It's Monday, and Hutch has stopped by on his way to work to have breakfast with me, a habit he's fallen into recently. I like it, even though it means I have to wake up earlier than I'm used to these days.

    Man, I just like being with him, you know? And even though it gives me that same little stab watching him go off to our old job every morning, at least I get to see him before he goes. And to tell him to be careful.

    I always say it off-handedly, 'Don't get killed', like it's no big deal.

    But today I'm trying to convince him to ask Dobey for a day off on Sunday so I can fly us up to the woods. I know just the spot, too—charted it off with Stew and checked with the park. There's a hard field there that would be perfect for a landing, and we wouldn't be so far from people that we couldn't radio for help if we needed it.

    Hutch says, "I don't know. None of us have had a day off in weeks. We're gearing up for this big operation, gonna get this guy Blackwell and all his people, we hope. The Feds have been setting it up for months, and they've been dropping me under every couple of days to listen in at the club."

    This is the first time in forever he's actually talked about work. It gives me a queasy feeling. But I hide my reaction.

    "So? Can't hurt to ask, can it? Just see if they have anything in the works this weekend."

    So he does, and he calls me from his desk to tell me we're on.

    I start making plans. Hutch doesn't know it, but this is gonna be the make-or-break day. It's funny, I'm damned good at seducing girls, but I don't know the first thing about seducing Vikings. But I do know Hutch, so I'm stacking the deck in my favor by taking him out to the woods that he loves, and which should relax him.

    Also, this way I'll be his only ticket home.

    I'm going to bring some fine cheese and wine, and hell, I'll read him some damned poetry if that'll help. I remember hearing him say once that he liked poetry.

    The week takes forever to pass, and every day I'm a little more excited. I can tell he knows something is up, but he just lets it slide.

    On Saturday night he stays over at my place so we can get an early start. I don't sleep much; I'm wound up too tight. I can hear his breathing, deep and real slow, coming from the other room. And I wonder about what I'm getting into.

    When I was a kid I'd been told over and over that it was a disgusting, sick thing, what I was even considering doing with Hutch. And Hutch, he might seem like a really open-minded guy, but being understanding on the street is a far cry from letting a guy snuggle up to rub your sticks together like Indian Guides.

    Just thinking about it gets me hard again, and I grab a tissue from the nightstand and start to jerk off. I think about touching him in new places, of doing things to him, stuff I've been dreaming, as well as some other things I read about sometime, somewhere.

    I come so hard I have to shove my palm over my mouth to keep it quiet.

    ooOoo

    It's a perfect day for a flight. The sky is sunny and blue, and the Blintz had plenty of coffee before we started out, so he's not too crabby. I make him go through the pre-flight check, and he gets it perfect except for when it comes time to talk to the tower. Then he stutters a little.

    Stew and I had already written up and filed the flight plan the day before, so there's nothing left to do but report in and take off. Hutch is good, and hardly grabs the seat arms at all as I take us up on our very first flight with just the two of us.

    "Smooth," he says once we're in the air. He sounds impressed.

    The Santa Monica Mountains creep up beneath us, and Hutch has his forehead pressed to the passenger window. He's only been up four or five times, and it's still real fresh to him. I smile and bank the plane just a little so he's looking down more, and I hear him inhale.

    At one point during the flight, after I've just reported seeing another plane over the radio, he turns to me and says, "You really love this, don't you?"

    Of course, he knows it already. What he's really asking is, 'Is it better, now? Is it helping?'

    And he knows the answer to that as well, but I think he needs to hear me say it.

    "I love it more than almost anything."

    I'm careful not to say what it is I love more.

    As soon as I touch down on the hard field on the edge of Point Mugu State Park, Hutch gets to unloading the blanket and the cooler, and I do the post-landing check. By the time I'm done, he's found the box with the cheese and the wine and the glasses.

    "Starsk?" he says, holding up the bottle. "What're we celebrating?"

    "You mean other than a safe landing?"

    He frowns. "And what if it hadn't been?"

    "Then I guess we wouldn't have to worry about the wine."

    That shuts him up, and he goes back to unpacking stuff onto the blanket he's spread out.

    "What's all this?" He starts pulling out the cheese; there are about fifteen little bundles in there, so it takes him a long time. "Passendale? Italian Castelmagno? Bulgarian Sirene?" He holds up a clear container with some white chunks floating in it.

    "Oh, God. French feta. I love French feta. Starsky, how the hell did you know?"

    "I asked the cheese shop guy to pick out your favorites."

    Hutch gives me a funny look. But he doesn't say anything, just starts unwrapping, putting out the cheeses on the paper plates I'd brought along. I take out the crackers, these wafer-ish white things—they're kind of tasteless if you ask me, but the cheese shop guy insisted. I spread them out onto another plate and then open the wine and pour us each a glass.

    "Here's to...safe flying," I say. I'm saving the real toasts for later.

    "Safe flying," Hutch echoes, and takes a sip. His eyes look real blue over the edge of his glass. He's staring at me. To deflect his attention, I dig into my bag, pull out my camera, and start to take some shots of the woods poking up into the blue-blue sky.

    Hutch makes all these blissful sounds while he tastes the cheeses. I focus on the cheddar. I was careful to bring a big hunk of that. I'd thought about bringing a packet of Kraft American, but I figured that would ruin the effect I was going for.

    "Man, you have to try this feta." He holds out a cracker with a little piece of white stuff on it. I let him stick it into my mouth.

    And you know, it's pretty damned good. Especially with the tartness of the wine.

    Hutch eats a little more and then stretches out on the blue blanket, closing his eyes, his wine glass resting on his stomach. After a while he puts it down to shrug off the green-and-yellow jacket of his tracksuit and tuck it under his head. Underneath, he's wearing his faded old green shirt. The one he was wearing when I said all that shit to him. I told him he was a bastard, and a coward, but he came back.

    He always comes back.

