Hutch was dreaming about her again.
This time she was at her eighth birthday party, her face radiant as the cake was placed on the table before her. He could hear a dozen childish voices singing “Happy Birthday” in about six different keys.
She blew out all the candles on the first try.
Hutch looked over at him briefly as he drove the car along the freeway. “Hey yourself.”
“So, anything fun happen while I was in the Big Apple?”
Hutch shook his head. “All quiet, buddy.” There was a huge tractor-trailer in front of them and another approaching on their left in the passing lane. Hutch fought down a sudden feeling of panic. Taking a slow, calming breath, he flipped on his right-turn signal, intending to escape in the right lane. Their exit was coming up soon anyway.
He was halfway across when a red Corvette blew past them about half an inch from the passenger side.
“Jesus Christ!” Starsky yelled. “Watch it!”
“I was watching it!” Hutch yelled back, the adrenaline washing through him, leaving his limbs rubbery. “He came out of nowhere!”
“I was talking to him, not you,” Starsky answered, reaching for the radio.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m calling it in,” Starsky told him. “That asshole. We’ll get a black and white to pick him up further up the line.”
“No. Let him go.”
Starsky goggled at him. “He’s dangerous.”
“So are ten thousand other morons who drive the freeway every day. I don’t want to waste my time filling out a fucking moving violation report on a Sunday afternoon, all right?”
He could feel Starsky’s gaze on the side of his face for another moment. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Starsk hang up the radio. “Okay,” he muttered, obviously unsatisfied but willing to let it go.
Silence reigned in the car for another few minutes. Hutch took the exit and guided the car down the ramp and braked gently at the lights. He cleared his mind of everything but the feel of the vehicle under his hands, the low throb of the engine transmitted through his hands and feet and body.
“Thought you took a few days off while I was away,” Starsky murmured, and just like that the car dissolved around him and he was back in that place, that disgusting fucking place that was too clean, too clean for the evil that had been done there.
I have to follow procedure, have to follow procedure—
“I did,” Hutch said. “A few days.”
He could practically hear Starsky’s frown. “You want to talk about it?”
Sighing, he looked over at Starsky. “I don’t even want to think about it. Give me some time, okay?”
Starsk nodded. “Okay.”
The light turned green, and Hutch gripped the wheel and turned it, ridiculously grateful when the car responded easily.
Things had been blessedly quiet before Starsky left, which was one of the reasons he decided to take his annual trip to New York early. The other had been that one of his aunts was in the hospital for bypass surgery, and while she was expected to make a full recovery, he still wanted to visit her. Hutch imagined Starsky walking into the hospital, impressing all the cardiac nurses with his bullet scars, regaling his aunt with stories and jokes and making her forget about where she was for a while.
After Starsk left Hutch lazed around for a couple of days, lying on the beach and absorbing the unusually warm April sun. Tiring of that quickly, he then decided to head up to Big Sur, maybe do a little hiking, commune with nature without the city boy around to bitch about it every five minutes. He was stuffing his knapsack when Mike Dooley called.
At first, he had no inkling that it was anything more than a catch-up call, although on reflection he should’ve known better. Since Starsk had been ruled fit to rejoin the force after the shooting—almost a year, now—it felt like he’d been constantly waiting for something that would tell him he’d had enough.
He’d thought that watching the blood drain from Starsk’s body had been the last straw. But it hadn’t been. As soon as Starsk had been well enough to sit up, all he could think about was getting back to fighting strength, and Hutch hadn’t had the heart to put up another obstacle to add to the seemingly insurmountable collection his partner already had lined up in front of him. So he’d gone along with it, supporting Starsky through every painful step on the road to recovery.
Besides, a small part of his mind—the part he never showed to Starsky or anyone—insisted that Starsk would never be a cop again.
And when Starsk had beaten the odds and requalified, Hutch had told himself it was okay, that he could handle it. They weren’t one of the Zebra teams any more, constantly prowling the streets, wasting their energy on two-bit hoods. They’d been kicked upstairs to Homicide, and while there was still plenty of legwork, the percentage of time they spent at a desk had nearly doubled. Neither of them seemed to mind.
When Mike brought up his current case, Hutch’s gut tightened. He knew that Mike had transferred to the FBI’s Special Victims Unit about the same time Starsk had been shot. The last few times they’d seen him, it had been no surprise to watch Mike’s broad, Irish face grow more haggard at each outing. No surprise, either, to hear that Mike and his wife were now going to marriage counseling.
“You ever feel like the whole world’s going to shit?” Hutch asked suddenly. He felt a twinge of guilt when he realized he’d only been half-listening and had probably interrupted his friend.
Mike didn’t seem angry, though, only tired. Sighing, he said, “Only about every five minutes of every day, which is why Jeannie cries so damn much.” Another pause in which Hutch thought he could hear Mike getting older, just like him, just like all of them. “I hate to ask you, man, but we’re so close to getting this fucker, but I’ve lost my perspective, and so has the rest of my team. I need a pair of fresh eyes.”
Hutch almost laughed; the thought that he would be able to offer a fresh anything seemed ludicrous, but he understood what Mike meant, what Mike needed, and that was enough to keep his cynicism in check. “Yeah, no problem,” he said. “Come on by my place tonight and bring what you’ve got.”
“No, you’d better come by the office. Believe me, you don’t want one piece of this thing to cross your threshold.”
“Hey,” Starsky said when Hutch opened the door to his cheerful knock the next morning. “You ready to head back to the grind?”
No, Hutch wanted to say, suddenly desperate and panic-stricken. He almost choked as bile rose in his throat. God, he’d been fine two minutes ago, showered and dressed and ready to go.
“Hutch?” He felt a hand grip his arm just above the elbow. “You sick?”
Hutch clapped a hand over his mouth and spun on his heel, barely making it to the toilet in time. As he retched up his breakfast, he heard the water running in the sink, then felt a cool, damp washcloth pressed to the back of his neck. Starsk knew that made him feel better from the time he’d nursed him through the stomach flu.
He squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden flood of hot, embarrassing tears. God, I missed you. But I’m glad you were gone, I’m glad.
Starsk’s hand was in his hair now, not stroking, just cupping the back of his skull, reassuring him with its weight and warmth.
When there was nothing left to bring up, Hutch wiped his mouth and hauled himself to his feet with Starsky’s help.
“I’ll call Captain Turner and tell him you can’t make it in,” Starsky murmured as Hutch fumbled some paste onto his toothbrush.
“I’ll be okay,” Hutch muttered, not daring to meet his own eyes in the mirror.
“Like hell,” Starsky growled. “You’re takin’ the next couple of days off, or I’m gonna drag you to the department shrink myself.”
And before Hutch could think of a reply to that, he was alone again.
In the end it hadn’t mattered that the photos and case notes and autopsy reports never crossed Hutch’s threshold, because his brain stored up the images and words and replayed them back to him every night. He’d never been able to keep that distance he needed, to toughen up his skin to the point he felt the weight of the world as a dull, steady pressure instead of a deep, stabbing pain. And lately he’d been feeling stripped bare, unprepared and defenseless, so that when he slept the dead invited themselves in and made themselves at home.
The first girl to go missing had disappeared on her way home from school in February. Her body had been found a week later.
She had been six and a half.
She’d died of massive blood loss, but slowly, through a small incision in her neck, though there had also been a massive operation scar along the lateral line of her thorax that had been made after death. When the coroner had performed the autopsy, he’d found all her organs rearranged: heart exchanged with liver, kidneys with lungs, the whole digestive system tucked up under the ribcage. The guy was an expert, his work careful, precise. It was as though he’d been trying to make a new map of the human body, one he liked better than the old one.
Her reproductive organs were missing. They’d been replaced with—Jesus—with foam stuffing, the kind you’d find inside a teddy bear.
Hutch hadn’t thrown up since he’d been a rookie. He spent a half hour in the bathroom outside Mike’s office, shaking, sweating and puking. Mike had apologized profusely and told him to go home, but by then he was so angry—at himself, at Mike, most of all at the animal that had done this—that he sat down and took up reading right where he’d left off.
“Okay,” Starsky said as he walked into the kitchen, “pack your stuff and let’s go.”
Hutch paused in his contemplation of a glass of grapefruit juice to frown at Starsky. “Go?”
Starsky folded his arms. “I just got off the phone with Turner. He said you were gone for a couple of days and then spent the rest of the time you were supposed to be off popping in and out of the station. When he asked you why the hell you were not on vacation, you told him you were helping out a friend.” He cocked his head. “Which friend, Hutch?”
Hutch actually glared at him for a moment, and Starsky got a weird feeling of déjà vu. He’d seen that hostile, wounded look before.
Shit. That was the look Hutch had given him when he was still coming down from Forrest’s horse.
Then those blue eyes returned to their study of his juice, and Starsky could breathe again. “Mike,” Hutch murmured, before tipping the glass to his lips.
Hutch took a long time swallowing. “Yeah.”
Starsky could feel a vein pulsing in his neck. “He still with the SVU?”
This time Hutch only nodded. Starsky took the hint: Not now. Sometime, but not now. He figured he could live with that, so long as sometime was sooner rather than later.
“Well, uh, Turner said it was still pretty quiet, and told us to take three extra days and get the hell out of town.”
Hutch looked up at that. “Us?”
“Yeah. I managed to weasel some more vacation time outta him too.” Starsky shrugged. “What can I say? He’s got mommy issues. Figured a week home wasn’t much of a vacation. Also, I bitched about having to shovel snow.”
Hutch snorted. “It snowed once while you were there. Besides, your mom’s stoop can’t take any more than five minutes to clear.”
