House of Mirrors
by Hutchrules3

SHSVS, Episode 609

**********

Aspirin.

Noisy. Light's too bright. Head hurts. Feels like ashes in my mouth. Not again.

ASPIRIN.

Close eyes. No. SHIT, head hurts. Focus on aspirin. Little white tablets...wash 'em down with ice cold water, get that lousy taste outta my mouth. It's just pain. Big strong cop, you can deal with it, Hutchinson.

What is that godawful noise?

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mi-ind...."

Hutch winced as the joyful din beside him grew worse and tried once again to dig the tiny tin of aspirin from his pocket. "Give me a break, will ya, Starsk?" he pleaded. "If you're gonna torture me, at least do it with something that fits the season, huh?"

"For your information," Starsky began in his best professorial tone, which only increased the clamor in Hutch's head, "Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is just around the corner."

"Aw, c'mon. The party didn't end 'til after two, and then…"

Starsky interrupted his warbling just long enough to flash his partner a warm and intimate smile. "Yeah," he said seductively. "I know."

Hutch blushed, amazed he still did after all this time, and pretended to give full attention to the two small white tablets that seemed determined to elude him. At last, he captured the aspirin, and gulped them down with a swallow of tepid coffee. That task completed, he turned his attention back to the street, squinting in the sunlight of the late summer afternoon. It had been a quiet day so far, for which he--and his hangover--were grateful.

"Zebra Three, Zebra Three."

Spoke too soon.

Starsky lifted the microphone, still humming under his breath, and spoke into it with a cheerful tone that made Hutch's temples throb. Dammit, how does that happen? They'd been up just as long, eaten the same lousy food, and drunk the same amount of beer. How the hell did Starsky escape a hangover every time, while Hutch inevitably found himself battling a blistering headache and embarrassing nausea?

"Zebra Three," Starsky responded. "What's up?"

"Owner of Blue Peacock requests assistance. Reports a gang of teenagers have been lifting tires from his parking lot for the last twenty minutes."

"Ten-four," Starsky said, glancing in his side mirror and one-handing the Torino into a tight U-turn. "We are responding."

Teenagers, Hutch thought with a silent groan as he turned on the mars light and clapped it onto the roof. And a gang, too--probably hopped up on a lethal combination of hormones and angel dust, thereby raising the risk factor exponentially. Starsky hit the siren with an apologetic glance toward his partner, as if he knew what the ululating shrieks were doing to Hutch's head. Hutch cast him a reassuring, if somewhat tremulous smile, then hung on and braced himself for the confrontation ahead.

Starsky cut the siren as they approached the restaurant. "The end of summer," he said as he pulled the Torino to the curb, his voice oddly conversational in the sudden silence. "Pencils...books...juvie jacket.... Your perfect back-to-school accessory." Ordering his head to stop pounding, Hutch shrugged and climbed out of the car.

"It's only the second call this week," he pointed out over the roof. "Don't act like there's an adolescent crime wave every time September rolls around." He scanned the parking lot of the Peacock, which at this time of the afternoon was filled with the Mercedes' and BMWs of businessmen pitching or closing deals over long lunches and multiple cocktails. He spotted a blond head bobbing above a green Jag in the farthest corner and pointed. "There."

Starsky studied the area, too. Restaurant to the north, two busy streets east and west, and an alley with an easily scaled stone wall on the south side. "We need back-up," he muttered, and leaned into the car window to request a silent squad car response. When he withdrew, he and Hutch crossed the street.

"I'll take the lot," Hutch decided. "That way they might not go for the streets, and if they panic and jump the wall…"

"I'll be waitin' for 'em with a new set of friendship bracelets," Starsky finished, patting the cuffs in his pocket.

They had reached the edge of the lot. Starsky strolled casually to the alley's mouth, whistling under his breath, then ducked inside, sliding across the southern wall so he could greet the perpetrators if they hopped over. Hutch watched until he knew Starsky was in position, then began his own seemingly aimless meander into the lot itself. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw two black-and-whites pull up to the curb; turning, he signaled the patrolmen to get out of their cars and cover the street exits.

"Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll run in a clump, like goats," Hutch mumbled inanely to himself, as he wove his way through cars whose upkeep probably ran more than he made in a year. "Gotta hand it to 'em, though, at least they've got the brains to go for the good stuff."

He heard the sound of excited voices and lowered himself silently to the ground, the headache forgotten as he focused on catching their young prey. Lying prone on the asphalt, he peered under a spotless undercarriage and found his luck was holding. From his vantage point, he could clearly see four teenagers: two busily removing the tire from a BMW, and two others packing the spoils into the nearby trunk of a discreet silver Caddy. Their clothes were clearly expensive. As Hutch watched, one of them pulled out a silver cigarette case and withdrew a neatly rolled joint.

Hutch rolled his eyes. This was one for the books, all right. A bunch of high society teenagers, boosting stuff they didn't need, strictly for the rush and a little extra cash. For what? Even as he asked himself the question, he knew the answer--for the funny little cigarettes that filled the fancy case.

"What did I tell you?" Cigarette Case Boy said in a strained voice, as he held the marijuana smoke in his lungs. "My dad comes here every Friday with half the bigwigs in the city. He's always braggin' about it…how they come to this 'dreadful' neighborhood and mingle with the common folks, and emerge unscathed every time." He blew out the smoke slowly, as if savoring its flavor and texture. Hutch could smell the sweet scent from his position on the ground, and surmised that the little rich boys had brought along the finest in Mexican gold. He lowered his risk estimate a little; at least it wasn't PCP.

One of the other boys turned his attention from the tire and peered up at the tall blond boy, who had drawn in another lungful of smoke. "Cut it out and get down, will ya, Pete?" he requested, shoving dark-rimmed glasses back up his nose with a grimy forefinger. "Standin' up there like that, smokin' that stuff, you might as well wave a flag that says, 'here we are'."

Drizzling the smoke from his lungs, the blond boy squatted to his haunches in a single graceful motion. He was athletic and tanned, with classic features and hair shining golden in the afternoon sunlight. For an uncomfortable moment, Hutch was reminded of himself at that age.

"Don't sweat it, Rex," Pete said with a brilliant smile. "That's why Daddy pays his lawyers the big bucks." He slung an arm around the skinny kid's shoulders, then pulled a silver flask from the hip pocket of his designer jeans and slapped it into his companion's palm. "Here," he encouraged. "Have a little liquid courage, on the old man."

Rex eyed the flask, apparently debating whether to further break the law or look like a complete twerp in front of his friends. At length he shrugged, twisted the top from the flask, and took a cautious sip. Hutch almost chuckled at the look on his face; clearly the flask's contents were flaming their way from his throat to an unaccustomed gut. He half-thought Rex would show a little sanity and pass the liquor back, but the boy's expression became obstinate and he took another, longer swig from the container.

Sighing silently, Hutch shifted to a more comfortable position on the ground and considered his options. Alcohol and marijuana were never a good mix, and combined with cocky, probably spoiled, wealthy kids trying to get a thrill and prove something to each other, it all added up, no doubt, to one of their less pleasant busts. Probably a good idea to put the brakes on, before the whole crew got too out of control.

Moving slowly to avoid disturbing gravel and his unsuspecting quarry, he eased himself to his knees, then his feet. "Daddy better pull out his wallet," he informed the four young men calmly, displaying his gun and his badge. "Time to freeze, gentlemen. You're all under arrest."

The two kids who had not spoken dropped instantly to the ground, shouting, "I surrender! Don't shoot!" The two patrolmen, having heard Hutch's command, charged to the scene and had cuffs on them before Hutch could move from behind the car. Dumping his tools, Rex leapt to his feet with surprisingly lightning quickness, and was out of sight almost before the lug wrench clanged to the pavement. Ignoring him, knowing Starsky would nail him when he vaulted the wall, Hutch turned his attention to the apparent ringleader, Pete.

The blond youth showed neither surprise nor dismay at the appearance of Bay City's finest. Lounging against the two-wheeled BMW, grinning insolently at the detective, he arrogantly pinched out the joint and returned it to his cigarette case. Still nagged by that eerie sense that he was looking at an alternate universe self, Hutch holstered his gun, then spun the teenager around and pressed him against the hood of the car...but checked his irritation. If there were ever a kid who would scream "police brutality," this would be the one. He patted the boy down. Finding only the cigarette case, flask, and an equally expensive lighter, he cuffed him and read him his rights.

Task accomplished, he turned toward the alley, expecting to see his partner emerge with nary a hair out of place. When seconds passed and Starsky didn't appear, he jerked his head toward one of the uniforms. "Keep an eye on them," he instructed, drawing his Magnum. "Keep 'em here until we get back, then we'll get the whole gang down to Metro."

"Okay, Hutch," the patrolman said agreeably.

Promptly forgetting both cops and captives, Hutch turned and sprinted toward the alley.

When he reached the entrance, he slowed and sidled along the stone wall's edge. Gun ready, he bent to a half-crouch, then peered cautiously around the corner. He spotted his partner immediately. Starsky was darting back and forth in pursuit of Rex who, despite his nerdy appearance, was fast and agile and had thus far evaded Starsky's best moves. Hutch watched for a moment in indecision. He doubted the kid was packing, and Starsky would be annoyed if Hutch tried to intervene too soon. Eventually, he shrugged and holstered his gun, but remained on alert in case Starsky tired or Rex decided to go on the offensive.

Trash cans clattered. The thin boy seemed to float up one wall, only to have Starsky haul him down. Then Starsky would grip him tightly, but Rex would twist free of his grasp, and the whole dance would begin again. Just as Hutch began to think about stepping in, however, Rex made a fatal mistake. Instead of dodging Starsky, he tried to run past him.

Hutch rolled his eyes. Teenagers. All brass balls and no brains.

Predictably, Starsky whipped out a precisely timed foot and dumped the kid out flat. Almost before Rex could breathe, his hands were shackled, and Starsky was dragging him to his feet. Gripping the boy by the arm and rattling off Miranda, Starsky guided him toward his partner, who was smiling in indulgent amusement at the end of the alley.

"See that?" Starsky said smugly. "Not even winded, and this kid's young enough for me to be his--"

His satisfied smile disappeared as the young man doubled over, emitted a terrifyingly strangled mewl, and covered the ground and his captor--but not himself--with evil-smelling vomit.

For a breath, the entire picture was suspended in time. Hutch had started to step toward Starsky and the prisoner; his hand remained half-raised in the air as his eyes widened in disbelief. But his horror was nothing compared to that of Starsky, who was covered from the knees down with the remains of the kid's lunch. His throat worked, and Hutch wondered in some insanely detached part of himself, if the burritos Starsky had downed that afternoon would soon follow.

Rex retched and sent a second wave after the first. Starsky set his lips firmly and, as fastidiously and delicately as a maiden cat, managed to step out of the way.

It bubbled up from some nasty little place inside before Hutch could stop it. His laugh rang through the alleyway and earned him a glare from his partner, who for once was clearly not amused.

"I'm sorry, Starsk," Hutch apologized, trying to swallow the mirth as Starsky swept past him with all the dignity of an English queen. "Here, let me give you a hand."

"No, thanks," Starsky said through clenched teeth. "Wouldn't want both of us to owe the dry cleaners this month."

"Dry cleaners?" Hutch echoed. "For your jeans and those tennis shoes? Throw 'em in the washer, and they'll be good as new in less than an hour."

Starsky turned toward him, holding Rex at arm's length as another ominous belch arose from the boy. The look in his eyes promised unending mayhem if Hutch didn't curb his laughter. It took an almost physical effort, but the blond detective managed to bring himself under control. "Um...tell you what, Starsk," he said, half-trying to make amends and half-needing to get away from the reek wafting toward him, "I'll go inside and see if the owner has some damp towels."

"You do that," Starsky muttered behind him, continuing to march stiffly toward the other three prisoners and the two patrolmen.

"Or a garden hose," Hutch couldn't resist adding as he hurried off.

He could feel the steely gaze on his back.

He meant it as a joke, but in the end that proved the most efficient and effective method of making his partner's appearance--to say nothing of his aroma--bearable. Starsky refused to allow the hapless youth and his precarious stomach into the Torino, and while the uniforms flipped for the honor of escorting him, the Peacock's owner loaned Hutch the hose he used to clean oil from the parking lot. The look on Starsky's face had become downright dangerous, and Hutch focused on his task to avoid further recriminations. And he was justifiably proud of not dissolving again at the station, when curious looks followed him and his very dignified partner to the locker room, where Starsky changed into a fresh pair of jeans.

The shoes, however, were goners. Forlornly, Starsky toed off one sneaker then the other, then padded to his locker. While Hutch watched, bemused, he dug around for a few moments and eventually emerged with a yellowed newspaper. Tenderly, almost reverently, he enveloped the pungent footwear and deposited the packet in the nearest trash can.

Hutch opened his mouth, thinking it might be time for him to offer some words of comfort. But Starsky dove into his locker again.

When he straightened this time, Hutch blinked at what he held. One eyebrow went up, as he looked from Starsky's hands to his eyes. His lips twitched on the journey upward, but Starsky's expression warned him that his mirth quotient was pretty well met. Silently, he watched as his partner tied the brand new, white-striped Adidas to his feet.

But he couldn't help wondering if Starsky had a lifetime supply of the sneakers in his locker, stacked and magically stored as in the fabled compartment of Fibber McGee.

**********

For the first time in recent memory, they were caught up on their paperwork. Never ill-tempered for long, Starsky left his sourness in the locker room with his befouled clothes and lost footwear, and he again whistled cheerfully as he typed up the report on their "big crime caper." He could have written it in his sleep, and the simple matter of the work gave him ample opportunity to steal fond glances at his partner through lowered lashes. Hutch's headache seemed to be better, but the slight furrow between his brows suggested something was on his mind.

Starsky ripped the report out of the typewriter, signed it with a flourish, and returned the battered machine to its communal place on an empty desk. Tapping Hutch on the shoulder, he yanked his light cloth jacket from the back of his chair and nodded toward the door. "Let's go," he suggested. "Clear out before Dobey finds some nickel-and-dime thing for us to do."

His partner was clearly in agreement. He rose immediately to his feet and shrugged into his own jacket, as Starsky tossed the report and the slender file into Dobey's inbox. They left the squadroom, Starsky's steps light as he anticipated a quiet evening at home. Maybe they'd experiment with something new for dinner, if the sultry Bay City heat relented enough to make the kitchen bearable. He was in the mood for beef of some type--and a little beefcake later on.

The optimistic thoughts were jarred out of his head, as they turned the corner and headed for the main entrance. The longer-legged Hutch, who had been leading the way, had stopped so abruptly that Starsky had no time to correct, and ran right into him. Shaking his head to bring himself reluctantly into the present, he peered over Hutch's shoulder to see what had triggered this precipitous halt.

In the middle of the hall, engaged in an intense discussion that disregarded the constant traffic, were the boys they had just brought in. Sprung, apparently by the tall, distinguished-looking gentleman who stood, briefcase in hand and countenance firm, as he addressed the ringleader of the well-to-do gang.

"...will not stand for this for another minute, Peter Joseph Harrison," he stated sternly as the two detectives watched. Rivers of people streamed around the small gathering, casting curious but perfunctory glances before going about their business of enforcing or breaking the law. The teenager slouched, hands in his pockets. His demeanor was ostensibly subdued and obedient, but Starsky had seen enough of these kids to note the fists clenched defiantly in his pockets and the stubborn set of his shoulders.

"You are a leader in your school and your community," the tall man, obviously the blond boy's father, continued. "This is the third time I have had to cut short a business day to address your juvenile escapades, and I will not tolerate it further. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," came from the lips set in a tight line.

"Now, when we get home, you will apologize to your mother for upsetting her, and then we will sit down and have a discussion about the types of people with whom you associate," Harrison's authoritarian voice went on. "I think you all should consider that--carefully." His gaze swept the other boys in the hallway, two of whom leaned against the wall not far from Pete, their faces pained with embarrassment over this public dressing-down. "James, Anthony, you should be ashamed of yourselves for causing this kind of disgrace to your family."

Harrison's hard, steel-gray eyes continued down the hall to find the last member of the tire-lifting party--the skinny dark-haired boy with thick spectacles. Unlike his peers, he had removed himself from the group, and sat dejectedly on the floor, head resting on his crossed arms. "And this...this..."

"Rex," the blond youth supplied helpfully, and Starsky did not miss the flash of insolence in his eyes.

"This...Rex," the elder Harrison went on, his lip curling slightly as he waved a hand contemptuously toward the huddled boy. "I had my doubts about your association with him in the first place, and now I know my instincts were correct. He could not be a worse person for you to befriend."

The boy curled into himself farther, as if to escape the tirade. Starsky was aware of Hutch in front of him, hardly breathing, as if the words were being hurled at him instead of the spoiled adolescent.

"Nouveau riche poseur," Harrison declared, spitting out the epithet as if the words tasted bad. "And if that weren't bad enough, I know for a fact that this boy is...morally unsound. I will not have you exposed to this tawdry lifestyle, I will not have the neighbors thinking that you..."

Amazingly, words seemed to fail him, and he merely shook his patrician head. "I've bailed you out for the last time, Peter, you and your friends. Now let's go. Your mother's waiting for us at home."

The two silent boys pushed themselves off the wall and followed, as Pete, head held high, marched away from his father and toward the exit. Harrison lingered for a moment, to crouch down beside the dark-haired boy, still hunched in a miserable heap on the station floor. "Now you listen to me, you little fairy," he snarled, in a voice that lifted the hair on Starsky's arms. "I know who and what you are, and I will not tolerate your taint on my son. Keep clear of him and his friends, or I'll see to it that you and your family don't have a moment's peace in our neighborhood. Is that perfectly clear?"

For a moment there was only pathetic stillness from Rex, like a vulnerable rabbit frozen in the headlights of rushing death. Then, almost imperceptibly, he nodded.

"Good."

Harrison rose to his feet and strode purposefully away, clearly believing he had sufficiently dispatched this threat to his son.

Starsky's eyes flicked back to Hutch. Chest moving shallowly, Hutch was transfixed by the departing man. Starsky followed his gaze, wondering as he did what had Hutch so spooked.

Then he understood. The strident voice, the commanding I will not be disobeyed demeanor, even the expensive camelhair coat that swung arrogantly behind the aristocratic frame, were all eerily familiar. Especially, no doubt, to Hutch.

He touched a light hand to Hutch's shoulder, expecting his partner to jump, but Hutch merely turned to look at him. "What?" Starsky asked gently, though he was sure he knew the answer. For a moment, Hutch did not speak, his eyes only darting back toward the departing figure. Then he shook himself and favored Starsky with a faint smile.

"Nothin'," he assured his partner. "Come on, let's get outta here. This place stinks, worse than usual."

They took a few steps toward the door, then Hutch paused and determinedly retraced his steps. Starsky stopped, too, but held back as the blond crouched near Rex. He couldn't hear Hutch's voice, but he knew what he was saying. Are you okay, kid? Don't let that guy get to you. He's nothing but a bully, plain and simple. And if his son's anything like him, you're better off without him. The boy nodded, then replied briefly, wiping tears from under his fogged lenses. Hutch nodded, with a sympathetic look that Starsky knew, and that made his heart swell with fiercely renewed love for this man who had room in his soul for everyone, from the lowliest prostitute to the grimiest kid. Hutch placed a gentle, reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder and spoke at length.

Starsky figured he knew the gist of that conversation, too, and when Rex scrambled awkwardly to his feet as Hutch rose, he congratulated himself on his outstanding intuition. Accompanied by the lanky boy, Hutch returned to his partner. "Rex doesn't want to call his parents," he told Starsky matter-of-factly. "Since the charges were dropped--courtesy of Mr. Harrison--I thought we could save him some trouble and give him a lift home."

"Sure," Starsky agreed instantly, though he knew it would delay their quiet dinner. Earlier, he had been annoyed that the kid had lost his lunch all over him while sustaining nary a splash himself; now, he was grateful.

**********

They dropped Rex off a discreet distance from his modest home. As Starsky pulled away, Hutch watched the dejected figure slink down the sidewalk, and knew Starsky was doing the same, despite his studied attention to the road. They drove a short distance in silence, then Starsky cleared his throat.

"Uh...Hutch?"

"Yeah."

"Where we goin'?"

"My place, I guess," Hutch responded slowly. "There's food left from the party, and I bought some stuff for us when I went to the market."

"Your place it is." Starsky palmed the Torino into a turn, and they headed toward Venice.

They spoke idly of inconsequential topics on the way there. By the time they arrived, Hutch's headache had returned, as the incident with the teenagers refused to be left at the office.

Starsky was clearly feeling more buoyant than his partner, as he leapt up the stairs like a blue-jeaned gazelle. Following him, Hutch couldn't help but smile and feel gratitude well up inside him. He'd watched Starsky precede him up the stairs hundreds of times, maybe thousands, but there was something particularly reassuring about it since the shooting. After months of not knowing whether his partner would ever be the same, the sight of Starsky moving with his usual agile grace took his breath away in more ways than one.

Unlocking the apartment door, Starsky must have felt Hutch's eyes on him, for he glanced over his shoulder with a fond smile. "What?"

"Nothing," Hutch said, returning the smile and feeling his headache briefly retreat. "Just enjoying the view."

Starsky twitched his firm and well-muscled derriere. "Watchin's easy," he teased. "Are you planning on gettin' into the game?"

"Dinner first," Hutch insisted.

Above him, Starsky mock-pouted. Hutch reached the landing and nudged him gently out of the way.

"Stop it," he ordered. "Dinner means more stamina...and besides, anticipation's half the fun, right?"

He watched Starsky's eyes grow dark with lust and love, and risked a brief kiss on his partner's lips as he entered the apartment.

As usual, Starsky headed straight for the bathroom, while Hutch sorted absently through his mail--bills, a letter from his sister, solicitations from credit card companies who clearly had unrealistic ideas about a cop's earning potential. He dropped the stack onto his desk. Turning a knob on his new answering machine, he moved toward the bedroom to shed his jacket and holster.

Starsky had given him the thing for his birthday, soon after acquiring one himself, and Hutch still wasn't sure whether it was a blessing or a curse. It was easier for Huggy to alert them to the fact that he needed a meet, and they could ignore Dobey's grumbling if the matter wasn't urgent, simply by letting the machine answer and listening to the message before deciding whether to pick up the phone. And they'd both fallen into the habit of leaving each other and themselves reminders and, sometimes, tender messages during the work day.

On the other hand, both Huggy and Dobey's calls seemed to increase in direct relationship to the number of times they let the machine pick up.

Today, the messages were fairly benign. As he moved toward the kitchen and began poking through the fridge to select items for dinner, Hutch listened as Huggy rambled on, a dentist's office reminded him of an upcoming appointment, and Starsky whispered how much he loved him. That one made him smile, but the soft expression faded as the next voice emanated from the machine.

"Ken, it's your mother," Miranda Hutchinson began. Reflexively, Hutch's shoulders straightened as he busied himself with precision slicing of tomatoes. "Honey, I know you're busy, but I really need to know what your plans are for the Labor Day party. Cathy plans on coming and bringing a friend, and I want to be sure we have enough rooms aired and cleaned if you're coming, too…"

The bathroom door opened. Almost simultaneously, Hutch sliced his finger instead of the fruit, swore tersely, and took two quick strides to shut off the machine--but it was too late. He could sense Starsky's expression without even looking, so he avoided it as long as possible, giving careful attention to staunching the bleeding of his finger.

Eventually, however, he had to look up, and the combination of surprise and hurt in his partner's eyes was exactly what he had expected. Starsky nodded toward the machine.

"That was your mother."

Hutch sighed. No way around it. "Yes."

"You said you hadn't heard anything about the big Hutchinson bash this year."

"I know."

Starsky's eyes narrowed, not angrily or even unhappily, but as if he were examining Hutch more closely, trying to find the answer in his face and his body language. "What's goin' on?"

His voice was soft and concerned, and Hutch felt a thousand times worse than he had for the past two weeks. Interesting. He hadn't thought that was possible. Cursing the machine, wishing he'd yielded to the numerous temptations of throwing it out the window, he tightened a washcloth around his injured finger, rehearsing a dozen answers in his mind. Finally, he gave up, shrugged somewhat helplessly, and told Starsky the truth.

"I don't know." He sighed. "It just seemed like it would be too...complicated this year."

"Complicated?" Starsky echoed. "Because of--?" His hand flicked back and forth between the two of them.

Hutch nodded. "They're judgmental enough as it is, Starsk. I mean, it's not like they're going to openly snub you, or treat you like--"

"Like that kid in the hall?" Starsky interjected.

Hutch laughed ironically, wondering why he was surprised. He'd been fussing over this decision since his mother's first phone call about the party, trying to decide what to do, but the events of this afternoon had cast considerable weight on the Don't go, don't even tell Starsky side. The emotional dismembering of that poor kid had played repeatedly in his head, like a film with an endless loop, and Starsky knew it, as well as if they'd both been in the same cranial theater.

"Right," he admitted. "I don't think my father would ever stoop to that level, but if he knew that we were...lovers as well as partners..." He shook his head. "I just don't know, Starsk. And I don't want to put you through that."

"Hey." Now there was an aggravated glint in Starsky's eyes, as he tossed the hand towel back into Hutch's bathroom and took a few steps past the threshold. "We've known each other long enough that you should have some things straight, Hutch. First is, you don't get to decide what's best for me. Second is, you sure as hell don't get to do that without talking to me first."

