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Ce n'est pas un Baiser

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Their first conviction as partners was a rough ride in court, the perp all dressed up and looking (Hutch said) like a Communion wafer wouldn't melt in his mouth, and his wife and kids in a row behind him, dressed up for Easter Sunday. His wife wore gloves and a hat with a little net veil. "Imitating Ladybird," Starsky muttered, and Hutch snorted, because the last time they'd seen somebody doing Mrs. Johnson, it was in a drag show they'd been busting for coke and prostitution.

The photographs of the crime scene undid a lot of the benefit of that little act, though. And the defendant's clothes, spattered with blood you could smell clear to the jury box when the prosecutor held them up.

Still, the defense attorney was fierce and fast, drilling the two cops with questions, trying to undermine their testimony six ways from Sunday. Their behavior at the scene and at the defendant's house ... snippets of the interrogation tapes ... information about their acquaintance with the victim ... insinuations about them personally--it was all there. "How long have you been working this beat, Officer Starsky?" "Officer Hutchinson, is it really true that you knew Miss Kooch only in the context of your work?"

Hutch started to stammer, then blushed with vexation, and altogether looked like he'd been buying sex from Koochie every night of the week, instead of just getting a little information out of her when they needed an in on Porn Row. He was grinding his teeth in the seat next to Starsky for the rest of the defense's case. Starsky grabbed his partner's forearm and just hung on, shaking it a little from time to time or rubbing back and forth an inch or so, though he knew Hutch could hardly feel it through the suitcoat and shirt. Just a distraction, anyway, just a way of saying, I'm here, right here, the way they did when things got to be too much.

And then they won. "Guilty," said the foreman. After a moment, the courtroom exploded. Both cops jumped to their feet, and a motley bunch of Koochie's friends were cheering behind them, and Starsky was shaking Hutch's arm hard, and then had his shoulders, babbling something about doing it, they'd done it, Hutch had done it, and then gave him a kiss on the forehead, which would have been just excitement and nothing else, but for the look in his eyes. He left his hands on both sides of Hutch's head, pulled until their foreheads touched, and for a second they were all alone.


While Starsky was dying, guts twisting, hands shaking, sweating, stumbling, Hutch held on as best he could, sometimes with bad jokes, sometimes with anger Starsky talked him out of, sometimes with his uselessly strong arms. Mouth in Starsky's hair, Hutch's lips moved, only half with words he didn't believe but could not stop saying. "We'll do it, hang on, just hang on, I'm here, it'll be okay."

Miraculously, it was. And the next day, when Starsky was still alive, in the hospital bed, Hutch stood swaying with fatigue and touched his lips with shaking fingers, then Starsky's ... and paused for a long moment, feeling the puff of breath kissing his skin. At his fingertips was a tiny throb, a pulse. He gulped, his throat suddenly tight and sore, and left the room in such a hurry that he almost ran into Dobey in the hallway. "Go on home, Hutch," the big man said, and then gripped Hutch's arm harder and said, "No, don't. Wait for me. I'll take you. You shouldn't drive--you haven't slept. Now you sit down over there, all right, son?"

Hutch nodded. It had been the Torino he'd driven anyway, and that might as well stay here until its owner left. He collapsed into a plastic bowl chair and looked at his fingertips, touched them gingerly with his other hand, and thought about Starsky's even breathing. The morning light coming through the window was cool and pale yellow, like daffodils.

It didn't seem possible. Not any of it. Life was so unlikely sometimes. Hutch covered his face with his hands and laughed quietly, hoping he didn't look like too much of a lunatic. The pulse still beat in his fingertips, and he didn't know if it was his own or Starsky's.


It looked bad. Really bad. The car was on Hutch's legs, and he lay still and limp. Probably it would have been better not to touch him, but Starsky couldn't possibly wait. The hair under his hands was greasy, dusty, and clotted with blood from a head wound. The slack face was bruised and grayish. Hutch's eyes didn't seem to be focusing. Still, "We made it, bud," Starsky said, cradling the warm, solid skull between his hands. Hutch did something with his mouth that was probably meant to be a smile, though it looked nothing like one.