“More like two minutes, but he doesn’t have to know that.” Starsky clapped his hands together. “So. You were headed up to the mountains, right? Let’s get crackin’.”
Hutch shook his head. “Starsk, you don’t have to babysit me.”
“Who’s babysitting? After April in Brooklyn, I could do with a dose of California outdoors.” He held out an arm. “Look how pale I’m getting.”
Solemnly, Hutch took Starsky’s hand in both of his, turning it over for inspection. Hutch himself was starting to regain some color – he had usually lost most of his golden glow by early spring – but he was still a few shades lighter than Starsky. Starsky looked down at his dark, tapered hand cradled in Hutch’s broad, square ones and felt a crackling jolt of energy run up his arm and sizzle through his body, leaving confusion in its wake.
“My God, this is serious,” Hutch said, expression grave. “You’re practically an albino.”
“Ha ha.” Starsky jerked his hand out of Hutch’s gentle grip, mock indignation covering his sudden nervousness. “So, you want me to get your tent out of the storage closet?”
Hutch rose to his feet and walked over to the key rack. “Starsk, I don’t know if this is such a good idea. You hate camping.”
“What are you talking about? I’m crazy about the untamed wilderness.”
“Is that why the last time we went camping together you spent ninety-five percent of the time scared there might be bears around?”
Starsky rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. It wasn’t any more than half the time. Besides, I’m not scared of ‘em any more.”
“Nah, I read a book. Squirrels, now…” He shuddered. “Those are the bastards you gotta watch out for.”
Hutch actually chuckled at that. “Anybody ever tell you you’re a nut case?”
Starsky grinned. “All the time. Good thing you love me so much, huh?” As Hutch handed him the key, Starsky reached out to ruffle Hutch’s hair. But before he could connect, he saw Hutch flinch as if steeling himself for a blow.
Starsky’s hand dropped to his side. “I’ll, uh, get that tent.” And without another look at Hutch, he fled.
Deep down Hutch had known that getting out of town wasn’t going to be a magic cure-all. He just hadn’t expected to find it so depressing when he was proved right. The outdoors had always been his escape; even when he only had time enough for a quick run through the park, it never failed to ease some of the weight from his shoulders.
As the Torino climbed higher into the mountains and sped them further away from civilization, however, Hutch found himself feeling even more burdened, because now he’d have to put on a good show for Starsky. He tried not to resent him for it – Starsk was only trying to help in his own way – but it was tough. After all, if Starsk hadn’t been so gung-ho about returning to the force, he’d be…
Yeah? Hutch’s inner voice prodded when his thoughts stumbled. Where would you be? Were you planning to open a health-food store? Maybe pursue a promising career as a hermit?
The truth was, he would be anywhere Starsky was, and nowhere he wasn’t. A few months before the shooting, Hutch had been steamrollered by that very revelation, and had rebelled against the truth of it, to the point where he’d almost sabotaged their relationship beyond repair. He’d been trapped in a funk about his own mortality, his inability to find that perfect person – or hell, even an imperfect one – to share his life with, when it had struck him that he had found that person, and his name was David Starsky. It wasn’t like he’d never acknowledged the importance of Starsky in his life, but the realization that he was probably the best Hutch was ever going to do had messed with his head, turned him into a smaller version of himself.
He’d never felt smaller in his life than when he’d opened the door to find Starsky on the other side, knowing he’d probably done something that Starsky would never forgive him for. He still wasn’t sure what it was that had led him to do it in the first place – it wasn’t as though Kira was irresistible, or worth the destruction of the most important friendship he’d ever had. When he thought about it afterward (and God knew he tried not to), he couldn’t help wondering if it had been some kind of sick test of Starsky’s loyalty, a demand for ultimate proof that Starsk needed him as much as he needed Starsky. When Starsky had, against all logic, forgiven him, Hutch hadn’t been reassured; he’d just felt like even more of a worthless bastard than he’d been when he opened that door.
When Starsky had been shot, and Hutch sat there in the hospital corridor staring through the glass, waiting for Starsky’s heart to stop – fuck. No use reliving that memory, but when Starsk had opened his eyes for the first time after his operation, Hutch had vowed then and there to never take Starsky’s precious gift of friendship for granted again. He might not be what Hutch had envisioned for himself, but if that’s what fate had seen fit to give him, it was a hell of a lot more than most people ever got.
Once they arrived at the campsite, Starsky shooed him away, handing him the fishing rod and tackle box and instructing him to catch some supper. “I got the tent thing covered,” Starsky informed him with a confident wave of the hand.
Hutch was a little less confident. “Starsk, I don’t mind giving you a hand—”
Starsky dug the tent out of the trunk and flung it on the ground, then began dragging it toward the campsite. Hutch winced but said nothing. “Come on, I think I got the hang of it by now. I help you with setting it up all the time.”
And I always wish you hadn’t, Hutch thought. Aloud, he said, “Well, just holler if you need any help. I won’t be far away.”
“Go on, mighty hunter, and catch us some dinner, willya? I can handle this.”
Sighing, Hutch obeyed, trying not to think about what havoc Starsky might end up wreaking upon his tent in the meantime. He strolled down to the lake, determined to banish some of the more negative thoughts from his head. Whether or not he wanted to admit it, he knew this time away was what he needed to get himself back on track. Starsky knew it, too, which was why he’d brought him up here in the first place. He just had to open his mind to the possibility of his own healing.
Jesus. Apparently he was becoming Kahlil Gibran in his old age.
And then Hutch was startled by Starsky yelling his name in that familiar tone that meant danger. Heart racing, he ran back up the slope leading from the lake to the campground.
When he reached their campsite, Hutch stopped dead. Where Starsky had been only five minutes before, there was a writhing mass of white canvas.
“Starsk?” Hutch asked, advancing cautiously. “Is that you in there?”
The muffled but audible voice that emerged from the folds of the tent was definitely Starsky’s. “Who the hell do you think it is, Grizzly Adams?”
Hutch folded his arms. “No, because Grizzly Adams wouldn’t be tangled up in his own tent.”
“It fell on me!” Starsky yelled, body convulsing under the canvas in protest. “I was tryin’ to put up the center pole and the whole goddamned thing fell on me!” There was more desperate wriggling, and Hutch decided to take pity on him.
“Here,” he said, stepping forward and reaching for the tent material, “sit still for a minute until I can figure out how to find you in there.”
Starsky quieted obediently, and Hutch spent a couple of minutes searching for the opening in the tent. “Oh, for—it’s underneath you,” he sighed. “Roll over.”
With a little help from Hutch, Starsky managed to comply, and sure enough, the opening to the tent revealed itself—along with one of Starsky’s legs. With a little grunting and shoving, they managed to extricate him completely.
Starsky lay panting on the wrinkled, flattened tent, his hair wild and his cheeks flushed. To Hutch’s surprise, his anger melted away at the sight, leaving behind giddy, helpless laughter. After a few moments, Starsky joined in.
“Promise me you’ll never leave me alone in the woods,” Starsky gasped, “because I’ll fucking die out here.”
“The—squirrels’ll get you,” Hutch wheezed.
“If I don’t manage to kill myself first.”
Hutch’s chuckles subsided slowly, as successive waves of amusement, fatigue, affection and sadness washed through him. The last emotion, he noted, wasn’t as sharp or as crushing as it had been yesterday. That had to count for something, right?
Starsky regarded him for a moment, then cocked his head and said, “What?”
Hutch shook his head. “Nothing. Just—thanks.”
Starsky smiled. “For acting like a moron?”
“No. Yeah.” He waved a hand. “You know what I mean.”
Starsk watched him a bit longer, then nodded. “Yeah. I know what you mean.” He reached out a hand. “Help the city boy up, willya?”
Hutch grabbed onto Starsky’s hand and hauled him to his feet. They stood together, hands still clasped, staring into one another’s eyes, long enough that Hutch felt an odd warmth spread from Starsky’s hand into his own. It stole up his arm and suffused his body with a near-forgotten feeling of rightness, of connection.
God. When was the last time they’d been close like that, able to read one another’s thoughts, able to lend one another strength with a simple touch?
Belatedly, Hutch looked down at their still-joined hands and forced his fingers to loosen. Starsky squeezed his hand briefly before releasing it.
Without speaking, they bent together to pick up the rumpled canvas.
“You did not!” Hutch exclaimed, laughing.
“Yeah, well, her doctor was a dick,” Starsky answered. “The third time he called her by her first name, I told him that considering she had raised six kids, and two of ‘em were probably older than him, he should be calling her Mrs. Rubenstein, not Ida. Either that or she gets to call him Chad.”
“Which one did he pick?”
“Good choice.” He tipped his beer in Starsky’s direction; Starsky grinned and took another bite of his trout.
“Man, this is heaven,” Starsky groaned happily. “Guess what they say about food cooked over an open fire is right.”
“Yeah, except the potatoes got a little…incinerated,” Hutch said, holding one up on a fork.
“What? I like ‘em well done,” Starsky shot back. To prove his point, he shoved a hunk of his potato in his mouth and bit down.
Something crunched. Starsky winced.
Hutch frowned. “What is it?”
“That was either the potato skin or my molar.” Starsky spat his mouthful onto the ground and probed his teeth with an experimental finger. “Man, that was a close one.” He looked up and found Hutch watching him again. Hutch’d been doing that a lot lately—not that Starsky minded per se. Just for the hell of it, he returned the gaze, like he’d done earlier when Hutch had helped him to his feet. That had been a…weird moment, though Starsky wasn’t sure yet if it qualified as good weird or bad weird.
Hutch’s gaze locked with his, and Starsky felt something shift inside him, deeply and irrevocably, like the movement of tectonic plates.
Definitely weird, he concluded. But good weird. I think.
