Starsky had been quiet all evening. He’d picked at his dinner, declined dessert, and made a pretense of working on his latest ship model, only to sit turning the same piece of wood over and over in his hands, staring out the window into the night. Even an offer of ice cream and a western on TV had produced only a grunt that had a vague negative quality to it. Hutch was worried: since the shooting, Starsky had grown slightly more quiet and thoughtful, but brooding was still more the blond’s style than his partner’s. A prolonged silence like this was almost always a sign of discouraging news from the doctors. Despite the nearly physical ache to hold Starsky and find out what was wrong, to provide comfort and reassurance, he’d decided to wait it out. Starsky had put up remarkably well with Hutch’s constant need to protect and nurture in the past few months, but as his health improved, he had also made it clear that too much hovering and fretting tried his patience. The man would talk when it suited him.
On the other hand, Hutch thought, it had better suit him pretty damn soon.
Hutch had retreated to the greenhouse to mutter and putter for an hour or so, and then, with Starsky still unresponsive, he’d played his trump card and headed to bed. It worked like a charm. Not five minutes after he switched off the light, Starsky was rustling out of his clothes and sliding under the covers, spooning up behind Hutch and wrapping one arm around him.
Even the way they slept together had been altered by the shooting. Hutch couldn’t help a wistful memory of nights spent in a tangled sprawl of arms and legs, bodies so intertwined it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended. Now, Starsky could lie comfortably only on his right side for any length of time, and for the first weeks he had been unable to tolerate the slightest pressure on his injured torso. Through trial and error they had figured out a position that would cause the least pain and still allow them the physical contact they both needed so badly. Hutch had gotten used to feeling his partner’s beard stubble rasping against his shoulder blade even through a t-shirt, and had learned to lie still enough for Starsky to be able to snuggle up against his back. Being able to feel him there, warm and breathing, was enough to help banish most of the nightmares.
No more bandages, thank God, and no more ribs, either.
Healthy muscle was finally starting to fill out the scarred chest, and there was some of the old firmness in Starsky’s possessive grip around his waist. He even smelled normal again: spicy shampoo and clean sweat, coffee and gun oil, instead of medicine and antiseptics. Years on the street had burned away most of Hutch’s childhood faith, yet at moments like this, he could never help offering up a silent prayer of thanks that Starsky was still around to hog the covers and nag him about his car and sneak junk food into the apartment whenever his back was turned.
Thank you, whatever power there is out there, for giving him back to me. I swear I’ll take care of him and love him all my life.
They lay snuggled together quietly for so long Hutch almost dozed off, and then Starsky said, very hesitantly, “Hutch? You still awake?”
“I’ve been thinkin’.”
“Yeah. I could smell the wood burning.” He tried to keep the tone light and teasing just as he would have done so many times before. No hovering, no fretting. He’s ready to talk. All I have to do is give him room.
Even more hesitantly, “I was just wonderin’.” Another long pause, and then an audible swallow. “What if I couldn’t get it up any more?”
“I’d wait ten minutes.” Hutch chuckled, and lightly pressed his ass back against Starsky’s groin.
“Dummy.” Starsky whacked him gently on the shoulder. “I’m serious. What if—“
He broke off as Hutch rolled away and sat up to turn on the bedside lamp. In the dim light, his partner looked nervous, almost frightened, but determined. “All right, what is it? Have you been feeling sick? Had any pains? The doctor found something this morning?”
So much for keeping it cool. I’m ready to panic before I even hear him out.
“What? No! I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong—except the obvious.” Starsky gestured toward his chest.
Hutch wasn’t finished. “Have you had trouble when, uh, you know, need to take a leak?” He could feel himself blush, and that made him even more self-conscious. How can I possibly be embarrassed, with all the times we’ve changed each other’s bandages, and emptied each other’s bedpans? Not to mention everything we’ve done in bed together. Still, knowing it was foolish couldn’t make the heat leave his face.
Starsky shook his head with a little laugh of affection and exasperation. “Jeeze, Hutch, how far down are you blushing?” He tried to pull the neck of Hutch’s tee down for a peek, and got his fingers lightly smacked. The resulting pout earned him a kiss on the slapped fingers, and turned into a complacent grin. “The plumbing works just fine. It’s nothing like that.” The grin died away, and he was quiet again, one hand absently folding and refolding a swatch of bedspread. Finally, on a deep breath, “I’m just thinkin’. I’ll never be a hundred percent again—“
“You’re getting better all the time,” Hutch interrupted fiercely. “Hell, I can see improvements every week now. You’re exercising almost every day, you’re getting your strength and flexibility back, you’ve cut way back on those pain meds. You’ll be back to normal before you know it.”
Starsky shook his head. “Yeah, I’ve gotten better, and I’m gonna get more better. They’ll probably let me back on active duty before spring. But I’ll never be back to what I was, n’ we both know it. And then today I was thinkin’ it won’t be long before I’m as old as my dad was when he died, and it just made me start to wonder what it’ll be like when I get older and then next week is Grissom’s retirement party and—“ The words spilled out faster and faster, Starsky’s breathing growing harsh as he became more agitated.
