The Stranger
by Candy Apple

SHSVS, Episode 603, Part 2

Back to Part 1

Hutch rubbed his temples with the thumb and middle finger of his left hand as he laboriously scratched figures onto a notepad at Starsky's kitchen table.

"Think we have enough for a down payment yet?" Starsky joined him at the table with two beers and a bowl of popcorn. "The movie starts in five minutes. It's late. Why don't we do this Thursday?" he said, referring to their next day off.

"We might not get Thursday off if something doesn't break with this case." Hutch took a drink of the beer. "There's no question we've got enough to probably get a bank talked into giving us a mortgage on something decent, but if we get too big a monthly payment, we're going to be screwed for any spending money, and I don't want to be so bad off we can't fix the place or maintain it."

"You figuring in my savings, too?" Starsky pushed the passbook toward Hutch.

"No. I was just using our account with the down payment money in it. We have to keep our savings, Starsk."

"We could put a little something with it. I mean, I'm not rich or anything, but I've got some stashed away I could spare, and I know you've gotta have some money you're squirreling away for a rainy day."

"Of course I do, but that's the whole point--to have it for the rainy day, not to blow it."

"Investing in a house isn't 'blowing it'."

"It is when the rainy day comes along and your bank account is empty."

"Just take a couple grand outta my account then. If it rains, you can take care'a me." Starsky leaned back in his chair, grinning and flexing his eyebrows.

"This is serious."

"Okay, babe, I know it's serious. But it's not like either one of us is gonna let the other one be out on the street or somethin'. Anything I got is yours, and I know you'd take care'a me. So let's just throw all the money in one place and see if we've got enough to make a down payment and still have whatever you think we need in a rainy day fund." Starsky sighed. "I hate this two-account shit anyway."

"IA'd love to get wind of a joint bank account. This one is risky enough," Hutch said, indicating the passbook he'd been poring over.

"That's nothin' compared to moving in together. If you're that worried about IA, we better scrap this right now."

"Look, we can call moving in together an investment decision. Everybody knows you've been trying to convince me to invest in a house off and on over the years--you did talk me into it once. So we invest in it and save on the rent. But if we add to that pooling all our money into a joint bank account, we might as well send out announcements."

"You're right."

"I don't like it any better than you do."

"I know." Starsky turned the beer bottle around in his hands. "Want me to tune in the movie?"

"Yeah, go ahead. I'll take a quick look at this and then call it a night."

"Okey-dokey." Starsky got up, picking up the popcorn bowl and moving it just as Hutch was about to reach for more. "If you want me or the popcorn, we're gonna be over here on the couch," Starsky teased, giving Hutch a devilish grin.

Chuckling and shaking his head a little, Hutch turned his attention to the passbook Starsky had left out for him. It seemed odd, looking through it this way...but odd in a good way. In a married sort of way. Hutch looked at his own bankbook sitting there and wished there was some subtle way to show it to Starsky. It seemed one-sided that he was going over all Starsky's business, and yet Starsky was in the living room watching TV and didn't appear to have any interest in Hutch's bank balance. Well, maybe when it's not competing with the Channel Nine late night creature feature, he'll be more interested.

Hutch flipped through the pages of the small book, most interested in finding the current balance. He paused when one uncharacteristically large double entry caught his eye:

10-16-76 Withdrawal $1,600.00

10-20-76 Deposit $1,600.00

There was something about that set of dates that stuck in his mind, but it wasn't coming together. Whatever it was, it didn't include any memory of Starsky taking out big bucks for anything.

"Starsk?"

"What?" Starsky turned down the volume on the television.

"What was going on in October of '76?"

"Could you be a little more specific?" Starsky asked, laughing softly.

"Wait a minute." Hutch looked at the dates again. "Gillian--Gillian died in October."

"What're you talking about?" Starsky turned off the television now and returned to the kitchen table. Hutch held up the book.

"You withdrew sixteen hundred dollars from your savings account the day Gillian died, and you put it back in four days later." Hutch watched as Starsky seemed to pale a bit, pulling out a kitchen chair and sitting down at the table. "What did you do with that money?"

"I thought...I thought I was gonna need it, but turns out...I...I didn't."

"For what? Starsky, what the hell is this about?" Hutch felt a sick suspicion crawling into the back of his mind, but he refused to acknowledge it. No, he wouldn't. He couldn't have. He never told me...

"I went to talk to her, you know that."

"Yeah, I know you talked to her--gave her a chance to tell me herself before you told me. We've been over all that. But what's this got to do with it? If it's nothing, and it was something else, and it's none of my business, then tell me that. But if this had something to do with Gillian, I wanna know."

"I didn't know Gillian very well. She might not have turned out to be the decent person she was. I didn't know what I was gonna run into when I talked to her. How she'd react. I...I just didn't want you to get hurt, or embarrassed...or worse. I mean, what if she'd been on Grossman's side?"

"She wasn't. She never would have been."

"I know that now. But I had no way of knowin' it then."

"You could have trusted my judgment, Starsky. I thought you did, and that's why you talked to her first instead of just blowing her cover with me. I thought you recognized that she wasn't just some...hooker."

"I knew you were crazy about her, but I didn't know her, Hutch." Starsky ran a hand over his face tiredly. "I've seen a lot of people turn out to be somethin' you'd never guess they were. I wasn't in love with her, so I had to be the one to look at her objectively."

"What did you do with the sixteen hundred dollars?"

"What do you think I did?" Starsky snapped back, getting up and pacing. "I offered to pay her off. This plus another three grand I was gonna pull outta my retirement fund. It wasn't much...I mean, I know she was makin' good money with Grossman, so I knew that forty-six hundred wasn't exactly a fortune, but I thought that plus the promise of not getting busted might appeal to her, even if she wasn't all you thought she was. I was trying to give her an out, in case she didn't love you enough to do the right thing."

"You offered Gillian money to leave me?" Hutch challenged, standing up.

"I told her it would be an investment in that boutique she wanted to open, and I told her I thought she should open it in Cleveland," Starsky blurted. "She turned down the money. Not in so many words, but it was like she didn't even dignify it. She just...she just said, 'You love him, too.' That's all it was about, babe. I didn't want you gettin' any more hurt than you had to. I didn't know if she'd tip off Grossman, or if we'd end up having to bust her... I had to know."

"My God." Hutch took in a deep breath and expelled it, then walked over to the sink and leaned on the counter with both arms. "You were going to pay her off. Were you going to bother to tell me what went down or just let her leave me a 'Dear John' letter?"

"I wanted it to turn out however was best for you, and I didn't know how to make that happen any other way. I love you. I didn't want you gettin' hurt."

"I guess that plan didn't work too well, then, did it?" Hutch snapped angrily. "She faced off with Grossman and ended up dead for it!"

"I didn't tell her to go have it out with old lady Grossman! I didn't think she'd do that. God, Hutch, how could you think I'd do something to endanger her on purpose?"

"It's bad enough that you decided to go behind my back and confront her without so much as telling me--"

"If I'd been the one to tell you, would you two have ever been able to reconcile? Stay together? Would you have trusted her if I'd told you and then she'd gone straight? It had to come from her, Hutch. I know you. You wouldn't have ever felt the same way about her if she wasn't the one to come clean with you about what she was into. I had to give her that chance so if she really loved you as much as you loved her, she could make the right choices. And she did, Hutch. She did make all the right choices, and she didn't even touch the money. All she cared about was you."

"I could have told you that if you'd talked to me! But no, I forgot--I'm incapable of making a character judgment. How in the hell do you think I manage as a cop, huh? Probably just because you're there to keep me from screwing up! If you'd come to me with that whole mess, I could have told you that she loved me."

"Are you mad at me again for confronting her or mad about the money? If you're mad about the whole fucking thing, what the hell did you let it lie all this time for? I thought you understood it."

"Dear God, Starsky, you went to the woman I was in love with and offered to pay her to leave town. How do you want me to feel?" Hutch shook his head, then pushed away from the counter to face Starsky. "What's really pathetic is that you still don't get what I'm really upset about."

"The money! That's fucking obvious!"

