Swear to Thee

"Come on," Hutch grabbed his partner by the arm, tugging him towards the large house. They had been invited to lunch by an old friend of Hutch's, and Starsky really didn't want to go. Hutch had told him what was on the menu. Things like "Salade Nicoise", "Vichyssoise", "Ratatouille" and "Tarte Tatin" didn't sound like food that a person could actually eat. Hutch had assured him it was all perfectly normal.

"Couldn't we just go get a burger?" Starsky asked, one last time. Hutch simply glared at him, and dragged him up to the front door. Starsky knew he shouldn't have been complaining too much. He was just pleased that Hutch was even introducing him to these friends. It had only been six months ago Hutch had told his best friend that he was gay; for a long while he hadn't thought Starsky would accept it at all.

It was a month after Captain Blaine died, and Starsky was still having problem dealing with the fact that his friend, a man he'd known all his life, had been gay. Hutch had tried to get him over his shock and anger that Blaine had never told him, that he had hidden his life and himself. Starsky hadn't wanted to hear it, he hadn't really wanted to deal with it. He said as much, one night, when Hutch had broached the subject again.

"I'm sick of talking about it, you hear? I know he was gay. All right? I admit it- he was gay. But that doesn't mean I have to talk about it."

"Why? What's so wrong with understanding why he had to lie to you, to everyone?" Hutch was calm and collected, as usual.

Starsky decided he'd had enough. "Because I didn't want to know! I was... happy, not knowing he was gay. I don't care... if he was, then he was. I don't have a problem with that. I just wish I hadn't known."

Hutch looked surprised. "Why wouldn't you want to know? He was your friend, wouldn't you rather he wasn't afraid to tell you?"

"I would rather he hadn't been gay." Starsky had his back turned to Hutch, and missed the shocked, and saddened expression on Hutch's face. It was gone when Starsky turned back around. "But since he was... I just don't want to deal with it. I don't want to be asking myself... all those questions you ask yourself when someone you know... throws this at you." Starsky's tone was edged with anger, as well as what might have been disgust. He really hadn't wanted to deal with any of it. He had no problem with gay people in general, he just didn't want one of his friends to be one. He'd told Hutch that very thing, several times, when they'd discussed Blaine. He repeated it again, when Hutch said nothing in response.

Hutch simply stared at him, then nodded in defeat. "Well, if that's the way you feel, that's the way you feel."

Starsky nodded, staring down at his hands. He decided he'd better change the subject. "You want some spaghetti?"

"No, no -- I need to be getting home." He paused, giving his friend one last unseen look of disappointment, then left quickly without saying anything more.

Starsky stood in his living room, wondering why he kept telling himself he was right, why he had every reason to feel the way he did. He wondered why Hutch's questions and attempts to get him to accept Blaine's being gay bothered him so much. Maybe he had a lot more to think about than he wanted to admit. He moved towards the kitchen, planning on doing some of that thinking while he cooked. Then he realised he hadn't heard Hutch's car start.

He headed downstairs, and saw the heap Hutch called a vehicle still sitting by the curb. His first thought was that once again it hadn't started, in need of one more of a long list of repairs. He walked over, about to call out to Hutch, when he saw his partner sitting in the driver's seat, hand over his face. Hutch apparently hadn't heard him, and Starsky walked over, curious why his partner was simply sitting in his car. When he saw the expression on Hutch's face, his jaw dropped.

"Hutch?" He was standing right behind the driver's side door, close enough to reach out and touch Hutch's arm. Hutch looked up, startled, and quickly tried to wipe his face dry. Starsky leaned against the car, concerned, all thoughts of Blaine out of his mind. "Hutch, what's wrong?"

"I don't think you want to hear about it." Hutch snapped, though his voice lacked any real anger.

"Why not?" Starsky was genuinely confused. "Come on, Hutch. What's wrong?"

Hutch looked up at him, Starsky was taken aback to see the sadness and pain so clear in his eyes. For a moment it seemed as though he would speak, tell Starsky what was wrong, then he sighed and looked away. "Nothing. I'll see you at work tomorrow."

Starsky leaned in and snatched the keys out of Hutch's hand. "Hutch, tell me what's wrong."