He could have kissed his partner then. But, somehow, this was too important, ran too deep for a comic smack or even a brotherly peck. Starsky ran the pads of his thumbs back and forth on Hutch's living skin, shifted one hand to rest against the strong pounding vein in his throat, and just looked, murmuring once in a while, "We made it, Hutch," until the helicopter found them.


The night they opened the presents Terry had left them, they'd spent the time from work until 11:00 or so drinking beer and talking in a determined way about trivialities. Then Starsky made his wavering way to the kitchen and insisted on playing Monopoly right now, right here, sitting on the floor. "Closer to the beer," he said, though they both knew it was closer to the cabinet with the gifts in it.

They had plenty of the beer, too, of course. "If we did," Starsky said hesitantly, "quit--what'ud you--y'know?"

Hutch stared at him for a while. Starsky's mouth was bent, forced into smile-shape, and the tension in it made Hutch's jaw ache too. The edges of his eyes were red, though Hutch hadn't actually caught Starsky crying at all, yet. The curly head sagged, and Starsky pushed his Monopoly token, the little metal car, with one fingertip. An inch or so forward, to the corner of the space it was in, then back to the center, then forward again.

"C'mon, Hutch," he said.

So Hutch had to think about it. He couldn't even imagine doing any job without Starsky anymore. As it was, they were too far apart, with the board and all the game junk in between them, but since Terry had died, Starsky had pulled away from hugs and pats. That might even have been why he got the two of them off the couch and in here .... Hutch wrenched his mind back to the question. Job. It would have to be a partner thing, or a group thing, or a team thing ... "Football."

Starsky looked skeptical. "You even played?"

"Sure thing." Hutch rolled his eyes, or started to--it made him lean back, for some reason. When he was sitting up straight again, he went on, "Every kid's played football. I was good, too."

"And they'd draft you where?"

How that ended up with Hutch actually on the phone with somebody at the office of that Canadian team he'd seen once, the Lions, he never knew, afterwards. Were they actually going to do it? Quit? Did Starsky really want to? One minute he was shaking his head, the next saying "Yeah," when Hutch told the telephone and the sleepy annoyance on the other end that they weren't going to be cops much longer. Hutch's jeans were binding, the wall slipping behind him, and the telephone cord twisted around his neck somehow after the Lions' person hung up on him. Drunker than he'd thought.

He got back down on the floor, leaned his dizzy head against a cabinet door, and they tried to play a few more moves, but there were only seconds left before midnight, and they both knew it. The candle Starsky had lit was smoking a little, and that might have been why Hutch's eyes were stinging ... the wax was dark blue, like Starsky's eyes. Maybe Terry had bought it.

Starsky's heartbroken smile was killing Hutch. Yes, he'd loved Terry as a friend himself, and it was terrible to know that she was dead, but right now, right now, those wet dark eyes, that almost bashful look as they opened the gifts, the way Starsky grinned and took deep breaths and tried so hard not to break down ... it all just got to Hutch, and his own eyes stung and filled until there was nothing in front of him but a blur. He held Ollie clutched in one hand, the note telling him to take care of the bear and Starsky in the other, and his arms ached with emptiness. The paper crackled between his fingers. Starsky suddenly covered his face with one bent arm, which was the last straw. Ollie skidded across the floor, the Monopoly pieces scattered, and Hutch was kneeling on the board and holding Starsky at last, wrapping him as tight and close as arms could hold him, the curly head burrowing in his chest and almost stifling the gasping, shuddering breathing that in anybody else would have been outright sobs. Hutch rubbed and patted and murmured, feeling tears soak through below his collarbone.


And Starsky sat back, pushed away, and stared with spiked, wet lashes and angry eyes. "What did you call me?"

He had never looked less babyish. Even in tears, he had an almost feral strength. Hutch had never meant to diminish it--but he wouldn't be able to explain, so he shut his jaw tightly before he could make things any worse. At last he managed, "I'm drunk, Starsk."

And, weirdly, that seemed to be the right thing to say. The anger dropped off Starsky's face and he relaxed. His body drooped, and he even shut his eyes.