"You lied to me!"

"I never lied to you!" Starsky shouted back, almost unable to hear the conversation, his heart was pounding so loudly in his ears.

"Oh, yeah? Well, I don't seem to remember you telling me about this goddamned money!" Hutch yelled back, picking up the passbook and hurling it at Starsky. It landed just short of its target, at his feet.

"What would it have solved?" Starsky asked, his tone normal now as he picked up the bankbook. "You knew I confronted her and she made the right choice. Honest to God, Hutch, this was a detail." He gestured with the book. "When was I supposed to tell you? While you were crying over her dead body? Maybe when her family told you to stay the hell away from the funeral? Maybe when you were cryin' yourself to sleep the night she died? Damn it, Hutch, when would've been a good time for me to go into details?"

"Any time between now and then would have been just great," Hutch responded, his tone even and tight with barely controlled anger. "You treated her like a common whore, throwing money at her to make her go away because she wasn't up to your standards. Who the hell are you to look down on her?"

"That wasn't what it was about and you know it. I never looked down on Gillian, but I'd never met a hooker before who didn't have a price. She was different, and when I saw that, I hoped you could work things out. I figured we could help her once you knew the score."

"You kept this a secret all this time." Hutch sat back down at the table, shaking his head, smiling a little sadly. "The longer we sleep together, the more I find out that I don't know about you. Sometimes I feel like I don't know you at all."

"What the hell's that supposed to mean? You know me better'n anybody else in the whole world ever knew me."

"Then no one ever really knew you, buddy, because I sure as hell don't."

"Hutch--"

"All that...that...shit you went through when you were a kid. You just buried that and never trusted me enough to talk to me about it. And now this. Why don't we just handle all of it right now, Starsky, because I'm not up for many more surprises."

"All of what?" Starsky sat down at the table again, his legs feeling a little shaky. He didn't like the tone or the direction of this conversation.

"All the shit you're keeping from me! Let's have it. Right now. No more omissions, no more details, no more family skeletons. Put it all out there. Right now. What else are you keeping from me?"

"N-nothing," Starsky stammered. "Hutch, I didn't try to keep this from you. I swear. I didn't think it was important. I didn't think much more about it at all after I put the money back in the bank and time went by...."

"This is a pointless conversation." Hutch got up and walked toward the door, grabbing his jacket off the chair where he'd tossed it a couple hours earlier.

"Where're you going?" Starsky was on his feet then, following him.

"Where the hell does it look like I'm going? I'm leaving."

"Leaving?" Starsky repeated, his voice coming out fainter than he expected. "Babe, please, don't do this--"

"I'm just going home, Starsky." Hutch shrugged into his jacket, reaching for the door, but Starsky grabbed his arm.

"Don't leave like this. If we were in our house now, you'd have to stay here and work this out with me."

"Now isn't the right time to bring up living together. Let go of me."

"Hutch, come on, we need to talk about this."

"Talking about it isn't solving anything. You can't understand where I'm coming from, and...and I don't like how I'm feeling right now. I need some space."

"What about work tomorrow?" Starsky released Hutch's arm.

"What about it? You've driven for the last three or four days, so I'll pick you up in the morning at the usual time."

"I didn't mean to keep anything from you, Hutch. Honest I didn't. I--"

"Don't, Starsk. Just...drop it for now." Hutch opened the door and walked out on the porch, turning to go down the stairs.

"I love you," Starsky said softly. "I know you're mad and I can't say anything else you wanna hear right now, but I love ya more than anything in the world, and I didn't mean to--"

"I know you do." Hutch's resolve softened a bit and he turned to look back at Starsky. "This isn't about not loving you. It's about...I just need some space, Starsk. I'll see you in the morning." He started down the steps, then paused. Part of him wanted to go back up and resolve the argument in the obvious way: take Starsky in his arms and make love and forget about whatever it was that he was so angry about. But that wasn't going to solve anything, and all it would do is leave the wound there to fester. Steeling himself against temptation and resolving not to look back at Starsky again, he completed his trek down the front steps and out to his car.

Starsky closed the door and locked it for the night, wandering back into his empty apartment in a daze. He stood and stared at the kitchen table for quite a few minutes, taking in the papers where Hutch had scribbled figures, and then looking at the notorious passbook that had started it all. Oh, babe, don't you get it? If I were trying to hide anything from you, would I have handed it to you? It was just a detail. Just a detail you couldn't take hearing on top of all the other details you had to cope with. Gillian's skin flicks in Grossman's collection, imagining the woman you loved selling it to the highest bidder...

Starsky went into the living room and sat on the couch, staring at the dark TV screen. Going to bed would mean lying there without Hutch. Staying up all night would mean he'd be in no shape to hit the streets in the morning. He turned on the television and stretched out on the couch, pulling the blanket off the back of it and snuggling under it. There was some late-night talk show on, and that was good enough. Anything to dispel the silence of the empty apartment...

Hutch turned over for the third time in as many minutes and looked at the clock. He'd slept without Starsky since they'd become lovers, but rarely. And never because they'd had a fight that was too serious for them to still sleep together. Finally giving up on sleep, he got up and went into the kitchen, found a clean glass and filled it with milk. He contemplated beer, but since he'd already had a couple earlier, he figured enough was enough. He ran his hand absently over his mid-section, wondering if a few too many beers were contributing to the slightly softer feel of things in that area.

He walked out into the greenhouse and sat on the bench, sipping his milk. He felt that same sense of betrayal he'd felt when he found that Starsky had hidden a whole dimension of his childhood from him. At least that he could attribute to some misguided sense of family loyalty that kept Starsky silent--the same way so many abuse victims stayed silent. But this...this was about him. It was Hutch's lady who was dead, Hutch's lady who was offered a cash payoff like any cheap whore to get out of town. Part of him wondered if Starsky wanted her to go. Maybe the money wasn't just a test of character. Maybe he didn't feel she was worthy of his partner.

Hutch sighed, leaning back on the bench. That wasn't fair, and he knew it. Starsky loved him as much then as he did now, but he wasn't planning marriage and mortgage with Hutch back then. They were best friends, would-die-for-each-other partners. But not lovers. What Starsky did about Gillian, he did for Hutch.

But when is love too stifling? How much of your life do you let someone you love run for you? Is it okay for them to just step in without so much as giving you a passing consultation and do something that drastically changes your life forever?

Would Gillian still be alive if Starsky had come to me first and not confronted her? And if the money really wasn't that big a deal in Starsky's mind, why hide it all these years?

Why hide anything at all? Why did Starsky keep certain things to himself even when they were supposedly telling each other everything? And, most of all, if he's kept his childhood cloaked in secrecy, and sat on this secret all this time, what else has he got in his Pandora's Box that I haven't been told?

With the milk gone and no solution at hand, Hutch left his dirty glass in the sink and went back to bed. Sleep, and the answers to his questions, continued to elude him until it was time to get ready for work.

Hutch was outside Starsky's apartment at the appointed time, and gave the horn two sharp honks. He hadn't summoned Starsky that way since early in their first year as partners. Normally, he just parked the car and went in after his partner, who was almost always running around frantically to make it out the door on time. Starsky's greatest love affair was not with Hutch, but with his snooze alarm.

Drumming on the wheel, Hutch waited five minutes, and when there was no sign of Starsky, he gave the horn another angry punch. He was functioning on almost no sleep, and he was in no mood to rush into work late because Starsky couldn't move his ass out the door on time. He rubbed his tired eyes, and when he completed the gesture, Starsky was just coming out his front door and down the steps. He moved slowly and lethargically, as if he were tired in both body and spirit.

"'Mornin'," he mumbled, sliding into the passenger seat and closing the door. "You could'a come up."

"We're running late," Hutch retorted flatly, driving toward headquarters.

"Hutch--"

"Starsky, don't. Just let it be for a while."

"Sorry I was late. I fell asleep on the couch about five o'clock, and the alarm's in the bedroom..." He let the sentence trail off unfinished. After a brief silence, he asked, "How long before we can talk about this?"

