In Spirit

by librathree (8231282) Paid User

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Slash, NC-17, post SR, light angst, light plot, light everything. Comments always welcome.

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One

 

David Starsky left the meeting, pushing the door open with one hand, letting it swing shut behind him as he walked down the corridor.

No stranger, however observant, would know anything was wrong.

But Ken Hutchinson knew. He knew the normal cocky tilt of the bent head, the usual proud line of the slumped shoulders, the bounce now absent from the dragging step. Hutch knew Starsky, and he felt his insides sink through the floor, plunging like molten lead through all 10 storeys of Metro, pooling at last in the darkness at the center of the earth.

Still, fear pushed him to his feet as Starsky fell into his orbit and stopped, at last raising his face – the face Hutch knew as the Terry face, the Rosey face, the face that said It’s over, that said I’ve been hurt as much as I can take.

The face that said Hutch, help me.

Hutch moved closer, taking gentle hold of Starsky’s arms, feeling the wiry tension under the seldom-worn suit coat.

Starsky’s eyes, bewildered by pain, sought his. “They thanked me.”

“What?” Hutch heard his own voice, low and husky in reaction to his partner’s hurt.

“They thanked me. For bein’ a good cop. For my–” His voice changed, pain hardening to faint sarcasm—“for my years of service to the community. Then they said they were sorry it had to end this way.”

Hutch cursed, shaking his head. His fingers clasped and loosened on Starsky’s arms, desire fighting decorum. They’d both known it could go this way. In the wee, wild hours of his secret sleepless nights, Hutch had prepared himself for many outcomes, including this one. But the blow still hurt.

“They said it’d be good for me to be off the streets. I could have a family, go home to them safe at night ...” Starsky’s voice wavered. “They didn’t hear anything I said, Hutch.”

“Christ,” Hutch breathed. “Starsk…” He pulled his partner into a hard hug, heard his own words spill out, irrepressibly. “We’ll fight it, both of us. Dobey’ll back us up. You’re twice the cop of any other man in the whole damn’ department. We’ll make them see it—”

Starsky was shaking his head, soft curls rubbing against his neck.

“It’s done, Hutch,” he said. “I gave ’em my best and it wasn’t enough. That’s not gonna change, not tomorrow, not in a week or a month or a year…”

“Starsk…” But Hutch knew he was right. If his partner worked out and trained and argued and got another review in six months, or a year, the answer would be the same. Worse; his record, his contributions over the years, his excellence, would have been forgotten by the board by then. He’d be just another disabled cop longing to relive his glory days. The idea of his partner – of David Starsky – facing the pity of a goddamned review board made anger well up hot in Hutch’s stomach.

“You’re squishin’ me,” Starsky said, bringing Hutch back to himself.

He drew back, tried to smile. “Sorry, partner.”

Starsky rested a hand on his arm as he moved gently out of Hutch’s hold. “It’s okay.” He tugged his tie loose and looked around the busy corridor, eyes bleak. Hutch, alarmed, saw that he was already saying goodbye.

Softly Starsky said, “I can’t drive a desk, Hutch.” He slid the tie completely off, balling it up in his hand.

“I know.” He longed to follow that with something, some comfort, some scheme, some end run. But they both knew better. It was over.

Starsky inhaled, straightening up. “I need to get out of here.” He flung the tie onto the bench and it slithered across the wood, falling down the back as Starsky started toward the exit. Hutch began to move with him, but the hand kept him in place.

“Alone, okay? I gotta … clear my head. Do some thinking.” His eyes asked for understanding, forgiveness.

Hutch pressed the hand on his arm, released it. “Don’t go too far, partner.”

Shoulders still hunched, Starsky nodded and headed down the long hall toward the exit. Sick to his stomach, Hutch watched until Starsky was gone, then sank down on the bench again and rested his face in both hands.

Unlike Starsky, he didn’t really have anything to think about. This decision had been made some time ago. He’d made several decisions in the wake of Gunther’s hit.

Decisions. That’s a pretty clinical word, Hutchinson. Too clinical for some of them.

He could see Starsky’s boldly striped tie through the slats, lying on the floor like a run-over snake. He started to pick it up, then stopped, thinking of the things it represented, the things it meant to him and Starsky.

Fuck it. Leave it.

He stayed there, motionless, until a young clerk came by to ask if he was all right. Raising his head brought his gaze first to her, then to the clock on the wall, and he realized he’d been sitting there nearly half an hour. Reassuring the clerk, Hutch got to his feet and headed upstairs to the detectives’ squadroom. Yes, he’d made a lot of decisions after Starsky’d nearly died. This one, at least, he could act on.

*** *** ***

When he came out of Dobey’s office, Starsky was at their desk in the otherwise empty squadroom, listlessly sorting through files. He’d been on desk duty three weeks – easing back in.  Keeping a hand in on the cases he and Hutch would soon be working together, they’d said. Thought. Hoped. Now every one of them – every case he would have to hand off to someone else – was like a sucker punch, Hutch knew.

“Hey, partner.” Hutch sat on the table next to him, wincing inside at the fake smile Starsky gave him. The piles indicated he’d been back for some time, possibly the whole two hours Hutch had just spent arguing with their captain.

“Hey.” Starsky let his hands rest on the paperwork, obviously bracing himself, and Hutch tensed further.

“I been thinkin’.”

“Yeah.”

“About the future.”

Hutch nodded. “Me too.” He wasn’t looking forward to telling Starsky what he had to tell him, making him more than willing to let his partner say his piece first.

“I got a short list,” Starsky said. “Here somewhere…” He fished around, pulled out a grubby, much-crumpled sheet of notepaper with a few names penciled on it.

“I thought Cabot,” he said.

Hutch waited, not making any kind of connection. “Cabot,” he echoed blankly.

“Yeah. He’s kinda young, but he’s real sharp. Willing to learn, you know, to be flexible.”

Then Hutch remembered: Danny Cabot, a uniform cop they’d worked with six months before.

“Or Davis,” Starsky went on, his tone lifeless, his fingers unnecessarily tight on the paper, his eyes riveted to it as if he were afraid to look at Hutch. And Hutch realized what he was doing – what he’d been doing with the quiet time he’d insisted on. Do some thinking, he’d said. But not about himself. Of course not.

Christ, Starsk, you couldn’t be selfish if your life depended on it, could you?

 “He’s a little by-the-book for you, but he’s easy to get along with and he’s got a good record. His partner was just transferred.”

“Starsk,” he attempted, the word strangled by the emotions clogging his throat.

“Or maybe Meredith,” Starsky said. “She’s a good cop. Smarter than me—”

“That goes without saying,” Hutch said, his chest aching. “Starsk—”

“I want you to have someone good,” Starsky said to the smudged note. “I need you to. Someone real good, who can watch your back—”

“Will you shut up?” Hutch’s hand came down hard on the table; it was a measure of Starsky’s fragile mental state that he actually flinched. “What the hell do you think I was doing in Dobey’s office all this time? Didn’t you hear him shouting?”

“No.” Starsky didn’t raise his gaze. “Heard you, though.” The joke shriveled up and disappeared into the charged air around them.

Hutch snatched the note out of his hands, crumpled it and flung it across the squadroom. “I quit.”

That drew the pain-pinched eyes to his face.

“I had to argue with Dobey for two hours before he was convinced I meant it.”

“Y-you quit?”

“Resigned, retired, whatever you want to call it.” Hutch held up a hand and Starsky’s open mouth snapped shut. “If you ask me why, I swear to God, I’ll deck you.”

“You can’t,” Starsky implored.

“It’s done.”

“You can’t, Hutch. Not because of me–”

“Let’s get one thing straight, partner.” The emphasis was steely. “This is not on your back. You think I didn’t know how you’d feel about this? You had a decision to make. I had a decision to make, too. I didn’t tell you how to make yours, even though you and I both know it affects me too.”

“But this is different—”

“How? You refuse to be a desk jockey. You could do it, but you’d hate every day of it. I refuse to be a cop without you. I could do it, but I’d hate every second of it. There’s no difference.”

Starsky shook his head, reaching out blindly to grasp his partner’s forearm. “Hutch …”

Hutch held himself still, stern. “If you don’t want us to be partners any more, if you want to leave that behind when you leave the force, now’s the time to tell me.”

Starsky laughed softly. “You kiddin’ me? I couldn’t give you up if my life depended on it.”

“I know,” Hutch said, equally soft. “It has, more than once. Did it ever occur to you it works the other way around too?”

Starsky squeezed his partner’s arm, hard, some of the normal light rekindled in his eyes. “What the hell are we gonna do?”

Hutch slid his free arm around Starsky’s neck and hung there. “We’ll think of something.”

*** *** ***

“Private eyes.”

Hutch blinked, awakened from his doze by Starsky’s announcement. He glanced up and saw his partner leaning on the doorjamb, paper bag in hand, looking at him oddly, as if surprised.

“How long have you been standing there watching me sleep?” At Hutch’s invitation, Starsky had stayed the weekend at his place. They hadn’t done much, talking, playing basketball, walking on the beach, being friends. Though Hutch had been worried about such a lengthy period of intimacy, he’d found they had so much to do, so much to discuss, that it was easy to put aside those issues he wasn’t ready to deal with.

For now. He knew damn well it was a reprieve, not a pardon.

Starsky pushed himself off the doorjamb and came out. “Long enough to find out Sleepy Beauty snores. So what do you think?”

Hutch shrugged, setting the hammock swinging. “It’s not as big a change as becoming garbage collectors.”

“It’s kinda dicey financially.” Starsky sat on the edge of the deck chair closest to the hammock, still holding the bag of sandwiches he’d gone to the corner deli to pick up; Hutch could smell the mustard and onions.

“I’m not—” Hutch stopped himself. He’d been trying for days to find the right words to tell Starsky that his money – and there was a lot more of it than Starsky realized – was their money. “We’d probably do all right.” Shit. He was going to have to find a way to at least suggest they share his inherited windfall, even though he knew Starsky would balk. His quitting had already almost scared Starsky away; Hutch knew he had to be careful around his partner’s wounded pride. “Sure as hell we’re too old to join the FBI or the DEA.” They’d tossed around a number of ideas, private investigation being one of them. It had been understood between them that they would seek something as much like police work as possible.

“Besides, they’d make us wear suits.” Starsky grinned.

“True. Okay,” Hutch said. “Private eyes it is.”

“We’d need an office,” Starsky said. “And the permits and all.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Hutch said, sitting up. “I know the police chief.”

“Yeah, so do I, and I know he doesn’t like us much.”

“So what are we going to do about it?” Hutch reached out and Starsky handed him the bag.

“Go through Cap’n Dobey?” Starsky suggested.

Hutch shrugged. “It’s a thought. Which one’s mine?”

Starsky got up. “The one without onions, dummy. You want a beer?”

“Yeah. Bring some napkins out, too, will you?” Since both the sandwiches were wrapped, he determined the onion-free one by smell and started to unwrap it on his lap.

Starsky came back out, beers in each hand. He vamped, “Is that a hoagie in your lap or are you just glad to see me?”

Hutch grabbed the sandwich in both hands. “Want a bite?” he teased, pointing it at Starsky provocatively. To his astonishment his partner flushed a dark red.

“Jeez, Hutch,” he stammered, thumping down awkwardly into his chair. “That’s … that’s—”

“Aww … did I make your beer foam up?” Hutch purred.

“Just take yer beer and gimme my sandwich,” Starsky muttered, quickly sucking the foam off the top of his bottle. “You got a dirty mind.”

“Hey, you’re the one who brought up the subject of us being private dicks.” Hutch grinned evilly and took a big bite of his sandwich, swiping his beer from his partner’s hand.

Starsky collected his own sandwich and set it on his knees, beer resting beside it, held loosely in his hand. His gaze seemed to be on the wooden deck. Hutch kept eating but watched his partner out of the corner of his eye. If Starsky had food in front of him – food of his choosing – and he wasn’t eating, something was bothering him.

The fingers tightened on the bottle and Hutch stopped chewing, swallowing quickly.

“This isn’t what I wanted,” Starsky said. “Not for either of us.” He glanced at Hutch, apologetic, and Hutch knew he wouldn’t appreciate having the enormity of this change shrugged off.

“I know it,” Hutch said. “It’s harder for you. Being a cop wasn’t my only dream.”

“Well, it’s not my only dream either,” Starsky argued mildly. “But goin’ out like this …” He shook his head. “I don’t know how I expected it t’end, Hutch, but it wasn’t like this.”

“Out with a whimper instead of a bang,” Hutch admitted. No point in sugar-coating it; Starsky felt emasculated by the panel’s decision to sideline him. Hutch would have felt the same. He took a pull at his beer, leaned forward, closer to his partner. “Does it make any difference at all that I know those fat pencil-pushers made the biggest mistake of their careers pulling you off the streets?”

Starsky smiled gently. “You’re not exactly objective, Blondie.”

“It’s my ass that’d be on the line if you couldn’t pull your weight,” Hutch said. “They were looking at numbers, at words on paper, measuring you by the opinions of so-called experts.” He could hear his voice growing harsh, tight with emotion. “I know you. I know what you’re worth. You’re the best cop I’ve ever known.”

Starsky reached out, instinctively, clasping Hutch’s wrist, visibly affected – almost upset – by Hutch’s words.

“They fucked up, buddy,” Hutch stated. “They did. Not you.”

“What’d I do to deserve you?” Starsky looked at him, eyes shining.

“I’m not sure, but whatever it was, you’re stuck with me now,” Hutch said.

“We’re stuck with each other,” Starsky countered. “At least the glass is half full.”

Hutch snorted. “I’d say half empty.”

Starsky shook his head. “Half full.”

Hutch looked at him. “What difference does it make? Yours is half full, mine’s half empty, what’s the difference?”

Starsky drew back, took a swig of his beer. “You and me – we only got the one glass between us.”

Hutch met his eyes squarely, clinked his beer bottle against Starsky’s, and smiled. “We’re gonna be just fine, partner.”

Two

Hutch spun the wheel, hairpinning the LTD onto the dirt road, and growled, “They’re not closed, Starsky.”

“They are too,” Starsky snapped.

“No they aren’t.”

“How the hell do you expect me to keep my eyes shut when you’re bouncing this piece of junk around like a tennis shoe in a washing machine?”

Hutch snorted a laugh at the image. “Like you’ve ever washed your tennis shoes.” He gunned the engine and the car lurched, straining up the slight hill the road curved around. “Now close your eyes and keep them closed.”

Starsky muttered all the way up the hill, through Hutch stopping, setting the brake and turning off the car. When Hutch got out and came around to the passenger door to open it, Starsky was still muttering, but his eyes were screwed shut. Hutch swallowed a brief but strong urge to kiss him, just for being so goofy, and instead grabbed his arm to guide him out of the car.

“Come on. Just a few steps and you can look.” He led his scowling partner through the skewed wooden gate and a few steps up the grass-grown flagstoned path, taking Starsky by the hips to position him correctly.

“Okay,” he said. “You can open ’em now.”

Starsky did so.

Hutch knew it didn’t look like much at first; a smallish faux-Victorian house, two storeys plus attic and cellar, a fading yellow with white gingerbread trim, set in a big yard of mostly dead grass, a few trees, and some rose bushes still struggling to survive. Inside and out, it needed some work, but it was structurally solid and the plumbing worked – Hutch had made sure of that. So far he’d made only one small improvement to the place: Beside the doors, a rectangular wooden sign read “Starsky & Hutchinson, private investigators.”

 “So, what do you think? Do you like it?”

Hutch watched as a smile – not a broad sunny smile of pleasure, but the small, warm smile of deep joy that made Hutch beam inside – lit Starsky’s face.

“Have I ever told you,” he said softly, “how much I love you?”

Hutch slid an arm around his partner’s shoulders and grinned up at the house. “You like it.”

In the same heartfelt murmur, Starsky said, “Who’s talkin’ about the house?”

So moved he felt suddenly awkward, Hutch drew him close for a quick sideways hug. “Want to see the inside?”

He pulled his partner toward the steps and Starsky said, “Aren’t you gonna carry me across the threshold?”

“Starsk, our honeymoon was over a long time ago. Come on.” He pushed Starsky toward the stairs and fumbled in his pocket for the house keys, knowing he was blushing, but for the moment thoroughly content. They’d had a hard week, saying goodbye to their old life without quite having a new one to move on to; it felt good to be taking this step. To be taking it together.

The door creaked open to reveal a wide hallway leading toward the back of the house and a stairway halfway back climbing up to the second floor. On either side, open double doors showed empty rooms lit through dusty, curtainless windows, walls and floors only bare wood.

“Kitchen, dining room and utility room in the back.” Hutch nodded that way. “And a half-bath so clients don’t have to go upstairs.”

Starsky peered upward. “What’s upstairs that we don’t want clients to see?”

Hutch shrugged. “It’s just bedrooms and a couple more bathrooms.”

Starsky wandered into the left-hand room. “I donno. It seems awful grand for a couple of small-time private eyes.”

“We won’t be small-time for long,” Hutch said. “It’s got room to expand.”

Starsky bent, looked into the fireplace. The place was quiet; Hutch thought he heard a rhythmic creaking, like soft footfalls on the stairs. He turned to listen harder, catching what sounded like whispered words, coming from nowhere he could distinguish.