Hutch reached up and held the long face, gently, warming it, the stillness of his hands giving all the pledges he could not speak.

After a while, very carefully, turning over words in his mind like cards until he found the right ones, Hutch said, "Rest, huh, buddy?"

Starsky nodded, his eyelashes flickering a little. Hutch forced his hands apart, away, to his sides, to the floor to get himself up. By this time, the dark eyes were fully open. Their clear gaze seemed brighter than the candle flame. Hutch held out his hands and Starsky took them, pulled and scrambled a little until they were both upright. Then his head bent again--but this time it wasn't emotion. "Look at this mess," he said, voice still hoarse.

"Leave it," Hutch said.

"The candle--"

"It'll be fine. What's gonna catch, the linoleum?"

Starsky didn't really smile, but he wasn't not-smiling either. "You like bein' a slob, don'cha?"

"Only way to live," Hutch said, putting his hand on Starsky's shoulder as they walked unsteadily toward the bedroom.

Starsky moved out of Hutch's reach to undress, and Hutch knew he should get out but couldn't quite make himself do it. Starsky might need something. He might not be able to --well, okay, he was getting things unbuttoned and unzipped just fine, but if he lost his balance ....

He didn't, but he didn't seem to care if Hutch stayed, either. He behaved, in fact, as if he were alone in the room, so Hutch just stood there feeling useless until Starsky slid between the covers and looked at him, expression unreadable.

"Okay?" Hutch asked.

"T'rrific. You'll be okay on the couch?"


He left the bedroom, looked at the sofa cushions that were still askew from when they'd gotten up and the empty beer bottles on the coffee table, and then wandered into the kitchen. Bracing himself against the counter with one hand, he reached down and snuffed the candle with his fingers, then snatched them back. It did sting. He wasn't Lawrence of Arabia after all, he thought with a little secret grin in the dark.

He stopped grinning sometime while he was stumbling, hopping, and half-tripping over all the stuff that he'd sent flying when he knelt on the Monopoly board. Near the door, one foot thudded softly against something that gave. He pushed it again, and one more time until it was near enough to the wall for him to lean down and get it. Ollie, of course.

He took the bear back to the front room and sat it down between the empty bottles, then lay curled on his side, staring at the dim light reflecting from the glass and the black plastic of Ollie's eyes. Hutch's body felt heavy, his limbs oversized. He had the illusion that he was sinking deeper and deeper into the cushions. He was weary, yawning, closing his eyes hopefully and then opening them with some irritation because he could not seem to sleep. Eventually, he could see everything in the room in shades of charcoal gray and black.

The bear was staring at him. At first the stare seemed kindly, but after Hutch opened his eyes to it for the fifth or seventh or some time, it began to look ... judgmental. Stern. Sarcastic. Something. He sat up and grabbed the stuffed animal, turned it a little, and still couldn't really tell what the expression was.

He was in the dark, after all, so he could barely see it. And it was just a teddy bear, not some sort of oracle, even if it had come with a note that made him cry.

... Please love them both ....

Perhaps it was that memory that got Hutch to his unsteady feet and sent him into the yet darker space of his partner's bedroom. It was the only reason he could think of afterward for taking the bear along.

Starsky was snoring, too softly to be heard in the other room but clearly audible in here. Hutch went over to the side of the bed but could see almost nothing, so he got carefully down on his knees and stared again. He made out the lines of brows and lashes, the mole on Starsky's cheek, the slight parting of his lips where the snores issued. Hutch's free hand hovered, as it had in the hospital that other morning, but this time he took it back, laid it on the bed where he could feel the warmth of Starsky's shoulder without touching it. Elbow to fingertips rested there, on the rumpled blanket, and Hutch leaned and looked and leaned more.

He didn't ever consciously decide. It didn't feel like a choice at all, but like the working of gravity or fate. His dry lips touched Starsky's eyelid, lifted, touched again on the other side. When Hutch looked, they were still closed, and this time he bent deliberately until the fan of Starsky's breath touched his lower face, until it entered his mouth, still bearing the heady, musky sweetness of beer, almost strong enough to taste. Hutch licked his lips and his tongue just touched Starsky's mouth as well.