It didn’t help him to sort out his own head when he knew Hutch was hurting. Most of the time, if one of them was kicked in the ass by a case, the other one had the same bruises to show for the experience. He couldn’t help feeling guilty that he hadn’t been there to share the burdens Hutch was bearing now, and that made it tough to concentrate on anything else.
Hutch seemed to sense Starsky’s thoughts, because his gaze grew as shuttered as it had been when Starsky had first seen him at the airport yesterday afternoon. Silently, he resolved to show more patience; Hutch would tell him eventually—but in his own way, and in his own time. You’d think that after a decade with the guy he would’ve picked up on that by now.
Breaking the connection, Starsky turned his attention to the fire, then finished the last of his fish and threw the remains of his supper—paper plate and all—into the flames. After a couple of minutes, Hutch did the same.
Hutch was surprised when he fell asleep almost immediately, but unsurprised when he woke sometime in the middle of the night from another nightmare. It also wasn’t a big shock to find Starsky already awake and crooning soothing words in his ear.
“Hey, it’s okay, c’mon, Hutch, c’mon, wake up, it’s gonna be okay,” Starsky murmured. Starsk must’ve flipped on the battery-powered lantern they’d brought, because the tent was suffused with golden light. Hutch could feel Starsky’s hand stroking over his shoulder, the contact almost unbearably good.
He didn’t deserve anything that good. He hadn’t found her in time.
“Shit,” Hutch whispered, the thought slamming into him and draining him of whatever energy he had left. He rolled over onto his back and flung an arm over his eyes, blocking out the sight of Starsky’s concerned face hovering over him.
To his credit, Starsk didn’t ask if he was okay, because he had to know damn well that he wasn’t. Instead, he just kept up that gentle stroking until Hutch’s pulse slowed and he could breathe more easily.
“You want me to turn out the light?” Starsky murmured, when Hutch kept his face covered.
“Yeah.” A moment later, Hutch heard the light click off, but didn’t remove his arm. He felt Starsky settle down beside him, his body nearly touching Hutch’s side. Hutch felt an unexpected rush of heat burn through the surface of his skin, stripping away precious layers of protection.
You don’t need protection from Starsk, he thought, but that was a lie, because usually having Starsky close to him like this was reassuring, strengthening, and yet he was as weak as a newborn kitten and feeling more uneasy around Starsky that he could remember. Whenever he tried to examine the cause of his unease, though, it slipped away from him, taunting him.
Abruptly he sat up, taking the covers with him.
“I, uh, I have to go for a walk.” Hutch knew he was sounding crazy, but he couldn’t help himself. If he stayed in this tent a minute longer, he really would go nuts.
“Okay,” Starsky said slowly. “I’ll go with you.”
“I can take care of myself,” Hutch snapped, regretting the words as soon as they were out of his mouth.
Starsky, however, didn’t react. “Who said anything about you?” he asked. “You leave me alone here, somethin’s gonna come and get me for sure.” Hutch heard a rustling of blankets and felt Starsky’s hand close around his arm. “C’mon. There’s a full moon out tonight. Perfect for werewolves—and hiking through the woods.”
Hutch blew out a breath but pushed himself to his feet, knowing that he needed to work off some of his nervous energy. If he wasn’t going to be able to use the walk to sort through some of his confusing feelings about Starsk, that was okay. It was getting so he could only handle one problem at a time, anyway.
The walk wasn’t as bad as Starsky thought it would be, which meant he only tripped over five tree roots instead of twenty. Each time, Hutch’s big hands shot out to steady him before he fell on his ass, though it was a close thing once or twice. He knew Hutch would rather have been alone, but Starsky didn’t know enough about what had happened to him to feel comfortable with letting him wander off alone in the night.
Besides, the woods were creepy when you were by yourself. He was man enough to admit he hated the thought of lying in the tent waiting for Hutch to come back and going apeshit every time a breeze rustled the leaves in the trees or some harmless little bunny stepped on a dead twig. Better to come along with Hutch and try to clear some of the cobwebs out of his head.
He didn’t know why he was so confused about their relationship the past couple of days, only that he felt like it was changing, turning into something he wasn’t sure he’d recognize. The last time he’d felt anything similar was when he’d found Kira with Hutch, and he knew he never wanted to feel that again. But this wasn’t the same, exactly; first off, he could see it coming, and second, his gut was telling him it was going to take them somewhere they needed to go.
God knew he wasn’t much for analyzing relationships, but him and Hutch had been getting into a rut lately: dinner at Huggy’s new joint, football on TV on Sunday afternoons, a pick-up game with the guys now and then. They hardly ever went out dancing any more, though Starsky honestly didn’t mind that much; he’d been getting tired of the disco scene anyway. That wasn’t what he was missing, but still, he knew he was missing out on something. If he wanted to admit it, there’d been an itch under his skin for months now, an itch that seemed to grow a little with each passing day, an itch he didn’t have a clue how to scratch.
He was so lost in his thoughts that he nearly tripped over a sixth tree branch, but he snapped out of it just in time to sidestep it. Hutch threw him a glance and he grinned back at him, pleased with himself. Hutch, however, just shook his head and kept walking. They’d barely said a word to each other the whole time; Starsky knew that was what Hutch wanted, and was only too happy to give it to him. It was enough for him to be with Hutch, to know he was okay. And the silence gave him a chance to think.
And where’s all your thinking gotten you, exactly? Starsky asked himself. Nowhere, that’s where. You’re chasing your tail around like some crazy mutt without a bone.
When they reached the lake, Starsky followed Hutch’s lead as he moved to sit on a broad, flat rock by the shore. The breeze had died down and the lake’s surface was glass, reflecting the moon and the brightest of the stars.
Starsky spared a glance for Hutch as the other man leaned his elbows on his knees and looked out over the water. You’re a lot like that lake, aren’t you, buddy? Nice and calm on the outside, but who the hell knows what’s goin’ on underneath?
He used to be able to see past all of Hutch’s facades, but lately it was like being on the wrong side of a two-way mirror. Was Starsky getting worse at reading him, or was Hutch getting better at distancing himself?
And more importantly, why?
Well, he might not know the reason, but he did know one thing: he needed to figure out a way to get through to Hutch before he withdrew even farther. Before he could talk himself out of it, he reached out and laid a hand on Hutch’s shoulder. He held his breath as he felt Hutch stiffen under his touch for a moment before relaxing with a bone-deep sigh. Relief flooded through him as Hutch turned to him and smiled wryly.
“Not much of a vacation, putting up with me, huh?”
“Didn’t come here for a vacation,” Starsky responded automatically. “Came here for you.”
Hutch’s gaze softened and he reached up to cover Starsky’s hand with his own. A slight breath of wind stirred Hutch’s hair and raised small, shivering ripples on the perfect skin of the lake, and in the bright moonlight Starsky could see that Hutch looked stripped bare, raw, poised as if contemplating a dive into deep and dangerous water.
Starsky’s other hand rose, stretching toward Hutch’s face. A small part of his brain asked him what the hell he thought he was doing, but he ignored it. He suddenly needed to touch as much of Hutch as he possibly could; there was nothing wrong with that, was there?
And then a loud splash startled the hell out of him.
“Jeez!” Starsky exclaimed. Turning toward the lake, he saw a widening circle of ripples about twenty feet out from the shore. “What the—”
“Just a fish jumping,” Hutch told him. His voice was scratchy and rough. Starsky looked at him, but Hutch’s face was turned toward the lake, and even from this angle Starsky could see the moment of vulnerability had passed.
“Oh,” Starsky muttered, feeling angry and frustrated and turned on and strangely weightless. “Yeah.”
Hutch pushed himself to his feet, but didn’t offer Starsky a hand up. By the time Starsky was standing, Hutch was already headed back up into the woods, the darkness molding to his body like armor.
For the first time in days, Hutch woke refreshed from a dreamless sleep. There was something to be said for good old-fashioned physical exhaustion after all, he reflected.
He stretched and rolled onto his side so that he could get a look at his partner. Starsky lay facing Hutch, his eyes closed and his breathing slow and even. One hand was tucked under his pillow, while the other was fisted in the top of the blanket that he wore like a cocoon. It gave him an oddly endearing air that Hutch didn’t want to examine too closely.
Nor did he want to have a close look at that bizarre moment they’d shared by the lake last night, although it was pretty damned obvious they’d come within a hairsbreadth of changing everything. He didn’t know what was going through Starsky’s head at the time, and he didn’t have much of an idea what was going through his, either. He only knew he was teetering on the edge of telling Starsky all that he’d been keeping bottled up since the shooting—along with a few new details that were starting to make themselves felt.
Then Starsky stirred in his sleep and cracked open one blue eye. When he focused on Hutch, he opened both eyes and grinned. Something in Hutch’s chest flipped over.
“Hey,” Starsky said. “How’d you sleep?”
“Like a baby,” Hutch murmured.
“Good. That’s real good.” Starsky uncurled his hand from the blanket and rubbed at his face.
“You sleep okay?”
Starsky scratched his nose. “Sorta. I dreamed I was being chased by a giant trout.”
Hutch chuckled. “Why didn’t you just get out of the water?”
“I did. But it had legs.”
Hutch’s chuckle became a laugh. “Meathead.”
Starsky sat up and yawned expansively. “Okay, then how about you teach this meathead how to catch that sucker. Because I don’t want any interruptions tonight.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Starsky’s eyes widened and his cheeks flushed slightly as though he were shocked by what he’d said.
Hutch’s mouth went dry. “Uh,” he rasped intelligently. “Sure.”
Starsky grinned again, self-consciously this time, and made his way out of the tent, leaving Hutch with a pounding heart and a muddled brain.