"It doesn't work that way. I can't give you a date and time when I want to deal with this. I said I needed space, and I meant it. Just let it lie."

"Are you sleepin' at your place again tonight?"

"Probably."

"If I don't say anything about this, can we just--"

"Can we just what? Sleep together? Fuck each other and forget it?" Hutch snapped back.

"This feels too much like breaking up, Hutch." Starsky let a long silence follow that statement. "It scares the hell outta me, and I don't like it."

"I'm not crazy about it either. But you can't solve every issue in a relationship by crawling into the sack together."

"If we were married and I was a woman, would you be sleepin' at the Y over this? Or is it easier to walk out on me because we're not married, and we're never gonna be, no matter how much we might wanna be?"

"If a woman I married had hidden something important from me for a period of years, yeah, I probably would be." Hutch shook his head. "This hasn't got anything to do with gender or the absence of a piece of paper with our names on it."

"I don't know what else to do, Hutch. I apologized. If it helps, I didn't sleep most'a the night, and I missed ya so much I thought--"

"No more. Starsky, damn it, I don't want to do this now. We've got a job to do, and if we're going to keep on working together, our personal problems can't get in the way of that."

Starsky fell silent then, swallowing a little and turning his attention to the scenery out the passenger side window.

"I need to know something," Starsky said finally.

"What?" Hutch kept his eyes focused on the road.

"Are you gonna leave me over this?"

"I already told you I don't want to talk about this now. Call us in."

"Hutch--"

"Call. Us. In." Hutch's tone left no room for discussion. Starsky hesitated a moment, then picked up the mic and declared Zebra Three officially on duty.

"Seems like goin' to the library is getting riskier all the time," Starsky said, as they approached the entrance to the Sheridan Street branch of the Bay City Public Library. "Remember the Erlewine case last year?"

"I remember it," Hutch responded flatly, pulling open the door and letting Starsky pass through it first, following him. When they approached the circulation desk, Hutch spoke first. After introducing them and showing ID, he asked the young woman behind the desk for the check-out histories of Sharon Mitchell, Tiffany Cramer, Brenda King and Linda Sherman.

"I'll have to get my supervisor's approval before giving out that information," she said, smiling pleasantly. She had shoulder-length red hair and green eyes, and judging by the way she smiled at Hutch, a definite taste for blonds. Starsky thought of teasing his partner about robbing the cradle as the barely eighteen-year-old girl left the counter to speak to an older woman at a nearby desk, but refrained.

"May I see your identification, Detectives?" The older woman approached the counter. With short, neatly styled gray hair and glasses, she was dressed in a sweater and slacks. She looked to be in her fifties. Both detectives produced their IDs, which she briefly examined. "Here is the information you requested," she said, sliding the cards toward them. "If you'd like photocopies, I'll have Tina make them for you."

"Please," Starsky responded, and the woman gathered the cards and handed them to the girl, who disappeared into an office behind the counter.

"May I ask why you want this information on these women? Are they in some kind of trouble with the law?"

"Not at all. It's part of an ongoing investigation," Starsky explained. "We're not really at liberty to say more at this point."

"I see." She turned to accept the copies Tina had made and handed them to Starsky.

"Who else has access to this information?" Hutch asked, looking at the sheets over his partner's shoulder.

"The circulation desk staff work with it regularly, checking books in and out to patrons. I suppose anyone on the library staff has access, but we're the only ones who would have reason to use it."

"Could you get us a list of your staff? Names, job titles, home addresses and phone numbers?" Starsky asked. He was seeing similar titles appearing on all four women's records.

"Well, yes. Let me check with the branch manager. She may have something like that already made up. Is someone here suspected of engaging in some sort of criminal activity?"

"As my partner said, Ms.--I'm sorry, I didn't get your name," Hutch said.

"Quinn. Maureen Quinn."

"As my partner said, Ms. Quinn, we're not at liberty to go into details at this point."

"I'll ask my manager about the list. You may have a seat over there if you like." She gestured toward a grouping of a couch and two chairs near the magazine racks.

"Thank you," Hutch responded, and they went to the indicated area and sat down. Hutch occupied one of the chairs while Starsky sat on the corner of the couch closest to it. Hutch picked up a "National Geographic" magazine and started thumbing through it.

"Tina's still checkin' you out," Starsky said, deciding even inane banter was better than silence. And, truth be told, the young redhead was still doing her best to check Hutch out discreetly from behind the circulation desk.

"She's a little young for me," Hutch responded, still looking through his magazine.

"Hutch?"

"What?" He kept his eyes on the magazine.

"I love you," he said in a whisper, keeping one eye on the other people milling around the library to be sure they were out of earshot.

"Starsky, I'm not prepared to talk about this here."

"Nothin' to talk about. I just wanted ya to remember that, even if you're mad." He was quiet a minute. "Do you--"

"Let's stay focused on what we're doing here. We can't get off on personal discussions and work a case at the same time."

"Sorry." Starsky picked up a magazine and flipped a few pages without really looking at it. He was relieved when Ms. Quinn returned with three sheets of white paper, stapled at the upper left corner.

"This is our personnel listing," she said. "If you have any questions, you should contact Janice Logan, the branch manager. Her name is circled."

"Thank you very much," Hutch said, accepting the list as they both stood. "We appreciate your help with this."

Back in Hutch's car, they stopped at a fast food place and Starsky went inside to buy their lunch. He returned to the car and settled into the passenger seat. Resigned that Hutch was not about to discuss anything personal, he picked up the personnel list.

"Not many men working at the library, are there?"

"I have a feeling that's going to be a dead end. There are only four males on the list, and one of them is crossed off and marked retired. This could all be coincidence. Lots of women read romance novels."

"Each one of these ladies read one by the same author. See? Ramona Kensington." Starsky handed the sheets back to Hutch. "And check out those titles."

"'Passion's Price,' 'Claimed,' 'Fire of Love'...sounds like the usual sappy titles on those things."

"Passion? Claimed? Fire? Sounds like this lady might write a few ravaging scenes in her novels."

"The whole Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett O'Hara up the steps routine?" Hutch asked.

"Maybe this guy has some hang-up about women who read romance novels that involve some sort of rape scenario that's presented in a romantic way."

"If he's got a moral objection, raping them is a funny way to express it. I could better see killing them as some kind of punishment, but raping them? If he sees them as guilty of something for reading this stuff, then he'd be no better than they are by raping them."

"Well, yeah, but you remember what Linda Sherman and Sharon Mitchell said? The guy said something about them wanting it."

"A lot of rapists say shit like that, Starsky."

"'Isn't this what you wanted?' Wasn't that how he said it to Linda Sherman? Not the usual, 'Yeah, baby, you want it' crap. The way that question is phrased, it sounds like there's some reason in his twisted, sick little mind that these women wanted to be raped. And maybe readin' this kind of stuff is what gave him that idea."

"Sounds plausible. But he'd have to know who they were and what they were reading. That puts us back to this list of a few guys."

"I guess we can start there. But it could be anybody who hangs out at that branch of the library. Could be an employee, but it could also be someone who just spends time there and sees the women. Maybe some sicko who hangs around the library checking out what the women are reading. Who knows what gets this guy off?"

"Libraries. I can picture a lot of things as sexual turn-ons, but that wouldn't be one of them." Hutch took a drink of his cola, still leaving his burger untouched. "I do, by the way."

"What?"

"Love you." Hutch was quiet a minute. "I just don't like feeling I can't trust you."

"Can't...? Because of the money?"

"Because you keep things from me, Starsk. Important things. It's hard to trust someone when you keep finding out serious, important things you didn't know about the person you're sharing your life with. I feel like you know all there is to know about me, but yet I keep finding out things about you--usually not because you tell me, but by accident. It hurts, Starsky. It hurts like hell and I don't like it."

"I don't suppose you'd believe me if I said that I didn't think the money issue was important? What was important was what happened to her, what choice she made, what kind of lady she really was. I didn't think it mattered whether I offered her money or not."

"This has very little to do with Gillian," Hutch said, looking at Starsky. "It has to do with you, with what you keep from me, and...and it's about what you did back then, not what Gillian did or didn't do. And what you did does matter."