Hutch held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "I know, I know," he said soothingly. "But the weekend's never that much fun, it's mostly a bunch of rich people dropping names, comparing Mom and Dad's spread to their own, and driving the help batty with the latest fad diet. I just thought we'd skip it this year."

"Did you last year?" Starsky asked.

Hutch shook his head and sighed again. "No," he admitted. "I hardly ever get to see Cathy anymore, and I wanted to."

"Same thing, then," Starsky pointed out. "Let's go, see your kid sister, and have a good time. We can skip the name game, I think your folks' place beats yours and mine all to hell, and I'll be satisfied with a burger and a Coke."

"The Coke's not the problem," Hutch teased, relieved that Starsky wasn't angry. "It's all those exotic fixings you want, not to mention the precise level of charcoal the meat's gotta have before you'll shove it down your gullet."

"Hey, I'm a burger connoisseur," Starsky pronounced loftily. "I bet the 'help' will be glad to serve something all-American for a change."

Hutch snorted deep in his throat. Starsky's expression softened.

"You don't hafta tell them about us, Hutch," he said gently. "We've been keepin' the secret from Dobey for a long time. I think we can handle a weekend with your parents."

"Long weekend...four days," Hutch reminded him. "And trust me, it's gonna seem a lot longer."

"Four days," Starsky said thoughtfully. A mischievous glint entered his eyes, and he moved purposefully across the room to pull Hutch close. "Figure you won't want to do none of...this..." His lips brushed softly across Hutch's, as his pelvis did the same to his partner's lower regions. "...while we're in your folks' house."

Hutch felt a snort was the only reply that observation deserved.

Verbal reply, that is.

Starsky clearly felt the movement and firmness in Hutch's groin. He grinned and, impossibly, he pressed himself even closer. "So...seems we should get some extra...in...before we leave."

Hutch suddenly found it hard to breathe. Amazing, he thought. After all this time...

"What about...dinner?" he whispered, the words gently stirring the curls near Starsky's ears.

In answer, Starsky caught Hutch's head between his hands and, for several minutes, greedily devoured Hutch's lips with his own. Just as Hutch thought his knees were going to give, Starsky leaned back and grinned again.

"Food we can get at your folks'," he whispered. "Right now, I got all I want right here."

**********

Tap-tap-tap.

Starsky sat bolt upright on the bed. From the closet, Hutch glanced over his shoulder toward the door, one eyebrow raised inquiringly. For a moment, neither spoke, then Hutch called in a deliberately casual tone, "Come in."

The door flew open, and a blonde and pink blur blew swiftly across the room to envelop Hutch in hugs and delighted cries of "Ken! You're here! You have no idea how glad I am to see you!"

As Hutch hugged his sister tightly, nearly lifting her off her feet, Starsky leaned back onto his elbows on the bed, and appreciatively sniffed the smells of warmth and happiness Cathy Hutchinson Fuller always seemed to bring with her. Today, dressed in rose-colored shorts and a crisp sleeveless blouse, she bore the varied scents of berries, coconut, and the sunshine of late summer.

"You look terrific," Cathy said breathlessly, finally loosening herself from Hutch's grip and stepping back to examine him thoroughly. "You've been out in the sun...you've been working out...you've lost that gray look you had the last time I saw you."

Hutch ignored this last reference to gallantly return the compliment. "You look great, too, Cath. Doesn't she, Starsk?"

"She sure does," Starsky agreed with genuine fondness, as Cathy abandoned Hutch for him and gathered him into her tanned arms.

"And you!" she exclaimed delightedly. "Dave, you are almost too good-looking to be seen with this brother of mine."

"That's what I keep tellin' him," Starsky agreed modestly. "What can I say? I'm a sucker for the poor guy. Never a phone call, never a date...y'could tell he was desperate by the time I came around."

Hutch snorted and returned to the closet where he was, for reasons passing Starsky's understanding, hanging up four days' worth of shirts and slacks.

"So," Cathy said, clasping Starsky's hand in hers and turning to face her brother again. "How are you two? How's college...and the house-hunting?"

Hutch launched into a description of the various dwellings they had seen--and the many potential headaches each one's flaws represented--while Starsky simply grinned and drank his fill of the lively, lovely woman beside him. In many ways, she was a feminine version of Hutch, with the same golden-blonde hair and blue eyes. She was somewhat plumper than Hutch, and it gave her an appealingly soft and nurturing appearance. With her glowing tan and sparkling eyes, she was the picture of happiness and health.

"So, Dave," she was saying to him now. "Are you nervous being back in school?"

Starsky shrugged. "It's been okay so far," he admitted. "But it's been a long time since I cracked a book, and I never was a genius like the big blond here."

"Yeah, he always was first in his class," Cathy said proudly, beaming at her brother, who rolled his eyes. "And his grades weren't bad either."

The two of them dissolved into snickers and giggles. Accustomed to the way they were when they got together, Hutch shook his head indulgently and turned back to his unpacking, only to find everything was put away and he had nothing to do with his hands. He blushed and shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. "Uh...where're Mom and Dad?" he asked at last, when his sister and his lover had finally contained themselves.

"On the boat, of course," Cathy replied. "We can't get Dad away from there since he reduced his hours at the hospital. He spends more time tinkering with it than ever. Mom's finally decided she either has to go along or forget seeing him until the lake freezes over."

Hutch nodded, cleared his throat, and thrust his hands into his pockets. As he gazed out the window toward the lake, he felt Starsky and Cathy watching him expectantly. Then, with a somewhat forced half-smile, he came to a decision and headed toward the door. "I'll, uh, just go down and see if I can catch them...say hello."

Behind his back, Cathy frowned, the furrow between her brows a mirror of Hutch's when he was puzzled or concerned. As soon as the door clicked softly closed, she turned to Starsky. "What's the matter with him?" she asked worriedly. "I mean, he looks great, but he seems...edgy."

Impressed but not surprised by Cathy's swift summing up of her brother's mood, Starsky shrugged. "He's been like this since we got on the plane in Bay City," he told her. "Fussin' about everything, snappin' at me, half off in another world. I think he's worried about what this weekend's gonna be like."

"What about it? Oh." Cathy's frown deepened as the question trailed away. "Is he...? He's not thinking about telling them this weekend, is he?"

"Don't know," Starsky admitted. "He's gone back and forth a dozen times since your mother first called. One minute, he's sure he's not ready, the next, he thinks he'd better tell them before they find out some other way."

"Dave, this would be the worst possible time," Cathy said decisively. "All their society friends are here, and some of Dad's colleagues from the hospital. He'd blow a gasket if Ken dropped this on him now."

"Cathy, will you tell me something?"

"If I can," Cathy said somewhat absently, her gaze drifting back to the door as she nibbled on a shell-pink nail.

Starsky hesitated. It was a question he'd wanted to ask Hutch for almost as long as they'd known each other, but every time he introduced the topic, Hutch shut down completely. Press him, and the fireworks began. But things were different now--they were different now--and this particular question was growing in importance. "What's with your dad and Hutch? I mean, I've known Hutch a lotta years, and I've heard him talk about his dad maybe a dozen times. And I've met the man exactly twice." He hesitated again, then continued quietly, "Is there something there that I should...know about?"

"Like what?" Cathy asked, puzzled. At the look in Starsky's eyes, though, she shook her head emphatically. "No, nothing like that," she reassured him. "Dad's a good man, he really is, and he's way too well-bred to take a hand to either of us. Besides, he grew up in a different generation, you know, where the father's job was to put the food on the table and the clothes in the closet, and the mother took care of the kids. For the most part, he was just this person we had to be quiet for when he came home at night." She sighed. "The only time Ken really got his attention was either when he really, really excelled at something...or when he did something wrong." She half-smiled, but it was a sad one. "Ask Ken to tell you about the speeding ticket sometime," she said softly. "That'll give you a pretty good picture of the relationship they had--still have, really."

"What...?" Once again Starsky hesitated, but again he found the courage to push through. "What do you think he'd say about...?" It was his turn to let the question trail away.

"About you and Ken?" she supplied. Starsky nodded. She sighed. "Well, he won't be happy, I can tell you that."

Starsky wasn't really surprised, given Hutch's studious avoidance of both contact and conversation related to his father over the years, but he was disappointed. "You don't think that...being a shrink, I mean...he'd be kind of used to this kind of thing?"

Again, Cathy shook her head. "You have to understand some things about my dad, Dave," she said gently. "I've seen him a few times with his patients And he is...he's great with them; he really is--very caring and incredibly accepting. But it's like..." She groped for the words, squinting and staring at the ceiling with that frown. "...it's like the rules are different at home. He's got a position to maintain, a reputation to protect, and really, nothing comes before that. I know Ken always felt like Dad's love came with all these strings and conditions attached...and I'm afraid he's right."

"You seem to be okay," Starsky observed.

"Oh, I'm different, I'm Daddy's little girl," she teased him. "All I had to do was marry well and start giving him grandchildren, and I've done that." She sobered then, and her eyes sought Starsky's, their blue depths pleading. "Listen, Dave...I know Ken hates secrets and deception, and I know this is going to be hard for him. But, please...if there's any way you can, try to talk him out of saying anything this weekend. It was tough enough on him when Dad found out he was becoming a cop. This...well, this is not something you tell my father when he's in his 'pillar of society' role."

With a tinge of anger, Starsky said tightly, "Hutch's happiness should be more important to him than what a bunch of other people think."

"You're right, it should," Cathy agreed ruefully. "But it isn't. There's no point in Ken making this any harder on himself than he has to. It'll be better for everyone if he waits."

Starsky sighed. "All right, all right," he said reluctantly. "I'll see what I can do."

"Great," Cathy said gratefully. "Now, c'mon...I want you to meet Polly."

Meanwhile, the topic of their conversation was striding toward the jewel blue of Darabian Lake, where the Hutchinsons kept a number of watercraft, operated by motor or sail.

**********

As Hutch neared the lake, he shielded his eyes against the glare of the sun from the water and almost immediately spotted the white sails of the Id. The majestic sailboat was his father's pride and joy; the name was a classic example of Richard's ironic humor, since, as he often said, "I live a life ruled more by superego." A petite, dark-haired girl, dressed in a white bikini top and faded denim shorts, was standing on the pier, waving as the graceful craft dipped toward her, then swooped away. By the boat's swift, sure movements, Hutch knew his father was at the tiller.

He stopped at the end of the pier as the Id skimmed away. The girl turned, looked him up and down, and grinned. "Oh, you have to be Ken," she greeted him cheerfully. "You look just like your dad."

Hutch gave her the obligatory fake smile he always gave in response to this non-compliment.

"I'm Polly Drake," she went on, extending her hand. "Cathy invited me out for the big weekend."

They shook hands, then Polly turned back to gesture toward the Id. "Your dad's boat is gorgeous. Have you seen it since he's been fixing it up?"

"Nope," Hutch responded. "I live in California. Don't get out here too often."

"Oh, right, you're a cop!" she exclaimed, the silky black hair twitching to one side as she turned to look at him again. "Cathy told me you're a homicide detective, right?"

"Yep."

She grinned at him again. "Yep, nope. My, aren't we the laconic one?" she mocked gently. "Who are you, Dirty Harry?"

Hutch chuckled. Despite his trepidation about seeing his father, he found himself relaxing in this girl's presence. She was so open and unself-consciously chatty, he couldn't help responding, "Cathy's been talking about me, huh?"

"Bragging is more like it," Polly said with a comical roll of her dark eyes. "She says, among other things, that you're quite a marksman. Not to brag, but I'm pretty good, too. Do you ever shoot while you're here?"

"Sometimes," Hutch replied evasively. Richard Hutchinson had a small collection of handguns and had set up a target area a suitable distance from the house. Though Hutch knew he could outshoot his father even on a bad day, he rarely accepted the invitation to do so. Richard tended to turn recreational target practice into a fierce competition, and wasn't too pleasant to be around when Hutch easily beat him. "It's too much of a busman's holiday for me," he added, trying to lighten his own mood, and then skillfully changed the subject. "So, how do you and Cathy know each other?"

"We both play tennis at the club," Polly answered. "Our better halves wanted to play doubles for a while, but Cathy and I got tired of playing for blood. So now we let Craig and Pat beat each other's brains out, and we take a court at the other end and have fun."

"Do you have kids in Brian's play group, too?" Eyes on the Id, mind only half on his attempts at pleasant conversation, Hutch assumed Polly must be Cathy's age and thus married with children, too. Brian was Cathy and Craig's precocious two-year-old son, who had delighted his uncle at last year's Labor Day party by producing a version of his name that was almost recognizable.

"No, but I have a cat that weighs about as much as he does." Her voice sounded surprised that he'd ask, but at that moment, Hutch was distracted by a soft bump that announced the approach of the Id, which his father was maneuvering into its slip at the dock.

Suddenly, he felt like an awkward and inadequate adolescent, waiting for his father's return home, knowing he had a poor report card in his pocket. He stepped back from the slip and wiped damp palms on his jeans. Polly moved forward to help secure the bowline to the pier's cleats, and Hutch watched as his mother stepped with surprising nimbleness from the boat to the dock. Her face lit up when she saw him, and she hurried to gather him in her arms.

"I'm so glad you decided to come," she exclaimed, breathless from the strength of Hutch's return hug. "Where's David?"

"Up at the house, with Cathy," Hutch replied, rolling his eyes. "You know how those two are when they get together...can't separate them with a crowbar for the first twelve hours, and can't stay in the same room with them either."

Miranda laughed, then drew back as if to examine him more closely. Hutch did the same, pleased to see she looked happy and fit.

Though the blond, blue-eyed Hutchinsons all resembled each other to a certain extent, Hutch, as Polly had noticed, took strongly after his father. Cathy's petite frame, delicate cheekbones and catlike chin, however, were clearly inherited from her mother. Like her daughter, Miranda Hutchinson was nearly a foot shorter than her son, and her physique was slender and compact, testament to a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. She was more tanned than Hutch remembered, probably due to the increased time outdoors, and her silvering hair framed her face in a new style that was short, sleek, and flattering. Her smooth skin bore fewer lines than expected, given her age, and Hutch knew she spent hours with anti-aging treatments--not out of personal vanity, but because she was always conscious of Richard's standing in the community and her role in helping maintain it.

She selected her clothing with as much care as she lavished on her complexion, and she monitored the household staff with a sharp eye to the smallest domestic detail. Her keen awareness of the family's social status extended to the children, and she expected both Ken and Cathy to conduct themselves with dignity and maturity. Even now, Hutch could instantly recall a myriad of childhood reminders and gentle corrections: Stand up straight, dear, and Let's find something a little more appropriate for you to wear, and This isn't the time or the place for this discussion. She tolerated little criticism or even discussion of Richard's flaws, and never in front of non-family members.

But Hutch knew there was more to his mother than simply the gracious hostess and lovely, learned doctor's wife, and he admired the deft way she kept harmony in the Hutchinson household. Though her loyalty and love for his father was absolute, she also seemed to sense how much Richard demanded of their son, how rarely Hutch gained his approval, and how desperately he longed for it. As if to compensate, she had tried to find the occasional opening in her social schedule to attend his various school functions, encouraged him when he labored over tests or homework, and praised him wholeheartedly when he brought home awards and trophies. Even in adulthood, Hutch could count on at least a dozen hugs and kisses from Miranda each time they saw each other. He could not recall his father doing the same, even once.

Miranda had clearly shared Richard's disappointment when Hutch had chosen law enforcement over medical school, but once the decision had been made, her support had been subtle but staunch. After Vanessa left, Richard had responded with displeasure and a catalogue of things Hutch must have done wrong, but Miranda had simply inquired after her son's welfare. And when he told them Starsky had been shot, Richard had accepted the news without comment, other than to ask medical questions Hutch couldn't answer, and hadn't the stomach to. Miranda had only murmured her sympathy, but the next day, a colorful, tasteful bouquet had arrived at Starsky's house. It bore both his parents' names, but Hutch knew who had sent it.

In short, she had always been an island in the often tumultuous and overwhelming sea of life with his father.

"Ken," his mother's voice came, interrupting his thoughts. "You're staring. Is my hair a mess from being on the boat?"

"Yep," Hutch teased, as he gave her another quick, affectionate squeeze. "Looks like Phyllis Diller on a bad day, and the entire Lady's Auxiliary is on the porch, just waiting to capture it for next month's newsletter."

"Oh, hush." One hand went automatically to her hair, but her smile widened fondly as she laid the other hand on Hutch's cheek, as if assuring herself that the healthy color and firm flesh were real. "You look wonderful," she declared. "Last time we saw you, you looked so worried--almost

haggard."

Though he knew she was delighted by his improved appearance, Hutch shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. "It was a rough year," he said softly. "Things are...better now."

"I can tell," she returned, then her delicate brows drew in as she continued to look at him. "There's something else," she mused. "Something that hasn't been there for a while. It's almost like you're--" She paused, the pensive frown deepening, as if she were groping for a memory.

In love, Mom?

Panicking, worried she would guess his feelings despite his attempts to keep them hidden, Hutch sorted rapidly through a dozen evasive responses to the expected query. Ironically, he was saved from answering by his father, who had finished securing the boat and was now striding toward them.

Typically, however, the rescue from the proverbial frying pan was followed by an immediate descent into the accompanying fire.

"Ken," Richard said as he joined them, the stiff greeting a cold contrast to Miranda's warm embrace. His clinical gaze swept his son from head to foot. "You're looking...well."

"You, too," Hutch returned cordially, conscious of the formality in his own tone.

"Yes, well, a little relaxation after a long day's work never harmed anyone," Richard declared.

"True," was all Hutch could think of to say.

There was a moment of silence, and Hutch counted the pulse in his head, praying for at least a postponement of any unpleasantness. But it was not to be, for Richard rocked back on his heels and said disapprovingly, "We weren't sure you were coming. It took you quite a while to give your mother an answer."

"Yeah, well," Hutch stammered. Again, he searched desperately for a response that wouldn't send him straight into the lion's maw, but his adult brain abruptly deserted him, leaving an unarmed adolescent in its place. "We've been pretty busy, with work and the class and all," finally emerged, seemingly of its own volition. "And besides," he went on hurriedly, when Richard looked dissatisfied with that explanation, "we weren't sure until the last minute if we could afford it."

The second the words left his mouth, he delivered a mental slap to his forehead. Oh, sure, just give him the opening, why don't you?

As expected, Richard's shoulders rose and fell in an overly patient sigh. "Yes," he murmured. "I imagine it would be a strain on a police officer's income."

Prickles of annoyance clawed up and down Hutch's spine. He shifted his feet, acutely aware of Polly, who was watching with carefully neutral eyes, and his mother, whose expression handed him the responsibility of backing down. With some difficulty, he bit back his retort about psychiatrists growing rich on other people's misery and settled for a tight, non-committal smile.

Mercifully, Miranda stepped swiftly into the opening he provided, tucking one hand through Richard's arm. "Let's go up to the house," she suggested. "I imagine everyone would like to shower and change before dinner."

She gently tugged her husband toward the path leading to the house, while Hutch and Polly remained behind. Fighting to regain his composure, Hutch unclenched his fists and reminded himself that he didn't want to spend the next four days choking down resentment at his father's disappointment.

"Wow," he heard Polly whistle beside him. "That was totally unexpected." She turned to look at him, dark eyes a mixture of bewilderment and sympathy. "Your dad's been a charmer since I got here," she observed. "Where the heck did that come from?"

Hutch drew in a ragged breath and puffed it out. "From being in the same space as me," he replied tersely.

She seemed about to speak again, but his expression must have reflected the miserable struggle within. She simply laid a hand briefly on his arm, squeezed, and started up the path to the house; Hutch followed.

**********

En route from Hutch's guest room to the dock, Starsky and Cathy had paused at the white wrought-iron table on the front porch so Cathy could spread out the latest pictures of Brian. Almost immediately, a member of the house staff appeared with a pitcher of ice-cold lemonade, set it in front of them, and poured tall glasses of the tart concoction. The two looked at each other, as the plump woman retreated, then Starsky grinned, and clinked his glass against Cathy's.

"I'd rather stay here anyway," he admitted. "Watching the first fireworks between Hutch and your dad'll be a lot more bearable in the shade."

"They'll be here soon, and you can meet Polly then," Cathy agreed. "Besides, I wouldn't want to hurt Jamie's feelings--she makes the best lemonade in the state."

Starsky took a sip from his glass and closed his eyes in ecstasy. "Can't argue with you there," he moaned as the sweet/sour liquid slipped down his throat.

"Okay, now I want to hear all about this course you're taking," Cathy urged Starsky after she had sampled her own lemonade. "Ken refuses to say anything other than the topic and when it is. He said he wanted you to tell me about how you're doing and what you think of it."

"He would," Starsky snorted, nearly sending a burning shot of lemonade up his nose. "Yeah, he'd want me to tell you about all the trees that were sacrificed for the first Starsky composition. Meanwhile Hemingway sits down at the typewriter, starts playing the thing like it's his damned piano, and bing." He snapped his fingers. "In the time it took me to write one sentence, he whips off another Hutchinson masterpiece."

Cathy was laughing merrily and had to plant her glass on the table before she spilled lemonade on both of them. "Oh, c'mon, you must be exaggerating," she chided. "I remember Ken spending hours on his papers when he was in college, trying to get them just right--"

She halted, laughter fading to be replaced by a demure half-smile. Puzzled, Starsky half-turned in his chair to locate the cause for her change in mood, and understood perfectly. Richard was ascending the front steps, accompanied by his wife and followed by Hutch and a dark-haired girl Starsky assumed was Polly. Leaning back in his chair, he felt the emotional temperature drop several degrees and figured Hutch and his father had already had their first run-in.

He ostensibly concentrated on his lemonade, while Cathy, Miranda and Richard exchanged a few words, but his eyes were flicking back and forth between Hutch and his father, amazed as always that two people could share so many surface features and yet look completely different. Like Hutch, Richard's frame was long, lean, and athletic, and though his hair was tinged with silver now, it was clear it had once been as golden as his son's.

But their carriage was different. Despite the childhood instructions, Hutch tended toward a loose-limbed posture that occasionally became an outright slouch, while his father's stance would have made a drill sergeant proud. Hutch's mouth, though it could be tight and hard in times of annoyance or confrontation, was also often soft and tender, even vulnerable. Looking at Richard's stern, unyielding lips, Starsky couldn't imagine them trembling at the sight of a teenage junkie, smiling or laughing with the sudden freedom and joy that lit Hutch's entire face, or touching anyone with affection or love.

The tight mouth now turned up minutely at the corners as Richard regarded Starsky with a flat, unemotional gaze. "Mr. Starsky," he said formally. "I understand you've joined us as well."

Some juvenile part of Starsky wanted to laugh out loud at this obvious statement that served as Richard's excuse for a greeting, but he curbed the impulse for Hutch's sake. He could practically feel his partner's tension from where Hutch stood at the foot of the steps, hands stuffed into his back pockets, head down, one toe drawing invisible lines in the perfect lawn.

"Dr. Hutchinson," he managed to say levelly. "Thanks for having me."

"Yes, well, continue to make yourself at home," Richard said, with a meaningful glance at the glass of lemonade, then crossed the porch and went into the house.

Miranda stayed behind for a moment, to squeeze Starsky's shoulders in a brief but welcoming hug, then followed her husband inside.

For a moment, no one said anything, and everyone studiously avoided looking at Hutch. Starsky swapped glances with Cathy, who introduced Polly to her brother's partner. Starsky and Polly exchanged the usual greetings, teased each other about being "the token brunettes," then fell into an awkward pause. After a moment, Polly excused herself, and turned to speak to Cathy in a soft, hushed tone, as if the situation had turned funereally grim.

Starsky turned his gaze to Hutch, still in mute choreography on the grass. He debated with himself, knowing how mercurial Hutch could be at these moments, then shrugged and pushed himself up from the chair.

He was descending the steps when Hutch suddenly wheeled and strode away, hands still jammed into his pockets, back stiff in that Leave me alone look Starsky knew well.

There was silence again, then Cathy's voice, gently: "He's probably going back to the lake, Dave, if you want to go talk to him." She sighed. "He spent a lot of time there when we were growing up."

"No-o," Starsky said, reluctantly conceding that he needed to honor Hutch's silent request. "He probably ought to be by himself for a while, pull himself together."

"Well, then, you can come on up here and have another glass of lemonade," Polly said brightly, clearly trying to lighten the mood. "We'll leave Ken the seeds and rind. That'll teach him to go off in a snit and leave us alone with the likes of you."

Forcing a smile, Starsky wrenched his eyes from his partner's retreating back and complied, rejoining the girls at the table.

**********

The next few days were as Hutch had predicted, Starsky thought--rich folks trying to outdo each other over exotic cuisine, with talk of cars and condos and vacation homes. To ensure no one went home sneering at Hutchinson hospitality, Hutch's parents made frequent rounds, inquiring about grandchildren and favorite activities, admiring clothes, weight loss, and new haircuts, and generally providing anything and everything the guests desired.

Well, Hutch's mother, actually, Starsky corrected himself as he and Hutch followed Polly, Cathy, and Hutch's father to the dock on Saturday afternoon. Though he was a pleasant enough mingler, Richard Hutchinson clearly preferred to play host from the deck of the Id, leaving the household responsibilities and pleasantries to his wife.