Hutch's glare spun back towards him. "You just said you didn't want to know." This time his voice was sheer anger and frustration.

"What are you ta--" Starsky broke off. The only thing he'd said recently that he didn't want to know about was... friends being gay. "Oh god." He swallowed, and felt the blood draining from his face. "Hutch...."

Hutch wouldn't look at him. Starsky felt a surge of anger, wanted to say that he had meant it when he'd said he didn't want to know. He almost heard himself yelling that Hutch wasn't supposed to do this, be this, wasn't supposed to put him through this again. Then he stopped at the pain on his friend's face.

All this time, everything Starsky had said about Blaine... he was saying about Hutch as well. He wondered if he could take any of it back. He stepped back and opened the car door. "I think we'd better go back upstairs and talk."

"I'd rather not." From his resigned tone, it was obvious Hutch didn't expect to hear anything different than the things his friend had been saying for the last month -- and he really didn't want to face it anymore. Didn't want to face his best friend's rejection.

"Hutch... I know that what I said..." He stopped, and considered. He couldn't lie to Hutch. "I meant it, about not wanting to deal with something like this. But if my choice is to talk about it, or stand here and watch you thinking the things you've gotta be thinking.... Hutch, you're my best friend. I don't want to hurt you. I'd rather admit I was wrong, that I was stupid, that I shouldn't have believed any of the things I've said. It would be a hell of a lot easier than not being your friend anymore." Starsky felt his voice growing softer, the muscles in his throat tightening as he forced himself to say the words. As he said them, he knew they were true. "I'd rather learn to deal with anything, than stop dealing with you."

Hutch sat still, for a moment not even showing he'd heard Starsky. Then he slowly got out of the car.

Starsky stood quietly as Hutch rang the bell, knowing that he had to behave, or Hutch would give him no end of grief. Much as he liked giving his friend a hard time, there was no reason to embarrass him in front of his friends. Not unless they tried to make him eat snails. He hadn't understood the french Hutch had spoken, apparently in describing the meal they were going to have today. But he knew he wasn't going to eat anything he couldn't identify.

The door was swung open, and a lovely woman greeted Hutch with a wide smile, and a peck on the cheek. Hutch returned the kiss, and stepped aside to introduce Starsky. Starsky was taken slightly aback at the level of formal manners between two allegedly old friends, but did his best not to appear barbaric and uncivilised. He kept his amused grin to a friendly smile, as he watched Ms. Hattie Lamarr greet Hutch and himself, and take them both by the arms and guide them into the sitting room.

Starsky was able to avoid embarrassing Hutch, mostly because Hattie was such a fine hostess. Starsky imagined he could have tracked horse manure into the house and Hattie would have dealt with it without batting an eyelash. Starsky found himself drawn to her, finding himself being charming and witty in response to her conversation. He knew that underneath the make-up and rose print cotton was the body of a man. He also knew, after having spent less than an hour with her, that beneath that body lay the heart of a real lady. Starsky wished he'd worn a hat, so he could tip it to her as they left.

What was really funny, though, was the way Hattie treated Hutch. As they talked, Hattie was constantly checking on him, making sure he had enough to drink, did he need anything, was he comfortable, was the fan on too high and so on. Starsky was going to enjoy teasing Hutch about this, later. Oh, yes, he was going to enjoy it immensely

After lunch, though, it began to get on his nerves. Not simply because Hutch seemed so relaxed and happy -- he was soaking up the treatment Hattie was giving him like he'd been starved for it. But there was just something about the way Hattie was constantly... doing whatever it was she was doing. Starsky didn't understand it, but he was starting to find it annoying. She had been nice enough to him, that wasn't the problem. Just something he couldn't put his finger on. He didn't have much time to worry about it, though, as their long lunch was nearly over.

He watched as Hutch made the last of a string of compliments on the meal (which had turned out to be normal food after all, to Starsky's relief). Starsky smiled cheerfully as Hattie gave them another invitation to dinner in a few weeks, and gracefully accepted a kiss on the check. He smiled calmly as Hattie gave Hutch a similar peck on the cheek, made him promise to call, and ushered them out with the same unending grace with which she'd enchanted them during the entire visit. It made no sense that he should feel this way, Starsky knew that. But he did... and he needed to figure out why. Needed to figure out why he wanted to grab Hutch by the arm and tell him he could never, ever visit Hattie again.