"Can I say anything that would make a difference?"

"I don't know, Starsky. I honestly don't know. And that's why I wasn't ready to talk about this now. I'm not trying to punish you or drag this out. I just can't help how I feel about it, and I don't know what you could say or do right now that would make a difference. So let's just let it rest for a while."

"I didn't like bein' without you last night."

"I wasn't crazy about it, either. But I'm still planning on sleeping at my place tonight."

"And I'm not invited."

"Not now, because I don't want to solve this with sex."

"I won't do anything."

"I need space. You sleeping six inches away from me isn't space. If you really love me, Starsky, just back off and let me work this out."

"Okay," Starsky responded simply, forcing down a bite of his lunch, feeling it stick in his throat.

"You think this guy is picking his victims based on their library habits?" Dobey asked, raising an eyebrow. Hutch shrugged.

"It's a theory. All four of the women frequented the Sheridan Street branch of the Bay City Public Library. All four of them checked out books by the same author--all historical romances. We haven't checked out the actual books to see if the theory holds, but given those titles, I think it's a safe bet that they all contain the 'hero rapes heroine, heroine falls for hero' scenario. Two of the victims recall their attacker saying something about them wanting it, only he phrased it differently than the usual demand or statement--he asked them a question like, 'Isn't this what you wanted?'"

"Where's your partner?" Dobey asked, frowning. "He went after a candy bar ten minutes ago."

"I don't know, Captain. Must have gotten sidetracked. There's not much more he can add to what I've told you."

"All right. But if this guy is choosing ladies from watching them at the library, you might have already tipped him off by going in there today. If you're going to get these books, either do it at another branch, or..." Dobey raised his eyebrows a bit, looking as if he had an inspiration.

"Or?"

"Send Lizzie Thorpe in to check them out and see if our guy takes the bait."

Lizzie walked down the hall toward the squadroom, sorting through the contents of a file she'd just picked up in R & I. Arturo had drawn the short straw to type up their reports for the day, so she had taken on the task of doing the research on a couple of their prime suspects in the murder of a liquor store owner. While it had appeared to be a simple armed robbery gone wrong, the more the case unfolded, the more the evidence was pointing to the victim's lifestyle of heavy gambling as the possible cause of his demise. Researching his friends' histories was turning up a wealth of misdemeanor and felony charges relevant to gambling, book-making and petty theft.

Her attention was diverted from the file by the sound and fury of Starsky beating a confession out of the candy machine. At first, she chuckled and shook her head and continued toward the doors of the squadroom. However, the more she listened to the commotion, she realized it was an unreasonable response to a stuck vending machine button--even for Starsky. She approached the site of the battle between man and machine and risked restraining Starsky's left arm, which was directing his fist into the front of the machine yet again.

"Hey, how much did it cheat you out of? A week's pay?"

"Every time I put money in this thing, it's the same old thing." Starsky pulled his arm away, but Lizzie grabbed it again.

"Look at your hand, Starsky," she said, all humor gone from her voice. Starsky said nothing, just looked down at the red and bruised knuckles where the skin was slightly broken in places and oozing a bit of blood. "That's your shooting hand, pal. You want to tell me what this is really about?"

"Not particularly." He pulled his arm away, though there was no trace of anger in the gesture.

"Come on. Let's get some ice on that hand before it swells."

"I'm due in Dobey's office."

"If your hand swells up too much, you won't be able to shoot with it, and if you can't shoot, you'll be stuck behind a desk."

"Okay," Starsky agreed, caving in much more easily than she'd expected.

"Go wait in the interrogation room. I'll get some ice. Hang onto this for me." She gave him the file folder and hurried toward the elevator, not waiting for a response.

After getting a small plastic bag filled with ice and some paper towels at the cafeteria, she returned to the interrogation room where she'd told Starsky to wait, and was almost surprised to see him sitting at the table. She'd expected him to take off for his meeting with Dobey, but instead, he waited as instructed, flexing his hand with a look of discomfort on his face.

"That was a smart move," she teased, wrapping a paper towel around the ice bag before taking a hold of Starsky's wrist and guiding his hand down to the table. She held the ice on top of it.

"Thanks."

"It might help to talk about it," she said, smiling slightly.

"It might, but it's personal, and I can't. But thanks anyway."

"Must have something to do with Hutch," she surmised, and Starsky gaped at her, opening his mouth and then shutting it again. "As I was saying..."

"If you apologize to somebody for something, and they still don't forgive you, and make up, how do you deal with that? I mean, every relationship I've had, if I screwed up and said I was sorry, it was okay."

"Well, sometimes people making the same mistakes over and over again and keeping on apologizing for them doesn't make it right."

"I didn't think I was doing that, though. I did something I thought was a good thing to do...the right thing to do. I still think it was the right thing to do, and I don't get why it was so awful. But that doesn't matter. I'm willing to apologize for it because it upset him so much, and I was tryin' to do just the opposite by doin' it in the first place."

"Let me get this straight. You did something that you still don't think was all that bad, and you did it for Hutch, and he's mad about it and won't accept your apologies?"

"Yeah, that's about it. I don't know if I'm making 'the same mistakes over and over again'. Maybe I am."

"Why is he really angry? Can you tell me that much? Do you even understand why he's angry?"

"He's angry because of what I did, but he's more angry I didn't tell him about it. I wasn't trying to hide it, I just didn't think it was that important that he knew. It seemed like a detail."

"This is a little tricky to figure out hypothetically," Lizzie said, smiling. "If he's upset you didn't tell him something, then he's probably feeling betrayed, like you kept something from him--like you didn't trust him enough to confide in him. I know how that feels. My ex had a tendency to keep a lot of things to himself. Including the affair he was having, but besides that--he wasn't open with me. I felt like I never really knew him."

"That's what Hutch said--that he didn't feel like he knew me--and that's ridiculous. He knows me better than anybody else. We've been friends for years."

"One revelation can make you feel like you don't know your best friend, or a family member, or even a lover. If you and Hutch have the kind of friendship where you tell each other everything, and he's playing by those rules, and then he finds out that you aren't playing by them one hundred percent, he could feel a little betrayed."

"I don't know how to fix it," Starsky said, a heavy note of defeat in his voice. "And I'm kinda sick of tryin' to figure out how to say the right thing. I feel like it's some kinda IQ test. If I can say the right thing or identify the right issue, I win. If not, no deal."

"Maybe that's how I made Tony feel," Lizzie said, referring to her ex-husband. "He never understood that it wasn't about the fact he had sex with some bimbo he picked up in a bar. It was about the loss of trust. About going to work at night and not being able to trust that he was home with Jenny where he belonged. Or that when he went out, he was really going back to work to catch up and not scoping out the action at the nearest bar or meeting his girlfriend for a quickie. I knew I'd never trust him again."

"But I didn't do anything that bad to Hutch. At least, I didn't think it was that bad. I thought it was a good thing. I thought it was the right thing. I didn't see the point in telling him."

"Maybe you have to tell him things whether you see the point in it or not. Let him decide if it's important, but don't make that decision for him and keep it to yourself. Was it totally about not thinking it mattered, or were you sort of afraid how he'd react?" Lizzie moved the ice bag and Starsky flexed his hand, visibly feeling some relief.

"A little'a both, I guess," Starsky admitted. "Thanks," he said, holding up the bruised, clammy hand.

"Don't mention it. You're getting angry about this whole thing, or you wouldn't have been beating the crap out of the candy machine."

"It did eat my quarter."

"Starsky."

"Okay, I'm angry. I don't wanna be, but it just doesn't seem fair. I feel like he's poundin' me over the head with this thing and he doesn't want to hear what I have to say--he won't even let me talk about it. He says he needs space."

"That's tricky, closed up in a car together all day." Lizzie smiled, thinking about a minor squabble she'd had with Arturo over the way he'd handled questioning a suspect a few weeks earlier. Their time in the car had been fraught with tension and left both of them in horrible frames of mind until they resolved it. "Try to nail him down to fix this, because it's a bad distraction," she concluded, standing up. Starsky rose also, handing her back her file.

