The Best Thing
by Candy Apple

SHSVS, Episode 1, Part 4

Back to Part 3

Hutch walked in the door of his apartment a little past 12:30, surprised Starsky wasn't hovering around either outside in the Torino or helping himself to something in the refrigerator. Though he'd been a little discouraged during and after his bout with the flu, he was still working hard at the gym, and usually was ready and raring to go when Hutch got home from work.

He'd spent a little more time than usual with Flores at the gym, and his muscles were protesting it a bit now. He was a bit concerned that he wouldn't be able to put on much of a show when he went with Starsky, but then, these trips to the gym weren't about Hutch. He spent his time concentrating on his partner's progress, and Starsky himself seemed just barely able to do his own exercises, let alone monitor Hutch's.

Figuring Starsky was just running a little late, Hutch poured himself a glass of orange juice and sat down to sort his mail. A letter from his Aunt Charlotte occupied a few minutes of his time, as did an offer from a credit card company that sounded fairly good. He checked his watch again at 1:15, frowning. It wasn't like Starsky to be this late for their trip to the gym. He knew Hutch had a limited time to do what he had to do and get some sleep before going back in to work. Concerned, he picked up the phone and dialed Starsky's number. When there was no answer, he grabbed his jacket and keys and headed back out the door.

The lunch crowd had dwindled to a few lingerers by the time Starsky approached the bar at The Pits. The proprietor himself was tallying up lunch receipts at the end stool.

"Hey, Hug," Starsky greeted a bit flatly.

"Starsky, my man. You're lookin' a far sight better'n you did last time I saw you," Huggy said cheerfully, referring to the ill-fated evening out at the beginning of Starsky's bout with the flu.

"Yeah, well, it wouldn't take much," Starsky responded. "Hey, Anita, can I get a beer?" The woman behind the bar looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

"I don't know, honey, can you?" Despite his dark mood, Starsky had to smile a little. The day he couldn't spar with Anita was the day he really was ready for the rest home.

"I probably could in a joint with a decent bartender," he shot back, waiting for the retort. He wasn't disappointed.

"A joint with a decent bartender wouldn't let you in," she responded, pouring his beer and setting it in front of him. "Where's your good-lookin' partner, anyway?"

"At work. I'm still not back on duty."

"Real soon though, right?" she asked, genuinely concerned.

"I don't know yet. Depends on my next doctor's appointment in a month or so."

"You'll do it. You're too stubborn and arrogant not to do it," she concluded, smiling and patting his arm where it rested on the bar before responding to the call of another customer.

"You come here just to enjoy the ambience of my fine establishment?" Huggy joked.

"I need to go away for a while. By myself," Starsky added. "I don't have a lot of money. I'd go to a hotel or rent a place, but disability pay isn't full pay, and...I'm pretty broke right now just makin' ends meet." Starsky paused. "I figured maybe you knew someplace I could go to...get away."

"Get away from what? Hutch?"

"Everything. I need some time alone, and I need to go someplace...that isn't familiar."

"Someplace Hutch can't find you? I don't know as I know of a place like that." Huggy chortled a little. "I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks, Hug."

"You mean now, huh?" he asked when it became clear Starsky wasn't moving off the barstool.

"My stuff's in a rental car out back. That's the other reason I need a free place to stay—I'm payin' all my money out for the car."

"You really wanna disappear, don't ya?"

"I need to. I'll be back when I've got my head together."

"It's been nice knowin' you, man," Huggy quipped, and Starsky managed a smile before the other man left the main part of the restaurant to go into the office and make a few calls.

Hutch felt his heart rate pick up a bit when he saw Starsky's car was parked out front, as usual. Realizing his partner could have just arrived home from some errand and was just running late, Hutch did his best not to panic until he'd knocked sharply on the door a few times—and gotten no response. Using his key, he unlocked it and went inside.

The drapes were drawn, everything was deathly still. He felt a shiver dance up and down his spine as he pulled out his gun, scanning the apartment for any signs of an intruder or a struggle.

"Starsky!" he called out and waited. He'd hoped maybe Starsky just didn't feel well and had opted to take a nap, or was in the bathroom and didn't hear him come in. "Starsk?" This was a quieter call, with a bit of desperation to it.

Moving away from the door, he opened the drapes to brighten up the room. Nothing was out of place, and there was no sign of a struggle. He burst through the partially closed bedroom door, ready for a confrontation...but that room, too, was empty, the bed neatly made. Feeling like this was too similar to the last suicide scene he'd visited, Hutch stealthily made his way to the bathroom and pushed open the door, bracing himself for something terrible. It was almost pristine in its cleanliness, and there was certainly no sign of Starsky or any foul play.

"Starsky, where the hell are you?" Hutch asked the empty bedroom as he wandered over and sat on the bed. He briefly questioned why he would even think of Starsky and suicide in the same breath, and then he thought about Starsky's more subdued demeanor. Since his bout with the flu, he'd recovered, gone back to his workouts and done quite well in the gym. But it was with a certain lack of spirit that bothered Hutch. As if he had no happiness left in his soul. The Starsky that used to practically vibrate with enthusiasm had ceased to exist. He never talked about going back to work anymore.

And it had all happened with that damn flu—which, though unpleasant, was a temporary setback at worst. What had transformed it into a pivotal emotional turning point Hutch wasn't sure—and Starsky wasn't talking. He insisted nothing was wrong and changed the subject whenever Hutch alluded to his change in attitude.

Pushing up off the bed, Hutch wandered into the living room. He paused when he noticed a white business envelope on the desk, sitting up against the pot of a small plant. His name was written on it in Starsky's handwriting. He opened it and unfolded the sheet of white paper inside:

Dear Hutch,

Don't worry about me—I'm okay. I just needed to get away for a couple of days, on my own. I'm going through a lot of changes right now, which is no big news bulletin to you. I need to sort some things out on my own...figure out where I'm headed.

You and Flores make a great team. I can't believe I'm saying this, but you're real lucky to have gotten assigned with a good cop, and somebody you like. You better quit treating him like a temp and put your bid in with Dobey to make the partnership permanent, so you don't end up losing out. He's got a great track record, and if somebody besides me is going to watch your back, I want it to be somebody good.

I'm not going back to the department. I'm going to keep working out in the gym—maybe mainly because I don't want to get Dr. Fielding ticked off at me. Seriously, I want to get back into the best shape I can—for me. So I can have a healthy life. She did make me see that as a goal that was worthwhile all by itself.

Don't worry—this isn't some big dramatic farewell. I'll probably only be gone a few days, a week at the most, and then I'll be back and we can talk. But I wanted you to know where I stood.

I want what's best for you, buddy. Flores is a good guy, and he can go the distance. He's your equal on the streets, Hutch. That's what you need. Plus, you need another know-it-all college boy to give you a run for your money.

See you in a few days. Love ya, buddy.

