SurvivalCover

Cover Art by Lorraine Brevig


 

 

 

 

 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

by

 

Kaye Austen Michaels


Table of Contents

Cover Art by Lorraine Brevig

Author's Notes

Prologue

Part One

Interior Art by Lorraine Brevig

Part Two

Part Three

Epilogue

Acknowledgments from Kaye Austen Michaels

Acknowledgments from Keri

 


Author's Notes

 

Starsky and Hutch were created by William Blinn, Leonard Goldberg, and Aaron Spelling, but mostly by Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul.

John "Johnny" Gage, Roy DeSoto, Kelly "Kel" Brackett, Joe Early, Dixie McCall, Mike Morton, Chet Kelley, Marco Lopez, Hank Stanley, Mike Stoker, Joanne DeSoto, and Henry the hound dog were created by Jack Webb and Robert A. Cinader for the television show Emergency!, and they are respectfully borrowed for the enrichment of this fandom publication. I'm delighted to have these characters as "honored guests" in this Starsky/Hutch novel.

The television show Emergency! ran from 1972-1978 with two spinoff movies in 1979. Although the pilot of the series, "The Wedworth-Townsend Act" aired in 1972, the episode depicts a fictionalized account of real life events in California in 1969-1970 that led to the groundbreaking Wedworth-Townsend Act. Signed into law by Governor Reagan in July 1970, the Act allowed trained firefighter paramedics to operate in California. LA County was in many ways the birthplace of the paramedic program. Based on history, Roy and Johnny would have begun their paramedic training in Fall 1969, finishing in December 1969. For this reason, I view the pilot and the first season of Emergency! as taking place between 1969 and early 1971.

I place season two of the series in 1972-1973 based on canon evidence, and from there I have tried to follow the canon timeline based loosely on the episode airdates. Wherever possible I have tried to mesh events and airdates with Starsky & Hutch canon airdates and events in the spirit of a true crossover. This novel begins in June 1976, shortly before the second season of S&H and before the sixth season of Emergency!  

The Emergency! series finale, originally airing in December 1978, portrays Gage's and DeSoto's promotion to captain. The two spinoff movies that aired in June and July 1979, intended to garner interest in a new Emergency! series about San Francisco paramedics, involve Gage and DeSoto traveling to San Francisco as paramedic observers. Since they would likely not have been sent to San Francisco in this capacity as captains, I have chosen to reference the events in these episodes as taking place during June and very early July 1978.

We do know based on Emergency! canon that Johnny Gage is of Native American heritage. I have chosen to give him Nomlaki tribal membership. As far as I know, Johnny's specific tribal background is not given in canon, so I have taken artistic license. I have attempted to remain true to his character's devotion to and enthusiasm for his Native American background as seen in several Emergency! episodes.

In present day emergency medicine, ER physicians and trauma surgeons are usually the products of different specialties. However, in Emergency! Kelly Brackett, M.D., carries F.A.C.S. (Fellow of the American College of Surgeons) credentials and is shown performing surgical procedures in many episodes. I have chosen to follow the show's canon in this, and therefore refer to him occasionally as a surgeon.    

For my medical research surrounding the "Sweet Revenge" episode in Starsky & Hutch, I depended on actual paramedic cardiac protocols from several rescue departments across the country. For other rescue scenes, I depended on Emergency! canon, internet resources regarding emergency medicine in the 1970s, and nursing school texts circa 1982.

As much as possible, I have tried to remain realistic to the LA County Fire Department experience in equipment references, dialogue, and their various codes and abbreviations based on research into the actual LACoFD along with Emergency! canon. In some cases, such as using station numbers possessively (i.e. Chet visited 8's yesterday.) realism meant sacrificing grammatical accuracy. Please excuse these grammatical inconsistencies as they are present to preserve the flavor of the series and of real life fire rescue work. With regards to fire department shift schedule, Emergency! canon is ambiguous about which shift the main characters worked, but I am using A-shift in this novel.

For information on the Jewish faith and Yiddish language, I relied heavily on some excellent online resources, and I derived so much pleasure researching the Jewish faith that I sometimes forgot I was looking for specific information pertinent to this story. Please overlook any Yiddish misspellings. One thing I learned quickly is that no two Yiddish-English dictionaries seemed to have the same spelling for a Yiddish term. I adopted the spelling I found to be most common, and I hope I have stayed true to the flavor of such a fascinating language.

Lyrics and/or mention of the following songs were used with respect and no intention of copyright infringement:

"One"--Three Dog Night

"Good Morning Starshine"--Oliver

"Queen For a Day"--Donna Summer

"Tell It Like It Is"--Aaron Neville

"Johnny Angel"--Shelley Fabares

"Tequila Sunrise"--The Eagles

"Already Gone"--The Eagles


Prologue

Hutch woke to a light rhythmic snore that called to mind home and comfort, warming him deeper than the morning sun filtering into the apartment. The nearness startled him, though, the sound's definition and volume what he'd expect from hearing the snore in his ear while sharing a bed with the man responsible. If he had awakened in a special world where the impossible became reality, he intended to make the most of it. Languidly stretching, he rolled over in bed to nose through thick dark hair and find a tasty earlobe to kiss.

He rolled off the sofa.

"Oomph, what the hell!" yelled the man he'd rolled onto.

Hutch yelped from the dull pain of an elbow jammed into his sternum. He lay sprawled across Starsky's side, and the warm thigh pressing into his crotch made him happy to be awake. Unfortunately, it made his crotch happy, too, and he'd have a hard-on instead of morning excitement, if he didn't get his ass in gear and get it away from the ass currently beneath him. He rolled the rest of the way off Starsky and collided with the coffee table. "What the hell are you doing on my floor?" he yelled back.

Starsky yawned, giving Hutch a face full of pizza-and-Raisinettes breath, and performed a series of unconsciously sexual stretches. When Starsky winked at him, Hutch scrambled out of the tight space between temptation and the coffee table, crawling over to open floor where he could stand with his back to his partner and adjust himself in his jeans, hopefully with some discretion. No! This isn't happening to me now. Not this morning. Not after the great time we had last night, just being here, being us. Damn it, that's sacred, he's sacred! Wait, what am I afraid of here? This is nothing to worry about. Just my body reminding me that I'm alive, young, healthy, and partnered to the sexiest man in the LAPD who also happens to be one of the finest people to walk the planet. I'd be dead if I didn't get hard once in a while for a combination like that! I can control it. I always have.  

"I crashed here last night," Starsky explained as if to an amnesiac.

Hutch looked over his shoulder. "Obviously. But I offered you the bed."

Starsky sat up and ran both hands through his cushion-matted hair. "I know. But I was beat to a pulp, and your floor looked damned good with all the sofa throw cushions to soften it up."

Hutch looked at his naked sofa. "I can see that. At least you left me one small cushion for a pillow."

"Hey, anything for my partner."

Anything. Anything but one thing. One subject never broached, one line never crossed. Old tendencies, Hutchinson, old news. Hutch rubbed his eyes. He hadn't endured a morning this vulnerable in ages. What made this one different than any of a thousand mornings?

The closeness, his mind answered immediately.

He and Starsky had just come off a week-long stakeout assignment, spending on average ten hours per day stuck in the Torino together. After the case had unexpectedly wrapped up around midnight--Hutch consulted his watch: just nine hours ago--he had invited Starsky to pick up pizza from their favorite late-night place and bring it over to Venice so they could unwind and celebrate the big arrest. Two skilled procurers of raw methamphetamines were now in lock-up cooling their outrage at being busted. Hutch fingered his crotch experimentally. He had done his own cooling. Good. Able to walk without embarrassing himself, he went in search of granola and milk.

~*~*~

Starsky watched Hutch hold the fridge door open and stare inside with deep concentration. Tingling rippled over the back of his neck, the beginning of his fight-and-flight response to something that deviated dangerously from the norm. It was the sensation that warned him when he and Hutch were walking into an ambush, or when friendly faces hid enemy minds on the streets. Something was off. No, not something. Someone. Hutch was off. Starsky remembered jungle thunderstorms and the electricity in the air before the heavens opened and poured out all their fury. That same electricity crackled in the air around Hutch, whereas the night before there had been nothing in the apartment but easy contentment. In all their years together, Starsky couldn't remember feeling quite that close to his best friend, just sitting around putting away good pizza and even better conversation. His world had narrowed down to a sofa, pizza boxes, and two people who could read each other like never-ending best-selling novels.

But the Hutch of this morning was a different person. For one, the man didn't usually need five minutes to find the milk for his bowl of shredded cardboard. And then there was that nonsense of Hutch's just now, acting like the morning wood showing in his jeans was something to hide. Hutch had probably been grooving in his sleep on some memories of Abby, and woke with some cockeyed thought that he should have erased her from his fantasy collection after she stuffed him with vitamins and left him alone and water logged a week later. If so, Starsky would put a couple of knuckles upside the back of Hutch's head for unnecessary martyrdom. In his opinion, the woman was so flaky she belonged in a Kellogg's box, but if Hutch wanted to snuggle up with memories in a post-break-up drought, then that was one guilty pleasure he shouldn't feel guilty about.

Starsky had his own morning wood to contend with, but it was the fault of a brown-eyed girl in Supply Division, and he had plans to make those early morning fantasies a nighttime reality in about ten hours. Now he just had to snap Hutch out of his funk and remind him that there were other fish in the sea besides fasting blonde mermaids. "You lost the milk or something?" he asked. "Or just trying out a new method of personal air conditioning?"  

"The pizza boxes are crowding my fridge. That veggie-and-cheese you ordered for me was something else, Starsk, thanks."

"Yeah? Great. Hey, you could make breakfast out of it."

Instead, Hutch pulled out the box containing the last three slices of Starsky's deli special topped with pepperoni, salami, and Italian sausage. He selected a cold slice and didn't even scowl at the congealed cheese and pepperoni grease before he gobbled down a good chunk of it.

Starsky figured his own expression could win a photo contest. "Okay, did you spill something in my car last night when I wasn't looking?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"Eating my kind of pizza in the morning and not even bitching about how gross it looks all cold and congealed, that's a helluva way to butter me up, that's what."

Hutch glared at the pizza and then at Starsky. "I didn't spill anything in your precious car. This morning just didn't feel like a granola morning."

"Hate to knock your usual, pal, but no morning's a granola morning in my book." Starsky hopped up from the floor, worked out the sleep crinkles in his denim shorts, and headed for the kitchen counter. Hutch rushed past him to the sofa.

Starsky whipped around and stared. "Regretting that cold pizza breakfast? I know it's not your thing."

"No, it's okay for a change." Hutch polished off the slice for confirmation.

Shrugging, Starsky delved into the box for his own slice. "I'm tellin' ya, it's the complete breakfast. Meat, bread, dairy, and dependin' on your viewpoint, the tomato sauce is either fruit or vegetable. Four food groups. It's an idea whose time has come."

Hutch coughed, tapped his chest, and gave Starsky a look that was either indigestion coming on fast or intense emotional discomfort. For his own peace of mind, Starsky latched on to the former explanation. "So, whatmff shouldmmff--" Taking pity on his partner, he decided not to talk with his mouth full. He plucked the last remaining soda can from the fridge and washed down that tasty bite of deli special. "What should we do today, huh? I got a date tonight, but until eight p.m., I'm all yours."

Hutch sprang off the sofa in a beeline for the sink where he ran a glass of water and gulped half the cool liquid down before he paused for breath. He clutched at his brow the way he only did with a throbbing sinus headache, and his laugh didn't sound at all natural. "Starsk, don't take this wrong, but after this week's stakeout gig, I'm about to OD on being attached to your hip."

Starsky demolished a third of the pizza slice in one chomp, watching Hutch while he chewed. "What's that supposed to mean, attached to my hip?" He eyed his favorite breakfast with less enthusiasm.

"We've been cooped up in that Torino for sixty hours over the last five days, Starsky! I was afraid I'd turn red and end up with a white check-stripe down my back!"

"Hey, it's too early in the mornin' for you to come down on my car." Starsky wagged the pizza crust at him. "You used to bitch about stakeouts in my old car too."

"You mean the Torino's predecessor? It was a motorized yellow jacket, Starsky, and buzzed like one, to boot!"

"It was a '69 Falcon! Already a classic."

"A yellow-and-black classic. You just don't get the concept of the neutral undercover sedan."

"If it doesn't have flash, it's not worth my cash."

"That's it!" Hutch exaggerated a fast walk over to the door and held it open. "If you start rhyming like Huggy, you really have to go."

Getting growly fast, Starsky hated nothing more than when he couldn't put his finger on a Hutchinson problem and fix it. "Aw, shut the door, willya, and tell me what's circling your bowl? This has nothing to do with the Torino or the stakeout."

Hutch shut the door, but he remained propped against its solidity. "Aren't you tired of me after this last week? I think even our shadows are glued together."

Starsky smiled. "Yeah, it's kinda nice." He popped the pizza crust in his mouth and pondered his next move in the chess game their partnership could be when Hutch had something needling him. Maybe he needed to taunt Hutch into one of their playful ruckuses, release some of that tension. "Guess you're not ready for me to move in? That's okay." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I think your floor gave me a pain. I'm better off sticking to the nice comfy bed at my place."

Hutch didn't respond with an appropriate put down. He just smiled. "Sounds good. Why don't you go sack out there now, sleep off the late night we had?"

Starsky heard a friendly but serious dismissal in those words. Well, damn. Maybe he'd overstepped bounds he hadn't even known existed. Time for a judicious hit of truth. "Hell, I didn't mean to crowd you, buddy, but I thought you might wanna look at my mug instead of the four walls in this apartment, now that you're off your water-and-vitamin diet and the perks that came with it."

Hutch seemed to relax against the door, but his persistent smile didn't match the downturn of his eyes. "Starsky, it's been a few weeks now. I'm fine. Abby and I called it quits on good terms. You don't have to buddy-sit me through this."

"I just feel responsible, that's all. That night she invited me over to dinner with you guys, I gave her a hard time about the fasting and vitamins and shit, but I didn't mean to run her off."

"You think--?" Hutch looked at him then and laughed. "We called things off because her new astrology hobby told her we were trying to force ourselves into a couple when she needed to pursue her path in life solo. Far be it from me to disturb the lady's path in life. Now do you feel better? Can I have a day to myself to go running in the park? I missed my early morning run today; I need to make up for it. And don't you need beauty sleep for your date tonight? Who's the poor--I mean, lucky girl?"

Starsky flipped him off with both hands. "Beth, from Supply."

Hutch goggled at him. "Isn't she Bigelow's sister?"

"I'll have you know that gorgeous creature has never been within a hundred miles of Bigelow's family tree! You oughta be ashamed of yourself!"

Patting his chest, Hutch swallowed his laughter. "My mistake."

Time for a change of subject. Get him off the touchy topic of women, dates, and getting laid. Distract him with something all the way across the football field from that subject and then come back to it when he least expects it. More effective that way. "What I really need to do is go home and call Ma. I missed the Friday call yesterday."

"You sound like that's some kind of a chore."

"Nah, I just hope she isn't still on the Aunt Ruth kick."

"Aunt Ruth kick?"

"Yeah, last week the phone call was all about Aunt Ruth. Ma bitching about her."

"So, what did--Aunt Ruth is your paternal aunt, right?"

"Yep. Pop's younger sister."

"What did she do to get your mother on her case?"

"Every year, Aunt Ruth sends Nick and me three cards: birthday, Yom Kippur, and Chanukah. The cards are nice, but I gotta tell you, the checks inside come in handy. A hundred for my birthday and Chanukah. Two hundred for Yom Kippur. I don't know what the woman's atoning for, but if she wants to do it to the tune of two hundred smackeroos, who'm I to complain?"

Hutch whistled. "That's a lot of atonement. Now I know why you're more likely to pick up our take-out tab during the Fall. What'd she do, miss your high school graduation or something? And I thought the main thrust of Yom Kippur was to atone for spiritual missteps between a person and God, not missteps between people."

No wonder his mouth hurt, Starsky thought, if the grin stretching his lips was half as big as the pride he felt in knowing that tall, quirky doorstop across the living room. "Hutch, you sure you didn't have a bar mitzvah? If you didn't have extra skin on your dick, I'd swear you were lying about your Gentile background."

~*~*~

Touched deep inside by the inherent compliment in Starsky's remark, Hutch had to think how to stand with two very mushy knees. Then the earthy flavor of his partner's speech tripped the wire on another landmine threatening his tenuous control. Certainly Starsky had known from the first Academy communal shower that his dorm-mate had a foreskin. Hard for Starsky to miss that, when he could look around in the showers the way every unwaveringly straight man could: casually and with no fear of revealing something best hidden. But he'd never used the word "dick" in conjunction with Hutch except to call him "dickhead" when appropriate. Why of all mornings did Starsky have to pick this one to break a seven-year silence on the subject!?

Seven years of burying my tendencies, ignoring every other healthy outlet for what I need. Amputating half my libido for the sake of loyalty and safety, afraid I can't open the floodgates even a little without washing everything away. Maybe I need more change in my life than cold pizza. No! If I want to deal with the phantom pain from my amputated sexuality, I have to focus on what's real. He's real. Our partnership is real. He would die for me. I would die for him. That's real. Respect what's real.

Hutch wasn't sure what, if anything, had shown in his face during his dark thoughts, but judging by his partner's expression, Starsky was wondering if aliens had invisibly entered the apartment and abducted Hutch's brain. The extent of Starsky's concern was evident when he didn't actually say anything about aliens. He said simply, "Hey, partner, what's with you this morning?"

Hutch left the door before he ended up stuck to it. He returned to the sink and his trusty glass of water. "I should have stuck to granola and milk. I think that pizza is trying to bite me back. You were telling me what your aunt did to get your mother riled. Somehow I can't believe it's because she sends you cards with nice, fat checks in them."

"Nope. Nick got his birthday card last week right on time, but no check inside. Ma was all bent out of shape, wondering why I got my birthday check this year same as usual, but Nicky got shafted."

Hutch smiled around the glass rim. "Wonder what he did to piss off Aunt Ruth?" 

"Who knows? Hell, I haven't seen the woman in forever, and far as I know, Nick hasn't either. Hard to image how the guy could piss off a relative thousands of miles and several time zones away, but with Nick, anything's possible."

"No kidding. Sounds like he picked the wrong one to rub the wrong way."

"Yeah." Starsky scratched around the waistband of his shorts where sleeping on the floor had left an indentation in spite of the cushions. Hutch made himself look away from the welt and the agile fingers in motion on Starsky's tanned skin. "Aunt Ruth's high up in some corporation in Japan, but to hear Ma talk, she's a sad case 'cause she's still single." He straightened his t-shirt and frowned at the pizza grease stain he left on the light cotton. "Thanks to Dobey's gift of a weekend off, I'm ending my dry spell tonight."

"Little over confident there, stud?"

Starsky's grin was wolfish. "I know what I got, and I know when a lady wants it."

Hutch put his arm around Starsky's shoulders, walking him to the door. "Go make your mother a happy woman with a good phone call, and don't get up to anything with Beth that I wouldn't do."

Starsky raised both eyebrows. "You mean, in or out of a dry spell? Come on, Hutch. If you're not moping over Abby, then you need to be out there getting yourself some prime chick flesh."

"Any day now I'll go out to a poultry farm and check out the hencoop."

"Anybody ever tell you your sense of humor is paralyzed?"

Hutch tried to push him over the threshold into the hall. "You do. All the time."

Starsky resisted his efforts. "Can I at least get my things?"

"Things?"

Starsky nodded at the coffee table. "My wallet and keys? You think I'd sleep on the floor with those things in my pockets pressing into places I don't want things pressing?"

Hutch wanted to punch a hole in the wall to redirect the focus he couldn't seem to mentally command this morning. One more reference to anything below the waist, and he'd self-destruct. Starsky, I'm trying to do the right thing here, damn it, couldn't you make it a little easier on me? This has to do with me respecting the most important person in my life, and by God, if I have to push you all the way back to your apartment to show you that respect, I will. He retrieved the prized possessions and shoved them into his friend's waiting hands. "There. Now scram."

Starsky smiled. "You got a big date you aren't telling me about?"

"Yes. With my sneakers and the sunshine in the park." He started to close the door, but paused with a crack left for him to look into the eyes that always reflected higher esteem for him than he showed himself. "Starsk? Thanks."

"For what?"

"For the twenty or so hours you spent with me this week that weren't part of the stakeout's mandatory sixty."

Starsky's smile made the sunshine in the park seem a worthless pursuit. "Anytime, you know that."

"I know."

"Call me if you find something exciting out there to do."

"I won't go off on vacation without you, Starsky." With another smile, Hutch closed the door.

He braced his forehead against the football poster and tried to catch his breath. He knew how to handle unwanted needs. Get the hell out of Dodge; that was how. Go somewhere temptation didn't lurk, and run until the need cooled in his veins. He knew there were places in the park he had to avoid. Places where every masculine smile was an invitation. But if he kept to the jogging trails, he wouldn't run headlong into temptation. He could go on avoiding any masculine touch for fear the weakening of his resistance might threaten his immunity to the man who had just taken all of the apartment's sunlight out the door with him. He could get through this vulnerable morning without breaking his seven-year fast.

Seven years in the wilderness.

~*~*~

Starsky whistled all the way down the stairs and out into the morning sunshine. Hutch was ready to jump back in the game. Starsky could spot the signs. Grinning, he slapped a light drum beat on the Torino's front fender on his way to the driver's door. Oh, yeah, Hutch was ready for action. The first pretty girl who turned his head in the park would be in for a real treat. Confident that Hutch's needs were taken care of, Starsky could relax into anticipation of a hot, sweaty night with a brown-eyed girl, and a fast-and-free, easy summer. And fast, free, and easy always did look better if Hutch was strapped in for the same ride.

Maybe Hutch would find his own brown-eyed girl in the park. He didn't need another wispy, blue-eyed blonde reminding him of blondes gone by. Starsky slid easily behind into the seat and tapped the same drum beat on the steering wheel.

Hutch always did fare better with brunettes.

 

Part One

The park attracted crowds for numerous reasons--its vicinity to Venice Beach, the well-kept jogging trails, bike paths, and grassy clearings between the palms and landscaping, and its relative safety. On this sunny bicentennial June morning, the playground equipment hosted an entire school room's worth of children, a Red Rover match commandeered one of the grassy meadows, and a smaller clearing's feisty game of whiffle ball had drawn spectators. Among all the joggers and sunbathers, Hutch was the only one trying to combine the activities. He had chosen his skimpiest white-trimmed navy running shorts and fitted beige pullover with both runner's comfort and sun worship in mind. If he could just shake his tension headache, if the sun's heat on his skin could replace the burn of need in his gut, then pushing Starsky out of his apartment would have been worthwhile. Lifting his face, eyes closed, to the solar radiance, he jogged around the bend he knew by memory, and promptly slammed into a palm tree that must have migrated to the center of the path. Before he hit the ground, he opened his eyes and saw not a mobile palm tree but a dark-haired man of his identical height in light blue summer sweats. Though open-eyed, the man obviously hadn't expected someone to veer into his "lane" on the jogging path. 

They landed on the grassy, shrubbery-lined trailside in a tangle of limbs, exclamations, and muttered apologies. Thanks to his light sweats, the stranger had nothing to show for the collision but grass stains and trail burn in the cotton over his knees, but Hutch had a nifty scrape across his bare left knee and his right ankle had ended up twisted underneath his rump on the other end of the "wreck."

"Pretty nasty headache there?" the man asked.

Hutch couldn't believe what he'd heard. Had he collided with a psychic? "Headache? Yeah, how'd you know that?"

"You had your face to the sun. To feel the sun on your eyelids? I've done that before."

"Are you all right?" Hutch asked again.

"I'm still in one piece." The other man brushed dark bangs away from his forehead and laughed. "But if you drive like you run, it's a wonder I haven't met you before now."

"Why?" Hutch tried to stretch his legs before depending on them to stand.

"I'm a paramedic. Easy, I see blood on that knee, and you're favoring the ankle."

"I'm fine." Hutch played reluctant patient, scooting backward from the paramedic's solicitous reach for his ankle, but he wasn't focused on the helping hand, or his own ankle. His eyes swept over his would-be rescuer's wiry, athletic body. He got a similar scrutiny from dark brown eyes in a heated gaze that traveled from the possible ankle injury and knee wound to his biceps and back down again. Under that gaze and the lure of the quirky smile that went with it, Hutch felt trapped in a sexy spotlight. His morning was running true to form. Keeping to the jogging trails hadn't protected him from temptation after all. "Really. I'm fine."

Resting on his heels in a squat reminiscent of rescue workers at the scene of an accident, the victim of Hutch's need for solar headache relief folded his arms over his knees. "Why don't you let me be the judge of that, or are you some kind of doctor out for a morning jog?"

"Med school dropout," Hutch admitted, chuckling.

"Well, don't you think active paramedic trumps med school dropout in this situation?"

"All right. Have a look. But it's nothing."

"I didn't say you were gonna spring an arterial bleed," the paramedic teased, his eyes sparkling with good humor and mischief. 

Again Hutch tried to scoot backward. "Look, I'm sure you don't need a busman's holiday."

"Hey, I can't be that scary! If you don't want some stranger checking out your aches and pains, maybe it would help if I introduce myself?" He held out his hand. "Name's John. Call me Johnny."

"Hu--I'm Ken. Nice to meet you." After the handshake, Hutch relaxed in his spot on the trailside with his knees bent and nodded at his legs. "Which do you want first? Knee or ankle?"

"Ankle," Johnny said, kneeling at his feet. "I've got some stuff back at my truck for that knee." When Hutch lifted his right foot, and Johnny cradled the ankle in preparation for assessing its stability, the patient flinched, then laughed somewhat nervously. Johnny's expression was strictly professional, but his fingers felt more caressing than examining, and his hands lingered around the ankle joint, sliding slowly up to assess the calf.

When those gifted hands approached his knee, his uninjured knee, Hutch drew back his leg and cleared his throat a couple times before he said, "If I were a pretty girl, I'd accuse you of a classic paramedic pick-up scenario."

"You think they taught us pick-up techniques in paramedic training?"

"Actually, I doubt you needed much training in that area." Watch it, you're flirting here!

Johnny's smile seemed to use the entire lower half of his face. "And maybe I'm an equal opportunity picker-upper."

Hutch smiled, too, but he shook his head. "I'm flattered, but I'm not--"

"Available?" Johnny interrupted, giving him that knowing scrutiny again. "Oh, well. The ankle feels sound. Looks like you gave it a good twist, and I can tell it's tender. Here, let me help you up."

Hutch accepted his hand up, and couldn't seem to pull free after they stood facing each other as equals. Johnny grinned at him and gently pulled his hand back. "Okay, Ken, tell me this: just how not available are you? I don't travel the home wrecking road."

"I'm not seeing anyone right now," Hutch blurted out. What the hell are you doing? Thank him and turn around and walk away like you have some sense!

"But you were recently?"

"How'd you know?"

"I only get that 'sun on my eyelids' headache when I'm trying to shake a girl who got too close."

A girl? Not hardly. Starsky's about as un-girly as they come. But like any talented plainclothes detective, Hutch had a good cover story ready at hand, this one grounded in partial truth. He nodded and raked his hand through his hair and down to squeeze the back of his neck. "Yeah. We called it quits a few weeks ago."

"Got too close?"

"No, too many fad diets and unfavorable zodiac alignment."

Johnny laughed. "I can take a hint. No personal questions. Still want something for that knee?"

"I won't deny it smarts," Hutch said, smiling again.

"Then follow me. My truck's in the parking lot by the basketball courts."

You're in trouble, you know that? If you go anywhere with this very attractive, very charismatic guy, you'll lose the battle. Oh, hell. Go on. It's just a little first aid. After a few limps to work out the kinks, Hutch's ankle cooperated, and he could match Johnny's long-legged stride all the way to the courtside parking lot and a muddy beige Land Rover 4 X 4 that had seen better days but looked up to quite a few all-terrain challenges yet. Johnny lifted the hatch and leaned halfway in the back, and Hutch stared at the asphalt underfoot or the nearest court's one-on-one, but he kept swinging quick glances over at his new acquaintance's ass. Nice ass. Looks firm, tight. I wonder how tight. No, I don't. But it is a nice ass. Not in the league with the one I fell onto in my living room this morning, but then nobody's ass is in that league, and it's not fair to compare apples and oranges. God, I shouldn't be standing here thinking any of this. Asses, apples, and oranges. I'm losing my mind. Here's a new rule for you, Hutchinson. Next time Starsky stays over and camps out on your floor, you're sleeping in the tub. No more little roll-off-the-sofa accidents. When the sounds of rummaging quieted, Hutch shifted his eyes back to the truck, where Johnny had located his advanced first aid kit.

Johnny went down on bended knee in front of him and set to work, quietly and efficiently. Within minutes, Hutch sported a properly dressed and bandaged knee, and a flushed hot complexion from forehead to neckline. Without bothering to rise, Johnny peered up at him, squinting in the fierce summer sun before lifting his hand to serve as visor. "I have a great remedy for that headache, too, but it's not in this kit, and I can't dole it out in the middle of a public parking lot."

Hutch beckoned with both hands in a get-up motion. "Thanks for the first aid, and for the offer, but like I said, I'm not--"

"I know. You're not. You're not, not, not. Just like I'm not, not, not. We're both not. Do you wanna hear about my remedy... or not?"

Hutch started to laugh. "I'm not getting anything by you, am I?"

Johnny rose to his feet and put away the kit. "Nope. Without a plaid flannel shirt and cheesy mustache, you're not a complete giveaway, and that stretch of jogging path isn't exactly the 'tearoom' over by the lily pond, but--what? What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"Not nothing. You look like I just signed your death warrant in permanent ink."

Hutch walked over to lean against the 4 x 4's rear fender. "If I were a complete giveaway, that's exactly what it would be. Oh, hell. What's your headache remedy?"

"You. Me. A nice, discreet motel just five or so miles from here."

"No. Has to be farther away than that."

"Why?"

"I have my reasons."

"Okay. How far away do you need it to be?"

"Outside LA County, preferably."

Johnny's eyes widened and blinked rapidly. "These reasons of yours. They're serious business?"

"Life or death."

"Well, then. If you're up to an hour's drive, there's a Mom & Pop motel I know close to Laguna Beach. It's clean, and the Mom and Pop that run the place don't ask a lot of questions. They'll give me an early check-in without thinking twice. Best of all, it's before you get to the touristy part of Laguna Beach. This little well-kept secret is on the edge of wilderness."

Hutch turned closed eyes back to the sun. "That's a long way for you to drive just to give me a little headache relief."

"Oh, hey, you're worth a little extra effort."

"How do I get to this Mom and Pop operation?"

Johnny stared at him again. "Thought you'd just ride with me."

"No, I need to have my own wheels. My place is just a few blocks from here." Hutch turned in a half circle and pointed in the general direction of Ocean Avenue. "I can walk home and get my car."

"You live in Venice," Johnny said with a smile.

Hutch shrugged. "You?"

"Topanga. I only hit this park when I want to meet--well, when I've got that itch."

"What itch?"

"You know damn well what itch." Johnny sounded impatient for the first time in their short acquaintance. "Look, we've established that we're both not, not, not, so you can stop playing the naïve  straight guy already."

"Wait just a minute. I'm not playing anything."

Johnny reached out, a tentative hand of peace that hesitated and then found purchase on Hutch's shoulder. "Sorry. Didn't mean to bite your head off. It's just--a closet's fine, doing the bi thing, that's fine--I do it, too--but I really don't get off on the denial trip."

"I'm admitting nothing, and denying nothing. That's the way it has to be. If you're interested in me on those terms, fine. If not, tough." Again, Hutch shrugged, and Johnny tightened his hand on his shoulder, squeezing once, twice, and then letting go.

"I'll give you directions to Canyon Vista, and I'll look for you to meet me there in about an hour." Johnny's gentle smile returned. "You wouldn't stand a guy up, would you?"

"I'll do my best not to. I've got a horrible headache and an unrelenting itch that need taking care of, and you're looking like pretty good medicine right now."

Johnny blew a raspberry at him. "If that's your idea of a come on line--!"

Hutch laughed. "Be fair. I didn't go through paramedic training."

~*~*~

Hutch sat behind the wheel in his parking spot beside the muddy Land Rover and tried to concentrate on the scenery. Canyon Vista lived up to its name. Behind the faux chalet motel with its squat brick add-on that was admittedly a little ridiculous, the natural beauty took his breath. He had a view of the lovely Crystal Cove backcountry with its rolling hills, canyons, and woodland. Out here, roughly one hour and five minute's drive from Venice, he could pretend he wasn't one of LA's finest.

If he could just think of himself as Ken, not Hutch, he might get through this and have the good time he desperately needed. Ken. He was Ken--an out-of-practice closet case who needed a little attention and understanding from a man who reached for him with sex on his mind, not a man who reached for him with his heart and soul and pushed every platonic boundary before drawing back to the safe side of heterosexuality.

If the parking space Johnny had chosen was any indication, his room was dead last in the line of doors in the brick add-on. Ken was surprised that his car, Johnny's 4 x 4, and an aged family station wagon three doors down comprised the only occupants in this side parking lot. Then the door opened in front of the 4 x 4, and Johnny stood in the doorway, leaning casually against the doorjamb and giving him a come hither smile.

Ken did a few swift comparisons to reassure himself about his motives.

Sure, Johnny had a naturally tan complexion and dark, unruly hair, but the unruliness came not in the form of thick waves and curls, but fine, straight hair with shaggy bangs over the forehead. His masculine features were softer than the face Hut--Ken knew best in the world, and the lovely chiseling in the brow, high cheekbones, and fine nose hinted at Native American ancestry. Johnny's straight line figure couldn't stand up to a certain muscled, sturdy physique, naturally filled-out in all the right places, but his slender athleticism had its appeal.

This was a man, certainly, but a different man, with different selling points and attractions. This was no substitute for the straight, straight, forever and ever amen, straight ideal.

Satisfied, Ken left the car.

Meeting Johnny at the door, he lifted his hand to the high cheekbone in a caress that made his new friend flush a little under all his lounging confidence. He stepped into the room, and Johnny followed, closing the door behind them. "Love that view, huh? We can leave the curtains drawn, too, 'cause there's a sheer drop out back and we won't have any peeping Toms passing by."

Ken gave the room an investigative scrutiny. Two double beds flanked a small chest of drawers in mass production fake oak finish. For viewing enjoyment, there was the small TV on the matching fake oak dresser. Guests could share a meal at a corner round table under a lamp that dangled from a cheap gold chain, but the two chairs looked as sturdy as matchsticks. The picture window and its view were indeed the room's best features. Scratch that. The man standing behind him with his hands on Ken's shoulders was the room's best feature. Determined not to show his rustiness, Ken did an about-face, seeking a kiss, but Johnny casually averted his face and Ken's lips landed east of the target on the jaw line. Johnny brushed a kiss over Ken's eyebrows, down his nose, then ducked his head to find room for a kiss in the center of his chin.

"Oh, boy." Ken stepped away from the very arms he had wanted to reach for him sexually.

"What? You're a mouth kisser, but you can't handle a kiss on the chin?"

"I'm not a..." Ken sat down on the foot of the bed nearest the window. "Look, you have all these labels, terms, a whole damned code I know nothing about, and seeing what I've seen over the years, I thought I knew damn near everything that strayed off the well-worn path. But it's been a long time since I've done this."

"How long?" Johnny squatted down in front of him and folded his arms over Ken's knees. Ken could feel the pressure through his jeans on the bandaged jogging wound, and he almost wanted the pressure to escalate to pain for a distraction.

"Years."

"How many?"

Ken slid to the side so he wouldn't topple Johnny over on his ass, and hurried up from the bed, heading for the door. "This--this is a mistake."

"Ken, wait. I don't need names, dates, details. I just need to know what we're dealing with here. What you might be ready for, what might be too much."

"Johnny, I haven't been to bed with a man in seven years."

Johnny's mouth opened wide in visible surprise, but he turned the gaping stare into a chuckle. "Last time being when you were about fifteen, then?"

Ken laughed. "Try twenty-three. I'm thirty, coming up hard on thirty-one."

"Yeah? I'm coming up on thirty myself."

"Point is, I don't know what your special code book says about a situation like this. I don't know what to expect, what to ask for, what is and what isn't done in a first rendezvous at a nice motel just off the Pacific Coast Highway."

Johnny nodded. "Good deal, that's all I needed to know. Why don't you tell me what you want right now, and I'll tell you if I'm up for it?"

Ken walked up to him and slid his arms around the slender waist, dropping his hands down to squeeze the gentle curve of ass. He heard a soft gulp, but Johnny smiled. "Been a long time since I did that," Johnny admitted. "I don't normally bottom. I'm not some kinda top guy either. Usually, I keep things simpler, you know? Suck offs, rub offs, that sort of thing. But...you're, hell, you're something real special, I can tell. Hey, come on, you don't have to get all pink cheeked over that."

"You're the nicest guy I've ever literally run into at the park."

"Think you could go down on this nice guy who's about to bottom for you?"

"You don't have to."

"I know. You don't have to suck me either. But as long as we're making a game plan...."

Ken found he could go down on the handsome paramedic. He hadn't been on his knees for a man since college, but he didn't mind kneeling for this one. He divested Johnny of his blue jersey, tossing it on the bed, and drew his lips down the smooth, toned chest, over the lightly ribbed abdomen, down to the waistband of the sweats and the thin cotton below that outlined a sizeable hard-on. Johnny cradled the back of his head in hand and pressed, urging Ken to look up at him.

"Maybe we should move this to the bed?"

"No. Want you just like this," Ken said.

"I was concerned about your knee on that hard floor with cheap motel carpet."

"I think you and I both know the knee isn't all that bad, but it made a fine excuse to have your hands all over my leg." Ken jerked the sweats down in a rough movement that had Johnny gasping.

He'd hoped he'd find Johnny an uncut boy like himself, another welcome difference from the straight ideal, but, no, the erection hardening further under his very eyes had a delineated ridge, its length, thickness, and shape appropriate to Johnny's tall, wiry frame. An impressive sight, as were the proud balls underneath, full and heavy in the palm of Ken's hand. He got a wicked little cry from Johnny when he rolled them. That small noise quieted his last doubt. If he could make Johnny sound like that, and bring that much pleasure, then he really wasn't in this just for himself. Closing his eyes, thinking of himself as "Ken" so intently that the three letters shone in the darkness behind his eyelids, he lowered his head and took Johnny's cock to the very edge of his throat.

His next conscious observation involved a bed, his own nudity, and a bitter taste in the back of his throat. Johnny lay on his back beside him, one leg bent, staring at the ceiling and making a farce of smoking an imaginary cigarette.

"What the--?"

"You are something special," Johnny said, carding through Ken's damp, mussed hair. "Things kind of got wild there at the end. I don't know where you went inside yourself, but you took me there, too, and after I came to my senses, you had me in front of you returning the favor."

"And then what? How'd I end up in bed naked?"

"You got all tangled up in your jeans around your knees and hopped around in the funniest dance I've ever seen trying to get them off before you went down for the count. Then I took care of the rest and half-dragged you into bed with me. You damn near passed out. Either I'm more than a halfway decent blow, you've been needing this a long, long time, or you have the most stressful job on the planet and you're worn slap out."

Ken patted Johnny's arm. "I think it's probably a combination of all three."
"I am curious about what you do for a living. Since dropping out of med school."

Rolling onto his side, Ken dropped a kiss on Johnny's shoulder. "What's your best guess?"

"Well, I think it's safe to say you're not a professional comedian."

Ken confiscated one of the bed pillows and slapped Johnny on the thigh with it, and then aimed for the face, missing by a fraction of an inch when his agile, laughing bedmate scooted down in bed. "Some nerve you have! Is this how you treat a guy who just gave you an incredible orgasm?"

"I don't know about incredible..." Johnny teased. "Okay, it was pretty incredible."

"More than halfway decent for me, too." Drawn to the tenderness in Johnny's face, Ken wanted to kiss him and find out if his expressive mouth made him a creative, energetic kisser. But that was apparently off limits.

Johnny bent his arm, pointing his elbow at the bathroom. "You want me to take care of the preliminaries?"

"What do you--? Oh. Oh, right." Ken's cheeks burned again, but his cock gave thanks for Johnny's good memory. "If you don't mind, I'd like to take care of that for you. It's the least I can do."

Johnny tweaked his chin, his thumb lingering in a caress. "Look, just 'cause it's been a while doesn't mean I'm not gonna enjoy this as much as you. Although..." he dropped his hand to stroke it up the length of Ken's cock. "How you managed to cram all this in those tight running shorts I saw in the park is completely beyond me, and what we're talking about here is a tighter fit than those shorts."

Trying to fight a grin, Ken pushed his hand away. "Anyone ever tell you, you talk too much?"

"Yeah. My partner, Roy."

"Partner?"

"Work partner." Johnny slapped his knees, hooting. "Oh, God. You thought... No, no. No way. Roy's my best friend, but he's so straight you could draw lines by him. Married man with kids. I've never been sexually attracted to him, or vice versa, and thank the stars for that, 'cause like I said, I don't travel the home-wrecking road."

"Should've known," Ken said. "How many times have I been hit with that partner misunderstanding?" Then he heard himself, and clamped his mouth shut. It was too, too easy to talk around this gregarious rescue worker. But Johnny was already out of bed and hunting for something in a duffle bag on the dresser. Before Ken realized what was happening, a blue-and-white tube flew through the air at him, and he boggled the catch.

Johnny scrambled back onto the bed from the foot, crawling up beside him. "I think it's safe to say you don't play centerfield for the Dodgers either."

"Why don't you just enjoy the mystery?"

"Why don't you give me something else to enjoy?"

Ken tried hard to do just that. He maneuvered them under the covers, needing the illusion of extra privacy, or needing to do more by feel than by sight, unable yet to handle the intimacy. He watched Johnny's eyes, and the expressive right eyebrow that could say more in one quirk than a five-minute monologue, and he knew by the relaxed tension in Johnny's chest and arms when he was stretched to full readiness. Johnny fumbled around with pillows for long enough that Ken wondered about cold feet, but then Johnny found his comfortable spot, on his back surprisingly, and beneath the covers Ken felt strong legs wrap around his waist, sliding down with his own forward movement until heels dug lightly into his backside. He had to close his eyes with his first gentle push into tight heat. He didn't want to see a glimmer of pain in those dark eyes, and he trusted that Johnny would let him know some other way if he needed to slow down, withdraw, or shelve the idea completely. When he dared open his eyes again, his first sight was Johnny's smile, and he knew that he'd passed an important test he hadn't known he was taking. After a few shallow thrusts more suitable for straight sex, Ken remembered the power and angling required to make this a joyride for two. Johnny reacted at once, thrusting upward in rhythm with him, giving him the welcome sensation of a firebrand cock rubbing his skin in its search for friction. Ken rode him until delighted whimpers mingled with Johnny's gasps and grunts. His own world changing, his whole groin primed to explode and take all of him with it, he realized on some level of consciousness outside himself what this meant....

He was with a man he wanted, who wanted him as no one but Ken, with no long complicated history, no ties that bound without mercy and that sustained his very life.

He felt ashamed of the two times in the park he had tried to say he wasn't into men.

"Hey," Johnny whispered.

Ken shook his head to clear the sweat-soaked strands from his eyes. "Am I hurting you?"

"No. But you're doing it again, going somewhere inside yourself. This is sex. Really good sex. No deep thoughts allowed during good sex. Just be right here. Okay?"

"I'm here."

"Okay." Johnny relaxed back in his nest of pillows.

Ken watched him closely in the homestretch. He knew when to take hold of Johnny's prick, and the feel of it sliding in the tunnel of his hand reminded him what he missed out on with every woman he bedded. He knew how to synchronize the jerk-off to his fucking. The mechanics came back to him easily just like the cliché of riding a bicycle. But he was wholly unprepared for the rapture in Johnny's eyes or the surprised, harsh cry, "You're...gonna make me come...gonna make me...K-Ken!"

Warm wetness on his hand coupled with the fading cries from the man beneath him toppled Ken down the hill to a meadow where the air had the freshness after a rain. Freedom. He could get no sound past his parched, needle-sized throat, but his eyes must have done the equivalent of shouting for him, because Johnny nodded happily and then went limp in a helpless doze.

~*~*~

"While we're out here I thought we might go hiking if your ankle doesn't object."

Ken yawned and stretched. "Wha'?"

"Good morning. Or good afternoon." Johnny had brought a change of clothing in his duffle. Freshly showered from the look of the wet ringlets close to his face, and now in jeans and a short-sleeved garnet safari shirt, he sat on the edge of the other bed, scrunching his bare toes in the carpet.

"What time's it?"

"Going on three p.m. We have the room for the night. Do you have to be in LA for work early in the morning?"

"No. I'm supposedly off tomorrow. What about you?"

"I'm off until Tuesday."

"Must be nice."

Johnny pointed a slender finger at him, but his accompanying frown lacked real heat. "Hey, I pull twenty-four-hour duty. My station splits the calendar between three shifts, A, B, and C, but for my money, A-shift always catches the brunt, and take a wild guess which one I'm on. Believe me, after you field as many calls as we do in a shift, you need the time off just to recover."

"Imagine so. I'm used to long hours and sleepless nights, but I'm glad I'm not in your shoes."

"No, but I'm glad you were in something else of mine."

Ken sat up in bed and tried to shake the rest of the cobwebs from his brain. "Johnny, this has been--"

"This is it, huh? This is the 'thanks, but go away now' speech. It's okay. I've made them myself. And I figured I'd be making one this time. I just thought it could wait until we got full use of the room and took in some of the local sights."

Ken hunted around for his discarded jeans. "I'd be glad to contribute some towards the room."

Johnny's frowns were as potent as his smiles. "If you were trying to make me mad, you just succeeded. Now I don't just feel brushed off, I feel like a cheap hustler."

"Believe me, you're the farthest thing from that. Look, I need a shower. If you're still here when I get out, I'll be grateful, and maybe we can come to a better understanding about what's going on."

Comfortably dressed and clear headed after his shower, Ken came out of the steamy bathroom and smiled his relief at Johnny standing in front of the picture window. Ken walked up behind him and hugged him around the waist, drawing him back tightly to himself. "I'd love to go hiking with you, Johnny. I'd love to lounge around here with you and wear ourselves out in bed until morning, but it'd just be setting us both up for a heavier fall."

"Fair enough. I think I'll stick around, though. Might as well."

"Come see me off?"

"My pleasure."

Outside, Ken held out his hand. He felt ridiculous ending things with a handshake, but then, it seemed appropriate to Johnny's open spirit and low tolerance for bullshit that wasn't shoveled out in the form of humor. "Thank you. I know that's vague and maybe impersonal, but I mean more than you'll ever know when I say it."

"I understand," Johnny said, shaking his hand.

Ken was oddly relieved that Johnny hung around outside the room to watch him settle in his car. He got no further than settling. His temperamental Ford had other ideas about driving back to LA. With a whumpeta-whumpeta sound emanating from below the hood, the car refused to crank.

Hutch slammed his fist against the bottom curve of the steering wheel. "Damn it, sweetheart, don't pull this on me now."

Johnny appeared at the window, tapping lightly on the glass. "I know that sound. I think I can take care of it. Let me get my tools from the truck."

Hutch opened the car door and rose to lean an elbow on the roof. "You work on cars, too? Is there anything you don't do?"

Johnny motioned for him to pop the hood. "Roy and I have to pamper our squad's inner workings all the time. We can't wait for someone else to solve our minor repair issues when LA's expecting us available for calls. As for what else I do..." Johnny laughed. "You got a taste of that just a little while ago." He ducked into the back of his truck and emerged with a beat-up black metal toolbox. "But I also like to backpack, fish, rock climb, just about any outdoor activity you can name, I'm into it."

Hutch needed to lose his hearing capacity right that second. And his sight, too. He was looking at more than a one-afternoon stand. He was looking at a male companion. A wet dream of a male companion. Then all thoughts of wet dreams fled with the familiar crackle of radio static, far too suddenly for Hutch to reach the volume toggle switch.

"Zebra Three. Come in, Zebra Three."

Under no illusion that an LA County paramedic wouldn't recognize a police zebra-unit call sign, Hutch wasn't surprised to hear a bump under the hood and a muttered curse. Startled and probably shocked, Johnny had impacted the raised hood with his skull. Hutch took time for a quick look around the side of the car. "You okay?"

"Zebra Three. Come in, Zebra Three," the radio insisted.

"Fine," Johnny said. "Take your call."

"Zebra Three to Central," Hutch said into the mic. "Central, how do you read?"

"Zebra Three, stand by for patch-through landline call from Sergeant Starsky."

"Hutch?"

Another slight bump under the hood. Hutch tried to ignore it and the muttering that followed. "Yeah, Starsk, what's up?"

"Dobey's calling us in. Double homicide at a warehouse on Marshall. Looks like a drug buy gone bad, but Dobey wants us to get our hands on it before Narco sweeps in."

"Starsky--"

"I know, I know. We were supposed to have the weekend off for a change. Dobey swears he'll make it up to us, buddy, and this time I think he means it."

"Starsky, that's not it. I'm about an hour out."

"What? Where the hell are you, Hutch?"

"I wanted to get out of the city. Went for a drive. I'm a little piece from Laguna Beach."

"Laguna Beach! Hutch, that's not getting out of the city, that's a friggin' impromptu vacation. Surprised Central could even raise you that far."

"I'm within the fifty-mile police band radius, Starsky."

"And what happened to not going off on vacation without me? Shoulda called me, partner; we could've played hooky from the city together and pretended not to hear the radio. You know, this mornin' I was hoping you'd go out and find some action, but now I'm just jealous. If you tell me you're seducing a beach beauty down there, and me stuck here with two stiffs and likely to miss out on my date tonight on top of it, I'll officially bust you in the chops when you get here."

"Starsky, it was nothing but a--" At another mutter from under the hood, Hutch lowered his voice. "It was nothing but a spur of the moment drive that went farther than I planned. And I'm having a little car trouble. Starsky, you better damn well quit laughing right now. Listen, I'll meet you at the scene as soon as I can. Tell Dobey I'm on my way."

"Yeah, yeah. Tell your little beach princess she'll have to find another knight in shining armor. You've got dragons to slay elsewhere."

Hutch shoved the mic back into its cradle and tried to find any words that might soften the blows he'd never meant Johnny to take. The slamming of the hood nearly lifted him off the ground. Johnny came around the car, wiping his hands on a tool rag. "I think she'll crank with no problem now."

"Johnny."

"You're a cop," Johnny said, looking around Hutch to the police band radio.

"Yes."

"That explains a few things. You're not out to your partner?"

Hutch glanced around swiftly to check for potential eavesdroppers. "Listen, for my partner's safety, and my own, I've had to live like there's nothing to be out to him about. What did you expect me to say to him on police band? 'Sorry, Starsky, I'll be at least an hour getting to the crime scene because I've been in Crystal Cove fucking some guy I just met this morning?'"

"You sound like a cop, all right," Johnny said with a hint of disapproval.

Having learned that Johnny tended toward milder language, Hutch had to cool his temper. "You have a problem with cops?"

Johnny's open grin reappeared. "Are you kidding? Firemen and paramedics depend on you guys half a dozen ways. I sort of dated a lady deputy few years back."

"Sort of?"

"Yeah. Didn't work out."

"Why not? Because of the um--" Hutch gestured between them. "Itch?"

"No, not just that. Going out with her was like a police department ride-along, and we ended up in the bedroom on the first date, but she pulled out the cuffs. Now, don't get me wrong, I can handle a little cuff action, but she made it clear I'd always be the one in bracelets. After spending the next shift with a bruised ego and sore shoulder, I figured I better let her find some nice accountant to bully."

Hutch had laughed all through the anecdote, and already his chest felt lighter. When Johnny grew quiet, he said, "Are you out to your partner?"

Johnny shrugged. "Roy knows me too well. I couldn't hide from him that I can turn on to men. He's an easygoing kind of guy who accepts me like I am. He mainly cares what kind of fireman-paramedic I am, and I passed that inspection long ago far as he's concerned. Maybe you and your partner don't have that kind of closeness."

His chest tightness returned. "No, you don't get it. Starsky knows me so well, he'd never in a million years believe I could keep something like this from him. His sonar is off, you understand? And for his sake, I've tried to be one hundred percent straight. I've tried hard."

"How long have you been partners?"

"Almost five years. But really it's been more like seven. I knew when I met him at the Academy he'd be the only partner I'd want to face the inner city streets with."

Johnny squinted up at the sun with a small headshake. "Seven years. That explains something else. You have tried hard. But when it's in you, down deep, it can be like an addiction that sneaks up and pushes you into situations you shouldn't be in, if you don't feed it every once in a while, at least."

"Don't compare this to an addiction!" Hutch shouted at him, unnerved by the remarkable perception. "You can't possibly know enough about addiction to make that comparison!"

For answer, Johnny just silently walked his tool box over to his truck and had one leg into the driver's seat before Hutch called him back over with what Starsky would swear sounded like a rare Hutchinson apology.

Johnny returned slowly and stood in front of him, guarded, hands shoved down in his front pockets. "I've never been down the addiction road myself, if that's what you mean, but I've seen a drunk trying to kick booze on disulferam end up in respiratory arrest for taking a drink."

Hutch sat down on the edge of his driver's seat. "Last year, I was kidnapped by a syndicate boss and forcibly strung out on heroin as a torture tactic to get information out of me. Starsky helped me get clear of it and I've been clean ever since. I keep telling myself if I could fight an addiction like that, I can keep fighting off the need for this." Hutch waved a hand at Johnny, then bowed his head, rubbing, kneading his brow until his eyes burned. "Can't believe I just told you that. Only a handful of people in the world know about that." Are you insane!? You just opened your mouth and let that slip right out. He might be kind-hearted and genuine, but he's still a relative stranger, and you're handing him career-ending information? When you do vulnerable, you go for broke! If you're this susceptible after a few hours with a man, you better wait seven more years before you do this again!

"People tell me things," Johnny said, cutting into Hutch's thoughts. "I think they make the connection between medical professional and confidentiality, you know? But part of it's probably what the guys at the station call my 'magnetism.' They give me a real hard time about it."

Hutch smiled up at him. "I notice you don't feel compelled to reassure me you won't rat me out to the LAPD as a recovered addict."

Johnny's expression remained serious. "If you don't know enough about me after this morning to know I wouldn't do something like that, you're not much of a cop. And I have a notion you're probably one of the best in your department."

"Well, I would've said I was one of the most discreet, until I ran up against your magnetism."

"Come here." Johnny reached for his hand.

"Johnny, I needed to be on the road about thirty minutes before they radioed in."

"This'll only take a minute. The dead bodies aren't going anywhere, are they? Sorry, I know that sounded bad."

"No, you're right. This isn't quite the time-sensitive emergency you're used to." Hutch shut the driver's side door three times until it stuck and followed Johnny back to their room.

Inside, closed off from a cold, prejudiced world, Johnny latched his hands behind Hutch's neck and kissed him. Hutch didn't know where Ken had gone, and didn't care. He pushed his hands in Johnny's hair and opened his mouth to the tender probe of tongue against his lips. Johnny's promise of a minute's delay fell victim to a spark that burst into prolonged flame. Hutch was breathless, dizzy, and all the way hard, yet again, when Johnny released him. He was a creative, energetic kisser. 

"Thought you didn't kiss guys."

"I don't have a problem with it, or anything, but I'm usually only with a guy one time, and kissing's just way too involved for a one-shot." Johnny smiled. "But I should've known I'd never get all the way through this without tasting your mouth."

"Johnny--"

"No, listen. Roy knows I can go both ways, but I have to be straight, straight, straight around the station. The guys I work with, they're okay types--well, Chet's a maniac, but that's neither here nor there. Anyway, I can't be sure any one of 'em would ever let me darken the station again if they found out. That's not counting what my captain or LA County would have to say on the subject. And I love my job. I don't want anything to jeopardize it. So, I know, okay? I know a little of what you're up against."

With the taste of hope on his lips, Hutch felt the phantom ache begin to dull, and he knew he was ready to ease the floodgates open. "What're you saying?"

"I'm saying, maybe we can help each other out. We don't have to see each other on a regular basis. If we need to, we can pretend we don't know the other one exists most of the time. But when we get that itch, we can call each other. We're in the same boat, and we both know how to be discreet and how important it is. How's that for a sweet set up?"

"If I give you my home phone number, you'll have to be very careful. If someone other than me answers, you say nothing and just hang up, understand?"

"Someone else might answer your phone? You have a roommate or something?"

"No roommate, but when my partner is over at my place, he's been known to pick up."

"Damn, just when I had all these plans for heavy breathing and--oomph. Kidding. Kidding!" Johnny stepped back from Hutch's fake punch to the stomach and held out his hand for another shake. "Let's try this again and get the vital statistics right. Name's John Gage, fireman-paramedic, LA County Station 51. Call me Johnny."

Hutch shook his hand. "Name's Ken Hutchinson, Detective Sergeant, LAPD-Metro, Homicide. Call me Hu--" Hutch bit his tongue. He had to have a boundary, a line in the sand that separated this from his other life. "Call me Ken."

Johnny studied him for a moment and then that slow smile eased Hutch's mind. "You better get on the road. Your partner's waiting. And I don't know about yours, but Roy hates to be kept waiting."

Hutch smiled. "Same here." He pulled Johnny close by the button placket of his shirt for a quick, hungry kiss. "I will call you."

"Yeah, I know. You're not the type to stand a guy up."

~*~*~

Starsky sniffed under his right arm, then his left, checking his deodorant. Nancy had a finely tuned sense of smell, and one whiff of natural male usually had her scrunching her little button nose. He didn't like that look on her. Even when serious she looked more like sixteen than her actual twenty-six years, but with a scrunched nose on top of her baby face and her long, free-flowing hair, she made him feel like a lecherous uncle taking his thirteen-year-old niece out on the town. And tonight he'd hoped there would be an addition to their movie date, but Hutch wasn't answering his phone, and Starsky had rearranged the contents of his kitchen cabinets to fight down the escalating concern.

Hutch had asked to be left alone, insisting that he didn't mind Starsky in particular, just company in general, and Starsky was in that general category right now. But, damn it, two weeks weren't enough time, not nearly enough, certainly too soon for Hutch to be shouldering the twin burdens of grief and guilt alone. Guilt. That was Starsky's burden more than Hutch's in this case. He didn't know if he would ever look at the month of October the same way again.

The knock on his door startled him as he reached for his leather jacket on the mirrored rack, but the voice that followed calmed his nerves better than a glass of warm milk, "Starsky. Me."

Leaving the jacket on its peg, Starsky opened the door. A rush of nippier than usual October night air made him shiver in spite of his blue-and-white button-up, but Hutch wasn't shivering. He was shaking and showing defiant, inwardly directed rage in his face, like a cat fresh out of an unwanted cold bath spitting mad that it'd been suckered into the water. The purplish circles under his eyes and streaks of moisture on his cheeks proved Starsky right. Too soon. Too damned soon. Starsky motioned him in and slammed the door. He ran down a list of mental options, trying to pick the right response. But with Hutch that was more complicated than selecting a paint color from a color strip.

Starsky opted for cheerful. "Been trying to call you. Thought you might wanna come out with Nancy and me, help us make fun of Hollywood's latest box office flop. Huh, what you say to a movie? I'll spring for popcorn."

But Hutch stared across the room at the line of vintage car paintings on the wall and gave no sign that he'd heard a word Starsky said. In the comfortable temperature of Starsky's living room, Hutch should have already shed his tan leather jacket, but he was still shaking. Starsky walked up behind him and put gentle hands on Hutch's arms at the elbow. "Hey, partner, are you really that cold, or is this something else? Where were you tonight? I tried calling a few times."

"Went out. I thought..." Hutch's neck tensed. "Thought I needed...."

Starsky felt the flinch in Hutch's arms and released him slowly. Definitely too soon for that, he told Hutch in his head, knowing if he said that out loud the words might sound scolding. "A warm, willing body?" he asked, keeping his voice to the low-pitched softness he typically used to quiet Hutch's inner storms.

"Goddamned itch," Hutch snarled. "Of all the times!"

Itch? If Hutch meant the itch to combat shock and internal rage with a night in the arms of a beautiful woman who didn't expect the social gallantries of an established relationship, Starsky knew exactly how annoying that itch could be, and how necessary to scratch it. But if Hutch hadn't managed to do any scratching... "Left the lady in the lurch?"

Hutch flinched again, more visibly this time, and walked away from Starsky in a distinct rush. Starsky frowned. Okay. This was more than just Hutchinson anger at involving a stranger in his personal problems. "Hutch, it's okay. I'm sure you didn't leave her thinking it was some flaw in her character that had you heading out the door."

"I'm so cold," Hutch said.

Based on the tone of voice, Starsky considered the irrational possibility that Hutch meant something more than body temperature. "You're in some kind of shock, that's what." He clamped a hand on Hutch's shoulder and steered him down the hall toward the bathroom. "Get yourself into a hot shower. I'll call Nancy and beg off tonight."

Hutch looked over his shoulder. "No, Starsk, you don't need--"

"Hush, need."

Hutch's laughter sounded as hollow as he looked, and if Starsky didn't erase that look on his partner soon, he would be the one shaking next.

"Need. That's just it." Hutch shook his head. "Thought I needed...but I didn't. I need...."

"You need your partner, dummy," Starsky said with a smile, urging him into the blue bathroom. Simple concept, and it should have been instantly comforting, but Hutch's hollow look now had a pained grimace to go with it. "Go on in there, and don't drown. I'll bring you something to put on."

Something to put on? There was nothing wrong with Hutch's clothes. Starsky realized he was acting like Hutch had come in out of a pouring rainstorm. All that shaking, like the man was drenched.  But maybe Hutch could use more comfort than sitting around in what amounted to work clothes: cords, turtleneck, and leather jacket. After Starsky placed a quick call to Nancy, who responded with her usual happy-go-lucky, whatever ambivalence, he located the comfortable pair of pajamas that he crawled into whenever he was sick, and barged into the bathroom without bothering to knock. Hutch would be insulted by a knock, Starsky knew. That filled Starsky with relief brightened by happiness. The ghost of Gillian might have the strength to push Hutch out of a stranger's arms and bring him shaking to Starsky's door, but once inside Starsky's domain, Hutch could relax, and no haunting memories stood a chance against the bonds of partnership. With only a quick glance at the shower stall to make sure Hutch was upright and doing his best not to drown, Starsky left the pajamas on the bathroom counter and hung his old blue robe behind the door.

When Hutch appeared some time later, he immediately sank down on the sofa. Starsky brought a steaming mug from the kitchen and handed it over, the clink of the spoon against the mug's stoneware getting Hutch's attention. Hutch reached for the mug, but Starsky held it just above his hands. "Careful. Hot." He turned it so Hutch could grasp the remaining space on the handle.

"What is it?" Hutch asked, sniffing the contents.

"Re-heated won-ton."

"Not your Aunt Rose's homemade recipe?"

Starsky sat down beside him and thwacked him on the knee. "Would I do that to ya?"

Hutch looked down at his borrowed pajama bottoms and flicked at the robe's hem. "Always knew you'd give me the shirt off your back, Starsky, but I have to say, these feel even better. Thanks."

"That's okay, good for them to be pulled out for something other than the flu." Starsky wanted a rewind button for his mouth. That couldn't possibly have come out worse, but Hutch was occupied with the steaming won-ton and made no comment. "You want something alcoholic to go with that?"

Hutch blew on the spoonful of broth and dumpling. Then he gave Starsky a weary smile. "I look like I need it?"

Yes. "Well, you're warmin' up, I can tell. Your call. Sometimes a good shot of something hard helps, sometimes it doesn't."

Yelping as the hot broth got acquainted with his tongue, Hutch slurped up the dumpling and chewed cautiously. Finally, he shook his head. "Might just be easier for you to knock me over the head with a hammer."

Starsky held out both hands to show off empty palms, fiddled in his pockets, and then looked around the couch. "Sorry. Fresh out of hammers."

What Hutch needed was human warmth and tenderness, not from the arms of a stranger but from someone whose tenderness carried with it years of sincerity. But how to get Hutch to accept that without triggering his stubborn stand-alone impulse? Starsky casually draped his arm on the back of the sofa behind Hutch. "Not that you need a worried partner hanging all over you or anything, but if an arm around you would do more good than whiskey or a hammer?"

For a second, Starsky caught the flicker of an unfamiliar panic in Hutch's eyes. Damn. Memories might not sever the ties of partnership, but there was a barrier between the partners, all right. Starsky couldn't blame Hutch for putting up a wall. He was grateful Hutch left it small enough to climb over. And one week wasn't enough time for Hutch to deal with his partner's willingness to bribe an "unsuitable" girlfriend to get out of town, either. But this didn't look like the shocked pain he'd seen in Hutch a week after Gillian's death when he'd confessed the ultimatum he'd given her: Tell Hutch you're a hooker, or I will.

Then Hutch slid over and Starsky let his arm drift down from the back of the sofa to rest along Hutch's shoulders. Several minutes passed by with only the clink of the spoon and Hutch's sipping louder than the ticking of the second hand on Starsky's watch. Starsky knew he could sit like this all night if Hutch needed it. Hell, Hutch had done the same for him more times than Starsky could count on one hand. He let himself really snuggle into the sofa's warm softness, tightened the arm around Hutch's shoulders, squeezing him closer.

Hutch burst off the sofa and didn't stop until he reached the kitchen bar counter, slapping the mug down so hard Starsky expected the stoneware to crack. Fortunately, Hutch had downed enough soup that none splashed over the sides to burn his hand. Starsky swore at himself, hoping Hutch couldn't hear him. Hutch could toss barbs Starsky's way in the spirit of competition, but he didn't generally approve of Starsky calling himself a "fucking insensitive asshole moron."

"Hutch, there's nothing wrong with leaning. Even less so when it's a guy who's leaned on you a time or ten. I'm trying to help here."

Hutch didn't turn from the counter. "I know you think you're helping, just like you thought you were helping when--"

"Oh. This is a 'you've done enough already' thing?"

Starsky hadn't strangled Gillian with his own hands. The vicious, sleazy syndicate boss wannabe Al Grossman had done the real dirty work. Her life might not have put a myriad of choices in front of her, but she had chosen the life of a prostitute, and she had chosen to walk away from it for Hutch. Starsky couldn't blame himself for an adult human being's choices. But his ultimatum had pushed her into walking without a safety net, and he couldn't hide from the knowledge that he was the catalyst, that a human being was dead who might not have been had Starsky not interfered. Hutch apparently couldn't hide from it, either, and why should he?

"You thought I was in danger of getting more broken than my heart," Hutch said with a surprisingly level voice. "I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't have done something similar had the roles been reversed. Honestly, I don't know what I would've done. And I hate like hell you were in that position, because whenever I try to walk a mile in your shoes, I feel like breaking my own legs just to stop walking!"

"Then come back over here and lean a little, if that's what you need. Hey, you'd be doin' me a favor, too. Now that I blew off the date with Nancy, my dick's out of luck tonight, but at least my arm could get a workout."

Hutch glanced at him with another quickly concealed glimmer of pain in his eyes, and Starsky briefly questioned whether he was doing more harm than good. He relaxed when Hutch returned to the sofa and rested back against his outstretched arm.

"Your arm gets tired, you say so," Hutch told him.

"Yeah, sometime around 1980 I might need to stretch, work the kinks out."

Hutch laughed.

For that sound Starsky could leave his arm around Hutch for decades.

So, this was the test of a man's mettle. Knowing he was partly responsible for his best friend's grief and loss ripped through Starsky every time he saw Hutch's pale, expressionless mask, and he didn't have the luxury of hiding away to lick his wounds, because Hutch wanted closeness, needed it to heal, instead of showing Starsky the door. In the face of Hutch's miraculous forgiveness and generosity of spirit, Starsky gladly accepted the pain of holding Hutch close while knowing some of the scars on Hutch's psyche owed their existence to Starsky's rash handling of Gillian's dangerous secret.

There was simply no one else on the planet like Hutch, and Starsky doubted that a scan of the entire universe, if such a thing were possible outside of science fiction, would pull up a match. Doing whatever it took not to fuck up their partnership or friendship shared the same slot on top of Starsky's priority list with keeping Hutch safe. Unfortunately, those two priorities had a tendency to clash every now and then. And one day, Starsky feared deep in his soul, they might clash with enough violence to rip Hutch and him apart.

But for now Hutch sat at his side, in the half-embrace of Starsky's arm, and tipped his head back, closing his eyes, and resting. In another hour they might turn on the TV, and Hutch might have an appetite for the leftover pizza in Starsky's fridge. Eventually, they'd fight over who got the bed, and Starsky would give in, making up the couch with blankets and comfy pillows for Hutch to sleep.

Or maybe they would just sit here without moving until morning found them.

Either way, Starsky felt like a king.

~*~*~

"Can't take you out anymore, Hutch, you keep insulting my friends."

Downstairs in the ratty lobby of the Hotel Brenner, Starsky gestured with a twitch of his shoulder at the registration desk, and Hutch left him to quiz the hostile information source behind the desk. He needed to get out of the building before he punched his fist through a wall or did enough damage to the furniture to warrant a complaint that Dobey would take out of his paycheck if not his hide.

He took refuge in his car and leaned over the steering wheel, peering out through the dirty windshield into the darkness that couldn't hide the ugliness of the city they called home. Couldn't hide predators like Artie Solkin.

Hutch banged his forehead on the top curve of the steering wheel. Where the hell had all that come from? What dark corner of his soul had secretly housed the venom he'd just spit in Solkin's' face?

Hutch rolled his forehead from side to side, not caring if the steering wheel left ridges on his skin. In a fit of righteous anger over the murder of a seventeen-year-old kid, faced with the greasy ne'r-do-well, Solkin, who made a hobby of exploiting teenagers for his own criminal gain, Hutch had railed at him with the fury of a bigot. Worse, he'd sounded like a self-loathing, if-I-hate-fags-I-can't-really-be-one bigot. Hutch had no patience with any form of loathing, but he really disliked the kind that people turned on themselves.

Fagin, fagelah, what's the difference? You're vermin....

Artie had caught the subtext, damn him. The man was sly as a weasel and had the same devious smarts. Enraged at the out-of-line insults, Artie had stared right down into Hutch's darkest, secret place and saw what he was trying to hide. And Hutch, sickened, had seen the brief flare of triumph in the weasel's eyes. Starsky, bless his everlasting soul, hadn't said a thing until Artie left the room, but his quiet words when they were alone said it all.

Can't take you out anymore, Hutch, you keep insulting my friends.

Artie Solkin was no one's friend, but Starsky's rebuke said in no uncertain terms that Hutch's hateful words were a particularly potent form of stooping to Solkin's level. And Hutch had to agree. It was one thing to call Artie "Fagin." The streets had proof that Artie recruited minors to steal for him and commit a number of other petty crimes for profit. No proof that law enforcement could get to stick on him for the amount of time needed to land him in jail, but the streets knew the truth about their own. There was no proof that Artie used the kids for sexual purposes. And if Artie did indulge in that kind of sickness, that made him a pedophile, not gay, not fagelah. The linking of pedophilia and homosexuality was the stuff of ignorance, straight out of the dark ages, not the thinking of the sane, rational, liberally educated man Hutch believed himself to be.

That was the problem: he wasn't thinking when he lashed out at Artie. Out of his head with rage over the tragic life and senseless death of young Jimmy Shannon, he'd done the one thing he hated to see other people do--he'd known where to find Artie's emotional jugular vein, and he'd aimed for it.

Christ, if some bastard breathed the hateful suggestion that if Hutch could get it up for men, he probably liked underage boys, the bastard would need emergent dental care by the time Hutch got through with him. Hell, if someone said that about Hutch in front of Starsky, the bastard wouldn't have to worry about Hutch, because dead men can't worry.

Which brought Hutch right back to square one, the reason he couldn't be open, even around Starsky, about his very legal, very vanilla need for the sexual touch of a willing, good-hearted, adult male. If Hutch gave the bastards at Metro a chance to spew that kind of slanderous filth, Starsky would be chained to IA's rack of torture too often to get a lick of police work done. But if scratching his itch in hiding could make Hutch capable of spewing that same kind of filth, even to a jerk like Artie Solkin....

Hutch groaned in the sudden claustrophobic tightness of the front seat. Was he turning into a self-loathing, outwardly bigoted closet case? His own worst nightmare.

The passenger door opened, and Starsky slid inside. Hutch didn't look up from the steering wheel until he heard the door shut. "Get anything out of the slime at the desk?"

Starsky was silent. When the silence grew palpable, Hutch said, irritably, "What?"
"You're in rare form, Hutch."

Defensiveness rose in Hutch again. "A kid is dead, Starsky! I'm supposed to smile and pat Solkin's back when he stands there in Jimmy Shannon's room, knowing what he knows, and gives us the run around?"

"No, I'm not sayin' that." Starsky didn't look at him. "But winding up a pathetic specimen like Artie won't get us what we need. And when you let a dolt like that wind you up, he wins."

"Thank you, Mother Mary Josephine. How many demerits do I get?"

Starsky looked at him then, and his voice was a low growl, "Damn it, Hutch, what's the matter with you tonight, huh? And don't lay it all at poor Shannon's feet. This isn't all about a murdered kid you didn't even know. Or how he lived. God, that's bad enough."

"Artie Solkin is a monster. I'm tired of watching him go back on the street to do more damage. Aren't you?"

Starsky nodded. "No question. But back there," he jerked a thumb at the window in the direction of the squalid hotel, "if poetic justice was what you were aiming for, you could've just whipped out a baseball bat and whacked him in the nuts with it."

"Oh, come on, Starsky."

"Remember our first week in the Academy? Remember Lenny Davidson?"

Hutch swallowed hard. Yes, he remembered soft-spoken, quick-witted, and quite handsome Cadet Davidson. He remembered watching Davidson leave the Academy with a battered duffle bag slung over his shoulder, having been expelled for suspicion of homosexuality thanks to an overheard phone call. A phone call to his boyfriend. Not the brightest move to make, placing the call on Academy grounds, but Davidson hadn't deserved the stool pigeon fascist who'd informed on him--and the identity of the informant was never revealed--or the immediate expulsion when he'd refused to lie about the phone call to Academy brass.

"Yes, I remember," Hutch said. "If he'd stayed, you would've had tough competition for the marksman honors."

"Damn right, the boy knew his way around firearms. You remember what I said when we watched him leave, you, me, and Colby? I said, 'I didn't know fagelahs could shoot.' 'Course, I didn't mean just weaponry. Shitty thing to say. Even back then, I knew it was a shitty thing to say. Colby just laughed himself hoarse, but you--" Starsky smiled over at Hutch. "You climbed my ass about it, but good. Right there in front of Colby. Remember?"

Hutch had to smile as well. "I remember. Really gave you a tongue lashing."

"Hell, yes. To the point that Colby called you an activist do-gooder for about a week before you hauled his ass into the Academy gym and shut him up with a few falls on the mat. You always did know how to put Colby in his place, buddy."

"Starsky--"

"I was so damned proud of you, Hutch. Even while my ass was burnin' from the strip you tore off it, I was proud. Told myself right then I'd never use that word again, because it made me less of a man than the sissy I was tryin' to make Davidson out to be."

"And you haven't used it."

"Not once. I don't get guys with guys, but that's their lookout. I don't plan on thinking about it much until something makes me." Starsky's face was stern, unyielding in the dull light from the streetlamp. "Don't you ever let me hear that word come outta your mouth again, either. Because that kind of bigot, you're not, and no information we need is worth the act you put on in there just now."

An act? Hutch stared at Starsky and felt the truth slam into him. Starsky thought it had been an act designed to pry information out of a hostile potential suspect. But Hutch knew it ran deeper than that.

Undercover.

He'd felt the discomfort building since Abby had come back into his life. With Abby, he could go through the motions. He'd never been a talented actor outside of the undercover world, but that was just it. He was undercover. He could make Abby cry out to him in bed, could leave her shaking, whimpering, telling him if she came one more time she'd be sore, and laughing and reaching for him while she said it--and he'd be left with gratitude that he'd pleased her, relief that he could go to sleep and forget for a while that his climax had been pale and halfhearted by comparison.

And none of her vitamins could make him come harder, or make her a man.

The worry that he was using her nagged at him whenever they spent time together. Hardest of all on Hutch's conscience, he couldn't remember feeling that way about Gillian, and he was still terrified that it was because his subconscious had picked up on shady vibes from her and excused him for having his own secret while she had hers.

Abby was too kind to notice, even when he fell asleep on her at a romantic picnic in the park, fell asleep daydreaming about another park, a summer morning, big brown eyes, and masculine hands.

Hutch's feeling of leading a dual life had intensified after the recent date in Johnny's favorite mountain campground. Hutch had needed to get away from Abby no more, no less than he needed time away from the feel and memory of looking up into Starsky's eyes from the cradle of his arms in the perfect tango dip that had no business taking place at all, much less in Dobey's office, for God's sake. But after a night tumbling with Johnny in a tent under stars that twinkled down through air clear of smog, Hutch had felt compelled to beef up his straight cop persona, solidify it until no one could see through it, especially the one person who usually had x-ray vision when it came to Hutch.

Act straight, talk straight, think straight.

Shouldn't be too hard, Hutch had consoled himself throughout the week after his night with Johnny. He'd been doing exactly that for years. After all, this thing was just an itch. A need that waxed and waned. It didn't define him. Didn't define Johnny either.