God, he thought. What are we going to do with this?
“Anchovies! Nothin’ but anchovies!”
Hutch shook his head at the latest microscopic organism to grace Starsky’s hook. “You just don’t have the touch, Starsk.” As if to prove his point, his own rod dipped toward the water.
“I hate fishing,” Starsky growled as Hutch crowed in triumph and began reeling in his latest prize. The brook that drained into the lake was full of fat trout, but Starsky wasn’t catching any of them. The truth was, the fish were probably being scared away by his stomping. He’d been in a rotten mood since waking up and making a total ass of himself, and it hadn’t faded in the intervening hours, because all he could think about was getting his hands on that fish. Meanwhile, Hutch was acting like nothing had happened last night—although he was right, nothing really had happened, but, oh hell, he really needed to quit thinking for a while.
Sighing, Starsky gently freed the tiny fish from the hook and released it into the water. “Stay outta trouble,” he said as it swam away.
“Holy—this one’s huge!” Hutch exclaimed.
“Rub it in, why don’t you,” groused Starsky, still crouching.
Hutch stumbled through the water, playing the line as he went. “Starsk! I need you.”
Starsky’s head snapped up. “You need me?”
“Yeah,” Hutch yelled over his shoulder. “Could you bring your net over here? I think mine’s gonna be too small.”
Starsky shot to his feet, fists clenching. “Sure. Great. Fine.” He took a step forward and twisted around to unhook the net dangling from his belt. This proved to be a tactical error when his foot immediately slipped on a wet rock. In his awkward position, he wasn’t able to recover his balance in time, and sure enough, the other foot went flying too, landing him on his ass in the frigid water.
“Perfect,” Starsky muttered, feeling the water soak through his jeans and shrivel parts of him he really didn’t want shriveled. “I should’ve listened to my own advice.”
Hutch laid his blanket over top of Starsky’s, which was currently wrapped around Starsky’s violently shuddering body. His soaked clothes were draped over a tree branch outside, but he’d been shivering too much to put on new ones, so Hutch had stripped him and dried him and was working on getting him warmed up as quickly as possible.
“Don’t say it,” Starsky warned, teeth chattering.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Hutch murmured, reaching for his towel. “Your hair’s still damp. Lift your head.”
Starsky obeyed and Hutch arranged the towel on his pillow. “Okay.”
“Go ahead and say it,” Starsky prodded as he lay back down. “I’m a disaster in the woods.”
“You’re not a disaster,” Hutch hedged. “You’re just—unlucky.”
Starsky’s body convulsed in another shiver. “Unlucky, my ass. I’m a disaster.”
“Okay, you’re a disaster,” Hutch murmured.
Starsky looked up at him with hurt eyes. “You didn’t have to say it.”
Sighing, Hutch sat down beside him on the floor of the tent. “Starsk—”
Starsky shook his head. “I’m sorry. I shoulda just let you come up here by yourself.”
“No,” Hutch said gently. “I’m glad you came with me. I’m glad you’re here.” He hesitated for a moment, then laid his hand over Starsky’s arm, trying to transmit some of his warmth to the shivering body. He rubbed his palm up and down Starsk’s bicep slowly, using friction to increase the heat.
“Feels good,” Starsky told him, words slurred by his shivering.
Hutch opened his mouth to agree with him, realizing at the last moment how weird it would sound. He looked down at Starsk; his eyes were closed, lashes two dark crescents against his cheeks, and something Hutch couldn’t name finally let go inside him. Before his brain could veto it, he lay down beside Starsk and shifted his hand to drift over Starsky’s spine. Starsky didn’t seem to find anything odd about this; his only response was to huff out a breath and huddle closer to Hutch’s warmth.
After a couple of minutes Starsky sighed. “And here I was supposed to be takin’ care of you this trip.”
“You have,” Hutch insisted, frustration suddenly overwhelming him. “You are.” And because there didn’t seem to be any other way to show Starsky what had just happened to him, Hutch leaned in and kissed him.
He felt Starsky suck in a breath as Hutch’s mouth touched his and exerted a brief, gentle pressure before pulling back slightly. His heart stuttered in his chest when Starsky’s lips clung to his, following on the heels of his retreat.
Starsky’s eyes were open now, heavy-lidded and very, very blue. “What was that?” he murmured.
Hutch raised his eyebrows. “You don’t know?”
Starsky scowled. “Hutch…” he warned.
Hutch placed his fingers over Starsky’s mouth, and Starsky’s eyes widened.
“Maybe I’m not doing it right, then,” Hutch said, leaning in again.
Starsky’s body still shivered under Hutch’s hands, but his mouth was molten, opening on a groan as Hutch’s tongue sought entry. Hutch didn’t waste any time taking him up on the invitation, pushing into the depths of Starsky’s mouth like he belonged there, groaning himself when Starsky’s tongue tangled with his own. Kissing Starsk was nothing like kissing a woman and everything like the way they were together, the way they worked and played and laughed and fought, defined by a passion Hutch hadn’t fully acknowledged until this moment.
“You, uh,” he panted when they broke apart, “you ever done—this?” He was saved from having to elaborate on ‘this’ when Starsky shook his head.
“Thought about it once or twice. But no guy I saw made it worth my while to cross that line.”
“What’s different this time?”
“You gotta ask? Geez, and you’re always tellin’ me you’re the smart one.” Grinning, Starsky threw off the blanket, baring himself nearly to the waist.
Hutch swallowed. Starsk, this is Starsk, his brain protested, but it didn’t matter, because there was no denying his body’s reaction. “You’ll catch cold,” he said inanely.
Starsky’s hand rose to Hutch’s shirt and started in on his buttons. “So keep me warm,” he growled.
“God, Starsk,” Hutch breathed. Starsky pushed up to kiss him this time, hard and insistent and messy and so goddamned hot Hutch felt a tremor go through his own body. Without breaking the contact, Hutch flung back the rest of the blanket and climbed in beside Starsky on the thin pallet. Starsky tore his mouth from Hutch’s, panting, and shoved the shirt from his shoulders before reaching for his belt. Hutch shut his eyes and buried his face in Starsky’s neck and let those talented fingers strip every last bit of protection from him.
“Lift up,” Starsk whispered. Hutch obeyed, breathing shallowly as Starsky slipped his jeans down and off his legs.
“Man, your legs go on forever, you know that?” Starsky’s rough compliment actually made Hutch’s face heat; he felt seventeen again, awkward and shy and new. He pressed soft, sipping kisses to Starsky’s lips and felt his arousal build slowly, sweetly.
And then Starsky’s fingers trailed over the waistband of his briefs before shoving those down too, and Hutch grew up again in a heartbeat. In the next he was rolling Starsky onto his back and levering himself on top of him and pinning him down with his broad hands shackling Starsky’s wrists. Starsky twisted under him, eyes blazing, fingers curling as he made a half-hearted attempt to break free.
Hutch smiled as he held himself just above Starsk’s straining body, but inside he was barely keeping it together. He was more turned on than he could remember, and if Starsk so much as breathed on him right now, he was going to come.
“Fuck,” Starsky rasped, biceps taut and quivering. “Gotta touch you.”
Hutch dared to drop a kiss onto his temple, his cheek, the tense line of his jaw. “I won’t last.”
And then Starsk shifted under him and threw one muscular leg over Hutch’s hip, hauling him down and bringing their bodies together. Hutch moaned at the intensity of the contact, the proof of Starsk’s need hard against him.
“What a coincidence,” Starsky husked in his ear. His thigh rode over Hutch’s ass, the friction almost unbearable. “‘Cause neither will I.”
Hutch moaned again and pressed his forehead to Starsky’s shoulder, beyond words, beyond thought. Summoning the last of his strength, Hutch raised his head and looked into Starsky’s eyes, gone white-hot with desire.
With a roar that sounded a little like defeat, Hutch surrendered himself to the flames. Hips churning helplessly, he came in four long spurts against Starsky’s belly. When he could manage to figure out how his arms worked again, he released Starsky’s wrists. Starsky huffed out an explosive breath and slid his hands over Hutch’s ass, fingers gripping him hard as he tugged Hutch in even closer against him.
Hutch looked up to see that between one minute and the next, Starsk’s face had twisted into a rictus of mingled pain and ecstasy. Starsk was obviously desperate to get there, and it awed Hutch to know he’d been the one to bring Starsky to this.
Somehow he found the wherewithal to break free of Starsky’s grasp; Starsky protested wordlessly but lost his hold when Hutch shifted to the side. “Shh, shhh,” Hutch soothed, pushing aside Starsky’s grasping hands so that he could touch him freely.
And then his hand found Starsky’s erection and closed around it.
“Christ!” Starsky exclaimed, hips jerking skyward.
Hutch nuzzled the side of Starsky’s face; Starsky turned his head in response and kissed him blindly. Starsky’s cock was smooth and hot and slick with what was probably Hutch’s come and Jesus, Hutch would never have believed it could be like this between them, crazy and jarring and desperate. He’d known he needed Starsk, loved him even, but until this moment he hadn’t known Starsky was in his blood, in the ache in his muscles and the stuttering rhythm of his heart. He hadn’t known that Starsky had taken up residence inside his fucking cells.
His fingers tightened on Starsky’s shaft briefly, then slid up and teased the head, and Starsky made a small, broken sound and came all over Hutch’s hand.
Hutch held him, gentling him through the aftershocks until Starsky’s hand covered Hutch’s and stilled it. Hutch flopped over onto his back and stared at the ceiling of the tent, his heart racing so fast he thought it might burst from his chest.
I just had sex with Starsk, he thought. A grin spread across his face and stuck there, refusing to budge.
“Hey,” Starsky said after a moment. “You okay?”