“What was that?” Starsky said, straightening up from the fireplace.

They stood in silence a moment, listening, but the sound was gone.

Hutch shrugged. “Wind, probably. Or the neighbors. It’s not as far to the next house as it seems; the trees make the place feel more isolated than it is.” He grinned at his partner. “I know how much you hate being away from the city.”

Starsky made a face, looked around the walls, thumped the mantelpiece experimentally.

“Everything’s solid,” Hutch said. “They’re supposed to turn the water, gas and electricity on in a day or so, and the phone guy’s supposed to come out next week.”

Starsky straightened, looked at him, shaking his head.

“Other than that it just needs some cleaning and painting. And, well, furniture and … what?” Hutch peered worriedly at Starsky.

Starsky grinned. “You. I say ‘let’s be private eyes,’ and in a week you got a place all picked out—”

Hoping against hope that Starsky would let the financial considerations go for the moment, Hutch said, “You want to see the rest of it?”

They went upstairs and toured a handful of bare, roomy bedrooms and two slightly old-fashioned bathrooms. In the gallery at the top of the stairs they stopped to peer out the big stained-glass window that overlooked the backyard and the land beyond, houses and mini-ranches dotting the tree-carpeted hills behind Bay City.

Starsky wiped at the dirty glass with his sleeve and found a clear spot to peek through. “Hutch,” he said warningly, “it’s awful big just for a PI office.”

“Well…” Hutch gestured, vaguely, uncertain now it came to it. “It’s got some land around it, room for a garden or a pool … I thought, you know …”

“You wanna live here?” Starsky looked at him, sounding a little surprised.

“Why not? It’d save on rent. It’s not that far out of town, 15 minutes maybe. The place needs work, anyway. Easier to do living here.”

“Yeah, but …” Starsky seemed a little embarrassed.

“What?”

“Well, I’m kinda used to you bein’ nearby and all. What if I wanna stop by, you know, or talk to ya?”

Hutch rolled his eyes. “Yell down the hall, idiot. I’m talking about both of us living here, not just me.”

Up went the eyebrows. “Oh.” He looked around the landing again, speculative. “Oh. Okay.” A sidelong scowl. “You sure? I don’t wanna … cramp your style or anything, you know.”

“Starsk, there’s six bedrooms and two bathrooms up here, not counting the attic. It’s as private as any apartment. You won’t cramp my style.” Hutch considered. “Not that there’s been much style to cramp recently. But that’s beside the point.” It wasn’t, of course – it very much was the point – but he wasn’t ready for that conversation yet.

Starsky wiped idly at the dusty stained-glass with the bottom of his shirt. Not looking at Hutch, he said, “You aren’t feelin’ like you need to keep an eye on me or somethin’, are you?”

Hutch blinked. It hadn’t occurred to him Starsky might take it that way.

He edged over, bumping his partner’s shoulder with his own.

“Starsk, if you don’t want to, don’t. I wasn’t thinking anything except it’d be easier and cheaper.” He decided to let one small truth escape, one demon from his own personal Pandora’s box. “And … I thought it’d be nice having you close by.”

He could see Starsky fighting a smile and grinned himself. That was one small battle won.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go downstairs. I got plans for that room with all the shelves.”

Starsky obligingly followed him, but his smile faded as he plunked down on the bare wood of the window seat to listen to Hutch’s ideas about creating a research library for their investigations.

“Maybe a darkroom off here,” Hutch said, waving at a good-sized walk-in closet. “In case you wanted to …” He looked back at Starsky. “What’s wrong?”

Starsky sat cross-legged, cross-armed, serious. “How’m I gonna pay you back?”

“For what?”

“My half of this, ya big dope.”

Hutch shrugged. He sensed Starsky was afraid to actually ask how much it’d cost. “I figured you’d just be indebted to me for the rest of your natural life.”

“Hutch…” The warning was clear in his partner’s voice even before Starsky unfolded himself and got up. His head went down and he advanced on Hutch, who held up both hands.

“Okay, okay. Hang on a minute. Promise you won’t get mad?”

“No promises.” He continued his slow advance. Hutch backed up with each step Starsky took, until he was smack against a wall and his partner’s narrow-eyed glare was inches away.

Hutch swallowed; another split-second fantasy about kissing that glare off his partner’s face came and went. “Remember that conversation – if you want to call it that – about the glass being half full or half empty?”

“Yeah?”

“Well … m-my part of the glass is … really full.” He couldn’t look at Starsky, knowing it’d take him about 10 seconds to translate that into the gift he’d been given.

At about nine seconds Starsky scowled, and Hutch winced but stood firm.

“Hutch…”

Aware that insisting would only make his partner dig in his heels – aware, too, that he’d have done the same thing – Hutch said, “Please don’t make me feel bad for wanting to do this for both of us.” It was a dirty trick, but it stopped his partner’s anger, at least for a moment.

“Starsk,” he began apologetically, knowing Starsky would eventually realize he was being manipulated and wanting to get his licks in while he could. “I inherited it. It’s been sitting collecting interest for more than 10 years. It’s mine to do whatever I want with. Why can’t I use it here and now, when it counts? When it will help both of us? If you can think of a better use for it, I’m all ears.”

“You’re gonna regret it when you’re an old man eatin’ cat food,” Starsky growled. “That money should be for your old age, Hutch. Or for your family. Your kids’ college fund. Anything but—”

“Anything but you, that’s what you’re saying, right?” Hutch snapped, suddenly angry in his turn.

His anger evaporated as Starsky’s eyes widened, and he knew the words had hit hard, had hurt. For an instant, Hutch thought crazily, Starsky looked as if he would cry.

“I don’t mean it like that,” he said, low. His hands came up, touching Hutch, tentative, apologetic. “It’s just …”

“Just what? That money is there for the future,” Hutch said, unrelenting. “This is an investment in our future. No different from any other investment.”

“But—”

“I don’t want to hear you say one more thing about it unless you can swear to me that you wouldn’t have done the exact same thing if our positions were reversed.”

“I …”

“Not unless you can swear it, Starsk,” Hutch warned him, deeper emotions stirring in his stomach, promising trouble. “I mean it.”

Starsky’s hands dropped in frustration, but his head moved back and forth, denying.

“Starsk …” Hutch fought to control his voice — he didn’t want to be this manipulative, but he still couldn’t be calm about it. The words came out a whisper, squeezed through the fear he couldn’t forget, even after all these months. “I thought I was gonna lose you. Please … let me be selfish about this.”

Starsky stilled, then slumped, visibly defeated. “God … Hutch … you drive me crazy, you know that?”

You drive me crazy too, Starsk. Hutch forced a smile. “That’s no drive, partner, it’s a short putt. So … you wanna get to work here, or you wanna stand around wasting time?”

Starsky sighed heavily, looked around the room. “Okay. Okay. Where do we start?”

This time Hutch’s smile was genuine. “I’ve got it all planned.”

 

*** *** ***

Over the next few days, Hutch found the unseasonably warm weather a test of his restraint. Although to be fair it wasn’t the weather itself, nor was it, strictly speaking, his restraint. It was more that the warm weather drove his partner to perform his share of the physical work in nothing but cutoff shorts and deck shoes, and that washing windows and walls just happened to show off a man’s body to aching perfection. Hutch’s first hint that he might be wandering through to ogle Starsky a little too often came when his partner dropped the brush into the bucket and planted his fists on his hips (right at the junction of tight shorts and tighter flesh, not that Hutch noticed), saying:

“What’s the matter? Afraid I’m not up to a little manual labor?”

Hutch made sure his mouth wasn’t hanging open. “Huh?”

“You been checkin’ on me every fifteen minutes like you’re expectin’ to find me passed out on the floor.” He laid a hand – deliberately – over the scars below his sternum. “I’m fine, Blondie. Or are you just avoiding your share of the work?”

Hutch felt himself redden. “Well, that too,” he lied with a forced smile. Starsky was still waiting for something resembling an answer, and Hutch decided it was time to tap-dance a little closer to the truth. “I’m just … glad to see you looking so well.”

He saw in Starsky’s face that that was a comprehensible answer.

“Healthy, you know?” he pressed. “Alive.” There was some truth to that, he realized, beyond his baser responses.

Starsky wiggled his hips, teased, “Sexy?” Neither of them was unaware of the other’s physical beauty – they teased each other about it often – but Hutch wondered if Starsky had ever sensed the undertone to that teasing, a whispered implication he’d awakened to in recent months. He decided to push a little.

“Well, you are looking pretty good to me.”

Starsky reddened, snorted, and bent to retrieve his scrub brush. “You been livin’ like a monk too long.” He stopped, dropping the brush again and straightening up. Hutch felt a weird swirl of icy air on his overwarm skin, as if he were standing in front of a freezer.

Starsky stood stock still. “Man it just got cold all of a sudden. You feel that?”

“Yeah…” Hutch glanced around. The windows were open, but there was no breeze of any sort, certainly not a wintry one. “Maybe you should put a shirt on,” he added absently.

Starsky dropped the brush again, rubbing his arms. “So much for romance.”

“Idiot,” Hutch said. “I just don’t want you to catch cold.” He could still feel it, dead, frigid air all around them, with no evident source. “It is freezing in here. What the hell …”

A groan, coming from the air itself, swelled and faded even as both partners spun about in vain, seeking its source.

Both window sashes slammed down, hard enough to rattle the frames. Hutch jumped to the windows and pushed one open again, but there was nothing out there. Nothing and no one on the ledge, no strong wind, no broken latches.

When he turned back into the room Starsky was at the door staring down the hall, as if looking for an escaped suspect.

“What the hell ..?” he said, turning back to Hutch.

“If that was the house settling,” Hutch said slowly, “it sure didn’t sound like it.”

“That wasn’t no house settling,” Starsky said devoutly. “I donno what it was, but … hey. It’s not cold any more.”

Hutch brushed past his partner to look down the hall in his turn. Nothing was out of place – not that much could be out of place in the still mostly empty house.

He looked at his partner. “That was weird.”

Keeping his voice low, Starsky said, “You think we got a ghost?” He shivered; Hutch guessed the sweat cooling on his nearly naked body had more to do with that than fear. He went to the head of the stairs and collected the button-down shirt draped over the banister; he’d worn it from home and removed it almost immediately in deference to the heat.

“Here. You look kind of clammy.”

Starsky rolled his eyes, but slipped the shirt on. “If I faint, be sure t’ fetch the smelling salts.”

Both of them were tense, jokes notwithstanding. The silence around them felt odd, waiting rather than quiescent.

“Hutch.” Starsky’s tone was dead serious. “It sounded like a voice.”

“I know it did. But it wasn’t.”

“How do you know it wasn’t?” Starsky challenged, pulling Hutch’s shirt around his chest.

“Because there’s only us here, dummy. Be logical.” Hutch looked around again, jumping half a foot when something tickled the back of his neck.

He spun to glare at Starsky, who wiggled his fingers.

“Real logical, Hutch. You know as well as I do that whatever just happened in there wasn’t normal.”

Hutch took a deep, calming breath. “No, it wasn’t. But I bet there’s a logical explanation.”

“Ghosts are a logical explanation,” Starsky said. “There’s been a lot of research on survival after death, you know. Hutch ...”

Starsky’s serious tone caught his attention.

“That ain’t the first time I seen something here.” He glanced at his partner, his eyes stating clearly that he knew he sounded irrational. “I been seeing movement when there’s no one here but us. I been hearing things.”

Hutch thought about the last few days, still skeptical, but wanting to be honest. “Me too,” he admitted. “I mean, just weird sounds and things. I figured it was just the house making noises.” And causing movement out of the corner of your eye? he mocked himself. “It still could be a lot of things besides ghosts.”

“Like what? Termites? Leprechauns? Both of us goin’ nuts at the same time? Someone gaslighting us?” Starsky blinked, deliberately comical. “Actually, that one’s possible.”

Hutch chuckled, feeling the tension ease.

“You should be more open minded,” Starsky scolded him.

“I’m very open minded,” Hutch said airily. “I’ll believe in ghosts when I see them.”

“I’d just as soon not see them at all,” Starsky muttered, tugging at Hutch’s shirt again. He buttoned a couple of lower buttons, lifted the sleeve to his face and inhaled, his eyes never leaving Hutch’s.

“Smells like you.”

God. Is he doing this on purpose? Throat tight, Hutch laid his hand in the center of Starsky’s chest, acutely aware of the tickle of hair, the curve of muscle, the heat of life against his palm. “It looks good on you, partner.”

Starsky smiled, and Hutch swallowed roughly. “Starsk—”

A loud knock sounded downstairs, followed by a woman’s voice calling, “Anyone home?”

Awkwardly they moved apart, leaning over the banister to see a young woman with dark hair standing in the doorway, holding a big wicker basket. She peered around the entrance hall.

“Hello?”

“Hi,” Hutch called. “We’ll be right down.” He gave Starsky a look – not sure himself what was in it, a mixture of amusement, affection, exasperation, desire, fear, maybe more – and they trotted down the stairs.

The girl – pretty, about 25, dressed in jeans and a sleeveless top – beamed at them, stepping into the house.

“Glad I caught you. Just call me the welcome wagon.” She set the basket, brimming with foodstuffs, on the floor, and shook both their hands. “I’m Emma. Emma Cates. Next house down the hill.” She nodded vaguely. “Saw you guys coming and going and just thought I’d say welcome to the neighborhood.”

“I’m Ken. This is Dave. We just bought the place.” Hutch looked about, the traditional apologetic glance of a host who isn’t ready for guests yet. “Just getting started on the renovations.”

Emma nodded, still smiling. “Glad to see someone finally move in. It’s a nice old house. It’s taken way too long to sell. I guess people think it’s …” She shrugged. “I don’t know, jinxed or something.”

“Jinxed?” Starsky echoed. “How do you mean?”

“Oh, well, I don’t think so,” she said, laughing. “It’s a house like any other house. But after what happened, I think they found it harder to sell the place.”

“Why?” Hutch asked. “What happened?”

“You didn’t know about the bank robbers?” she said. “Well, I’m not surprised the real estate guy didn’t mention it. I was only a teenager, you know, and I don’t remember all the details, but about 10 years ago a bunch of bank robbers hid out in this house for a few days. The police caught them, of course, but …” She shrugged. “Well, our quiet little neighborhood was pretty … um … interesting for a while.”

“We’ll do our best not to be interesting,” Hutch reassured her.

“I don’t know about that – I saw the sign on the door,” she said. “You guys are private eyes? Car chases, trenchcoats, shootouts, that kind of thing?”

She seemed more eager than fearful. Starsky said blandly, “That kinda thing only happens in the movies. We’ll try to be good neighbors.”

She smiled at him, looking both semi-clad men up and down. “I’m sure you will be.” Then she laughed. “At least I’ll know where to come if I need anything investigated.”

They responded to her flirting with the requisite smiles, Hutch wondering if Starsky’s was a phony as his own.

“So why would people think the house is jinxed because of that?” Starsky leaned on the wall, arms crossed casually, but Hutch could tell he was keenly interested.

“Oh—” She flapped her hands. “You know. Criminals, guns, all that. People think the house is tainted. Some people say it’s haunted.” She laughed again.

“Haunted,” Hutch echoed. “Ridiculous.” He glanced at Starsky.

“Oh, you know how it is,” Emma said. “Every neighborhood needs its haunted house. Like God, if it didn’t exist, it’d be necessary to invent it. I’m sure now you two are here, people will stop being so ridiculous. Oh—” She picked up her basket. “I brought a few goodies to tempt you away from your work.”

They showed her into the kitchen amidst a flurry of thank-yous and you-shouldn’t-haves. Emma distributed the foodstuffs on the counter, arranged some flowers in a small vase on the bare wooden table, managed to casually mention that she was single, and departed after obtaining their promise to call her if they needed anything. Neither man saw fit to mention the phone hadn’t been hooked up yet.

They walked her to the gate, watched her trudge down the dirt road, and stood in silence for a long moment.

“Haunted,” Starsky said finally.

“No,” Hutch refused, unsure why he was so adamant.

“Denyin’ it won’t make it not true,” Starsky said, and Hutch turned to look at him. Seeing his partner standing there wearing his shirt, arms wrapped around himself as if hugging it, Hutch felt any desire to argue dissolve. Without thought, he reached out and stroked a hand down Starsky’s back.

“Listen,” he said. “We have to go back into town to pick up the permit paperwork and paint anyway. Why don’t we check with Records, see what we can find out about what really happened?” Knowing Starsky, learning the facts would erase any lingering superstition. “Maybe we can get some kind of handle on it.” He didn’t think so, but his effort was rewarded when Starsky smiled.

“Just for that, I’ll buy ya dinner, Blondie. Let’s go.”

 

Three

 

Police records revealed the stark ugly truth of the incident 10 years before. A trio of bank robbers, Raymond Timothy and brothers Gene and Gabriel Keller, had indeed gotten away with a quarter of a million in cash. They’d holed up in the empty house for a couple of days before a suspicious neighbor called the police, at which time a shootout left one robber dead and the other two, ultimately, in prison. Due to inconclusive ballistics tests, there was some uncertainty as to whether the dead robber was the victim of a police bullet or dissension within the robbers’ ranks, and the money was never recovered. Beyond that it was case closed.