Most of the other men, having already taken a spin on the Id, had gone to the nearby country club for a round of golf. Several of the women were in the garden with Miranda, helping with floral selections and arrangements for the night's dinner dance. It was the highlight of the Labor Day festivities, and, while the Hutchinsons hired both caterers and serving staff, Miranda would allow no one but herself to take charge of the flowers. As a result, Richard had finally persuaded his children and their guests to join him on his prize. Polly and Cathy bantered cheerfully about the tennis game the foursome had played earlier; the girls had won, and they weren't about to let the partners forget it.

They boarded the Id in short order, and Starsky, Hutch, and Polly settled into passenger seats while Cathy helped her father launch the boat into the open water. Polly slipped on sunglasses and dug into a large tote for sunscreen, which she slathered generously over her slender arms and legs. Noticing both men were shirtless, she extended the bottle of Coppertone. "Want some?" she offered. "I know you both have good bases, but you don't want to end the day with a nasty sunburn, especially with the big dance coming up."

She had dropped her voice to a languid, lush Southern drawl, and Starsky couldn't help laughing. He accepted the sunscreen, while Polly responded to Cathy's invitation to take a turn at the tiller.

Opening the bottle and squirting lotion on his hand, Starsky began to apply it to his shoulders and face. "Polly seems real nice," he commented. "Definitely the kind of girl your sister would pal around with."

Hutch made a murmured sound that might have been agreement. Starsky tried again, extending the sunscreen.

"Want some?"

Hutch shook his head.

"Well, would you mind doing my back?"

Hutch turned to look at him, with an Are you nuts? expression on his face. "Starsk," he said in a low tone that was almost a hiss. "We can't do that here, and you know it. Not with my dad less than a hundred feet away and watching every move I make."

"What 'that'?" Starsky asked, genuinely bewildered and slightly annoyed. "I'm askin' you to put sunscreen on my back, Hutch, not give me a blowjob in the middle of the lake."

Hutch's eyes shot toward the stern, where his father was giving Polly a steering lesson.

"Will you calm down?" Starsky admonished. "He's busy; he's not even lookin' over here."

Hutch didn't move, other than to hunch his shoulders until Starsky thought they would touch his ears. He looked like a kid waiting to get caught with cigarettes or girly magazines. Starsky sighed. "Hutch, c'mon," he coaxed. "What's the matter with you? You've been jumpy as a cat ever since we got here, and you've barely said six words to me. It's not like your folks can read our minds." He grinned mischievously. "At least, I hope not."

"Can't take the chance, Starsk." Hutch ignored his partner's attempt at humor, eyes never leaving his father. "You don't know how he is...if he senses something's going on, he'll find a way to get at the truth. And Cathy's right; I don't feel like dealing with it right now."

"Well, he's sure as hell gonna know something's wrong if you keep this up," Starsky countered. "Relax, will you? In case you haven't noticed, this is a sailboat, not a prison barge."

He kept his eyes on his partner until Hutch finally yielded, letting his shoulders drop and his body relax against the thickly padded seats. As Starsky watched the tension ease from his face, he knew Hutch was enjoying the sun and the water despite himself. Though Starsky blew him a lot of shit about being a "Sea Scout," he understood that Hutch loved the water as much as the mountains, and was as happy in it as...well, as a fish in water.

"That's better," he said approvingly, leaning back, too. "So. What do you think of Polly?"

"I think she's great," Hutch replied. "She and Cathy really hit it off when they met at the tennis club, despite some of the obvious differences."

"Yeah." Starsky tipped his head back and closed his eyes, reveling in the warmth of the sun on his face. "Cathy's got kids...she's got a cat; Cathy's got a husband, she's got a 'same sex partner'." He grinned. "Your sister's quietly startin' her own little tolerance movement out here, isn't she?"

"That's Cathy," Hutch said, and though Starsky couldn't see it, he knew his partner was smiling fondly. "She just likes people for people; all the other stuff is irrelevant as far as she's concerned."

They sat in silence for a while, basking in the sun, the slight spray from the boat's clean movements through the water, and the brisk, fragrant lake breeze. "Your dad seems to like Polly, too," Starsky said, almost too casually. "And I bet he doesn't have a clue that she's a lesbian."

"Starsk," Hutch warned. "Don't start."

"Look, Hutch," Starsky said, opening his eyes and facing his partner. "All I'm sayin' is...Polly's just being herself, and your dad's treating her like one of the family. So I'm betting you could loosen up, and he'd be equally in the dark."

"Polly's not his son," Hutch pointed out. "He hasn't known her for nearly forty years, so he can't know how she's changed since she embarked on a homosexual relationship."

"Hutch--" Starsky began.

"Give it up, huh?" Hutch requested. "I'm doing the best I can."

His voice was weary enough that Starsky felt guilty about badgering him, and he retreated, leaning back against the seats to enjoy the sun and silence once more. He must've dozed off, for when he was aware of his surroundings again, Hutch was no longer seated beside him. The sound of voices reached him from the boat's stern. Hutch and his father were there; Polly and Cathy had gone to the bow, where there was a flat area perfect for tanning.

"No, Dad, I think you're wrong there," Hutch was saying as Starsky strained to listen. "Sure, these kids are screwed up, and I'm sure they could benefit from some couch time, but until we get some more funding for their parents, who are usually out of work and in incredible debt--"

"Don't be naive," Richard interrupted, and his voice was lazy and so condescending that Starsky knew it had to be pushing Hutch's buttons. "You can't just give these people money, you have to work on the source of the problem."

"Which is?" Starsky could tell from Hutch's tone that he was restraining his temper, trying not to bristle at being called "naive" after ten years as a homicide detective.

"You have to work with them, correct the essential internal conflicts that keep them rooted in unhealthy stages of development," Richard informed his son. "If you simply give them money, who knows what they'll do with it?"

"Buy food, most likely," Hutch responded tightly. "Even you shrinks can't label that as an oral fixation."

"Now, Ken," Richard chided. "You know it's not as simple as that. Until the deeper-rooted issues are resolved, they'll simply remain fixed where they are. Your jails will only become more crowded and your job more dangerous. Treatment--long-term treatment--is the key to truly turning someone around."

"And who's going to house them and take care of their families while you're poking around their subconscious, huh?" Hutch inquired. "I doubt repressed memories emerge with a wad of cash in hand."

"There's no need to be supercilious," Richard admonished. "Just because we don't take a problem out and shoot it doesn't mean we can't eliminate it."

"I don't--"

Though Starsky couldn't see his partner, he could tell by the abrupt halt that Hutch had stepped away--to bite back the words that would only make things worse and that he would regret later.

"You know, you were always such a thinker, Ken." Richard's voice remained unruffled. Clearly he was nowhere near as affected by the conversation as his son was. To him, Starsky figured, it was an intellectual exercise; to Hutch, it was something he faced on the streets every day, and it tore his guts out not to be able to do more. "I don't know when you acquired this...materialistic belligerence, this sense that throwing money and enough force at something can solve it. I can only guess that it is the product of your years as a police officer."

There was only silence from Hutch, and Starsky knew what his partner must be thinking: that his father had dropped his job into the conversation right on schedule. Never, Hutch had told him, did Richard miss an opportunity to remind Hutch how he felt about his son becoming a cop, rather than carrying through on his medical career. Never did he fail to cluck his tongue over the perceived deterioration of Hutch's intellect and refinement.

Never did he cease reminding Hutch, in a hundred seemingly benign and yet pointed ways, what a disappointment he was.

"My dad's a good man," Starsky remembered Hutch saying, on the few occasions he spoke of Richard, just as Cathy had told him when they first arrived. "But he's always wanted me to be something I'm not--him."

There was the abrupt sound and feel of someone plopping on the seat beside him. Starsky felt more than saw his partner's mixture of dejection and frustration at his father's attitude. He badly wanted to reach over and curl his hand around Hutch's knee, but he knew that would only make things worse.

As soon as they were off the boat, though, he was going to do something about it.

**********

Steps pounded on the path, passing through the dapples of early evening sun. Accustomed to such disturbances, birds and squirrels merely observed from the trees as the slender, athletic figure passed below. Steady, determined exhales accompanied the rhythmic feet and pumping arms. Squirrels and birds went back to their business. For a moment, there was silence, broken only by the occasional hum of insects and the lazy call of a contented bird.

Then more footsteps sounded on the packed earth, but their sound was somehow more...ominous. Branches shivered and there was a beating of wings as the tree occupants retreated or fled for higher ground. The jogger, focused only on the task at hand, either didn't sense the danger or didn't realize for whom it was meant.

Seconds later, there was a muffled scream and the sound of a body being hurled roughly to the ground.

"Please...please..."

Only the trees heard the cries, and they could only bear witness.

**********

"Hutch, babe, all I'm sayin' is that this is our last day," Starsky coaxed, struggling to keep his emotions--and his voice--under control. "We're leavin' tomorrow; can't you lighten up a little?"

"'Lighten up'?" Hutch echoed tersely. "'Lighten up?' What the hell are you talking about?"

"Look," Starsky tried again. "You've kept five feet of daylight between us for as long as we've been here, and it's starting to get to me. It's not like I want you to give me a big goodnight kiss before we go to bed, but it would be nice if you at least treated me like a friend."

"Starsky--" Hutch stopped short, then shook his head.

Starsky pushed himself up from the picnic table and strode a few steps away, unable to bear the strained look on Hutch's face. He had cajoled his partner into coming here, to a park that sprawled over a mile and was rich with isolated picnic spots. Set at just the edge of Hutch's neighborhood, it wasn't the ideal spot, but the town was small, and their choices were limited. At least there was a lake between them and the Hutchinsons. Tucked behind a cluster of thick shade trees so they were hidden from other eyes and potentially loose lips, he had hoped Hutch would somehow transform back to the attentive, gentle lover from home.

So far, however, the conversation had been less than encouraging.

"I'm sorry," Hutch whispered behind him, and Starsky turned to see his lover's eyes cast down to his clasped hands. "But...I'm not sure I can explain it in a way that's not going to sound lousy."

"Try me," Starsky said gently, easing back onto the bench and reaching out a hand to stroke his partner's back, as he always did in these types of situations.

Hutch drew away.

"Godammit, Hutch," Starsky growled, losing his own temper as he pulled the hand back as if it had been burned. "We're alone. There's nobody in sight...what are you worried about?"

"Godammit, yourself," Hutch shot back. "You're the one who told me to come here, and you and Cathy are the ones who told me to keep it quiet this weekend. So now I'm here, and it's quiet...and I feel like...like I'm living in two separate worlds."

"One where you belong and one where you don't," Starsky assumed. "I get that."

"No," Hutch murmured. "That's just it."

There was a beat of silence between them, then Starsky inquired, "What's it?"

"I..." Hutch shook his head. "Starsk, I'm scared. Not getting shot in the alley scared, but scared to touch you, even look at you, for fear that someone, somewhere is gonna see us and hightail it back to my dad."

"And if they do?"

"I don't know!" Hutch snapped, then halted, apparently making every effort to rein in his disproportionate anger. "That's the thing, Starsk, don't you see? This is where I grew up; I've got a history with these people. And my dad may not be Marcus Welby, but he's not the anti-Christ either! I've never been able to...to give up the hope that someday he'd accept me, and that we'd finally sit down and really talk to each other."

"And if he finds out about us...?"

"I don't know what he'd say...but I'm thinking that chance would be gone forever." He turned to Starsky and sighed. "And I...I don't know if... I just don't know."

Starsky's heart gave a hard, hurting lurch. Suddenly the man he loved looked tortured and defeated, and Starsky hated seeing him that way.

"I don't know, Starsk," Hutch repeated, his voice rasping hoarsely. He tilted his head up toward the fading blue sky, and Starsky saw dampness shimmering in his eyes. "When I'm here...there's so much pressure to be..."

"Someone you've never been," Starsky reminded him past the tightness in his throat.

"No, that's not true," Hutch disagreed. "This is part of me--some of me anyway--no matter how much I may not like it. And maybe I'm not prepared to turn my back on it forever."

"This isn't you," Starsky argued. "This is someone you might have been years ago, or might've been if you'd gone a different way, but saying you're like this now is like saying my reflection at the fun house is the same as the one at home."

In spite of himself, Hutch snickered. It was an apt analogy. For the first time since they'd gotten up that morning, he turned and looked at Starsky. Now, far away from prying and judging eyes, he let himself remember why he'd fallen in love with this man. It wasn't just the lush dark curls, the finely muscled body, and the killer ass--though none of that hurt. It was expressions like the one Starsky wore now--the ones that said he wanted to know what Hutch was feeling, wanted to know how he could help, how he could take away the pain.

A dozen times since they'd arrived, he had longed to reach out and bridge the gap he'd put between them, but there were too many chances of being caught. The house already rang with echoes of his father's criticism, and Hutch knew the clamor would be deafening if Richard learned about him and Starsky. So he kept his distance, even though it was killing both of them. Even now, his hands and body ached for Starsky's touch, and he felt cold and depleted, as if he were running low on some vital body substance.

Suddenly, he didn't care where they were. He reached out, tucked his hand behind the back of Starsky's head, and pulled him forward. Their lips met, and he tasted salty sweat, a hint of suntan lotion, and the beer Starsky had brought with him to the park. He let himself submerge into the kiss, into the reminder that he was loved by this man--unconditionally. Something he had never gotten from his father.

Starsky's own hand had come up to clasp the back of Hutch's neck. He returned the kiss, their tongues dueling lazily, and then they separated with a small sigh, but their foreheads lingered together. After a moment, Hutch spoke softly.

"Just bear with me, Starsk."

Starsky's hand tightened on his neck.

"You got it, babe."

**********

"...and, dear Lord, we ask you to hear us as we pray for the sinners of our city. Watch over us as we do Your work, and help us bring them back into the embrace of Your tender arms. Amen."

A mumbled chorus of amens.

The man at the front of the ersatz church was really quite nondescript--medium height, light brown hair, pleasant features. His eyes glowed with religious fervor, but there was nothing of the fanatic or zealot in their forgettable hazel depths. Dressed in a pair of chinos and a simple plaid cotton shirt, he was indistinguishable from his parishioners as soon as he lowered his arms and entered their midst.

"Jake...Bobby...David," he greeted the young men cheerfully, giving each a firm handshake and a welcoming smile. "I trust you've been out doing the Lord's work?"

"That we have, Wade," the one he called Bobby replied. He was a tall, athletic young man, with neatly trimmed blond hair, expensive clothes, and perfect white teeth, which he flashed at his friends. "Hit the jackpot, as a matter of fact, right, Dave?"

"Yep," the wiry, dark-haired boy agreed, shifting a toothpick to one side as he spoke. In contrast to his companion, he seemed stuck in the "Born to Run" era, with battered blue jeans, a leather jacket hung with chains and buckles, and motorcycle boots that seemed to swallow his feet. "This weather brings 'em out of the woodwork."

"Praise Jesus," Wade breathed. "Women...or men?"

"Both," Jake chimed in. With his crewcut and his thick neck and muscled frame, he could have been a football player, though few of those attended practice in Mexican shirts, peace-symboled jeans, and rope sandals. "Gave the lesson to one already...the one whose picture we showed you the other day. She was by herself this time, though--her 'girlfriend' must've left early. "

"Excellent."

"And we took pictures of several others," said Bobby, his smile widening. "Jake's gonna develop 'em right away. We'll bring them in as soon as they're ready."

"You boys are truly angels of the Lord," Wade said, beaming. "I know this may seem a harsh way to send our message, but we have tried so many other methods, only to have our words fall on deaf ears. Their pain may be great now, but if we succeed, we will have saved them all, and the others who receive our word, from eternal damnation." He drew all three boys into a quick, enthusiastic embrace, missing the look of derision they exchanged behind his back. "Bless you, boys." Releasing them, he cocked his head toward the small dining area. "Now, go get yourselves some dinner before it's all gone."

**********

It was completely dark by the time Hutch steered the rental car back to the Hutchinson house. For the first time since they'd arrived, he felt relaxed and safe, his hand and Starsky's clasped on the seat between them. The hours with Starsky by the lake had reminded him of the precious thing they shared, and of how much he loved simply being with and talking to his partner. More than that, he knew they would be home in less than twenty-four hours, away from the prying eyes and probing questions of his psychiatrist father, and the conflict of yearning between his then and his now.

Less than twenty-four hours--and they could sleep cradled in each other's arms again.

"What the--?" he heard Starsky mutter, and the hand in his tensed and then withdrew.

The house was as bright as day, every light in the house blazing a trail across the lush green lawn and circular drive. Downstairs, Hutch saw human shadows milling back and forth on the broad front porch. Upstairs, a cluster of curious guests was silhouetted in one of the large bay windows. At first, he thought it was only the expected hubbub from the annual dinner-dance, but as they pulled into the driveway, he saw three police cars in front of the house, lights dimmed but radios audible from where they were. And now, he could see that several of the figures on the porch wore all-too-familiar uniforms.

Hutch pressed the accelerator, swung the rental car into a spot in front of the multi-car garage, and yanked the gearshift into park. Simultaneously, he and Starsky tumbled out of the car and headed full-tilt toward the house.

Someone detached from the shifting amoebic patterns on the porch and ran toward them, calling. "Ken! Dave! Thank God you're back!"

It was Cathy who flew straight into Hutch's arms, sobbing uncontrollably and babbling incoherently. Hutch pulled her close, smoothing her hair, and whispered soothing noises into the silky blond strands. "Shhh...slow down, honey," he murmured. "I can't help if I can't understand what you're saying."

He felt her bring her tears and shaking under control, and at last her shoulders squared and she lifted herself from his chest. "Polly..." she said, then halted as another sob hitched out of her throat. "She was...she was beaten and raped."

"What?" Starsky and Hutch burst out. "When? Where?"

"I found her...a couple of hours ago," Cathy wept. "She went out for a run at the park, and when she was gone over two hours, I got worried. She only runs about three miles, and it usually only takes her twenty-five minutes." She stopped again, swollen eyes blinking rapidly. "K-Ken," she shuddered. "How she looked...what they did to her..."

She collapsed against his chest again, and Hutch wrapped his arms around her. He adored his sister, and right now he wanted to protect her more fiercely than he ever had in his life. All he could see, in his mind's eye, was Cathy's bruised and battered body lying beside a path somewhere--violated, brutalized, left for dead.

"Polly," Cathy whimpered into his shirt. "They...it was because she's a lesbian."

"Oh, Cathy," Hutch said gently. "You don't know that, sweetheart. There are a lot of sexual predators who hang around jogging trails, trying to catch a woman alone--"

"No," Cathy argued adamantly, pulling back to clutch his biceps. "I saw her, Ken. They..."

Her throat worked and her grip tightened on his arms. "It's okay," he whispered. "We can talk about it later."

"They..." Cathy struggled to compose herself, and then blurted in a voice thinned by her tears, "They cut it into her arm--'dyke'."

From the corner of his eye, Hutch saw Starsky turn away, and knew his partner was as nauseous as he was. He pulled Cathy close again and began to rub her back gently, as he had done when they were children and she had a tummy ache. He had no words, no way to explain or smooth the monstrous acts of assault or rape themselves, much less in the name of homophobic prejudice. Over Cathy's head, his eyes sought and found Starsky's, and he hurt again at the look of pain and anger.

"Ken," Cathy said, her words muffled by his shirt. "Ken, you and Dave have to help."

"Sure we will," Hutch assured her, not stopping his nurturing motions. "We'll stay a few extra days, make sure she's taken care of at the hospital--"

"No, that's not what I mean," she interrupted, shaking her head. "Dad's got that covered anyway, you know that; he's been on the phone practically since it happened. No, I mean you have to find out who did this to her."

Hutch's hand slowed as a dozen thoughts--unfamiliar, potent, shameful--raced through his head. On one hand, he had come to know and like Polly, not simply because she was Cathy's friend. On the other, if this was a hate crime, would they wonder why he and his partner had taken such an interest?

"Uh..."

Both Cathy and Starsky were staring at him, clearly stunned that he had not responded with typical alacrity to a call for someone in trouble. To be honest, he couldn't believe his reluctance himself, and he was even more surprised by the words that next emerged from his mouth.

"I don't know, Cath."

"Ken, come on," Cathy pleaded tearfully. "You know what they'll do. They'll crucify her. They'll put her on trial instead of the animals who did this. She'll never be able to come back here again."

"Cathy..." Hutch shifted uncomfortably, and he felt a guilty flush creep up his neck. "It's not our jurisdiction, and I don't know if we should step on anyone's toes."

An observer in his head stood up and shrieked. Jurisdiction? Toes? Since when do you give a shit about any of that?

Cathy stared at him, lip quivering, tears still rolling down her cheeks. He flicked his gaze to Starsky; the unyielding eyes told him what he already knew.

Godammit, he thought wretchedly. I'm letting everyone down.

"If this case were in Bay City," Cathy began, her voice wobbling, "you know you wouldn't let 'jurisdiction' stop you. You'd find some way to work on it, officially or not." She swiped a hand across her eyes, leaving a thin trail of mascara. "I know Dad doesn't approve of you being a cop, and I know you're trying to keep a low profile because of this new business with you and Dave." Her voice broke, and she blinked rapidly as fresh tears welled up in her eyes. "But this is one of my best friends, Ken. Please, we're all she's got up here. Can't you find some way...some way to...?" Her voice broke and she buried her face in her hands as her shoulders shook with sobs.

Starsky saw it--he saw Hutch's heart melt even before his face yielded its obstinacy and fell into folds of love and concern for his sister. He knew what would happen next, even before Hutch pulled Cathy into his arms and hugged her close. And he could have recited with Hutch his next words.

"It's all right, Cath," Hutch whispered soothingly. "I'll see what we can do, I promise." He held her close, her head against his chest, rocking her gently back and forth.

And at that moment, Starsky knew two things. First, it didn't matter whether Hutch told his parents that minute or never let them in on the secret.

And second, he had never loved his partner more than he did right now.

**********

"Ken Hutchinson," a nasal voice greeted them as they stepped into the sheriff's office. "Have a seat, boy, and tell me what you want. Big-city detective come to show us how to do our jobs?"

Starsky saw Hutch wince as they both sank into the wooden chairs that stood in front of the simple metal desk. But to his credit, Hutch checked his irritation and spoke both pleasantly and respectfully. "Not at all, Brady," he addressed the sheriff, a tall, forest-ranger-looking type with skin leathered and creased by cold and sun. "But I'm sure you can understand why we'd want to offer our help, since it's Cathy's friend." He leaned forward, flashed Brady one of his most charming smiles, and spoke conspiratorially. "I promised her we'd help, find out a little something, see how things were going. You know how it is. It'll make her feel better and get me off the hook."

Starsky's amazed eyes turned first to his partner, who had suddenly turned from "big-city cop" to Andy Griffith, and then to Brady, who actually bought it, chuckling indulgently and relaxing with a creak of leather into his chair.

"Yeah, sure, Ken, I hear ya," he said with a friendly wink. "Women do like to think they've got a finger in the pie, and the closer the finger to them, the better."

"You got it," Hutch replied, and only Starsky caught the edge in his tone at the sexist comment. "So, what can you tell us, without compromising the case, of course?"

"Well, there's not a whole lot that's not pretty obvious to the casual observer," Brady began. "She was jogging on Old Lake Trail, and they jumped her. We know it was a group, because there were a mess of footprints around and on the trail."

"Excuse me, Chief Brady, but I thought that was a jogging trail," Starsky broke in politely. "How do you know the prints aren't from other runners?"

"Old Lake's a toughie," Brady replied affably; Hutch's charm had worked its usual magic. "Only people who run on it are the college kids, and they've all gone back to school. We patrol that area pretty regular, and I don't think anyone had been on it since the rain last Thursday. Besides," he went on, opening a manila folder and pulling out some photographs, "If you look at these, you can see that these prints aren't from running shoes." He pointed. "Here's a pair of those wavy hippie earth shoes, and here's a good solid pair of Harley bikers' boots."

Hutch looked at the pictures, then passed them back to Brady with a nod of thanks. "What about a motive?" he asked casually. "Was Polly just in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

"We don't think so," Brady mused. "First, there's that cute little brand they carved on her arm. And like I said, we patrol that area regular. Our guys had just been through there an hour before; the perps had to have known our schedule."

"So they'd been watching," Hutch assumed. "They knew the area, they knew she ran there, and they knew--. Wait a minute," he interrupted himself. "How'd they know she was--?"

"Queer?" the chief supplied, without a blink. "Had a t-shirt on that said it, bigger than life: 'Gay Liberation Front'." The corners of his mouth turned down into a disapproving frown. "She's from the city, too, like you fellas. Didn't know how things are around here. If she'd been more...discreet, they'd never have given her a second glance."

"She's got a right to wear whatever she wants," Starsky said, more sharply than he intended. "Homosexuality isn't a license to rape."

"Look, I'm not sayin' she asked for it," Brady said patiently, but Starsky suspected he believed just that. "All I'm sayin' is...people don't particularly care to have that stuff waved in front of their faces like that. Especially not with what's been goin' on around here lately."

Hutch's eyes narrowed. "What're you talking about?"

Brady reached into a desk drawer and pulled out three more files. Assuming they were ongoing case files, they were pathetically thin. "It's not the first one of these we've had," he said brusquely. "Three in the last five months--all beaten, all gay, and all tattooed just like your sister's friend." He dropped the files on the desk. "She's the first woman, though, and the only one they assaulted sexually."

"Three?" Hutch echoed in disbelief, unable to fathom such brutality in his quiet little hometown.

"And you've got no leads?" Starsky asked, right on his heels.