    It's quiet. We are totally alone, no one around for miles. I can hear some birds and the creaking of tree branches being pushed by the breeze. And I can feel my pulse start to pick up, knocking against the side of my neck, as I realize it's time. It's the perfect time. Now or never.

    "I know what you're after," Hutch says suddenly, his voice a little drowsy.

    I jerk with surprise. But his eyes are still closed, so he doesn't see it.

    "Whaddaya mean?" Christ, my voice is so thin it's giving the game away.

    "I saw how uptight you were this week. Think I don't know what it means that you broke out the wine and the stinky cheese? You're up to something." But he sounds amused, and way too relaxed.

    I don't say anything because I'm breathing a little fast.

    "I've been thinking about it, Starsk. And there's some stock I can sell to help you put down the loan."

    "The loan?"

    "Well, you don't have enough to pay for the new plane outright, do you? I can cosign with you if you need it."

    My own plane. It's almost funny. If I weren't worried about getting into his pants, I would be over the moon that Hutch would be willing to help me buy my own plane. Especially after the trouble we had dumping that shack of a house I made us invest in. But all I can think is there's something I want so much more right now. I look over at his lips, damp from the wine, and I wonder how they'll taste.

    Because before another minute passes, I plan to find out.

    I put down my glass and then crawl closer to him on the blanket.

    "That's not what I'm after," I say, my voice really low.

    His eyes don't open, but he frowns. "No?" he says. I can see the big vein in his neck, a curving ridge against the tan of his skin.

    "No, Hutch." I'm a lot closer now, leaning on my forearms and looking down at him, and his eyes crack open just as I lower my head. His face seems to freeze.

    I put my lips against his. Just for a second. God.

    Then I pull back a little, an inch or two. I feel the gasp of his breath brushing my mouth. I look up.

    His eyes are shocked wide, not sleepy anymore.

    "Starsk?" he whispers.

    I don't want to give him a chance to talk, so I move in and kiss him again, two quick, soft kisses tugging at his lips. Then I pull away again, just a little.

    He's still staring. He swallows. "Is this...is this a joke?" His voice is hoarse. I see him lick his lips.

    I go in for the last time, hoping it'll take, feeling the heat of his face, smelling the musk of his skin, and this time when I kiss him there's this sound, like an engine catching into life, only I realize it's Hutch, groaning, and then his lips move, his head lifts up, and he kisses me back.

    God. Just like I hoped.

    I slip my hand under his head, tangling my fingers in the silk, and lift him up to meet me, and then we're kissing hard, and it's like nothing I expected, because his mouth is as big as mine, but his lips are so full and soft and wanting—wanting me. Hutch is kissing me.

    Here's what I'm thinking: nothing. I can't think of anything at all, my mind is a perfect blank, but my body is feeling his hands suddenly hard on my back, clutching at me, and I'm tasting the tang of the wine on Hutch's tongue against mine, and my hips are moving to press my crotch against his leg.

    He pulls his head away and stares up at me. I'm afraid to give him time to think, but it wouldn't be fair to push myself on him, so I move away, letting him have a tiny bit of space.

    "Not a joke then," he says. His voice is so deep it sounds like it's coming from the center of the earth. But his eyes are still open a little too wide.

    I shake my head, not trusting my own voice worth spit at this second. I start to bend over to kiss him again, but he puts his hand on my shoulder. Then he pushes himself up. I scramble to follow, scared he's gonna try to go. Scared I've screwed the pooch.

    Hutch bends one knee and wraps his arm around it, using his other hand to muss through his hair. His face is flushed. He reaches over into the cooler and grabs a piece of ice, running it over his neck.

    Jesus, I want to lunge right at him again, but instead I just wait.

    He tosses away the ice and looks down at his hands. "St-starsk." He grits his teeth and starts again. "Starsk, what just happened?"

    I'm scared, and just on the edge of angry because of it, but I make myself calm down and keep it simple. "You know what just happened, Blintz. I kissed you, and you kissed me back."

    He makes a sound—part irritation, part bewilderment.

    "But why did you kiss me?"

    That one is easy. "Because I wanted to. Been wanting to for a while, in fact."

    "Oh."

    I watch him work that through, and then he says, "But why did I want you to?" He looks totally confused. I can understand that. I've been where he's sitting right now.

    But I say, "Maybe it's because you...you care about me."

    He looks up at that, and his eyes look strange—bluer, somehow, or clearer. It's crazy.

    "I do." His face hardens a little. "That's why it hurt so bad when you—" He shuts his mouth on it.

    "When I what?"

    Hutch pushes himself to his feet suddenly and stands facing away, his hands pushed into his back pockets, his spine curved like a question mark.

    "I don't understand...I don't know what I'm feeling right now." He's changing the subject.

    "Well, let's see if we can figure it out," I say, getting to my feet and coming up behind him. "First off—did you like it? What we were doing?" I feel pretty sure of the answer or I wouldn't have asked.

    Hutch nods abruptly. "Of course I liked it. I lo—"

    I really wish he'd have let himself finish that one.

    "Do you think you might wanna do it again sometime?" Like right now?

    His neck tightens up.

    "You're my friend, Starsk," he whispers. I can barely hear him over the breeze. "How'm I supposed to-to kiss my best friend? To kiss my partner?"

    It feels so good to hear him call me that. I put my hand on his shoulder and turn him around. He's looking down, and his eyebrows are pulled together in a frown.

    I say, "Well, I'm not sure, because it's new to me, too, but I thought we were doing a pretty good job of it."

    He shakes his head. "This can only screw everything up. And I just got you back—"

    Jesus, he says it so sad it about breaks my heart. So I have to kiss him again, even if he's not sure he wants it. I move slowly, though, so he can pull away if he needs to.