Then Hutch dropped Starsky off at his place so he could go see the state bureau about their licenses and permits to carry, and set off to collect more cleaning supplies and paint, as well as clothes and an inflatable mattress and sleeping bags in case he wanted to camp out at the house before they were done. He packed it all into the spacious trunk of the LTD, wondering if his unflagging pleasure in the hard work of renovating the house had more to do with starting a new life or simply being with Starsky all day long without anyone trying to kill them. Either way he looked forward to each new day with an enthusiasm he couldn’t remember feeling in some months. And if that enthusiasm was a little tempered by the unease of knowing things needed to be said, but hadn’t been … well, that would sort itself out eventually.

Chiding himself for cowardice, Hutch locked up the trunk and drove to The Pits.

He met his partner there just before the dinner rush, and Huggy gave them his best table – an almost imperceptible honor, considering the venue – as well as a bottle of champagne on the house.

“To commemorate my honorary brothers’ first baby step into the brave new world of earning a living on the other side of the law.” Huggy gave a little bow and popped the cork with surprising expertise; The Pits didn’t often get orders for champagne.

Flinging his leg over the back of his chair to plop into place, Starsky said, “You make it sound like we’re startin’ a life of crime.”

“We will be if we didn’t get the permits,” Hutch muttered as he sat across from his partner.

Starsky grinned, pulling a sheaf of much-folded paper from his back pocket.

“We’re one step closer to official, partner,” he said, spreading the papers on the table as Huggy poured three glasses of bubbly.

After their toast, Huggy inquired, “What can I get my former buddies-in-blue for sustenance this fine evening?”

As they started to speak he held up his hand. “And no more freebies, seeing as how you no longer have the power to fix tickets, tow double-parkers, or incarcerate troublemakers.”

Hutch and Starsky exchanged a faked look of offense.

“Fair weather friends,” Starsky grumbled. “What’ll ya have, Blondie? My treat, remember.”

“Oh, I remember,” Hutch said. “What’s the special?”

“Everything at The Pits is special,” Huggy pronounced.

“Nothin’ but leftovers today, eh, Hug?” Hutch said. Huggy stiffened, looking down his slightly crooked nose at them.

“My staff will be happy to take your order, gentlemen,” he said huffily, waving one of his buxom waitresses over. “If you’ll excuse me, I have important matters to attend to.”

As he moved away, Starsky lunged. “Leave the bottle.”

Huggy released the champagne and disappeared into the back.

*** *** ***

They were just starting into their steaks when a feminine voice cut through the low-level background noise at The Pits.

“Dave!”

Karen, a stewardess Starsky had dated off and on, sashayed eagerly to their table, another woman in tow, both tall, shapely, and dressed to kill in slinky halter tops and midis.

“I haven’t seen you in so long,” the red-head pouted as the partners rose briefly to their feet. “This is my friend Renata. We used to both be with Pan Am. She works for Egyptair now. Renata, this is Dave and this is Ken.”

They greeted Renata, a slightly exotic-looking black woman, even more beautiful than the average stewardess, and naturally invited the women to join them at the table.

“Thanks, but we don’t want to interrupt your dinner. I saw your car outside and wanted to say hi. We’re headed to The Gangplank. Gonna dance the night away.”

“Sounds like fun,” Hutch said politely. He had no interest himself, but he knew Starsky liked Karen – as much as he liked any pretty, fun, no-strings-attached girl – and if his partner wanted to go out, he wouldn’t be a wet blanket about it.

“You gentlemen are welcome to join us,” Renata said. Her voice was low, dusky, as exotic and sexy as the rest of her. Hutch felt very strange about not being tempted. Not even tempted. Maybe he was just tired.

But he wasn’t too tired to find himself hoping – though he knew it was futile – that Starsky would decline.

“Can you?” Karen pleaded, her smile half puppyish, half seductive. “We can guarantee you a good time.”

Without even a glance at him for their usual silent accord, Starsky said, “Can’t tonight, beautiful. Gotta work. Rain check, though?”

Hutch stared at his partner as the ladies graciously accepted the brush-off. Karen promised to call next time she was in town and the two stewardesses bade them good night.

“What was that all about?” Hutch asked, low, as his partner dug into his steak again.

“Hm?” Starsky hummed around his mouthful.

“‘Gotta work’?” Hutch quoted.

Starsky shrugged, sipped the beer that had followed the champagne. “Well, we do. We gotta lotta work to do on the house.”

“Starsk, this shouldn’t cut into your social life. We don’t have to work on the place 24 hours a day. You haven’t been out in weeks.”

Starsky smiled, a small, somehow sad expression. “I just didn’t feel like it.”

Ridiculously delighted, Hutch sat back and pasted a dubious scowl on his face. “Oh? You’d rather spend all your free time with me?”

The smile came and went again. “Maybe.”

Hutch leaned forward again, lowering his voice further, sudden concern burning the back of his throat. “Starsk, are you okay? I mean, you’re not—”

Starsky snorted a laugh, the pensive mood suddenly broken. “I’m fine.” He cut off another bite of steak and shoved it into his mouth, chewing vigorously. “Come on. Dig in ’fore your cow gets cold.”

Hutch started eating again, still thoughtful, aware that Starsky was watching him eat and seeing that thoughtfulness in his slow, absent motions.

You didn’t want to go with ’em, did you?” Starsky asked finally. Hutch shook his head.

“No, I didn’t want to go with them.” I’m just trying to crush my own euphoria over the fact that you didn’t.

“Hutch,” Starsky said, not looking at him or setting down his knife and fork. “You know if we live together people are gonna talk.” He spoke as if wanting to get distasteful words out of his mouth as quickly as possible.

Hutch set down his forkful of steak. “Huh. No, I hadn’t really thought about it. I mean, I know it – they’ve always talked about us like that – but …” But I was so happy we were moving forward, together, that I forgot about everybody else.

He shook his head, looked at his partner. “You don’t have to, you know. I’m not going to be offended if you decide to stay in town.”

Sounding more hurt than hopeful, Starsky scowled and said, “You’re not?”

Hutch smiled. “Well, maybe a little. But I’d live.” He held on to the smile, trying not to make it too falsely bright. “Would you rather stay in town?”

“Nah.” Starsky took another bite, chewing the hell out of it, and Hutch thought suddenly: the walls are up again. Starsky swallowed, grinned, added, “Too far to drive,” and took a gulp of beer. “Eat up, Blondie. We got stuff to do.”

*** *** ***

Nightfall that evening brought them the pleasure of realizing the electricity had at last been switched on. While Starsky unloaded the LTD, Hutch finished clearing the cleaning supplies out of the two main downstairs rooms. That done, he went back into the room with the bookshelves, hearing the comforting falls of his partner’s feet as he went to and fro delivering paint and rollers from car to house.

He looked around, imagining the walls painted the odd, slightly green-tinted paint Starsky had insisted on. Remembering his plan to make the closet into a darkroom, he looked into it again, pondering whether they should paint it, too, or wait.

There was no bulb in the socket hanging naked from the ceiling, and with the door all the way open, the light from the room barely lit the big walk-in closet. It was empty and dusty, with a clothesrail and shelf along two walls. Hutch looked around, visualizing. With a counter and some stools, maybe a cupboard … didn’t darkrooms need a sink? He could see Starsky pursuing his hobby in here, maybe honing his skills on their investigations. Chemicals … there were chemicals involved, so the room would need to be vented. Better light, some electrical outlets … it was a bigger project than he’d thought at first, but Hutch put it at the bottom of his list of things to do, then left the room he’d started calling the library, crossed the hall to the room he’d started calling the office, and looked in on the man he’d always call his partner, although that word was taking on some additional possibilities. At least I hope they’re possible.

Starsky stood at the window, surrounded by the dropcloths, paint cans, rollers and trays he’d been lugging in. Leaning on the wall, arms crossed, face drawn as with pain. Moving quietly closer, Hutch saw the glitter of moisture along Starsky’s thick lower lashes.

He stopped a foot away, his gut churning.

“I never wanted to be anything but a cop,” Starsky said, eyes never shifting from the view of the yard. Their yard. Their home, soon, and their livelihood. But only by default. It was second best, settling, and Hutch could see that in his partner’s face.

“I know,” he whispered, his head hanging. He’d done everything he could, but it wasn’t enough. Never in his life had he ached like this to make someone happy – and he couldn’t do it.

“I hate it,” Starsky said, the words small, bitter. “I hate not bein’ a cop any more. I never thought I’d be a cop forever, but I hate endin’ it like this. I hate that I took you with me – I know it didn’t mean the same to you,” he added, forestalling Hutch’s protest. “But it’s like two failures instead of just one.”

“Starsk …” Hutch slid a hand, irresistibly, onto his partner’s shoulder, squeezing, leaning close. Starsky’s hand covered his, sure and steady as ever. “It’s not … I only care about—”

“Lemme finish,” Starsky said, so softly it felt more like a caress than an interruption. “I want you to know this.”

Hutch nodded, leaning against his partner’s solid frame, his head bowed nearly to their layered hands.

“You … havin’ you is the only thing that makes it okay.” Starsky shook his head. “I think about what might have been, all the things that might’ve been different, an’ I keep comin’ back to one thing.”

Hutch lifted his head and Starsky turned to meet his eyes.

“I can do anything if I got you with me. An’ if I didn’t … nothin’ I did would mean a goddamn’ thing.”

Starsky’s free hand slid lightly across Hutch’s stomach, to his hip, then hooked into a convenient belt loop. He smiled. “So it’s okay. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”

“Starsk…” Hutch pulled his partner into a hard, full-body hug, moved beyond thought at how much of his partner’s happiness lay in his hands. The warm, muscled body moved eagerly against him, no part of him shying from contact, and Hutch breathed deep of his partner’s scent, indulging in a brief fantasy of turning his head, just a few inches, to taste the tender skin of his throat.

Starsky sighed softly and Hutch felt his cock throb, a one-second warning before heat flashed through him.

“This is nice,” Starsky breathed against his neck, and he shivered as firm hands pressed against his back, pressing him closer.

Jesus, Starsk, you don’t have any idea what you’re doing to me. His partner was so unrestrained in his affection; he would no doubt be horrified, or at least surprised, to learn how Hutch’s body was redefining it. Or would he?

Something slammed upstairs – a door or window caught by the wind? – and they jumped, turning automatically toward the door. After a moment of silence, something – someone – came thumping slowly, distinctly down the stairs.

They exchanged a look – intruders – and instantly resumed cop mode, moving toward the walls on either side of the doorway where they could see without being seen. Another glance, a keen communication of annoyance that they’d both left their guns locked in the trunk of Hutch’s LTD, and they peered around the sides of the doorway.

A man was coming down the last few stairs, slowly, without the faintest hint that he was aware he was trespassing. He was tall, a tanned white male, about 40, bald on top with very short brown sides, in a light brown cableknit sweater and slightly darker cords, both of which looked slightly too big for him. He looked straight ahead as he descended, each footfall louder than it ought to have been for such a thin man.

He hit bottom and turned to enter the library, disappearing around the wall.

As one the partners lunged forward, crossing the hall in one second – then pulling up short in the doorway.

The library was empty.

Hutch instantly went to the closet, the door still open as he’d left it, while Starsky checked inside the window seat – despite the fact that there had been no time for the man to hide anywhere.

They turned to face one another. Hutch realized his heart was racing; Starsky looked as white, as alarmed, as he felt. Both of them looked wildly around the room for a moment, expecting the man to reappear, although what they’d do if he did, Hutch couldn’t guess.

“False panel?” Starsky suggested weakly. Hutch immediately began tapping and pushing on the solid wooden walls, despite knowing there wasn’t room behind them for any secret space or corridor, however small. He’d been through the house thoroughly before he bought it, and no space was unaccounted for.

He’d worked his way fruitlessly halfway around the room when Starsky sat on the window seat and said, “Forget it. You know as well as I do there wasn’t time for that guy to do anything except vanish into thin air.”

Hutch turned, helpless, to face his partner’s conclusion.

Amazement on his face, Starsky said, “The place is haunted.”

“Oh, God, Starsk …” Hutch thumped down next to him. “Do you realize how that sounds?”

“If you got a better explanation, I’ll be happy to hear it.”

Hutch stared across the room. “No,” he said finally, shaking his head. “I don’t have a better explanation. There probably is one, but I don’t have it.”

“Well, I think we should find out,” Starsky said, matter of fact. Hutch turned to give him a disbelieving look.

“And how do you suggest we do that?”

Starsky smiled. “I know just the guy.”

*** *** ***

“What the hell are you two doing back here?”

Joe Collandra’s words were mild, almost fond.

“Morning, Joe,” Starsky said, sliding onto a stool at the counter. “Can I get a cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie?” He glanced at his partner. “You remember the pie, don’t ya, Hutch?”

“Yeah, it was almost edible,” Hutch played along, giving Joe a smile as he sat next to Starsky. “How are you, Joe?”

“Fine,” Joe blurted, defensive as ever. “What do you want?”

The partners exchanged a look and Starsky repeated, “Coffee. Pie. This is a restaurant, isn’t it?”

Shaking his head, Joe went to the stove behind him and collected a coffee pot, half full of something that had no doubt once, some time ago, been fresh. He was looking better than the last time they’d seen him, shaved, less worn, and the café even had half a dozen customers, truckers from the look of them, shoveling eggs and bacon into their mouths with gusto.

Hutch looked at Starsky, seeing no sign of his own doubts in his partner’s face. They’d headed home last night in silence, both of them, he knew, thinking furiously about any possible way what they saw could be anything other than a ghost. Hutch had dropped Starsky off at home and driven all the way to Venice Place before remembering that they had something potentially more frightening than a ghost to talk about. He and a few beers had kept company for a while, together unable to formulate a plan of attack, and he’d gone to bed with ghosts far at the back of his mind.

In the morning, when Starsky picked him up and repeated his suggestion about seeing an expert, Hutch had acquiesced with a sinking feeling of stupid gullibility, even though he knew Joe was the real thing.

“So, Joe…” Starsky began, and Collandra froze in the act of pouring the coffee.

“Whatever it is,” he said, “no. I’m not doing that any more.”

Glancing sidelong at his partner, Starsky stage-whispered, “He really is a psychic.” To Joe, he said, “It’s not like that. No kidnappers, no kids in danger. It’s more a … a personal favor.”

That drew his interest, Hutch saw. He looked at them in turn, poured their coffee, put the pot away, and brought them two slices of pie, wiping his hands on his apron in a gesture that seemed to owe more to nerves than cleanliness.

“All right. What’s the story?”

Between sips, bites and each other’s interruptions, they explained. He retained the same skeptical expression throughout, but he didn’t scoff or dismiss them.

“So,” Starsky concluded, “we were wondering if there was anything you could tell us that … you know … might … help?” He tried his puppy-dog eyes on the psychic; Hutch, surprised, saw the man soften a little. Then again, Joe was a decent guy, and the partners had supported him at a time when few others would have.

Still, he protested, “What the hell makes you think I’m any kind of expert on this sort of thing?”

“You’re the closest thing we know,” Hutch said.

“At least we know you’re genuine,” Starsky added.

“But I don’t know anything about ghosts,” he argued. “I’m a psychic, not a medium.”

“What’s the difference?” Starsky asked – both Hutch and Collandra gave him disgusted looks.

“I don’t see dead people,” Joe said flatly. “I see live people. Mediums are the ones who communicate with those who’ve passed on.”

“Well,” Starsky said gently, “have ya ever tried?”

Hutch tried to sort out a niggling thought in the back of his head while Joe sighed.

“Look. You guys were square with me. If you want, I’ll come out. Maybe I can sense something. If not –”

“No hard feelings,” Starsky said eagerly. “Thanks, Joe. You’re a pal. When can you come out?”

Joe wiped his hands on his apron again, then started to untie it. “No time like the present.”

“Hey, we don’t wanna—” Starsky protested, looking around the restaurant.

“Breakfast rush’s over,” Joe said. “Sue’ll take care of the place for a while.” He turned his head. “Sue!”

“Thanks, Joe,” Starsky said.

A heavy-set grey-haired woman came out from the back and Joe asked her to keep an eye on the place. She simply nodded and went back into the kitchen.

“Hey,” Hutch said then, remembering. “What about that crystal ball chick?”

Starsky scowled for a moment before his expression cleared. “Madame Yram?”

“Madame Yram?” Joe echoed, tossing the apron under the counter. “I already don’t like her. With a name like that, she’s gotta be a phony.”

“Like Collandro the Magnificent?” Hutch teased gently.

“Hey, that wasn’t my idea,” he snapped. “Anyway, a man’s gotta make a living.” He looked at them, raised his hands. “What’re you sittin’ there for? Let’s go.”

“Let’s stop by and see if she’s still there,” Starsky said. “It’s on the way.”

Again Hutch went along, feeling oddly as if, rather than starting a P.I. business, they were starting a circus.

 

Four

 

The old house where Madame Yram plied her mystic trade was even more dilapidated than the last time they’d been there, but the sign on the door indicated she was still there and open for business. The partners, their skeptical psychic in tow, climbed the steps and went inside, finding their way into the dimlit, bauble-draped parlor they’d visited once before.

The crystal ball sat on the table between two empty chairs; no client and no Madame Yram in sight.