"Oh, we got plenty of leads," Brady assured him. "In fact, that's the problem--we got too darned many. This town has what you might call a split personality, Detective Starsky," he went on, as if delivering a lesson to the "big-city" detectives. "We got your money folks, like Ken's parents and their friends, who keep to themselves and don't make any trouble. And then we got our redneck contingent."

Steadily, Starsky's eyes met those of the man across the desk. "Which are you?" he asked softly.

"That sounds dangerously close to an accusation," Brady observed as he leaned forward, his voice chilling several degrees.

Hutch put his hand on Starsky's arm, a hint of pressure requesting that he rein it in. "You'll have to forgive my partner," he said apologetically. "He's from New York. It's kinda hard for him to understand small-town prejudice."

Starsky stifled a snort of derision.

Brady looked appeased and leaned back into his chair. "Like I said, we got a lot of leads, but nobody's seen nothin', or they're not sayin' if they have," he went on, his voice less belligerent.

"Jason," Hutch said, his voice as thoughtful and deferential as if the idea had just occurred to him. "Would it be too much trouble if we took a look at those files and maybe did some asking around of our own? I'm guessing you're lucky enough not to see too much of this...and we might see some patterns from similar crimes we've seen in Bay City. We'll be sure to pass anything we find along to you," he added hastily.

From the look on Brady's face, Starsky sensed the sheriff was relieved to shift the responsibility of this messy case to someone else's shoulders, particularly someone who was a favored town son, to boot. Even better, the two detectives might actually solve the case and then go back to California, leaving Brady to take the credit, or forget the whole thing had ever happened.

"Sure," Brady said, casually sliding the files across the desk. "Knock yourselves out. As long as you don't get in the way of our boys."

**********

"'Get in the way of our boys'," Hutch scoffed as they drove away. "From the looks of these case files, other than taking pictures at the scenes and questioning the victims, their way is a pretty narrow one."

"Brady didn't seem too opposed to letting us step in," Starsky observed, steering the rental car back toward the Hutchinson house.

"Nope," Hutch agreed. "I can't decide which side of the fence that puts him on."

They drove the rest of the way in silence. Hutch was drawn almost immediately into the details of the files, reading each case closely and referring frequently back to the others he had already read. Driving through the increasingly wooded landscape that seemed particularly serene in the gathering dark, Starsky stole glances at the man beside him and allowed himself a frown. His dissatisfaction wasn't merely with the case, though the series of homophobic crimes horrified and outraged him as much as it did Hutch; he was also in a continuing sense of turmoil about his partner's distracted distance. In the four days since they'd left Bay City, this was one of the few times they had seemed close and in sync, and it seemed it was only because they were in "work mode." Though he suspected Hutch's reticence was related more to his parents than any true doubt about who he was or whom he loved, he couldn't help but worry.

"What is it?" The blond head raised from the papers and folders, and blue eyes examined him closely. Even in the dusk, he could see Hutch's caring and concern.

Starsky felt his spirits lift from the gloom. It's still there, he thought, with an involuntary surge of relief. He knew, and I didn't have to say a thing. Still and all, when he opened his mouth to respond, he found it difficult to put his thoughts into words that wouldn't sound whiny or blaming.

"You know," he began, hesitated, then tried again. "That talk we had yesterday..."

"Starsk." One hand reached across the seat to rest on Starsky's blue-denimed thigh and squeezed.

Starsky shifted slightly as his jeans grew noticeably tighter in the crotch. It had, after all, been four days.

White teeth gleamed briefly to his right, then disappeared as Hutch spoke softly, soberly. "I know," he said. "I just can't...focus on that right now, not with this thing with Polly. But, Starsk..."

The hand on Starsky's leg caressed and moved higher. The jeans tightened.

If he keeps this up, Starsky thought, gritting his teeth, I'm gonna be spendin' the night in the car.

"You know I love you," Hutch continued, his voice as tender and suggestive as his touch. "And I swear to you, I will sort this out. It's just gonna take some time...and some space away from my dad."

"You better put some space between me and you," Starsky muttered as he turned into the Hutchinson driveway. "Otherwise, this rod I'm throwin' is gonna do the sortin' out for you."

Hutch laughed, patted Starsky's leg one last time, then pulled his hand away so he could close the folders and gather them back in order. Starsky swung the car up to the bank of garages and turned off the engine and headlights. But his erection was still in full swing--so to speak--so he paused before opening the door.

Hutch, knowing his role in his partner's hesitation and feeling slightly--but only slightly--guilty, left his door shut, too. For a moment they sat without speaking, not daring to touch each other, but feeling the contact just the same.

"See anything in those yet?" Starsky asked at length, as if they were sitting in the squadroom, or lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, both thinking about the same case.

"Not really, other than what Brady pointed out," Hutch replied, in the same vein. "Polly was the first woman they assaulted. One man was alone; the other two men were a couple, attacked at the same time. They were all taken by surprise, and all 'branded' with some cute little epithet like they carved into her."

"How'd they know?" Starsky wondered out loud. "I mean, Polly was wearin' that t-shirt, but what about the others?"

"Reports didn't say," Hutch said thoughtfully. "Seems important, doesn't it?"

"Kind of," Starsky agreed. "And so does why Brady didn't close the park or up his patrols, and why anyone went back there when people were gettin' hurt--"

"Stop," Hutch requested, raising one hand. "This thing was already making my head hurt."

"Yeah." Both were silent for a moment, then Starsky asked, "You think Brady'd have any objection to us re-interviewing the victims?"

Hutch snorted. "Nope. Right now, I think he figures he's got it made. We get to crawl around in the seamy gay underworld, and he gets to take the credit if we solve the thing."

Starsky sighed. "Must be nice to be in the win-win seat," he observed, then pushed open his door to swing out of the car.

"Jeans loosen up?" Hutch teased, and though Starsky shot him a dark look over the sedan's roof, Hutch also sensed his relief that he, like the denim, had started to relax.

As they moved across the lawn, Hutch handed Starsky half the folders, and both were glancing through them as they started up the front stairs. As a result, both were startled when someone spoke from the porch swing.

"Where have you boys been?" Miranda Hutchinson sounded genuinely concerned about their late arrival. For a moment, Hutch hoped she might be alone, but his heart sank as another voice, this one chiding, emerged from the depths of the swing.

"Dinner was over an hour ago, Ken. If you were going to be late, you could've had the courtesy to let your mother know."

Hutch felt tension race back into his body, as if someone had simply opened his skull and poured it in. Grateful that the awning's shadows masked his expression, he took a deep breath and reminded himself firmly, You're not sixteen anymore. The worst he can do is disapprove; he can't send you to your room without supper or take away your car keys. Still, it was humiliating to be treated like a high-school kid in front of his partner.

"Ken?" The worry in his mother's voice grew. "Is something wrong?"

Breathe, Hutch instructed his lungs, and eventually they complied, giving him enough oxygen to address his mother, at least, in a relatively civil tone. "I'm sorry, Mom," he apologized. "Starsky and I went to talk to Jason Brady, and I guess we just lost track of the time."

"Brady?" Richard echoed. "Now, Ken, you don't intend to get yourself involved in this investigation, do you?"

"As a matter of fact, we do. She's Cathy's friend, we've both come to like her, and we'd like to make sure whoever did this to her--not to mention the others--gets caught."

"Others?" Miranda caught her breath. "There've been others?"

"Three in the last five months," Hutch confirmed grimly. "All like Polly, so we think it's probably the same people."

"Now, Ken..."

Hutch thought if his father said Now, Ken one more time in that superior tone, he would either scream or hurl the man into the lake.

"How can you do that?" Miranda interrupted. "I thought you and Dave had to fly back to California tonight."

The two detectives exchanged glances, then Starsky cleared his throat. "Well, if it's all right, Mrs. H.," he said politely, clearly trying to take some of the heat off his partner, "we'd like to stay until this gets taken care of."

"Really, boys," Richard tsked. "I'm sure our local department is more than capable of solving this and seeing the perpetrators get the justice they deserve."

"There's where I disagree with you," Hutch snapped, losing his patience. "I got the impression from Jason that he wasn't especially interested in pursuing this too vigorously."

"Now hold on just a minute."

Suddenly, the overly patient, indulgent tone was gone; even in the soft porch light, Richard's face was hard and critical. "Jason Brady's as decent a man as any in this town," he informed his son sternly. "I can't imagine why you would even suggest that he would conduct anything less than a thorough investigation, particularly when one of the victims was a guest in our town."

"In other cases, that may be," Hutch retorted. "But it seems to make a difference to him and his officers that this time all the victims are homosexual."

For a moment, there was a stunned silence on the porch, broken only by crickets and the distant murmur of Cathy's voice from somewhere in the house.

"Homosexual?" Miranda echoed at last. "You mean, Polly is--?"

"Yes," Hutch said tightly. "And so were the three men who were attacked."

"There have been several altercations in that park over this--activity," Richard said, shaking his head. "We've been trying to get the word out for the last year, but the city officials won't seem to listen."

"Word out about what?" Hutch asked incredulously.

"We've asked them to close the park after ten, patrol more often, but like I said--"

"That wouldn't have done any good in this case," Hutch pointed out. "Polly was attacked in the afternoon, remember?"

"Well, she shouldn't have been there," Richard said in exasperation. "This is just what we were discussing earlier, Ken. Homosexuality is a recognized psychiatric disorder, and until people get the treatment they need, crimes like this will just keep happening."

"So what are you saying, Dad?" Hutch demanded, ignoring the fact that his father had just classified him as pathological. "That this was Polly's fault?"

"Of course not," Richard replied impatiently. "But she should've been more careful. Around here, people--some people--aren't as accepting of that lifestyle as you and your partner seem to be."

For a moment, neither detective breathed. Hutch felt just one question flashing through his head, and knew, knew his partner was thinking the same thing.

He can't know. Can he?

"I know you're from the city, and this kind of thing goes on all the time there, and people accept it," Richard went on, and both Starsky and Hutch exhaled. "But this is a small town, with a very conservative element that simply won't condone it." He locked eyes with his son. "I'm not saying that whoever did this shouldn't be caught. I'm just saying that some people won't be too happy if you stir up a lot of dust about it in the process."

"Well, that's just too damned bad," Hutch said between locked teeth. "Because that's precisely what we intend to do."

He strode across the porch, ignoring his mother's pleas for him to stop and be reasonable, and flung open the screen door to enter the house. Without a word, Starsky followed him as he took the interior steps two at a time, stalked down the hall to his room, and slammed the door behind them.

"Do you get it, Starsk? Huh?" he railed, pacing the room as Starsky sank down onto the bed. "Do you see why I don't want to say anything? Why I didn't want to come here in the first place?"

"Then you'd better lower your voice, or he's gonna figure it out," Starsky said evenly. "In case you haven't noticed, most of the windows in this place are open."

Hutch took two long strides to the window and closed it so hard, Starsky was surprised the glass didn't shatter. Then, he dropped into an overstuffed chair and pressed his fingertips to his forehead. Starsky watched them whiten, and knew his friend was trying to pull himself together.

"Son of a bitch," Starsky heard. "I can't believe him. I don't fucking believe him."

Starsky let him fume. It wasn't his instinctual response, but given the setting and the heat of Hutch's fury, he figured it was the better choice for the moment.

Eventually, the mumbling slowed and stopped, and the hands dropped from Hutch's face. Taking an enormous breath, the blond man slumped back in the chair, pushing his long legs out before him.

"All done?" Starsky asked gently.

"Yeah," Hutch replied, glumly. "Give me a couple of those files. Let's see if we can put some kind of plan together."

**********

"Hey, Wade." Bobby stuck his head in the door of Wade's plain but painfully neat office. "Jake got the pictures developed that we took the other day. Do you want to see them so we can decide on the next...examples?"

"Yes, yes," Wade said eagerly, extending his hands for the pictures as Bobby entered the office, followed by David and Jake. As he thumbed through the photos, Wade asked, "What about the newspapers, Bobby? Did they cover your work on the woman?"

"Yes, sir," Bobby replied respectfully. "But it was buried in the police reports, just like all the others. I think the police are trying to keep this quiet, for their own reasons."

Stopping his perusal, Wade frowned with genuine distress. "Oh, dear. I guess we'll have to make further adjustments to our plan. The town won't receive our message if the papers don't give it more attention."

"With all due respect, Wade," Dave said, "you thought picking someone from out of town would grab some press, and that didn't work."

"We will pray for guidance," Wade decided. "The Lord will show us the way to bring our journalists to the light...or vice versa." He bowed his head. "Speak to the Lord with me, boys," he urged, extending his hands.

Rolling their eyes above the preacher's bent head, the three young men nonetheless lowered their heads and clasped Wade's hands.

"Sweet Lord," Wade said, his voice ringing with conviction. "You know we are doing our best to spread your message of purity, and to bring these poor souls out of Satan's erotic pit and back to the path of righteousness. But it appears that others do not want your work revealed, so we ask your help. Show us how we can bring your message to this town and to others around it. Thank you, and we praise your name. Amen." He squeezed the boys' hands as they mumbled "Amen," and raised his head, then picked up the pictures again.

"There must be someone among these lost lambs who are waiting for us to redeem them, to return them to the precious fold of--"

He stopped abruptly at one photo and peered at it closely. When he looked up, his face bore a mixture of triumph and sadness. "Where did you say you took these?"

"The park, like always," Bobby replied. "Place is a hangout for them, and every day there's more."

"Well, well, well," Wade mused, returning his attention to the picture. "'Ask and ye shall receive'." He handed the picture to the trio of teenagers. "Him," he said, his face aglow. "He's perfect. With this man, there is no doubt our message will be heard. Here," he pointed to the photo, "is your next mission."

**********

Starsky and Hutch stopped for lunch around 1:00, after spending their morning talking with the investigating officers.

"What a complete and utter waste of time," Starsky complained with a sigh, as they slid into a booth at the local diner. "Looks like Brady's not the only one eager to bury this thing. Bunch of footprint photos and a bunch of 'I don't know's'; that's all we got."

"Elimination's a lead, too, Starsk," Hutch reminded him, flipping through the woefully brief information in his notepad. "But I'm with you on one thing. If we ran an investigation this casually, Dobey'd have us busted to a beat before we could get back to our desks."

Starsky gave a nod of thanks to the waitress, as she filled their water glasses and placed menus in front of them. "You've been hangin' back," he commented, picking up the menu and scanning the daily specials. "These are your people...I figured you'd want to take the lead."

"Nah," Hutch said, but his voice was overly casual, and Starsky noticed the flushed spots high on his cheeks as he gave the scanty notes more study than they warranted. "You've been doing fine. I thought maybe they'd open up more because they don't know you."

Starsky snorted at the ridiculousness of that remark, but refrained from stating the obvious about the typical small-town response to strangers. "You're not foolin' anyone, Hutch," he said instead. "I know this makes you uneasy, but it's not like we have 'lovers' tattooed on our foreheads. If you wanna play, you gotta at least come into the ballpark."

"You think I'm compromising the investigation, just spit it out," Hutch said flatly, finally meeting his partner's eyes.

"No, I don't think you're compromising the investigation," Starsky said, refusing to be baited as he emptied half his water glass in one swallow. "It's not your usual style, is all. I wish you'd stop worryin' that everyone we meet is gonna out you to your dad."

For a moment, the cold eyes glared into his, then Hutch shook his head with a brief lift of his eyebrows. "You're right," he admitted. "Maybe it'll be easier this afternoon, when we talk to the victims."

"I sure hope so," Starsky said, draining the last of his water and reaching for Hutch's.

"Hey!"

"Quit grousin'," Starsky told him, draining half of Hutch's glass, too. "You do some talkin' this afternoon, you can have all the water you want at dinner."

"Thanks a lot, warden."

**********

"I wish we could help you guys, I really do, but they jumped us so fast we barely knew what hit us."

James Young and his partner, Terry Fields, were a little older than the two detectives. A roly-poly middle-aged man with thinning black hair, Jim worked at the local bank; Terry, slight and also brunet, was a cameraman for the tiny television station that covered area news. Though they spent most of their time at Jim's two-story house at the edge of town, they continued to maintain separate dwellings, and Terry never left his car outside overnight.

"I know that must seem silly to you, since you come from California," Terry said, almost apologizing as he explained. "But out here, they're still years behind the times."

"If they found out about us, we'd both lose our jobs," Jim added. "So we just do the best we can and hope everybody keeps thinking we're just really close friends. It's one reason we're grateful the papers have been so discreet."

You mean negligent, Starsky thought, but didn't say.

"We go out with women, as covers for all of us," Terry said, with a chuckle. "Knowing some of the lesbians in this town has been helpful, in a number of ways."

"Wouldn't it be easier just to move?" Starsky asked. "You're going to an awful lot of trouble to hide something, when you really oughtta be able to show it openly."

"Would that we could." Jim sighed regretfully. "But this house was left to me by my mother, and I still feel a...promise to her, to keep it in the family. Two of my sisters are married and live in Texas, and the other one--she's gay, too--left for New York years ago, for just the reasons you mentioned."

Terry reached over and took his lover's hand. The smile the two exchanged was so sweet, so tender, Starsky thought it looked like a mirror of him and Hutch.

"It's hard," Terry admitted. "But every minute we get to spend together makes it worth it."

Feeling an almost unbearable urge to take his own partner's hand, Hutch shifted in his seat instead and tapped the case file that rested on the table. "Your attackers knew you were homosexual," he said.

"Oh, yes," Terry said with a shudder. "Cut 'fag' into both our arms. I'm very glad I was unconscious by that point."

"But if you guys were so careful, how could they know?"

The two exchanged a glance. "That's an excellent question," Jim said thoughtfully. "How could they have known?"

"We do go to that park fairly frequently," Terry reflected. "There are a number of spots where one can go and not worry about being...seen."

"Did you know about the other assault?" Starsky asked. Terry nodded. "Then why keep going back?"

"I guess we figured it was just an isolated incident," Jim replied. "Besides, we just hated the idea of giving it up. It's pretty rare to find a place where we can...drop the mask for a while."

Hutch felt one side of his lip turn up briefly, as he remembered how he and Starsky had felt there, and for the same reasons.

"The sheriff's department patrols the area, but their rounds are very predictable, so we know when they're coming to what area," Terry continued. "Unfortunately, I guess our attackers did, too."

Something stirred in Hutch's head. Our guys had just been through there an hour before, so the perps had to have known our schedule. His pulse beginning to quicken, he flipped rapidly through the pages of his notebook, paused with a satisfied nod, then paged through several more. Reading quickly, he finally closed the book and tapped the cover. "I think we've found a thread, Starsk," he said to his partner, rising from his chair. "Jim, Terry, you've really been a big help. Thanks for taking the time."

"You're very welcome," Terry said, also rising and shaking the detectives' hands. "If there's anything else you need..."

"We really want these people stopped before anyone else gets hurt," Jim said fervently. "Otherwise, we're afraid the pendulum will swing the other way, and the town will turn on us."

Hutch put a hand on the chubby man's shoulder. "Don't worry," he said reassuringly. "Back where we come from, we're damn good at our jobs. We'll do everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen."

Jim reached up and patted Hutch's hand. "Thank you, Officer Hutchinson." He leaned in somewhat conspiratorially and whispered, "And don't worry, your secret is safe with us."

Dumbfounded, Hutch nearly gave himself whiplash, as his head snapped toward Starsky and then back to the other two men.

"B-but...how...?" Hutch stammered, knowing he had been as businesslike as he was in any investigation...more, in fact, given the circumstances.

"Please, Detective," Terry chided. "The way you communicate, your body language. You might say it's written all over both of you."

Hutch turned accusing eyes to his partner, who simply gazed back at him placidly.

"But don't worry," Jim told him. "I know it's a cliche, but in this town it's literally true--it takes one to know one."

**********

"Well, my young crusaders, did you find him?"

"Yes, we did, Wade," Bobby said courteously, sinking into a chair in the pastor's office. "He and that guy he was with are making the rounds, talking to all the people we've...worked on, so far."

"That seems strange," Wade mused. "For what purpose, do you know?"

"Well, there seems to be a little monkey wrench in our machinery," Jake said, settling his muscular bulk on a corner of Wade's desk. "It turns out Dr. Hutchinson's son is a cop."

"A police officer?" Wade echoed, eyes wide. "Not around here. Surely, we would have known that."

"California," Dave supplied, from his post near the door. "Couple of Bay City homicide detectives, according to the word around town."

Bobby crossed his right ankle over his left knee. "This changes things, Wade, as you can imagine," he said idly, resettling the crease in his sharply pressed tennis shorts as he spoke. "We're not too eager to play this trick on a cop."

"But don't you see?" Wade breathed. "This makes him the ideal target. A policeman, Richard Hutchinson's son, and an out-of-towner, to boot. The journalists can't ignore all of that, and the word will spread out of town, perhaps out of the state. The damage done to this man because of his sexual choice will send such a clear and powerful message, I can only imagine how much it will advance our cause." He rose to his feet and walked from behind the desk, to place his hand on Bobby's shoulder. "I know you boys are as dedicated to this mission as I am. It's true it's risky, and things may become difficult for a while if we're caught. But the Lord and I will protect you. And you may rest assured...you are earning jewels for your crown in heaven, and are responsible for saving a vast number of souls in this county and beyond."

He extended a hand to Jake, who took it reluctantly.

"Don't you see, my boys? This is a message from the Lord. He has placed Ken Hutchinson in our path so we can make a resounding call to the lost souls. This is His word that our mission is a true one and that we are working on His side."

The three boys exchanged glances, then Bobby shrugged. "Okay, Wade, it's your call. We'll keep an eye on them, wait for the right time to make the move." He rose to his feet in one elegant move. "Come on, guys, we've got things to do."

"Excellent, but, Bobby?"

"Yes?" Bobby halted at the door.

"This time, bring him here," Wade instructed. "The time has come. I want this man to know exactly why he is being sacrificed."

"Sure, Wade, whatever you say."

The three boys left Wade's office, then the building, and crossed the church's back lot toward the lake. "Do you believe that guy?" Dave said with an incredulous whistle, as he hurried to keep up with his taller friends. "Is he looney tunes, or what?"

"Behold the pitfall of passion, my friends," Bobby said with a sardonic grin. "This is the kind of trap it gets you into."

"So what do you think, Bobby?" Jake asked, fingering his beads reflectively. "You believe in this mission Wade's got goin' here? Think we're being set up for eternal salvation?"

Bobby snorted deep in his throat. "Right," he said sarcastically, pulling a cigarette from his pocket and lighting it. "No," he continued as the smoke drizzled from his lungs. "I think Wade Graham is as crazy as they come--and about as naive--but I'll tell you something else, boys."

The other two looked at him expectantly.

"It'll be a shame to see this little operation come to an end." He grinned, dragging more smoke into his lungs. "Now we'll have to find another way to clear the faggots out of town."

**********

"If we think the park is the key," Starsky said thoughtfully, as the two detectives pulled into the hospital parking lot, "then do we really need to interview Polly?"

"For shame, Starsk," Hutch chided, shifting the rental car into park and switching off the engine. "Just because Brady's boys get away with sloppy work doesn't mean we can."

"Yeah, I know, but..."

Hutch laid a hand on his partner's arm. "I know," he said gently. "We'll keep it short."

At the nurses' station in the tiny hospital, they were informed that Polly's doctor was with her, and they would have to wait before they could see her. Directed to a nearby waiting room, they were pleasantly surprised to find a bright, sparkling clean nook painted in cheerful colors and furnished in chairs that actually looked tolerable. There was even a small kitchenette, and an automatic coffee maker filling the room with a fragrance that perked up both men.

Hutch poured them each a mug of the fresh brew, and took a grateful sip as he sank down beside Starsky. "Sure beats the hell out of the hospitals back home," he observed. "Even real cups."

Starsky sampled his coffee and nodded in agreement.

They sat in silence for a long moment. Hutch gazed around the hospital, thinking little had changed since the family had come here when he was a kid. Occasionally, they had met Richard here for dinner when he was working late, which was nearly always. Other times, Miranda had brought the kids in for treatment-- Hutch for a broken arm, Cathy for a bee sting they discovered she was allergic to. The nurses at the counter had greeted him with fond and familiar smiles; Hutch remembered days when he'd spent more time with them than with his father.

"Hey, Hutch."

"Hmm?"

"Since we got a minute, would you mind tellin' me something?"

Hutch shifted in his chair, but refused to let apprehension spoil his cozy mood. "Depends on what it is, I guess."

"Cathy said something about a speeding ticket that...that sort of 'defined' you and your dad."

Hutch half-smiled ruefully. "Yeah, well," he said contemplatively, as his eyebrows lifted then lowered. "She's right about that; that was definitely a classic confrontation."

"So," Starsky urged. "C'mon, we're stuck here with nothin' to do. Spill it."

Hutch set down the cup with a sigh. "Okay, okay," he relented, folding his hands over his belt and stretching long legs in front of him. "I was, oh, I don't know, maybe six months past sixteen. Just got my license, had driven the family car maybe a dozen times. So, one night I'm driving home from a date, and I'm already late. She lived way out in the country, so I figured I could open up the car on the back roads."

And then there was the red light in the rearview mirror and the unmistakable wail of a siren slicing through the music on the radio. Ken felt his heart drop with the speedometer needle, as he slowed the car and pulled over to the side of the road. Working his wallet from his pocket, he withdrew the new license and waited for the sheriff to approach his open window.

"Well, if it isn't Ken Hutchinson." The amused voice preceded Jason Brady's appearance at the side of the car. "Where you goin', kid? Afraid the library'll close before you get back to town?"