    He doesn't. And he makes that sound again when our lips meet, that deep sound from his guts. I can tell it's gonna be a real Pavlovian thing for me, because my dick gets harder again in a snap. I don't push too close, though, just kiss him, sucking at his lips a little until he opens the door and lets me in. He tastes better than anything.

    Then I'm tugging him back onto the blanket. He comes along easy, and I push him down until he's lying on his back like he was before, and we just kiss. I say 'just', but it's really more like bottle rockets going off in my head. Or maybe torpedoes.

    I push my cock against his leg again—I can't help it. This time he doesn't pull away, but moans some more, sucking my tongue into his mouth, his hand sliding under my shirt to trace the skin on my back. Feeling Hutch's hand on my skin has me humping his leg like a schnauzer.

    I put my palm on his t-shirt, resting it on his chest, and I can feel one of his nipples poking up beneath, so I rub against it, using the thin material to get it stiffer. Then I catch it between my fingers.

    "God, that's so...oh," he says against my lips. It gets me going even more, and I keep pushing against his leg, but it's not enough.

    "Touch me, Hutch," I beg him.

    He drops his head back, his dazed eyes meeting mine.

    "I'm dyin'," I say. I roll to my back and unbutton my jeans. Pulling down the zipper is like torture. Then I get my hand into my shorts, and I grab my cock and squeeze. I groan with relief.

    When I turn my head I see that Hutch is staring at me, looking down at my wrist. So I roll to my side to give him a better view, propping my head up on my hand. I'm still holding onto my cock, and I start stroking it a little inside my shorts.

    Hutch turns to face me, still looking down at where the action is.

    "Kissing you really turns me on," I say, completely unapologetic.

    He makes a weird sound and licks his lips.

    I move my chin forward and kiss him again, just a couple of moist, light ones, still stroking my cock slowly. Then I pull back and say, "You want to see? Wanna see how hard you made me?"

    Hutch's eyes jerk up and move to my face.

    "Yeah," he whispers, as if we're in the dark. "I wanna see."

    I push down my underwear so my cock is exposed. I can feel the brush of cool air, and the heat of Hutch's eyes on me. I start to touch myself again, real slow.

    Hutch is staring at my hard-on like it's a cobra. I look down at his crotch and I'm really glad to see he's sporting a pretty hefty bulge of his own.

    "Why don't you join me?"

    "I...uh."

    "Haven't you ever jerked off in front of someone?" I ask him, kind of amazed at how shocked he seems at the suggestion.

    "'Course I have." Now he looks embarrassed, but that wasn't what I was after. I kiss him again, just to get him back in the swing of things, and when he starts to raise his hand, his knuckles brush against my cock, and I gasp.

    He jerks back like he's been burned.

    But he surprises me by making a needy sound and reaching for his zipper. He fumbles a little and then pulls out his monster.

    I always knew he was big. I've seen him stumbling around in the morning with a rod on before he was awake enough to get modest. But this is the first time I can really let myself look. And this is the first time it's for me. So I take a good gander.

    His cock is long and thick as hell. The crown is flushed a deep red, but not as dark as mine. There's a clear drop hanging in the slit, and I find myself wondering if it tastes as good as his mouth. I wonder if I'll get a chance to find out.

    At the rate we're going, I'm not so sure. Something is still holding him back, because once he pulls it out he just lets it rest in his hand without looking at me.

    "Play with yourself," I say, and this time I'm the one whispering. I'm starting to realize that my usual dirty talk isn't going to work right now. Hutch is too skittish for some reason. So I make my voice encouraging. "C'mon babe, I want to see you. You're beautiful, y'know?"

    His face goes soft, and he moves his hand, finally, using short, fast strokes, and the thing gets even bigger. I'm watching him pump himself, the skin moving with his hand, and he's watching me at the same time, and he makes some sounds, like he can't breathe right, and I'm making them, too.

    It's goddamn hot, is what it is.

    I have to get closer, so I do, until our knuckles are bumping, and then I push down the head of my cock so it's bobbing against his, both wet with pre-cum so it's like a kiss.

    He gasps, and then he grunts and comes, falling back to shoot his load in heavy spurts all over his shirt.

    "Hutch," I whisper, watching him come. I look up at his face and his eyes are squeezed shut, his mouth open, face flushed, looking like I've never seen him before. It's beautiful.

    He opens his eyes, and I'm still pumping away, so close, so close.

    "Please touch me, Hutch." I'm begging, plain and simple.

    He turns toward me again and looks determined, reaching for me without hesitating, as if I've asked him for cover. As if he knows how desperate I am to come. I let go of myself, and when his hand first touches me I think I'm gonna die right now. My nuts tighten up just feeling him gripping my cock. But when he starts to stroke there's a little too much friction, and he seems to realize it, because he takes his hand away and licks his palm. I could cream just from watching it. Then he grips me again and it's perfect, smooth and hard and tight, and he pumps my cock. Hutch is jerking me off, and it's fucking heaven.

    He whispers, "Is that good? Is that how you like it?"

    But I can only garble out something like "Oh, Jesus, yes," and he gives a small smile and bends down to kiss me, and I come all over his hand with his tongue in my mouth.

    Afterward I'm shaking a little, so I get some distance, sitting up and reaching for some napkins to wipe the spunk off my shirt, and he's doing some clean up of his own, not looking at me. I think we're both damned surprised at what just happened. And how intense it was, for such a simple thing.

    I grab my glass and his, and pour a little more wine and nudge him to take it. Then I clink our glasses together.

    His face is red, but he drinks.

    Then he gets up and disappears for a while into the woods. I let him go. I only hope he doesn't get poison ivy anywhere important, because I've got plans for him. I let my thoughts drift to what we just did, and how incredible and strange and plain hot it was to have him touch me. But I have to stop thinking about it pretty quick, because I can feel myself starting to get excited all over again.

    Amazing.

    When he comes back, by some unspoken agreement we start to talk about other things, stupid things, like why does Bigelow have such a bug up his butt? Who died and made him king of the supply closet?