They looked around the room and Joe said suddenly, “Someone’s here.”

Ready to be awed, Starsky said, “How d’you know?”

Joe sighed, indicating an ashtray on a side table, a smashed cigarette still smoldering in it.

Hutch chuckled and a voice came from behind them all.

“Madame Yram knows all, sees all …”

As they turned, the lady in question came out from a small doorway, a bottle of beer in her beringed hand, and stopped at the sight of them. She was looking well, her figure slimmed from heavy to merely plump, her black gown more elegant than gaudy despite the layers of necklaces  and earrings glittering about her head.

She smiled. “Well well, look who’s back.”

“Madame Yram,” Hutch greeted her.

“Call me Mary,” she said, fluttering a hand at him. “That stuff’s just for the tourists, you know? Hiya, handsome,” she greeted Starsky.

“Hey, Mary.” Starsky gave her a grin. Hutch knew his partner liked her, for some weird reason. He also knew Mary liked Starsky, and the reason for that wasn’t weird at all. He wondered if it should have bothered him more to realize that she wasn’t a threat merely because she wasn’t slim and beautiful. Was his partner – was he – really that shallow? Or was it that things like personality or character didn’t matter when all you were after was a warm body for the night? Both of them had played that game for years. Not for the first time, Hutch wondered when they’d stopped looking for love somewhere else – and if his partner even knew it.

“Who’s your friend? Someone who needs a reading?” Mary looked Joe over. To Hutch’s surprise, Joe didn’t make any faces or cracks.

“Madame Yram, medium,” Starsky introduced her with a flourish, “Joe Collandra, psychic.”

“You’re a psychic?” she said, sticking out a hand.

“You’re a medium?” he replied in kind, shaking it.

“I’m a fake,” she assured him.

“Me too,” he lied, and Starsky cut in.

“He’s not a fake. Look, Mary, we’re here to ask your help.”

“Another case?” she asked. With her free hand, she dug out cigarettes and a lighter from pockets in her dress and lit up. “Why doesn’t the department just put me on retainer?”

“This isn’t a case,” Starsky said. “We got a ghost.”

She looked at Hutch; it was all he could do not to deny any knowledge of the situation, and more than he could do to verbally acknowledge it. He just shrugged and nodded.

“What’s the story?” she asked of Starsky, and again he related it, with a little more relish than Hutch liked. It seemed his partner was sort of enjoying his foray into the supernatural – at least right now, when they weren’t in the same room as the ghost.

“So you want an exorcism?” Mary said when he was done. That made Joe snort – but quietly.

“Uh …” Starsky looked helplessly at Hutch, who shrugged again.

“How the hell do I know?” he added for emphasis.

“Uh, maybe we just wanna find out whether it’s a real ghost first, huh?” Starsky told her. “Can you do that?”

She looked them all up and down, tapping her red nails speculatively on the side of her beer bottle. “It’ll cost ya fifty bucks.”

“Fifty bucks?” Joe complained, for all the world as if it were his money. “That’s outrageous. It’s highway robbery.”

“Hey,” she said. Her bracelets and necklaces tinkled when she shrugged. “A girl’s gotta make a living.”

The partners looked at Joe, who acquired a look of offense that could only have been faked.

*** *** ***

“Nice place,” Joe observed, looking over the house. “Must’ve set you back a bit.”

Hutch winced, said distinctly, “It was a good deal. A bargain.”

“If it’s haunted,” Mary said, “I’m not surprised.”

“Why don’t we all go inside?” Hutch urged, a little testy. Nor did he miss Starsky’s secretive little smile as his partner trotted up the steps, unlocked the door, and ushered Hutch and their guests inside.

They all stopped in the front hall.

“This where you saw him?” Joe said.

“He came down the stairs and went in there,” Starsky said, nodding toward the library. “Then he disappeared.”

Mary moved toward the stairs, each step deliberate, as if she were expecting to bump into something.

Or someone, Hutch thought, then shook his head sharply. Stop it.

She looked up the stairs, put her hand on the banister, then jerked it away with a gasp.

“Blood,” she said, looking at her clean palm.

Joe moved closer, putting his own hand where hers had been.  His eyes hooded and his head jerked to one side, as if he were intently listening for something. He shuddered, just perceptibly, then yanked his hand away.

“Jesus! They killed him.”

“Who?” Starsky said, sharply, as if he were interrogating a witness.

Joe shook his head, staring at the banister. “The guy,” he said, unhelpfully. “There were three of them. They killed him. The two guys … they were mad.” He shook his head, placing his hand again, with slow determination, on the banister.

“Oh yeah,” Mary said, looking up the stairs, and Hutch felt the hairs on the back of his neck snap to attention. “He’s here.”

Something – a door or a window – slammed upstairs, followed by a faint wail that passed swiftly overhead, as if from a bird. Hutch felt the hairs all over his body bristle as cold air swirled around them.

“Jeez…” Starsky muttered; the partners moved instinctively closer together, back to back, but both the psychics were now staring up at the second floor landing. Cold air surrounded them, lying heavy, almost invasive against their skin.

Joe said, in an urgent rush, “They shot him right here.”

Hutch shivered, felt Starsky do the same against his back. The windows in the front door and on either side of it started to rattle.

Mary put her fingers on top of Joe’s hand and said, “Stop it. Stop playing games and just talk to us.” Her breath plumed faintly in the icy air.

A moan, low, blood-chilling, filled the air, and the window-rattling intensified.

“Come down here and tell us what you want,” Mary said calmly. “We know you’re here. Talk to us.”

The moan stopped short.

“They shot him,” Joe cried, jerking his hand away – and the front door flew open, banging into the wall with a report like a gunshot.

All four of them jumped.

Silence. The cold dissipated in the few seconds it took them to start breathing again.

Joe rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, looking up at the second floor landing again.

Mary pushed her hair back with both hands and said, “You definitely got a ghost.”

*** *** ***

“People don’t stick around after they’re dead unless there was something wrong.” Mary leaned her kitchen chair back on two legs and lit a cigarette as she addressed her rapt audience of two; Joe was staring at the table rather than at her. “Like if they were murdered – that’s the most common reason for a survival. This guy, he was murdered.”

“How can you tell?” Starsky asked.

Mary shrugged. “You can feel it.”

“Speak for yourself,” Hutch muttered. Joe laughed silently.

“I was,” Mary said, undeterred. “He was killed here and that’s why he’s staying here. He wants something. Justice, maybe, if his killers got off. Or to communicate something to someone he left behind, that happens too.”

“Do you know how he was killed?” Hutch asked.

“His pals killed him,” Joe cut in, impatient, a little strident. “There were three guys in this house, and two of them were mad at the third guy, so they shot him. On the stairs.” He nodded toward the front of the house. “That’s why he’s still here. Whoever the hell he is.”

Hutch and his partner exchanged a befuddled glance.

“What’re the odds he’ll just, kinda, go away on his own?” Starsky asked weakly.

“The thing is,” Mary said, “Spirits respond to emotion. If a house has a lot of emotional stuff going on – you know, fights, teenagers, hot sex, that stuff – spirits feed off that energy and it helps them materialize. He’s probably been waitin’ for someone to move in here so he could show himself.”

Hutch resisted looking at his partner, well aware of what they’d been doing when the ghost had appeared. If he believed in all this hocus pocus, it made sense that the emotion of that moment might have stirred a quiescent ghost into action.

And if they hadn’t been interrupted …

Hutch shook his head fiercely. What the hell was he thinking?

“So you’re sayin’ we gotta get rid of all the emotion in the house?” Starsky said, skeptical. “Can’t we just get ridda the ghost instead?”

Mary shrugged. “I can give it a try, if you want.”

“How much?” Hutch asked, hearing Joe’s knowing ‘humph’ behind him.

She shrugged again, jewelry tinkling. “Another fifty?” A hand came out, defensive. “No guarantees. Sometimes they don’t want to move on. But sometimes, if you talk to ’em just right, you can convince them to go.”

“Go where?” Hutch asked, bewildered.

“On, Hutch,” Starsky said, as if he ought to have known it. “On. You know.”

“Joe?” Hutch turned to the psychic, who also shrugged.

“It can work. There’s something here, that’s for sure. An energy, an echo of the guy who was murdered. I don’t think it’s malevolent—”

 “No,” Mary said. “More … anxious. Like the spirit is trying to communicate something. Maybe who killed him.”

To Hutch’s astonishment, Joe said, “That’s right. I felt urgency but no anger.”

“So maybe if I can communicate with whoever it is, get him to share whatever it is he wants to share, he’ll feel free to move on,” Mary said eagerly.

Then the two paranormals seemed to remember their gawking audience.

“Sound okay to you?” Mary asked Hutch, who looked helplessly at his partner.

Starsky did a double take. “Uh – yeah. Sounds good. When do you wanna start?”

Mary chewed her lip, considering. “Tomorrow afternoon okay? I need to wrap up some stuff, reschedule a couple of readings.” She stubbed out her cigarette in the ash tray Starsky’d dug up for her and got to her feet, drawing the three men along with her.

“That’s fine,” Hutch said. Whatever, whatever, let’s just get this over with. The whole thing was making his skin itch.

“Uh … do we need to do anything?” Starsky asked. “To … uh … prepare? Or something?”

Joe rolled his eyes but Mary just smiled.

“This ain’t the movies, handsome. No props required. Just a place for us all to sit down and let me concentrate.”

Starsky grinned. “That we can do. Thanks, Mary, Joe. This is real nice of you both.”

“Go on out,” Hutch said, waving them into the hall. “We’ll lock up and be there in a minute.”

*** *** ***

“So,” Mary said as they walked to the gate. “What do you think?”

Joe glanced at her and she tilted her head backward, toward the house.

“Think they’re, you know, doin’ it? Boyfriends?”

Joe snorted. “All I know is, they were square with me, treated me right at a time when a bum wouldna spit on me if I was on fire. So they’re all right in my book.”

They stopped at the gate.

Mary smiled. “Mine too.” She pulled out a tarnished silver cigarette case and a cheap lighter.

“Those things’ll kill you,” Joe said mildly. Mary shrugged and lit up.

“Yeah, I know, but I’m tryin’ to lose weight, and they help.” She took a long drag.

“You wanna kill your appetite, you should eat at my restaurant.”

She looked up at him, surprised, but he was staring thoughtfully at the house.

“Was that a joke or an invitation?” she asked, genuinely confused.

He huffed a laugh, said deprecatingly, “It’s no joke.”

She laughed too. “It’s not much of an invitation either, then, is it?”

He looked down at her. Smiled.

*** *** ***

“So what do you think?”

“Starsky, you don’t want to know.” He locked the back door and closed and locked the windows.

“Yeah, but they were dead on.” Starsky winced at the unintentional pun. “The police report said it wasn’t clear whether the guy died from cops’ gunfire or his friends’. Joe and Mary didn’t know that. They didn’t know there was three guys. They didn’t know any of that stuff before they came out here.” Starsky stared into Hutch’s face, waiting for him to acknowledge the truth.

Hutch sighed. “I don’t know. It goes against my principles to believe in the supernatural.”

“We know Joe’s no phony,” Starsky said as they headed to the front of the house.

Hutch watched him check the big windows in the two front rooms, then they met in the hall.

“Hutch,” he pressed. “You saw the damn’ ghost. You saw what just happened, too. There’s level-headed, then there’s bull-headed, and I gotta tell ya, you’re sproutin’ horns here.”

“Okay!” Hutch inhaled slowly, forced himself to admit, “Okay, so maybe there is something to it. I just hope this stupid séance thing gets rid of it so we can get on with our lives.”

Starsky grinned at him and grabbed his arm. “Attaboy. Come on. Let’s take our psychic friends back to town and get something to eat.”

*** *** ***

They drove back to town, dropped off Mary, then Joe, then picked up a pizza and a six-pack and headed back out to the house. Sprawled at the kitchen table, they dug in without ceremony, Hutch hoping Starsky wouldn’t feel the need to start any more paranormal discussions until he was done digesting.

Starsky didn’t.

“So it wouldn’t bother you if people, you know, talked about us living together?”

Coming, as they did, both out of the blue and around a mouthful of pepperoni pizza, Starsky’s words took their time sorting themselves out in Hutch’s brain. He was surprised – even a little alarmed, despite his own preoccupation with the subject – that Starsky was bringing it up, but maybe it was for the best. Hutch had considered and discarded dozens of ways to open the topic himself. Starsky’s headlong technique was better than eternal silence.

Maybe. Hutch took a long drink of beer, well aware Starsky would know he was stalling, though probably he wouldn’t guess why.

“Do you mean, would it bother me if people thought we were having sex?”

Starsky flushed.       

Defensive, Hutch went on, “Well, that’s what we’re really talking about, here, isn’t it? Not sharing a house. Lots of people do that. But sharing a bed. Making love in that bed. Together.” He felt his face flare with a heat to match Starsky’s, but embarrassment was only a small part of the cause. “Would it bother me if people thought I was sleeping with you?”

Starsky shook his head, slowly, not in denial. “It sounds different, you sayin’ it like that.”

“Different how?” Hutch pressed, aware he was attacking his partner to avoid answering. “Disgusting? Perverse?”

“Real,” Starsky admitted, still red-faced but not angry, and Hutch deflated abruptly.

“Starsk … I don’t know what to say to you about this. If it worries you, if it bothers you, you don’t have to do it. Move in here, I mean,” he added hastily, feeling his face heat again. “I won’t be mad. But …” He tried to honestly consider, visualize the people they know, what they might think or say. “I guess … the idea doesn’t bother me like it does you. You know that. Since we aren’t sleeping together, if any of our friends asked, we’d just deny it. If they didn’t believe us, that would be their problem, not ours. And if they treated us differently, they wouldn’t be our friends much longer, would they?” He felt sick, desolate that he had to pursue only the one path, the route of impossibility. But what if they were? What if they were lovers, were sleeping together, and their friends knew or suspected? Would they lie? Deny it to stay out of trouble? Or face the world’s censure head-on?

“That’s what gay people have to deal with,” Starsky said, staring at the half-eaten pizza, thoughtful. “Friends and families and coworkers who disapprove, who think badly of them just cuz of who they love.”

“Bingo,” Hutch said, more bitterly than he’d meant to. “Welcome to enlightenment, buddy.”

“So,” Starsky went on, as if working it out, “you would either pretend you weren’t gay, hide it like Johnny did for half of his life, and live a lie, or admit it and face losin’ your job, your friends, everything.”

Hutch drained his beer, reached for another. “You got it.”

Starsky looked at him, oddly direct. “We’re not cops any more. They couldn’t fire us.”

Hutch smiled, loving his partner all the more for this, for his goodness, his desire to understand. After all, it was only recently that the issue had changed from an abstract concept to a real concern for him. Still, though it wrenched his heart, he pointed out:

“We aren’t sleeping together, buddy.”

Starsky blushed again. “I meant if we were.”

“If we were,” Hutch said, very carefully, “I would expect anyone who was really our friend to understand and respect us just like they always had. Anyone who didn’t wouldn’t be a friend.” Jesus, buddy, do you realize where you’re heading with this?

“So you’d be okay with it?”

Hutch opened his fresh beer, hands shaking, hoping the skittishness Starsky was obviously feeling would prevent him noticing. It’s a question, Hutchinson, not a proposition.

“Starsk … I’m okay with loving you. All the crap that would go with it, if we took that route … how the hell can I know?” But I’d sure as hell try. 

Starsky nodded, not looking at him, then hopped to his feet, as lightly as if he didn’t have half a pizza inside him. “We better go.”

Hutch rose and helped clean up, pondering the sinking feeling that he’d failed some sort of test.

 

Five

 

Ten minutes later he was bent over the steering wheel and Starsky was looking at him askance.

“You’re not gonna try to tell me we’re outta gas, are ya?”

Hutch rolled his eyes, turned the key again. Silence. “Does that sound like out of gas to you?”

Starsky shook his head. “Sounds like—”

“Dead battery, that’s what it sounds like.” Hutch got out and went around to the front, opening the hood. He checked a few connections and fluid levels, not surprised that everything was okay. He collected the keys from the ignition, gesturing for Starsky to stay put, and got a wire brush from the trunk.

“Try it when I say so,” he said, tossing the keys back into the car at his partner. He gave the battery posts a bit of a scraping, made sure the cables were secure, and called around the side of the car.

“Try it!”

Silence.

“Shit.” Hutch closed the hood as Starsky got out, coming around to stand next to him and gaze longingly down the road toward civilization.

“Long walk.”

Hutch shrugged. “The phone guy’s coming out at 8 tomorrow morning.”

Even in the dark he could feel Starsky squinting at him in puzzlement. “So?”

 “So why don’t we just camp here and call for a tow when the phone guy gets here, if he can’t give us a jump?”

“But it’s cold and dark …”

“Starsk.” The impatience was tinged with amusement; Hutch well remembered how much his partner hated roughing it. “That’s because we’re outside.” He pointed at the house. “In there, we got food and water and electricity and beer and that big air mattress and the sleeping bags and pillows and even a fireplace. This isn’t exactly the Donner Party. I’ll go get some wood, you drag the mattress down into the front room. That’s the only chimney that’s been cleaned so far.” He peered into his partner’s dubious face. “Okay? Or we can hoof it back to town in the dark … through the woods … with all the bears and lions and tigers—”

“Okay, okay.” Starsky circled him and headed into the house. “But if I get pushed down the stairs or somethin’ by that ghost, I’m comin’ back to haunt you.”

“You already make my life hell,” Hutch called after him, then went to the woodpile by the side of the house, collected an armload, and took it into the room that would be their office, piling it by the fireplace. He stood looking into the clean hearth, considering. It was chilly, but they probably wouldn’t need the fire with the two heavy sleeping bags he’d brought. On the other hand, there were few things more romantic than camping in front of a fire. On the other other hand, was he ready to get romantic with his partner at this point? Hell yes! and Hell no! bounced clamorously off each other in his head.

He looked around the room, collected some newspaper Starsky’d brought in with the paint, crumpled it up and put it in the fireplace along with a couple of logs. After all, just because there was a fire didn’t mean they had to do anything … romantic. Hutch tried to visualize Starsky getting romantic – in any of the usual definitions of the word – with him, and laughed out loud.

“I’m glad you’re so cheerful about this,” Starsky grumbled, dragging the air mattress into the room. “I ain’t got the lungs to inflate this monster.”

“That’s why it has a bike pump attachment, Starsky,” Hutch said with heavy patience.

Starsky stopped. “Oh. Where’s the pump?”

“I brought it in earlier. It was right next to the mattress and the sleeping bags.” Hutch started out the door.

Starsky blocked him. “No, I’ll get it. I just didn’t see it. Too busy watchin’ for the ghost. You go ahead and light the fire.” He grinned and trotted out of the room, and Hutch felt a strange tingle coiling in his stomach. He went back outside, meaning to collect more wood, but found himself captured by the view.

It really was a beautiful spot, with a slice of city and ocean view through the hills, the lights anonymous but somehow cheerful, the sea no more than a smear of black beyond. It wasn’t a beach house, but in many ways it was an excellent compromise for a man – or two men – who wanted out of the city but still had to work there for a living.

Hutch shivered and rubbed his arms, starting down the steps.

“You aren’t plannin’ one of your midnight marathons, are you?” Starsky’s voice came from the doorway. “Liable to break an ankle in the dark.”

Hutch froze, inside and out. Turned, schooling his face to hide his wariness. “How did you know about ..?”

Starsky came to the head of the steps, leaned on the porch roof support column.

“I called you a couple of times. Really late. You weren’t home.”

Hutch crumbled. “Oh, Christ, Starsk, if I’d known you needed me I—”

Starsky grabbed him, both arms, as if to shake some sense into him. “Hey. You had to breathe too, partner. It wasn’t anything important. I was already getting better, you knew that. I figured you were out with a girl, gettin’ some well-deserved R&R.”

Hutch shook his head and his partner released him, keeping one hand lightly on his arm, fingers warm on Hutch’s skin.

“Then one night, after I got outta the hospital, you’d had enough of my whiny shit and went home. I called and you didn’t answer, and I knew you weren’t on a date, so I was kinda worried you hadn’t made it home yet. I drove by. Saw you come running up, dripping wet, and sprawl out on the hood of your car, like all your bones had melted. I could see steam risin’ from you.”

“I never saw you,” Hutch said, subdued.

“Nah. You were in another world.”

He nodded, remembering.

“Kinda risky, though, jogging in the middle of the night.”

“I wasn’t really jogging.”

Starsky said nothing, and Hutch realized his partner knew perfectly well he hadn’t run himself to exhaustion in the middle of the night as part of any fitness regimen.

Hutch sighed, reaching up to squeeze Starsky’s wrist, doubling the connection between them as he sought for the words to explain.

“After … you know, once you were out of danger, I went home and slept for about 36 hours. But after that … I don’t know. I’d go home some nights tired, but too keyed up to sleep. I was still s-scared, you know—” When the fear was for the other, neither of them felt quite as shy about admitting it. “But I was impatient, too. Angry and frustrated and worried about the future, and … well, you know, if you’re not the worst patient in the god-damned world, Starsk, it’s only because I just beat you out.”

Starsky smiled. “I let you win. I know how you hate comin’ in second.”

Hutch let it go, wanting to get this out. “So I’d go outside, just to walk, you know, but all that stuff was churning inside me. And … joy.” He looked at the sky, laughed. “I never in my life felt that kind of joy. Like I’d been shown how much something meant to me by having it taken away and given back. And I was happier than I’d ever felt, and more scared than I’d ever been that I might lose it again, and I’d just start to run. And those feelings would be whipping me on, and I’d run until I couldn’t breathe or move, until my whole body was on fire. I needed to. I had to. I wasn’t running from anything …” He scowled, still unable to understand what had driven him those nights. “It was more like …”

“A burnt offering,” Starsky said quietly.

Hutch turned to stare at him, feeling the words sink into his soul.

“Yeah,” he whispered. “Yeah. Like if I could just give back something out of myself, if I could give enough, I could make the balance sheet come out, get everything even, and ...” You’d be safe, he didn’t say. We’d be safe.

He felt almost high on the realization; it was a startling return to Earth when Starsky said:

“You’re weird, you know that?”

He started to protest but Starsky pulled him into a hug – awkwardly, given that he was two steps above Hutch on the porch – but full-bodied, wholehearted, typically Starsky.

“I’m okay, you big blond worry-wart,” he said, resting his cheek on top of Hutch’s head. “We’re okay.”

Hutch wrapped his arms around his partner’s narrow, hard waist and held on, his ear pressed to Starsky’s chest, drinking in the solid beat of his heart.

He drew in a shuddering breath, confessed, “I was scared,” against that comforting heartbeat, and the arms around him tightened. He didn’t have to add of losing you. That fear was a constant; sometimes he wondered if it was that, rather than love, which fueled them.

Starsky held him a long time, as long as he needed, though he didn’t know how his partner knew. At last Hutch sighed, and could have sworn he felt Starsky kiss him on the head before shaking him and letting go, saying, “Come on. Let’s go to bed.”

Hutch felt the heat bloom in his face and managed to crack, “I sure as hell hope you’re usually a little more subtle than this, Starsk.”

Starsky groaned, grabbing him by the arm to pull him up the steps. “I’m beat. It’s been a long supernatural kinda day.”

Hutch chuckled, relieved and bitterly disappointed. “It has that,” he admitted, closing and locking the front door behind them. “I’ll pump up the bed.”

“I can do it,” Starsky countered.

“No. It’s my fault, my dead battery. I’ll do it.”

Starsky stopped in the doorway. “Okay. I’ll start the fire and get us some beer.”

Hutch knelt on the floor, hooked up the bicycle pump. “Good plan. You learn that in the scouts, fire-starting and beer-opening?”

“Watch it, or I’ll show you some of the stuff I did learn in the scouts. We were a tough troop.” He squatted in front of the fireplace. Hutch watched, enjoying the curve of muscle in his partner’s legs and back – and other places – as Starsky coaxed a small blaze out of the paper and wood.  Watching the flames build, Starsky said suddenly, “I don’t hear any pumpin’.”

“Still not subtle, Starsk,” Hutch mocked, setting back to work.

Starsky bounced upright and said, “We can turn the lights off once it gets going. It’ll be like camping out. We got any—”

“Cookies and chips in the cupboard next to the sink,” Hutch supplied. “Don’t forget the beer.”

“Like that’d happen.” Starsky disappeared and Hutch put his back into inflating the mattress, wanting to get the workout over before the fire made the room too hot.

He finished, then stood pondering the best way to arrange the two sleeping bags. Ordinarily he’d give no second thought to simply opening them and putting one underneath, one on top. Now, the idea of really sharing a bed with his partner – nothing between them but two layers of clothing and another of Hutch’s paranoia – made him swallow convulsively. Choosing to blame his racing pulse on the exercise, he unzipped the bedrolls and spread them as he would have done any other time, folding the top one back so they could climb in easily. Then he slid the air mattress a comfortable distance from the fire and kicked off his shoes.

“Whoo hoo,” Starsky hooted around the top of the chip bag he held in his teeth. “A strip tease.”

“You should be so lucky.” Hutch took a beer and the bag of chocolate chip cookies from his partner’s left hand. He set them down on the floor beside the mattress and carried his shoes to the door to set them out of the way.

“I donno,” Starsky said, going obediently to the left side of the air mattress to deposit his goodies and pull off his own shoes and socks. “I seen you naked plenty of times and never got lucky.”

The temptation to take up his partner’s teasing challenge rose, catching in Hutch’s throat, a taste not unlike fear. He wasn’t sure why Starsky was pushing the innuendo like this, but he had enough of an ulterior motive to not back down that he didn’t trust himself. In this mood he might well push it to the point that something irreparable got damaged between them.

“That’s why it’s called a strip tease.” Another, less analytical part of his mind called him all kinds of coward as he stripped to his shorts and undershirt and sprawled backward on the air mattress, yawning hugely. He watched Starsky, shirt tantalizingly unbuttoned, go over to turn the light off, then return to the side of the air mattress to undress. Hutch counted to five – half his intended count – and glanced over to see his partner’s bare, curved back, gilded by firelight, as Starsky slid his jeans down –

Hutch glanced away quickly, a hot flush racing down his entire body. Even his toes tingled. He shut his eyes, breathing steadily, and felt the air mattress shift a few moments later.

“You brought your guitar out, didn’t you?”

Hutch groaned. “Oh, too late, buddy. I’m not getting up to go get it now. My muscles are just starting to unknot.”

“Okay.” A small voice, fiendishly guilt-inducing – and Starsky fucking knew it, Hutch snarled mentally.

“I’ll play for you tomorrow, okay?”

“Want some chips?”

He heard the sound of the bag ripping and rolled over onto his stomach. Starsky was already in the same position; he set the bag between them and rested his beer on the floor at the edge of the mattress. Hutch took a couple of chips and munched, and they set their chins on their fists and stared into the modest blaze for a few minutes.

“Thanks for all this,” Starsky said.

“Your happiness is my happiness,” Hutch stated, meaning it to sound over the top, a joke. Instead, the words sparkled in the air between them for a moment, a private treasure.

“Hutch?”

“Hm?”

“I don’t give a damn if people talk.”

Hutch smiled, turning his head to try to hide it. Then he wondered why he was doing that, so he turned back.

“You’re pretty amazing, sometimes, partner, you know that?” he said through his smile. Starsky grinned at him, then looked back at the fire.

“I donno about that.” He took another chip and shoved it into his mouth, following it with a gulp of beer.

“Doesn’t that make the potato chip all soggy?” Hutch asked. Starsky laughed, almost spitting before he covered his mouth with a palm.

“You never did appreciate the finer points of cuisine,” Hutch said airily, plucking a chip out of the bag and settling it artfully on his extended tongue before crunching it to smithereens.

Starsky snorted. “Just don’t get any of yer cuisine crumbs in the bed, Chef Boyardee.”

“You gonna sic the ghost on me?” Hutch challenged. Then remembered there really was one. He glanced at his partner, saw the same sobering awareness in his face.

“He won’t bother us,” Hutch said. “We aren’t doing any harm here. What the hell am I saying? We own the place—us, not any damn’ spook!

“Yeah,” Starsky agreed nervously. “After all, he hasn’t hurt us yet.”

“Can a ghost hurt a living person?” Hutch asked, as if Starsky were some sort of expert. “I mean … how would they do it? Aren’t they just … ectoplasm or something?”

Starsky shuddered. “You’re givin’ me the creeps, Hutch.” He took a long drink of beer, then pushed the bottle away from the mattress. “Want any more chips?”

“Nah.” Hutch took a long draft of his own bottle and did the same thing, moving it out of the way so he wouldn’t tip it if he had to get up in the night. He listened to his partner roll up the bag of chips, then they both flopped around on the mattress until they were comfortable, Hutch on his back, Starsky on his stomach.

Silence, save for the faint crackle of the fire, reigned for a few minutes.

“Hutch?” The one tremulous syllable made him turn. Up on one elbow, Starsky looked at him, sleepy-eyed.

“What is it?”

Starsky blinked fetchingly. “Will you check under the bed for monsters?”

“Idiot.” Hutch shoved him back into the mattress. Starsky landed with a grunt that was at least half laughter. “There is no under the bed.”

Giggles bubbling in his voice, Starsky pouted, “You don’t love me any more.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I never loved you. I don’t even like you very much. Now go to sleep.” Hutch turned over emphatically and pulled the sleeping bag up to his ears.

“G’night, Hutch.”

“Goofball,” he muttered, and Starsky laughed.

*** *** ***

 Hutch half-woke, on his stomach, face mashed into his pillow, toasty, cosy, tingling from the remnants of a vague, steamy dream … and realized his partner lay against his back, half draped over him, his breath hot against Hutch’s neck, his knee between Hutch’s legs.

Hutch smiled into his pillow, loving the warm weight of his partner against him, feeling the ache between his own legs swell from blurry dreamstate to sharp reality. He rocked backward against Starsky, just a little, unable to resist – then came fully awake when Starsky’s muscled body undulated against him, his hips pressing a palpable erection against Hutch’s ass.

Split between panic and arousal, Hutch forced himself to be still,  instinctively aware his partner was dreaming, that he shouldn’t awaken him. It took all his will to not shift as Starsky moved against him, panting softly in Hutch’s ear, short breaths that sounded almost like his name.

Jesus. His blood pulsed into his groin, surging into his dick, and he clamped his jaw against making any kind of noise.

Starsky’s right arm moved along his side under the blankets, his hand finding and covering Hutch’s. Starsky stilled, then shuddered, and Hutch nearly bit through his lip fighting to not move, to not groan, to not grab his cock and come with his partner as he came with a sigh.

Starsky stiffened against Hutch – no way he could still be asleep now – then eased away from him. Hutch felt the mattress and sleeping bag shift, heard Starsky’s bare feet thump around their makeshift bed and out into the hall.

Then he allowed himself to breathe. God. God almighty. He was on fire, throbbing all over, his dick so hard he was afraid if he inhaled too deeply it’d explode. He rolled slowly onto his side, easing the pressure, and groaned in his throat at the exquisite ache. Leave it to his partner to have an erotic dream and take Hutch right along with him. If he’d doubted his feelings for Starsky could ever take a sexual turn, he doubted no longer.

God. He needed to touch himself, needed the quick one-two-three that was all it would take to finish himself off, but he was mortified Starsky might come back in and see. Instead he lay there, stiff all over, some part of his brain laughing at his own stupid predicament.

He heard the bathroom door creak open, heard more padding around – the faint but unmistakable metallic ping of the dryer door opening in the utility room (amazing how sound carried in this house). He knew his partner was pulling clean shorts out of the machine from the supply of workclothes they’d been recycling over the last week or so. In another few seconds he heard Starsky move quietly back into the room.

Keeping his voice sleepy, innocent, he said, “How come you’re up?”

“Hadda go,” came the mumbled reply as Starsky crawled back onto the air mattress – pointedly on his own side. Still feigning just-awakeness, Hutch rolled onto his back, sighing through clenched teeth (even the weight of the sleeping bag was torture on his hard-on), and said, “Good idea.” Climbing to his feet, blessing the darkness, he padded into the hall and back to the little bathroom there, closing the door before turning on the light.

Instantly he shoved down his shorts, cupping his balls and squeezing his aching dick. It took half a dozen strokes and one vivid memory of Starsky covering him, Starsky’s cock sliding against his ass, to make him come all over his hand, catching a moan behind clenched teeth.

He leaned on the wall until he’d stopped feeling shaky and his panting breaths calmed.

He had no reason to assume his partner’s nocturnal hard-on had been directed specifically at him; although he wasn’t sure he wanted Starsky to know how turned-on he’d gotten, he knew he didn’t want him to think that he was bothered or offended – whether his partner knew he’d awakened or not.

He cleaned up, took a piss, tucked himself away, shut off the light and crept back into bed. He lay still for a moment, listening to the silence, hyperaware of his partner’s back to him, feeling his stiffness through the mattress. He rolled over and snuggled against Starsky’s back as if cold, murmuring, “G’night again,” against his shoulder.

He felt the huff of Starsky’s quiet laugh, felt the taut body relax against his.

“G’night.”

 

Six

 

The phone guy, not surprisingly, didn’t have jumper cables, but he duly employed what he did have to connect their phone service and they called Huggy for a jump.

“This? This is what you two fool honkies have been spending all your time on lately?”

Huggy stood at the gate, skinny hands on skinnier hips, examining the house as if considering putting a stray dog to sleep.

He’d rolled majestically to their doorstep in what was obviously one of Merle the Earl’s confections, a deep purple Ranchero with gold flames, a glittery bedliner and black velvet interior. It made Hutch’s teeth ache just to look at it.

He’d expected Starsky to engage in his typical raptures about the car, but his partner paid no attention to it, simply hooking up the jumper cables and efficiently defibrillating Hutch’s LTD, as silent as he’d been all morning.

Hutch gave Huggy the abbreviated tour of the house, concluding with them coming out onto the porch to see Starsky already sitting, arms crossed, in Hutch’s rumbling junker.

“What’s up with the curly-haired one?” Huggy said. “Get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?”