Hutch wanted to grab Starsky and kiss him for completely nonsexual reasons, and how was that for irony? The outburst at Artie Solkin had been mostly an act fueled by fear, anger, and desperation. Hutch wasn't in danger of turning into that kind of bigot. He'd just gotten a little too wrapped up in a cover persona, the way he tended to do in cover cases on the job. But why now? Why hadn't the overdone typical straight cop persona surfaced before in the six years Hutch had carried his badge?

Another puzzle piece fell into place, and Hutch breathed freely for the first time since he descended the Hotel Brenner's stairs. Up until five months ago, he hadn't tried to carry his badge and an intermittent homosexual affair at the same time. That explained the mutation of the teeth to fangs in his undercover act. It didn't take as much camouflage to cover self-denied needs as it did to hide actions. Well, now that he knew what had prompted his venomous treatment of Artie Solkin, Hutch could guard against it happening again. If he had to live the cover of a hundred percent, never look at another guy, straight cop, he could damn well make his persona a tolerant one. He had his own ingrained tolerance to draw from, and if that wasn't sufficient character material, he was sitting next to one of the most tolerant straight cops in the LAPD. Thank God for a man like Starsky, who could remind Hutch of his inner good guy while using himself as an object lesson to cool the dressing down's sting.

Of all the memories to hit him next, he flashed back to an overcast, terrifying afternoon in the old county zoo, where one look from Hutch, one shake of his head, had seemed to exert telekinetic force on Starsky's straining left arm, those capable fingers loosening on the weapon, sparing the life of one George Prudholm, revenge artist and cop killer who had pushed Starsky to the limits of humanity. Standing there, riveted by the tension, Hutch had known deep inside that Starsky wouldn't pull the trigger. He'd known there were lines Starsky never crossed...would never cross until Hutch's safety depended on it. Even so, Starsky had told him later outside of Booking that Hutch had handed his conscience back to him. Such an uncharacteristic remark for David Starsky, and it stuck, lodged in the most treasured place in Hutch's heart. Time for him to return the favor.

"Starsk, you know the time you told me I'd handed your conscience back to you?"

Starsky's eyes clouded at first, but then he offered Hutch a smile that bordered on shy. "You remember that?"

Hutch grinned. "Not every day my partner says something like that. Of course, I remember."

"Not every day I'm staring down a cop killer with my gun leveled at his head, and I feel like my partner's transformed himself into one of those little Saturday mornin' cartoon angels that perches on people's shoulder trying to make 'em do right."

Hutch laughed and elbowed Starsky's arm. "Well, consider us even, partner. And you look pretty fetching in a little white, winged dress with a halo over all that hair."

Starsky's astonished gape was worth the risk Hutch took saying something that could be so revealing if he let depth of feeling color the words. Then those lovely eyes narrowed, and Starsky wagged a fist at him. "There are places I could bury your body, Hutch, where nobody'd ever find it."

Relaxing behind the wheel, Hutch breathed deeply and cranked the engine. Enough said. They were on equal ground again. "All right, let's head to Metro and pull files. If we don't report in, Dobey's liable to think we've both fallen in a newly dug hole somewhere."  

~*~*~

"Oh, for--!" Joe Collandra did not look happy. He shook his broom handle at the two patrons who bellied up to his lunch counter. "Why you guys gotta eat in here all'a time now, huh? I don't need it out on the street that this is some kinda hangout for the cops! It'll scare away the customers."

Hutch looked around at the neat as a pin and very empty JC's Café. Starsky looked, too, and then shrugged, turning back to the counter. "So, who's gonna be spreadin' the word?"

An astute question on Starsky's part, Hutch thought, having had the same one himself several times in the café. He wanted to ask Joe if there ever were customers, or how the man managed to keep the business open if not, but he knew posing that question was way outside the boundaries of the uneasy friendship he and Starsky had forged with the gifted psychic, and besides, he probably didn't want to know the answer either way. "We eat here all the time, Joe, because we can get a couple of burgers done just right and at the right price. Quality burgers, especially if your apprentice isn't flipping them."

"I heard that!" Huggy barked from the kitchen. Then the apprentice short-order cook/psychic appeared in the open serving window. "Why're you dudes really here? You need to bend my ears?"

Grumbling under his breath, Joe carted his broom into the kitchen to begin their burger preparation. Starsky reached across the counter and snagged two cups and saucers. "No, Huggy, not this time." He rattled his cup on its saucer, the universal sign language for "coffee, now, please," and Huggy came out of the kitchen with a fresh, steaming carafe that looked more appetizing than the older brew sitting out front on its Bun warmer.

"We're celebrating, Huggy," Hutch said, watching the stream of black liquid flow into his cup under Huggy's expert control. "Starsky got official clearance today from IA."

"Didn't think there was any question on the matter." Huggy didn't outwardly show concern, but the stream of coffee into Starsky's saucer wasn't as smooth.

Starsky pulled the sugar dispenser over along with a napkin. "They didn't yank my badge, make a dog-and-pony show of it in front of the review board or anything, but it's still nice to have it clean in my record."

Joe appeared in the serving window. "They're not giving you grief over quick-frying the kidnappers, then? One shot, gas tank, boom! You're efficient."

Hutch patted his partner on the back when Starsky strangled on his first sip of coffee. Starsky's survival assured, Hutch flashed a look at Joe. Huggy had said the man never read newspapers because they nearly made his head explode with all the unwanted tripping energy, and Joe obviously knew details that hadn't made the papers. That left... Reading his glare, Huggy held up both hands and shook his head, claiming innocence.

"I saw it," Joe answered Hutch's silent question. "Not long after your partner hustled you out of here making fun of my six-foot tall male rose on fire. Saw why he did it, too."

Still coughing and sputtering, Starsky was a barely leashed bundle of energy beside him, and Hutch casually covered the leather jacket sleeve with his hand. Under his palm, Starsky's wrist twitched and went still. Hutch frowned at the psychic. "I don't know what you saw, Joe, but here's the truth of it. The suspects were attempting to flee after using potentially deadly force on a police officer. Starsky was within his rights to prevent their escape with whatever force he deemed necessary. And that's IA's take on it, as well."

At Joe's motioning, Huggy ducked back through the swinging door into the kitchen. Joe stared through the window at Starsky. "Two-for-one deal, huh? Get the bad guys and set a great big example for anyone else looking to put a hole in your partner that they're liable to end up meeting their maker if they try it?"

Hutch shot off the red leather barstool, slamming both hands down on the red-topped counter. "What's this, Joe? He's been through the Department's grilling, but now he has to get through yours?"

Starsky tugged on the hem of Hutch's plaid over shirt. "Siddown, Hutch, the man's partly right."

Hutch sat down. Huggy breezed through the swinging door with two hamburger-and-fries plates, setting them down with the next thing to an apologetic smile. Distracted by the silent tug-of-war between his partner and Joe, Hutch bit down on his burger without checking for pickles. The crunch of sweet onions told him Huggy had remembered this time which partner got what.

"Partly?" Joe asked, folding his arms over his chest.

"Yeah. I didn't have to leave them dead. I could've disabled the car and then taken my chances on putting them out of commission solo, and IA could've made a big deal out of that, but they didn't. Why, I don't know. Because we found Joanna, because there wasn't anybody to kick up a fuss and demand an investigation? Who knows? But it didn't go down like you're thinking."

"Starsky, eat." Hutch nudged the burger plate closer to his tense partner.

"Well, if I'm wrong, correct me, Detective."

"Damn it, Joe!" Hutch slammed his burger down on his plate and shoved the whole business aside. "What the hell is the point of all this?"

"I wasn't tryin' to send a message," Starsky told Joe. "I thought Hutch was dead. Gunshot to the chest, then a header through plate glass. I forgot about the vest. I thought it was game over, and the sons-of-bitches responsible were burning rubber to get out of there. They thought they'd been double-crossed. No way was I lettin' them get back to Joanna and take it out on her or skip town and start this shit all over again somewhere else. And maybe it would've been nice for my inner cop and conscience to stand around and debate the ethics, but I didn't have that kind of time. Soon as I had a clear shot, my aim eye and trigger finger just took care of business for me."

"And that's all there was to it?" Joe asked, looking like a stubble-faced, apron-wearing St. Peter at the Gate quizzing an earthling demanding entrance to the Kingdom.

Starsky swigged down more coffee. "Yes, damn it, that's all there was to it. What you want from me, Joe, huh? I feel like I'm on the couch, and you're some damned shrink trying to get me to confess to some watershed event in my childhood. Well, as much as we owe ya, I'd love to play along, but I don't have a clue what you're wantin' to hear."

Joe shrugged. "Oh, don't mind me. I'm the phony around here, remember?"

"You want to hear I have regrets? At the time, I didn't. Not one. Didn't even realize until I'd gotten back to Hutch and got the report from the patrol unit that I might've nailed the coffin lid down on Joanna. Then I started regretting, hell yes. But even then, after what they'd pulled on Hutch, I couldn't regret too much."

"I know," Joe said, and his arms loosened and relaxed at his sides. "I'm not sparing any grief for the sick creeps, either. I'd even say they got what was coming to them. And what you did might've saved Joanna's life, if it helps."

"What?" Hutch asked.

There went that Joe Collandra shrug and jaw twitch again. "When you came in here bruised, bleeding, and coughing up a storm, and Starsky looking like he'd crashed all the way down to Hell and was having to climb back up again, I knew what I saw had really happened. Knew you had no place left to go for help. If I'd thought for a minute you still had some other source out there, some other way to find her, I doubt I could've pulled my shit together and went down into that nightmare again, y'know?" He looked at Starsky. "So, don't think I was on some kind of morals kick. That wasn't what I was after."

"What were you after, then?"

"Some other time. If you don't know now, it's a good thing Huggy's my apprentice, not you, 'cause you'd never make a psychic." He disappeared from the window, and Starsky rolled his shoulders, shaking his head before lifting his forgotten burger for a huge bite.

Hutch's burger didn't look worth the trouble.

"Y'okay?" Starsky asked through a mouthful. He waved the burger between them, dropping a sprig of lettuce and a few sesame seeds from the bun. "We've never really talked about--y'know, but you--"

"I knew." Hutch poked a stray edge of onion back under the top bun. "I know your long-range accuracy. If you missed all four tires and hit the gas tank instead, it had to be a purpose shot. Moving target or not."

Starsky smiled at him. "See what happens when I don't have you around playing cartoon angel on my shoulder?"

Hutch found a smile for their running joke. "Damn, Starsk, fast as it all played out, I doubt I would've had the time to get in costume."

"But you're okay with it all?"

Hutch nodded. He'd always known there were lines Starsky would cross for him. Didn't Starsky know he had lines only Starsky could make him cross as well? He hoped he'd never have to prove it, because only life-threatening danger to Starsky could push him that far, but he knew there were no moral brakes when it came to Starsky. In the secured jail cell with Simon Marcus, he'd have ripped the bastard's throat out with his bare hands if he hadn't needed the twisted riddles to find Starsky alive.

The lack of brakes should scare him, Hutch knew. But he wasn't scared. He was hard. Hutch shifted in the stool and rose to his feet, carefully turning away from Starsky until he could get control and walk normally. "Back in a minute."

Joe had come back out front to finish his sweeping. On his way to the unisex restroom, Hutch caught Joe's eye and saw a fresh frown darken the man's face. Inside the dingy bathroom lit only by a single bulb dangling from a wire with no fixture covering to keep it in place, Hutch stood in front of the chipped porcelain sink and turned the cold water on full blast, sloshing some on his face. He held cold, wet hands to the back of his neck and made himself look in the mirror.

Not again.

Throughout the case, he'd felt some unseen entity chasing him. Chasing him and trying to pin him down and make him admit something. First the cross-dressing Fireball, then the bar robber in old lady drag, and poor Charlie Siren's basketball player in drag quip. Even Starsky had seemed in on the big karmic kick in the ass with his jokes about Hutch looking good in basic black and pearls and buying Hutch flowers with the ransom money.

Well, there was nothing to admit! And Hutch sure as hell had no future plans to don a dress and pantyhose. He sloshed more water in his face. Nothing to admit. Just one of those weird number things, like when you played a lottery ticket that didn't win, but you saw the same numbers cropping up everywhere for days afterward. He wasn't hiding anything from himself.

Hutch adjusted his jeans again. Not this time. This time the itch could just quiet itself without a little help from a friend. He couldn't call Johnny. Not after their last outing, when Hutch had lost control. He ducked his head and gripped the sides of the sink, fury flooding him again. All the fear, desperation, and rage he hadn't worked out on the black-robed freaks who'd had Starsky awaiting execution, he'd fucked out of his system with Johnny. He could still see the concern and a hint of fear that rose in those soft eyes afterward. He couldn't pick up the phone now and risk hearing that the warm voice had gone cold, telling him to go fuck himself. No, Johnny wouldn't say to go fuck himself. Get lost, maybe. Leave me the hell alone, probably. Hutch knew right then how important it was to hear kindness in that strong, distinctive voice, and the thought that he might not hear it again had deflated his hard-on. Shaking his head at his own stupidity, Hutch turned off the faucet, dried his face with sandpapery towels, and headed back out to Starsky.

His plate was empty save for a few scraggly french fries. "Where's my burger?"

Starsky swallowed guiltily and patted his stomach. "It got cold."

"Yeah?"

"You were gone more'n a minute. I was about to go see if you got sucked down by the toilet monster."

"But you ate my burger instead?"

Starsky gave him a don't-yell grin. "What would you want with a cold burger? 'Course, I ate it. Joe's making you another one."

"Damn it, Starsky!" He knew better than to point out that if Starsky could eat Hutch's cold burger, Hutch could've put it away just as easily. That kind of logic didn't appeal to Starsky, who probably saw it as a good deed that he hadn't left cold meat for his partner to choke down. Joe appeared genie-like and slapped another plate down in front of Hutch.

"This one's on the house," Joe said, and turned to straighten the desserts in their glass case, as if the little bowls of Jello, pudding, and parfait improved with proper arrangement. But he was looking over his shoulder at the counter when Hutch elbowed Starsky's forearm and asked him to pass the pepper.

~*~*~

The man was oblivious. Couldn't see two inches in front of his face. Joe scowled and tidied the one-serving boxes of cereal on top of the dessert display. So much for getting David Starsky to admit there was a whole lot more heart than trigger finger in that deadly shot that could've burned down half a city block. And why should the man admit it, and to Joe, of all people? Starsky was right. Joe was trying to be the man's shrink, not his psychic, and maybe it had something to do with shoving his special sight into Starsky's face because the man hadn't believed in him at first.

Hutchinson, though, believed in Joe, had from the get go, which flattered Joe all the more because he had the idea Hutch was primarily a rational, fact-over-fantasy kind of guy. Pleased with the cereal boxes, Joe made up his mind to at least do what he could for his believer. Better for the man to leave off wanting what wouldn't be his.

Fate played right into his hands when Hutch left his keys on the counter and came back, sans Starsky, to retrieve them. Joe plucked the ring of keys from the counter and twirled them just out of Hutch's reach.

Hutch eyed the keys, then Joe. "My keys, please."

"Got something to say to you first. A word of advice."

Hutch looked nervous. "You didn't just see something, I hope."

Joe shook his head. "Do I look like I just tripped on a scene? Am I clutching my head like the mother of all migraines is coming on fast? No. Listen up, Hutch." He nodded significantly at the bar stool Starsky had occupied. "Sometimes a man can't get what he wants. But he's usually able to find what he needs."

Hutch paled for a second before the street cop bravado took over and allowed him to smile. "What are you, the psychic Mick Jagger?"

"Hell, no. I'd been saying that for years before that big-lipped Brit started making money off it. It's okay to take what you need instead of what you really want. And sometimes, Hutch, if you make the needing about want instead, you'll quit needing what you really want and start wanting what you need. Get me?"

Hutch got it, judging by the wild look in his eyes, but the man's mask was good. He grabbed the keys out of Joe's grasp and backed away from the counter. "Thanks for the free advice, but if that's a service you dole out with every burger, I think I'll take my business to McDonald's."

Joe watched him leave. He was 0 for 2 for the day. Good thing he was a psychic and not a shrink. But Hutch's mind was fertile soil for planting seeds. Maybe one of them would actually sprout, and Hutch would listen to his advice. Joe couldn't tell much from one of his fleeting scenes, but that LA County paramedic had the look of a real classy guy. And he wasn't stumbling around in the dark like David Starsky.

"What the hell was that all about?" asked an angry voice at his side.

Joe saw that Huggy had abandoned the mound of dishes in the kitchen sink. "What?"

"That jive you were giving Hutch."

"What, you don't know? I thought you knew all there was to know about those guys."

Huggy's ears were practically steaming. "You have some kind of vision about m'man Hutch, I better hear about it right now."

Joe pretended to grab his hair and writhe. He stopped abruptly and gave Huggy a frown. "You see me doing that lately? No. It wasn't a damned vision. It's plain as the nose on your face. Hell, you could see it when he asked Starsky to pass him the pepper. If a man looked at me like that when I passed him a pepper shaker, I'd move a few stools down the bar with a firm 'No Thank You.'"

Huggy's anger didn't cool. In fact, the ferocity in the skinny sorcerer's apprentice made Joe long for the security of his broom handle. "I got no problem with it," Joe assured him. "God knows, half the country would label me a freak for this so-called gift I was born with. Guys just aren't my scene."

"They're not Starsky's scene, either."

Joe noticed Huggy didn't say the same for Hutch. "And Hutch? You're trying to tell me I'm misreading him?"

The fire died out of Huggy's eyes. "I have my thoughts on the matter, which I keep to myself, and so should you."

"Why?"

"Because if the wrong people get the same ideas you did, Blondie could end up pistol-whipped in an alley with Starsky having to watch at gunpoint. By their brothers in blue, no less. So I hope to holy hell what you seen is 'cause you're special, so sensitive and all, and not just 'cause it's gotten too much for Hutch to hide."

Huggy pushed through the swinging door so hard the vibration caused one of the small cereal boxes to topple off the desert display. Joe left it lying on the floor. He began gathering the dishes to add to Huggy's pile in the sink. When he touched Hutch's plate, searing pain lanced through his head, gathering in a ball of tension and agony at the base of his skull. He couldn't tear his hand off the plate, couldn't close his eyes to the horror of a large Ford sedan rolling down a mountainside, rolling and rolling, until the battered car came to a stop upside down with its cargo pinned beneath it. Its still and lifeless-looking cargo, a too familiar face framed by mussed and blood streaked blond hair. Joe's head twisted again, movement he had no control over, and he saw his own café, Starsky pacing like a big cat of prey, begging for Joe to draw him a map, and then overturning tables and hurling napkin dispensers when Joe couldn't provide the easy answer Starsky needed.    

No!

Joe backed up and leaned against the serving counter.

"What'd you see, Joe?"

Clutching at his chest, Joe felt for his heartbeat to make sure his heart was still intact, and glared at his apprentice. "Wouldya stop sneakin' up on me? You think the way to get promoted from apprentice to sorcerer is to give me a heart attack?"

"What'd you see, man, out with it?!" Huggy insisted. "I saw you just now through the serving window. You touched Hutch's plate and started writhing and stuff like when you get a vision."

Joe hated his life. "What good will it do if I tell you, huh, tell me that?"

"Tell me so I can fix it."

God! When would people learn that psychics couldn't prevent the inevitable? What could he tell the man? Anything but the horrible, unavoidable truth. Inspired by their previous conversation, Joe decided to hit Huggy with the lesser of two bombshells. "A guy. I saw a guy. Maybe it's a drinking buddy of Hutch's. No big deal."

Huggy stood with arms folded, a fierce skeptic. "You already know Hutch's drinking buddies. Me and that sharp shootin' hamburger thief you were givin' a hard time."

"So maybe Hutch has a long lost cousin. Let it go, Huggy."

"Not happenin', Joe. You looked like you do when what you see don't go down easy. What, something gonna happen to this guy?"

"Nothing like that. Look, I was just surprised, that's all. I'm not used to immediate confirmation of a hunch. Doesn't usually work like that."

"Any clue who the guy is?"

"Why do you care? You Hutchinson's keeper or something? I thought that was Starsky's job."

"Starsky's not here right now; I am. I'm not playin' around, Joe!"

"He's a fireman by the looks of his uniform. I saw a red truck, yellow lettering, LA County. A big fifty-one in a circle. I didn't see his whole name. Just caught a flash of the name badge. Little print. Last name started with G. G-a-something."

"If that's all you saw, why you think this guy's what you think he is to Hutch?"

Joe straightened his apron, but he wanted to lift the apron's skirt and pull it over his head. Because the first scene of him I flashed on involved Hutch and didn't include uniforms of any kind. Took me two days to stop blushing. "Call it interpretation. Look, I tell you what I see. You wanna play detective and figure out the meaning, go right ahead. But you don't need to bother yourself over it, Huggy, it's not gonna matter." Oh, no. Wrong thing to say. Huggy advanced on him, looking dire. "I mean, it's probably one of those temporary things, that's all. For your friend's sake, leave this be, huh?"

Huggy backed off, but worry still narrowed his eyes and tightened his lips. "I owe both my friends enough to get a line on this guy. I owe Starsky enough to tell him if I run across anything liable to put Hutch's back to the wall. I owe Hutch enough to keep my mouth shut if the guy's clean, unless Starsky puts my back put to the wall. When you're in the middle of two friends like those guys, you learn to walk that kinda line." Shaking his head, he returned to his kitchen duties. 

Joe could empathize with being trapped in the middle, but he had no intention of walking any line. Damn this curse of his! Just when he'd gotten comfortable in a place, he had to close down shop and leave again. Whenever that tragedy of Hutch's occurred, and Joe could only hope it wasn't tomorrow or the next day, he didn't plan to be around for Starsky to find. Atlantic City still haunted him, but he knew he'd never survive telling Starsky his partner was dead. 

Joe looked around the café and nodded. He'd be out of LA by week's end.

~*~*~

Roy DeSoto thought he might actually get the chance to enjoy his meatloaf. Marco's meatloaf had to be savored to fully appreciate the Latin touches: extra paprika, mild green chilies, and a hint of Tabasco in the sauce. Following a day of light calls and much needed downtime, Station 51 had gathered around the big Formica-topped table for the evening meal, and even Johnny looked relaxed--as relaxed as a fidgety Johnny could look. Roy had stopped trying to pin his partner down on the reason behind the fidgetiness. In between calls, Johnny couldn't tolerate chatter that delved deeper than the squad's quirky engine.

With one perfectly sized bite of meatloaf loaded on his fork, Captain Stanley saluted their chef with the raised utensil and opened his mouth, either to compliment Marco verbally or sink his teeth into the succulent meat, but the wall phone's jangle jarred the captain's usually steady hand. In the way of bored firemen, nearly everyone's attention centered on the captain's forkful of meatloaf as it plopped onto his plate, but Johnny cocked his head, listening, almost as if he expected the phone to go quiet before Mike could reach it. In the silence, Johnny began pushing his chair back from the table, and Roy watched him, wondering. It wasn't like his partner to leave Marco's meatloaf untouched.

When the phone rang again, Johnny stumbled out of his chair, and waved Mike off. "I'll get it, I'll get it!"

Chet's ears perked immediately, twin antennae beneath those curls, his mustache quivering. If Johnny intended to keep anything about this call secret, he'd just blown it with his mad dash to the wall phone. Roy shoveled down meatloaf to keep from laughing, which would just annoy Johnny and make for an unpleasant remainder of the shift. Fidgety Johnny was one thing, surly Johnny was another.

"Station 51, Gage," Johnny said. His lips curved, those expressive eyebrows scooting up on his forehead, and then he turned his back to the table, but his whole body vibrated with an energy that didn't find an outlet in his audible whisper, "Hey, you."

Chet made hourglass figures in the air to Marco, who gave a low whistle.

"I'm off tomorrow. When? Oh, man. No, day after tomorrow Roy and I are off, but we're out of town at a paramedics' conference. Nope, day after that we're back on shift here. Tomorrow, then? You're sure? Hm, guess you can't be, then. Hey, good luck, and--Mm-hm." Johnny glanced over his shoulder, frowned at Chet's double thumbs up sign, and hastily swiveled back toward the wall. "Dinner? Sounds great. You can let me know last minute, that's fine. I'm glad you called. I'll see you then if it works out."

"'Hey, you'?" Chet asked as soon as Johnny hung up the phone. "Who's Hey You?"

"Nobody," Johnny said, and his return to the table took three times as long, but there was a gleam in his eye that Roy recognized from years of partnership, a bursting happiness that Johnny was attempting to shroud in deadpan nonchalance to keep Chet off the scent.

Marco wagged a meatloaf-laden fork at him. "I think we need to know who Hey You is, what do you think, Mike?"

Station 51's quietest firefighter, Mike said nothing, but his smile showed curiosity.

Captain Stanley raised both hands in prelude to playing the diplomat. "Look, guys, if Johnny doesn't want to share with the class, he doesn't have to." Then their youthful captain grinned. "But I think if he chooses not to, he needs to wash the engine tomorrow."

Roy saw nervousness in his partner's fumbling with his milk glass and restless elbow tapping on the table, and he tensed in sympathy. He should have known. When Johnny didn't start bragging after the second prod from Chet, he had something to hide...and not just to get under Chet's skin. Oh, no. Could this be one of those dates? Roy hurried to create a diversion. "You know, Marco, I think you ought to enter this meatloaf in that cooking contest I was reading about in the--"

"Johnny, if Hey You is calling you up for a date this close to Valentine's Day, it must be pretty serious," Chet interrupted. "Are you getting serious with some girl we know nothing about?"

Johnny scowled at him. "Chet, don't be ridiculous. Didn't you just hear me on the phone? Obviously, you did. Did I sound serious?"

Actually, he had sounded serious, to people who knew John Gage like his station mates, especially the one person in the station who knew the possible explanation for Johnny's breakneck dive for the telephone.

"Come on, Johnny," Marco wheedled. "All we want are some vital statistics. Right, fellas? You don't have to give us the full rundown."

"I think this milk is sour," Roy spoke up loudly, holding his glass theatrically high to investigate its color in the light. Johnny shot him a panicked glance, and Roy tried to shrug discreetly to indicate his willingness to help if Johnny could telegraph any ideas his way.

"Maybe this girl's some kind of reject," Chet mused, doing his dog on a bone shtick. "Blind date you can't shake, Johnny, is that it? Some kind of feminine stalker. I mean, admit it, your taste in women isn't exactly gourmet."

Utterly defeated, Roy brought his milk glass down. His partner's career plans, livelihood, and pension combined could not stand up to a taunt like that one. Johnny pushed his plate away and folded his arms over his chest. "Okay. I don't know why this is such a big deal, but if you want vital statistics, I'll give you a few. Show you poor saps what you're missing out on."

Roy tried frantically to wave Johnny off the topic. If he gave them food to gnaw on, they would demand more. Eventually, they would want to meet this girl, start nagging Johnny about why he didn't have photos of her, and all the other friendly busybody tactics they employed to great effect whenever they thought him on the verge of a significant relationship.

"We're talking looong legs," Johnny said, smiling. "Hair like the morning sun, I'm not kidding. Blue eyes, too. Loves the outdoors, running, swimming. Real independent. And smart? Woo-eee, yeah, more than a pretty face, I'll tell you that. Now can I please finish my meatloaf before the--"

Too late. The squonking of the station alarm saved Johnny from tightening the noose around his own neck, and pulled Roy back from the onset of a seizure trying to warn his partner in any recognizable sign language that he was digging a grave for himself.

Sure enough, on their way to the squad, Roy heard Chet say behind them, "Hey, Gage, you got a photo of this dream girl? I need a new pinup for my locker."

~*~*~

"At least tell me one thing about her." Starsky reached the last quarter of his burrito across the desk and swung it directly under Hutch's nose like a smelly hypnotic pendant. "Just one thing."

Almost regretting sleazy Attorney Balford's hasty departure after Dobey's skewering, Hutch pulled the ruined paper from the typewriter and balled it up, growling, "Thanks a lot. I was two letters away from finishing this report when your foul lunch made me type them backward." He groaned, and lifted the ice pack back to his sore temple. "Needed some more of this anyway. And I don't know what you're talking about."

"Hutch, get serious. You have a big date tonight. You've been doing that little 'I've got a date' humming thing under your breath for the last hour. Actually, you've been doing it off and on since yesterday, which means a planned date, which means big, and I need details."

"Why?"

"'Cause I'm bored with the cover op letdown, 'cause I need fodder for the next stakeout bullshit session, 'cause if this chick is big news, big enough that you'll pass on celebrating the Humphries bust with me at Huggy's, then--"

"Wait a minute," Hutch protested. "I'm not passing on anything. In case you've forgotten, you have a date with Terry tonight."

Starsky smiled. "Didn't forget. But Terry's got to be at school early in the morning for some faculty meeting, so I won't be staying over, and I figured you and me could hit the Pits about eleven."

"Well, sorry, buddy, but I can't promise to be unoccupied at the hour of eleven."

Starsky gobbled down the rest of his burrito and didn't bother to finish chewing before he crowed, "I knew it! Come on, Hu-u-u-tch, I need to know something. Anything."

"Why?"

"Got to know if this girl's--" Starsky suddenly began coughing, a very fake cough to Hutch's ears, and resorted to draining his Coke bottle.

Hutch knew the reason for the aborted remark. Starsky's desire to "screen" his partner's girlfriends for suitability and worthiness of Hutch was still a sore wound in their friendship, months after Gillian's death. Reminded of his role in Gillian's last days, Starsky would shut up now, afraid of hurting Hutch with unpleasant memories. Taking mercy on his partner, and needing to pretend that no barriers remained, Hutch chose to play along...up to a point. "How about hair color?"

"What?"

"You wanted to know one thing. How about hair color?"

"Okay, we'll start with hair color."

Praising himself for cleverness, Hutch said, "Brunet." 

"You've been doing the humming thing over Christine? Thought it was pretty casual between you two."

"It's beautifully casual, actually."

Starsky snapped his fingers. "Hey, wait a minute. Can't be Christine; Terry told me she's out of town for two weeks on a photo shoot. Dating two brunettes at the same time, buddy? Living dangerously, if y'ask me."

Dating his best friend's girlfriend's best friend didn't just sound convoluted; it was a tactical error, Hutch decided. "So, who's asking?"

"Hey, what's between you and Christine is just that, but keep in mind, you screw up too bad with her and I could land in the doghouse, too. Do your partner a favor and don't be getting these brunettes mixed up at the wrong time, hm?"

Hutch had to laugh. "Trust me, Starsk, there's little chance of that!"

"What's she do?"

Knowing this could get dangerous faster than Starsky could choke down a burrito, Hutch thought kindly of sewing his lips shut, but Starsky's avid interest and animated body language, clearly the result of being included in Hutch's plans, however far on the periphery, made Hutch reluctant to call a halt to the information sharing. "Hard-working public servant, just like yours truly."

"She's not a cop?" Starsky instinctively glanced around the squadroom, but the detectives and officers currently sharing their working space were all male.

"There're other public service professions that don't involve law enforcement, Starsky."

"Yeah, s'pose you're right. As much under your breath humming as you've been doing, she must be Kate Jackson class."

"Beautiful inside and out," Hutch agreed.

Starsky smirked and cupped his hands chest level. "Straight A or all D's?"

"Damn it, Starsky, you don't have to be so crass."

"Don't pretend the boob action doesn't matter to you, Hutch. Is she a little petite in that department?"

"Little and petite are redundant, moron, and you know, I should be worried that my best friend is more concerned with breast size than the fact that his buddy just might have met someone warm, caring, and devoted to the welfare of others."

"Yeah, yeah. I've seen your eyes pop at busty strippers too many times to be taken in by all that. Name?"

Hutch grinned. "Nope."

"Her name's Nope?"

"No, the name is not part of the bargain. I already told you more than one thing. So get yourself a candy bar, finish your report, and let's brief Dobey so I can get out of here."

"You're cooking for her, aren't you?" Starsky leaned over the desk until Hutch could smell the onions and refried beans on his breath.

"Maybe. Maybe this dream date of mine happens to have a great apartment with a great kitchen where I can work my culinary magic."

"Maybe you could just tell me her first name."

"If I tell you the first letter of the first name, will you quit bugging me so I can at least finish my report?" Hutch asked.

"All right."

"J."

"J? Damn. I was hoping for X or Z, that would narrow things down. J could be anything. Julie, Jane, Jessica, Jennifer, Joanne, Jodie, Janice--"

"Starsky!"

"Okay, okay. Want something from the machine?"

"Nope. Don't wanna spoil my dinner."

~*~*~

"Ken?" Johnny knocked on the carved door and waited, hoping for the sound of footsteps. The phone call had caught him just before he left his apartment. Unexpected police-related errand, Ken had said, but come on over and if no one answers, look for the key on the lintel. Johnny waited for another minute and then reached up, brushing fingers through dust until his fingertips landed on cold metal. He felt strange letting himself in Ken's apartment, but Ken had promised to be back only a few minutes' late at most for their scheduled rendezvous.

Inside the apartment, looking around, Johnny almost turned and walked back out again. This was a huge step. He had never been to Ken's place, and Ken had yet to see his.

In seven months they had scratched each other's itch whenever the LAPD and LA County Fire Department provided a rare shared day off, with little communication in between. From late June to September, they managed four weekends in Crystal Cove, enjoying the hiking Johnny had suggested their first time together. Then Johnny hadn't heard from him until October, when Ken suggested they meet at a motel about half an hour north of LA, but that time didn't count. A worn, frail Ken had shown up with dark circles under his eyes, a hollow look, and the same shell shock slowness to his movements that Johnny had seen in family members who lost loved ones in Rampart's ER. Twenty minutes after Ken arrived, he made apologies and left, without one kiss or touch, and Johnny had known why, if not the details. The man was grieving, and he didn't need sex. He needed a shoulder to lean on, a shoulder used to bearing that weight, and Johnny knew when Ken pulled the old Ford onto the main highway that he was turning his car in the direction of his partner.

November had brought them together twice at a secluded campground in the Angeles National Forest, near Station 86's territory, where Johnny had always wanted to buy a house when he saved enough to get out of an apartment. Both encounters had created more sparks than their well-tended campfire, but no matter how good the sex, Johnny still had the sense Ken was running from something--from something pleasant, the first time, because Ken was full of his unique humor in the form of quips about impromptu dance lessons in his captain's office. The second November night they spent under the stars, Ken was morose, complaining bitterly how a cop's life tended to wreak havoc on the people close to him, innocent victims of collateral damage, more often than not the women in a cop's world. December had passed without so much as a Christmas card, drawing 1976 to a close.

Then, out of the blue, the second week in January, Ken had summoned him to a meeting spot out in the middle of LA County ranchland, this particular stretch a wasteland of brown blowing grasses and only the occasional clump of trees. Ken looked like a different person. He had three emotions competing for expression--fear, relief, and joy--and Johnny knew the details this time. The newspapers had run several feature stories on Detective Starsky's abduction by the murderous cult whose leader he and his partner had brought to justice, and the subsequent rescue led by Detective Hutchinson.

Ken's car was different, too, sporting customized touches of fur where Johnny didn't expect to see fur in a car, and a kind of fur he couldn't even identify. Ken had laughed about what he called a temporary aberration. If he could have gotten in touch with Johnny, he'd said, the old girl would have had a tune up without Starsky's mechanic friend Earle getting his far out notions within a mile of her. Knowing his expertise didn't run to anything more complicated than fan belts, spark plugs, electrical shorts, and oil changes, Johnny hadn't let on that he was no prize-winning mechanic, too pleased by Ken's compliment to play modest.

Johnny hadn't known exactly what the wasteland meant to Ken, but he'd had the strangest feeling it was a place of desperation that Ken needed cleansed from his system, and it turned the man into a creature as wild as their surroundings. Ken had wanted Johnny under him in the back of the 4 x 4. So for only the second time--after their first afternoon in the Canyon Vista they had kept things simpler: a little sixty-nining here, a few leisurely rub-offs there--Johnny took Ken inside of him, and Ken took him for a tumultuous, screaming ride that stayed just on the safe side of the pleasure/pain line. Afterward, Ken had seemed more drained than sated, their parting awkward, quiet, and distant.

And Johnny had fidgeted through the next three weeks, hearing nothing, wanting to call but either too busy, or too wary, or too something. Finally, Ken had called the station, using their prearranged code of two rings, hang up, and dial again, and the invitation to Venice Place had shocked Johnny's dark uniform socks off. Was Chet right? Did it mean something, this date with Valentine's Day just a hop, skip, and jump away? Did Johnny want it to mean something? Just scratching their mutual itch, he reminded himself. Nothing else. Better for both of them if it stayed that way.

Bored with puttering around the open living room, taking pleasurable note of the football poster, the antique piano, the impressive selection of books on the shelf beside the kitchen, Johnny wandered into an alcove where a lovely brass bed stopped him in his tracks. He wanted Ken in that bed. Wanted to show him that he could give as good as he could take. Wanted to know he could climb inside the man of mystery and make him come as easily as Ken put him in outer space from deep inside. Wondered if he could get up the guts to ask Ken for it after dinner.

Stomach grumbling, he backtracked to the kitchen where mouthwatering aromas reminded him that dinner time had come and gone without proper nourishment. He peeked in the oven. Admittedly no gourmand, Johnny recognized a casserole when he saw one, and this gorgeous example appeared somewhere between golden brown and burning. He glanced at his watch, disturbed by the time.

"Better be glad your itch-scratcher is a fireman, if you're gonna go off and leave your oven on," Johnny said aloud to an absent Ken, switching off the oven and locating a potholder and glove to rescue the casserole from the 350 degree heat. He set the dish on another potholder atop the stove and valiantly resisted the urge to lift the glass lid and steal a crumb from the top bubbly layer.

An hour later, he was back in the kitchen, putting the covered dish in the fridge. Thirty-two minutes after finding a home for the casserole in the sparsely stocked refrigerator, Johnny began hunting for scrap paper and a pen to leave Ken a note. He found a small note pad in a kitchen drawer along with what looked like a twenty-year-old pencil, but he carried them both over to the couch and sat down, staring at them with no intention of writing, unwilling to give up on their date. Ken had given him no details, but Johnny assumed the police-errand had something to do with the undercover operation that had apparently ended successfully that afternoon, making this rendezvous possible.

When ten o'clock rolled around, Johnny had to accept a night with no Ken. With an early flight to Sacramento the next morning, he couldn't afford to hang around and wait until midnight. He began composing the safest, most generic note he could, and felt secure in signing it with his first initial, something personal, however trivial, to indicate he'd really been there. Sticking the folded note to the fridge with a magnet, he gave the Venice apartment one last, wistful glance from corner to corner, and let himself out, returning the key to its home on the lintel.

~*~*~

Starsky stood in the center of Hutch's living room and tried to shake the chill he could feel all the way through his leather jacket and thick blue turtleneck. He hadn't worried when he'd phoned the apartment at eleven the night before just to see if Hutch would answer, and got no answer. Hutch and his lady were probably busy, he'd told himself, doing what he'd missed out on with Terry thanks to a dumb faculty meeting. But when a seven a.m. wakeup call didn't bring a growling, muttering Hutch to the phone, Starsky began to itch in the uncomfortable place inside that stayed dormant when Hutch was safe and sound. Still, maybe the line about the lady's great home wasn't the red herring he thought, and Hutch had spent the night at her place. When Starsky got to Metro and found no Hutch already in the squadroom throwing back putrid coffee and beaming from ear-to-ear after a night of good sex, he felt a worried ache join the itching. He nearly knocked poor bumbling Woolfolk down on his way out of the squadroom.

So in tune to his partner, he knew the exact feel of his home after a night Hutch had spent with some lovely lady. This was not a warm morning-after apartment. This apartment felt cold. He could practically taste the disappointment. Had Hutch's big date stood him up? Starsky couldn't imagine a woman that foolish, but even if she had, that didn't explain Hutch's absence. He looked around, trying to recreate the previous evening's hours just from what he knew of Hutch. He'd long since memorized ninety percent of the clothes in Hutch's wardrobe, and a quick catalog of the closet and chest-of-drawers told him Hutch hadn't packed an overnight bag. Not necessarily a big clue. Hutch sometimes took only himself and a bottle of wine to an overnight date. He paused at the chest-of-drawers, drawn to a photo of Hutch clowning around with him at the Pits, and held the framed snapshot to his chest, needing even the illusion of closeness. He breathed deeply to fight the sensation of doom. 

"Hutch, where'd you run off to, huh?"

Close inspection of the kitchen informed him that the old wooden table had seen no romantic dinner in the last twelve hours. Knowing Hutch, there would still be dishes and glasses in the sink, the lure of the couch, greenhouse, or bed too strong to waste time with after-dinner cleanup. He decided to see if Hutch had any orange juice in the fridge. In the absence of root beer, a cold glass of juice might kick-start his brain. He paused with his hand on the door handle, staring at the folded note held aloft by Hutch's jazz festival magnet. Instantly forgetting the juice, Starsky grabbed the note.

Hey, you,

Waited until ten. Put the casserole in the fridge.
Call me, if I don't call you first.
And leave a message. My machine likes your voice.  --J.

Starsky hurried to the door and ducked halfway outside, reaching for the lintel. The key was there, but a few inches down from its usual location.

Mind whirling, Starsky slammed the door shut and headed for the couch to ponder the note's ramifications. He berated himself for not probing Hutch about this mystery girl. Here he needed a contact who might know something, anything, and he knew nothing about her except the first letter of her name, but Hutch clearly trusted her enough to tell her about the spare key. He read the brief note again, wondering why it struck him as off somehow, or out of place, and raised the little hairs on the back of his neck. Worse, he had the urge to yowl like the territorial tomcat that hung around his apartment complex. He shook off the odd impulse. Action his only comfort during times of uncertainty for Hutch, Starsky seized the coffee table phone and sought outside help.

After three rings that lasted an eternity each, Huggy's sleep-gravelly voice answered. "I hope the fool calling a bartender at home at this unconscionable hour has a good reason or said fool is gonna be a dead fool; is whoever this is with me so far?"

"I think Hutch is in trouble."

Hacking and coughing assaulted Starsky's ear and then a faint sound like a match striking. A few muffled breaths later, Huggy sounded clear as a crystal bell. "Sorry 'bout that, man. Few puffs of a morning cigarette, and I'm right as rain. Now what's this about Hutch?"

"He had a date last night, but from the looks of a note I found on his fridge, he skipped out on the lady after he went through the trouble of cooking dinner for her. Wasn't even here when she showed. She left at ten last night without seeing him. He's still not here this morning."

"Maybe the lady showed back up at eleven and whisked him away to her place."

Starsky glowered at the phone. "You're still asleep. Take a few more drags off that cigarette, wouldya, and wake up. I'm tellin' you, I got a feeling, and this feeling has Vic Humphries all over it, you hear what I'm saying?"

"Yeah, I dig the nastiness of that. But, Starsky, what you're talkin' about is a little faster than that man's known to move, you know? I mean, Vic probably takes an hour to put on that dead animal hairpiece o'his. Hutch is a big boy, bro; maybe he just had second thoughts about this date."

"You really think the Hutch we know would stand a lady up without so much as a call to say, 'I'm just not into this,' or, even worse, not show up for work this mornin' without a phone call to me?"

"I'll admit it'd be a shocker, but hear me on this, Starsky; we just might not know everything there is to know about Hutch. And some things we do know, but we don't talk about 'em or think about 'em 'cause it'd make opening Pandora's Box look like digging into a pack of Crackerjacks."

Starsky could have sworn the note clutched between his right middle fingers was burning his skin. He hastily shoved it in his jacket pocket. "Huggy, at a time like this, that cigarette of yours better be the nicotine variety!" And what the hell have I been smoking, thinking a damned piece of paper's going to burst into flame in my hand?

"Have you known me to overindulge in any other kind!?" Huggy snapped. "I know you're upset. I know it goes both ways. If I was giving Hutch this kind of lip with you unaccounted for, he'd be over here five minutes later dragging my ass out of bed to snarl some sense in my ear. All I'm sayin' is maybe there's an explanation that doesn't involve bodily harm. But I'll put some feelers out, dredge the streets, and see what I turn. Anything hot, I'll holler."

"Thanks, Huggy. That's all I'm asking." Starsky hung up and touched his jacket pocket but declined withdrawing the note for another look.

Huggy might be right. Starsky didn't spend every single second of every single day with his partner, and he couldn't swear under oath that he knew one hundred percent of everything going through Hutch's mind. But there were certainties Starsky could count on: Hutch didn't cook dinner for a special date with a beautiful lady and walk out on them both. Hutch didn't skip out on work without a phone call to Starsky unless a very unpleasant reason had him doing the skipping. Starsky hurried from the apartment to take his concerns to Dobey, and he hoped to hell Dobey was an easier sell than Huggy, so he could begin the search in earnest.

~*~*~

Starsky had never mourned a hit man until now. Looking out the window to the death scene below, knowing that his only source of information on Hutch's whereabouts lay dead and out of his reach, he felt lightheaded and had to grab the windowsill. Was this the universe's way of kicking his ass for risking Joanna Haymes' life when he'd blown away her kidnappers? Now Hutch was the missing person whose location had gone to the grave of the scum likely responsible for his disappearance.

And maybe if Starsky had used a lighter, softer hand in the situation with Gillian, maybe if he'd acted like it was a legitimate shame that Abby had walked out for good, Hutch might have opened up to him about this new girl, and Starsky could be knocking on her door to find out what she knew, if anything.

If Hutch had called her before....

Starsky pounded his fist on the concrete sill until he could think through the pain ripping his heart with tiny claws that only prolonged the suffering. She might be the last person to ever hear Hutch's voice, and Starsky didn't even know her name.

He had no time to waste on a trek down to the parking lot to disperse the crowd hovering around Slater's twisted body. He had even less time to waste on useless guilt. He couldn't use a light or soft hand with the people who crossed Hutch's path. If he cared less, maybe he could let more slide, but caring less about Hutch, or for Hutch, was never an option.

Right now he needed his professionalism to ground him. Starsky returned to Slater's room to call in the coroner's meat wagon and search for any clue to what the dead man couldn't tell him.

~*~*~

"If you ask me about it one more time, Chet, I'm going to take a razor to that mop of yours one night when you're sacked out."

Chet brought the silverware over to the table. "Hey, calm down, Johnny. It happens to all of us. People stand people up. In this lady's case, some kind, considerate citizen in your acquaintance probably called and warned her off." He exchanged a high five with Marco, who then poured fresh coffee for everyone.

"Can we talk about anything besides the date that didn't happen?" Roy pleaded, knowing Johnny had reached the end of his patience after the first few questions.

"Thank you, Roy," Johnny said, smiling, and holding aloft his cup of coffee in salute. "Good to know I can count on my best friend."

At the station alarm, a groan went up from the whole table of hungry firemen. "Squad 51. Unknown type rescue, textile facility, 511 Heyward Road, cross street Dunmore. Time out 12:01."

Chet relaxed and began loading his spaghetti down with grated parmesan cheese. "You can always count on missing lunch when Mike does his famous spaghetti, too, Gage."

"Don't I know it," Johnny grumbled, pushing his chair back from the table and reaching for his handy-talkie.

En route to the call, Roy ventured a sideways glance at his passenger. "Could've told you to expect something like this."

"Like what?" Johnny asked.

"The guys harping on your case about the big date. You shouldn't have egged them on the other day. At least tell me you gave them nothing real when you started listing vital statistics."

"No, it was real, but nothing that could come back to bite me."

"Not bright, Johnny."

"Why?"

Roy risked another glance away from the road. "Because it's someone you can't parade around the station, isn't it?"

Johnny looked out his window. "Roy, we agreed you wouldn't ask questions about guys."

"I'm not asking questions. But you've got to play this lower key if you don't want Chet doing his Bulldog Drummond impression and finding out more than you want him to know. Okay?"

"Doesn't matter anyway. I think it's probably a no-go."

"Because he didn't show for the date?"

"He could've called to say he couldn't make it after all. That's all I'm saying. I can understand things come up." Johnny pointed his thumbs back at his chest. "I'm a reasonable guy, right?"

"Right," Roy said, concealing a smile.

"I can understand having to cancel your plans at the last minute. But how long does a phone call take, huh? If not beforehand, then afterward, or the next morning. A 'sorry I missed you' kind of thing. How hard is that? I mean, I'm a guy, I know guys can skimp on the little details. But I've always tried to remember the basics, and a cancellation phone call is a basic. Right?"

"You were in Sacramento with me all yesterday. How do you know he didn't call?"

"I don't know, but I made sure he knew he could leave me a message. He's left me messages before. When I got home last night, I checked the machine. No message. Machine was working, tape was good."

In his surprise, Roy almost put his foot on the brake in the middle of an intersection. "You have an answering machine? Since when?"

"It's not like buying a Rolls Royce. Okay, yeah, I splurged on a state-of-the-art gadget. Fat lot of good it did me this time. He didn't even bother to leave me a message."

"Don't you think it's premature to write the guy off just because he didn't make one date? I'm guessing he's kept all the others."

Johnny stared at him. "How'd you know there've been others?"

"Because even you wouldn't be this riled about someone you'd just met, and I wouldn't have thought you'd buy an answering machine if you were dating Miss America, much less some guy."

"I'm not riled!" Johnny shifted in his seat, adjusted his helmet, and then folded his arms over his chest, looking petulant. "I can't believe you said that. Me, riled? Do I look riled? I'm not either riled!"

"Oka-ay."

"And I'm not writing him off," Johnny said, typically reversing his entire stance on the subject. "Where'd you get the idea I'm writing him off?"

Roy nodded, glad he knew just how to talk a temperamental Johnny off a limb. Now they could get through their shift without a bad mood tripping them up.

Instead, Roy watched Johnny's disappointment and frustration escalate to anger, and then anger cooled to concern. After two straightforward rescue calls that Johnny breezed through on professional autopilot, his concern had advanced to worry that seemed out of proportion to the situation. When the captain retired to his office, Mike began his inventory of the engine's equipment, and Marco and Chet ducked out back for some fresh air, Roy cornered Johnny in the kitchen and pushed him by the shoulder over to the table where he sat down beside him.

"Okay. Out with it. You've been acting hung up all day. It's the no-show, isn't it?"

"Roy!" Johnny looked around.

"No one can hear us. What's going on, Johnny?"

"Something's wrong."

"Because you didn't get a call?"

"No." Johnny jumped up from the table and went in search of his coffee mug and the stale coffee in its stainless steel carafe on the stove. "I can't talk about it."

"Why? You know I don't pry into stuff like this, but this time something's really under your skin, and if you can't talk to me, who else is there?"

"It's not that I don't wanna talk about it. This gu--this person has to be even more careful than I do. I gave my word, Roy. Things I wouldn't talk about, places I wouldn't call, messages I wouldn't leave. I can't even call anyone to see if the person's all right."

"Why wouldn't the person be all right? Granted, their manners could use a brush-up, but people get caught up in their busy lives and forget to do the courteous thing."

"No, you don't understand. This person--let's just say there are reasons a no-show might be more than a no-show."

"Johnny, what've you gotten yourself into?"

"Something a heckuva lot heavier than I planned, that's for sure." Elbows on the table, chin propped in hand, Johnny ignored the cup of coffee he'd just poured.

~*~*~

"We made it, partner," Starsky said for the fourth time. He knew he had to let go of Hutch long enough to get back to the Torino's radio to place an emergency call and summon a black-and-white to take care of the KO'd Humphries, but his hands did not want to move from their tender hold on his miraculously living, breathing partner's face.

"Found me," Hutch murmured. "Knew...you would." A cough that sounded more like a failed attempt at laughter pulled Starsky's heartstrings yet again. "Took...you...long enough. Slow poke."

"Damn right I found you, and if you were as slow to get in trouble as I was gettin' here, we'd both be in good shape. Now, shh, partner, save your breath."

"Leg," Hutch whimpered.

"I know, I know, buddy. Thing is, I can't do much about that without taking a chance on hurting you worse, understand? I tried to ease the pressure, but your leg's caught somehow I can't see, and I could rip it to shreds trying to pull you free. I need some reinforcements."

"Don't...leave."

"Radio's busted, Hutch. I gotta get back to the Torino for the radio."

"Please."

Starsky brushed through Hutch's hair, shed his jacket, and bunched it up to place it beneath Hutch's head for a pillow, wiping the sweat-streaked forehead with his own spit-dampened turtleneck sleeve. "I'll be back before you know I was gone," he promised. "I'm not leaving your sight for the next fifty-odd years. You got that?"

"Starsk."

"That's right. You keep saying that name to yourself. Betcha I'll be back before you've made it to ten times."

~*~*~

Johnny gave up trying to shove Henry out of his lap. When the station's hound dog settled down for a nap, one of his hundred during the day, nothing short of the station alarm could rouse him. About to pick up the newspaper for a welcome distraction, Johnny jumped when the station alarm began its best effort to rouse the sleeping dog. Still, Johnny had to pick Henry up and deposit him on the other end of the sofa before the alarm rang through its cycle in preparation for the dispatcher's announcement.

"Station 51. Single motor vehicle accident. Man pinned under car in canyon off Mountain Road, two miles north of Rockbridge Tunnel. Time out 14:40."

Meeting Roy at the squad, Johnny shivered and slipped into his navy uniform jacket. "You cold?"

"Station 51, ten-four, KMG 365," Captain Stanley acknowledged the alarm call, while Mike had a look at the wall map.

In his shirtsleeves, Roy joined him in the squad and cranked the engine. "Cold? No."

"I'm freezing. Like...what's that saying...like a goose walked over my grave."

Roy pulled out of the engine bay, the lead engine's lights and sirens providing them a clear path across the lanes of traffic. "Well, put on the heat. I don't mind."

"No. You know the squad loves any excuse to throw a short. Can't risk that right now."

~*~*~

"Hear that, Hutch?" Starsky scanned the high hillside, craving sight of the fire department response he could hear approaching, but their location didn't afford a clear view of the road, one reason Hutch had spent two nights in a hell Starsky couldn't imagine. "That's help on the way. We'll get your leg free, and the paramedics'll get some fluids going, better stuff for you than the tepid junk in this old canteen of mine."

"Paramedic," Hutch said softly, twisting his head side to side.

"That's right."

"Paramedic," Hutch said again.

"Right, Hutch. They're on their way. We'll have you out of here in a jiffy. If I thought I could do it without hurting you real bad, I'd lift that damn piece of junk car off you with my two bare hands."

"Starsk...."

Starsky dropped back to his knees and smoothed Hutch's hair, trying to avoid the blood-caked laceration and bruising on the high forehead. "That's my name. Wear it out."

~*~*~

"Oh, my God."

Roy had rarely heard the sound of panic in his partner's voice. Stepping carefully over a shaky rock outcropping with thick brambles on all sides, he planted his feet for stability and whipped around for a look at Johnny. "What?"

Johnny ignored the bulky weight of the Biophone case and drug box swinging by thin handles gripped to the point of blanching the skin on the tops of his hands and knuckles. He slipped and scuffed his way to the top of a shifting rock and dirt mound for a better view, craning his neck to peer down the hillside. "Is that a Ford? A light brown Ford?"

They had reached the first line of sight. Roy looked closer at the overturned car, still a football field's distance as the crow flew. His initial thought had nothing to do with make, model, or color of the vehicle. Twisting for a look back at the high mountain road and the point of exit, then down to the totaled car with twigs and limbs caught in the undercarriage, he feared that LA County had called them to a DOS. He couldn't let himself even linger on the words "dead on scene," when he had a good idea that Johnny desperately needed him to say that, no, the vehicle in question looked like an orange pick-up. But he had never lied to his partner and didn't intend to start now. "Could be a Ford," Roy said. "But I can't say for certain."

To Roy's astonishment, Johnny started to descend the hillside with no safety line in place. Hastily dumping the remainder of their equipment, including the heavy portable oxygen tank in its pale blue case, Roy grabbed for his partner's arm and saved him from a nasty slip. "Johnny! Are you nuts? We rappel from here with lines!"

Behind them, topside, the engine arrived with a wail and crunch on the dirt overlook spot. Johnny turned wild-eyed fear on Roy. "You don't understand. That's Ken down there!"

"You have no way to know that for sure." Ken. So that was his name. The only man Johnny had ever dared brag about to the whole station, if under the guise of a girl; the one man Johnny had worried over to the point of worrying Roy. "Even if it is, we're all he's got right now. What good would you be to him if you take a header down that cliff side? By the book, partner. You know just as well as I do, that's the only way to handle a rescue that's personal."

Johnny nodded and set down the drug box and Biophone. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted up to the roadside. "Cap'n! Throw us down two lines and safety belts? And we'll need you to send down our equipment here and a cervical collar and backboard in the Stokes."

"Will do, Johnny!" Stanley shouted back. 

With Johnny's attention riveted on the overturned car, Roy had to watch for the lines and safety belts to snake their way down the cliff, courtesy of Chet and Marco who would be securing the lines to the engine. Thrusting a belt and rope at his partner, Roy hurried into his own safety harness. "Okay, now take it easy going down."

Roy had deluded himself that the safety rope and belt would keep Johnny in line. Johnny rappelled at a breakneck pace, working the rope furiously through his gloved hands, and only the protective covering kept his hands from sacrificing flesh. He seemed to be finding all the switchbacks in the terrain and undergrowth and nearly fell two or three times in spite of the rope designed to prevent a tumble. Roy shot a look skyward in exasperation with his partner, whose reckless descent could result in a broken leg, or worse, in addition to the injuries that awaited them at the vehicle.

A disheveled man in scruffy jeans and wrinkled turtleneck stood up from behind the car to wave them over, practically doing jumping jacks in his excitement. Rushing around the car, Johnny ditched his belt and line, throwing his gloves to the ground, and dropped to his knees beside a blond man who had a shocky look that turned Roy's stomach. He had figured this for one of their heavier rescues, but the impact felt greater now that he knew the real reason Johnny's no-show hadn't called to apologize for missing their date. Making eye contact with Johnny while shedding his own gloves and harness, Roy raised his eyebrows in a silent question, wanting confirmation that this was indeed the special man in Johnny's life. Johnny gave him a fearful little nod that said everything.

Roy knelt on the other side of the victim and touched his shoulder to see if he could rouse him. Bloodshot, weary blue eyes blinked at him. "Hey, I'm Roy DeSoto, and this is my partner, Johnny Gage. We're here to get you out of this little fix. What's your name?"

Both Johnny and the victim's friend were visibly hanging on the man's answer as if it might be earth-shattering news. "Hutchinson," the patient said weakly. "Ken. No. Hutch. H-Hutch." He rolled his head slowly to look at his companion. "This...worried guy here...is Star-Starsky."

"Do you know where you are?"

"Canyon...six miles...out...in the county...been here...forever."

"What happened?" Johnny asked Starsky in a voice Roy had never heard him use. He'd heard Johnny sad, angry, frustrated, dejected, disappointed, but nothing like this, as if Johnny's world had stopped but he kept spinning with the whole weight of the planet's gravity now on his own shoulders. 

"His leg is pinned, and he keeps talking about the pressure." Though sound in body, Starsky looked closer to shock than the accident victim, and he had the same world-stopped-helpless-spinning hollowness in his voice. Roy wanted to tell him to sit down and put his head between his knees, but had the feeling he would take a post-traumatic uppercut to the jaw if he dared make the suggestion. "His car went off the road up there." Starsky pointed, with tremors in his arm visible through the turtleneck sleeve. "Must've rolled...I dunno how many times. Christ."

Johnny couldn't take his eyes off their patient. "But how--was he...."

Anger broke through in splotches of red on Starsky's gray-faced mask of shock. "What's it matter how it happened? You're here to make sure he walks away from it. Or, not walk, yet, maybe, but--oh, God, Hutch. What are you guys waiting for, huh? We need to get that pressure off his leg!"

"Any background information we can get might help us give better care," Roy told him. "As for the car, we're waiting for our engine company to get down here so we can extricate properly and not do more damage than good. I think most of the pressure might be on the fleshy part of his hip and thigh. Looks like there's some space beneath the dented roof here, so I don't think the weight of the car is on his leg all the way down, but he's caught somewhere under there. Probably just his jeans snagged, but we don't have clear sight to be sure we wouldn't be ripping into his leg."

"Right, sorry. Same reason I didn't try to lift it." Starsky nodded and even tried to smile. "Thought you guys would never get here."

"Sorry," the injured man said, too, but his bloodshot eyes focused on Johnny.

"Hey, partner, you got nothing to be sorry for," Starsky reassured him, going down in a quick squat to squeeze his shoulder before looking up at Roy. "We're detectives with LAPD Metro. Near as I can figure, my partner was the victim of an ordered hit. Hired professional. Rammed him, broadsided him off the road, and left him for dead. He's been out here for--"


SurvivalInterior

Interior Art by Lorraine Brevig

 

"Oh, God," Johnny muttered again. "Two nights."

"What'd you say?" Starsky asked sharply.

"How many nights?" Johnny recovered, and Roy could tell he was trying to keep his voice steady and confident. "Temps dip down here at night, and this time of year, we're looking at significant exposure."

"Two nights. What's taking the engine crew so long?"

"Look, Detective Starsky, it takes time to get equipment down that cliff side. Now, just sit down, try to relax, and let us handle this, okay?"

Starsky didn't sit down per Roy's order, but he backed off a foot or so. Physically, at least. Emotionally, he crowded in close, his expression tense and worried. He looked exhausted, his clothes slept in and soiled by more than one day's use, and by his general appearance no one could tell he hadn't spent the same two nights in a canyon with no food, water, or peaceful rest. Roy hoped they could get through this rescue without two patients to treat.

"What've we got?" Captain Stanley arrived on the scene followed by Marco and Chet, who balanced the heavily laden Stokes stretcher between them. Johnny grabbed the Biophone out of the Stokes "basket."

"I think we're past the threat of spark explosion," Roy said, beckoning for Chet to hand him the backboard and assist with sliding it under Hutchinson while Johnny worked around them, examining the forehead bruising and assessing for possible chest or abdominal injury. "His leg is pinned under the door frame. We'll need the Porto-Power."

Stanley looked up at the cliff. "Terrain's fairly gentle in places, but with the kind of injuries he might have, getting him topside would age us all a few years." He raised LA County through the crackle of static on his handy-talkie. "LA, Engine 51. Request Snorkel company at our location."

"Engine 51, LA. We will dispatch assistance."

Stanley clicked his HT relay button again. "Mike, I need you down here with the Porto-Power."

"Ten-four," came Mike's disjointed response. "Cap? LA just called Truck 43 to our location."

When Roy lifted the cervical collar from the Stokes, Starsky muttered explicit remarks of self-blame. "What?" Roy asked without looking away from his careful application of the protective device around the patient's neck.

"I lifted his head," Starsky answered. "When I first found him. Didn't think."

"Don't worry," Roy reassured him. "This is standard procedure. I don't see any signs that we're dealing with a cervical injury here, but we have to cover the bases." Finished with the collar, he reached for the blood pressure cuff and stethoscope to begin taking vitals.

"I just hope that cliff isn't high enough to prevent transmission to Rampart. We'd waste a lot of time going topside to relay." Johnny concentrated harder than ever before on connecting the silver Biophone antenna. "Rampart, this is Squad 51. How do you read?"

"Squad 51, Rampart Emergency, we're reading you loud and clear." Dixie McCall's voice transmitted free of static, and Johnny shot a grateful look at the open canyon beyond the car.

"Rampart, we have a male, thirty-one years of age, victim of a rollover MVA and over thirty-six hours' exposure in a canyon. We've applied cervical collar and backboard. Stand by for vitals."

"Ten-four, 51. Standing by."

Roy looked up sharply at the exact age, and saw that the detective had turned narrowed eyes on Johnny. "How do you know his age?" Starsky asked, tone menacing.

"Respirations 28 and shallow, Johnny. BP 90/60. Pulse 90 and thready. Pupils equal and reactive." To Starsky he said, "Most of us have to estimate ages, but Johnny's so good at it, he should set up one of those carnival age-guessing stands. Now, please, sit down before you fall down? We need to give full attention to your partner, and we can't do that if you pass out on us."

"I won't pass out," Starsky said firmly, but he sat down and clasped his hands in front of his knees, watching Johnny as a hawk might fixate on prey while the vitals were relayed to Rampart.

A masculine voice replaced their favorite nurse's, "Squad 51, this is Dr. Brackett. What is the victim's overall condition?"

"Shocky, Rampart." Johnny hid his eyes behind his hand, but the pen that he'd used to jot down the vitals wobbled in his unsteady grasp. "Looks dehydrated. Skin is cooler than normal to touch. He does have a laceration and bruising on the forehead, but no hematoma. We've dressed the laceration. He responds to stimuli on his arms and his right leg, and there's no acute chest wall or abdominal tenderness."

"What's his mental status, 51?"

"Rampart, he has a lowered level of consciousness, but he does know his name and where he is."

"All right, 51. Start an IV with lactated Ringers, TKO. Let's get him here as soon as possible."

"Ten-four, Rampart," Johnny acknowledged, still taking refuge behind his hand. "IV lactated Ringers. Uh, Rampart, we've got an extrication situation. His left leg is pinned under his vehicle."

"I'll stand by, 51."

With Johnny busy gathering the necessary IV supplies from the drug box, Roy watched the other firemen huddle to discuss the best placement of the portable hydraulic device for extrication. IV bag in hand, Johnny inched closer to their patient, appearing to Roy's concerned eyes somewhat steadier and steeled to face the man in quiet agony. When Johnny reached for the right arm, pushing up the green plaid sleeve to swab the skin with alcohol, Hutchinson opened his eyes and struggled to focus. "Little... more...than a scraped knee," he whispered, coughing after the few words. "You...up...to it?"

The pain tightening Johnny's brow made Roy want to tell him to sit this one out, for his own sake, but this was not a one-man rescue. Johnny offered one of his comfort-the-patient smiles. "Listen to the trooper here. Trying to be a comedian. We can take what you dish out, Detective, but that doesn't mean you need to go and make this any more difficult just to test us."

"Wearing...plaid," Hutchinson said.

Scratch coherency off the list, Roy thought, but he saw that the remark meant something to Johnny, who ducked his head to concentrate on the tourniquet. "You need to rest that voice, okay?" Johnny found a vein in the right forearm that satisfied him, and positioned the needle. "Little stick here."

Hutchinson squeezed his eyes shut. "Fucking needle."

Roy felt a rush of wind beside him and wondered if the other detective had sprouted wings. On his knees at Hutchinson's side, Starsky began to squeeze his partner's left shoulder and rub his midsection at the same time. Having seen needle-fear in both adults and children, Roy still had a hard time fathoming a guy tough enough to survive what Hutchinson had endured with a firm grip on sanity only to fall apart at a tiny IV needle stick. Again, Johnny apparently knew something Roy didn't, because he drew the needle back before it even touched the skin, his expression one of dismay, the guilt Johnny occasionally showed when he had to inadvertently cause a patient pain to do them clinical good. "I'm sorry," Johnny told Hutchinson. "I'm really, I'm sorry. I have to, okay? I have to. I'll get it in one stick, though, I promise. One stick!" He glanced at Roy. "Guess we can't butterfly it, can we? He needs volume, and the best way is the flexible cannula."

"Right. He's got to be near bone dry."

"One stick," Johnny told Hutchinson again, and he lived up to his promise, remarkably cool and professional under Starsky's penetrating stare. He lifted the IV bag and nodded at Starsky. "You could hold this for us while we prep him for transport."

Roy noticed that Hutchinson was threatening to bite his lower lip in two. "Hurting pretty bad?"

Hutchinson tried to shake his head, but the lower lip biting continued. Dutifully holding the IV bag aloft, Starsky gently nudged the man's shoulder with the toe of his sneaker until Hutchinson lifted his eyes to him. "All this time I thought your name was Hutch and come to find out, it's Hercules?"

Hutchinson managed a quick smile but went back to biting his lip. Operated by Chet, the Porto-Power began its hydraulic action, and Hutchinson's silent stoicism gave way to bone-chilling groans as full circulation flow returned to the extremity, feeding the nerve system and its registry of pain. Roy could see Johnny's professional veneer cracking in a clear desire to run back up the hillside and escape the sound before it shattered him, but Johnny stroked Hutchinson's bare forearm, murmuring well-meant platitudes he used to ease pediatric patients. The groans only intensified. Either the dose of soothing murmurs wasn't adult-strength, or Hutchinson required more pain relief than verbal reassurance.

"Here!" Starsky thrust the IV bag at Johnny without waiting for agreement, and knelt, leaning over Hutchinson with an amazingly gentle but iron grip on both of his shoulders. "Look at me, Hutch. Look at me. Just me."

Hutchinson blinked until his eyes cooperated and focused on Starsky's face. "Starsk."

"That's my name. Go right ahead and wear it out. We'll come up with a new one if we have to, you and me." Starsky's laughter sounded forced, but it brought a smile to Hutchinson's cracked lips, and a tinge of blood to the surface. Johnny handed off the IV bag to Marco and switched places with Roy to cut away the ripped denim pants leg and assess the injuries for a report to Rampart. Hutchinson hissed with pain and tried to look around Starsky's imposing form at the goings-on, but Starsky blocked his view, shifting to the left or right as necessary. "Nuh-uh. Don't look away," he scolded his partner. "Look at me." When Hutchinson groaned again, Starsky tightened the grip on his shoulders. "Hey, you forget my name already?"

"Starsk." Hutchinson inhaled harshly, coughed, and whispered, "Starsk."

"Rampart, Squad 51," Johnny relayed, his voice lighter for the first time since reaching the canyon, and Roy understood. The space between the semi-soft dirt and the car's roof had meant the difference between a fractured leg and crushed leg.

"Squad 51," Brackett responded. "Is the victim free of the car?"

"Affirmative, Rampart. He has a large contusion over his left dorsal upper thigh and the lower extremity is fractured, but there's no compound fracture or evidence of internal bleeding. There is edema, and a laceration on the mid-calf."

"Ten-four, 51. Splint and immobilize the leg, and transport immediately."

"Ten-four, Rampart." Johnny re-cradled the Biophone receiver and tapped Starsky's shoulder. "Sorry, but you'll have to move for a minute. We need to splint that leg, and it won't be easy for him."

"Tell me how to make it easier," Starsky demanded.

"Just being here seems to be doing the trick." Johnny ventured a smile at him.

Starsky returned the smile, a quick flash of teeth that served as well as a handshake. He helped himself to a loose twining of fingers with Hutchinson's hand, and the smile broadened in Hutchinson's direction. "Okay, partner, how about a trade? You give me my jacket back and you get to keep my hand. Squeeze hard as you need."

"Gun hand," Hutchinson whispered, shaking his head.

"Aw, hell, I got another one, or I can learn to fire a lousy gun with my toes."

"You need your...toes for dancing, Astaire," Hutchinson said with a half-chuckle, half-cough.

"Maybe I'll learn to dance on my hands, start a new disco craze. You give me a real knuckle-bruiser if you need, Hutch, hear me?"

"You...can't...start that craze, Starsk."

"Why not?"

"You've got two left hands."

Chet had almost worshipful awe on his face. "You guys are something. This guy here's been pinned under his car for, what, couple of days, and you two got an Abbot and Costello routine going."

Marco laughed. "Tough customer, isn't he, your partner?"

Starsky's chest visibly puffed with evident pride. "One of the toughest under the sun."

The splint work and the transfer into the Stokes taxed both paramedics and their patient, and pushed Detective Starsky one step closer to an all-out nervous breakdown. Roy glanced at Johnny and gave a sideways nod at the drug box. "He could use some pain relief. There isn't a significant head injury to worry about. Maybe low-dose morphine, if we could get Brackett to go for it?"

"No!" Johnny and Starsky said in unison, their shared look afterward a sky-to-ground lightning strike. Johnny shook off the stare and scratched nervously at his eyebrow. "You know Brackett doesn't like to dole out pain meds until he assesses the patient in person. And this guy's not exactly with it enough to tell us about any allergies."

Usually the first to push Brackett for anything to ease a patient's suffering, Johnny's equivocation in this case stunned Roy, but he did have a point about drug allergies. Roy addressed the concern with Starsky, "Your partner allergic to any medications that you know of?"

"He doesn't like pain meds." Starsky's gaze never left Johnny. "He'd rather do without them."

Roy lifted his shoulders in a shrug of surrender. "Okay, then."

Truck 43 had arrived some time ago, the mechanical grinding of the Snorkel's ladder and glorified cherry-picker basket now alerting the rescuers to its movement out from the cliff and down to a suitable elevation for loading Hutchinson's Stokes. The 51 engine crew remaining behind for rescue site clean-up, Roy and Johnny handled the transport over to the Snorkel carriage. Even the short and level transport proved a shade harrowing with Hutchinson's pain and unstable fractures to consider. By the end, Johnny had sweated more profusely through his undershirt and uniform than he did in a prolonged fire rescue. Fortunately for them all, Hutchinson had closed his eyes and drifted into an exhausted sleep. With Starsky glued to Hutchinson's hand, Roy knew there wasn't room for all of them to ride topside in the Snorkel. He latched the gate behind Johnny and handed him the Biophone. "I'll meet you up there in a minute." Johnny nodded and gestured for the Snorkel crewman to begin the ascent.

Roy reached the top of the cliff and unhooked his safety line just as the ambulance attendants took charge of loading Hutchinson onto the gurney for transport, and Starsky let go of his partner's hand. Roy had no chance to intervene before the detective seized Johnny's arm and pulled him around from following the gurney to the waiting ambulance carriage.

"You tell me right now how you know what you know!" Starsky snarled at Johnny.

Johnny's eyes widened with surprise and irritation, and Roy was grateful their station mates remained below. "I--what--I--What're you talking about?"

"Don't give me that!" Starsky snapped at him. "You know things Hutch's mother doesn't know about him, and I wanna know how!"

Roy tried to pull Starsky's hand free. "Look, we know you're upset, but this isn't the time to lose your cool--"

Starsky turned a violent glare on him. "Damn right I'm upset! My partner was down in that canyon because someone knew how to get to him, knew how to set him up, more knowledge than I'd give the guy who put out the contract credit for knowing. So, if I sound suspicious, I got reason!"

"You don't have reason to be suspicious of us," Roy argued on his partner's behalf. Johnny was straining his jaw in the effort not to let loose on Hutchinson's friend. "We're LA County firemen-paramedics, and we go where the County sends us."

Starsky eyed Johnny, who unclenched his jaw and spoke tightly, "Look, man, all I know for sure is your partner's in shock, and he has a couple of fractures in his leg that need medical care for him to walk right again. Can we play cops and robbers later, maybe?"

Backing off, Starsky shrugged his dirt-soiled jacket back into a better fit and curtly nodded. At the ambulance, Roy climbed aboard with the gurney, but he paused in the doorway when Starsky started to climb up behind him. "No room, Detective. My partner and I need the space to give transport care. But you can follow us. We're transporting to Rampart General."

"I'm going in that ambulance," Starsky said, "if I have to cling to the inside roof by my fingers and toes. I promised him I wouldn't be out of his sight. He's been pinned in that canyon for the better part of three days."

Johnny looked longingly at the ambulance's cabin. "Roy, you think you can handle the transport?" He came closer to the cabin and whispered, "He's his pain relief, Roy. I'll be damned if I deny Ken that. And Starsky'll be less nervous with you in there than with me. I'll drive the squad."

"Come on, Detective," Roy said, leaning out of the ambulance to watch Johnny's lingering backward glance on the way to the squad.

He had never been so proud of his partner.

~*~*~

Starsky decided Rampart General's ambulance bay had to be the most beautiful place on earth in his gratitude to have Hutch within reach of advanced medical care. The paramedic from the rescue squad met them at the ambulance, and Starsky had to fight the weird, yowling tomcat sensation yet again when the man patted Hutch's shoulder as the ambulance attendant and the other fireman pushed the gurney through the double doors into the ER. Starsky had kept Hutch's hand in his from canyon to ambulance to hospital, and he had no plans of releasing him until someone pried him loose, and that someone had better have the Omaha Tiger's size and Hutch's gumption to match.

That someone turned out to be an emergency physician who didn't need the Omaha Tiger's size to be intimidating, and whose air of authority went beyond the white lab coat over his crisp beige dress shirt and gold tie. Following the gurney into the yellow-tiled examination room, the doctor went to work immediately, aiding the two paramedics in transferring Hutch to the examination bed, Starsky moving with the transfer to keep his grip on Hutch's hand without causing his partner pain or hindering the transfer. "Roy," the doctor said. "Would you make sure Dixie and Joe are on their way?"

"Sure thing, Dr. Brackett." The door swung open to admit a nurse whose expression was all efficiency and know-how, and an older, kindly-faced doctor. Roy said, "No need for a search party."

"You'll have to wait outside now," Brackett told Starsky. "I'll come out to speak to you as soon as I can."

"I'm staying." Starsky had faced down doctors before. Break through their need to impose their will, show them no fear, no undue respect, let them know they put their pants on the same way as everyone else, and they always relented.

This physician, however, gave no sign of relenting. Clearly the top dog in his pound, he tried to pull Starsky's hand from its hold on Hutch's. "I don't have time to debate this issue with you, Mr.--"

"Not mister. It's Detective. Starsky. This is my partner, Detective Hutchinson."

"Uh, Doc?"

Brackett looked away from Starsky. "Yes, Johnny?"

Johnny gestured toward the door. "A word?"

Brackett joined the paramedics in the open doorway, the swinging door propped by the sturdier fireman. Starsky couldn't hear their low-voiced discussion, but something Johnny said registered, because the doctor came back to the examination table with a change of heart. "If I allow you to stay in the room, you need to stand away from the table. We can't perform a proper examination if we can't access him from all sides. Do we have an agreement?"