He couldn't, really couldn't kiss the man while he lay unconscious. Not hard, anyway. No more tongue. While Hutch told himself so, he just touched his mouth to the slack, soft lips, then nibbled delicately at the upper one. Paused. Starsky's breath seemed deeper, so Hutch did it again. Then he got the surprise of his life when Starsky's lips seemed to close around his--he pulled back, startled. The sleeping man smacked his lips again, sighed, and snored.

Hutch sat down on the floor with a bump, and would have laughed at himself but that he was sure the noise would wake Starsky. Instead he put his head down on his arm and closed his eyes. He should have been at least as wakeful in that cramped position as he'd been on the couch, but before he knew it, the bed was moving and there was a pale, jaundiced sort of light in the room. His mouth tasted vile and when he raised his head, a crick caught in his neck.

And Starsky was frowning at him. Hutch stared mutely back.

Starsky blinked; his brow smoothed. Reaching out, he voluntarily touched his partner for what seemed the first time in days, fingertips resting lightly below one cheekbone.

"You should see the mark on your face," he murmured. "Looks like somebody crumpled you."

There was not one snappy, or even sensible, reply in Hutch's head.

"Hey--" Starsky got up on one elbow-- "you're still out of it, aren't you? I gotta get up anyway--" and he did: sat up, swung his legs over the edge of the bed where Hutch had been leaning, and then stood, bent and hauled Hutch to his feet as if in deliberate reversal of the night before. "G'wan, get in--" and pushed him down again into the warm, tousled bedclothes. Starsky's face changed, though, when he registered that Hutch was holding Terry's bear.

Hutch settled against the dented pillow, still unable to think of anything to say. Starsky took hold of Ollie's other side, seemingly to take the bear away, but didn't pull. "You took that note ... way too seriously, Hutch." The grin was small, a little tight, but the warmth in his bloodshot eyes was real. "I mean. Sleeping next to the bed! Watching over me?"

No, Hutch thought, just managing not to crawl in with you. And he couldn't say that, not now, but he had to say something. "I don't remember," he said, and it was only partly a lie--he sure couldn't remember why he was clutching the bear, or for that matter what had come over him. He did remember the touch of loose, soft eyelid-skin, of slightly-chapped lips, lax in sleep, and he licked his own lips involuntarily.

"Thirsty?" Starsky had no idea, of course. But there was clearly something satisfying for him in taking care of Hutch, this morning, and Hutch didn't mind--or wait--Hutch sat up convulsively, startling Starsky back a half-step--

"The kitchen's a mess," Hutch blurted.

"Oh," Starsky said, "Yeah, I remember now. Aw, shit--" he sat down himself, on the edge of the bed, back to Hutch, and rubbed his temple. "I don' wanna crawl around pickin' it up."

"My fault," Hutch said, but Starsky shook his head.

"Playing in there was my idea."

"We're a pair." Hutch meant the hangovers and the mess, but Starsky smiled.

"Yeah," he said, "we always are, huh?" Then he slapped the covers over Hutch's thigh. "I'm gettin' a shower first," he said. "You sleep if you want."

And, though he hadn't meant to do more than shut his eyes and think for a little while, the rushing water did put Hutch back to sleep. When Starsky came back from the shower, he stared for a while before getting dressed in careful silence.


Starsky got Hutch home from the airport, tucked him in, and let him fall into the sleep he'd been fighting the whole way in the looked familiar, even though Hutch was in his own bed here and the light was all different. He was still pale, too, shadows under the eyes that were just losing that plague-ridden, despairing look that had torn Starsky up inside.

Sitting on the floor next to the bed, Starsky stroked the hair that lay next to Hutch's face on the pillow. Not quite touching skin. Still, Hutch's eyelids squeezed shut and then flicked open, and he didn't look at all surprised.

"Tuckin' me in?" he asked, sleepily.

"Yeah," Starsky said. "Want the bear?"

Hutch's lips stretched lazily in a closed-mouth smile that was suddenly far too much like the would-be-brave expression he'd worn in the hospital before the pain and fever got to be too much for him. Starsky took a gasping breath, got to his feet, and then Hutch sat up, reached for him, pulled him down again. They hugged for a while, Hutch's voice singing and buzzing in Starsky's ear: "I'm here. I'm here, buddy, it's all right."