Starsk

Hutch sat on the couch and skimmed the letter again. God, no, Starsk...Flores isn't what I need. I had to go back to work, without you, and that was the hardest thing—next to seeing you shot—I ever had to do. I had no choices. We needed the money. In case you were out on disability longer than you thought, or permanently, one of us had to be working.

That'd make you feel great. Me planning how to take care of you, like you're an invalid. But that's not how it feels. It feels like ...like you're my family, like I want to take care of you because I love you, not because you can't take care of yourself.

Hutch got up again and started pacing. Damn it, Starsky, if you knew what I felt for you...what I wanted with you...you probably never would come back... Or would you? Could you feel what I feel? Did you ever let yourself think about what it could be like if all the intensity of what we feel for each other was physical? If we could make it forever? If it was something that had nothing to do with the job?

Hutch re-read the note, and cringed inwardly at what those words must have cost his partner to write. Writing away their partnership, writing away his career, letting go of everything that defined his life because he felt it was somehow better for Hutch.

You're my reason for living, mushbrain. How could you think losing you by my side every day is what I need? How could you think that Flores—great guy that he is—means anything remotely close to what you mean to me? Damn it, Starsky, I love you...with my whole heart and soul...with my body if you'd let me.

He folded the note and put it back in its envelope and tucked it in his pocket. Enough was enough. Pledging his love to an empty apartment wasn't very useful, and it wasn't helping him find Starsky. The way things stood now, their partnership was already over. He had precious little to lose—and everything to gain—by finding Starsky and laying it all out for him.

The Pits was just starting to fill up with the happy hour crowd when Hutch located Huggy behind the bar.

"Have you seen Starsky today?" he asked directly, omitting even a greeting.

"Yeah, I saw him. Said he was goin' away for a few days." Huggy stopped at that, apparently not planning to be the fount of information he usually was.

"Where?"

"Also said he wanted to be on his own for a while."

"Huggy, look, something's going on here and I think Starsky's got the wrong idea about...about a lot of things. And him going away on his own and dwelling on things that aren't true isn't going to help him any." Huggy appeared unmoved by that speech, and Anita, who had been serving drinks, moved up to join them. "Oh, for Pete's sake, Huggy, how long have we known each other? When have you ever known me to try to do something to hurt Starsky? I just want to help him. I just want to...set him straight on some things."

"What things?" Huggy asked.

"That's...between us. But I have to see him, and it can't wait however long he's planning on hiding out wherever it is he's hiding."

"Who says I know where he is?"

"Oh, come off it," Hutch snapped back, irritated. "You probably set it up."

"You're askin' me to pick one'a you over the other—betray Starsky's confidence to give you what you want. I'm not playin' that game. He's okay, so let him be. You can talk to him when he gets back."

"It'll be too late!" Hutch retorted, clenched fists on the bar. He took in a deep breath and relaxed his hands, laying the palms flat on the cool wood. "Huggy, I need to see him. Not next week, or in a few days, but now. Tonight if possible."

"I'll let him know you wanna see him, then he can—"

"Damn it, Huggy, he's gonna know I want to see him! Why do you think he went to all this trouble to hide from me? He isn't going to call me back with his address! I need help. I need to see him."

"I promised him I wouldn't say nothin'. Is he in some kinda danger?" Huggy asked, and Hutch briefly considered lying, but then decided against it.

"No. But...our whole relationship could hinge on this."

"He wasn't mad at you, he just didn't wanna see you."

"This isn't as simple as just an argument. God help me, if that was all it was, I'd let him cool off and fix it when he got back. This is...huge..." Hutch gestured a little helplessly, then his shoulders sagged. "You aren't gonna help me, are you?"

"I'll tell him you wanna see him real bad, and have him call you. That's the best I can do. He made me promise—"

"Okay. Okay. Whatever. I'll find him myself." Hutch stalked away from the bar angrily and slammed through the door.

He was just starting his car when there was a rapid, staccato tap at his window. He rolled it down to talk to Anita, who handed him a small slip of paper.

"Go talk to him. Work things out. He looked real sad without you," she said, smiling as she moved back a little.

"Thanks, Anita. You're beautiful, you know that?" Hutch said, smiling broadly.

"I know. If you weren't so hung up on that partner'a yours, I might have a chance with you."

Hutch gaped at her, and she just smiled and waved, hurrying back into the bar.

Starsky walked along the deck of the beach house, still a little incredulous that Huggy had found him someplace this nice to hole up and think. He'd expected a sleazy flophouse somewhere, or maybe some dive out in the sticks. This was beautiful—the kind of place rich people visited for the weekend. He'd decided upon arriving that he didn't want to know where Huggy's friend got the money for this place, or how he managed to keep it, or what paid for the expensive furnishings and art on the walls.

He figured Hutch had read the note by now and was probably knocking himself out trying to find him. For causing Hutch any undue worry, he was truly sorry. Still, a long, emotional scene wasn't something he felt up to. He'd cried like an overly-emotional schoolgirl while he wrote the letter, and telling it to Hutch in person would have ripped what was left of his heart out and destroyed it.

Giving away what you loved most hurt like a son of a bitch, and Starsky could still feel the open wound throbbing and bleeding, not unlike a gunshot hole in his body. When the phone rang, he jumped. Hesitant, he went to it and picked it up.

"Yeah?"

"Your partner's lookin' for you," Huggy said.

"Big surprise. You didn't tell him anything, did you?"

"'Course not. But he was real upset—real determined to talk to you. Said your whole relationship depended on it."

"Yeah, well, I figured he'd see it that way. Just...tell him not to worry about me, that I'll talk all he wants when I come home, and that everything's okay. But don't tell him where I am, okay?"

"You're the doctor."

"You think I oughtta talk to him, huh?"

"He was pretty upset. Yeah, I think you oughtta just call the guy so he doesn't go nuts."

"I'll think about it. Thanks, Hug—for getting me this place, and for covering for me. I appreciate it."

"Hey, what're friends for? I gotta go. Place is jumpin' tonight." With that, he hung up, and so did Starsky.

He'd brought some groceries with him, and it crossed his mind that this would be the logical time to fix dinner. Letting out a long breath, Starsky determined he felt about as much like eating now as he had in the first hours after Terry's death. His insides felt more shredded now than they had in the hospital, in a way that only her death had ever shredded them before. Gunther had certainly gotten revenge on him... he'd had to give up the most precious thing in his world because of those three well-placed bullets. Sunset blues

Grabbing a bottle of wine, his guitar, and the envelope of photos he'd taken with him on an impulse, he walked out on the deck and down the wood steps to the grass. The sun was setting on the water, and if he'd had the heart for it, he'd have spent the sunset snapping photos and hoping he had the ability to capture its magnificence on film.

There were almost 100 steps from the top of the grassy slope to the beach below, and he eschewed them and the sand to sit there on the grass and look out over the ocean. The view was spectacular.

Finally get to spend a vacation in the kind of place I always wanted to stay and I'm so fucking miserable that it doesn't matter. Starsky snorted a laugh at himself. "I hate my life," he muttered, smiling ironically and shaking his head.

He popped the cork on the wine and hoisted the bottle, guzzling down a couple gulps. To hell with propriety. Who was going to see him drink out of the bottle? A sea gull?

Opening the envelope, he took out the stack of photos, and as he found the few he had of himself with Hutch, he took another belt of the wine.

Hutch was the most beautiful blond he'd ever seen. The sunlight in the park that day had made that pale yellow hair glow. Starsky closed his eyes and tried to push aside the image that was fighting to take shape. An image of what it would have been like that day, sitting there together on the blanket, to move closer and press his lips against those full lips of Hutch's, to bury his fingers in that gold silk and get his fill of feeling it.

Sleeping with Hutch had been the best experience of his life. Talking late into the night, sharing confidences...sometimes waking up to find that big, warm body close to him.

Nearly dying had made him realize one thing—there was only one person he loved so much he couldn't leave...only one person who meant more to him than anything. Only one person who owned his heart and soul. He'd tried like hell not to fall in love with Hutch, not to feel anything more than friendship, but Hutch was the most important, wonderful part of his life. Before he'd faced death head-on, it had been easy to push any unsettling thoughts about his relationship with his partner aside and write them off as close friendship—the fact that maybe they spent too much time together. Now he found it harder and harder to go through life playing games, when life was, at its longest, too damn short for it.

He'd never been more keenly aware of the depth of his feelings for Hutch than when he'd made the painful decision to let him go. He'd known it was best when he was sick, when he'd first reached that conclusion. Dr. Fielding had raised his hopes, made him toy with that fantasy again of being back on the streets together...and then he'd seen Hutch with Flores in the gym—two healthy men who were equals in every sense. He'd realized that he could only hold Hutch back, and his constant presence and the continued hope of him returning to street duty would do nothing but mangle Hutch's chances to form a good, strong partnership with someone who was worthy of him.

His continued presence in Hutch's life was a drain on the man's energy and concentration, and he knew the right thing to do was to make his plans...somewhere else. To move away, to let go fully so Hutch could have a life that wasn't so divided. To reduce what had been the single greatest love of his entire life to exchanged cards at holidays and the occasional phone call.

Not sure if it was the wine, the pain of the thoughts, or the solitude of his setting, he gave in to the tears that flowed then, crying openly and desperately, wondering how he'd ever mend this particular wound. Suddenly, his physical incisions seemed insignificant by comparison.

Hutch pulled up in front of the elegant beachfront retreat where his partner was allegedly staying. He double-checked the address on the slip of paper and questioned if Anita was playing some sort of joke on him. This was the type of vacation home his father and a few of his more affluent friends aspired to have. As it was, even his father hadn't ultimately been able to swing it until both children were through with college.

He cut the engine and got out of the car, noticing that there was a nondescript blue sedan in the driveway. Since the Torino had been left behind, it had to be Starsky's rental car. He approached the front door of the elaborate conglomeration of stained wood and glass and knocked. After a long wait with no answer, he left the porch and walked around the side of the large home, pausing as he caught a breathtaking view of the moon over the water.

He could hear the soft strains of a guitar mingled with the sounds of the ocean, and as he rounded the back of the house, he saw his partner sitting on the grass at the edge of the bluff overlooking the water. Before long, an incredibly sad voice joined the guitar.

Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these To remember you

Memories that come at night
Take me to another time
Back to a happier day
When I called you mine...

Hutch froze by a nearby tree, resting his hand on the trunk, wishing there was something he could say or do that would dispel that awful melancholy, but if Starsky was in a funk, missing Terry, there would be very little he could do but sit by somewhat helplessly and watch. His partner did have a beautiful voice, and when he chose to lend it to something serious, and his heart was in it, it could be heartbreaking. Starsky rarely did more than sing along with Hutch, but once in a while, he seemed to feel a need to express something musically—usually, unfortunately, when he was too miserable to fully vent it any other way.

But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh how I loved you then

Summer skies and lullabies
Nights we couldn't say goodbye
And of all of the things that we knew
Not a dream survived...

Starsky's voice cracked badly on the last words, but his fingers didn't miss a note on the strings. Hutch moved a little closer, wanting to reach out to him, and yet not wanting to stop the song until it finished. Even if Starsky was suffering, it was such a beautiful, rare moment of unpretentious, sincere song from him that the musician in Hutch couldn't bear to interrupt it.

Photographs and memories
All the love you gave to me
Somehow it just can't be true
That's all I've left of you...

But we sure had a good thing
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh how I loved you then...

Starsky set the guitar aside and picked up the bottle of wine that was sitting next to him, taking a couple swallows. Then he stiffened a little, not unlike a cat who detects the presence of a predator. He was totally still a moment before he turned around and was up on his knees, staring at Hutch in surprise.

"How long have you been there?" he asked, his voice more weak with surprise than accusation.

"That's a beautiful song, isn't it?" Hutch said, moving closer. "You always did do a good Jim Croce imitation," he added, smiling. He hoped a little levity in his voice might assuage the gathering storm of Starsky's anger at having been tracked, at having his private retreat invaded against his will. The storm did not gather, and that worried Hutch even more. Starsky just slumped until his butt hit his heels.

"Yeah, I'm good at doing imitations of the real thing," he responded sadly. "How'd you find me?"

"Informant who wishes to remain anonymous," Hutch said, sitting down on the grass himself now, not far from Starsky, facing him.

"Anita, huh?"

"How'd you figure that one out?"

"I heard from Huggy after you went to The Pits, and I figured he didn't talk. Anita's always had a thing for you, so if she knew anything, she was the logical suspect." Starsky hadn't looked up from the wine bottle he was turning in his hands. "Doesn't matter."

"You mind?" Hutch asked, reaching out. Starsky looked up, a little confused, then handed him the bottle of wine. After he'd taken a swallow, he handed it back.

"Keep it. I polished off more'n half of it already. Doesn't do any good anyway."

"Thinking about Terry, buddy?" Hutch asked gently.

"What?" Starsky looked up at him, genuinely confused.

"I-I heard the song...I thought...you were maybe...missing her."

"Shows how much you know about anything." Starsky picked up the envelope of photos and tossed them next to Hutch, who picked it up, opening the flap and looking inside. The images that greeted him were photos of himself and Starsky at the park, and some photos of him...ironing of all things. Photos he never realized were taken.

"When did you take these?"

"A few weeks ago. When you were sharpening the pleats in your pants until you could slice tomatoes with ‘em. I think you had a date with...oh, what was her name...that nurse you met while I was in the hospital?"

"Judy? Oh, yeah, I remember now."

"Got home about ten, as I recall. Guess you struck out, huh?" Starsky needled.

"Guess I wasn't trying too hard." Hutch tucked the photos back in the envelope. "You were thinking about me? About...us?" Starsky nodded. "That's real nice, buddy. So maybe you wanna tell me what the hell this is all about then?" Hutch asked, pulling the letter out of his pocket. "You drop a bomb like this and then just walk away? That's a hell of a way to end a partnership, partner," Hutch added angrily. He hadn't realized himself that he was angry with Starsky, as well as worried about him, until now.

"I knew if we talked face-to-face, you wouldn't listen to me. You'd tell me I was wrong and you'd try to change my mind. I had to do it this way so I could get it all out in one breath before...before I lost my nerve."

"If you're no more certain about it than that—"

"I'm certain about it, Hutch." Starsky sighed sadly, then shook his head. "Bein' certain doesn't make it easier. If you've got gangrene in your leg, you might know it needs cuttin' off, but that doesn't make you reach for the nearest saw with a smile on your face."

"So you're comparing our partnership to gangrene? Thanks a lot, old pal."

"No, I'm comparing losing it to cutting off my leg, Hutch. For a college boy, you sure as hell can be dense with metaphors."

"Apparently you think I need another college boy to keep me in check, huh? You're not up to the job anymore?"

"In case you haven't looked lately, I'm out on disability, and most likely am gonna stay that way."

"Dr. Fielding gave you bad news this morning, huh?" Hutch asked, his tone much gentler now. In all the excitement, he'd forgotten Starsky even had a check-up that morning.

"No, not really. She gave me this pep talk about keeping on trying. For a while there, I was convinced I was gonna make it."

"What happened between the doctor's office and this?" Hutch waved the note.

"A reality check." Starsky moved so he was sitting cross-legged on the ground. "Dr. Norman wrote me off too fast...Dr. Fielding doesn't have the heart to write me off at all. And you're gonna end up waitin' forever for me to get back in shape to go on active duty, and it's gonna cost you your partner. Flores is a good guy—with a good track record. He'll make somebody a hell of a partner. If I can't be there to watch your back, I wanna know somebody good is doin' it." Starsky closed his eyes and swallowed. "It's all in the note, Hutch. Why're you makin' me go over it again?"

"Because this note is a crock of shit." Hutch tore it in half and tossed it aside on the grass, visibly startling Starsky. "Do you think for one fucking minute that I want another partner?"

"No, but I think one of us has to face facts. And I guess it's gotta be me."

"If you can't go back on active duty, that's a fact we'll face together, when it happens. But that doesn't change how I feel about you...it doesn't change that I want you in my life."

"I'm not gonna throw myself off the bluff here. I'll still be around," Starsky said, forcing a slight lopsided smile.

"I'm not letting you go," Hutch said, taking a hold of Starsky's shoulders. "Not ever."

"Hey, come on, buddy. I didn't leave the country. I was just talkin' about the job."

"You're giving up. You're walking out. And it's not gonna be long before we're reduced to a once-a-month get together. That's not enough."

"Hutch, it's lookin' a lot like all that's left of me is...me. I...I can't keep up with you in the gym—hell, even when I was healthy, I couldn't give you a run for your money on the mat the way Flores can."

"You're jealous of Flores, is that it? God, this is like something out of a bad romance novel."

"Don't make fun'a me, Hutch. I'm really not up for that tonight." Starsky got up and turned to face the water. "I guess that's fair, though. I was jealous'a him at first. I hated his guts and I never even met the guy. But that was early on. The more I thought about it, I realized that I was...I was just being selfish—hangin' onto somethin' I couldn't handle anymore. Holdin' you back from being partners with somebody who was worthy of it. This morning, I realized that wasn't me."

"What are you talking about?" Hutch got up now and moved to stand next to his partner—his only partner.

"Nothing."

"It meant something or you wouldn't have said it." Hutch watched while Starsky sighed, then looked up at him with haunted eyes. "While you're at it, you can tell me what you meant about Flores giving me a run for my money ‘on the mat'."

"I was gonna take you to lunch—you know, someplace nice...to celebrate. I mean, it wasn't a big deal, but it seemed like good news from the doctor, and I felt really good. I got home and ran up my front steps and hardly even noticed it." Starsky smiled faintly. "When I got to headquarters, I saw Lizzie, and she said you were down in the gym with Flores—that you guys usually worked out together after your shift."

"Damn," Hutch said softly, closing his eyes. "Starsk—"

"Hey, you couldn't really stay in shape doing the old man exercises I can do. I went downstairs ‘cause I figured I'd meet this guy, quit bein' such a jealous asshole...and when I got there, you were wrestling. And I just realized...he's your equal, Hutch. He's healthy and whole and strong...he can wrestle, and he's smarter that I am, and he'll be a good partner for you. Makin' you wait forever while I play around in the gym hoping for a miracle isn't fair. You've got a good chance here, and I want you to take it before it's too late."

"You finished outlining what I should think and feel and want?"

"Hutch, come on...I just want what's best for you. And me hangin' around isn't it. I figure I'll go someplace else, start over with another kinda job, and we'll still be friends. But you'll have time to...to have a life. Not to spend it worrying about me." Starsky paused. "When you were wrestling around with Flores, and laughing...you looked happier than I've seen you look in months. And if I can't make you look that way, I want..." Starsky stopped, blinking and swallowing hard, "I want ya t'have what it takes to make you smile like that all the time." He fought to keep his composure and added, in a whisper, "Because...I love ya so much."

"Did it ever occur to you that you walking out of my life was gonna pull my guts out? Or don't I get a say in what makes me happy?"

"I figured it'd be hard at first, but you're not gonna have time to sit around missin' me. You've got your job, and you'll get to be close with Flores—"

"Will you forget Flores for a minute? Damn it, Starsky, he's a temporary partner. He's a good cop. He's smart and he knows how to wrestle. Big fucking deal! So do a couple million other guys out there." Hutch grabbed Starsky's shoulders again, his grip even firmer this time. "Flores is a good guy, but he could be one of a hundred different guys I could probably get along with. But there's only one partner I want."

"I might not make it back, Hutch."

"I wasn't just talking about the job." Hutch braced himself and tried to muster the strength to follow this through now that he'd started it. Starsky was looking into his eyes with a kind of sad desperation, as if he wanted Hutch to find some compelling argument for why his painful decision was wrong.

Most of all, Hutch didn't want what he was about to say to be mistaken as some platonic declaration of brotherly love or fraternal fellow cop loyalty.

Leaving one hand on Starsky's shoulder, he brought the other one up to cup his cheek. "I love you, babe, and nothing in my life is gonna be right or beautiful or happy if I don't have you to share it with."

"I might be all washed up, Hutch."

"Then you'll have a different job...hell, maybe we both will." Hutch smiled. "When I was sitting by your bed in the hospital, waiting for you to wake up, I wasn't waiting for Sergeant Starsky to wake up. I was waiting for you."

"It just feels like I'm this...burden on you all the time...like you can't ever have any fun with me...draining you."

"Maybe we're both taking everything a little too seriously. Maybe we need more picnics in the park—days at the beach," Hutch gestured at the water. "We almost lost everything, and now we've got it back and we're not even enjoying it."

"We don't have everything back, Hutch."

"Yes, we do. I have everything back. I have you...or...I want to have you, if you'll stick around."