Starsky backed away from Hutch's side, leaving space for either doctor or nurse to squeeze in and perform the necessary examination. Brackett addressed the waiting firemen, "Thanks, Roy, Johnny. We'll take it from here."

Johnny lingered, watching the sleeping Hutch who had not roused from his slumber through all the bumps in the road en route, or the painful transfer from gurney to table. Roy squeezed his shoulder. "Johnny. Come on. We need to make ourselves available for calls."

With a headshake that Starsky recognized as resignation in the face of the unchangeable, Johnny followed his partner into the corridor, and the door swung shut behind them.

~*~*~

Brackett left the examination room where his uncontrolled hypertension patient had stabilized on intravenous beta blocker, and headed for the nurses station to get a much needed cup of coffee. He found Roy and Johnny still there from their most recent transport, a motorcycle accident victim with a head injury and nasty displaced humeral fracture. 

Now in the middle of restocking their black drug box with supplies, Johnny swiveled from the supply drawers when Brackett reached the coffee pot. "Late night, Doc? How's, uh, how's that police detective we brought in this morning?"

Brackett studied him. He had always known Johnny to be concerned and compassionate in equal measure to his partner, and he was accustomed to Roy and Johnny following up their rescues, but the sharp-voiced question and breath-holding wait for details strayed from the norm. "The case really got to you, Johnny?"

Roy looked up from counting bags of saline. "You know how it is, Doc. Some rescues are tougher to shake than others."

Brackett smiled, but he had to look away from Johnny's piercing eyes. He knew the truth of that remark more than the firemen could imagine. He had yet to shake the memories of the times Johnny had come into Rampart with line-of-duty injuries. But that was a cross he'd learned to carry in silence, and the least he could do was lift the one from Johnny's shoulders now. "He's doing well. We were able to spare him an ICU admission. We've cleared him of serious internal injury or bowel obstruction. He has nasty contusions and scrapes, as you know, and we're empirically treating him with IV antibiotics against sepsis, but his kidneys are functioning remarkably well, his lungs are clear, and the hydration is perking him up. He'll be transferred to Memorial after we stabilize him overnight, so their Orthopedic Trauma surgical team can get a crack at that leg."

"They can't handle that here?" Johnny asked, frowning.

"Not a case of this complexity, I'm afraid. If that detective wants any chance at returning to full-duty police work, he'll need significant orthopedic repair. He can get that at Memorial far better than here."

Johnny fidgeted with his handy-talkie strap. "Can we see him?"

"Visiting hours were over long ago, but I can make an exception for hardworking paramedics," Brackett said with a soft smile. "After his isolation in that canyon, Detective Hutchinson has to be eager for the presence of human beings. In lieu of family, we're allowing his partner to stay with him. Med/Surg, Johnny. I can't recall the room number right now, but his name will be outside the door."

"Coming, Roy?" Couched in a light, breezy tone, the invitation didn't match the anticipation in Johnny's eyes or his transparent expectation of Roy's answer in the negative.

Roy glanced at Brackett. "You go on, Johnny. I'll finish up here. We probably have only a few minutes before they're calling us back out."

"So, I'm the designated visitor this time?" Johnny plucked one of the saline bags out of Roy's pile and dropped it into the drug box before his partner could reach it. Roy gave him a slight shove between his shoulder blades. "All right, I'm going, I'm going."

This was a game Brackett knew too well. Downplaying attachment. Empty inclusions to hide the need for one-on-one interaction. Just a few of the mechanisms that made the walls of a closet move torturously inward over time like the booby-trapped temple room in a cliché adventure film. Seeing Johnny take up the survival sport hurt Brackett far deeper than surface jealousy could touch. He sought detachment in professionalism, his one haven. "If he's asleep, Johnny, don't wake him. The one thing he needs now more than IV fluids and antibiotics is curative rest."

"Ten-four, Doc." Clutching his handy-talkie, Johnny hurried down the hall to the elevator.

~*~*~

Hutch heard a soft knock on his door and started to play possum. Starsky would exercise his right to walk in without bothering to knock, and Hutch was in no mood for a well-meaning nurse wanting to fluff his pillow. His lust for the arms of civilization did not extend to IVs or nurses measuring urine output in his catheter's leg bag. After eight hours of hospitalization, he wanted to form a sheet-rope and escape out the window, but his bum leg precluded that plan. At the second knock, he reluctantly croaked, "Come in," and then lifted his hand to his sore throat, hoping the external warmth of his palm would soothe the ache.

A different but not unwelcome dark head peeked into the room. Johnny rushed inside, shutting the door with force to insure its closure. "I was prepared to make my acting debut, coming in here like the concerned paramedic following up on a rescue. Where's your partner? I thought he'd be glued to your IV stand or something."

Hutch pretended to scowl. "He abandoned me, the no-good bastard."

Johnny burst out laughing.

Hutch smiled. "I can see you learned enough about him this afternoon to know that's a load of bull. No, Captain Dobey gave him long enough to see me squared away, and then called him in to lock down the case on the guy who ordered the hit on me."

"There's a chance the case isn't locked down?"

"Just some I's that need dotting and T's crossed. But timeliness counts in things like this, and the slime we're talking about is particularly slippery. Starsky'll cross those T's in world record time."

"I only have a few minutes. We're on a transport and re-stocking supplies for the night."

"It's good to see you. I wanted to thank you for all you did this morning. You and your partner, both. Again, thank you seems inadequate, but--" Hutch put his hand back to his throat, and Johnny came closer to the bedside.

"Don't try to talk if it's too painful. How you doing?" Johnny smacked his forehead with the heel of his palm. "Boy, I'm a bright one. Just told you to save your voice, then turn around and ask you a question."

Hutch took a moment to relish the sight of Johnny in uniform. The outfit suited his slender physique, from the crisp blue short-sleeved shirt with its silver badge and yellow County of Los Angeles paramedic shoulder patch, to the blackish-navy pants that emphasized his long legs. Hutch tried out a grin, hoping his chapped lips would cooperate. "I'm all right other than a beat-up leg and a sore throat from yelling for help. Right now I'm realizing I have a thing for the LA County Fire Department uniform."

"You could've picked an easier way to find that out." Johnny walked around to the right side of the bed and sat down on the edge at Hutch's thigh level, well away from his immobilized left leg.

His raw throat didn't allow for laughter, so Hutch nodded to show he got the joke. "I'm not known for doing things the easy way." He reached out to draw a fingertip caress from Johnny's shoulder to elbow. "You make one sexy fireman."

"Why, thank you. You make one sexy patient."

Hutch felt a sinking sensation. Years of interrogating suspects had taught him to recognize even the briefest hesitancy in the human voice. Surely Johnny wasn't hung up on the medical professional and patient boundary. Unless... "I know I was next door to the Land of Oz out there this morning. Did I say something I shouldn't have?"

Johnny's smile had a nervous unsteadiness. "Nah. You were okay. I was the one who had to be careful. You, uh, you really put me to the test."

"You get an A, Fireman Gage. And if hospital breath isn't a turn off, I could use more than a pat on the chest."

His fireman looked surprised. "I think someone got some pain medication he could live with."

"That British import wonder drug, Ibuprofen, maximum dose." Hutch tried to move his lips into a seductive smirk. "But I don't need pain killers to want a kiss from you right now."

Johnny gave him a tender-sweet smile. Hutch cautiously leaned forward from his propped position and Johnny met him halfway. Their lips touched, and Hutch felt Johnny's fingertips brush his cheek, but the kiss stayed light until Hutch parted his lips and insisted on having Johnny in his mouth.  He knew he had to let go, that Starsky could walk through the door any minute, but the room had turned so cold on Starsky's departure and here to fill the void was human caring and warmth from a person Hutch found so easy to like. He accepted the warmth until his chest ached and his throat protested to the point that Johnny picked up on the discomfort.

"Sorry."

"Don't you dare be sorry," Hutch said harshly. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." Johnny looked startled, and compounded the denial by patting Hutch's chest again. "Rest that throat now before you lose your voice. Your partner might think Rampart's not up to the job."

"Don't talk to me like a paramedic to a patient."

"How should I talk to you, Ken?"

"Man to man, for starters."

Johnny took Hutch's IV hand in his and stroked each finger. "Seeing you in that shape this morning, knowing what had happened to you, the way it made me feel...."

"Don't," Hutch interrupted, to dam the flow of familiar words.

"Don't what?"

"I've had more than a few women walk away because of what I do. I can't blame them, especially the last one. But I won't accept it from you."

"I'm not walking away," Johnny said, continuing to stroke Hutch's fingers. "I'm saying I can't keep thinking of you as just an itch I need to scratch."

Hutch turned Johnny's hand over in their grasp and took a turn stroking his hand. "You know it's more than that for both of us. If I didn't want you in my life, Johnny, I wouldn't be concerned you were trying to bow out."

"Then we're even." Johnny smiled again, and Hutch relaxed. "I just didn't want to get too heavy on you, when heavy wasn't what we'd had in mind." He looked at Hutch's injured leg, but personal concern weighted his expression, not clinical curiosity. "Heard they're transferring you to Memorial tomorrow."

"Yeah. Surgery's already scheduled, but Dr. Brackett says it's dependent on some of this swelling in my leg going down. He thinks I'll be ready, though, and he said it's important they get in there as quickly as possible to fixate the fractures."

"I'd like to drop by and see you there."

Hutch sat forward again to slide his hand into Johnny's hair, so soft and fine against his fingers that the strands slipped easily through his grasp. "It's better if you don't, Johnny. Starsky will be hovering close from admission to discharge. It's what we do after something like this. I couldn't stop him if I wanted, and I don't want to. It's part of who we are, what keeps us alive on the streets, and my life wouldn't be my life without it. I wouldn't be me without it. Besides, his protective instincts are at fever pitch right now, and I don't want you on the wrong side of that."

Johnny laughed. "Already been there, a little."

"What?"

"You were too out of it at the scene to notice, but your partner made it pretty clear he'd be happy to cuff Roy and me to your wrecked car and leave us there if we so much as breathed on you wrong."

"Does that bother you?"

"No. I'm as capable of jealousy as the next guy, but I get the partner thing. I've worked with Roy for years, and when you go into a burning building with a guy, you learn real fast if you can trust him, if he's solid, and once you know, you can't go back to the days before you knew him. When I'm in all that heat and smoke, the only thing keeping me breathing is my oxygen mask, and I've got less than four minutes if it plays out. But I know exactly where Roy is, and that he'll get me out if I go down, and vice versa. On some of our rescues that aren't even fire-related, we get into hair-raising situations I wouldn't wanna be in with anyone but Roy, and I hate when he's on vacation and I have to work with a replacement."

"God, you do understand. The whole time I was lying in that canyon, I knew Starsky would find me. I knew he was out there tearing the city apart looking for me." Hutch thumbed through the bangs over Johnny's forehead. "I thought about him almost constantly to keep that hope alive in my mind, and that kept me alive, I think."

"I wish I could've come to your rescue," Johnny said with a chuckle. "Before LA County called us in, I mean. By the time I got through being disappointed and huffy that you'd stood me up after all, and started getting worried, the station alarm was going off."

"I don't expect you to be like Starsky, Johnny. I don't want you to be."

"Good to know, 'cause I can't be," Johnny said. "For guys in our line of work, a good partnership can't be duplicated off the job. You can't be what Roy is to me; I can't be what Starsky is to you. Heck, much as Roy loves Joanne, and man, that's one guy who's crazy in love with his wife, she can't be what I am to him. 'Course, I can't be what she is to him, either, and I damn sure don't look like she does in a bikini, so I guess it kind of balances out."

Hutch managed a hoarse chuckle. "I thought about you in that canyon, too. About that last time we got together, out in the ranchland. Wondered if I'd been too rough."

"I can take it a little hard and not break. What made you think about that anyway?"

"When you're stuck out in the middle of nowhere like I was, all life's regrets come calling, from the biggies on down to the trivial and in between. I thought about how I could've made it up to you that night after dinner at my place."

"How?" Johnny asked, husky-voiced.

"Slow, sweet fucking, all night long."

Flushed and open-mouthed, Johnny jerked when the handy-talkie beeped and crackled at his side, and Hutch tried to pull his hand free, but strands of Johnny's hair had affixed themselves to the adhesive tape securing the IV site. Yelping, Johnny had to respond to the call while working furiously with his other hand to free his hair.

"Squad 51, stand by for response," the dispatcher said. "Squad 51, ten-four," Johnny responded, finally detached from the bandage tape. He rose from the bed. "Sorry, got to go. That means they're calling us out."

"I know. Be careful out there, Johnny."

"Count on it." Johnny didn't wait to be asked for a kiss this time, their meeting of mouths exciting and edgy, with a little tongue nipping. "Give me a rain check on that slow, sweet fucking?"

The expletive sounded foreign in Johnny's voice, but the erotic intent made Hutch shiver with delight. "Sure. Before I'm out of a cast, even, if I can figure out how."

At the door, Johnny turned with a farewell smile, and Hutch said, "Johnny, I'll try to call you from Memorial, let you know how things are going."

"Good deal."

~*~*~

Keeping his pace to a borderline acceptable stride-run in Rampart's Med/Surg unit, Starsky rounded the corner onto the west wing and made it past the nurses station without a scolding only to collide with a speeding fireman. Even if the man had come from the opposite direction of Hutch's room, Starsky would still have known with his detective's hunch-certainty that Hutch had just had a visitor. They pushed apart, and the fireman began his apology but then swallowed the words upon looking into Starsky's face. Starsky had learned his first year out of uniform that honest faces were a bane to undercover cops. He and Hutch had used poker, role playing, and any number of tricks to chisel the honesty from their faces to survive cover ops, but this paramedic's expression showed guilty knowledge as only an untamed honest face can, and Starsky instinctively blocked his way when he would have hurried past.

"What're you doing up here?"

"Looking in on your partner," John Gage said. "Roy and I are here on a call, and we like to follow up on some of our rescues. Got to run, actually, we're being called back out." He waved the handy-talkie.

Harmless explanation, though it didn't jibe with the flicker of guilt in Gage's eyes or his uncanny guesswork at the rescue site, but Starsky knew when to take the high road. He held out his hand. "Thanks for all you did this morning for Hutch. Dr. Brackett said you guys did a bang-up job on him in the field."

"You're welcome. We're just glad he's doing so well." Gage smiled and shook his hand. "Speaking of partners, mine's downstairs, and we have a patient out there somewhere waiting on us."

The friction in their clasped hands reminded Starsky of a match scrape on flint, the sensation he only felt in the presence of someone he needed to know better for reasons that had nothing to do with himself and everything to do with Hutch. But he let Johnny pull free and hurry down the hall.

Inside Hutch's room, Starsky sensed no trespass. He caught no whiff of danger. No immediate threat balled his fists or clenched his jaw. Hutch turned his head and shone a smile on him that soothed the friction still tickling Starsky's hand. Then the smile changed to a harsh sigh as Hutch stretched in bed, and Starsky realized his partner had been carefully hiding the depth of his pain from his visitor as he did with other outsiders. Under Starsky's watchful eye, Hutch let the honest need and suffering flood back into his brave face. 

That honesty the fuel of Starsky's life, he hurried to the bedside and sat down at Hutch's waist level. Hand brushing all the wayward clumps of blond bed hair into respectable order, he said nothing, just watched his partner's struggle, letting Hutch feel the strength of his support. The pain and tension turning Hutch's eyes to cold darkness began to recede, and Starsky maintained eye contact until he saw clear blue again. Hutch lifted his IV hand to Starsky's hair, tugging, opening his fingers through a handful, mesmerized by something Starsky couldn't see.

"Doesn't slip right through," Hutch said.

"Hm? What doesn't?"

"Nothing." Hutch dropped his hand.

"You have any visitors while I was gone?" Starsky asked.

He got a yawn, then a nod, and Hutch relaxed back against the bed. "One of the paramedics came by to check on me. Nice. Everything squared away with Dobey?"

Starsky squeezed Hutch's healthy knee. "Yeah, but he knows he's in for some big time payback for calling me in like this. Can't knock his reason, though. Between us, we've got Humphries up for such a heavy fall the whole planet'll shake when he finally lands."

Hutch grinned. "That's my partner. Poor dumb Vic, should've quit when he was only behind one thirty-year sentence."

Starsky had never met a Hutchinson grin he couldn't match. "Hey, the man's lucky he's still breathing, doin' what he did to you."

"And you can make book he knows it, too."

~*~*~

Starsky paced Memorial's surgery waiting room until his bladder demanded he pay the piper for the five cups of coffee he'd downed since Hutch's gurney had wheeled out of his sight into the preoperative staging area. When he returned, the auxiliary worker at the Family Needs desk flagged him down. He dashed over to the older woman in hopes of a conspiratorial word on his partner. These kind ladies were known to drop little hints like, "The surgeon was just in here looking for you," or "You'll be hearing something any moment now." Instead, she handed him a folded note.

"A young lady called for you, Detective, a Ms. Roberts. I took a message for you and told her to feel free to try again."

"Thanks." A message from Terry at least warranted a break from pacing. Starsky claimed a chair far away from the TV's loud soap opera distraction.

The volunteer had captured Terry's instinctually kind brevity: I called to see how my favorite guys are faring. Hang in there. I love you.

Starsky should have felt hugged by proxy, warmed and comforted. But the elderly lady's elegant handwriting jarred his memory and made space for a fragmented thought to take full shape. Starsky dug in his jacket pocket until he found another folded note he had forgotten until that very second. Holding them both up to the room's passable lighting, he saw the difference immediately. Still, he couldn't accept the conclusion. He dug in his pocket once more until he located a balled up napkin he'd used for scribbling a witness' address several weeks back. This time he squeezed his legs together for a makeshift table and spread all three samples of writing side by side.

Studying the handwriting styles with a detective's peripheral knowledge of handwriting analysis, he couldn't hide from what made one of the notes "out of place."

Garcia Lunez
2434 Riverdale Circle

 

Masculine.

 

I called to see how my favorite guys are faring. Hang in there. I love you.

 

Feminine.

 

Hey, you,

Waited until ten. Put the casserole in the fridge.
Call me, if I don't call you first.
And leave a message. My machine likes your voice. --J.

 

Masculine.

 

He pushed all the notes off his legs and let them fall where they would. Fifty thoughts competed for center stage. Different voices. Different scenes. All corroborating evidence.

"Brunet."

"Hard-working public servant, just like yours truly."

"There are other public service professions that don't include law enforcement, Starsky."

"I should be worried that my best friend is more concerned with breast size than the fact that his buddy just might have met someone warm, caring, and devoted to the welfare of others."

"...Hear me on this, Starsky; we just might not know everything there is to know about Hutch. And some things we do know, but we don't talk about 'em or think about 'em 'cause it'd make opening Pandora's Box look like digging into a pack of Crackerjacks."

"Paramedic."

"Little...more...than a scraped knee."

"Oh, God. Two nights."

"Rampart, we have a male, thirty-one years of age...."

"I'm sorry...I'm really, I'm sorry. I have to, okay? I have to. I'll get it in one stick, though, I promise. One stick!"

"You know things Hutch's mother doesn't know about him, and I wanna know how!"

"J could be anything. Julie, Jane, Jessica, Jennifer, Joanne, Jodie, Janice--"

John.

John "Johnny" Gage.

Starsky didn't have the luxury of incontrovertible proof that the evidence had come together to form a wacky coincidental picture. He'd known the possibility lurked, following them around like a shadow. From week two of their rapidly developing Academy friendship, he'd known.

On the Academy grounds, Ken Hutchinson walked, talked, and looked like any other straight-laced, straight-dicking cadet, except for his liberal world view that had come out in his staunch defense of a gay cadet who was expelled from the program, and a tendency in the showers to keep his eyes closed under the water spray or fixated on the wall in front of him. Off the grounds, in the company of the one person he trusted above all others, Hutch tried a little too hard not to look at certain members of a gender Starsky gave no consideration, flushed a little too vividly at the wrong jokes.

Starsky had watched his best friend kick the tendencies along with the Marlboros and lighter, as if all vices had to be shed simultaneously to ensure success. As tenaciously as a drunk down to one kidney and a failing liver clung to AA, Hutch emerged from the LAPD's feeder school a non-smoking, married, straight man whose eyes never strayed where Starsky's wouldn't.  

Bending over, clenching his arms around his gut, and trying to hold down his half-pot of coffee, Starsky knew he was feeling the same way that drunk's family would if handed proof that the recovering alcoholic had been spotted in an all-night binge at a dive bar. His gut roiled as it hadn't since he peeked in the Venus Massage Parlor's back room. The aftermath of Starsky's instinctual actions on that fateful discovery had ripped Hutch to shreds, but that memory didn't cool Starsky's heels. Instinct always his parachute in freefall, he pulled the release again this time. Gathering up the incriminating notes, he crossed to the room's far corner where a small table between two armchairs held magazines and the phone meant for relatives' use. Unfortunately, a woman in nail-biting distress had taken up residence in one of the armchairs. Blinded to anything but Hutch, robbed in his desperation of the compassion he would have shown under any other circumstances, Starsky brusquely asked the woman if she would find another seat.

When she stared at him like he'd pushed straight up through the floor from the Infernal Regions, he resorted to pulling his badge. "Please. I need to make a private call."

She hurriedly took her nail biting elsewhere, leaving Starsky the corner, and the phone, to himself. He dialed a number from memory and waited, bouncing one foot on his toes and trying not to claw jagged tears in the chair arm's shoddy upholstery.

"Huggy as in Bear, Barkeep Extraordinaire. Make it snappy if you please or if you don't. I'm waiting on an important call."

Starsky knew the important call Huggy meant and felt a twinge of unease. "It's Starsky."

"The important call from the man himself," Huggy returned. "And, man, am I glad. Phone's been ringing off the hook this morning and for the last hour I jump in my shoes every time. How's our fair-haired hero?"

"Still in surgery."

"Still? But I thought--"

"This call is about something else, Hug, sorry. I need a favor."

"This favor have something to do with Hutch? Don't bother to answer such a fool question. 'Course it has to do with Hutch else you wouldn't be calling it in at a time like this. Name the deed, and it's done."

For the first time Starsky regretted that his most trusted source of information had more brains than fashion sense. "Information, Huggy. My ears only. I need you to find out everything you can about an LA County paramedic named John Gage. Station 51."

Dead silence. Starsky thought he had a failed connection until Huggy actually groaned. "Aw, man, don't do this to me. Last time we went down this road, the object of my inquiries ended up in the county morgue, and Hutch looked like death for weeks. I don't want another one on my conscience. Got shadows enough of my own chasing me down alleys."

"What are you implying, Huggy? That I knew how Gillian would end up when I called you, or that I hoped she would?"

"Don't be stupid, man; I ain't saying nothing of the kind. I'm saying these 'for your ears only' investigations of yours put me in a sticky, prickly, tight spot, and they don't do Hutch one bit of good, neither."

"I can appreciate that, Huggy, but if I'd put you on Jeanie Walton's trail at the beginning, I might've spared Hutch a living hell. This is important, Huggy. I got no one else I can go to, and you know it."

"I'll say it's important. The kind of important spelled d-e-s-p-e-r-a-t-e."

"How d'you mean?"

"Because you know what you're telling me about Hutch when you ask me to dig this info up for you, now don't you?"

"I haven't told you anything about Hutch."

"Oh, come on, man, don't try to play me. You can't jive a jive artist. You wouldn't be calling this in right now with Hutch under the knife if he was just thinking about buying a clunker from the guy to replace his smashed up beater. It's personal, or you wouldn't be pulling the 'my ears only' string."

"Okay, while we're giving up the games, care to explain why you don't sound surprised? You've been thinking along these lines before now, considering that Pandora's Box crap you hit me with the other day."

"I don't often get surprised, Starsky, you know that. And I've learned sure enough not to show it when I do. You could tell me you're quitting the force to sign on with the Parrot as their new Judy Garland act, and I wouldn't let on that I wet myself. Let's just say I'm not wetting myself right now. He's one tight closet, our golden boy, but I seen a little too much in my time not to spot a guy damn near killing himself to be as straight as his best buddy. And don't you even think of floating the notion that you ain't been eyewitness to that struggle yourself, even if you didn't know he'd stopped struggling."

"Last thing I'm doing right now is floating, Huggy. I can count on you for the rundown?"

"All right, I'll do this. But you're running out of free passes on these little snoop jobs. How you want me to get back to you?"

"Call the room here at Memorial. Room 408. In the meantime, I'll let you know soon as I have word on Hutch."

"Starsky, you give some thought to the obvious here? I can't guarantee it won't get back to this dude that someone's sniffing at his heels, and that just might get back to Hutch. I can tell from your voice you didn't get this dude's name from Hutch's own lips."

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."

"Just be sure this little situation don't leave you wantin' to jump off it."

~*~*~

Huggy hung up the phone and nodded at Dianne to let her know he'd be in the back room if she needed him. He had known the day would come. He believed in friendship, loyalty, and his own version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done to you, but don't be fool enough to expect it in return. Starsky and Hutch had shaved some of the cynicism from his Golden Rule over the years. They returned favors. They watched his back. They fished him out of cesspools too deep to swim in. For that reason, Huggy carried the double burden of being their closest friend and unofficial police source. He shut himself in his cramped, dingy office and dug through his card table desk's stack of magazines and restauranteur catalogs. Underneath he found the file he had discreetly compiled on one LA County fireman-paramedic since the day Joe Collandra--the runaway, no-good, friend-ditching fink!--had given him the start of a trail to follow.

Joe, you ever show your face in LA again, I might just choke you with those apron strings, now I know what you really saw that day and didn't tell me.

Opening the file, Huggy thumbed through scraps of paper, notes he'd taken in his own special shorthand. No one who looked at the notes would get more than gibberish out of them, but they told the tale of two good men and their effort to hide a forbidden romance from a dangerous world.

Hutch, man, I tried to steer Starsky clear. I tried. When hitting him with the whole Gillian mess didn't cool his burn, my back's against the wall here.

Huggy believed in the Golden Rule, but he also believed in the value of his own skin. He had no plan to admit that he'd known about Gage before Starsky tipped him to the guy. With that decision made, he had to let some time elapse, a reasonable amount that wouldn't have Starsky suspicious of his superhero informant powers. Three hours ought to do it. Yeah, with Starsky out of his head worried about Hutch in surgery, the man wouldn't be doing a lot of math. And if Starsky did pull out the arithmetic, Huggy could fudge his way around it. Right. Three hours. Huggy looked up at the Michelob wall clock.

Well, Hutch, brother, you got three more hours before your bloodhound partner is on the scent of you and your fireman, and you'll probably be knocked out under the knife for all of 'em. One of these days I'll learn to get the hell out of the middle!

~*~*~

The shrill phone ring in Hutch's room jarred Starsky out of a cramped snooze in the visitor's so-called recliner. He jerked and thrashed into an upright position, rubbing his eyes, focusing finally on the empty bed. Hutch was still in recovery. Starsky had caught only a glimpse of him in the post-operative recovery area, thanks to his medical power of attorney, and then got shuffled out by insistent nurses who had the ludicrous idea that he would be more comfortable waiting for Hutch in the room on the Subacute Rehab unit. In these situations, Starsky's comfort decreased with every inch out of Hutch's line of sight, but nurses and doctors rarely grasped that simple concept, so Starsky called a retreat, saving his ammunition for the bigger issues that would surface.

On the phone's fourth ring, Starsky managed enough coordination to grab the receiver. His assumption that Dobey waited on the line for an update died with Huggy's greeting. He double checked his watch for the passage of time. Three hours? "You can't possibly have anything for me."

"When they're clean, man," Huggy said, "there's not much blood-hounding to do. This amounted to a few phone calls, is all."

"Yeah, but did you dig deep enough?"

"Y'know, Starsky, I'm getting this crazy idea you wanted me to turn up something."

"Think what the hell you want, Huggy. Let's hear it."

"He's so clean he could squeak the national anthem. And it's not the kind of cleanliness that hides something shady. He's solid. He and his partner are both on the fast track to make captain. They're considered one of the best, closest fire department paramedic teams in LA County. In their field, when they talk, people listen. Sound familiar?"

"Thanks. And his partner?"

Huggy laughed. "Didn't know I was supposed to snoop on his partner, too. Well, here's an incidental freebie. Partner's a family man, and there's no hint of anything on the side. Back to Johnny boy. He has a reputation for being a heartbreaker with the ladies, but he's a real soft touch with 'em. He's considered one cool cat around the stations. Only thing he's hiding, and apparently so well his employers aren't on to him, is a fondness for playing in the other sandbox time to time. Nothing wild or kinky. He likes it discreet and tends to stay well clear of the popular gay hangouts. Been known to drop down to a little roadside motel between Crystal Cove and Laguna Beach. Not very often, and the last few times he's been with a blond man who drives a beat-up Ford. Now don't worry: my source on this isn't likely to know the blond man's identity and even less likely to care."

Laguna Beach. What was it about the place that itched Starsky's memory? He put his thumb and forefinger to his temples and closed his eyes to look inside himself and into the past. A June weekend. Calling Hutch in only to find him an hour away. Hutch flushing and snapping at questions about his scraped knee in the locker room that evening. Good God. Had this been going on since then, or even before?

"Did you swallow your tongue or something?"

Starsky cleared his throat to excuse the silence. "Huggy, I gotta say, you've put together a regular dossier here. How the hell did you manage that with a few phone calls?"

"Uh-uh, Starsky. You ask for the info, I deliver. I do not, however, tell you how I came by the info. It's up to you how you use the info, but may I suggest you remember that discretion is the better part of valor, anger, and a few other emotions, and that partners like Hutch don't grow on the invisible trees around Metro?"

"I'll grant you got a thing for crazy ideas, but can you honestly drum up a scenario in that fertile mind of yours where I'd walk away from Hutch?"

"Can't say as I can, brother. Can't say as I can."

"Right, and I ain't walking on this. I may break the lug's other leg when he gets back from Recovery, but I ain't walking."

"Go find a pool to dip yourself in and cool down before he gets to the room then. You never spent a second in these moccasins, kemosabe, so you got about zero right to judge Hutch on this."

"I hear you."

Hanging up the phone, Starsky shoved the recliner out of his way and sought the sunlight beaming full force through the window. He found no solace in the warmth. He shed his jacket in ripping, tearing movements and hurled it across the room, turning back to the window and pounding his fists uselessly against the reinforced glass. His traitorous mind wouldn't let him turn the window into John Gage's honest face or Hutch's sweetly smiling one. He needed to escape the room, the hospital, track down the Torino in the visitor's parking lot and drive, drive, drive until the engine roar deadened his hearing and numbed his brain, but he couldn't risk Hutch coming groggily back to an empty room.

He pounded the window again, then dropped the blinds to deter him from cracking his fist...or the window. Admittedly no high-priced hooker tied to a syndicate, Gage still posed a threat to Hutch's continued good health. Damn Hutch for taking chances, inviting the guy up to his apartment like any woman the guys at Metro would make catcalls over while slapping Hutch on the back in jealous but admiring support. But what never-see-Hutch-again incentive could Starsky offer a clean-living, well-respected rescue worker, when the hooker with a heart of gold had turned down cold hard cash?

Fast track to making captain.

One anonymous phone call to Gage with a warning that LA County wasn't known for awarding leadership of a fire station to men who dicked around with other men....

He had his hand on the phone receiver before he came to his senses.

Christ!

Starsky lurched toward the bathroom, where he went down on his knees in front of the toilet, the stress and coffee finally exacting their due on his stomach. The porcelain god cared as little for his prayers as any other, but his emptier stomach settled. He was at the room's sink, washing his hands and face with the scrap of hospital wash cloth, when the door opened and orderlies wheeled a zonked Hutch into the room. Starsky insisted on aiding the transfer from gurney to bed, but he let the experts handle the post-operative positioning of Hutch's left leg. With Hutch situated, the orderlies quietly departed, leaving Starsky alone with a visible object for his silent, burning rage, but the innocence of Hutch's face in sleep fought Starsky into a corner. He battled back to the visitor's chair, drawing it close to the bed so he could sit there and mouth accusations, curses, and questions at the sedated man.

How does he touch you, Hutch, that you're willing to risk your life for it?

Starsky shot out of the chair and pulled up just shy of the door. He didn't want that question answered. He had always preferred an ostrich approach to this subject, and sometimes on the streets, he wished he could find a spot of sand in all the concrete to bury his head good and deep. But now he had a decision to make. Did he confront Hutch or leave this in the shadows Hutch preferred? Did he let Hutch wake to find this new knowledge all over his face, or did he fashion a mask to match his partner's? He knew the answer rested with Hutch's motive for keeping silent. If Starsky thought for one second Hutch didn't trust him to face it like a man and, more importantly, like an unshakeable best friend....

He turned his gaze to the ceiling. And if there's anyone up there, this question's for you. Why give me a partner like Hutch, give him these needs, and put me here with a dick that doesn't play that way? Sick fucking joker, that's what you are!

He returned to the chair for another study of Hutch's sleeping face. No. Hutch couldn't possibly trust him implicitly with his life, his conscience, his darkest hours and bleakest days, and then have no faith in him with this. Starsky gripped the chair arms until the cheap imitation leather squeaked in his grasp. What was so important to Hutch that he'd risk poisoning their partnership with secrets?

The answer came instantly to mind.

Starsky's safety.

You think it's too dangerous for me to carry this with you? 

Starsky laughed hollowly at himself. He'd given Hutch reason to fear.

I pull some crazy shit when I think you're on thin ice, don't I? You're not anxious for this Johnny Gage to land in the hospital or me to go to jail for putting him there. What I almost did a little while ago would've been bad enough.

If he could just hold on to his anger, he'd survive this.

Hutch's eyelids twitched, and Starsky almost looked away, but he held firm, ready to face secrets in blue eyes. Foggy-eyed, Hutch blinked at him, and then that gradual, silky smile threatened Starsky's gut again, but in a beautiful way. He had no problem getting angry with Hutch, but on the receiving end of the one smile that said everything good in Hutch's life started with Starsky, he could never prevent a grudge from slipping right through his fingers.

Okay, we'll play this your way, Hutch. For now.

He knelt at the bedside and gently cuffed Hutch's chin. "Nice of you to join me, partner. Want some ice chips for that after surgery dry mouth?"

~*~*~

He could talk about wanting to pull more shifts in the beautiful Station 86 territory, but after several days trapped on special duty there during an unusually violent storm that demolished roads and bridges connecting the area to greater LA, Roy had given thought to kissing Station 51's engine bay floor, so happy to be back on his home stomping ground. The guys had thrown their paramedic team a "Welcome Home" party of sorts. Pizza and sub sandwiches for dinner, which for once wasn't interrupted by the station alarm, and afterward everyone settled around the rec room TV to jeer at sitcoms.

Everyone except Johnny.

Eventually, Roy felt compelled to heave Henry the hound from his lap and track down his absent partner. He grabbed a couple of sodas out of the ice bucket and stole the bottle opener from Chet on the way to the engine bay. Working the bottle tops off, he saw no sign of Johnny tinkering on the squad engine. Noise from the adjacent room was promising. Roy found Johnny sitting on the floor-seat of his locker with his feet propped on the locker bench and his arms draped loosely over his raised knees. Roy stopped at the Smokey the Bear poster taped to the inside of the locker's door and nudged Johnny's elbow with one of the cold bottles. Johnny glanced up but didn't smile or say thank you for the soda that he yanked from Roy's hand and began to gulp at dying of thirst speed.

Roy preferred to sip his beverage. "Tell me you're not out here pouting about Chet and Marco putting you in the doghouse with Debby."

Throughout their enforced duty away from the city, Johnny had worked himself into a frenzy trying to contact and cancel a date with girl he'd arranged to take sailing. In his absence, thinking they were doing him a favor in not disappointing the pretty supply clerk, Chet and Marco had taken Debby sailing on Johnny's behalf, but the outing's dismal failure had left Debby with no desire to see a firefighter again, including Johnny.

Usually, Johnny's anger at Chet flared and faded in minutes, and no one could stay cross with loveable Marco, but on this occasion, Johnny couldn't shake the grumps. To Roy's surprise, he didn't bristle or protest the "pouting" jibe. He only shrugged. "Serves me right, Roy."

"What does?"

"This whole thing with Debby."

"Johnny, do you really want to date some girl who takes it out on you that Chet and Marco didn't know enough about sailing to show her a good time out there?"

"Not what I mean," Johnny said. "I didn't wanna take Debby sailing in the first place, so it kinda serves me right that my chance is blown with her."

"What? You were all but enlisting the LA County dispatcher in getting a message to her about canceling. All you could talk about was the big sailing date."

Johnny set his empty soda bottle on the bench at his feet. "You know why I was so anxious to cancel with her. I know what it's like now to wait for word and worry. I didn't want her thinking a bunch of worse case scenarios about me when I didn't show up."

"But you did want to go sailing?"

"Yeah, but not with Debby."

"You lost me again."

Johnny shot him a "why, me" look and raised one hand to his ear and waved the other at the door. Roy understood, then. After complete silence since the canyon rescue, Johnny meant to talk about his detective friend. Roy eased over to the door and leaned out to assess the noise level from the kitchen and rec room. Riotous laughter on top of the loud television assured him that only the station alarm could be overheard by their station mates. He returned to Johnny and nodded the all clear.

Johnny began picking at his left shoelace. "When I first made the arrangements, I was planning to take Ken. He was a sea scout as a kid in Duluth. Thought he'd really enjoy it. I wanted to celebrate his recovery and making it back to full duty. He didn't have it easy. Tough rehab regimen after the cast came off. He ended up with some back strain. It was a long haul for him."

"So, what happened?"

"After I got everything settled, Ken called and told me his partner's girlfriend--you remember Detective Starsky?"

Roy smiled. "How could I forget him? I didn't think we'd get out of that rescue without him decking one of us from post-traumatic stress release."

"Yeah, well, he's definitely had a run of stress lately. His girlfriend passed away."

"Oh, man. That's...that's rough. So Ken had to cancel to be at the services?"

"No, Roy. She died a couple weeks ago."

Roy nodded again, his preferred tic when trying to find his way through a Johnny maze. He came around and straddled the end of the locker bench, clicking his fingers on the bottle he set in front of him. "Couple weeks ago? What did that have to do with your scheduled outing yesterday? Yesterday, if you hadn't been stuck at 86's anyway."

"I don't know. Ken just said he wouldn't be available for the next couple weeks and felt he should go ahead and beg off the sailing trip. Well, I had the boat squared away, so I figured I didn't have to lose out altogether, right? And let's face it." Johnny smiled. "Debby is a head-turner."

A tall blonde head-turner, too, but Roy wisely kept that tidbit to himself. "Have you tried calling Ken?"

"Yep. Can't reach him. He meant it when he said he'd be unavailable. I guess Starsky's really broken up over the whole thing, I mean, why he wouldn't he be, right?"

"Right."

"And I guess Ken's been hovering these last couple weeks."

"Hovering?"

"Yeah. It's what they do in situations like this. Roy, tell me something?"

Still trying to comprehend the meaning of hovering in the context of their conversation, Roy didn't respond until Johnny tapped him on the shoulder. "Oh, what?"

"You ever remember the guys on our favorite cop shows hovering?"

"Maybe it'd help me if you tell me what you mean by hovering? You say hovering, I think helicopter."

"Never mind. I'm just saying I don't recall seeing much of the whole hovering thing."

"On television, the cops have an hour to solve the crime, track down the bad guys, and haul them in between opening and closing credits. They don't have much time to show a lot of hovering, I guess."

Johnny waved his hand between them. "You and me, we don't exactly hover, either."

Roy laughed. "Sorry, pal, but on my time off, I'm almost too exhausted to hover around Joanne and the kids. Adding you to the list would break this camel's back."

"But we've got a damn good partnership."

Roy lifted his bottle, and Johnny clicked his empty against it. "Best of the best. Only thing that won't be good about getting our own station assignments as captains will be working without you. Joanne swears that's why I'm in no rush to take the exam, and pokes fun at me about it whenever I complain about my measly paycheck having to cover the bills."

"Exactly," Johnny said, reaching over to swat at Roy's knee. "Hey, Roy, y'know, we could apply for the same station assignment. We'd be on different shifts, yeah, but it'd still be like working together. With you and me covering the A and B shifts, unless we had some real goof-off captain on C shift, we'd be the best damn station in LA County."

"Sounds like a plan. Don't know if LA'll go for it, but it's worth a shot. But cool your heels, okay? I'm not ready to throw in my paramedic towel just yet."

"Me, neither," Johnny said with enthusiasm. He scratched his eyebrow and went back to picking at his frayed uniform shoelace. "Roy, don't take this wrong, but I'm kinda glad we don't hover."

"We'll leave hovering to cops and helicopters. Now come back to the rec room before Chet's in here teasing you to death about Debby. I've missed the guys, but not enough for a session of Chet ragging on you."

"All right." Johnny patted his stomach. "I could use another ro--"

"Chet fed the last roast beef sandwich to Henry."

"--Slice of pizza," Johnny finished, crestfallen.

Roy slapped him on the back and steered him toward the kitchen. "And replace that shoelace. I'm tired of watching you pick at it."

"Nag, nag," Johnny teased. "Anyone'd think you'd already made captain."

~*~*~

"Raid One to Raid Two," Starsky said into the radio. "You guys in position?"

"Ten-four, Raid One. Wish we were going in there to catch the matinee," Detective Parks of Narcotics Division responded.

Hutch snickered and snatched the walkie-talkie from Starsky's hand. "Takes a twisted bunch of characters to set up a smack lab in an abandoned porno theater, Parks, but I think you just beat them out for twisted with that remark."

Starsky nudged Hutch in the side. "You ever meet any Narcs that ain't twisted, Blondie?"

"Heard that, Starsky," Parks said. "You better watch your division trashing. Think you're hot stuff 'cause Chief Ryan put you and Hutch up for commendations."

Hearing admiration in Parks' tone, Starsky laughed. "He had to save face for letting a couple of B-movie look-alikes fool him into thinking we're dirty. When the embarrassment dies down, he'll be fed up with us again."

"All comes down to this, Parks: Ryan will always think Starsky needs a new wardrobe."

"Yeah? Why don't you help him out then, Hutch?" Parks laughed. "My partner's my personal shopper; does it for free, too."

"Do not!" yelled Detective Barnett in the background. "I charge you fifty bucks a pop, and I'm always having to hit you up for it weeks later, cheapskate. Partnered to you, it's hard for a guy to scrabble enough dough together to take his wife out for an I-need-to-get-laid French dinner."

"What, I ain't enough for you, you sex fiend?"

"Nah, but maybe you lend me your wife for a night, we'll call it even."

Starsky took the handheld from Hutch with a drawn-out groan. "Thanks a lot, guys. That's more'n we ever needed to know."

Parks' lewd laughter responded. "Room to talk, Starsky. We got a running bet that Hutch paints your toenails for you. What's your favorite color? Pink...or candy apple red?"

Hutch's face was candy apple red. Annoyed at the quick trigger flush, when he knew that months ago Hutch would have grabbed the radio and filled Parks' ear with some X-rated panting to get his goat, Starsky spoke gruffly, "Why don't you come round and find out, Parks? You'll get a good look before I park my foot up your snout."

The silence broke with a chuckle. "Uh, Starsky, I didn't mean to step on any toes, there, pal."

Holding the radio away from his ear until the chorus of laughter quieted, Starsky waited for the strategic moment. "With your ballet slippers, Parks, don't you worry; I didn't feel a thing."

Barnett's laughter nearly drowned out Parks' blustering. Hutch did grab for the walkie-talkie this time, with a quick "you know better" frown for Starsky. "Okay, guys, enough. We need to keep the channel clear for police work. Rosman could show any second, and he's our canary in a coal mine. He goes in and stays in, we'll know it's a live day at the lab."

"Yessir, Captain Hutchinson, sir," Parks said with faux meekness.

~*~*~

"Man, I thought we were all goners," Barnett said.

His throat still smoke-scratchy, Starsky coughed against his jacket sleeve and cast a look over his shoulder at the fully involved upper story of the theater turned smack lab. Arson investigation would render a verdict on the explosion's trigger, but Starsky could care less. He cared only that the lab had waited to burst in flame when the raiding teams were herding the cuffed workers down the back stairs to the alleyway exit.

At the rear of the exodus, separated from his partner, Detective Parks caught the worst of the explosion's concussion and would've lain injured and enveloped by toxic smoke had Hutch's sharp hearing not picked up his falling moan. Watching Barnett and the uniformed officers safely outside with the lab workers in custody, listening only for Hutch's breathing behind him on their way to the exit, Starsky had felt a tug on his sleeve and turned to a Hutch already stripped down to his bare chest and holster. Wrapping his blue over-shirt around his face, Hutch covered his mouth and nose in a makeshift mask that twisted the shirt's back guitar patch. Unable to manage a quick waist-up disrobing with a leather jacket, Starsky readily accepted Hutch's offered green t-shirt for his own mask. With Hutch's scent strong in his nostrils, somehow more reassuring than oxygen pumped from a tank, Starsky followed him back up the stairs to the fallen Parks.

Getting Parks free of the building required only basic teamwork and a makeshift gurney-carry with Hutch hoisting the man aloft beneath the arms and Starsky supporting his legs, walking cautiously backward down the stairs with only Hutch's careful line of sight across Starsky's shoulder and his own surefooted confidence to guide him. Six feet away from the exit door outside in the blessed fresh air, almost bowled over by a panicked onrushing Barnett, the rescuers nearly dropped their precious cargo when the second story windows blew out overhead.

On the fire department arrival, the alley filled with jacketed, masked men lugging hoses and axes. The smaller rescue squad truck pulled farther into the alley that the engine couldn't access, and Starsky heard Hutch exhale slowly through a cough on sight of the passenger door's big, yellow Station 38. Starsky handed over the wrinkled t-shirt and Hutch shook it out with his button-up until they both resembled clothing again. Presentably dressed once more, Hutch left to check on the uniformed officers and their prisoners, and when he returned to the triage area, oxygen support had brought Parks to the surface of consciousness, the paramedics splinting his injured right arm and starting an IV per Harbor General ER's orders.

Lifting his oxygen mask and coughing, Parks cleared his throat and waved off the paramedic who protested the mask removal. "Hey, guys, you're a couple of crazy mothers, but I gotta say, count me out of just about any future drug lab raid that doesn't include Starsky and Hutch."

Barnett wiped the sheen of sweat from his forehead with a ratty handkerchief. "He's not just blowing steam, fellas. Only thing kept me from a coronary when I realized he wasn't out with the rest of us is that I knew you guys were in there with him."

Hutch gave the shaken detective a quick pat on the back. "Can't let the sickos out there start blowing up chunks of the Blue Wall, Barnett."

"Yeah, and we don't wanna lose one of the guys with a sense of humor," Starsky teased Parks, tapping the man's heel with the toe of his sneaker. Parks raised his healthy left arm to demonstrate his talent for bird flipping, and returned the mask to his face.

"Hey!" yelled a cuffed man, racing down the alley, oblivious to the police officers drawing their weapons behind him. "Hey!"

"Hold your fire!" Hutch called to the uniformed men, breaking into a run toward the prisoner.

Starsky took off down the alley at Hutch's side. "Down on your knees, man, you wanta take a bullet?!" he yelled to Rosman, knowing one of the officers might fire a wing shot if they thought Hutch in danger from Rosman, whose identity as the LA County Sheriff Department's inside man had been purposely withheld from the uniformed back-up. Starsky couldn't guess what had frightened their "under" officer into threatening his cover to break away from the other cuffed lab workers. Rosman stumbled and fell to his knees, lifting his front-cuffed hands high above his head just as Hutch skidded to a stop to pull him up theatrically by the shoulders for the benefit of the prisoners.

"Are you out of your mind, Rosman!" Hutch barked in the man's face, the anger only partially sham. "You're no damn rookie, you know you--."

"Did a head count," Rosman interrupted, gasping for breath. "They're not all out. The uniforms back there wouldn't listen. I'm telling you, Hutchinson, they're not all out."

"Thought you said there'd be six workers here today," Starsky said. He scanned the alley, pointing at each prisoner in turn. "I count six."

"They brought in three extra to get the shipment ready on time. They're not out here."

"Couldn't possibly be alive, y'think?" Starsky asked Hutch.

"Only one way to find out," Hutch said. Officer Mathews made it to the scene, and Hutch thrust Rosman roughly at him. "Get this guy out of here and keep him in line!"

They had no prayer of getting close to the building or the firefighters engaged in a losing battle, but hope waited at the triage area. Doubling back to the paramedics, Hutch asked the man packing away the drug box, "Can you raise one of your guys on the radio? We've got reason to believe there're three people trapped inside."

"In that inferno!" Barnett shook his head. "Three racks of barbecued ribs, maybe. Damn. Thought we had everybody!"

"So did we," Starsky reassured him. "They upped the staffing last minute on us."

The paramedic had raised his captain on the line. "Cap'n? One of the cops says there's the possibility of live ones inside! You doing a sweep?"

"We've had Tony and Will sweeping, but they're on their way to you now. Heat exhaustion with Tony, looks like, and Will's mask went south on him. LA called in a second alarm a while back on my order, should be here any second." True to the captain's word, sirens grew louder on a rapid approach, and the captain's voice crackled again, "I knew it! They're sending us 51, Engine 36, and Truck 3's ladder company, too, thank Christ. We're in luck."

Hutch's head jerked up, his mouth moving slowly to form words under his breath, and Starsky, able to decipher a Hutchinson whisper from a football field away if necessary, realized he was counting days. Trying to remember his schedule, buddy?

The captain's next transmission crushed any hope that another shift was responding. "Kyle, you and Clark stay put at triage. We'll send Gage and DeSoto in to handle the medical needs on evac of any live ones, and they're A-Shift's best brooms anyway."

"Roger, Cap'n, we'll wait here for Tony and Will. Do you have an ETA on the ambulance, though? We need to transport this police officer."

"ETA ten minutes. Hang tight."

"We'll alert Harbor General. Thanks, Cap."

"Brooms?" Hutch asked hoarsely.

"Figure of speech." The other paramedic smiled at Hutch. "When we think someone's trapped inside after initial evac, we run a sweep. Two guys go through in tandem, right into the white of the flame if they have to, and 'sweep' for signs of life. Only catch is, our brooms sometimes end up on wild goose chases, just like this one might be, and when you're on a sweep, you're not standing behind the protective cooling spray of a hose, you're moving around in all the concentrated heat."

Starsky watched Hutch try to control the worry freezing the muscles around his mouth into a thin lip line. Illustrating the paramedic's point, two Station 38 firefighters came stumbling down the alley toward them, one leaning heavily against the other, and their comrades hurried from the triage area to meet them halfway. Supported by their paramedics, the walking "wounded" headed straight for the prepared shock blankets spread on the asphalt by the spare oxygen tank.

"In by two, out by two, right guys?" one of the paramedics said to them. "Tony, how you doing there, buddy? Will, easy, Will, that's it, try to breathe deep. Let him down slowly, Kyle. I can hear the wheezing already. Sorry excuse for a mask, huh?" The paramedics went to work on their station mates, dividing the labor, while Barnett and Parks watched with avid interest. Starsky smiled. Some guys never grew out of wanting to be firemen, even after they chose other professions.

"What's it like in there, Tony?" the other paramedic asked, taking his pulse.

"Hotter'n Satan's left tit. The smoke's lethal, man. You guys are gonna be busy. Brad and Danny are caught in a tight spot, and the only way 51's getting in there is up the Big Daddy to the roof entrance, if there's enough roof left to hold their weight. Wouldn't be surprised if this one runs three alarm, and I don't see how there could be survivors, but I'm glad it ain't us sweeping in there now."

"Big Daddy?" Hutch asked.

The mechanized high-rise ladder rose into view, seeming to climb of its own power into the sky rather than from the ladder truck they could not see, and continued to grow until the top rung braced against the theater roof's stone façade.

"Big Daddy," Tony said, pointing. "And there they go."

Hutch clenched his fists at his side as a pair of firefighters came into view halfway up the ladder ascent. From their safe distance at triage, Starsky couldn't make out any details beyond their helmets, protective turnout coats, and the yellow oxygen tanks strapped to their backs, but Firefighter Tony had designated himself the color analyst. "That's Gage in front. You can always spot a rock climber on the ladder. Going up that thing like a mountain goat."

The paramedic in charge of vitals had reached for the Biophone to call in, but the thunder of another contained explosion and pressure-shattered glass rocked the alley. Starsky watched in horror as the upper rungs of the fire ladder quaked, toppling the lead firefighter over its guardrail, where he clung, dangling over a forty foot drop to concrete. Tony jumped to his feet for a better look, swaying in his dizziness, and Will tried to struggle to a sitting position on the shock blanket, restrained by both paramedics who themselves couldn't take their eyes off the ladder. The ladder shifted again from its brace against the façade, and the dangling firefighter dropped to a one-handed hold.

"Jesus Christ, Johnny!" Hutch shouted.

All eyes swung Hutch's way, but Tony posed the burning question. "You know Gage?"

With Hutch transfixed by Roy's efforts to lower a safety line to his dangling partner, Starsky answered for him, unwilling for Hutch's instinctive reaction to become grist for fire station gossip with potentially disastrous results. "Yeah, we know him. He and Roy really came through for my partner here after his car went off a cliff."

Tony pointed at Hutch. "I know who you are!" He nodded at his comrades. "Guys, this is Canyon Super Cop."

Hutch shot him an icy look. "What?"

"Aw, that's what 51's captain calls you when he spins that yarn. Trapped in a canyon for days, weren't you, pinned under your car? And cracking jokes while Roy and Johnny worked on you."

"You're looking at two of the toughest sons-of-bitches in the LAPD," Barnett said. "And I'm not just saying that 'cause they got my partner out of that theater."

"You guys are like something straight out of Police Story," Tony said. "Man, how about a handshake?"

Hutch shook the offered hand, but turned his attention to the ladder where Johnny had reached safety within the guard rails thanks to Roy's determination and prowess with the safety line. They completed the ascent and disappeared from view over the roof's façade, but Hutch didn't budge from his vigil. Starsky remained at his side through the ambulance arrival and departure with the wheezing firefighter and Detective Parks in its carriage. Grumbling over the crowded ambulance, Barnett rushed off to his car to follow the transport into Harbor General. The paramedics coaxed Tony back to his shock blanket for fluids and oxygen.

Of all the times for their paths to cross with Station 51, Starsky grumped to himself, worried about the tremor in Hutch's jaw as he watched the theater. The ninth precinct should not even have been covering an investigation in this territory, but the assholes they were after had started their mayhem in Metro's backyard before spreading into the County, and teaming up with the LA County Sheriff's Department had offered the best means of tightening the noose.

He slid his arm around Hutch's waist. "They'll be okay, partner, they know their business 'bout as good as we know ours," Starsky said. Hutch's fearful expression had a new layer to it, and Starsky rushed to quiet that secret worry. "Hey, they didn't haul my carcass out of a canyon, but they took care of my partner, so that gives me a vested interest, too, 'kay?"

"Yeah, I... Let's go get the rundown from Rosman, Starsk." 


 

Part Two

"Weston! You've got some nerve walking yourself in here," Stanley barked at the visiting LAFD paramedic who let a pool of late September sunshine into the kitchen with his backdoor entry.

Every Station 51 firefighter knew the captain's bark threatened as much real anger as Henry the hound dog's. Weston laughed it off and came over to the table, accepting a mug of coffee from Marco.

"What's a city guy doing on county territory, that's what I wanna know?" Chet said. He held out a chair for Weston. "And if you're here for lunch, you're out of luck, pal. Johnny's at the stove, trying to make sense of flipping burgers."

Johnny brandished his spatula at him. "I'll come flip some on your head if you don't shut up."

From his denim jacket pocket, Weston brought forth a stack of gift certificates. "Here to pay up for my station's humiliating defeat on the court, guys. We've learned our lesson. No more basketball with LACoFD boys." He dropped the certificates on the table. "There you go. Dinner for two for each of you at Carmine's Steak House."

"Woo-hoo!" Chet grabbed for his.

Roy kicked back in his chair, drawing his certificate to him. "This comes in handy, Weston. Joanne wanted us to go out this weekend on my night off."

Chet picked up one of the certificates and took it over to wave it in front of Johnny's nose. "Hey, Gage, maybe you could use yours to take out that new Rampart ER nurse. I hear she's been making goo-goo eyes at you for weeks now."

Johnny scowled at him. "Chet, get that out of my face before you drop it in the frying pan!"

"Anything of interest going on at LAFD 63, Weston?" Stanley asked.

Marco laughed before Weston could answer. "Aw, Cap'n, he works Venice. Might as well be a beach bum."

Chet leaned against the counter and gave Weston an evil grin that lifted his mustache at the corners. "I don't know, Marco. He has to put up with fruits in pink Speedos tripping on their roller skates. I think he deserves hazard pay."

Johnny pushed back from the stove. "That's it! You want lunch, Chet, you fix it yourself!"

Chet gaped at him. "What's your problem?"

"Same problem we all have, Chet," Roy answered immediately, "trying to find something large enough to stuff in that overactive mouth of yours."

Stung by Roy's unusually harsh rebuke, Chet eased back to the table, and Johnny returned to flipping the sizzling hamburger patties. Weston lowered his coffee mug. "I don't know about pink Speedos, but we did have a crazy call several nights ago. Like something straight out of Psycho."

"Yeah?" Mike asked. "What do you mean?"

"Guy stabbed in his shower by some pint-sized woman stalker. I kid you not. She was maybe five-feet tall and the guy over six-feet, real healthy specimen, but when we got there, he was slumped over his partner's supporting arm, bleeding like a son-of-bitch from the left shoulder, and she was trying to gnaw a hole through the cops that had her in custody."

"Partner?" Chet asked. "What, one of the pink Speedo brigade crossed over to the wrong side of the street and got a chick good and riled at him?"

"No, no, you dumbass," Weston laughed. "Guy's LAPD. A cop, stabbed in his own shower! Blond, yes, but no Janet Leigh, you can take my word for it."

"Goddamn it!"

The laughter at the table died instantly at the uncharacteristic oath from Johnny, who stepped back from the stove, letting the spatula fall to the floor, and waved his hand up down, clutching it at the wrist. Roy jumped up and reached the stove in a single stride, pulling Johnny's hand free for a look.

"What the hell's wrong with you, Gage?" Chet demanded.

"He burned himself," Roy answered.

"Hand slipped on the flipper-thingy," Johnny explained in a choked voice, looking at Roy as if his were the only safe face in the room.

"That does it, Johnny," Stanley said with sympathy. "Last time we make you cook."

"Hey, Cap, if I burn myself do I get out of KP duty, too?"

"Shut up, Chet!" Johnny yelled on his way to the sink to run water over the burn. "Just...just for once in your life, shut up!"

Weston rose from his seat. "Think I'd better head on out. Heading down to San Diego for my mom's birthday and I don't wanna waste any of my hard-earned time off sitting here with you chumps."

"Weston, how'd your crazy call end up?" Roy asked, sensing that Johnny couldn't formulate a question in a steady voice.

"Oh, fine. Once his partner got past the overprotective 'Me Friend, You Stranger' routine and let us do our jobs, we got the guy stabilized and had an easy transport to Memorial. He'll have one hell of a sore shoulder for a while, but he's lucky. Crazy gal was aiming for his heart, no doubt about it."

Head bowed, Johnny doubled over the sink, and Marco said, "Roy, maybe you oughta ride him into Rampart, let 'em have a look?"

Johnny straightened. "I'm fine. I'll get some stuff for this out of the drug box." He started out of the room toward the engine bay, and Roy followed close on his heels.

"Hey, Roy," Chet said, "while you're out there, see if you can patch up his brain, too."

Giving Chet a drop-dead glare, Johnny stalked out of the room. Roy slowed down at Chet's chair and put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing a little harder than friendliness required. "You know, Chet, one of these days Johnny's gonna slug you into next week, and don't look to me to hold the ice to your jaw afterward."

"What'd I say?" Chet asked in his best bewildered innocence.

"Chet, get over there and finish the burgers," Stanley ordered. "Quietly, if you please."

At the squad, Roy closed the drug box for his partner and shoved it back in place in the squad's storage bay. He examined Johnny's efforts at bandaging his hand and let out a grunt of exasperation. "Let me do that. You're shaking too hard to put on a Band-Aid right now." Johnny sat down on the squad's running board and let him work unhindered. "I guess it's safe to say you had no idea."

Johnny shook his head in eerie silence that worried Roy more than the minor burn.

"No chance this is another cop?"

"Another six-foot, blond LAPD cop in Venice with an overprotective partner? You wanna take those odds to Vegas?"

"He sounds all right by Weston's account, but with an injury like that I doubt he's on duty today. Probably at home licking his wounds. Why don't you give him a call?"

Johnny gestured with both hands at the kitchen where laughter and the sounds of hungry firefighters at chow could be heard.

"Not in there, I know," Roy said. "Go in the captain's office. I'll keep an eye out."

Not two minutes after Johnny dashed into Stanley's office, the station alarm rang through a squad call. "Squad 51. Man injured in accident with lawn mower. 1423 Barnes Court. Cross Street Wilcox. Time out 12:35."

Johnny appeared in the engine bay just as Stanley arrived to acknowledge the call. "Squad 51, KMG 365." He turned from the radio to Johnny. "You up to a call, pal?"

Johnny held up his bandaged hand. "I'm fine, Cap. No problem."

"That's my trooper. We'll save some lunch for you guys."

Once they were safely through the worst of the morning traffic, Roy said, "Well?"

Johnny didn't have to ask what he meant. "His partner answered the phone."

"So?"

"So, I had to hang up without saying a damn word."

"Oh."

Johnny shifted from his study of the scenery flying past his window. "What's that 'oh' mean?"

"Nothing. When were you supposed to see him again?"

"He's been working a case, but he knows I'm houseboat-sitting for my cousin at the marina this weekend. He said he'd stop by if he had a night off. Now, who knows?"

"You think this stabbing might've had something to do with the case? Sounds personal to me."

Johnny shrugged. "He's been seeing a lady police officer off and on, but I'm willing to bet she's taller than five-feet. Maybe he was seeing someone else, too, and it got out of hand somehow. I don't know. God, I wish I knew!"

"Lady cop, mystery lady, and you. Spreading himself kind of thin, isn't he?"

That earned Roy a hard look. "What're you trying to say?"

"When's the last time you went out with a girl, Johnny?"

Johnny looked away again. "I dunno. Um. Month ago, maybe? Why?"

"I just don't want you getting the raw end of the deal, that's all."

"Who said anything about a raw end?"

"Johnny, I know I've never been into guys, so maybe I'm talking completely out of turn here, but I remember what it was like when I first started getting serious about Joanne, and it can't be that much different when a man cares about another man, right? Or is that my straight ignorance talking?"

"You're not ignorant."

"Okay, then. When a guy's in love, he needs the daily details, not just the dates and occasional sleep overs. I would've hated being the last to know about important stuff happening to her, and that hasn't changed after years of marriage and two kids."

"Who said anything about being in love?"

Roy located the subdivision, made a hard left against an unfriendly traffic light with help from the corridor the surrounding cars allowed their rescue vehicle, and Johnny flipped off the siren. "I was in that canyon rescue, too, remember? You wore your heart on your sleeve the whole time. I saw you do a little victory dance in the apparatus bay after that drug lab fire when Stanley told us the detectives called from Metro to see how everyone came out."

"Hah. Talk about premature. I thought that meant Ken had told his partner about us. He corrected that little notion quick enough next time I saw him."

"Uh-huh, and now your social calendar is empty except for when this guy squeezes a little time for you out of his schedule. Look, I know you're both in a tough position, and it stinks that you can't experience some of the simple things Joanne and I take for granted. Seeing you go through this makes me appreciate my marriage in a way I never thought to, and I always figured I was pretty good husband material before. But watch yourself, okay? Get what you need and deserve out of all this, too."

~*~*~

Hutch stopped at the gangplank for a longer look. He'd expected the usual canal narrow boat or maybe a larger barge converted to live-aboard, but the two-level oddly shaped houseboat of exotic wood construction looked more appropriate to a large Indian waterway or the South China Sea. Johnny appeared in the fore entrance, decked out in his usual off-duty jeans and flannel shirt, and Hutch came aboard quickly, wanting the privacy of indoors for a kiss. Johnny led him into the spacious cabin, and walked over to pull the thin silken curtains over the hull-to-top-deck window, obscuring its view of the marina and any curious mariners' view of them. But he didn't turn from the window, and Hutch waited by the galley kitchen's bamboo table and chairs.

"How you want it tonight?" Johnny asked quietly.

Hutch felt thrown back in time to the first encounter at the Canyon Vista motel, minus the laughter and classic Gage confidence. "What do you mean, how do I want it? What happened to dinner and conversation first?"

"I think we need to stop pretending this is anything but what it is," Johnny said, still facing the window, but there was a slump to his shoulders that gave a clue to his mood. "So, what'll it be? With your hurt shoulder, you're probably not up to anything strenuous."

Ah. Hutch felt better then about approaching the man at the window. He slipped his arms around Johnny's waist and kissed the shell of left ear beneath a wave of black silk hair. "I'm fine. I'll be good as new in no time."

"This time, maybe." Johnny left Hutch's light embrace and went to the tiny fridge where he pulled out a bottle of wine and ferreted two bamboo-stemmed goblets from the adjacent tall teak shelf.

Hutch came back over to the small table and rested his hand on the nearest chair back, more for something to grip than anything else. "Johnny, I appreciate the concern, but you don't have much room to complain. I wasn't prepared to watch you hang one-handed off a high-rise ladder over asphalt!"

Johnny slapped the wine bottle down before he'd poured a drop, and spun around. "I don't complain about your job, you don't complain about mine, we're even. I'm complaining that I had to hear it from an LAFD Station 63 paramedic that you'd been stabbed in your shower!"

"What?" Suddenly registering the houseboat's coziness as stuffy, Hutch peeled off his black leather jacket and beige pullover, but stripping down to his blue cotton tee didn't alleviate the perspiration.

"Yeah, you thought you were breaking the news to me yesterday when you called to confirm our little get-together tonight? I heard about it five days ago, only not from the horse's mouth. Or the horse's best friend. I had to get broadsided with it by a guy who dropped in our station to pay off basketball game winnings and hung around to tell wild Venice rescue stories."

Hutch sighed. "Well, now I know why you sounded more pissed than shocked on the phone yesterday."

"The last five days, I've tried calling your place maybe a dozen times. Drove by Venice Place on my way--well out of my way, actually--to the station a couple of days ago, but that Torino was parked out front, so I kept right on driving."

"Yes, Starsky was staying with me until yesterday morning."

"Hovering. I get it."

"No, you don't get it," Hutch argued, raising his voice. "I wanted to stay in my own home instead of a safe house while they secured the woman's admission to a criminal psych facility, and neither Dobey nor Starsky would hear of it without him staying, too, as visibly as possible! We've both been in danger before because someone we thought was all squared away really wasn't."

"I do get that!" Johnny said loudly. "You think I don't? I do! I wouldn't have wanted it any different. But do you have any idea how nice it would've been if when I called and Starsky answered, I could've said, 'Hey, Starsky, how's Ken hanging in there? You guys need anything?' Instead, I had to hang up like some prank caller missing his target."

"I wondered...Starsky told me we were getting hang-up calls. I've been kind of thrown sideways this past week and--Damn."

Johnny abandoned the wine and reclaimed his post in front of the window, parting the curtain a few inches to stare at the night sky over the water. "Last thing you need is some guy turning into a boa constrictor on you after what you went through."

Hutch allowed himself a small laugh. "Now, that sounds like the Johnny I know and--"

"Don't," Johnny cut him off.

"Don't what?"

"Nothing. All I'm saying is I'm not very good at this. Being with someone who runs the risks you do all the time...and not knowing."

"You think it's easy for me? I'll admit I didn't give much thought to what firemen are up against until that day in the alley. But I've heard you talk about some of your rescues. Having to get down cliffsides to stranded hang-gliders. Climbing up burning oil towers to trapped workers. How many times have you been injured in the line-of-duty, Johnny?"

"I don't know. A few, I guess."

"More than a few, I guess," Hutch said. "Come on, let's hear a list."

"What good will that do?"

"Humor me!"

Johnny turned away from the window and began counting on his fingers. "Bitten by a rattlesnake once. That was no fun. I've been hit by a car on a rescue. Got a nasty virus from exposure to a patient's  Southeast Asian monkey. Trapped in a cave-in. Close calls with smoke inhalation. Radiation exposure once, but I got cleared from that pretty quickly."

"That's not the whole list, is it?"

"Probably not, but I don't wanna think about any others, if you don't mind."

Hutch smiled. "Good, because I'm not sure I could stand hearing any more."

"What's your point?"

"When we're on our respective jobs, we have to think about ourselves and our partners full time. We can't have a lot of other things crowding in, working our brains over, and distracting us. Do you honestly want to know every time I hit a little speed bump? Because I know I can't handle thinking about what might be happening to you."

"Getting stabbed in your shower is more than a speed bump!"

Hutch shrugged off the severity of his terrifying encounter with a madwoman. "Not really. I'm still here, still standing, perfectly capable of throwing you down and sucking you to Heaven and back. Speed bump."

"Okay, what about when it's more than a speed bump? At least there's someone who could let you know if something happened to me that I wasn't gonna walk away from any time soon...or ever."

Hutch shuddered, trying to block the image of Johnny dropping from the ladder. "Who?"

"Who do you think? Roy, that's who."

Concern and fear were joined by anger, and Hutch slapped at the slatted chair back. "You've told Roy about me, about us?! Damn it, Johnny, I thought you knew what was riding on your ability to keep your mouth shut."

Johnny's eyes narrowed to a long, still, deadly look, angrier than Hutch had ever seen him. "How much fun would it be for you if I showed you just how good I can be at keeping my mouth shut? Seems to me our little thing is all about how wide I can open my mouth. That's how you like me best, isn't it?"

In his own mind, he'd occasionally likened Johnny to a playful, tame, and loyal wolf pup, and somehow he'd missed the pup growing into an adult of its species with teeth to back up its bark. "Johnny, that's not fair, and even worse, it's inaccurate."

The wolf sheathed its incisors, ducking its head and sitting back on its haunches. "God, Ken, he was with me in the canyon that day. He'd never seen me act like that around other rescues. When I saw your car, I thought you had to be dead. I couldn't half-breathe until I saw Starsky flag us down, knowing he wouldn't be doing that if you were past help. Since then, Roy and me, we mention you from time to time. Nowhere anyone can hear us. If that's a problem, then you need to turn around and walk out that door right now, 'cause I'm not lying to my partner!"

"And you think I am? I'm not lying to Starsky. He doesn't ask. I told you, his sonar's off, and I just can't afford to turn it on to this." He neared within reach and squeezed Johnny's hips through the snug denim. "Can't tear you a new one for your reactions in the canyon, though. I screamed out your name when you were dangling from that ladder, and I would've been in one hell of a fix if I hadn't had the cover of that rescue to explain my concern...or even knowing your name."

"That's what I'm saying. I know we can't go out on the town holding hands. But I don't understand why you can't bring Starsky in on this. From what I've seen of him, he's a great guy, and he thinks you walk on water. You really think he'd turn on you for sleeping with a man every once in a blue moon?"

Hutch stroked the button placket of Johnny's shirt. "Great guy doesn't cover it. And no, that's not it. I could dye my hair purple and wear a cock ring, and Starsky wouldn't walk out on me or our partnership. I know that."

"Then what're you saying? A straight man and a gay man can't work together all open and above board, is that what you're saying? Roy and I can."

"Where's that labeling coming from? We're not, not, not. Remember?"

Johnny broke eye contact. "I've had to do some thinking about my preferences. When I'm ready to give up women for a guy--"

"Johnny, don't," Hutch said tenderly. "Not for me. It's not something I can afford to give you in return, for the same reason I can't share this with Starsky, hard as it is to keep it from him. Kicks me right in the balls sometimes, having something in my life he's not a part of."

"Just spell it out for me, why he can't be? Is it me? You think he'd--hurt me?"

Hutch laughed out loud and kissed him between the eyes. "Not unless you hurt me first, and you'd never hurt me in a way that'd make him come after you."

"Then what's the problem?"

"The problem is, once it's out in the open between us, once Starsky knew, there'd be things he'd worry about that he doesn't right now. He'd be inclined to protect me from the wrong kind of teasing, for one thing. That may sound childish, but in our line of work, it's life or death. There's always been locker room shit talked about Starsky and me, but we live the lives of straight playboys, and for me, it's partly cover, but for him it's real to the core. That protects us, and we play off the jokes like there's nothing to them. If he starts instinctively climbing down the throat of every dirty-mouthed bigot that tells a gay joke around me, some of that locker room shit might start to smell real, and that could get us both killed. I know you don't want me running that risk, or putting Starsky in that kind of danger. If I thought you didn't care about his safety as well as mine, I wouldn't be standing here holding you."

He received a long kiss from the man in his arms, and felt the response beneath Johnny's waist harden to painful teasing tightness against his own denim-trapped erection. Johnny pulled back, eyes glittering. "What was that you said about sucking me to Heaven and back?"

Hutch smiled, knowing his explanation was accepted, his forced subterfuge forgiven. "Let's grab the wine, and you give me a cook's tour of this pleasure boat. Naked."

~*~*~

"Seventy-five percent of the time we spend together, and you're not even a good kisser."

"How do you know that?"

Hutch jerked the wheel, looking over his shoulder. Catching Starsky off-guard, he glimpsed a fleeting expression on Starsky's face that nearly caused a wreck. At Starsky's yell, Hutch whipped his head around and swerved into the left lane to avoid ramming an aged Volvo ahead. Heart in his throat, his internal organs a gastrointestinal Jello, he turned down the next side street in search of a place to pull over and learn to breathe again. The rear parking spaces of a closed-down seafood shack sufficed.

When the car rested in park, shielded from view of the road by the restaurant building, Hutch whirled in his seat. "It's damn sure not because I've been sneaking smooches when you're sacked out on a stakeout!" The flash of fear in Starsky's eyes confirmed that Hutch's nightmare had merged with reality. "You know!" Hutch yelled.

"Hutch--"

Hutch pounded his hand against the steering wheel and fled the car, leaving the door open behind him. Turning slow-motion circles on the cracked concrete, he sought salvation from any source, but the rusted dumpster, broken backdoor window, and weeds climbing through the pavement offered none.

Starsky had joined him. On one of the circles, Hutch narrowly avoided colliding with his partner, who stepped back just in time. "Hutch, come back to the car, huh, and we'll--"

"How long have you known?!" Hutch couldn't find the volume switch for his voice. He wanted to yell until his lungs ached, and perhaps that pain might mask the stabbing sensations around his heart.

Starsky reached for his arms with clear desire to stop the circular pacing. "Known what, Hutch? Listen, come back to the car, will ya, it's hot as all hell out here!"

"Tell me how long you've known about my thing with men, or I won't go anywhere with you."

The sheen of sweat clinging to lashes and cheeks brightened Starsky's eyes, and another flicker of fear in them made Hutch want to burrow through the concrete until he found himself in some forbidden Chinese bathhouse. "Since the Academy, Hutch."

Hutch opened his mouth, but no words found the exit, and he couldn't get his mouth to close no matter how he worked his jaw. He felt his chest moving, but he had the sense that his expelled breaths were clogging his windpipe. "Do you...have a-any idea how I've driven myself to the point of loony bin material trying to keep this out of your life?! What, did you get off on watching me perfect my Oscar-winning straight guy performance? Had enough of it after eight years, buddy, huh?"

"Hutch, you can't think out here in this goddamned heat; I can't think, either."

"I'm thinking, all right. Thinking I need to drop you off at some watering hole for that drink you wanted so damn bad, and pretend you don't exist for a few days. Or maybe longer than that! When will it be safe again? How's it ever supposed to be safe again?!"

"Just take it easy, will ya," Starsky said, patting Hutch's arms and shaking his shoulders by turn. "We can handle this, you and me."

"Take it easy? I find out you're up on the cross with me after all, and you want me to take it easy!?"

"Damn it, shut up, Hutch!" Starsky grabbed his shoulders, clenching until Hutch felt fingernails through leather and two layers of cloth. "Okay, just shut up, let me think, all right? Before I say something shitty I can't take back."

Hutch wanted to die. Right that moment. Right there. "What the hell are you doing?" he asked in a soft, lethal voice, having finally found the volume switch. "I'm not Fifi. You better hurry up and remember you're dealing with a man here. I'll walk back to Venice before I let you try to hush me like I'm some hysterical female."

That earned him freedom from Starsky's touch, but it wasn't worth the gut-shredding pain in his  eyes. "There's nothing in you but man, Hutch, there's nothing you do in the bedroom that's gonna change that, but right now, yeah, you're pretty close to hysterics, and this is hard enough without that."

"Hard! Hard? Throughout this case, I've been at war with myself every second. Every time you'd wonder out loud how you could be so close to Blaine and not know. All that breast beating, and me sitting there feeling like Judas after the payoff. Well, now I got the same question for you. You knew about me. Why not him?"

"Hutch, two weeks into the Academy, I was closer to you than I ever was with John. That's how. I knew guys made you look twice. I also knew when you gave all that up."

"And you let almost eight years go by without saying one word about it?!"

"Hell, you gave up smoking at the same time, and for a while you'd get this guilty little kid look on your face when you'd forget and reach for a pack at the store. Same thing when we were around gays on our beat. Only thing to do about something your buddy wants to shake off that bad, is to keep your mouth shut about it and let him! Do we sit around and talk about that shit with Forest and his dirty little torture needles? Hell, no."