“I think so,” Hutch said slowly. “You?”
Starsky propped himself up on an elbow; Hutch could see him out of the corner of his eye. “I’m thinkin’ I should fall in the river more often. You got one hell of a great way of warming up.”
Hutch turned to stare at him, then burst out laughing. Starsk grinned back and leaned in to kiss him lightly.
“I was wrong all this time,” Hutch murmured when they parted.
Hutch swept a thumb over Starsky’s lips. “You are a pretty good kisser.”
“Well, you’re in luck,” Starsk said, grin turning wicked. “Now you got the chance to learn from the master.”
Hutch rolled him onto his back and threaded his hands in Starsk’s hair, holding him captive. “Now I got the chance to finally shut you up,” he answered, mouth descending to stifle Starsky’s sounds of outrage.
The place where the girls had died was sterile, scrubbed, antiseptic, as clean as an operating room in any hospital. The bastard who’d killed them was a med school dropout who blamed a woman – his faculty advisor – for his own failure.
Her daughter had been his first victim.
He might not have been smart enough for medical school, but he was smart enough to be perfectly unremarkable, to cover his tracks with methodical precision, to know that most people were willing to overlook the fact that you were out of your fucking mind as long as you kept your lawn mowed and your house painted.
He minded his own business, kept to himself.
He’d built a fully-stocked operating theatre in his basement, for chrissakes, complete with operating tables and autoclave, and nobody in the neighborhood had thought anything of the deliveries from medical supply companies and the late-night comings and goings. I thought he was a doctor, one neighbor said. That’s what he told us he was. Though you don’t see many doctors around here. I figured he worked at a free clinic or something, didn’t make a lot of money.
Mike and his team had followed the typical psychological approach to the case, concentrating on the profile that had been assembled according to the nature of the killings and the victims. Hutch’s approach was more direct—he put the word out on the street, just like he always had, used up every favor he had and a few he’d be owing for a while. Within three days he had a direct line to a guy who had paid top dollar to get one of Sweet Alice’s friends to dress up in a white lab coat while he tied her down and fucked her. When he’d graduated to slapping her, she’d yelled her head off and he’d been thrown out by the hired help, but not before they’d rolled him.
It didn’t follow the profile, but all the same he’d slapped the driver’s license on Mike’s desk that afternoon—the goons had been letting it cool down for a while before trying to sell it. Mike’s eyes had gone wide when he looked at it, and Hutch thought, Bingo.
“That name. Shit, I know that name.” He’d fumbled through his files until he found it. Gary Mitchell, checked out and discarded as a suspect because he’d never made any threats against the woman’s life or her family’s. The general consensus was that serial killers rarely had a personal connection to their victims, but it was still standard procedure to follow up on any individuals who might bear a grudge against the victim or the victim’s family, especially with what was presumed to be the first murder.
Still, they’d let him go for the same reason he’d flown under the radar of his neighbors for six months while he tortured, killed and mutilated seven little girls in the basement of his Encino home: because he minded his own business, kept to himself.
“That still doesn’t mean he’s a serial killer. Just a sick fuck,” Mike contended.
Hutch shook his head. “It’s him. I can feel it.” He’d been feeling the scumbag since he’d read that file, feeling the unsettling itch of intuition under his skin, and Jesus, he really didn’t want to learn that he had a talent for this, because it would kill him even faster than Homicide was managing to do.
Mike looked at him for a long moment, eyes boring into his soul, and then he nodded. “Yeah. All right. I’m not sure how I’m going to get a warrant, but I’ll get it.”
Within twenty-four hours, they had Mitchell in custody.
They were two-and-a-half-hours too late.
“Hutch. Hey, babe, c’mon. C’mon. Wake up.”
For the second time in as many nights, Hutch was trapped in a nightmare so powerful it took way too long to drag him out of it. Starsky gripped him a little more tightly and shook him again, urging him to wake up now.
Jesus, this had to stop.
“Hutch,” Starsky said firmly.
Hutch’s eyes flew open. Starsky saw tears standing in them, about to spill over, and his heart twisted in his chest.
Hutch swallowed visibly and eased away from the cradle of Starsky’s arms, his body’s withdrawal symbolic of the smokescreen he’d been putting up since Starsk had come back from New York. Suddenly gripped by anger, Starsky took a deep breath before speaking.
“Hutch. What happened with Mike?”
Hutch scrubbed at his face; when he pulled his hands away his cheeks were reddened. “He had a case he needed help with. A string of serial murders.”
“Fuck,” Starsky spat. “God, babe, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“I’m not,” Hutch shot back. “We wrapped the case without you.”
“I mean, I wish I—”
“I know what you mean,” Hutch interrupted.
Starsky stared at him, surprised at the level of vehemence in his partner’s tone. Frowning, he said slowly, “We always share the bad stuff as much as the good. It helps to get us through it.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I don’t want to get through it,” Hutch muttered.
Starsky stared at him. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Hutch only shook his head. “Look, can we not get into it right now?”
Starsky tried to keep his tone even. “You really think it’s a good idea to keep puttin’ this off?”
“Starsk.” Hutch’s voice was weary. “Please. I—just need some more time to figure this out for myself.”
It was on the tip of Starsky’s tongue to ask exactly what ‘this’ was, but he bit back the question at the last moment. “Okay,” he said heavily. “I don’t like it, but okay.”
Hutch shot him a wan smile. “Thanks.”
Don’t thank me yet, Starsky thought ruefully. I love you too damned much to let this go for long.
“Well, that’s it,” Starsky said, laying the tent down just inside the door of Hutch’s apartment. “You want I should put this back in storage?”
Hutch shook his head. “I’ll find a place for it up here.” Starsky nodded and dropped the bag holding the tent. Hutch suddenly felt awkward and tentative, which was ridiculous considering all the things they’d done to one another in the last twenty-four hours. Now that they were back in familiar surroundings, though, it seemed like everything should automatically go back to normal. There was a niggling voice in his head that told him their time in the woods was simply an aberration, an interlude that didn’t affect the way they would relate to one another in real life. He’d spent the whole drive back in a state of low-level arousal mixed with sick, helpless trepidation and the vivid memories of his latest nightmare. Not a good combination.
“Maybe we’ll want to go camping again soon,” he ventured, feeling like a fool as soon as the sophomoric statement was out of his mouth.
But then Starsky said, “Yeah,” in a low, dark voice that sent a strange thrill through Hutch’s body. “I’m startin’ to like the great outdoors.”
Hutch lifted his chin and took a step closer. “You are, huh?”
Starsky smiled. “Mm-hmm.”
Hutch’s pulse kicked into high gear, his fears rapidly melting under the heat in Starsk’s gaze.
Then again, maybe this wasn’t a one-time thing.
He lifted one hand to Starsk’s face, cupping the cheek before sliding his fingers around to the back of Starsk’s neck. Starsky made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a purr and angled into the touch.
“Think I could get you interested in the great indoors?” Hutch asked, still half-afraid of the answer he’d get.
Starsky’s hands settled on Hutch’s hips and tugged him closer. “Anywhere. Anytime. Long as you’re there.”
Hutch couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say in response, since Starsky’s words had effectively destroyed all of his higher brain functions. Kissing him seemed like the best possible answer under the circumstances, and judging by Starsky’s groan as he kissed back, he seemed to think so, too.
Mike Dooley looked like his dog had died, his house had burned down and his best friend had kneed him in the nuts. But then, Starsky didn’t suppose he’d look any better if he had Mike’s job.
“Long time no see, Dave.” Mike’s handshake was as firm as ever.
“Yeah,” Starsky acknowledged, returning the handshake before sliding into the booth across from him. “Guess I know where you been hiding yourself.”
“Brother, I haven’t been hiding, I’ve been buried. All of that bullshit the Bureau fed me about the glamor of being an agent—if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have run the other way. Traffic duty. Meter maid. Anything.”
Starsky shook his head. “Wouldn’t have worked. You don’t got the legs for the skirts.”
Mike barked a short laugh. “Yeah, no kiddin’,” he murmured, then motioned the waitress over and ordered a beer for each of them. When they came, he raised his glass in a toast and said, “I guess I don’t have to ask why you called me to come out tonight.”
Starsky sipped his beer and fought down the guilt that washed over him. “The truth is, I have been wantin’ to go out and catch up,” he murmured. “I called a couple of months ago, but Jeannie said you were workin’ late. She didn’t sound too keen on takin’ a message, so I didn’t leave one.”
Mike’s gaze shifted to his drink. “Yeah, well, if it’s any consolation, she’s not taking my messages either,” he muttered. “She kicked me out last week.”
“Jesus, Mike, I’m sorry.”
Mike shook his head. “It was comin’ for a long time. She was a cop’s wife, and she thought she knew what she’d signed on for, but nobody really does, you know? After this case—she finally decided she couldn’t take it anymore.” He shrugged. “Ten years. At least we didn’t have any kids to fuck up.”
“That’s—uh, kind of what I wanted to talk to you about,” Starsky said. “The case, I mean.”
Mike shot him a sharp glance. “Give me a little credit, Dave. As soon as you said Hutch wasn’t coming, I put two and two together. I already figured I was gonna get my wrists slapped.”
“Sorry,” Starsky said, chastised.
“S’alright,” Mike said magnanimously. “You always watched each others’ backs. All my years on the force and with the Bureau, I never had a partner like that. I envy you guys.”
Starsky only nodded. After a moment, Mike sighed. “Okay. What do you want to know?”
Starsky leaned forward on the table. “How bad was it?”
Mike frowned. “He didn’t tell you?”