A week later Starsky wandered into Huggy's place after work. He had dropped Hutch off at home, with only vague comments about going home himself. He was too distracted with the problem of Hattie Lamarr, and finally decided he needed help figuring it out. Huggy could be trusted not to tell Hutch about it, which was a definite advantage after all the work Starsky had put into convincing Hutch he could and did accept his friend's homosexuality. Starsky was afraid that there might be some things he simply couldn't accept, and that Hattie was one of them.

He ordered a beer and sat in a back booth, waiting until Huggy could get a free moment. Soon Huggy was sitting down opposite him, with that 'all right, go ahead and say it' expression on his face. Starsky set the beer down, and tried to outline the problem, beginning by describing the lunch affair.

Huggy listened, then tried to sum up what was making Starsky so upset. "So Hattie invited you two to lunch. I know about her, she's a wonderful lady and an amazing hostess. You should see the dinner parties she throws every winter's eve. She and Hutch go way back."

"Yeah... she is a good hostess. She was really nice, in fact. I... I dunno...."

Huggy gave him a small, calculating glance. "Was she pretty?"

Starsky gave him an honestly confused look. "I suppose, if you like that sort." Then his expression changed with comprehension. "But no, I didn't find her attractive. That isn't the problem."

With a small shrug, Huggy continued. "Ok, then. Does it bother you that she's a man?"

Starsky thought about it then shook his head. "I don't know. I mean, something really does bother me. I can't stop thinking about her, and how much I don't want Hutch anywhere near her. Much as I don't want it to be that, it... it might. Which is ridiculous, I mean, she's a great person, and a friend of Hutch's. Hutch really likes her, so I don't want to be weird about it."

"Did Hattie and Hutch ever date?" Huggy's measuring stare said that he suspected something, something about the way Starsky had said those last words.

"I don't know. Hutch never said." From Starsky's tone, Huggy suspected he had found what the problem was.

"Does it bother you, to think that they might have?"

Starsky shrugged, then slammed his bottle down on the table, venting his frustration. "I don't care, I just don't... I don't see why she had to treat him like that. Practically waiting on him hand and foot."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean the way she kept catering to him. Always asking if he needed a refill, was he comfortable -- she even held out his chair for him!" Starsky said it with annoyed disbelief, but he was getting angry again, just thinking about it. The way she had stood behind him at the table, holding his chair out, smiling at him, hearing Hutch's 'thank you' and seeing his satisfied grin.

"Sounds like she was being a good hostess."

"No, it was more than that. It was like... I don't know. It was like she was giving him the extra special treatment -- and he just sat there and let her," he groused.

"So, she has good manners, and Hutch appreciates that. So what's the problem?" Huggy had gotten lost. There didn't seem to be any problems, here. So why was Starsky so mad?

"Because she shouldn't be treating him like that!"

"Who should?"

Huggy's unexpected question almost tricked the answer off Starsky's tongue. He stopped it, before he said it aloud. But not before he knew what the answer was.

'I should.'

Starsky knew Huggy was waiting for his answer. His expression said he knew Starsky had figured it out, or was about to. Well, so he knew what the problem was -- but he didn't know why it was a problem. Why should he care? Finally Starsky began toying with his beer, and Huggy decided it was time to push again.

"So what's the problem?"

Wondering how exactly he could say this, Starsky tried to explain. "I don't like... that she knew to treat him like that. He obviously likes it... so why didn't he ever say anything to me about it?"

"Why would he tell you?"

"He should have." Starsky didn't know, although what he was beginning to suspect made him uneasy. "I think...."


Starsky sighed. Better to just say it, and deal with it. "I think... it feels like I'm jealous. Because she knew what Hutch liked, and I didn't." He took a swig of his beer, and shook his head. "But I don't understand why I would be."

For a moment Huggy just looked at him. The confusion in Starsky's voice was sincere. Carefully he asked, "So now what are you gonna do?"

"I don't have a clue." Starsky downed the rest of his beer, and waved a waitress over.

"Why not do what Hattie did? You know he enjoys that kind of treatment, so why not do it too?"