"Why drag this out into the open now then? That's what you were doing, right? All those long looks, whenever we discussed Blaine, like you were trying to pull something out of me. Those little probing remarks. 'You're not that sophisticated. Something to contend with?' Hell, yes, it's something to contend with. I've been killing myself trying to protect you from this. Sitting in that car telling you it's no big thing, when part of me wanted to rub your face in it so you'd see it's a hell of a lot bigger for the people in the trenches than the ones like you outside them."

"I know."

"You don't know fuck all! I've been watching you bleed during this case. Couldn't find enough bandages for all the wounds, keeping my own to myself, scared you'd see too much if I reached out, and you knew all along!"

One second Hutch had the safety of three feet separation, the next Starsky was close enough for a kiss, but tongue sucking was the last thing on his mind. Hands on Hutch's face, fingers reaching into his hair, covering his ears with sweaty palms, Starsky applied pressure until Hutch saw black-tinged yellow spots in the glaring sunlight, but the rough touch focused him, and he felt his heart rate slowing.

"I was bleeding!" Starsky shouted. "For Blaine, for Maggie, but mostly for you!"

Hutch must have returned to sanity in Starsky's estimation, because the tough-loving hands dropped with Starsky's retreat to a safe distance. "Look, maybe it was easier for me to keep quiet because I could pretend it wasn't there all these years, like some damn tail we couldn't shake. But seeing what happened to Big John Blaine after he was dead and out of the picture, I can't bury my head in the sand. You saw Dobey. Sweating it out. Willing to make one of his best friends out to be a pill-popper to keep the pressure from crushing him. Now it's time to get real about this thing."

Hutch wondered if grabbing Starsky's face could have the same temporarily calming influence, but he knew he couldn't keep his hands from caressing Starsky's late-day shadow-roughed cheeks in a way too telling now that the veil no longer hung protectively between them.

"Real? You think it hasn't been real all along? You think this is some kind of game? No, you think it's a vice. You put it in the same category with cigarettes and heroin, when you weren't comparing it to the common cold virus. Gee, thanks, Starsk, you're just full of sympathy. Maybe I should go find Peter Whitelaw and let him lecture me a little more from his gay platform."

"Or maybe your paramedic, huh, he give you the right kind of sympathy?" Starsky snapped, then closed his eyes and clamped down hard on his jaw.

Hutch experienced very real and frightening paralysis from the neck down that lasted only a few seconds, but left him breathing like a winded swimmer. At a loss, he could only repeat his earlier question. "How long have you known?"

"Hutch--"

"How fucking long, Starsky?!"

"Since the Humphries case, all right! You left me enough breadcrumbs."

With one ear, Hutch listened to Starsky delineate the clues that led him to the truth; with one ear he heard the roar of traffic, the rustle of a crushed paper cup pushed slowly along the concrete by the weak breeze. With his mind, he relived the self-hatred he'd felt for betraying Starsky's trust to keep him safe, the guilt he'd felt over locking Johnny on the periphery of his life with Starsky, again to keep Starsky safe. All the phone calls he could have made, truths he could have told in place of silent lies. He remembered Starsky explaining away his lapse at the drug lab fire, Starsky casually suggesting they call later from Metro to check on Station 51's welfare, the fire station he thought Starsky had "adopted" out of gratitude for their hard work to bring Hutch out of a canyon in one piece. All the hints he'd missed that Starsky was covering his back, walking the road with him, and respecting his silence.

He felt queasy.

Queasy escalated to nauseated and lightheaded. Impending heat stroke occurred to Hutch, but he knew better. He buckled at the knees and sat down heavily on the pavement, letting his arms hang loosely at his sides. Starsky squatted in front of him.

"For God's sake, Starsky, why didn't you say something?"

Starsky's gaze fixated on a line of ants in front of Hutch's shoes and their determined trek to the fault line in the concrete where they disappeared one by one below ground to their safe haven. Hutch wanted to shrink himself and join them.

"Had to come from you, partner. If I'd thought for a minute you didn't trust me to hang by you with this, I would've been sitting on you in that hospital bed after surgery waking you up to face me with it. But I had a good idea what was behind all the cloak-and-dagger. Me. My safety. Something that sacred to you, Hutch, I got no right to force your hand with. You never stood between me and what it takes for me to feel you're safe."

"You're forcing my hand with it now."

"God, I don't want to, Hutch, but this thing with Blaine... When you said that about him staying in the closet--"

"You thought I was talking about me, too? If I thought sex with men could change your opinion of me, you can be sure I wouldn't have been able to talk so calmly about it. I was talking about John. Maybe he didn't have the luxury of knowing your loyalty like I do."

"All I could see at that crime scene was you on that dirty flophouse bed, a victim of that life."

"Starsky, it's not the same thing. I'm not in the Parrot looking for a quick lay on a Friday night. I don't keep a hotel room in the city where my comings and goings can be tracked. I've stayed miles away from the life you're referring to with that stomachache look on your face. What I have with Johnny--"

"Don't sit there and act like you don't take chances with him, too, Hutch! Letting him come to Venice Place--"

"Big deal. IA expects me to have no male friends besides you? Johnny's only been to my place once since that night, and we were careful to make sure nothing was seen to prove he's anything but a friend who came by for a few beers and decided to crash on my couch instead of driving home. Hell, Paco did that after we finished the Sterling case. You've done it countless times. Huggy's stayed over before. If people never saw women coming and going, I might worry about appearances."

"Yeah, and what if Gage lets the wrong thing slip around his station? Gossip travels faster in fire stations than police departments, and that's sayin' something. It's not a big leap from the LA County Fire Department to the LAPD."

"Mission accomplished, Starsky. You got me talking. What is it you want?"

"I just thought, seeing what we have with this business, you could maybe give it up again? You did before. You're gonna give it up anyway when you meet the right woman, settle down. I mean, I could never see you putting a woman through Maggie's hell. You were faithful to Vanessa right up to the day she left you."

"What makes you think I'm looking to settle down with a woman?"

"I know smokescreens when I see 'em, Hutch, and that's not what it's about for you with women. I know it's the sex. It is for me, too. But underneath that, there's a search somewhere, right?"

"A search for one woman above all others, you mean? No. Not really. I like women. I like the way they talk, think. The challenge of giving them pleasure. Taking a woman to bed and figuring out every little nook and cranny that makes her soak my sheets she's so turned on. Lot harder to make a woman come, really come, than to get a man off, Starsk. A gay man, anyway. Never tried it with a straight man."

Starsky leapt up from his squat and walked a few feet away, stopping with his back to Hutch and fidgeting in his pockets. Hutch heard the rattle of keys and coins. "So, you're gonna keep playing the field 'til you're ninety in a nursing home chasing the nurses 'round your bedpan, that it?"

"I should be so lucky. Starsky, as long as I can give women as much as they give me, I'll keep bedding them. For my pleasure, for theirs. And yes, for my safety and yours. But you don't see me out there looking for a forever after kind of girl. That was my mistake with Diana. She came on like a woman who knew the meaning of a one-night stand, but her mental condition made her ill-equipped to handle it, and I couldn't spot it in time."

"Spotted it before your asshole partner did." Starsky pivoted slowly, hands still hidden, fingers flexing in the denim and captivating Hutch's attention against his will until he resorted to counting ants again. "That's why I'm asking you this time before it comes down to something worse than a shoulder wound. Stop playing with fire?"

"You mean stop playing with a fireman? Cute, Starsky."

"I didn't mean it to be cute! I'm serious, Hutch."

"You want me to give up sex with a man? I did before, you're right. Seven years of feeling like an amputee with phantom pain. You ready to try giving up women for seven years?"

"That's different."

"How?"

"Because I'm straight, damn it, I don't swing back and forth. If I give up women, I'll either have to grow an extra hand to keep up with my libido and end up a blind, hairy, three-handed freak, or land in Cabrillo talking in backward sentences."

"And I'm gay! What do I grow extra to replace men?"

Hutch could hardly believe he'd said the words out loud, but they electrified Starsky. "No! Don't saddle yourself with that! Not you. You don't fit the profile."

"What profile? Orientation comes with its own MO now? Because I don't hit the back rooms of bath houses to stick my dick through a hole in the wall and let some guy I don't even see on the other side suck me off, I'm not gay? My married life with Vanessa was such a stunning success it's proof I'm straight? Haven't you learned the real lesson behind this case? People get caught in nasty traps when they can't be themselves."

"I can see that with Blaine, Hutch. But I don't buy it with you. Your dick needs a little more variety than mine, fine, I can understand that. But if you're sitting there trying to make me believe you prefer--"

"You nailed it, Starsky. Preferences. Want me to put it in a framework you'd relate to? Say a sadistic inventor came around with a ray gun that would make it impossible for me to get hard for both men and women, and held it right up to my dick, but last minute, he lets me choose. Do I keep hard-ons for men, or hard-ons for women? Hard-ons for men, no contest. Oversimplified? Yes. But true."

"Are you saying in a different world, you'd settle down with this Johnny Gage? Set up housekeeping with him?"

"The world is what it is, Starsk, and it's not likely to change any time soon, I'm sad to say. Johnny and I give each other what we can and make the best of it."

Starsky started kicking the crushed paper cup aimlessly between his heels.

Hutch raised his legs to his chest and hugged his ankles, resting his forehead on his knees and wishing the heat could just incinerate him and be done with it. "You know damn well the choice I'll make. So, before I hurt a good man who isn't looking for that killer right hook to the heart, you have to tell me. Is our partnership really riding on it?"

"Our partnership is cement, Hutch. Never has had wheels."

He had his proof. For years Starsky had known his partner's deepest need, for months he'd known about Johnny, and he'd remained Starsky through and through. Hutch didn't have to fear losing the touches, the humor, the flirting, the in-Hutch's-face and in-Hutch's-life closeness Starsky had made into trademarks of their partnership. There all along, they were unlikely to disappear now. Without Hutch even realizing the process was underway, Starsky had developed control and self-restraint against turning himself into a life-sized shield from the off-color needling that occasionally came Hutch's way.

He had Starsky.

In the fresh air of relief, Hutch could unfold and stretch, no longer wanting to escape into heat stroke unconsciousness. "Okay, then. After everything I've told you, are you asking me to walk away from him? We're not talking about some anonymous 'it' here anymore, Starsky. Some 'bad habit' I'm drawn to. Some lifestyle. We're talking about a person. You've met him, talked to him. A few minutes with him is enough to see what he's all about, and what he's about has nothing to do with what we saw at the St. Francis. Are you asking me to call Johnny up out of the blue and say, 'I won't ever see you again?'"

"Put like that, I got no right--"

"No!" Hutch made it back to his feet and pulled Starsky around to face him. "You know you're the one person in the world who has that right. My final decision is mine alone. But you have the right to ask. Are you asking?"

Starsky squeezed Hutch's hand and then gently tugged his arm free. He didn't pace. He flexed up and down on the balls of his feet a few times and finally turned his back, walking all the way over to the building to peer in the broken window. Fresh beads of sweat gathered over Hutch's brow. He watched Starsky's aimless wandering, every move, each shoulder twitch, each snap of his fingers at his side, each bounce that invaded Starsky's normal gait and testified to something worrying that sharp mind. When Starsky returned, his loss for an answer was obvious. Hutch would have preferred a quick, surgical cut, but he didn't complain over the reprieve.

Glancing back at the LTD, Starsky said, "Drop me off at Merle's, wouldya? Car's supposed to be ready."

"And this other?"

"I'll let you know when I know myself." 

~*~*~

Hutch couldn't get cold. He'd tried a chilly shower. He'd opened his fridge and tried to shove half his upper body inside. In his navy running shorts and cut-off sleeveless sweatshirt, he sat in the greenhouse working on his fourth beer, knowing the wisdom in plain water over alcohol in conjunction with heat, but past caring.

"You've never stood between me and what it takes for me to feel you're safe...."

Wasn't it worth seven more years of phantom pain to keep the treasure of Starsky's peace of mind untarnished by worry and fear? 

In his push off the greenhouse bench, he overturned his beer and left it to pour slowly from the bottle into a puddle. Sitting hunched over on the sofa, he dragged the phone across the coffee table to him. He let the dialed number ring twice, slammed down the receiver, and took it up again. This time he waited through two rings and on the third, a familiar voice answered.

"Station 51. Gage."

Hutch closed his eyes, afloat in the houseboat again, in folds of down duvet on the bamboo bed with Johnny squirming beneath him, atop him, as concerned for Hutch's healing shoulder as their impassioned rub-off, reaching for him, rolling with him, coming to rest in his arms and sighing out through gasps for breath....

"Station 51? Anybody there?" Another pause and then a barely audible whisper. "Ken?"

Hutch hung up and shoved the phone off the table.

~*~*~

Starsky wanted to let himself in with his key, prove his rights still intact, but Hutch deserved the few extra seconds to answer his knock. Hutch appeared at the door flushed, heat rumpled, and visibly prickly, openly scanning Starsky's face and posture for the answer to the question that had chased them all the way to Merle's.

Starsky pushed lightly by him into the apartment.

"You changed," Hutch said.

At first he thought Hutch meant more than his clothes, but when he saw Hutch's gaze had landed on his shirt before sliding quickly away, he still didn't understand the significance. Fatally tired of the heat, he'd dropped by his apartment for his cut-off jeans and red jersey, willing to stuff his Beretta down his sock if they were hauled back in despite Dobey's promise of a half-day. Then he got another look at Hutch's face and understood. The extra time required for the drive home and clothes' change meant Starsky'd had time to think. His answer couldn't be rationalized as off the cuff or treated as a heat of the moment knee-jerk reaction.

"Yeah." An annoying mmp-mmp from the floor drew Starsky's attention to the overturned phone. He gathered the apparatus and returned it to safety on the coffee table.

Hutch dropped down in the center of the sofa, raising his legs and crossing his ankles on the table. Starsky sat down beside him. "You don't let me do that without a fight."

"What?"

"Put my feet up on the furniture."

"Go right ahead. Today I'll grant you immunity."

Starsky promptly put his legs up on the table right next to Hutch's. Their bare calves touched, and he felt a flinch from Hutch's leg. "Have a fight with the phone?"

Hutch pointedly ignored the phone. "Tried calling the station."

Starsky knew he didn't mean Metro. "And?"

"Couldn't get word number one out of my mouth."

Starsky hitched his hip and strained his fingers' agility to pull his wallet from the vacuum-tight denim pocket. "You don't have to."

"What?"

Starsky opened his wallet and dug behind the folded bills for a scrap of notepad paper. He handed the note to Hutch and dumped the wallet on the coffee table by the phone. "There. The note I told you about. My first real clue you were missing that day."

Hutch took the note and read it in a hushed voice. "'Hey, you. Waited until ten. Put the casserole in the fridge. Call me, if I don't call you first. And leave a message. My machine likes your voice. --J.'" He folded it into a tiny triangle. "You've kept it?"

"Yeah. Don't know exactly why. Maybe holding on to it was my way of promising myself it'd be out in the open between us one day."

"Starsk."

"I gotta be honest, Hutch. What I said in the car today wasn't all to get you talking. I meant what I said about not taking a stand. For or against. Homosexuality, I mean. I took a stand for you where it counts, in here," Starsky tapped a fist to his heart, "years ago. What it makes me that I can't accept the general idea but can accept you in the middle of it, I don't know, but I'm working on the rest."

"Makes you an honest, loyal friend, Starsky."

"Anyway," Starsky cleared his throat. "You are right about one thing. I was makin' some lousy comparisons. Ostriching, again. If I didn't have to see you as gay, I didn't have to see you really needing a guy that way. Not just doing it for kicks and variety."

"Like I said about Blaine, being gay doesn't change all the things I've always been."

"I know that." Starsky cleared his throat again, wishing he could breathe freely through this next, more difficult part. "About Gage. He's a class act. You know how I know?"

"How?"

"That day, after the rollover, he drove the squad for me to have room in the ambulance with you, talked that doctor into keeping me in the exam room at Rampart. Puts you above himself. Puts partnership where it oughta be, too. Some partner I'd be if I let you pull the plug on all that, and the last thing I want is you eating your heart out over reaching for what you need."

"Starsky, you know what I need most of all. If this thing with Blaine has put fear in you somewhere I can't reach it over all this, I need to know now."

"Covered you at the drug lab fire that day, Hutch. I'll keep right on covering you. If you're brave enough to be yourself as best you can in the Department we got to contend with, I wouldn't be worth my badge or us if I didn't walk that gauntlet with you."

"You can count on my guard being up at all times, Starsky. I don't plan on walking any gauntlet I don't have to, or dragging you through it with me. Johnny isn't pushing me to open the closet. He can't afford that any more than I can. He's never asked for much. Just add him to the small list of people I care about knowing if--"

With two fingertips Starsky nudged Hutch's chin upward until he succeeded in closing his mouth. "We don't talk about that list. Now there's something I gotta do." He pulled the phone close. "You tried calling the station. That means he's on today?"

Hutch stared at the phone, then at Starsky and clamped his hand down over Starsky's on the receiver. "Don't get melodramatic, Starsk."

Starsky glared at him. "Shaddup, melodramatic. I know my partner. With me, you need to see action. Otherwise, you'll be watching me under those poity blond lashes of yours for weeks wondering if I'm really onboard with this."

Hutch folded his arms over his chest. "Now I know we'll be fine."

"Huh?"

"If you can sit there poker faced and tell me in some atrocious imitation of a Betty Boop accent that I have pretty lashes."

Starsky grinned, shrugging. "Told you before you got beautiful eyes, 'specially when you're angry."

"Yeah, but that was before I knew you knew. Hell, the first time was before Johnny."

"Really? When--"

"Starsky." Hutch shook his head. "You really want a history lesson?"

"Nah, not really. Knowing you it'd be National Geographic style. I'm still not over the spread with those women in Africa wearing the wooden circle thingies sewn into their lips and ears. Don't think I could handle the Hutchinson Geographic take on all this."

Hutch smirked. "Moron." But he nodded at the phone. "Go ahead." When Starsky started to dial, Hutch pressed his hand down again. "No, not the main station number. That rings in the captain's office, remember? There's another one, 555-4308. Let it ring twice, hang up, dial again. If it rings more than four times on the second try, just hang up, because they're out on a call."

Starsky followed instructions to the letter. On the second dialing, three rings passed before a man's voice answered. "Station 51. Gage."

"You guys melting over in that station, or what?"

"Who the--?"

"It's David Starsky."

"H-hello, there!"

Starsky's throat tightened all the way below his clavicle at the undisguised joy in the voice. "How many calls you guys had today?"

"More'n a few. You'd think people wouldn't play with matches during a heat wave, but LA's never been the most logical place on earth. How you guys holding up?"

"We only had half a shift today. Captain took mercy on us after a--" Starsky couldn't allow himself an image of John Blaine right then. "Tough case. We're kicking back at Hutch's pouring down cold brew. 'Least, he is, I can smell it on him. Mannerless bozo hasn't offered his partner any." Hutch marched over to the fridge and Starsky had to duck and fling out his free hand to catch the miniature brown missile launched his way.

Laughter on the line. "You're cruel telling an overworked fireman about cold beer on a day like today."

"Well, you know Hutch's got one here waitin' on you."

"Yeah, I--yeah."

"You and that partner of yours watch yourselves out there. People get crazy in the heat."

"Ten-four."

Starsky re-cradled the receiver and found himself the proud parent of a newborn sun in Hutch's ear-to-ear smile. Hutch presented him with a bottle opener in the manner of handing over the keys to a brand-new Alfa Romeo. Starsky opened the bottle with a flourish, holding it high in salute. Giving himself a reward swallow of beer, he started to reach an arm around Hutch's shoulders but paused. The infant sun went quickly underground. "Starsk, don't you dare hesitate."

Smiling, Starsky corralled Hutch's shoulders and pulled him to his side. "Won't."

Hutch took the beer from his hand. "Nobody taught you to share?"

Starsky watched him lift the beer to his lips and couldn't help but wonder when Hutch had last kissed Gage. Did they kiss? He knew some guys were all into cock and no kissing, but he couldn't see his tenderhearted Hutch wanting that deprivation of oral intimacy or being drawn to someone who did. Yeah, they probably kissed. And why he was concerned with that now instead of months ago when he first discovered their relationship, he couldn't figure. Maybe it was the heightened immediacy of the situation now that Hutch knew he was in on the big secret. But a gun to his head couldn't have made him reach for the beer bottle before it met Hutch's mouth, and he waited patiently until Hutch had his fill and passed the bottle back. Starsky let the bottle mouth linger on his next gulp. It was the one way he'd always been able to swap spit with Hutch and he wasn't giving up the pleasure now.

~*~*~

Johnny hung up the phone and spun around in a circle, shooting one fist toward the ceiling and the other out to the side. "Yes! Yes, yes, yes!"

"Hey, guys!" Chet said in the kitchen doorway. "Gage is in here trying to perfect his John Travolta act for Halloween!"

Before Johnny knew what hit him, he had an audience of five curious, catcalling firefighters crowded in the kitchen doorway. He froze mid-spin and tried to look serious and dignified, patting down his uniform shirt. "Heh. Heh. Hi, guys."

Roy was giving him the typical "you're a mess" look, but Captain Stanley actually demanded an explanation, unable to completely hide his smile in sternness.

Johnny felt his cheeks go flame hot. "I, uh, got a line on a bargain waterbed."

Chet pointed at the phone. "A call about a waterbed has you doing Saturday Night Fever in the kitchen?"

"Hey, I've been steamed since I lost out on the waterbed in the fireman's picnic ticket sale contest, okay. Which wasn't fair, because really--"

Chet yawned and waved him off the topic. "Yeah, whatever. You're a fruitcake, Johnny."

The crowd dispersed, save for Roy, who waited until the others had time to get out of earshot. "Is this victory dance the real thing?"

"Real with an 'r' for really real, Roy. Yeah." He shadow boxed the air and spun around again. "Yes, yes, yes."

Roy smiled. "You can't dance, you know that, right?"

~*~*~

"Yes, Ma, I got my check right on time. Why?"

"You should send it back to her, David, that's what. That woman has never been right."

Starsky propped the phone between his shoulder and ear to free his hands for coffee preparation. "Ma, Aunt Ruth has a thing for baseball, Japan, and giving her nephews money. That doesn't make her a freak show in my book, sorry."

"One of her nephews! There wasn't a check in Nicky's card. There hasn't been since his birthday last year! I ask you, what has my Nicky done to be snubbed like that by the woman?"

"Did you ask Nick that?"

"Why should I? You think I'd believe Ruth Starsky over my boychik?"

"Well, I hate to seem disloyal to Nick'n all, Ma, but I'm not turning down a two-hundred dollar check. I'm thinkin' about buying a house, so I'm countin' pennies."

He had to drop the coffee filter and hold the phone out from his ear when his mother's delighted babbling reached a harmful decibel. "Davey, who is she?"

"Who is who?"

"Ah, Davey, when a bachelor like you wants to buy a house, there's just one reason. You've found a girl to settle down with, haven't you? What's she like? Where did you meet?"

"Actually, if I can swing this, it'll be more an investment thing. A fixer-upper that I fix up and turn a profit on resale, y'know? I'm thinkin' I'll ask Hutch to go in on it with me."

There was a lengthy silence. His mother's voice sounded distant and scratchy across the line, "Then you should go. This call is costing you a fortune."

"Ma, we only talk once a week, I think my bank account can stand the strain."

"It's okay, David, I need to go next door and check on Mrs. Feingold; she's down with the lumbago again. I'll expect to hear from you next Friday."

Starsky had pursed his lips to smack one of his customary kisses at her, but the dial tone caught him in mid smack. He re-cradled the phone and stood in front of his kitchen counter at a loss for what he'd been doing. He had that weird ache in his chest again, a dull throbbing just under his breastbone that he'd felt occasionally throughout the last case. Small wonder. Anyone who didn't feel heartsick after encountering poor little Guy was missing something in the humanity department, like Guy's monster of a mother.

No. Starsky wasn't supposed to think of her as a monster. She was mentally ill. She needed help. She had been a victim herself in her own childhood. Forget the fancy language and theories. Starsky had seen nothing but a cold, cruel monster, and two of her parting phrases on the day of her arrest stuck with him, resisting any effort on his part to shake them loose.

I never wanted him.  

He looks too much like his father.

If he couldn't shake those hateful words, he wished he could lose the nagging sensation that he'd been thinking through a concrete wall through the entire case. He knew Hutch felt a similar guilt that they had wasted critical time chasing down the boy's father as the culprit, when Guy's torment had come at the hands of his mother all along. But this thing chewing at Starsky was more bothersome than guilt. He couldn't escape the gut-deep certainty that he should have known better. All he'd done was flinch away from Guy's acceptance of the ill treatment, something raw inside him trickling blood at witnessing the phenomenon Sgt. Sheila Peterson said was all part of the pattern. And while overjoyed that Guy's sister Vikki came out of the whole mess physically unharmed, he'd felt another internal scrape that the big-eyed, curly-haired little boy had seen a sibling receive all the "proper" mothering.  

Coffee. That's what he'd been doing. Starsky pushed all thoughts of mothers and sons from his mind and concentrated on getting that comforting little drip-drip-drip into the glass carafe. He didn't want to wait for shitty Metro coffee today. Today was too big. He needed all cylinders firing properly to convince Hutch that buying a house with him was the best idea since packaging sea kelp.

Lulled by the brewing coffee sounds, Starsky lost himself once again in the roommate daydream....

~*~*~

Armed against contagion and grime with his rattiest pair of puke-green sweats that rarely saw the outside of his drawer, Hutch lifted one end of the dusty, vermin-gnawed, stained sofa and waited for Starsky to hoist his end. "I swear we busted a dope-addicted pimp and his girls in this same house."

"We did not!" Starsky started to lower his end of the sofa, but Hutch's warning look reminded him that his back couldn't take insult to injury, and they slowly carried the sofa down the concrete blocks they had placed for makeshift steps in lieu of the broken door.

"I'm telling you, Starsk, when I chased you through the neighborhood yesterday, it looked damned familiar. Like I'd run through it before, chasing some other degenerate."

Starsky had the task of navigating them toward the dumpster. "Oh, thanks, partner. I'm a degenerate now? You're all heart. I didn't make you fall off the porch."

"No, you bought this piece of crap with our money and I was obligated to set foot on the porch to really feel how far down the toilet you'd flushed part of my savings."

At the dumpster, the sofa situated beside it for pickup, Starsky sat down heavily on one end and coughed through a cloud of toxic dust. "I told you--"

"You don't want any of that on you anywhere," Hutch advised, pulling him up by the hand and giving him a swat to the small of his back to urge him back toward the house. "Starsky, I'm back here, okay? If you want us to fix the place up, we'll fix it up, put it on the market and maybe, just maybe, get our shirts handed back to us. But I swear to God, if this is just a fly-by-night idea you lose interest in as quickly as pet rocks, and leave me sitting with this eyesore, you'll have to run a hell of a lot farther than the next neighborhood to keep your ass in one piece."

"Learned long ago my ass is safe from your threats--" Starsky bit down on the inside of his cheek and howled and grabbed at his jaw, pain shooting through his mouth and reminding him of toothaches gone by.

Looking angry, Hutch pulled Starsky to a halt by the hem of his old Army sweatshirt. "Damn it, you've known for years and never censored come-backs. Why now?"

Annoyed at his own discomfort, Starsky twisted himself free of Hutch's tug on his hem. "Yeah, but that was before you knew I knew."

"Well, if we're starting a house renovation together, you can't blush like a sixteen-year-old back seat virgin every time you make a wisecrack like that one."

Starsky hurried up the concrete block steps and lifted the blue leather van seat into an awkward cradling carry. "Working on it, okay?"

Hutch managed the wooden-armed chair that had seen better decades. "You know half the guys at Metro think we're fixing this place up to move in together. You didn't exactly silence the rumors when you blurted out to Dobey in front of the whole squadroom that we're buying the place. For a guy panicked half out of his skin over me after Blaine's death, you're giving IA a cannon to aim right at us."

Starsky grunted, shifting the van seat in his arms so he could see around it and monitor Hutch's progress with the heavier armchair. "Uh-huh. Keep 'em focused on the smoke where nothing's been going on, where IA's come up dry for years, and they're even less likely to see the real fire."

"So, part of this whole house thing is a giant roach-infested smokescreen to protect me? And here I thought you'd developed a sudden itch for a roommate."

Starsky had an itch. An itch he couldn't scratch, with no balm in sight to soothe the burning under his skin. He had thought about rooming with Hutch. Ever since their confrontation about Hutch's preferred orientation, the air in the partnership smelled sweeter, almost a therapeutic oxygen, and Starsky couldn't breathe in enough to suit him. He had been finding ways to increase their time together by increments of five percent, knowing he had to slow down before they reached one hundred, but reluctant to draw back when Hutch voiced no complaints. The house had presented just another opportunity for them to spend time together off the job, and economic investment had little to do with Starsky's big idea.

Sharing living space with Hutch would take adjusting, sure, and they might come to blows if not attempted murder at some point during the first two weeks, but then they would settle into their respective spaces in the house, the respective spaces just conveniently closer together for late night bull sessions, impromptu parties, meals grabbed in minutes on cases. And when they needed parties of a more private nature, they could work that out, Starsky firmly believed. One could entertain in, one spend the night out, that sort of thing. Or just stay firmly behind their closed doors until morning light.

But then Starsky's plans had hit an unexpected snag. Hutch had asked the wrong question earlier. Censoring jokes was nothing compared to Starsky's sudden curiosity about Hutch's sex life. Hutch's sex life with men, one man in particular. Carrying the secret in silence at Hutch's side, Starsky hadn't let himself ponder what drew Hutch to men. But now that Hutch knew of his awareness, Starsky had dug his inquisitiveness fully out of the sand, and his initial vow that he'd be sure to find accommodations elsewhere if Hutch brought John Gage over for the night, had softened to padding the bottom crack under his bedroom door with a pillow. Then Starsky ditched the idea of a pillow because maybe they weren't loud. That led to guessing just how loud they were, which in turn made him wonder if Hutch sounded different in bed with men than women. After that he hit the all-time most dangerous thought that maybe he could encourage Hutch to have Gage over and casually leave his own door cracked. If he was going to build an understanding of this whole thing, he had to gather investigative evidence like any good detective....

No, they'd fix up the house and deed it over to the first reasonable offer. Forget sitting on it for a better profit. Hutch was right: they needed to reclaim their shirts. 

Back at the Torino, the porch cleaning accomplished, he hauled the two bargain-store lawn chairs out of the trunk and handed one off to Hutch. "That C.D. Phelps was really something."

Hutch chose a spot for his chair on the right side of the front door, facing the porch ledge where he'd tumbled to his ass courtesy of the failed railing. "Umm. She sure was."

Starsky plopped his chair down in the van seat's old location and took a load off with a satisfied stretch, reaching for the porch roof. "Still say she liked me best."

"Don't delude yourself, Starsky. She needed a man interested in more than her legs."

Starsky remembered Hutch's commentary on bedding women, never heard so bluntly as during the heat-fueled confrontation behind the abandoned seafood shack.

I like women. I like the way they talk, think. The challenge of giving them pleasure. Taking a woman to bed and figuring out every little nook and cranny that makes her soak my sheets she's so turned on. Lot harder to make a woman come, really come, than to get a man off, Starsk. A gay man, anyway. Never tried it with a straight man.

He left the chair in a rush and gripped the remaining porch railing until the wood creaked around a rusty nail he gave a wide berth. After a useless consideration of the dirt lawn, he turned around, propped against the railing and giving the rickety board a chance to bear human weight better than its right-sided twin. "How you figure she likes it?"

"Why ask me?" Hutch yawned, flicking tufts of armchair upholstery off his right leg. "Why not take her out and see for yourself?"

"You were the one trying to figure out how she ticked, and get to the core of her personality. Don't tell me you didn't put all the information into your store of fantasies for a rainy night with just you and your hand?"

Hutch smiled. "Have to admit... Back before I knew you know what you know, I wondered if it would change these conversations, once it was out in the open with us. If it'd turn you off competing with me for girls."

Starsky shrugged. "Nah. Too much fun watching you lose. And the competition keeps me on my toes. Not that I need a refresher course or anything."

Hutch squared his jaw, poked his lips out a tad, the concentrated expression most often seen with case work. "I think she likes it on top. She likes the edge, a little bit of control. But she responds too easily to chivalry to be out for domination to make a point. She wants softness, too, and intimacy. On top, yes, but with her body melting to yours and cradled in your arms on your chest from the waist up, moving slow and easy where you connect."

His sweatshirt and gym shorts suddenly as tight as one of those early '20's bathing suits, Starsky wheeled back to the railing, needing to hide his arousal from his partner and uncertain why. "I did ask her out, by the way. Called her up from the squadroom today while you were in R&I. Wanted to thank her for giving us a fair shake with her second article. See how she's doing after that rooftop mess."

"Really? How's she handling it?"

"Like the tough lady she is."

"Good. She go for the date?"

"Asked her to have dinner with both of us, actually." Starsky peeked over his shoulder at Hutch's reaction.

Hutch kept a straight face, his blue eyes giving nothing away, even to the man used to reading them like tea leaves. "Thinking what I think?"

"Thought I'd see what might happen," Starsky admitted, hoping his eyes managed the same neutrality as those baby blues.

"And?"

"I think she saw right through me. She said her journalistic ethics didn't allow her to fraternize on a social level with the subjects of her work."

"Hm. Nice way of saying she's not into threesomes."

"That's what I figure."

They looked at each other. They looked away. Inexorably, their eyes shifted to lock again. "Shame," Starsky said.

"Shame," Hutch agreed, soft-voiced. "You could call her up and try again. I mean, ask her out with just you in the picture. She might change her tune."

"Why don't you?"

Hutch smiled again, too enigmatic for Starsky's comfort. "Not that interested anymore."

"Me, neither. Not for one-on-one action."

"So, it's the threesome you were really interested in?"

Starsky returned to his abandoned lawn chair. "Maybe. But not with just anybody."

And if his imagination presented him one more time with a scene of Hutch and Gage tangled in bed sheets together, sweaty and out of breath, Starsky would make a one-way trip to San Leone and talk Polly "Crackers" into taking in a roommate.

~*~*~

"Station 51. Gage."

"Thank God!"

"Ken? What's wrong?"

"I'm just relieved to hear your voice. Johnny, you and Roy hearing anything on the paramedic grapevine about a nasty bug?"

"No. Why?"

"There's something out there that wants to give bubonic plague a run for the money. I'm risking a hell of a lot more than my job by telling you that, and I can't go into particulars, but please, for God's sake, don't let a patient even sneeze on you, promise me?"

"Ken, what are you--?"

"Sorry, but I've got to run. Starsky and I are hot on the trail of the source. This fell into our laps because of a good friend who's no longer with us thanks to this damned thing, and--"

"Ken, are you all right? Starsky?"

"We've just been sprung from quarantine and they're setting us free to roam the streets, so I think we're in the clear. I mean it, Johnny; you guys go overboard with every precaution, even if Roy thinks you're ready for the funny farm. You've already fought your way through one deadly virus, and once is enough for any lifetime."

"Hey, don't you worry about me. I'm tough, and I'm careful to avoid pet monkeys!"

~*~*~

"Here they are, Kel, the updated list of current virus cases at Lincoln." Dixie handed over the folder and availed herself of the most comfortable of Kelly Brackett's office chairs. "Just my womanly curiosity here, but why are they keeping us informed of infected patients' identities at area hospitals?"

Kel looked up from the folder. "They're trying to keep tabs on the spread of the virus, Dix, and the pattern of contagion and transmission. If we have patients present here with certain symptomatology, we're supposed to get as detailed a history as possible and see if there are any connections between them and the infected on lists."

"But confidentiality doesn't allow us to run down a list with the patient or their family members and check names off like a teacher doing roll call."

"No, you're right. But the lists are at our disposal if we hear anything in the volunteered patient history that proves a link. Tracking the disease spread is just part of the process in finding the source...and hopefully an antitoxin."

Dixie rose slowly, straightening her white cotton tunic and shaking her hair loose from her starched collar. "Well, I'm back to the madhouse out there." She stopped cold, concerned by Brackett's burning stare at the open folder on his desk.

"Kel, something wrong? Someone we know?"

She had read the list and tried now to call to mind any name that might explain the worry she saw clearly on Kel's face. On cursory read through, nothing had raised a red flag for her. Stranger yet, this Kelly Brackett worry was a particular variant she usually only saw when something threatened the well being of one LA County fireman, but she hadn't seen a name on the list that was an obvious connection to Johnny Gage.

Long resigned to the orientation that had taken Kel out of her arms years ago, and a sympathetic observer to the torch he carried as quietly as he lived in the closet, she walked around the desk to squeeze his shoulders. "If there's something to worry about, I'd like to worry with you, please."

He shook his head, smiling up at her. "Nothing, Dix. Just worried about the growing number of cases, that's all. This virus has the potential to spread much faster than the Koki monkey fever we encountered five years ago."

~*~*~

Kelly Brackett tilted the podium's microphone to suit his height and cleared his throat. He had never fancied himself a public speaker, regardless what he heard to the contrary. Fortunately, he did not own the spotlight this time. The knowledge he possessed made connecting with one dark-eyed gaze in the room nearly impossible to bear.

"Your attention, please? I know many of you had questions about the special precautions bulletin that was recently issued. At the time we were not at liberty to provide details. This meeting is meant to address your concerns, and it isn't the only one of its kind. Across metro LA and LA County at all receiving hospitals, medical staff have been briefed and given special instruction regarding a potential viral epidemic. We feel it is equally necessary to give area paramedics and ambulance personnel the benefit of this information. What we discuss in this meeting is not to be widely disseminated outside these walls. In situations like these, openness at the wrong time can create a panic that will endanger more lives than the highly contagious disease in discussion."

He watched Johnny whisper behind his hand to Roy, who nodded and moved his level hand up and down in a settle down gesture that silenced Johnny. Did Johnny know? Brackett had to consciously hold down a headshake. Johnny's ears were perked, his posture in the chair one of undivided attention, but he could not possibly hide the distress that would surely accompany full knowledge.

"With me are two physician researchers from Disease Control in Alabama, Drs. Meredith and Kaufman. They've been working nonstop along with local law enforcement to track the virus' source. You're going to hear what they know. Don't make the mistake of believing this is a metro problem. I fully expect LA County rescue services to encounter infected patients, and Rampart will be a receiving hospital before transfer to isolation headquarters at Lincoln. Doctors, if you'd take the floor?"

Brackett stepped off to the side and gave the Disease Control experts full command of the conference room podium. Lovely, soft-spoken Judith Kaufman, whose limp dark curls and wrinkled blouse and skirt revealed her weariness, thanked him for the introduction and delved right into a slide show presentation on LA's own version of hemorrhagic fever. On the slides and reduced to charts and graphs, the killer virus appeared distant, tame, academic. Still, Brackett watched Johnny's face throughout Kaufman's lecture, until he saw Johnny glance at him and then whisper again to Roy, probably wondering why Brackett seemed determined to single him out from the crowd of rescue personnel.

When Dr. Kaufman stumbled over her words in discussing the dangers to law enforcement and rescue services, Johnny switched his attention to her, and the first sign of alarm showed on his face. He shook his head quickly, once, twice, and then nodded, his way of reassuring himself that he hadn't made a mistake. Brackett could read his body language with ease, but couldn't decipher the resultant text. He saw Johnny's gaze swing back to him, and stared intently. Johnny shifted in his seat, visibly fidgeting, until Roy rested a hand lightly on his forearm. Johnny shrugged off the touch and focused on the podium, but his air of reassurance in the face of doubt had evaporated.

Meredith took over the discussion, detailing plans for containing the virus and avoiding city wide panic. The senior researcher's lecture ended with a question and answer session, but Johnny did not participate. Roy had a few practical questions, but his voice held more urgency than usual. At the end of the Q&A session, the visiting physicians thanked Brackett for hosting the meeting and hurried away to continue their lifesaving research at Lincoln Hospital. One by one, or in pairs, the LA County paramedics and ambulance attendants filed out of the conference room, the hum of their conversation at an anxious pitch, appropriate to the disturbing information they'd received.

In minutes, Brackett was left alone in the room with one man. Roy had squeezed Johnny's shoulder, said something clearly meant to be comforting with a wan smile that didn't live up to the task, and left the room. Johnny approached the podium, scratching through his bangs and fairly quivering with nervous energy. Brackett wanted to plead heavy patient load and escape the questions he could read in Johnny's eyes, but he made himself stand firm. He had guessed Johnny's sexual preference in the earliest years of their acquaintance. That knowledge was no burden. Until an injured LAPD homicide detective showed up in Rampart's ER and Brackett had to watch the unmistakable play of emotion on Johnny's face, he'd never seen concrete evidence or had a masculine face to tie to Johnny. Knowing Johnny had a lover was a burden heavier than the entire Rampart campus. Today it felt heavier still.

"This is a bad one, huh, Doc?"

Brackett knew he couldn't ask Johnny to pack his bags and take the first flight to New York or Hawaii, but he'd never faced such strong temptation to try out the request and see how far it got him. "It's bad, Johnny. This organism generates an acute illness that makes what you and I faced back in '72 look like the common flu."

Johnny scratched at his ear, his other hand distorted almost beyond recognition in its clawed grasp of the handy-talkie at his side. "But what those research docs said about the incubation period and all, they know when someone's got it and when they don't, right?"

"What do you mean?" Brackett asked, hoping Johnny's keen intellect would make the leap without benefit of a direct question that medical ethics and confidentiality did not allow him to answer.

"I mean, if someone gets the all clear, then they're fine."

"Not necessarily. Were you exposed in some way? You and Roy haven't transported a patient with suspect symptoms." Good Lord! Had he been with Hutchinson since the man's initial exposure? Brackett hadn't even given that possibility consideration. From what he'd heard, the detective had listed no other close contact besides his partner during that period, and surely a police-levied closet wouldn't keep the man's mouth shut if it might mean Johnny's life.

"No, nuh-uh," Johnny said firmly, instantly relieving Brackett's mind. "I just...want to know what we're up against out there, that's all. I'd rather hear it from you than the DC experts. You're the only expert I care about."

Brackett's chest tightened at the unintentionally cruel words. "Johnny, we in the medical profession like to think we're winning the war against disease, but against viruses in particular, we're still children playing with a chemistry set. Viruses evolve. They don't play by the same rules any two times in a row, or die quietly with the right antibiotic like nonresistant bacteria. Initial information on the virus' incubation period was misleading in this case, and there is the strong possibility that people exposed during the earliest days and believed clear of infection are in fact now actively ill."

He watched Johnny's healthy complexion turn sickly in seconds.

Brackett owed him the truth Meredith and Kaufman had danced around in their academic approach to the problem. With one hand on the man's shoulder, wanting to turn the casual touch into an embrace that could hold off death, pain, despair, he tried to sound professionally detached. "Johnny, right now with no serum antibodies isolated, this virus is a forty-eight hour death sentence once symptoms make an appearance. Please take care and keep your guard up out there at all times. I can think of nothing worse than seeing you and Roy come in here on the wrong side of this thing."

A weak nod was his only reassurance that Johnny had heard his plea. The shaken man walked in a robotic straight line from the room.

~*~*~

They sat in the squad in Rampart's ambulance bay. "I'm going to tell Joanne to take the kids to her sister's place until this thing blows over. How do we handle this with the guys? Stanley's got a family, so does Mike. Chet doesn't have any close relatives in LA that I know of, but Marco's practically related to a whole section of the city, and I know he can't evacuate all of them."

"That's how it gets spread outside a city," Johnny said, sounding a thousand miles away.

"What?"

"You heard the DC people. If every paramedic or fireman packs his family off to who knows where, and it turns out that one was exposed somehow--"

Roy turned an angry frown on him. "Are you saying I should let Joanne and the kids stay here and take their chances? Is that what you're saying? Because I don't care what--"

"No, I'm not saying that!" Johnny shouted. "Hell, Roy, I don't know anything right now. I don't know anything!"

Chastened, Roy turned fully in the driver's seat to face him. "You think--?"

The misery on Johnny's face answered before his mouth opened. "He's got it, Roy."

"You don't know that."

"You saw Brackett in there. Kept his eyes on me the whole time. Like he was trying to tell me something by telepathy."

"Johnny, do you hear what you're saying? You're saying Brackett knows about you and Ken. How would he know that? How would he even know that you--you know, go out with men?"

Johnny jerked his elbow against his door and jabbed at the dashboard for good measure. "I don't know! I just know the way he acted, what he said to me after you left the room. Ken'd be at Lincoln, wouldn't he? That's where all the--yeah. Lincoln. I have to get to Lincoln Hospital, Roy."

"Johnny, we're on shift. We could be called out any second."

"He could be dead by tomorrow morning! Brackett said this thing is a forty-eight hour death sentence as long as there isn't a serum."

Roy cranked the squad and just as quickly killed the engine, yanking the keys from the ignition. "Johnny, I know this is bad. I know it's got to feel like someone cutting your legs out from under you. But you're a paramedic. You go over to that hospital and expose yourself to this thing, and you could be carrying it around to patients on our calls and not even know it. Can you live with that?"

Johnny lowered his head, his arms trembling at his sides, his helmet askew. "No more than I could live with exposing you."

Keying the ignition again, Roy said, "We'll make some calls. Okay? We'll find out what we can. See if we can get some facts before we jump to any dangerous conclusions."

"Dangerous?" Johnny's ironic laughter touched a raw nerve in Roy. "For which one of us, me or him?"

"Both. And me!" Roy said, knowing he sounded as angered as he felt. "I had to watch you go through this once before, and I'm not anxious for a repeat. Watching your fever shoot past 104 and Dix walking around in a daze, telling me my partner was waiting in the squad for me when the guy out there was nothing but a warm body to fill the seat so LA County could keep me on shift. Knowing you might be dead before I could get back there and tell you what it'd meant to have a pain in the ass, first rate partner like you."

Before Johnny could respond, the radio invaded with some innocent person's need, demanding that both paramedics forget friends, lovers, family, disease and death and race to head off the as yet unknown danger over which they could actually exert some control.

~*~*~

Judith Kaufman turned the corner in the isolation corridor and pulled up short. A young man in the navy-and-blue LA County fire department uniform stood staring through the glass into Hutch's room. She glanced around to see who might have let him in the restricted area, but no one was in sight. She had just coaxed David Starsky into taking advantage of Hutch's stable vitals and deep restorative sleep to leave the floor for a quick meal and shower in the physician's lounge. Captain Dobey had been in and out but was currently visiting with Mrs.Yeager and Richie down the hall in the intensive unit.

"Can I help you?" she asked. "You're not supposed to be here. This is an isolation ward."

"I know."

"How did you get in here?"

"You're that doctor," he said, not answering her, but she sensed the evasion wasn't deliberate. "You talked to us at Rampart." He gave her a quick smile that made his pleasant face really quite attractive and persuasive. "Between the uniform and a couple of white lies, I got past a very sympathetic nurse. I won't tell you which one, so don't ask."

Something in his face reached straight into her heart and twisted it. Maybe it was the way he turned back to the glass and watched Hutch sleep with the same intensity she had watched her favorite "little boy" at rest.

"You're a friend of Hutch's?" she asked, knowing she had just broken confidentiality and finding it very difficult to care in this raw moment when human emotion reigned supreme over emotionless policies.

He turned shocked eyes on her. "You call him Hutch?"

"Yes, I realize as a doctor, there might be call for distance, but some patients do become friends."

"No, that's not.... I thought only Starsky--" He offered her his hand. "John Gage."

"Judith Kaufman."

He went back to staring through the glass. "Is it true what I heard? Dr. Brackett told us at Rampart this morning that the serum's been found. Does that mean he's gonna make it?"

She felt compelled to issue a disclaimer. "I'm not really supposed to--"

"I'm not asking for every detail in the chart. I just need to know he's gonna be all right."

"We have every hope of his full recovery. The serum has already proven successful in stabilizing other critical patients."

"Where's his partner?"

"I put my foot down and insisted he go downstairs for something to eat and drink. He's been living on adrenaline and sheer will the last forty-eight hours, taking on everybody he had to: my colleague and me, his captain, the entire LAPD, to bring the source into our custody."

"Tearing the city apart," John said.

"Yes."

He traced the large scrawl of STARSK on the glass with his fingertip. "That lipstick?"

She laughed, hoping she didn't sound bitter. "Yes. Mine, in fact."

He glanced at her.

"I suppose he wanted a means of being here even when he couldn't physically be present," she said, questioning her need to offer an explanation.

"Hovering by proxy," John said with a short laugh of his own.

"Yes."

He traced the name again. "Saved his life. Again."

Before Judith could stop herself, she said, "It looks like a big room, doesn't it? Especially now that it's been emptied of oxygen tent and extraneous equipment. You could clear the room entirely and there would still be room for just one person. Besides the patient."

He turned a look her way that took her breath and made her feel petty for pulling all the clothes from her closet and leaving them in a heap on her floor in the rented apartment she shared with Meredith, reflexive actions in a frustrated, exhausted fury after she had booked her return flight to Birmingham.

Without another word, John turned and returned from whence he came.

~*~*~

Starsky tapped his foot impatiently, waiting for the elevator. When the door finally jolted open, he nearly trampled the exiting passenger. Brushing by, he felt his arm seized, and looked around. For the second time, he'd collided with John Gage in a hospital. This time the paramedic's face held no guilt. But there was something wild in his eyes.

Starsky stepped back off the elevator with him. "I didn't call you," he said, an admission that stopped just short of apology. He wanted to resent Gage's presence as an intrusion, but the man wasn't someone who inspired resentment. For not the first time, he caught himself wondering if Hutch had felt that way about Terry. Then, astonished that he'd made that connection, he wanted to shut himself off in the elevator before he took out his crisis-driven, pent-in, fight-and-flight testosterone overload on this innocent civilian.

Unfortunately, the innocent civilian looked to be spoiling for a fight himself, and Gage's glare hinted at a scrappy fighter if cornered. By Hutch's account, Gage had spent part of his childhood on a reservation in close proximity to white townsfolk who didn't care for a sovereign American Indian nation in their backyard. Probably, the young Johnny had learned early on to protect himself against creeps who thought "redskin" baiting was a patriotic US of A pastime. Right now Gage's angry eyes labeled Starsky one of those forked-tongued land-poachers.

"I'd give anything to be angry with you," Gage told him. "Wish to hell I could be." He broke off with a headshake. "From what I hear, if you'd taken the time to do anything but what you did, he wouldn't be here right now. Tell me who I get to be angry at?"

Starsky understood. He'd come close to pounding his fists into Huggy's chest, so out of his mind with the need to vent his rage, fear, and helplessness. "The bastard responsible is dead, if that helps, but his blood saved Hutch's life and a lot of others on his way out."

"That helps," Gage said. He pointed at the elevator. "Tell Ken I stopped by. You forget that, and you'll deal with me. Just because I don't go around scrawling my name in lipstick doesn't mean I haven't been here, inside, every second since I found out." The handy-talkie at his side crackled, requesting a response, and Gage lifted it to snap, "LA, Squad 51. Ten-four!"

Starsky watched him storm down the hall. Knowing he'd seen a man locked out of Hutch's life, a man trying hard to at least shatter the glass that tempted with a view but no entry, Starsky couldn't imagine the heartache. He only knew he'd never survive if he were locked outside the same impenetrable glass surrounding Hutch's life.

~*~*~

The dinghy floated calmly on the placid lake, and gave Hutch a chance to catch his breath and talk his rampant hard-on into quiescence before he never enjoyed sex again. He knew Starsky couldn't possibly have missed the sudden fullness in his jeans, just as he hadn't missed the softness in red long johns--softness that remained soft--pressing against him. When air had to fight for space between them, and Starsky held him two insignificant inches from mouth to mouth contact, Hutch had no safety valve to release the pressure before it escalated to instinctual desire. And now he had the crash-down discomfort that Starsky probably chalked it up to nothing more than that.

He had felt his bones melt in relief when the most beautiful examples of outdoors' women he'd ever seen graced them with their refreshingly feminine presence. In his relief, he had joined Starsky wholeheartedly in the ridiculous handshake meant to reassure the girls that they had not interrupted some lovers' tryst outside a door painted in blood.

But for LA County's fire department shift schedule, he could have been here with an avid fisherman who'd want to go off trail for hikes in the raw wilderness and get up to all kinds of mischief under the stars, and who could spend days in the outdoors without begging for a hamburger stand.

No. Hutch couldn't blame the fire department or the last minute planning that precipitated the trip. The very instant the words "vacation days" and "lake cabin" left Dobey's mouth, Hutch's mind had flashed on four days with his favorite junk food addict and nightlife-loving city dweller allergic to more than three trees in a clump. Four days of teaching Starsky to appreciate the world far removed from concrete and the lullaby of traffic.

Now he was doubly glad he had talked Starsky into joining him. If they had stumbled on to something more sinister than crazy frat boys, and his encounter with the belligerent religious group led him to believe they had, then he wanted no one but his partner at his side. Starsky might be a virgin to the woods, but he had taken danger and crisis of the criminal sort to bed numerous times and conquered them both.

In the meantime, Hutch could exercise his need for physical release with one of the lovely Martin sisters. He'd seen the plans developing in Starsky's eyes. If the girls were willing, whatever happened would unfold in a group of four with no walls of privacy between pairs.

But if Starsky didn't get his ass out here, damn it, they wouldn't have a single fish to fry before the girls returned. Hutch rolled his eyes. Virgin, indeed. Starsky had probably gotten backed into a corner by a fuzzy caterpillar he couldn't find his way around. Oh, hell, part of teaching Starsky to love the wilderness meant rescuing him from insects. Hutch began rowing to shore.

~*~*~

Starsky came rushing around the side of the cabin with all ten trout in tow and found Hutch in the middle of a growling bear noise. He advanced on his partner, ready to push him to the ground and bury him in smelly trout. "That's it!" he snarled. "Owls, one thing. Lovesick moose, another. But you start making me think I'm gonna be eaten by a bear, and it's war, hear me?"

"Not to frighten you, buddy, but those first bear sounds were all natural. Not of my making." Hutch rubbed his hands together, laughing. "Come on in the cabin, Gorton."

"Gorton, hell." Starsky held up the string of trout. "These ain't frozen! These beauties are as fresh as the water they were just swimming in. But I thought you were hot to get back to the city."

Hutch shrugged, yawning and stretching. "Changed my mind. Why let those fish and all your beginner's luck go to waste?"

"Beginner's luck, nothing! I'm a better fisherman than you, and you can't admit it."

"For that, I oughta make you clean and cook them, too."

"Fine by me."

"Not fine by me. I want edible fish." Hutch led the way up the steps to the cabin porch and let the screen door slam in Starsky's face.

Starsky stood there, wanting to burst out in laughter but knowing he'd spoil the game if he did. "Hey, jackass, nobody ever teach you not to bite the man that feeds you?"

Hutch returned to the door, peering at him through the screen. Starsky felt his skin flame inch by inch under Hutch's intent gaze that lighted on his groin and leapt back to his eyes. "When I bite you, Starsky, you'll know it."

He couldn't let Hutch win this quickly. "Maybe I oughta call Johnny-boy up and ask him about the signs and symptoms."

Hutch laughed at him. "Johnny's no bite and tell, my friend."

"Fine. Maybe I'll just know when I come down with rabies."

"You came into this world a mad dog, Starsky. And leave those on the porch. I'll clean them there."

They continued the parry and thrust throughout dinner preparation, pausing only for Starsky to shed his waders and grab a shower, but seated side by side at the kitchen bar, an impressive fried fish dinner in front of them, Starsky wanted the conversation to turn serious. "We really do have something to celebrate."

"What? Lizzie Tice's homecoming?"

"That, too, but I'm thinking about the house sale closing last week. Few months of playing weekend warriors, and we turned a pretty nice profit, buddy."

"Starsky, we turned that nice profit because the area's being re-zoned, and I have a good idea the buyer's going to tear down all our hard work and put up a quick mart. We'll probably be responding to a 2-11 there some time in the future."

Starsky snatched Hutch's fork from him and speared a healthy bite of fish which he then shoved into Hutch's open mouth. Hutch gurgled and chewed, but cussed Starsky with his eyes. "There. And I don't care why we turned the profit. We had a good time getting the place in shape. Now we gotta figure out what to do with the money. I think it'd make a good down payment on something nicer."

After a sip of Coors, Hutch swiveled on the stool, propped his elbow on the counter, and rested his chin in hand for a good, long stare at his partner. "Nicer? Starsky, there are people who make careers out of continually buying and fixing up properties for re-sale, but we have careers already. One time was fine, and it had its fun moments, I'll agree. But to make a second career out of it--"

"Not talking about another fixer-upper. I'm talking about something to live in."

"You and me?"

"No, me and Huggy. Of course, you and me." Deciding that he couldn't carry on this conversation and pick for trout bones at the same time, Starsky pushed his plate aside. 

"Starsky, we'd make lousy roommates."

"How you figure that? We did fine at the Academy."

"Oh, really? I seem to remember--"

"Don't remind me. I'm talking here and now."

Hutch reached for his Coors, and his way of drinking looked like a stall. Finally, he gave up stalling in favor of his characteristic devil's advocacy, something Starsky knew only too well how to combat. "Ignoring the fact that we'd be pressing our luck in the Department--"

"How? Not in the way you think. There'd be enough women in and out that we'd more likely get hauled into IA and questioned about running a little stable of our own."

Hutch glared at him. "You're shameless."

He countered the glare with a wink. "Not shameless. Just factual."

"Two weeks. I give us two weeks without doing each other bodily harm."

"Funny, I had it figured at two weeks myself. We even see eye to eye on how long it'd take for us to murder each other."

"You'd get tired of my music."

"Never."

That made Hutch show his teeth in a smile. "Not mine, mine, turkey. The purchased music I choose to listen to on occasion."

"That, maybe."

"You'd bitch about finding your way through my health food on the way to your gut-rotting junk every morning at breakfast."

"Probably. Might toss some of it when you weren't looking, too."

"For which I'd take it out of your hide and make you go to the store for replacements. Every time we did laundry, I'd end up with pink socks thanks to your red eyesores."

Starsky grinned evilly at him. "Where's the big deal in that for you?"

"Ha, ha. Very funny, asshole. I'd have to wear earmuffs to sleep to keep from hearing the TV in your room blaring out your late night fright flick of choice."

"Earmuffs are cheap. I'll buy you a pair. And no pink, promise."

"You're all kindness and generosity," Hutch snapped. "With our nonexistent time off, you'd always be wanting to vacuum when I'm trying to meditate."

"So? In your Zen state, you wouldn't even notice until I'd run the vacuum right under your ass."

"We'd fight over the hot water for showers."

"Yeah."

"We'd haggle over utility bills."

"Um-hm."

"Probably end up in hock to the ER after one too many household practical jokes."

Starsky knew his face had to have a dreamy quality, because he felt the fuzzy warmth from his hair to his socks. "Sounds--"

"Pretty damned good," Hutch admitted, smiling again.

"Then let's do it."

"Starsky, you're forgetting, there's the little matter of my taste in bed partners."

"Doesn't matter, Hutch," Starsky said quickly, hoping to hell he looked casual.

"Doesn't matter?"

"It'd be your house, too. You could have anyone over you wanted. What, you want it to matter?"

Hutch's face had a vague forlornness Starsky couldn't understand. Instead of showing clichéd discomfiture, Starsky had brought an open invitation to the table. How could Hutch possibly want him to take a step backward and play the grossed out, "not in my house" card?

"You want us to wait on the house hunting, we'll wait," Starsky said, tasting fish in the back of his throat. He reached for his beer to sanitize more than just his throat.

"We can hunt. Let's just hunt slowly."

"Expensive, anyway, breaking my lease before the renewal time, and you'd have to put your place on the market."

"Right."

"Let's clean this up and head on back, huh?"

"Sounds good," Hutch agreed, looking relieved. "Nighttime in this neck of the woods leaves a lot to be desired."

~*~*~

"Hold up, partner," Starsky said behind him, pushing Dobey's door shut.

"What?"

"You, me. Case conference." Starsky looked around at the squad shift's late evening workers. "Not here."

Hutch turned from plucking the phone directory out of its prison of files and papers on top of the file cabinets. He knew by Starsky's serious cop expression that he hadn't pulled any wool over those sharp eyes. Phone book tucked under arm, he followed Starsky to interrogation room seven and tried sitting down casually at the table while Starsky saw to their privacy, shutting and locking the door. When he opened the phone book to the start of the "G" pages, Starsky shut the book on his hand.

"You really think you're going under on this one?" Starsky asked.

"The college was my lead, Starsk."

"Professor Gage? Professor J. Gage? Thought you got that past me, didn't you? Well, you didn't. I just couldn't say anything in front of Dobey."

"Any more than I could," Hutch said, pushing Starsky's hand aside.

"Uh-huh. I saw you rubbing your eyes when you came in Dobey's office. Your 'why me, what'd I do to deserve this' eye rubbing."

"I don't see how you saw anything, you and Dobey were so intent on leaving me out of the discussion."

Staring down at him, Starsky propped his hip on the table edge at Hutch's side. "If you think I have to look right at you to see every move you make, you've been sleep walking through about six years of our partnership. We're dealing with a pro here, Hutch. Or pros, if you bring the lipstick into the mix as more than a red herring to put us on the trail of a woman."

"Thank you for the case summary, Detective. I'm glad you're back on the job."

"Don't hand me that. The under cop in this op can't afford distractions. What do you know about Johnny's family?"

"Not much. He talks about an aunt from time to time. I've seen his cousin's houseboat. He's said very little about his parents, and I haven't pried. His mother is Nomlaki Indian, his father Caucasian, and his father left when he was a kid. He and his mom were forced off the Rancheria along with the whole tribe in '59 when Johnny was thirteen, because our 'generous' government withdrew recognition of the tribe and sold off the land to private buyers. That's about all I know. Don't know what happened to his mother or his father."

"None of that lets out this Professor Gage."

Hutch opened the phone book, keeping quiet until he found the "G" listings. He drew his finger down the pertinent entries. "Fifteen Gage listings in the directory. Coincidental names, that's all."

"You don't know that."

"No, I don't, but--"

"You're prepared to go under and bust a guy who could be who knows what to Johnny?"

Hutch shut the book this time. "I'm a cop, Starsky. I'm not the one sleeping with a potential suspect! Not just sleeping with her but letting her fix breakfast."

"That's got nothing to do with this."

"Fine, then. Hell, yes I'm prepared. If he's Johnny's long lost father, uncle, or cousin twice removed, that's a tragedy, but my job is to get a killer off the streets, and if this professor is a killer, he's going down. I'm sure as hell not stupid enough to call Johnny up and ask him about any relations to ease my mind. I'll go in blind and take the consequences, if any, with Johnny later."

Starsky sized him up with a look that never strayed below his chin. "Okay."   

~*~*~

On his way to the door, Johnny looked at the fire department calendar on the wall beside his kitchen bar counter, just for confirmation that he wasn't walking through a daydream. February. He couldn't believe the changes in his life wrought by the passage of time. Two years ago, he had let Valentine's Day go by unnoticed. Last year he'd been waiting for word that Ken would walk again without permanent muscle or bone damage in his left leg. This year on the day itself he'd been wondering how Ken's current case was coming along.... Now, several days later, a knock on the door brought the fourteenth back in his heart for an encore.

He opened the door to paradise on his doorstep. "Wasn't sure you'd get to come by tonight."

Ken's smile made his legs weak. "Left Starsky with a spaghetti dinner cleanup and two girls to help him."

Johnny gaped. "Two?"

"Believe me, Starsky's more than capable of handling two girls all on his lonesome."

"Damn. I'm known at the station as a ladies man, but I've never done the two at once thing." Johnny wondered why the relaxed smile tensed. "I'm guessing one of the girls was your date? How'd she take your sudden departure?"

"By the time we got back to Starsky's place, she was too busy flirting with him to care. If that's her idea of foreplay, I've got better things to do with my time." Ken eyed him in the undressing way that hardened Johnny every time. "Much better."

"Come on in, then."

But Ken looked uncomfortable. "Before I step over that threshold, I need you to answer a question. Are you related to a Professor Gage who teaches--taught--at Jameson College?"

"No. Not that I know of. Why?"

For answer, Ken dashed over the threshold, shutting the door in a bold slam and pulling him by his belt loops into a mouth-bending kiss that put Johnny right on the edge of flight. Breathlessly, Ken chuckled afterward. "Before I let you put those fantastic lips of yours around my cock, I had to know I hadn't just taken your uncle, cousin, or whoever down for a heavy fall."

"Sounds like I should be glad I don't know this Professor Gage."

"He's got a deadly personality. And I don't care for his teaching methods either."

"All r-i-i-ght. You can tell me what you're allowed to tell me over dessert, how's that?"

"Dessert? That's exactly why I'm here. And I'm not talking about cake and coffee."

"Got some excess energy to work off?" Johnny teased, reaching for the bulge in Ken's cords he loved to see and preferred to feel.

"Right now. Show me that new waterbed."

On the way to the bedroom, Ken paused by the end table beside the sofa and picked up one of the travel brochures Johnny had left there. "What's this? Planning a trip?"

"Thinking about it. Arizona, the Sonora Desert. In a couple months there's a vision trek. Thought if you could actually get some real time off, you might be interested in coming along."

"It's not affiliated with the Nomlaki, though?"

"Intertribal. Interested?"

"Absolutely. But right now I'm interested in seeing you out of those jeans." Ken dropped the brochure, missing the table completely, and hustled Johnny into the bedroom with a swat to his ass.

Seeing Ken sprawled in the middle of his waterbed had to top Johnny's list of all-time favorite things. Feeling the bed's gentle, harbor-like sway under him while he lounged between Ken's legs and sucked him to teeth-grinding desperation ranked pretty high as well. He didn't need a vision trek to reach ancient enlightenment. It was enough to pull away from Ken's cock, roll with him in a kiss until they had reached each side of the bed and returned to the middle with Johnny on top, pressing down on Ken's shoulders, using his cock to nudge the base of Ken's. Ken's eyes widened and he started to initiate another flip that would land Johnny squarely beneath him, but his captor decided to risk showing off his own strength, hard-earned and deceptive with his spare frame and lack of showy musculature. Again he angled his cock to nudge the skin beneath Ken's sac.

The captive rose up on elbow, pushing Johnny backward in another kiss. "You don't have to wrestle me down for it," Ken whispered. "Just ask."

Johnny caught his breath in a stifled shout of surprise. He released Ken's shoulders and let him find his comfort spot in the bed. "Will you?"

"Yes."

But there was open warfare in Ken's eyes. Propped over him, brushing his mussed blond hair off his forehead, Johnny could see the battle. He shied from the struggle as his ancestor would have walked miles to avoid crossing a holy burial ground out of respect. When he reached for the lube, he daubed it on his fingers and applied it generously to himself, watching Ken's battle go quiet with confusion.

"But I thought--?"

Johnny slicked him from base to crown, making the lubricating as pleasurable as he could for a tormented erection long overdue for release. "Now that you said yes, I'm too damned excited to follow through with what it'd take to get you ready."

"Johnny--"

"Hope you're ready for a wild ride," Johnny warned him, smiling through his own disappointment and confusion. "I haven't managed to get on horseback lately so I'm gonna pretend you're a barely broken Appaloosa with a lot of spirit."

And with that, Johnny straddled his mount and sank down on Ken's cock, drawing a shout and the bucks he'd wanted. He rode every buck and thrust like the naturally gifted bareback horseman he'd been since he could crawl. He shifted away from Ken's reach for his cock, wanting to set the pace, ignite his own orgasm, control the entire encounter as if he'd been able to take Ken the way he'd wanted for over a year. He sat tall in the saddle, daring Ken to stare up at him through the entire ride into madness. When Ken began to shudder from shoulders to knees, and Johnny felt the pulse and jerks within his ass, he helped himself to one satisfaction he needed more than orgasm.

Forcing by will Ken's eyes to stay locked on his and not the spurting fluid of sex, Johnny cried out from his heart, "Ah, Ken, love this...ah...love us...I-I love you! So much. So, so...oh, God....."

~*~*~

Fully dressed without bothering to shower first, Hutch sat on the wooden edge of the waterbed. He'd spent only a few minutes in Johnny's arms before he knew he had to leave their comfort. After the earlier lovemaking, they had eaten stale, store-bought cake out of Johnny's fridge and put away a pot of fireman's coffee. There was no more talk of Arizona. There was little talk at all. When they returned to bed, Hutch went down on his tired horseman, but pleaded a need for sleep when Johnny would have reciprocated.

In the quiet of Johnny's room, full of Johnny's things, his generous, fun, caring personality, his life in the sunlight and fresh air of a rescuer/caregiver who knew little of the darkness street cops saw on a daily basis, Hutch knew he had a life-changing decision to make. 

He was one more night, one more kiss, one more Johnny Gage smile from crossing a line he had not even seen ahead of him. Already his feelings ran deeper than anything he'd experienced with some of the gracious ladies who had blessed his life. The words he'd given his Russian ballerina sounded foolish and insincere in his memory, when compared to the quiet, deep care he felt for the man asleep in the waterbed with his left arm flung over his face, his light snore muffled by his elbow.

Life would be so much simpler if Hutch could slip out of his clothes and back into bed and wake up in the morning devotedly involved with a man and free of desire for another. A desire that had burned just under the surface for years, with occasional flares like an arthritic knee that throbbed in the background daily but ached with the rain.

But did he even want to be free?

If the desire he felt for Starsky was an ache, it was a beautiful, life-affirming pain that stretched his chest like gulps of freshest air. He couldn't imagine his life without the bolts of what-if electricity he felt when Starsky touched him or smiled at him in the way he only did with Hutch. Or moments like that evening's impromptu body-to-body undulations at the pier in the struggle against a fish too strong for Hutch's obscenely expensive fishing rod.

Freedom, he could reach for with Johnny, yes. Completeness lay just out of reach.

Hutch could see happiness with Johnny, his handsome, accident-prone, country-raised hobby-guitarist, ancient soul and brave heart with the clay feet of slapdash table manners and amusing jealousy of other fire stations that got more recognition than his beloved 51. The question he had to ask, that Johnny deserved from him, was how much happiness Hutch could give in return when he didn't want to be free of the need to look at Starsky with the rose-colored glasses of false hope. If the prisoner had no desire to walk through a wide open door, he might as well stay behind bars, but he didn't have to drag someone else into the cell with him.

The predicament took him all the way back to adolescence, when he first realized that he came harder and quicker to uninformed but imaginative jerk-off fantasies about an attractive college boy in his acquaintance than he did with his girlfriend in mind. As the awakening teenager, he had turned down a buddy perfectly willing to experiment with him. The scared, finicky, introspective Hutch hadn't wanted a comfortable, appealing outlet for his new feelings. Finding it easier to want what he couldn't have, and what didn't force him to take the risk inherent with action, he wanted the inapproachable Ivy League tennis star who spent breaks home from Harvard on the courts of Duluth's most prestigious country club. Content to lust after the tennis star from a distance, Hutch had played on the outskirts of sexuality with his girlfriend and kept his buddy at arm's length.

Was he about to make the same mistake this time? Was he about to walk out on the "sure thing" in favor of an impossibility, just to avoid the risk of being in love, truly in love, with a man?

No. This was different. Hutch's heart pounded painfully hard until his very rib cage felt sore. At this important crossroad in life, he yearned breathlessly for the path that kept him close to Starsky. He remembered the emotionally charged day he realized that Starsky knew about his sexuality, and about Johnny. He remembered Starsky asking if he would settle down with Johnny in a different world, and his own evasive answer. He had known Starsky referred to a world without police prejudice and the danger of gang beating or subtler but deadly sabotage, but wiping all the hatred off the face of the planet still didn't make it a world where Hutch was free to give his heart away. The right question was, in a world where Hutch had never known David Starsky? Where seventy-five percent of his time wasn't given to a man he'd never kiss, never know the salty orgasmic stickiness of him in his hands or mouth. Would Johnny even want a Hutch that had never been touched by the transforming hand of Starsky?

Astonished, Hutch knew there was no decision to make, no predicament, after all. The stone blindfold over his mind's eye shattered. Years of rationalizing his desire for Starsky as helpless attraction, the temptation of a gorgeous, heterosexual best friend who happened to be both tolerant and openly affectionate, had blinded Hutch to profound truth. If he could turn his back on the certain love that Johnny offered him, when he cared for Johnny as deeply as he did, there was only one explanation.

He was already in love, truly in love, with a man.

He was in love with David Starsky.

Johnny rolled in the bed as if adrift at sea, reaching blindly in sleep for the human warmth he unconsciously expected to find within his grasp. Cringing, Hutch set himself aside and thought about the man in bed. He'd selfishly, unconscionably missed the signs that Johnny had already fallen hard, beyond any hope of a painless separation, until one orgasmic revelation showed Johnny's level of commitment. Hutch had no choice but to cut the ties before they turned into a choke hold around the man he cared for. Up until now, Johnny had been no substitute. Hutch was guilty of leading him on, but unintentionally, or at least only with subconscious intent. If he stayed with Johnny now, he would be using him to fulfill a need that the object of his deeper affection couldn't. Hutch would gladly starve for male attention before he'd do that to the man who had made the mistake of falling in love with him.

Chest burning with grief, arms hanging leaden and heavy, already missing Johnny's comfortable fit in them, he walked over to the corner steamer trunk that Johnny had converted to a writing desk, and hunted for a suitable piece of paper and pen. He made himself look one last time at the framed copy of Johnny's high school newspaper, with John Roderick Gage proudly credited as editor, alongside high school track honors, and pictures of fishing trips, prominently featuring Roy DeSoto and another curly-haired, mustached man Hutch thought he remembered from his encounter with Station 51. On the steamer trunk, beside the yellow legal pad, stood another picture of Johnny and Roy, surrounded by two men in lab coats and a lovely nurse in whites and cap. Johnny looked younger, with a short haircut and straight combed over-the-forehead bangs. The paramedics and two of the medical personnel stared at the camera with goofy expressions, tongues out, eyelids stretched by fingers, rabbit ears. But the dark-haired doctor, whom Hutch recognized as his former treating physician, Dr. Brackett, smiled over the nurse's head at Johnny. Hutch could understand. In a crowd, small or large, Johnny Gage drew attention.

Just like....

David Starsky.

After half an hour's futile search for words, Hutch gave up trying to compose a painfully literal Dear John letter. There were no words. No justification. If he couldn't spare Johnny the pain of separation, he had no right to spare himself the serrated cut of facing Johnny in the morning light, before he walked out of his life and into the chill outside warm masculine arms.

He could already feel the phantom pain creeping back.

~*~*~

Dawn brought sunshine through the blinds on Johnny's easterly window, but Hutch remained in darkest night. Hours spent in silent vigil at the deathbed of a relationship had left him cold to the bone, fighting a nasty sore throat, and in need of Visine or stitches to sew his eyelids open. Johnny yawned and stretched, blinking in the strips of sunlight across his face, and then his candid dark eyes settled on Hutch's face. From there, Johnny looked down at the paper and pen Hutch still held in his lap, and in a blur of motion, he pushed violently back in bed to a propped position against the shelved headboard.

Stark fear showed in Johnny's gentle eyes. "No... This...this is it."

Hutch could only nod. "I'm--"

"If you say you're sorry, so help me I'll--" The gentleness disappeared, and Johnny made a move as if to shove Hutch from the edge of the bed, but withdrew and slumped back against the headboard. "At least you didn't leave some useless note. Just go. I don't wanna know why." When Hutch rose slowly, Johnny waved him back down. "No, wait. Yeah, I do. Is it because of what I wanted to do last night?"

"No."

"Because of what I said?"

The declaration of love rang in Hutch's ears. The truth in the words. The silent promise of years stretching into decades, if not forever, that he'd never expected a man to offer him, and never anticipated wanting.

In the ongoing silence, Johnny laughed. The sound had moistness to it consistent with unshed tears. "That's funny. No, really. Hilarious. I've been holding on to those words for months. Last night I thought--hell, thought it was finally safe...."

"Johnny." Hutch needed water for the hoarseness but took the pain as just punishment. "You weren't just an occasional lay. You'd become my lover, and it's my fault I didn't set you free before we crossed that line."

"Past tense already. You're good at this." Johnny's facial expression of anger had the same down to earth quality as his occasional tendency to chew with his mouth open. "I don't know whether I was an eternal optimist or just plain stupid." He held up his hand to ward off any response. "Tell me something. Women you've gone to bed with. They call you Hutch?"

"Some of them, yes. Why?"

"Never mind. Just wanted to know how dumb I've really been. You know what? I wish I'd said those words months ago. Maybe by now I'd be sharing this bed with someone who can give as good as they take, and I don't mean sex."

"I'm going now. This isn't helping either of us, and we're both on shift today." Hutch handed him the paper and pen and left the bed. In the room's doorway he paused and braced his hand against the jamb. "I'll never be able to make you understand how close I came to being happy--really happy--with you, or why that says more about how I feel about you than any words could."

~*~*~

When Johnny heard the apartment door slam, he looked down at the paper in his hand.

I'll miss you. Be well. Be safe. --Hutch

At least he had not written, "Be happy."

Johnny drew his right knee to his chest, encircled it with a crushing embrace and leaned over to rest his forehead in the crook of his arm. The note drifted down to the bed at his side. He had never been one to seek release in tears, but at that moment, he wished he could. His shoulders shook, the movement migrating down his arms and chest in racking chills that usually came with a dangerous fever, but his eyes stayed dry. He gagged. Dry useless heaves that brought nothing out of his system. Eventually, he pulled himself out of bed and walked in a stupor to his bathroom for a shower.