"No, sir," Ken said politely. He had been taught by his father to treat all authority figures with respect. "I'm running a little late, and I...guess I didn't realize how fast I was going."

"That much was obvious," Brady concurred. "Fifty in a thirty-five, Ken. That's not the smartest move on these country roads. Tractor comes out, or a deer, and you're pretty much out of control."

"I understand," Ken said, wishing the man would just give him the ticket and skip the speech. He was quite sure he'd get an extended lecture when he arrived back home.

"Well, I'd cut you a break, but your old man would never sit still for it," Brady said, and slapped the open window sill. "So just sit tight, and I'll be back in a minute with the bad news."

Bad news it was, and worse news when Ken arrived home, seriously late and bearing an expensive souvenir of the evening's events. He'd entered the dark house with optimistic stealth, hoping his father would be asleep, or still at the hospital. But then he saw the light in the den and knew he was busted.

"Ken?" his father's voice called. "Running a bit past curfew, aren't you?"

"Sorry, Dad, I lost track of time," Ken called back, thinking he might be able to get away with ducking past and hurrying upstairs.

But these hopes, too, were dashed, as his father appeared at the den door, book in hand. "Lost track of time? You're over an hour late. That's a lot of time to lose track of." Scanning his son, he spotted the damning white leaflet in the teenager's hand. "What's that?"

Crap.

Sighing, resigning himself to the inevitable, Ken handed over the ticket. Richard read it carefully, twice, then raised his eyes to his son, who by this time was a shifting, blushing figure with hands tucked in his jacket pockets.

"Speeding?" he said sternly. "May I assume you were driving your mother's car?"

"Yes," Ken admitted.

"And doesn't Lori live on Route Ten, out by the county line?"

"Y-yes." Ken felt his voice jump like a needle on a scratched record and jammed his hands farther into his pockets.

"There's a lot of blind turns onto that road," Richard went on. "And I believe there've been at least a dozen deer killed there in the last two years, am I right?"

"Yes, but...Dad, let me...if I can just, just..."

"Well, then, tell me, Ken. What were you planning to do if you happened to come across a deer, or some other animal, or a farmer's truck while you were speeding down this road? Did you even consider the consequences of wrecking your mother's car, not to mention the damage to yourself?"

"I-I--" Ken stammered. "Of course I did. I just, I just...it was late and, and I didn't think--"

"That's exactly right," his father agreed harshly. "You didn't think." He examined the ticket a final time, then handed it back to his son. When the boy took it, the thin paper stuck to the sweat coating his palms. "Well," Richard went on. "Needless to say you'll be paying for this on your own. I suspect that will come from your spring vacation fund."

"What?" Ken said, blinking. He was going to Minneapolis to tour the university, eagerly anticipating an entire weekend away from his father's expectant eyes. "But...I've been planning that t-trip for months! If, if I have to pay for the t-ticket, I won't have enough...I can't get to the city, and, can't you--?"

"No, I won't," Richard pronounced. "You should've thought of that before you stepped on the accelerator."

"Dad!" Ken blurted. "Come on, this was a mistake! Can't you...? Can't I...? Just once, why not give me a break?"

"This wasn't a mistake, Ken," Richard corrected. "A mistake is something that happens even though you've done your best to avoid it. You made a conscious choice to exceed the speed limit tonight, and you've got to accept the consequences. That ticket is your responsibility, and until you've paid it, you may consider your mother's car off-limits. Is that clear?"

"B-but--"

"Is that clear?" Richard repeated, and his voice warned.

Ken swallowed, crumpled the ticket in his damp hand, and nodded, throat tight. "Yes," he whispered. "It's clear."

"Good." Richard turned back to the den, opening his book as he went. "Now, get to bed. I want you to come with me to the hospital tomorrow, to help in the office for a bit."

"But...I already..."

Richard turned back and fixed his son with an authoritative stare. "I'd say you're hardly in a position to negotiate," he said quietly. "Now, I suggest you do as I say and go to bed."

The ticket grew ever smaller in Ken's hand, his fingers beginning to cramp from the pressure. Without a word, he spun and started toward the stairs, but his father's voice stopped him once more.

"Ken, when I make a statement, I expect it to be acknowledged."

The boy paused, one foot on the bottom step, and considered just how much trouble he wanted to get himself into.

"Ken?"

He'd lived with his father too long; obedience won out. His shoulders slumped, and he turned back toward the den. "Yes, sir," he said softly. "I understand."

"Good," Richard said approvingly. "Now...good night."

"Good night."

"For cryin' out loud," Starsky swore mildly. "It was just a speeding ticket. What'd he get so bent out of shape about? I must've had a dozen of 'em when I was a kid."

Hutch half-snorted, half-laughed deep in his throat. "That," he said, "I can believe." Then his face sobered as he went on, "That's just my dad, Starsk. He always used to say, no second chances."

"Nuts," Starsky muttered, shaking his head. "No wonder you're so uptight."

Their mood was broken when the door to Polly's room opened, and a stocky redheaded woman in a somewhat rumpled white coat stepped out. She made some notes on a card in her hand as she started down the hall, and glanced up as Hutch approached.

"Ken," she greeted him with real pleasure. "Haven't seen you in a while. How're things in California?"

"Oh, you know, the usual, Ellen," Hutch replied. "We're moving all the criminals to the coast, so there'll be a clean sweep when it falls into the ocean." They exchanged brief grins, then sobered as Hutch turned to Starsky. "Starsk, this is Dr. Ellen Bell. She worked with my dad a while ago, then decided she liked it here--though she had the good sense not to go into Psychiatry. Ellen, my partner, Dave Starsky."

"Pleased to meet you," Ellen said cordially, gripping Starsky's hand. "Are you here to see Polly?"

"Yeah," Starsky replied.

"Business or social?"

"Little bit of both," Hutch said. "How is she?"

"Well, she's still in quite a bit of pain. Whoever did this to her was very nasty and very thorough," Ellen said, with an edge to her voice. "We're keeping her on pain medication, and she's still pretty fuzzy. And she needs rest, so try to keep it short, all right?"

"You got it," Starsky promised, and the two detectives started for the door.

"Oh, Ken, your father's in with her, but I don't think he'll mind if you go on in. In fact, it might be a good idea for him to stick around while you talk to her."

Hutch hesitated, but the move was so subtle, and corrected so quickly, he thought only Starsky noticed it. He covered with a polite, "Thanks, Ellen," and led Starsky into the room.

They paused just inside the door. The room was dim, the blinds drawn to encourage Polly to rest, and neither Polly nor Richard noticed their silent entrance. Reluctant to interrupt, Hutch closed the door softly, then he and Starsky remained in the shadows. Richard was seated in a visitor's chair beside the bed, one hand resting on the girl's shoulder as she spoke.

*****

The expression on his face struck Starsky so strongly that for a moment, he couldn't move.

The blue eyes, which he had only ever seen as cold or aloof, were full of compassion; the pale brows were drawn together in a look of listening that Starsky had seen hundreds of times. The hand on the shoulder, the soft soothing voice, the careful attention to Polly's words... They were the same tone, look, and almost physical wave of caring that Hutch gave to everybody who stirred his heart. To see these things in this man, whom he had come to genuinely dislike for Hutch's sake, gave him a surreal feeling, as if he had entered an alternate universe where Richard Hutchinson was a man of kindness rather than condemnation.

I've seen him a few times with his patients. And he is...he's great with them; he really is--very caring and incredibly accepting, he remembered Cathy saying. But it's like...the rules are different at home.

A wave of feelings welled up in him. Confusion about who and what this man really was, mixed with gratitude that Richard's "bedside manner" was providing just the gentleness Polly needed. Following that, however, was a rush of sorrow that Richard had apparently never given Hutch this same gift he extended so freely to other people.

Maybe he did get something from his dad, Starsky thought. But it must be genetic, because Hutch damned sure never learned it by example.

He reached mental feelers to Hutch, wondering if his partner had noticed the same discrepancy he had, but Hutch was merely waiting patiently for his father and Polly to finish talking. And in some ways, that saddened Starsky even more. Clearly, Hutch was so accustomed to this dichotomous treatment that it failed even to make an impression upon him.

Just you wait 'til we get back home, babe, Starsky promised fiercely. Gonna spend a lifetime giving you everything that bastard never did.

"I guess you had to cancel the dinner dance, Dr. H.," Polly was saying brokenly. "I'm really sorry."

"Don't trouble yourself about that," Richard reassured her. "I should thank you, in fact. You saved me a fortune in caterers' bills."

She started to laugh, but the effort was too great, and she winced as the sound turned to a groan. "How...how's Cathy? Will she be able to come out pretty soon?"

"She's been hounding the nurses to let her come," Richard told her. "They wanted to give you a chance to recharge your batteries a little, but I know she's planning a surprise. And Miranda sent word for you not to worry. You can stay with us as long as you want, until you feel up to going home."

From where he stood, Starsky saw Polly's eyes fill with tears. "Thanks, Dr. H.," she whispered. "You've all been so kind. I'm so sorry to have been so much trouble."

"Shhh," Richard said gently, and Starsky shook himself; the sound was so like Hutch it was eerie. "First of all, it's no trouble, and second, there's no need to apologize. This wasn't your fault, understand? It's very important for you to remember that."

"If I hadn't been running there...you tried to tell me," she began, but he interrupted again.

"That doesn't give anyone permission to do what they did to you," Richard said firmly. "You did nothing wrong; the people who did this are completely responsible."

"The police--" Polly hesitated, and Starsky knew she was thinking about the investigation and dreading all it would entail.

"Don't you worry about them, either," Richard said. "Ken and Dave are working with them on this, and you know they're good at what they do. I'm sure they'll find these people and do everything they can to protect you in the process."

*****

Beside Starsky, Hutch blinked. It was somewhat matter-of-fact, it wasn't directly delivered, but his father had actually said something complimentary about Hutch and his work. For perhaps the first time since he had left home, Hutch felt his father might understand--at least a little--about why he did what he did. It didn't make up for years of criticism, but it could be a start. He felt Starsky shiver for a moment and wondered what was wrong, then his partner let loose with an enormous sneeze. Richard turned from the bed, startled, as Starsky apologized.

"Ken, David," the older man said as he rose to his feet, and his voice had returned to the cool, distant place from which he typically addressed his son. "It would have been more appropriate for you to let me know you were here."

Hutch felt the warmth for his father disappear, like a tiny candle flame snuffed by a gust of cold wind. "We didn't want to disturb you," he explained, trying not to curse himself for thinking his father could change. "We thought--"

"No, I suspect, as usual, that you did not," Richard interrupted. "But that's a topic for another time." He smiled down at Polly again and pressed her shoulder gently. "I'll get going so they can talk with you, Polly," he told her. "But if you need anything, or if you begin experiencing any post-trauma symptoms--nightmares, insomnia, that sort of thing--I want you to let either myself or Dr. Bell know immediately, all right? As Cathy's father, I can't treat you, but I can recommend a number of excellent colleagues."

"Thanks, Dr. H.," Polly said gratefully. "Tell Cathy I'll see her tonight."

Richard patted her shoulder one last time, then turned from the bed to approach the two detectives. "Do you plan to be out long this afternoon, Ken?" he inquired of his son. "Since you seem to have trouble keeping track of the time, perhaps I could see that your mother receives adequate notice this time."

"No, sir," came automatically from Hutch's lips. "As far as I know, we'll be back for dinner."

"Thank you," Richard said formally. "I know your mother will appreciate that." He moved past them to pull open the door, then paused, his eyes going from the two men to Polly, and back again. "Don't tire her out," he instructed. "It's been difficult enough."

"We won't," Hutch assured him. Part of him begged to be allowed to speak, to remind his father that this was far from his first rape case, or his first interview at a hospital bed. But he knew that would only upset Polly, antagonize his father, and make this day even longer than it already was.

"Good. We'll see you at six-thirty, then."

He exited and Hutch expelled a breath. He felt Starsky's hand close around his biceps, and almost withdrew, then stopped himself. Richard was gone, Polly's eyes were closed, and dammit, he needed the contact. He let himself reach over and squeeze the hand back, then moved to take Richard's chair beside the bed. Starsky followed.

"Hey," Hutch said softly, and Polly's eyes flickered open.

"Ken," she murmured. "Boy, I'm quite the popular one today."

"That's a surprise?" Hutch teased gently. "Well, we're here partially on business, Polly. We need to see what you remember about the attack."

"Cathy..." she began weakly, then stopped, licked her lips, and spoke again, more strongly this time. "Cathy said you didn't think you could help. What changed your mind?"

"Dirty Harry," Hutch said, the left side of his mouth turning up wryly.

Her eyes registered confusion.

"'A man's got to know his limitations'," Hutch quoted.

She grinned, and Hutch felt tremendous relief at the normalcy of that expression. She's still got her sense of humor, he thought. That's a good sign.

As the girl's eyes fluttered closed again for a moment, he felt Starsky's hand squeeze his shoulder, then drop as his partner spoke above him. "Polly, can you take it from the top?" Starsky requested. "I know you're still pretty wiped out, so take all the time you need."

"Yeah, right," she scoffed, with a tired chuckle. "I heard Dr. H. If you guys are late for dinner, he's gonna ground you both for sure."

Hutch took her hand. "You let us worry about that," he instructed her, his tone even despite the prickle of irritation at his father's behavior. "Did you...did you see anyone at all before they attacked you?"

She shook her head. "Nothing," she said apologetically. "I didn't even hear them coming, and there seemed to be two or three of them, so you'd think I would have. But I sort of get into this zone when I run, so I was probably a pretty easy target."

"Hey," Starsky said, kneeling beside the bed and brushing a strand of hair from her forehead. "Don't do that to yourself. Dr. Hutchinson was right about it not being your fault--last I heard it was supposed to be safe to jog in a public park."

"I know, but still..." Her eyes went from Starsky to Hutch, and she half-smiled. "Okay, okay," she conceded. "But I don't know how much help I can be, if I didn't see anybody."

"Do you remember how many voices you heard, or anything they said that might mean something?" Hutch asked.

"Definitely at least two voices," she said slowly. "And it was weird--it was almost like some twisted version of the two of you. One guy sounded pretty intellectual, kind of like you, Ken; and the other one was tougher, more 'street.' It was creepy...that first guy...it was like what they were doing was some sort of, I don't know, experiment or something."

"So you did hear them speak," Hutch noted. "What did they say?"

"The usual, macho kind of stuff," she replied, her voice beginning to quiver. "You know, 'hold her down,' 'cover her mouth,' that kind of thing. But wait--there is one thing. Right before I blacked out, the one guy said, 'Praise the Lord'."

Starsky and Hutch exchanged puzzled glances. "Come again?" Hutch said.

"Oh, I don't think he meant it," Polly said hastily. "He sounded kind of...sarcastic, or something. I don't know." She sighed, and a tear slipped from one eye to roll to the pillow below. "I wish I could be more help, you guys. But they just...they got to me so fast, I could barely think straight. And to be honest," she added, her voice now trembling hard, "I'm just as glad I passed out when I did."

Hutch felt his insides twist in a sympathetic wrench. He remembered thinking that himself once upon a time, only to find his unconscious mind had retained more about a certain kidnapping than he had ever thought possible. To this day, he awoke to the occasional nightmare of a needle entering his arm, dreams so vivid he could still feel the pain, the initial mind-swallowing rush, and the torpor and lassitude that followed. Starsky's hand found his shoulder again, and he imagined his partner was having memories of his own.

"Speaking of that," Hutch said, shaking the disturbing thoughts from his head and rising to his feet, "we're going so you can get some more rest." He leaned down to kiss her cheek; Starsky followed suit. "Cathy'll be by tonight."

"Can't wait to see her," Polly said drowsily, beginning to drift back to sleep. "What's this surprise she's got cooking?"

"'Cooking' is the operative word," Starsky chuckled, squeezing her hand gently. "She figured you must be sick of the lousy hospital food."

"It's not s'bad," she murmured. "Tell her not to...worry about it."

She sighed and her eyes closed. Starsky brushed her hair back one last time, then they tiptoed out, closing the door quietly behind them.

Several feet down the hallway, though, Hutch stopped and looked at his partner with a frown. "'Praise the Lord'?" he said. "What kind of sicko brings that into a rape?"

"Makes some sense when you think about it," Starsky said, in a tone that revealed he had been doing just that. "Lotta God-fearing folks don't care much for the 'alternative lifestyle'."

Hutch nodded. "Good point," he agreed. "Wonder if there's something there. Do you remember a church near the park?"

"No, but I wasn't payin' real close attention," Starsky admitted.

"Well, it looks like our next stop is the neighborhood on that side of the lake," Hutch concluded. He glanced at his watch. "It's only a little after three. We can get a few in before we have to be back at my folks'."

**********

"Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine..." Wade hummed as the church regulars helped him stack dishes and sort flatware into silverware trays. He felt so buoyant today, he almost wanted to laugh out loud. Everything looked so beautiful, and so clear--the dozen young men and women who were gathered in the sheltering arms of his church, the spotlessly clean room that filled with more amenities every month, and the golden sun outside that the Lord had made. He knew the time was drawing near--the time when an unprecedented number of people would hear his message at last. Everything up to now had been a prelude to this, he realized, and the wondrous working of God nearly took his breath away.

He moved forward to close the front drapes, as was the custom at dinnertime. His hand halted on the threadbare cloth, and this time he did catch his breath.

"Thank you, sweet, sweet Jesus," he murmured, then turned to beckon. "Bobby, David, come here."

Exchanging their usual pained glances, the two boys nonetheless joined Wade at the window. "Do you see?" he breathed, gesturing to the two figures who were crossing the street. "This is another sign from the Lord. Not only has he brought Ken Hutchinson to our town, but now to our home."

"You call that a sign?" Dave sputtered, taking a stumbling step back from the window. "There's only one reason why they could be here, Wade, and that's because they think we're somehow involved in those attacks."

"Rein it in, will you, Dave?" Bobby requested with an exasperated sigh. "I've been watching them for the last hour, and it looks like they're just doing a routine check around the park. They've been to three other stores down the street."

"Besides," Wade said, "we have nothing to fear. We know the Lord will blind their eyes to our mission until the time is right. We are safe, my boys, and Jake, too. Let's just go about our business and see what transpires. Perhaps their questioning will help us set the date for Ken's...enlightenment."

"Sure, Wade," Bobby said agreeably, beckoning Jake from across the room. "Here, Jake. Take Dave, go to the back room, and find something to do until he calms down."

"Can't we just stay back there until they're gone?" Dave squeaked, as Jake draped an amiable arm across his shoulders.

"Man, it's a good thing you're not in charge," Jake said patiently. "It'd look kind of funny if we didn't 'cooperate' with the nice police officers now, wouldn't it?"

Jake steered the protesting boy out of the main room, Bobby settled himself at one of the tables, and Wade strode across the room to throw open the front door. "Welcome!" he greeted the two detectives cheerfully. "Welcome to the Lost Lamb Church and Youth Refuge. My name is Wade Graham, and I am the shepherd of this marvelous flock."

"Dave Starsky," Starsky said, extending a hand.

"Ken Hutchinson."

Wade took both detectives' hands at once and gripped them firmly. "Well, you boys are a little older than my usual visitors, so I assume you've not come for food or guidance."

"That's right, Mr. Graham," Starsky agreed. "We're working with the local sheriff on the attacks in the park. You've heard about those?"

"Indeed, I have," Wade said, with genuine sorrow. "So sad, those poor lost souls." He shook his head, thinking how wonderful the world would be when his mission was no longer necessary. "I pray daily for them to find the light."

He wasn't deliberately oblique, but he did find it fortunate when the two detectives misunderstood his reference. They exchanged a glance, then Hutch cleared his throat and said, "Yes, well, we'd like to bring these...lost souls...to justice, if we can."

"Anything I can do to help," Wade said.

"The four assaults took place on these dates," Starsky said, showing a list to the pastor. "I know it's been a while, but do you remember seeing or hearing anything unusual on those days?"

Wade lowered glasses from the top of his head and peered at the list, feeling his heart lift with joy. The date of every lesson was there; the police had discerned the pattern! "I'm afraid I don't," he said regretfully, handing the paper back to Starsky. "As you can see, we close the curtains around dinnertime, and we're preoccupied with worship after the meal."

"One of the attacks took place in the afternoon," Hutch said. "Nothing at all struck you as odd or out of place?"

"I'm afraid not," Wade said apologetically. "But you're welcome to talk to the young people, if you'd like. They come and go more frequently than I do, and they might have seen or heard something."

"Thank you," Starsky said politely. He figured it would be a waste of time, since there was a limit to how far they could question minors without parental consent, but they were desperate enough to grasp at straws. He glanced at Hutch, saw from his expression that his partner was of the same mind, and turned back to Wade. "We'll do that," he said. "We'll try not to interrupt your dinner, and we'll be sure to leave before your service starts."

"You're welcome to stay, if you like," Wade invited, his eyes glowing softly. "The presence of new worshippers often inspires us to wonderful new revelations."

"Uh, no," Hutch said swiftly, before Starsky could speak. "Believe it or not, I promised my mother we'd be home for dinner."

Starsky saw Wade's expression change as he examined Hutch more closely, then his face lit with recognition.

"Mother--? I thought that was you!" he said, with even greater warmth than before. "I guess you don't remember me, though, Ken. We went to high school together."

Hutch returned the man's scrutiny for a few moments, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Graham," he apologized. "I'm afraid I don't remember."

"Well, that's really no surprise." Wade chuckled amiably. "As I recall, you were always very busy and surrounded by friends. I'm afraid I was a bit of a wallflower, blending into the background."

Hutch smiled perfunctorily.

"I decided to return here after completing my Divinity degree out of state," Wade went on, apparently missing Hutch's discomfort. "I so wanted to work with young people, and you know what they say about starting at home." He swept a hand around the room. "We're small, as you can see, but these young folks are very dedicated, and our mission is growing every day."

"What is your mission?" Starsky couldn't resist asking. The storefront church looked nondescript to him, with the usual pictures and books, and a small stage area at one end of the room with a pulpit and a modest wooden cross.

"Just to bring the truth of the Lord's word to the community," Wade said reverently. "And to bring all lost souls back to His flock."

Starsky glanced over at Hutch, whose expression telegraphed HELP in capital letters. "Well, Mr. Graham, we appreciate your cooperation," he said smoothly, with his most pleasant smile. "We'd better get started, so we can finish before your service."

"I won't keep you from your work any longer, then," Wade said graciously. "And bless you both, for being soldiers of justice and law."

He gripped both their hands again, then drifted away to one of the tables, pausing to speak to the teenagers who sat there. They appeared to genuinely like him, Starsky observed; the kids' faces were welcoming, and the conversation quickly became animated.

"What a weird bird," he said under his breath to Hutch, as they moved in the opposite direction to start with the table farthest from the door. "How could you forget someone like that?"

"I dunno, Starsk," Hutch replied, watching Wade with a pensive frown. "Like he said, he must've just faded into the background."

Their questioning moved quickly, as Starsky had suspected it would. Few of the kids had seen anything before the attacks, though they remembered the police cars and ambulances after the fact. Some knew the victims had been gay, and made it clear how wrong this activity was, "according to the faith." But there was nothing malicious or even unusual about any of them, though Starsky did make note of a pair who entered the dining room late in the process. One was a skinny, dark-haired kid whose jacket seemed to weigh more than he did, the other a large, muscular youth dressed incongruously in jeans, a flowing shirt, and two strings of beads. They joined the last table, just as the detectives were interviewing a blond, leanly athletic boy who could've been Hutch's progeny.

"For Christ's sake, Hutch," Starsky hissed as they wrapped up their questioning, thanked Wade, and headed for the door. "Is there some kind of Nordic god plant up here where they grow people like you and that kid?"

Hutch snickered, glad for the respite in the grim afternoon. But then he stopped, frowning as something whisked through his head, and turned back to glance around the room.

"What is it?" Starsky asked from the doorway.

Hutch's frown deepened as he tried to capture the will-o-the-wisp thought, but it eluded him. He shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "It'll come to me. Come on, let's get going. It's after six."

They stepped out into the early evening and had started down the block toward their car, when Starsky stopped, with a frown that mirrored Hutch's. "Hold on a sec," he said. His eyes narrowed, and Hutch knew he was clicking images through his mental slide projector. "Be right back."

He strode quickly back up to the church, as Hutch leaned against a parking meter and took a deep breath of the fragrant air. He'd spent his teenage years waiting to escape this place, but every time he returned, he found something to appreciate and miss in it. The sky was bright blue in the day, and showed stars at night that he could only imagine back in Bay City, and there was something sweet and old-fashioned about the light of the dusk--almost as if, for a moment, the town was transported and suspended in a younger, more innocent time.

Starsky returned and, without pausing, led his partner toward the car.

"What is it?" it was Hutch's turn to ask, as Starsky unlocked Hutch's door, then circled the car to open his own.

"One of those kids didn't fit," Starsky said, as they both slammed doors shut and he turned the key in the ignition. "Most of 'em looked a little poor, clothes run down, kind of shabby, you know?"

"And?"

"Remember the blond kid, the unacknowledged fruit of your loins, hangin' out with earth boy and the biker kid?"

Hutch snorted, but let the jab pass. "Yeah, so?"

"Couple of things." Starsky pulled the car away from the curb, swung it into a turn, and headed back toward the Hutchinson home. "First of all, he was the only one who didn't seem all revved up about this 'mission' Wade's got goin' on."

"And second?"