“Mike. He can’t talk about it, except to tell me it involved a serial killer. He’s wakin’ up every night from nightmares—or maybe he’s just remembering what the hell actually happened.” Mike gave him an assessing look, and Starsky belatedly realized what he’d just given away. He decided to play it cool, and after a moment Mike spoke.
“It was bad. The bastard thought he was a medical genius. He didn’t just kill the victims. He bled them to death. Slowly.” He took a long drink of his beer. “And then he—rearranged them. Inside.”
Starsky winced, as much at the bleakness of Mike’s expression as the description. “The victims were women?”
Mike shook his head. “Girls. Young girls.”
Starsky’s gut dived for his shoes. “How young?”
Mike paused, looked at his hands. “The youngest was six. The oldest was nine.”
“Jesus.” Starsky felt sick just hearing about it; he could only imagine what Mike and Hutch had gone through. “How did you nail him?”
“Hutch cracked it, just like I thought he would. Brought a fresh pair of eyes to it, tried an angle we never would’ve considered. He saved—I don’t know how many girls that monster would’ve killed before we caught him.”
Starsky chewed on this for a moment. “So Hutch should at least be feelin’ good about that. Right?”
Mike looked away, and Starsky got that sinking feeling again.
“Before I brought him in on this case, there were seven victims,” Mike said heavily. “But there was an eighth before it wrapped.” He met Starsky’s gaze. “We barely had the warrant in our hands when we got the missing persons report. She’d been snatched sometime during the night and her mother had just woken up to find her gone. Hutch was the first to find her.”
“Oh, man,” Starsky breathed. “How long had she been…”
“The coroner figured she was only dead a couple of hours. Two, three, that’s all.” His eyes filled with tears. “Two or three hours, Dave. If we’d only—fuck!” He slammed his hand down on the table, startling the couple next to them.
“God, Mike,” Starsky murmured, “that’s—” He faltered, the words catching in his throat.
“God,” Mike gritted, the tears finally spilling onto his cheeks, “was asleep at the fucking wheel that day.”
When Starsky picked him up the next morning, Hutch knew something was up. There was a tension in the set of Starsky’s jaw, in the way his knuckles stood out on his hands as they gripped the steering wheel. Starsk had always been terrible at hiding his feelings, and this time was no exception.
“All right, spit it out,” Hutch said finally.
Starsky shook his head. “This ain’t the right time. After work.”
“Fabulous,” Hutch muttered. “So I have to spend the whole day wondering what’s eating you?” Just like I had to spend the whole night wondering why you didn’t want to come over, he thought petulantly. It was bad enough that this case had brought up all of his old issues about being on the force; now he had to throw a new and confusing relationship with Starsky into the mess cluttering his head. He should have been enjoying the hell out of being confused and excited and breathless around Starsky, but instead he was tense and unsure and rattled.
Starsky turned his attention from the road briefly to look at Hutch. “You know what’s eating me,” he said gruffly. “It’s the same thing that’s eating you.”
Hutch’s gut clenched.
“I saw Mike last night,” Starsky continued.
Hutch felt the tremor deep inside before it spread outward to envelop his body. Shit, he’d thought he was all right today.
“He filled me in on a few details,” Starsky was saying. “And the file filled me in on the rest.”
Hutch stared at him in horror. “Why?” he demanded, his voice sounding foreign to his own ears. “Why would you want to even look at that?”
“Because I was trying to get an idea of what happened,” Starsky said calmly. “Because I want to understand—”
“What the fuck is there to understand?” Hutch roared, surprising both of them. “Eight innocent little girls were, were bled like livestock. What is there to understand?”
“I want to understand you, Hutch,” Starsky said, still in that same soft tone. “What’s goin’ on with you, so I can help.” Casting a quick glance over his shoulder, he flipped on the turn signal and slowed. “Listen, babe—”
“Don’t pull over,” Hutch blurted, sudden, unreasoning panic gripping him. “Starsk, we have to get to work.” More to the point, Hutch had to spend the next eight hours trying not to fall apart. He couldn’t spill his guts in the passenger seat of the Torino at seven-thirty in the goddamned morning.
Starsky eased off to the side of the road and threw the car into park. “Work can wait a few minutes.”
“I don’t. Want. To talk. About this,” Hutch gritted through clenched teeth.
Starsky stared at him. “You really think you can go to work like this?”
“I can if you’ll give me some goddamned space,” Hutch muttered, eyes fixed on the scene out the front window. They were in the middle of one of the seedier parts of town; the only thing keeping the hookers off the streets was the early hour.
Time for all good little girls to be in bed, he thought.
He didn’t realize he was chuckling until he caught the way Starsk was looking at him. Gaze locking with Starsky’s, he met and countered the challenge in those blue eyes, though he couldn’t summon a defense against the concern.
Still, it was Starsky who blinked first, muscle in his jaw twitching crazily as he looked away. He checked his mirror and shot back out into traffic, earning them an aggrieved honk from the car behind them.
“Yeah, yeah,” Starsky muttered. “Take a number, asshole.”
If there was one thing Starsky had picked up from working in Homicide, it was that you never asked the Captain what he wanted you for when he asked to see you. He’d let you know in his own sweet time, and woe be to the guy who showed restlessness or impatience. So when Turner called him into the office in the middle of the afternoon, Starsky didn’t question; he walked in, shut the door, sat down, and waited to be acknowledged. He didn’t mind much when Turner’s attention stayed on a piece of paper he was reading, either. It gave him a couple of more minutes to try to decide what the hell he was going to do about Hutch.
“Jesus Christ, would you look at this.” Turner shoved the paper across his desk at Starsky, who obligingly picked it up and began skimming its contents. “Like we didn’t have enough of this pansy-ass crap to deal with.”
Starsky reluctantly pried his thoughts away from Hutch as he tried to focus on the words on the page. It was an interdepartmental memo to all the captains, a request for them to nominate suitable, interested candidates for a new youth initiative that was being pushed by the mayor’s office. He managed to absorb that it was some sort of tie-in with Children’s Services, aimed at pre-teens and adolescents who were at high risk to join up with gangs or commit crimes on their own.
Looks like a great idea—on paper, at least, Starsky thought, though he knew enough not to voice his opinion out loud. Captain Turner was a good man and a good cop: he didn’t spend half his time kissing ass downtown, he didn’t stick his nose in every little thing you did, and he was open to women and minorities coming into his department. But he was also a guy less than a year from retirement, and some of the attitudes he’d probably held when he was a rookie had never been swept out of his brain. As far as Bill Turner was concerned, the minute a guy committed a crime, he forfeited the right to be considered worth saving. Since they were dealing with murderers, Starsky and Hutch tended to agree with him a lot of the time, and so they’d decided a while back to just smile and nod whenever the Captain got up on his “what’s the world coming to” horse.
Aloud, Starsky said, “Hm,” and passed the memo back to Turner. “Guess you won’t be sending in any names, huh?”
Turner snorted, balled up the piece of paper and tossed it into the trash. “You guessed right,” he said. Then he leaned forward, elbows on his desk, his face pinched in what they’d decided was his ‘fatherly’ look, and Starsky felt his jaw tighten in anticipation. Here came the real reason he’d been called in, and Starsky already suspected he knew what it was.
“So how’s Hutch doing today?” Turner asked conversationally. Yep, Starsky’d been right on target.
Starsky glanced out the window of Turner’s office, where Hutch was interviewing a potential witness in a shooting that had happened overnight on the North Side. He looked the same as he always did, his movements, expression or posture seeming perfectly normal, but Starsky could still tell there was something different about him, something almost broken.
Or maybe he’s been like that for a while and you just haven’t been looking, he suddenly realized.
“Uh,” he said, belatedly remembering the Captain was waiting for an answer, “I really don’t know, Cap’n. He’s not talking about it much. I got the details from Mike Dooley…”
“So did I,” Turner said heavily. That surprised Starsky, but on reflection he decided it shouldn’t. Turner wasn’t exactly Mr. Sensitive, but he always knew what was going on with
his detectives. “You know,” Turner added, “as much as I’m wondering what the hell I’m going to do with myself next year, I sometimes wish I was retired yesterday.”
“Yeah, I know how you feel.”
“You, uh,” Turner said, flapping a hand in Hutch’s general direction, “you think he needs an appointment with the department shrink?”
Starsky considered this. “It might help,” he conceded, “might not. Hutch’s always kept a lot of stuff inside. He gets it out eventually.” The words certainly sounded reasonable as they came out of his mouth, but Starsky couldn’t help thinking they were so much bullshit. Hutch kept some secrets so well Starsky didn’t know if he’d ever know them all. The stiff upper lip routine wasn’t only for the Queen of England; there were plenty of gorgeous, stubborn goyim cops who practiced the same thing.
Turner gave Starsky a long, assessing look before sighing. “Yeah, well, I’m not a fan of the shrink, I just thought that if there was ever a time when a guy might need one, it was after this.” He rose to his feet. “I guess the two of you help each other to get past this kind of shit anyway, right?”
“Yeah,” Starsky murmured, watching Hutch through the window. “We watch each other’s backs.”
Hutch figured he was doing pretty well. It was almost four and in that time he’d interviewed three witnesses, read an autopsy report, and driven with Starsky to a crime scene. He’d interacted with the coroner, a couple of beat cops, and the guy in the park who sold them some really good hot dogs. He was even looking forward to dragging Starsk back to his place later and having his wicked way with him. Things were definitely looking up, he decided.
At seven minutes after four, everything went to shit.
The crime scene was actually a dumpster out back of a strip mall; that was where the body had been found by garbage crews early that morning. The forensics team had already been all over every inch of the alley and the dumpster with a fine tooth comb, but they’d still wanted to check it out personally, because that was what they did. Once in a blue moon they turned up something the lab boys had missed, but this time they found zip. After an hour of crawling around in garbage, Hutch was frustrated and smelly to boot.