He stood under the streaming water for well over a minute before he realized he had not turned on the hot. He found the right temperature but couldn't seem to remember where he'd put the soap, somewhat surprised to find it in the same porcelain turtle dish where he'd kept it for years. He left the shower with the suspicion that he'd only bathed the right side of his body. He ended up with three shaving nicks. He wished he could cut his entire ass off, and thereby remove the stretched tenderness from a part of Ken--Hutch--he'd never feel inside him again. He walked out the door and had to stop and look down to make sure he had put on clothes. He saw a plaid button-up and jeans but couldn't remember going into his closet for them.

Outside, he walked up and down the parking lot twice before he realized he had passed his vehicle. He stopped and gave serious consideration to calling in with a fever or stomach bug. In his shape, he made for a danger to patients rather than a help. He splayed his hands on the driver's window and pressed his forehead to the glass.

No! He had nothing left but his work with Roy and the life-saving expertise he brought to the people who needed him. He'd be damned if he let anything get in the way of that. Certainly not a gorgeous, witty, talented, passionate, tender, asshole, son-of-a-bitch, jerk of a blond detective he hadn't meant to fall in love with in the first damn place.

~*~*~

Hutch huddled against the car door in weary middle-of-an-all-night stakeout position, working on his thermos of coffee, and watching Starsky's apartment door. He'd made it to Venice from Topanga on autopilot and walked back out of his apartment showered, but dressed in clothes he'd pulled from the dirty clothes pile in the bathroom without realizing the error until he reached the sidewalk outside, too late and too far to mount the stairs again. He had made the coffee strong enough to starch his veins, needing an instant dose of caffeine clarity if he meant to stay alive, and make sure Starsky stayed alive, throughout their shift. Knowing full well the kindest thing he could do for himself would be a straight shot to Metro, he held himself unworthy of kindness, and turned the LTD toward Starsky's apartment. He arrived with only ten minutes to spare before the door opened and Starsky stepped outside, arm in arm with two girls, who giggled and kissed him on each cheek. Clearly Starsky had gotten the threesome he had been hot for recently, but it didn't include Hutch. The round robin kissing on the top step now involved open mouthed communion.

Hutch turned his head, sickened. He hadn't appreciated the door slam in his face when he'd stopped by during the case to compare notes and found Starsky more interested in comparing notes with the smoky-voiced car saleswoman, but he had been able to laugh it off later and chalk up a score to his talent for bad timing. This early morning spectacle looked crass, an ostentatious show of heterosexuality, and for what audience? In the last couple of months, Starsky had bedded any female that had a pulse and looked at him once. If the hyper-sexuality had reared its head right after their open discussion of male-male activities, Hutch would be inclined to label it an unconscious, knee-jerk reaction on Starsky's part to prove that their close partnership didn't mean they shared the same needs in bed the way they occasionally showed up in the squadroom unintentionally wearing the same outfit. But this tendency was so far removed from their showdown on the subject after Blaine's death that Hutch couldn't explain it so simply. Nor could he excuse himself. He'd left Starsky with the girls, anticipating the result, setting his partner up to disappoint him.

And Hutch couldn't escape the dawning truth that he'd be laughing this Starsky escapade off, too, if Johnny's door and heart were still open to him.

Johnny riding his cock with the excited fury of a rodeo star trying to break eight seconds, those slender, strong legs gripping Hutch's side, sweat beading and dripping down that smooth, tan chest, ab muscles showing in exertion, love and passion flaring in Johnny's eyes, his breaths and gasps....

"Ah, Ken, love this...ah...love us...I-I love you! So much. So, so...oh, God...."

One more round of kisses, arm squeezes, and laughter, and Starsky handed Rachel and Mary over to the care of the cab driver. Hutch screwed the lid on the thermos and wished their work allowed him a shot of vodka to wash down the coffee. He wanted to crank the car and gun it from the lot on a straight line away from Metro. In a sensible world where Hutch was free to give his heart to the man capable of responding in like kind, he could stop by a roadside stand and show up at Station 51 with a massive box of donuts and tell Johnny he'd never be such a masochistic fool again if he could have one more chance. But theirs was no sensible world, and destroying Johnny's livelihood was no way to follow up breaking his heart.

Starsky had spotted him. Bright smile suddenly five times bigger than the ones he'd given the girls on the steps of his apartment, waving like a lunatic, Starsky bounce-strutted toward the LTD.

Gone were Hutch's thoughts of donuts and second chances.

~*~*~

Chet pulled his left arm free of the shirt sleeve and reached into the locker for his blue uniform shirt. "Anyway, like I was saying, I went by 8's to see how Carl was doing after that electrocution scare last week, and--"

The slam of the rear entrance door created an interruption, and all the firemen turned to greet the new arrival. Roy paused in buttoning his uniform and watched Johnny stride under a full black thundercloud into the locker room. The man's face had the hollowness and sweat sheen of shock. His shirt was buttoned incorrectly and one hem peeked out of his jeans on the left side. Before Roy could say a word, Johnny flung open his locker door, and Chet resumed his story.

"Anyway, Carl was telling us about one of their runs yesterday. Telling you, guys, West Hollywood's 'bout as bad as Venice. Nightclub fire, right? Only not just any nightclub. One of those drag clubs. So, 8's gets called in, single response, and Carl and Roger go in on a sweep, 'cause they get the word a couple of the..." Chet snickered, and made an hour-glass figure in the air, "...girls are still in there."

Roy wanted to wrap duct tape around Chet's mouth but had none available. Johnny's face had paled by another shade but he kept going through the motions of undressing.

"So, Carl and Roger are going through, smoke's thick as cotton, and they find the 'girls' in one of the back dressing rooms. Apparently, instead of evacuating with the others, they had to go back for their makeup. Some real fancy, designer kind, they said. Just goes to show, when a guy tries to be a woman, he ends up more flipped out than any real chick."

Before anyone saw it coming, Johnny lunged at Chet and pushed him up against his open locker door. "Enough! Hear me, Chet! Enough!"

"Johnny!" Roy grabbed at his friend's shoulders and tried to haul him back before he could do more damage than shaking Chet up.

Chet had never looked so stunned, mouth hanging open, mustache perfectly still, too thrown to smooth his shirt or pull away from the locker before his awkward weight distribution snapped the hinges on the door. "G-Gage, what the hell?"

"You're talking about me!" Johnny shouted at him, struggling against Roy's hold while Marco and Mike looked on in a half-stupor.

"Johnny, please," Roy pleaded.

"Talking about you how?" Chet asked, for once sounding more alarmed than curious.

"I don't mean pink Speedos and roller skates or trying to be a woman," Johnny gasped, still trying to get through Roy, who had moved around in front of him to serve as a buffer. "But what's underneath it all, what you're really running your mouth about, you're talking about me! You don't know it, but you are! And I'm good and sick of it!"

"How'm I--"

"Johnny," Roy barked, hoping the harsh tone would distract him before he jettisoned his career.

"I don't sleep with just women!" Johnny yelled. "That plain enough for you?"

Roy felt helpless and sickened when he saw Marco and Mike rush to get their uniform pants up even though Johnny hadn't cast a single glance in their direction.

"What's going on in here!" snapped Captain Stanley from the doorway.

"Just a little disagreement, Cap," Roy said, pushing Johnny toward the engine bay. "Go on," he whispered to him, "Rec room. Cool off."

Unbuttoned uniform shirt askew and belt hanging loose at the waist, Johnny trudged past Captain Stanley as if the man were invisible. Roy watched him safely through the engine bay before giving Chet his coolest stare. "Damn you," he said quietly.

Chet's astonishment instantly doubled. "Aw, come on, Roy, how'd I--hell, you laugh at some of the things I say when, and I mean--"

"Jury-rigged peace pipes and practical jokes are one thing," Roy growled at him. "That stuff couldn't cost Johnny his job and me a partner!"

"You knew!" Chet accused him. "You knew, and didn't tell us."

"Tell me how the hell it's any of your business, Chet?" Roy said. He looked around at Marco and Mike, who avoided his eyes. "Tell me how it's any of our business, huh? Any of us. Tell me that."

Stanley raised both hands. "All right. Everyone finish gearing up for shift. We'll deal with whatever this is later. Could be getting a run any second."

Roy buttoned his shirt without another glance at his station mates and hurried to the rec room where he found Johnny fully dressed and sitting hunched over on the leather couch with his elbows on his knees and his forehead braced in his open palms. Henry sat on his other side, and with the sensitivity of dogs to human despair, nudged his wet nose against Johnny's side, but Johnny was past stroking the hound's ears or offering any other reassurance. Roy sat down beside him and, for want of anything better to do, laid his hand against the small of Johnny's back. Johnny flinched and jerked as though seconds from bursting off the couch.

"Shouldn't have come in today," Johnny muttered. "Knew it. Knew I shouldn't have come in."

"Johnny."

"You were right, Roy," Johnny said dully. "Got myself in good and deep this time. And now it's over, and I just lost everything else that matters to me. I did, didn't I? Just lost everything in there."

Roy couldn't offer him pat phrases of comfort. "Not if I can help it," he said instead, putting his whole being into the words. 

Upholding its reputation for the worst possible timing, the station alarm began ringing through a multiple station alert.

"Station 51. Engine 37. Truck 8. Structure fire. Plastics company, 1806 Oak Road, nearest cross street Webber. Be advised, informant reports highly flammable materials stored on site. Use caution."

~*~*~

Starsky made a horrid face at the thermos and quickly screwed the cup lid in place. "God, this coffee is--there aren't words for what this coffee is. Did you stir some dirty socks in the percolator or something?"

"Starsky, if you have to complain about the coffee, don't drink it. Nobody asked you to."

The bad-coffee grimace turned into raised eyebrow confusion. "You're pissy for a guy who was up all night doing the unmentionable."

"Oh, that's what I was doing? Thanks for the newsflash, Jimmy, did you get the tip from Lois or Clark? I think you've got the market cornered on the unmentionable, Starsk."

Starsky patted his groin and let out a tomcat growl. "All I know is, the college back east should be named Rachel and Mary."

Hutch concentrated on the early morning traffic, determined not to let even his peripheral vision register Starsky's presence until they reached Metro. Unfortunately, Starsky had gotten it into his head to swap sexual war stories. "You went over to Johnny's, right?"

Hutch counted the billboards and business signs in passing. "Don't want to talk about it."

He felt Starsky's full gaze center on his profile. "You two have a blow out?"

"Damn it, Starsky, there were only six words in my last sentence, and you managed to misinterpret all of them."

The radio's beep and interruption of static sounded deafening in Hutch's hypersensitivity to silence. "Zebra Three, come in, Zebra Three."

Still watching Hutch's profile, Starsky reached for the mic. "Zebra Three, go ahead Control."

"Shots fired at Dale Terrace Apartments unit eighteen, apartment B, respond code-three."

"Ten-four, Control, we are responding."

~*~*~

Roy took the red light at ten miles over and noticed that Johnny didn't give him the customary side look. "What happened?"

Johnny fidgeted with his helmet's chin strap. "I don't wanna talk about it."

"All right."

Just as Roy anticipated, the feigned indifference unlocked Johnny's jaw. "I'm an idiot, Roy, that's what."

"Thought you didn't wanna talk about it."

"You're the one who asked."

"Well, I was hoping if I asked, you'd decide you didn't wanna talk about it."

"Roy, if they ever do an autopsy on your brain, they'll find a bunch of one way streets with no cross-street connectors."

Roy produced the expected long-suffering sigh. "Okay, you win. Maybe it's better if you do talk about it."

"Oh, yeah? Like how?"

"Because, Johnny, when you clam up, things go from bad to worse, and this run we're on? You know the one fire hazard the whole station has feared for years? Plastics company with the storage room, two aisles of 325-pound cartons stacked eight-feet high? That's where we're headed now. So get this other out of your system before we get there."

"Okay, I'll tell you what happened. Here's some advice for you, Roy. Just in case things don't work out for you and Joanne, and you start thinking a guy might be the ticket? Don't ever tell a guy you love him." Warming to his subject, Johnny used his hands as visual aids, pointing, slicing the air. "You can tell a buddy you love him in a back-patting way. No problem. But don't ever drag out the romantic version with a guy."

Roy braked gently to give a pickup time to pull over and free the lane for speed passing. "Well, I doubt that'll ever come into play for me, but thanks for the advice just the same."

"And another thing. Don't ever fall for a cop. No sir." Another slice of Johnny's hand through the air. "And if you have to fall for a cop, don't fall for one positively hung up on his partner. His straight partner. That's disaster in the making right there."

"Sounds like the decks were stacked against you."

"Hell, Roy, the decks were stacked so high I'd have had to use the Snorkel to get over 'em. Crummy jerk. I was willing to give up girls for him! Me!"

"Uh-huh."

"You remember what you used to say about me, right? 'Never met a skirt he didn't like.' You even told Dix that once or twice."

"And several variations of the same."

"Yeah, some of it was cover, but not all. I've never had a problem knowing what to do with girls in the bedroom."

Roy slid him a quick sideways glance. "Never thought you did."

"I mean, some guys who sleep with men can't even get it up for women, you know? No guy, no go. And that's fine for them, but that's never been me. So, maybe I prefer guys. Maybe I know that now. So what? We can't always have what we prefer in life, right?"

"No, I guess not. What're you saying?"

"If you find out ice cream gives you hives, but sorbet doesn't, and sorbet is right there available, why not take the sorbet and forget about the ice cream, that's what I'm saying."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning I think I'd be better off just going back to girls."

For that brilliant timing, Roy had only a frown. "Pity you couldn't have made that decision before you outed yourself to the whole A-shift in the locker room."

"Not just A-shift. By the time Chet runs out of breath, every station in LA County will know." Johnny looked out his window, then down at his lap. "That was dumb, you're right. This might be our last run together, partner."

"Doubt it. Stanley's a fair guy. He knows you'd be tough to replace. If he can convince the other guys to deal with it, and keep their mouths shut about it, then we've got a chance."

"Thanks, Roy."

"For what?"

"The we."

"Don't mention it." Roy smirked and, safely speeding down a straight-away, risked moving his right hand from the steering wheel to pat Johnny's shoulder. "After all, I love you, Johnny."

Johnny groaned and rested his head back against the cab divider. "Everybody's a comedian."

~*~*~

Starsky cut the siren two blocks from the apartment complex entrance. Hutch had to slow down to make the tight right turn into the lot, the entrance and exit both narrowed by the median sign's brickwork and flowerbed. Starsky wrestled with the half-broken window knob until he'd managed to lower the window. "Left up here. We're looking for 18B."

The apartments were the usual cheap wood painted to look expensive and alluring, with unnecessary trim work and ridiculous diamond-paned front windows. On the end unit's strip of "lawn," a miniature man jumped up and down, waving both hands overhead. Hutch slammed on the brakes and rushed to calm him down before they had a cardiac case on their hands along with whatever awaited them in 18B.

"Up there!" the man pointed behind him at the third floor. "The Nelsons. I think somebody's gonna get killed in there!"

"Sir, stand still and take a deep breath. All right. Now who are you?"

"Roger Dawson, the apartment manager." Back to pointing with over half his body involved in the gesture, the little man reminded Hutch of a terrier jumping for a treat dangled just out of reach. "Maryann Parker in the neighboring unit called me when she heard gunshots, and I told her to stay put and I called the police."

Hutch patted his shoulder and nodded over his head at Starsky. "You take your own advice and stay put, Mr. Dawson. We'll take care of it."

They took the outside steps along each side of the narrow stairwell, leaving a free space in between so that any fleeing suspect would run into a trap rather than bowling them all down the stairs. When another shot rang out, they didn't waste time knocking on the door to announce police presence. Gun cocked and ready in a two-handed grip over his head, Starsky delivered the lock-busting kick to the door, and Hutch went in first and high, his own weapon leveled at the living room. Raised voices and an enraged feminine scream from the back of the apartment drew them down the hall.

"Put the gun down, Denise! You're gonna hurt yourself."

"I'm gonna hurt you, you two-timing son-of-a-bitch. After I take care of the other woman here." The venom in her voice threatened imminent murder and hastened the detectives down the hall.

With their shared knowledge that too many cops lost their lives in the middle of domestic disputes, Hutch fielded Starsky's "you stay alive, damn it" look with one of his own in response.

"Mrs. Nelson, it's the police!" Hutch called from the hallway. "Drop your weapon, and come out of the room slowly with your hands in the air." He held his breath, watching Starsky, memorizing every laughter line, each bit of stubble Starsky had missed in a rushed morning shave, the nick on the right jaw line with a piece of Kleenex stuck to it. He wanted a picture of that face burned into his brain for posterity or to carry into eternity, because if they had to breach that doorway with no clear line of sight, a civilian's gun draw might out of tragic luck be quicker than one of theirs.

They heard a heavy, muffled metallic thud followed by a woman's harsh sobs, but no accompanying footfalls. Starsky nodded sideways at the open door, twirling his fingers to indicate an "in and out." Guns raised, they peeked in from either side of the door, glimpsing the gun on the floor at the woman's feet. On their armed entry, the woman jumped and then crumpled to her knees.

Starsky emptied the woman's gun of its remaining two bullets, and turned his attention to the couple huddled together under the covers, trying to hide their nudity. He lifted his navy windbreaker to holster his gun. "Either of you hurt?"

"No," said the man whose voice they had already heard. "She, uh, she just waved it around yelling and then shot at the floor."

"At the floor?" Hutch's thoughts aligned with Starsky's instantly, because Starsky took off out the door and down the hall, no doubt to check on the apartment below.

"What's the trouble?" the woman in the bed asked.

Hutch squatted to put his arm around Denise's shoulders and help her to her feet. "If these floors are as thin as some we've seen, then there's a good chance the bullets reached the apartment below."

"Y-you mean, I-I might've hurt s-somebody?" Denise pushed her long dark hair over her shoulders and revealed a tear-streaked face, mascara trailing down and dripping from her chin. "I-I didn't think!"

"No, I guess you didn't," Hutch tried to keep his voice level and soft. The poor shivering creature in his semi-embrace had suffered enough.

"I w-work third shift at the Mercury Answering Service. We had an equipment malfunction this morning, so they l-let us out early. N-now I know why Billy wanted me to take the t-third shift job."

"Denise--"

"You just shut up, you lousy creep! I wish to God I'd aimed at you instead of the floor!"

"Take it easy, Mrs. Nelson."

"Take it easy?" she yelled at Hutch. Then her face stiffened again and fresh tears welled in her eyes. "I have a permit for that gun if that makes any difference. Working third shift, I need to feel safe."

"I understand that, Mrs. Nelson, but carrying the gun in your purse makes it a concealed weapon."

"Concealed weapon!" She waved her hand at the bed. "You're talking to me about concealment?"

Starsky appeared in the doorway. "Downstairs apartment is empty. Mr. Dawson said the family's on vacation."

"Thank God," Denise sobbed. "Can you believe the nerve of this guy? Shacking up with his ex-wife!"

"Denise, this was a one-time thing," said the ex-wife, steadier-voiced now.

"Oh, spin me another yarn, you man-stealing cow!" Denise screeched at her. "When it's over, it's supposed to be over!"

"Denise," Billy Nelson pleaded, "you acted like you didn't even wanna be around me."

"I was having a rough time, you orangoutang! That doesn't mean you go running back to the woman you ditched three years ago. How do you think that makes me feel? You'd rather have what you already discarded than be with me."

"I really don't like being referred to as yesterday's garbage," the other woman protested.

Hutch suddenly had 120 pounds of enraged female struggling against his hold to do more violence with her bare hands than she had with her firearm. "I don't give a good diggity damn what you want to be referred to, you, you female orangoutang! You know what, Billy? You're gonna have two ex-wives. Which of us will you want to shack up with now?"

Eyeing Denise's fingernails and her teeth-bared, wild eyed rage, Billy began to shiver and draw the covers tighter to himself. "I think I'm gonna try celibacy."

~*~*~

"There's no doubt, Cap, we've got to get into that storage room. From what I could see through the window, he's pinned good, and if shock's setting in and we can't get an IV started in time...."

Captain Stanley nodded at Roy. "Right. I was afraid of that."

"We could try going in through the roof," Johnny suggested. "It's basically reinforced tin. K-12 should handle it. Lower down with ladders, use the Stokes for evacuation."

"Good idea, Johnny," Stanley said, scratching his chin. "Except I think it's too risky putting direct pressure on the roof. We'd need the Snorkel. Hover above the roof and lower down with the ropes and safety belts from the carriage."

"Not enough time to get the Snorkel company here," Roy said with a headshake. "We need to get him out now. The main facility could go up any second."

"And take all of us with it," Johnny agreed.

"Now listen, you two. We've talked about this before. If we send you in there, we'll have to run at least an inch-and-half line with you, and as soon as those lower boxes soak up the water, the whole business is coming down on your heads."

"We know that, Cap," Roy said, "but I don't see any way around it. You, Johnny?"

"Nope. We'll just have to make it double-quick in and out and wait to get him out here before we contact Rampart and start treatment."

"Okay." Stanley raised his horn and called, "Chet! Marco! Need you both over here with the inch-and-a-half!"

Marco and Chet emerged from the warehouse proper with their water line stretched between them and team-carried it over to the brainstorming firemen. "Yeah, Cap?" Chet asked.

"We've got a man pinned in the storage room. Johnny and Roy need to get to him, but there's no good way but the direct route. You and Marco need to lay a cover spray on both sides, give them a clear corridor to get through."

"Ten-four, Cap." Marco readjusted his oxygen mask and nodded at Chet.

"Guys, remember what we've talked about. Those boxes won't hold long. And if they come down on you, it's--"

"Curtains," Chet said. "Yeah, Cap, we know." 

~*~*~

"Wanted to let her off with a warning." Hutch leaned against the LTD's rear fender and watched the black and white leave the parking lot with Denise Nelson in custody.

"I thought about accidental discharge of firearm," Starsky said, chuckling.

"Four accidental discharges? Dobey would've laughed at us and then chewed us bloody."

"Still...."

"Yeah," Hutch said. "If she hadn't tried to go for my gun there at the end to finish what she started, we might've been able to spare her the arrest."

"Her husband was too scared to prefer charges, but I'll bet you the other woman won't have any such trouble." Starsky scuffed his heel over a crack in the asphalt. "Hmmph."

"What?"

"Just thinking."

"Too early in the morning for that, Starsk. What're you thinking about anyway?"

"Ex-wives."

"Meaning mine?"

"How'd you--"

"You don't have an ex-wife lurking around, unless you've been hiding something from me for... No, wait, I'm the one who hides things for years." Hutch rested his palms back on the trunk and leaned his weight heavily on them.

Starsky squeezed the nape of Hutch's neck, letting his fingers linger in the longer blond hair. The common touch somehow appealed to him more now that those long strands tangled in his fingers, tickling his skin. "Hey, no self-inflicted ass-kicking after a domestic call. It's bad luck."

"Since when?"

"Since now. And, yeah, I was thinking about Vanessa."

"Well, don't give her a second thought, partner. Who the hell knows where she is, and who the hell cares. All I know is she wants nothing to do with me, and that's about fifty-percent more than I want to do with her."

Starsky stared at him under the sun protection of his left hand. From the direction of the highway came the wailing of a fire truck siren. Hutch's neck muscles tensed against Starsky's hand, and he squeezed again, wanting badly to distract Hutch from the sound before it faded in the distance.

"When it's over, it's supposed to be over," Hutch said.

"What?" Starsky asked, uncertain he'd heard right.

"Nothing. Let's make ourselves available and head on into the station."

"Hutch, you and Johnny really have it out?"

"Yeah."

"What about?"

Hutch's face soured with his patented dark irony. "The tooth fairy. I say she's a drag queen; Johnny disagrees."

What could Starsky say to that? He walked around the car, slid into the passenger seat, and reached for the mic. "Zebra Three to Control. Log us available for calls."

~*~*~

Through the enveloping smoke, Johnny watched Chet and Marco double team the flames that threatened the exit corridor. "We've gotta get him out of here now!"

Roy returned his mask to his face, Johnny's cue to remove his own and apply it to the patient's face in lieu of the more volatile portable oxygen supply they couldn't afford to bring into the flammable setting. "His neck feels sound!" Roy shouted through his mask. "I think we're just dealing with the bump on his head and the compound fractured leg where he was pinned. Let's try to--"

With no mask straps to impede his hearing, Johnny caught a sound that froze him stiff inside. He looked over at Marco and Chet, and then up the row of cartons, watching the top boxes start to wobble. On his feet, he forgot his mask and the patient, taking off toward the firemen, shouting, "Marco! Chet!"

Over the water spray they had little hope of hearing him. Chet moved out of the danger zone of his own accord, aiming his spray at a new outbreak of flames near the exit, but Marco stood to take the brunt of any carton avalanche. Pumping his arms for an extra burst of speed, Johnny threw himself at Marco, hearing a sound oddly like thunder, and registering a blow to his right shoulder. He saw his aunt. He saw Roy. He saw Ken. Fleeting glimpses of friendly faces or once friendly faces. The last image, strangely enough, was Dr. Brackett, shining one of those rare smiles on him. His fuzziness cleared, and Johnny wondered if he'd blacked out and had come to in Rampart and, if so, what shape could he be in, if Brackett was smiling at him in that tender physician way?

"Johnny! Marco! Johnny, can you hear me, damn it?! Johnny!"

Roy's voice.

Thank God.

Johnny felt a mask slapped to his face and looked up into Marco's panicked eyes. Marco sat propped against a sturdier section of cartons, and supported Johnny in a cradling hold. The firmness Johnny felt behind his back was Marco's chest. Chet gave them cover spray, his herky-jerky movements with the hose line testifying to the closeness of disaster. Johnny tried to talk. "I--"

"Shut up, 'migo," Marco ordered. "Breathe deep. You took in a little too much smoke, and caught a glancing blow on your shoulder from one of the boxes; I don't know how bad it is. But if you hadn't knocked me down, I would've been Marco pancake right about now."

"Roy!" Johnny shouted.

"Johnny, that you? Thank God! You all right?"

Johnny didn't understand why Roy couldn't see for himself. Then he turned his head and quaked at the hill of cartons that had efficiently cut the corridor in half, leaving Roy and the patient trapped on the other side with no water support and just one oxygen mask between them. He tried desperately to stand. "We have to get those boxes moved!"

Instantly, strong arms pinned him in place. "Johnny, stay put!"

"They won't be able to breathe over there. That guy's in shock, losing blood!"

"Cap's got 37's trying to get to them from the other side through the connecting wall with the main facility," Chet shouted to him. "We're gonna get 'em out, Johnny. We're gonna get all of us out! Now sit there and breathe, you stubborn son-of-a-bitch!"

~*~*~

"Damn it!" Hutch wagged his offended finger in the air and then sucked gently on the tip.

Phone propped on his shoulder in wait for a response on the line, Starsky looked up from spinning his quarter on the desktop. "Paper cut?"

Hutch tried wagging his finger again but the cool breeze he generated only stung the tiny cut. He flung the culprit file folder over to Starsky's side of the desk. "I should go home and start over."

"No argument from me on that one. First that guy cut you off coming into Metro's lot, and then the elevator tried to close on you, and--"

"Thank you, Starsky. Just what I needed. The play-by-play of a lousy morning."

"I think you stumbled over a nasty little leprechaun this morning."

"Starsky, you're not Irish. I doubt there's a drop of Irish blood in your entire family going back two-hundred years. How the hell do you know anything about leprechauns?"

"Know enough to know they don't always bring good luck," Starsky countered. He took the phone receiver in hand, shook it, and then said loudly, "Hello? Hello anybody there?" Frowning, he dropped the receiver back in its cradle. "Hung up on me, the little rat. Hung up on by a snitch, how'd you like that?"

Dobey's door opened, and Hutch instinctively cringed, expecting his bad luck to continue, but the captain's irritated frown centered on Starsky. Twitching his shoulder an inch in the office's direction, Starsky whispered, "He's lookin' at me?" Hutch nodded. Starsky shifted slowly in his chair, already assuming his innocent smile that never worked with anyone, especially Dobey.

"Starsky, get in here and explain this report."

"Uh, what's to explain, Cap'n? It's pretty cut and dried."

"Not the way you wrote it. Reads like a State Department brief without all the fifty-cent words."

"I think your leprechaun knows we're a package deal," Starsky said to Hutch and followed Dobey into the office.

Shaking his head, chuckling a little under breath, Hutch returned to sorting their recent case files. He reached for his coffee mug and boggled the clutch. The cup landed on its side, rolled to the edge of the table, and missed the safety net of his hand by mere centimeters. At the resultant crack and thud on the floor, he pounded his fist on the table and looked for Woolfolk's box of tissues to begin the cleanup.

Motion behind him turned his head. Minnie had come over from the room's corner desk where she had been in consultation with the team of detectives making an R&I request. She brought tissues with her and made quick work of the coffee spill, but Hutch leaned over and gently pushed her hand away from the shards of mug. Minnie walked around the table and helped herself to Starsky's chair.

"Having a rough morning, honey?"

"You could say that."

"Hutch, you haven't been out there breaking somebody's heart?"

Hutch immediately dropped the two largest shards he'd gathered. "What?"

"Small squadroom, handsome. I heard Starsky cataloging your run of bad luck. Sounds to me like you're getting spanked by the invisible hand." 

Hutch abandoned the broken mug for eye contact with the woman he hadn't known was a practitioner of the occult. "Invisible hand?"

"My granddaddy used to say the universe has a way of spanking heartbreakers with the invisible hand. Everything from the insignificant and annoying to the big, bad, and ugly."

"Minnie, I've been through plenty of breakups in my time without inciting the universe's wrath."

"Not talking about breakups, Hutch. Talking about breaking someone's heart into pieces, the kind of pieces that don't fit together right for a good, long while and really mess a body up. That's not the same thing. Bet you haven't done much of that in your time."

Hutch went back to gathering mug pieces. "No offense to Granddaddy Kaplan, but I don't believe in universal spanking."

"Granddaddy Johnson. My maternal grandfather. And he was smarter than a whole room of Harvard Ph.D.s. I learned long ago I'd do right by myself whenever I let his wisdom guide me."

"Did he give you any advice on how to appease the invisible hand?"

She gave him a motherly smile. "Nope. Has to run its course. Usually ends with something much bigger than a broken coffee mug, so watch yourself, honey, and let Starsky do his usual bang up job covering your tail out there."

Hutch dumped the mug shards into the nearby trashcan, but he couldn't take his eyes off their incompleteness. "Did he tell you what happens to the heartbreakees?"

"Um-hm. Universe lets up on them, a little, to soften the blow. Sprinkles a little magic their way. A little miracle here, a little windfall there. Maybe their fondest wish comes true. Guess it's kinda like the Good Book talks about the first being last, the last being first."

Remembering Johnny's dazed, pale-faced silence at his parting words, Hutch hoped for his ex-lover's sake that part of Granddaddy Johnson's superstition had basis in fact. 

~*~*~

Captain Stanley leaned into the kitchen doorway and motioned for Johnny. "Gage? My office."

Johnny felt the weight of four pairs of eyes on his back as he left the table. Five, counting Henry, who actually lifted his head from the sofa with a half-hearted woof. Whatever news Stanley had for him, Johnny was glad for the summons, an excuse to ditch the quietest lunch he'd ever experienced at Station 51. When even Chet couldn't find some lame conversation starter, A-shift had little hope of returning to normalcy in the near future. In the setting of a fire to fight, they could rely on old patterns, old lines of communication, and function as a team, but in quarters, they resembled separate islands in a chain.

Stanley sat behind his deck and kicked back in his chair. The informal posture should have eased Johnny's mind, but he stood in inspection formation, with his hands clasped behind his back, as if facing the battalion chief.

"Johnny, I had a talk with each of the guys while you and Roy were at Rampart with the storage room injury victim. The consensus is that you're one hell of a firefighter and paramedic."

"Thank you, Cap."

"By the way, how's the shoulder?"

Johnny jiggled his arm and patted the shoulder for good measure. "No dislocation, muscle tear, or fracture. Brackett said I was real lucky. I'll have a nifty bruise, and it'll be sore as hell, but nothing to keep me off the job."

Stanley smiled. "What happened this morning in the locker room doesn't change the fact that you've saved the life of each and every one of us at one point or another, and what you did for Marco this morning is just another example."

"You guys have saved my bacon more than once, too," Johnny said.

"We're a good team, A-shift. But a good team doesn't mean that one member can make life decisions for another. Roy made a valid point this morning. What you do in your off-duty time, short of something illegal, shouldn't be any of our business. If Roy wanted to have an affair with a swimsuit model, Marco started dating three nurses at the same time, or Mike decided to join a nudist colony, there would be no threat to their job security. There shouldn't be in your case either. None of it has anything to do with what's expected of you here in the station or out in the field."

Johnny tugged on both ear lobes and stepped closer to the desk in case his hearing had decided to play tricks on him. "Cap, are you saying--?"

"I'm saying if you decide to spin the bottle with one of the guys from B-shift, I don't care, as long as you continue to serve LA County with the distinction you always have. I draw the line at A-shift, though. I won't stand for two firefighters on the same shift involved with each other on that level. Too dangerous. Too much chance of lethal hesitation or distraction in the field."

"Captain, I've, uh, never been involved with a firefighter." He felt the dull pain in his chest again and wondered briefly if he'd ever been the cause of someone feeling the uncomfortable sensation. "As of this morning, I'm not involved with anyone."

Stanley rubbed his chin, nodding. "Ah. So that's what triggered the explosion?"

"Beg your pardon?"

"You usually put Chet in his place with a witty comeback or make his nonsense backfire on him. I figured this morning there had to be extenuating circumstances for you to resort to physical confrontation."

"Um, yessir. Are you saying I get to keep my job? Working here, with Roy?"

"That's about the size of it, yes. Now, I'm sorry to say I doubt the Board of Supervisors would back me, so I did my best to impress on the guys, especially Chet, that what was said in the locker room this morning has to stay with A-shift if they want you around to patch up their line-of-duty injuries."

"And they agreed?"

"They each gave their word, and I believe them."

"Cap, I don't understand. It's so quiet out there. When you called me in here, I figured it was to tell me the guys wanted me out. Not Roy, I knew, but the others--"

"Johnny, you work with good men. You threw them for a loop this morning. I can't blame them; threw me, too, when I got to the bottom of what happened. I'm sure their initial reactions were as flawed as the next guy's, and they're probably sitting in there right now none too proud of it. You go in there and let them know all is forgiven, and you'll be surprised how quickly everything gets back to normal."

Johnny couldn't think of anything to do but go all the way up to the desk and offer his hand to the man that had saved his career. Stanley accepted the handshake with another smile. "Cap, you're the greatest. I thought I was done for. Big time."

Looking serious again, Stanley settled back in his chair. "I also reminded Chet that we serve all the citizens of LA County, from a parish priest to a used car salesman to a drag performer. Singling out a group of citizenry for derogatory remarks is unprofessional and ill befitting a fireman. I think he got the message, but I doubt he'll refrain from teasing you in his way. If it gets to be a problem, let me know."

Johnny could handle Chet's teasing. "Aw, Cap, I'll just hit him with a witty comeback."

"Well, good, glad to hear it. Now get on back in there and finish your lunch. I have what feels like a 5,000-page report to type up, and I've already wasted enough time on something trivial."

Johnny went whistling back to the kitchen. Silence greeted him. He paused at the table and clutched his shoulder, already feeling the soreness. "Thanks, guys. It's great sharing a station with big-hearted Joes like you."

Roy smiled and tucked into his hamburger. Marco pulled Johnny's chair out from the table while Mike brought over the frying pan and dumped some fresh french fries on Johnny's plate. Johnny thanked him with a smile and sat down to actually enjoy his food.

Chet pulled his chair over to Johnny's side and draped an arm around Johnny's back, avoiding the sore shoulder. "Don't need to thank me, Johnny. I love you like you're my sister."

Mike and Marco both tensed, but they relaxed again when Johnny responded by shoving a handful of fries in Chet's mouth.

Chewing vigorously, Chet said, "Not funny?"

"Nope."

"Okay, then. I love you like my brother. Hell, my brother's a klepto. No, really, guys, he is, and I still love him." He looked around at the various reactions. "That came out wrong, too, huh?"

Johnny took mercy on him. "Yeah, it did. But that's okay. I know you're kind of slow, Mr. 74 on the Engineer's Exam."

Marco burst out laughing, and Mike even added a couple of chuckles. Chet flushed, but his arm tightened in a half-hug around Johnny's back before drawing away, and Johnny found he had an enormous appetite for the same hamburger that had tasted like sawdust only minutes before his summons to Stanley's office. 

~*~*~

"You guys are laying a lot on the line, expectin' an ugly piece of work like Wheeler to fall for the crooked cops bait."

"Huggy, are you in with this or not?" Hutch sat down on the sofa bed and covered his face with sweaty palms, needing to hide from the other men in the room. At some point in the next few hours, he had to find a minute to process Vanessa's death. Two swallows of brandy had warmed his gullet an eternity ago, but the aftermath of shock lurked ever closer. He couldn't hide from Starsky. Weight dipped the pullout mattress at his side, and Starsky slid a warm arm around his waist.

"Hutch, I know you've had a rough go, but man, you know better'n to ask me that."

Hutch let his hands fall to his lap. "Huggy, right now I don't know better than anything."

Huggy nodded. "I hear ya."

The phone rang. Starsky hopped up, but Huggy beat him to the shelf beside the small TV, reminding them both with a look that they were guests in his apartment. After a grunted salutation, he thrust the phone at Starsky. "For you, of course. Dobey."

Starsky took the phone. Feeling the other side of the adrenaline high turn his inner workings to cement, Hutch lacked the energy or motivation to move over and listen in on this conversation.

Starsky's alarmed fidgeting with his wristwatch told the tale. "What--! But how'd they-- Well, yeah, I figured they would, but... How much time you figure we got? Listen, we'll find a place. I'll get back to you about the diamond photo... I know, Cap, I know. Thanks for the call. We both owe you." He stood there dangling the receiver by its cord. Huggy had to help him find the remainder of the phone.

Hutch wearily lifted his head, prepared to take it on the chin. "Bad news?"

"We've gotta get out of here. Someone whispered in Simonetti's ear that we'd be likely to go to Huggy, and he tracked down the address. If Dobey hadn't gotten wind of it, we'd've been sitting here when they knocked on the door. We've got maybe five minutes at most."

"Where will you guys go? I have a buddy in Long Beach. You want me to call him up?"

"We'd never get there. Simonetti went over Dobey's head and got the okay from the chief to order roadblocks. They're already set up south of the city."

"Roadblocks!" Hutch found it hard to stand. "Where'd the Blue Wall go? We've caught hell over the years for bringing down dirty cops, and never had roadblocks to help us out. I guess now the Department's determined to see that I really get a taste."

"Hutch, this is Simonetti's vendetta."

"Oh, yeah? What about the Department snitch that put him on Huggy's trail? I'd give my front teeth to know who that was."

Starsky headed for the door. "Whoever it is better hope I don't find out. It'll get so hot, the fink'll be in Dobey's office asking for a transfer to Fargo, North Dakota. We've always had enemies in the Department, Hutch, that's nothing new."

"And warrant-dodging will really make us popular." Hutch caught up to Starsky at the door and slammed it shut in front of him, gripping his arm. "If I go back in now, Dobey could work something out for you, before you get in over your head."

Starsky jerked his arm free and reached for the doorknob. "No! If you think I'm lettin' you take your chances in court on circumstantial evidence strong enough to make Dobey sign off on that warrant--"

"The people we've arrested have had to take their chances." Hutch put his hand down on Starsky's, preventing a turn of the knob. "What makes me any different? Roadblocks! That son-of-a-bitch Simonetti is dragging uniformed cops off their regular duties, leaving innocent citizens unprotected. How am I supposed to live with that?"

"It's a railroad job, and it's on Simonetti's head, and Dryden's, not yours. You're not guilty, damn it!"

"And if I were?"

"Hutch, we don't have time--"

"If I were?!"

"We wouldn't be here! If you'd killed her, you would've either turned the gun on yourself or turned yourself in, and you know it!"

"And if I'd called you over, with her lying there on the floor, and told you I'd done it?"

"Hutch, can we please wait 'til we're in a safe location to debate our moral backsliding? I won't stand by and watch you go to prison. Not now, not ever. If you go down, I go too. If they get here before we're gone, they'll have to get through me to get to you. Hear what I'm saying?"

Hutch heard. Resisting arrest in this situation could only earn Starsky a quick trip to the morgue. Knowing that, Hutch could easily let morality and ethics take the fast train to Hell. He released Starsky's hand and remembered that they weren't alone. Huggy had witnessed their aborted debate and looked pretty shell-shocked for a guy who had supposedly seen and heard it all. Hutch clasped their host's shoulder and tried to smile. "Thanks for the hospitality, Huggy."

Huggy's quiet nod was potent. "Go ahead and take the caddy, man."

"No," Hutch said. "The caddy stays. We'll have to chance it with the LTD. When they get here, you need to look sleepy, confused, and like you haven't seen us in days. Don't give them reason to hassle you. Let them search the place and go away thinking they got a frozen tip."

"And the plan?" Huggy asked.

"The plan hasn't changed," Starsky told him. "I'll get back here in the morning."

"You dudes watch yourselves. Don't wanna have to make visitations to San Quentin."

~*~*~

"Chief thinks you're guilty," Starsky said when they had safely escaped Huggy's neighborhood. "That's why he okayed the all points south block first. Figures you'll head for the border."

"That's why we're going west."

"West? What the hell is west?"

Spotting an oncoming black-and-white, Hutch jerked the LTD onto the next side street and cut the lights. "Starsky, we agreed we don't stand a chance this time trying to hide in bowling alleys or pool halls. By now it's on the street, and there are about six dozen creeps in any given dive who'd love to drop a dime on the cops and rat us out."

"Right." Starsky was staring out the rear window. "Okay, he's by us."

Hutch turned into an alley between two store fronts, backed carefully out, and returned to the main road. "So, we need somewhere no one in the Department would connect with either one of us. Dumb, going to Huggy's, and it almost cost us. And him!"

"Right."

"So we're headed west."

"Yeah, I get that. What's west, I'm asking?"

"Topanga."

"Hutch, Huggy was one thing; give and take, he owes us, we owe him, fine, and he'd say the same thing. But you're talking about your--"

"My what?" Hutch asked sharply, barely remembering to brake at the red light. 

Starsky didn't meet his eyes. "He's a civilian, Hutch."

"A fireman-paramedic isn't exactly a civilian, Starsky. He's been in plenty of tight spots; not of a criminal nature, I'll grant you, but he's--he's good for it. I think we can manage it without putting him at too much risk. He'll get some say-so. Be on the lookout for a relatively safe payphone."

~*~*~

The minute Big Red pulled out of the station transporting 51's engine company to a rubbish fire that didn't require paramedic response, Johnny asked permission with a look at Roy to turn off the late night John Wayne versus Indians flick. Roy shrugged his disinterest and Johnny flipped the TV switch.

Roy yawned. "Chet just watches those to get your goat."

"I know, but as long as he's getting my goat with that, he lays off the other," Johnny said, stretching in the uncomfortable dining table chair.

"I'm gonna turn in." Roy yawned again. "I've got a feeling this'll be a busy night. You watch, by the time midnight rolls around, we'll start fielding runs."

"I'll be in there in a few. Got an itch for milk and cookies."

Roy stood in the kitchen doorway watching him prepare his snack. "You're really okay."

Johnny smiled at him and tried to formulate an answer through a mouthful of chocolate chip cookie, but Roy held up both hands and said, "Never mind. I get the picture. Don't eat the whole jar."

"I won't eat the jar, Mom, but I might eat all the cookies in it."

"Yeah, junior, and don't be surprised if you get a tummy ache."

Left alone in the kitchen, Johnny could lose the plastic smile. He carried his handful of cookies and milk glass over to the semi circle of chairs and settled in the one he'd left good and warm. Halfway through his handful, and already thinking of a second helping, Johnny nearly choked on his cookie when the kitchen phone rang twice. He expected a third ring, but silence had him swallowing hard and rapping on his chest to make sure the cookie was taking the full trip. When the phone rang again, he leapt up out of habit to answer.

"Station 51. Gage." He took a sip of milk and told himself he didn't want to hear a certain voice on the other line.

"Johnny. Glad you're there."

Johnny glanced over his shoulder at the doorway. Sacked out in the dorm, Roy might have heard the phone ring, but probably not. Anger suffused Johnny; his grip tightened on his glass and the phone. He loosened his left hand before he ended up needing stitches. "You've got some nerve calling here."

"I know," Ken sounded exhausted, and somehow older. "I'm in trouble, Johnny."

"Who'd you piss off this time?"

"Internal Affairs. Look, I don't have a lot of time for explanations, and that's in no way fair to you at all, but I need your help. Not just for my sake, but for Starsky's. If I had anyone else to turn to, I would, but you're--"

"A last resort?" Johnny interrupted. "That fits."

"Johnny, listen to me, damn it. At this payphone, we're sitting ducks. Does your station get newspaper delivery?"

"Yeah."

"All right. Tomorrow there'll be an article, probably front page, with my picture plastered all over it. Don't believe everything you read. The part about my--my ex-wife being murdered in my living room? It's true. But I wasn't there when the trigger was pulled. I didn't even have the chance to save her. You have to believe that."

Johnny clutched his milk glass to prevent a shattering spill.

"Johnny?"

"I'm here."

"Starsky and I are on the run. There's a warrant out for my arrest, but our captain's working behind the scenes to give us a chance to flush out the real killers, and that article is part of our plan. We need a place to crash for the night. Feels like the whole Department's out in force looking for us. We went to a friend's place, but someone tipped IA, and we got out of there just in the nick of time."

"You want to stay at my place."

"Yeah. I've got no right to ask, especially after--but I'm asking. Before you decide, here's something you have to know. If by some stretch of the imagination, the Department ties us to you, and things don't work out, you could be up for an accessory charge. At the very least, aiding and abetting, and harboring a fugitive. Do you understand?"

Johnny's chest had shrunk inside to the size of a doll's, and his heart took up the 1812 Overture. "I understand."

"Okay, here's where I give you about thirty seconds to tell me yes or no."

"Will you guys be there when I get in from shift tomorrow morning?"

"Probably, yes."

Facing Ken again worried Johnny more than the possibility of arrest on charges he really knew little about as far as the consequences they entailed. That danger seemed remote. The danger of Ken was real and close. Too close. He could feel warm lips caressing his neck, and large, graceful hands stroking him to hardness.

"Twenty seconds and counting, Johnny."

"Okay. Go ahead."

"You mean--"

"Yes, okay. Just do what you have to do. Wait a sec. How're you gonna get in?"

"Don't worry about that. We know our way around locks, and believe me, in this case, that can only help your cause. Better if it doesn't look like you put out the welcome mat. Thanks for this, Johnny. This is about more than getting my badge back. This is--"

"Life or death. I know. I've heard that before."

~*~*~

The change of shift in the morning tortured Johnny to the point of banging his head on his locker door. Newspaper delivery caused a sensation. Station 51's departing A-shift and the arriving B-shift gathered around the table in a loud debate over Canyon Super Cop. The debate evolved into something close to a mock trial, and Johnny didn't hang around to hear the verdict. The phone began ringing, and he wasn't surprised to hear Chet announce that the guys from Station 38's A-shift had called to express their shock and certainty that it had to be some kind of frame job all the way. After all, if Canyon Super Cop could be dirty, and a murderer, then the city had really gone to the dogs and might just take the whole world with it.

He had changed into his jeans when Roy appeared in the locker room to exchange his turnout uniform for civvies. "Thought I heard the phone last night?"

Johnny said nothing.

"You weren't surprised about that newspaper article."

"Nothing about that guy surprises me, Roy."

"Come on, Johnny. He called you, didn't he?"

"Why would he call me?"

Roy sat down on the locker bench. "Most likely because he needs something. Johnny, anything he asked of you right now would be illegal. You know that, right?"

"Think he's guilty, huh?"

"Let's just say a guy who drops you like a hot potato when you lay some human emotion on him doesn't get the benefit of the doubt from me."

"He didn't do it, Roy."

"That's for the courts to decide. Tell me he didn't ask you to do something stupid."

Johnny finished buttoning his shirt and stooped to retrieve his boots from the foot of his locker. "You know me, Roy. I'm in no big hurry to get on the wrong side of the law."

"I know you, all right. You're a terrible liar."

~*~*~

After a quick look through the peep hole, Hutch opened the door to a yawning Johnny who gave him a sour look and brushed past him into the living room. His jeans and garnet safari shirt triggered memories Hutch couldn't afford, but he made himself keep looking to prove he wasn't beaten. Johnny stood in front of the sofa where Starsky slept in a sprawl with Johnny's afghan spread over his knees. Hutch's black leather jacket moved up and down on the sleeper's chest with his breaths.

"Talked him into closing his eyes a little while ago," Hutch whispered. "He has the most dangerous part of our plan ahead of him this morning."

Johnny pointed at the lone blue sneaker on the floor. "Why's he got just one shoe off?"

Hutch shushed him and then chuckled softly, "Always happens when he conks out in a chair or couch. I don't have the faintest idea why."

"I need coffee," Johnny said and went into the small open kitchen. "Want some?"

Hutch nodded, fighting a yawn of his own. "I could use some, yes."

"Did you get any sleep?"

"No. I won't see any real sleep until this thing is over and done with."

"Saw what you meant about locks."

"We'll pay for the repairs."

"Forget it. There's cereal and milk if you want."

"Not hungry." Hutch stood at the border of carpet and kitchen linoleum and watched Johnny go through the motions of coffee preparation.

"Sorry about your ex-wife."

"Thanks."

Johnny's movements turned rapid and sloppy. Coffee grounds spilled over the can's edge, and he let tap water overrun the carafe, then poured a third of it over the side of the machine's water reservoir. He pushed the carafe into position and flipped the switch, then gripped the counter with both hands, slump shouldered.

"Johnny, say what you need to say. I owe you that much."

Johnny whirled on him. "You don't owe me a damn thing. You didn't earn the right to owe me anything. You got that?"

"Yes."

"I used to be real hung up on never telling lies. Just ask Roy. 'Bout drove him nuts. He believes there are times when a little lie can do more good for somebody than harm. Not me. I come from a people who speak straight sense. Well, I guess I really do have some white in me, because since I met you, I've been telling more lies than I ever did in my life. And this morning, I had to lie to my partner for you, and I didn't like it!"

"I can understand that."

"I guess you can. You're pretty good at lying yourself."

"I never lied to you, Johnny."

Johnny's expression made Hutch glad the man didn't have a butcher knife within easy reach. "Coffee's about ready. I'm going to bed. After a night with five runs, I don't need to waste my time on a jerk like you." When he started to push past, Hutch took him by the shoulders. "Ease off the shoulder!" 

"What?"

"The shoulder," Johnny gasped. "Hurt it on the job a week ago. Still sore."

Hutch instantly released him. "What happened?"

"Don't pretend to care," Johnny snapped at him, rubbing his right shoulder, the deep wounds reflected in his eyes demanding an instinctive reaction. 

Hutch's lips were on Johnny's before he could take a step back and think the action through. Johnny's mouth softened against his, then hardened, and Johnny jerked backward. Hutch saw the punch coming and caught Johnny's wrist in a right-handed grip tighter than a handcuff.

"You're not the first person to try a version of that lately," Hutch told him. "This time I had it coming. I'd even let you take your shot, but if Starsky wakes up and finds me with the beginnings of a black eye, things'll get real tense around here real fast." He loosened his hold on Johnny's wrist to let his captive pull free. "Okay?"

"It's not okay!" Back to rubbing his sore shoulder, Johnny returned to the coffee machine and got two mugs out of the cabinet directly overhead. "It's not okay to have your cake and eat it, too. But your people are good at that. You want land, take it. You want people, take them. You need some kind of substitute lover, take him. Damn the consequences."

"Johnny, could we please leave US-Indian relations out of this discussion? It really has no bearing, and I'm damned any way I respond."

"Oh, that's where you're wrong! It's got more to do with it than you think, but, fine." Johnny made his little sweeping hand gesture of giving in less than graciously. "You want me to come to this fight with my right hand tied behind my back, fine."

A snuffle followed by rhythmic snoring reassured Hutch that Starsky slept, his catlike senses dulled by inhuman stress and exhaustion. "I don't want to fight at all, damn it! You were never a substitute. First day I saw you, I wanted you, and wanting you didn't have a damn thing to do with Starsky. It was more than just fucking with you and me, and you damn well know it."

"Do I? When things stopped being casual, you could've told me where you stood. Then if I went in knowing I didn't stand a chance, it was my own fault. A couple of times, I started figuring it out, but every time I pulled away, you reeled me back in. Catch and release might be humane in fishing, but it's lousy with people!"

"You think it's been a walk in the park for me? I'm still attracted to you. The woman I was married to is dead, I'm up against a murder rap, on the run with my partner who's asleep just six feet away, and I still had to kiss you when you looked at me that way. If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't have walked out last week. I'd still be taking what I need from you when I can't give you what you deserve in return."

"I love how people who pull that noble 'can't give you what you need' crap never ask the other person how they feel about it. Maybe I'm one of those gluttons for punishment who wants what little I can have of you, instead of not having you at all."

"You're not one of those, though, are you?"

Johnny's pained shrug answered for him.

"I thought so. I'm the same way. Yes, I sleep around. But when it comes to that big, elusive l-o-v-e, right down to what love is, I've only got room for one person at a time."

"And I know who that is. Let me tell you what I think is really going on here. Instead of the guy who wants you, too, you're hanging your hopes on a straight guy who wouldn't know what to do with your dick if you pulled it out for him." Johnny laughed, and Hutch had never heard him so bitter. "You know what's funny? I say I don't go the home-wrecker route, and then I get involved with a married man. It's a sexless marriage, too, which is even more pathetic."

Hutch felt his own anger flare. "That's rich, coming from a guy who claims to understand close partnerships."

"Difference is, I'm not in love with Roy, he doesn't think he owns me, and we don't go around using people for the sake of our partnership! You guys are users, plain and simple. You even think you're above the law you're supposed to be upholding."

"Starsky and I have both bled for the law, and not just physically! This isn't the law. This is an IA-driven miscarriage of justice."

"Yeah? Several years back, Roy and I were accused of stealing money from a patient. We had to sweat out the cops' investigation and hire a lawyer, and keep doing our jobs at the same time 'cause LA County depended on us. We weren't guilty either, but we had a rough time of it until the cops figured it out and arrested someone else."

"If you have to stand there and judge me, Johnny, could you at least use a valid comparison? This isn't a case of stolen money. This is Murder One. IA has built up a convincing circumstantial case against me. Enough to get me wrongly convicted. I could get the death penalty, and that'd be the easy way out. As an accessory, Starsky would get prison time. You can't possibly imagine the hell cops go through in prison, but it's a hell I'll run to the ends of the earth to keep him away from."

"But you're not running, are you? You've got some big plan."

"We want to see justice done. My ex-wife and I weren't exactly friends, but I want her killers to get what's coming to them. If we can't get the evidence we need, then hell, yes, I'll run rather than let Starsky go to prison because of me. Worst of it all, it'll probably break us in the end if we have to do that, but at least he'll be alive."

Noise behind him signaled a waking Starsky, and Hutch turned in the kitchen archway to watch the process. Stretching in half-sleep, eyelids fluttering, Starsky twisted in the afghan, pushed Hutch's jacket off his chest, and rubbed at his eyes. Knowing he had only a few seconds before Starsky joined them on this side of sleep, Hutch went up close to Johnny and whispered, "He doesn't know where things stand with us, and I don't want him hit with it this morning."

"Fine, what's one more lie." Johnny brought down another mug from the cabinet.

"Mornin'," Starsky said from the couch.

Having seen the genuine, happy Gage grin once upon a time, Hutch could tell the smile Johnny offered Starsky had the artificiality of a male model posing for the camera, but Starsky didn't know him well enough to spot the difference. "Want some coffee?" Johnny asked in a voice so sweet the beverage required no sugar.

"Sure, thanks." Starsky straightened his holster underneath his jacket. "And thanks doesn't even cover what you've done for us letting us crash here last night, but we appreciate it."

Johnny carried a steaming mug over to him. "Hope you like it black and sweet. Cream just ruins good coffee, don't you think?" Hutch swallowed wrong at the emphasis on the word cream and could have sworn Johnny actually batted his eyelashes at Starsky in a way any sequined queen could applaud. "So, what big plan did you guys come up with?"

Starsky looked surprised at the question and almost boggled the mug of coffee Johnny handed him. "I don't think you need--" He raised his eyebrows at Hutch for help with the awkward situation.

Hutch nodded at him and lowered his coffee mug. "Johnny, it's best if you know as little as possible. In case things don't work out."

Johnny rolled his eyes at both of his guests. "Give me a break. I know I'm in up to my neck already. I didn't watch years of Adam-12 for nothing. If your plan involves getting back to metro LA, you're in a fix, because the news this morning said roadblocks have been set up in every direction."

Again, Starsky looked at Hutch. "In one way that helps us, if Wheeler's had the TV on. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to convince him with just a lousy newspaper."

"Yeah, but our plan hinges on you getting that diamond photo and making it to Wheeler's."

"Guess I'll have to 'borrow' a car and hope Dobey can get me out of that rap later." Starsky smacked his forehead before taking another long swallow of coffee. "I'm still asleep. No matter what car I take, if I'm stopped at a roadblock, that's all she wrote."

"And I have to be able to get to the meet location Huggy finds for us. We try to pull Wheeler too far out of his stomping ground, and he'll smell a rat."

Perched on the arm of the sofa, Johnny had been sipping his coffee and looking remote and untouchable during the exchange. When he spoke, his words stunned both detectives. "I have a Land Rover with plenty of room in the back and tons of junk for someone to hide under." He looked at Hutch, and hurt showed in his eyes again. "You should remember. There was room for you to nail me through the floorboard."

Hutch's face heated, but no more than Starsky's, evidenced by the heightened color in his cheeks and his quick head turn to the safety of the pictures of various peaks and summits their rock-climber host displayed on his wall.

"Johnny, there's no way we could let you put yourself in that kind of danger. If you got caught, you'd be looking at prison time, too. Not just a slap on the wrist. And our captain could probably do little about it."

"They'd have to catch me first," Johnny sounded both terrified and energized at the same time. "I can run as far and fast as you can. I can think of three Rancherias that would take me in a heartbeat, and I'd love to see your cavalry get me there."

"Damn it, Johnny, this isn't Adam-12 or one of your hated Westerns. This is real life, and you could get killed. Why would you even want to--?"

Johnny left the sofa and stood on equal footing with Hutch, eye contact level between them. "Because what I said to you last week hasn't changed. That doesn't go away overnight." He glanced over his shoulder at Starsky and then back to Hutch with sadness thinning his lips and making his eyes seem bigger and more lustrous. "You should know something about that."

~*~*~

Captain Dobey couldn't stomach the tepid coffee but had no energy to trek from his chair to the squadroom for a warming refill. He had even less desire to face the officers in the room and know that he would be instinctively reading their expressions and demeanor to decide if they were pro-Hutchinson or violently opposed. He took a bite of candy bar but just as quickly spit it out in a tissue, certain it would come back up the wrong way if he let himself swallow the overly sweet confection. A knock on his door made him tip the cup of coffee over and initiated a mad grab for tissues to save the open file in front of him.

"Come in!"

The door opened, and a stranger in jeans and a reddish shirt entered--a young man with medium-length dark hair and shaggy bangs. He looked like someone Dobey felt he should know, but he couldn't place the memory. "What can I do for you?"

The young man quickly closed the door. "You're Captain Dobey? I know that's what the sign on the door says, but--you're the real deal?"

"Last time I looked in the mirror, young man. Who are you?"

The stranger approached the desk and drew a leather badge holder out of his right pocket, depositing it on the desk. "I'm, uh, here to pick up a photo of a diamond."

Dobey picked up the badge holder and felt his stomach churn without the benefit of the candy bar when he recognized Starsky's badge and credentials. "I'll need to know how you came by this."

"I got it from the source." The man pulled out his own wallet and handed it over.

Dobey flipped open the wallet and looked first at the driver's license to confirm identity. "John Gage," he read out loud, and noted the LA County Fire Department credentials. Certified paramedic. "How do you know my detectives?"

"My partner and I treated Hutch after his canyon rollover accident last year. We kept in touch with Starsky and Hutch a little since then."

"More than just a little if they've roped you into a caper like this one."

"Nobody roped me into anything, Captain. I volunteered."

"Your partner in on this, too?"

"No, he's a family man. No place for him in this."

Dobey nodded. The man's responses rang true. His face had an inherent honesty. Dobey smiled. "Fireman-paramedic. This isn't really in your line. You're scared, aren't you?"

"Me, scared? Nah, I'm not--" Gage tried to smile, but the expression wobbled and his casual shrug didn't quite do the job either. "Didn't take a full breath until I got past the roadblock. After I flashed those LA County Fire Department credentials, the officer waved me through without a vehicle search. But I'm--um, yeah--I'm petrified. Shows that bad, huh?"

"Yes, but it makes me respect you all the more. You shouldn't go into something like this without good, healthy fear." Dobey dug under his desk blotter and pulled out a folded newspaper and color photo of the gemstone that had sealed Hutchinson's fate with IA. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate your helping my men."

"No need to thank me, Captain. I'm one of a dozen Station 51 firemen more than willing to help out Canyon Super Cop. He's part of our station lore now." Gage accepted the newspaper and photo without looking at either. He then pocketed both his wallet and Starsky's badge holder.

Dobey chuckled. "All the same, you can't be talking about this."

Gage pierced him with a stare two times older than the age Dobey had assigned him based on appearance alone. "You just said a mouthful, Captain."

"Good luck. You have to understand that my hands are tied if something goes wrong."

"So I've heard."

~*~*~

"You guys all cozy back there?" Johnny asked when he got back to the 4 x 4 from the payphone several blocks removed from Metro. 

Hutch heard the driver's door shut and judged it safe to peek out from beneath the tarp, raising his head high enough to see over the second row of seats and give Johnny a warning look. A foot to his shin made him yelp and duck his head under the tarp to growl at Starsky, "Will you please just lie still?"

"Under this thing? I lie any stiller, I'm gonna start feeling like a corpse."

"This isn't my idea of a good time, either. Your aftershave is nauseating in close quarters under a tarp. Did you know that?"

"Now, I do, thanks to my smart ass partner, and you're not even smelling my aftershave, seein' as I didn't even have a chance to shave this morning. Something back here smells like dead fish."

"That's probably my tackle box," Johnny said.

"Terrific."

"Starsky, it's a tackle box, not a carnivorous rodent."

"Guys--"

"Tackle boxes have hooks in 'em, dummy."

"Yeah, and they won't jump out of the box and get you, so relax."

"Detectives!" Johnny barked with authority befitting a fire captain. "Your friend Huggy said he's got a little problem. Thinks his apartment's being staked out by what he called a couple of suited stiffs in a style-less piece of police automobile crap. He's going to use his neighbor's car and lure them out for a little drive and lose them on the way to the meeting spot he lined up for you guys. He said the caddy'll be waiting at his place for you, Starsky, with the key under the driver's floor mat."

Hutch whistled. "Damn. Simonetti and Dryden must have more going for them in the way of cerebral activity than I gave them credit for."

"Where's the meeting place?" Starsky asked and stretched to push his head out from the tarp for a look at Hutch. "We could at least get you squared away."

"Huggy found you a safe meeting spot in a mortuary," Johnny said.

"Not the old Sunny Glen!" Starsky's moan conveyed his opinion of the mortuary-cum-brothel-cum-drug-connection where they had busted more than one organized crime heavyweight. "Place gives me the purple willies."

"It's the Ventura Hills Mortuary. Huggy said his cousin runs the place, and it's closed to the public for planned remodeling. Key will be under the mat at the back door mortician's entrance."

"Cousin?" Starsky snorted. "Wonder if it's a real cousin."

"Come again?" Johnny asked.

Hutch smiled. "You'd have to know Huggy."

"Would've been nice," Johnny agreed with a telling frown.

"Johnny, Huggy doesn't know I'm--" Another sudden shift from his tarp mate brought a few choice words out of Hutch's mouth. "What's your problem, Starsky?"

"You have big feet; that's my problem."

"And it is true what they say about physiologic correlation," Johnny said. "The bigger the foot, the bigger the mouthful, in my experience anyway."

Throat clearing from Starsky under the tarp interrupted Hutch's internal debate over which man deserved to die a painful death first. "Hutch, we can't sit here like this."

"Johnny, did Huggy give you directions?"

"Yeah."

"All right, then. Step on it."

The short trip to the mortuary had the solemnity of a funeral. Hutch guessed they were all feeling impending separation of a kind. He couldn't give more than a passing thought to another parting from Johnny, because sending Starsky off to an in-person meet with the murderous high-stakes fence Wheeler was a crushing weight that barely allowed Hutch to breathe under the already suffocating tarp. His lungs gave thanks when the 4 x 4 stopped again for longer than a traffic light pause, and Johnny announced their arrival at the enclosed private back entrance to the mortuary.

Moments later, the warmth of sunlight hit the tarp, and Hutch knew Johnny had opened the hatch. "You guys alive in there?"

"Barely," Starsky muttered.

Hutch sat up, hunching slightly to keep from banging his head on the roof, and patted down his hair. Starsky made a smart remark about a fashion show and got an elbow in the side for his trouble. For good measure, Hutch slapped the hatch shut as soon as he reached the safety of pavement and fresh air. He could hear Starsky's muffled curses and flashed him a "gotcha" grin. Starsky found a comfortable position cross-legged on top of the tarp and busied himself moving the offending tackle box and assorted other items that had made their ride lumpy and bumpy.

Hutch doubted a favorable reception, but he held out his hand, which Johnny actually accepted in a firm shake. "If we get through today alive and on the right side of the law, we'll owe a hell of a lot of it to you. Get him safely to Huggy's."

Johnny looked down at the tops of his boots and slowly lifted his head. He had drummed up a smile. "Well, I thought about driving him straight to Baja and dropping him off on the side of the road, but that wouldn't solve my problem. You'd just go after him."

Hutch returned the smile, wanting Johnny to remember him that way. "We'll call when we have some good news for you."

"If it doesn't go down right, and you need me to ferry you guys somewhere, call. If things go according to plan, I'll read the edited version in the papers like everybody else."

"Johnny--"

"I don't want you to call." Johnny's lips had a fine tremor that registered in his voice. "I don't ever wanna see you again, Hutch."

Hutch put his palm to Johnny's cheek. "What happened to Ken?"

"He'll live on in my fantasies...for a while at least. Oh, hell, while I'm torturing myself here--" Johnny latched his hands behind Hutch's neck in the way he'd always liked and delivered a farewell kiss that opened Hutch's mouth to a thrusting, demonstrative tongue. Hutch came out of the kiss feeling Johnny had finally fucked him, but the rapid tattoo of his heartbeat increased to dangerous tachycardia when he glanced back at the 4 x 4's rear window and saw that Starsky had abandoned making his hiding place more comfortable to watch the scene outside the jeep unfold.

The look on Starsky's face took more of Hutch's breath than Johnny's kiss.

He'd never seen it on Starsky.

Any closeted gay man would recognize it.

Confusing, thrilling, terrifying, brand new arousal.

What's going on in your head, Starsk? Are you hot and bothered by two men kissing because it's like watching creative new moves in a porn flick, or is this something more? It is more than that, isn't it? You're having some pretty sexy thoughts over there, aren't you? Are you wondering what it's like to kiss a man? God, am I watching my dream come true, and you're wondering what it'd be like to kiss me?

Then the direction of Starsky's gaze threatened Hutch's heart with spontaneous combustion.

Johnny.

Surely the universe couldn't possibly be that twisted, to open Starsky's eyes to a fledgling desire for the same gender, and then turn those beautiful eyes to another man. Unfortunately, Hutch wasn't up against the universe, but something less predictable. Attraction had no logic and didn't always play nice.

Hutch's heart slowed with something akin to resignation, but instinct urged him to haul Starsky out of the Land Rover and away from prolonged exposure to the new attraction. He dismissed the thought as foolish and beneath him. Starsky was still in that half-awake, half-aware, fragile gray time, when darkest night yielded to dawn, and Johnny, if he'd even noticed their spectator, was too good-hearted to wound Hutch that way. Johnny was hurting, and he'd taken his parting shots in the form of flirtation and innuendo meant to rattle a straight guy, but he wasn't malicious.

Those parting shots might have backfired, though. To a mind opening the door to a new sexuality, Hutch knew from his own experience, that kind of gently blatant homosexuality could be a revelation. As a freshman in college, he'd watched the ease with which two guys necked in a corner booth at a progressive "underground" hangout, and wished he had their courage. Six days after that collegiate epiphany, he'd bumbled and blushed his way through his first homosexual encounter.

Years later, he could still remember the wistful, envious respect he'd felt watching them.

His heart took up a new, rejoicing rhythm.

That's what he'd seen when Starsky had looked at Johnny.

Not desire.

He found Starsky's gaze had shifted to him. February changed to July the instant their eyes met. Hutch could taste heated moisture on his lips, and it tasted nothing like Johnny. With one blazing look, Starsky reduced the three-foot separation and barriers of metal and glass to insignificant trivialities that belonged on another plane. Hutch realized with a flame of embarrassment that he'd moved his lips in close approximation to the kiss he'd seen taking shape in Starsky's eyes just before the lids closed as if Starsky had gone in for a real lip lock. Spellbound, his natural concentration on Starsky's every movement enhanced by the ground-shaking shift in their whole dynamic, Hutch could see the slightest flutter of long, beautiful lashes against Starsky's cheek. He knew the precise second before those eyes opened again, and revealed a shaken vulnerability in Starsky he'd never seen. Starsky ducked back under the tarp, and Hutch caught his breath in a ragged gasp, rattled more by an imagined meeting of lips than any ten-minute long full body frenching with a man or woman.

"Buzzer-beating half-court shot, but it bounced right off the rim," Johnny said with a look that traveled between his passengers, and patted Hutch's shoulder. "And your team's star center went up for the rebound. Oh, well, I had to try. Good luck clearing your name, and with everything else."

Hutch watched Johnny execute a three point turn to maneuver the 4 x 4 out of the hearse bay, and wished for one more glimpse of Starsky through the rear window, but as with any disguise or camouflage, Starsky took this concealment seriously and remained out of sight. Hutch blew out a few long breaths and turned to locate the hidden key and let himself into a cold, empty mortuary for a torturous wait.

~*~*~

"I still don't see why I can't just drive you to this Wheeler guy's place. Seems like a real waste of time taking you over to Huggy's just so you can pick up his car. Once you're out there driving yourself around, aren't you taking a chance on being picked up?"

Starsky bunched a portion of the tarp into a comfortable pillow and turned over on his back, folding his hands over his stomach. He stared at the 4 x 4's roof and tried not to think of the possibility that Huggy might be inadvertently leading Simonetti and Dryden right to Hutch at the mortuary. "It's a chance I have to take."

"Why?"

"This ain't a fake cop movie, Gage, where the bad guys turn blind and stupid when it's convenient for the good guys. Wheeler's place is an estate with surveillance security and a couple of armed gorillas guarding the front gate. Alone, I got a chance of getting through, but even so, if I can't convince 'em I'm a good risk that front gate might be the last thing I see on this earth."

"Oh."

"Yeah, oh, and that's not counting what might happen after I do get in. Which is why I gotta know something." Starsky shuddered at the thought of leaving Hutch in anyone else's hands, even a good man like Gage clearly willing to risk his skin for him. Hutch was Starsky's responsibility, his partner, his....

Hutch was his.

But he wasn't, really, was he? And Starsky couldn't afford to let valuable time slip by without emphasizing a few important things to Gage. "If I don't make it out of this, you gonna stand by Hutch? Make sure he doesn't do something stupid."

"If something happens to you, there won't be enough left of Hutch to stand by."

Starsky's gut clenched beneath his hands. "It's up to you to make sure there is."

"I'll do what I can," Johnny said, broken-voiced, "but I've got a partner to think of, too."

"Your partner's more important to you than what you got with Hutch?"

"You're the last person that can say that to me! You expect me to believe your partnership with Hutch isn't more important to you than any of the girls you date?"

Starsky had to smile at that, and the uncomfortable burn in his chest from the kiss he'd witnessed outside the mortuary started to cool. "No, I won't to try to sell you that one. All the same, Hutch is your--"

"My what?" Johnny asked angrily, reminding Starsky of Hutch's question the night before. "My partner? I've only got one partner, and I have to hope like hell this business doesn't screw that up. Boyfriend, lover, significant other? None of the above."

"Listen, Gage, I might be walking into who the hell knows what this morning, and I owe you a couple times over for what you've done for Hutch, but you still don't wanna be dismissing him around me. Bad move."

"He walked out on me last week, Detective!" Johnny shouted. "Maybe before you start throwing your tough guy weight around, you should know who dismissed who!"

Shocked, Starsky rose up on elbow, nearly high enough to be seen through the 4 x 4's back windows, and twisted his neck for a look at Johnny, but still got an eyeful of the back of the rear row of seats. "Wha--?"

"You heard right. What you saw back there at the mortuary was my last humiliating attempt to make him see what he's giving up. Didn't work. It's over, and you're a man, you ought to know I've got no pride left if I'm telling you about it."

Starsky forced himself to remember the scene outside the 4 x 4. Unable to make out their words over his shifting and remodeling of his hiding place, he'd focused on their actions. The one that spoke loudest to him now was Hutch's hand on Johnny's cheek. It took him back several years to a sunny day outside a mansion and Hutch's similar stance before a tall, fragile blonde who had just found her freedom from a syndicate boss over Hutch's heroin-racked body.

"If we're gonna end it, we're gonna end it...."

Hutch's gentle, farewell gesture. How could Starsky have missed that?

He had no time to process the news or what it meant to him before Johnny said, "Based on Huggy's directions, I think we're almost there."

Starsky ducked back to the floor of the vehicle. "Okay, let me tell you what to look for. Listen carefully. You see anything like this, you keep right on driving, and I'll figure out a plan B. One that doesn't involve you or your car. Time you were back in Topanga and well away from this."

~*~*~

Dobey himself led the arrest team that descended on the mortuary after Hutch's call, and on the strength of Huggy's tape recording, insisted that Starsky and Hutch disappear for at least forty-eight hours with the Department's blessing and get some rest. He would handle the chief and IA, Dobey said, and any red tape that needed wading through could damn well get waded through later. He then dispatched one of the black-and-white teams to drive his detectives back to Venice Place where the Torino waited. Dobey had also stonewalled any attempt on Simonetti's part to tow the Torino back to Metro for forensics. For that little kindness alone, Starsky wanted to buy their captain a chocolate cake the size of the County South Court building.

He thought Hutch would stumble up the stairs to the apartment and crash, but his partner had other ideas. Hutch wanted to pick up the LTD from Johnny's. On the drive to Topanga, Starsky managed to keep quiet about Gage's revelation. Easy to do when Hutch conked out the second after he hit the passenger seat and didn't stir until they reached Gage's apartment complex. He waved off Starsky's concerns that he was too sleepy to drive back to Venice, and Starsky watched him wobble over to the LTD. With one long look at Johnny's building, Hutch descended into the driver's seat.

By the grace of fairly light traffic, favorable traffic lights, and years of experience driving half- dead from stakeout duty, they made it back to Venice in respectable shape and good time. Starsky yawned cavernously and followed Hutch up the stairs to the apartment, assuming his invitation stood open as always. Hutch let them in and stood in the living room stretching his arms out and breathing deeply, rubbing his face, brushing through his hair, and yawning. Hutch did not look at the floor between the sofa and dining area, and Starsky doubted he ever would again.

On that thought, Starsky closed the door and the noise startled Hutch into whirling around. Again he felt the rise in temperature when those soft, bloodshot, sleepy eyes settled on him. He fidgeted by the sofa, unwilling to sit down or numb himself with the beer he knew Hutch would offer him if he didn't open his mouth and get this started now that they had two seconds in succession without worrying if they were going to land in prison or worse.

"Hutch, what did Johnny mean this morning about what he said last week? Something that doesn't change, doesn't go away overnight?"

Hutch shed his leather jacket and dumped it on the sofa. Instinctively, he reached for his holster but it wasn't there. Dobey had not yet returned his gun and badge, and his holster dangled empty from its wall peg. Starsky feared silence or evasion, but Hutch had obviously decided that he deserved nothing but truth. "He told me he loves me."

Starsky swallowed hard. "That's why you ran out on him?"

Hutch's expressive anger reached beyond him, and Starsky knew it was stretching toward Topanga. "He told you."

"Does it matter? Answer me, Hutch. It's not like you to run from words."

Hutch rubbed his hands together and then tightly clenched them. "It's not the words, Starsk, it's the feeling behind them. He means it."

"From what he was willing to do this morning, I kinda got that impression. You walk out on the guy, and then you go to him when one wrong step could land him prison?"

"I had no choice!" Hutch's words emerged harsh and scratchy, and Starsky's throat ached in sympathy. "It was either that or risk letting you go to prison. I didn't expect him to get involved like that. I just wanted shelter last night to buy us time."

"Okay, so why're you running from the feeling?"

Hutch's clenched hands loosened, his arms falling to his side, and he stood there watching Starsky with vulnerable need and want showing in his lined brow, his quick, closed eyes and tilt downward of head, and the set to his jaw that told Starsky he was biting down on words he couldn't afford to say. A great man could have resisted, turned away, and waited for a less fragile, volatile time.

Starsky didn't aim for greatness.

He closed the distance and lifted Hutch's chin with a fingertip. "Me? That's why?"