"Oh, God, Hutch."

"I know. I'm here."

"You are," Starsky said, breathlessly. "Yeah, you are." He pressed the side of his face into Hutch's, held on tight, just got the feel of him, big, breathing, warm.

Hutch's head slid a little, until his forehead was on Starsky's shoulder, and he said down into the space between their bodies, "You're better than the bear."

Starsky's throat hurt. "Lie down."

Hutch did, closed his eyes again, seeming so at peace that Starsky wouldn't even go on with the tucking-in joke. Though one fingertip brushed the place where he'd have laid a little good-night-nap kiss if he had gone through with it. And Hutch smiled as if he really had been kissed.

Starsky's hands were shaking when he reached the living area and collapsed on the couch. He kept having these weird flashbacks: fear and rage and other feelings wrought so high and so over the top of whatever situation he was really in that he didn't even look at what they were, just did the mental equivalent of balling them up and stuffing them away, sitting on the lid, and it didn't really work for long but it let him function.

Being afraid made him angry--he did know that--but what was there to scare him now?

Hutch's skin under his fingertip.

That was stupid. They touched a lot. They always had. And he'd been so hungry for it while Hutch was quarantined. Missed it so much that he'd had to go in, gloves and mask and all shutting them apart anyway, just for the half-touch through the plastic, while Hutch told him to get out and find the carrier so the doctors could find the cure.

Starsky wrapped his own arms around his midsection and concentrated on balling up, stuffing away, sitting down hard.

But he could still feel not only the real touch but how it would have felt to kiss Hutch, even that silly little bit, like a dad kissing a kid.

Sagging back into the couch cushions, he closed his eyes.

He'd kissed so many people--so many women--and the thing was, there wasn't all that much difference. Some scale, yeah, between the casuals when he concentrated on his own technique, excited as much by the power he felt in himself as by the woman's mouth and skin and soft wet sex, and the serious relationships when he was trying to communicate more than let me fuck you. The kisses he'd given Helen, Sharman, Terry, and Rosie were as sweet and loving as he knew how to make them, seeking out the woman's own taste, herself in her kiss--giving himself. Oh, he'd meant them, those kisses.

And yet they were much the same, as his memories went from woman to woman.

Hutch was ... Hutch was different. Always. From everyone. Never anybody else like Hutch in his life, never ever ... and kissing Hutch, if he ever did, for real ....

But then what? A life like Johnny Blaine's? Hiding all the time, lying to everybody--yeah, even to Peter--though Starsky hadn't warmed to the guy, he could tell he was the kind, well, the kind of mistress who thought her--his--man would get a divorce any time now.

He couldn't do that, and Hutch couldn't. He'd kill anybody who tried to do that to Hutch.

But it wasn't fair. It made him angry and scared him both. There ought to be a woman who was different from all the others. There ought to be somebody else than Hutch who could make Starsky feel like this. But whenever he thought there was--like with Sharman, taking her through the drying-out just like he'd helped Hutch through cold turkey--there was something missing, in him or in her, or the luck ran out that had kept Hutch, and Starsky too, from dying time after time. Oh, it wasn't fair, not at all, that Terry died but Hutch lived.

And that was a terrible thing to think.

He felt so disloyal to both of them that it was just eating him up, corrosive as an ulcer.

Casual? How could anybody think preferring a man was fucking casual! How could Hutch make stupid casual jokes about it? Saying that Starsky wasn't even a good kisser?

There on the coffee table sat that soapy little statue. Must have been Vanessa or Abby or somebody who bought it. Starsky couldn't imagine Hutch picking the thing up in those big masculine hands, taking it to a cashier and actually paying for it. But he had kept it, and there it was, mocking Starsky in a dozen ways, the two girlish little cherubs so near to a kiss but never quite there.

He stood, grabbed his jacket from the hook near the door and got the hell out of the apartment before he picked the damn thing up and threw it right out the window.

In the bedroom, Hutch opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling.