The Unforgotten
by Sarah Problem


SHSVS - Episode 503

**********

Chin on hand, elbow on desk, Starsky tried to suppress a sigh as he rifled through what must have been the hundredth file of the day. Since he was the one who had insisted on going through them all, it wouldn't do to start making a production out of it. But still, it was pretty boring and only seemed to rub in how far behind he was.

I've been off the street for too long! I don't recognize half of the names on the current arrest reports, and there's no telling where some of our "regulars" are now. I'm never going to get caught up at this rate.

He couldn't understand why he was feeling so low. It wasn't that long ago that achieving this very position, this job and his partnership with Hutch had seemed almost beyond his reach. As much as he had gone through, as much as they both had gone through, he should still be bouncing off the walls with happiness at his return. Instead, he seemed to feel as if he didn't belong anymore.

He glanced up at Hutch, who was sitting across from him. Hutch, who was busy talking on the phone to a witness, caught his glance, checked around the busy room and gave him a happy wink and smile. Starsky threw him a grin before turning back to the files, hoping he was too busy to tell how faked it was.

I'm acting like a spoiled kid, who's gotten everything he ever wanted for his birthday and still isn't satisfied, he decided with chagrin. After that last case I know I should feel better about coming back. Maybe I'll feel better when Hutch and I get back on the streets for a full shift and I get back to full duty. I never did like spending all my time behind a desk.

He knew he shouldn't have been surprised at the changes that had happened out on the streets, let alone in the department. While he was recuperating, life and crime had gone on without him, and it was going to take some study to catch up. And it hadn't helped that he was constantly finding Arturo Flores' stuff in his desk. No matter how hard he tried, it still rubbed him wrong to be reminded how Flores had filled in for him. But if Starsky hadn't realized how childish it would look to pull out all his drawers and erase every sign of the man, he would have done so in the first minute he'd gotten possession back.

And the kicker was that he even liked the man! Flores didn't deserve that kind of treatment, not even symbolically. But the urge was still there and Starsky didn't know why.

"Hey, Starsk, you up for lunch?"

Starsky looked up at Hutch and could see concern reflected in the blond's eyes. He looked at his watch. It wasn't quite 11:00 a.m. yet. "Little early, isn't it?"

Hutch shrugged. "Might as well hit the cafeteria early. You know what a rush it'll be later. Unless you've found something in there that's so fascinating you can't pull yourself away."

He was about to agree when the phone rang. Shrugging to Hutch, he picked it up.

"Detective Starsky here," he said loudly, enjoying the feel of the words. Now, that he enjoyed. He winked at Hutch.

"Detective David Starsky? You work for Captain Dobey?"

"Yes, that's me."

"Oh, thank goodness I got you!"

The caller sounded like a young female on the edge of hysteria. "You were looking for me in particular?" Starsky asked with a bit of surprise. He didn't think he'd been back long enough for word to get around.

"Yes. I'm afraid you don't know me, Detective. I'm Tina Kidman. You knew my brother, Carl Kidman? While he was at the Robert Johnson Rehabilitation Center?"

Unpleasant memories came back to him of the place he had been sent after his release from the hospital. Starsky hadn't done very well there and could still remember Hutch's anger at the doctor who had assigned him to that place. He himself couldn't say he had any fond memories of it, except for the fact that he had met a lot of special people there.

"Carl? Yeah, I know him." He was a tall, dark-haired young rookie who had lost an arm to a bullet. The kid had only been on the force for a year when it happened, yet seemed to have adjusted better to his injury than Starsky had. "Haven't seen him in a while. How's he doing?"

The silence on the other end made the hair on his neck stand on end. He could almost feel the bad news from where he was.

"Carl... Carl killed himself a few days ago. He was buried yesterday."

It was like a punch in the gut. Carl? No! Not Carl!

"I'm so...so sorry, Miss Kidman! I didn't realize... I mean, I didn't know he was feeling that bad."

"Neither did we." Starsky could hear the deep sadness in the girl's voice. "He still had bad times but Carl was...was always so motivated about moving past his loss. He had found a new job in town and was looking forward..."

She broke down on the phone then and Starsky kept silent, giving her time to collect herself.

He started as he felt a hand grip his shoulder. He looked up at Hutch, into the worried blue eyes, and nodded that he was okay. Starsky covered the mouthpiece. "You go on down. I'll catch up in a bit."

Hutch looked at him uncertainly, worry still plainly etched on his face. Starsky smiled weakly and Hutch nodded back, leaving Starsky to his phone call.

He could hear Tina trying to gather herself on the other end.

I can't believe Carl would do such a thing! He thought, still feeling shocked at the idea. He was always so upbeat, always worried about the rest of us. Always clowning around and keeping our spirits up. He knew that he could have called on any of us if he was feeling that low. We would have been there for him!

They had been a mixed bunch that met for various physical therapy sessions and to use the pool and other equipment the facilities provided. People from all walks of life, from all sorts of occupations and backgrounds, met and exchanged stories about their traumas and recoveries.

When Starsky had started going to the rehab center he had been barely able to get around on his own, not even able to drive himself there. He had met quite a few others who had gotten hurt in the line of duty: cops, a paramedic, a deputy, firemen, Highway Patrol and those who had done their time in ‘Nam and come back with severe wounds.

Carl had been one of the youngest. He was a rookie, only twenty-three, when he caught a bullet that had splintered bone and torn muscles too badly to save. Starsky had had quite a few private conversations with the younger man, and they had both encouraged each other when depression set in and pain seemed to take over. Starsky had been taken with the younger man's seemingly ceaseless enthusiasm.

It's been ages since I've seen him or talked to him. After that last session I never looked back. His stomach twisted at the thought. Why didn't I call any of them, or go back to visit? Was I so caught up in myself that I couldn't find room to care about them anymore? Am I that shallow?

"I'm s-sorry, Detective. It's just that—"

"I understand, ma'am," Starsky interrupted, feeling sad and sick inside. "Thank you for calling and letting me know. I guess I should have come by to see how he was doing."

"Can...can you come and talk with me, Detective?"

Starsky was surprised at the request. "Do you need help with some of the departmental paperwork? I don't know much about death benefits but—"

"No. It's just that, well... Carl was going to call you in the next few days. There's something terribly wrong going on. He had some suspicions... I... Please, Detective, can you come and meet with me? I can't do this over the phone and I can't bring myself to come into the station."

Starsky was intrigued by the desperate and fearful tone in her voice. "Yeah, sure. We'll meet you anywhere you're comfortable."

"We?"

"If there's something wrong, maybe my partner will be able to help as well. Unless you'd rather I came alone."

Tina was silent for a moment. "Do you trust him?"

"With my life."

"All right. If you trust him I guess Carl would trust him, too."

Starsky took the address of a restaurant where Tina wanted to meet. She hung up soon afterward and Starsky started toward the cafeteria to pick up Hutch.

**********

The cafeteria was just starting to fill up, so it took a few minutes for Starsky to spot Hutch's blond head. He felt a sharp jab when he saw Hutch sitting at a table with Flores. Even now he didn't like seeing Hutch and Flores together. It wasn't a feeling he was proud of.

Gotta get over your jealousy, Davey boy! Hutch is your partner, in ways Arturo Flores will never know about. Can't blame the guy for missing him. Just shows he has good taste.

He nodded politely at Flores as he came up to the table, part of him pleased with the way Hutch smiled up at him and patted the seat of the chair next to him. Such a small thing that meant so much. "Saved you a seat, partner."

"Hey, there he is! How're you doing, Starsky?" Flores asked, smiling.

Still standing, Starsky nodded to Flores and smiled back. "Fine, now that I'm almost earning my pay. How's the family?"

Flores shrugged casually, but Starsky could see a hint of sadness behind the man's eyes. Flores and his wife had lost a child not too long ago and Starsky could only imagine how they both still mourned the loss.

"As well as can be expected," Flores admitted, looking a bit uncomfortable with what must be a sensitive topic. "Hey, you going to sit and join us?"

"Can't. Hutch and I gotta go. We've got a meet to make in a few minutes."

"Something important come up?" Hutch asked with interest. "I was waiting for you before getting anything to eat."

"Yeah, that was the call I got. We'll have to grab something along the way."

Hutch turned to Flores and shrugged. "See you later, okay?"

"Sure," Flores said, smiling at them both. "You know me, Hutch. Enjoy your company any time. Catch you when you're not working. You take care of my first partner, Starsky, or I may just take him back."

"You betcha," Starsky replied, turning to leave before the small flare of jealousy at Flores' words could be acted upon. He knew the man was only teasing. Flores and his new partner, Lizzie Thorpe were already showing signs of becoming a tight team.

Grow up, he admonished himself. This isn't the playground. We've got a job to do.

**********

They were both in the Torino before Hutch spoke.

"You going to tell me what's going on?"

"I got a call from the sister of Carl Kidman. You remember me telling you about him? He was one of the guys from the rehabilitation center. The one that Dr. Norman sent me to."

Hutch shrugged. "I guess I do. I never did actually meet him, did I? What's up?"

Starsky sighed as he maneuvered the car through traffic. "He killed himself a few days ago."

They were both silent for a moment, then Hutch reached an arm along the seat of the car, giving the back of Starsky's neck a comforting squeeze before he replaced it on the back of the seat.

"I'm sorry, buddy. He was a friend, wasn't he?"

Starsky nodded, eyes still on the traffic. "Yeah, he was. And the thing is, Hutch, that I can't believe he'd do such a thing. He'd been a rookie, over in the Belvier division, when he got shot by a kid tryin' to break into a home. They tried everything they could to save his arm, but there just wasn't enough left for them to work with. I used to kid him that he'd taken the hard route to becomin' a lefty." Starsky heard Hutch chuckle. Neither man was unused to morbid humor. "He was so young, Hutch! And he was so upbeat about what had happened to him. Not that he didn't have his hard times. But he knew he could come to any of us to talk. At least..." Starsky sighed. "At least I thought he knew that. I guess I should'a made more of an effort to keep in touch."

"You said his sister called. Is she okay? Are we going to help with the funeral arrangements?"

"He was buried yesterday. His sister wanted to meet with me, alone. She sounded afraid, along with being upset. I told her we'd be right over."

"Did she give you any clues why she would be afraid to talk to us?"

"No, not really. She said Carl was going to come and talk with me in a few days." He gave Hutch a significant glance. "Funny, how he'd have these plans to come and talk to me then just kill himself like that."

"It just takes one weak moment, Starsk." Hutch's voice was soft, as if it were painful for him to admit. Starsky could feel Hutch's eyes on him. "You remember how bad it was for you, how down you got at times. You remember—"

"Yeah, I remember," Starsky cut him off, not wanting to talk about his own bad times. "But I knew I always had you there, Hutch. Even at my worst times I don't think I could've done anything to myself. I couldn't hurt you that way. Nor could I have hurt Ma, Nicky or any of the rest of my friends like that. I can't believe Carl would do something like that either. He had my phone number. He knew where I worked. He could have called me any time. This just feels wrong, Hutch."

Why would you do this, Carl? How could you get so low that you would hurt all of us this way? You know I would have been there for you.

**********

Hutch hung back as they approached a small, family oriented restaurant. He wondered if Starsky had met the sister before and knew who to look for.

I guess I should have paid more attention to all those new people you met while at the center. I was so full of concern for how you were doing that I wasn't paying much attention to anything besides your progress reports. If I'd been listening closer, maybe I would have caught on earlier that you were lying to me. If I'd gone in with you and met these people, they may have been able to tell me how badly you were really doing.

Hutch pulled up short behind Starsky and watched as he scanned the half-full restaurant. A small, brown-haired girl in the far corner waved to them, and Hutch followed as Starsky nodded and moved toward her with a bit of uncertainty.

I wonder why all the theatrics of wanting to meet him here?

Starsky slid into the booth across from the young lady, leaving space for Hutch at his side.

"You're Tina," Starsky announced, taking her offered hand and holding it in both of his. "I'm Dave and this is my partner, Ken. How're you doing?"

The girl was young, Hutch guessed she was just under twenty years old. Long brown hair hung loosely down the back of her blue shirt and jeans. She had been crying heavily and wasn't up to caring about her own appearance. It was obvious her grief was very real.

"Not too good, if you know what I mean," she said sadly, putting on a smile that looked forced. "Carl always said he should get all the guys together sometime for a party or something. It would've been nice to have met you there."

"Yeah, it would have," Starsky said gently. "Is there any way I can help you? I know this must be an awful time for you and your family."

"No, thanks. But I did want to talk to you about something." She pulled her hand back and Hutch watched as she fidgeted nervously. "I know this may sound like a shocked relative talking, but...but I really don't think Carl killed himself."

"Is his case under investigation?" Hutch asked carefully. "Do the police think there was foul play?"

"Carl was found in his room, with a gun in his hand and...and...." Tina sniffled then, her voice breaking and her red eyes growing wet. "The police who came to investigate said it was a classic suicide. They didn't want to take what I had to say very seriously."

"What was it you told them?" Starsky asked.

"Carl had decided to go back to school and learn to do some sort of therapy. If he couldn't go back to being a cop he still had this need to help people." She smiled sadly. "He seemed to have a knack with people, could bring out the happier side of them. You know?" She looked at them hopefully, smiling when Starsky nodded in confirmation. "That's why he was at the rehabilitation facility a lot. He was talking with the therapists and the office staff trying to find out exactly what he could be able to do with only one hand. You know, sort of feeling out the profession."

"And he was still interested in doing that when he k...died?"

"Oh, yes. He was still looking into possible funding and what his benefits would be. But he'd started to look more and more worried this last month. When I asked him if anything was wrong, he'd just smile and shrug it off. He looked really downbeat after going to the rehab center, I think it was last Thursday, and I pushed him a little more. He said there was something bothering him, and that he was thinking of contacting a friend of his, a Dave Starsky, who was a cop and could do some poking around for him. He said he had a bad feeling."

"Did he say about what?" Starsky asked.

Tina shrugged. "He said that things weren't making sense. When I asked him if he meant at the rehab he said ‘no'. But I remember that he started acting worried a couple of months ago, when another friend of his at the rehab center killed himself. He was devastated. Claimed it had to be some sort of mistake."

"And that was when you noticed a change?" Hutch asked.

"Yeah, it was about that time. Ever since then he'd been sort of...watchful. And since the other deaths—"

"Other deaths?" Starsky asked, looking shocked. "What other deaths do you mean?"

"There have been several over the past few months. Last month it was a guy named Robert Abernathy. A few weeks ago it was another guy named Rufo Tamayo. Both of them—"

"Both of them were in public service," Starsky admitted softly. His face was growing pale. "I knew them, too. From the rehab. I didn't know they were dead."

Starsky sat back heavily in the booth. Hutch took a second to squeeze his knee under the table, wishing he could do more in public.

Tina continued. "Carl was upset, too. He said it didn't make sense, that they didn't have any reason to kill themselves. He said...he said...."

Tina lost it then, hiding her face in her hands as she started to cry. Hutch dug into his pocket for a handkerchief, giving it to the girl who nodded her thanks.

Hang on, partner, Hutch thought sadly, seeing on Starsky's features how much the news hurt. We'll get through this, too.

"What did Carl say, Tina?" Starsky's voice was low, disbelieving.

"He s-said that he didn't think they were really suicides. He had been asking some of the cops at the station for details, off the record." Tina finally looked up and gave them both a watery smile. "He said his ‘cop instincts' were telling him that things weren't what they seemed, and he wanted to talk to you about it."

"Did he tell you any details?" Hutch asked her. "Did he say anything specific?"

"No, that's all I know." Tina shrugged slightly, and Hutch could see the trauma and fatigue of her brother's death catch up with her. "Could you please look into his death, Detective Starsky? I-I'm afraid I can't bear to talk about it yet, but I'm sure you can find the police reports."

Hutch felt his stomach tighten further, looking at autopsy reports and photos of some stranger was never easy, but it was pure torture when it was someone you knew. If he could save Starsky that experience....

"We'll look into it, Tina. Take my word for that." Starsky patted her on the arm. "Do you need us to drive you back home?"

She shook her head. "I took a cab here, and I'm going to take one back. I'd just like to be by myself with my thoughts for awhile before I get back home. Mom and Dad haven't been taking this well and I need to get my head together before I see them again. They don't know that I was coming to talk to you, or that I don't think it was suicide. They can't seem to believe it was suicide themselves."

"We'll let you know if we find anything, Tina," Starsky assured her as they rose to leave. He dug a card out of his wallet and handed it to her. "Here's my home phone. Give me a call if you need to talk."

"Thanks. I will."

They both left then, each mulling over his own thoughts as they made their way out to the Torino.

**********

Carl was right. It just wasn't like something any of those guys would do! They had everything to live for. Just like Carl did.

Starsky didn't know how long he had been sitting behind the wheel before Hutch placed a warm hand on his thigh.

"I'm sorry, Starsk," Hutch said softly, eyes soft with sympathy. "I know how much it hurts to lose a friend. I know how hard it is when you have to deal with relatives who don't want to accept what's happened."

Starsky felt a flash of anger. "You sayin' you don't believe her? You think that Carl probably took his own life?"

Hutch sighed deeply, leaning back in his seat. He rubbed at his face, looking drained and tired.

"They were all pretty bad off, Starsk. They were all permanently disabled, faced with the loss of their lives as they'd known them. They could have—"

"You didn't know them!" Starsky was surprised at his own vehemence and gave Hutch an apologetic glance. "Sorry. I know that you hung back at rehab so I'd do it by myself and feel as if I was accomplishing something on my own. You never had a chance to meet these guys and get to know them like I did."

"Which was a mistake," Hutch said, sounding bitter. "I should have been there to make sure you were doing okay. You needed me and I—"

"I admit that was a rough time," Starsky conceded quickly, not wanting Hutch to blame himself for his difficulties. "But we were both trying to handle the situation the best we could. Even if it wasn't the kind of therapy and support I needed at the time, a lot of those guys had good doctors and really were learning how to cope with their losses." Starsky stared at his hands, fingers clenching the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles were a stark white. He sighed and forced himself to relax his grip. "You just didn't get to know them like I did. I can't see any of those guys just…just packin' it in like that."

He chanced a glance at Hutch, who was no longer looking at him. He saw sadness, and maybe even more than a touch of guilt in his features.

Starsky felt a pang at the look. "You...you don't think that I could've—"

"No!" Hutch's reaction was quick and sharp, as were the eyes that found Starsky's. "No, not that. You would never have done that to me, no matter how bad off you were."

"You're right." Starsky sighed. "But I know I almost gave up in a lot of other ways." He reached over, and without looking around to see if they were being watched, took Hutch's hand in his. "If it hadn't been for you—"

"You might not have been a cop, Starsk, but you still had that spark of life," Hutch squeezed his hand hard. "You would have found a way in another job. You would have found some purpose and joy in whatever you could do with your life."

"And that's what I'm tryin' to tell you, Hutch. Even in the short time I got to talk to them I could tell that they had their eyes on the prize. They knew what they'd lost, what they still had, and they were working damn hard to either make their dreams come true or build new ones."

Hutch looked at him sadly. "All it takes is one lapse in judgment, Starsk. Just one dark, endless night and no one there to catch them."

"I know that. I also know that they could've been a lot worse off than I thought they were. But I've just got this feeling..."

"Cop's gut?" Hutch's slight smile made Starsky's heart jump. Hutch was so beautiful when he smiled like that.

"Yeah." Starsky gave him a smile in return. "Somewhere under this mess of a chest and scar tissue it's still there."

"You do know that Dobey isn't going to welcome you second guessing the detectives at those other stations. Not with closed cases. We've already got a full roster, and with...uh...."

"With me still getting up to speed, I know," Starsky finished, knowing that Hutch didn't like reminding him of the painfully obvious. "But there's nothing that says I can't do some looking around on my private time and during the odd moments at the station."

"Don't you mean ‘we'?"

Starsky smiled as he started up the Torino, feeling a bit more of his old life fall into place.

"You know, partner, the more I hear that word, the better it feels. We had better get some of that paperwork done so we can make some phone calls."

**********

Hutch glanced at the clock, wondering if he should say something to Starsky. It was past six o'clock and the evening shift had arrived a couple of hours ago. Like other long days working with forms and files, Hutch felt restless, bored and more than ready to go home, but Starsky was still on the phone. From the look on his face, accompanied by dark mutterings and hasty scribbling on his memo pad, Hutch could tell that he hadn't been getting the answers he wanted.

If the other case files are closed as suicides, then the detectives on those cases aren't going to be in any rush to dig them back up. They're also not going to be too happy with the suggestion that they may have screwed up somewhere.

Hutch had already filed everything away and decided to quit pretending to be busy. He leaned on his desk, obviously listening into Starsky's part of the conversation and trying to catch Starsky's eye.

"Yeah, yeah, I know you've read me the report twice now, Gus, but isn't there—" Starsky sighed and looked up at him, frustration in his eyes. "No, I'm not saying you missed anything, but...you know—"

But he knows darn well that's what you're implying, buddy. Don't push too hard.

"Okay! Okay. Fine. But would you mind keeping the file warm for me?" Starsky grimaced and rubbed at his face with his free hand. "Look, all I'm asking is that you make sure it don't get lost until I can come over and pull it, that's all. Is that such a big favor to ask? I'll owe you one, okay? Okay?" Starsky's grip on the phone grew tighter and Hutch could see his partner's jaw clench. Whatever Gus was saying, it wasn't polite. "Thanks a hell of a lot, Gus. You're a real pal!" Hutch closed his eyes and tried not to jump as Starsky slammed the handset back into the cradle.

"So, what did Gus have to say?" Hutch asked with a tired smile. "He tell you to go jump off a cliff? Stuff it? Give you detailed instructions on how to kiss his—"

"Very funny." Starsky gave him a dark glance as he started to scribble frantically on his note pad. "All I wanted—"

"Was for the guy to admit he and his partner had screwed up a murder case by stamping ‘suicide' on it and closing the file. Frankly, Starsk, I don't blame him or the other detectives for blowing you off. You're not the height of tact today. Talking to Dobey when he's in a bad mood would have been easier."

Starsky paused for a moment, then looked up at Hutch, his glower softening a bit. "Yeah, I guess. But you know how hard it is to get records from other stations. Neither of these guys' deaths were covered by anyone here at Metro. So if those guys could'a just been a bit more willing to help me out, it would've saved us a lot of time when it came to pulling files."

"Starsk, from what I overheard they gave you what info they could. The cases are officially closed, remember? They did go out of their way to dig them up for you, didn't they? They do have other things to do besides worry about making you happy, you know."

Hutch watched as Starsky's shoulders slumped, weariness taking over his features. "Yeah, you're right. I could'a been more diplomatic. Guess I'm not as patient as I useta be."

"C'mon, partner, let's go get something to eat and call it a day. It's time to go home."

Starsky nodded, tossing his pen on top of the desk as he got up out of his chair. Hutch made for the door, more than ready to go home and spend some quality time alone with his lover.

**********

Starsky parked the Torino down the street from Venice Place, wishing for the hundredth time that the restaurant below Hutch's apartment wasn't so popular. Neither he nor Hutch seemed to get any decent parking anymore.

Checking for traffic, he got out and walked around the back of the Torino, giving it a once-over. He gave it an affectionate pat on the trunk.

The old girl looks like nothing ever happened to her. Wish I could say the same.

Starsky knew he was lucky to be alive, that Hutch didn't give a shit about his scars any more than he cared about Hutch's. But there was always that vain spot inside that would make him wish his repairs had been as seamless as the Torino's.

At least mine can be covered up and no one's the wiser. Other people have it so much worse than me. Why can't I let it go?

Guilt washed over him as he thought of Carl and the others from the rehab center. He opened the door to the stairwell and closed it softly behind him. Staring at the stairs in front of him, he could clearly remember a time when walking up them to Hutch's apartment had seemed more than he could ever manage. And here he was, feeling sorry for himself when so many others had it worse.

Taking the steps one at a time, savoring the easy feel of such an accomplishment, he reached the top and looked back down.

I was so ready to give it all up at one point, and Hutch was there for me. If he hadn't been there, would I have made it? Could I have gotten so depressed that I would have wanted to end it all?

Starsky couldn't see himself giving up on life when he'd spent most of his adult life trying so hard to keep it. He also knew he couldn't do something like that to Hutch and his own family, as well as all his friends at the station. Giving up on your dreams was one thing, but giving up on life was another.

And maybe that's why he couldn't accept the fact that Carl or the others would have killed themselves. They had family, and friends, too, and most importantly, they had had the will to survive.

Starsky jumped as the door swung open.

"What are you doing out here?" Hutch asked with a teasing smile as he held the door wide open. "Contemplating your navel or what?"

"In a manner of speaking." Starsky smiled slightly as he walked into the familiar room and started to take off his jacket and gun. "Guess I'm still a bit shocked from hearing about the suicides."

As Starsky reached up to hang his gun on the wardrobe hook that was saved for his stuff, long, strong arms wrapped around his middle. Starsky hung up his weapon and relaxed into the embrace a second later, enjoying the feeling of power and strength in the body behind him. He smiled as Hutch's chin found the tender spot between his neck and shoulder, and he could feel warm breath catch in his hair.

"You okay?"

Starsky thought about it for a moment, relaxing in the safety of those enfolding arms. Easy to give the quick answer, but not always the best way to go.

"Guess not," he admitted. "Feels like I've been sideswiped."

"I'm sorry." Hutch's nose nudged Starsky's hair, looking for his left ear. Breath danced over his ear as it was nuzzled. "I know how bad it feels to lose a friend."

While he was enjoying the attention, Starsky wasn't quite ready to relax into the offered comfort. Sighing to himself, he raised his hand and cupped Hutch's face, holding the blond head closer to his own. He knew Hutch only wanted to be comforting, but he didn't feel like he could stand still very long. "'Fraid I'm not...."

Starsky was squeezed hard as lips found his neck. He could feel more than hear Hutch say, "Let me know what you need."

Starsky turned in the loosening embrace, gave Hutch a quick peck on the lips and pulled away to walk to the kitchen. "Count on it. Just not quite ready to settle down yet. I'm starving. What've we got planned for tonight?"

"Uh...thought we'd decide once we got here. I've got a few pieces of cold chicken, sandwich stuff, or we could order out."

"Chicken." Starsky decided quickly. He really wasn't hungry, but needed something to do. Eating would work and the chicken was there. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out the leftover chicken. "What else you got?"

They spent the next few minutes pulling things out of the refrigerator and cupboards. By the time they were done, it looked like a picnic spread out on the table. Lots of bits of this and that, but not enough of any one thing to get really full on.

Starsky sat down to fill his plate as Hutch brought the coffeepot over and filled two cups.

"So, did you get anything to work with?" Hutch asked the question casually while he filled his own plate, but Starsky could tell Hutch was watching him out of the corner of his eyes.

"No, not really. But if there'd been any obvious pointers to murder then they wouldn't be listed as suicide cases, would they?"

"What have we got?"

Starsky set down his uneaten chicken leg and picked up his coffee instead. "Carl was found dead on the floor of his apartment. Head shot, at close range, left temple. He was apparently standing at his front window when he did it."

"Gun?"

"Carl didn't own any that they could find records of. This one was reported stolen a couple of years ago. It was in bad shape, not taken care of properly, so probably has been sold on the street a coupl'a hundred times by now."

"And the others?"

"Robert OD'd on pain killers. He'd had several back surgeries that didn't seem to do him much good and had gone through all kinds of pills. Decided to take a bottle or so of them with almost a quart of good whisky. Rufo jumped off the roof of his apartment building."

Neither one of them said anything for a few moments, Starsky finding he was more interested in his coffee than the food. Hutch seemed to only have interest in his own plate.

"You're not going to ask about possible motives?" Starsky asked, watching Hutch eat too slowly to be really interested in the meal. He could feel that Hutch didn't think much of the evidence Starsky had so far, which was nothing. Starsky could feel the frustration twisting his stomach.

"Because they were all crippled in some way, everyone expects them to have a reason for pulling the plug, right?" His voice and anger grew as he stood suddenly, turning to pace the living room. "Not that they could've been of any use to society, huh? Or had loved ones who didn't care if they couldn't earn a buck or two. Hard to believe that they could find or accomplish new careers, or start new families or—"

"Is this dinner show going to last very long? I'm almost ready for dessert."

Starsky turned toward Hutch angrily, ready to say the first nasty thing that came to mind, when he saw the slight smile on Hutch's face. Hutch was looking at him with sympathy and understanding in his eyes.

"I'm not arguing with you, Starsk. I'm on your side, remember? You feel like they've been given the shaft, and maybe they have. But we need facts to work with here. And I know you're frustrated with the detectives on the cases, but look at it from their point of view. Why would they dig further when all the right signs were there and they have a hundred other cases to get to work on?"

"Do you think I'm barking up the wrong tree? Think I'm too involved and overreacting?"

Hutch pushed his plate away and planted both elbows on the table, steepling his fingers while propping his chin on his thumbs. "I can't call this one, Starsk. I know how hard it is for someone to face a crippling disability."

Hutch's eyes grew shiny, his voice went soft. "I also know that everyone is going to handle it differently, and for some that means giving up on themselves." Hutch held up a hand to stop him before Starsky even realized he'd opened his mouth. "I can see where it happens. We both know how tough it can be to not only have to give up your career and your dreams, but have to deal with the social changes as well. All it takes would be one moment of despair...."

"So you do think I'm overreacting."

Hutch stood up and came over to him, placing a large palm on the middle of Starsky's chest. Exactly where the scars were the thickest. "It's your gut, Starsk. No matter what they had to do to keep you alive it's still a cop's gut. You knew those people, and if you say something is wrong with those deaths then I'll bet my life's savings on it." Hutch gave him a smile that made Starsky's insides melt. "There isn't a bullet in the world that could have touched that."

Smiling widely, Starsky stepped closer and wrapped his arms around Hutch, squeezing hard. Resting his forehead on Hutch's shoulder, he felt his gut relax even more as Hutch returned the embrace. How warm and safe it felt to know that someone understood you and loved you anyway.

Starsky sighed a happy sigh while enjoying the closeness. "Dinner show's over," he announced into Hutch's shirt. "And I'm still hungry."

Hutch laughed as he pulled away. "You mean you're just now hungry. Go eat before I have to pack all that food away again."

With a swat at Hutch's well-shaped behind Starsky headed for his neglected plate.

Now if I can only get Dobey to let us look into these cases, we'll be all set to go and find those guys some real justice.

**********

They had debated about whether they wanted to go out for the evening or not, and since they couldn't really decide what they wanted to do, it seemed that a quiet evening at home won by default. So they settled on the couch, side by side, Hutch with a book and Starsky with the TV and a snack. Hutch was glad that Starsky seemed content to leave the deaths alone for a little while. They both needed some down time, even if it was only for a few hours. Tomorrow would come soon enough.

A few hours had gone by and evening had fallen, when Hutch found himself wondering if he should give up and find something else to read. It was a murder mystery Arturo Flores had loaned him weeks ago, when they were still working as temporary partners. Hutch didn't really care for murder mysteries. The well done ones made him feel as if he were back at work, and the poorer ones made him frustrated with their lack of realism. But Arturo had sworn that this story was worth his time, and Hutch had agreed to read it so they'd have something to talk about. Somehow he hadn't gotten to it before now and it was time to either read it or give it back.

Unfortunately, it hadn't impressed him so far.

Reaching up to turn a page, he started when something white flashed in front of his eyes. It was a popcorn kernel.

"Haven't you finished that yet?"

Hutch flashed an annoyed glance at Starsky as he picked the popcorn off his shirt and tossed it back into the bowl on Starsky's lap. "Apparently not, Dumbo. And watch what you're doing, will you? You're getting popcorn all over the place."

"Wasn't me," Starsky said, with that "I'm totally innocent" tone that told Hutch it had been thrown on purpose. He glanced at the spine of the book Hutch held. "A murder mystery, right? I thought those things drove you nuts?"

"Flores said it's a good story. He said—"

"I'm sure he did," Starsky interrupted, turning his attention back to the TV.

Hutch was finally starting to get interested again in the story when two small, white objects flew between him and the pages.

"Starsky!" Hutch grabbed at one kernel as it rolled down his chest, missing the other. "Stop it!"

"What? Stop what?"

"Stop tossing popcorn!" Hutch brushed at the greasy spots the popcorn had left on his shirt. "You're making a mess and you're going to ruin the book!"

"Popcorn? Oh, you mean this stuff?"

Starsky rolled sideways toward him, placing his left hand lightly on Hutch's left leg before tracing his fingers lightly up his thigh. Hutch froze as those long, well-formed fingers traced their way up his zipper, only to find their way to the piece of wayward popcorn nestled in a fold of denim at Hutch's hip.

"Is that what all the fuss was about?" Starsky tossed it back into the mostly empty bowl, his sultry look belying his concern. "You mean to say that you're gonna nag me over one piece of popcorn?"

"Uh...three." Hutch swallowed thickly, hoping he was playing this game correctly. "All that grease and salt...all over your hands and now all over my shirt! You really ought to clean up your own messes, you know."

Starsky moved closer, eyes sparkling and his face slightly flushed. "You know, you're right. Maybe I ought to make sure your book is okay—" Grabbing it out of Hutch's hand, Starsky closed it and leaned over Hutch to toss it carelessly toward the end table. It didn't sound like it made it, but Hutch found he really didn't care at this point. As their eyes were locked on each other, Hutch felt something fall into his lap.

"Oh, damn!" Starsky sighed dramatically as he surveyed the new mess. "Look at me, all butterfingers! Now, don't you move while I get this popcorn all cleaned up."

Hutch could only shake his head dumbly as he watched Starsky move off the couch. Kneeling between Hutch's knees, Starsky leaned on hands planted on either side of Hutch's hips. He could feel the heat from the touch run straight to his crotch. Hutch felt his face flush in arousal as Starsky leaned in closer, an eerie evil look of mischief sparkling in the dark blue eyes.

"Wouldn't want to get any grease on the couch, would we?"

Hutch could only shake his head in answer, hands grabbing on tightly to the sofa as his mind gleefully warned him of all the things Starsky could have in mind for him in this position.

"Good. Time to clean the place up for the night."

Hutch watched as Starsky leaned forward until dark curls blocked his view. Heat from Starsky was like the sun on a cool day as their bodies moved closer. Hutch drew in his breath as he felt the tip of Starsky's tongue lick at the greasy spot on his shirt.

Hutch could feel his heart accelerate at the feeling, his cock hardening in response to the feeling of tongue through the thin material.

Starsky hummed as if he were enjoying the taste, and Hutch could only imagine what the butter and salt tasted like. Breathing a bit faster, Hutch tried to relax as the tongue moved farther down and to the side, leaving moist cloth clinging to his chest.

Hutch heard himself moan deeply as the cleaning tongue found his left nipple through the clothing. Eyes closed, Hutch lost himself in the feeling as Starsky played with the nub, the cloth between them making it feel rough and ultra sensitive. After another moan, Starsky left that nipple and mouthed the shirt as he made his way to the center of Hutch's chest, to the first expanse of open skin. Hutch felt himself flush deeper as the strong mouth took in the middle button of the shirt. He didn't know if Starsky had only unbuttoned it or had bitten it off, and he didn't care. Soon he could feel Starsky nose into his shirt, and mid-evening stubble rubbed against his skin, leaving little wakes of fire as Starsky nuzzled into the right side of Hutch's shirt in search of the other nipple.

Hutch jerked and gasped just as Starsky found it, warm breath warning him a fraction of a second before it happened.

"Y-e-s-s-s-s-s...." Hutch moaned, arching his chest into the hot, moist suction pulling at sensitive tissue. His cock jumped, almost pinched painfully in his jeans, and with the arch Hutch tried to rub his crotch against any part of Starsky he could reach.

Letting go of Hutch's nipple, Starsky barked a short laugh at the movement. "Not yet, pal." And then proceeded to lick at Hutch's stomach and down toward the top of his jeans.

Hutch needed to watch now, as Starsky shifted enough to bring up a hand to undo the rest of Hutch's shirt buttons. He pulled Hutch's shirt out of the top of his jeans just enough to give his tongue access to his navel, then below, to the skin just above the top of the denim.

Starsky stopped then, and looked up at Hutch. The look in Starsky's hooded eyes matched the heated color of his face. Hutch groaned as his cock pulsed and complained at its confinement.

For me! I still can't believe he can get so hot for me...by touching me and making me fly. I can't believe how little it takes between us to get to this point. How did we ever stay apart?

He met and held those blue pools of lava that were his lover's eyes, letting Starsky see the heat and need in his own. Hutch groaned deeply in the moment where they did nothing but look at each other.

And with the moan, Hutch watched in amazement as the blue pools of Starsky's eyes grew even darker. Starsky's smile looked even more wicked than it had before.

"You like that, huh? You like it when I touch you," Starsky whispered, only slightly louder than the beating of Hutch's heart. "You're always touching your chest, you know. When you're hot. When you're thinking. You stroke your chest when you're watching something that turns you on. Even when we weren't together, you touching your chest was something I always found myself watching."

Hutch grunted at the words, feeling open and exposed at how well Starsky seemed to know him. The way he seemed to know things about him that he had never known about himself.

"You're driving me crazy!" Hutch gasped, moving to put his arms around Starsky, to pull him down on top of him so that he could feel Starsky's heat and weight all over his body.

But he was trapped by Starsky, who had his wrists pinned to the couch. Starsky leaned on them enough to let Hutch know that he wasn't allowed to move them again. Those were the rules. "Short trip, babe. You've been nuts for ages. I just know how to bring it out in you."

Hutch gripped the cushions, letting Starsky know he was going to play along.

Grinning like a Cheshire cat, Starsky released his wrists and placed his hands, palm down, on each side of Hutch's pelvis.

"Look at the mess I made. Guess I'll have to take my time to make sure it's cleaned up properly."

He leaned down and started eating the spilled popcorn from Hutch's lap and crotch, taking minute bites of fabric and sensitive skin underneath as he captured each kernel. He took some softly, and others as if he were attacking some sort of prey.

Hutch was in wonderful agony, the bites and nips increasing the hardness and demanding pulse in his cock. Thankful that he had not worn his tightest pair, he jerked from Starsky's ministrations as well as a great need to give his cock more room. He was hard and leaking now, the urge to touch and rub at himself growing harder to deny with every passing second.

He panted, body feeling charged beyond endurance and his knuckles white with their grip when Starsky looked up at him. He realized there was only one kernel left, and he held his breath as Starsky gave him a slow wink and then dove for the kernel.

Sharp teeth nipped at him as it disappeared, yet the teeth didn't stop. A sharp line of nibbles and sucking sensations followed the length of his cock from outside his jeans and down his thigh to the head of his crown.

Gasping, Hutch could hear himself whimper, needing to come, wanting the attention of that wonderful mouth to push him to the edge and over. He was too close to handle the exquisite torture for long, but not nearly close enough to get off with the fabric between him and what he really wanted.

"P-please..." He gasped, blood racing and his mind soaring with his pleasure and need. "Starsk...I can't..."

Starsky straightened and quickly, but carefully, pulled at the zipper. Hutch felt another heady rush of pleasure as his suffocating cock filled a bit more. In a moment Starsky had a hand inside that tight space, taking and shifting Hutch's cock from its prison of jeans and boxer shorts.

"Ooohhh..."

Hutch shifted as his cock was completely freed to expand almost painfully and slap against his stomach, he opened his legs even wider as Starsky pulled the waist of his boxers down under his balls, pushing them closer to the base of his cock.

Panting hard, body tense and trembling with his fight not to let go of the couch, Hutch looked up into Starsky's face, seeing the dark, hooded, lust-filled eyes that must mirror his own. But where Hutch knew he must look so flushed as to be burnt on the outside, Starsky's complexion made him look as if he were burning from within.

They locked eyes for one long second, communicating things between them that modern man would never have words for, until Starsky slowly lowered his head. Holding Hutch firmly by the base of his cock, Starsky tugged him upwards and Hutch gripped the couch with the last of his strength, tensing for that volcano of a mouth to finally touch him the way his insides were demanding to be touched.

He tried to watch, but his body jerked and his head was thrown back as climax hit him like a Mack truck. His whole world became that hot mouth and tongue, his whole soul in the muscles, tendons and male wiring that beat and pulsed as if they were separate things that demanded he now give his all.

It was his all that he gave, pulsingly, into Starsky's waiting, unmoving throat. Hutch could feel himself emptying into it, how much he couldn't say other than Starsky swallowed carefully a few times because of it. He felt as if he were pumping out every bit of blood in his body, the weakness of completion making him feel loose and empty in his gut and chest. He didn't know what he was doing, other than he lay like a slowly dissolving puddle of a human being, feeling pleasure flow through and around every part of his body.

He floated then, opening eyes to fuzzy vision and the sight of Starsky carefully letting his soft cock slip from his lips. The room suddenly felt cold as the air hit his wet organ, but not enough to make his body care one way or the other.

"Damn...babe...." Hutch whispered, feeling almost too drained to even manage those words. How to tell Starsky how good that felt? How to put into words what most people had never been able to express well?

Got to show him.

He met Starsky's dark eyes, took in his pained, desperate expression hidden behind the smile that claimed his delight in Hutch's reactions. Hutch smiled back. A smile of anticipation.

I'll show you, Starsk. Just give me a minute to get my feet back on the ground and my heart back in my chest.

Sighing, not wanting to make Starsky wait too long and be too close to coming before he could start, Hutch struggled to sit up, not caring how exposed he still was. Finally able to let go of the couch, his hands still stiff from their death grip, Hutch pushed at Starsky, waving at him to stand up.

As shaky as Hutch felt from completion, Starsky was visibly shaking with his own need. Still sitting, Hutch grabbed at Starsky's hips to bring him closer, letting Starsky know that he wanted him to stand close so that Hutch's face would be at Starsky's crotch.

He knew Starsky was close; could feel it in the clenched muscles, trembling hips, and the hands that gripped Hutch's shoulders.

Not too fast though, love. Not too fast....

The bulge in front of his face drew him. He could smell Starsky's arousal and the scent of it seemed to clear his mind of any fog left from his own completion. Starsky was very hard, the outline of his cock head clear and sharp underneath the tight, well-worn fabric. He knew that Starsky must be close to hurting in jeans that tight. Hutch leaned forward slowly and placed a careful, gentle kiss on the mound. Leaving his lips in place for a long second, he could feel the pulse through the fabric. Starsky sighed deeply then, the sound full of contentment and eagerness.

He reached up and unzipped Starsky's jeans carefully, mindful of his partner's habit of going commando. Only when the zipper was safely down did he undo the straining button at the waist, listening to Starsky groan deeply as he shifted in the freedom and as his cock snapped to attention in front of Hutch's face.

Starsky's cock was more than skin and blood. It was art. Hutch was amazed at how perfect it looked on his partner. Not small when unaroused, Starsky's cock was tall and wide when hard and ready. Its thick base sprang from a mass of wild curls that wove around and clung to his rose-colored sac that was even now drawn up tightly to Starsky's body.

The grip on his shoulders tightened dramatically when Hutch reached up to lovingly trace a swollen vein from base to glans with one hand, and to cup and rub at testicles with the other. Starsky was panting now. Looking up beyond the muscled, hair-covered chest Hutch could see Starsky's head thrown back and his body strung like a wire, his desperation making Hutch's shoulders ache.

Gripping the base of the thick member, Hutch guided it to his mouth. He drew it in carefully, listening to the deep moans Starsky was making and feeling the flex of buttock in his free hand to gauge how close to coming Starsky was.

Just a little bit more, Starsk. Wait just a little bit more....

As the cock filled his mouth he felt surrounded by the feel, taste and smell of Starsky. If Starsky hadn't been so big, and it still so new to him, Hutch would have tried to swallow him whole, to take him as far down his throat as humanly possible. Hutch wanted him, wanted all of him to be a permanent part of his body, to make them so connected that they could never be pulled apart.

As Starsky's moans and trembling increased, Hutch realized he wanted Starsky to take what he wanted. Grabbing both of Starsky's wrists, he pulled the hands from his shoulders and placed them on either side of his head. Grabbing both of Starsky's bare buttocks in his hands, he squeezed them gently, moving his mouth back and forth around the hard cock loosely, letting Starsky know he was free to set his own pace.

As Starsky took up the rhythm, shallow at first, Hutch took a deep breath and tried to loosen up his throat muscles, trying to allow Starsky to go as deep as he could. He could tell Starsky was trying to go shallow, and even now when he was half out of his mind with need, he didn't want to hurt him.

"Uh...Uhuhuhhhh...." Starsky moaned deeply, picking up the pace. The sound echoed lowly throughout the room, and Hutch could now only picture Starsky's head thrown back all the way—that tense, almost painful look he had when lost in the ecstasy of his growing climax.

But Starsky was trying too hard to be gentle. When he pulled back, leaving only the tip of his glans still in Hutch's mouth, Hutch braced himself and pinched Starsky hard on his left butt cheek. Startled, Starsky shoved himself hard into Hutch's mouth.

"Oooooooohhhhhh...yesyesyesyes," Starsky moaned deeply, almost sounding as if he were in pain. Pumping harder now, fucking his mouth so deeply that Hutch fought to keep from panicking at the depth of it, Starsky seemed to teeter on the edge of losing control. Hutch tried to relax and time Starsky's pace so he wouldn't choke or gag at the new depth. He placed one hand on the front of Starsky's hip, leaving one still gripping a round buttock, in case he found himself in trouble.

Starsky was pumping frantically now, deeper than Hutch had ever been able to let him go before. The moaning from deep in Starsky's chest turned into a growl as he started to buck frantically. The hands holding Hutch's head now grabbed fistfuls of hair as he moved Hutch's head back and forth in time to his thrusts.

"Huuuuuuuu...ttttttcccccccchhhhhhh...uhhh!" Starsky yelled just as Hutch could feel the thick cock swell a fraction more, feel the glans flare a bit more as it grazed the back of his throat. And just as Hutch was about to give up on breathing altogether Starsky stiffened entirely.

It came then, Hutch could feel the warm spurts down in the back of his throat, the pulsing of cock that was echoed by Starsky's gentle and shallow thrusts. But Hutch needed a breath, needed to swallow before he choked, so pulled back gently. He knew how startling a swallow could be right after a climax. Starsky's hands went lax in his hair, and Hutch knew he could pull away completely if he wanted to. But he wanted to hold Starsky in his mouth for as long as Starsky wanted to be there. Hutch looked up to see Starsky looking down at him, love and appreciation in his eyes.

They stayed that way for what seemed like ages, but couldn't have been too long. Hutch could feel the tremble in Starsky's body, knowing that the weakness of climax was going to pull him down eventually. The gentle hands combed through Hutch's hair with infinite tenderness, which meant that the only reason Starsky hadn't collapsed yet was because he wanted this moment to last as much as Hutch did.

Starsky's cock, lax and soft in Hutch's mouth, pulled away from him with a slight movement of Starsky's hips. Hutch held out his arms as Starsky collapsed on top of them, both of them too hobbled in twisted and undone clothing to be very graceful in the embrace. Somehow Hutch had enough strength to turn them sideways so that they lay lengthwise on the couch, Starsky a heavy weight on top of him, clothing left to fall any which way.

Nothing mattered to Hutch now. Not the way they looked, the mess of saliva and sticky cum that had been left behind, nor the fact that they had a nice, clean bed they could be relaxing in. All that mattered was that some deep need was being fulfilled by the close, loving contact of post-climax. As much as the body cried for the completion of sex Hutch had always been aware of another, just as demanding need, to share the afterwards. Those peaceful moments of complete satisfaction with someone he loved pleasured other, hidden parts of himself.

Shifting under Starsky, who seemed to have already fallen asleep, Hutch moved just enough to get a stray elbow out of his ribs before letting himself doze off.

**********

Some unknown time later, Hutch heard the voice of a newscaster from the TV. Looking around in the light from the end table lamp, it took Hutch a moment to remember what they'd been up to. Starsky was draped across his chest, snoring softly. A pretty picture, but Hutch could tell by the stiffness of his joints that they both needed to move to the bed for the night. Running a tongue over the inside of his mouth he decided the amount of damage was minimal, and well worth the result.

"Hey, Starsk?" He murmured into the curls that were tickling his chin. "We gotta get up and go to bed. C'mon."

Pushing the weight of his partner up, Hutch managed to pull himself out from under Starsky as the other man glanced around the room in sleepy confusion.

"Bedtime?"

"Sure is. I'm getting too old to sleep on the couch anymore, let alone with Godzilla on top of me." Hutch slipped off his shoes, socks, pants and tangled underwear before he stood up to head for the bathroom. "I'll get cleaned up first, then meet you in bed."

"Sure," Starsky remarked, voice slurred with drowsiness. He stretched like a cat, making Hutch pause a moment just to watch. "Time to go to bed so we can fool around."

Hutch snorted in amusement as he closed the door, not only at Starsky's sleepy version of an evil leer but because he himself was starting to feel more than a bit interested in the idea.

We keep this up, Starsk, and we'll never have any strength left for work! We'll both end up old and gone before our time, having climaxed ourselves to death!

He smiled at his own mussed and self-satisfied reflection in the bathroom mirror.

And what better way to go?

**********

It was already a week after Carl's death and Starsky didn't really have much to go on. He and Hutch had put in the paperwork and had gotten copies of the reports from the other deaths, but no matter how many times they read them neither one found anything out of place. It hadn't helped that the detectives at the scenes had barely scratched the surface, not bothering to do much digging.

It also didn't help that he'd finally had to admit to himself that Dobey and Hutch were right. If he and Hutch had had those cases they probably would have handled them in the same fashion. If it quacked like a duck...

At least Hutch is listening to me.

Sitting at his desk, he toyed with the papers on Rufo's case, trying to ignore the stack of files on their current cases that he should be looking through. There wasn't much left he could do now. He'd talked to the families as best he could, walking that fine line between opening those painful wounds and finding what they might know that could help. But even the families were confused, some only now able to come to terms with the deaths. None of them could say for sure what had been going through their loved ones' minds, the deaths themselves putting horrible doubts into their heads. They themselves were asking "why didn't we see?"

The families can't believe it was suicide, are still struggling with the idea, but they can't say it was murder any more than the forensic teams could. The detectives handling the cases didn't see any reason to dig further. I think Dobey must have signed off on us getting these reports just to humor me. "Gotta give the nut case some leeway, he's been through a lot."

He felt bad as soon as he thought it, but it was true that he wondered how confident Dobey was in his abilities. Since he'd been back Dobey hadn't yelled at him or treated him like he had before.

Guess I can't blame him too much. I've still got to prove myself in a lot of areas. At least Hutch isn't acting like I'm made of glass. At least, not since our last case.

Starsky sighed, eyes back on the pictures of Rufo's body at the scene. It wasn't pretty.

He remembered Rufo. Not much older than he was, the firefighter had been severely burned while trying to save an elderly couple who were trapped in the upper floor of an ancient apartment complex. He had gotten both of them out, one dead and one who never made it to the emergency room. Rufo had lost most of the skin on one leg, an arm, and one side of his face. Starsky had sat and talked to him at the center while waiting for their separate appointments.

"I'd do it again" is what he'd said, Starsky remembered, wishing he could remember Rufo's face more clearly. Even though both of them died, he said it would have been worse if he had had the chance to go in and hadn't taken it. He said the look in their eyes, when they realized that someone still cared enough to come for them, made it worth the pain.

And his family, so proud of him and so thankful that he'd survived. His wife loved him, his kids loved him, and he was looking forward to getting back to desk duty, even if he couldn't be on the front line anymore.

I just don't believe that he jumped off that roof. Nor can I believe that Carl would shoot himself, or Robert take those pills.

None of them were the type to give up.

Or is it that I just don't want to think that they could have given up on life? Because if they could have, then I could have, too?

Hutch sat down at his desk in front of Starsky and passed over a full cup of coffee. Starsky nodded his thanks.

"Maybe it's time to cut it loose, partner."

He looked up to see Hutch's eyes on him, sympathy and determination on his features.

"Was wondering the same thing," Starsky admitted reluctantly. "But I just can't seem to let it go, Hutch. They were good guys and I feel like I can't walk away from this."

"Gut feeling."

"Yeah. Still there. Still yellin' at me to do somethin' about it."

Hutch took a sip from his own cup as Starsky only played with his. He sat and listened to the normal bustle of the squadroom as he waited for Hutch's response. He knew he was probably going to get some kind of Hutchinson lecture about needing to let the past go. Might as well get it over with for the evening.

I'm at a dead end here. I have to admit that. We've got other cases to work on.

But he still didn't have to like it.

"Asher's," Hutch said suddenly, cup frozen halfway to his mouth as he looked at Starsky with a bit of hope in his eyes. "Didn't you say once that a lot of those guys from the rehab center would meet at a bar called ‘Asher's' once in awhile? Wasn't there some sort of group they asked you to join?"

The name threw him for a moment, and he tried to think back. Then it came back to him and he was surprised, and chagrined, that he had forgotten about it.

"Damn! You're right! Abe Jorgensen and Robert Abernathy asked me to come a coupla times, but I never felt like going. I know they seemed to consider it a kind of club, one where you had to have been injured while on some sort of public service job. It was something they all had in common."

"Carl was a rookie, Robert was a highway patrolman and—"

"Rufo was a fireman. All wounded in the line of duty." Starsky felt a chill flow up his spine to mess with the hairs on the back of his neck. "That's it, Hutch," he said slowly, feeling a bit of the puzzle fall into place. "I'll bet my retirement that that's the connection!"

"It still doesn't make any sense." Hutch shook his head as if he were reluctant to interfere with Starsky's enthusiasm. "Why would anyone want any of those guys dead?"

"I don't know, but now that it's hit me I've got to check it out. I can call Tina Kidman and see if her brother gave her any details. Then I can crash the party and see what develops."

"What do you mean, crash the party?" Hutch was looking at him suspiciously.

"Think about it, Hutch," Starsky asked in a whisper. "This is murder I'm talking about. Whoever did it isn't going to walk up and turn himself in just because a cop comes and starts asking questions. I fit the pattern, so if I go in just to be able to drown my sorrows with friends—"

"But you're healthy and back on the job. None of those other guys were able to make it back to work except behind a desk."

"And at the time I left it was pretty clear I wasn't going to make it back to the streets." Starsky watched Hutch wince at the memory. It had been a bad time for both of them. "None of those guys really knows me very well. They don't know you at all. Anything they've heard about me has been through the grapevine. We both know how off that can be."

Hutch shook his head, looking unhappy with the idea. "Starsk, you know Dobey isn't going to go for this. He's certain that you're digging for fool's gold with those cases. He thinks...."

"That I'm working out some issues, right?"

Hutch gave him an embarrassed look.

"Okay. Great. So, I do it on my own time. He's got no say what I do after hours."

"You're not counting me out, are you?" Hutch asked, looking as if he were ready to argue the point.

"You? Never." Starsky gave him a wide grin before pushing the case folders aside and grabbing the newer ones. "Now, we'd better get some work done on the cases we've actually been assigned, or Dobey will never let us have any free time."

And for the first time in days it felt as if he was finally getting something accomplished.

**********

Hutch lay stretched out on Starsky's bed, hands folded behind his head. He wouldn't have minded some company, but Starsky was busy digging through his closet.

Starsky had called Tina Kidman and gotten the particulars from her before they had called it a day at the station. Asher's was a bar just down the block from the rehab center. It was one of the few buildings in the area that was flat, had low curbing and wide doors that made it easier for the handicapped to get to on their own. It got a bit of its traffic from those who had been to, or were still going to, the rehab center and had become the meeting place for the "Bay City Heroes." They were an informal group of guys who'd worked in law enforcement, the rescue services, or Vietnam. All had been injured in the line of duty and had found their way to the center. They weren't a large group; about fifteen in all, but all were disabled enough that most had been unable to return to any sort of active duty. Most were retired and on pensions.

Starsky had been invited to go, several times, but had never accepted the invitations.

You barely even got to know them, yet you feel guilty for not being there for them when they died, Hutch mused while watching his lover try to find the right clothing for the evening. I wish I knew what to do to make you feel better, buddy, but you know as well as I do that you had your own burdens, and secrets to carry. You left that place at a bad time, and it's not your fault you lost touch. Guess I'm not the only one around here with a touch of "survivor's guilt."

But it doesn't seem like we can get away from it, can we? You haven't even been back on duty that long, and this is the second time you've had to revisit the struggle you had to make it back, the second time you've had to use the shooting and the scars to work a case.

And it still tears me up inside to see you dragged back there, when all I want is for both of us to forget it ever happened.

Hutch sighed quietly, glad that Starsky wasn't paying any attention to him.

Starsky had gone through the hanging clothes in his closet and was now pulling folded items from the shelves at the top. He was looking for the largest shirt he had, but Hutch was fairly certain that most of his "oversized" clothing wasn't so oversized now that Starsky was almost at his proper weight. The closet side of the bed was covered in rejects, and Hutch could only be happy he didn't have to pick up after his partner anymore. The room was looking like a thrift shop had exploded with no survivors.

"Ah, ha!" Starsky threw down a blue, button-down shirt that had come from somewhere in the back. "I knew I had that put away somewhere!"

Hutch sat up and grabbed the shirt that had been thrown over his feet. "Where did you get this?" He knew even before he held it up that it must be a size and a half too big for his partner, especially considering the fact that Starsky liked his clothing skin-tight to begin with. "I can see why I've never seen you in this one."

Starsky grabbed it away from him and started to strip. "My Aunt Lenore sent it to me for my birthday one year when I was back visiting Ma. She never could get any of her nieces and nephews' sizes right."

It certainly makes him look...thin. Too thin.

That had been the plan, to find clothing that would camouflage the healthier weight and build that Starsky had worked hard for. After the shooting he had lost a lot of weight and muscle mass, and even his skin-tight favorites had hung off him like clothes on a line. With the clothing, and the disguise kit Hutch had stopped off at his place to get, they would make Starsky look as if he hadn't made much, if any progress since anyone at the rehab had last seen him.

Starsky turned around and modeled the outfit for him. The jeans were about half a size too large and with the shirt tucked in, it made him look much thinner than he really was.

"I hate it," Hutch said sharply, meaning it.

Starsky gave him an understanding smile. "Like a little meat on your lover's bones, do you?"

"Yeah, all those bony edges on you would have cut me to pieces. Guy needs a little something to grab on to when things get interesting." At Starsky's snort Hutch sat up and waved him to the bathroom. "Come over here and let's get this part over with." The disguise kit was still on the counter where he had left it. "Sit down on the john and I'll see if it's possible to make you any uglier."

"Hey!" Starsky said with mock indignation as he sat, holding his face upwards. "I'll have you know that I turned more heads than you ever did, even on my worst days."

"Well, I guess I can't argue that some people do have the unfortunate tendency to stare at those who were born with a natural tendency for ugly," Hutch said as he mixed a couple of colors of grease paint together in the palm of his hand. "Some parents just need to teach their kids better manners."

"Oh, you mean like the kind of stares you get? Yeah, I can see where a mug like yours would scare a few years' growth off a kid. Wouldn't want that."

"Real funny. You're just killing me here. Now, will you shut up and hold still, already? I don't want to get any of this in your eyes."

Hutch very carefully dabbed the mixture on the area just below Starsky's closed eyes. By the time he got through with him Starsky would look gaunt, tired and a little frail.

And what was scaring him was that he still had such a vivid image in his head to work by.

As long as it's pretend, Starsk. As long as it's only pretend and I get to wash it all away before morning.

Later, when they were safe at one apartment or the other for the night, he would just have to remind both of them just how frail Starsky wasn't.

**********

It was still fairly early in the evening when Starsky walked into Asher's, alone. If he were to try to convince anyone he was having a hard time getting back on duty and fitting in, it wouldn't work if his partner were sitting on a bar stool next to him. This evening was for Starsky alone, no matter how much Hutch disliked the idea.

He wouldn't dislike it so much if he didn't think there was some danger, Starsky mused as he entered the place. At least he believes me when I say something feels wrong about all this.

From the first glance around the dim room he didn't get the feeling there was any real menace in this place. It was clearly a bar that lagged behind modern times and yet seemed comfortable with the fact. The air was filled with smoke and the walls with black and white pictures. Some were of celebrities, some seemed to be class or group pictures. The bar itself had a scratched but fairly clean wooden floor, wood paneling and a bar to match. The area behind the bar was covered in bottle after bottle of all kinds of liquor that gave off the air of rarely being touched while several prominent beer spouts looked as if they were kept busy. There were several booths along one wall, tables and chairs in the center of the room along with the regulation bar stools, and as far as Starsky could see, nothing electronic, such as pinball machines, television or even a radio that would distract from your drink or conversation.

The bar was fairly full for this time of night. About the same as The Pits would be, but the crowd was a bit older and definitely less hip than Huggy's place. This was more a place where the blue-collar guy came straight from work to down his beer and talk, before he had to put in an appearance with the wife and kids.

Starsky stood for a moment in the entrance to the main room, looking around uncertainly. Tina had told him that all she knew was the place and time the Bay City Heroes met, so Starsky was looking for someone he recognized.

It wasn't until the crowd cleared a little that he saw the wheelchair at a table to his far left, and he felt a smile cross his face when he recognized the back of the occupant. Taking a better look, he found he recognized five of the guys sitting around the crowded tables.

Taking a deep breath he walked closer, hoping that someone would look his way. He made sure to move carefully, as if he were afraid to be bumped, holding an arm vaguely up and across his middle.

"Well, lookit who's here!" Came the loud, booming voice of Taylor Puckett, and was the trigger for the whole corner of the bar to turn and look at him. The elderly man with the false leg made up in volume what he lacked in speed. "Dave Starsky! Well, and here we'd thought you'd forgotten about the rest of us gimps."

Starsky smiled and waved at all the verbal welcomes and the smiling faces. He walked up to the table and nodded at the people who were crowded in together. A few of them he didn't know.

"Thought I'd drop by and touch base," he said, smiling warmly at them all. "Been a while, huh?"

"Well, sit down, young man," Taylor ordered, getting up and scooting his chair to one side, signaling for everyone at the table to do the same. "You sit on down, Dave, and let us know what's been goin' on with you. You sort of disappeared on us there."

Starsky sat down across from Taylor and gave his beer order to the waitress who was waiting impatiently for him to settle. "Nice to see you guys again."

"Well, it's nice to see you, Dave. If you pardon the expression." This time the speaker was an older black man who sat on Starsky's left. Oliver Delaverson was an ex-marine who had lost his eyesight in an explosion overseas, just when Vietnam was getting to be a hot spot.

"Nice to see you, too, Oliver."

"Don't lie to him, son," John Iverson admonished. "He's damn ugly and he knows it. Never nice to see his ugly mug."

The rest of the table laughed as blind Oliver unerringly gave John the finger, a smile on his face. "Look who's talkin', man!"

Starsky smiled at John Iverson. John was an ex-cop who had been badly cut when he'd been thrown through a glass panel in a fight with a suspect. There were three other men Starsky didn't recognize, but he knew Donald O'Neill from a few short conversations, and Fred Stokke who was on Starsky's right. It had been Fred's wheelchair that had caught Starsky's eye. He nodded in their direction but noticed that Fred seemed bored with the whole exchange, and Donald seemed as if he weren't paying attention to anything but his beer.

"Hey, Dave, how ya doin'?" John asked. "Where'd you disappear to? You still workin' to get back on the force?"

Starsky shrugged and reached for the bowl of broken pretzels in the center of the table. "Therapy wasn't goin' so hot, you know? So my doctor decided to pull me out and I got thrown on to desk duty. Guess they thought they'd get some use outta me rather than put me on disability." Starsky gave them a slight smile, but the thought itself was enough to fuel the sadness behind it.

Those at the table stayed quiet for a moment, and Starsky felt the heaviness of it like a curtain surrounding them from the rest of the bar customers.

How many here would have given their eyeteeth to go back? And how many of them went back only to find that things really could never be the same? And here I am, play-acting what they've had to deal with for real.

It could have been my reality. It came so close....

"Sounds like it's been a big adjustment, huh, kid?" Taylor Puckett asked, empathy in his eyes. "Must be a hell of a change, from guarding the streets and taking down human garbage to...."

"R & I, pulling files," Starsky answered, smiling at the waitress as she placed a beer in front of him. He smiled at her but she didn't meet his eyes, only jerked away from him as if he were contaminated somehow, moving off as quickly as possible. He tried to turn his attention away from the snub and back to the men at the table. "From promising detective to glorified filing clerk in less than a year. How's that for progress?" Starsky heard despair in the words even as he said them.

It came so close....

"You gotta remember that you're lucky to be alive, son," Oliver said softy, a large, dark hand finding his arm and giving it a squeeze. "Be thankful for that and what health you do have."

"That's right!" John announced, holding up his own half-empty beer. "At least you're still on the force, doin' some good. You gotta remember that."

"I'll try," Starsky said, then took a sip of his beer. "I guess there's gotta be some blessings somewhere."

And I wish he was here with me, he thought, a bit relieved when one of the others started a different topic of conversation. This is going to be a long evening.

**********

Hutch lay on Starsky's couch, much too awake at the late hour to be able to drift off, but too tired to be able to keep his mind on a book or the late night/early morning movie rerun that flickered across the TV screen. Hutch found himself watching the flicker of television light reflect off of all the angles and sharp corners of the room, while his mind continuously wondered what Starsky was doing.

I should have gone with him. Should have found a way to go. I hate waiting like this.

He knew Starsky was right. It wouldn't do much good if he were to pretend he was lonely and depressed if he had his partner there with him, babysitting. While Hutch hadn't really met any of them, there was too much of a chance that he'd be recognized as Starsky's partner if he tried to go in undercover.

Depressed and lonely, huh, Starsk? Why choose to go in that way? Your whole argument has been that the suicide victims were coping well, so why insist on that cover for yourself?

Hutch had to admit he didn't understand Starsky's certainty when it came to the deaths of those men. Not that there was anything for Hutch to understand, from his perspective. When Starsky was going to therapy Hutch had thought it best to wait for him in the parking lot, only going in once or twice to meet him. He'd known that Starsky had some friends inside, had exercised with some of them, shared conversations in the locker room and pool areas. He had hoped at the time that Starsky was finding a way to share some of his feelings with others who were in a position to understand his pain and fears on a firsthand basis. He had thought at the time that a healthy, whole partner hanging around Starsky's therapy sessions would have put too much pressure on Starsky's recovery.

Next time you'd better leave your psychiatric shingle in the trash where it belongs, Hutchinson, he admonished himself. I should have trusted my first instincts and convinced him to leave sooner. When he needed me there, I wasn't with him to urge him on, and he was too proud to come to me with the truth.

They both had learned a hard lesson, and Hutch consoled himself with the memory of how things had turned around when Starsky had been taken out of the rehab center and the two of them had worked out together.

If I hadn't realized what was going on, he'd probably still be at that place, instead of with me.

Hutch shifted a bit on the couch, reaching down to take one of the discarded cushions and hugging it to his chest. Intertwined with all those bad memories were those of their getting together, of their becoming more than just friends and partners. And their first time as lovers....

It was those memories that relaxed him, made him wish that the pillow in his arms was his lively, healthy, dearly beloved friend that was there with him now. Hutch buried his nose into the cushion, hoping to find some of Starsky's scent.

He smiled at his own indulgence. He could easily go to Starsky's bed, which was more their bed than not anymore, and indulge his imagination there. Unfortunately there was no telling when his lover would return home, and he wasn't interested in getting himself started only to have to finish on his lonesome.

He'd done that too many times in the past to feel anything but empty afterwards.

The sudden sound of an engine outside caught his ear, and Hutch smiled to himself. Getting up, he checked the clock as he walked to the door. It was not yet 1:00 a.m.

There was the rattle of keys at the door so Hutch pulled it open to find a tired, haggard and frail looking Starsky on the other side.

"Welcome home, lover. Come in and get warm."

Starsky closed the door before stepping into his arms, pulling Hutch close to him.

Hutch held him tight for a moment, smelling the scent of bar, beer and theater makeup, then pulled away just enough to look into Starsky's face.

"Tough night, huh? Find out anything?"

Starsky smiled, then moved away and headed toward the kitchen. "Right now I want coffee, but don't dare. Not if we're going to get any sleep tonight.

Hutch followed him to the kitchen, where Starsky pulled out a soda and some cheese, making a quickie sandwich. "I learned a lot about what's been going on with most of those guys. It was hard to play ‘the cripple', Hutch. I've got a damn lot to be thankful for, ‘cause I could've been a lot worse off. Makes me feel a bit ashamed that I was only threatened with the loss of a career when they've lost so much more."

Hutch felt his mood grow serious. "Starsk, I—"

"No," Starsky interrupted around a bite of sandwich. "It's okay. The problem is that I still have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that something's wrong. Those guys didn't commit suicide, Hutch. I feel that even stronger now. So..." Starsky looked up at Hutch, his eyes serious. "I've decided to follow this for awhile."

"You know Dobey won't—"

"I know he won't. There's no evidence. Nothing to get him to reopen those files. But I can't back off now. Not with my gut screamin' at me like this. So there're some things I gotta do."

Starsky, chewing on the last of his sandwich and sipping his soda, headed toward the bathroom.

"Do? What do you mean?" Hutch watched his lover's retreating form suspiciously, following him into the bathroom.

"I'm going to go for broke on this, Hutch." He took out a wash rag and the cream to remove the makeup, studying himself in the mirror as he prepared to wash it all off. "I'm going to talk to Ashley in R & I and have her cover for me if anyone calls asking about me working there. I'm going to talk to Crazy Rex and get him to rent me one of those dumpy, rat infested apartments he's got downtown and move into it."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Hutch felt as if he had been totally forgotten somewhere in the conversation. "What went on tonight?"

Starsky stopped scrubbing to look at him with a bit of apology in his eyes. "I've got to go under for awhile, Hutch. I have this feeling that I need to live like I've lost almost everything, that I'm broke with hospital bills, in debt and not really doing well enough to ever get back on the streets. And I don't think they'll get the right impression if they come over to visit me here, at this address. I've let them think that I'm on my last legs and hitting bottom."

"All on your own and ripe for...what? What do you think is going on?"

Starsky looked at himself in the mirror, and Hutch wondered what it was he saw. "I'm not sure. It's just a feeling, as if.... I...I don't know." Starsky sighed, then continued scrubbing. "But I've got to go with my gut on this, Hutch. I'll understand if you don't want to be a part of this."

"Shut up, will you?" Hutch snapped. "I may not like it, but I can see you've got your mind made up and it's too late to argue. You know we'll still have to keep up on our regular cases, no matter where you're living?"

"Yeah, but I'll survive. It's gonna be a financial drain to keep up two apartments, but Crazy Rex owes us enough favors that he'll just have to cut me a cheap rate. I can get some used furniture if he doesn't have anything furnished."

Hutch just shook his head. I should have known he'd want to go all the way with this one. The only thing is to let him do what he feels he needs to. I hope we can find the answers he feels are out there.

Starsky finished washing the makeup off his face and started to strip.

"So, wanna borrow my car?"

Starsky laughed, sharp and sudden at the suggestion, and Hutch loved the look of amused disgust on his face. "Hell, no. If nothing else I've got enough pride to try to make my car payments. By the time I get down to driving your kind of cars they can take me away for real."

Starsky turned the shower on, one hand under it as he stood there naked, obviously waiting for the hot water to come up.

"Starsky," Hutch asked quietly, eyes taking in Starsky's beauty, feeling left out. "Do I have a part in this?"

Starsky turned toward him, a slight smile on his face. "Why don't you come in and join me? I'll tell you while we're gettin' ready for bed."

Hutch had showered earlier, but quickly disrobed and stepped in behind his lover. Taking the shampoo bottle from Starsky's hand Hutch started to wash Starsky's hair, knowing how much they both enjoyed the project when shared.

"Tell me," Hutch said softly, just over the sound of the water spray as he played with Starsky's soapy curls. "What are you looking for? What did you learn? How do we handle this and what do we do about ‘us' in the meantime?"

Starsky was soaping up the rest of his body, head up and eyes closed, obviously enjoying the attention. "I'm looking for a killer, and I'm not sure of the motive. The guys who died were part of that group and met pretty regularly. Most of the others there seemed to be in a bit of shock at the fact that they missed out on warning signs from the deceased members. There were a couple of guys there that didn't seem to believe it was suicide any more than I did, but they're not saying it straight out."

Finished with the sudsing, Hutch gently pushed Starsky toward the spray and waited while Starsky rinsed his hair out. Hutch stepped up behind him, pressing their wet bodies together as he spooned up behind Starsky, hands reaching around to wash the thick, silky hair on his chest and stomach.

"I don't know what else the three had in common, but I have the feeling that if I can get into their good graces I'll pin down what's bothering me. And as for you...."

Starsky turned around, skin like warm, slick silk in Hutch's arms. Deep blue eyes looked up into Hutch's, and he could tell Starsky knew he was unhappy. Hutch was hugged firmly and he relaxed into the embrace.

"You are my ex-partner, getting on with your life since it's become pretty clear I can't keep up with you anymore. But you're my friend, who comes by a lot, tries to pull me out of my downward spiral. So you spend time over at my place, helping me pay my bills, which only makes me feel worse. You can come and look me up while I'm at the bar with the others, and try to keep me from drinking so much. You could see if you can find a helping hand among them, asking them what you should do, what advice they have. You want to help, and I'm letting you to a certain extent, but not without cost to my pride."

"So, I get to visit this sewer of an apartment you live in?"

"Stay the night on occasion," Starsky smiled, leaning over just enough to place lips on Hutch's chin. He nibbled at skin for a fraction of a second. "We'll tell Dobey it's a girlfriend's place so he can try that number when I'm not here at home. In case of emergency. We'll have to find excuses to run by Venice or here for quick lunches and bouts of bed wrestling."

"But why the poverty, babe?"

Starsky sighed. "If I'm looking for a killer, they're not going to buddy-up to a cop who's at the top of his game. If I seem down and out, off my feed so to speak, then maybe I'll become a target if they think I'm an easy kill. If not...." Starsky looked at him with a hint of a crooked smile, moving his hips slightly so that their growing erections rubbed and pressed across each other. Hutch could feel the heat build up between them as he pushed back and knew his whole body was starting to flush. "Then maybe the others will feel better about talking to me if they think I'm worse off, emotionally and financially, than they are. It won't seem so strange if I'm trying to come to terms with the suicides if the others think I may be thinking the same thing."

Hutch nodded, seeing the logic in what Starsky was saying. He ran his hands up Starsky's wet back, running his fingers carefully over the scars. "Okay. I give. But I don't have to like it."

Starsky gave him a blinding smile, then leaned up and kissed him quickly on the lips. "C'mon, cowboy. Lets go in and cheer each other up, then pretend that we're getting some sleep before we hav'ta get up."

Hutch slapped a firm, round ass cheek as Starsky stepped out of the shower, turning toward the still-warm spray.

Now's no time to mother-hen him, Hutchinson, Hutch thought in self-reproach. He's the best cop there is, and if he's got that feeling, then the best thing you can do is remember he's an adult and makes his own choices. You never would have grown to respect him otherwise.

**********

Starsky padded barefoot, still slightly damp, into the front room to switch off the television. He quickly made his way back to the bed and slid in on "his" side, listening to Hutch as he finished drying in the bathroom.

I'm glad he isn't fighting me on this, Starsky decided as he settled himself in what he hoped was a seductive pose, sheet up to his middle with it just starting to tent over his interest. He rubbed himself through the sheet, wanting it to be as obvious as possible.

I don't know if he knows how much it means to me that he'll trust me to go with my instincts on this. It's going to be a strain to do our regular jobs and then have to stay in character on our off-time, let alone the fact that we won't have as much private time for each other as we used to.

He knew Hutch wouldn't be happy with the arrangement, but he also knew that it was important to them both that they trust each other's decisions. Especially the ones made when they were apart. And right now Starsky needed not only his partner's trust, but his loving as well.

The light under the bathroom door disappeared even before the door opened. Starsky looked for Hutch's outline as he came into the bedroom and stood beside his side of the bed. Starsky knew Hutch could see his outline in the dim light from the digital clock.

"Looks like you've gotten started without me," Hutch said, his voice deep and taunting. "Guess you don't really need me after all."

"Like hell I don't! Get over here, you big idiot, and I'll show you just how much I need you!"

Hutch chuckled deeply in the dark, the warm, happy sound filling up the room and wrapping around Starsky's heart. How he treasured that sound.

"Always with the sweet words, right, lover? Such a romantic."

The dim light from outside and the small amount of light left in the room always seemed to find and caress Hutch, so that even in the dark he was never totally invisible. Starsky felt his cock pulse as the large, golden glinted shape came toward him. He could see Hutch a bit better as he put one knee on the bed and swung his other over Starsky's thighs. Starsky reached up to touch Hutch's smooth chest when his hand was intercepted and placed back at his side.

"Not yet, lover."

Starsky relaxed, taking a deep breath and letting it out, keeping his arms at his sides. Whatever Hutch wanted to do would be wonderful, Starsky knew. When Hutch gave he gave, enjoying the giving as well as the taking.

Hutch settled his weight carefully across Starsky's thighs, supporting himself so that Starsky didn't feel uncomfortable. Starsky could see by his outline that he was looking down at the tent that did nothing to shelter or hide Starsky's interest in him, but only emphasized the fact. He felt strong hands at his hips, on top of the sheet. One hand moved and Starsky jumped at the sudden sensation of pressure at the tip of his cock. Hutch was rubbing him softly through the fabric.

Starsky hummed his pleasure, sighing as Hutch moved to maneuver his cock through the sheet to lie flat on his stomach. Careful hands molded the fabric around his cock and balls, then fondled him softly as if creating a sculpture. Starsky closed his eyes and relaxed, enjoying the indulgence of the personal attention and the sensual feel. The firm rubbing turned into a massage, long fingers splaying over his erection and up over his stomach, gentle fingertips touching, then disappearing, over the edge of the sheet.

Starsky's stomach trembled at the fleeting feel of skin on skin. The hands then moved away from his covered cock, moving sideways to rub and knead at his hips and around to the side of his buttocks. Hutch shifted and Starsky opened his eyes just in time to see Hutch's silhouette move and the details of his face became clear for a second, before there was only the glow of blond hair and the soft touch of lips on Starsky's largest scar.

"Hutch...." Starsky whispered softly around the thick emotion that filled him whenever Hutch paid special attention to the reminders of his death and return to life. There was a part of him that didn't like the scars touched, that wished fiercely that they didn't exist. That part nagged a little softer, mourned a little less when Hutch made them seem to be good things, happy omens of a life that was longer than it might have been.

Velvet lips traced careful kisses up his middle and then to each individual bullet scar, making Starsky's body feel like he was melting and wired all at the same time. By the time Hutch got up to his neck, Starsky was gripping the bed sheets as if he were going to rip holes in the mattress itself.

"Hutch," Starsky breathed into the silky curls that caressed his chin and neck where the lips had yet to touch. "I gotta touch you!"

Letting go of his death grip Starsky wrapped his arms around Hutch, throwing all his strength into rolling them sideways into the center of the mattress. He loved it when he could use his full strength and not be sure he would come out on top.

Heart pounding in his chest, Starsky's mouth found Hutch's, and he could almost taste the excitement that was echoed in the hard erection bobbing wildly against his through the sheet trapped between them. He invaded the willing mouth in his need to return the delicate pleasure that Hutch had given him as Hutch's hand roamed his back and ass, pinching, pulling and stroking. Pressed firmly together, their hips flexed back and forth in the minute space between them, grinding their cocks across each other through the fabric.

From erotic pleasure the sheet grew to be an obstacle, so Starsky reached down and pulled it from between them. The feel of skin on skin was almost like a shock.

He could feel the leaking of pre-cum and could not tell, nor did he care, whose it was. He could only grind harder against Hutch as the space between them grew slick.

Hutch tasted intoxicatingly of warm lips and sweet tongue as Starsky explored the hot mouth, savoring the taste and slick texture of him. Hutch sucked his tongue in and tried to swallow, then they fought a new battle in which Hutch was the winner and his tongue explored Starsky's mouth. They took turns at the battle until Starsky pulled back slightly, enjoying the feel of their harsh breaths as they mixed in the small space between them. They were both panting now, both breathless and hot.

Starsky sucked a bit of curved lip into his mouth and nibbled at the seam between lip and skin, moving down to chin and then up to the curve of a well-shaped jaw.

"S-Starsk!" Hutch moaned the name deeply, as if the sound came all the way from his toes. Hutch's hands were frantic at Starsky's ass now, pulling, kneading and gripping them in large hands that still could surprise Starsky with their size and gentleness. "B-both of us. Both!"

Starsky knew what Hutch wanted. Pulling away he sat up to switch positions so his face was at Hutch's crotch. Hutch moved down so that Starsky would have room to stretch out.

The musky smell of Hutch at full arousal mixed with his own scent, making Starsky gasp at the heady combination that hit him. Hutch's tongue licked the underside of his cock from tip to balls.

Fighting the urge to give in to pure sensation he put his own tongue to Hutch's cock, in the same manner, and heard/felt Hutch's groan in response. Starsky tasted pre-cum, still damp skin and that part of Hutch's scent that translated into his unique flavor. He welcomed the mixture as erotic, sensual and a totally natural answer to some primal need within him.

Remembering how Hutch had responded the last time, Starsky sucked hard on a finger, wetting it with saliva, and rubbed it along Hutch's wet cock. He traced back behind Hutch's balls then, circling the puckered opening even as he took the head of the straining, still-leaking cock into his mouth. He ran his tongue over the slick, hot glans as he tried to ignore the pulling and sucking of his own cock into Hutch's mouth.

He kept his finger moving in tender circles, feeling a slight tinge of fear behind the excitement as Hutch echoed his ministrations. The warm, slick digit that traced behind his own balls and circled his own center was a shocking feeling. He'd had women play with him there before, but this was different. This was more than foreplay between them, and Starsky shivered at the feeling of excitement touched with a small amount of fear at this barely explored area of lovemaking between them. To penetrate, and be penetrated, was something they both seemed to be approaching cautiously.

Starsky kept up his caress of Hutch with mouth and finger, finding it harder and harder to concentrate with Hutch's actions at his own backside. Carefully, he pushed into Hutch's center up to his first knuckle and tried to relax as Hutch mirrored the action.

He wasn't sure how to react to a strange intruder, never having had anyone enter him like this. The sensation of pulling and pressure were strange, but behind it his nerves were singing at the attention.

Close! Oh....man...so close....

Half of his mind was already gone at the double massage of cock and ass, and he fought to keep up so that Hutch received as well as he gave. Neither went very deep inside the other, too many other parts called for attention. Starsky felt himself relax at the unusual sensations, trusting that Hutch would be careful. Could he go further? Could either of them give themselves that way to the other?

The raging fire that ran through his groin and up to his chest tingled and pulled at the building pressure that was screaming for release. Starsky couldn't give in to its primal urgings, needing to make sure that Hutch was with him when it happened.

He worked harder now, sucked deeper, laved the spots he knew drove Hutch crazy. Noises of passion and desire wove around him and Starsky was past being able to separate one voice from the other. His own body was pulling him down into that deep, bottomless well of completion, screaming at him to thrust into that hot mouth that loved him so that they could join permanently.

He had enough of his mind left to feel the change in hip movements and pulse of the cock that filled his busy, moving hands. Hutch was growing tense to the point of snapping, muscles hard and tendons straining in what Starsky knew was his lover's impending release.

Now! It's gonna be....

Hutch bucked hard, filling Starsky's mouth with straining flesh, and froze as Starsky felt his cock suddenly swell a fraction more....

Noooooooooowwwwwwww!!!!

Starsky, barely aware of the pulsing stream at the back of his throat, lost his fight on reality as his own electrified nerves pulled him into the whirlpool of completion. His body sang its joy in the fulfillment of passion and with the pulling and straining of sexual release. His body tingled deeply, humming with life that spread from his groin and pelvis to his chest and arms, as he emptied himself into Hutch. He was barely aware of Hutch's pulling out of his mouth, leaving the taste of cum at the back of his throat and on his tongue.

Starsky relaxed his mouth, letting the softening organ slip from his lips, savoring the fact for just a few seconds more that Hutch still held on to him. His body was humming warmly, sweetly relaxed and sated. He knew that until he moved, Hutch would hold him forever if he wanted to. But it was enough, for now, so Starsky pulled back slightly and Hutch relaxed and let Starsky slip away as well.

Breathing deeply, Starsky let every muscle in his body relax, enjoying the bone-deep feeling of satisfaction and the tingle of afterglow that was pure pleasure in itself. He moved only slightly, bending his knees as he lay, still facing Hutch, so that the top of his thighs touched the top of Hutch's head. He could feel the soft blond mass against the hair and skin of his legs. Hutch did the same and Starsky smiled at the vision of their sixty-nine ending in a weird sort of shape that was not really a circle but felt like one all the same.

Starsky dozed for a few minutes, keeping sleep at bay. He didn't want to fall asleep this way, wanted them to both be under the covers after wiping off with the towels in the nightstand. He needed to check the alarm so they wouldn't be late for work and wanted to be face to face with Hutch when he woke the next day. The best mornings were when he could wake and see Hutch's face, and he didn't want to waste that opportunity.

Just a few more minutes, he graciously granted himself, an ear to his lover who was already snoring, but who was also at least facing the right direction.

When he finally could move, to complete his tasks and fall into the dark cavern of sleep, he gave Hutch one last kiss on his full lips before snuggling close and letting himself go.

**********

Hutch sighed to himself as he paced the dingy, drab room. Starsky's "new" place hadn't been new since the turn of the century and it showed. The apartment actually wasn't the worst Hutch had ever seen, but it wasn't someplace where he would want to spend long periods of time. Yet using up time was all Starsky had seemed to accomplish since moving in several weeks ago.

He sat down on the old, used sofa after finally deciding to turn on the TV. He and Starsky had gotten off work several hours ago and had agreed to meet here. His partner had had to do some shopping in the area so may have gotten caught up in a conversation with someone he knew.

Hutch had not enjoyed the past few weeks at all and had been fighting an urge to call a halt to the project. Not that it was something unusual or unexpected in their jobs for them to be away from home for long periods. Nor was it as if they'd been living together before this case.

But they had no back-up on this and it was beginning to wear them both down to a dangerous level.

He missed being able to really be off duty after work and missed spending private, quiet time with his lover. Sex had become frantic trips to either one's apartment during lunch or a quickie at Starsky's real home when he needed to pick up something, and a quick "christening" of this undercover place. When the newness had worn off the location and the circumstances, Hutch found he missed the long evenings together, both before and after sex. He bitterly missed waking up with Starsky in his arms. And the room itself was starting to unnerve him.

It's kind of scary, Hutch thought as he looked around the small living room/kitchen area. To think that a guy can get blown out of the water and end up in much worse places than this.

He grimaced a bit at the thought, remembering his and Van's first apartment. They had married during the summer break between their junior and senior years at college, and they had been hard pressed to find a place to live out of the dorms. Their first apartment hadn't been more than this place was, yet to him it had seemed wonderful. A pretty wife, a part-time job on the side to pay the rent and feed them while their parents continued to pay for their schooling, and Hutch had finally felt as if he'd reached adulthood.

Even when she knew it wasn't a permanent home she hated that place. It wasn't what she was used to or what she wanted. I couldn't understand why she was so ashamed of it. Now I can see why she felt it was such a step down. When you've had better, it's hard to go back and adjust.

He remembered those days, how angry and upset she had been. It had taken him too damn long to realize it was all about money and social position with Van, to understand why she thought he was such a failure. They both had been too blinded by their own expectations to see each other clearly.

Guess we were both fools then. Too damn young to know what love really was.

When he pictured Starsky in his mind, all those old wounds Van had left felt well-healed. Starsky didn't give a rat's ass how much money he made or who his friends were. He wasn't sure what it was that Starsky saw in him, why he loved him or what it was about the two of them together that always seemed to have the sparks flying. All he knew was that he thanked heaven for it.

A knock at the door startled him, he had been so deep into his thoughts. Getting up to answer it Hutch saw an older man, gray hair and beard, with well-kept but obviously out-of-date clothing. He carried a brown sack in one hand that had the unmistakable shape of a bottle. He seemed startled at Hutch's appearance.

"Oh, I'm sorry! I'm Taylor Puckett. I was looking for Dave Starsky."

"He's not here right now. I'm waiting for him myself." Hutch gave the man an obvious once-over and kept his face severe. "If you want, I can let you wait for him. He should be here any second."

And so much for being together for awhile tonight, Hutch thought sadly as he stepped back and waved the older man in. But Starsk needs to either find something or get this out of his system, and if this guy can get this show on the road then it'll be finished that much sooner.

Mr. Puckett looked uncertain for a second, then nodded and hobbled his way into the room.

Hutch knew about him and his missing leg. He also knew that Mr. Puckett acted like a stepfather to all those in the Bay City Heroes group. Starsky had been talking to him a great deal about the suicides.

"I don't want to bother you." Puckett patted the package. "I'll just put this on the counter."

"You won't bother me," Hutch said shortly. "I'm just here for a word with my ex-partner, then I'll be off."

"Oh, so you're Hutch?"

Hutch stuck out his hand, realizing he'd forgotten to introduce himself. "Yes, that's me. Guess you've heard about me from Starsky?"

"A bit. Now and then." Mr. Puckett sat down heavily on the sofa. He gave Hutch a big smile. "Dave and I have gotten to be pretty good friends lately."

Hutch nodded. "Good to hear that. I'm afraid I don't get to see him as much as I used to. Working the streets keeps me pretty busy."

He heard keys jangling just outside the door and hoped it was Starsky. He didn't want to mess it up by talking to Puckett too much. He didn't want to inadvertently blow Starsky's cover by a careless word.

**********

Starsky grabbed at the keys as they slipped out of his fingers, barely catching them as his armful of groceries shifted and threatened to fall. It had been a long trip to the store and back, and moving as if he were tired and frail had made it even longer. He was glad to finally be back so he could relax and have some quiet time with Hutch.

Before he could even straighten up Hutch opened the door.

"There you are. Hope you don't mind me coming by, but I needed to talk to you about something."

The formal tone of Hutch's voice told him that they were going to be overheard. Starsky saw Taylor on the couch as soon as Hutch turned to let him by.

"I let your friend in."

"Hey, Taylor! Be with you in a minute!" Starsky put on his best smile for his visitor while feeling a little frustrated that it looked like his and Hutch's evening was off.

This is what I wanted, to get to know these guys better. I just hope Hutch understands.

As he looked toward Hutch, who was shutting the door behind him, Hutch winked at him out of the corner of his eye.

"What brings you both by?" Starsky asked, setting the bag down carefully on the counter and making a show of straightening up slowly.

"I just need a quick word," Hutch replied swiftly. "In private, if you don't mind. Then I've got to be going."

"Okay, uh...in the bedroom, okay?" Starsky flashed Puckett a smile. "Just be a second. Make yourself at home."

He followed Hutch into the bedroom, where the door was hardly shut before Starsky found warm, demanding lips on his own. He accepted the kiss with relish, pulling Hutch to him in a fierce hug. Both broke it off quickly. Starsky could see in Hutch's eyes the regret that must have matched his own.

"Figured I ought to let you two have the evening," Hutch whispered. "I knew you said you really wanted to talk to him."

"Yeah, I do. Sorry about dinner, though."

"It wasn't dinner I was looking forward to." Hutch's eyes twinkled, a slight smile on his lips. "But I guess I'll have to call it an early night."

"Maybe I'll be lucky and Puckett will have the clue I need." Starsky reached a hand up to cup Hutch's face. His thumb stroked his cheekbone gently. "Guess it pays to have someone who understands just how frustrating this job can be."

He saw Hutch's eyes grow soft, then back to teasing.

"Yeah, just wish it paid better at times," Hutch said poking Starsky in the ribs.

They both laughed a bit awkwardly.

"I'd better get going, or he'll start to wonder why we're in here so long."

"I'll just tell him that you're concerned with the fact that I'm not doing well at work and that I still owe you some money."

"You always were lousy with a checkbook." Hutch gave him a wink and headed for the door, and Starsky watched as Hutch's demeanor changed from resigned but happy to frustrated and stiff before he left the room. It was only half a second before he was slamming the front door behind him.

Now for the floor show.

Starsky walked in to the small living area and nodded at Puckett. "Want to share dinner? I make a mean plate of spaghetti."

"Sure, if you don't mind." Puckett shifted and Starsky could tell his leg was giving him trouble. "I could always use another meal."

They both laughed at that, and Starsky started to put the hamburger on to fry. "What brings you around?"

"Just dropping by to visit, Dave. Thought we'd get to know each other better."

"Sure nice of you. Gets a little lonely being by myself all the time."

The television filled in the silence for a few minutes. Starsky started the water to boil and put the rest of the groceries away. It wasn't until then that he really noticed the brown bag on the counter. He picked it up and peeked inside.

"You bring the wine?" Starsky knew it must have been Puckett's

"Oh, yeah. Thought you might want to kick back a few tonight."

"Thanks." Starsky set it on the tiny table over in the corner. It had only two chairs, but that had been all he had needed so far. "We can save it for dessert."

**********

A couple of days passed and it became harder and harder for Hutch to hold his tongue. Starsky was clinging stubbornly to the case, as if admitting there was nothing to his instincts was something he couldn't face.

But it was wearing them both down to a frazzle. They were both tired and as each day passed with nothing new, Starsky looked more and more worn and fragile. Hutch knew he wasn't far behind, unable to sleep until Starsky called him each evening. The longing for his presence made each call almost more torture than it was worth. Yet each time Hutch tried to bring up the subject of putting the case behind him, Starsky would shift the conversation to something else. Pretty soon something was going to have to break. Tonight felt like the night.

Hutch walked into Asher's for the first time, not sure what to expect. Starsky hadn't told him much about the place other than the "Heroes" hung around and talked a lot. Standing in the entryway he took a minute to look around and get the lay of the place. On first impression it didn't look like anything special. Nothing special at all.

Don't know what I expected, Hutch mused. As much time as he's spent here the last month you would have thought I'd have had some kind of idea of what the place is like.

Looking through the smoke and the moving, boisterous crowd, he saw the top of a pair of crutches that were leaning against the far wall. Winding his way through the crowd, he finally spotted Starsky sitting with a beer at a table with four other men. He was moving toward them when Starsky looked up and spotted him.

The look on his face was like a punch in the gut.

Starsky was not happy to see him.

Putting on his best blank face, Hutch walked up to the table and tried not to see how easily Starsky seemed to ignore his approach.

"'Bout time I found you," Hutch announced loudly. "Gotta talk to you."

Two pairs of eyes sized him up, and Hutch wondered if either of them recognized him. Taylor Puckett, who was sitting next to Starsky, glared at him. Starsky just nodded, eyes on his glass.

"Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet my ex-partner. Sergeant Kenneth Hutchinson."

The look on the unfamiliar pair told Hutch that this seemed to mean something to the two, something that didn't speak well of Hutch's reputation. Puckett nodded at him politely, but his demeanor didn't change.

"Nice to meet you. Starsky, we've got to talk."

Starsky nodded. "Sure. Why not?" He got up from the table slowly, as if his very bones ached. The small traces of makeup that Starsky had learned to apply in a way to give him a slight pallor was undetectable, even when Hutch knew it was still there.

It hurt to see him. Hutch had to force himself not to move toward him and help him through the maze of chairs.

Old habits die hard. If they ever die at all.

What was scary was that Starsky had been pushing himself too hard, staying up too late, drinking too much, not eating enough good food. Even during the day, and in those few minutes of private time they'd managed to share, it seemed to Hutch as if Starsky's recovery had taken a reverse. Some of the exhaustion and weariness Starsky now carried with him wasn't being faked, and it angered Hutch more than he was free to admit.

Without a word Hutch followed Starsky outside. He didn't turn toward Hutch until they had walked to a corner of the building, away from the foot traffic of the doorway. Hutch could tell Starsky wasn't happy.

"You're gonna blow my cover in there!"

"What cover?" Hutch snapped angrily. "You've just gone in as yourself, for heavens sake! And by the way, if you'd been following the script you had written for this whole scenario I would've been here to take you home and dry you out once in awhile, remember? Looks like you've forgotten to tell me that I'm the bad guy in this situation."

Hutch could tell his words hit home. Starsky relaxed a little, but still didn't look very pleased.

"Okay, point taken. But I was getting so close—"

"Yeah, I'm sure. Just like all those other nights you come home, this close." Hutch held his thumb and forefinger a scant inch apart. "You've been that close to cracking this case for weeks now, Starsky."

Starsky's face blanked, and Hutch recognized that stubborn look from years of experience with it.

"Why are you here, anyway?"

"Narco has a big bust coming up tonight, in about five hours. Some big shipment is coming in at the docks a couple days early and they're scrambling for back up. Dobey's been calling all over for us to come in on this."

Starsky nodded, looking resigned. "Okay then, I'll go and make some excuse to the guys and meet you there."

Hutch nodded shortly, turning toward his car when Starsky grabbed at his arm, stopping him.

"What did you mean, that Dobey was calling all over for us? Where have you been all evening?"

Hutch turned to look Starsky in the eye, letting his anger show. "Aren't you the one who's been telling me for weeks not to come by your ‘apartment' in case one of your friends is there? Didn't you tell me that I shouldn't ‘wait up' for you anymore? Well, guess what? I haven't been."

Jerking away from Starsky, Hutch strode to his car before he was tempted to say anything else. He knew he shouldn't when he felt so angry.

What am I doing? Aren't I supposed to be supportive? Why is this bothering me so much?

He wasn't sure if the problem was more than missing his lover, pining for his friend, or feeling like his partner was starting to shut him out.

I don't like the way this is playing out. We need to talk, babe, before we start losing track of each other. This can't go on forever.

**********

The drug bust had gone without a hitch, and from Hutch's perspective it hadn't even been very interesting. He and Starsky had been placed at the far end of the action, ready to snag anyone trying to escape down a back alley. Listening to the radio exchanges, he and Starsky had been ready when it went down. There had been a few shots fired but no one moved toward them. By the time they'd been called in from the fringes there wasn't much left to show for a high-dollar drug bust, just a lot of happy cops and a few flashing lights.

Which was the way it should look when things go well.

Between the two of them there hadn't been an extra word said. There had been little time between arriving, getting updated and being put into place to say much. Then, in the alleyway, it was too dangerous to think about anything else but the job.

But just before it all broke loose, Hutch had looked at Starsky and found him looking back across the darkness that separated them. Starsky had given him the thumbs-up sign, Hutch had blown him a kiss and they both laughed, easing some of the tension Hutch had felt between them. They had quickly agreed to meet at Venice Place as soon as the bust was over.

Now, as both of them walked up the stairs to Hutch's apartment they were still quiet, but at least Hutch didn't feel as if a volcano were ready to explode between them. Just a mildly upsetting earthquake.

He waited until the door was closed behind them, Starsky standing in the middle of the room but not looking at him, before speaking.

"I think it's time you pulled the plug, Starsk."

"Well, I don't."

Hutch sighed and walked to the kitchen to get a pot of coffee started. If he didn't do something he was afraid he was going to get loud. If he was going to convince Starsky of anything, he knew that arguing wasn't going to help him any.

"Look, it's been weeks now," Hutch said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice, but hearing it none the less. "I know you haven't found anything because you've been shutting me out. If you'd had anything I'd have known about it by now."

He slammed the lid on the pot almost savagely and plugged it in. Turning, he saw that Starsky had gone to look out the window.

"Are you trying to prove you're Superman now, Starsk? It's not enough that you survived when you should have died? Not enough that you've beaten the odds, over and over, to get your life back?"

"I don't know what you're talkin' about."

The statement had been harsh. Starsky hadn't turned to look at him, his shoulders set back stubbornly.

The stance, the attitude, rubbed something raw inside Hutch. Striding over, he grabbed Starsky's arm and tried to turn him around. Starsky barely budged, but the eyes that met Hutch's looked as angry as Hutch felt.

"Don't you give me that, damn it! Contrary to what those people in that ‘club' think, I'm still your partner! I know you, Starsky! I can see how much this means to you but I can also see that we're asking for trouble! Ever since you've started this case you've been doing double duty, spending all your off-time trying to dig up some scrap of a clue on this case, burning the candle at both ends."

He let go of Starsky's arm at the same time Starsky tried to jerk it out of his grip. Starsky's eyes were flashing.

"I'm doing my job, Hutch! Isn't this what I worked my ass off to do? To follow my instincts?!"

"Yeah. Yeah it is," Hutch responded quietly, turning both hands palm-up as a call for truce. "But you know as well as I do that we can't work miracles! There comes a time when we have to cut those feelings off, put them on a shelf and try to forget about them before we wear ourselves out. And I'm telling you right now, Starsky, that this case is going nowhere at this point, and beating your head against the wall isn't going to do either of us any good!"

"It's my neck, Hutch." Starsky looked at him then, as if he were looking at a stranger. "Would you have said this last year? Would you be saying this now if we weren't lovers? Is that it, that somehow I've got to be cushioned and coddled? You have to protect me from the big, bad world out there ‘cause I'm never going to be quite up to your standards?"

"Damn it, Starsky! You know that's not true! I wouldn't still be your partner if you weren't able to cut it!"

A strange look of sadness crossed Starsky's face. "If you believe that, you're deluding yourself, lover boy."

Anger hit Hutch like a tidal wave and he stabbed his finger in Starsky's direction. "Now you listen a moment! You've got nothing to prove to me, whether you believe that or not. And you can spend the rest of your life butting your head up against that wall of your own free will, but don't expect me to be standing behind you, giving you shoves to make the impact hurt even worse. I'm telling you the truth here, whether you believe it or not." Hutch lowered his voice, almost whispering in his anger. "If you couldn't have made it on the street I would've been a desk jockey along with you. Or we would've been out altogether. But if you think I would've stood by and let you go back on the street if I didn't think you were able to keep out of the way of another bullet then you'd better think again!"

Starsky turned to look back out the window, and Hutch could tell he was still angry and didn't want to hear what Hutch was trying to say.

"I've trusted your instincts so far, buddy. Can't you find it in you somewhere to trust mine when I say you're pushing the limits?"

Starsky looked at him with what looked like consternation behind the anger and stubbornness.

"I can't give up now, Hutch! Don't ask me to!"

Starsky strode to the door and Hutch stood his ground. He wasn't going to yell anymore.

As Starsky opened it he turned just enough to look at Hutch as he paused.

"You never did say where you were tonight so that Dobey couldn't find you right off."

Hutch sighed, not understanding why Starsky was asking the question. He shrugged angrily. "Arturo called and wanted to hang out for awhile. So I met him and we visited over a couple of beers and some take-out. Why?"

Starsky slammed the door behind him.

**********

His head was pounding and his stomach was upset, but during this last week Starsky had almost gotten used to it. Neither of those were enough to distract him from his driving, especially now that he was being careful not to do what he really wanted to do, and that was to make tracks and move. Twice he had to force himself to turn around after finding the Torino moving toward his real home, without him even realizing he had steered the car that way. He wasn't ready to give up and go back there yet.

He was angry, at what he really didn't know, other than it must be a combination of tiredness and frustration that he couldn't seem to make any headway on the case. What Hutch said had upset him. He didn't like to be pushed, but the last few weeks had been hard and he knew there was some truth to Hutch's argument. They'd worked nonstop some of those days and had hardly had time to breathe, let alone find any private time.

Maybe Hutch is right. Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I trying to prove something to myself?

He didn't know what to think anymore. By the time he got to the undercover apartment he was almost too tired to walk up the stairs to his rooms. As he opened the door, the sight of the threadbare living quarters just added to his feeling of depression.

Maybe he is right. His gut instincts have always been as good as mine. If this had happened last year maybe I would've believed him easier.

He made his way to the bedroom, undoing his holster and placing his gun on the nightstand. He was tired, no doubt about that.

One night to sleep on it isn't going to do any harm. I do feel like I've been on my feet for ages. Tomorrow we can talk about it when I'm not so beat.

He turned to head toward the bathroom, wincing when he heard a forceful knock at his front door.

Just what I need, company to cheer me up.

Starsky opened the door just enough to see over the chain, putting his gun back as he recognized Taylor Puckett in the dim hallway. He sighed to himself as he undid the chain and opened the door enough to be polite. The man was standing out in the dirty hallway with a huge smile on his face.

"Hey, Taylor, what are you doing here?"

"Sorry to bother you, Dave, but...." Taylor held up a paper sack, "I got flooded out of my apartment by the toilet above mine. The landlord is going to be working on it all night. Mind if me and my meager belongings borrow your couch for the night?"

Starsky paused for a second, not really wanting to let Taylor stay. But he was giving Starsky that boyish smile of his, shaking the bag as if it were a present. Starsky forced a smile and stepped back to let Taylor in. He didn't have the heart to turn the older man down at this late hour.

"C'mon in. Couch is yours so help yourself."

Taylor almost seemed to dance into the room despite his game leg, going over to the couch and throwing the sack on it. "Thanks, Dave! I sure appreciate this! I'd hate to see what kind of hotel rooms are left open this time of night. Besides, it'll give us a chance to talk some more."

With his head swimming and his stomach complaining, that scenario wasn't something Starsky wanted to hear. He went into the bedroom and pulled out some sheets and an extra blanket and pillow, giving himself some time to think up a good excuse to skip the invitation to visit.

What the hell. The truth ought to do it.

"Sorry, but I've had a really bad week, ya' know?"

Taylor took the sheets and started to spread them out on the couch, looking at Starsky with concern as he did so. "You still having a hard time at the station?"

Starsky nodded and rubbed at his middle. "Well, that, too. You know how it is when you're stuck in an office and everyone else is gettin' the big busts on their records while the best you can come up with is a paper cut. Kinda gets a guy down. And now I think I'm coming down with something. You're probably going to regret stayin' with me if you go home with a flu bug or somethin'."

Taylor laughed good-naturedly. "C'mon, Dave! Let's have one to settle us down for the night. I've got some stuff here," he pulled out a bottle with a twist top from the depths of the brown sack, "that'll kill any bug in your system, and threaten a few internal organs you might actually have wanted to keep as well."

Before Starsky could refuse, Taylor was hobbling over to the small kitchenette and pulling a couple of glasses out of the cabinets.

Starsky tried not to wince at the thought of what it might do to his stomach.

Just one glass. Then I'm in bed, even if I have to be rude to get there.

Taylor twisted the cap and poured the wine as Starsky settled himself at the small table. A glass of red, pulpy looking wine was placed in front of him.

"You know, I've been putting out feelers for you, Dave. There may be a security guard job—"

"That's nice of you, but I'm not sure I'm up to doing that anymore." Starsky took a sip of the wine and tried not to wince at how off it had already gone. Not even good enough for vinegar!

Taylor nodded. "I know what you mean. When I lost my leg I felt less than useless. Being a deputy was my life, it's all I ever wanted to be." Starsky saw the older man's face grow sad, and his eyes stared into his untouched glass as if seeing another world in there. "They tried to give me a desk job, but it wasn't the same. I felt like the life was being drained out of me, one day at a time. And then...."

Starsky took a last, polite sip, hoping that in a minute he could excuse himself. The wine was awful, he was bone-tired and his head was threatening to explode if he didn't lie down soon.

Taylor suddenly seemed to realize that Starsky wasn't feeling well. He glanced up and searched Starsky's face, smiling sadly. "Guess this isn't the right time for me to go on and on, huh? Well, it is getting late. Time to hit the sack."

It took a few minutes to say their goodnights and to make sure the apartment was locked up, but to Starsky it seemed like an eternity. He closed the bedroom door and sighed deeply as he turned off the lamp, the glow from the street signs outside was more than enough to get around the room safely. The digital clock glowed a painful 1:00 a.m.

He slipped out of his shirt, socks and jeans, not caring that he left them on the floor. The cool sheets felt like heaven as he slid between them, laying his head gingerly on the pillow.

Hutch was right. This is getting to be too much. We can't be on duty round the clock, and on the edge all the time. Maybe I am trying to over-compensate, prove something to myself. If I keep this up too long I really will be a mess.

His stomach grumbled and a wave of nausea flowed over him, making his head feel as if the dim room was moving in a slow circle around his bed. Rubbing at his face he tried to relax and let sleep come, but his hands felt funny.

Just a few more minutes and I should be better. It's just the day getting to me.

The tingling in his hands continued as the room started to spin a bit faster and his stomach tried to crawl back up into his throat.

Ah, shit!

He tried to roll over, to make it out of the bed before he threw up, but nothing seemed to work. The effort started the room spinning a bit faster, but he couldn't seem to make his limbs obey his commands. The urge to throw up faded slightly, but he kept struggling to sit up and finally managed it.

Starsky tried to focus on his hands, feeling as if his whole body were trembling. The hand he held up to his face had too many fingers on it. The room twisted then and he felt himself falling, a sudden thump at the back of his head matching the thump that seemed to echo in the room. He saw what he could only guess was the ceiling and wondered how hard he'd hit the headboard.

Gotta call Hutch! Something's really wrong with me!

He turned his head slowly, toward the other side of the bed. The phone was on the nightstand and it suddenly seemed a thousand miles away.

Light exploded through the room, and he heard himself groan as his eyes were blasted painfully. There were footsteps in the room and it took Starsky a moment to realize what that meant.

"Dave?"

The sound echoed eerily. Starsky blinked and tried to focus on the shape that came up next to him.

"T-Taylor?" Starsky hadn't realized how thick and dry his tongue had become until then. He could barely understand himself. "S-s-si-ck. C-all..."

He gasped, out of breath with that little effort.

Help me, Taylor! Something's wrong...

His instincts were screaming at him now, urging him to think beyond what was happening. His illness, Taylor coming toward him instead of going for help.

A set-up? It was Taylor?

Panting with the effort of trying to move limbs that refused to budge, he watched as Taylor came closer. Starsky tried hard to focus on the man's features and saw sadness and determination. Taylor looked at the nightstand nearest them both.

My gun!

"Don't worry, Dave. It'll all be over soon. I promise you'll be all better."

Oh, shit, HUTCH! I'm in trouble!

Starsky tried frantically to move his limbs, the swimming in his head growing worse. The only progress he could discern was some loud thrashing sounds.

There was movement outside of his vision and he thought Taylor had left the room. He struggled harder, had almost been able to roll to his right side only to roll back again.

There were more footsteps and clinking sounds, as if empty bottles were being moved around the living room.

Taylor was in the room again only seconds later, making Starsky wonder if he had passed out.

He felt something cold and hard pressed into his right hand. His mind raced as he realized it was his gun and tried to jerk away from it, but nothing seemed to move. Other fingers shaped his to an unaccustomed position around the weapon. A fist held them there.

"W-w-w-hyyy?"

"Because you're a hero." Taylor's voice echoed in Starsky's head and he could hear the sadness in it. Starsky could only blink frantically as Taylor's image started to double on him. "You don't deserve to live like this, son. You're a good man. A real hero, Dave. I can't stand by and let you suffer."

"D-don't...under...s-stand...."

Taylor moved closer and Starsky felt a warm hand pat his cheek, even as the grip around his fingers and the gun tightened. He tried to fight back but the cold muzzle was pushed against his head, just above his ear.

"I'm so sorry, kid! But it's society that's failed us! All of us!" Taylor's voice caught and Starsky could hear grief and desperation in the words. "We put our lives on the line for them! We give up our free time, our personal lives, our families are sacrificed for the common good. And what do we get after all this sacrifice? What have we earned when we're hurt or...or...maimed?"

Taylor was sobbing now, but his grip on Starsky's face and hand tightened.

"We get NOTHING! We get shoved aside and forgotten! They throw us into dead-end positions, lose us in the endless paperwork, refuse to pay our medical bills and expect us to live on a pittance!"

Starsky tried to focus on Taylor's face. Balling his left fist as tightly as he was able, he hoped to get in one good shot at the man's head. Got to keep him talking! I think the room's starting to slow down! If he could only get control of his muscles....

"No...! I don't...want...to..."

"You're just beginning to understand, Dave, how awful it is to live beyond your usefulness." Taylor sobbed, his voice harsh and broken. "To be taken out in your prime and cast aside, like useless garbage. I can't see any of you go through that! So many years left to live with broken dreams. You deserve better. You're a hero! Better to die young, when you haven't yet lost your soul...like I have."

The pressure on Starsky's hand increased as Taylor pulled back. Starsky's finger was arranged on the trigger. His grip was tightened.

"I'm sorry, Dave. I can't leave you to suffer—"

Starsky swung and hit some part of Taylor, the force of his movement rolling him over to his side. He heard Taylor squawk in surprise and aimed for the sound, not sure if his fist was still clenched or not. He pulled his right hand down, trying to roll their arms and the gun under him.

He yelled loudly, hoping to catch someone's attention as he and Taylor grappled. He could feel his strength draining swiftly, the nausea and dizziness almost blotting out the world completely.

Taylor jerked at the gun that Starsky could feel was now under his head. Any second now Starsky was going to lose control. There was only one thing he could think of to do.

Hutch is going to be pissed if I'm wrong....

Lifting his head as much as he could, he pulled the trigger.

The explosion jolted him, reverberating in his head and colliding with what coherent thoughts he had left, throwing him into a blackness where he fell endlessly.

**********

Hutch stood in the dimly lit hallway, debating for the hundredth time if he should knock on Starsky's door.

I shouldn't be here. He's the one being unreasonable about all this.

But his stomach was in knots, and he had spent the last hour driving around in circles, unable to go back home. He didn't want to be there, alone.

I can't leave it like this between us, no matter how stubborn or pig-headed he is. We need to get this hashed out—

He heard something, a muffled sound that almost sounded like his name. Startled, his hand was up to pound on the door when he heard the shot reverberate through the walls.

SHIT!

Backing up, gun already in hand, Hutch threw himself at the door, splintering the cheap construction. He kept his balance as he exploded into the dark room, gun in front of him as he moved to cover first the small living room and then the hallway.

The bedroom door was slightly open and Hutch could see movement beyond.

"POLICE! Come out with your hands up!"

Hutch didn't wait for an answer. Kicking open the door he stopped in the doorway, taking in the scene in a second.

There were two figures, one standing at the side of the bed grappling with something, his back to Hutch. The other lay motionless. Hutch recognized Starsky's outline.

"Starsky!"

It happened in an endless second. The man at the bed swiveled around, the glint of steel catching the dim, reflected light from the street. It moved in his direction, in an upward arc that spoke of purpose. Hutch held his aim, his brain ticking off every inch of movement until it was clear that the gun was coming up to aim at him.

He pulled the trigger, feeling the savage buck of the gun in his hands at the same second the figure in front of him jerked back violently.

The roar filled the room, rolling off the walls as it seemed to follow the suspect in his backward fall onto the bed, the gun falling from the other's fingers and tumbling slowly to the floor.

Keeping his aim on the collapsed form, Hutch took one step forward and found the light switch.

In another second he was kicking the dropped gun under the bed. Fear warred with the adrenaline as he used shaky fingers to check for Starsky's pulse. He sighed when he found it, weak, but there. He checked the suspect's pulse as well, but Hutch only made the motion, knowing the man was dead before he had hit the bed. It was only then that he laid down his gun to move the body to the side and off his partner and lover.

"Starsk! Starsky?!"

Starsky was breathing shallowly, his pulse thin and slow. Hutch cupped Starsky's head, feeling for blood or lumps. Finding none, he moved down to chest and limbs, carelessly shoving the body off Starsky and out of his way as he did so. There was blood and gore everywhere, but Hutch could not find a wound on Starsky. He almost gasped with relief.

"Hang on! You've got to hang on for me!" He moved to the other side of the bed, grabbing the phone handset. Hutch dialed for an ambulance, feeling as if he were shaking, although his fingers seemed to know what they were doing. As the dial tone turned to ringing he planted his left palm over Starsky's heart. He had to know it was still beating.

Don't you go without me, damn it! Don't you dare!

**********

He hurt. He wasn't sure where yet.

As the darkness began to lift, he tried to separate the pain into levels and locations. If he needed to move, to protect himself or Hutch, he needed to know what parts were working and which weren't. As consciousness demanded more of his attention he found that he didn't think he was actually dying.

In Starsky's book that was always a good sign.

He did realize that his head felt as if an elephant had stepped on it and his eyes had been burned out with hot pokers. At least warm pokers, anyway. Somehow he found his face with his hand, found that he needed a shave and his eyes were still in place.

And they felt much better with the hand blocking out the light. So he left it there while he tried to decide what the rest of his body was up to.

"Don't move too much."

A warm hand covered the one he held over his eyes.

"You'll make the headache worse."

No shit.

Starsky sighed, and found that his throat was as dry as desert sand.

Hutch's hand left his and a moment later he felt the thin end of a straw on his lips. He sucked it in and groaned in pleasure as the tepid water eased his thirst. Trust Hutch to know that cold water would have only made his head hurt worse.

If that were possible. His head didn't think it was.

He lowered his hand and flexed the right one. There was an IV there. He shifted his legs a bit. At least there wasn't a catheter.

Opening one eye carefully, he searched and found Hutch's face. A large palm was placed on his chest and Starsky tried to smile.

"What happened?" Starsky croaked.

"You were drugged. There was something in the wine Taylor brought. It'll wear off."

Flashes from the past flickered in Starsky's mind. He remembered his and Hutch's argument, his not feeling well, Taylor Puckett's arrival. His memory got even sparser then. He had images come to him that didn't make any sense, along with the strong memory of wondering if he was actually going to blow his own head off with his gun.

But he could remember Taylor's voice. As he listened to it repeat in his head, more and more came back to him. Taylor had tried to kill him.

"He's dead, right?"

He watched as Hutch nodded slowly. "He was aiming for me."

Starsky had no doubt that Hutch had to pull the trigger. It was IA that would be hard to convince.

"He did the others, Hutch. Killed them all. I'm sure of it."

"He confess to you?"

"In a way."

"Dobey's not going to be happy with that kind of an answer." Hutch gave him a small smile.

"Dobey's never happy. I'll buy him lunch and he'll be fine." Starsky smiled a bit himself to see Hutch chuckle. "Am I contagious? I want to go home."