"I didn't wanna leave," Starsky admitted softly. "And I didn't wanna feel...the way I do, like...like the whole world was fallin' apart because of not bein' with you."

"You're coming home with me then, right?"

"Well...yeah," Starsky said, smiling. "But I wanna take advantage'a this place for a couple'a days. Think you could call in sick or something?"

"Or something," Hutch agreed, smiling. Then he became more serious, realizing he was letting the golden moment slip by again. "Starsk...I..." He let the words hang there, and then, without giving himself a chance to back down, he moved forward, and covered Starsky's mouth with his own, pulling his startled partner into his arms.

There was a horrible moment where Starsky stiffened, his mouth unresponsive. Just as Hutch was about to accept he'd destroyed everything he'd worked so hard to save, the mouth beneath his softened, the lips parting slightly, a hesitant tongue venturing just a tip out to touch his own. The tense muscles relaxed and Starsky's arms were coming up around him, an eager hand sliding into his hair.

Hutch smiled into the deepening kiss, realizing that he was quickly losing control and dominance of this moment. Starsky's mouth was hungrily responding to his, the briefly shy tongue now boldly demanding entrance as Starsky moaned low in his throat.

When they broke the kiss, sharing heaving breaths, both men smiled.

"I seem to recall somebody tellin' me I wasn't a good kisser," Starsky teased. "You, uh, wanna reconsider that, Blondie?"

"That could take years of in-depth research." Hutch moved in for another kiss, which was as greedily accepted as the first. "God, Starsk, I thought this was gonna be the end of everything," Hutch admitted, resting his forehead against Starsky's.

"Yeah, well, it kinda shakes things up a little, doesn't it?"

"Y-you thought about this before...before tonight?"

"About kissin' you? Maybe not exactly that before tonight," Starsky said, moving away a little, looking out at the water. "But I was thinkin' about something. I knew something was different. After the shooting, I started realizing it. After almost dying, it got harder and harder to pretend it wasn't there. It got harder not to live my life the way I want to. ‘Course, it was a little weird when I realized I was lookin' at your hair and your eyes and wantin' to touch you in ways that were...different." Starsky turned back to look at him again. "You're awful quiet while I'm spillin' my guts here. You started this kissing thing tonight—not that I'm complainin' or anything."

"There's something you need to know about me, and you might not feel the same way about me when I tell you."

"You've been secretly wanting my body for years and just didn't know how to tell me?" Starsky teased, and the words sliced into Hutch's heart like a dagger. It must have shown on his face, because Starsky's smile disappeared. "Hutch? Hey, babe, come on, what is it?" Starsky's hands were on his shoulders now.

"I..." Hutch swallowed. "I've...been...I've been attracted to men before." The words sounded too cold, too...general. As if what they'd just shared could have happened with any man Hutch found attractive. "I didn't mean it that way. Starsk...it's...it's just you...but..."

"Hey, come on, babe, calm down." Starsky's hands came up on either side of his face now. "Take it nice and slow and tell me what you're tryin' to say."

"I did say it. I...I can get interested in men...the same as women. I've been interested in a man before."

"But you still like women? So you're sayin' you're AC/DC?"

"I guess so."

"So this thing with me...is it one of those physical things?" Starsky let go of his face. "'Cause if it is, once you get a good look at me with my shirt off, you'll get over it real fast. That's not the same anymore either," he added quietly.

"There's a part of it that's physical—the part of it that made me want to kiss you. But the rest of it is...it's so deep, and so...real. I love you, babe. Like I've never loved anybody else in my life." He rested a hand on Starsky's chest, in the area bared by the open buttons of his shirt. "And there's nothing about you I find ugly."

"Yeah, well, they say love is blind, I guess," Starsky said, snorting a little laugh.

"Aw, Starsk. Don't." Words weren't enough, and Hutch pulled Starsky closer to him, his arms around his middle, loosely enough so they could still face each other. Starsky's arms came around him too, a little more hesitantly this time. "You think you're going to show me something I haven't seen before?"

"The only thing I could think of when we met those girls in Huggy's—before I got sick?" Hutch nodded, and Starsky continued. "I kept thinkin' what it was gonna be like if I took her back to my place and unveiled the damage. Talk about a turn-off." Starsky looked down.

"Hey," Hutch said softly, nudging his chin up with one finger. "I'm not a one-night stand pick-up at The Pits. I love you, remember?"

"I know that, but lovin' me and lovin' this...thing that used to pass for a body are two different things. It never had anything to do with us before, but now it does, and it's somethin' to think about."

"The only thing I want to think about when it comes to getting your clothes off is how I'm gonna make you feel good." Hutch moved in for another kiss then, hoping to remind Starsky of the passionate desire that had started all this. The kiss was returned enthusiastically, but when it was over, Starsky still looked a bit forlorn.

"I haven't done it with anybody since the shooting. Haven't seemed to care much about it."

"You've been pretty unhappy all those weeks, babe. Makes it hard to think about sex when your whole life's up in the air."

"Sex means getting naked, and...and I never used to even think about that. When I wanted it, and the lady involved wanted it, we did it. I didn't feel funny about takin' my clothes off. I've been in and outta locker rooms and showers most'a my life. I never thought much about it—never felt...funny."

"We won't go any farther than what you want—but if you're thinking that seeing you naked is going to be any big turn-off—or any big surprise, for that matter—you're wrong. You don't have anything I haven't seen, and I'm still here," Hutch said gently, stroking back through the dark curls.

"It's gettin' chilly out here. Maybe we oughtta go inside. There's a big fireplace and all kinds'a pillows in the living room," Starsky said, grinning a little mischievously.

"Let's quit wasting our time out here then," Hutch responded, smiling back and moving away to pick up the photos and the wine. Starsky grabbed his guitar and then paused. With a brief hesitation, he reached out and took a hold of Hutch's hand as they walked up toward the house.

"Maybe tomorrow night we can take a walk on the beach."

"You're planning a regular vacation out here, aren't you?" Hutch teased, squeezing Starsky's hand.

"Probably the only time in my life I'm ever gonna get to stay in a place like this. ‘Course, that was before when I thought I wasn't gonna be a cop anymore so I didn't worry about how Huggy's pal pays for all of it."

"Do we know who this ‘pal' is?"

"Didn't ask, didn't look. I figure I could rifle the desk in the bedroom upstairs, but I didn't much care when I got here. Don't much care now. Got better things to do with my hands than go through a desk."

The inside of the house was as spectacular as Hutch expected it would be. A full wall of windows overlooked the water, and the beamed cathedral ceilings and fieldstone fireplace made the living room an impressive work of art. As promised, there were numerous pillows in varying shades of brown, tan and cream piled in abundance near the fireplace.

"There anything better here than this stuff?" Hutch held up the bottle of now flat, room temperature wine.

"Yeah—I think there's Dom Perignon in the fridge, but I didn't wanna take it."

"Good point. Anything not so good?"

"Mmm..." Starsky led the way into the huge kitchen, which was a symphony of chrome and smoked glass. From the refrigerator he produced a bottle of domestic champagne. "This doesn't look too expensive."

"Well, it is, but not like the Dom Perignon. I can leave enough cash to cover this." Hutch took the bottle while Starsky located glasses. "You bring any food up here?"

"Oh, yeah. I brought a few basics. Frozen pizza, cold meat, beer—"

"All the staples of a healthy diet." Hutch worked on the cork, and it finally let go with a satisfying pop and only marginal spillage. "Figured we ought to dribble on the linoleum instead of the $200 per yard carpeting."

"Whaddya think this guy does, anyway?" Starsky asked as they returned to the living room.

"Do we wanna know?" Hutch set the champagne bottle on the lower ledge of the fireplace, and noticed it had gas logs. "I guess this place would roast us alive with a real fire."

"Guess it'd seem kinda silly to turn up the air conditioning so we can have a real fire," Starsky responded, turning out the last of the lamps in the living room.

It was on the tip of Hutch's tongue to complain about the darkness, but there was a marginal glow from the fireplace, and if the dark made Starsky more comfortable, then he wasn't about to needle him over it. There would be other times to gently coax him into forgetting about what he considered a horrible disfigurement. Someday, he'd make Starsky believe that no scar on earth could mar him in his partner's eyes.

"Ow," Starsky mumbled, catching his foot on a chair leg and almost falling into the pillows with Hutch. "That was romantic." He rubbed his stocking-covered foot and then abandoned it to accept the champagne glass. Hutch filled it, then filled his own.

"To our partnership—on the force or off," Hutch said, holding up his glass. "If you walk out on me again, I'll hunt you down to the ends of the earth and drag you back."

"I'll drink to that," Starsky said, chortling as he tapped his glass against Hutch's. After they'd each had a sip of the champagne, Starsky added, "I won't take off again. I honestly thought it would be better in the long run."

"If you thought that, you don't know me very well."

"I didn't say it would be the easiest, or that it wouldn't hurt, but sometimes you need to move on, and I wanted you to be able to do that."

"Yeah, well, anyplace I could move on to that means splitting us up isn't a place I need to go." Hutch hesitated a minute, then leaned forward and found himself met halfway by his soon-to-be lover. The thought sent a jolt of shock, excitement and disbelief through his system. This kiss was less urgent, but just as sweet as the ones shared outside on the bluff.

Starsky set his own champagne aside, then took Hutch's and put the glass next to his own. Moving forward, he claimed Hutch's mouth more aggressively this time, and while Hutch conceded the battle of lips, he wound his arms around his partner's body and pulled him forward until he was on his back on the pillows and Starsky lay on top of him, the kiss unbroken.

His hands stroked up Starsky's sides and over his back, feeling the warm, healthy body moving beneath the fabric of the shirt. No matter what new extremes Starsky could demand from his healed body in the name of returning to active duty, he was healthy. He was alive. His heart pumped, his muscles flexed, his chest rose and fell with healthy—albeit increasingly rapid—respiration.

Finding the shirttails that hadn't been tucked into Starsky's jeans, Hutch slid his hands under the fabric, feeling the warm skin there, moving up...

"Hutch..." Starsky moved away, breaking the intense and delicious kissing that had kept them joined for long minutes. "Don't."

"Don't what, babe? Touch you?"

"Just...leave the shirt alone, okay?"

"No, it's not okay." Hutch took Starsky's troubled face in both hands. "I want to make love to you. All of you. You don't have a mark on you I haven't seen. Haven't touched, for that matter. Don't shut me out, babe. Let me love you," Hutch pleaded softly, kissing Starsky again, pulling him in close, keeping his touches on the outside of the shirt, forcing himself not to return to that soft, warm skin beneath until Starsky gave his consent.

"Your skin's like silk," Starsky said a little breathlessly, his hand skimming the part of Hutch's chest exposed by the open buttons of his shirt. "The scars...they feel...funny. And they're so damned ugly, Hutch. I hate ‘em. I know I'm s'posed t'be grateful I'm not dead, and I am, but I hate lookin' in the mirror and seein' this monster lookin' back at me," Starsky admitted brokenly, his eyes focused on Hutch's chest until they closed at the painful words. "I hate ‘em and I want ‘em to go away."

"I know, babe." Hutch gave up on the pep talks and reassurances for now, pulling Starsky close against him and stroking his hair.

The scars were less atrocious than they had been at the beginning—Hutch could barely think of them as ugly at all...he never had, even when he'd seen them in their early stages, when only someone looking through the eyes of love could have avoided feeling repulsed. They'd been horrid bullet wounds and a significant incision complete with its Frankensteinesque stitches. Now they were just...different skin. Different in color, different in texture, and looking less and less striking every day. Starsky's body hair was filling in nicely, and while he'd never completely hide them, they were certainly less of an issue when obscured by the dusting of dark curls there.

"They're gonna fade, buddy. Time'll change them a lot, you'll see," Hutch said gently.

"But they're always gonna be there."

"Yeah, they'll always be there." Hutch kissed the top of Starsky's head. "Just like me."

"Guess I sorta broke the mood, huh?" Starsky asked sheepishly, raising up on his elbows and looking down at Hutch.

"You'll figure something out to make it up to me." With that, he rolled them over until he pinned Starsky beneath him. "Let me love you, babe," he whispered against Starsky's ear, kissing it and tugging gently on the lobe with his teeth. He moved over then and covered Starsky's mouth with his own, taking the passionate response as consent.

Eager fingers were on his shirt buttons now, Starsky obviously not content to play anything resembling a passive role. He wasn't about to let a little thing like being pinned to the pillows get the best of him. Happy that his partner raised the stakes first, Hutch worked on the buttons of Starsky's shirt, and before long, they were kissing again, bare chest against bare chest.

Hutch felt the shirt being pushed somewhat clumsily off his shoulders and he cooperated with the movement, finally tossing the shirt aside. Starsky looked a little uneasy, but he rose up a bit and discarded his own shirt, falling back against the pillows. Hutch resisted the urge to drink in his fill of the sight, because the last thing he wanted was for Starsky to feel more exposed or uncomfortable than he already did. Instead, he moved down until they were in each other's arms again, free now to let their hands roam over chests, shoulders and backs, hearts beating against one another, finding a shared rhythm.

Breaking away from Starsky's mouth, Hutch kissed and nibbled his way down to his lover's throat, licking at the little hollow there. He moved down cautiously, slowly, until his questing lips found a nipple. Knowing how sensitive his own could be, he flicked it with his tongue, drawing the first little moan out of Starsky. Spurred on by the response, he fastened his mouth to the little protrusion and sucked. Starsky gasped and moaned again, his hands sliding into Hutch's hair. Love

"God, babe...that's good," Starsky managed.