“I don’t think this jacket is gonna survive,” Starsky muttered as he stripped it off and sniffed it gingerly.
“I told you not to wear it when you were digging around in the dumpster,” Hutch muttered. He had removed his black leather jacket and thrown it in the back seat of the Torino before they’d started.
To his surprise, Starsky laughed at that. “Man, you’re soundin’ just like a wife,” he said, grinning goofily. “Might as well tie the knot and make it official.”
And that knocked the wind from Hutch’s lungs, because God, yeah, considering he was head over heels in love with Starsk, he wouldn’t mind that one bit, if it wasn’t completely fucking impossible. He leaned back against the brick wall, trying to breathe, the enormity of the step they’d taken a couple of days ago finally hitting him with the force of a tidal wave.
“Hutch? You okay, babe?”
Hutch took a deep breath and shook himself. “Fine. I’m fine,” he muttered, pushing off the wall and heading back to the street at a brisk pace. Starsky swore under his breath and jogged to catch up to him, but didn’t say anything more.
The strip mall was one of those pastel stucco nightmares that was cropping up in every suburb in town, and Hutch couldn’t wait to be away from it and on the way back to the station. One more check-in to see if anything new had come in on the case and they could go home—
And then a child’s high-pitched wail split the air. Starsky and Hutch turned toward the sound, which was coming from the far end of the mall. As one, they took off, racing to the rescue.
They found a little girl of about six or seven being dragged out of a store by a man in his thirties. Her face was red and tear-streaked, and she was screaming at the top of her lungs while desperately trying to tug free from his grasp.
Hutch didn’t even realize he’d drawn his gun until he saw the barrel rise and train on the man’s chest.
He was dimly aware of Starsky saying his name slowly and calmly, dimly aware of the terrified look on the man’s face as he let go of the girl and raised his hands, dimly aware of everything except the blood rushing in his ears.
“Hutch. Hutch. Put down the gun, Hutch.”
The tiny piece of Hutch’s brain that was still rational tried to reason it out. This isn’t the guy, we’ve got the guy, you know what he looks like, he’s in the psych ward of the hospital being tested, this isn’t the guy, this isn’t the guy, he said to himself, but it didn’t really matter because Hutch knew there were more of them, there were always more, you kept arresting the sons of bitches and they kept coming, an endless line of scum who preyed on helpless—
“Please, mister, don’t hurt my daddy! Please don’t hurt my daddy!”
Hutch blinked. His vision was getting blurry; he couldn’t see either the gun or the man as clearly as he had a moment ago.
“Hutch. I need you to look at me, babe. Please.”
Hutch turned his head slowly. Starsky was blurry too, his features hard to make out. Hutch blinked a few more times and his vision cleared enough for him to make out Starsk’s expression. He had that everything’s gonna be fine look on his face, the one he used every time he was dealing with a jumper or a serious head case.
Shit, Hutch thought, the clouds in his head parting momentarily to let in a little sunlight. That’s for me.
“Oh, Christ,” Hutch breathed, sagging instantly, the gun dropping to his side.
Starsky stepped forward and pried the revolver from Hutch’s unresisting fingers, then turned to the guy. “I’m sorry about that,” he said, digging out his badge with his free hand and flashing it at the man. “We’re police officers. We’ve been working a kidnapping case involving little girls, and you, uh...”
Hutch swallowed the hysterical laugh that tried to escape from his throat as Starsky managed to make it sound like Hutch hadn’t just lost his mind, as the man, visibly shaken, stammered and nodded, obviously wanting nothing more than to escape at top speed. As soon as Starsky finished his bullshit explanation, the man hoisted his little girl into his arms and scurried away. Within a minute they had jumped in their car and fled the parking lot.
Hutch staggered over to a bench and practically fell into the seat. He clutched his head in his hands and silently begged the world to stop spinning.
He felt rather than heard Starsky sit down beside him. After a few moments, a gentle hand settled on his bowed back and started stroking; Hutch squeezed his eyes shut. And then he heard a distant voice speaking, and realized it was his.
“We didn’t get there in time.”
“I know, babe.” Starsky’s voice that time, so far away he could barely hear it.
“And when I knew she was dead, when I touched her and – God, she was so – so – pale – I wanted to take him by the throat and do the same thing he’d done to them. Because he deserved to watch his life bleed out slowly. But I didn’t. I told myself, I have to follow procedure, I have to follow procedure.” He pressed his fists to his eyes, hard, and felt that laugh he’d been holding back burst from his throat. “I’m so fucking sick of procedure. I wanted him to die. God, I wanted that so much. I still want it, every second of every day I think about it, think about…” He trailed off, suddenly out of breath, feeling as though he’d run a marathon.
After a few moments, Starsky said simply, “I love you. You know that, right?”
Hutch nodded. The tears began to leak out despite his best efforts to keep them contained. Swallowing, he whispered, “I love you too, Starsk.”
The hand slid up to his shoulder and squeezed briefly before resuming its slow stroking motion. “Good. That’s real good,” Starsky murmured. “I only want two things in this world, and you just handed me one of ‘em. But I want one more thing from you. I have to know what you need, babe.”
Hutch trembled so violently he thought he’d shake right off the bench. “I—” he managed before faltering. He took a huge, gulping breath, then another. It didn’t help.
“Anything, Hutch. D’you hear me?” Starsk’s cupped Hutch’s cheeks in his hands, forcing his head up. Hutch opened his tear-filled eyes as Starsky tenderly wiped at the wetness under them with his thumbs. “I would fucking give anything to make you happy.”
And before he could sabotage himself again, Hutch opened his mouth and let the words pour out. “I need to n—not be doing this any more.”
Jesus, he’d said it. Unable to look away, he sat trembling under Starsky’s gentle hands, waiting for his reaction.
To his utter shock, Starsky’s expression didn’t change. He only nodded and leaned in to press his forehead to Hutch’s briefly before releasing him. “Okay,” he said.
Hutch blinked. “Okay?” God, it couldn’t be that easy. Could it?
Starsky smiled fondly at him. “Yeah. You got a problem with that, blondie?”
Hutch blinked back a fresh round of tears as Starsky handed him back his gun. He made a show of holstering it carefully so that he could piece together the tatters of his composure.
Starsky loved him. He’d always known it, but up until this moment, he hadn’t truly understood how much Starsky loved him.
“C’mon,” Starsky urged, jerking his head toward the Torino. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand, partner.”
Five Months Later
Freddie Ramirez hung up the phone and stared at it as if he’d never seen one before.
Then he shouted, “No fucking way! No FUCKING WAY!”
“Good news?” Starsky drawled.
Freddie assumed a contrite expression as he regained awareness of his surroundings. “Oh, sorry, man.”
“That’s okay,” Hutch said, grinning so widely Starsky was afraid he’d split his face in half. “You’re allowed to be excited.”
“Excited ain’t the word, man. I got a job at Westwood Custom Auto! I can’t believe it.” He looked from Starsky to Hutch and back again. “I can’t thank you guys enough.”
Starsky shook his head. “You had the talent. We just put in a good word for you.”
Freddie’s jaw tightened momentarily, and then Starsky was being pulled into a powerful, heartfelt hug. “I won’t forget this,” he said fervently, letting go after a moment so he could do the same to Hutch. “Anytime you need a paint job, you know where to come.”
“My car’s a classic,” Starsky drawled. “But if Hutch is smart, he’ll be makin’ an appointment with you next week.”
“Hey!” Hutch exclaimed, throwing an I’ll-deal-with-you-later look over Freddie’s shoulder at him.
I hope you will, blondie, Starsky thought, groin tightening at the fire in Hutch’s eye. The last couple of months had been busy as hell, what with applying for the transfer and moving into their new jobs with the Clean Slate Program. Turner had been sorry to see them go, but he’d put in a good word for them, as had Dobey. Obviously they must’ve done something right, because they’d been tapped to not only join the team but run the ten-member department. And now instead of looking at autopsy reports and crime scenes, they got to look into the hopeful, smiling faces of kids like Freddie. Sure, the kids that came to them didn’t start out that way, but the two of them were going to do everything they could to make sure they ended up that way, healthy and safe and off the damned streets.
And when the first kid they worked with became the next casualty of gang violence or drug abuse….well. Starsky silently prayed that wouldn’t happen for a hell of a long time, long enough for Hutch to get a lot further down the path he’d started on five months ago. They’d talked about it a lot, and in the end it was Hutch who had had to sell Starsky on the Clean Slate idea instead of the other way around. Starsky, he’d been all for starting that promising career in Bolivian bank robbery. But Hutch had persisted, and now that they had completed
their training and were actually seeing some results, Starsky had to admit he was glad he’d let Hutch talk him into it. This was what they were supposed to be doing: making a difference, making their lives count for something.
They’d probably always be doing that in one way or another. And more importantly, they’d always be doing it together.
“Hey,” Starsky said, after Freddie had left. Hutch turned to him, face still powered by that million-watt grin, and it hit Starsky that not so long ago he wasn’t sure if he’d ever see that grin again. God, it was good to have it back.
“Hey yourself,” Hutch murmured. His gaze strayed briefly to Starsky’s mouth, and Starsky’s fists clenched at his sides to keep from putting them all over Hutch.
Clearing his throat, Starsky silently chastised himself for thinking Bad Thoughts while technically still on duty. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t do that, but it was tough, especially when Hutch was looking so damned alive. Instead, he turned his thoughts to home. For less than six weeks they’d been going home to the same place, a medium-sized beachfront apartment they’d rented together. It wasn’t fancy, but it had plenty of light for Hutch’s plants, and in the morning he could hear the waves and smell the salt air and reach over and touch Hutch’s fine, soft hair and warm skin, and he’d never loved living anywhere more. “What do you say we call it a night, huh?”