    And on the flight back we're both quiet. I'm busy with the controls, but I feel Hutch looking over at me again and again, and every time he does I get this warm feeling in the pit of my stomach. I'm afraid to say anything; I'm sure it would break the mood, and anyway, what is there to say? He's mine now, whether he knows it or not. It'll probably take him a little while to settle into it, but I can deal. Just as long as he keeps looking at me like that.

    He drives us to my place from the airport—since I was flying us today, I let him drive us out. Nice of me, I thought. Only, he stays in the car when we hit my place, and I realize he's not coming up.

    "You're not coming up?"

    "Not right now." So, whatever was holding him back is still a problem. But he lets his hand creep across the seat until it catches mine waiting. "I'll see you tomorrow morning," he says, his voice dark and husky.

    Okay, I'll give him a little time. Just a little, though, because you can't let the Blintz get his head.

    It's not like he knows what to do with it anyway.

    ooOoo

    The next morning I'm up too early waiting for him, figuring he's got everything all twisted up by now and will need my help hammering himself out again. I hear him knock, and as soon as he comes in I walk up to him and kiss him hello, just so he knows the change is permanent and irrevocable.

    But that takes a while, because he kisses me right back, and his eyes are bright-bright when he pulls away.

    "So that's how it is now?" he says, and he still looks a little bewildered, but in a good way. I grin at him and push him over to the kitchen table, which I've got all set up with his favorites, granola and yoghurt and those little green fruit with the hair on them.

    "Nice spread," is all he says, but his eyes catch mine again and, Jesus, he looks almost happy. Hutch looks happy. I can't remember the last time he looked like this, like he was floating or something. Actually, I can remember, but I try not to, because I think even back then I was jealous of how in love he was with Gillian.

    I realize I must be looking at him a little goofy myself, because his face goes even softer. And I want to drag him into my bed and start doing things to him again. But he's got to go to work in about five minutes, so that ain't gonna happen. I tell my dick to take a number.

    "So, what are you up to today?" I say to get my mind off of things, and the soft look disappears and his lips press together.

    "I think the bust is going down," he says. "Lots of guys are getting yanked in out of rotation, and the place had that feel on Saturday—you know the one."

    Yeah, I know it. Times like that the squad can feel like it's humming with electricity. Raises the hair on your arms and tightens your nuts.

    Suddenly I'm scared for him. Which is crazy—Hutch can take care of himself. But still, I get a bad feeling.

    So I really, really want to kick myself after he leaves. Because he gets up, thanks me for breakfast, and puts on his jacket, covering up his piece, and I'm so determined to kiss him goodbye, cement the gesture as part of our new routine, that it's not until after he smiles and is gone that I realize I forgot to say my usual.

    "Don't get killed."

    ooOoo

    I make myself busy. One of the things Doc H. always says is important is to fill the time even when something's bugging you. And it's not like I don't have a lot to do; for one thing, I still need to deal with the Torino. It's been sitting at Merle's Custom Cars since I got shot. I had a look at it once, primer covering the places where those bullets hit after passing through me, and I got so freaked I didn't want to see it again. Just told him to fix it up simple, no fuzzy dice, and I would decide what to do about it later.

    Well, it's time to deal. So I go down to Merle's.

    "Detective Starsky! Shoot, I do believe." He flutters his shop rag at me as if giving me a mechanic's blessing. "You're looking mighty fine for an almost-dead cat."

    That's about as close as Merle ever gets to a compliment, so I thank him with a little bow. "How's business, Merle?"

    "Couldn't be better," he says. "Hey, man, you come to deal with that tomato of yours? That thing's been junking up my shop for long enough."

    "Yeah, I'm sorry about that, Merle. Where is she?"

    He points his screwdriver over to the corner of the lot. The Torino is covered with a tarp, so I walk over and pull it off, and take my first look at her in a good, long while.

    Man, she looks dusty and lost. Abandoned. Like an old pair of shoes you haven't put on for a long time. Maybe they were once your favorites, but now they just look tired, and when you try them on, they don't fit your feet anymore.

    But she's still sound. And at least the primer had been painted over with the same red, so she'll be good enough to sell. I realize that's what I want. I'm going sell her, and use the money to lay a down payment on a new plane.

    Out with the old, and in with the new.

    I talk to Merle and make the arrangements. I tell him I want to keep that Datsun 240Z of his I've been driving around. She's good enough to get me where I need to go, even if Hutch complains about the lack of headroom.

    Merle nods. "I knew you liked her. She's a sweet little short."

    "Yeah. Look, I'm gonna send a guy over to take a look at the Torino. He's been wanting to buy it from me for a while. Give him the keys and let him take it for a spin, all right?"

    "You got it, man." He wipes his hands off and offers a shake. "Glad to see you're doing so good, Starsky. Shit, for a while there we thought you was one foot gone over."

    "Yeah, well." I don't know what to say.

    "Well, don't just stand here takin' up all my time. You interrupted the artiste at work."

    So I know the moment is already over. I clap him on the shoulder and get back into the Z.

    Next stop of the day is Dr. H. I tell him what I decided about the Torino, and he looks happy.

    "About time you dealt with that. Moving on?"

    "Moving on, Doc. Speaking of which...."

    He just raises his eyebrow at me. But I feel weird trying to say it out loud. I remind myself it was his idea in the first place.

    "I took Hutch out for a flight yesterday. We went to Mugu Park."

    "Sounds nice," he says evenly.

    "Yeah, it was real pretty. I brought some wine and I...I made a move on him."

    "Oh, yeah? How'd that work out for you?" he asks, like I'd told him I just tried a new brand of motor oil.

    "It's...it's looking pretty good," is all I say.

    But he smiles at me, and I realize his expression is just like Merle's was when he said I was doing good.