Hutch shook his head sadly. "Sorry, buddy, but you're here until they make sure they get that shit out of your system. Besides," Hutch leaned lower, his warm lips brushing Starsky's ear, "I lost my conjugal rights too many times in the past to headaches, so that's the last thing I want to happen when I finally get you home. You get rid of your headache here and I'll keep my ego intact."

Starsky chuckled, then moaned when his head paid him back for it. This was going to be a long night.

"Home. Sounds good." His voice was sounding raspy again. Hutch had the straw to his lips before he could say anything. This time the water was just as welcomed.

"Hutch?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm sorry about the argument." Not that I think I was wrong, but I'm sorry we argued.

Hutch's face grew serious. "Starsk, you were right. I was wrong. I shouldn't have said what I did." Hutch put a hand on his arm and squeezed it. "I should have trusted you more. If I had—"

"This would have happened anyway. Don't start that guilt trip without me, buddy. I still would've been alone at the apartment, and I still would've let Taylor in."

"But you had that feeling—"

"That something was wrong, yeah. But...." Starsky sighed, thinking back over the last few weeks. "He caught me off guard, Hutch. I had a feeling that those guys were murdered, but I never had anything more than that. And you were right. I was starting to question it myself. I was going on nothing but a gut feeling, and at some point you really do either have to fish or cut bait."

"But you found the murderer."

"No, Hutch. I made myself bait and the murderer found me."

"I should have had more faith in you."

"You have all the faith I need, buddy. I need you to question me, to push me into corners I may not be able to talk myself out of. You had to do that when I was losing it in rehab. You felt you needed to do that tonight. I need you to work on my weaknesses or someone else will do it in your place." Starsky reached out to tug at Hutch's shirt sleeve. "With you I know it's safe to be wrong."

"Well, you've had so much practice at it."

They both smiled, but Hutch looked a little sad. Starsky knew the argument along with his close call would bother the tall blond for awhile. He knew how he'd feel in Hutch's place.

Aw, Hutch. We'll work it out. We always find a way.

They were silent for a few minutes and Starsky felt the headache fade slightly. He closed his eyes and just enjoyed that bit of relief, wondering if it was Hutch's fingertips running softly up and down his forearm that was doing the trick.

"Starsk?" The words were soft, the hesitation clear.

"Yeah?"

"Why did he do it?"

Starsky took a moment, going back over Taylor's words.

"He thought he was saving me from a useless, desolate future."

"How's that?"

Starsky found himself frowning, trying to pull the words together. "I think he was miserable, Hutch. When he lost his leg he lost everything. He had no family left, never married and had no one at home to boost his spirits during the bad times. From what he'd told me before, he barely hung on to life by his fingernails during the bad times. He could never go back to doing what he loved to do, could never find anything to take his job's place and I guess he never got over it."

"But why did he choose the ones he did? They had family and seemed to be coping well. Carl, Robert and Rufo had so much to live for!"

Starsky shrugged slightly. "I can only guess it's because we were the youngest of the group. I think he felt as if he were doing us a favor by taking away all the future years of misery we faced. ‘Better to have died young'."

The fingers Hutch was using to rub his forearm worked their way down. Their fingers intertwined and the two hands held fast.

"He was a victim himself, Hutch. He really thought he was doing us a blessing."

Neither one said a word, but their hands held each other's firmly.

A few minutes later, Starsky let himself float to the edge of sleep, comforted by the warm hand in his.

What a terrible shame, that some people don't even have this much.

**********

The cemetery was beautiful, Hutch had to admit that. The weather was perfect and the scenery green and gorgeous. But no matter how bright and sunny it was when you left home it always seemed to feel cloudy when you went to visit a grave.

It's the nature of the beast. It can't be sunny or warm enough to wipe away the losses that have been suffered.

This was the fourth and last grave they would visit, Taylor Puckett's. Starsky had felt the need to visit the gravesites of Carl, Robert and Rufo and Hutch had understood. Starsky hadn't yet had the proper time to say goodbye to those men. It was one of Starsky's gifts, and his burden, that he could make friends and love so well in such a short amount of time. It had surprised Hutch when Starsky had wanted to come to Puckett's grave. All Hutch could do was be with him and let Starsky do what he needed to do.

I guess it shouldn't have been such a surprise, Hutch decided. Starsky said he was a good man, but very ill. Hutch read the bare words on the cheap tombstone that Starsky knelt quietly beside. It looked as if it were something cheap the city had paid for. No "beloved son, father or husband." No "will be greatly missed". Maybe if he had had some family, someone to care for him, they could have seen how messed up he was inside.

And while there was a small part of Hutch that felt sorry for the man, there was another part that refused to forgive Taylor for what he had done. And more importantly, for what he had tried to do.

His madness almost cost me everything. I don't think I have it in me to forgive that.

He watched as Starsky put a hand in his pocket, and, as he had three other times today, took out a small pebble and placed it carefully on the grave. A Jewish custom that Starsky had explained to him long ago. It was a way to pay respect to the deceased.

One of these days you will have moved a whole mountain of pebbles, my love. Hutch sighed. How many more can we lose before we find ourselves lost?

Starsky stood and walked back toward Hutch, arm out to encircle Hutch's waist as soon as they were close enough. They turned toward the car. Time to leave.

"Do you want to stop by and visit the families?" Hutch asked, giving Starsky's waist a squeeze before letting go. Even here they had to be careful how they touched in public. Even here.

Starsky sighed and shrugged. "No. I talked to Rufo's widow yesterday. She heard from the insurance company and wanted to know if there was anything I could do. I told her I'd call her back after I looked into it some more."

Hutch felt a flash of anger and frustration. It was bad enough the families had to suffer the loss of a loved one, but because of the insurance company's refusal to reopen Rufo's case his widow was having to make do without his life insurance. They had refused to pay the widow because the police had originally closed the case as a suicide.

Both he and Starsky had done their damnedest in the past month to get the other police departments to reclassify the cases, but even with Hutch being exonerated in the shooting death of Taylor Puckett, and Starsky's testimony to what Taylor had said, there had been no progress. They had tried to pull in all their markers, and even got Dobey to throw his considerable weight around, but in the end it all came to the same answer. They couldn't change the deaths to murder when there still was no physical evidence that Taylor had killed the others, no matter what they believed off the record. And even if they could swing that, the insurance companies could still refuse to reopen the case. So Rufo's family continued to try to deal with debts that couldn't be paid.

So after all these weeks since they had caught the killer, Hutch still felt that Taylor was hurting people.

The ride back to Hutch's apartment was spent in silence. As they pulled up to Venice Place, Hutch was struck with how much lighter his mood was and how much brighter the sun felt as he got out of the Torino.

As soon as the door shut behind them Hutch's arms were filled with Starsky, and he hugged him back fiercely. It was wonderful to feel the strength and health of the man in his arms.

May I never forget how special this is, how special he is!

"Thanks for comin' with me," Starsky breathed warmly in his ear. Hutch jumped a bit as Starsky's lips captured his earlobe and sent sparks down to his middle.

"Always, babe." Hutch smiled as he pulled back enough to look into Starsky's face. He could see that he was still affected by the cemetery visits. "You know that. Right?"

Starsky's eyes left his and he looked down and nodded, an embarrassed look hovering around the corners of his eyes. "I know. But I don't want to ever take you for granted."

Hutch leaned forward, closing his eyes as their lips touched softly. It was a caress more than a kiss, an agreement rather than something sexual.

After a long moment of enjoying the sweet caress Hutch suddenly sucked in the bottom of Starsky's lip, nipping it quickly. He smiled at Starsky's halfhearted yelp.

"It's still early yet, and we've got the rest of the afternoon as well as tomorrow off. Want to go somewhere? Walk on the beach? Go for a real early dinner?"

Starsky's eyes grew mischievous; the arms around Hutch's waist pulled them even closer. "Maybe later. Right now I need someone to remind me why I'm so damn lucky to have you for a lover."

"Oh, well, I guess that ‘someone' would be me then." Hutch laughed, feeling the pall of the day lift from his shoulders. He reached up to fill his hands with Starsky's shoulders, feeling the tenseness of the muscles there. He rubbed the shoulders firmly. "Due for another example of the Hutchinson Magic Finger Massage, are we?"

"Yes," Starsky's eyes closed as a look of contentment took over his face at the suggestion. "You always know just what I need."

Hutch felt his smile grow at the words. "Then tell you what. You go and lie down on the bed and I'll get the oil out. We'll have an afternoon snack and a big dinner later." He pulled Starsky closer, pausing the impromptu massage only long enough to give Starsky a kiss that spoke of more than just comfort. "Much later."

The look Starsky gave him then was magical in the way it made Hutch feel as if he'd said the most wonderful thing in the world.

"You're on!"

Hutch laughed as clothing flew through the air, Starsky making a mini-striptease out of undressing. By the time he had gotten the massage oil out of the drawer and had undressed himself Starsky was facedown on the bed, a hedonistic smile on his face, looking as if he were in bliss. Hutch knew that just getting ready for a massage would have made his partner half hard and he could feel the blood starting to flow into his own cock just at the sight of his partner's body, looking as if he didn't have a care in the world.

Putting the lotion bottle within easy reach, Hutch climbed onto the bed, straddling Starsky's upper thighs. He settled himself on them, loving the feel of their mass and masculinity under his ass and the way his own cock and sac nestled against Starsky's buttocks as he leaned over to massage the broad back.

His scars look so much better than before. How far he's come since then!

Opening the bottle, Hutch poured a bit of the fragrant oil into his palm, waiting a minute to make sure it was warm enough. The smell of almonds filled the room.

Rubbing it into both hands, Hutch placed both palms at the small of Starsky's back, one hand on either side of his spine. Carefully he rubbed upward, spreading the oil as he kneaded the muscles with his thumbs, following the spine up and into Starsky's hairline. Then with his palms held flat Hutch made one, long, sweeping stroke back down his spine, loving the deep sigh that he could hear and feel as Starsky relaxed even further.

That's my boy! Let me make you feel so good.

Hutch worked the rib muscles then, kneading and soothing the tight areas until they were all relaxed under his fingertips.

As he worked he could feel the familiar flush of desire burning in his core, enjoying it spread through his body as he shamelessly enjoyed the way Starsky's body was reacting to his caresses. His own cock was fairly hard now, rubbing across Starsky's ass cheeks every time Hutch leaned over to stroke the muscled body beneath him.

When Hutch had covered every inch of back and neck, at least twice, he glanced at Starsky's face. Having turned his head to the left, Starsky's eyes were shut, but Hutch could see the hooded lids and glowing cheeks that told him that Starsky was enjoying the experience as more than just a massage.

Hutch poured more of the fragrant oil into a palm, having saved the best part for last. Rubbing the oil into his palms, he placed his hands palm-down, one on each buttock and pushed down, using the leverage to force one knee in between Starsky's thighs. The legs parted as instructed, giving Hutch room to move between them.

Starsky moaned deeply and Hutch knew how much his partner loved this part. He loved for Hutch to knead his ass, allowing the oil to drip down across his center and spread across his heavy sac. Hutch put all his finesse into working the muscles of thigh and ass, careful to be forceful up to, but not beyond, the point of pain.

Oh, babe. He found his own cock throbbing with his heart, the urge to rub himself against the oiled, smooth skin of Starsky's ass almost unbearable. The sight was tantalizing, but neither seemed ready to follow up on penetration.

Maybe one day, Starsk, we'll be brave enough to try going all the way. One day....

Starsky moaned again, his eyes open and dazed-looking. He lifted his ass a bit, and Hutch knew what he wanted.

Trailing his finger down Starsky's crack and across his center, Starsky gasped as Hutch used both hands to fondle his balls. Starsky's sac was warm and slippery, and Hutch separated the balls and rolled them gently between his fingers, enjoying the continuous moaning and wiggling that told him how much Starsky was enjoying the attention.

Hutch reached underneath Starsky for his cock and wrapped his hand around the base when Starsky interrupted.

"H-hutch! No! Wait!" Hutch froze as Starsky struggled up to his elbows. "I wanna turn around to face you!"

Starsky twisted around to lie on his back, urging Hutch to the side as he put his legs together. As he did so, Hutch couldn't keep his eyes off Starsky's cock. Thick and dark, it seemed to emerge like a sword from the thick patch of chocolate curls that surrounded the base and curled oily around his balls.

"Sit here. Here." Starsky grabbed at his arm, pulling him over to straddle him again, this time front to front. "Give me the oil!"

Hutch handed him the bottle that by some miracle had not tipped over, as he moved to do as Starsky bid.

Starsky had twisted to grab at discarded pillows, putting a couple behind his back so he was propped up. He poured some of the oil in his left palm.

"Move up a bit. I wanna touch your chest."

Hutch did so, moving up so his balls rested on top of Starsky's, and it was all he could do not to wiggle so he could see them rub together. Both of their cocks were hard now, hugging their stomachs and pulsing in counterpoint as if in an erotic dance.

Starsky reached for him, and Hutch leaned into the touch, gasping as hot hands caressed and kneaded his chest. Strong fingers outlined his nipples, circling and teasing. Hutch threw his head back, enjoying the sensation even as it made him mad for more contact.

Unable to stop himself, he grabbed at both cocks, pulling them together as their hardness tried to pull them apart. He held the bases of both together with one hand while smoothing the other over their erections, coating them both in oil.

As Starsky's fingers found his nipples and pinched, Hutch gasped and heard the echo from Starsky as he stroked both cocks fast and hard from tip to root.

"Ah...Hutch...do it! Doitdoitdoitdoit...." Starsky was panting, fingers kneading at Hutch's chest, pulling at his nipples like a desperate man.

Hutch clenched his teeth against the mixture of pleasure and pain that ran in flashes from his chest on downward, cutting a fiery trail down to his groin and straight to his cock head.

"S-Starsk...."

Hutch was close now, his grip on their cocks like iron and his other hand moving up and down in swift, hard strokes. He felt himself swell and harden, felt Starsky do the same as their panting and moaning combined to fill the room with their excitement and growing desperation.

Starsky gasped, hands grabbing at Hutch's arms and trying to pull him down as Hutch fought to stay where he was. Hutch could feel Starsky move under him as his hips tried to move in counter rhythm to Hutch's ever quickening strokes.

Hutch could feel the sweet tension building to explosion in his balls and his gut, tying his gut into explosive knots. Pressure so sweet it burned through him in screaming expectation. All he could hear now was Starsky's gut-deep moans, all he could feel was the pull on his cock and the slide of Starsky's hardness against his own.

He forced his eyes open, tried to focus his eyes on Starsky's face. He looked as if he were in pain, and Hutch gasped at the sight. He knew that look, craved it, needed to see the second when Starsky fell over the edge. Hutch knew it was there in the slight swell of Starsky's cock against his own.

Hutch bit his lip, needing to see Starsky's climax before letting his own happen.

It happened quickly. Blue eyes opened wide with what looked like ecstasy and astonishment for a fraction of a second before Starsky grimaced once more, his grip on Hutch's shoulders turning brutal and bruising and his hips bucking as he fell over the edge.

"HUUUUUUUTCH!"

Starsky gasped, his head thrown back as semen was thrown from him in spurts, landing to splash his stomach and show up as stark white against the tan skin and dark chest hairs, dribbling down to slick Hutch's grip on them both.

The sight was all Hutch could stand as it pushed him over his own cliff, making him fly. He exploded, muscles and organs pulsed and strained as his ejaculate raced from him to join Starsky's, coating the hand that pulled and milked them both even as their cum was mixed on their straining cocks as well as Starsky's stomach.

He felt himself yell as wave after wave of pleasure ran through him, sending spikes and tingles flashing through his limbs, even as his gut strained to empty itself. He only heard his own heartbeat, but knew there was only one name he could have called in his pleasure. He lost all strength and carefully let himself fall forward, shifting to come to rest on top of his lover, their heaving chests pushing at each other as both gasped for air.

He was tired, relaxed and content beyond belief as, barely aware, Starsky shifted them both to more comfortable positions. Limbs in a tangle, both lying on their sides they lay in silence, Hutch content to listen as their breathing returned to normal and the gasping subsided.

Better.... The best. Each time it gets more perfect. One of these days I'm going to die right in the middle, and not regret a moment of it.

He didn't know how much time had passed as their breathing slowed and they lay in the sweaty, oily tangle that felt like the only real home Hutch had ever known. They had needed that, after today, needed the reminder that they were still alive, still functioning and most importantly, still together.

He held still as Starsky groaned, then moved just enough to grab at a sheet to pull it over them both. He was glad Starsky had made no move away from him, apparently not caring any more than Hutch did that they were both a mess. Starsky patted Hutch's shoulder, moved the sheet to cover him a bit more and Hutch could only sigh his agreement.

As he let his mind drift off, head on Starsky's chest and his torso and limbs growing even warmer with Starsky's body heat as the sheet sheltered them, Hutch could only marvel at how perfect the moment was.

Me and Thee. That's all there really is for us.

As the world slipped away from him, Hutch held on to that thought, saving it deep inside for when he might need it later.

It was the most precious thing he had ever had.

**********

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Next week on Starsky & Hutch: no episode, but we'll have a special treat.

In Two Weeks: "Mirror, Mirror," by Elizabeth Alexander

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