“Hey, hey, come on.” Hutch slid over and wrapped his arms around his partner, then drew back as he felt Starsky wince at the angle of pressure. “Here, sit up, and lean on me.”
He plumped up the pillows and settled against the headboard, Starsky nestling carefully back against his chest. He nuzzled into the curls at the back of Starsky’s neck for a second, causing a slight giggle and some wriggling. “You’re right. We’re going to get older. And thank God for giving us the chance to do it,” he added in a heartfelt murmur.
“Considering the alternative, I know.” Starsky stretched his arm back gingerly and gently ran his fingers through the fine blond hair. “But—“
“We’ll both get older. We’ll get wrinkly and saggy and achy and stiff. I’ll probably lose my hair, and you, Mr. Pizza-and-root-beer, are definitely going to get a pot belly.” Starsky gave a disbelieving snort. “Oh, yes, you will.” He lightly patted the belly in question, and then let his hand rest there. “And yes, as we get older, there’ll be times when one or both of us won’t be able to get it up. And when that happens, we’ll just have to learn how to give each other pleasure in other ways.”
Starsky wriggled a bit more, and this time Hutch could tell it was with unease. “But what if—“ He broke off. “Nah. Forget it.”
“Come on, buddy. What’s this really about?” Hutch gently ruffled the dark curls.
“Maybe, but it’s bothering you. So that means it’s important. Now spill.”
“It’s dumb,” Starsky repeated softly. Then taking a deep breath, he said, “I had to wait at the doctor’s this morning, ‘cause they were all backed up. You ever notice there’s nothing to read in waiting rooms except those women’s magazines? I mean, guys go to the doctor too; you’d think they’d put out some car magazines or something like that, wouldn’t you?”
“And this is relevant because?”
“Anyway,” Starsky continued in a small voice, “I got so bored I picked up one of those magazines, and there was this article about these women who got cancer and then their husbands left them—Hutch? Do you know how many men leave their wives when they get real sick? I couldn’t believe it.”
“Are you worried I’ll—“ the words choked off in his throat.
“No! Think I don’t know you better’n that? It made me think, though: what if I’m bein’ selfish? Holdin’ on to you so you can’t have—“
“I mean it. No wife, no kids, no picket fence, maybe no job if we ever get caught, maybe no friends left, no family? N’ all you get is—“ The rest of the sentence was muffled by Hutch’s hand.
Hutch fought back the tears in his eyes, and the lump in his throat. For a moment, he struggled to put his thoughts into order. He had to say this calmly, surely, so that there was never again any doubt in Starsky’s mind.
Please, don’t let me stutter now!
When he was certain his voice would not betray him, he said, “When you were in the hospital, there was a while there when the doctors were pretty sure you’d live, but they weren’t sure of much more than that. So one night, I started figuring out worst-case scenarios. I made lists of the kind of things we’d need, how I’d have to organize my time, how to get help from social services. Started drawing up a budget.”
“Aw, no, Hutch!” Starsky sounded truly appalled. “You didn’t call your family!” He tried to twist around to look at Hutch, and then sank back with a curse and a grunt of pain. “You didn’t!”
Hutch gently massaged the tight chest until he felt Starsky’s body relax again. “No, I didn’t, not right then. I decided to wait for a while, so I could get a better idea of what we’d need, and put together some kind of a plan. And then you got so much better so much faster than anybody expected and I just put it all away. But the thing is: I would have. I swore when I came out here that I’d make my own way, and I did. I never asked for anything. Not when I got hurt. Not when I was sick. Not even when I knew it was all that might keep Vanessa a little longer. But for you, I’d have crawled back to Duluth on my hands and knees. I’d have done whatever they wanted if it got me what I needed to take care of you.”
Starsky gave a grim little chuckle. “If this is supposed to make me feel better about being selfish—it’s not workin’ real well.”
“Okay, then let me give you a ‘what if’, buddy. What if Terry had lived? If they couldn’t get the bullet out, if she never got better, but at least survived?”
“I’d’a married her,” Starsky said promptly. “Looked after her the best I could, taken care of her, loved her as long as I had her.”
“And would you have thought she was being selfish? Worried about whether or not she could perform in bed?”
“Hell, no! That’s part of the deal when you love somebody, when you’re married—“ Starsky broke off. His hands digging into the mattress, he pushed away from Hutch and levered himself cautiously around until he was facing his partner. The look on his face was at the same time distant and gravely questioning, and his eyes were for once completely unreadable. Hutch, who’d thought he’d learned to interpret every possible expression his partner could have, suddenly felt frightened.
Oh, God, don’t look at me like that, love. Did mentioning Terry go that far over the line?