    I don't think the doc's going to want to be seeing me for much longer.

    ooOoo

    I'm riding high on the morning, and feeling pretty much like I've got my life by the tail when I get home. I try to give Lewis in Vice a ring; he's an old cop buddy who's always coveted the Torino in the worst way. He's always said I should call him first if I ever want to sell her.

    But Lillian at the desk tells me that Lewis is flagged "in service and unreachable." I ask her to put me through to Hutch, figuring I can at least tell him the news, and there's this pause and then she says, "Same on Detective Hutchinson: in service, unreachable."

    And I get this really cold wash in my belly.

    I thank her and hang up. Suddenly the day doesn't feel as bright. Or maybe it's brighter somehow, the edges standing out pure, like the afterimage from a mortar flash.

    Doesn't it always seem to go that just when you're the happiest, that's when it all gets taken away? I remember just before I was shot I was talking and laughing with Hutch, so damned happy with who I was, and who we were together. On top of the world, like I said.

    They say it's always darkest before the dawn. But lately I'm learning it's always brightest before the dark.

    I spend the rest of the day moping, trying to read a book and failing, staring at the phone and willing it to ring. And then, as it gets later in the afternoon, I start to get scared that it will ring, and it'll be Dobey, and he'll call me 'Dave' in that heavy voice of his, and I'll know it's all over.

    The phone finally rings. I'm under the sink, trying to organize the crap that's in the cabinet there, so it takes me a while to stumble to my feet and over to the wall. I grab the receiver off the hook.

    It's Hutch.

    "Starsk?" he says, sounding like an old, old man.

    "Yeah, babe." I can't believe it's him. I'm so relieved I have to sink onto the chair by the kitchen table. "What's up? Where are you?"

    "I'm at Memorial hospital," he says, and I must've made some sort of sound, because he adds, "I'm fine. I'm just...Patton's been shot. It's...it's bad."

    "Oh, God." I squeeze the receiver at hearing the leaden pain in his voice. "How'd it happen?"

    "It wasn't...the sting was rotten. The Feds didn't know they'd—doesn't matter," he says with a tired sigh. "I just wanted to call in case you'd heard about it." There's a mumble in the background, then he says, "I gotta go now. I'll see you later."

    "Yeah, later," I say, but he's already hung up.

    I drift over to the sink and start pushing stuff back into the cabinet. Then I wash my hands and put on my jacket.

    The rush-hour traffic is bad, and it takes me a long time to get downtown to Memorial. Hutch isn't in the waiting room. In fact, at first I don't see anyone familiar, but then I spot a uniform cop I know, Deavers, and I walk up to him and give him a tap.

    "Deavers. What's the news?"

    "Oh, hey, Starsky." He rubs the back of his neck. "Bad day, you know? We lost two, sounds like. And Lewis and Delancy got winged pretty good."

    "Jesus. Were you there?"

    He shakes his head. "I don't know much about it. I'm just here to take statements. Delancy is my first stop."

    "What room is Lewis in?"

    He tells me, and I hurry up to the second floor. Funny how familiar the layout of this place is to me. I could find the room blindfolded.

    I knock on the door, which is wedged open. Lewis looks over and gives me a wave with one hand. The other arm is bandaged up at the shoulder, with a sling holding it in place.

    "Hey, Starsky. Long time no see."

    "Hey, Lewis. Looks like they got you pretty good," I say, and he gives a tired smile. His usually ruddy face is a little pale, and the curly brown hair is mashed down on one side.

    "Yeah, guess I forgot to duck." He sounds real bitter.

    "You need anything?"

    "Glass of water would be nice. Damned medication dries me out, you know?"

    "Yeah, I know." And, boy, do I. I go over to the sink and put some water in the plastic pitcher, bringing it with a cup over to his table. I pour him some and hand it over.

    "Ah, that's good," he says, after drinking. "But next time make it a beer, okay?"

    "You got it." I pull up the aluminum chair next to his bed. "What's the word on your shoulder?"

    "I don't know," he says. He looks down at his cup. "Doc says a lot of nerve damage. This could sideline me."

    Aw, shit. "Nothing's for sure, though, right? Just think about getting better, for now."

    He nods morosely. I make a note to myself to point him toward Doc H. if he ends up needing it. But I hate to think of us losing another good one.

    Funny how I still think of the department as 'us'.

    "I heard the Feds were responsible for this action..." It's all I need to say, because he lifts his head, his face hard and angry.

    "Goddamn morons," he says. "They set up the buy, but didn't have anyone under who was close enough to learn a third party was coming to the meet. Some new outfit from back East. Real twitchy fellas. The whole thing was doomed from the start."

    "I heard Patton got shot."

    "She's dead," he says heavily. "Rice, too. Hutch gave me the news before he left. He looked really bad off. They split 'em up, you know? The Feds wanted Hutch up front to make IDs on the spot, and they put Patton on the team covering the exit. Hutch fought it, but they wouldn't listen. Then it went down."

    I don't say anything, I just pour him some more water. He drinks the whole thing before going on.

    "The new guys must've smelled something funny. I don't know what tipped them off exactly, but before we knew it everyone had their guns out, and it all went bad. The Feds were practically useless. Hutch and me got ours, and then we heard Rice scream something, and we went running back there. Rice and Patton were both down, and the other uniforms had pinned down the East Coast guys, but they weren't giving it up, so no one could get to the wounded. God, when Hutch saw Patton he just went nuts. I tried to hold him back but he went in with that big cannon of his..." Lewis gestures with his cup. "It's really loud, that thing, you know?"

    "Yeah, I know." Picturing the scene is doing crazy things to my stomach. I know just how Hutch would be in that situation. And I wasn't there to back him up.

    "I swear to God, Starsky, there were tears in his eyes when he went after those guys. He walked right into it like Jesus on water. But he took out all three of them—one of 'em at close range—and not a scratch on him."

    There's a hard knot in my throat. "Shit. Were you wearing vests, at least?"