Hutch abandoned the first nipple and kissed his way to the other, taking it into his mouth now, loving the way Starsky arched under him, a note of surprise in his pleasured groans. All the time he'd imagined what he'd do at this moment and now it was here, and it was better than any of his fantasies. Starsky was excited and responsive, and, by some miracle, he wanted this as much as Hutch did himself.

Lost in the task of pleasing the man beneath him, Hutch began kissing his way down the center of Starsky's chest, but found himself pulled back up for more kisses.

"My turn, Blondie," Starsky said against his mouth before kissing him again, then rolling them over so he was on top. Hutch ignored the nagging inner voice that told him that it was Starsky's continued unease about the scarring lower on his body that had made him stop Hutch in his tracks. What was happening now was incredibly beautiful, and he wasn't about to waste it by questioning the "why" of it.

Starsky was licking and sucking at a spot on his neck, making his mark. On Hutch's fair skin, passion marks seemed to shine like beacons—and Starsky was staking his claim. The thought made Hutch's cock twitch and harden in the tight confines of his jeans. Licking the spot tenderly now, Starsky moved away from it, kissing his way to a nipple, which he eagerly sucked into his mouth.

It was Hutch's turn to gasp and clutch at Starsky's hair, trying to ensure that the hot mouth that was working his flesh never left it. But leave it did, moving to the other side, feasting on the little nub there with the same enthusiasm.

"Love you, babe," Hutch muttered, arching into the sensation, wondering if this was some sort of waking dream.

"I wanna get you outta these pants," Starsky breathed against his ear, those nimble fingers resting on his belt buckle.

"I'll show you mine if you show me yours," Hutch countered, and Starsky laughed, looking down at him with a lingering smile that was filled with more joy and love than Hutch could ever remember seeing.

"Deal."

Starsky opened the belt and then leaned forward and took the pull of the zipper in his teeth, keeping eye contact with Hutch as he moved it slowly downward, a smile spreading across his face as Hutch gulped at the vision.

"My, uh, b-boots," Hutch managed, suddenly realizing Starsky wasn't going to get far trying to peel his jeans off without removing the boots first.

"Whatsa matter, babe? Am I a little too close to the family jewels?" Starsky teased, releasing the metal from his teeth.

"You're, uh, not gonna get my pants off without taking off the boots first."

"I would'a figured that out, Hutch, but thanks for the tip," Starsky said, smiling and moving down to pull off the infamous boots. "You're not the first person I ever got naked, y'know." Then, looking up at Hutch, he added, "Just the most important." Abandoning the stocking feet, he moved up and grasped the waistbands of his jeans and underwear, and Hutch realized suddenly that Starsky was going for the gusto in one swift motion.

In a moment, he found himself naked, except for his socks. He was sporting a significant erection and wondered how Starsky was going to feel confronted with the reality of being with another man sexually.

"My turn," Hutch insisted, sitting up and reaching for Starsky's belt. Once the buckle was open, he slowly slid the zipper down, feeling the flesh straining behind it. Perhaps Starsky wasn't the only one who had a large male reality to face. This wasn't some sweet, fragile, soft, curvy woman. This was his very male, increasingly strong partner. His time in the gym was bringing back his tone and definition, and the erection that sprang free from its denim prison was just as hard and eager as Hutch's.

Since Starsky was sitting back on his heels, getting his jeans off proved to be a little more challenging, and ended with him body-slamming Hutch flat on his back on the pillows while Hutch fought with the soft, tight denim. Finally it was out of the way, and at last they found themselves skin on skin, with no barriers.

"How do you wanna do it?" Starsky asked.

"We could use our hands—do each other?" Hutch suggested. He wasn't ready to try anything more exotic, and figured Starsky wasn't exactly ready for it either.

"Just like you," Starsky said, wrapping his hand around Hutch's needy cock. "Long, blond and smooth," Starsky said against Hutch's ear as he began pumping. Hutch let out a surprised cry of pleasure at the stimulation, lying there with his legs splayed open, shamelessly enjoying the work Starsky's hand was doing. "Come on, babe, I'm not at this party by myself."

At Starsky's gentle urging, Hutch took the firm column of Starsky's cock in hand and began pumping, trying to match his rhythm to his partner's.

"Aw, God, Hutch...yeah, that's it, babe," Starsky gasped, his face resting against Hutch's neck. Hutch angled his head down and Starsky moved up eagerly, their mouths meeting and tongues sliding together, moving in time with their hands.

"Starsk...babe...I'm gonna...It's coming..." Hutch managed, letting out a shout as he spurted his completion over Starsky's hand and belly. Struggling to recover from the delicious aftershocks coursing through his system, Hutch turned his attention to his lover's pleasure. While one hand continued to pump the rigid shaft, the other slipped down to cup and roll Starsky's balls.

"Yeah, babe...oh, God...Hutch...Huuuutch!" Starsky's climax washed over him as he cried out, bathing Hutch's hand.

They lay there together for long minutes, breathing heavily and recovering, slumped together in a tangle of sweaty limbs. Starsky rested his head on Hutch's shoulder and wound an arm over his waist. Hutch took the cue and enclosed his partner in his arms, lazily kissing his forehead.

"I love you," Starsky muttered, his voice almost slurred with sleep.

"I know. I love you too, buddy." Hutch gave in to his own lethargy then and followed Starsky into the peaceful realm of sleep.

When Starsky opened his eyes, the first rays of sunlight were casting a rosy glow to the room. The part of him that was snuggled against Hutch was nice and warm, but his back and butt were freezing, and he contemplated looking over his shoulder to see if they'd turned blue. Despite that, he smiled as he listened to the steady thump of Hutch's sleeping heart beneath his ear. What had begun as the most painful, horrible day of his life had ended in the most magical way possible.

Amazing how, after getting shot three times, leaving Hutch still takes the prize as the most painful thing that ever happened to me, Starsky mused, smiling and relaxing again.

The specter of old prejudices wafted briefly through his mind, made him feel as if he should somehow resist what was happening, turn back, forget he'd ever made love with Hutch... He looked up at his sleeping partner and smiled, snuggling closer. If I'm a faggot, then I'm the happiest damn faggot on Earth, he thought defiantly.

"Your back's cold," Hutch mumbled, still partially asleep, as one large arm moved up and down the expanse of chilled flesh.

"Thanks for the tip, babe," Starsky responded, smiling and kissing the flesh near his mouth.

"There a blanket around here?" Hutch opened one eye and started to shift, and Starsky hauled himself up, wandering over to the couch where he found a colorful Southwestern throw. He returned to their nest of pillows, and cuddling close again with his lover, he opened the throw and covered them both.

"That's better."

"Hey." Hutch was looking down into his eyes now.

"What?"

"You looked pretty damn good running around naked," Hutch said, grinning mischievously. Starsky felt himself blushing, but it wasn't a happy blush. He was groggy yet and had forgotten all about the scars...about how ugly he really looked without clothes on. "Starsk, come on, buddy. A few pink patches and a line on your skin don't make you ugly."

"I know what I look like, Hutch. If you can accept...and love...somethin' that looks like this, then...I'm real glad, because I love ya more than I can say. But don't try and tell me it's not ugly."