“So, what you’re sayin’ is, we’re sorta like married, huh?” Even Starsky’s voice was remote, as if some part of his mind was contemplating a reality completely removed from Hutch’s bedroom. Maybe even from Hutch’s life.
The terrible certainty that he had raised the one ghost that could still come between them nearly froze the blond’s soul. Still, the habit of telling his partner the truth about his feelings couldn’t be broken, even to spare himself pain.
“I’m saying we are married, in every way that counts. You’re my center. You’re what anchors me to everything that matters the most to me. Don’t you ever forget it. I can’t give you any legal papers, I can’t even give you a ring, but in here” Hutch touched his chest “you’re more my spouse than Vanessa ever was.”
Starsky blinked slowly, once and then again. Little by little, the distant look left his face. A gentle smile began in his eyes, and gradually spread over his face. Completely unlike his usual grin, it was the sweetest, most unguarded expression Hutch had ever seen on him. The cobalt eyes glowed with pure joy.
Oh, God. Hutch felt himself melt with grief. You really thought those scars would make a difference to how I felt? How could I have not made sure you know that this is it for me, no matter what?
Carefully, Starsky leaned forward. Hutch met him halfway, and pulled him into a fierce hug, for once not bothering to be careful. Starsky spoke softly against the blond’s neck: “You know it’s not you, right? I mean, my head’s still a little fucked up sometimes, but you gotta know, none of it is you.”
“You’ve always been a head case anyway,” Hutch managed to say. “And what you have to promise is: if it ever is me, you have to say so. Don‘t just take it because you think you have to.” He swallowed thickly. “Because you’re afraid I’ll leave.”
“That’s part of bein’ married too, isn’t it? Taking the shit you wouldn’t from anybody else because you know he takes it from you?” Starsky sat back and took his partner’s hand. “For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health—there’s gonna be a lot more ‘sicker’ and ‘poorer’ for us than for most, you know that, don’tcha, blondie?”
“For better or for worse, forsaking all others, until—” Hutch couldn’t force the rest of the sentence out. Death had been their close companion for so long he couldn’t bear to bring its specter into their bed. But Starsky understood.
“Hey,” he whispered. He stroked the blond hair, and then gently framed Hutch’s face with his hands. “Nothin’ to worry about, babe. The reaper took his best shot, and blew it. We’re gonna get those hundred and forty years. It’s our turn now.”
The kiss they shared was long and gentle. When Starsky sat back, he was still glowing, but there was a hint of the usual mischief in his eyes. “So, if we’re married, how come I never got a honeymoon?”
Hutch put the back of his hand to his forehead and assumed a hurt expression. “You’ve forgotten already, Starsky? I’m wounded! I thought we’d always have—Pine Lake.”
Starsky shuddered dramatically. “Bears. Snakes. Witches. Ugh!”
Stretching forward, Hutch nibbled gently at an earlobe and whispered, “You. In that indecently tight, red, sexy union suit.”
Starsky gave a soft sultry chuckle. “You just liked the way the buttons went all the way down.” He ran one finger slowly from Hutch’s collarbone over his chest and to the waistband of his briefs, then lightly and teasingly moved lower, tracing the outline of Hutch’s cock through the cloth.
Hutch grinned. “There’s a lot to be said for easy access.” He leaned back on his elbows, and spread his legs wider.
“There sure is.” Starsky’s hand moved inside the opening and gently took hold of Hutch’s erection. “Oh, and what’s this ‘wait ten minutes’ shit?”
“Sorry.” Hutch tried to look repentant. “Twenty. I meant twenty.” He laughed out loud at Starsky’s look of offended male vanity.
“You’re talkin’ pretty brave for a man in your position.” Starsky tightened his hold slightly, with a threatening leer.
“Oh, I don’t know, I’ve got thirty minutes—“ He broke off with a gasp as Starsky leaned over and licked the head of his cock with cat-soft strokes of his tongue.
“You were saying?” Starsky said with wide-eyed innocence, as he looked up. “Something about timing?” Then, just as Hutch got his breath back, Starsky did it again. The blond’s whispered curse made him laugh wickedly.
“You’re digging it deeper, blintz. I’m seein’ long cold nights ahead for a certain blond cop. Lumpy couch. Celebration strictly enforced.”
“That’s celibacy, turkey,” Starsky’s triumphant grin told him his partner had put one over on him again, “and, it works both ways, remember?”
“Still gotta pay, though. Do the crime, do the time.”
Hutch slowly ran his hands up Starsky’s thighs, brushing his thumbs along the soft inner skin in the way he knew drove Starsky wild. “Maybe I could do some community service? Work off the fine?” He could feel his partner’s soft shivers as he moved his fingers higher.
“I dunno.” The rough hunger in Starsky’s voice sent a thrill up the blond’s spine. “For an infraction like this, it could add up to a whole lotta hours. Think you’re up for it?”
Hutch met his partner’s eyes, and gave him the truth that defined their souls. “For you, always.”