"He looked a little too uptown compared to the other kids in the place. Tennis shorts, sneakers, pricey watch...and you know what cashmere sweaters do to your pocket book."

"Not my pocket book," Hutch corrected him. "Starsky, that's a stretch, and a thin one at that."

"Maybe," Starsky said. "But I got a feeling, Hutch. There's somethin' about that kid that just doesn't fit."

Hutch had learned long ago to listen when Starsky's "feelings" spoke. He sighed. "Do you remember his name?"

"Yep," Starsky said smugly.

"Let's run him when we get back to my folks--him and the other two who were with him," Hutch decided. "In fact, let's just run by Brady's and take care of it--"

"How about Plan B?" Starsky suggested, laying a hand on his partner's arm. "Let's go home, get some grub, and make your dad happy for once. Then we can swing back into town and visit the rich folks, get permission to question Ken, Jr. further."

"Why not right now?"

"Hutch," Starsky said gently, as he turned the car down the lakeside road. "I know your dad's attitude is as natural as breathing to you, but I'd kind of like to skip the scene this time."

"Oh." Feeling sixteen for the dozenth time this trip, Hutch pretended interest in his interview notes, hiding his flushed cheeks from his partner. "Right."

A hand curled around his knee as they pulled into the driveway, squeezed briefly, and then was gone.

**********

As soon as Starsky made his second exit, Dave turned to Bobby with a look of panic. "He's got something," he said anxiously. "Did you see the way he looked at us when he came back in?"

"No." Bobby's tone was nonchalant as he tipped back his chair, hands tucked casually into his pockets. "They're only fishing; they don't have a clue."

"How can you be so sure?" Dave demanded. "Man, I know your dad thinks you walk on water, but if I get busted mine'll have my hide on the garage wall. I think we should tell Wade to call the whole thing off...leave this Hutchinson guy alone."

"You and I both know that won't do any good," Bobby pointed out. "We'd never talk Wade out of it. He's convinced that 'teaching' that cop is the key to getting his word out."

"Jake?" Dave turned pleading eyes to his other companion.

"He's got a point, Bobby," Jake admitted. "I'm up for an athletic scholarship at State, and I don't want to blow my chance to get out of this burg."

Bobby snorted and brought the chair legs down with a thump. "Boy, you two are a couple of real pussies," he hissed savagely. "Remember the picture we took of those two? Kissing each other like a man and a woman? Nobody can go in that park anymore because of people like them!" His lip curled in disgust. "If you want to let them get away with it, you must be just as queer as they are."

He glared at Dave, then Jake, with eyes that were cold and dangerous.

They stared at him, flabbergasted, for a long moment. Then he flashed them a brilliant white smile and leaned back in his chair once more.

"Besides, nobody's going to get caught," he said confidently. "We caught them all off-guard. Not a one has been able to describe us, or even say how many of us there were."

"Yeah, but we knocked 'em all out and left 'em there," David said. "Wade wants us to bring that cop back here so he can talk to him."

"So much the better," Bobby said. "We blindfold him, then make our exit after we've done our part. If Wade wants to expose himself after, then that's his funeral."

"Don't you think he'll tell the cops about us?" Jake asked worriedly.

"Not in a million years," Bobby assured him. "He'd never let them harm a member of his flock, not if he could help it."

Dave and Jake looked at each other. Dave made a What now? gesture, and Jake shrugged his massive shoulders.

"Okay, Bobby, you're the boss," Jake said, and Dave hesitated then nodded. "But no matter what happens, this is it for me. After this, I'm out."

"Me, too," Dave added immediately.

"No problem, boys," Bobby said, dimples deepening. "I've got a hunch the park'll be safe for normal people again when this job is done. After we get done with that cop, none of those queer folk'll go anywhere near Lakeside Park."

**********

Sometime after 9:00 that evening, Starsky steered the rental car toward the address Brady had given them for Bobby Caldwell. Beside him, Hutch was silent, and Starsky knew he was recuperating from the uncomfortable meal with his father. Cathy and Miranda had carried most of the conversation, with Richard contributing an occasional comment or pronouncement, while Starsky watched Hutch push food around on his plate. For the dozenth time that day, he wished this case would crack so they could go home, back to some sense of normalcy.

"That's the street." Hutch pointed. "Turn left here."

Starsky complied. Slowing the car so they could scan the house numbers, he whistled in disbelief. "Holy shit, Hutch," he said. "I thought your folks' place was somethin', but this--"

"Yeah," Hutch agreed. "Cathy and I call this neighborhood 'Conspicuous Consumption.'"

Starsky chuckled then braked the car. "Seventy-nine, right?"

"Yep."

"That's it." He turned the car into the long driveway, growing more amazed as the Caldwell house rose into view. Huge and imposing, the dwelling was twice as big as the Hutchinsons', with an expansive lawn rolling as far as Starsky could see. Through the few windows that were lit, he glimpsed enormous rooms with tall ceilings and light fixtures that were impressive, even from this distance.

He parked the car in front of the house and followed Hutch up the front steps to the massive double doors.

The man who answered the bell was about Hutch's height, with thick gray hair that was clearly carefully maintained. Even at this hour of the evening, he wore crisply pressed slacks, a white dress shirt, and an expensive silk tie. Holding his place in a leather-bound book with one finger, the man peered at the two detectives over half-glasses. "Yes?" he queried in a resonant, cultured voice.

"Mr. Alan Caldwell?" Hutch said.

"I'm Dr. Caldwell, yes," the man corrected him. "How can I help you?"

Hutch withdrew his badge and showed it to the physician. "I'm Detective Hutchinson, and this is Detective Starsky. We're investigating some assaults that took place in Lakeside Park, and we were wondering if we could talk to your son."

"Bobby? Why on earth would you want to speak with him?"

"We understand he spends a lot of time at the church by the park," Starsky said. "We spoke to him earlier today, but we'd like to ask him some more questions."

"Well--" The man hesitated, then seemed to remember his manners. "Forgive my rudeness, gentlemen, but you've caught me by surprise. Why don't you step inside, so we can discuss this?"

He led them into an impeccably furnished living room, where he offered the two detectives a drink. Both shook their heads, then Hutch said, "We know it's late, and we don't want to keep you, Dr. Caldwell, so if we could just see Bobby--"

"Detective Hutchinson--" Caldwell's eyes narrowed slightly as he examined Hutch more closely. "Hutchinson," he repeated thoughtfully. "You wouldn't happen to be Richard's son, would you? From California?"

"As a matter of fact, I am," Hutch replied, trying to curb his impatience. "But that's not really relevant to why we're here--"

"I was at your father's this past weekend," Caldwell said, apparently undeterred by Hutch's brisk tone. He shook his head. "Terrible thing about your sister's friend. How is she?"

"She's recovering," Hutch said tightly. "But, sir--"

"Your father and I have been colleagues for years, Detective," Caldwell interrupted yet again. "You can't seriously believe that my son would be involved in any type of crime."

Temper rising at the familiarly superior tone, Hutch tightened his fingers around his pen and focused his attention on keeping his voice calm and civil. "With all due respect, Dr. Caldwell, your relationship with my father doesn't change why we're here. We don't have any evidence that Bobby's involved; we just want your permission to speak with him further."

Beside him, Starsky chimed in. "We're hoping maybe he saw or heard something someone else might not've."

Caldwell frowned. "But why Bobby?" he asked again. "He's not one to run wild on the streets. When he's not here, he's usually playing tennis at the club, or volunteering at the church."

Hutch opened his mouth, but Starsky smoothly interrupted. "We're aware of that, sir. But we also understand Bobby's very popular with the other kids. So it's possible one of them told him something that might help us."

Caldwell still looked dubious, but relented. "Well, I guess it'll be all right. Wait here. I'll get him from his room."

Hutch glanced at his partner with a raised eyebrow, impressed as always by Starsky's ability to manufacture the perfect mixture of lie and truth to fit the situation.

Behind Caldwell's back, Starsky responded with a sly, triumphant wink.

Moments later, the physician and his son led the way to a large den, which was furnished in heavy masculine colors and a massive fireplace. The heads of several hapless deer, glassy eyes fixed in lifeless stares, adorned the dark paneled walls. Hutch saw Starsky's eyes flick over the décor, close briefly, then return to neutrality once more.

"Please, sit." Caldwell waved one hand toward a rust-colored couch, as Bobby draped himself over a dark brown leather chair. "Are you sure you wouldn't like something to drink?"

"No, thank you," Hutch declined politely, as he and Starsky sank down onto the sofa. "We'll just get this finished so we can get out of your way."

"Should I stay?"

"It's up to you," Hutch told him, and after a moment's hesitation, Caldwell settled himself into a chair identical to Bobby's. Promptly forgetting about him, Hutch turned his attention to the lounging teenager. "You remember us from this afternoon, right, Bobby?"

"Yes, sir," Bobby replied respectfully.

"The other two kids who were with you," Starsky took over, flipping through the pages in his notebook. "Jake and...Dave?"

"Right," Bobby said. Hutch glanced over at Caldwell, but the man had apparently decided they were harmless and was absorbed again in his book.

"You guys hang out a lot?" Starsky asked.

"I guess that depends on what you mean by a lot."

"Okay, let me rephrase the question. How much time would you say you spend with them?"

Bobby shrugged. "I usually see them at the church, so pretty much every day."

"Are there other friends you hang out with?"

"Some," Bobby admitted. "Couple guys I play tennis with, down at the club."

"They ever talk about the assaults?"

"Nah," Bobby replied. "Nobody really paid any attention to that, except for people down by the park. Nobody else cares, I guess, since it's not in their neighborhood."

"So you only heard about it at the church?" Bobby nodded. "What kind of stuff do you do there?"

"Whatever Wade needs us to do," Bobby answered. "Help with meals, set up for the service, you know." He paused, then added. "Sometimes we help him clean up around the place."

As they frequently did, Hutch had left the questioning to Starsky while he watched Bobby closely for the nonverbal cues that often told them more than a subject's words. In the pause, he noted a slight twitch at the corner of Bobby's mouth, and a subtle but definite shift in the boy's posture and tone told Hutch he was beginning to play a game with them.

"What kind of cleaning up?" he asked. Starsky flicked a glance at him, and Hutch met it. Starsky nodded slightly, and Hutch knew his partner understood. They could dance the nonverbal waltz, too, and Hutch would bet his badge that the two of them could beat this kid any day of the week.

"Oh, you know," Bobby said dismissively. "Wash dishes, mop the floors." He paused, and Hutch again detected that shift in his voice. "Dump the trash. Clean up the garbage outside."

"You go to Wade's every day?" Starsky asked, taking the interrogatory ball back again.

"Yes," Bobby replied, and Hutch caught the omitted sir.

"Why?"

The kid looked startled, and Hutch swallowed a chuckle.

"Well--I--he came to the school once and wanted some people to help him with a project," Bobby said rapidly. "Jake and Dave and I stopped by there one weekend, just to see what it was like and decided to stick around."

"What kind of project?" Starsky asked.

"You know, the usual preacher stuff," Bobby said, his voice becoming defensive. "Reaching out to lost souls and that kind of stuff."

"Do you buy into his--project, Bobby?"

"Now, hold on just a minute." The senior Caldwell had apparently detected a change in the discussion's tone and had laid down his book. "Just where are you going with this line of questioning?"

"Just curious, Dr. Caldwell," Starsky said off-handedly. "Bobby sort of--stands out, compared to the other kids down at Lost Souls. Doesn't really seem to be his kind of gig."

"For your information," Caldwell said indignantly, rising from the chair and drawing himself to his full height. "Bobby has been volunteering with various charity organizations since he was ten."

"Really," Starsky said, unblinking eyes never leaving the teenager. "Rackin' up points for college, Bob?"

"That's enough," Caldwell declared. "I don't like your line of questioning, and I don't like your tone. Bobby has never given us a moment's trouble, and I sincerely doubt he's heard from anyone who knows about those attacks. Now, if you don't mind, I think it's time you--"

"Just a minute, Dr. Caldwell," Hutch requested, raising a hand to preempt the order to leave. "I'm curious about something, too," he said to Bobby, who had leaned back in his chair, arms folded defiantly across his chest.

"Yeah, what?" the teenager said sullenly.

"Jake and Dave," Hutch said. "Doesn't seem like you guys would have much in common. How'd you hook up?"

"School, I told you," Bobby said heatedly.

"School, huh?" Hutch pressed. "You don't look like the kind of kid who goes to woodshop or hangs out with the football team." He shook his head. "Nope, sorry, kid. Just can't quite figure it."

"Well, that's your problem," Bobby fired at him.

"That's enough!" Caldwell thundered. "Bobby, you're dismissed. Go upstairs and get ready for bed."

As the teenager pushed himself up from the chair, the older man turned to Starsky and Hutch, and his face was not pleasant. "I believe that's the end of your 'questioning,' gentlemen," he said icily. "I don't know if harassing children is normal procedure where you come from, but we don't allow it here. Now, if you don't mind, I'd prefer you leave my house."

Hutch exchanged glances with his partner again and knew they were thinking the same thing: Yeah, me, too.

A few moments later, they were pulling out of the Caldwell driveway.

Starsky glanced into the rearview mirror at the reflection of the palatial home. "That plant must be defective," he said thoughtfully.

Hutch threw him a startled look. "What the heck are you talking about?" he inquired.

"The Nordic god plant," Starsky explained. In the dark, his hand slid across the seat to rest on Hutch's thigh. "'Cause when they took that kid off the line, they'd left out all the good stuff that went into you."

Speechless, stunned by the incredible force of emotion that rushed through him, Hutch could only blink as Starsky's words soothed the raw wounds his father had been inflicting on him all weekend. This, he thought gratefully, laying a hand over the one on his thigh, is why I love this man.

**********

"Ken, what in the world are you and David doing?"

Startled, Hutch looked up from the sunroom table, which he and Starsky had commandeered to spread out notes and files about the attacks. His father stood in the doorway, arms across his chest, lips drawn into a thin, disapproving line. He felt rather than saw Starsky draw back from the table and understood his partner's desire to put as much space as possible between himself and the angry man at the door.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Dad," he said, as courteously as he could manage. "We've spent pretty much every minute working on this investigation."

"Does that include insulting the father of a young man who should be above suspicion?"

Oh, of course. Starsky's eyes met his across the table.

"No, not really, sir." Hutch set his jaw as the term of address again slipped reflexively from his lips. "If we thought Bobby Caldwell was above suspicion, we wouldn't have talked to him."

"Ken, I have known the Caldwells since that boy was born," his father said loudly, clearly annoyed. "Alan Caldwell is a surgeon at the hospital, for heaven's sake! Robert's a model student, a leader in his school. I assure you, you're headed in the wrong direction."

"That may be," Hutch replied tightly, laying mental hands on his slipping patience. "But sometimes things look different in a different...context."

"Such as?" Richard demanded, taking a step toward the table. "What information do you have on him that warrants upsetting his family this way?"

Hutch sighed and dropped the file he'd been studying. "There's nothing I can tell you right now, Dad," he said steadily. "It's against procedure to share facts about a case with civilians who aren't directly involved."

Richard blinked at him. "I am your father, and I insist you tell me what you know."

"I'm a cop," Hutch returned. "Right now, that means I answer to a higher authority than you. Now, will you please leave us alone so we can try to figure this thing out?"

For once, Richard was at a loss for words. He opened his mouth, closed it, then with an irritated hmph, turned and left the room.

Hutch turned back to the puddle of paperwork on the table to find Starsky staring at him. "What?"

"Procedure?" Starsky queried. "Haven't heard you invoke 'procedure' since you came to Metro and finally puked up that manual you'd swallowed."

"Yeah, well," Hutch said, his eyes drifting up to where his father had stood. "If it works as well as it did this time, I may have to slug it down again."

**********

"Hey, look who's back!"

As Cathy's car pulled close to the house and the passenger's side door opened, both detectives leapt down the front porch steps, followed more decorously by Hutch's parents. Polly's slim legs emerged first, then the girl's petite torso and sleek dark head followed, as Hutch reached the car and extended his hand to help her out. She smiled tremulously up at him.

"Thanks, Ken," she said gratefully. "I'm still a little shaky."

"Well, then let's save your energy for the cookout," Hutch decided. He swept her easily into his arms, mounted the porch stairs, and carried her inside. Richard and Starsky went ahead of them, to open doors and ensure all was ready for the injured girl's return.

"Oh, Lord, my brother the Neanderthal," Cathy said, rolling her eyes as she retrieved Polly's bag from her trunk. Miranda came to help, taking two vases of flowers from the car's back seat. As she and Cathy walked up the steps, Miranda leaned her head close to her daughter.

"Ken and Polly look very good together, don't they?" she murmured conspiratorially. "And they seem to have such a good time."

"Mo-ther," Cathy moaned, in that tone daughters have reserved for mothers since time began. "You know Polly's in a committed relationship. And even if she weren't, she's not interested in men."

"Well, you never know," Miranda said coyly. "Perhaps a nice young man like your brother could change her mind."

"Fat chance," Cathy snorted. "Hell would freeze over first, seeing as how Ken's the same--"

She stopped short, the bag slipping from her fingers, and turned wide horrified eyes to her mother. Miranda was gazing at her with a puzzled frown, and for a moment, Cathy thought she might be able to repair the horrible damage she had just done.

Then she saw the light dawn in her mother's eyes.

"Cathy," Miranda said softly. "What are you saying? Are you telling me Ken is...that he is...?"

"Homosexual," Cathy supplied, the word barely audible. Oh, she could just shoot herself for letting it out like this! "Well, I don't know about that, Mom, I just know that, right now, the special person in his life is not a woman."

Miranda's blue eyes turned from her daughter to the house. Through the open window of the sunroom, she could see her son and his partner joking with Polly, and then saw them look at each other with fond, almost secret smiles.

"Dave," she realized, one hand going to her throat. "Oh, my Lord, I should have known. That's why Ken almost didn't come this year, isn't it?"

"Yes, but listen to me." Cathy took her mother by the shoulders and looked straight into her eyes. "You cannot tell Dad, understand? They've done nothing but bicker the whole time Ken's been here, and they're both about to go off like rockets. If Dad finds out about this, I don't know what he'll do."

Miranda gazed back at her daughter thoughtfully. "But...how can he not see it?" she wondered. "From the moment I first saw Ken, I thought he must be in love again, and now that I know...it's so obvious."

"Dad doesn't look at Ken the way you do, you know that. In fact," Cathy went on sadly, "I don't think Dad really sees him at all."

"Well, I suppose you're right." Miranda looked back at Hutch. Her son was rising to his feet, and she heard him tell Starsky and Richard that he would see what was taking them so long.

"And don't tell Ken I told you either, okay?" Cathy added hastily, having seen her brother move.

"Well, all right."

"Mom?" Cathy's forehead suddenly puckered into a worried, almost frightened frown. "Mom, how do you feel about this?"

"Well, I..." Miranda hesitated. Cathy saw her searching, trying to somehow find the appropriate words to fit this most unusual occasion. At last, Miranda shook her head. "I suppose I don't know yet. I need some time to...digest."

"Okay." Impulsively, Cathy hugged her mother, then picked up Polly's bag, just in time to surrender it to her brother.

Taking the suitcase from his sister, Hutch turned to find his mother examining him closely, a strange albeit soft expression on her face. He raised an eyebrow, glanced down at his clothes to see if he'd forgotten to put something on, then looked back at her. "Mom?" he said curiously.

"Yes, dear?" she replied.

"This is the second time you've looked like you have something to tell me," Hutch pointed out. "What is it?"

She opened her mouth, then closed it and shook her head slightly. "Nothing." She reached up, took his head in her hands, and pulled him down so she could plant a kiss on his cheek, then hugged him tightly. "I'm just glad you're here."

Relieved, Hutch hugged her back, then put his arm around her shoulders as they went up the porch steps and into the house.

Polly was touched and pleased by the cookout they had prepared to herald her homecoming. Richard manned the grill, while Hutch kept his distance from his father to forestall the "rocket launch" Cathy had predicted. He, Starsky, and Cathy met Polly's every need, while Miranda, as usual, drifted from kitchen to porch and back again, adding little touches to make things smooth and pleasant. After the elder Hutchinsons retired, Starsky, Hutch, Polly, and Cathy lay on their backs in the yard, exterior lights out, gazing up at the stars.

"Beautiful," Polly murmured. "I just wish Pat was here to share it with us."

"Did you call her and tell her what happened?" Cathy asked.

"As soon as I could dial the phone," Polly assured her. "She wanted to rush right up here, but that domestic violence case is huge, and the firm really needs her more than me. I'm fine, and I've got you guys. I'd rather she came back when things were a little less...exciting."

"Well, the next time you talk to her, be sure to tell her I'm staying until you're ready to go back," Cathy told her.

"What about Brian?"

"I've already talked to Craig about that, and he's taking some more time off work to take care of him," Cathy assured her. "He's horrified about what happened, told me to stay as long as you need me. He and Pat are going to get together for dinner one night and commiserate, if he can drag her away from her desk."

"That better be all they do," Polly said, with the confidence of someone who knew beyond a doubt that her lover was faithful.

Starsky reached over and brushed against Hutch's hand. To his surprise, his partner responded, turning his hand and taking Starsky's in his own.

"What about you guys?" Polly asked. "How much longer do you think you'll be here?"

"Dunno," Starsky sighed. "We'd like to stay until we nail the guys who did this, but our captain's runnin' out of patience."

"And we're running out of leads," Hutch added ruefully. "For such blatant attacks, these people managed to cover their tracks pretty well."

"Will I...? If you do catch them, will I have to testify?" Polly asked hesitantly.

"I guess that depends, sweetheart," Hutch replied gently. "No one can force you, and it won't be pleasant, but it may be the only way they get what's coming to them."

Starsky heard her take in a deep, ragged breath and let it out slowly. "I'll...have to think about it, I guess," she said slowly.

"If you do, Pat should definitely come up," Cathy advised her. "Having a lawyer on your side can only help."

"Good idea," Polly said drowsily, then gave an enormous yawn. "Well, guys, I hate to spoil the party, but I think it's pumpkin time for me."

The others made noises of agreement and rose reluctantly from the soft, cool grass. Hutch extended his hand to help Polly up, and she hugged him before releasing his hand. "Thank you, Ken," she said gratefully. "You and Dave have been terrific; I know you'll figure this out."

"I sure hope so," Hutch said fervently, hugging her back. "Otherwise, I won't be able to sleep at night."

"Uh...Dave, Polly, why don't you go on in without us?" Cathy requested. "I need to talk to Ken for a second."

"Sure." Starsky was mystified, and, though he couldn't see Polly's face, he suspected she was, too. Nevertheless, he had started up the steps to the house when a hand caught his. Before he could react, Hutch's lips met his in a soft, tender kiss. A second later, Hutch's thumb followed, brushing gently across his upper lip. Unsure how to react to this unexpected act, he finally said to himself, Fuck it, and pulled Hutch's head back to his for his own hungry kiss.

"'Night, Starss," he heard Hutch whisper. "I'll see what Cathy wants, then stop in before I go to bed."

"Okay," Starsky whispered back and turned to follow Polly into the house.

Cathy watched this intimate exchange with a small, fond smile. She had seen how distant Ken had been from his partner during this trip, and suspected he'd been emboldened by the utter darkness and his parents' absence. Whatever the reason, she was glad Ken was starting to relax. She adored Dave and wanted nothing more than for their relationship to work.

She heard Hutch chuckle as he watched Starsky go inside, and then he turned back to her.

"What's up, Cath?"

"Let's, uh, go down to the dock," she said. Part of her wanted to prolong telling him as long as possible, and another part wanted him away from the house, in case he reacted to this the way she thought he might.

They strolled through the darkness in silence, walking down the creaking boards to the end of the pier. Both were shoeless and dangled their feet into the warm water while they sat. Hutch scooped up a handful of pebbles and tossed them one by one into the lake, listening contentedly to the water lapping against the shore and sides of the boats, and waited for his sister to speak. When she didn't, he nudged her gently. "Okay, sis. Spill it. What was so important that you had to tell me alone, and all the way down here?"

He heard her take a deep breath, and when she spoke her voice was edged with tears. "I'm sorry, Ken, I didn't mean for it to happen, but it just slipped out."

Hutch felt his relaxed mood evaporate. "What?" he asked apprehensively. "What just 'slipped out'?" When she didn't answer, it hit him. Suddenly, he had no words. His mouth opened and sounds came out, but their resemblance to comprehendible language was no more than passing.

"Only Mom," Cathy said quickly, alarmed by his sudden incoherence. "Just Mom, not Dad. He was in the house with you and Dave."

"This was this afternoon?" Hutch finally managed to form recognizable words. "Well, that explains why Mom was looking at me so weird when I came back out." He hurled the remaining pebbles into the water and got to his feet, pacing halfway down the dock. "Hell, Cathy... Well...hell."

Cathy pulled her feet out of the water and followed him, catching his arm.

"She's not going to tell Dad, Ken," she told him urgently.

"Why in the world would you think that?" Hutch said in disbelief. "What she knows, he knows. They've been married for almost forty years; they know all each other's secrets."

"Not this one," Cathy declared firmly. "Mom might have had some inkling before I even said anything. She said something about knowing you were in love, and once it was out, she wondered why she hadn't seen it before."

"Shit," Hutch muttered miserably, circling the pier's edges like a caged animal. "If she can see it, then so will he. Yeah, like things weren't bad enough on this trip."

"Ken, listen to me." Cathy caught his arm again to halt his aimless movement. "Dad doesn't have a clue. He's still so wrapped up in your being a cop that he can't get past it. He's not going to figure this out for a while."

"Oh, thanks," Hutch said, shaking off her hand, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "That makes me feel a lot better."

"Oh, Ken." She put her arms around him and pulled him close. Reluctantly, Hutch's arms encircled her. He felt her trembling, and then a warm dampness against his shirt.

"Hey." He drew away from her to peer into her face. In the moonlight, he could see tears shining on her cheeks. "Oh, Cath, come on. It's gonna be okay. I wish Mom didn't know, but if someone had to find out, I'd sure as hell rather it was her."

"N-no, that's not it," she whispered, her voice thick with tears. "It's just... It's...I hate the way he treats you, and I know he's not going to like this, and I'm...I can't help it, I'm worried."

He pulled her close again and rocked her gently back and forth. "Me, too," he admitted. "But the worst he can do is disown me, and if it weren't for you and Mom, that wouldn't bother me a bit. At least I'd be free of all his stupid lectures."

"Stop it." Cathy slapped his arm, voice muffled by his shirt.

"I swear, Cathy, if he says 'Now, Ken' to me one more time, I'm gonna go back to Bay City, get my gun, and come back here and kill us both."

"Now, Ken," came from her lips before she could stop it. For a moment, they just looked at each other, and then both burst out laughing. They laughed so hard they tumbled to the dock, sent small animal life rustling away from the lake's shore, and could only stop when their sides began to ache unbearably.

"Come on," Hutch said at last, after they had managed to compose themselves. He rose painfully to his feet and extended his hand to help his sister up. "Man, I'm beat," he complained. "This has been about the longest week I've ever had."

He started up the path, but Cathy stopped, tugging on his hand. He turned, to find her studying him closely.

"Ken," she said tenderly. "You really love Dave, don't you?"

Hutch looked down at the packed earth beneath his toes, and he felt a smile creep across his lips. "Yeah, I do," he murmured softly. "More than I've ever loved anyone. More than I think I love myself, sometimes." He glanced up at her. "Why?"

"It's just...there's been some kind of wall between you two while you've been here," she explained. "Until tonight, I was beginning to think you'd changed your mind."

"No," he said hastily. "That wasn't it, not at all. I was just--"

"Afraid," she filled in for him. "Afraid Mom and Dad would see the two of you, the way you are, and know what was going on."

"Right," he said, relieved that she understood.

She stepped close to him and looked up into his face.

"Don't do that, Ken," she implored. "You guys have something...incredible, and I've never, ever seen you look at someone the way you look at Dave. Whatever you do, don't let Dad take that away from you."

"No way," he assured her, kissing her softly on the forehead and pulling her in for a quick affectionate squeeze. "Now, let's get some sleep, huh? Starsk and I have a lot of work to do if we're gonna wrap this thing up and get out of here."

His arm around her shoulders, they climbed the small rise up to the house in silence, then went inside. After extinguishing the remaining lights and making sure the front door was securely locked, they headed upstairs toward their separate bedrooms.

"Ken." Cathy paused again, just before they parted at the top of the stairs. "You do think you can catch these guys, don't you?"

"You bet," Hutch assured her. "I'm absolutely positive of it."

But later, as he lay in bed staring at the ceiling, he wasn't nearly as confident as he had sounded--about anything. He'd had every intention of going to Starsky's room, staying for a little necking and some quietly intimate conversation, but Cathy's revelation had rekindled his paranoia about his father. Cathy knew, Polly knew, and now his mother did. How much longer would it be before one of them let something slip to his father? True, Richard had focused much of his attention on maligning Hutch's career, but the man wasn't stupid. Given enough clues, or even enough hesitation or evasion, he would know that something was being hidden from him--and that would be it. There was no one more tenacious than Richard Hutchinson when he thought information was being withheld. Except perhaps his son.

Hutch chuckled ironically at the thought that his incredible stubbornness might have been inherited from his father, but the soft sound was soon lost in a renewed sigh as he rolled over to his side. He hated this sense that he had lost the bearings of who he was. He seemed constantly vacillating between the man he was now and the young man who'd lived for so long under Richard Hutchinson's rule, and he couldn't help but think that his divided attention was contributing to the lack of progress on the case. Even worse was the feeling that he was avoiding Starsky, hurting him by his inattention, out of some Pavlovian conditioning to the standards and demands of his father. Nowhere, it seemed, could he make a move that was right for anybody, including himself, and that was making him miserable.

He sat up, punched his increasingly hot pillow, and stretched out on his stomach, hoping a new position would cajole sleep into his head. But the swirling thoughts continued, feelings about his father and Starsky chasing each other around like leaves in a whirlwind. He no sooner got those tucked away when they were replaced by thoughts, figures, and questions about the attacks. Desperately, he tried deep breathing, counting backward from one thousand, and recalling the names of all the women he'd dated. But the switch that turned his brain off would not engage, and he finally gave up. Throwing off the covers and climbing out of his bed, he pulled on a robe and slipped out of his room and down the stairs to the sunroom.

Might as well go over these again. He sighed as he settled in front of the paper-strewn table. Maybe things'll look different at night.

**********

"Bobby, get in touch with Jake and David, and go to the park."

Startled awake, Bobby looked up from the magazine he was dozing over, to find Wade standing by his side.

"What?"

"The park," Wade repeated. "Find the other two soldiers and take up your places by the lake."

"Wade, we've been down there a dozen times," Bobby protested. "I know what you're thinking, but it looks like they've finished that part of the investigation."

"It doesn't matter," Wade insisted. "They haven't been safely alone for days, and they've made no progress on the case. I spoke with Brady. I have a feeling they'll go back to the beginning--and today, my boy, is the day."

"You don't know that, Wade," Bobby began.

"Oh, but I do," Wade interrupted, the eerie glow beginning in his eyes. "The Lord has told me, Bobby. Now, quickly, before the opportunity is gone."

"Fine," Bobby grumbled with a yawn, getting to his feet as Wade drifted away. "But those two can take first watch. I'm going to finish my nap."

**********

"This is ridiculous," Hutch snorted at last, tossing the file down after he'd read it for the fourth time. "There's nothing here we haven't seen before."

Starsky looked up, his face neutral. "You're the one always pushin' the research, Hutch," he said. "'Go back, look at it again, put things together in new ways,' etcetera, etcetera."

"There's nothing here, Starsk," Hutch responded irritably, shoving back his chair and pushing to his feet. "It's not that we missed something; it isn't here."

"Okay." Starsky closed his file with a little slap. "What d'you have in mind?"

"Let's go back to the park. Go over all the spots where the attacks took place."

"That's not gonna..." Starsky began impatiently, then held up his hands placatingly as Hutch's face darkened. "Don't get bent out of shape. I'm just sayin' some of those scenes are months old; anything that means anything has gotta be long gone by now."

"Maybe," Hutch said, snatching his jacket from the back of his chair and shrugging into it as he strode toward the door. "But it beats the hell out of sitting here banging our heads against the wall."

Before Starsky could speak again, Hutch had left the sunroom, loped down the porch steps, and was halfway across the lawn to the car. Sighing, Starsky got to his feet, retrieved his own jacket from the floor where it had fallen sometime that morning, and followed his agitated partner. He unlocked Hutch's door first, to give the blond man something to do, then rounded the car to slide in on the driver's side.

"Man, what is with you?" he asked, when they had pulled out of the Hutchinson drive and were on their way to the park. "I've never seen you this jumpy. And that's sayin' somethin', considering what you've been like since we got here."

"It was a short night and a long morning, Starsky," Hutch said shortly. "Can we just drive and not talk, please?"

"Helluva way to run an investigation," Starsky muttered under his breath. "So we just do our own thing and compare notes over lunch?"

"Starsky," Hutch warned. "Shut up."

Not wanting to make matters worse, Starsky complied, keeping his silence as he steered the car around the lake and through the gates to the park. It seemed deserted, but he knew the hidden areas behind small rises and within clusters of trees, and he imagined a number of couples hiding there, showing their affection with a freedom they never had in public. It made him long for Hutch's touch even more, and he pulled his mind back to the case with some effort.

**********

"Bobby." A beefy hand shook Bobby's shoulder, rousing him from his slumber in the wooded alcove. "Bobby, wake up. They're here."

**********

They arrived at the trailhead for Old Lake Trail, where Polly had been jogging when she was attacked. Starsky shifted the rental car into park and switched off the engine. "Okay, here we are," he announced. "Feel better now?"

He reached over to pat Hutch's thigh, but his hand touched air as his partner slid hastily from the passenger's seat, slamming the door behind him.

Okay, I've had just about enough of this.

He got out and slammed his own door, shoving the keys in his pocket. "All right, Hutch, what is it this time?" he asked tightly. "There's nobody around, you know this park is sort of a safe haven for people like us, would you mind telling me what you're so afraid of?"

"I told you, I'm sick of talking about this. Could we just focus on the case so we can go home?"

"Hutch, you can't keep turnin' your back on this and hoping it'll go away. What's next, you gonna decide that Huggy's place is off-limits, too? Change your mind about us movin' in together?"

"Cut it out!" The rope had run out and Hutch was shouting--something he did only when pushed to the edge. "Godammit, Starsk. This case alone is enough to drive anyone crazy. On top of that, I got Cathy depending on me, and the usual bullshit with my father. I got nothing left to debate our future, or even think about how I feel about it. So give it a rest, huh? Or both those things just might change."

Starsky's lips thinned, but when he spoke, his voice was even and restrained. "Fine," he said. "Seems like a good time for us to...check out separate crime scenes."

"I think that's a keeper," Hutch agreed tersely.

Starsky turned and stalked away.

**********

"Oh, a little lovers' quarrel," Bobby snickered quietly into Jake's ear. "Perfect...just perfect." He tipped his head toward Starsky's retreating back. "Let's give him about five minutes to get far enough away before we take Mr. All-American," he instructed. "Dave, you keep watch, make sure the other cop doesn't come back. If he does, get back here doubletime."

"Got it." With the stealth from months of practice, Dave slid out of the alcove and crept behind Starsky, keeping far enough away that the detective wouldn't spot him, but close enough that he could watch Starsky's every move.

Bobby alternated his attention between the slight young man and his watch. When Dave disappeared over a small hillock, and his watch registered six and a half minutes, he beckoned to Jake. "Let's go."

**********

As Starsky left, Hutch expelled a long breath and a heartfelt "Shit!" He'd anticipated being uncomfortable and unhappy around his father, but he had never dreamt just how far the discomfort would extend.

Sometimes, it all seems so straightforward and easy, he thought wistfully as he began a spiral of the area around Polly's assault, carefully scanning the ground at his feet. I know I love him, I know I want to be with him, and I know there's nothing and no one that's gonna change that.

But when the other dozen players entered the game, his mind became jumbled and panicked, as it had last night, and all he wanted was for everyone to leave him alone, including Starsky. He was just too torn, too caught between the young Ken Hutchinson--who yearned for his father's attention and approval, who couldn't help but hope for a day when acceptance would come--and the older, wiser man, who had learned to live his life according to his own standards, and stick to them no matter what other people thought.

Either way I go, there's so much to lose, he sighed. I just wish--

Thoughts and steps halted. With a frown, he stooped to sweep his hands across the patch of foliage at his feet. Under a small pile of fallen leaves, his fingers touched cool metal. He used one of the leaves to pick up the object. Rising to his feet, he peered at it closely.

It was a lighter, and though tarnished and muddy, it was clearly expensive. Not one of those cheap disposable jobs, but a solid silver flip-open butane. He popped the lid and spun the dial; a robust flame shot up. Flicking it closed, he massaged the smooth exterior with a leaf-covered finger, his frown deepening.

That's why Daddy pays his lawyers the big bucks.

You are a leader in your school and your community.

He's a model student, a leader in his school.

His fingers found grooves in the lighter's surface, and he looked down, examining it more closely.

The initials "R.J.C." were engraved in elegant script on the lighter's face.

Some twisted version of the two of you.

"I'll be damned," he breathed.

Hands trembling slightly, he withdrew his handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped the lighter in it securely. It wasn't everything, he thought, but... His mind raced through the information they had gathered so far, and piece by piece, things fell neatly into place.

It fits, it all fits.

Clutching the lighter tightly in his hand, he started in the direction Starsky had gone.

**********

Starsky spent thirty minutes circling the area where Jim and Terry had been attacked. Like Hutch, he walked an ever-widening spiral from the point of contact, but he found nothing that they hadn't already seen. The scene was too old; any footprints would have been obscured long ago or washed out by the rain. If he did find any debris, even a wet-behind-the-ears lawyer could successfully argue against it. He squatted for a moment, using his pen to stir some leaves under a tree, and then gave up.

This is ridiculous, he decided. We're both worn down and worn out, and we've still got next to nothing. Maybe this is one of those times we just have to turn it over and walk away.

Brushing the dirt from his hands, he heaved a sigh and pushed himself back to his feet, then headed back to where he had left Hutch. Paradoxically spurred by exhaustion and emotion, it took him only minutes to return to the spot.

Which was empty.

What--?

"Hutch?" he called, scanning the area for the familiar blond head. "Hutch, where'd you go?"

There was no answer.

"C'mon, Hutch," he said wearily. "This is no time to be playing games, or givin' me the silent treatment." Even as the words left his lips, however, he knew better. Hutch might have a bizarre sense of humor, but he'd been in no mood for jokes when he and Starsky had split up. And when he was this pissed off, Hutch was far more apt to let Starsky know it, than to play some game of emotional hide-and-seek. "Christ." He sighed tiredly and headed back toward the car, deciding his partner must've come to the same conclusion he had. He only hoped that Hutch hadn't decided to take the car and look somewhere else.

Nothing. The car was there, but no Hutch, and no sign that he'd been there since they had split up.

Starsky's irritation was replaced by a growing fear. He and Hutch had been in this park dozens of times while working on the case. They knew the schedule of Brady's patrols by heart, and he knew they had been through less than an hour ago.

The scenario was beginning to sound an awful lot like Polly's attack--all of them, in fact. But this time with a twist. The victim had left the scene of the crime.

Heart suddenly pounding hard, he dug the keys from his pocket, flung open the car door, and scrambled inside. He honked the horn twice; loud, long blasts that Hutch could've heard from anywhere in a five-mile radius--farther than he could have gone on foot in the time Starsky had been gone. Then he hauled himself half out of the car and shouted at the top of his lungs:

"Huu-uuuutch!"

**********

Damn, not again.

Head hurts. Don't know why...didn't drink last night, didn't even...

Hutch's eyes snapped open.

To darkness.

He froze, barely allowing himself to breathe, letting his other senses feed him information about where he was and how he had gotten there.

The news was not good.

He was sitting in a chair, hands bound behind his back. The room didn't feel or smell familiar; around him there was only silence. A cloth blindfold had been tied tightly over his eyes, folded several times so not a trace of light penetrated the weave.

He fought the panic that rushed through him as he registered each sensation, for every one sped him back in time.

You tell us where she is, and you wake up in your own bed tomorrow morning like nothing happened.

Around the surging blood in his ears, he could hear the echo of Monk's voice. Panic rising, he shook his head to chase the memory away.

Footsteps approached him and he froze again, chest rising and falling with shallow, rapid breaths he could no longer restrain. The steps stopped, and the silence grew thick again.

Despite his best efforts, he couldn't bear it. "Who are you?" he said thickly from a throat that was almost closed. "What do you want?"

As before, the only answer he got was a rock-hard fist crashing into him and a throbbing pain that rocketed through his head. He felt the skin above his eye split and begin to swell immediately. In his mind's eye, he saw his inner self, scrabbling madly for composure.

Another blow was delivered to his gut, and Hutch doubled over as far as the chair allowed, absurdly grateful he hadn't had lunch.

He let himself rest there, suspended by the chair and his bound arms. Relax, he ordered himself shakily, as the fire spread through his abdomen. Breathe, Hutchinson, breathe...

The footsteps receded and he heard a door open and close. In another time, another place, the departure would've calmed him, but the memories were too vivid, the parallels too strong. He felt sweat sliding down a dozen places, soaking his shirt and biting into the cut by his eye. The door opened, and colored spots began to spin in front of his eyes as the panic grew, and the echoes grew nearer and harsher.

You got one last chance. Where is she?

He heard two sets of footsteps this time, then his breath rushed away. A massive arm encircled his chest, while another set of hands loosened the ropes from his wrists. The embracing limb shifted down, to pin his upper arms and his right hand, while another hand gripped his left, pushing the sleeve up above his elbow.

Something seared into his skin.

There you go, cop. First mile on a long, long trip.

The spots swirled like blizzard snowflakes, and he no longer had control of his lungs. Breath heaved in and out of him of its own volition. The air around him seemed sucked into a giant vacuum, and the sound of his heart throbbed in his ears, accompanied by the whistle of his own respirations and the warm feel of liquid slipping down his arm.

Before the first drop left his hand, he gave one last shuddering breath--and the raging spots consumed him.

**********

Starsky slid to a sideways stop in front of the sheriff's office and threw the rental car into park. Hurtling from the front seat, not bothering to close the door, he took the steps in a single leap and charged into Brady's office.

"Where is he?" he demanded of the desk clerk, who stared at him with the wide eyes of one who beholds a lunatic. "Brady," Starsky made himself clarify. "Where is he?"

"Easy, Detective Starsky, easy."

He whirled to find Brady behind him, holding a brown paper bag in one hand and regarding him with a half-amused, half-annoyed expression. "What're you doing here?" Brady inquired, starting past him. "Case prove too much for you big-city boys?"

Starsky gripped the man's biceps and practically lifted him from his feet, as he propelled Brady to his office and slammed the door.

"Detective Starsky," Brady said, his face now void of all amusement. "You better have a damned good reason for handling me like that, or I'm gonna put your butt in the slammer for assaulting a police officer."

"I do," Starsky fired at him. "Hutch is missing." Rapidly, he explained what had happened.

"C'mon, Starsky," Brady said when he had finished. "He's been missing, what? An hour? Sure he didn't just decide to go home without you? He grew up here, you know. I'm sure he knows his way around."

"Yes, I'm sure." Starsky barely restrained himself from grabbing the man's shirtfront and rattling his teeth loose. "We were at the park, Brady, do you get that? The place where Polly and three other people have been assaulted over the last five months? And we were there right after your patrols had just gone through. Sound familiar?"

"So what makes you think that's what happened to Ken?" Brady challenged. "Every other time, they've left the victims at the scene. Why the hell should they change their pattern now?"

"Several reasons I can think of," Starsky shot back. "He saw them, he heard them, or he fought back. Or they think they can get some leverage by grabbing a cop."

When Brady still looked disinclined to act, Starsky slammed his hands down on the desk and fixed the sheriff with his most menacing gaze. "You listen to me," he said; his voice was low and deadly. "I know Hutch, I know these case files, and I know how these people work. They've got Hutch, just like all the others, and if he's seen them or knows who they are, they just might kill him." He leaned forward farther and saw Brady retreat. "Now maybe some people, including yourself, would let you live with that, Brady, but I sure as hell won't be one of them."

Brady scowled at him. "That's darned close to a threat," he spat. "You better be right about this, or you can bet your badge I'll send you up on some pretty serious charges."

"Right now, I don't give a shit," Starsky told him, and he saw from the sheriff's eyes that Brady believed him. "Get your gun, your keys, and your car, and let's move."

**********

"Ken?"

No. Wanna stay here where it's quiet and dark. Safer here. No needles.

"Ken? Ken, it's time for you to wake up."

A hand shook his shoulder, and, for a bizarre moment, Hutch felt himself transported--not to the old nightmare, but to the sound of his mother's voice, telling him to get up and come to breakfast.

He opened his eyes to the same darkness--and froze.

"It's all right, Ken," the voice went on, its tone oddly soothing. "Here, let me take this off."

He felt hands fumbling with the knot at the back of his head, and the blindfold was removed. Blinking sweat away and squinting to focus though one eye was nearly swollen shut, Hutch couldn't believe it when Wade Graham's face swam into view.

"Wade?" he said, his voice a hoarse rasp. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Hell," Wade echoed softly. "What an appropriate term for you to use, for I know that's just where you and your partner, along with all the other lost souls, are going to reside, unless you hear what I have to say."

The pain in Hutch's head grew worse as his brow furrowed.

To his astonishment, Wade dropped the blindfold, then turned to pull a chair in front of his former classmate. "You see, Ken," he began conversationally, as if he and Hutch had just run into each other at the city diner. "I've been on a very special mission for the last six months, and you are the conduit through which my message will finally be borne."

"Mission?" Hutch said, his brain still fuzzy. "Wade, you're gonna have to explain."

"Oh, of course," Wade said apologetically. "It's on my mind constantly, and I forget that others are not privy to its scope." He settled back in the chair. "This is our hometown, Ken, yours and mine, and it was such a lovely place to grow up--so clean and full of wholesome activities. But when I returned from the seminary, I found that an evil sort of weed had sprung up here, seemingly overnight, and many of our neighbors were in its grasp."

He leaned forward, and his eyes began to glow with that religious fervor Hutch had noticed during his and Starsky's first visit.

"I'm sure you know I'm speaking of homosexuality, Ken," Wade continued. "It broke my heart, and the Lord's, too, I know, to see so many of his children engaging in sinful activities behind his back. I couldn't bear it. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat. I knew I had to do something to deliver this town, and its children, back to the path of righteousness."

"The assaults," Hutch realized. "You're the one behind them. But how? There's no way you could've done it alone."

"Oh, I didn't," Wade said. "And really, physical harm was never a part of my plan. Some of my precious young people are the ones who actually deliver the lesson to the lost ones."

"For God's sake," Hutch said in disbelief. "What--? Why? How can you justify breaking the fifth commandment in the name of...of...some misguided notion of sexual deliverance?"

"We've killed no one," Wade reminded him. "Only made examples of them, so others could see the danger in pursuing this lifestyle." He leaned forward and patted Hutch's knee comfortingly. "I know it causes some a great deal of pain right now, and I am sorry for your suffering, but there will be justification enough, in all the souls that will be saved because of your sacrifice."

"Sacrifice?" Hutch repeated, cold suspicion rippling up his spine. "What do you mean, sacrifice?"

"You're very important to my work, Ken," Wade continued, as if Hutch hadn't spoken. "Until now, the papers have ignored my work, and the local authorities have been...well, laissez faire at best. But you...oh, they can't ignore what happens to you. A homicide detective from California, and Richard Hutchinson's son, at that? No, my dear friend, your lesson will be the one that finally shatters the silence and complacency in this town. Everyone will know; everyone will hear my message at last." Wade rose to his feet, and Hutch saw his excitement grow. "Don't you see how perfect it is? The citizens of this town will understand that this scourge has invaded everywhere, even the finest families. And the poor souls, those lost men and women who have been seduced down Satan's path, will pause in their progression and will heed the call of righteousness and purity once again."

Hutch stared at him, unable to even fathom how this man had conjured up such an incredible, ludicrous notion. "You're insane," he whispered at last. "You can't...terrorize people into changing their sexual preferences. That's not the way my Bible reads."

"Oh, but it does," Wade assured him. "Locusts...plagues...the slaughter of the first born sons. The Lord has long used the hard lesson to steer His flock toward the righteous path. I am but the messenger; it is His word that I and my young charges spread." He glanced at his watch and, with a regretful expression, rose to his feet. "Now, I'm afraid I must go so the lads can finish their work," he said, as if Hutch were nothing more than a room to be dry-walled. "I am so grateful to you, Ken. I know your suffering will be great, but if you renounce this lifestyle, you--and your partner--will earn your place in heaven, at the right hand of our precious Lord."

Stunned, Hutch could do nothing but sputter as Wade replaced the blindfold, then laid a hand on Hutch's head.

"God bless you, Ken Hutchinson."

"Wade, wait," Hutch pleaded, finding his voice at last as the panic returned in a rush. "Wait--!"

But the door had closed; he was alone.

**********

"All right, Starsky, where do we start?" Brady asked, as he pulled the police cruiser out of the station parking lot.

"Old Lake Trail," Starsky replied without hesitation, restraining himself from leaning forward as if to push the car ahead faster.

"Why there?"

"That's the last place I saw him," Starsky explained. "Maybe, somewhere, he left us a clue."

They arrived at the trailhead in short order, and Starsky again leapt out of the car and left his door hanging wide open. Behind him, he heard Brady close the door with an impatient sigh, and reminded himself that, right now, they both needed to focus their attention on finding Hutch. He jogged up the trail to the spot where he had left his partner, then slowed to begin his exploration. A few minutes later Brady joined him and, without a word, began to do the same.

**********

A hand in his hair jerked Hutch awake, as one of his captors yanked his head back at an awkward angle. For a moment, he played possum, again letting his senses take inventory of his surroundings. Now, he detected the scent of aftershave and carefully maintained leather; behind him, he heard the jingle of buckles. But though the technicolor snowflakes still danced in front of his eyes, something was missing from that trip back in time: there was no sense of detached, muddy lethargy. This time, his mental gears appeared intact, and now they began to click with furious speed.

Wade. It was Wade who was here, he thought rapidly. Not Monk. Couldn't have been anyway; he's dead, remember? And not Forest, either; he's still in jail. He could feel dried liquid coating his forearm, wrist, and hand. Blood, he realized, with an almost comical relief. Not heroin. That was a knife--they cut me, just like Polly and the others.

Wonder what they wrote.

Then: Starsky. Where the hell is Starsky? Did they get him, too?