Starsky looked up, shocked. "I can't do that! I wouldn't know how to do those things. I don't know what to do. And what would I say when he asks why I suddenly start acting so differently? How am I supposed to tell him why I'm doing it?"

"Why would you be?" Huggy didn't sound at all surprised by the turn of the conversation, and he did his best to steer Starsky in the direction he was slowly heading.

Starsky looked down, uncomfortable. Hesitantly, he admitted, "Because he likes it."


"So I want him to be happy. I wanna...." Starsky let the words drift off, and took another drink of his beer.

"You want to what?" Huggy pried gently, hiding, for now, his grin.

Starsky bent his head until he was nearly saying it into the tabletop. "I wanna make him happy. I want to be the one who does those things for him. Not somebody else." Starsky took a long drink from the beer the waitress had just plunked down in front of him, not sure he wanted to hear Huggy's response.

Huggy let himself grin, and sat back. "Well it's about time."

"Huh?" Starsky looked over, blinking in confusion at Huggy's words.

"I said, it's about time."

"About time what?" He blinked at Huggy, totally lost by this turn in the conversation.

"About time you figured out you're in love with Hutch."

Starsky kept staring, mouth gaping open at the absurdity of the statement. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Huggy sighed. "I'm talking about how you feel about your partner. What you feel."

In a clear, very cold tone Starsky said, "I am not in love with Hutch. He's my best friend, true, and I love him as a friend. But I am not gay, so how the hell could I be in love with him?"

Huggy ignored the tone in his friend's words. "Gay or not, the fact remains that you love him. You're jealous of Hattie because of the way she treats him. Hell, Starsk, you had a fit last month when Hutch and Michael were going out. I though you were gonna break Michael's arm." Starsky glared over at his friend, mouth opening to explain and deny. Huggy kept talking. "I know Hutch thought it was because you still don't like his being gay. But if--"

"He told you that?" Starsky felt a cold wave hit him.

"That's what he said. Said you were doing a real good job of hiding how you felt... most of the time."

"Oh, christ." Starsky ran a hand through his hair, wondering how badly he'd screwed things up. He'd told himself, at least once a week since Hutch had finally confessed, that he would do everything he could to accept his friend's preference. He'd tried not to show how angry he'd felt when Hutch had introduced him to Michael. Hutch said they'd been seeing each other for a couple weeks, when Starsky had finally met him. Starsky would have sworn he'd been polite and damn near friendly all evening. It wasn't until afterwards that he starting slamming doors and kicking at chairs.

He realised suddenly that Hutch hadn't mentioned Michael at all after that night, until once two weeks ago when he'd casually mentioned they weren't dating anymore. Starsky shuddered. If Hutch had known how his partner felt.... Groaning, Starsky let his head fall into his hands. He'd promised he wouldn't hurt his partner. He'd promised to do everything he could to accept things, maybe even get to where he didn't mind. He'd been surprised by the internal resistance but had struggled to hide it. Apparently he'd failed.

And now Huggy was telling him why he'd been fighting it so hard. If -- and it was a big, hypothetical if -- it were true a lot of things would make sense. Why it had bothered him so much to deal with people unexpectedly being gay, and why he had tried so hard not to deal with any questions of that sort, until forced to. Why he'd felt so nervous, when he'd finally admitted to Hutch that he didn't mind that Hutch was gay. Why he'd felt so jealous about Hattie. Why it made him feel so good, to see Hutch happy.

"I'm not...." he muttered, unaware of how long Huggy had been watching him. He shook his head. "I can't be."

Huggy reached over, and grabbed his arm, pulling his attention back. "Look, no one is saying that you want to jump into bed with Hutch. What I am saying is that you love him. That is what you gotta deal with. Otherwise you're gonna stay angry and miserable, and you're gonna make Hutch miserable too, driving off anyone who tries to be nice to him."

Starsky stared at him for a moment, then sighed. He'd decided long ago that his best friend was more important to him that almost anything else in the world. If that meant doing something which might make someone think he was in love -- when all it really meant that he loved, cared, all the stuff a friend was supposed to feel, then that was all right. Subdued, he asked, "So what do I do?" The admission wasn't nearly as difficult or awkward as he might have thought.