"Yeah, I know. I'm doing my best."

"Be honest with yourself, Starsky." Lizzie rested her hand on his arm. "Be honest with yourself about why you didn't tell him, and then maybe when you apologize one more time, it'll work."

"I'd hate like hell to be a perp you were interrogating in here," Starsky quipped, laughing softly.

"Sorry. I'm used to playing 'good cop' and wheedling information. I think it threatens Arturo's machismo for me to be the 'bad cop'."

"Have you mentioned that observation to him?" Starsky asked, as they left the room and headed down the hall toward the squadroom.

"What is this? You and Hutch are bickering so you want all the partnerships to be at odds around here?"

"Misery loves company," Starsky responded, grinning.

As they entered the squadroom, Lizzie went to join Flores at their desks, and Starsky found his partner sitting at the typewriter, pecking away with an intense look on his face.

"Nice of you to drop in," Hutch stated tightly. "In case you're interested, Dobey wants to see you, me, Lizzie and Flores in his office in ten minutes."

"Sorry. I got sidetracked."

"What the hell happened to your hand?" Hutch's gaze fixed on the bruised, scraped knuckles, and--to Starsky's utter shock--one large hand moved across the desks to gently hold his, turning it back and forth while Hutch examined it.

"I got into a fist fight with the candy machine."

"You're sure nothing's broken?" Hutch raised up a bit in his chair for a closer look, feeling the fingers of Starsky's hand carefully.

"No, but it ain't my hand." Starsky looked at Hutch for a long moment, his eyes a little too bright, then got up and pulled his hand away, striding quickly toward the doors and out of the squadroom.

"Dobey give you any idea what he wanted?" Arturo's question startled Hutch, who was still staring at the doors. He'd just put a note on Arturo's desk while the other man was on the phone.

"Huh?" Hutch looked at the note Arturo waved in his direction. "Oh, right. He wants to bring you and Lizzie in on the rape-murder case. I think he wants to use Lizzie as a decoy."

"What?!" Arturo's eyes bulged. "Over my dead ass," he retorted, his tone level but laced with an almost deadly anger.

"It's not like she hasn't done decoy work before. We all have. It's part of the job--going undercover."

"This animal rapes and beats women to death. If anything went wrong--"

"You, Starsky and I would be her back-up. Do you seriously think that any one of us would let something go wrong?"

"We might not be able to stop it. This is ridiculous. Busting conventioneers is one thing, but luring a guy like this--"

"Lizzie's lured a guy like this before. A serial killer who preyed on women at that dance club, Fever. He abducted her and almost killed her. But you know what? We found her because of a clue she'd left for us when she was grabbed. She's that good a cop. Some psycho killer grabbed her right out of her car in the parking garage, and she had the presence of mind to leave us a clue that ended up saving her life."

"She never said anything about that."

"Why would she? It was almost two years ago, and it all turned out well. Maybe she doesn't think she has to prove to you that she can handle herself in a dangerous situation. Trust me, she can."

"Maybe this guy you were after liked to play with his victims. This rapist doesn't mess around. If we lose her, even for ten minutes, it could be too late."

"Would it be all right with you two if I had some part in this discussion?" Lizzie joined them. "I appreciate the concern, but if there's some way I can help get this psycho off the streets before he attacks another woman, then I want to try it. Since the case Hutch was telling you about, I've taken karate and I'm a hell of a lot better shot. I learned from my mistakes in that situation. And I trust you guys to back me up."

"One mistake, and--"

"Arturo, look, I appreciate your concern, I really do," Lizzie said sincerely, "but this is one situation where being a woman is an advantage. You guys can't do this on your own, and the decoy you put in this position can't be some wet-behind-the-ears rookie whose best experience is prostitution sting operations."

"I'm not promising that I'm going along with this," Arturo stated flatly. "We'll have to see what Dobey has in mind."

"And while I appreciate your concern, partner, it's not your call," Lizzie said, keeping her tone gentle but assertive.

Starsky looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, then rested his head against it a moment. It was bad enough that he was spending most of his day dwelling on a personal problem instead of his job, but that dramatic rush out of the squadroom was definitely not one of his finer moments. He looked at his reflection again and winced. His eyes were bloodshot and a little puffy, and after blowing his nose three times, he still sounded and felt congested.

It had been that touch, the genuine love and concern in that large hand that had held his...and the thought of losing that touch forever just because he'd made a mistake.

"Be honest with yourself about why you didn't tell him, and then maybe when you apologize one more time, it'll work."

Lizzie's words haunted him, and while he knew all the things he'd said about wanting to do what was best for Hutch and not wanting to hurt him more at the time were all true, he also knew that he'd feared Hutch's reaction to the fact that he'd offered Gillian money to leave town. It was a fairly demeaning thing for him to have done, and all over again, he felt that respect for Gillian that she'd not only not taken it, but not dignified it at all. Still, he hadn't known any more about her than the fact Hutch was infatuated with her. Hutch had also been infatuated with Vanessa, enough to marry her and ignore all the danger signals of what kind of life he was going to have. He'd been infatuated enough with Jeanie to risk his life to save her from Ben Forest, and paid a horrific price for it. Hutch wasn't lucky in love, and his passions for a particular woman could be so intense that he didn't really think too clearly. He thought with his heart when he was in love, and Starsky wasn't about to trust Hutch's heart, or possibly his life, to something so uncertain.

Maybe that's what hurts the most. He could ignore huge warning signs of trouble with the women he's loved; he took all sorts of emotional and mental abuse from Vanessa and yet she divorced him. But now, with me, he can distance himself over one single misstep I make. Our whole relationship hinges on one mistake made out of love.

Starsky splashed water on his face and resigned himself to looking like he'd either contracted a terrible head cold in the last fifteen minutes, or that he'd been doing just exactly what he'd done: crying in the men's room.

Hutch, Flores and Lizzie were already in Dobey's office when Starsky joined them, coffee cup in hand.

"Sorry I'm late," he said quietly, finding a chair near Hutch. The proximity felt good, even if the walls were still there between them.

"Starsky, you look like hell," Dobey said. "If you've got a cold, you better go see the doctor. We're going to need you at the top of your game if we go ahead with this operation. You're all going to have to be at the top of your game for this."

"I'm fine, Cap'n. Just a little dose of the sniffles."

"All right, here's what we're looking at. Four women, all four raped, two severely beaten, one dead. The murder may have been accidental as a part of the beating or it may have been intentional. The women are from diverse backgrounds, they're physically dissimilar, and they don't know each other. The only thing they appear to have in common is patronage of the Sheridan Street branch of the public library, and a taste for steamy romance novels written by one particular author, Ramona Kensington." Dobey had one of the novels, entitled "Claimed," on his desk. He handed it to Lizzie, who grimaced, thumbing through the pages before handing it over to Arturo.

"Real bodice-ripper crap," she said. "I read one of her books when I was pregnant with Jenny and spent some time in the hospital."

"So they are rape-themed stories?" Starsky asked, accepting the book from Flores and showing it to Hutch. He turned it over and looked at the photo of an aristocratic-looking young woman on the back of the dustcover. Judging by the style of her clothing, the photo had been taken many years earlier. The biographical sketch merely stated she'd been born in Sacramento and resided most of her life in Bay City. She was the author of eighteen novels and numerous stories and articles before her retirement. "Guess this is a newer edition. Says here she's retired now."

"New edition, old photo, obviously," Lizzie added. "The novel I read involved this young, virginal woman taking a job as a governess for this wealthy widower--"

"Sounds like a "Jane Eyre" knock-off," Hutch commented.

"It was kind of an R-rated version of that, yes," Lizzie agreed. "Long and short of it is, he rapes her shortly after she arrives, slaps her around most of the time, and by the end of the book, both realize they're in love and she's pregnant from the rape, so everyone lives happily ever after. I have a friend who reads everything this woman writes, and it's all essentially the same sort of garbage. I guess you either go for that or you don't, and apparently, the women who go for it buy a lot of books."

"Anyway, our only tie-in is this one issue. Since we don't know how long before he strikes again, we don't have a lot of time to spare. I want to send one of our people to the library to start checking out these books. Be seen looking at them, carry them out in an obvious way so our boy can get a good look. Thorpe, given your experience with decoy work and your training and experience now working Homicide, I think you'd be the ideal person to handle this assignment. Now the folks at the library have already seen Starsky and Hutchinson, so Flores would be your contact on the inside. In case the perp is an employee or the relative of an employee, I don't want to plant Flores in a job there and have to take them into our confidence. But he would be frequenting the library on a daily basis, and you would be visiting it every couple of days to get a new one of these wonderful novels for your reading pleasure. Starsky and Hutchinson would handle surveillance from the outside, watching for our boy to show up."

"One question, Captain. These women were attacked in their homes. My daughter lives with me, and I don't want any risk of some psycho following me to my real home address."

"We'll get you set up in a rental place--somewhere we can watch you. You'll have to live there and not go home in between, because if the perp starts watching you, we want him to believe in your cover."

"So I'd be going undercover with a different identity for a period of time?"

"Yes. If you agree, we'll work out all the details of your cover. We already have a rental property in mind."

"I don't like it," Flores said flatly.

"You have a suggestion for improving the plan, Flores?" Dobey asked.

"Find a cop who can do the decoy job in drag. Putting a woman in this position is asking for a disaster. At least if there was a slip-up with a man in the middle of all of this, our pal couldn't do his thing."

"Please don't take this personally, gentlemen, but none of you would make a very fetching lady," Lizzie responded, smiling. "It's dangerous, but it sounds reasonable. I'll have good back-up." Lizzie nodded. "I'm all for it, Captain."

"Hey, I'm not convinced this is a good idea, and I'm your partner, remember?" Flores protested angrily.

"Flores, the only person with veto power on this plan is your partner," Dobey spoke up. "If she's in favor of it, it's an order."

"Come on, guys, help me out here," Flores said, turning to Starsky and Hutch, who had fallen wisely silent as Dobey moved from sharing an idea to issuing an order.

"If Lizzie's comfortable with doing this, we're behind it all the way," Starsky said. "It's her call as far as we're concerned."

"Absolutely," Hutch concurred. "It's dangerous as hell, but I think you know that," he said to Lizzie, who nodded.

"I know. But this animal is destroying these women's lives, and now he's turned into a killer. If this theory holds water, and he really is after ladies who read naughty novels, we owe it to his victims--to all the women in this community--to use that to our advantage to nail him."

"Then it's settled. We'll meet back here first thing tomorrow morning and plan our strategy, and get the ball rolling by tomorrow afternoon." Then, as an afterthought, he added, "Why don't you run a check on the author and see if you can find out where she is and what she's up to now?" he said to Flores. "I seriously doubt she's got anything to do with all this, but we should have the information. If this psycho is obsessed with her books, there's every possibility his obsession might extend to the author herself."

"Right, Captain," Flores responded, taking the book with him.

"Thanks a hell of a lot for the support in there," Flores snapped at Hutch as he passed them, storming out the doors of the squadroom.

"Ditto," Lizzie said, only her expression was friendly and genuine.

"I just hope we're doing the right thing," Hutch said.

"So do I," Lizzie admitted. "It's a long shot, but I think we have to try it." She checked her watch. "Well, it's been a long day, guys. I'm going to head home and spend some time with my daughter. Might be a while before I can do that again."

"'Night, Lizzie," Starsky responded, and she waved back over her shoulder as she walked out, not looking behind her.

"Starsk, what happened? Are you sick?" Hutch asked, resting his hand on Starsky's shoulder.

"No, I'm not sick." He swallowed. "I'm goin' home, Hutch. I'm tired, and we've got a lot goin' on tomorrow."

"Okay. I was figuring on driving you home--"

"Don't bother. I borrowed a car from the motor pool." He looked at Hutch. "I guess I need some space now."

"Is this some kind of...punishment for me?" Hutch asked quietly, aware of their surroundings.

"No. But I can't take any more'a this today. I've got a headache and I'm tired and I just wanna go home."

"Is your hand okay?"

"Still there," Starsky said, flexing it a little. "See you tomorrow, Hutch."

Hutch watched as his partner left the squadroom, a definite slump to his shoulders. At loose ends, Hutch grabbed his jacket and headed out the door, planning to stop at Huggy's for something to eat before going home and putting in another empty night.

The Pits was already jumping with the dinner crowd by the time Hutch arrived and found the last empty booth.

"Hey, you look lopsided," Anita greeted cheerfully, setting a beer down in front of him. He hadn't placed his order yet, so was surprised to see two beers on her tray--his and Starsky's "regular." She set the other on the table. "You want to order now or wait for Starsky?"

"It's just me tonight. Bring me a burger and a salad, huh?"

"Sure. So where's that gorgeous partner of yours?"

"He had other plans," Hutch lied, smiling a little.

"You let him out alone, huh? Very trusting, you are. I wouldn't let that boy out of my sight if he were mine," she joked, chuckling. "I'll be right back with your salad. You want that burger medium with the usual stuff on it?"

"Yeah, that's great," Hutch responded, managing to keep up a pleasant expression until she'd left.

"I wouldn't let that boy out of my sight if he were mine." If he were mine...

He is mine and I'm making him suffer. I prayed so hard for him to survive, to be all right, to stay with me. He did, and now I'm treating him this way?

But can I base the rest of our relationship on the fact that I'm happy he's alive? Is that enough to smooth over any of the rough spots? Sometimes everything else seems trivial by comparison, but should it?

"Thinkin' that hard can do brain damage," Huggy said, sliding into the other side of the booth. "Where's Starsky?"

"Am I not allowed to go anywhere without him?" Hutch snapped.

"Sorry, my man. Guess I hit a nerve."

"No, I'm sorry, Hug."

"You two must'a had some blowout."

"What makes you say that?"

"Call it a wild guess."

"We had an argument."

"I figured. You wanna talk about it?"

"Not really." Hutch took a drink of his beer.

"You orderin' 'em two at a time now?" Huggy pointed at the extra beer Anita had left on the table.

"Anita assumed Starsky was with me."

"I see. You mind?" Huggy reached for the beer.

"No."

"So what'd he do that's got you so mad?"

"I just said I didn't want to talk about it."

"I heard ya. Didn't believe it, though."

"He kept something from me. Something important." Hutch's voice dropped. "Something about Gillian."

"Gillian? That was years ago."

"Did you know that Starsky tried to pay her off to get out of town?"

"No, I didn't know that. I know he had me check her out, but I didn't know what he did about it until I got the tip that Grossman was goin' after her."

"He tried to pay her to leave town. And he never told me."

"She was gonna stay and level with you, right?"

"Right."

"Starsky told you he talked to her."

"Yeah, he told me."

"So you're just mad he didn't tell you about the money."

"It's pretty important, Huggy. I was in love with her, and not only did he go behind my back--which I never felt real good about, but I got over it--but he offered her over four grand to hit the road."

"Where would Starsky get four grand in a hurry?"

"His savings and his retirement fund," Hutch responded, taking another drink of beer.

"Let me get this straight. Starsky puts his savings and his old age money on the line tryin' to protect you from your legendary fine taste in women, and you're mad about that?"

"Thanks for putting it that way, pal," Hutch said with a humorless snort of laughter.

"Sorry, my man. I just don't see what you got to be so mad about."

"It's my life, Huggy. That's not even really the issue here."

"Then enlighten me, before I give you the bartender's 'dumbest argument story of the year' award."

"He lied to me."

"About what?"

"Haven't you ever heard of a lie of omission? Makes me wonder how many other omissions are floating around out there. If he thinks I won't like it, he just doesn't tell me?"

"Sounds like you're throwin' away the baby with the bathwater."

"Excuse me?" Hutch looked up at Huggy as the other man got up to leave the booth.

"Old saying of my mother's. Kinda like throwin' out all the good with just a little bit of the bad. Ain't none of us walkin' around that's perfect. You just gotta be careful not to throw out somethin' real important while you're worryin' about the little stuff."

"I never said I was throwing anything out. I haven't dissolved the partnership. I just...needed time to think this through."

"Sometimes you do some bad damage holdin' onto somethin' too long. Just be careful. You and Starsky...you got somethin' special."

"Yeah, I know. I probably better go have a talk with him."

"Now you're on to somethin'. You want me to have Anita bag you up some food to go?"

"Yeah. Dinner for two."

Hutch knocked on Starsky's front door, concerned not to see any lights burning. Shifting the take-out bag to his left arm, he fumbled for his key to Starsky's front door and let himself into the apartment. He was a bit startled to see a solitary figure sitting on the couch in the dark.

"Starsk? I knocked--"

"I heard ya. Maybe I'm not interested in talkin' right now."

"That why you're sitting here in the dark?" Hutch turned on a lamp, and Starsky blinked a few times at the change in lighting. "I brought dinner."

"Not hungry."

"Okay. It'll keep." Hutch set the food on the table and went to the living room, sitting on the couch close to his partner. Starsky still wore his jacket, and looked as if he'd walked in the door from work and sat on the couch and never moved. "How's your hand?" Hutch asked, picking up the bruised hand that rested on Starsky's thigh.

"Still there." Starsky let it lie like a dead fish in Hutch's hand until Hutch drew it up to his mouth and kissed the bruised knuckles. "Don't." Starsky pulled his hand away. "Don't start somethin' and then walk outta here again."

"Who said anything about walking out? Starsk, I want to talk this out with you, if you're still interested in listening."

"What made you pick now?" Starsky still hadn't looked Hutch in the eye since he'd arrived.

"I know it's stupid, but when I touched you in the squadroom, when you were hurting and I couldn't help..."

"You didn't say anything."

"You left in a car from the motor pool. What was I supposed to do? I ended up going to Huggy's, and he sort of nudged me in the right direction. He said I was 'throwing out the baby with the bathwater'."

"Ma used to say that sometimes."

"You deserve an explanation for why I was so upset about this whole mess."

"I kept something from you. I got that point, Hutch."

"That's true, you did. But I overreacted." Hutch stood up and started pacing. "When I was married to Vanessa, I kept discovering things she was keeping from me. Some of them were little things. Money she spent that she shouldn't have, running around with male 'friends' that I really knew, deep down, were more than friends. Even the last time I saw her, she was lying to me. My whole marriage was one giant betrayal of every single vow we took."

"I'm not Vanessa," Starsky said.

"No. God, no, you're not. I know that. I just felt this overwhelming sense of deja vu when I found that bank book entry, and there was this situation that was so...relevant to me that you hadn't told me everything about--"

"I said I was sorry. I can't go back and change the fact that I offered her money, and I can't go back now and tell you about it when you think I should have. Honest to God, Hutch, I didn't mean to lie to you. But if you're gonna punish me this way every time I make a mistake because you had a bad time of it with Vanessa, I'm not gonna always be sittin' here waiting for absolution."

"I told you before that I wasn't trying to punish you. I needed time to work through this, to get over it, to not be angry about it. All we would've done was fight if we'd kept on talking about it. What I was trying to say before...I didn't say it very well." Hutch sat on the coffee table across from Starsky. "My first experience at marriage wasn't exactly great. As a matter of fact, I've never had a serious relationship yet that didn't either involve a whole lot of deception or...or getting dumped. Before we got together, I'd pretty much made up my mind I wasn't going to take a chance on it again."

"If you can't trust me now, Hutch, you're not ever gonna trust me. And if what I did, or the fact that I didn't tell you about it, wipes out all those years of trusting each other, I know I'm never gonna live up to your standards. I can try, but I know now I'm never gonna make it."

"It doesn't wipe out trusting each other. I trust you with my life, Starsky."

"Yeah, but do you trust me with your heart? Do you trust me as much as you did before you found out about that money?" Starsky sighed. "Maybe I'm super sensitive about this because I'm just a little bit guilty."

"Of what?"

"Of keeping this under my hat. Most of it was because I thought you just couldn't handle much more right then, and later, it didn't seem all that meaningful once you'd put the whole mess behind you. But maybe I let myself believe that, and didn't tell you, because deep down, I was afraid of how you'd react. Of what you'd think of me offering to pay her off. So maybe I'm not so perfect. Most of my reasons for not telling you were exactly what I explained last night. But there's this little part of me that didn't wanna own up and face the music. So maybe I'm no better than Vanessa was when it comes down to it."

"There's no comparison between you and Vanessa, babe." Hutch reached out and took Starsky's hands in his. "I know why you did it. I know you did it because you love me and you were trying to protect me. I love you for protecting me. It's what we do--watch each other's backs. Just...I need you to level with me and not do things behind my back. Even if you do it for all the right reasons, I just don't like that feeling that you're stepping in and making changes in my life without giving me the full story."

"I know. I'm sorry about that, and I'm sorry I didn't tell you about it. I'll try not to just barge in and fix things anymore. Can't promise I won't fall off the wagon if I think you need me." Starsky's mouth twitched upward a little.

"You're always there when I need you, buddy." Hutch reached out, laying his hand against Starsky's cheek. "I'm sorry I was so hard on you about this. You didn't deserve to be hurt so much for something you did because you loved me."

"Still wanna play house with me?" Starsky asked, grinning.

"For the next fifty or sixty years, sure."

"Maybe we can get the mortgage paid off in that time," Starsky joked, tugging on Hutch's hands to move him over to the couch. Hutch readily complied, pulling Starsky into his arms. "I missed you so much," Starsky whispered against Hutch's shoulder, holding on tightly.

"Glad I'm not the only one. I thought I had to be nuts missing you like I did when we were sitting together in the same car." Hutch pulled back enough to rest his forehead against Starsky's.

"You know what this means, don't you?"

"What?"

"We've got two nights' worth to do in one night."

"Guess we better get started on it then." Hutch covered Starsky's mouth with his own, his tongue hungrily demanding entrance. Starsky's response was instant, his mouth opening and sealing with Hutch's, a little groan escaping the back of his throat.

Hutch fumbled with Starsky's jacket, unwilling to break the kiss. He felt the scrape of the zipper's metal teeth and the softness of well-worn leather, then the warmth of Starsky's body beneath the cotton of his shirt. Somehow, they divested Starsky of his jacket, just as Starsky became impatient with the jacket Hutch was still wearing, tugging at the soft suede until it surrendered.

When faced with the holsters, they finally parted for air, laughing and gasping a little at their own intensity. Both men dispensed with their own holsters and then went for each other's buttons, managing to open both shirts simultaneously. Starsky pounced on Hutch, pushing him back down on the cushions, climbing on top of him on the couch, pressing their bodies tight together as he devoured Hutch's mouth again. Reluctantly leaving Hutch's mouth, Starsky trailed hot, eager lips along Hutch's jaw to his neck, where he nipped and sucked at the tender flesh. Hutch's hands were in Starsky's hair, tugging him back up for more kisses.

Starsky worked on the stubborn button and zipper on Hutch's jeans, moving away from Hutch's mouth again as the material opened. Freeing the hardening column from its confines, he captured it in his mouth, sucking almost desperately.

"Oh, God, Starsk..." Hutch gasped, arching into the hot suction, feeling nimble fingers sliding into his underwear, easing it down farther and taking possession of the globes of Hutch's ass, squeezing and kneading. Just as he was beginning to soar with the sensations, the eager mouth left him.

"Want you, babe," Starsky whispered against Hutch's ear. "Wanna take you to bed and make love to you so good you'll never wanna sleep without me again."

"Oh, Starsk," Hutch said, taking Starsky's face in his hands, "I never wanted to sleep without you anyway. You don't have to prove anything to me. In bed or anywhere else."

"I thought you were gonna leave me for a while there," Starsky admitted. "I didn't know how to fix things."

"Be pretty tough leaving the other half of my soul," Hutch responded gently, pulling Starsky down for a long, slow kiss. "Let's go to bed."

The trip to the bedroom was a little clumsy, disarrayed clothing slowing them a bit until they shed the rest of it in a heap next to the bed. With just the glow of the living room lamp and a little moonlight to illuminate the room, they wound together in the middle of the bed, kissing and caressing, reassuring each other of their love.

Starsky finally broke away long enough to reach into the nightstand drawer for the lube. He moved back over Hutch, kissing him again, before moving back on his knees between legs Hutch spread eagerly for him. While his lubricated finger eased inside the snug opening, Starsky stroked the heavy balls with his tongue, sucking gently, working his way to the underside of the rigid shaft. He added a second finger and began stretching, brushing over Hutch's prostate firmly.

"Starsk...do it, babe. Now," Hutch gasped, bearing down on the probing fingers.

Starsky looked up at him from between the widely parted thighs, then moved up for another kiss.

"I love you," he said, kissing Hutch again.

"I love you, too. How about showing me, huh?" he added, smiling and running his hand back through Starsky's hair.

"You gettin' a little eager there, Blondie?"

"Starsky, if you tease me now, I may have to kill you."

"It'd almost be worth it to see the look on Dobey's face at the murder scene," Starsky retorted, chuckling. "Okay, babe, no more games," he concluded, moving back and kissing the inside of Hutch's raised thigh before helping to get his partner's legs over his shoulders.

He eased in slowly, gently, since Hutch was urging him on before he'd done much stretching. When he was fully sheathed, he waited, letting his partner adjust. Hutch was breathing heavily, his features looking a bit strained.

"Everything okay, darlin'?" Starsky asked softly.

"Guess...I'm still a little...uptight," Hutch managed.

"Just relax, babe. Breathe deep and relax." Starsky began stroking the slightly faltering erection. It responded immediately to his touch. "That's it, partner, just relax and enjoy yourself." Starsky fought to keep the strain out of his own voice, resisting the urge to start thrusting. He could feel some easing of Hutch's muscles, and he knew without being told when to move.

They set an easy rhythm, neither wanting this to end too quickly. Hutch reached up and Starsky took the cue, joining hands with his partner, lacing their fingers. Hutch wanted to come from the motion of their union alone.

Slowly, the room filled with the sounds of their lovemaking. Their joint moans of pleasure mingled with the rhythmic creak of the bedsprings and the gentle slap of flesh on flesh. Hutch let out a long cry, his whole body tensing and arching as his internal muscles squeezed and massaged Starsky. Hutch's climax brought Starsky to his own peak, with a few passionate shouts of his lover's name.

Long moments later, as he slowly came back to his senses, Starsky eased the long legs off his shoulders and moved up into arms that were waiting for him.

"You're still mine," Starsky whispered against the silky blond hair, burying his nose in it, as if trying to absorb as much reassurance as he could of Hutch's presence. "Love ya so much," he whispered.

"I'm always yours, babe. And I know you're always mine." Hutch smiled, resting his forehead against Starsky's. "I just have to get used to being in love with the person I trust most in the world. This is the first time for me the two have mixed, and I guess I'm not used to it yet."

"You've had some rough times, darlin'. Trouble is, you were with people who were just using you, or didn't bother to see how beautiful you were inside, or were too blind to see what they were missing out on by walking away. 'Course, that worked out for me. Left the field wide open." Starsky flexed his eyebrows, and Hutch laughed softly.

"You make me sound too perfect, buddy."

"Nobody's perfect, but in my book, you're damn close."

"So are you."

"We're real lucky to have found each other then, aren't we?" Starsky joked, kissing Hutch lightly.

"I'd say we're just about the luckiest people alive," Hutch responded in complete seriousness, moving in for another kiss.

Starsky was stunned to have awakened before the alarm clock intruded on his rest. His head still shared a pillow with Hutch, their bodies still lightly entwined. He risked enough movement to draw the covers over Hutch's shoulder, which was probably a little too cool being bare all night. Hutch stirred a little but didn't wake up.

Treasuring this rare moment to study his sleeping partner, Starsky took in the strong features, the full lips slightly parted in sleep and a bit pinker from the previous night's kissing, the pale lashes that matched the impossibly soft, silky blond hair that was in a wonderfully sexy disarray. Yeah, somebody made love to you real good last night, didn't they? So good that Mr. Rise'n'Shine is sleeping so hard the alarm is gonna have trouble getting through.

Seeing that they had only moments before the rude intrusion of the ringing alarm, Starsky decided to wake his partner a little more gently. Easing down under the covers, he found the beginnings of a morning erection and took it in his mouth, sucking gently. The long legs shifted, a warm thigh resting even closer to his cheek as he worked.

Then, with a groan, Hutch was awake, gasping a little, his hand finding Starsky's head under the covers and stroking his hair.

"Oh, yeah, babe. Ugh, yeah, that's good," Hutch panted, beginning to thrust gently now into the eager mouth that surrounded him. A moment later he came, feeling deliciously spent and sated.

"'Mornin', beautiful," Starsky said, moving up and pulling Hutch into his arms. His own rigid erection was rubbing against Hutch's thigh.

"We need to take care of you." Hutch's large hand wandered down to cup Starsky's ass. "Got an idea," he said, stroking Starsky's cock teasingly before rolling over and drawing up his knees.

The thought of some nice, slow, sleepy morning sex was too enticing to refuse. Groping for the lube, Starsky added a little to himself before probing the opening he still found slick. Carefully easing inside, he spooned around Hutch, holding him close. Neither moved for several long seconds. Then Starsky slowly pumped in and out, both men savoring the closeness and content to prolong the union.

Though he enjoyed the sensations, Hutch's sated body wasn't quite ready for another climax. He relaxed and felt Starsky reaching his, moving a little faster, broken cries of pleasure sending warm breath against Hutch's neck.

They were silent and still for a long time, staying joined, making no move to separate or face the day. Starsky's hand moved up in a lazy caress of Hutch's chest, brushing over sensitive nipples. Hutch captured the hand and frowned at the slight discoloration of bruising and the scrapes that were left behind from Starsky's run in with the vending machine. The frown softened into a smile when he saw the glint of the gold bracelet on Starsky's wrist. No matter what, it had never been removed since Hutch put it there Christmas morning. He kissed the bruised hand.

"Does it hurt much?"

"Only when I move it," Starsky said, a heavy trace of humor in his voice. "Nah, it's nothin' serious." He rubbed his cheek against Hutch's hair. "Hutch?"

"Hm?"

"I promise I won't keep any secrets from you on purpose anymore. It's not that I ever wanted to lie to you or keep things from you, but I guess...I guess I just did. I've got no good reason for it."

"I shouldn't have brought anything up about your childhood. I understand why you didn't talk about that before. As for this other situation, it's over and done with, babe."

"There really isn't anything else. Honest. I'll do my best to make sure there never is. I don't want you to worry about that."

"I'm not worried." Hutch closed his eyes and relaxed, still holding Starsky's hand, still feeling him inside his body pressed up against him. "There's something I should tell you, too."

"What?"

"It was unfair of me not to say it to you when you asked me, but I was angry and holding onto it.... Just because we have a fight or I say I need space, you don't have to be afraid I'm going to leave you. If it were legal, if there were some way to do it, I'd marry you in a heartbeat. People have differences, they fight sometimes, sometimes it gets ugly...but there's just about nothing I can think of that would make me leave you for good. I don't know as I could."

"Guess I'm a little skittish about that. I never did fall in love with somebody who stuck around very long," Starsky admitted quietly, resting his head against Hutch's. "I just know I can't get by without ya, darlin'. I can handle all the other stuff, but not that."

"I know. Believe me, I know. Last year, after you were shot...for that time before you woke up..." Hutch let the thought hang there a moment. "I know what it feels like to face my life without you being part of it, and you know what? I didn't want it. So don't worry about me taking off anytime soon over an argument, okay?" Hutch kissed the hand he was holding.

"Okay."

"Dobey said 'first thing' for that meeting," Hutch reminded regretfully.

"Think we could stay here another ten minutes and still make 'first thing'?"

"Not if we want to take a nice, hot shower--together."

"You're right. That could take a while," Starsky concluded, planting a loud, smacking kiss on Hutch's shoulder.

On to Part 3

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