    Lewis nods. "But I got hit right in the shoulder just before Hutch brought the last one down. And they got Patton in the neck. There was blood everywhere. I think she was done for even before we went in there. Rice, too. So I took the slug for nothing."

    "Not for nothing." I put my hand on his leg. "Don't ever say for nothing. Okay?"

    He looks at me, and I can tell he's wondering whether he'll end up a washout like me. But his face relaxes a little. "Okay. I'm glad you came by, Dave. I think I needed it."

    "Yeah." I give his leg a pat. "You get better, okay? And don't listen to any negative shit. And if you need to talk, you call me. Anytime."

    "Thanks. I'll do that." He holds out his left hand, and we shake awkwardly.

    As I head down to the car I wonder if Hutch would've gone home or to my place or the Pits or what. If this were any other day I'd just assume to find him waiting at my place. But it's not. We're not the same, anymore. And he sounded so sick and lost....

    I aim the Z toward Venice Place.

    ooOoo

    I stop at the store and arm myself with a six-pack. There's no answer at Hutch's door, but I'd seen the LTD out front, and I have my own key, so I let myself in.

    I find him in the bedroom on the floor, sitting up against the wall next to his closet. He's got a small box resting between his legs. He doesn't even look up as I come in, so I know it's bad.

    Like I didn't know that already.

    "Hey," I say, as if nothing unusual is going on. I go and drop the beers in the fridge and then come back. He's still staring down at whatever it is he has in his hands, but it's not very bright in his room and my eyes haven't adjusted. His face looks darker for some reason, dirty or something.

    "What you got?" I ask. I let myself slide down the wall beside him. I can see now that it's his medals. He's sitting on the floor looking at his medals. This cannot be good.

    "I remember when you got that first one," I say carefully, and he doesn't look up, but his breathing changes a little, as if he's listening.

    "I remember Luke was your training officer still, and he got you into something. I think he got busted in the chops and you were all alone with a pissed off bunch of dudes, and you held 'em back somehow and called it in, cool as you please."

    "I wasn't 'cool'," he says. His voice sounds rusty. "I was a green rookie shitting my shorts."

    "Well, you sounded cool over the radio. I was riding with my T.O. when you called for backup, and we put on the lights and came charging in. By then the place was crawling with our guys. I helped you put Luke on the stretcher, though."

    "Yeah." He sighs and drops his medals into the box with a clink. "I didn't even see it coming. One of those guys had a baseball bat—"

    "Luke didn't see it coming. He was your T.O." Always takes it all on himself.

    "Patton is dead," Hutch says abruptly.

    "I know. I'm sorry." I say, hoping he'll hear me, "That one isn't yours, either, Hutch." I put my hand on his leg but he pushes himself up, kicking the box to the side.

    "I don't care," he says, his voice savage. "I just can't...I can't...."

    I get up too, and follow him out to the kitchen. He opens the door to the fridge, and in the light I can see why his face looked so strange. It's dark red on one side, and on his neck there's a fine spray of color, like he'd had an accident painting his lawn furniture. Only no one paints their lounger that particular, deadly shade.

    "Hutch."

    He closes the door and pops open a beer, taking a swig. He doesn't look at me.

    I start toward him, but end up following him when he turns away and heads into the living room. He drops down onto the couch. The beer sloshes over his hand, and he rubs it off on his shirt.

    It comes back pink. He must've washed his hands at some point, because they're clean, but the rest of him is just spattered with blood, shirt included.

    I sit next to him carefully, as close as I can, and he lets me. I take the bottle from his hand and set it on the coffee table.

    "You need to wash up," I tell him gently.

    "Can't, ever," he says, his voice low. "And I can't do it anymore, and you said you'd drop me like a bad penny, but, Starsk...I just can't, anymore. I can't be responsible for them. I can't. I can't. I—"

    By the third time he says it I have my arm around his shoulder, pulling him in, and I can smell the blood on him, but I tuck his face against my neck and he's still repeating it, over and over, muffled now, so I say, "Okay, babe. It's okay. You don't have to, anymore."

    He stops and just gives, slumping on me, and I put my other arm around him and hold him.

    After a while he lets out a shuddering breath and says, "You said we'd be through if I quit." I can barely understand him because he says it into my neck.

    "Aw, don't you know we'd never be through? Never."

    But it makes him pull away, and he flops against the couch, his head resting on the back.

    "I don't know that," he says, sounding coldly furious. "I don't know that at all. You pushed me away quick enough when things got bad for you. You pushed me all the way out the fucking door."

    Oh shit. I should've known that would bite me on the ass eventually.

    He says, "I needed to help, so bad, but you wouldn't let me. There was nothing I could do. You were going down, and it felt like I was, too, but you didn't—" He doesn't finish, saying instead, "So, what happens next time? Where are we going with this thing between us, Starsk? How can I trust you—"

    That bites me pretty hard, and I interrupt, "I thought when you never said anything that you were over that, that we were okay again." But, Christ, it sounds so lame. Hutch must think so, too, because he turns his head to glare at me. And suddenly I see the real reason he's been holding back on me.

    "What could I say?" His mouth is tight. "You knew what you were doing. I thought it was what you needed to do because you were hurting so bad. You didn't want me around telling you to stop pissing everything away." He's been building up some steam, but then he seems to let it out, and his head falls.

    "And all this time you've been this mad at me and you didn't say anything? Jesus Christ, Hutch."

    "When was I supposed to say something?" he says tiredly. "When you were kicking me out? Or maybe later, when we you were finally doing a little better, was I supposed to knock you in the teeth again?" He shakes his head. "And what was I supposed to say? 'Hey, buddy, I know your life is in the crapper, and you've just lost the thing that means the most to you, but can you break out the tiny violin for me? I miss my buddy. I miss my partner.'" His voice breaks. "But, God, I really missed you. I still do, every day I'm out there without you."