Hutch smiled sourly to realize Huggy’d innocently hit on the reason for his partner’s silence this morning; at least, it was the only explanation Hutch could think of. He didn’t know how to broach the subject without admitting he’d been awake, which might embarrass his partner into even further withdrawal, and Starsky showed no inclination to discuss it himself. Hutch supposed he wanted to forget all about it, and was praying Hutch would do the same.

Actually he was probably praying you slept through it. And I’m not entirely certain I want to give him that out. And yet … for all I know he was dreaming about Karen or some other woman. Do I really want to open a topic that might leave me even more humiliated than he probably feels right now?

“You know how he hates roughing it,” he told Huggy easily. “Thanks for coming out, Hug. We owe you one free investigation of your choice. Once we get up and running, that is.”

“You’re up, you’re runnin’,” Huggy said, nodding at the car. “And I think your partner’s in a hurry to be somewhere.”

They parted ways and Hutch slid into the driver’s seat. Starsky stared straight ahead, not responding to Hutch’s brief glance of invitation.

No, Hug, I think my partner’s just in a hurry to be somewhere else.

Hutch put the car in gear and followed Huggy’s purple monstrosity down the hill.

Once they were in town Starsky asked blandly:

“What’s on the schedule for today?”

“Starsk, we’re not on a schedule. If you want, I thought we’d get the downstairs painted, or at least the two front rooms and the hall. Kitchen should be next, so we can start transferring our stuff there and stop blowing so much dough eating out. Bathrooms after that, then at least a bedroom each. The sooner the paint dries, the sooner we can stop paying rent down here. I figure the rest of the rooms can wait a little.”

“Stop at my place, will you?” Starsky said. Hutch obediently took the appropriate turns, and when he pulled up and Starsky got out, he followed without invitation. If Starsky wanted to be alone, he was capable of saying so.

“I just need to get a coupla things,” Starsky muttered unconvincingly once they were inside.

“Okay.” Hutch planted his ass on the back edge of Starsky’s couch. “Need any help?”

Starsky went into the bedroom alcove. “Nah.”

Hutch watched his partner move around the apartment, picking things up and putting them down, for about five minutes, his own stomach churning the whole time. Starsky was stalling. Was he looking for a way to tell him he’d changed his mind about moving out to the house? Or … was it possible he’d changed his mind about everything?

Shaking off the paranoia, Hutch opened his mouth to insist Starsky just spit it out when the phone rang.

Stupidly, he thought for an instant it was Dobey.

Starsky set down the pile of neatly folded shirts he’d collected and answered. “Yeah?”

Hutch kept his eyes on his partner’s face. His expression never shifted from the distracted, slightly sad look he’d worn all morning when he said cheerfully, “Hi there, gorgeous. How’s things?”

So, a girl. But despite Starsky’s tone, if he was genuinely happy to hear from whoever it was, Hutch was a three-toed South American sloth. He was clearly just being polite and would give the girl the brush as soon as he could without being rude.

Starsky fidgeted while listening, body turning from side to side until his back was to Hutch.

“Yeah,” he said, his voice still clear, still harshly bright. “That’s great. When?”

More silence. Hutch tried not to listen, tried not to read Starsky’s body language, tried not to read eagerness in the strong shoulders and muscled back.

Truthfully, he couldn’t read a thing.

“Sure. Yeah, no problem. No, I’m not busy. Not too busy to see you.”

Hutch felt his throat close up. So much for the brush, Hutchinson, you idiot.

“Sounds good. What time?” Starsky turned to face him, not looking up to see if it was okay with Hutch – as they both had done a thousand times before when rearranging plans around a date. Hutch waited for the glance, the questioning look, so he could smile and give the go-ahead gesture. Starsky’s gaze remained anchored to his floor as he said, “Okay, I’ll pick you up. See you then. Bye, schweetheart.”

Starsky hung up, picked up the shirts again, then stopped, as if he’d only just remembered he wasn’t alone.

“That was Karen. We’re goin’ to lunch and a movie.”

Hutch absorbed that, absorbed the almost insulting way the information was delivered, like Starsky was daring him to make something of it. Finally, he nodded, shrugged.

“Have fun.” What else was there to say?

That, of all things, finally made Starsky look at him, but his face was still closed, still a wall rather than a window to what he was feeling. And that wall, Hutch knew, didn’t have a damn’ thing to do with Karen or any other girl.

“You don’t mind, do you?”

Hutch marshaled his best nature – not because he felt like it, but because Starsky deserved it after all he’d been through – and smiled. “All work and no play makes Starsky a dull partner. Enjoy yourself.” He pushed himself off the couch, went to the door. “Say hi to Karen for me.”

He left the apartment with Starsky’s silent stare drilling him between the shoulder blades, walked past the Torino, got into his car, started it and drove away, every ounce of his will pressed up against the feelings he would not, would not, succumb to.

*** *** ***

Back at the house, Hutch deposited the clothes and other necessaries he’d picked up at his place, made the second pot of coffee of the day, changed into shorts and a t-shirt he wouldn’t mind getting paint on, then poured a mug of java and picked up the morning paper.

Left the door unlocked, he observed as he went out onto the back porch. Need to be more careful. It’s a nice quiet neighborhood, but you can never be too cautious. He’d obviously been a bit distracted this morning; he didn’t usually forget to lock up.

He sat on a rickety lawn chair on the porch, newspaper forgotten in his lap, and sipped coffee while staring semi-blankly at the big back yard. Pool, maybe someday. Greenhouse, ditto. Garden, definitely. What would Starsky like?  A jungle gym, probably. Hutch smiled into his mug. Basketball half-court, if they could manage it. Maybe in the side yard. Starsky’d also want a garage, if possible, to keep his stupid tomato safe and sound.

Hutch shook his head. After this morning, maybe he was being too presumptuous in planning a future here for the both of them. After all, they weren’t getting married, they were just starting a business. And if Starsky’d changed his mind, they might not even do that. They definitely needed to clear the air when he got back from his date with Karen.

Hutch snorted. Date. Sex assignation was more like it.

And when did you become so goddamn self-righteous, Hutchinson? It wasn’t that long ago you were living that same hollow life.

But he’d finally heard the echo that hollow life left in his heart, and he knew damn’ well how to fill it. Or who to fill it with, at least. How still left him bamboozled.

Selfish prick. What’re you going to do, lock him up in a box where only you can take him out and play with him when you feel like it? What happened last night – Hutch gritted his teeth against remembering – only proved how badly Starsky needed to get out and get laid, let his whole body revel in the fact that he was among the living. Starsky was the most alive person Hutch had ever met; there was no way he could keep him cloistered up here, safe and sound and smothered. Not without driving Starsky crazy. And worse, driving him away.

Let him go, he told himself. You won’t lose him.

But he didn’t believe that any more. And he had to let him go anyway.

He drained the bitter coffee – he hadn’t been paying attention and had made it too strong, he realized now – and went back into the house to get to work.

A man stood in the doorway leading into the front hall, staring straight at him. Jolted, Hutch dropped the empty cup, his hand reaching automatically for his absent gun.

The man turned and went into the hall and Hutch sprang after him, realizing even as he reached the doorway: balding, brown sweater – the ghost.

The man was gone. Hutch stopped in the spot where he’d first seen him, and a cold shudder crawled over his skin, as if he were about to throw up.

He grabbed the doorframe, leaning against it, panting against the racing of his heart and the nausea that weltered through his body. After a couple of minutes, the cold eased, the nausea passed, and he straightened, able to think again.

Strangely, he wasn’t scared. The initial shock of seeing the ghost had set his adrenaline going, and he was a little shaky, but he had no sense of fear or threat. Only wonder.

Jesus. I just saw a ghost. Again. And I think I believe it.

He looked around the hall, quiet, still nearly bare of furnishings, thinking he ought to be afraid. He was alone in a haunted house; he should be nervous, should want to get out. But he didn’t.

He shook his head, surprised at his own reaction. “You’re losing it for sure, Hutchinson.” His voice was weak, unconvincing in the silence. Maybe this was normal; Joe or Mary might know. They were the ones who said the ghost wasn’t dangerous. Hutch looked behind him, at the phone on the kitchen wall, but he didn’t really feel like calling either of them to ask. They’d see them later today anyway.

What he really wanted to do was call Starsky, but he wasn’t about to give in to that. Beside, his partner was probably already with Karen, Hutch and the house far from his mind.

Hutch took a deep, steadying breath and returned to the kitchen, cleaning up the shattered remains of his coffee mug before starting his painter’s duties.

*** *** ***

He was having a soda in the kitchen around four o’clock when he heard the front door open and close.

He heard the rustle of paper a moment before Starsky came into the kitchen with a bag of groceries. He was dressed in casual date clothes – nice jeans and a white button-down shirt.

“Hey,” came the monotone greeting as Starsky set the bag on the counter and started putting food into the fridge. Hutch noticed that it was the usual conglomeration of sandwich makings and junk, with a token smattering of fruit and two cartons of yogurt.

“How was your date?” he asked. He’d promised himself not to be an asshole about it, but as soon as he spoke, he realized his tone of voice hadn’t signed that agreement.

 “Fine,” Starsky snapped. “We had lunch and went to a movie.” He folded up the grocery bag and stuck it in the drawer they’d designated for such things.

“What’d you see?”

“Some chick movie, you know. A love story.”

“Seems appropriate,” Hutch said blandly.

“It was okay. Then I took her home.”

“And?”

“And I took her home.”

Hutch couldn’t think of anything safe to say to that. Bad date? Bad movie? Bad lunch? Bad … afterward? The fleeting idea that Starsky hadn’t been able to perform passed quickly. His equipment had been in full working order last night. It was just as absurd to think he’d simply taken Karen home and said so long. She wasn’t a woman whose company Starsky chose for its own sake; they met, with a few polite trappings, for sex, nothing more.

“You’re back early, then,” he ventured – one push too many.

 “What’re you, my mother all of a sudden?” The words, usually a joke, had teeth in them, and Starsky’s knuckles turned white on the six-pack of soda he was placing in the fridge.

 “Sorry,” Hutch said immediately, and though he meant it, he also heard the chill in his own tone. “You’re right. It’s none of my business.” He left the kitchen, knowing he couldn’t do anything right now but make things worse. He went into the office and picked up his paintbrush, on automatic pilot as he had been most of the day.

He stared at the walls for a while before he realized the room was done.  Somehow, he’d even managed the edging and other detail work, despite his distracted state. The drive to mindless physical activity had its benefits.

With a sigh he collected the paint supplies and took them into the library, but he knew he didn’t have the energy or the focus to start in there. It was past lunch time, and he had wanted to mention to his partner that he’d seen the ghost again, but he didn’t want to go back into the kitchen. He set up the rollers and pans, spread a few drop cloths, then went out onto the porch to breathe air that wasn’t tainted with paint fumes and anger.

He leaned against the post and stared into the west, into the sinking sun, until he couldn’t really see, just felt the golden heat on his face, molding to his skin.

Maybe Starsky was unfair in taking his problems out on Hutch, but Hutch had too many secrets of his own to muster up any righteous indignation; he felt, irrationally, that Starsky’s mood was somehow his fault, that his own feelings were somehow causing it. It was guilt, plain and simple.

Christ, we really need to talk. We need to clear all this bullshit so we can get back to Me and Thee. If we can. I feel like I’m starving for something that’s within reach, because I don’t know quite how to take hold without breaking it.

It was so quiet he heard Starsky’s soft footfalls come out of the house and toward him. He glanced back, blinking to clear the sunlight from his vision, and finally realized his partner was gazing at him in what looked like wonder.

“Man,” Starsky said, shaking his head.

“What?” Wary, Hutch looked down at his paint-splattered clothes, wondering what Starsky was staring for.

“You put the sunset to shame, Blondie.”

Hutch felt his face blaze.

“Except when you blush like that,” Starsky said, smiling shyly. “You look like a big dope. You never could take a compliment. Course, if you were perfect I wouldn’t be able to stand you. Sure as hell you wouldn’t be able to stand me.”

And somehow, Hutch understood the words to be an apology.

Then Starsky drew Hutch’s guitar from behind him, holding it out. “Play me somethin’?”

Feeling inexplicably bowled over, Hutch accepted the guitar and squatted, then sat, legs dangling off the porch, with the instrument in his lap.

Starsky sat next to him, swinging his feet – Hutch saw he’d kicked off his shoes and socks somewhere – and Hutch plucked six times to check that the thing was in tune while he sought about in his mind for a song.

“Play that Boston one,” Starsky said, like a little kid.

“Boston?” Hutch echoed, thinking ‘More Than A Feeling’ wouldn’t translate very well to him and one acoustic guitar.

“You know, that song about coming to Boston?” Starsky prodded. “I like that one. You do it better than the original guy.”

“Oh.” Hutch flexed his paint-flecked hands, did a few experimental runs, and began, oddly nervous considering he’d played in front of Starsky a thousand times, drunk, stoned, soaking wet and bare-ass naked.

But it was all different now, the song too.

 

Please come to Boston for the springtime

I’m stayin’ here with some friends and they’ve got lots o’ room

You can sell your paintings on the sidewalk

By a café where I hope to be workin’ soon.

Please come to Boston

She said no.

Boy, won’t you come home to me

 

And she said, hey ramblin' boy, why don't you settle down

Boston  ain't your kind of town

There ain't no gold and there ain't nobody like me

I'm the number one fan of the man from Tennessee

 

Hutch heard a second meaning echoing under every line, saw him and Starsky, loving one another and at the same time dancing around one another, pretending not to see the one thing, the one simple, obvious move that would bring them entirely together.

 

Now this drifter's world goes 'round and 'round

And I doubt that it's ever gonna stop

But of all the dreams I've lost or found

And all that I ain't got

I still need to cling to

Somebody I can sing to

 

Please come to L.A. to live forever

California life alone is just too hard to build

I live in a house that looks out over the ocean

And there's some stars that fell from the sky

Livin' up on the hill

Please come to L.A.

She just said no, boy, won't you come home to me

 

Starsky leaned against his shoulder, a little, not enough to jostle him. Hutch smiled and finished the song without a hiccup.

 

And she said, hey ramblin' boy, why don't you settle down

L.A. ain't your kind of town

There ain't no gold and there ain't nobody like me

I'm the number one fan of the man from Tennessee

 

For a moment, the afternoon was silent except for birdcalls and a faint breeze rustling the leaves.

Starsky sat up straight, no longer touching his partner, and Hutch looked at him.

“What would you do if I told you I love you?” Starsky said, his tone throaty, intimate.

There were a dozen easy, familiar answers, but, holding Starsky’s intense, scared gaze, Hutch felt some knot inside him burst, and he knew all of those answers were wrong.

Instead, with a whisper, he laid himself bare. “Whatever you wanted me to do.”

Starsky gasped, his pupils flaring. “Hutch …”

Shaking, Hutch eased the guitar from his lap to the porch –

– and a car horn blared at them from the drive, making both of them jump.

A beat-up Cadillac bounced up the dirt drive amid a cloud of dust, rattling to a stop next to Hutch’s LTD.

Hutch closed his eyes for a long moment, drawing calm and control from somewhere.

He reopened his eyes to see Starsky cough and put a hand to his chest. “Give a guy a heart attack,” he groused, flushed.

“It’s our paranormals,” Hutch said, and hopped off the porch, one hand embracing Starsky’s wrist for a brief, warm instant, a promise that what had just almost happened would not be forgotten.

His eyes acknowledging that, Starsky joked weakly, “If they’re a pair o’ normals, what does that make us?”

“A pair of suckers?” Hutch said.

 

Seven

 

Joe got out of the car and – for some reason Hutch was surprised – came around to open the door for Mary. She had a big floppy bag over one arm. Hutch guessed it was her séance paraphernalia.

Starsky got up and came to the head of the steps. “Hiya Mary. Good to see you.” To Joe, “Didn’t expect to see you. Not that you ain’t welcome, but I thought you didn’t believe in all this séance stuff.”

“I got a professional interest,” Joe said, defensive as ever. “Like Houdini.”

Surprisingly, Mary smiled at Joe, unruffled by his doubt.

Leading the way, Starsky said, “The kitchen okay? That’s the only place we got a table and chairs.”

“That’s fine.”

They gathered around the table, Hutch on Mary’s right, Starsky on his, Joe on his. Hutch supposed that, if Joe still suspected Mary of being a fraud, he wanted to be near enough to tell if she tried anything shady. He couldn’t imagine what that might be, and he didn’t care. He wanted it done with. Man, he wanted it done with.

Mary spread a black cloth that covered the entire table, then set a small silver-mounted crystal ball in the center.

“For focus,” she said at Hutch’s questioning look. “And cl—” Looking around, she said, “Never mind.”

“What?”

“I was gonna ask you to close the curtains – it doesn’t have to be pitch black, but it’s easier to concentrate in dimmer light.”

“We don’t have curtains yet,” Hutch said.

“I kinda noticed. Never mind.” She sat down and arranged herself, not unlike a hen settling to brood, and the men took their chairs.

“Don’t we gotta hold hands?” Starsky asked.

“We need to touch hands,” Mary said, reaching out on either side with her plump, ring-weighted fingers. “I need the psychic energy to call the spirit before us.”

Hutch laid a hand over Mary’s and reached his left toward Starsky; his partner grabbed it and squeezed hard, lowering their joined hands to his knee.

Mary said. “Focus on the spirit. Focus on his image – that is, you two, since you saw him. Focus on him, think of him, will him to join us, to talk to us, to tell us what he needs.”

She closed her eyes for a few silent minutes, breathing deeply, then spoke in a low chanting tone.

“Speak to us. Speak to us, spirit that haunts this house. Come to us. Tell us why you are here, tell us how we can help you, how we can free you. Come to us. Speak to us…”

She waited another minute or so, then repeated, “Speak to us, spirit. Tell us why you are here. Tell us how we can help you.”

Hutch felt Starsky’s hand tighten on his as the air turned abruptly cold. Joe sat straighter, alert, looking around the room.

“I can feel you here,” Mary said. “I can … feel …” Her voice altered, rougher, darker with each slow word. “I … can … fee … I am here.”

Hutch shuddered at the weird change, as if someone else were speaking through Mary’s body.

“I am here,” Mary repeated.

 “What’s your name?” Joe asked, startling Hutch.

“Ray,” Mary said in the same odd, strained tone.

“Ray what?”

“Ray …” Mary looked as if she were straining to remember a childhood memory. “Ray … T—t … ”

Hutch and Starsky exchanged a surprised glance; they hadn’t told either Joe or Mary the names of the robbers – had deliberately not given them any details.

“Never mind,” Joe said. “What happened to you, Ray?”

“Betrayed. Betrayal on betrayal.” Mary’s head lolled a little, side to side. “They betrayed me. I betrayed them. Now no one knows. Under … under. Betrayed…”

“Who betrayed you?”

“Partners. Brothers. The money. I took it. I hid it. Under. They betrayed me. They killed me.” She gasped. “They killed me.”

“Tell us the names of your killers,” Joe said. “Name them to us and you can have peace.”

“Brothers,” Mary said. “Gabe. Gene. Partners. I hid the money and they killed me. Sirens. Police. But they won’t find it. Beneath …”

“They’re in prison,” Starsky said, his voice making Hutch jump. “The brothers who killed you are in prison.”

“They’ve been brought to justice, Ray,” Joe said, although Hutch thought that a fairly optimistic assessment. “Is there anything else you want to tell us? We’re ready to listen.”

“It’s here,” Mary said. “Under. They can’t have it.”

“We won’t let ’em have it,” Starsky said. Hutch shot him a look and Starsky shrugged as if to say ‘why not?’

“You won’t let them?” Mary said, querulous. “They’ll pay for what they did to me?”

“They are paying,” Joe said. “We won’t let them have it. It’s all right, Ray.”

“They’ll pay?”

“They’re in prison,” Starsky repeated. “They won’t get the money.”

“They’ll pay …” This time it wasn’t a question, more a sighing into silence.

“They’ll pay,” Joe said again. “It’s all right. It’s taken care of, Ray.”

Then Mary opened her eyes, too wide, the pupils huge and dark. When she spoke this time, it was in – almost – her normal voice.

 “We hear you, Ray. We hear you. You’ve done what you needed to do. We’ll take care of it. You can go on now. You can rest. You can be at peace. Ray? You can go on.”

All three of the men jumped when a man appeared behind Mary – solid, vivid – the same balding man in the brown sweater, his eyes staring blankly straight ahead and his hands resting on her shoulders. As soon as they got a good look at him, he vanished.

“Jesus,” Hutch breathed, hearing a similar curse from his partner.

Mary shivered, closing her eyes. When she reopened them, they and her voice were normal. “What happened?”

*** *** ***

 

“So Ray hid the money somewhere in the house,” Starsky said. “Under something.”

“And when he wouldn’t tell his partners, they killed him,” Hutch said. “Right when the cops arrived.”

“Honor among thieves?” Joe suggested.

“Not that I’ve ever seen,” Starsky said blandly. “But those two guys are already in prison for the robbery. We can’t ask for murder charges on the word of a ghost.”

“Not sure you need to,” Mary said, lighting up. “Sometimes all they want is, you know, for someone to know the truth. They want to get it off their chests so they can let go of this world with their business finished.”

“How will we know if he’s gone?” Hutch said.

“You’ll just have to wait and see,” she said calmly. “But you don’t hafta pay me ’til you’re sure. Say 30 days?”

“That’s not necessary,” Starsky said.

“It’s okay,” she replied before Hutch could differ with his partner on the matter. “Good faith. You’re nice guys, and I admit I gotta professional interest. This is the first real job I’ve had in years.”

“Thought you said you were a fake,” Joe accused lightly.

She drew on her smoke, blew it out. “I’m a fake cuz that’s what pays the rent. I always had a touch of the Gift, but that kinda thing’s not exactly in demand. I do the cards, the crystal ball, the palmistry, and that’s mostly fake, but it’s what people want. They want to hear certain things, you know, or they want advice on whether to dump the creep they’re livin’ with when they already know they oughta. They wanna hear what they wanna hear. They don’t really want to know about the other side.”

“They’re smart,” Joe said. “We’ll all find out about it soon enough. We’re all gonna be where that poor bastard is one day.”

Hutch realized he was clutching Starsky’s hand, hard, below the tabletop. He glanced that way, startled, and Starsky gave him a reassuring squeeze – a visceral ‘I’m fine’ – before letting go.

“I don’t know about you folks,” Starsky said with deliberate cheeriness, “but I don’t plan on bein’ no ghost. Hangin’ around harassin’ innocent homeowners. That’s downright rude.” He got up. “Thanks for comin’ out, Mary, Joe. Can I get either of you a beer or a soda or something?”

Recognizing the hint, Joe and Mary rose, declined the offer of refreshment, and allowed themselves to be directed out of the house.

“Mary,” Starsky said, shaking her hand. “The check’s in the mail.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said with a smile. “I meant it about the 30 days.”

Hutch put in, “We appreciate all your help too, Joe. If there’s ever anything we can do for you, you know you can call us.”

“Thanks,” Joe said, somber as ever. “But I kinda think you already did.”

Then he smiled, just a little, and Mary blushed.

Hutch looked at Starsky, saw a reflection of his own confusion clearing to surprise.

“What,” Starsky blurted, typically blunt, “you two?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Mary and Joe exclaimed simultaneously.

“Nothing.” Starsky grinned. “Not one darn thing.”

Hutch shook Joe’s hand. “Congratulations to both of you.”

“Hey, it’s just a date,” Mary said. “We’re not gettin’ married or anything.”

But Hutch thought, for some reason, that Joe’s face said yet.

“Well,” he said, “I’m glad for you both anyway.”

They escorted the freshly minted couple out of the house, watching them walk to Joe’s car. Again Joe opened the door for her, a perfect gentleman, then shut it, glanced up at Starsky and Hutch for one brief, unreadable moment, then waved and went around to the driver’s side.

“How d’ya like that?” Starsky said as the Cadillac bounced down the drive.

Hutch tilted his head, considering. “I don’t know. It makes perfect sense, in a weird kind of way.”

He realized what he was saying and glanced at Starsky.

Brows raised in what would in other circumstances be an irritating expression of superiority, Starsky turned around and sauntered back into the house.

Hutch followed, torn between sitting his partner down and having a long, potentially disastrous talk, and simply taking the easy route of focusing on finding the money.

When he reached the kitchen Starsky was at the kitchen counter, one hand holding up a corner of the newspaper.

“Hutch.”

“What?”

“Did you see this?”

“What?” Hutch came over, looking at the small story in the bottom corner. The headline read: Local lawmaker blasts parole policies.

“So?” Hutch said. He’d glanced at the entire paper earlier, while smarting over his partner dumping him for Karen. “What about it?”

“Look,” Starsky said, giving the word slight emphasis. Hutch peered closer, saw a paragraph reading: “The official pointed to recent early releases, such as Gene and Gabriel Keller and Jack O’Neil, the convicted cop-killer, adding, ‘Don’t our citizens deserve to feel the legal system is working for them, instead of against them?’”

Hutch scowled. “What? I agree with the big blowhard – for once.”

Starsky tapped the page impatiently. “Keller. Gene and Gabe Keller.”

Hutch straightened, puzzlement replaced with surprise. “The guys in the robbery. They’re out?”

“Apparently,” Starsky said, still scanning the story.

“When?”

“Story doesn’t say,” Starsky provided almost before Hutch had managed to spit out the question.

Hutch went to the window and scanned the backyard. Nothing amiss – nothing much of anything, which was business as usual.

“Think they’ll come here?” he said, not really a question.

“For a quarter of a million?” Starsky replied. They both knew the answer.

“What do you wanna do?” Starsky went on. “Look for the money first, or find out when they got sprung?”

“I know what I want to do first,” Hutch said, heading for the front door at a ground-eating lope. Starsky joined him in the quick trek to their respective cars, where they collected their guns, cuffs and harnesses and brought them back into the house.

As he strapped on his own weapon Hutch watched Starsky arm himself and thought: He looks like a cop again. He is a cop. No matter what those assholes decided.

He crushed the flare of anger and frustration, aware Starsky was looking at him curiously.

“You okay?” he asked gently. Hutch had the impression his partner knew exactly where his mind had gone.

“If you are, I am, partner,” he said. “I was just thinking … how damn’ good you look right now.”

Split-second surprise flashed on Starsky’s face, giving way to a half-shy, half-seductive smile. “You got a gun fetish, Blondie?”

Hutch grinned. “Maybe.” Or maybe I’ve just got a Starsky fetish. “I’d better call Dobey and see if he can dig up their release dates.”

Starsky nodded. “Then let’s find that haul and get this over with.”

A quick call left their former captain with a sketch of their situation – excluding the psychic angle – and a promise that he’d call them as soon as he found out the Keller brothers’ release dates.

“So where do you wanna start looking?”

“The dead guy said ‘under’.” Starsky shrugged. “Basement’s the logical choice.”

“You know, you oughta be a detective.” Hutch gently shoved him toward the door under the stairs that led to the cellar. Starsky balked in the doorway, standing stock still for a moment. Then he turned around, his expression sober.

“Hutch. I gotta tell you something.” He held Hutch’s gaze, and Hutch saw that same combination of fear and hope he’d seen earlier. “Hutch.”

“I’m right here,” Hutch said gently.

“The other day, when … before we saw the ghost?” Starsky raised a hand as if to touch him, then drew back, his eyes shying at the same time. “You … we were huggin’, and …”

“I remember,” Hutch said.

“Hutch…” Starsky began again.

Worried, Hutch moved closer. “Starsk, what?”

“I …” Starsky gulped. “I really wanted t-to kiss you right then,” he blurted, then looked up wide-eyed, defensive. “Hutch—”

Heat flashed through Hutch’s body, leaving him light-headed. He backed away a step, actually dizzy for an instant, and bumped into the wall.

“I’m sorry—” Starsky reached out and Hutch held up a staying hand; it tangled with one of his partner’s, and Hutch held on, hard.

“No,” he said. “I’m just … Jesus. You … you’re serious?”

“Hutch, I don’t know—”

“Don’t.” He pulled his partner closer, vaguely aware he was crushing his fingers, and managed enough breath to speak. “Don’t apologize. Just answer me. You’re serious?”

Starsky nodded, a tiny gesture. “I wanted to. Bad. Hutch …” His voice dropped, not ashamed but uneasy, exploring unlighted, unmapped territory. “I still want to.”

Whew. Leave it to Starsky to just plunge right in at the most unexpected moment.

“I don’t know why,” he stammered, his words rushed, apologetic. “I don’t know what happened or when things changed – I been tryin’ to figure out – I don’t think I’ve gone crazy, but—”

“Starsk.” Hutch eased his grip and his partner shut up, red-faced, looking at him as if he might have the answers.

“Starsk …” Both Hutch’s hands came up, wary, framing his partner’s astonished face with feather-light touches. His insides felt the same – floating, nervous, unanchored, but knowing, regardless, where home was. “I’ve been trying to figure the same thing out myself,” he said, hearing the unsteadiness in his voice.

“Y-you have?” The dark blue eyes widened; hands – not hesitant, but firm – grasped Hutch’s shoulders. “Hutch … you sayin’ ..?”

Hutch shook his head. “I have no idea. I have no idea what I’m saying. But … if you want to, we can try to find out.” His palms rested on Starsky’s cheeks, somehow freeing a smile.

And something thudded, down in the basement.

Hutch started, saw the fire in those eyes so close to his turn cold. Both men drew their guns and moved against the wall, peering into the dark basement.

Hutch, eyes on his partner, reached his free hand toward the light switch at the top of the stairs. If he turned it on, they both became visible targets. If they left it off, they were all in the dark.

Starsky, visibly processing the same thoughts within a split second, offered him a minute shrug and nodded, his body coiled, ready.

Hutch flicked on the light.

Silence. He could see down to the bottom of the stairs, maybe a little bit of the concrete floor beyond, but he’d be vulnerable to attack as he descended until he got to a level where he could see the rest of the room.

Best to do it fast then.

Back to the wall, he gave his partner a nod and launched himself down the stairs, hardly touching each bare concrete step until he was at the bottom, back against the corner, gun and eyes scanning the room.

Starsky came right behind him, the same way, fast and ready, stopping a couple of steps up, crouched, his Beretta tracking the empty space around them.

Nothing down here but a bare bulb illuminating damp brick walls, concrete floor, a long wooden table and a few small piles of broken furniture and packing crates. Nothing Hutch hadn’t already seen in his first tour of the place.

Starsky glanced at Hutch, who gestured in a semi-circle to indicate that the basement rooms curved around the central staircase. Starsky nodded for him to take point and he headed around the staircase toward the back rooms.

A scraping shuffle was his first hint before something – a man, a big one – came flying down the stairs, crashing into Starsky, sending them both tumbling to the bottom.

Hutch leveled his gun at the two struggling men and snapped, “Freeze.”

Then something hit him in the back like a pile driver, slamming him to the floor. He hit hard and pushed off, against the weight on his back, rolling over, an elbow connecting into soft belly flesh. He heard a grunt before big arms came around him, trying to pin him as he kept rolling, side to side, until he got on top, then used his weight, his elbows, his heels and the hard floor to batter the body wrapped around his. After what felt like an hour, another elbow connected and the arms around his chest came loose. Hutch broke free and rolled away, coming to his feet, gun homing on the man on the floor. He got a flashed glimpse of Starsky’s blue tennis shoes flying up the stairs in pursuit of the other man before he trained all his attention on the bulky man struggling to his feet in front of him.

“Hands up, turkey.” Overhead, he could hear the running footsteps against the bare wood floors of the house.

The panting, red-faced man glowered at him, but raised his arms. He was tall and broad, heavy with muscle and fat, with black hair and a broad, homely face.

“Turn around.”

When he did, Hutch whipped out his cuffs, glancing around until he found a handy support column. Shoving the man over to it, he pulled the pudgy arms around the pillar and cuffed the man to it.

“Don’t go anywhere,” he said, ignoring the man’s vulgar response to race up the stairs.

He ran into the front hall, gun at the ready, and whirled about, scanning for his partner, vaguely thinking he’d heard the phone ringing. More thudding footfalls overhead told him where they’d gone and he leaped for the main staircase, listening for shouts or gunfire – as if anything could make him move faster.

At the top of the stairs he did the same frantic 360.

“Starsk!”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the door to the attic stairs swing shut. He darted that way, running up the narrow steps and bursting into the dusty, barren attic in time to hear a crash of glass and see a wide shape fly through the broken window, Starsky diving after it.

Hutch shouted – after, he had no idea what – and lunged toward his partner, gun holstered in one lightning motion.

He grabbed Starsky by the waist and stopped, seeing the other man slide flailing down the steeply pitched roof and tumble over the edge. Backpedaling, he hauled his partner inside, feeling Starsky’s whole body flinch as he caught his hand on the broken glass and gasped.

Then they were both solidly on their feet again, breathing hard, Starsky scowling at his own thumb and Hutch entirely unable to let go. His palms tingled at the feel of the lithe muscles of Starsky’s torso working, drawing air deeply into his lungs, and before he could think he’d drawn him closer, his fingers spreading along Starsky’s sides in a surreptitious caress.

“You okay?” he said, his voice rough with sudden need.

Apparently oblivious both to Hutch’s tone and to the fact that he was as good as in his partner’s arms, Starsky nodded.

“Cut my thumb,” he said, holding it up as evidence and – finally – raising his eyes to Hutch’s, the glittering blue depths anything but oblivious.

Hutch removed one hand from his waist, took very deliberate hold of his wrist, and raised it to his lips to lick the welling blood.

Starsky’s eyes gaped.

Hutch then drew Starsky’s thumb into his mouth. And sucked, tasting bitter-salt-Starsky, the flavor new and intoxicating.

Starsky’s eyelids fluttered and his jaw fell slack. “Oh … god … Hutch, you …” His fingers, apparently less startled than the rest of him, curled around Hutch’s jaw. Hutch slid his other hand around Starsky’s back and eased his unresisting body closer; Starsky’s free hand, between them, came to rest on Hutch’s chest.

“Hutch,” he groaned. “The … the suspects …”

Hutch hummed, his tongue rubbing the pad of his partner’s thumb. Starsky gulped, pressing his face against Hutch’s throat, his breath hot against Hutch’s adam’s apple. “Oh … jeez … you’re suckin’ my … Hutch – ”  His free hand slid up Hutch’s chest to cup the back of his head; gently he slipped his thumb from between Hutch’s lips, passing it across them in a brief caress before drawing Hutch’s face to his.