"Okay, I won't, because you won't listen anyway," Hutch said with a note of defeat in his voice. "You think what you want. I love you, and I don't think any part of you is ugly, so quit trying to convince me that it is, okay?"

"I'm sorry. I guess I'm ruining everything, huh?"

"No." Hutch's voice was infinitely more gentle now as he stroked Starsky's hair. "You didn't ruin anything. But you're beautiful, babe. You always have been, and nothing's gonna change my feelings about that—or about you. Sure as hell not a couple marks on your body." Hutch's hand moved slowly over the scars on Starsky's back from the exit wounds. "I'm so damn lucky to still have you," Hutch said in a strained voice, shifting onto his side and wrapping his arms tightly around Starsky, who eagerly returned the embrace.

"Thanks for comin' out here and getting me." Starsky meant the words sincerely. He was infinitely thankful that Hutch had persevered in finding him, and had managed to turn around what would have been the most painful, horrible mistake of his life.

"I'd go wherever it took to get you back. To Hell if necessary."

"At least I picked a better spot than that," Starsky quipped, and smiled as he felt the rumble of Hutch's answering laughter.

"Did I mention to you yet this morning that I was crazy about you?" Hutch asked, pulling back to look into Starsky's eyes.

"You might've alluded to it, but I don't think you said it, and I was feelin' kinda rejected." Starsky kissed Hutch's mouth quickly, the proximity of those full lips a little too much to resist. "'Specially since I love ya so much I think I'm gonna explode."

"Don't do that, buddy. If you think you've got incisions now, wait'll they have to stitch that back together." Hutch smiled, and after the momentary shock of what he'd said registered, Starsky burst out laughing. Nothing Hutch was going to say would convince him he didn't look like something out of the late night horror show, but it felt good to at least laugh about it. Humor had gotten them through a lot of pain in the past, and it helped now.

"Maybe we oughtta see about breakfast, huh?" Starsky asked hopefully. As if on cue, his stomach growled ominously.

"Maybe we oughtta check out the shower."

"Guess we're getting pretty gamy, huh?" Starsky sniffed. "Shower first, then breakfast. Wait'll you see the bathroom," Starsky enthused, getting up and reaching down to pull Hutch up. Sensing his partner's hesitation, he flexed his hand. "It's okay, babe. I can pull you." Hutch reluctantly accepted the hand and the pull, and when he was on his feet, hugged Starsky enthusiastically.

"Been a long time since you could do that," he said, smiling and stepping back.

"Guess I'm gettin' some of my strength back." Starsky flexed his eyebrows. "Wait'll you see the shower. You're not gonna believe it." With that, Starsky grabbed Hutch's hand and led the way to the stairs.

He was making a conscious effort not to think about the scars, to recapture the lack of self-consciousness he used to feel cavorting around naked with a lover. Even if he didn't succeed, he knew it would make Hutch happy to think he had.

The bathroom was nothing short of spectacular—larger than most people's living rooms. The shower was a large, square enclosure with frosted glass doors. Inside were no less than three shower heads, controlled by three separate sets of large, ornate faucets. Starsky reached in and started all three into action, testing the temperature until it suited him.

"Two shower heads I could understand," Hutch said, waiting patiently while Starsky tinkered with the faucets. "Makes you wonder what they do in here that they need three."

"Well, it was probably built during the sexual revolution," Starsky responded, chortling. "Come on, babe. Let's give it a whirl."

Enclosed together in the steamy warmth, they located the shampoo Starsky had put there when he arrived, in anticipation of a shower he never ended up taking until now.

"You mind?" Hutch asked, gesturing with the bottle.

"You've got experience," Starsky responded, smiling and relaxing while Hutch started shampooing his hair. Hutch had tackled the job on a few different occasions when Starsky had been unable to manage it on his own. Those long fingers flexing and massaging against his scalp was a sensation to which Starsky figured he could easily become addicted. When he was finished, Starsky turned and reached for the bottle. "My turn," he insisted, pooling a little shampoo in his hand.

He'd washed Hutch's hair a couple times, but since his partner's finer, straighter hair was not nearly the challenge his own thick curls presented, Hutch could usually manage on his own unless he was truly ill or seriously injured. Now, doing it for a purely pleasant reason, Starsky concentrated on the baby fine texture, marveling all over again at how what seemed like a fairly small amount of wet hair—compared to his own, anyway—could come alive into the pale yellow silk it was when it was dry.

Fortunately, there was more than one bar of soap, as both men were intent on washing the other, and neither seemed inclined to wait his turn. Soap-slick hands slid over wet skin, each touch a new beginning. Bathing one another was nothing new—nothing that hadn't been necessitated by illness or injury at some point during their relationship—but letting eager hands roam over each other's bodies in lovers' caresses was a world away from caring for and comforting a friend.

Unable to resist the pull of each other's lips any longer, they came together under the spray of water, devouring lips and tongues, hands slipping down to cup sensitive balls, stroke rigid erections, caress water-slick buttocks. When they came, they came together, their shared cries of pleasure swallowed in each other's mouths.

"I imagined this for so long," Hutch admitted, kissing down the side of Starsky's cheek to his neck. "I never thought...I never thought you'd want the same thing."

"I kinda surprised myself with that," Starsky admitted, turning his head to catch those soft lips with his own. "Never thought I could feel about anybody the way I feel about you."

"Not a man, anyway, huh?" Hutch prodded.

"Not anybody. I never loved anybody so much," Starsky admitted, finding now that he was free to express the love that had been pent up inside himself, it didn't seem to know any bounds, or any inhibitions. "We've got a lot to get used to...new things to try," Starsky added, grinning devilishly. "It's gonna be like starting our whole lives over again."

"Starting over sounds pretty good," Hutch agreed, starting to turn off the water while Starsky stepped out and located the towels.Dance

After drying off, Starsky produced shorts and tank shirts for both of them out of his travel bag. Their next stop was the kitchen, where they worked in perfect tandem to prepare a hearty breakfast, occasionally singing along with the radio on the kitchen counter Hutch had turned on when they started cooking.

When two strong arms wrapped around him from behind, Starsky smiled and leaned back into the embrace.

"Dance with me," Hutch whispered against his ear. "I want to dance with you...to this song," he added. Unable to resist that soft plea, Starsky turned in his arms, and even let him lead. He smiled when he heard which song it was, and listened to the refrain.

If anyone should ever write my life story
For whatever reason there might be
You'd be there between each line of pain and glory
'Cause you're the best thing that ever happened to me
You're the best thing that ever happened to me...

"Don't you ever doubt it again, babe," Hutch said, tightening his hold.

...For every moment that I spent hurting
There was a moment that I spent on just loving you...

"Might take years for you to prove it to me," Starsky responded, looking into Hutch's eyes.

"We're starting over, remember?" Hutch smiled at his partner, all the love he felt shining brightly in his eyes. "We've got forever, babe."

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