    He runs out of air, and looks away again.

    My stomach hurts. I am such a selfish bastard. I'd been so jealous about Hutch still being on the job that I didn't let myself think about it—what it must be like for him to do it without me there to poke him when he gets moody, or make jokes when he gets bored. Or just listen to his latest rant about the State of the World and how he would fix it.

    Or help him when it gets to be just a little too much.

    "I'm sorry, babe," I say. I lean over until our shoulders touch. "You don't have to miss me anymore. You don't have to ever again, I promise."

    He gives a bitter little laugh. "What happens the next time life knocks you on your ass? You think it won't? That's what life's all about for chrissake. We both know it."

    "I swear I won't push you out again. I've learned a lot since then. Anyway, I won't be able to, because we'll be together." I say, dead solemn, "I promise, Hutch."

    He purses his lips and pulls in a breath. Then he turns, and his eyes look better, like they might believe me. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you," he says softly.

    "Why not? Nothing new, there."

    He smiles a bit at that. "I guess...because things have changed."

    "Nothing's changed. Nothing really important."

    But he shakes his head, looking a little wondering. "You have, you know? I-I haven't told you how proud I am of you. Maybe because I was still angry. But you did it all by yourself. You survived shit that would've killed most people, and you pulled yourself out of it. You did it, Starsk. You're something else."

    I feel proud. But then he says, "I guess you didn't need my help after all."

    I can't stand it. "I did. I do. Always."

    And I can't wait any more—I need to kiss him again. Maybe if I can't convince him with words, I can do it that way. So I just lean over and plant my mouth on his.

    He gives that familiar little groan, and kisses me back.

    I taste iron on his lips, and I know it's blood, and suddenly I remember everything that's gone down today. So I put on the brakes and say, "You need to wash up, babe. You need to get clean."

    His face squints up, and he nods. I have to help pull him up off the couch, he's so unsteady. I tug him into the bathroom and push him back against the sink, unbuttoning his outer shirt. He just stands there, letting me. When I yank up his undershirt he raises his arms and winces. So I almost expect it when I get the thing off and see the big dark bruise on the side of his belly.

    So. Not without a scratch.

    I give silent thanks to whoever invented bulletproof vests. And I bend down low and kiss the bruise softly, and his stomach jerks a little under my lips when he gasps.

    I straighten up and reach for his belt, and his hands land on mine.

    "You'll...be with me?" he whispers.

    "Didn't I say? Always, Hutch."

    He nods and tilts forward, putting his arms around me, and I stand there and let him just hold me for a little. It's strange, hugging Hutch that way, standing up close, my arms around his naked back.

    I feel like I want to say something about how fucking much he means to me. But there'll be time for that later, and I really need to get him clean. I want to wash the blood away, and maybe the years, too—all of them, going back to the first blow that took Luke down and made Hutch feel like he had to take care of everyone or the world would shake to pieces under him. For a long time I'd been there next to him, and we'd done it together. But I'd failed him lately, and he'd been alone.

    Not anymore. Not either of us, ever again.

    I finish undressing him, then I get stripped and join him in the shower. The water trails pink along his neck and back for a while before it's clear. I soap him down and take his cock into my hand, and he thickens up fast, hard and yearning, his head falling back against my shoulder. I run my other hand carefully up his bruised side and wash his lean ribs and then his nipples, stiff against my palm.

    He turns, wanting to kiss me, I think, but he stops and his eyes drop down to my chest. I should've expected it, I guess. It's been a while since he's looked at my scars, and the sight seems to catch at the corners of his mouth, pulling them down.

    "It's done with, Hutch," I say.

    He nods, but kind of jerky, and his hands come up to trace the edges of them with his fingertips. Then he bends down and kisses the scar closest to my heart. It feels warm there, in spite of the coolness of his lips wet from the spray.

    He lifts his head and I push him gently away to scrub myself, and his eyes are watching my hands, so I move them real slow, like a little show just for him, and damned if he doesn't turn pink.

    We finish our showers quick then, and dry off on the way to the bed, but just barely, so we're still dripping damp when we hit his clean sheets. Then we're kissing again, and this time I don't taste blood, just Hutch, kissing me deep, not holding back anymore. And I know what it's going to be like the rest of our lives.

    It's going to be great.

    I get pretty fearless and start kissing my way down his chest to suck on his little nipples, and he likes that a lot, judging from the way his breathing picks up fast, and the way his fingers twist in my hair. I start to go lower, but lose my nerve just short of my objective. It's dim in here, but not too dark to see, and when I raise my head he's staring down at me.

    "Close your eyes," I say.

    He shakes his head and puts his palm on my cheek, his thumb just below my eye.

    "I want to see you loving me," he says.

    Well, I can't say anything to that, so I shift down lower onto my side, and I grip his cock. He groans, such a sexy sound. So I'm smiling when I finally bend my head and take him into my mouth.

    "God, yes," he gasps. I'm not sure what good I'm really doing, there's so much of him, more than I expected, but I suck at the head, loving the taste of him. I feel his hand on my back, low on my waist, and he pulls at me.

    "Come this way," he says urgently, and I lift my head to shift around, not quite believing what he's after, but sure enough his hand takes hold of me, and he props himself on his elbow and sucks me in.

    It's my turn to gasp at the sweet, hot feel of his mouth on me. He shifts a little, getting into a better position, and I remember I'm still holding his cock, so I bend to do my part.

    Then we're both moving in sync, a slow, matched rhythm, and every time I do something new, he's there doing it to me, tongue soft but firm against my shaft, lips climbing to catch the crown. I kiss the tip of his cock and flick my tongue in his slit, tickling, and he jumps and then does the same thing to me, and I shiver.

    After a while he starts pumping with his hand at the same time, jerking me up and down while his lips and tongue move on me, and it's too much—he's got my number. I pull my mouth away, afraid I'll bite him because I'm coming now, harder than you can believe, coming into Hutch's mouth and moaning uncontrollably while I do it. He takes it all, his hand still moving, until I finish with one last spurt, my cock tingling.