"Well, well, the big-city detective," a voice interrupted his thoughts. "Not quite so cocky now, are we? It seems we're the ones in charge now."

The snowstorm vanished. Hutch swallowed with some difficulty and allowed himself a dry half-smile. "Think so?" he said sardonically. "It appears you've forgotten a few things, Mr. Caldwell."

Silence. Feet stepped closer, and this time he had a chance to prepare himself for the blow that split his lip.

Shit, that hurt.

"I guess that must be Mr. Todd," he went on, despite the pain in his mouth and jaw. "Which would make the man who smells like saddles Mr. Levine."

Bang, bang, bang.

Three more blows rained in quick succession, to his gut, his jaw, and the eye that was already swollen.

"Attacking four people and raping one brings some heavy time, even for teenagers," he told them, ignoring the ringing in his ears. "Think you'll still get your crown in heaven from the juvenile detention center?"

"Wade'll never give us up," Bobby growled. "We're his soldiers of justice; he promised he'd protect us."

"Not from this one, Bob-o," Hutch informed him. "Assault on a police officer? 'Fraid even Wade's best prayers aren't gonna save you from that one."

He braced himself, waiting for the fists to strike again, but there was only a brief, tense silence. Then the hand left his hair, the footsteps withdrew, and the door closed.

Despite the pain it caused his lip, Hutch couldn't restrain a grin.

Teenagers. All brass balls and no brains.

**********

Come on, babe. Give me some kind of a sign.

They had circled the area for over twenty minutes and found nothing but footprints--Hutch's, a number of anonymous joggers, and two that Starsky knew looked familiar but couldn't quite place. He searched his mind frantically, replaying his conversations with Hutch, willing himself to remember something--anything--that might tell him where his partner had gone.

"Starsky," Brady called. Starsky whipped around and saw the sheriff holding a dully gleaming object in his hand.

"What is it?"

"Looks like a high-end silver lighter," Brady replied, using the same leaves Hutch had to hand the lighter to Starsky.

Starsky flipped open the top and fired up the lighter. "Still works," he noted, "but it's been here a while." He turned it over and found the initials engraved on the front.

A little more uptown compared to the other kids.

"Shit," he breathed, and strode back to the path where the two mysterious footprints had tickled his memory. Kneeling, he brushed his hands over the indentations--and knew.

Earth boy, biker kid, and the unacknowledged fruit of your loins.

"Handkerchief," Brady said at his shoulder, startling him. "Ken's?"

Clutching the grimy white cloth, feeling his heart wrench as the familiar aftershave rose to his nostrils, Starsky nodded. "Wavy hippie earth shoes and a pair of biker boots," he said, and he pointed to the ground as his heart began to race again.

Brady peered curiously at the footprints, then at Starsky.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"The church," Starsky said urgently, bouncing the lighter in his palm as he sprang to his feet. "We gotta get to the church."

As Brady floored the accelerator and the car leapt away from the trailhead, Starsky allowed himself a moment to inhale, the handkerchief under his nose.

Hang on, babe. You hear me? Hang on.

**********

"He knows!" Dave yelped on a high note, as soon as the door closed behind them. "Godammit, Bobby, he knows who we are! I'm out of here!"

"Just calm down!" Bobby ordered, pushing the agitated teen into a nearby chair. "You go losing your head and we're nailed for sure. Pull yourself together so we can figure this out."

"What's there to figure out, Bobby?" Jake said worriedly. "You heard him...he knows our names, knows we did the jobs for Wade. I think it's time we got out."

"You two are beyond stupid," Bobby seethed, turning and putting several feet between him and the other two. "We leave here, they're on us before we get to the city limits. All that cop has to do is go to Brady and tell him what he--"

He halted. The other two boys stared at him expectantly.

"Unless he can't," he mused.

"What?" Jake said, perplexed. "What do you mean?"

Bobby turned and flashed them a brilliant white smile. "Simple, gentlemen," he said, having regained his composure and charm. "We make sure he can't tell anyone anything."

Jake's and Dave's foreheads furrowed in twin frowns. They looked at each other, then at Bobby, and back to each other. And then it struck them.

"Oh, no," Jake refused, as Dave buried his head in his hands, unable to do anything but hyperventilate and squeak, "My God my God my God."

"There is no way we're killing anybody, Bobby, especially not a cop."

"It's the only way we're getting out of this, man!" Bobby spat, the charming smile gone. "You think he'll just congratulate himself on his intuition and go back home? You heard him. He intends to make us fall for all of it!"

"I don't care!" Jake hollered back. "I agreed to this when it was just teachin' a lesson to a bunch of queers and dykes, but there's a limit, Bobby. I'm not killing anyone!"

For a moment they stood, toe-to-toe, chests heaving, sweat pouring down their faces. Bobby eyed Jake, wondering just how hard he'd have to push to get the big youth on his side--and then gave up. "All right," he conceded, dropping into a chair at the table. "Maybe there's another way to--"

He stopped again, then turned back to Jake. "Jake, you know where Wade put those pictures we took of him?"

"Yeah," Jake answered, mystified. "But what good are those gonna do?"

"You'll see," Bobby said, rising from the chair in one graceful movement, the charming smile back.

**********

The door opened and closed again, and Hutch waited--for the kids to either assault him again or concede the game was his. He was surprised when, instead, they removed the blindfold from his eyes, then stood in front of him in a loose semicircle. He eyed Bobby, who was probably close enough for him to kick, but Jake, the big one, was farther away and watching vigilantly.

"Detective Hutchinson," Bobby began coaxingly. "We have a deal for you that I think will be the best thing for all of us."

He favored Hutch with a perfect smile--white teeth flashing, dimples denting his cheeks--and Hutch narrowed his eyes, struck by a sense of netherworld deja vu. The blond hair, the classic features, the lean, athletic frame. The kid at the Peacock, he realized. Dammit, am I destined to run into dark sides of myself wherever I go?

He shook his head to bring himself back to the present and the sticky situation he was in. He was still tied to the chair, and these three kids could take him if they wanted to. His eyes flicked briefly to a clock hanging over the door. If I can stall them, he thought, maybe Starsky'll find the lighter and figure out where they took me.

"All right, talk," he told Bobby. "I'm promising nothin', but I'll listen to what you have to say."

"A deal," Bobby repeated and pulled a chair in front of Hutch. Planting a second one to a spot outside Hutch's reach, he straddled it, then jerked his head at Jake. "Show him the pictures, Jake."

Apparently confident that Hutch understood the futility of trying to ambush him, Jake laid a half-dozen pictures on the chair's seat, then backed off. Puzzled, Hutch glanced from one teenager to another. His charming smile intact, Bobby nodded down to the photos. "Take a look, Mr. Hutchinson, and tell me what your daddy will think when he gets a load of those."

Hutch dropped his eyes to the first picture, then rapidly to the other five. Though he made every effort to keep his expression neutral, he conceded that this was indeed a betting card.

The pictures were of him and Starsky, from the one time they'd gone to the park for pleasure rather than business. Though two of them were innocuous enough, showing only him and Starsky with their arms around each other's shoulders, the others--of them kissing tenderly, hands laced in each other's hair--told another story, all too well. He swallowed, imagining his father's reaction to the pictures, and glanced up at the kids once more.

"That takes care of the show part," he said, with more bravado than he felt. "Now give me the tell."

"That's just it," Bobby said, leaning forward as if discussing the latest scores at Wimbledon. "You don't tell, we don't show. You leave here, forget you ever saw us or who we were, and we hand these over to you."

Hutch stared at him, astonished and saddened by the boy's ability to coldly dismiss the physical and emotional damage he and his comrades had done. "Extortion's illegal, too," he informed the teen. "What makes you think I won't blow the whistle about that?"

"We keep the negatives and a set of prints in a safe place, and tell the local press where to find them," Bobby told him. "Sure, you'll get us, but you'll go down, too, because the whole town, including your father, will find out that Ken Hutchinson is a dyed-in-the-wool queer." The corners of his mouth curved up farther, turning the smile into something wicked and mean. "Think about it, Hutchinson. You can go home and pretend this never happened. But your parents will have to live with that ridicule for the rest of their lives."

Hutch sank back into the chair with an inaudible sigh.

There was no doubt what he had to do. Polly, Terry and Jim, and all the other people who had lived in fear since the attacks began deserved nothing less. He was a good cop and an honest one; he had never taken a deal when one had been offered to him. He felt too strong an obligation to those he had sworn to serve and protect.

But then the movie ran through his head again--the one where his father found out about him and Starsky, but this time accompanied by the rest of the town. Hutch would become the ultimate disappointment--the ultimate pariah--not only for choosing an unacceptable lifestyle, but for shaming his father before the entire town. Richard's reputation was gold here. He was respected and trusted, and that status meant the world to him. Bobby was right. If these pictures got out, Richard Hutchinson would find it hard to hold up his head for years to come.

You should be ashamed of yourselves, bringing this kind of disgrace on your family.

But protecting his father--and, if he were honest, himself--meant more than denying his duty. It meant, in essence, denying Starsky. Admitting that his own hide and his father's good name meant more to him than coming clean to this part of the world about his love.

A sigh escaped his lips. In the mental movie, he saw the young Ken Hutchinson, waiting hopefully for the final, approving, accepting word from his father. I'm sorry, kid, he apologized wistfully to that long-ago figure of himself. But I just can't do it.

The boy hung his head and turned away.

Hutch raised his eyes and looked levelly at Bobby.

"Nice try, boys, but no sale," he said coolly. "Now if you've got a nice Picasso or Monet, I might be interested in that--"

Bobby's smile turned to a snarl, an ugly one that lifted the hair on Hutch's neck. "You're gonna be sorry you said that," he hissed. "Jake, Dave, we've got no choice."

Dave didn't even bother to respond. He simply turned and fled from the room. Jake gave Bobby a long, measuring look, then resettled his flowing shirt on his shoulders. "No way, Bobby," he said firmly. "You wanna do this...you're on your own this time."

He followed Dave out.

Bobby turned to Hutch, eyes blazing, and suddenly a knife was in his hand.

"You don't wanna use that," Hutch warned. "It's tough to make a killing stroke with something that small, and as soon as you get near enough, you're pretty much mine."

"Yeah, well, at least I can shut you up," Bobby growled and surged forward, the knife aimed straight for Hutch's throat.

At the last minute, Hutch lunged, turning self and chair to the side, and grunted as the knife sliced open his arm. The momentum took both him and Bobby to the ground. With a cry of rage, the boy scrambled to his feet.

"Freeze! Hold it right there!"

Distracted by the shout, Bobby hesitated in his onslaught. Hutch's legs whipped out and he dumped Bobby to the floor. In an instant, Brady was on top of him, hauling the raving teenager to his feet and dragging him out of the room.

Simultaneously, Starsky knelt beside Hutch, hands pulling quickly but carefully through the rope. As the knots loosened, Hutch felt the chair fall away and heard it clatter as Starsky tossed it across the room. He was pulled close, head cradled in Starsky's hands. "Easy, easy," he heard his partner croon above him, as the loving hands wiped away blood and sweat. "Are you okay, babe?"

"Yeah," Hutch whispered. "Just...okay."

"Okay," Starsky echoed, his voice a little giddy. "Yeah, it's okay," he amended, holding his partner tightly. "You're gonna be all right."

"Starss?" Hutch said faintly. He could tell he was just about to slip out of consciousness.

"Yeah, buddy?" Starsky leaned down close. "Tell me."

"Starsk...love you."

"Yeah," Starsky breathed. "Me, too."

And just before Hutch drifted away, he noticed Brady watching from the doorway.

**********

"Hutch...Hutch..."

He drifted in sleep for another few minutes, then gave in and let himself float to the surface. He opened his eyes slowly, to find Starsky leaning over his bed with a loving, worried expression. As he blinked, the worry transformed into a brilliant, welcoming smile.

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," Starsky greeted him. "Welcome back."

"Hey," Hutch returned, knowing without looking around that he was in the hospital. "What'm I doin' here?"

"That kid Jake must have hands like jackhammers," Starsky told him. "He gave you a mild concussion. The doc just wanted to keep you here for a while."

"D'ya nail 'em?" Hutch asked, groping for his partner's hand and gripping it tightly.

"Yeah," Starsky said. His smile deepened, though whether in response to the question or the touch, Hutch was too drowsy to tell. "All of 'em."

"Bunch of crazies," Hutch sighed, feeling sleep nibbling at him again.

"Yep," Starsky agreed. "Too bad about Wade, though. You know what? I think he really believed in that mission of his."

"Pretty lousy way to make it happen," Hutch commented.

"True," Starsky said. "But I think once he decided he was saving 'lost souls,' he let himself forget how it was happening."

"No 'scuse." He was fading.

Starsky could tell; the grin widened.

"No, it isn't." He leaned down and kissed Hutch's forehead gently. "Better go and let you get some more sleep. You're lookin' pretty bad."

"Thanks."

"Any time."

Hutch closed his eyes again, preparing to drift back down into sleep, but then the door opened and his parents and Cathy entered. He felt Starsky discreetly withdraw his hand, then the decrease in warmth as his partner stepped back from the bed. He sighed, pushed to a more upright position as Starsky tucked another pillow behind his head, and resigned himself to the inevitability of being awake.

"Well, Ken," his father said, clearing his throat, apparently not sure what to say in this setting. Hutch had rarely admitted to being seriously ill while he was growing up, partially because it made his father so uncomfortable. "How are you? How are you feeling?"

"Good enough," Hutch replied, still somewhat fuzzy. "About ready to get out of this joint."

"Yes, well..." Richard glanced around, then spotted Hutch's chart at the foot of the bed. With a visible expression of relief, he snatched it up and flipped through the pages, nodding as he read. "Well, it looks like your injuries are relatively minor," he said, eyes on the medical information rather than his son. "It doesn't appear your concussion is serious, and one laceration on your arm took twenty stitches, but should be fine."

Starsky and Hutch exchanged amused glances.

"The other one--" Richard stopped. A frown crossed his face, as he reread the entry.

Hutch's amusement vanished. He knew what his father was looking at--he had been "tattooed" like all the others.

"Well, uh," Richard stammered. "It, uh, appears the assailants made something of a mistake this time, didn't they?" He glanced up from the chart with an overly bright smile.

Hutch's gaze moved swiftly around the room. Starsky's eyes were steady on his, rich in love and understanding as they always were, and then his partner shook his head slightly, almost imperceptibly. Don't, the gesture said. There'll be another time, another place. Cathy's eyes were wide with worry, as they shifted from Richard to Hutch and back again. Miranda was composed as usual, but a tiny furrow between her brows betrayed her concern about what Hutch would say, and how his father would respond.

Hutch looked back at his partner, who had been by his side through all the horrors they'd imagined in the Academy, and a few they had never dreamed existed. The mental movie returned, but its focus shifted, from Richard's outraged response to his partner's unwavering love: Starsky, sticking by him through the pain of withdrawal, through Gillian's death, through that terrible, cynical year when he'd nearly lost his mind from bitterness and doubt. And then himself, sitting by Starsky's bed after Gunther's hit, fearing he'd lost him forever, and vowing he'd do anything if God would only give him back.

He took Starsky's hand back in his and realized the decision was no longer in doubt.

"No, Dad," he said simply. "They didn't."

Richard's head snapped up so abruptly that Hutch winced. Pale eyebrows raced in to meet each other in a dangerous scowl, while the chart's pages flickered, suspended in stilled fingers. Hutch watched as Richard took in his and Starsky's joined hands, saw the disbelief gather ominously in his father's eyes, and braced himself for the disapproving fury he knew would soon follow.

No one moved. It seemed, in fact, that no one breathed.

When Richard spoke, his voice was deadly. "Would you care to explain that?"

"They didn't get it wrong," Hutch repeated, amazed at how steady his voice was, now that the moment was here. "Starsky and I--we're more than partners at work, more than friends. We've been--"

He struggled for the words to describe their unique relationship, but those words were hard enough to find when the tension wasn't unbearable. Finally, he gave up and chose a term he knew even his father would understand.

"Lovers," he said bluntly. "For over a year now."

There was another moment of absolutely frozen silence. Hutch watched the thoughts flash across his father's face. Homosexuality is a recognized psychiatric disorder, he remembered his father saying, and now his son "had" it. Richard's lips tightened, along with his grip on the chart, and the crackle of crumpling pages sounded like thunder in the dead quiet.

"I...see."

Carefully, precisely, Richard closed the chart and replaced it at the end of the bed. His eyes flicked toward his son, then quickly away, as if he couldn't bear what he saw. He turned to his wife. "You knew," he accused, his tone low and harsh.

"Yes," Miranda replied, without apology or elaboration.

The whiplash eyes turned to Cathy, who flinched, but met them steadily. Richard cocked one imperious, inquisitive eyebrow.

"Yes," Cathy answered bravely, as if her father had spoken. "I did, too."

"Well," Richard began coldly, and not once did his eyes return to Hutch and Starsky. "I guess there's little left to say to either you or your...partner." He made the word sound like something distasteful and toxic.

Hutch waited for the cowed adolescent to emerge, for shame and fear to wash over him and bring with it that desperate desire to earn his father's approval, no matter what it took. But all he felt was warmth pulsing between him and Starsky--the warmth of his partner's skin, of the love and support they had exchanged and that had sustained them, one way or another, for nearly a decade.

Quietly, he said, "I guess not."

"Well, then," Richard repeated, with a That's that breath that told Hutch he was about to be dismissed. "I will ask your mother and your sister to pack your things and bring them here. I would...appreciate it if you...neither of you...returned to the house."

Ever again hung in the air.

"If that's what you want," Hutch said softly, his voice tinged with regret..

"Yes." His voice firm, with no trace of emotion, Richard stepped back from the bed, brushed his hands together as if dusting off something dirty, then strode to the door and pulled it open. "Miranda," he said. The word was an order.

Miranda did not look at him. "You go ahead," she instructed him calmly. "I'll be right there."

He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut and left the room.

Suddenly, the oxygen seemed to return, and Hutch breathed for what felt like the first time in an hour. He felt the side of Starsky's head press against his, a tender gesture that abruptly filled his eyes with tears.

His mother moved gracefully to the side of the bed and brushed the hair from his forehead. "I'll make sure everything makes it to the hospital," she promised him gently. "You boys be careful going home."

She turned to go, but Hutch stopped her, catching her hand in his. "Mom," he said hesitantly. "How do you...what do you--?"

She gave him an uncertain smile, then patted his hand with the one he wasn't holding. "I don't really know yet," she admitted. "But I know I love you, and I've always liked David. I guess we'll just have to go from there."

"Okay," Hutch whispered, feeling foolish as the tears threatened to spill over. Miranda kissed his forehead, reached across the bed to briefly squeeze Starsky's arm, then slipped out of the room.

Wordless, seemingly sobbing for all three of them, Cathy hurried to Hutch and threw her arms around him. Hutch couldn't help wincing as her well-meaning embrace pressed on the knife wounds. "I'm sorry," she wept, drawing back, and Hutch wasn't sure whether she meant for the inadvertently painful hug or the scenario they had just witnessed. "I don't understand--why can't he just. Dammit, he's such a bastard!"

Hutch raised a surprised eyebrow at this vehement outburst from his rarely angry sister, and released Starsky's hand so he could pull her close. "It's okay," he whispered soothingly, rubbing her back in his best big-brother fashion. "Trust me, it's not the end of the world."

"I'll work on him," she vowed fiercely, pulling away again and swiping impatiently at the tears streaming down her cheeks. "Mom and I both will, you'll see."

Hutch started to dissuade her, to tell her not to bother because it really wasn't important, but he could tell it mattered to her. So he only drew her in for one last hug and a gentle forehead kiss, and then nudged her toward the door. "Go on," he urged. "Don't let them leave you here, too."

She squeezed his hand a final time, told him, "I love you," then left the room, still sniffling.

A hand stroked through his hair, and, though Starsky was silent, Hutch knew what his partner was saying. He caught the hand in his and pressed it softly to his lips.

I love you, too.

**********

The minute they walked into Hutch's apartment, they were on each other, barely taking time to close and lock the door. Hutch felt he had never kissed, or been kissed with such passion, and yet with such unerring gentleness. He sighed as Starsky captured his mouth and covered every inch of his face with his lips, kissing bruised and sore areas with healing tenderness, and devouring unmarked spots with ferocious hunger. Feeling his knees begin to tremble, Hutch returned the kisses, guiding them both down to the floor.

He had intended to take the lead, but his partner shifted, pushing Hutch slowly onto his back while the kisses continued. Somehow, a pillow was behind Hutch's head, then, Starsky unfastened the buttons on his shirt, touching his tongue to Hutch's skin between each one. Gently, while Hutch could do little but lie there and ache, Starsky worked the shirt off. The injured arm received special attention, with little kisses feathered along the edges of the bandage.

"Better than any medicine the nurses ever gave me," Hutch groaned, as Starsky's lips worked their way back up to his shoulder, then took a lazy, spiraling route down his chest and abdomen, to the area above his belt. He could feel his jeans straining, become almost unbearably tight, and then a hot hand was there, grazing the increasing bulge, then darting away.

"Starss--"

"Shhhh," Starsky whispered, and goosebumps sprang on Hutch's arms as the wisp of warm breath brushed across his skin. "Easy, Blintz, we got all night."

They may have had all night, but clearly their bodies had other things in mind. Despite Starsky's deliberately slow beginning, it seemed only seconds before he had undressed Hutch completely. A cool breeze titillated, as Starsky pulled away for a moment while he removed his own t-shirt and jeans. Then the lips were back, and the naked contact after such a long fast drove Hutch into a frenzy. For long moments, he knew nothing but the delicious friction of Starsky's skin on his, of Starsky's mouth on him, seemingly everywhere at once, until he thought he would burst--and did.

Then it was his turn, and he took the dark head in his hands and trailed his lips across the fine features and luscious mouth, then down Starsky's neck and through the hair on his chest and stomach. With each touch of his mouth, he tried to kiss away all the doubts, the arguments, the inches of distance, until he felt his partner buck and squirm beneath him.

At long last they lay, together and alone, on the brass bed in Hutch's bedroom. Fingers entwined, lying side by side, every possible inch of skin touching, they had both been silent for several minutes. Hutch gave a relieved sigh, and something in his chest, something that had been tight and painful for weeks, loosened, broke apart, and floated away. He squeezed his partner's hand and reveled in the returned pressure.

"How you doin'?" came drowsily from the curly head beside his.

"Just fine," Hutch all but purred. "Better than I've been in a long time."

He heard a throaty chuckle, then silence. Absently, he scratched the flaking skin on the inside of his left elbow.

"Itchin'?" came from Starsky, who had apparently felt the movement.

"Yeah."

There was a tender sweep of fingers across his skin, and he felt Starsky shift. Lips followed fingertips, pressing softly, sending pleasant shivers up Hutch's arm.

"The doc said it was superficial, right?"

"Yeah," Hutch confirmed, unable to hide his relief. "He said it shouldn't leave any noticeable scar, unless you're really looking for it."

Starsky chuckled again. "Good thing. I don't think the Bay City PD's ready for us to flash this in their faces."

It was Hutch's turn to chuckle softly, and then both men were quiet, watching the play of lights across the ceiling.

"Your dad took it pretty well," Starsky murmured at last.

Hutch didn't restrain his snort. "Right," he said sarcastically. "I always consider 'leave and don't bother coming back' to be a kind of blessing."

"I think he was startin' to come around," Starsky insisted. "When we ran into him at the hospital, right before we left, I could've sworn he wanted to take some of that back."

He was lying and Hutch knew it, but he loved his partner for making the effort. And he wasn't particularly worried about his father. He suspected that time, his mother, and Cathy would eventually bring Richard around--if not to acceptance, then at least to tolerance.

"Nah, in some ways my dad'll never change," he said, pulling Starsky onto his shoulder. "Though I have to admit, I saw a side of him on this trip I hadn't seen before."

"With Polly?"

"Yeah." Hutch pursed his lips, then winced from the pain the movement still brought. "I mean, I'd seen him be kind with his patients, but...I mean, he knew Polly was gay, and he didn't seem to care. He treated her with the same compassion he does all his patients--like she was a person to him, and not just a sexual orientation." He paused.

Starsky stared at him, and, despite the afterglow of the lovemaking they had just shared, he felt his chest constrict with sadness for his partner. For, once again, Hutch didn't seem to notice the discrepancy--the incredible gulf--between the effort and concern his father showed others, and the almost surgical swiftness with which he had severed his ties to his son. And for what? For loving differently, outside the psychiatric "norm."

I haven't forgotten my promise, babe. I'm gonna spend the rest of my life giving you everything that man never did. Starting now.

Throat working, he tightened the arm that lay across Hutch's chest, as his partner went on, reflectively:

"Remember that fun house you mentioned, Starsk--the one with all the weird mirrors? It's something like that. Sometimes everything's distorted, and sometimes it's not."

Starsky shifted, then drew his hand back to massage Hutch's chest. He felt Hutch catch his breath, then shudder, and he could almost see the shot of sexual electricity that went straight to Hutch's groin.

"Starss..." Hutch murmured, as Starsky's hand followed the lightning.

"Well, you know, Hutch, fun houses got all kinds of mirrors," Starsky whispered into his ear, stirring the blond strands to trigger another electrical charge. He knew he had succeeded when, shivering, Hutch drew in a trembling breath as Starsky's hand encircled him and began to move gently.

"As in," Hutch gasped, "some objects may be larger than they appear?"

Starsky kissed him soundly. "You got it, partner."

And the ride began.

**********

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