With no more than a whisper of space between them, Starsky breathed, “Hutch.” The word was promise, seduction, declaration. Then he brought their mouths together, gentle, hungry. His tongue stroked hot against Hutch’s lips, insistent, and he opened to it, melting around the firm masculine feel of penetration, dizzied as Starsky tasted him, claimed him.

Fuck, I take it back, Hutch thought, his inner voice soft over the roaring of his blood. You are a good kisser. God ... His head was spinning, his body was buzzing … his ears were ringing … sirens.

Sirens?

Starsky drew back with a pained grunt, gasped, “Sirens.”

 

Eight

 

They stared at each other stupidly for a moment, panting, clutching, still pressed against one another. Then both men looked out the broken window to see a black-and-white bounce up the road and lurch to a stop at the gate, siren wailing down into silence, lights still flashing.

Starsky let his face fall against Hutch’s chest for a brief, heartfelt groan. Hutch laughed shakily and hugged his partner hard, then released him – mostly. If he kept his hands on Starsky’s shoulders for the benefit of Starsky’s balance, or his own … what was the difference, really?

He had to clear his throat before he could form the simple words, “Come on,” and urge Starsky toward the stairs. Business before … pleasure seemed a weak, bloodless word for it, but Hutch couldn’t think of another, couldn’t think at all past his battle to calm the throbbing ache in his body.

When they opened the front door, they were greeted with, “What the hell’s going on here?”

Tom Corbin, a uniform they knew slightly, stood beside his squad car while his partner bent over the guy who’d gone through the attic window. Though he was moaning and writhing around, he seemed not to be seriously injured.

“What’re you doin’ here?” Starsky responded as they trotted down the steps. He sounded unbelievably … normal, Hutch noticed.

“Captain Dobey’s been trying to call you. He got worried, said you might have a couple of dangerous parolees here, so he radioed for us to check it out.”

“He still loves us,” Starsky said with a satisfied grin at Hutch, adding, “You’ll wanna cuff him,” as Corbin’s partner hauled the groaning man to his feet. “He’s been a naughty boy.”

Corbin looked up; the partners followed his gaze to the broken glass and  bits of wooden framework trailing down the roof. “He came from there? He’s lucky he isn’t dead.”

“These guys have a lot of padding,” Hutch said. “There’s another one in the basement. I’ll show you.” He led the way and Corbin followed.

“Thought you guys quit,” Corbin remarked.

“So did we,” Hutch admitted.

*** *** ***

 

They went downtown behind the black-and-white and filed a report that ensured the brothers Keller would soon be back behind bars for another healthy stretch, concluding with a promise that they’d continue to look for the missing quarter million. Dobey popped in to check on them, but if he noticed they both seemed distracted, he didn’t mention it. They made their statements as quickly as possible, on separate sides of the room but each painfully aware of the other’s presence and progress; there was nothing strange about it when they finished and stood up at the same instant, heading for the door.

In the hall they paused, their silent communion suddenly awkward.

“Um … what do you want to do?” Hutch said, forcing his nervously roving eyes to his partner’s face. Unlike him, Starsky didn’t fidget, standing still, as if waiting for Hutch to stop fooling around.

“I wanna go home,” Starsky said.

“Your place?” Hutch tried not to sound disappointed.

Starsky shook his head. “Home.” 

Heat swelled in Hutch’s stomach. “Starsk, there’s no –” He swallowed the word ‘bed,’ remembering belatedly they were in a public corridor, and felt the heat in his gut blaze in his face as well. “Furniture.”

“You asked me what I want,” Starsky said in that irresistibly sexy murmur. “I want to go home.”

Hutch’s twitching hands were out of his pockets in a flash, reaching for his partner before he could catch himself and force them down. Starsky smiled, a tiny, devastating smile, and Hutch, completely undone, turned and started along the corridor, concentrating on making one foot move in front of the other, concentrating on breathing, on not stumbling, on just getting to the car, getting home. Home. Jesus. There was nothing comforting in the word; it set his insides on fire, set his heart dancing against his sternum.

He had absolutely no memory of the drive. He first realized the sun had gone down when they stopped in front of the dark house. He hoped he’d remembered to turn on the headlights, but that seemed optimistic considering his state of mind.

“Why don’t you start a fire?” Starsky said, sounding incredibly – infuriatingly – calm. He bounced up the steps and unlocked the front door. “I’ll get some wine.”

So Hutch found himself kneeling in front of the fireplace, cursing at his fumbling attempts to light the fire. When at last the logs caught, he sat back  on his heels and laughed at himself, looking at his hands.

I’m shaking. When was the last time it had mattered this much? When had it ever mattered this much?

“Hey.”

Starsky stood in the doorway, barefoot, shirt unbuttoned and untucked from his jeans, a bottle of wine in one hand and two glasses in the other. Hutch swallowed, painfully, and got to his feet, one hand on the mantel due to sudden light-headedness. No wonder, he mocked himself. Your blood’s all in your dick.

“Y’look like you seen a ghost,” Starsky murmured, approaching him with a strangely hesitant step. He might’ve dressed – undressed – for seduction, but Hutch knew there would be no seduction here, no mating dance, no games – and no precedent. Nothing to fall back on.

Hutch blurted, “I’m scared,” the words half nervous laughter, half simple confession.

Starsky  didn’t smile. “Me too.” His eyes searched Hutch’s face, and in his expression Hutch read in turn wonder, desire, and fear – all of them, always, returning to trust. To Me and Thee. Hutch eased closer, until they were two inches apart, body heat mingling, breathing the same air.

Haven’t we always?

Starsky’s eyes locked onto his, blazing, magnetic, and he leaned in.

“Oh … god …” At his exhaled plea the eyes closed, releasing him to cover his partner’s mouth with his own. Starsky’s lips were soft under his, slightly parted, alive and eager as Hutch ventured between them with his tongue.

Starsky moaned softly and opened to him. Heat exploded in Hutch’s stomach, and he slid his arms around his partner, pulling them close. Glass tinkled nearby and Starsky stiffened, drawing back awkwardly. Hutch pursued, echoing Starsky’s gentle evasions, teasing his face and neck with heedless kisses.

“Hu—” Starsky cleared his throat. “Hutch. H—hang on.” Finally he got Hutch to stop by the expedient of ducking his head, though he rubbed his curls against his partner’s chin like a kitten as if in apology.

Hutch let go of him, confused, and Starsky raised his head.

“Hutch. The wine.”

Hutch blinked at him, the blaze under his skin cooling a little. “Wine?” His voice came out a croak.

Starsky smiled, raising the wine bottle and glasses he still held. “Lemme put this stuff down before I drop it.” He deposited them noisily on the mantel and then opened his arms, his eyes dark, mysterious. “Okay. I’m all yours.”

Hutch drew in a shaky breath. Who needed wine when those words went straight to his head – and his groin? He stared hypnotized at his partner, at his throat, the hard curves of his chest, the taut stomach revealing his rapid breathing … those jeans, a thin layer of blue temptation over narrow hips and swelling cock.

This time Starsky moved close, all but touching, his face a breath away.

“Hutch.” Love, need, trust, a little fear … Starsky could put so much meaning into his name.

“I don’t … know what to do,” Hutch said, his hands, in direct contradiction, shaping themselves to the contours of Starsky’s chest. He felt the sharp intake of breath, the racing heart under the hard muscle and wiry hair. Starsky’s palms fell warm over Hutch’s forearms, and Hutch felt that he was shaking too.

Brushing his thumbs across hard nipples, Hutch whispered, “What do you want?” Everything, nothing, whatever you want.

“I wanna touch you,” Starsky said, low. “I don’t ever wanna stop.” He slid his hands up Hutch’s arms, stopping at the edge of the t-shirt Hutch wore. “I wanna touch all of you.” He grabbed the bottom of Hutch’s t-shirt and Hutch raised his arms, letting Starsky pull it over his head and toss it aside. Starsky then pressed his face to Hutch’s throat, to the notch between his collarbones, and Hutch’s arms melted downward, hands draping over Starsky’s shoulders. They were warm, solid and real. He stroked the curve of muscle along Starsky’s upper arms, savoring the strength he’d relied on for so long, and shivered when Starsky’s tongue touched his skin, gliding languorously up to his adam’s apple.

“You taste good,” Starsky murmured, and Hutch chuckled, giddy from this novel blend of desire, trust, fear and … plain old virginal nerves, when it came down to it. He had no idea how to make love to a man.

He groaned as his partner sucked gently at the tender skin between his neck and shoulder. “God … Starsk … mm …”

Starsky raised his head and Hutch looked down at him, at the face so loved, so familiar, he hardly knew how to see it in a new light, even the longed-for light of a lover. He had in his arms all he’d wanted for months – his body screamed at him to take it, take it – but his head nagged him with the consequences of his ignorance.

Starsky said, “You’re worryin’.”

“God …” Hutch breathed out the word. “I feel like ... I love you, Starsk, you know I do. More than anyone in the world. And … and I want to … t-to make love to you so much … I’m crazy with it.” He laughed again, nervously, and Starsky smiled.

“But you’re afraid of screwin’ it up,” he said bluntly.

Hutch let his head droop, a confession, resting his forehead against Starsky’s and melting into the warm, strong embrace his partner bestowed upon him.

“You can’t screw this up, Hutch,” Starsky said, laughter and desire together blurring his tone as if he were drunk. “It’s me and thee.” He pulled Hutch close, hands sliding down to claim his ass, to press their swollen cocks together. “Just do what comes natural.”

And when the usual arguments about what was natural rose in Hutch’s mind, he lifted his face and looked into his partner’s eyes – and all arguments, all words, all thoughts evaporated.

“Starsk …” He breathed against his partner’s face and gently covered his mouth, desperate, tentative, amazed at every touch, every taste of lip and tongue. He felt as if he’d never done any of this before, as if he’d never even thought of it – Starsky’s tongue against his was a shock, his flesh on Hutch’s flesh an epiphany. Hutch panted into his partner’s hot mouth, his own hands finding shaky purchase on the narrow, hard waist.

Then Starsky laughed into his mouth and Hutch drew away, fingers detailing every bump and curve of Starsky’s back. 

“I don’t know how t’do this either,” Starsky gasped, and they laughed, a warm mingling of befuddled acceptance.

“Bed?” Hutch suggested, nodding toward the air mattress. Not letting go, Starsky maneuvered them both into a kneeling position in the center of the mattress, then pulled Hutch bodily against him and commandeered his mouth, plunging deep, his tongue fucking Hutch’s mouth as ruthlessly as his hands forced their bodies together.

Crazed, Hutch at last pushed him down, onto the rucked-up sleeping bags, his fingers fumbling at the button of Starsky’s jeans as Starsky shrugged off the unbuttoned shirt.

“Need some help?” he asked, his voice strained, and Hutch, still panting from the kiss, shook his head, bending to kiss the taut, straining stomach that begged to be caressed. He rubbed his face against the hot hairy skin and Starsky’s hands came up to cradle his head as his clumsy fingers at last worked the button out and dragged down the zipper. He had to sit up again to work the tight denim down his partner’s legs and out of the way, then he sat back for a moment to admire the body spread out before him in nothing but very tight black briefs.

Starsky rose up a little, on his elbows, his face flushed, eyes glittering.

“What?”

Hutch shook his head. He’d seen this body – seen this man – so many times. Only now could he admit to himself how close to the surface the desire had always been. “Starsk … you’re fucking gorgeous.”

Starsky grinned – then flopped back with a groan when Hutch cupped his erection, almost cuddling the curve of hard flesh through the thin briefs.

“Hutch … God …”

Hutch slid his hands under Starsky’s hips to caress that perfectly rounded ass, then slid the briefs off and away, his own dick pulsing painfully as Starsky’s erection rose before his eyes.

Panting, Starsky reached for him. “God … Hutch … c’mere…” He pulled his partner bodily on top of him, again taking over, kissing him, frantic, hot, plunging kisses. Before Hutch knew it he was on his back, spread-eagled, with Starsky’s mouth sampling his entire body as his hands – much more quickly than Hutch had done – stripped him of his own jeans and underwear.

Hutch kicked the clothes away and raised his head to see Starsky kneeling beside him, all lithe muscled curves and proud cock, smiling down at Hutch’s rosy erection before he took it in his hands – firmly, perfectly, as if he’d done it before – and Hutch nearly choked on his own cry. His body curled upward, needing to be near his partner. Starsky gripped him, the other hand cradling his balls, and said, “How do you like it, Blondie?”

Hutch pressed his face into Starsky’s chest, unable to speak as the hot grip slid up, slid back, perfect, the other hand stroking his nuts, fingers massaging the sensitive area behind. He just nodded, gasping against Starsky’s skin, and wrapped his arms around his partner, inhaling his scent as Starsky worked him with gentle ruthlessness.

He held on, jolted over and over, hips thrashing, mouthing silent pleas against Starsky’s chest until, without warning, he choked out, “Starsk!” and came, hard, almost painfully, shuddering as Starsky stroked him with one hand and pulled him close with the other.

“I gotcha,” Starsky murmured as he pulsed over his partner’s gentling hand. “I gotcha …”

Finally Hutch went limp in release, hanging in his partner’s grasp like a rag doll, but when Starsky would have eased them into lying down he drew in a shaky, fortifying breath and rolled on top of him, pushing Starsky down under him.

“Hutch…” Whatever he’d been about to say, Starsky stopped himself as Hutch put a hand to his lips, asking silently for a moment. Starsky’s eyes, the deep, eternal blue of the night sky, held his as he caught his breath, calming, up on one elbow, the other hand petting his partner’s body.

“Hutch,” Starsky tried again. “You don’t have to …”

Hutch laughed. “Are you kidding?” His own voice sounded strange to him, still breathless, drunk on satiety. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to do this?”

He let his hand stroke down to Starsky’s cock, now wet at the tip, ready and eager for attention, and when he turned to look at it he felt Starsky gasp. They always could read one another’s minds when it counted, Hutch thought.

“Hutch.” The word was wonder. “You’re not gonna …”

Hutch grinned. “You bet I’m gonna.” Then, belatedly, he remembered that this was new to both of them, and turned to look at his partner’s face. Starsky was again up on his elbows, still flushed, his expression stunned.

“Starsk … you okay with this? I want to.” He gently cupped his partner’s nuts and rolled them in his fingers, and saw Starsky’s adam’s apple work as he swallowed, convulsively.

“Good thing I already love ya,” Starsky murmured, his voice rough with need. “Cuz if I didn’t, after this I’d have to.”

“I’ve never done this before,” Hutch warned, still smiling, and turned to regard the erection curving toward his face.

“Hutch … ” Starsky’s fingers clutched feebly at him as he wriggled under Hutch’s touch. Starsky’s cut cock looked so naked, so hard and needy, it was easy for him to ease his mouth over the red tip, cupping it with his tongue.

Starsky hissed and arched, gasping, “Hutch,” in a tight, strained voice. Hutch sank down over the hard velvety length, working his tongue along the shaft; it tasted clean, it smelled of Starsky, and he closed his eyes and sucked, smiling in his mind to feel his partner’s body tremble under him.

“Hutch … Hutch … god…” Starsky’s voice sank to a guttural, almost pained moan as Hutch slid his mouth up and down, tight and wet, wondering at the feeling of it. Was this what women felt when they did this, this hot sexy length in their mouths, at their mercy?

Shaking, Starsky began to pump his hips – startling Hutch. He withdrew, then came back down, determined to ride it out.

“Hutch … I’m gonna come …” The words were forced out, nearly a cry, and Starsky’s hands grasped at Hutch’s shoulder as if to draw him away. Hutch gently brushed him off and wrapped his fingers around the base of Starsky’s cock, squeezing. Starsky’s body jerked and he released a wail; then Hutch’s mouth filled abruptly with fluid, salty, thick, startling. He swallowed, swallowed, fast, afraid to really taste it, and Starsky drove into his mouth three, four times before stilling, slumping, his dick sliding limp from between Hutch’s numb lips.

Hutch didn’t move for a moment, catching his breath, marveling at what he’d done – at how right it still seemed – and listening to the gentle sounds of release Starsky was still exhaling.

Then his partner groaned. “Come up here.”

Hutch shifted upward – his knees were a little stiff – and Starsky pulled him into a fierce embrace, their bodies hard together, full length, complete and without separation.

“Hutch,” Starsky breathed into his ear. “Hutch … god … I can’t believe you … fuckin’ amazing.” His arms tightened, then eased.

Hutch laughed weakly. Tired, boneless and sleepy, he nonetheless found strength to turn his face into his partner’s neck and kiss the warm hollows there. “Glad you liked it, partner.”

“More than liked,” Starsky said with great feeling. “You …”

Feeling Starsky’s body still – even stiffen a little – under him, Hutch rose up a little to look at the firelit face, grave with thought.

Starsky caught his eyes, held them. “You’ve always been the best thing that ever happened to me. Always.” He shook his head. “I didn’t think we could be better than we were. But …”

Hutch smiled, incipient panic quelled. “Me and Thee, partner. That’s all it takes.”

Starsky’s smile put Hutch’s to shame. “You got that right.”

 

The End

 

 

 

 

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