"So now, you do what you said you wanted to do. Treat him the way Hattie did. But-" Huggy spoke over Starsky's attempted interruption. "Don't overdo it. You want to give him what he wants, but you don't want to make him think you've undergone a personality transplant. You don't want him to think you're faking it. Just a little bit, here and there. Just enough for him to notice."

"Then what?"

Huggy shrugged, like the answer was obvious. "Then he'll be happy." Slowly Starsky's smile grew, until he was returning Huggy's wide grin.

They walked down the hall towards the squad room, arguing about whether or not it was worthwhile to see the visiting Chiefs play that weekend. The argument was a mere formality, since they already had tickets. Something to pass the time during the ride to work. Starsky kept up his end of the argument, trying hard not to appear distracted. Hattie had told him that it was best to appear unaware of what he was doing -- act as though it was second-nature. Act as though he hadn't been worrying about it all morning. Such a little thing... a lot of little things, which Hattie had suggested.

She had been tickled by Starsky's phone call two days ago, and quite pleased when she heard exactly what he wanted. Starsky had spent several minutes making it very clear what he wasn't trying to do, and she said she understood. Something in her tone made Starsky think she understood too well, but he decided it didn't matter what she thought. Didn't matter what anybody thought, if Hutch was happy.

After promising not to tell Hutch, she'd given him a nice list of little things which would make him smile for several days on end. She'd even told him what order to start trying them, from the unobtrusive to the blatantly obvious. Starsky had been very glad no one was around to see the blush on his face during that phone call. Some of the things she suggested he knew he'd never do. It would give Hutch the wrong impression, and he didn't want to have that particular argument with his friend. Enough to simply make him happy, now and again.

But now it was time, now or never, no turning back, and he once again reminded himself to relax. Embarrassing himself now would be... embarrassing. He made another bid in the football game debate and moved one pace ahead of Hutch, just in time to open the door. He held it open, Hutch walked in ahead of him. Just as planned... Starsky wanted to laugh at himself, how easy it had been. So why were his palms sweating?

He wiped them on his jeans and headed for his desk, not even wanting to risk a look at Hutch for his reaction, telling himself there was no reason for his partner to have even noticed. Nothing unusual in Starsky's behavior, nothing worth remarking upon. Nothing to see here, keep moving along....

Little things like that occurred sporadically over the next few days. Starsky fetched their coffee, held open the occasional door, offered to drive them to work and said nothing at Hutch's usual comments about the quality of said driving. Nothing too acerbic, anyway. Starsky always managed to act as though he hadn't planned each thing well in advance, and Hutch was beginning to sport a tiny, satisfied smile. Starsky was amazed how enthusiastic he felt, planning something and seeing the results. He'd never thought that seeing Hutch happy would have this sort of effect on him. He knew it wasn't love, but it was nice. Very nice.

One afternoon they went to a cafe for lunch -- one Hutch had been after Starsky to try for months. Starsky had always refused, usually wheedling Hutch into agreeing to a taco or burger place. Today Starsky had casually suggested they try the cafe. Too surprised to question him -- or perhaps he didn't want to risk his changing his mind -- Hutch had simply nodded. Starsky didn't know if it was too soon to start paying for lunch; technically it was Hutch's turn. After a mental struggle which never showed on his face, he decided it would make Hutch suspicious. He wasn't ready to explain what the hell he was doing.

The food was fairly good, all in all, but the best part was the happy mood Hutch was in for the remainder of the day. Starsky felt his heart beginning to melt and he realised this sort of behaviour could become very easy, very quickly. In fact it already was. That wide, beautiful smile was all the encouragement and motivation he needed. He could live forever with that smile. Starsky quickly turned his thoughts to something else before he started blushing again.

Hutch, meanwhile, was feeling great. The last week had been wonderful, everything from the squad room coffee being drinkable to his car starting whenever he tried it, to the lack of aggravation from his partner. He figured the universe was setting him up for something, like perhaps an infestation of termites or reporters, but right now he didn't care. He was enjoying himself too much.

They were called to the scene of a jewel robbery the following day. Starsky squealed the car's tires as he skidded to a stop by the curb, surprising only the pigeons that were gathered nearby. The pedestrians were still gawking at the broken glass and uniformed policemen standing in and around the store. The detectives took out their badges, flashing them to gain passage through the mass of folks. The thieves were long gone, so there was no great rush as they walked up to the storefront.