    He lifts his head, but gives me a quick kiss right at the tip, and even though I'm too sensitive now, I love it that he enjoyed doing me enough to want to kiss me there.

    It makes me hungry to do the same thing to him, so as soon as I'm able to move my body again I turn back around so my elbow is right at his hip and I can get more of him into my mouth. He moans and spreads his legs, and I rest my other elbow between them, pushing my hand underneath so I can squeeze one of his cheeks.

    "Oh, yeah," he says, so I grip his cheek harder, and then start seriously sucking him, doing the things I was doing earlier that made him make those funny sounds. He starts moaning again, and spreads his legs even more so he can hump up into my mouth.

    It catches me by surprise, and I pull away just a bit, afraid I'll choke. He drops back down as if just realizing what he was doing.

    I raise my head to say, "It's okay," and then I suck him in again, and his hips move gently, and I bob my head up and down in the opposite rhythm, scraping him a little with my teeth every so often, but it just makes him groan and hump faster.

    "Oh, God. Oh, God," he says, and I know he must be getting closer, but my mouth is getting tired, and my tongue is almost numb as I swirl it around. I move my free hand to rub the slick skin just under his balls with my thumb. He's still damp from the shower, and I slide my fingers lower until I find his tight little opening.

    He makes a noise, but it doesn't sound anything like a protest, so I suck him deeper into my mouth and at the same time I penetrate him with my finger.

    "God, Starsk!" He shoves his cock up hard into my mouth, and then falls back onto my finger, which slips into him deeper, and then he groans real low, and his asshole squeezes my finger while his cock throbs against my tongue, filling my mouth with his bitter-tasting come.

    I manage to hold it all in my mouth without gagging, and then I pull away with a wet sound and swallow. Not the tastiest thing ever, but not bad. It makes my teeth squeak a little when I work my jaw.

    My finger is still inside him, and as I ease it out he groans again. I think about how hot and tight he is in there, and wonder if I'll ever get the guts to ask him if I can put something else up his ass. Something warm and hard.

    But right now I clean off and then shuffle up to kiss him. He tastes like me, and I taste like him. Together we taste pretty fantastic.

    He must agree, because he doesn't stop kissing me for a long time. And then he pulls me in tight and presses his cheek against my chest. He doesn't say anything, but he's holding me so hard his arms are trembling a little. I figure it's not my amazing prowess at giving head, considering it was my first blowjob ever. So I push him back to see his face.

    It has this look on it that's familiar to me from a long time ago, from an alleyway where he froze up once. I realize it's the same look I saw on his face when I first came in tonight. Somehow, we're back there.

    "I really am gonna quit, you know," he says, and it's not a question. "I can't take the risk of losing this with you, Starsk. I can't stand the idea of it—"

    "Hey, it's okay," I say, wondering why I have to repeat it. Maybe it didn't really sink in the first time. Or maybe it was too good for him to believe. I give him a little shake. "I told you, Hutch. You do what you gotta. I ain't going nowhere." My voice has gotten all rough.

    He closes his eyes, and when he opens them, they look lighter, somehow. His whole face looks lighter.

    "I'm free, then," he says, and he sounds like the first day of summer.

    "We both are, babe."

    ooOoo

     

    Epilogue

     

      Pick my feet up off the ground
      No floor below me, no walls around me
      I ain't afraid of dyin'
      If I ain't fallin' I must be flyin'.

      —5 Chinese Brothers, "If I Ain't Falling"

     

    Hutch gave notice, and of course Dobey was upset, and they went 'round and 'round for a while. But then Hutch had his obligatory session with the department shrink. And he told me he'd talked to her about what it felt like to have a second partner bleeding out through his hands.

    After that, they didn't fight him on it anymore. In fact, the Police Pension Board granted him a line-of-duty disability pension for job stress, one of the few times they've ever done something like that.

    You can bet it didn't hurt that he was one of the most highly decorated officers ever on the force. Along with yours truly.

    The very day Hutch handed in his badge I got a call from Stew that there were some positions about to open up in Air Search and Rescue at Sequoia National Park. Hutch and I scrambled to sign up for the necessary courses and certificate programs, because jobs where you can fly for hours a day don't come along very often. I was so jazzed at the possibility that I didn't even mind so much that we'd be living in a smaller town than I was used to. After all, we could always fly wherever we needed to go.

    I wasn't as keen on the woodsman aspect. Hutch took to the training like a fish to water, but to me it felt like every twig in the forest was out to get me. But we got through it, and they took us on the team.

    And now our beat is the forest. I have to say it's pretty great. On our first rescue we only tagged along in training, but I was high just knowing our future would be helping people again; and this time, instead of bad guys, our enemies would be the elements.

    Although, I had to ask Hutch, "If Nature is so damned great, how come we'll be spending most of our time rescuing people from it?"

    He just growled like a bear.

    Speaking of bears, I'm not as scared of them anymore. I mean, after facing a submachine gun fired by a trained assassin, a bear seems pretty tame. You just have to treat it with respect. And carry a trank gun.

    But most of the time I'm up in the air, carrying the search teams, doing rescues or fire spotting. I also have a camera hooked to the wing that I use to take shots for the topography guys.

    And Hutch—believe it or not, he's joined the jump squad. When we have to get to spots where the plane can't land safely, I fly the team over the search area, and one by one they hop out of the plane.

    I think they're nuts.

    I watch Hutch step out onto the wheel well, and he looks back at me through his goggles, the wind flapping the ends of his hair, golden in the sun, and he grins, because he knows I really hate this part.

    But you know, when he lets go of the wing and jumps, his head thrown back and his arms stretched out behind him?

    It's like he's flying.

     


    Finis.

     

    July 16, 2006
    San Francisco, CA