Hutch nodded once, then turned to say a few parting words to Red and Carrie, who’d pulled the evening shift tonight. The drop-in center was their main office, providing help and information regarding employment, legal matters, vocational training and back-to-school programs, but most of the teams spent their time out in the communities doing everything from playing basketball with the kids to giving talks about keeping safe on the streets. Eventually, they were looking at recruiting volunteers from the local hospitals to provide counseling and drug rehabilitation services. Hutch already had big plans for the place that went far beyond their original mandate, which didn’t surprise Starsky one bit. The job had done wonders for Hutch, rekindling his spirit and reminding Starsky of the gung-ho blond hick he’d first met at the Academy.
Maybe I fell a little in love with you way back then, Starsky reflected as they walked out the door together. Maybe I’ve always been a little in love with you. The September evening was still warm and sultry, and Starsky welcomed the heat.
“Mmm, it’s gonna be a beautiful night,” Hutch said, echoing his thoughts.
“It sure is,” Starsky breathed, suddenly captivated by the way the reddening sunlight caught in Hutch’s hair, making it seem as if it was lit up from the inside. “It’s gonna be even more beautiful when I get you home.”
Hutch turned to him, surprised, and Starsky tried his own kind of grin on him, feral and hungry. He saw Hutch’s Adam’s apple bob, and resisted the urge to lean forward and run his tongue over it. Instead, he took a step forward and said sotto voce, “You know why it’s gonna be beautiful, Hutch?”
Hutch’s eyes widened, and he darted a glance up and down the street. There was no one near them close enough to hear what Starsky was saying, and right now he wouldn’t give a damn if there were. “It’s gonna be beautiful because when we get home I’m gonna strip every stitch off you, and then you’re gonna lay down across our bed and—”
“Jesus, Starsk,” Hutch rasped, face taut, eyes bright. He looked like a man pushed to the edge already.
You don’t know what the edge is, babe, Starsky promised him silently. We got a long way to go yet. Sex between them had been good from the start, but Hutch was so damned quiet in bed, there were times when Starsky wondered if he was giving Hutch everything he needed. He often wanted to ask Hutch about it afterward, but the words always died in his throat before he could get them said. Somehow it seemed…kind of weird to talk about it. This is Hutch, he’d say to himself, even though they’d done just about everything two naked, healthy guys could do with one another that didn’t involve Jell-o, a trapeze and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Hutch looked at him out of the corner of his eye, almost shyly, and a fierce desire rose up in him then to finally break the mold of what they’d been before and step through into someplace new. Aloud, he said casually, “So, you wanna grab something to eat on the way?”
“Later,” Hutch gritted, walking stiffly toward the car.
Starsky’s grin lasted all the way home.
“Hmmm?” Hutch felt more than heard Starsky’s murmur, since Starsky’s lips were pressed hard to the back of his neck. “What do you want?”
“You—know what I want,” Hutch hissed, pushing back against Starsky’s body where it lay draped over his. Starsky had delivered on his earlier promise, stripping Hutch as soon as they were through the door of their apartment. Then he’d proceeded to drive Hutch completely out of his mind, touching him everywhere until Hutch was a writhing mass of overstimulated nerve endings. He hadn’t let Hutch return the favor, staying fully clothed until Hutch finally rebelled, his frustration and need driving him to practically rip the clothes off Starsk’s lean body. Starsky had swiftly reasserted control, though, and was now obviously deriving a great deal of pleasure from torturing Hutch mercilessly. If he’d known Starsk had this sadistic streak…
…Oh, hell, who was he kidding? Even if he’d known, he’d still have ended up in the same place, lying face down under Starsky’s warm weight, getting ready to beg for his cock like a two dollar whore.
“You’re gonna have to say it,” Starsky breathed in his ear, a quick bite to the lobe nearly sending Hutch over the edge. “Say, ‘Starsk, I want you to fuck me.’”
Hutch groaned low in his throat. Starsky’s tongue darted out to lick the place he’d bitten.
“Nah, I don’t think that’s it,” he said, and Hutch could hear the smile in his voice, the smug bastard. “Try again.”
“Starsky, goddammit,” Hutch growled. “Just – do it already.”
Starsky wriggled above him, and Hutch felt the head of his cock slide slickly in the cleft of his ass. Starsk had spent long, agonizingly good minutes getting him ready with fingers and tongue and plenty of lube, but when the time had come to follow through, he’d backed off and pulled this stunt. He didn’t know what kind of game Starsk thought he was playing, but Hutch wasn’t finding it funny any more.
“C’mon babe,” Starsky said then, and to Hutch’s surprise his tone had changed to gentle, coaxing, “want to hear you say you want it.”
Hutch stilled under him at that, all the breath suddenly leaving his lungs. Was that what this was about? They’d graduated to all-out fucking right after they’d moved in together—it’d seemed like an appropriate occasion, somehow—but they’d never really talked about it much. For all that he was a modern man, in touch with his emotions, Hutch wasn’t a big talker during sex, relying on his body’s natural reactions and the occasional sound of pleasure to tell a partner what he wanted, what he liked. For the first time, it occurred to him that Starsky needed more than that, needed some reassurance he was doing things that pleased Hutch.
He felt his face heat as he contemplated saying some of the things he’d thought in the privacy of his own head aloud. This is Starsk, he reminded himself, but somehow that didn’t help. Even though Starsk had been his friend forever, they were still too new to this to make him entirely comfortable with letting go completely in his presence.
But comfortable or not, Starsky needed this from him, and so he had to try.
Pressing his forehead into the pillow to hide his face, he took a deep breath. “I want you,” he began, feeling like ten kinds of idiot.
Starsky didn’t seem to mind, though; Hutch felt him twitch, and then his hot mouth pressed against Hutch’s shoulder. Encouraged, Hutch closed his eyes and gave the words their freedom.
“I love what you do to me. You make—you make it safe to be myself,” he added, and it was true. He could be himself with Starsk always, whether they were like this or on the job or laughing over an old Stooges movie on the late show. “Safe to let go.”
This time it was Starsky who groaned. His hips ground against Hutch’s ass, his dick riding the cleft, and Hutch felt himself get even harder.
“Sometimes all you have to do is look at me and I’m ready. What you did on the street earlier—God.”
“You liked that?” Starsky husked, kissing the skin over Hutch’s spine.
Hutch shook his head. “At first I was worried about people hearing you, and then I realized I didn’t care, it didn’t matter, because with you—” He trailed off, suddenly at a loss for words.
“Yeah?” Starsky prompted.
“With you—none of that matters. I love you and I want you and I don’t give a damn if the whole world knows it.”
“Jesus, Hutch,” Starsky groaned, “it’s the same for me. It’s the same.”
“Then please, Starsk,” Hutch ground out, “fuck me. I need you to fuck me—ah!” The blunt head of Starsky’s cock pushed slowly into him, robbing him of speech, stopping his breath.
“God!” Starsk exclaimed, shoving himself up off of Hutch’s back, grabbing at his hips and urging him to his knees. “You’re—”
Hutch pushed himself up on his elbows and drove his ass back onto Starsky’s cock, feeling it open him up, feeling it fill him until he thought he’d be split right down the middle. Starsky made a noise that was half-wild and slammed his hips against Hutch’s ass, and Hutch took him, Hutch took all of him, and Christ, it was good, it was right, it was them.
And then Hutch gave up thinking entirely, let himself fall into heat and rhythm and joy. And later, when he shouted that joy aloud, he didn’t give a damn if the whole world heard him.
“I still can’t believe you like Shemp better, though.”
Hutch stood up and snapped off the TV, cutting off the closing theme of the movie. “There’s just no accounting for taste, Starsk.”
“Hm,” Starsky said noncommittally, reaching into the box of wontons and snagging another one. He stretched out on the bed, enjoying the luxury of eating Chinese food in bed. Usually Hutch put his foot down on that—he was a little fussy about crumbs—but tonight they’d almost been too exhausted to answer the door when the food came, let alone sit at the table to eat.
“You think we’re gettin’ too old for marathon sex?” he asked.
Hutch started coughing; Starsky whacked him helpfully on the back. “Jeez!” Hutch exclaimed when he could speak again. “You almost made me aspirate a chicken ball!”
“I’m just sayin’,” Starsky persisted. “It’d be a real shame, though, if all our best years are behind us.”
“I’ll buy you a walker and a cardigan sweater in the morning,” Hutch muttered, taking a sip of his Coke.
Starsky frowned. “You think we should take more vitamins?”
“I don’t know about you, Starsk,” Hutch drawled, “but if I was seventeen and I’d just had this much sex, I’d be out of commission for a while, too.”
“Oh, yeah?” Starsky said, grinning now. “You were kind of a sickly kid, huh?”
“You want me to admit you wore me out?” Hutch demanded. “Is that what you want?”
Starsky shrugged. “Not if you don’t want to.”
Before Starsky realized what was happening, Hutch had grabbed a pillow and smacked him with it. “Hey! Crumbs!” Starsky protested, holding up the box of wontons like a shield.
“I’ll give you crumbs,” Hutch warned, and damn, that fire was back in his eye.
Suddenly Starsky discovered he wasn’t ready for that walker just yet. Luckily, it looked like Hutch wasn’t as worn out as he claimed, either.
“You want your fortune cookie?” Starsky asked, wiggling it in front of Hutch’s nose.
“Later,” Hutch growled.
“Much later,” Starsky agreed, flinging the wonton box over his shoulder and pouncing.