Starsky didn't even notice that as he walked beside his partner, he'd reached out and placed his hand at the small of Hutch's back, guiding him through the crowd. Later he realised it was something Hattie had mentioned, and decided in retrospect it had simply been the natural thing to do, given the situation. At the moment he didn't think anything of it, and missed the purpose of the thoughtful glances Hutch kept sending him for the rest of the day.

That night they stopped at Huggy's, for a couple beers. Huggy greeted them as they wandered in, waving them towards a table and sending a waitress over with two bottles. "Well, if it isn't my two favorite bartabs, come to pay up!" Huggy smiled, as he joined them.

"Come on, Huggy. I paid you last month." Starsky chided.

"That's right. You paid me last month, for your tab the month before. Now you owe me for last month's tab."

Hutch laughed, and reached for his wallet. "How 'bout if I just pay for these two beers, Huggy?"

Starsky waved a hand. "No, now, wait a minute. It's my turn to pay for the beer. If I let you buy them you'll hold it over my head for the next two weeks." His tone was light, as if bantering with his partner was the only thing on his mind.

Hutch shrugged expansively. "Suit yourself." He smiled, perfectly willing to let Starsky pay. None of them said anything, as the waitress appeared with their drinks, and Starsky pointedly dropped a bill on her tray. His expression was a 'see there' one, which was laughed off by his friends. They slipped into the easy conversation of winding down in the company of good friends, sharing stories and beer.

At one point Starsky excused himself to use the facilities, and Hutch leaned forward as soon as he was out of earshot. "Huggy... do you have any idea what's gotten into him?"

"What are you talking about?"

In a conspiratorial whisper, he explained his partner's new, inexplicable behaviour, describing the whens and whats with a confused shake of the head. "Now does that sound like Starsky? Why in the world would he be doing it?"

Huggy shrugged. "When did this all start?"

Hutch thought about it. "I don't know. About a week ago." That bit of information didn't shed any light on his question.

"Maybe he's taking a correspondence course in manners," Huggy joked.

"Yeah, right. And he's practising on me?"

"He's not doing it to anyone else?" Huggy looked and sounded surprised. Almost.

Hutch thought about it. "No, he hasn't. In fact...." A few pieces fell intuitively together. "It's like he's... well it's like what Hattie always does. And he met her three weeks ago." Huggy just 'hmmed'. Hutch glanced over to him. "Maybe that's where he picked it up. But why on earth would Starsky treat me like Hattie does?"

Huggy was saved from answering, by Starsky's return. They smoothly changed the conversation before he reached the table, engaging him in a recount of the most recent Idiot To Be Arrested. Soon all three were laughing at the unfortunate man who'd had the grace to lose all four tires of his car in the right district to provide a bit of needed entertainment.

When Hutch would have ordered another round, Starsky shook his head. "No more beer. I need food."

"You want a sandwich? Carlos makes the best pastrami and mustard." Huggy was always willing to sell his friends food. Emphasis on 'sell'.

"Nah, thanks. I've got a chicken in the fridge, just waiting for me." He glanced over at Hutch, innocently. "You wanna come over for supper?"

"Depends. What were you planning on doing to the chicken?" Hutch grinned, thinking about a certain disastrous meal involving blackened chicken... and it hadn't been cajun food.

"I was gonna bake it. But for that insinuating remark, I think I'm gonna uninvite you."

Hutch returned his partner's affronted look with a laugh. "Sounds great. Hey, Hug, take it easy." Hutch stood, headed away from the table, and for a brief moment he felt Starsky's hand on his back, casually guiding him past, into the crowd. Such a simple thing, really, ensuring that one didn't bump into somebody. Which didn't explain the small shiver along his spine, or the warm feeling that he felt deep within him. He wondered again just what it was Starsky was up to, even as he realised he enjoyed this new demeanor.

The ride to Starsky's place was a silent one, each man lost in thoughts remarkably similar to the other's. Starsky was wondering how much he could push this dinner, whether or not he should leave it as a simple meal like the hundreds they had shared before. Or whether he could do it they way he really wanted to, with candles and wine and elegance. He told himself there was nothing odd with two friends enjoying a nice, quiet dinner.

Hutch was thinking back on all the things he'd seen his partner do, trying to understand why. The only thing he could think of, was that Starsky had seen Hattie doing it, and for some unknown reason decided to do it to. He decided he might simply have to ask Starsky, what was going on.

When they walked into Starsky's place, Starsky started jabbering, continuing whatever conversation they'd had earlier. Nervously he talked about cases they were in the middle of, hoping the comfort of work would deflect any untoward thoughts. He'd decided against indulging himself in revealing his sentiments, though he dearly wanted to. He felt embarrassed by what he wanted to do -- afraid it would mean something he didn't want it to mean. It was easier to bide his time and wait until... he wasn't sure for what. He went into the kitchen and began preparations for dinner. On some impulse, he took out a teapot and filled it.

"Hey, Starsk?" Hutch's quiet voice interrupted the stream of patter.

He looked up, saw those deep serious blue eyes fixed on him, and felt his insides turn to water. "Yeah?" His mouth shouldn't have been so dry, not when there was no wine to dampen it with. Romantic dinners were always served with wine, weren't they? He had no wine, which was probably just as well. It couldn't be mistaken for a romantic dinner without wine. Starsky continued with the chicken, glad of this easy task to busy him.

Whatever Hutch had been about to say dropped off, in a quick surge of uncertainty. Perhaps he'd been misinterpreting Starsky's actions; perhaps he'd simply been seeing things that weren't really there. Surely, if Starsky had been doing something, intentionally, then Huggy, at least, would have known about it, seen it himself and wondered why. No doubt, then, he was only imaging that there was a reason for it all. He caught sight of the stove, and changed his question. "You're making tea?"

Starsky brushed aside the question, as if it were not unusual. "Yeah, well, I just felt like tea. You want something else?"

"No, no tea's fine." Hutch gave his partner a measuring glance, as Starsky's attention was fixed on the various spices he was applying to the chicken. Hutch knew, for a fact, that Starsky didn't drink tea unless someone else gave it to him. The fact that he even had a teapot surprised him. He looked over at it and realised that he'd never seen it in his partner's kitchen before. He wondered why Starsk had gotten it, which led him to wonder again why he was making tea. He hadn't arrived at any answers by the time it whistled, and Starsky took down two mugs and handed them over to Hutch.

Hutch filled each mug, then asked, "Where's the tea?"

Starsky pointed, and Hutch found a brand new box of tea, which had never been opened. As he set each bag in its mug, and set them aside to seep, he tried to figure out if this was another clue in the puzzle of Starsky's new manners. As Starsky placed the pan of chicken in the oven, Hutch calmly asked, "When did you start drinking tea?"

"Oh, Hattie said--" He froze, realising he'd been caught off-guard, saying the words that were true, and for which he was not prepared. Swallowing, he waited.

"Hattie said? She said you should start drinking tea?" Hutch couldn't believe it. Again, because of Hattie, Starsky had started doing something totally new, totally un-Starsky. He was bewildered.

Quietly, Starsky corrected him. "Hattie said you liked tea. She told me this kind... was your favorite." Starsky felt his heart pounding. He didn't look up at Hutch, afraid to see his expression, afraid of what Hutch might say.

For a moment Hutch said nothing. His question had been answered, sort of. Starsky was doing all these weird things to be nice to him. Which lead, of course, to the next, more puzzling question -- why did he want to be nice? He had a suspicion that if he asked, Starsky would shrug it off with a reasonable deflection, and avoid the real answers. For now, he said of the tea, "It is."

Hutch saw as a bit of tension left Starsky, as if he'd been afraid he'd misremembered the name of the Ceylon tea and gotten the wrong kind. They picked up their mugs tenderly, as if the mugs represented what was still unspoken. Hutch moved into the living room and sat on the couch while Starsky continued to hover near the kitchen, setting the table and finding something for a side dish. Without a word, he defiantly got out his good dishes, setting a table like the one he'd talked himself out of.

Meanwhile Hutch was still trying to understand. It occurred to him, suddenly, that if Starsky had been someone else, he would have already come to a particular conclusion. He would have been touched, impressed, and no doubt well on his way to being won over by the affections of a hesitant suitor. But this was Starsky, and that explanation was surely ridiculous. Although it would explain a lot.

He turned his head, intending to treat this the way it surely must be, something nice and casual between friends. He stopped as he saw Starsky finishing with the table, saw the way everything was set out as if for a special occasion. He saw how Starsky was still moving about, nervous, tense, uncertain. Hutch realised it was time to stop leaning back and enjoying himself. He got up, and walked over to the table.

"It looks nice." His voice was calm, matter-of-fact, as if he weren't touched by the gesture.

"Thanks," Starsky muttered, deep in mixing salad. Hutch noticed how his stance was back to its strung-wire tension. He stepped up beside Starsky. "You want some help with that?"

A perfectly natural gesture, reaching out to take the salad fork from Starsky's hand. A gesture which should have been met with a friendly thanks and letting Hutch take over the chore. Instead Starsky jerked his hand out of the way, and stammered out a no thanks.

Hutch decided it was time to say something. He carefully placed his hand on Starsky's arm, drawing Starsky's gaze finally up to meet his. It was impossible to miss the timidity in Starsky's eyes, the doubt and anxiety. He wondered how best to say it, how best to ask his best friend why he was suddenly acting like a man reluctantly in love. Hutch smiled. "Thank you."

Starsky blinked in surprise. "For what? Dinner?" He'd seen the look in Hutch's eyes, and knew the jig was up. He'd expected an accusation, or the insistence of a question that he would have to finally answer. He tried to remember how he'd planned to deny what he knew Hutch would say.

"For everything. All of this, everything you've done."

Starsky looked away, guiltily. "I'm sorry, I-" He stopped as Hutch placed a hand on his chin, and turned his face back to face him. Hutch gently stroked his cheek, and the look in his eyes said everything neither had never dreamed of finding. Starsky frantically searched for some way to explain, something to say which would make this all make sense. Before he could open his mouth Hutch easily leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on Starsky's lips.

A part of Hutch's mind was screaming that if he was wrong, he would never live down the merciless teasing his partner would inflict. When he realised Starsky hadn't moved, he realised he might have to start enduring it tonight. He stopped, when he saw the scared uncertainty in Starsky's eyes.

"I'm not...." Starsky whispered, not sure what he wanted to protest.

Hutch smiled gently, as the last piece fell into place. "Starsky, you've put a lot of effort into seducing me... and it has definitely worked. Of course you never needed to, but I'm very glad you did. I've loved you for a long time, Starsk."

Starsk shook his head, slowly, staring at Hutch, still desperately trying to find a way to say it wasn't so. The fire that still burned across his lips made it hard to think. "I can't...." Tears glinted in the deep blue of his eyes, as Hutch watched his friend lose a battle he should never have been fighting. "I just wanted to make you feel good."

Hutch smiled. "I'd say you found a pretty good way." He felt as if his heart was going to burst in two, from the unexpected treasure he'd received. He wanted to take it in his hands, hold it close and find ways to love it forever. But the treasure moved suddenly away.

"The chicken's gonna burn again."

"It's only been in there ten minutes." Hutch reminded him, as he switched off the oven.

"Yeah, but-"

Hutch reached out and pulled Starsky's arm, holding him within reach but no closer. "There's nothing to be afraid of. Not here, not when we're alone."

His partner looked up at him, eyes wide and distressed. "That's what I'm most afraid of."

"Starsk, do you love me?"

For a long silent moment Starsky couldn't answer, couldn't even hear the answer that sounded inside him. His mouth opened, moving as he tried to find a way to say what he wanted most desperately to say. What he was scared wasn't true. "I can't...."

Quietly, Hutch asked, "Do you?"

"Yes." Starsky swallowed, body trembling and looking as if he might bolt from the room if he thought it would help.

Hutch tightened his grip ever so slightly on Starsky's arm, and leaned closer, carefully not brushing against him. "I love you, too."

Hutch watched, as Starsky ripped himself away and ran for his room, door slamming shut behind him. He'd heard the choked cry, as Starsky had tried to escape. He picked up his mug of tea and stared down at the nearly black liquid, watching the oil forming swirls along the surface. Then he sat down on the couch, and waited for his friend.