Hutch's eyes closed again, but not before they revealed the truth Starsky needed to see. He took advantage of the closed eyelids to kiss them one by one. Hutch's trembling became shaking and Starsky enfolded him in steady arms, hoping their warmth and solidity could quiet the tremors. He touched his lips to Hutch's cheek, the earthy scent of sweat and unwashed skin not repellant but actually luring him closer to the natural essence of his partner. Somehow, it meant even more to put his lips to Hutch's and open them, sharing his stale, tangy breath, over a day removed from toothpaste, with Hutch's equally ripe mouth. Hutch made a strange, growling, grunted deep-voiced moan into his mouth and Starsky felt those powerful, heartbreakingly gentle hands shove into his hair, holding him in place. He had no intention of breaking away. He'd found Hutch's tongue and meant to suck every hint of Johnny Gage clean from it until Hutch could taste nothing but Starsky.

Somewhere inside a voice protested the motivation. Frenching his male partner had never been on Starsky's agenda until he'd seen Hutch taken in a breath-stealing kiss by another man, and his sense of ownership had risen up in arms more violently than ever. If Hutch had to have a man's mouth on his, it'd be Starsky's, goddamn it, if he needed a man's arms, he'd have Starsky's, if he wanted cock, he'd--

Hutch had dropped his arms to encircle Starsky's waist and pull their lower bodies taut. Starsky felt the solid heat of Hutch's erection and kissed him harder, deeper, searching for that raw, thirsty, scratchy throat to soothe it with the moisture of his tongue. Their mouths moved over, under, together, against, drawing away, returning. His hands found Hutch's hair, his jaw line, his shoulders, coming to rest on his ass and squeezing until Hutch began undulating against him, spreading Starsky's legs with a strong thigh that pushed up against Starsky's groin.

In the blazing inferno of Hutch's kiss and frantic dry humping, Starsky begged his cock to join in the fun. Scorching heat threatened to suffocate him, but his dick remained soft, no longer even touched by the weird beginnings of arousal he'd experienced in the back of the 4 x 4. His next hope was that he had Hutch too far gone to notice, but he knew better. Hutch pulled out of the kiss and stepped away from Starsky's reaching arms.

Flushed, hair wildly disheveled, eyes even wilder, Hutch rubbed at his own swollen lips and tried to smile. "Not doing it for you?"

Starsky quaked inside at the tenderness in the now hoarser voice. "Hutch...."

"It's okay," Hutch soothed. "I understand. Takes--takes time, Starsk. Coming from where you are. It's not an overnight shift. I can wait. Come to bed with me?"

Starsky blinked. Hadn't the man just said--?

Hutch laughed and reached out to stroke a fingertip down Starsky's chest. "Not for sex, goof. I'm worn out down to my toenails and what I could use more than anything right now is sleep. About thirty-six hours' worth."

"Hutch, maybe it's just that now's not the right time for the sex, what with--"

"Starsky, don't. You don't have to make excuses. I told you, I understand. But I don't care to be in that bed alone right now, and I'd like your arms around me if that's not--"

"Too much to ask?" Starsky shook his head. "You know it's not. Never has been. But can you handle it, I mean--" He held out his hand, wanting to touch the bulge visible in Hutch's jeans, to offer it an apology and a promise. "I could, um, help you out."

Hutch glanced down at his arousal. "We'll wait 'til it's a party of two. Starsk, I told you, I'm exhausted. This'll go down in no time and I'll be dead to the world for hours on end."

"Okay."

~*~*~

In the middle of the night, Starsky left the warmth of Hutch's arms. The full moon cast its silvery glow through the skylight, and Starsky couldn't turn it off like a lamp to cloak them in darkness. Wrapped tighter around Hutch than a strait jacket, stripped down to nothing but his underwear, he had spent half the night awake, feeling Hutch's cock harden against him while the man slept, snoring from exhaustion. Knowing he had Hutch's tacit permission, if not the actual words, Starsky had risked brushing his fingertips over the hard flesh in Hutch's boxers. The thick, lengthy cock twitched, growing, until Starsky saw a tip of spongy cockhead peek out of the boxer's slit. The intimacy shocked Starsky to his core, but his own dick slept harder than Hutch. Alarmed, confused, he gently tucked Hutch back in and gave the needy organ a farewell pat before he left the bed. Hutch moaned without waking and a little smear of wetness appeared on front of the boxers. Starsky ached from the need to feel that unconscious, comfortable arousal.

In the living room, he went to the bookshelf and knelt down to rummage through the stash of magazines where a small collection of Playboy issues hid below the National Geographic, American Scholar, and Life. Starsky had never found male beefcake mags, though. He knew Hutch's sense of caution didn't allow them. The girlie magazines were mostly cover, he had realized, displayed not blatantly on the coffee table but somewhere more subtle yet easily located by anyone snooping for clues as to Hutch's orientation. He found the issue he was looking for and took it over to the sofa.

One flip to the centerfold, a busty, chestnut-haired beauty with sloe eyes and the perfect spread to her legs, her high-heeled dainty feet posed in the air, and Starsky instantly hardened. Oh, the things he could do to that sweet wetness....

Starsky thrust the magazine to the floor, ashamed for the first time of his healthy libido and eager cock. Where the hell had his cock been hours ago? He could put his tongue down the throat of the man more important to him than life itself without a blip on the radar screen of arousal, but one look at a nude female stranger who put her goods on display for every horny Tom, Dick, and Harry, and he turned into a hot rock down there, ready for action. Fucked up, he accused himself. That's what it was.

Not fucked up.

Straight.

Hopelessly straight.

Starsky returned the magazine to its place and went back to the sofa where he sat, hard, wanting, but denying himself the relief of a handjob. If he couldn't soothe Hutch's ache, then he could just ache with him. All fucking night long. For a desperate, irrational second, Starsky wondered if estrogen shots would help his cause.

Anything for Hutch. 

~*~*~

Johnny didn't like the look on Roy's face. He hadn't heard from him during their days off, and he thought Roy would be glad to see him in one piece. But without the hint of a greeting, Roy changed into his dress uniform for morning inspection, and he looked good and steamed.

"Hey, Roy," Johnny ventured tentatively, "if you're sore about something, best to get it out."

Roy slammed his locker shut. "You read this morning's paper?"

"Nope. Figured I'd see the station's when I got here. Slept in this morning."

"Well, go on in there. The guys are having a field day with it."

Johnny decided he could be a few minutes late changing into his uniform. He headed for the kitchen where Chet held court over the departing C-shift guys and Marco and Mike, waving the newspaper high over his head.

"Didn't I call it?!" Chet crowed. "Told you guys he wasn't guilty! Told you. Pay up, Chester. Fifty bucks right now."

"Knew better than to take that dumb bet," Mark Chester from C-shift complained, reaching into his slacks for his wallet.

Chet pocketed the fifty, and then spotted Johnny. "Hey, Gage, Canyon Super Cop and his partner are off the hook!"

"Good news," Johnny said, trying to keep his tone neutral. He'd ached through the forty-something hours since he'd left Hutch at the mortuary, but he had clung to the no news is good news maxim and slept the anxiety away when he could.

"Listen to this," Chet held up the paper up and read aloud, "'The detectives' undercover operation not only netted one of LA's most dangerous and well-connected fences, but exposed a fault line in the LAPD Internal Affairs Division's investigative skills. While reprimands are expected in that quarter, the officers themselves are satisfied with the return of their badges and reinstatement. When asked to account for their success, Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson are quick to praise their partnership, but they also credit the assistance they received from sources that wish to remain anonymous.'"

Oh, boy.

Johnny slunk back to the locker room to face Roy's anger.

"Sources that wish to remain anonymous?" Roy said when Johnny came into sight.

Johnny opened his locker.

"Lying to me is one thing," Roy said. "I don't like it, but I can understand it. But you put this whole station at risk. You know the kind of scrutiny we'd have gotten if you'd been caught? Not to mention what you were risking yourself! Stanley went to bat for you, Gage! Without him backing you, you would've been out, lickety-split, a week ago. One week later, you let that jerk detective talk you into putting it all on the line again."

"He wasn't guilty, Roy. I told you." Johnny shivered at the chill in the room and his surname, which he hadn't heard Roy use that way in years.

"That's not the point!"

"It was something I had to do! Maybe I can't make you understand that, but it's true."

Roy nodded. "Here's something I have to do. Stanley told me there's a captain's exam in December. I'm taking it, Johnny."

"Roy, but that--that means--"

"Joanne's thinking about having another baby. After all this, I just figure it's time for me to make that move while I still have a chance at promotion. I suggest you do the same."

Johnny watched him leave the locker room and then sat down heavily on the bench with the uniform shirt clutched in his hands, caring nothing about wrinkles.

~*~*~

Dobey was in his office still hooting over the chinchilla that had a secret. Hutch hadn't left his perch on Starsky's desk, scratching under his chin and laughing himself hoarse. Starsky contemplated Louise. Poor cute, dumb animal. Couldn't be a chinchilla any more than he could be a--

"When we're off shift today, we're off until Monday," Hutch said. "Want to take in a steak and movie or something?"

Did he ever, but Starsky caught himself mid nod and turned it into a headshake. "I--not tonight, huh? I got something I need to--someplace I need to be."

Hutch smiled at him. "Don't tell me you're going out gunning for the chinchilla con artist! Honestly, I could use some time to myself. After this week, I have some things I need to sift through up here." He tapped his forehead.

"Hey, if you need someone around to help with that sifting--"

"No thanks, this is one of those things better done alone."

Starsky gently put Louise back in her box and decided he had to buy some books on the care and feeding of guinea pigs since the chinchilla guides no longer applied. If only buying books on the care and feeding of gay men could help him out, but he'd decided on more direct research. Without correcting Hutch's assumption, Starsky nodded at the box where Louise skittered around in the too small space, chirping. "You mind babysitting my 'pig tonight? I don't think she liked being alone while we, uh--you know...."

"Played the all male version of Bonnie and Clyde on the run from the law? Sure, Starsk, I'll pig-sit. Hell, she might like me better. You might find yourself replaced."

Starsky felt the tension coil in his gut at the words, needing to believe with every fiber of his being that Hutch didn't mean anyone but Louise.

~*~*~

"Dan, wait--" Brackett's voice filtered from the cracked open door.

"Forget it, Kel. I should have known better!"

Johnny watched the well-dressed man storm out of the coffee room and apologize brusquely to a nurse he bumped into on his way down the corridor. Turning back to the nurse's desk, Johnny saw alarm on Dixie's lovely face when Brackett appeared in the coffee room doorway. "Well, it looks like I'm not the only one with someone furious at them today," Johnny said to her, eyeing the elevators where Roy had taken one up to the Med/Surg floor to look in on a patient they had transported earlier that morning.

"What'd you do, Johnny?" Dixie asked, but she was still watching Brackett.

"I screwed up off the job, Dixie. Personal. Roy's real uptight about it."

She looked at him then and gave him her slow, soft smile. "Don't you worry about it, Johnny. Roy never can stay mad at you for more than a day."

"Care to lay down a bet this time?"

She patted his arm, but her attention had shifted down the corridor. "Wouldn't take your hard-earned money that way. Excuse me; I see disaster developing at triage. We have a new girl, and she's having a hard time adjusting."

Brackett came over to the nurses station and stood in front of the coffee table staring at the machine. Odd, considering he had just left the coffee room. Johnny leaned against Dixie's desk. "Doc, you okay?"

Brackett didn't look at him. "Fine, Johnny."

"That guy looked like somebody important."

"Researcher at USC. Biochemical. Are you and Roy here on a transport or just for supplies?"

"We brought in an elderly lady with pneumonia on top of her COPD. Dr. Early took the call-in from the field, and Dr. Morton's in with her now."

Brackett smiled. "Well, with those two on the case, I'd be redundant. You have time for a cup of cafeteria coffee? This looks hours' old."

Surprised by the invitation, Johnny found he was pleased. "Got as long as this gives me," he answered, holding up the handy-talkie. "Roy went up to see about the near-drowning we brought in this morning, Mr. Palmer."

"Ah. You guys did a nice job with him. Well, come on then, let's get that coffee before your dispatcher's on the horn calling you guys back out."

"I'm not knocking the invite, Doc, but didn't you just have coffee?"

Brackett shot an uncomfortable look at the coffee room. "Today I need all the coffee I can get!"

~*~*~

Brackett noticed that he and Johnny used the same amount of sugar in their coffee: little to none. For once the cafeteria's outside dining section offered relative privacy at a table in the corner by the fencing, out of earshot from the few diners huddled close at tables across the patio.

"Tough day, Doc?" Johnny asked.

"You could say that. You guys have been busy too."

"Same old, same old," Johnny said, shrugging with a smile.

"Same here," Brackett responded with a smile to match.

"Uh, Doc, if you don't mind my asking, what could you have done to rile a--what'd you say he was, biochemical researcher?"

Brackett sipped his coffee and listened to the sounds around them, needing reassurance they couldn't be overheard. If he meant to out himself to Johnny, and now seemed as good a time as any, he could at least protect his own job security. "He was a friend, Johnny. I had to tell him I wouldn't be seeing him again. I certainly didn't mean to spring that on him in the coffee room where our conversation could have been interrupted at any time, but that's how it worked out."

Johnny looked torn between grabbing his HT and bolting or pulling his chair closer for a conspiratorial chat. Finally, the Gage curiosity won out, and Johnny raised his eyebrows. "A friend friend? The kind of friend I think you mean?"

"Yes."

Johnny pointed and let the finger wag up and down at him. "You're--"

Brackett looked around again and hushed his voice to a whisper. "Yes. Carefully and most likely permanently closeted except with a few trusted friends, but yes, I'm gay."

Johnny put his cup down in its saucer and looked steadily at him. "I always thought you and Dix--"

"We were. Back in the days when I was still trying to be something I'm not. Realizing that I stood to hurt her a great deal if I didn't find some honesty within myself was my biggest wake-up call. Since then she's been my dearest friend, and a lifeline."

"What about this researcher guy--sorry, I don't wanna pry."

"It's all right." Brackett patted Johnny's shoulder and then hurriedly folded his hands on the table. The heat from that simple touch made him furious. He didn't need the reminder that one brief clasp of Johnny's clothed shoulder could make him burn more than naked kisses shared with Daniel. Remembering what he'd meant to say to Johnny, he forced down his anger. "I ended things with Daniel for the same reason that I broke off romantic involvement with Dixie. I stood to hurt him more down the line if I didn't call a halt now. I know I'll never be able to give him the same depth of commitment he was beginning to want. In many relationships, one partner is likely to love the other more than is reciprocated, but letting Daniel wake up to that years from now is not something I want on my conscience. Sometimes doing the right thing hurts like utter hell, but not doing the right thing would be the more selfish and damaging path to take."

Johnny stared into his half-empty coffee cup. "God."

"What?"

"You just saved me from starting to hate somebody I really didn't wanna hate."

Brackett nodded. "I wondered if you'd been on the receiving end of that conversation. You've been acting like a jilted man, but I hadn't heard your name in connection with any of Rampart's nurses recently. I'm sorry you had to go through that, Johnny."

"You knew, didn't you? About me, about my thing with Ken Hutchinson. Last year when the virus hit, you knew then."

"Johnny, I knew when you and Roy brought him in from the rollover MVA. I might be an overworked emergency room physician, but I'm not blind to human emotion. I saw how you looked at him and how he looked at his partner when he woke up in the examination room after you and Roy left. I also saw a vast amount of love in his partner, but not of a sexual nature. Unfortunately, that doesn't keep Detective Hutchinson from being in love with him, now does it?"

Johnny now looked irritated. "You have some kind of crystal ball or something?"

"No." Brackett allowed himself a chuckle. "I'm, I believe, about twelve, maybe thirteen years older than you are, Johnny? In our community, that's the equivalent of a century's worth of experience. I've learned to read men. I've known for years that you're a young man trying to figure out your sexuality while enjoying the shield of beautiful women naturally drawn to your magnetism."

"Magnetism?" Johnny offered him a brighter smile. "The guys at the station must really be on to something if even you noticed it."

Brackett nudged Johnny's coffee cup closer to him with a pointed headshake. "That wasn't meant to inflate your already healthy ego there, Romeo."

"I thought I knew how to read men," Johnny muttered, sobering. "I guess not. I didn't even know you--I mean, how could you know about me, but I didn't even..." Then Johnny smiled. "I guess my sonar was off when it comes to you."

"One of the greatest disservices societal prejudice does to us, Johnny, is keep us sequestered from our greater gay community. When I was your age, there wasn't much of a gay community, except deeply underground. Now we have the beginnings of one, but professional men like us who stand to lose their careers if outed can't afford to frequent gay social gatherings. We're trapped in sham bisexuality, in some cases sham marriages, or tight closets, and suspended somewhere between two worlds. It's painful and unfair."

"Guess I never thought about it like that. I don't really have any gay friends, though, come to think of it. Roy's one hell of a guy, and the best friend I could ask for, but there are some things he just doesn't get."

"No, he wouldn't, hard as he might try." Brackett cleared his throat and hoped he could sound older, wiser, altruistic, and the farthest thing removed from sexually attracted. "I want you to know that you can talk to me. I'd like to be your friend, Johnny. A safe and trustworthy resource, you might say."

Johnny's reaction surprised him. Anger. Inwardly directed, but still hurtful to witness. Rising hurriedly and shoving the chair back under the table, Johnny grabbed the handy-talkie. "Thanks, Dr. Brackett, but I think the farther I can get from the whole gay thing, the better."

"What do you mean?" Brackett asked, keeping his voice level and quiet.

Johnny's urgent look around the patio was followed by a drop in his volume, too. "It's done nothing but mess me over. It might've screwed up my partnership with Roy. I want to make captain, and I don't want to fight a new hassle every day of the week doing it."

"Johnny, I can appreciate your concerns, but you can't just turn your back on a large part of yourself without unpleasant consequences. Take it from a man who tried."

"You just watch me." With a nod and thanks for the coffee, Johnny left him sitting.

Brackett watched him weave through the line of cafeteria patrons at the patio's entrance and shook his head again, sadness overwhelming him. "I do watch you, Johnny," he whispered. "Always have, always will. God help me."

He had just found the inner strength to face the ER when Dixie appeared in the sliding doorway and then joined him at the table. She sat down and looked from his disturbed expression down to Johnny's coffee mug. "Plying a certain fireman with coffee?" she asked.

He nodded.

"You know, I'd love to get good and mad at him for making you feel this way, but I can't, because he doesn't even know he's doing it. Why don't you tell him the truth, Kel? He may not be able to reciprocate, but at least he'll know, and that might spare you some discomfort. He's a good guy. He wouldn't purposely wound you."

"I can't."

She gave him her acute study. "It's not rejection you're afraid of. You're afraid he'd go for it."

He turned a startled look on her, worried for Johnny's cover if she'd guessed that Johnny shared her best friend's orientation. She leaned closer and rubbed a circle between his shoulder blades.

"Come on, Kel," she whispered. "I know you. You're not one to fall hard for a straight man. Have you noticed me trying to set him up with any of the new nurses lately? I stopped doing that a while back, and it wasn't just because I know how you feel. What would be so wrong with it if he did share your feelings?"

He wished he shared Dixie's confidence that Johnny would, but he didn't intend to let her see that secret pain. The surface truth was hard enough. "He's a paramedic. As long as I have to work with him in that capacity, I can't afford a sexual connection with him. The slightest hesitation on a rescue relay because I'm distracted by worry with him out there in a dangerous setting could cost a patient's life, or Johnny his."

"You worry anyway. We all do, with those two men more than any others. I know we aren't supposed to play favorites, but you and I both know that Johnny and Roy have a special place in all our hearts. Joe and Mike would say the same thing."

"Imagine that worry increased by tenfold if I were in a relationship with him, Dixie. Not only can I not accept the potential danger to patients, but I can't afford a scandal that could affect the entire paramedic program."

"Kel, you don't have to carry the whole paramedic program on your shoulders." She squeezed his forearm and he felt the warmth through his lab coat and dress shirt sleeve. The friendly warmth of kindness, not the fireburn of touching Johnny, even platonically. "It's a winner, it's a go. Not just in LA but all over California and elsewhere. It doesn't rise and fall based on your actions. It's a sure thing."

He looked hard at her. "You don't know how easily sure things are rocked by homosexual scandal, Dixie. I'd rather not have Johnny find out the hard way."

~*~*~

Starsky wondered if Huggy had played a subtle joke on him, picking out a bar called "The Wildewood." Joke or not, he hadn't driven all the way to Oceanside to check out a gay bar only to turn tail and run at the name. He'd asked Huggy to place some calls to his connections and find him a bar where he wouldn't stand out like a sore thumb, as in any leather bars or kink taverns, and somewhere that wasn't subject to a raid on underage activity any second. Yeah, Huggy, and if my wood really does go wild in there, I won't know whether to kiss or kill you for it.

He got a strange look from the muscular specimen in charge of the door check, but the strange look turned into an erotic appraisal that stripped Starsky down to bare skin, and he had to hold himself in check, knowing his instinct to deck the guy if a hand dared to follow the path those intense eyes had taken. But the man apparently knew better than to touch what he saw, and Starsky passed into the bar without difficulty.

He expected the Parrot's closed-in heat and sweat, but The Wildewood had ample space for a tri-level dance floor, ringed by intimate tables for two, and three separate bar areas, one surrounding a raised go-go stage where two scantily-clad men engaged in something more reminiscent of sex than dancing. Starsky knew to avoid the go-go bar, certain he would draw unwelcome attention for sitting there and pointedly looking away from the sexual display. Instead he found an empty stool at the bar that circled an indoor fountain. The fountain's centerpiece was itself sculptural pornography: two perfect male nudes grappling in a back-to-front sexual embrace, the front nude in a perpetual orgasm, providing a grand arc of water.

Starsky ordered a beer and tried to ignore the watery ejaculation right above his left ear.

Nursing his beer, he watched the comings and goings. He felt thrust into a foreign country with no passport, no lingua franca, no contacts, and no buffer. Huggy's no-nonsense opinion of this field trip taunted him.

"What you hope to accomplish, Starsky?"

"Huggy, I'm a cop. When I don't understand something, I investigate it. Find witnesses and interrogate 'em until I know what they know. That's what I do."

"What you gonna ask? 'I got a buddy I think the world of but my dick don't get hard for him, can you tell me why not?' They're gonna say, 'cause you're straight, you dumb son-of-a-bitch.' How's that gonna help you and Hutch?"

"Who said I'm gonna ask any of that?!"

"Come on, Starsky, you take me for a fool? You're not driving damn near ninety miles to a gay bar 'cause you got a thing for loud disco and watered-down beer. You could get that right here. You think you're gonna go in this joint and walk out turning on to guys? Doesn't work that way."

Huggy was right. Sitting here trapped on the sidelines of a lifestyle only made Starsky feel farther away from Hutch.

By the time he ordered his second beer, though, Starsky had made a crucial observation. Watching the interaction around him and on the nearest dance floor, he realized that human beings are more alike than they give themselves credit for. He saw the same surface connections, rejections, and personalities that he saw in any straight bar. Some men were wallflowers, some were prowlers, some were like bees flitting between flowers, some clung to partners, some tried to pick jealous brawls, some were loners.

Smiling, Starsky felt his chest loosen, his posture relax, and the growing comfort must have registered in his expression, conveying an openness, because he received his first proposition less than five minutes later from a fresh-faced, physically fit brown-haired boy who looked barely legal, and Starsky guessed him to be twenty-two. Starsky squeezed his shoulder and gave him a polite 'waiting for someone' and watched the kid dance away to try his luck elsewhere. The second proposition came from a man around his own age and build, sandy-haired, shamelessly filling his skin-tight jeans to bursting. The guy leaned down to whisper in graphic detail what he'd love to do to Starsky's cock. One part of Starsky's mind questioned whether the human penis could even manage some of the gymnastics described; one part wondered if Hutch knew how to do those things. He'd probably kill John Gage with his bare hands if he found out that Gage had done any of those things to Hutch's cock. The remainder of his melting brain tried to figure out what he could say when Sandy Hair quit whispering in his ear.

At the end of the quadruple-X-rated invitation, Starsky stroked his hand down the guy's chest and said, huskily, "Had that last night. Looking for something a little different tonight, sorry." Sandy-haired dirty-mouth walked away, shaking his head, and Starsky breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

But his cock had twitched during Sandy Hair's recital.

Progress!

Starsky decided it was high time he found a "witness." If he didn't "pair off" he'd just set himself up for more of those awkward come-ons. He looked around the bar until he spotted the perfect information source. Wallflowers make excellent observers, and Starsky doubted he'd find a better target than the dark-haired man in his late thirties who dressed to fit in at a Marlboro Man convention but wore glasses and watched the dance floor wistfully.

With the casual and seductive approach he used to net women, Starsky slid on to the empty stool beside his prospective witness. "Hi," he said loudly over the blaring disco beat. "I'm David."

Hazel eyes swung his way and promptly widened behind the thin-cut glasses. "My God, yes you are!" the man drawled. "Do you believe in reincarnation?"

"Huh?"

"Because I think I'm looking at the reason Michelangelo took four years to finish the Sistine Chapel ceiling."

Starsky smiled, flattered in spite of himself. "Nope, 'fraid not. I'm a product of Brooklyn, not Vatican City."

Again those eyes widened. "Brains to go with the package. Either I've had one too many martinis or I'm in love. The name's Eric. You're a long way from home, stranger."

More ways than you know. "Buy you a drink, Eric?"

Eric held up his empty martini glass. "Had my fill, actually, but I'd love to dance."

Starsky hoped he had not gulped out loud. "I was thinkin' we could sit and talk."

Eric smiled. "Listen, David of Brooklyn, I come here to meet men and dance. Talk is one of the last items on my agenda." But he reached across and lifted Starsky's right hand, squeezing warmly. "You're even more attractive looking all disappointed. Tell you what, come out on the floor with me and we'll talk there."

"Out there--" Starsky tilted his head to the side and tapped the base of his beer bottle against his ear. "Won't be able to hear ourselves think."

"You'd be surprised."

Abandoning his beer, Starsky felt a momentary qualm letting Eric pull him away from the bar. The man obviously hoped for more than a dance. Undercover, Starsky reminded himself. Not always kosher the things that had to be done undercover, and disappointing a nice guy named Eric couldn't be helped. One dance, Starsky decided. He had to take control of this encounter if he wanted to get past dead-end flirtation to the information he needed.

The music changed when they reached the crowded floor, the disco switching to a tune Starsky recognized, and he had just found a respectable set of moves that didn't force him right into Eric's personal space when his dance partner abruptly unbuttoned and pulled off his flannel shirt. Starsky stared. If forced to guess, he would have said Eric had a chest no less hairy than his own, but a hairless, nearly artificially smooth display of skin and muscle tone greeted him. Glancing around, Starsky saw that other men were in the process of shirt removal, and most of the naked chests revealed were smooth, some glistening with sweat sheen. Eric watched him, grinning, and gave him a two-handed lift up motion. Starsky didn't want to clutch the hem of his shirt like a nervous prude. His own unveiling drew a gasp from his new acquaintance. He tucked his faded blue button-up in the back of his jeans and prided himself on not missing a beat with the song.

"Don't bother to shave, sweetheart?" Eric commented, drawing a fingertip down through Starsky's chest hair. "Very, very fit you are, too, Butch, so it's not that you don't care about appearance. You want to tell Uncle Eric what a straight man's doing in The Wildewood?"

~*~*~

Huggy scowled at him when Hutch took his favored place at the bar close to the Dos Equis wall sign. More precisely, Huggy scowled at the air-vented white shoebox Hutch set on the counter at his side. "Hutch, what you doing bringing that rodent in my place of business? I done told you and Starsky, spotted dogs, tarantulas, or chinchilla-wanna-bes, it's all the same. I don't need problems with health inspectors."

Hutch looked around the bar. "You see any health inspectors lurking around this time of night?"

"Fine," Huggy snapped. "Just don't let her out of her box."

"Starsky asked me not to leave her alone. Actually, for an expensive little critter, she'll grow on you after a while. Set me up, will ya, Huggy?"

Huggy served the requested beer and peered in the box. He then looked at his watch for the fourth time since Hutch arrived. "You and Starsky have both lost your marbles."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Hutch lowered his beer before he'd had a swig and gave his friend a closer look.

"Nothin'," Huggy said, but when the phone rang he jumped and almost twirled, ears visibly perked. His waitress answered the phone, shook her head at him, and called one of the patrons over from the blue-and-white checked tables. "Damn," Huggy muttered.

Hutch drank through the heavy foam and in lieu of a napkin wiped at the corner of his mouth with his jersey sleeve. "Huggy, what's your problem? You're as antsy as I've ever seen you. Waiting on someone?"

"None of your concern," Huggy said uneasily, and he looked as if he wished Hutch had found any other bar in the city to wet his whistle.

"Knew I missed the welcome mat on the way in," Hutch said. "Huggy...."

The phone rang again, and another waitress beat Huggy to it. Sipping his beer, Hutch watched her catch Huggy's eye and distinctly mouth, "Not Starsky."

Hutch choked on his swallow of beer and slapped the glass down on the bar when Huggy cringed. "Waiting on word from Starsky? Why?"

Huggy turned hollow, pained eyes on him and Hutch's finely tuned sense of mercy almost made him drop the subject. Almost. This was Starsky, after all. Huggy pulled the pack of smokes out of his vest pocket and fished one out, lighting up with fingers that trembled, unsteadily shoving the pack back again. "Hutch, please, leave this be. Ain't nothing gonna come out of it that--"

"Huggy, you can hide behind that cigarette all you want, but you're gonna tell me where Starsky is and why you're hanging on every ring of the phone hoping it's him."

"Set him up with a little out of town action, that's all," Huggy demurred. "Told me he'd give me a buzz when he got home."

"You know, Starsky's the sucker who paid a couple hundred bucks for a guinea pig, Huggy, not me. And I'm not buying this either. Out of town where?"

"Come on, man, he'll kill me!"

"Let me put it this way for you. You tell me, and I can smooth things over with Starsky before he gets to you. But you're making me furious and I'm right here in front of you. Which battle you wanna choose, Huggy?"

"Damn." Huggy gestured for Hutch to slide down the bar to the very end, a few feet removed from the nearest patron. Once there, he couldn't seem to take his eyes off Louise's skittering in her box. "He drove down close to Oceanside. Place called The Wildewood. Kinda establishment that don't see many women pass through its doors, get my drift?"

Hutch was glad he didn't have Louise in his hands. He would have inadvertently squeezed the life out of the poor creature. "A g-gay bar?" Immediately he swung a hunted look around to see if anyone had overheard, but the music and booze held the patrons' attention.

Huggy looked miserable. "Yeah. Asked me to help him find a place where'd he stand the chance of fitting in for more than a few seconds. I called Sugar--"

"Sugar knows Starsky was looking for a gay bar?!"

"No, 'course not! What you take me for, huh? I told her I knew a guy who wanted to broaden his horizons a little bit, try a walk on the other side, and didn't want more action than he could handle. She told me she couldn't promise that in the San Diego bars, but she knows the guy who runs The Wildewood and it's a honey of a joint."

Hutch willed Huggy to face him eye to eye. "How long have you known about me, Huggy?"

Huggy shrugged.

"Not as tight a closet as I thought I was," Hutch said. "Huggy, you can get over your discomfort right now and give me the full run down. You've got immunity. It's Starsky's ass I'll put in a sling."

~*~*~

"I'm not the only man out here with chest hair," Starsky protested.

Eric smiled at him, still dancing. "No, handsome, you're not. But that's just one clue. You're wearing the wrong jeans, wrong kind of shirt, and when I suggested we dance, you got this look like I'd proposed setting you up in a dental chair and having some fun with a drill. If that weren't enough, you're not advertising, and a man as scrumptious as you are would probably have the advertisement in plain sight so you wouldn't have to wade through a bunch of useless offers. Hell, even I advertise, in case one of these Greek Godlettes decides to overlook my age and prescription eyewear."

"Advertisement?"

Eric turned around and showed off two handkerchiefs tucked into the back pockets of his jeans. On the left side, navy blue and a lighter blue on the right. "Advertisement."

The music changed again, a slower tempo number, and Eric danced closer. "Still want to talk? We do it cheek to cheek."

Starsky had known his cover couldn't hold until the bar's closing time, but he had hoped for longer than two hours. He slipped his arm around Eric's waist and let him in close, a convincing nearness for slow dancing. Eric draped his arms over Starsky's shoulders and made a contented sound that ratcheted Starsky's guilt up a notch. Over Eric's shoulder he watched the other two dance floors and the dancers, his mind spinning and trying to light on even one question he could ask the man in his arms. Over by the go-go stage a very young boy slipped his hand into an older man's and the older man discreetly shoved an envelope down the boy's back pocket. Starsky tensed from head to toe, feeling the badge holder in his own pocket burning his skin.

Eric followed his gaze. "What? Oh, don't worry, Father Superior, he looks like a baby barely out of diapers, but he's legal."

"Legal and paid for," Starsky muttered.

"Kyle's no hustler. He's--oh. Oh, no. That older guy is Mike, The Wildewood's manager. Kyle performed earlier tonight. He's phenomenal in drag. Mike's just paying him. Cash, probably. Not kosher with the IRS, I'm sure, but...oh, oh my God."

Eric tensed then and jerked away from him. Starsky turned his head. "What?"

"You're a cop. You're a fucking cop! Well, buster, whatever you're investigating, you won't be using me for a stool pigeon! Should've known, damn it, should've known when a guy like you looked twice at me!"

Starsky grabbed for Eric's arm. "Wait!"

"Let go of me, you Neanderthal!"

"I won't hurt you," Starsky snapped at him. "Please, just listen. Please, willya, huh?"

Eric stared at him, seething, hazel eyes afraid and the fear magnified by the glasses. Something in Starsky's expression convinced him. He came back to Starsky's arms and tried to act like a man happy to be slow dancing with him. "Andrew must've had a real hard-on for you to let you through the front door. He can usually smell cop with a raging head cold. He can smell straight, smart-assed Marines, too, and they don't get in either. Too many of 'em like to come over from Pendleton and hassle queers. Gay Marines are too afraid to be seen here and outed."

Starsky sighed. "Yes, I'm a cop. I'm miles and miles from my jurisdiction and I'm not on duty. I'm here at my own risk, so--"

"What's that mean?"

Starsky glanced around. "You know probably a dozen guys in here have legitimate and understandable reason to want to wipe the floor with a cop, and if the watch dogs in my Department somehow got wind of me being here, my life wouldn't be worth shit. Okay? I got good reason to be here and it's got nothin' to do with giving any of you guys a hard time."

"Please just tell me you're not Vice. Wherever you work."

"Nope. Or Narco. Homicide, primarily. Plain clothes. That pass inspection?"

Eric finally gave him another sweet smile. "Yeah, guess I can live with that. You've been a sport, Detective, dancing with me like this. Why don't we continue this at one of those cozy tables? You want to talk, we'll talk."

~*~*~

Hutch couldn't remember the last time he'd smoked while driving. He'd stolen the pack of smokes from Huggy's pocket over his useless protests that Hutch didn't smoke, pocketed Huggy's lighter, too, and left Louise in the stunned barkeep's care. No smoking except when an undercover persona called for it had been Hutch's rule for nearly a decade, but if he meant to make it to Oceanside in one piece, sanity intact, he required either alcohol or nicotine, and alcohol didn't mix with driving. In worn jeans and his green jersey with one of the yellow stripes missing from the right sleeve, he was suitably attired for entertaining at home or getting a drink at Huggy's when the loneliness in his apartment palled. The outfit was not his preferred attire for a bar where clothes could make him an outsider and draw the wrong kind of attention, but he had no time to go back to Venice to change. He had just enough gas to make the trip barring an accident that stalled traffic on the interstate, and he had to make time.

"Hutch, what good will it do for you to go chasin' after him? Might even miss each other on the way. It's a good hour-and-half drive, you know."

"I'll make it in an hour."

He drew in more of the false nicotine comfort and let his foot turn to lead, pushing the speedometer to eighty-five. If he found Starsky within two feet of another man, he'd kill the little sneak, plain and simple, and the guy with him better have good health insurance, too.

~*~*~

Settled at one of the tables, with Eric drinking down the courage of another martini, Starsky assumed all his natural confidence. If he meant to solve his problem, he had to toss his pride and inexperience. "Here's my situation. My best friend in the whole damned world is gay. Bisexual, I'd call it, but he thinks of himself as gay. He's the best thing in my life, with no competition for top spot, you got that? I'd take a bullet for him in a New York second. What I really wanna do should be a slice'a pie in comparison. I wanna take him to bed. Not a one-night stand, not to play around. I wanna take him to bed and keep takin' him there. There's just one hang up. My dick thinks it's still on the other side of the street. We got into some pretty hard core kissing the other night, but I didn't get a rise. My friend--my partner--said something about it not bein' an overnight shift. What I wanna know is, what kinda shift is it? How long? And is there something I can do, some trade secret, I guess, to hurry it along?"

Eric coughed and put the martini down. He reached across the table and patted Starsky's hand. "I'm sorry. Won't work, don't even put yourself--and him--through it. I can guess a lot of your motivation. You're thinking maybe you're his ticket to everlasting satisfaction, and you think it'll be safer for him to be with you. Admirable, noble, touching. But it won't work."

Starsky pushed back from the table. "Thanks for the opinion. I think I'll see if I can get a different one."

"David, at least give me a chance to explain--"

"Look, I got next to no time. This is a huge risk I'm takin' right now. I can't waste what little time I got hearing that I can't do what I've already made up my mind to do anyway. Just thought I could get some ideas how to make it easier for both of us."

"Listen, David, none of these guys will tell you what you want to hear, unless they think it'll get them into those faded jeans of yours. Just sit down, please? Damn, I'm grateful I've never been up against you in an interrogation room!"

Starsky sat down and folded his hands on the table. "Why won't it work for my buddy and me?"

"Because straight men and gay men just don't work. Not for anything serious. Maybe they're good for a couple rolls in the sheets. And trust me, you'd be all into it if he went down on you, 'cause no one can suck dick like a man, especially a man that knows what he's doing. Did you just swallow your tongue? Want some water? You're the most brilliant shade of red I've ever seen!"

"I'm fine," Starsky said. "And I don't think you can generalize like that."

"Who's generalizing? I've seen it time and again. It's not uncommon. Of course, I've seen the bad side of it, too. A guy my age, who's been in this scene long as I have, has at least two friends who took a so-called straight man home to bed one night and woke up with the guy beating the shit out of them for 'leading him into temptation' or some shit like that. It's a hot thing right now to sleep with someone who isn't 'in the life,' but smart guys stay away from 'experimenting' straights."

"Jesus Christ!" Starsky thought fondly of polishing off Eric's martini, scared spitless at the image of Hutch taking someone home and waking up to violent heterosexual fury and damaging fists.

Eric misinterpreted his exclamation. "Relax. I've seen enough of you in action to know you'd never be like that. But it doesn't change reality. Look, what gets you off is good snatch and a pair of perky tits, am I right? Well, your buddy could bottom for you daily, and he still wouldn't be pussy."

Starsky shrugged away that reality. "You don't understand. I've seen him kiss girls. Got exactly zero charge out of that. But a while back I saw him kiss a guy, and I won't go into details, but if we hadn't been in a tight spot, I'd'a grabbed him right after and showed him I could melt his socks. Watchin' him get tongue from a guy just about fucking melted my socks!"

Eric laughed. "Maybe you have an ounce of cock lust."

"An ounce of--? You wanna run that by me again, with an explanation or two?"

"It's how I measure attraction to men. A half-pound of cock lust in a guy, and he's a solid bisexual. If he has three-quarters of a pound, he can still do women, but it's really not his favorite thing. A whole pound of cock lust, and a guy won't feel a twitch unless he gets dick."

"Yeah? How much have you got?"

Eric sat taller in his seat. "I have two pounds of cock lust, David, I break my own scales! So, you said you'd call your friend bisexual. He actually sleeps with women, no fake fooling around action?"

"Yeah."

Eric finished his drink. "Because he has to for cover or because he wants to?"

"Both, I think. Yeah, both."

"All right. Hold out both of your hands, palms up, nice and even like a measuring scale." Eric balanced his glass on Starsky's left hand and then carefully set the half-empty bottle of Starsky's beer on the right. When the right hand dipped a little under the heavier weight, Eric nodded. "See. Say you have an ounce of cock lust, admirably represented here by the empty martini glassware, but your buddy has closer to three-quarters of a pound, like this good hefty beer. Don't balance, do they? You guys won't either. You'll still be drawn to women, and he'll want more of you than you can give." Eric removed the damning evidence from Starsky's hands and nudged the beer closer to Starsky as if certain he needed it.

"I don't think things like sex and feelings can be reduced to quirky measurements," Starsky said, hope shriveling inside and leaving him dry-throated and drained.

"Why not? Measurements don't lie, quirky or not, and they're a hell of a lot less messy than the alternative." He smiled with a hint of sadness. "Damn, I wish your friend were here. I could get along very well with a guy packing more than half a pound of cock lust."

Starsky had to chuckle at that. "How do you know you'd be his type?"

"Maybe I wouldn't be, but since we're having this conversation, I have to assume he isn't turned off by dark-haired guys. What's he look like?"

"He's--" Starsky stopped. To him, Hutch looked like Hutch. Home. Safety. Friendship. Sunshine and ocean breezes, fresh forest after a rain, music at midnight. How did you put that into a description?

Eric tapped on his hand. "Hello, still there? What's he look like? You're thinking about fucking the guy, and you can't tell me what he looks like?"

Starsky snapped back to the conversation and tried to put all the beauty of Hutch into words a man could appreciate. "He's 6'1", blond, blue-eyed, runner's body with street cop muscle to back it up, hung like you wouldn't believe."

Eric put his hand over his heart, letting his eyes roll dramatically. "Stop, stop, you'll give me palpitations. Hung like I wouldn't believe? Coming from you, that's saying something."

"What?"

"Oh, come on. You might not be wearing the most popular brand of jeans for this crowd, but there's not a damn thing with the ones you've got on, and the way you wear them, there's no doubt what neighborhood in Brooklyn you probably hail from. Two big mouthfuls of cut kosher meat, that's what you're packing. Mind you, the guys who take a chance on me are never disappointed. I've been measured at ten raring to go, and like I said, measurements don't lie."

"Ten...as in inches?" Starsky's cheeks flamed again.

Eric's laughter had an addictive quality. "I didn't say that to get your ounce of cock lust all fired up. You and me, we wouldn't even get off the ground, and I should've seen that time you looked my way." He reached behind him and then waved the navy blue handkerchief in the air. "I like it on top, and God himself couldn't top you, now could he?"

"Seeing what I have over years on the job, I'm not sure I believe all that much in God."

"What do you believe in?"

Starsky smiled. "My partner."

"Umm. Don't confuse buddy-brother love for romantic love, David. Not the same thing."

"You don't know a damned thing about me and--" Starsky drew the line at giving Hutch's name. Not that it probably mattered, this far away, but the cop in him balked at handing out privileged information.

"What did you really come here for, David? What'd you hope to learn? You wanted someone to explain it all to you? What it's like to be gay? What it's like to prefer men? To live gay in our society?"

Starsky frowned. "Yeah, maybe. Guess I needed to hear it from an objective source."

"Not from your friend."

"Right."

"Well, I'm sorry, but that's not something I can do for you in an hour. In a day, even. You can't shrink-wrap something like an entire life of discovery, fear, wonder, love, loss. Could you tell me in an hour what it's like to be straight, to want a woman of your own? Love is love, yes, to a point. Loss is loss. But after you get past all the similarities, there are a hell of a lot of differences it'd take a year to talk about. And probably even longer for you to understand. And vice versa."

"I understand. Thanks for being honest." Starsky found he could smile again. "Mind being honest with me about something else?"

"Um-hm, what?"

"Why was a guy like you sitting at that bar just watching men pass by? You talk with a lot of experience, confidence. Never mind the ten inches. But then you were shocked that I approached you. Doesn't jive, and the detective in me wants to know why."

Eric flushed and seemed to be seeking answers from his empty martini glass. "Maybe the ten inches boast was a slight exaggeration."

Starsky laughed out loud. "Yeah, maybe it was. Still doesn't answer my question."

"Why do you care?"

"You've been nice to me. You could've caused a scene back there on the dance floor and gotten me into a lot of embarrassment if not outright danger. But you didn't."

Eric adjusted his glasses somewhat nervously. "Who knows why a guy isn't the hottest thing on the menu? Never have been. Always one of the watchers, not the doers. And every time I come here I get reminded of it."

"Then why do you come here?"

"That's one of the differences it'd take you a while to understand," Eric said harshly with a flare of resentment in his expression. "It's not that easy to meet men outside of a place like this. You run into a pretty lady at the Laundromat, strike up a conversation, and if the vibe's right, you can get away with asking her to take in a movie. If I do that with some random guy on the street or in the Laundromat, I'm liable to get my block knocked off and shoved up my ass."

Again Starsky realized what a gift Johnny Gage had been to Hutch. How could Starsky's favorite person safely find an outlet for his needs that didn't involve bars his job and continued good health forbid him to patronize, or dangerously approaching guys who could do more damage than out him to the LAPD? How had Hutch and Gage met that they had just known they could land in bed together without a destructive crash? He shrugged off the dark thoughts and turned another smile on Eric. "What's the light blue one stand for?"

"Huh? Oh, the handkerchief?" Eric grinned. "I'm one of the guys who really know how to suck dick, and I love doing it. I could take you some place private and show you. I'm not exaggerating when I say I'd make you wish you had three lungs to scream with."

Starsky felt another twitch in his cock. "Uh, I'll just bet you would. But, no, thanks. What I wouldn't mind is another dance."

"Even a slow one?"

"Even a slow one. Uh, if you don't, you know--"

Eric's grin returned. "Line us up from the waist down?"

"Right."

"I'll keep a six-inch buffer of air at all times, how's that?"

Starsky rose from the table and held out his hand to his new friend. "That I can handle."

~*~*~

Hutch was too stunned to take more than a few steps into the bar. Forbidden for years to enter a world that could have been his by birthright, he had to take a minute just to breathe in the scent--male sweat, exertion, passion. The freedom to look where he chose, to linger on attractive faces that returned his gaze with welcome and in more than a few cases avid interest, opened his chest and filled his veins with buzzing adrenaline. He had no real desire to sit at the go-go stage and admire the view, but he laughed fondly over the fountain sculpture, and the dance floors drew him involuntarily forward to a paradise where he could dance with Starsky unafraid of repercussions outside their own relationship.

Then his newly opened, expanding lungs tightened again, and his brain sent signals to his fists to clench in tandem. Starsky had found the dance floor and a very attractive partner to share it with. Hutch caught his breath in sharp, short gasps.

"I don't own him, I don't own him, I don't own him," he chanted to himself.

His words couldn't convince his mind or his heart.

~*~*~

"This is nice," Eric murmured. "Got to say, I wish I we still had our shirts off."

"Don't, Eric. Remember what you said. When it comes to cock lust, a guy with an ounce and one with two whole pounds just aren't in the cards."

Eric smiled into Starsky's shoulder, careful to maintain their buffer of air below the waist. "I know, I know. You've done me a huge favor dancing with me like this, though, and you could do me an even bigger favor."

"What's that?" Starsky asked, trying not to sound wary.

"Well, probably ten or more guys are watching us right now. You motion behind the main dance floor--which is the way to the back room, by the way--and act like you'd just love to take me back there, and I'll act like I'm really not into it--"

"And then I walk away all dejected and down at the mouth?" Starsky guessed with a small smile.

"Yup. Now, some of those guys probably have the idea you're one of those experimenting straight men, and they'll think I'm being cautious. Some will think you want my ass and I'm not giving it up. But almost every one of 'em will want a second look at me when I turn a prize like you down cold after a couple of slow dances, and at least one will be someone I'm willing to take a second look at."

"Sounds complicated."

"Honey, gay men are the champions of complicated. We have to be. I swear, if the CIA would hire on a few of my friends, the Cold War'd be history by the new decade. "

Starsky laughed. "Okay, I can play along. You find yourself someone to take home who'll treat you right."

"David, there's not another man in this bar that could treat me as right as you would've if you'd only been--"

"I meant more than just sex," Starsky interrupted.

Eric hit him with those expressive hazel eyes. "So did I."

"All right, before I start play-acting, here's something I gotta do."

"What's that?"

Starsky dipped his head and planted a soft, not too brief kiss on Eric's cheek. "Thank you."

Eric touched his own cheek, clearly surprised. "For what?"

"I came here with the attitude this was something I had to do. You may not'a told me what I wanted to hear, but you made this fun. And I think I'm gonna walk out of here a better person than the one that came in."

"Hell, David, you had a lot going for you before you came in or I couldn't have made anything fun for you. Guy like you gives me hope for heterosexuals everywhere."

Starsky laughed again and then dredged up his acting ability from his undercover experience. Tugging Eric by the belt loops, he tried to pull him toward the main dance floor, pointing with his other hand in the vicinity of this back room Eric mentioned. Eric dug his heels in and shook his head, tugging at Starsky's arm until Starsky released him. Starsky cupped his cheek and then pointed again, but Eric pushed his arm away. Finally, Starsky shook his head, let his chin droop a little, and walked away without looking back. He was smiling on the inside, though.

Until he made it to the edge of the dance floor and looked up into blue eyes he had never anticipated being part of Eric's audience.

~*~*~

Hutch couldn't remember the last time he had seen Starsky so shocked.

"H-Hutch, what're you--"

"What am I doing here?" Hutch ground out through teeth that couldn't stop gritting. "I think that's my line, don't you?"

"I--"

"I'd ask what you could've possibly needed here you couldn't get from me, but I guess I just found out."

"I--"

"What the hell were you thinking? What if this place got raided? You would've been right in the middle of it!"

Starsky tried to take him by the arm, but Hutch pulled away. Starsky brushed his hands back through his hair and then held them palms out at chest level gesturing for Hutch to take it easy. "You're right. Dumb, dumb stunt. Let's get out of here, huh?"

"Why? Because Tyrone Power over there turned you down?"

"Hutch, it's not like that. He's just a nice guy and I was doing him a favor. Can't you tell when I'm pulling a cover op by now?"

Hutch searched his partner's honest, pleading eyes. His anger didn't subside.

Starsky touched his arm again. "Come on, willya? Let's go home."

"Oh, no. You're here, I'm here. If you got to enjoy a couple of hours in a world I haven't been able to go near for fear of my whole life crashing down around me, then we'll just stay a while longer and make the most of it."

"Stay? What you just said about a raid--"

"You didn't worry that much about it. I figure, in for a penny, in for a pound."

Starsky's expression turned into a mixture of worry and discomfort. "You're angry, huh?"

"I'm furious. Angry's what I'll be when I've calmed down some."

"Damn. What all did Huggy tell you?"

"Never you mind. We'll deal with that later. Come on." Hutch took Starsky's hand and started toward the dance floor.  

"Hutch, I don't think I--"

"What? You can dance up close to some stranger but you can't with me? What are you afraid of? Worried I'll get hard on you or that you will?"

Starsky looked him in the eye. "No, Hutch. I'm scared I won't."

Hutch's chest opened again and his eyes must have softened too, enough to draw a breath of relief from Starsky. He squeezed Starsky's hand and led him onto the floor. The fast tempo song currently playing had some of the dancers taking off their shirts, and Hutch watched in astonishment as Starsky shed his, tucking the shirt in the back of his jeans. Trying to make his two left feet cooperate with freestyle dancing, Hutch awkwardly pulled his jersey up over his head, then stopped when Starsky's hands grabbed the jersey's hem and aided in the disrobing. Starsky twirled him and stuffed the jersey down in the back of his jeans, then pulled him back around and up close, their thighs meeting on every other pounding beat of the song. Hutch realized Starsky was dancing closer to him on a fast number than he had with the dark-haired stranger during a slow song. Dizzy, blood rushing, Hutch looped his arms around Starsky's neck and let the rhythm and nearness of his partner's body guide him in the dance.

~*~*~

In his suspenders and nighttime turnout gear, Johnny sat hunched at the table with his hands folded into a loose fist under his chin. It was Johnny's preferred posture when upset or angry, Roy knew, and he went over to the refrigerator for an apple to have an excuse for being out in the kitchen when everyone else was asleep in the dorm. He brought his apple over to the other side of the table and sat down. "You should be in there sacked out."

"Should. But I'm not." Johnny didn't look at him. "What's your excuse?"

Roy held up his apple even though Johnny didn't look up from his study of the tabletop. "Hungry." He bit into the apple and waited for a response. When none was forthcoming, he swallowed his bite of apple and said, "Look, it's been a chilly day in the squad, and the other guys are starting to notice. Guess it's time we clear the air?"

Johnny looked up at him then. "You said everything this morning, as I recall."

"No. No, I didn't. I owe you a pretty big apology, Johnny."

"For what?"

"For letting you think my decision to take the captain's exam is all because of what you did to help out that detective."

"It wasn't?"

Roy munched on his apple. "No," he said through a bite. "I made my mind up a few weeks ago. Just hadn't figured out how to talk to you about it."

"Are you saying this thing with Ken--I mean, Hutch--didn't make you want to stop being my partner?"

Roy felt a twinge of discomfort. "Johnny, working with you is so important to me it's had me fighting with Joanne the last couple of weeks. Soon as I realized she wasn't just kidding about wanting me to take the exam this year."

Johnny looked skeptical. "You haven't been acting like you usually do when you and Joanne mix it up."

Roy smiled. "Figured if I didn't do an extra good job hiding it, you'd be pestering me like always, trying to find out what's wrong."

"So, you're still going through with it?"

"Yeah. Kind of promised Joanne. She's got nothing against you, Johnny, or the paramedic work. But she really does want to try for another baby. And our kids are getting older. Next thing you know there'll be things they need. Braces, things for school, bigger rooms. We need the hike in salary that promotion would bring me."

Johnny nodded. "I can understand that. I've been doing some thinking today, and I'm gonna try for it, too. I don't want to break in another partner, Roy."

Roy tossed his apple core in the trashcan behind him. "I'm glad to hear you say that. Selfish, maybe, but I didn't wanna think about you out there working the squad without me. Not saying captains don't see a fair amount of danger. They do. But it's not like what you and I run up against on a shift."

Johnny got up and plucked a glass out of the dish drain. He went to the fridge but paused with the door open and looked over his shoulder. "So, why did you say that stuff this morning?"

"Why do you think? I was mad, Johnny. Mad at you for taking that kind of chance. Mostly mad at Hutchinson for putting you in that position. If I didn't have a family to worry about, I'd risk an assault on a police officer charge and bloody his nose."

Johnny's laughter jarred his smooth pouring of milk. "Wouldn't advise that. Hutch has incredible reflexes, and Starsky would clean your clock sure as you're sitting there."

"Yeah, you're not kidding on that one."

"Besides, Hutch didn't ask me to do what little I did. I volunteered. All he asked for was a place for him and Starsky to stay that night. Like I said this morning, Roy, it was something I had to do. Can't explain it. Just...just had to."

"I know. Think that's what part of the problem was for me." Roy cleared his throat. Johnny brought his milk over to the table and sat back down. "Seeing what you did for him...that's the kind of thing I'd do for Joanne and my children. Anything, all the way, no questions asked. I know I've tried to be supportive of your thing with guys, but I think part of me, down deep, kind of hoped you'd--I don't know--grow out of it or something and find a woman to settle down with, have kids of your own. I realize now it's stupid to think the kind of life that works for me will automatically work for someone else. Seeing what you were willing to do for Hutchinson, I know it's not a phase you're going through."

"Be easier for me if it were," Johnny said, swirling his milk around in the glass. "I still think I might live longer and happier if I give up ice cream for the sorbet, you know?"

"Johnny, whatever you decide, do me a favor?"

"Yeah?"

"Find yourself someone, guy or girl, who'll care as much about you as you did for Hutchinson?"

Johnny grinned. "I'll keep my eyes open."

"Good. Now, it's a long ways 'til December. Let's make the most of our time left in the squad, okay? Air's clear?"

"Air's clear. But, Roy, you're talking like you know we're both gonna pass the exam and get promoted. You think Stanley will back me, knowing what he knows?"

Roy nodded. "He knows fire captain material when he sees it."

~*~*~

The lights in the bar had dimmed to match the romantic mood of the ballad playing. The dance floor thinned to couples only, and Starsky didn't hesitate to pull Hutch into his arms. No six-inch buffer of air for them. Starsky tightened his arms around Hutch's waist, enjoyed the feel of Hutch's embrace around his shoulders.

"Starsk..." Hutch murmured.

"Feels good," Starsky whispered back.

"Starsky."

Starsky looked up into Hutch's shimmering eyes and read the question they asked. For answer, he lifted his chin. Hutch made a sound on the near side of a whimper and brought his lips down to cover Starsky's in a kiss that played havoc with Starsky's equilibrium. He opened Hutch's mouth with his own, wanting their tongues to meet and rub as closely as the rest of their bodies. Even the shocker of tasting nicotine in Hutch's mouth couldn't knock him out of the perfect moment. Underneath the smoky flavor of cigarette, Starsky tasted the real Hutch, and there was only one thing to say about that. "Taste so damn good," Starsky said. Halfway into another dimension from the kiss, he stopped worrying that his cock didn't fill and rise to the occasion. He had Hutch in his arms, swaying to the music, kissing him breathless, and he didn't care who saw them, or what anyone thought.

Hutch broke the kiss and licked his lips.

Starsky heard Eric's warning ringing in his ears and dismissed it. What did anyone know about this powerful, wordless, unbreakable thing he had with Hutch? No damn scale could measure it. He wanted privacy then, a quiet place where he could explore Hutch from head to toe. "Partner, let's get out of here, hm? Go somewhere we can lose more than the shirts?"

Hutch jerked his head up from nibbling at Starsky's ear. "What? Starsky, you're not even--"

"Doesn't mean I don't know what I want. You said once you like the challenge of making women come. Well, here's a challenge for you."

"But, Starsky, you're not just--You're my partner. You're--everything."

"All the more reason. Believe in what we got. I do. Don't you want me?"

Hutch made that whimpery sound again and pulled Starsky up taut against him, letting him feel the outline and heat of an erection through two layers of denim.

"Well, then. Lookit, I'm gonna stop by the john and then we'll hit the road."

"I can't possibly make it back to LA."

"We won't even try. We'll find a place. Back in a sec." Starsky kissed him again, a quick peck of lips. "You behave yourself out here. If I find another guy propositioning you, I'll cripple him, I swear."

Hutch smiled. "Don't worry; I know the feeling. That friend of yours earlier doesn't know how close he came to a broken jaw."

Winking at him, Starsky left to find the bathrooms. He had just finished his business at the urinal and tucked himself away when a familiar face appeared in the mirror.

Eric pulled up short and then stepped away from the urinal with a smile. "You know, you didn't tell me your friend is the most beautiful man in the state of California, bar none."

Starsky walked over to the sink to wash his hands. "He's something else, I know."

When Starsky turned around, Eric pulled a small tube from his left pocket and handed it over. "Merry Christmas or Happy Birthday, whichever comes first."

Starsky looked down at the tube of K-Y. "Uh, thanks."

"It's brand new. Unopened. Brought it with me tonight hoping I'd feel luckier with it in my pocket. I think you and your friend will have need of it."

"But--"

Eric smiled again. "Saw that lip action out there, and there wasn't a damned thing buddy-buddy about it. I know what you mean now about hard core. If you can kiss a man the way you were kissing him, you might have closer to half a pound of cock lust than I thought, with the right guy."

Starsky pocketed the lube. "Thanks, but don't you think you might need it yourself?"

Eric's smile widened into a smirk. "I found myself a honey with an oceanfront cottage and plenty of K-Y on hand."

As verification, a voice called into the restroom, "Eric, baby, what's taking you so long? You're killing me here."

Starsky laughed and slapped Eric on the back. "Good for you. Hope it works out."

"For tonight at least. One day at a time, that's my motto."

When Starsky caught up to Hutch by the pornographic fountain, Hutch gave him a strange look.

"What're you grinning like that about?"

Starsky put his arm around Hutch's shoulders and hugged him close to his side. "I think I just got a seal of approval from an expert."

~*~*~

They ended up at a motel just off the Pacific Coast Highway, the cookie-cutter architecture not unlike the Canyon Vista. Hutch didn't have the presence of mind to worry about similarities or memories. Starsky had to take care of registration while Hutch waited in the LTD, trying not to cream his jeans just from thinking about why he was parked beside the Torino outside a motel. When Starsky came strutting back into view, swinging the room key from his fingers, Hutch slammed out of the car and raced up to him. He skidded to a stop with a foot's distance remaining, knowing if he inched closer, he'd pull the man into some third base moves in the middle of the parking lot. Starsky just laughed at him and guided him toward the room where Hutch fully expected his life to change forever. Starsky stopped outside the door and gave Hutch a combustible look.

"Ready?"

"If you don't open that damn door, Starsky, I'll kick the thing in!"

"All righty. Since you put it that way." But Starsky's hands weren't steady either, and the key scraped against the lock several times in his fumbling before slipping into place.

The door seemed to take five hours to open a few inches. Hutch dashed inside, dragging Starsky with him, and kicked the door shut in the way that Starsky had made famous with Dobey's office door. Panting, Hutch locked eyes with Starsky and unbuttoned his own jeans, sliding down the zipper and shoving the pants and his white cotton underwear down to his thighs in a lightning move that made Starsky groan and Hutch gasp with the rush of air on his cock. Starsky neared and slid questing fingers up Hutch's throbbing cock. Hutch banged his head back against the door and howled, shooting as if he'd had no physical contact for years. Bringing his hand down in a loose fist around the emissions, Starsky let his fingers grow sticky with the thick fluid. Afterward, he wiped the stickiness on his jeans, his smile one of amazement.

"Hottest fucking thing I've ever seen," Starsky growled.

"G-glad you approve." Hutch breathed deep. "Maybe now I can survive the next hour."

Starsky delved in his pocket and produced a tube of K-Y. "Friend gave me this tonight. Don't know if we'll need it, but--"

Hutch's breathing had slowed, but now sped again. "Oh, we'll need it, all right." Starsky looked a little overwhelmed, and Hutch rushed to reassure him. "I'm gonna get you hard, make you come, get you hard again, and then you're gonna nail me to that bed over there."

"Oh, God, Hutch."

"Um-hm. Plan to make you say that a lot tonight. Starsk, I know this is new for you, but I don't want this to be a one-man show. I need you to tell me what you want. How do you want the next ten minutes to play out?"

Starsky stroked his still-sticky forefinger over Hutch's lips, down to his chin. "Suck me, Hutch. You've got the prettiest mouth I've ever seen on anyone. Right now if I think about your ass, I'll short circuit or something. But I could think about your mouth all damn day long."

Hutch needed no further encouragement. He made quick work of sliding his jeans and underwear down to his ankles and off, tossing them aside, then went to work on Starsky's belt. Down on his knees in front of his partner, Hutch had no patience, no time to do anything but force the jeans and tight little bikini-cut brief down to Starsky's knees, stroking his hands back up lightly-haired, muscular thighs and around to squeeze handfuls of an ass too sensual to be legal. Starsky sighed out a few broken words and petted through Hutch's hair. Hutch felt a twist of confusion inside, accustomed to finding his guy of choice already hard and leaking by this point in the proceedings, but he refused to surrender to the challenge. He licked a pattern across Starsky's balls with the very tip of his tongue, rewarded by fine tremors in Starsky's thighs, and raised his head to suck the head of Starsky's cock with the gentlest pressure. Carefully covering his teeth with his lips, he let his mouth fill with saliva to give hot wetness where it was most needed. Starsky let out a harsh, unbelieving cry and Hutch wanted to sing around his mouthful when he felt the prick at his mercy start to grow.

"Jesus, Hutch, God, gettin' hard, gettin'...that's it, that's it, suck me, suck me, oh--"

Hutch had no problem fulfilling that request. He slid his hands down and held tight to Starsky's legs, just beneath the luscious curve of ass, and initiated the bobbing motion any man wanted to feel. Suck, slide, release, lick, suck...a rhythm Hutch could play as well as any ditty on the guitar, and Starsky began to moan softly in the back of his throat, thrusting loosely, controlled, gently covering Hutch's nape with his warm palm.

Hutch didn't want him controlled, tender, or concerned. He wanted him unleashed, out of his mind and out of his body with need and raw passion. He let Starsky feel the tiniest nip of teeth where a good, hard dick could appreciate it, and Starsky's moan sharpened to a cry. "H-Hutch! C-Can't believe it's you...down there...us...real...sucking...me...Oh!"

Slipping his mouth slowly off Starsky's shaft, Hutch looked up and squeezed Starsky's legs to get his attention. Heated blue eyes blinked down at him. "Starsk, God knows I love the sound of your voice, but you don't have to talk yourself into coming. I'm gonna make you come from your toes to your scalp. Just let yourself feel it."

Starsky pushed against his nape until Hutch rested his cheek against Starsky's stomach and allowed a tender hand to brush through his hair, finding reassurance, normalcy in the middle of the whirlwind. Hutch could sympathize with that need. Having his mouth around Starsky's cock had turned his entire world upside down, and he didn't know if he'd even recognize himself in the mirror when he looked the next time. He knew he'd like the new reflection better. After a moment of calming, Starsky grunted a little and pushed his belly forward, an encouraging motion that cued Hutch to go down on him again. Hutch snarled at the treat waiting for him and sank his mouth over the needy flesh. Starsky bucked, hissed, and began thrusting in earnest, taking Hutch's mouth with the partner-tempered roughness Hutch wanted. One judicious rolling of Starsky's balls in fingers warmed from gripping his leg, and Starsky yelled, stilling before jerking in orgasm, giving Hutch the first true taste of his partner.

Starsky collapsed to his knees and hunched over, shaking, his breathing erratic and eyes wild. Swallowing, wiping the back of his tender mouth with his hand, Hutch gathered him into a loose embrace at first, and then held fast. 

"I'll be damned if it ain't true," Starsky gasped into Hutch's shoulder. "No one can suck dick like a man."

"Hm?"

"I should get you a light blue hanky. But you only wear it for me, got that?"

Hutch snorted against Starsky's hair. "God, Starsk, who've you been talking to?"

"Never mind. Let's go get comfy in bed, rev up our engines and see where they take us."

Hutch kissed him. "Better plan on taking me across the finish line, you drag racing stud."

~*~*~

Johnny couldn't believe his eyes. "An empty coffee pot!" He wagged the carafe at Roy to get his attention and have someone share in his misery. "At the nurses station? What's the world coming to?"

Roy yawned. "Try the coffee room. Right now I'm so tired I think coffee would do the opposite of its intended purpose and put me right to sleep."

"I'll risk it. Won't get through the rest of the night without it." Johnny glared at his partner when another DeSoto yawn triggered one of his own. "Stop that." He left Roy yawning in front of the supply drawers and headed for the coffee room, fully expecting to find it empty this time of night.

Instead he walked in on Brackett peeling an orange and trying to read a newspaper with the weariest, droopiest eyes Johnny had seen this side of Roy. He started to back out of the room and leave the man undisturbed, but his sudden desire to right that afternoon's wrong overwhelmed him and pushed him over the threshold. Brackett didn't even notice his arrival until Johnny walked behind him to the counter where clean coffee cups were drying upside down on a dish towel beside the coffee machine.

"Johnny?"

"Yeah, Doc. It's me. In here hunting coffee. The pot at the nurses station is empty."

Brackett turned around and blinked at him. "Must be later than I thought, you're in turnout gear."

Johnny looked down at the bulky pants and heavy boots. "Yep. You've been here nonstop since this morning?"

"Yes. Had a few patients go critical this evening, and I stayed to see them through the worst of the crisis. You and Roy here on a rough one?"

"Saw it in my face, huh?" Johnny went over to the table and sat down across from Brackett. "Yeah. Toddler took a header out of her unsecured crib. Head injury. Neuro's already down here with her, and Roy and I were hoping we could hang around long enough to know she's gonna be okay."

"Hard to tell with those, Johnny," Brackett said through a yawn. "Might be touch and go for a good long while. You said Neuro is with her?"

"Yeah." Johnny waved him back down when he would've left his seat. "So there's no reason for you to ditch your orange and paper."

"Parents here?"

"Yeah. Roy's gonna sit with them for a while when he finishes checking our drug box. 'Least until LA calls us out again."

Brackett separated the orange slices and offered Johnny one. Johnny accepted the sticky wedge and popped it in his mouth, cupping his hand to use as a spittoon for the seeds. He reached for a napkin and wadded the seeds in it. "Uh, Doc?"

Brackett was concentrating on his orange. "Um?"

Johnny took a long, unobserved look at him. The usually neat dark hair over Brackett's forehead was untidy. His long lashes looked moister than usual, evidence of sweat and too much hard work crammed into a short time, but his eyes, though puffy with fatigue, were still stunning. Johnny had always noticed Brackett's eyes; he'd tried for the longest time to figure out if they were blue, gray, or dark brown-black. Over time he'd decided that they were blue, but their color changed with lighting and possibly even with Brackett's mood. Maybe like a mood ring, they were bluest when Brackett was happiest. Right now they shone brilliantly dark like a starlit night, perhaps a side effect of tiredness. Johnny wondered if Brackett was a man who could lose himself, relax and unwind, in a good snuggle. The doctor's broad chest and sturdy arms no doubt provided good snuggling.

And why the hell he was thinking about Brackett's eyes and taste in snuggling he didn't know, but he slapped a mental lid down on those thoughts and jumped up from the table. He'd made it to within inches of the door when Brackett said, "Still running, Johnny?"

He froze. "What?"

"Staying as far from the gay thing as possible? Does that include me now? If so, I should never have told you. I hoped to gain a closer friend, not lose one altogether."

Johnny couldn't shake off the cheek-warming wave of shame. On seeing Brackett, he had come in the room as much to right a wrong as for the coffee, and here he was high-tailing it again. He returned to the table and set his mug down. "Doc, you've always been, um, a good friend to Roy and me."

"Thank you, and likewise."

"But I know what you meant earlier. And I'd like to think of you that way. That kind of friend. A resource, like you said. Won't say I'm not still running, though. I meant what I said about getting messed over. I'm--oh, hell. I'm real shook up inside right now."

Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Brackett nodded. "I know. I'm sure it doesn't help that you know Hutchinson is a good man who likely didn't realize he was in over his head until it was too late to pull out without shaking you up. On some level, it'd be easier if he were a monster you could hate."

Johnny helped himself to another orange slice and noticed that the liberty he took brought another brief, patented half-smile to Brackett's weary face. "Bottom line, he had a choice. And he didn't choose me. Gave him another chance to choose and I still ended up empty-handed. Not easy for a man to take."

Brackett finished the last piece of orange and thoroughly cleaned the corners of his mouth with his napkin before he settled back in his chair. "No, it isn't. That's one of the similarities that cross orientation lines. Men don't handle rejection well."

"You're not kidding."

"Even the silent kind," Brackett murmured, watching Johnny in that intent way of his.

Johnny frowned. "Silent kind?"

"And sometimes that kind is at least partially self-inflicted and the recipient has no room to complain." Brackett rose from his chair. "I'll check in on that head injury. You and Roy be careful out there tonight."

"You get some rest, Doc; you look like you need it."

~*~*~

Well, Hutch wanted a challenge.

He got one.

Removing the remainder of their clothing separately to avoid injury in their state of excitement, they chose the bounciest of the two double beds in the room and dragged the faded pastel print bedspread and top sheet down to the foot. When they rushed into each other's arms in the middle of the bed, Hutch had to admit, in broken words between kisses, that Starsky was no slouchy kisser. Hutch was already one or two kisses from forgetting every other pair of lips, and Starsky seemed determined to deliver the knockout punch to those memories. Four or five open-mouthed, writhing kisses later, Hutch sported a hard-on that begged for immediate Starsky attention, but he found no answering hardness when his hand strayed below Starsky's waist. He found soft, curly hair to tug that earned him a hiss and twitch of Starsky's hips, but his hand closed around a sizable cock semi-erect at best, and the flesh didn't flush or harden further in his caressing grip. Starsky showed no concern, though. He pushed Hutch gently down to the bed until they were sharing one of the flat, lumpy hotel pillows. Starsky moved away from Hutch's hold but only for the purposes of turning onto his side and stretching out beside Hutch, propped on one elbow and using his non-dominant right hand to trace circles on Hutch's chest. Lips red and swollen from kissing, curly hair riotous, Starsky looked wanton and devilish, everything Hutch loved most about him.

"You sensitive here?" Starsky walked his fingers up toward one of Hutch's nipples.

Hutch tilted his chin downward for a look at his chest. "Not really--" A warm mouth closed over his nipple, tongue flashing out to lick, and Hutch yelled, "Damn it, Starsky!"

Starsky lifted his head. "Happiest 'Damn it, Starsky' I ever heard. Must be more sensitive than you thought."

"Must've needed the right mouth," Hutch said, sounding drunk on happiness and past caring. Starsky's responsive grin and seductively mobile eyebrows made the mushy thought worthwhile. Even more worthwhile was Starsky's return to sucking Hutch's nipples, evenly dividing his time between each, until Hutch shook, sweating, calling out, and hovering just on the edge of his second climax.

"Starsk, stop, s-stop! Damn it, man, I'll be over the edge before you're inside me."

"Jesus, Hutch! Know what you want, don'tcha?"

"Tonight I do, absolutely. How about yours? They give you any jolts?" Hutch flicked his fingers across Starsky's right nipple.

Starsky shook his head. "Nah. Duds, I'm afraid." Hutch raised his head and closed his mouth around the brown nipple, using his tongue to deliver the same flicking action before applying his teeth in the merest clench and pull. Starsky shouted and grabbed Hutch by the ears, his palms warm and trembling. "H-Hutch, G-God! Oh-h."

The palms gentled on the sides of his face, and Hutch grinned around the nipple. "Never had a woman bite you there, huh?"

"Uh--no. Quit with the questions, willya, and do the other one!"

Hutch did as he was told, and Starsky growled in undeniable pleasure, urging Hutch away from his chest and raising up to straddle his partner, moving until his cock brushed against Hutch's lips. "Put your mouth on me, Hutch."

"But--"

"Get me all the way hard, babe, so I can give you what you want."

What do you want? Hutch mentally pushed the question aside. If Starsky didn't want him, he wouldn't be here doing things with him in bed that left the border of heterosexuality miles behind them. He sucked Starsky in, fighting the awkward position to give the best head possible, and Starsky closed his eyes. Hutch battled a momentary concern that Starsky was envisioning a feminine mouth around the head of his dick, but then those lids fluttered again, and Starsky was blinking at him, shining pure affection, wonder, and need down on him. Hutch felt his partner's cock stiffen between his lips, but Starsky pulled away and Hutch mourned the departure, preferring to have had at least one droplet of pre-come on his tongue to remind him of Starsky's taste.

Starsky's smile was all electricity. "You could make me come so fast with that pretty mouth, but I got other plans for us." He stretched to retrieve the tube of lube he'd put on the nightstand. "Gonna make your legs shake, buddy, make you scream the roof off."

Promises generally made to a woman. Oh, well, Hutch couldn't fault the man for using what he knew. And speaking of what Starsky knew and didn't know... Hutch reached up to squeeze his ribs with gentle pressure until Starsky looked down at him. "Starsk, you might not last until I come this first time, and that's okay."

"What? Think I don't have what it takes? If there's one thing I got at crunch time, it's stamina."

"I know," Hutch said, smiling, "but this is different than a good roll with a girl. Have you ever had a woman through the back door?"

"Nope. Too many ways to make 'em happy from the front."

"Okay, then. You're gonna be shoving that huge, happy cock of yours--what?"

Starsky winked at him. "Really think it's huge or you just stroking my ego?"

"I'll show you stroking." Hutch stroked his hand up the erection in question, letting his fingertips play with the head, teasing the slit, until Starsky flung his head back and began to pant. "It's impressive, you know it's impressive, and you can just stop gloating, bad boy."

Starsky smiled down at him. "Unnh, gonna put it to good use. Give you the ride of your life, and you're loony if you think I'm stoppin' before you're coming all over the place."

Hutch groaned. Starsky had him hotter than the inside of a car parked in hundred-degree weather, just from those erotic promises in that one-of-a-kind voice. Maybe that was the point. Close as Hutch was, he'd probably shoot the very instant Starsky got inside. Still, better to issue a warning now than risk a bruised Starsky ego later. "Starsk, you'll be putting yourself in the tightest, hottest place you've ever been. And when I say tight, I mean it! Haven't had a cock up there since...oh...summer of '66, I think."

"Summer of--!" Starsky's mouth fell open and he stared at Hutch in clear disbelief. "But I thought--"

Hutch knew what he thought, and about whom. "No, Starsk." He bit his lip. "I would have." He moved his hand to cup Starsky's cheek. "Oh, hey, you gorgeous man, you. You don't need that look."

"What look?"

"That 'my partner, mine!' look you get sometimes. I didn't tell you to make you jealous. I just didn't want to start this out lying to you. I cared about him. I would've given him that, but--"

"What? Is he a bottom or something?"

Hutch laughed. "Oh, no. Johnny's no bottom. I thought one time he wanted--oh, hell, does it matter? This is about you and me. And I don't even have words for what it'll mean to have you inside me, Starsk."

Starsky gave him a gentle, almost soothing kiss. "If you can't find words, then that's good enough for me. Wanna do this right, Hutch."

"It's not rocket science." He tried to think of anything that might send Starsky barreling out of the hotel room in a disgusted panic. He didn't feel full, his health shake regimen kept him regular, and he'd had a good, long shower quite a while after his last... He realized he'd been thinking out loud when he saw Starsky's astonishingly red face.

His David Starsky, red-faced, yet. 

Cheeks flaming hotter than his dick, Hutch tried to laugh but came out with a squeaky chuckle. "Well, uh, now I know you're a stud when that little--er--speech didn't make you deflate."

Starsky just kissed him again, playing with Hutch's chest. "Anything I encounter, well, it's you, y'know? No need for you to get all shy now."

"In that case..." Hutch spread his legs and then drew them back until his knees flanked his chest. He clutched at his own shins and presented Starsky unobstructed access.

Starsky's flushed face now had wide eyes to match. "Hutch, damn, God, you--you're goin' all out. Any reason you think you need to give me the whole enchilada tonight?"

"I want to, isn't that reason enough?"

"You're not thinking this is a one-time deal?"

"I--Honestly, I hadn't even thought that far ahead. Might not be a one-time deal, and God I hope not, but the fact remains, your known orientation is our best cover. Can't let this change us on the outside, Starsky, if we want to survive out there, doing what we do. And that means women in our beds and smart comebacks to the locker room bigots."

"Yeah, yeah, I know alla that. Shit for a reality, but there it is...."

"So, let's get the most out of this. Shove that other pillow up under my ass; I want to be at the perfect angle for you to really get up in there."

Starsky ever so gently lifted Hutch's ass one-handed and situated the pillow until Hutch nodded his approval. Slicking his forefinger with the lube, Starsky drew the tip of his finger around the puckered entrance to Hutch's body and then pushed the digit inside. Hutch held to his control by invisible threads, coaching Starsky through the stretching, twisting, circling of that one finger, then two, wanting to tell Starsky to shove them as far as possible in hopes of contact with that special spot. Instead he contented himself with the necessities. The fancy stuff could wait. His balls ached from needing Starsky and that kind of reckless want didn't make for good, patient coaching.

"Damn, Hutch, this--you--doing something to me, I swear."

"Something good, I hope. Starsk, I appreciate the thorough stretching, but if you don't put your cock where your fingers are soon, I'll lose my mind."

"More'n ready on this end, buddy boy, but I've only got two fingers up there so far."

"My asshole isn't the eye of a needle, either. Trust me on this, Starsky." Hutch clenched down on those fingers and watched Starsky's breath catch. "Uh-huh. Don't you want some of that around your prick? Look, I won't let you hurt me. I know in the long run you'd suffer far worse than I would if you did. Okay? Take me on that ride you were talking about, Starsky. Now."

Starsky started to slick himself with the lube, but Hutch pointed his foot and nudged Starsky's bicep with his toes. "Bring that big boy up here and let me slick him up right."

Biting down on a whimper, Starsky crawled forward between Hutch's legs and arched over him. Hutch closed his lips around the firm, hot flesh he could lick, suck on forever and count himself lucky. When Starsky's shoulders rolled forward and then shook, Hutch knew to release him.

"Never had anyone so damn sexy," Starsky muttered, bracing his hands on the pillow just above Hutch's shoulders. "All right. You stop me if--"

"Stop you, hell."

Starsky smiled, and then Hutch felt something larger, hotter than fingers seeking entrance. He saw no confusion on Starsky's face. He saw exertion, restraint, and in Starsky's gasps he heard amazement. "You...were right...so hot...could set me on fire...tight, o-oh-ohoho, Hutch!"

"You were right about making my legs shake...so we're even...."

As Starsky pushed in, Hutch tried to hide any pain that came with his body's attempt to relearn this unique dance, but the slow, deliberate force told him that Starsky felt the unspoken struggle. Blissfully soon, Hutch's ass remembered that a big cock pushing its way through muscle could be a very, very good thing, and he let out a cleansing breath. He saw Starsky's control breaking, and he moved his hand to caress Starsky's sweat-dampened cheek.

"All the way, Starsk."

"Uhnn..." Starsky pressed up until Hutch could feel his hips, the tickle of short hairs, the wrinkly, soft skin that protected Starsky's tightening balls. But Starsky's slow withdrawal and tentative reentry tortured Hutch.

"So gentle," Hutch breathed, "but I don't want gentle."

"Hutch!"

"Want you to fuck me like you could never fuck a woman. Hard, fast, crazy, good."

Starsky's breathing was just a series of panting gasps. "Hutch...stop...you don't know...."

"How rough you wanna get? Show me. Show me your inner wild man. Way you make me feel I might just melt, but I won't break."

"Oh, God. G-gonna lose it, real fast."

Hutch smirked. "Told you."

He should have known Starsky would take that as a challenge. Staring down into Hutch's eyes with as much determination as pleasure, Starsky jerked out just shy of slipping free and then shoved in again, this time deeper. On each pull and push he worked his way deeper, arms straining, hips doing the work of two men, and on one gasping thrust Hutch felt his balls quiver from pressure within him.

"Oh, yes, Starsk! Oh, holy--!"

"So, that's where it is," Starsky murmured, then snickered.

Hutch tried to catch his breath for speech. "How'd you--"

Starsky held himself halfway in, poised for another sweet push to that internal gland. "May not be an expert...but I know...a thing or two."

"Sta-a-rsky..." Oh, God. Was that a whine? Hutch closed his eyes, wanting to hide the naked want melting him from the heart, through his bones....

"Look at me, Hutch. Got to see it in your eyes when you come. Gonna...send you flyin'...without even touching your big prick."

"Starsk!" Hutch opened his eyes and hoped the heat in his cheeks showed in a satisfactory flush.

"No other man...does this to you...un'erstand?" Starsky's thrusts were more like lunges now, desperate, needy, and connecting on every other stroke with the part of Hutch that needed to feel him most. "Not...while...I'm breathin'...."

"Starsky!"

"Uhh-nnn. Hutch, say it!"

"No...other...man...does this to me...S-Starsk!"

He loosened his legs to wrap them around Starsky, needing more skin-to-skin contact, and Starsky took his weight without faltering in his rhythm. Forceful, hard, fast, crazy, good--Hutch got his wish. He thought wildly that they might push right through the wall behind the cheap motel headboard, and hoped the neighboring room was vacant. He used his hands, freed from holding his legs back, to stroke Starsky's face, tug at the tousled, drenched curls over his forehead, and brush his thumbs over Starsky's lips. When that needy cock inside him flared, Hutch lost his soul to the man arching over him, and screamed harshly at the ceiling. Thick, liquid warmth landed on his belly and chest, and the room smelled of sex. Starsky's roar took over where Hutch's scream left off, and three final, short, jerky thrusts brought Starsky over to Hutch's side of the little death and its accompanying paradise.

~*~*~

Starsky had reason to be grateful for their late-night shower when he woke to warm lips nuzzling his fresh morning erection. He smiled lazily and reached down to smooth the blond bed-head that now bobbed over his groin. Flashes from the previous night hit each of his senses simultaneously: the taste of Hutch's kisses, the heat and squeeze of his ass, the bracing water in the shower they shared when their legs became functional afterward, the sound of Hutch's sleepy breathing in his arms, and the scent of their freshly washed bodies in a room that still reeked of sex. Hutch was going to town on him now, using those long fingers to tease Starsky's balls, and Starsky stopped thinking about anything but his dick and the deep, expert mouth sucking him off. Too soon he arched, feeling the orgasm shoot through his spine and every nerve ending that branched from it, and he cried out watching Hutch swallow every burst. He lunged and rolled Hutch over on his back, stretching out with him and seeking kisses flavored with the intimacy between them.

"Could kiss you all day," he said into the corner of Hutch's mouth. He trailed his hand down the smooth sinewy muscle of Hutch's abdomen to tug on the cock that throbbed in his loose fist. "How you want...."

"Shower," Hutch gasped, lifting his hips to thrust in the cradle of Starsky's hand. "You can stroke me off under the water...ohh-oooh, Starsk, don't make me come all over myself again."

"Why not? Thought it was damned hot. Both times."

Hutch smiled. "Sure was. But this morning if I'm going back in the shower because of another orgasm, I'd rather just combine the two."

In the shower Starsky wrestled with the sense that he should offer more than a warm hand. He'd seen the feverish glances at his ass, and he knew for a damned fact that his partner didn't live life on the bottom, either. Hutch hadn't asked, seemed afraid to let his gaze stay on Starsky's backside for more than a few seconds, and Starsky ached to squelch that fear, but his determination not to screw up this fledgling addition to their partnership overruled that desire. He wasn't ready, any more than he could put his mouth on the straining cock he stroked. In the case of sucking cock, the deterrent wasn't the stigma of obscene names and slurs he'd heard on the streets, both East Coast and West, but the discomfort that he was out of his league, out of his depth. He didn't apologize for being a take-charge man in bed, and he didn't begrudge the same attitude in Hutch, but Starsky had taken the coaching through their first intercourse, and he couldn't handle playing the student again so soon.

A handjob he could deliver without expert tips, and he brought Hutch to his knees with it, following him down under the shower spray to hold him through the aftershocks and kiss away Hutch's stuttering, gasping words of praise.

Out in the room, Starsky wanted to lounge in bed and nap with his new bedmate, but Hutch had started retrieving his discarded clothing, sniffing at each piece and then shrugging. Starsky waited until Hutch had the jersey pulled down over his head.

"Hey, after a shower like that, won't we be a hazard on the road, partner?"

Hutch's bright-eyed smile approved of the question, but he still kept tugging his jeans into place. "Got to face the city again sometime, Starsk."

"Yeah, but what's the rush? Thought we had until Monday. Dobey must be sneaking candy bars when we aren't looking. Got sweetness just oozing out of him all of a sudden."

"Bereavement time," Hutch said quietly and sat down on the edge of the bed to toe on his mocs. "I didn't request any officially from the department, so Dobey's trying to provide me some the unofficial way, and he knows this ordeal put you through the ringer, too."

Nothing like the reminder of death for a slap back to reality. Starsky left his sprawl on the bed and reached for his own bunched jeans. He knew Vanessa's family had claimed her body and seen to the arrangements, pointedly refusing Hutch any part of the process. Hutch had taken their grieved venting and abuse in stoic silence followed by a few cutting if censored remarks of his own, and Starsky had watched in quiet rage, all too aware that neither the situation, nor Hutch's state of mind, called for the typical retaliation he would have meted out to anyone foolish enough to disrespect Hutch. He'd seen the rage in Hutch's eyes and knew if the thinly veiled accusations and hateful words had come from fellow police officers instead of grieving, late middle-aged parents, Hutch would have been hauled back into IA for fisticuffs in the squadroom. Hutch hadn't exactly wanted to plan Vanessa's funeral and sit on the front row of the church service, Starsky knew, but the man didn't need to be told, yet again, that Vanessa's life had ended the minute she laid eyes on Hutch years ago.

"Sorry, Hutch."

Hutch looked over his shoulder. "For what?"

Starsky zipped up and gestured at the bed. "Timing and all."

Hutch brought one knee up on the bed and turned around for better eye contact. "I'm not in mourning. That's why I didn't request time from the department. It'd be a final insult to Van to pretend emotions that aren't there, and the grief I feel about what happened to her, what I couldn't prevent, knowing she had to stare down her killers and see her last minute coming violently like that...that's too complicated for one of those canary yellow bereavement time request forms."

Starsky nodded. "I can understand that."

"I'm not rushing back to the city to hole up in my apartment and cry, you can believe that! What we did here, I--I think it's shifted my sanity back into place." Hutch gave him another smile. "Besides, you don't want Huggy to get ideas about Louise. He might decide to turn her back into a chinchilla if someone makes him the right offer."

Starsky's hands slipped on his shirt buttons. "You left Louise with Huggy?"

"What else was I supposed to do with her, bring her down here with me in the front seat? I took her by the bar with me for a beer. Didn't know I'd be chasing after you--Oh."

"Oh? What oh?"

Hutch pressed the heel of his palm against his brow and rubbed. "I just remembered that I'm supposed to be furious with you."

Letting his shirt hang loose, Starsky crawled over the bed to kneel behind Hutch and knead his shoulders. "Hey, thought we screwed all the furious out of you."

"You could've ruined Johnny's career, putting Huggy's contacts on his trail like that!"

Starsky's hands jerked on the tense muscles. "Huggy told you about--oh, shit."

"Yeah, oh shit, is right. And don't be planning revenge on Huggy. He's in the middle. He didn't squeal on you, Starsky. He only told me he'd gotten a line on Johnny, but it doesn't take a Philadelphia lawyer to figure out who put him up to it. I know you, and I'd knock down anyone else who'd say it, but you are pushy. I know you didn't give Huggy a hell of a lot of choice. Neither did I, when I demanded the full run down from him. I'm sure I looked ready to wipe the bar with him."

In the middle of his churning stress, Starsky found a chuckle. "I know that look on you. Hell, it makes me wanna cut and run even. And not to remind you, but a few days ago we risked a lot more than Johnny's career."

"I know!" Hutch bowed his head. "I'm still not ready to forgive myself for that."

"And he's an adult," Starsky said firmly. "He could've turned you down when you dropped a dime on him that night, but he didn't. What I did, he had no say in, but I'd just pieced it all together. You were in surgery, and I had to know, damn it. I knew I could count on Huggy for discretion. Knew he'd care more about you than the information."

"I know all that," Hutch said, sounding far too weary for a man who'd enjoyed three orgasms in less than twelve hours. "I know."

"Then what's the problem here, really, Hutch? It's not Gage's career."

"I'm an adult, too!" Hutch pulled his shoulders free of Starsky's massage and walked over to lean his palms on the light oak dresser. "I know I've made some mistakes when it comes to relationships. Who hasn't? But I'm no protected witness for you to give my acquaintances clearance checks. I don't need a keeper."

"I can't believe you just said that."

The low anger in Starsky's voice turned Hutch around to face him. "Starsky, I don't mean that you set out intentionally to be my--"

"That's not it. I can't believe you can't hear the hypocrisy in what you just said. You might not clear my acquaintances, but you clear information. You don't mind holding out on me with what you think I can't handle, what you think might be dangerous for me to know. I had to find out from some slips of paper that you were seeing a guy. Had to find out from Gage that you guys were through. Seems I've had a keeper, too."

Hutch shrugged loosely. "You're right. Damn it, you're right."

"And another thing. I wasn't tasting pure Hutchinson in your mouth last night. If you tell me you're smoking again after--what, a nine-year break?--we're gonna go round and round!"

Looking like a kid caught with weed, Hutch flushed. "Are you saying you won't kiss me if I have cigarette breath?"

"No. I can't think of anything that would make me not want to kiss you. I'm sayin'--"

"I know what you're saying." Hutch shook his head. "And I'm not. Smoking, that is. Last night I just--all this had me a little rattled. That's the point. What we're getting into won't be easy. Starsky, how do we do this? How do we do this," he pointed at the rumpled bed, "leading the lives we have to out there, without it ripping us right down the middle?"

"One step at a time, I guess. You're the most real thing in my life, Hutch. We start with that, and we don't ever deny it to each other, no matter how we have to hide it from everybody else. Take it from there."

Hutch walked back over to him for a kiss. When their lips separated again, Hutch said, "Well, there's one person we'll have a devil of a time hiding it from and might as well not even try."

Starsky kissed his jaw. "Huggy's known about you a long time, Hutch, long time before I had him check out Gage. Never kept him from thinking you hung the moon."

Hutch smiled. "I've known just as long that Huggy is a two-way street. Should've guessed he'd spot it in me."

"Yeah? Now I'm one, too."

Hutch's eyes were deadly serious. "No, Starsk, no you're not."

"Huh? What other guy was in here buried up to his balls in your ass last night?"

"Yes, you were, and I'm still feeling it! I know I was a little accusatory in the bar last night, watching you with that guy on the dance floor, but after a night with you, I know for a fact I'm the only guy in the world you'd do any of this with."

"I'll buy that. So what's the problem?" Starsky couldn't see the downside in that. Thought it would be reassuring for Hutch, in fact. But Hutch didn't look reassured. He had a worried look that reminded Starsky of Eric.

Because straight men and gay men just don't work. Not for anything serious.

"Problem is, you're walking a beat you're not used to now, Detective. Better know you can call on your partner for back-up when it gets too hot to handle."

~*~*~

Starsky barely lifted his foot off the gas at the last red light before he turned onto Ocean Avenue. His bladder felt like a hollow lead ball in his lower gut with a fire burning inside it, and he was the world's biggest dumbass for being on the road to Venice instead of in his own comfortable apartment with his very comfortable bathroom. For the tenth time, he told himself he could have called Hutch to see if he'd heard from Lisa Kendricks. He didn't have to drive over to Venice to find out.

But then, with a phone call, he wouldn't get to see for himself that Lisa wasn't Hutch's roommate for the night. The squabbling and competition over her had felt good so far, natural, like the kind of thing they did before they kicked down the last wall between them, but he couldn't deny his hope that Hutch didn't want to make good on all that charming blond flirtation with the witness under their protection. Starsky closed his eyes and begged his bladder not to burst.

Of course, he didn't exactly know what he'd do once there at Hutch's place this time of night, after they did their job and made sure Lisa was where she should be, tucked away for the night and not screaming down the hotel. He and Hutch hadn't done anything since that night at the roadside motel, both apparently sharing the fear that too much too soon would just push them off some kind of cliff. But whatever Hutch needed from him, Starsky was good for, he knew that much. Didn't mean he was going looking for it, and that sure as shit wasn't why he was pulling up in his favored parking spot in front of Chez Helene, but now that he knew he could quench Hutch's thirst, he could be human Gatorade for his partner. Absolutely.

In his haste to get to the john, he almost forgot to lock the Torino. Even in Venice, his pride and joy didn't need to be left at the tender mercies of any undesirable elements that might happen by. Keys pocketed, he rushed into Venice Place and up the stairs.

Hutch showing off leg in the short orange bathrobe was welcoming, but the expression on his face didn't match. Starsky read irritation in the set to Hutch's lips, and guilt in his eyes, and didn't like the combination. First things first, though. He pushed by Hutch and made for the bathroom, but Hutch blocked his way, and Starsky thought he might dissolve in a puddle at Hutch's feet. God, he had to piss! Like yesterday, already. He heard Hutch saying something about the john being out of order. Or out of water. Or something. Something that meant he couldn't go in and relieve his crushing need.

Something didn't smell right, and it wasn't just the faint tang of heated cardboard telling him Hutch was reheating leftover pizza in its box. Hutch's body language wasn't right, either, his explanations for Lisa's absence from the hotel too rushed, unconcerned, glib.

Hutch was never glib about an innocent person's safety.

Though his mind worked up to the truth by degrees, Starsky didn't expect the slicing shock he felt when Lisa emerged from the bathroom showing off plenty of leg herself. The guilt on Hutch's face solidified, and for a second, Starsky actually believed he wasn't seeing what he was seeing. But no, something had changed. In the old days, Hutch would've shown up at the front door grinning over his victory, discreetly bragging that the lady had chosen him, and Starsky would have come in to try and sway the balance back in his favor, both of them flirting and exerting all their charm until the lady made her choice clear. This new deception, guilt, and false show of innocence from Hutch scoured Starsky on the inside and left him confused, thrown off his rhythm.

"Some buddy. Trust him with your life, and look what he tries to do behind your back." Starsky felt a small triumph at the flash of hurt in Hutch's eyes before the excuses started up again. Starsky didn't care. He just wanted to get Lisa out of the bathroom before he left a puddle on Hutch's precious hardwood flooring.

When Lisa came out again all flustered, Starsky thought they might finally resort to old patterns, familiar territory, but Hutch didn't want to play the old game. He wanted to play sore loser and slam the bathroom door in Starsky's desperate face.

Oh, the cruelty! Starsky pulled his bladder--and his wits--together, and decided two could play that game. Hell, Starsky could play it better. He turned the spotlight of his charm on Lisa and had her out of Hutch's apartment before the count of ten.

~*~*~

Hutch let the shower pour over him, and tried to regain his balance. His emotional center felt somewhere five thousand miles away. He knew the day would come. The pursuit of women was essential to Starsky's nature, and Starsky couldn't silence that urge any more than the scorpion could spare the frog its fatal sting in the middle of the river. Hutch just hadn't counted on it happening so soon. He hadn't finished hammering out the weakened kinks in his armor he'd have to wear around Starsky in female pursuit mode. When Lisa had shown up at his door, he'd seen a golden opportunity to keep harsh reality at bay for one more night. He'd been a fool to think he could keep Starsky off the scent.

Okay. Plan B, then. He'd finish this shower in record time so Starsky wouldn't bust a kidney, and then he'd rejoin the fray. He might not keep Lisa out of Starsky's bed, but if Lisa wanted more than someone to watch over her while she slept, perhaps she could handle two man-sized teddy bears. He just had to forget she was a witness...and that he wanted no one in his arms but Starsky.

He opened the door five minutes later to an empty apartment.

Stunned, cut below the knees, he wandered over to the sofa and sat down, unable to summon the strength to go in search of clothing. Pulling his robe tight about himself, he stared at the poster on his door and kept swallowing over and over just to reassure himself he still could. He would not chase over to Starsky's apartment. He wouldn't. He'd wait until morning, play it cool, keep his dignity intact.

Somewhere around four a.m., he realized he'd better at least stretch out on his bed if he wanted his back to function without a brace.

~*~*~

The crack of gunfire brought Starsky out of a dead sleep with a yell. Where was his Beretta? Hell, where were the Marines? He clutched at his chest. Not gunfire. His front door. Hutch.

"Rise and shine, Lochinvar!"

Pissy Hutch.

Oh, terrific.

"You missed Reveille," Hutch snapped, kneeling by the coffee table to pick up the phone.

Not only had Lisa clung to her ladylike virtue the night before, but now Starsky had a pissy Hutch to placate, and his heart was still beating ninety to nothing. The barrage of discarded couch throw cushions in his face didn't help matters, but Hutch kept flinging them at him.

"That was a real class act you pulled last night!" Hutch was getting louder.

Partially concerned for Lisa's sleep, and for his own tender ears, Starsky shushed him. "Figured it makes us even," he said with a satisfied smile, and tried to roll over and go back to sleep. If Hutch wanted to be over here at this hour, and pissy on top of it, he could just make himself useful and brew the coffee.

Instead, Hutch designated himself Lisa's in-person wakeup call.

Oh, no. That wasn't how it was playing out. Not after Hutch's little bathroom stunt. Starsky scrambled off the couch and intercepted his partner at the bedroom door. They wrestled with the doorknob, and in a brief moment of twisting lower body contact, Starsky felt the softness of Hutch's groin firm to long hardness against his hip. He'd deal with that later. At the moment he had no intention of letting Hutch win the great doorknob war. He could match Hutch's evil little smile, too. They might've continued the muscling indefinitely had the doorknob not surrendered to their concerted strength, and Hutch stumbled into the room.

The empty room.

"Well, I see you did just about as well as I did, huh?" Hutch's smile was harder than the bulge in his jeans.

Starsky looked around his apartment in disbelief, turning just in time to see Hutch headed for the note on the bed. Oh, hell no! Starsky made like a flying squirrel, but he landed on the bed spread-eagled and empty-handed, Hutch's graceful arm striking out in front of his face and snatching the envelope right out from under his nose.

Damn it!

"Hey, you can't read my mail!"

"Ah, ah, ah," Hutch said in his annoying-as-hell mock-scolding voice, turning away to shield the note from Starsky's reach. Starsky tried looking over Hutch's shoulder, but all he got for his trouble was a heady whiff of aftershave and the faintest hint of cologne. "Ken?" Hutch was gloating now. "Ken."

Starsky halfway zoned out while Hutch read the note aloud. So she'd gone back to the hotel, blah, blah. Fine for her. Starsky wanted to know if Hutch was still hard in his jeans and if that meant Hutch needed something Lisa couldn't give him. But it wouldn't do to let go of his outrage that quickly, so he snatched the note out of Hutch's hands and pretended to confirm the message.

"Well, lover boy, you must have made some impression on her. She didn't even get your name right."

That left no doubt in Starsky's mind that he was saddled with a grade-A, corn-fed, Midwestern asshole for a partner. Well, fine then. Hutch could just suck on the note, because he wasn't getting Starsky's cock in his mouth anytime in the next year. He shoved the stationery in Hutch's mouth and stalked away to brew his own damn coffee.

Obviously, Midwestern assholes knew how to speak coherently around a mouthful of notepaper. "Starsk, come on, I'm--I'm glad you struck out."

Starsky shot a glare over his shoulder. "I can see that."

Hutch spat the note out in his hands and wadded it into a small ball. "Not what I meant. Only reason I wanted her at Venice Place was so she wouldn't be with you."

Starsky waited halfway between the kitchen and the bedroom doorway. He could go either way. "Yeah, that sounds much better," he said with sarcasm Hutch could appreciate.

"Well, if she wasn't with you, and I slept on the sofa, it would've all worked out fine."

Cursing his strange fascination for Midwestern assholes, Starsky went back to the doorway and stared Hutch in the eyes. Where he'd seen gloating a minute ago, he now saw truth and need. "Protecting your interests, Hutch?"

Those blue eyes flashed at him. Uh, oh. Hutch didn't like being read that easily, not even by Starsky. "Maybe."

"You know, you were right, babe. If we're gonna survive any additions to our partnership on top of what we do out there, we gotta have women in our beds from time to time."

Hutch looked away. "I know. God, I know all about cover."

Not just for cover. Starsky had little intention of trying to live by cock alone. But now was not the time to remind Hutch of that, not when Hutch stood there looking a little lost and a lot more twitchy, clenching and unclenching his fist around the small wad of notepaper. Starsky stroked his cheek. "Hey, I'm not that disappointed I struck out."

Hutch smiled. "Okay. If I'm not disappointed, you're not disappointed, and she left us both chasing our tails--"

"Then it'd serve the lady right if we just took care of business ourselves," Starsky finished, stepping closer. "You got a need, Hutch?"

Hutch glanced down at his blatant need. "Yeah. You?"

"I was workin' on a nice morning stiffie until that gunshot door slam scared it away." He fingered the front of his boxers. "Know just how you could bring it back. I guess we have a few minutes before we need to see about Lisa." Yeah, he'd lied about not letting Hutch put him in his mouth for the next year, because Hutch was licking his lips, and oh, God, that mouth looked like the best thing going.

"A few minutes?" Hutch frowned. "Not sure whether that's a compliment on how fast I can bring you off, or a comment on my lasting power."

"Well, the first one applies, but I was really just reminding us that we're sort of on duty and sort of got a witness that needs protecting."

"Then let's sort of get to it," Hutch said with another breezy smile that made Starsky feel Spring had already arrived in his apartment.

Starsky thought Hutch would go straight for the prize, but he was pulled into warm arms as Hutch backed up to lean against the doorframe, and Hutch kissed him sweetly, tenderly. Starsky liked both of those, but he preferred ravenously, and he tongued Hutch's lips until that sweet mouth opened for him. So, Hutch wanted to start out romantic. Starsky could go for that. He didn't know how he felt about most of it, but kissing Hutch was like winning a sweepstakes, and that showed no sign of changing.

Freeing his mouth to breathe, Hutch fingered the hem of Starsky's boxers. "Why the geezer shorts? Trying to preserve the proprieties around Lisa?"

"Sometimes a man's gotta have a little room, is all."

"Uh-huh. Well, I prefer your painted-ons."

"I'll remember that." Starsky bit down on his lip when Hutch jerked the boxers down to his knees. The intimacy was still a shock to his system. He didn't harden, but his cock's twitch was hopeful.

Hutch knelt and rubbed the bridge of his nose lightly up and down the soft flesh, and Starsky let out a sigh, but Hutch caught his eye and said, "Starsk, you're sure? I mean--"

"Hutch, please, you could do something a lot better with that mouth than ask dumb questions."

Hutch shot him the finger at the same time as he sucked Starsky into his mouth. Starsky laughed, but the laughter changed quickly to hungry moans when the warm, wet suction made him grow. No one had ever sucked him off in his bedroom doorway. Sucking off didn't even describe this accurately, though. Hutch was making a meal off him, doing things to Starsky's cock with lips, teeth, and tongue that Starsky thought existed only in the pages of porn books no straight guy would risk getting caught dead with. He shouted pleas, encouragement, and finally Hutch's name until a sharp nip of teeth and a gentle headshake reminded him that it was better for the neighbors not to know who was putting him in orbit. When Hutch gave him the real bobbing action, alternating rhythm and depth, hard and soft by turn, Starsky came violently, his yell lasting until Hutch had swallowed the very last drop. Dear God, he needed a new pair of legs. He wobbled, trembling, back to the opposite doorjamb and rested against it, catching his breath.

Still on his knees, Hutch swiped his tongue over his bottom lip, capturing a few stray drops, and Starsky groaned again. Hutch smirked. "You're loud, you know that? I'm thinking it might not be safe for us to do this sort of thing within fifty miles of civilization."

Starsky grunted. "Your own fault for bein' so damned good at it."

"Well, Starsky, if you like, I can try learning to give a bad blowjob, just for you."

"No thanks. We'll figure something out before we get that drastic." He waited for Hutch to demand his due, make a play for Starsky's ass, or ask for a return of the favor, but Hutch just stood, stretching, fighting obvious twinges in his back. Starsky's mind whirled. His partner needed him, and they didn't have time to get naked and hit the sack. Starsky still had his shirt on, and Hutch was dressed to hit the streets. What could they do that wouldn't leave Starsky weirded out for days or take so long they'd have Dobey calling to find out why the hell they weren't glued to Lisa Hendricks?

Vague possibilities coalesced into a plan. He dashed into his bathroom and pulled drawers open until he found the small jar of cocoa butter. Thank God some women didn't appreciate a callus-roughened gun hand on their tender parts. Starsky had learned that butter-softened hands got him more yardage in the bedroom than the right words, and he was about to be rewarded double-time now. Or Hutch was. Or both of them. He returned to Hutch and nodded at the zipped jeans. "Mind setting yourself free before you do irreversible damage?"

Hutch unzipped and stepped out of underwear and jeans, clumsy in his impatience. His cock strained upward, red, moist-tipped, skin taut, and he fluttered a hand over it but apparently decided just one touch would torture rather than soothe, and dropped his hand to his side. "Starsky, what--?"

Starsky had slicked a streak of cocoa butter down the inside of both his thighs and now reached for Hutch's prick to spread the sweet grease, enjoying the feel of the foreskin sliding against his palms. Hutch clenched his teeth, but the sweat beading on his forehead spoke of his battle not to scream. Starsky lined himself up against the doorframe again and put his legs together. He gestured at the small, greased space between his thighs. "Have at me, you horny blond."

Hutch didn't ask questions. He clamped both hands down on Starsky's shoulders and thrust between his legs. The standing position was awkward, but they worked together to render the two-inch difference in their height insignificant, and Hutch found a rhythm that forced pants and muffled cries through his clenched teeth. He never took his eyes off Starsky's face, and the heat in his stare made Starsky flush. Starsky reached around and massaged his partner's back, kneading the muscles in time with Hutch's thrusts. After a kiss that banged Starsky's head back against the jamb, Hutch came with a few brief shouts, and Starsky hugged him close to keep him from sagging at the knees.

After a moment's rest, Hutch moved restlessly in his arms. "You didn't get hard again."

Starsky kissed his forehead. "Nah, once'll do me this time of morning. We need to get a move on, hop in the shower, and get out there. Lisa's probably working herself into a tizzy by now."

Hutch lifted his head and frowned. "You know, for a girl who claims to need a strong man around so she can sleep, she left the hotel last night and took a cab over to my place on her own. Then ditched you and went back to the hotel by herself in the middle of the night. How scared could she be?"

Starsky sucked in his breath. "That reminds me--"

"The pretty little lady who almost turned us and our favorite brainwashed amnesiac into burnt toast? Yeah, me too. Starsky, you don't think--"

"What's this? We have sex, and suddenly we can think like cops again?"

Hutch smiled. "Last night we were working against each other. Now, we're working together. I just can't believe Lisa could be anything but what she claims to be."

"I don't wanna believe it, either." Starsky yawned and moved away from the doorjamb before it could leave a permanent indentation in his back. "We'll drop by the hotel, play a couple of jilted Joes who're a little unhappy with her, and see where things go from there. And coffee, I need coffee."

Hutch kissed him. "I'll make sure you get coffee, gorgeous."

~*~*~

He was back in the canyon. Instead of a light brown Ford, a newer model dark sedan lay overturned. He rushed around the car where he found not a blond policeman but a brown-haired doctor whose handsome face was blood streaked from a forehead laceration. Wait! Something wasn't right. Brackett had been in a car accident only a few weeks before Ken's, but he'd been broadsided by a speeding driver at a busy intersection. And where the hell was Roy? Where was the engine company? Brackett bent his arm at a ninety degree angle, offering his hand, just as he'd done in the ER after his accident. In a replay of that day in Rampart, Johnny took Brackett's hand and patted it. Brackett's grimace of pain eased, and his eyes lightened to a startling blue. Johnny felt power surge through him.  

He woke, sweating profusely, and flailed around until he was sitting upright on his bedroll.

Just five feet or so from him, a large gray-tan coyote sat on its haunches and watched him. The animal perked its ears and whined. Lowering its head, showing submission, the coyote then yipped. Am I still dreaming? If that's my animal guide, I'm screwed. Of all the spirit visitors I could have, wouldn't you know I'd get Coyote? Summoning rational thought, Johnny tried to shoo the animal. With another high-pitched yip, the coyote rose on all fours and padded away. Johnny sighed loudly in relief at the tracks left in the sand. Beside him, a few feet away on his own bedroll, Roy snored, and the desert chill in the cloudless April morning cleared Johnny's head. He stretched and nudged Roy's shoulder. "Hey, Roy?"

Roy snorted, stirred, and swatted at Johnny's hand. "Mmph?"

"Come on, Roy, wake up. Let's strike camp and head back into town, huh?"

Rising up on elbow, Roy yawned and scratched through his bedroll hair. "You want to head back? I thought we were supposed to meet up with the rest of the group and go back at ten."

Johnny was already prepping their site for departure. "There's no law that says we can't go back on our own before then."

"Won't the group leader be concerned when two of the trek participants don't show up at the meeting place?"

Johnny sat back on his heels. "The group leader is camped about half a mile from here, I think. We can stop by his site and tell him we're starting back early."

"Johnny, is something wrong?"

Rolling his bedroll as tightly as possible, Johnny shrugged. "Nothing's wrong. Why would anything be wrong?"

"Well, all you could talk about was this trek, and now you're wanting to duck out early?" Roy cleared his throat and sat up straight. "Oh."

"Oh, what?"

"I just remembered who you really wanted to be on this trek with, that's all. Guess it's not the same thing with your old married-guy partner."

Johnny winced. "No, Roy, it's not that. Has nothing to do with Ke--Hutch, trust me. I'm glad you could get the time off and come with me. And grateful to Joanne for sparing you for five days. I've had a great time, and I think you have, too, it's just--"

"Disappointed you didn't get some kind of vision?" Roy said with a knowing smile.

Johnny flushed and tried to look nonchalant at the same time. A vision would've been a hell of a lot less confusing than that dream, never mind waking up to a granddaddy coyote! "Aw, heck. Didn't expect one. When they start making this kind of thing some generic intertribal togetherness project, it gets all diluted, you know? Just a glorified nature hike and camp-out. Tell the truth, I could do with some real coffee and a halfway decent breakfast."

That was true enough. And Roy clearly didn't detect any evasion, because he nodded and patted his stomach. "So could I."

They struck camp, chatting about their experiences on the trek. Ten minutes after they stopped by the group leader's site, they were on their way, reaching town before the sun was halfway to its noon zenith. Roy wanted to stop in at the Chamber of Commerce and pick up some materials for Joanne and the kids, but Johnny was too fidgety for pamphlet-gathering. He told Roy to meet him at the Desert Sunrise Café when he had all his tourism brochures. Ambling over to the café, Johnny sniffed discreetly at his shirt and decided he didn't smell too gamey for a guy who'd just come off a vision trek. He wanted a good shower and shave, but he'd have to wait until they got back to the motel for that.

Spotting a payphone in front of the town drugstore, he had the strongest urge to dial Rampart and see if Brackett was on shift, but he shook his head. That would just be all kinds of weird. What could he say? "Doc, I'm in Arizona on vacation, just calling to chat." No. No way. Oh, hell. Why not? They were supposed to be friends, right? Couldn't one friend call another from out of town just to say "Hi?" He dropped his pack and bedroll beside the phone booth and delved into his pocket for the right coins. Accusing himself of going loony, he dialed the hospital and waited for the switchboard operator to patch him through to the nurses station extension. When Dixie answered, Johnny wanted to kick himself.

She didn't seem surprised by the call. "Hey, there, vacation boy. You and Roy having a good time out in the desert?"

"Sure. About ready for civilization again, though. Wanted to check in and see how you hard-working so-and-sos are making out." They chatted about the ER's fairly laid back morning, a rarity at Rampart, and then Johnny took what felt like the ultimate risk. "Hey, listen, Dr. Brackett got a minute?"

"I imagine so. Anything wrong, Johnny?"

He knew she meant something medically amiss. Rampart's ER staff had fielded out-of-town medical-related phone calls from Johnny and Roy before. "No. Nothing for you guys to worry about."

"Okay, I'll get him. Hold on."

Johnny almost hung up during the silence. He welcomed the operator's interruption, and fed more coins into the phone's slot. This was dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. "Johnny?"

Not dumb. Johnny grinned. "Hiya, Doc."

"Dixie said you're calling from Arizona."

"Right. Roy and I are out here on a vision trek. I guess I should say, I'm on the vision trek, and Roy tagged along for some good camping."

"That's something I don't get to hear you talk about very often, your Native American heritage."

Johnny smiled. "Ah, I appreciate the 'Native American,' Dr. Brackett, but you can say Indian. I'm American Indian, and damned proud of it."

"With this trek being in Arizona, I gather it's not affiliated with the Nomlaki?"

Johnny was impressed, although he didn't know why. This was Kelly Brackett, after all. What the man didn't know about anything would probably fill a piece of scrap paper at most. "Nah, and honestly, I should've done more research before blowing my vacation fund on it. I think it was arranged by some travel agency that thinks all Indians do rain dances, squat in teepees, and immediately see visions once they're ten miles out in the wilderness."

Brackett's laughter sounded good over the telephone. Real good. Johnny wanted to hear it again. "Do you ever feel isolated from that part of yourself, living in LA?"

"You mean, do I have as few Indian friends as friends from my other--eh--community?" Johnny chuckled. "About as few. But I'm a rescue man, you know, and when I look at someone who needs rescue, I don't see white, black, red, yellow, brown, or purple, gay or straight. I see a person, a human being, who needs what I can do for them. And I tend to pick my friends the same way."

"Yes, I know, Johnny. That's one of the things I've always admired about you."

Brackett admired something about him. More than one thing, apparently. Well, now. Johnny felt a swell of pride. Enjoying the call, he hoped Roy took a good while rustling up those brochures.

"So, did you at least get a vision out of this?"

I dreamt about you, and it felt important, but I don't know why. "Nope. That's my punishment for buying into a commercialized version of an ancient ritual. Hell, a Nomlaki shouldn't be out here in the desert. I should be in Northern California looking for sacred waters. Even worse, when I woke up this morning, I had a visitor. Biggest damn coyote I've ever seen. If that's supposed to be my spirit guide, I'm in real trouble."

"Oh, why is that?"

"Because the Navajo will tell you, you can't believe a damned thing Coyote says! Just my luck to have a pathological liar and troublemaker for a guide in life."

Brackett laughed again, longer this time. "Is Coyote similar to Loki in the Norse mythology, then? Well, Johnny, never fear. If Coyote is guiding you, he must be ready to turn over a new leaf, because he couldn't hang around you for long without your inherent honesty rubbing off on him." 

The adolescent in Johnny got a kick out of hearing the words "rubbing off" from the sophisticated doctor. The adult in him appreciated the intelligent compliment. "Thanks, Doc. So, I hear it's been a pretty easy morning--"

"Hold on a moment, please." Muffled voices filtered through sudden static, and Brackett said, "Johnny, I'm needed in a patient's room. Listen, it was wonderful to talk to you. Tell Roy I said hello, and you guys have a safe trip back."

"Sure thing, great talking to you, Doc." Johnny didn't hang up the phone until the dial tone got annoying.

"'Great talking to you, Doc'?" queried a voice behind him. Johnny whirled around. Roy stood there clutching enough brochures to start his own tourism kiosk. "Who were you talking to?"

"I called Rampart to see how the gang's doing."

"You called Rampart on your vacation."

"Yeah, so? No use in calling the station. Our guys aren't on shift today. I talked to Dixie and Dr. Brackett. He says hello, by the way."

Roy gave him a look that told Johnny if his trekmate's hands weren't occupied with the Chamber of Commerce materials, he'd be feeling Johnny's forehead for fever. "Are you okay? You've been acting weird ever since we woke up this morning."

Johnny took an exaggerated breath and stretched, raising his arms high overhead. "I'm feeling g-g-g-g-reat," he said, doing a passable Tony the Tiger impersonation. "Let's get that breakfast."

~*~*~

Starsky lay on his back and stared at the ceiling but saw nothing. Big fat nothing. Just like Hutch remembered. Little by little, Starsky had begun to think that he might not be worth remembering, and he couldn't disagree with that assessment, knowing what he did about that damned car accident. His mind drifted back to the morning he'd lost the beautiful mind of the most beautiful man he'd ever known. He'd swung by Venice to pick up Hutch for their shift, but Hutch had pulled him into the apartment acting like it was perfectly natural for a grown man to have a spring fever of 105. After Hutch brought him to standing attention with that hot, wet mouth, they ended up on the sofa rubbing off with the enthusiasm of high schoolers making out behind the football stadium. Toward the end, before the heat of passion had him too foggy-eyed to see, Starsky had spotted something in Hutch's eyes that scared the hell out of him.

Not buddy love. Not partner love. Not best friend, most important person in the whole world love. Not even just erotic, hot-for-your-bod love. Romantic, red roses and moonlight, white lace and promises love. And Starsky didn't know how to catch up to that feeling before it left him behind. He didn't know how to put the brakes on Hutch before the man changed, slipped through his grasp, and became someone Starsky didn't understand.

Hutch didn't even sound like a cop sometimes nowadays. His edge had softened. Like all that floral nonsense about springtime and the smell of the air. In LA, for crying out loud! Normally Starsky was warmed with fondness and amusement at Hutch's nature kick, but that morning he'd ground his teeth against it. Hutch's amnesiac alter ego was right. Macho power trip, that's how Starsky had responded to Hutch's ode to springtime.

Rev up the engine, Butch. Prove how much testosterone and speed you got in your big, two-ton red-and-white hunk of dick. Prove it in a hurry because now you're fucking your partner, and every time you come inside him, you're scared you're changing him, and yourself, but you can't stop. Scared you'll hear a lisp in Hutch's voice one morning and feel a little less strength in that wrist. And, hell, while you're at it, you might as well start saying fagelah again, if you're still thinking shit like that!

Starsky felt his body turning to lead, sinking into the mattress, weighed down all the way to the floor, even though he knew he wasn't moving. Now that his macho power trip had crashed them through a construction shack, he didn't even have the balls to bring up the one set of memories that might shock Hutch into remembering everything else.

"In this supposed relationship of ours...."

Relationship, hell. If only Hutch knew....

But that was the problem. Hutch didn't know, thanks to a bump on the head that was all Starsky's fault. And Starsky had the same close-lipped touch of cowardice he'd fought after John Blaine's death when faced with Maggie.

I regret to inform you, Hutch, that you're a cop, which you seem to take great exception to all of a sudden, and by the way, I also regret to inform you, you're gay.

Regret? He didn't regret it. He didn't! Okay, he was a coward, but Hutch hadn't taken any of the other memories well. Starsky couldn't risk the final revelation leaving this stranger with Hutch's face hating him more than ever. He now knew what he'd never wanted to know, how it felt to be locked outside the glass around Hutch's life.

That forced him to think about one other person who knew that feeling. He'd resisted thinking about him before. He'd tried not to think about him when Huggy and Dobey failed to spark a memory in Hutch. Selfish son-of-a-bitch, that's what he was, Starsky railed at himself.

He hadn't called John Gage and asked him to drop by, because he knew something inside would twist into a permanent knot if Hutch took one look at Gage and remembered the life Starsky couldn't bring his partner back to for love or money.

From the corner of his eye, he noticed the hunch to Hutch's posture. The man sat up in bed staring out the hospital room window at the night settling over the city.

Damn your selfish pride, Starsky. If Hutch doesn't remember anything by morning, you're calling Gage and offering him whatever it takes to get him over here.

~*~*~

Staring out the window, Hutch's gaze drifted to the floral arrangement on his over-the-bed table, and he was tempted to hurl the vase and its contents across the room. He wanted to ask Dobey if there was a special point to the red-and-white flowers, but he'd be lucky if Dobey ever spoke to him again. There was nothing in the world like knowing he'd taken a practical joke too far--even a joke with a lesson behind it--and not knowing what the hell to do about it. Since the first morning waking in the hospital bed and watching Starsky bail his ass out from the sticky predicament of having to 'fess up his ruse or accept a shot of morphine-derivative, Hutch had been on a runaway train with the throttle fused wide open, the end of the line flying to meet him, and no brakes to speak of.

It wasn't supposed to be all that serious.

Hutch concentrated on the flower stalk's red buds to keep from groaning out loud. What had he expected, if he didn't expect it to be serious? Honestly? He'd expected that the first private moment they had, Starsky would sidle up to the bed, all charm and swagger, and brush the hair away from Hutch's bandages, leaning down to whisper in his ear, "Now, I know you'll remember me when I--" And that strong left hand would cup Hutch's crotch and thumb his balls through the sheets and hospital gown. Then Hutch could jolt back to memory, and after an enthusiastic reunion, he would read Starsky the riot act about unsafe driving and lack of appreciation for his partner's well-honed sense of self-preservation in the face of cement trucks.

Oh, sure. Like that was realistic!

Hutch couldn't believe his own stupidity. If he'd just taken two seconds to put himself in Starsky's shoes, he would've found the brakes on this joke somewhere if he had to order them from a catalog. Starsky had to be piss himself scared, first being brought to a hospital room empty of Hutch, then finding out Hutch wasn't quite Hutch anymore. Certainly, that was part of Hutch's plan: get Starsky just scared enough to think about what he stood to lose, and maybe the daredevil wouldn't pull such an asinine stunt again.

Maybe, too, he'd counted on Starsky seeing straight through him. He'd thought Starsky would see what the docs and nurses couldn't, and fold those arms over his chest with his only-for-you-Hutch look. He'd hear Starsky's sour chuckle, and then, "Ha, ha, Hutch, good one. You're an asshole, you know that? I owe ya for this, you big dumb cluck."

Apparently, though, Hutch's talent for undercover work had worked against him once again. Or maybe Starsky couldn't fathom Hutch being angry enough at him to take their whole friendship, partnership, life together away. Angry. He was angry, damn it, so angry that he'd been a snotty, rude amnesiac, to everyone from the nice Dr. Green on down to Dobey and Huggy. Part of the latter was good cover work. He couldn't very well treat Starsky like unwashed socks, and then ooze charm with Huggy and Dobey without Starsky getting suspicious. And by the time their friends came by, Hutch was clinging to his act with disappointment and contrariness.

Disappointment that all Starsky could think to do was spout stories about police work. Hutch didn't want to hear about police work. Hell, police work had gotten them into this damned mess. He wanted to hear Starsky talk about them. He wanted to hear Starsky remind him about something that meant more to Hutch than police work ever would. Sure, Starsky talked about their partnership, but that's as personal as he took it. Hutch had had to carefully nudge him into reliving the time after Gillian's death, when Starsky had taken lumps from Hutch and kept on holding him through the pain. He was no longer punishing Starsky for the car accident. Not really. Not totally. He was punishing Starsky for silence on the one subject that would probably bring Hutch out of real amnesia.

In the darkened, quiet hospital room, Starsky lying with a comatose patient's stillness on his bed, Hutch had to ask himself if he could have done better had the burden been his to carry. If he were face to face with a Starsky who remembered nothing about him, not one damn thing about their nine-year-long friendship, could he really look the man in the eyes and say, "But, Starsk, you're the only man allowed to fuck me, don't you remember that?"

He wanted to believe his balls were up to the challenge, but he knew his heart would probably shrink from the possibility of rejection, disgust, or worse...despair. Starsky's despair in realizing he'd let himself do things no other man could've tempted him to do.

Oh, God. Was Starsky lying over there hoping he got parts of Hutch back, but not others? By keeping his mouth shut, did Starsky hope the amnesia had affected the part of Hutch's brain that signaled his dick to rise in the presence of a drop-dead gorgeous man?

Hutch slowly lowered himself to the propped pillows and couldn't stifle the groan his sore body pulled from him. Maybe if he nudged just a little harder, he'd find out. "You awake?"

"Yeah."

"You wanna talk?"

"What's there to talk about?"

Deciding to start with at least a grain of truth if not a full confession, Hutch said, "Well, I heard some stories this afternoon about some pretty rough times I had, and I, uh, just wanna thank you for being there."

"Go to sleep. It's no big deal."

Ouch. Starsky's humility made appearances at strange times, and Hutch could have done without it right then. "Yes, it is."

"Hey, plenty of times you were there for me."

That felt better. "Yeah?" Hutch asked hopefully. Maybe now he'd hear something. Some little clue that Starsky didn't regret what they'd become to each other. Maybe even a clue as to what exactly they had become to each other in Starsky's mind.

"Times there were when I almost packed it in," Starsky said, sounding world weary and distant. "You know I once almost quit the police force?"

Hutch's heart skipped a few beats, and it wasn't a pleasant sensation. He could guess where this was headed, and he wanted to sit down on the call button until he got a nurse to wheel him out of the room for more tests, up to and including a spinal tap if necessary. But he glanced sideways and forced himself to ask, "So, why didn't you?"

"The only job you could find me was defensive end on the Canadian football team."

Oddly, he could manage a smile when his heart was freezing over. "Is that right?"

"I was going through some pretty rough changes then. You remember Terry?"

That did it. Defeated, Hutch lay there and let the torture continue, let Starsky ramble on about the night they opened the presents Terry left for them. He'd thought he couldn't feel worse about himself than he did for leaving Starsky on the string with the amnesia for so long, but now he sank lower in his own estimation. Jealous of a dead woman, how about that? Served him right to listen, didn't it? He'd hoped for a hint of what Starsky thought about their extracurricular activities, and instead he got a reminder of the time his partner had come the closest to a good, old-fashioned heterosexual marriage.

He tried to take the high road. He'd cared about Terry and mourned her right along with Starsky. In fact, he couldn't remember having to fight down gorge-rising jealousy when she was alive. Starsky wasn't even singing Terry's praises over there; he was relating how Hutch's presence had overcome the emotional upheaval of her death. But that didn't cool the burn of knowing that if Terry lived today, Hutch would probably not have learned the feel of Starsky's lips on his, or make him feel less like slime for even thinking that way.

With those unpleasant thoughts at the forefront of his mind, and his conscience already urging him to end this charade pronto, bad timing or not, it was all too easy to slip up and needle Starsky about his nonexistent Monopoly prowess. Things just went downhill from there....

~*~*~

They were back to lying silently in their beds, their shouting match interrupted by the night nurse who threatened to sedate both of them if they didn't shut up and let her other patients get their much-needed sleep. Hutch's return of memory function hadn't exactly prompted her to sing and dance. She calmly noted it in his chart and left the room with a final warning glare meant to reinforce her threat.

Starsky didn't want to talk to the son-of-a-bitch, anyway, except to call him a lousy asshole phony, and he'd said that already. Three times. He'd used up all his willpower letting the nurse leave without asking her to move him to another room. His rage would be a lot more satisfying if only his conscience didn't remind him that Hutch's bruises and lacerations were real, along with the concussion, and Hutch might need physical therapy to help with his neck strain.

"Starsk, I can understand the silent treatment, but it won't get us anywhere."  

Starsky couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Hutch's voice that meek, but his own rage hadn't boiled itself out yet. "Oh, no? I thought you got off on hostility. You must. You said I'm horrible and hostile, but that didn't stop you from wanting into my pants."

He heard a choked gasp from the man in the other bed and knew he'd just somehow cut Hutch deeper than a few days of fake amnesia had cut Starsky. "Now you bring it up? Now, when you know I'm back to myself?"

Busted. Concede the point, his conscience urged him. Fight back, his rage countered. His temper had control of his mouth. "Hate to break it to ya, pally, but you're nowhere near back to yourself. When was I supposed to bring it up? Huh? When you were sitting over there reading your For the Man Who Has Everything magazine with the pinup girl cover? When everything else I told you about your life only made you angrier?"

Hutch sat up in the bed, moaned and twitched, and then glared at him. "Of course, I was angry! I don't take it kindly when my partner risks my life, his own, and God knows how many innocent civilians trying to chase down a couple of lousy 2-11 suspects just to prove he can. And if the injuries I got in the accident aren't enough, I have to listen to my partner running off at the mouth about pretty nurses, but he can't say shit to me about the times we've shared a bed!"

Starsky sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. "Christ, Hutch, I said that in front of Dr. Green. What else was I supposed to say in front of the man?"

"You know what I mean. We had plenty of time when there was no one around. When were you going to tell me about my thing for men, Starsky? When I got my first hard-on for you and thought I was losing my mind double time? Or did you think the amnesia would wipe those nerve centers clean?"

"You're talking like you really had amnesia."

"For all you knew, I did! Was it your plan to let me swing on that vine alone, partner?"

Starsky humphed and grabbed hold of his pillow, squeezing it until the stuffing shifted and his arms brushed each other. He remembered the morning in that roadside motel, Hutch telling him he was walking a different beat and had better know to call on his partner for back-up if it got to be too much to handle. But how could he call on his partner when his partner was the reason he needed back-up?

Tell me how to fall in love with you, because I can't seem to get there. Love I got, in plenty, but the in love part is a different ballgame. Can't seem to make it, and I'm scared shitless if I tell you that, you'll get yourself killed out there trying to find another man who can do what I can't.

"I couldn't even get through to you with simple stuff, Hutch. Should've known something was off, when you were so damned angry instead of scared. I remember Terry Nash. Yeah, he was angry, but when we convinced him his fake life wasn't his, he got scared that he'd never remember who he was. I think he would've sold his soul for someone to tell him one little thing about his real life. You weren't one little bit scared, and you didn't wanta hear anything about your past."

"Not true, Starsky. I wanted to hear something about my past, but you had that section of memory lane cordoned off."

Starsky scrambled off the bed, dropped the pillow, and stood two feet from Hutch's bedside, seething. "This ain't even about the accident anymore, is it? It's all about that!"

Hutch couldn't move nearly as fast, but he made it out of bed without assistance and stood nose to nose with his partner. "You said the way to keep this from ripping us apart was to never deny what we have, not to each other, no matter how much we have to deny it to the world. Well, guess what? Silence can be a damned effective denial!"

"Oh, yeah?" Starsky shouted. "Yeah? Well, look who did the denying first!"

"What!" Hutch yelled.

"By pretending amnesia, asshole!"

"Forgetting something isn't the same thing as denying it."

"You didn't forget, you big blond dumbass, you were faking it!"

"Yes, but you didn't know I was faking it!"

Starsky raised both hands. Realizing he was about to shove an injured Hutch out of his personal space, Starsky changed course and wrapped his arms around Hutch instead. Hutch jerked in his embrace and for a second Starsky feared he would fight the hold and cause himself undue pain, but Hutch calmed and leaned into him.

Starsky sighed. "Way I see it we need to call this a draw before that night nurse is in here with lights-out shots for both of us. We both screwed up big time, Hutch. That car accident was my fault, and believe me, I feel like a bastard every time your breathing hitches when you move. And you were a bastard for letting me think I'd done something worse to you than cuts and bruises. As for the other...."

"I'd have to say we share equal blame there as well," Hutch admitted in a strangled voice. "I asked myself if I could've handled it better if you were the one with amnesia, and I think the answer is closer to no than yes."

"I swear to God, Hutch, if you ever get amnesia again, it better be the real thing, 'cause if I find out it isn't, I'm giving you a frontal lobotomy with a rusty spoon."

Hutch shuddered in Starsky's arms. "No intention of there being a next time, real or otherwise. I have a lot of damage control to do after this one."

"I won't lie; I think you gave Dobey a few more gray hairs and some uncomfortable moments this afternoon. Probably best all the way around for us to play it like the amnesia was real and you just had some kind of spontaneous memory return."

"I know, and that doesn't sit well with me. I was actually trying to keep things familiar, joking about his weight. It's something he's gotten from us all the time. But I guess it had to be especially insulting coming from someone who was temporarily a perfect stranger."

"Yeah. Now, Huggy...."

"I think Huggy had an inkling," Hutch said, and he tilted his head back so Starsky could see his smile. "All that needling about your driving and laughing about my chief of police joke." The awkward movement of Hutch's head atop the neck brace was probably a fond headshake. "Huggy knows we can pull dumb stunts on each other from time to time. We tend to forgive and forget after them, but Huggy is an outside observer."

"Man should've been a cop. Can't get a damn thing past him."

"Oh, Huggy does his fair share of police work, even if it is obliquely."

"Thanks, by the way."

Hutch pulled back again and looked him in the eyes. "For what?"

"When Huggy got through running his mouth about the vigilante case, I was feeling pretty low. Hell, I know it was an act, punching you, but it didn't make me comfortable hearing about it again today when I'm the reason you were laid up over there. Couldn't've been easy for you to relive what happened to Gillian, but now I know you did it just to even the score, remind me you were capable of throwing a punch, too. When it comes down to it, you didn't leave your partner swinging on the vine alone."

Hutch stared at him for a few seconds, and then Starsky got an enthusiastic kiss, if a technically hindered one. The neck brace and muscle strain made for stiffness on Hutch's part, but Starsky let the gentle play of lips lull him for one blissful moment when he didn't have to think about what he did or didn't feel. Then his brain started clicking against his best efforts not to listen, telling him things would be a hell of a lot less confusing if having Hutch's lips on his didn't feel so frigging good, and since it felt so frigging good, why didn't it get Starsky hard? Hutch pulled out of their kiss, but he didn't pull away. He did his best to hold Starsky, semi-sprained arm and all. Starsky thought back to The Wildewood, and asked himself what Eric would say. His cop's memory kicked in and told him exactly what Eric would say...what Eric had already said....

Look, what gets you off is good snatch and a pair of perky tits, am I right? Well, your buddy could bottom for you daily, and he still wouldn't be pussy.

You'll still be drawn to women, and he'll want more of you than you can give.

"Starsky, about this amnesia thing...somewhere in my hollow head, I thought I was doing us both a favor, and I jumped in without looking. I realized pretty quickly it was a bad idea with a capital B, but I couldn't figure out how to put the brakes on." At Starsky's silence, Hutch said, "Yeah, I know. Makes no sense."

"No, I..." Starsky could only grind his teeth in frustration with himself. "I know what you mean."

And when that comes out in the wash, it'll make the amnesia look cleaner than bleached laundry in comparison.

~*~*~

"All I'm saying is you should give her a call. We're off tomorrow, she's off tomorrow. Joanne and I would be there, smooth things over some. Like an old-fashioned double date. I mean, you're the one who keeps saying you're going back to sorbet for a while. I think Marissa is particularly good quality sorbet, that's all, and so does Joanne."

Johnny slid out from under the squad to continue this discussion. Not only was the dang rattle back, and Roy couldn't hear it as usual, but now Roy was trying to set him up with some woman Joanne had met at the last PTA meeting. "Roy, she has a kid. That's like sorbet with added sprinkles on top."

Roy was going through the OB kit and checking off their equipment list. "Uh, yeah, she has a kid. That's how Joanne met her at the PTA. She lost her husband in 'Nam late in '71 when their son, Tommy, was just a baby. So what? You like kids, you're great with kids. Look, I'm not trying to coax you over to my lifestyle. You're the one who said--"

"I know what I said." Johnny reached for his oil rag and gave him a "drop this please look," but Roy wasn't put off by a look.

"Then give her a call and invite her out to dinner with us tomorrow night. You don't have any other plans, do you?"

"No, Roy, I'm a pathetic loser with nothing to do on a Friday night." Johnny had to find plans quickly. Hell, to avoid this, he'd settle for front row seats at the opera.

"How's the rattle?"

"The rattle you don't hear? Not the muffler this time."

"Wasn't the muffler last time, it turned out."

"Roy, I told you--! Aw, damn, I don't know what the--"

The station alarm cut him off mid sentence, and Johnny rolled off the mechanic's board, sliding it out of harm's way. "Squad 51," the dispatcher said. "Man down in taxi cab. Corner of West Beech and 71st Street. Time out 13:08."

In the absence of Captain Stanley, who was sequestered in an office meeting with the chief engineer, Roy hurried to acknowledge their run. "Squad 51. KMG 365."

~*~*~

When they got to the call destination, they found a small crowd gathered around the County Express cab idling with its left rear door and driver's door both open. Roy started dispersing the crowd, but one man in a gray three-piece business suit complete with briefcase stepped forward as the fare.

"What happened?" Johnny asked him, already leaning into the driver's side and pulling the driver back from his slump over the steering wheel to open his airway.

"That's what I'd like to know!" the businessman said, frantically waving his free hand at the cab. "He drew up to the corner to let me out, and I reached up to pay my fare. When my hand touched his shoulder, he just started yelling, begging me not to kill him, telling me how many kids he had and all kinds of craziness, and then he grabbed his chest and slumped over. I got on his radio and told his dispatcher to call the rescue squad."

"Good thinking," Roy praised with a small smile, kneeling on the curb and opening the Biophone. "Vitals, Johnny?"

"Would it be a problem for me to go now?" the businessman asked. "I'm late for a meeting."

"No, go ahead," Roy told him.

"Looks like we might have a cardiac, Roy," Johnny said.

~*~*~

"...Kel, I'm just saying you shouldn't hesitate to go and enjoy a meal there alone. You never take enough time for yourself, and just because Joe and I can't make it, doesn't mean--Oh, here come the boys with your cardiac." Dixie walked across the hall to hold open the examination room door. With a pat to her shoulder, Brackett strode into the room ahead of the gurney, and Roy followed them in.

Left to his own devices, Johnny stopped at the nurses station for an after lunch cup of coffee while Roy gave his report as the ride-in paramedic. He stood there sipping the stale brew and curious about the odd interchange between Dixie and Brackett. A few minutes later, Roy joined him at the station, followed shortly by Dixie, who stopped at the phone and paged Dr. Early. When Dixie put the receiver down, Johnny asked, "That bad?"

"No, Mr. Willis is awake and coherent. You boys did a good job with him. But Kel will be occupied with him until the Cardiac Cath lab is ready, so I need to make sure Joe is around to cover. Mike would have my head if I left him on by himself."

"I would not!" Dr. Morton came up behind Dixie and squeezed her shoulders on his way to the coffee pot. "I'm no wet behind the ears resident now, Dix."

Dixie winked at the paramedics. "No, Mike, of course not."

Morton snorted a laugh and after a quick nod at Roy and Johnny, carried his coffee and charts down the corridor.

"What was that about earlier, Dix?" Johnny asked, warming his coffee and offering some to Roy, who shook his head.

"With Mike? Oh, nothing. I tease him, because it seems like every time we have him cover, all heck breaks loose and we end up with several MVAs and a few minor disasters at the same time."

"No, I meant with Brackett. When we were bringing in Mr. Willis."

"Oh." Dixie smiled. "Well, you know Kel's dream is to retire on a South Sea's island. Not that he'll ever do it, but he and Joe trade what-if retirement scenarios all the time. There's a great Pan Asian restaurant Kel knows about that's having an island theme night tomorrow, and he arranged to be off for part of the evening shift, but I have to work, and Joe had to back out because Neurology needs him to cover teaching rounds. I'm trying to convince Kel to go anyway."

"Why won't he?" Roy asked.

Dixie shrugged. "He doesn't like to go out to eat alone. I can't blame him. All of us have to eat alone too much with a job like this. We're not lucky like you firehouse boys."

Johnny smiled, a plan percolating. With luck, he wouldn't have to resort to the opera. After two white-clad Cath technicians went into Willis' examination room, Brackett came out ahead of the gurney and watched them wheel the cab driver toward the elevator. He then crossed the hall and acknowledged Roy and Johnny with a brief smile.

"How's he doing, Doc?" Roy asked.

"He'll make a good bid for full recovery," Brackett said. "We'll know more after the heart catheterization, but I think his blockage is moderate at worst."

"Was he able to tell you anything?" Johnny set his mug down in the row of used mugs. "That was a weird one."

"Actually, he was quite vocal when he regained consciousness. I had to advise him not to overdo considering his shortness of breath and cardiac event. Apparently, he left the Metro Cab Company during that recent string of cab driver homicides, and took a job with County Express. He said when he felt his passenger's hand on his shoulder he panicked and thought the killer was about to strangle him. The sudden stress most likely brought on a heart attack that was probably waiting in the wings anyway."

Roy frowned. "According to the papers, the cops arrested that maniac last week."

"Oh, really?" Brackett smiled at Dixie. "I'm behind the times, I suppose, when it comes to current events. In any case, fear of that nature is very rarely rational or based on fact."

Johnny felt his stomach sour. "Uh, Roy, I'm off to get a snack from the machine. Want something?" He barely waited for the answering headshake, so eager to be away from the current conversation.

"What's his problem?" he heard Dixie ask.

He heard Roy clear his throat and could imagine the discomfort on his partner's face. "Um, the arresting officers in the case were a couple of guys we know at LAPD Metro."

Johnny wasn't surprised that Brackett tracked him down in the coffee room. He held up the orange he'd gotten from the machine. "You know, that thing still doesn't know the difference between apples and oranges. I pushed 'apple' and look what I got."

Brackett sat down across from him. "Johnny, are you all right?"

"Dixie said you know a good restaurant with a South Seas island theme."

Brackett scowled at the door. "Did she now?"

Johnny separated the orange slices and held one out, unaccountably happy when Brackett took the fruit from him with a smile. "Well, I can't make up for Dixie or Dr. Early, but I'm off tomorrow, and if you'd like--"

The smile dimmed just before Brackett popped the orange slice in his mouth. "Johnny, I appreciate the offer," he said, voice muffled by trying to speak politely around his food, "but I don't think it's such a good idea."

"Why not? Can't a couple of friends grab a bite to eat together?"

"Yes, but--"

Johnny frowned at him. "Hey, I know about your closet, but you know, it's not like I'm out to all of LA County. I'm not. From what I can tell, Chet has actually kept his mouth shut this time. It's not like anyone who saw us at a restaurant together would automatically think what you're worried about them thinking."

"That's not--"

"Listen, you'd be doing me a favor. Roy's trying his best to hook me up with a widow Joanne met at a PTA meeting. But if I've made plans to try out this Pan Asian place with you, I can't very well be out on a date with the PTA widow, can I? Besides, it'll give me a chance to see what you're like outside this old stack of bricks."

Johnny never would have thought Brackett the type to roll his eyes, but he got a full-fledged roll of those blue eyes, and the expression made the doctor appear ten years younger. "You know what I'm like outside Rampart. You've seen me at firemen's picnics and paramedic conferences."

"Uh-huh. Usually when Dixie and Dr. Early are around, not all on your lonesome. And paramedic conferences don't count. Look, we'll meet there, okay? Seven work for you?"

~*~*~

Roy didn't crank the engine when Johnny got in the squad. "So, you gonna call Marissa?"

Johnny grinned at him. "Sorry, Roy, but I have plans tomorrow night."

"You do?"

"I do. I'm meeting Dr. Brackett at that restaurant he wants to try."

"You are."

"Yep."

Roy glanced back at the receiving entrance and then at his wristwatch. "When did this happen?"

"Just now."

His partner could be a bulldog when he wanted. "Well, hey, that's great. Maybe the four of us can go and give him a whole group of people to eat with, instead of just one. He'd probably like the company."

Exasperated, Johnny waved both hands to nix the idea. "Roy, now think about it. You and Joanne, me and Marissa--Brackett would feel like a fifth wheel, now wouldn't he?"

"Yeah, I guess you're right. Or maybe Brackett could find someone to bring along to make six."

"Roy, if he could find someone, Dixie wouldn't be trying to convince him to go alone."

Crestfallen, Roy nodded. "Yeah, I see your point. Don't think I don't know you're doing this to get out of a blind date."

"I'm wounded, partner. No, really. And here I'm just trying to help out a friend who's been very good to us over the years and who needs a favor."

"Right, and who just happens to need it on the night you want to bail on a blind date. At least, I hope that's what this is. You do remember that Brackett's straight, right?"

Johnny said nothing. What could he say? If he lied, Roy would see straight through him. If he hedged, Roy would see straight through him. Maybe if he just kept his mouth shut, Roy would think he had indigestion from their lunch grabbed on the go.

"Brackett is straight, right?"

"Roy, I'm just meeting him for a friendly dinner. I'm not asking him to elope."

"Well, I'll be damned!"

"Now, Roy, I didn't say one way or the other!"

"You didn't have to. You can't hide that little lip curl you get when you know something I don't. Unbelievable. The man's closet makes yours look like a sunroom."

"Okay, now listen. This isn't like that. I'm not interested in Dr. Brackett."

~*~*~

I'm not interested in Dr. Brackett....

Johnny kept repeating the sentence in his head and so far it had gotten him from the restaurant lobby to their table for two in the corner under the coconut palm decoration. Used to seeing the man three-quarters hidden beneath a knee-length lab coat, Johnny wasn't prepared for the well-built gentleman in navy dress slacks, powder blue dress shirt, and blue-and-white patterned tie. The outfit showed off his eyes, accentuated his chest and shoulders above the waist, and flattered an already thought-provoking ass and strong legs below. Was he wearing that at Rampart today? I can't remember. If he went home to change, he picked out some killer threads.

I'm not interested in Dr. Brackett....

Johnny told himself that for the tenth time when Brackett flashed the briefest glance over Johnny's camel suede sports coat and chocolate brown shirt and down his fitted, flared-bottom herringbone slacks. Johnny flushed at the scrutiny and the approval in those sincere eyes, suddenly aware that he had picked one of his favorite "first date" outfits out of the closet that evening. Whoa. Did we both dress to impress? No. This wasn't a date, and Johnny needed to get a grip.

The fledgling interest Johnny had taken in the non-date died instantly when he looked across the dimly lit dining room and spotted a head of golden hair he'd recognize anywhere. From his angle, he could see Hut--oh, hell, seeing the detective in living color, Johnny couldn't think of him as anything but Ken. He was still Ken, damn it, and just as beautiful. Equally beautiful in a different way, a sweet-faced, saucy-eyed lady with short hair and adorable glasses sat beside him. Johnny couldn't see the occupants of the opposite booth bench. Brackett cleared his throat, and Johnny flushed deeper.

"I saw them when we walked in," Brackett said. "Would you like to leave?"

"Who's--?"

Brackett read his mind with frightening ease. "Detective Starsky and a young blonde woman in a country-western style dress are sitting opposite. Johnny, we could ask for a different seat."

"No." Johnny prided himself on a level voice. "This is a great place, Doc. I'm in the mood for an exotic drink and something spicy with lots of coconut. How about you?"

Brackett gave him a different smile than any he'd seen at Rampart. "My drink will have to be virgin. I'm headed back in after we eat. But I wholly agree with both spicy and coconut."

The waiter arrived in some kind of island costume that could have been Tahitian or native Samoan and took their drink orders. Brackett remarked on the creative menu, and Johnny laughed with the doctor's sharp wit while they made good-natured fun of the hokey decorations, but Johnny's eyes strayed several times to the booth across the room. On one such wayward glance, against his better judgment, he saw a look on Ken's face that seared him under his skin. He knew that look. Someone at the booth had said something that would have earned a lash of Ken's bullwhip tongue in less polite company. Ken turned his head away from his dining partners, and Johnny felt a flash of panic that they would make eye contact.

He rose from his seat and said, "Excuse me, back in a minute. Feel free to pick something off the menu for me. Spicy and coconut."

He hoped to God he could reach the men's room unseen.

The nicely appointed restroom was blessedly free of tacky decorations, and also empty and quiet. Johnny shut himself in the end stall and checked the seat before sitting on the very edge and hunching over, resting his elbows on his knees and letting his head hang. Damn! What did it take to get over a man like Ken Hutchinson? Some man Johnny was, leaving a good friend, a good man like Kelly Brackett, out there alone in order to sit in here and mope over the past, afraid of a little eye contact. So what if Ken did see him? Johnny could smile and look away like it wasn't breaking his heart in half again, couldn't he? Sure he could. And more importantly, he owed Brackett that much. He straightened his coat and reached for the stall latch, but he heard the outer door open, and a familiar voice made him drop his hand from the latch and shrink back in the stall. He couldn't believe his rotten luck.

"Don't go that route, my ass," Ken muttered, as if talking to himself. "Literally my ass!" Then the sound of running water told Johnny that Ken was at the row of sinks across from the urinals. The water stopped, and the mutterings resumed. "...and if she's a country-western singer, I'm Burl Ives."

Johnny knew he should summon his courage to walk out casually with a surprised greeting, and then head back to Brackett. But he couldn't. Frozen in place by the inability to handle a full-on look at Ken's attractiveness, even less prepared to face Ken's unhappiness without being able to hold him and kiss away the frown, Johnny kept to his hiding place. This was what he got for thwarting Roy's matchmaking. Hell, a date with Marissa at the opera would have been better than this!

It couldn't get worse....

He heard the faint squeak of the outer door opening again. "Hutch?"

Scratch that. Worse had arrived with a vengeance! Johnny spun inside, fighting the memory of Arizona. This had to be the work of Coyote, the timeless troublemaker!

"What're you doing in here, Starsky?" Ken snapped.

"It's a men's room. I'm a man. Kinda got an open invitation. Hutch, what's the matter? You left the booth so fast I thought the breeze would blow Minnie's glasses off her nose."

"Not in here, Starsky!"

"Why? It's--hang on--"

Johnny heard footfalls. Oh, crap! He hurriedly crouched on top of the toilet seat and hoped Starsky would do no more than a cursory sweep for shoes. He also prayed to the gods of bad comedy that Brackett wouldn't come in to see what was taking Johnny long enough to have had a men's room quickie with some stranger. Not that Johnny ever took those kinds of chances, but he didn't want Brackett to get the wrong idea. No, Brackett had probably seen the detectives make their way back here and could guess what he was doing, which made him fidget in his crouch with embarrassment. If he cared that much what Brackett thought of his personal life, he really should be out there with him instead of trying to blend into a toilet. The footfalls grew fainter, and Johnny dared to breathe again.

"It's just us in here, Hutch. Come on, what's eating you? Is it that story KC told?"

"You think?"

"I tried to change the subject, but Minnie wanted to know how KC met me, and I would've looked like a class idiot trying to keep KC from answering her. You heard KC. I thought she was some guy cabbie. What was I supposed to say to some Joe Cab Driver trying to pick me up? Except with you, I don't go that route. You knew that from the get-go."

Johnny closed his eyes against a wave of pain. He'd known. That day in the mortuary parking lot, he'd known it was only a matter of time. 

"I just wish someone would explain to my satisfaction what it is I'm doing here," Hutch said.

"You're here 'cause Minnie mentioned this islands shindig in front of KC in the squadroom, and you volunteered, like the pure gold gentleman you are, to be Minnie's date. I would've offered, but KC would've whapped me upside the head with her cowgirl hat."

"No! I'm not on a date. I'm here with my friend Minnie, and my date is here with a date."

"Ah, Hutch, you can't look at it like that. We're having a night on the town with two beautiful, charming ladies. It's good for us to be out like this."

"You can just drop the fiction that it's some kind of hardship or duty on your part, Starsky. After watching you slow dance KC around St. Jacques' office, I'm not buying it."

"Why should it have to be a hardship? If it's something we gotta do to be safe, does it have to make us miserable, too?"

Johnny winced. Good one, Starsky.

Hutch's tone only got more acidic, proving he didn't appreciate Starsky's point of view either. "I don't know which of you is more obtuse: you or Loretta Lynn Jr. out there who actually thought some guy who answered her ad in Variety would be her one-way ticket to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Served her right it was Huggy in disguise."

"Damn it, Hutch. Say what you like about me, but KC's a nice girl, and she's off to Nashville tomorrow with no backing and nothing but a wing and a prayer. Besides that, she--"

"She helped me get to you before Fitzgerald could do more than bruise that thick skull of yours. Believe me, Starsky, that's the real reason I'm out there playing nice."

Heavy footsteps preceded the squeak of the door, but Johnny let silence reign for a good minute before he risked unlatching the stall to peek out. In the privacy of the now empty restroom, he went over to the sink and washed off his face. In every dating scenario Johnny knew of, when a person was thrown over for the greener grass of someone else, and they got a chance to watch their heartbreaker getting his or her heart broken by the greener grass, there was supposed to be a godlike feeling, complete with the illusion of smiting power.

Johnny didn't feel godlike.

When he returned to the table, he was quiet except for a quick apology that he'd taken so long. Brackett nodded. "When I saw the detectives go back to the restrooms, I guessed that you might be--er--trapped. I did order for you. It's supposed to be an authentic old Cook Island tavern dish from the great days of sail and pirates."

Johnny beamed at him. "Pirates? Great. I had the biggest thing for pirate stories when I was a kid. The Rez library didn't get nearly enough pirate books."

"I haven't outgrown my pirate fascination. I think it's what's behind my retirement fantasy of combing a South Seas beach. And I have a weakness for any movie with Errol Flynn in tights and brandishing a rapier. So, did you learn anything interesting?"

Johnny almost spewed his sip of piña colada. He noticed that Brackett's eyes twinkled at him, and he didn't know whether to be more shocked by the Errol Flynn remark or the question that followed. "Dr. Brackett, are you asking me to dish?"

Brackett laughed. "I think maybe I am. Dixie isn't alone in her appreciation for good gossip."

"They're together," Johnny said in a cautious whisper, looking around to judge anyone's ability to overhear him. "Sort of. Ken isn't happy. He's jealous of Starsky's date over there. You know, he was never jealous with me. He never asked if I was seeing anyone besides him. Funny thing is, when I talked about giving up girls for him, he fed me the same 'got to have cover' line that Starsky's feeding him now. And I should be laughing my tail off, right, but what I really wanna do is go somewhere and run until I drop."

"You're still in love with him." The hint of sadness in Brackett's voice brought Johnny up short. Before he could respond, the waiter brought their entrées and made an elaborate presentation of them. But Johnny's eyes stayed fixed on Brackett.

The waiter left, and Johnny didn't even look down at his plate to see what he'd be eating. "I think I'm a little scared, actually. Why is the whole relationship thing so damned hard? It's no secret men and women are completely different species, but you'd think two guys could relate well enough to muddle through."

"I think it's harder for men," Brackett disagreed. "Women complain about men not being willing to talk about how they feel. Imagine the trouble two men have trying to walk a minefield of feelings together. It's very often like two men in blindfolds trying to lead each other out of a dark room."

"Yeah, but those two guys? I wasn't around them together much, but when I was, I thought they were sharing the same brain. Now, it's like they're talking to each other through a brick wall."

"They weren't in a romantic relationship with each other back then, were they?"

"No. It makes that much difference?"

"Yes, I think it does. I think you'd find that as far as their professional lives are concerned, they probably still share the same thought processes. But as soon as the topic is their personal relationship, the barriers spring right out of the ground." Brackett took a long draught from his coconut shell drink. "But that's the danger of a relationship that mixes professional and personal. If they're not careful, all the barriers in their romantic liaison will start to wear on their professional partnership."

Johnny thought there might be a barrier at his table, because he could just swear Brackett was saying something else behind the screen of Starsky and Hutch, something Johnny really needed to hear but was deaf to for some reason. Finally, he shrugged. "I'd just like to think there's someone out there that speaks my language, and vice versa."

"I could be wrong, but I think if you make peace with the breakup with Hutchinson, you'll be more open to finding that person. You can't be responsible for Hutchinson's choices, Johnny, and you can't protect him from the consequences of his choices. He made his choice by himself, and in my opinion, he didn't choose well."

The implied compliment brought heat to Johnny's cheeks.

"Trying to balance the stress of their work, the potential for violent fall-out if they're discovered, and a closet is hard enough," Brackett continued, "but Hutchinson is sharing that closet with a man who might well be second guessing whether two men should be physically intimate even behind closed doors, and it won't go easy for Hutchinson."

"How do you know that?" Johnny asked. "About Starsky, I mean."

Brackett gave him a heartbreaking frown. "I don't know Detective Starsky, so I may be way off base, but remembering what I saw of him in the examination room with Hutchinson that day, and what I've heard from you just now, I have a fairly good idea where Starsky's coming from. For many years, I was the man Starsky is right now, and it wouldn't have been easy going for any man unlucky enough to fall in love with me at that time." He smiled. "I'm still a challenge on my best day, but thankfully it's no longer due to self doubt and denial."

"Got all that out of your system, huh?"

Motioning with his knife and fork for Johnny to pay some attention to the food, Brackett nodded. "You saw me during the death throes of that period of my life, back in late '69, early '70 when we were trying to get the paramedic program off the ground."

"Yeah, oh, man, I remember," Johnny said with a grin. "You were one tough nut to crack, all right. Love how you say 'we' were trying to get the paramedic program off the ground. Back then you were one of our toughest critics until my amateur medical prowess made you see the light."

"Listen, you were pretty hard to get along with yourself, you arrogant hose jockey--" Brackett flushed and looked down at his plate.

Johnny burst out laughing. "Yessir, Doc, I'm a right good hose jockey, too." Brackett's flush deepened. Johnny discovered a new sport: Brackett-baiting, more fun than a hybrid of basketball and fly fishing. "That's when you and Dix were an item, right? Was she the first person you came out to?"

"No, Johnny. First I had to come out to myself. Next to that, coming out to Dixie was as easy as tying my shoes."

Johnny shrugged. "Wasn't that hard for me."

Brackett had that post-surgical serious expression again. "You're not out to yourself."

Johnny stared across the table. "How the hell--" he immediately lowered his voice to a whisper, wary of their topic of conversation. "How do you figure that?"

"Coming out to yourself isn't just admitting you can enjoy sex with men, Johnny. It's when you admit to yourself that you're not just in it for kicks or because men give excellent blowjobs."

Brackett smiled, probably amused by the flush Johnny could feel staining his cheeks. He'd never expected to hear the word "blowjob" in Brackett's voice, and it was doing weird things to his groin.

"Uh, okay, yeah, I've done that."

"It's when you admit that a woman can be a best friend, sister, confidante, or mentor, but can never be the long-term lover you need. I'm not being misogynistic. I have a tremendous respect for women. I'm not saying it's wrong to be gender-blind or that there aren't legitimately happy bisexuals who can be fulfilled either way. But that's not quite the same thing we're talking about."

Johnny glanced across the room, praying that his eyes wouldn't meet a pair of baby blues. He saw instead that golden cap of hair as Ken bent his head to hear something the lady at his side whispered in his ear. He fought down a rising ache in his chest. "I was willing to give up girls for Ken. That doesn't count?"

"You were also the man telling me on Rampart's patio that you want to run as far from the 'gay thing' as possible. And I know Roy DeSoto. He wouldn't be trying to set you up with some young widow if you weren't sending definite signals that you'd like to try a serious relationship with a woman. That's not wrong, Johnny. This isn't about right or wrong. This is about knowing what you need in life, and admitting it to yourself. But don't think you're past the coming out to yourself part, when you're not. And this is admittedly more subjective than I make it sound. What I think constitutes coming out to yourself may not be every gay man's idea of it, but I think there are plenty who would agree with me."

Johnny had finally unwrapped his silverware, but he still had no thought to food as yet, and that would have stunned Roy into heart failure. "And you were trying to get through all that during the paramedic state legislation mess?"

"Yes. When you and Roy and seemingly everyone else in Los Angeles were trying to sway me over to the side of the angels in the great paramedic debate, I was also trying to figure out how best to tell Dixie that I could never be the lover she needed. I wanted to blame most of our friction on our disagreements about the paramedic program, but she saw through that in a hurry, and as soon as the program was up and running, she called me on it. That was a hard talk, but the best one of my life thus far. She became my champion and my family."

"Why do you think she was so understanding?"

"Dixie's a very practical person. She doesn't like to cry over spilt milk; she prefers to get a mop and clean it up. Not that we didn't both cry a little. She also shares my soft spot for underdogs and hard-fought causes, and a physician quickly approaching middle age who hasn't found love because he's been trying to find it with the wrong gender in order to safeguard his life's work and livelihood, well, that qualifies as both in Dixie's book."

"I guess that was a rough stretch for you. Damn. I remember I was a horse's ass through some of it, when we thought you weren't gonna testify in favor of the program for the committee in Sacramento. Thought you were just a hard case in love with yourself and your principles."

"Johnny, I won't apologize for my initial reservations about the paramedic program, and when I first declined to testify, my reservations were my reason. On the other hand, when I did decide to testify in favor, I was worried that my inclinations might torpedo the whole project. As I'm sure you remember, very powerful interest groups were against the program. The California Medical Association, The California Nurse's Association, even the State of California Fire Chiefs opposed the legislation! I knew my few same-sex encounters had been as strictly private and discreet as humanly possible, but after I testified, I lived in fear that someone, somewhere, would discover my secret and use it to create scandal that could sink the program before Governor Reagan would have a chance to sign it into law."

"God, but you weren't the only doctor testifying for it or the only person pushing the bill!"

"No, but as Assemblyman Wolski kept reminding me, our side was banking on my reputation as chief expert, and a man's reputation is no kind of bank to finance something as history-making and life-saving as the paramedic program!"

Johnny was reeling inside with awe...and a deep respect for the strong but vulnerable, human hero sitting across from him. His own food was most likely cold, but Johnny knew he'd enjoy the hell out of it anyway. He felt high on helium, like when he was a kid and he'd inhaled a whiff from a balloon to make his voice sound funny. Instinct told him not to show Brackett any hero-worship. He opted instead for a joke. "You know, Doc, you're one surprise after another. Never would've thought you'd like Errol Flynn pirate movies."

"Okay." With another smile, a grateful one this time, Brackett raised both hands in fake surrender. "I admit it. I like all Errol Flynn movies."

"Does that mean you like pretty blonds?" This time Johnny had no itch to look across the room.

"For my movie star fantasy, yes." Brackett's eyes were suddenly piercing. "I prefer my real life men tall, dark, and handsome."

Johnny thought it just his luck that he'd finally gotten a bite of food into his mouth only to nearly break a tooth on the fork holding the curried coconut rice. I'm not interested in Dr. Brackett....

A little voice inside his head wanted to know why he kept telling himself that. 

~*~*~

When Hutch opened the door to his apartment, he found Starsky pacing in front of the coffee table. "You waited up for me, Mom? How sweet."

Starsky gave him a stormy look forceful enough to shut the door by itself, but Hutch did the honors, double checking the lock. "Didn't expect you'd stay there after I left," Starsky said.

Hutch sat down on the sofa and began removing his boots. "Laura and I had a few things to say to each other that somehow didn't bear saying with you standing around wearing lemon meringue, so we waited for Hannah to turn in for the night."

Starsky kept his distance behind the coffee table and fidgeted in place. "Are you two picking up where you left off?"

"Laura Kanen is about as sexually interested in me as Hannah is. Couldn't you tell that tonight?"

The stone set to Starsky's features began to ease, the merest softening that only Hutch could detect. "Hey, don't knock Hannah. She's a fiery lady for her age. For any age!"

"Yes, she is, but you're her type, not me."

"How do you know that?"

"She flirted with you through the whole card game, that's how." Hutch smiled.

Starsky didn't smile. He growled. "You were baitin' me all night tonight," he accused, advancing around the coffee table and making Hutch wonder if he should run for cover or prepare to be pounced. "That damned ballerina comment!"

Hutch smirked. "I should be worried that you really do think I'd be dynamite in a tutu and toe shoes, but somehow I can't find the will to care."

A loud whump sounded when Starsky landed on the sofa beside him. "You love a girl with spunk? When you said that in front of Laura and Hannah I thought I'd swallow my tongue!"

Hutch reached for him. "Forget girls with spunk, Starsk, give me some of yours!"

Starsky growled again and took Hutch's mouth in a kiss that hurt in the most beautiful way. Only two well-matched men could kiss like this, Hutch knew, and he wanted it to go on forever. And if Starsky went along with his plan, maybe it could go on forever, uninterrupted by cornered serial killers or teenage street hustlers who thought the world owed them a dime a second just for breathing the air. When Starsky's lips found the little mole just below Hutch's jaw, Hutch breathed in the scent of lemon that lingered on Starsky's black leather jacket. The shirt underneath smelled even stronger of lemon pie. Hutch wanted to bathe Starsky in lemon meringue and spend an entire night licking it all off. He added that to his list of things for them to do in the first weeks of their happy ever after off the police force.

Blazing a trail of passion across the barren wilderness.

Taking a moonlit walk.

Sipping margaritas by the sunset.

Strolling back to their villa arm in arm.

Getting naked and naughty with lemon pies in the villa kitchen.

All Starsky had to do was agree, and they could call Dobey in the morning and break the news.

Find yourself a couple of other schmucks, Captain, we're done with the lousy hours, crummy pay, and fight-and-flight stress cocktail. Tired of hiding who we are and what we want. You want us, you can find us in Rio. Leave a message, and the concierge will be more than happy to deliver it.

Starsky was murmuring in his ear, and Hutch strained to listen. "Got...hard..." Starsky moaned in his ear. "In that hallway. When you started counting down the plan for Salinas, and I knew you were talking to me the whole time, I got hard. Goddamn, the way we work, Hutch, it's a thing of beauty! Never been so scared, knowing that nut had your gun trained on you close range, but it's like I was in your head, and you in mine, and...oh, man, oh, man, give me your mouth!"

Hutch wanted to sit up straight and question whether Starsky was hard for him or for their working partnership, because the answer just might screw with Hutch's big plan, but his dick said screw the question. Starsky pushed them over until Hutch felt the sofa arm against his shoulder blades. Hurried fingers tugged at his navy over-shirt, and Hutch lifted his back before Starsky could make good on his bid to rip the shirt off in shreds. The navy shirt landed on the piano bench, and Hutch wasn't even sure who had flung the garment.

Starsky was staring at the expanse of skin visible from Hutch's low-buttoned powder blue shirt. "You're so damned hot when you leave chest showing. Oughta do it more often! And your hair..." Starsky pulled his fingers through the slightly curling waves that reached to Hutch's jaw line. "Shines. Just shines. Something about tonight, Hutch. Something got you glowing. What's it, hm? What's got you lookin' like a guy who just stepped off an acceptance speech at the Oscars?"

This could be our first night to be just best friends and lovers without having to circle the wagons against the big bad world out there. Why wouldn't I glow?

"Might have something to do with the guy propped over me right now. Of course, he promised to show me some spunk, but if he's gonna spout words all night instead, I can lie here and listen."

Starsky crawled backward and attacked Hutch's jeans with fervor. "You'll be spouting, Blondie. In my mouth. Want to try something new tonight."

"Starsky." Hutch tried to sit up, but Starsky's firm left hand on his belly made him lie still. "You mean you're going down on me? You don't--"

"I don't what? Don't have to? Don't want to? Don't you believe it! I've been holding back thinking I'd screw it up and leave you with permanent tooth marks or something dumb, but hell, the way we work together, I don't know what I was thinking. Right when my mouth touches you, it's gonna know just what to do."

Hutch didn't dare suggest that it wasn't that easy. With that kind of faith in their bond, he could only lie back against the sofa arm and watch in a feverish haze as his primarily straight partner freed him from jeans and underwear and stared at his erection with the intention of sucking it. Under Starsky's hotter than a spotlight focus, Hutch felt his cock throb, pulse, and he looked down at the tiny bubble of fluid on its tip. Starsky met his eyes and then followed his gaze to the bead of pre-come. "Mine!" Starsky snarled and ducked his head to catch the fluid with his tongue.

Crying out more from the word than the act, Hutch shivered. For the next few minutes, he left earth and hovered somewhere just above the stratosphere. It didn't matter that Starsky sucked too hard around the head at first, or that he took a few tries to synchronize the fist he had wrapped around the base of Hutch's cock with the action of his mouth. It didn't matter that he nibbled too lightly or let his teeth scrape on one downward stroke of his lips. What mattered were the loving eyes watching Hutch's face the whole time Starsky worked on him. What mattered was that the heat and wetness surrounding Hutch's dick belonged to Starsky.

David Michael Starsky.

My love, my life....

Chains around Hutch's heart, chains which he hadn't even realized were there, began to loosen at the simple reassurance of watching Starsky's lustrous curls bobbing. This wasn't curiosity. This wasn't Starsky trying to prove something. This was the generous heart and soul of his partner on display. Giving for the sake of giving. Sucking for the sheer sake of sucking. Hutch reached down to pet Starsky's hair, trace his ear, and caress his jaw.

"You're gorgeous," he moaned to Starsky, letting his hips jerk slowly, far slower than he would have liked, but a safe pace for the novice blowjob artist currently attached to his dick. "You're gorgeous...so gorgeous to do this to me...."

Then two things happened at once: Starsky stiffened from shoulders to toes, his face scrunching in the unmistakable ecstasy of sexual pleasure, and Hutch, seeing that his partner had come in his pants during his first blowjob, couldn't even issue a warning grunt before he jerked upward in his own release. Thrusting blindly in the throes of his own orgasm, Starsky tried desperately to hold Hutch's cock between his lips and accept the gush, but he sputtered, coughed, and let go of Hutch with a noisy pop release of suction. Apparently determined to catch Hutch's offering somehow, Starsky pressed forward and cradled Hutch's waist, and Hutch thrust his last spurts of come against Starsky's chest.

He was quite sure they heard his yell in Santa Barbara.

Lulled by the bliss of afterglow, he lay in the circle of Starsky's arms and counted his miracles.

~*~*~

Starsky stirred first. They hadn't slept, but lying there just breathing with each other was even better, to his way of thinking. He wanted out of his sticky undershorts, but the stickiness reminded him of their passionate connection, and he wanted to feel the physical proof of that a while longer. He waited for the change to come over him. The difference he felt when he was seeing someone and woke up to being in love, in lust, and completely infatuated with them. He could always recognize the change, because his body marked the transformation of feelings with a few minutes or so of embarrassing reactions. When that important moment hit him, his palms got sweaty, his skin broke out in goose bumps, and his face would go flush-hot. It didn't happen with every woman he dated, and it was one sure-fire way to know if he was really hooked or just in it with her for kicks. Having Hutch in his mouth, watching his eyes the whole time, sharing the closest thing to a simultaneous orgasm he could remember having with anyone, Starsky knew it would happen any moment now. He rose up from his resting place on Hutch's chest and looked at his smiling face.

Nothing happened.

He tried to trick his body into it. Closing his eyes, he thought as hard as he could, sweaty palms, goose bumps, sweaty palms, goose bumps. Come on, he urged his body; you came so close to losing him the other day. One twitch of Salinas' finger on that trigger, and Hutch wouldn't be lying under you right now. Come on, damn it, Hutch is everything in the world to you; you love him more than your next breath. You can do it, just a few chill bumps and a little sweat.

But his stubborn body paid no attention.

"Starsk, you okay?"

He opened his eyes, afraid of how he must have looked to Hutch, and gave his best nonchalant shrug. "Better'n okay, babe. How about you?"

"If I'm not in Heaven, then it's the neighboring piece of real estate."

Starsky grinned. "Not so bad with the skin flute, am I?"

"Even better at fishing for compliments. You saw what you did to me. You want a shower, maybe change into something less...sticky?"

"In a minute, yeah." Starsky sat up and stretched, yawning. Coming fully back to awareness, he remembered why he'd let himself in to Hutch's apartment and paced like an angry jungle cat guarding its lair. "Hutch? Did you really tell Laura you'd quit being a cop for her?"

Hutch stared at him with a strange mixture of surprise and hope. "No, not really, nothing more than a joke she could tell right off was a joke. Tonight I did tell her the truth, though. I told her I didn't see myself being a cop for the rest of my life."

"No?" Starsky's legs turned to concrete heaviness and his upper body grew wet and cold with the sweat that came of fear. Was this how it felt to take a mobster's cement bath in some river? He tried to joke around the sensation. "Putting in for early retirement?"

"Well, I'd certainly think about giving it a shot if my partner wanted to brave the wilds of temporary unemployment with me. I could see a lot of advantages in quitting while we're ahead."

"Yeah?"

"We wouldn't end up two forty-year-olds with one stomach between us thanks to ulcers and popping antacids like M&Ms."

Starsky could play this game. It reminded him of their roommate discussion at Pine Lake, and that hadn't actually come to fruition yet, so maybe this was just Hutch needing to verbalize some alternatives just to remind himself he wasn't a canary in a birdcage with no door. "We could catch a matinee whenever we wanted."

Hutch's eyes were shining to match his hair. "I have a whole list, buddy, starting with a trail of passion and ending up in a villa in Rio."

Starsky let his gaze drift down to where Hutch's cock was beginning to fill. He was fascinated by the mechanics, different than his own. One moment Hutch's hood guarded his soft flesh, allowing only a tiny circle of glans and that oh, so sensitive slit to show free, and wham, one fantasy about sharing a villa with Starsky in Rio, and that skin pulled taut, making that dick a familiar, if imposing, sight. Starsky cursed himself yet again. If he could find Saturday morning cartoon enjoyment in watching the head of Hutch's cockhead pop free of its hood, then there was no earthly reason his body shouldn't be telling him what he wanted to hear. He found Hutch watching him. "I wondered if you were talking to Laura or me tonight, with that sexy list of yours."

"I love it when you use your head."

Starsky wagged his tongue at him. "And after the villa in Rio, what next?"

Again Hutch's face was practically glowing with hope. Starsky wanted to move, but he couldn't so much as twitch his knee. Hutch meant it! For Hutch's sake, Starsky thought about the possibility. Just him and Hutch....

Starsky's heart faltered. He thought about days on end of just him and Hutch without the work bonding them together, with Hutch wanting everything from him, including the biggie that Starsky couldn't seem to get his heart to cooperate with giving. Holy fuck! They'd be ripped apart and moving to opposite sides of the country to get away from each other in less than a month, two at most! No, if they had a prayer of staying together, it had to be behind the badge, couldn't Hutch see that?

And Starsky was suddenly aghast at himself. When had he gone from thinking he had an unbreakable thing with Hutch to thinking the badge kept them together?

I thought it was unbreakable before I actually went to bed with him and realized sex with another guy is a stretch for me. It's good when I get through stretching, but it's still a stretch. I can handle it if it's just another part of our partnership, just something else we do together, but if it's the only thing we do together, my measly ounce of cock lust is gonna come up short real fast, and Hutch'll know it's a stretch. Can't have that. God, can't have that. Can't do that to him!

He forced a laugh. "Aw, Hutch, what would we do if we pulled ourselves off the streets? You got some grand scheme in that smart head of yours?"

Hutch yawned and sat up himself, straightening his tousled hair. "Who needs a grand scheme, the way we work together?"

"Yeah, but as what? 'Cause, I hate to break it to you, I'm not into sushi, or being a chef, and if you think I'm gonna be a go-cart mechanic outside your one-man sushi stand off the Pacific Coast Highway, we need someone to help us with our business plan."

"Come on, Starsky, haven't you ever thought about what you might like to do if you weren't tied to a gun and badge?"

"I have hobbies, Hutch, not second career plans. What about you?" Starsky swallowed hard. "You have, haven't you? You've thought about what you'd like to do. All right, let's hear it."

Hutch lightly stroked fingers up his still interested dick, and Starsky couldn't seem to wrest his eyes from the display. "Just a pipe dream or two, Starsk."

"Well, pull out that pipe and let's smoke it."

"You already did that." Wrapping his fingers loosely around his shaft, Hutch gave a couple tugs, then spit into his palm and let his hand glide the foreskin. Starsky reached over and covered Hutch's hand with his own, but not to lend strength to the handjob. He had to still that erotic motion or he wouldn't be able to think himself out of a room with no walls, much less a conversation that could change the rest of their lives. He questioned if that was Hutch's motive for the exhibitionism. Distract Starsky from how badly Hutch wanted a dream they couldn't share?

"Out with it, Hutch. What'd you like to be when you grow up?"

Hutch sighed, and pulled his hand from Starsky's grasp. Left with his hand on Hutch's hard cock, Starsky jerked his arm as though singed, and cupped his knees in his palms, flexing his fingers over the worn patches in his jeans. Hutch had fixed his gaze on the piano. "I wouldn't mind finding a pretty piece of land in the hills. Maybe breed horses."

"What the hell do you know about breeding horses?"

Hutch glared at him. "I was raised around horses. I know enough to know I could hire the right people to teach me what I don't know."

Starsky pointed at his own chest. "What would I do on this horse farm of yours? I'm a city boy, remember?"

Hutch grinned at him, easing Starsky's mind that maybe, maybe all this was a great big joke. "There'd be a permanent position for you as chief stall mucker-outer." Starsky popped him lightly on the shoulder. Hutch gave him a sultry wink. "And you could always tie me up with tack and have your wicked way with me over a hay bale in the stable."

Starsky's eyes widened. "You'd let me tie you up?"

Hutch flushed. "Maybe. Gently. If it didn't leave that big of a mark."

Starsky smiled. "You're not really gonna let me tie you up, are you?"

Hutch faced him down without a smile. "I'm not really getting my horse farm, am I?"

"Maybe when we're older'n dirt, and it's time to let the next generation protect and serve. For now, why fix what ain't broken?"

Sitting up straighter, Hutch retreated behind a faraway look that Starsky couldn't read. "Just a fantasy, Starsk, that's all. If we were really talking about quitting, I'd want us to find something we could both find fulfillment in. Nothing to get riled over."

"Hey, I'm not riled. Just don't tell me you want to quit and become a paramedic. You did a good job playing one, but once is enough!"

Hutch scowled, looking sore all over. "Don't worry. I discovered quickly it had been more fun dating one than trying to be one."

Oh, now Starsky was riled! A red haze crossed his eyes. "Y'know, buddy, if you're so hot for that horse farm, I'm sure Gage would take you up on it in a heartbeat. Hell, wasn't he raised on some kind of Reservation ranch? Perfect for the job, the stall mucking and anything else!"

Hutch twisted on the couch and hit Starsky with the full force of outraged blue eyes. "You've got to be kidding me! Get over it, will you? I was talking in the past tense. I haven't seen Johnny in nearly three months. Spotting him in a restaurant looking all chummy with Dr. Kelly Brackett at a table for two doesn't count! Did I take Johnny to Pine Lake? No, I wanted you there. Believe me, if I wanted to form some two-person Boy Scout troop with Johnny Gage, I would've done it long before now!"

Rising and adjusting himself so he wouldn't need surgical removal of his shorts, Starsky decided he could get a shower in his own place. He was glad he didn't have to scramble around awkwardly for discarded clothing and try to get dressed in his state of mind. Hutch read his intention clearly, because he tried to grab for Starsky's hand.

"Hey, why don't we get a couple of beers and just cool down?" Hutch offered.

Starsky pulled his hand free and started toward the door. "It's late. We're on shift tomorrow."

He made the mistake of looking over his shoulder at Hutch, whose glow had faded into a worn dullness that spoke of bone-deep fatigue. Unless Starsky's imagination had kicked into high gear, Hutch's hair even appeared duller. "We're going to do this, Starsky. We're going to stay together. Nothing's stronger than what we've been to each other for almost ten years! So, you can walk out that door pissed off right now if you want to, but when you get home, get a shower, down a brew, and sit and think about it, we'll still be together."

"Yeah," Starsky said. And he walked out the door, slamming it shut behind him just to hear something other than the sound of his own beating heart.

~*~*~

Hutch heard a sound over the shower spray and cut the water to listen closer. Hard experience had taught him that the shower wasn't the place to let down his guard. Hearing what sounded like footsteps, Hutch grabbed for his towel and slung it around his waist, reaching for his holster on the door's peg. Gun in hand, cocked and taking no chances, he cracked open the door and caught a flash of black leather and the hint of lemon essence. That lemon pie Laura had shoved in poor Starsky's face was better than a cowbell. Hutch holstered the Magnum and stepped out of the bathroom.

Starsky turned around in front of the stained glass and widened his eyes at the low slung towel before hastily averting his face.

"Let yourself in," Hutch said.

Starsky looked down at his keychain, then pocketed the keys. "You don't want me letting myself in, ask for your key back."

"Your right to come in here unannounced has nothing to do with something tangible like a key, Starsky. I thought you were headed home."

"Was. Got halfway, turned around." Starsky hadn't made a move forward or away, and Hutch didn't know what strings to pull to get his sexy, life-size marionette moving.

"Why?"

"Want..." Starsky looked ready to crouch or spring. Caged motion with no outlet thrummed through him, and he seemed to be clenched from jaw to toes. "I want to be with you, damn it. You know that, right?"

Hutch took a step toward him.

That pulled the strings with a vengeance. Starsky rushed him, stripping the towel and pulling Hutch against him in one smooth movement. Their mouths crushing together, Hutch caught the salty tang of stale come--his own--around Starsky's lips and chin. He fingered the crustiness of more spill on Starsky's shirt and forgot to breathe in the kiss. When Starsky pulled back, Hutch was left gasping, clinging for dear life.

"Got room in that shower for two?"

"You know it."

"Only so I'll be clean for your bed," Starsky told him. "I won't be had for the first time standing up under your shower's lousy water pressure."

Hutch felt his knees start to give way. "Won't be had--Starsky, if you mean what I think you mean--"

"Usually what you think I mean is a solid guess."

Starsky might have wanted nothing more than a quick wash, but Hutch led him by the hand into the bathroom, slowly, tenderly undressed him, and turned the water to the temperature Starsky liked best, or Venice Place's closest approximation. Starsky looped his arms around Hutch's waist and stood still while Hutch lathered his hands and went to work on those thick waves of downy soft hair. He liked the way Starsky bowed his head for Hutch to have better access. He loved it when Starsky began stropping his wet calf against Hutch's, the water-matted hair tickling Hutch's leg and hardening his cock at the same time.

"Keep that up," Hutch warned in a teasing snarl, "and I'll be turning you around and taking you up against the shower wall."

"No you won't." Starsky's grin and tone of voice said Hutch's care-taking nature made him sure what wouldn't happen. "Not this time, anyway."

"Want my mouth on you?" Hutch gently soaped down Starsky's chest and hovered the cloth over his groin.

Starsky shivered under the warm spray. "Hutch, I want you. Any and every way I can get you."

With a declaration like that, Hutch could forget that he still had to strap on his holster the next morning and take whatever the inner city of LA could dish out. "Well, all right, then."

He wasn't allowed to suck Starsky off, though, his partner stopping him shy of release. Starsky had become bobble-kneed and incoherent, but Hutch got the gist. Starsky wanted to come with Hutch inside him. Any more talk like that out of Starsky's mouth, and they'd be waiting to see if Hutch could get it up a third time in less than three hours, so he hurriedly finished the practical side to their shower and hustled them out to dry off and get in bed.

He'd dreamed of having Starsky--having him all the way--in the old brass bed. Once there, rolling with him, petting him, gentling the barely leashed tiger so Hutch could get his own hormones under control to even think about preparing him, Hutch knew he had found his one true calling. Loving Starsky. On one passionate tumble, Starsky landed on his back with Hutch between his legs, draped over him and staring down into the honest, tell-all blueness of Starsky's eyes. Hutch was about to ask if Starsky was ready for the first step, when something in those soulful eyes stole Hutch's breath. For all that Starsky reached for him with his body, and offered with his lips, the man inside shining through those eyes wasn't ready. Hutch could see the battle waging, a battlefield split between Starsky's mind, heart, and body, and forcing the conclusion of the war before its due would rip Starsky apart. Hutch knew it as clearly as his own name. He bowed his head and tried to slow his own pounding heart.

"Hey, did you forget the next step in this dance?" Starsky asked with a soft chuckle. "I think it involves your fingers, some lubey stuff, and my ass."

Hutch scrambled desperately in his mind for something that wouldn't make Starsky feel inadequate. He hated to play up weakness on his part as the one excuse Starsky wouldn't question, but he had no other means to an end that would keep Starsky's psyche intact. "With all the--well--"

"Hutch?" Starsky encircled his shoulders in warm arms and pulled him down on that strong chest. "What's wrong?"

"Keyed up, Starsk. Too keyed up to do you right. You know, close call and all, what it's like."

"What you need?"

"Take a rain check and take me instead?"

Starsky's face showed brief disappointment, but glaring relief blazed out of his eyes and confirmed Hutch's decision. "Hey, what you need, you get, Blondie."

Hutch rolled over and reached under the bed for the small shoebox that contained a couple of screwdrivers, some spare nails, rug swatches, recipe cards, and various other incidentals. Hidden beneath it all was the tube of K-Y, in the hopes that anyone snooping would not bother sifting through the junk to find the box's most valuable and controversial item. Hutch took cover seriously, and he knew all too well that to the mentality of the LAPD, a tube of K-Y in a man's apartment labeled him queer right off the bat. He ditched the box on the floor and lobbed the tube over his shoulder at Starsky. On his side, with his back to Starsky, he crooked his top leg and swiveled his hips.

Starsky's happy growl applied a warm salve to the splintering crack starting in Hutch's heart. He lost himself in the enjoyment of Starsky stretching him, loving him with those lubed fingers, and didn't let himself dwell on what it would have felt like to be doing this to Starsky. When he felt Starsky's third finger easing the way, he clenched down to show his readiness. He nodded for Starsky to spoon up behind him and try it from this position. If he couldn't have Starsky's ass, he wanted a soft, slow fuck, and side spooning was his favorite way to get it. Starsky slid into him with ease, the channel more than ready for him.

"Tell me," Starsky breathed. "Tell me how to make it the best ever...best you ever had."

"Starsk. God, already is, it's you. Just hold me, give me all you got, maybe touch me a little behind my balls?"

"Anything, babe." Starsky held him close in heated arms and began to thrust in earnest, trailing his fingers down over Hutch's prick, pumping him, caressing him, dipping down to his balls and the sensitive skin underneath. Whimpery sounds emerged from behind Hutch, Starsky sounding undone already. "Y'know...never done this in your bed...ah, Hutch. Done other stuff...but not this, the one big It, and...Hutch!"

Hutch crooned his enjoyment, his passion, his unquenchable need for Starsky. He moved on Starsky's cock, reached behind him to pet Starsky's thigh. He wanted to shout special words, life changing words, but fear that transcended his pleasure made him clamp his lips tight against them. Starsky rocked behind him, groans changing to grunts, breathing rapid.

"So damned good, so...with you...perfect, oh, God, oh, Hutch, please...please...."

"What, Starsk?"

"You'll...do this to me one day, won't you?"

"You know I will," Hutch whispered. One day. When your eyes don't tell me I'd be taking you way beyond the pale. "Starsk, I'm--"

"Me, too. Hutch, oho, Huuuutch..." Starsky was going to rock them right off the bed.

Hearing Starsky go far away in the squall of orgasm, Hutch couldn't keep the vise grip on his emotions. He flung his head back, howling his completion, "Oh, oh, Starsk, I love you!"

~*~*~

Starsky could practically hear the door calling to him. Freedom waited just outside the door and down the stairs. The Torino and the street, the two places Starsky felt at home. Unfortunately, home would be an empty place without the man in Starsky's arms, and Starsky knew he'd never be free again. He could walk out the door, but he couldn't leave Hutch, any more than he could survive slitting his wrists to the bone. Nor could he rationalize any longer that Hutch could get by on a diet of sex and affection alone, so staying with him to fulfill his needs was a hollow purpose, when Starsky couldn't fulfill the biggest need of all.

Oh, oh, Starsk, I love you!

Starsky let out a harsh groan and tightened his legs around Hutch's. The most beautiful words he'd ever heard, and his heart wouldn't let him respond in like kind, wouldn't let him hide behind the truth of his background love for the man he held, when his conscience knew that wasn't the kind of love Hutch was screaming about in orgasm.

He tried to think of where to go next, what to do in the morning light when he saw Hutch's eyes open for him and him alone. Call a halt to the sex, because he didn't deserve taking that pleasure from Hutch when he couldn't give him the whole emotional enchilada in return? Set Hutch free to go back to the life-threatening world of propositioning men? Keep giving Hutch all he could physically, careful not to lie to Hutch about being in love?

How Hutch could light a fire in him, make him come like he hadn't been touched in decades, but leave his heart untouched by Cupid's arrow, Starsky didn't know. But he knew the truth about himself, and he didn't have to take his body's word for it. If he was in love, he'd have to fight getting hard every time Hutch walked in the room, not wait for those wet, warm lips to bring him up, or crisis hard-ons. He wouldn't be chasing skirts for his own pleasure and not just for protective coloring. He would have been able to spread his legs and take Hutch's cock all the way to his throat from the back door. God! Hutch's natural kindness made Starsky's chest ache. That bullshit about being too keyed up after a close call was clever, but it was still bullshit. Starsky knew his Hutch, and he knew the man people made the mistake of seeing as reserved could be ferocious and single-minded about what he wanted. And Hutch had wanted him, wanted his ass hard, Starsky had known it from the second he suggested they take that step. The only thing that could make Hutch back away from something he wanted that much was a belief that taking it would hurt Starsky. Knowing he must have been giving off some kind of ridiculous "don't violate me" vibe, Starsky flushed with shame. In love he wasn't, and he could lie here and torture himself all night, but he still wouldn't be in love by morning.

But he could love Hutch. He could love him with every breath he had. He'd done that for years. If Hutch didn't ask the right questions, Starsky wouldn't have to worry about having the wrong answers, and he'd keep giving Hutch everything he could. He didn't plan out what he'd do if he met a woman he could fall in love with, or if Hutch did ask the right questions. With the lives they led, living in the moment wasn't just pretty phrasing; it was the only way to keep sanity and mind together. No more topping Hutch, though. If they couldn't share and share alike, they wouldn't do it, and Starsky knew he couldn't try again to take Hutch up the ass until he was damn sure Hutch wouldn't see "Please, Don't" in his eyes. But he could stroke his partner off, rub him off, and thank God he knew now he could suck him off, but that made sense, because like Eric said, no one could suck dick like a man.

Something itched the back of Starsky's mind, then. A feeling he was accustomed to in police work when some little inconsistency or important evasion in a witness statement itched him until he scratched at it to see what was underneath the itch. Usually, the turning point in a case. Half-asleep and worried out of his skull, he couldn't scratch at this mental irritation. He turned his mind's eye from it and tried to get comfortable for sleep.

Hutch's shoulder twitched, and the warm body in Starsky's arms went rigid for a second before Hutch twisted in his hold and looked over his shoulder with amazed eyes. "You're...you're still here." 

"Where the hell else would I be?" Starsky asked truthfully, giving his best friend a smile he could only hope didn't shake. He nuzzled under the tousled hair over Hutch's forehead and planted a kiss there, then drew his lips down to seal with Hutch's. Soft, light on tongue, the kiss seemed to last for an hour before Hutch broke away, licking his top lip and yawning. Starsky smiled easily this time. "Back to sleep with ya. Morning's coming early."

Hutch closed his eyes.

~*~*~

Hutch didn't want to wake up, but he could hear ambient noise and feel the grittiness of sleep in his eyes and knew he was awake whether he liked it or not. In his last dream, he was in Starsky's arms, and he wouldn't see a change in Starsky's eyes when they greeted each other in the cold light of day. Before that comforting fantasy, fueled by Starsky's soft kiss, he'd fought nightmares about his last night in Johnny's bed. Were the tables about to turn on him and leave his whole idea of life in ruins? Johnny had known the instant he woke and saw Hutch sitting on the side of his bed. If Hutch looked over at Starsky and saw guilt, pain, and awkwardness, his heart would never stand the strain of knowing that the same fate had come calling for him.

His first good sign was that he still rested in Starsky's embrace. Starsky was partially sprawled over him, behind him, their legs tangled. Even more reassuring, he heard a light snore, Starsky's breath fluffing the hair over Hutch's ear. Starsky was asleep, not waiting up to tell Hutch they were through. Better yet, Starsky had the beginnings of a morning hard-on. Not unusual for any man under any number of circumstances, and more physiological than emotional, but Hutch chose to take it as proof that Starsky was happy in sleep.

And emotion did have something to do with the mechanics, because now that Hutch saw no impending "farewell, let's still be friends," his own morning excitement escalated to morning need, and he allowed himself to turn in Starsky's hold and kiss his partner's eyelids.

Starsky smiled softly in sleep and then a yawn complete with raunchy morning breath hit Hutch full in the face. He laughed loudly, Starsky cracked one eyelid open a slit, and that tiny opening told Hutch in no uncertain terms to leave him the hell alone. It was so like the Starsky he knew, the morning hater of all morning haters, that Hutch was instantly relieved of the last crushing worry. He could kiss away the morning grumbles. Starsky seemed content to let him try. When Hutch's hand wandered down to cup and roll Starsky's balls, his thumb lightly caressing the sensitive skin where the sac met Starsky's body, the morning grouchiness disappeared, and Starsky thrust, begging for more attention.

Without releasing the treasures in his right hand, Hutch stretched until he reached the discarded tube of lube on the nightstand. He slicked his hand, his own cock and balls, and then did the honors for Starsky's tender parts. In the warm, moistened grasp of Hutch's hand, Starsky's erection came fully to life, and Starsky grunted his approval. Before Hutch could do more than think about what he'd like, Starsky spread his legs and gestured for Hutch to stretch out over him in that comfortable space. Oh, so Starsky wanted some morning "Missionary" frottage. Hutch could get behind that. Or, on top of it, to be precise. He snorted at his own humor and lined himself up against Starsky's dick, bracing his hands on either side of Starsky's pillow, and flexed his knees for good thrust action. After a kiss, Starsky yawned again, scratched his short nails up and down Hutch's back, and said, "Good mornin', Starshine."

"Starsky, don't you dare start singing that, or we're in trouble, because you can't sing that song without a Neru shirt, bead necklaces, and a flower nosegay, and I don't need to imagine you in a getup like that."

"No singing, promise. Not that kind. But that's how you look in the morning, can't help it."

"I'll give you an 'early morning singing song,'" Hutch vowed, stropping their dicks together, the friction encouraged by the slick he'd applied. Starsky's grin heated. Hutch thrust harder, watching his response.

Starsky's grin went from heated to wicked and a touch sly. Wrapping his left leg around Hutch's waist and his right over the back of Hutch's thighs, he tossed his head on the pillow with a wanton purr, "That's right, baby, fuck me. Fuck me hard."

Jerking hard and thrusting harder in his joy at Starsky's attempt to simulate what they hadn't managed the previous night, Hutch gave him exactly that. He humped against that beautiful, cut cock while Starsky thrashed and did his damnedest to look like a man getting nailed to a mattress. It was chokingly erotic, and Hutch feared they would both run out of breath before they reached the finish line.

Starsky did sing for him. Continuous little groans and pleas that sounded like a song met Hutch's ears while he kept time with the dance of Starsky's hips. "Come on, Hutch," Starsky gasped after one particularly good bit of friction. "Lemme feel that velvet monster'a yours!"

The strop and glide didn't work on every thrust, the friction nowhere near intercourse, but the enthusiasm Starsky brought to their dance made up for all that. If Hutch could have this heat and closeness with Starsky every once in a while, he could live without plundering the ass that had starred in so many of his wet dreams. Then Starsky tightened those muscular legs around Hutch and groaned out dirty talk that set Hutch's mind on fire. He pushed forward to close his mouth over Starsky's and take those dirty words off Starsky's tongue onto his own; he felt the rumble of a shout from Starsky's throat. Thick wetness splashed against him on Starsky's upsurge, the passionate release triggering Hutch's. Shaking, coming harder than he could ever remember from morning sex, Hutch sang into their unbroken kiss, one long, shrill cry of love, knowing Starsky was the first to hear it from him and feeling safe letting it free.

After all, he had no doubts that this beautiful thing between them meant more to Starsky than their work partnership.

Starsky rolled him over with a quick kiss when the alarm clock intruded, and jumped out of bed. "Come on already, shower time," Starsky ordered, snapping his fingers against his thigh. "Duty calls. We're at the top of our game, Hutch. Gonna clean those streets spotless, have one helluva summer. I can feel it all the way down in here." Starsky thumped his chest and headed for the bathroom, jiggling that ass in his natural strut, whistling to beat the band.

Hutch sighed and stared at the ceiling.

Right. No doubts at all....

~*~*~

Brackett helped Dixie hand out gag prizes for the Frisbee tossing contest, but his mind kept straying to the morose fireman who refereed the three-legged race thirty feet away. The City of Angels and Mother Nature had donated a flawless July day for the Fire Department Field Day for Special Needs Children. Volunteers from every LA County station signed up to participate in various events, others volunteered to judge, and the special needs children attending LA County schools were invited to watch the hilarity and get a few good laughs at the rescue workers' expense. The children would also benefit from the funds raised from donated concessions and t-shirt sales. Area medical personnel had also received the invitation to join in the fun, and Rampart's ER staff quickly agreed to donate their time in shifts as patient load allowed. In addition to the kind of good cause that always stirred his blood, Brackett couldn't pass up a rare chance to interact with Johnny Gage away from the professional restriction of the hospital. He'd hoped Johnny's recent sulk would have lifted outside the work environment, but just a few minutes into the day's festivities he knew otherwise. Johnny had snapped out two or three words to him all afternoon. When Dixie informed him of their ten-minute break before the egg-spoon carry, Brackett hurried to consult the one expert on Johnny Gage who might have an answer or two as to how he might have landed on Johnny's hit list.

He cornered Roy DeSoto by the picnic table where a Station 51 C-Shift paramedic was making balloon animals for a line of enthusiastic children. Roy had the task of supplying the balloon artist with balloons and refreshing sips of Gatorade from a thermos. "Roy? Can you spare me a moment?"

Roy smiled and handed another balloon to the talented fireman at his side. "Manage without me a few minutes, Chuck?"

"For the great Kelly Brackett, M.D.? No problem." Chuck handed over a yellow balloon giraffe to a little girl whose smile gleamed brighter than the metal braces around her legs.

"Thanks, Chuck." Brackett gestured for Roy to join him beside the concession stand. Roy ordered two large lemonades and passed one to Brackett.

"What's up, Doc?" Roy asked, smiling. Then he smiled wider and tapped the side of his head with the lemonade cup. "Now you know I have kids. I hear enough Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings I'm not on shift that I'm talking like the wascally wabbit himself."

Brackett laughed. "That's okay. It makes you the perfect volunteer for today's fundraiser. Speaking of volunteers, I'd like to talk to you about your partner. I have the impression that I may have offended him, but I don't know how or when and, well, I wondered if you might have any insight?"

Roy nodded. "I've noticed the chilliness in Rampart recently. You've been getting the Johnny Gage silent treatment. He doesn't do it often, but it's effective. I remember one time I made the mistake of calling Johnny a 'nut.' I meant it in a friendly way, but he took it to heart, and I earned cold silences and snide remarks until we got it out in the open and I could apologize. Johnny's kind of sensitive at times, Doc, and it doesn't always have to be over something big. Or it might be. You say anything about his medical knowledge or work lately?"

"Not that I can recall. Johnny's a fine paramedic, Roy, you know that. One of the best, and partnered with one of the best." Brackett sipped the lemonade. He wasn't in the mood for the sweet treat, but he didn't want to insult Roy's generosity. "I've had no reason to say anything derogatory about his work."

"I didn't think so. I'm afraid I can't help you much, because it's not always easy to track down what's eating Johnny. Could've been something you said a month or more ago, and it's just now surfacing and making him squirm. Best thing to do is corner him and get him talking."

"Will he just open up and let it out, though?"

"Not always, Doc, and be prepared for him to go all cryptic before he gets to the heart of the matter. Good luck. I'm rooting for you. You're one of the good guys on our team, but besides that, I don't like seeing Johnny turn into a walking iceberg every time we do a run into Rampart!"

"Roy?" Chuck called, pointing frantically at the kids clamoring for balloon toys.

"Got to go, Doc. Johnny's up for a break before the rope relay. Best catch him now."

Brackett thanked Roy with a pat to his back and turned to watch Johnny head toward the other concession stand. Avoidance. Brackett wasn't standing for that! He dropped his lemonade cup in the trashcan and hurried over to the other concessions area before Johnny could escape. Coming up behind the paramedic, he heard him place an order for a cheese dog, and tapped him lightly on the shoulder. Johnny swung around in the middle of handing his dollar over.

"Doc," Johnny said coldly, turning back around.

Brackett didn't like talking to the back of Johnny's dark head, but beggars couldn't be choosers. "Johnny, I'd like a word."

Johnny didn't say anything until he received his cheese-topped hotdog in its paper liner. He grabbed a couple of napkins and gestured with his shoulder at the park bench across from the empty jungle gym. Even the park kids had abandoned the playground equipment to gather around and watch the firemen making fools of themselves for a good cause.

Brackett sat down on the bench beside Johnny and told himself not to notice the man's long, slender legs in the easy-worn jeans, or the way his naturally tan arms glistened almost golden out of the short-sleeved brown double-pocketed shirt. He tried not to think how those legs might feel straddling him, or how efficiently they could drive Johnny into him, deeper and deeper until....

"Doc?"

Looking away, Brackett regretted dumping his lemonade. The cold drink would have done wonders for a scratchy throat. When he turned his face again, he found Johnny giving him an appraising glance. He imagined he had to look strange in khaki slacks and Fire Department Field Day t-shirt, so casual compared to his Rampart wardrobe. Johnny bit down hard into the hotdog, and Brackett took advantage. "You've been giving me the cold shoulder, Johnny, for a couple of weeks now. If I've done something to upset you, I'd prefer you tell me so I can do something about it."

He got the eyebrow-arched, thin-lipped glare that signaled trouble. He'd seen Johnny give Mike Morton the same glare before the two had one of their occasional clashes. "I didn't think I was some kind of two-timing hypocrite until you made me feel like one!"

Brackett folded his arms over his chest and waited, but Johnny offered no explanation for the odd remark. "All right, I'm sorry, I don't how I could have made you feel that way about yourself."

"All that talk about--" Johnny scanned their immediate vicinity, and lowered his voice. "Coming out to myself?"

"Yes?" Brackett couldn't believe it. Johnny's discontent stemmed from a conversation they'd had at a restaurant in May? "That was a long time ago."

"The San Francisco trips weren't."

"San Francisco trips?" Brackett understood what Roy meant by "going all cryptic."

"LA sent Roy and me up there as observers late last month and to a paramedic conference the beginning of this one. You knew about all that."

"I heard something of it through the paramedic grapevine. What about the trips upset you?"

Johnny polished off his hotdog in two more bites and swiped at his mouth with the greasy napkin. "I met this nurse up there, took her out in between ride alongs and meetings. Nice girl. Real nice. She wanted something serious with me, distance and all, and I liked her. I really liked her, damn it! But every time I was with her, I kept hearing you in my head, and finally I just had to call it off before Roy and I left this last time."

Hoping fervently that his heart wasn't audibly pounding, Brackett unfolded his arms and risked putting a gentle hand on Johnny's shoulder. Johnny flinched but didn't move away or shoot him any back off looks. "Johnny, when you said two-timing, did you mean two-timing her, or two-timing me?"

Johnny stared down at a clump of melted cheese that had dropped on his jeans. He plucked it off with his napkin and dabbed at the grease stain. His silence was an answer in itself. 

Brackett pulled his hand away before anyone could glance over and question the prolonged touch. "Johnny, you're no hypocrite. First of all, we're not even dating. You can't two-time a friend, not the way you're implying. Yes, we're both interested in men, but that doesn't mean you owe me some kind of loyalty, or that you're cheating on our friendship if you form an attachment to a woman. I told you, my opinions are just that: opinions. You have to decide for yourself what you need in life."

"I have, and it's a hell of a thing for a guy in my line of work. I'm out to myself now, Doc, and everything you said it means. I'll probably end up next thing to a monk, because I'm prepping for the captain's exam in December, and I can't afford any slip-ups that get me kicked out of the department."

"And you're blaming me for all this? If so, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to complicate things for you by pressuring you to make tough decisions at such a critical juncture."

Johnny slowly shook his head with a shy, sweet smile Brackett knew meant forgiveness. "Not your fault. You just talked some sense to me, and I've been letting it get me down, that's all. No more cold shoulder, I promise. Hey, we got a few minutes before the next event; let me buy you some lunch?"

Brackett glanced at the July sun, the green grass at their feet, and listened to the sound of children's laughter in the distance. He hung suspended between happiness and fear, with a sour grapes taste in his mouth. He had Johnny's friendship. After Johnny earned his promotion, he would no longer be taking orders from Brackett in a paramedic-doctor relationship. Those happy realities should have lifted Brackett's mood to the blue sky. But with the removal of the obstacles came fear. A clear path meant he had to face his own insecurity if he planned to take any decisive action.

He knew he was no male ideal, especially within a community that rewarded the young, fit, and beautiful, like the man sitting next to him. He could take one look at Johnny and feel his chest constrict at the man's breathtaking handsomeness. John Gage and Ken Hutchinson might not have been emotionally matched, but physically they had made a bonafide supercouple: both men young, athletic, successful, film star attractive. More daunting than Johnny's physical charms were the good, heroic heart that beat within his chest, and the sharp mind that animated his warm brown eyes. In close proximity to such a man outside the confines of Rampart, Brackett tended to forget he was a highly respected surgeon with years of calling the shots in his own emergency department. When the confidence that went with those credentials abandoned him, he was simply a man, a few years on the wrong side of forty, softening a little around the middle and too tired after a sixteen-hour ER shift to think about explosive sexual gymnastics. Johnny's captaincy wouldn't change that reality.

Now that Johnny knew which side of the orientation fence offered him the best chance of long term happiness, he was free to pursue and bed any man he wanted. He could talk about living like a monk, but Brackett knew better. Johnny would learn what men had known for centuries: there is always a way. Discretion matters. Secrecy is essential. But men will always find a way to get their needs met. And what could Kel Brackett offer a young man who had turned the head of an Adonis like Detective Hutchinson? After that perfection, Brackett was supposed to undress for Johnny and expect to see no hint of disappointment or comparison in those candid eyes? It was easy to hide his insecurity from Dixie and leave her thinking his sole concern was crossing the professional-romantic boundary. Truthfully, his deeper reservation originated in honest male vanity and ego, along with the uncomfortable notion that Johnny deserved the opportunity to find someone better suited to him. 

Coming out of his thoughts, he caught Johnny watching him again, this time with concern. "Hey, Doc, it's okay to tell me you're steamed about the silent treatment. Roy never took it well, either, the few times I pulled it on him."

Brackett smiled. If their friendship gave him wistful moments, he was to blame for losing his heart to a man whose sexual attraction came with a loveable personality. Oh, well. Torturous though it might be at times, he owed it to Johnny to preserve that friendship. "I didn't enjoy it, Johnny, but right now I'm just glad that we've cleared up the problem. I only have a few minutes until I'm due to help Dixie at the egg-spoon carry, so why don't I let you treat me to one of those cheese dogs?"


 

Part Three

Starsky crouched behind Hutch and gently squeezed the back of his neck under the longish hair, but Hutch jerked away from the touch and came off his knees in a motion that left him reaching around to press a palm into his back. Starsky winced in shared pain. With every passing year, Hutch showed more signs of achiness and stiffness in his back. One too many car accidents in the line of duty had taken their toll, not to mention other injuries that left their marks. Every time Hutch reached for his back, his expression grew a little more fatigued, and Starsky sometimes thought he grabbed at his back to hide the pain's true origin: deep inside, where no muscle relaxants or anti-inflammatories could reach.

Hutch stood with his back to the body on the flophouse room's floor. He lifted a hand, let it weigh some imaginary burden in mid air, and then dropped it to his side. "I don't know...I don't know whether to be grateful he's off the streets for good, or pissed that he denied his victims a chance to face him in court. He'll never hurt another girl, that's all I can focus on."

"He" was Warren Temple, serial rapist. Arrested three times in the past year, released each time through loopholes in the system, the bastard made the late JoJo Ferenti look like an altar boy, and Hutch had wanted him under lock and key with a ferocity he usually reserved for freaks that threatened Starsky. Starsky had wanted to pin him to the wall, but Temple was just another in a whole long list of sickos. To Hutch, Starsky knew, Temple was a symbol of well-constructed, supposedly concrete ideals crumbling under their feet. When a brave young woman came forward with her statement about an assault that had taken place earlier in the summer, the fourth arrest warrant soon followed. Tracking Temple to his flophouse digs took little effort, but they got little more than a corpse in return, the rapist sprawled on his floor with an empty prescription bottle at his side. Hutch had wilted in front of Starsky's eyes, all that driving fire and action sucked out of him in the face of death.

"Three years since the Ferenti case and the monsters who attacked Lisa, two years since Willits and Billings, and we're still dealing with a system that treats the female victims of rape as guilty until proven innocent! God, what kind of world do we live in, Starsky, that the most violent criminals get to walk away clean if the DA thinks the female plaintiff wears skimpy clothing or might come across to the jury as 'easy?'"

"I know," Starsky said quietly, staring at Hutch's rigid back. "Same old shit. Still smells bad, still doesn't wash clean."

"This case was our chance to change all that. A chance to put the rapist on trial, not the victim. If we could have gotten Temple to court, Cassandra was going to stand up against the whole system and put him away with clear, indisputable testimony."

God, Starsky hated when Hutch got like this, because there was no wand Starsky could wave to make the world spin the way Hutch desperately needed it to. He'd wanted Hutch to get his edge back, and now he knew to be careful what he wished for. He could use a dose of Ode to Summertime from Hutch right now. Some floral comment on the sun beating down on asphalt or the like. "Hutch, we've gotta call it in. We don't even have proof that Temple took himself out of this world. He could've had a little help."

Hutch whirled on him, staring, and then thrust a finger at the empty bottle. "Come on, Starsky, we've seen how many phenobarbital ODs? I'll admit pills are more a woman's end-it-all of choice, but it's just like Temple not to want to shed any of his own blood. He got his kicks shedding other people's!"

"I know," Starsky said for the tenth time since they'd busted the door down and found their case essentially closed. "But we owe it to his victims to go SOP on this one."

"I know," Hutch agreed, nodding, eyes closed. "Jesus, I'm tired." He flicked the hem of his Hawaiian shirt up and down to create a breeze. "And when did it get so goddamned hot!"

"Hutch, it's August. What you expect in LA in August, snow?"

The new strip of blond hair over Hutch's top lip made it impossible for Starsky to tell if the resulting twitch of lips signaled a smile or the beginnings of an annoyed frown. But Hutch's voice was gentler, softer. "Right. We call it in. Do the legwork. Dobey's not going to believe this. I think he's convinced we both walked under a whole construction site's worth of ladders and crossed paths with a pride of black cats."

Starsky fished out a Kleenex from his light windbreaker pocket and used it to pick up the nightstand phone's receiver. He knew what Hutch meant. The glorious summer Starsky had promised had not come into reality. They'd labored to bring a cop killer to justice, only to have the case overturned in a mistrial due to jury tampering. A high school coke sting had ended with two honors students looking at juvenile hall instead of college scholarships, but their wealthy parents had somehow greased the gears in the DA's office and the junior prosecutors were suddenly allergic to the case file. And now this thing with Temple....

No wonder Hutch questioned the excessive heat. He had to be thinking they had taken a left turn at Albuquerque and ended up in Hell. Starsky couldn't disagree.

~*~*~

"Ten-four, Rampart. O2 in place, and we'll be transporting immediately." Johnny hung up the Biophone and tried to brush the weeping moisture from his smoke-burned eyes. The rough material of his jacket scraped against his skin, and he coughed.

Roy looked just as tattered, soot-stained, and weary. Hottest fire Johnny could imagine was a junkyard two-alarm in the middle of August, and that's where they were. A multiple station response meant more firefighters exposed to the deadly combination of heat, smoke, and potential toxins, but they had lucked out. Only two Station 10 firemen had succumbed to the blaze in the yard's tiny office shack while trying to rescue the day clerk, and their injuries were not life threatening. Their rescue, a middle-aged man with five kids, escaped unscathed.

"You'll manage the ride in?" Johnny asked, slipping his helmet back on for the ride into Rampart. "Or you want me to?"

"My turn, I think," Roy answered, coughing. "Anyway, you sound a little wheezy. Need a hit of O2 yourself?"

"I'm not either wheezy!" Johnny shot back, glaring.

Roy grinned at him over the soft chuckles of their recovering patient on his shock blanket. "I dunno, Johnny. You let Brackett hear you breathing like that, and he'll have you flat on your back on the exam table hooked up to monitors and an IV of Ringers."

Johnny brandished his handy-talkie at Roy with a warning, "I mean business" headshake, but Roy only smirked, oblivious to the two smoke inhalation victims who now watched Johnny with open curiosity. The least oxygen-impaired firefighter coughed against his fist and choked out, "Brackett doesn't think you're tough enough to handle a little smoke, Gage? Since when?"

"I don't know, Jackson," the other firefighter said hoarsely. "I think the great Rampart paramedic teacher might just have a pet, sounds like to me, huh, Roy?"

"Hah!" Jackson coughed and Roy tried to force the mask back in place against the fireman's efforts to pull it free. "Only pet Brackett has time for is that hot little Ms. McCall. Hell, they can play the colleague game all they want, but everybody knows they've been getting horizontal for years!"

Johnny jumped to his feet when the ambulance attendants brought over the stretchers. "You've got these two bozos under wraps, Roy? I'll take the squad and meet you at Rampart."

Walking away in a rush he didn't try to hide, he heard Jackson snickering through a wheeze. "Touchy Gage, huh, Roy? Come on, tell us. We always did think Johnny had a thing for Dixie. He's still pining over the good doctor's woman?"

"I'll plead the fifth on that one," Roy answered.

~*~*~

"Promise me, if the autopsy confirms barbiturate poisoning as the cause of death, we close the case." Hutch tilted his face to the breeze blowing in through the half-rolled down window.

Starsky adjusted his shades. "I think that's all we owe Temple or his victims. After that, we close the door and thank the son-of-a-bitch for saving the taxpayers the expense of a trial. We've got a stack of other cases waiting for our attention."

"You saw Curt back there." Hutch's huffed breath was the closest thing he'd managed to a laugh in recent weeks. "We know we're being perfectionists when the ME looks at us like we're off our rockers for not just calling in the meat wagon and leaving him to his nice, cool lab."

"I think everyone's running on empty right now," Starsky agreed. "You're right. Damned heat's practically stalking us, feels like."

"What I need is a cold beer and a colder shower--" Hutch started, but the jump in radio static interrupted him.

"Zebra Three, come in. Control to Zebra Three, come in."

Hutch glanced at Starsky, reaching for the mic. "Weren't we logged unavailable?" He pressed down on the switch. "Zebra Three to Control."

"Zebra Three, see Captain Dobey at Rampart Emergency in regards to R. Dobey."

Starsky's foot slipped on the gas, and he heard a muffled curse from Hutch that broke radio protocol. Hutch acknowledged the call with a shaky voice and cradled the mic. Grabbing the Mars light, Hutch rolled the window down all the way, hoisted himself out halfway to situate the light and slid back into the seat heavily with a groan. "Starsk?"

Starsky flipped the siren switch. "Yeah?"

"Remember how you promised me to show more appreciation for red lights?"

"Yeah."

"Temporarily forget that promise, would you?"

Starsky spared a glance from traffic to meet worried, heat-shimmering eyes. Even as his foot slammed down on the gas pedal, he freed one hand to reach for Hutch's and hold tight. "She'll be okay, Hutch. Hear me? Whatever's going on, she'll be okay."

"All the same--"

Starsky squeezed Hutch's hand. "All the same." The way their summer was going, he would have preferred teleportation to Rampart. As it was, he declared open season on all red lights between them and the hospital.

~*~*~

Longing for a cup of coffee the way only a fireman can appreciate the hot beverage after beating down a scorcher, Johnny paused before he turned the corner away from the unusually crowded waiting area. Standing room only. Couples stood around comforting each other. The tang of shock and fear left a sour stench in the air. Johnny recognized the heavyset black man sitting in a corner chair. Clutching a tweed hat, he alternately pulled and adjusted his wide brown-and-green striped tie, and tried not to look at the other people as if he knew there was more to fear than they could imagine. Considering the man's profession, Johnny guessed that he did have that kind of unwelcome knowledge. 

"Uh, Roy?" Johnny slowed Roy's march down the corridor with a hand on his shoulder. "Can you handle the report on Jackson and McNally?"

"Sure, I was the ride-in anyway. What's wrong?"

"I see someone I want to check on," Johnny replied and did a 180 to return to the waiting area.

He had to stand directly in front of the man and clear his throat before dark, panicked eyes lifted to stare blankly at him. "Captain Dobey?"

"Do I know--" Captain Dobey pressed his hat down over one knee. "I do know you."

"Johnny Gage," he reminded the stricken man. "You didn't see me in uniform that day."

Dobey paid little attention to Johnny's uniform now either. "I'm not here about--"

"I know, sir. The district your men work is more County or Memorial's territory. If you don't mind me asking, why are you here?"

"My little--" Dobey touched his cheek as though he might have bitten the inside of his lip to keep from breaking down. "My little girl. She's attending a special summer camp for artistically gifted children, on a field trip today, and the bus had an accident. I just got here a couple of minutes ago. My wife, Edith, they let her back there, and she hasn't come out yet. That's not a good sign, because I know what the docs do when they're bustling around with a patient, they don't want anyone in the way."

With no free chair available, Johnny knelt down in front of the captain. "Yessir, that's true, I'll admit. But I know this ER staff, and if Nurse Dixie had anything to say about it, your wife is probably back there just to put your little girl at ease so they can work on a calmer patient. Okay? Doesn't have to mean what you think."

Dobey took note of Johnny's ash-stained, blackened cheeks, watery eyes, and said, "Fire? A bad one? You're in here on a transport."

"Fire, yes. Not nearly as bad as it could've been. Here on a transport, but it's cut and dried smoke inhalation. Firefighters. Captain, do you have anyone coming to wait here with you?"

"I have central dispatch trying to reach Starsky and Hutch, but they were out making an arrest this afternoon, and I don't know how long it'll take to raise them on the radio."

Johnny marveled that hearing the names didn't faze him. "Well, sir, if you don't mind that I smell like an out-of-control fireplace, I'll just sit here with you a while until my partner gets through with the report and LA calls us back out."

"Drop the sir, please. I'm not your captain, young man." Dobey's smile lacked any real life, but it was the effort that spoke volumes. "And you could smell like ammonia and bleach combined, and I wouldn't even notice right now."

"I can understand that."

The minutes crawled by, each seeming slower than the one before. Johnny saw Brackett emerge from the treatment rooms three times, and on two out of the three, the doctor pulled a couple aside and spoke slowly and softly to them. His words generated a firestorm of emotion, the women buckling at the knees, their sobbing husbands trying to brace them with the help of Brackett. Each time that drama occurred, the police captain tensed and muttered what sounded to Johnny's inexperienced ears like some kind of prayer. Not two minutes later judging by the clicking of seconds on Johnny's wristwatch, a lady in a pastel print dress came into view and drew a gasp from Dobey. There was something of the timeless mother about her, and her carriage, quiet confidence, and beautiful aura reminded Johnny poignantly of his own late mother. He felt moisture prick his eyes that had nothing to do with smoke residue.

Dobey nearly bowled Johnny over in his haste to meet his wife halfway. They embraced a foot away, the lady resting her head against her husband's shoulder and clinging to him. "She'll be fine,         Harold. Her right arm is broken, but it was a clean break, and she has some scrapes and bruises. She had a little bump on her forehead, and Dr. Early wants to keep her overnight and watch her, but he thinks she'll be fine, and I--oh, good Lord, I have to believe him!"

"Uh, ma'am?" Johnny rose, hating to intrude, but wanting to reassure. "Dr. Joe Early is one of the best neurosurgeons in LA. If he gives your little girl the thumbs up, you can believe him."

Dobey wiped at Edith's tearstained eyes with his own pocket handkerchief, then pointed the hanky at Johnny. "This is John Gage, baby. He's a friend of Starsky and Hutch's. He was kind enough to sit and wait with me so I wouldn't chew a hole in my hat. When can we see Rosie?"

"They wanted me out of there while they set her arm," Edith answered after shaking hands with Johnny and smiling her gratitude. "But then we can be with her."

"Your daughter's in good hands," Johnny told them. "If you don't mind, I better catch up to my partner. We'll probably get a run any minute now."

~*~*~

Dobey had just gotten Edith settled in the newly vacated chair beside him when his senior detective team showed at the Receiving entrance and wove expertly through the crowd to the corner. Starsky still vibrated with the frantic energy of bending LA traffic to his will, but Hutch was outwardly cool, only his eyes revealing the depth of his worry. Hutch went straight to Edith, crouching down to face her at eye level and pat her arm. Starsky stood at Dobey's side and clasped his shoulder. "Got here fast as we could, Cap'n," Starsky said.

"Got here quicker than I thought you would."

"Yeah, well, I played kinda fast and loose with the traffic laws," Starsky admitted. "Within reason," he added.

"And your partner let you get away with that?" Dobey shot a look at Hutch.

Hutch smiled. "I encouraged him, Captain. How's Rosie? Have you heard anything? What happened?"

Dobey let Edith explain the turn of events and share the good news. "You just missed your friend," he informed them. "He waited with me until Edith came out."

"Our friend?" Starsky asked.

"Your fireman-paramedic friend, Gage. He was just here. Went off around that corner somewhere to meet up with his partner. Very nice young man. I'll bet he doesn't give his captain a few new gray hairs each week!" Dobey was surprised to see sudden discomfort on Hutch's face that he was sure had nothing to do with the little joke.

Starsky had tensed, too. "Um, Captain, Edith, anything we can do for you? Get you something to eat, some coffee from the cafeteria?"

Edith smiled and patted her stomach. "Now that I know Rosie's out of danger, I think I could manage a cup of coffee and maybe a little bowl of soup just to settle my stomach. How about you, Harold?"

"Nothing for me, thanks, but if one of you could call Metro and tell Chief Ryan I won't be there for this afternoon's meeting? I don't want to budge from here until the doctor comes out and tells us we can see her."

"Certainly, Captain." Hutch stood with another squeeze of Edith's shoulder. "I'll make the call, and Starsk, you can make a food run to the cafeteria?"

Starsky eyed him, looked over Hutch's shoulder at the main corridor, and then looked back again with a raised eyebrow. Hutch's cheeks pinked, but he answered with raised eyebrows himself and a quick headshake. Ever the former field detective, even in personal crisis, Dobey couldn't help but link the silent dialogue to his mention of the LA County fireman, what with the direction Starsky's gaze had taken, but he saw no logical explanation for the translation he'd normally attach to that particular wordless exchange. Why would Starsky want Hutch to avoid Johnny Gage, of all things? Made no damn sense. With a shrug, Starsky offered Edith a comforting smile and left in search of coffee and soup.

"Do you have any other calls you'd like me to make?" Hutch offered. "Does Cal know?"

"Cal's out of town this week on a church trip." Edith rummaged in her purse and pulled out her address book. "But you could call my sister and my aunt Kathy, and let them know I'll be calling later with more details. Why don't I make you a list?"

"All right. Before I get started on those calls..." Hutch walked around to Dobey's side and whispered, "Point me in the direction of the men's room, Captain?"

~*~*~

Johnny met up with Roy at the nurses station. Shaking his head at the handy-talkie, Roy handed him a cup of coffee. Joe Early finished making notes in his metallic-bound chart and looked up when Dixie returned to her post behind the counter. "Any luck?" Joe asked her.

"He won't even let me in the room." Dixie's eyes were more troubled than Johnny remembered ever seeing. "He's never done that before."

"Who, what?" Johnny asked, certain they were talking about Brackett.

"Dr. Brackett lost two of the bus accident victims back to back," Roy said.

"I thought so," Johnny murmured. "Saw him come out to talk to the parents."

"Yes, well, after he spoke to the last family he went straight to his office and locked himself inside. He's a sore loser," Dixie mused, waving her hand to decline the cup of coffee Joe offered her. "Fights harder against death than any ten men combined, but he's usually able to shake it off enough to go to the next patient."

"You need him out here right now?" Roy closed the drug box and moved it to the counter.

"We've got things under control right now," Joe said. "All the children are in treatment or being transferred to the pediatric OR. We're more worried about Kel. This is unlike him."

Before he could think of how it might sound, Johnny said, "Maybe if I had a go at it?"

Dixie gave him the oddest look, and something flashed in her eyes that made Johnny step back, but Joe nodded approval. "Might not be a bad idea, Johnny. I'm not knocking Dixie's maternal instincts, but a good man-to-man chat might be just what the doctor ordered. I'd try myself but someone has to be out here monitoring the situation."

"All right, I'll see what I can do. Roy, come get me if they call us out?"

"Sure thing, partner." Roy smiled at him. "Go easy on him, Johnny. He probably doesn't need any of the special John Gage logic right now."

Johnny would have flipped him the finger had Dixie and Joe not been present. Instead, he narrowed his eyes and promised silently that Roy would find his dorm bed short-sheeted in retaliation. But he knew what prompted Roy's joking. He'd seen the terror in Roy's eyes, the need to think of anything but what it would feel like to have a doctor tell him his children had been fatally injured. Johnny might even spare him the short-sheeting. Right now he had other fish to fry.

The Dobeys were still in waiting. Apparently, the captain's two-man support system hadn't arrived yet. Johnny gave them a brief smile and passed by the visitor phone booth to Brackett's office. That door always made Johnny stop and pause. He couldn't even imagine all the work and sacrifices that Brackett had put into earning that nameplate. Dismissing the intimidating thoughts, Johnny knocked.

"Not now." Brackett's voice was a mere whisper, but Johnny had an idea the thick door was actually muffling a shout.

"Doc, it's me, Johnny."

In the silence that followed, Johnny almost admitted defeat. He was stunned when the door opened for just the space he needed to slip in sideways. Brackett shut the door behind him and stood in front of it with his arms folded over his chest. His eyes shone too brightly, even with the office lighting, but he held his jaw firmly clenched and gave a good impression of a statue. "You shouldn't be here, Johnny. I won't be pleasant. Hell, I won't even be civil."

"That's okay. It's not a civil situation." Johnny wanted to reach out and touch him, but he had the strangest sensation that unless he timed it just right, the softest touch would crumble the proud statue into dusty bits. "Not a damn thing civil you can say about losing anyone, but two kids...I get it, Doc. That's why I'm here. 'Cause I'm not some moron with platitudes. I've been there, watched kids die in the ambulance en route, knowing if I could've just gotten 'em to you, they might have had a fighting chance. More than a fighting chance. But even supermen like you can't stop every speeding bullet."

"Senseless!" Brackett shouted. "The driver of the other car in the accident is an epileptic who drove without his medication. He knew better. He's likely to lose his medical permit to drive, but he's in stable condition, while two children--" Brackett balled his fists and stared at the pictures and diplomas on the wall behind his desk. "It's all I can do not to go to his room and wring his neck!"

"I know what you need," Johnny said, visited by inspiration from childhood. "You need something to take the stinging fight out of you so you can face the madhouse out there."

"The last thing I need is--"

"Now hear me out, Doc," Johnny interrupted. Squaring his stance and prepared to stand untippable like one of those Weevil toys, he cupped his palms and pointed fingers back at his shoulders. "Give me a good hard shove."

"You should be out there available for calls," Brackett snapped. "Not in here playing amateur psychiatrist, and doing a fairly poor job of it!"

"Roy's monitoring the handy-talkie. We are logged available. What are you worried about? Isn't this room solid for sound?"

Brackett seemed fixated by Johnny's left shoulder. "Room's sound proof. When the hospital was built, the physician offices were designed to keep discussions confidential. I've had to crush people's hopes in here. I've had to put no-win decisions in front of family members who weren't prepared to lose loved ones. This room has seen a flood of tears, and--"

"Now, see, that's what you need to forget about for five minutes or so. Come on, Dr. Brackett. I know you've got spirit. Show me some. You won't hurt me. You don't have it in you. Hell, I've got on my jacket." Johnny wriggled one of his bulky sleeves to show off the thickness of the reflector-striped protective material. With an annoyed sigh, Brackett gave him a half-hearted push that barely moved Johnny's shoulders.

"Harder!" Johnny ordered.

Brackett's next shove intensified by a fraction at best.

"Harder, Dr. Brackett! Are you a girl or a man?"

That got him a better shove. He could feel his right shoulder flinch back. "That's right, harder!" he said with enthusiastic approval.

Brackett gave him a wan smile. "It's a good thing no one can hear you. I'd have a devil of a time explaining what's really going on in here."

Johnny grinned and felt wickedness seize him. He panted for a few seconds and then moaned, "Oh, Dr. Brackett, harder, harder, yeah, yeah!"

It sounded ridiculous, especially using the man's honorific, but it worked. Brackett unleashed a fury of shoves on him, and in the end, Johnny had to almost lock his knees to keep from stumbling backward and down to the floor, but then Brackett suddenly melted against him, fury spent. Johnny cradled him in strong arms and let the exhausted man rest against his chest.

"Where'd you learn that?" Brackett asked. Only a couple of inches shorter than Johnny at most, he had to bend to rest his forehead on Johnny's shoulder, but Johnny didn't mind. He loosened his arms and lifted a hand to squeeze the back of Brackett's neck. 

"Look, I'm gonna tell you something I haven't told anyone, not even Roy. That was what Mama used to do for me on the Rez. When I came home all banged up from fighting some jerks in town who'd called me a half-breed and a few worse names than that, and she knew I was spoiling to fight the rest of the world, too, she'd stand in front of me and tell me to try to shove her down. She wasn't encouraging violence or anything; she knew I couldn't do more than push like a weakling at her shoulders. God knows I wouldn't hurt my mama! After two or three little pushes, I'd be a drained boy, no fight left, and she'd hold me until I felt whole again."

"Hold me, Johnny?"

"Thought that's what I was doing."

"Like you mean it, not to keep me from slumping to the floor."

Johnny gathered him close. Cheek to cheek, holding tight, Johnny was stunned to find he enjoyed the scrape of Brackett's afternoon stubble against his own smoother cheek and how right the doctor's arms felt looped around his waist. Keep this casual, you idiot! "Now think about the one place you'd like to be right now if you could have an instant vacation."

Brackett's laughter shook them both. "New Orleans."

"Ah. I remember a couple years back when we were trying to help Roy figure out where to take his family on vacation, you kept pushing for New Orleans."

"One of my favorite cities. The music, the food, the bohemian lifestyle I'd never be brave enough to live here."

"Sounds great. Maybe one day we could take a trip there together."

Brackett tensed with nearly a block of wood's rigidity. Oh, right. The man was dead set against them being anything but friends. How many times did Johnny have to hear Brackett talk about friendship to get that through his head? He tried to laugh. "Hey, don't friends travel together? It's not like we'd have to post it on the coffee room