Starsky left the office of Dr. Miranda Jones with a light step. He could feel the bounce that used to be as unconscious to him as breathing moving his feet along. Dr. Jones was good at her job. They’d had a good session, a very good session. And while this wasn’t the first time in the three months he’d been seeing the psychologist that he was glad he’d allowed himself to be talked into this kind of therapy, it was the first time he could feel measurable growth inside himself. Or maybe it was measurable peace? He knew one thing for sure—he felt happy and hopeful.
He wondered if Dr. Jones had had a plan to bring up that one word today, or if she’d been guiding him to this place for the last few sessions. The last few sessions where he couldn’t seem to shut up about his partner. When they had first begun, Starsky was still physically recovering from the assassination attempt. Mentally, he was in a fog, and emotionally—well, even he knew he’d been bouncing off the walls. One minute euphoric, but the next minute filled with rage. Then there was the depression. It was Hutch who’d found Dr. Jones, and Hutch who convinced him that having a trained professional to help him deal with all the crap left behind from almost dying—again—was a smart thing to do and no different than the therapy he was putting his body through. He remembered Hutch’s words as if he’d just spoken them this morning:
Honestly, Starsk, I’m so proud of you and how hard you’re working to get your body to heal and your muscles to do what you want them to do again—no one knows like I do how much effort you’re putting in. All I’m asking is for you to put a little time into your emotional recovery, too. It’s tearing me up to watch you struggle to find your balance again. Why can’t we get some help for that?
Starsky thought about how sincere Hutch had been that day and how much he wanted to help. He also knew there were no strings attached. If he chose not to go to the psychologist and to continue battling his demons privately, Hutch would stay by his side. Hutch would stay by his side because Hutch loved him like no other human being had ever loved him before. He loved him broken or whole. And it was with that love propping him up that Starsky was able to do one small thing to give Hutch some peace of mind: he’d go to the shrink, because he loved Hutch that much, too. And three months later here he was. Peaceful.
The Torino was parked right outside the office, in full sight of anyone who cared to know where he was. Starsky smiled at that as he found his keys, since it was so different from his first few sessions when he’d parked his car behind the office building in the most obscure spot he could find. He figured he could add that to the win column and made a mental note to tell Hutch.
He started the car and headed toward Venice Place. Hutch wouldn’t be home yet, but that was okay since he still had more decorating to do, and decorating for Christmas was always easier without Hutch offering his opinion on how many garlands one small apartment should hold. His partner was a smart man, but he never had the right answer to that question.
Starsky thought about the decorations he had in the Torino’s trunk and grinned, barely keeping himself from giggling like a twelve-year-old. Yes, he loved Christmas, and yes, he loved Christmas decorations, but this happy feeling surging through him came from the peaceful feeling now residing in his heart. He’d have to send Dr. Jones a poinsettia or something to go with her Christmas card.
The short drive to Hutch’s home only increased the feelings soaring through him, and Starsky hummed every Christmas song he could think of that contained the word peace.
Once on Hutch’s street, he parked behind a white caddy, one he instantly recognized as Huggy’s. What was Huggy doing here? Starsky wondered curiously as he exited the car. Before he’d reached his trunk to retrieve the decorations, Huggy came out looking a little irritated.
“Hug, what’re you doing here? Starsky asked, loading the bags into his arms. “Did you need me or Hutch for somethin’?”
“Did I need you?” Huggy said with narrowed eyes and a jutted chin. “No. It was your partner—your shit-wouldn’t melt-in-his-mouth, can you do me a solid, I’ll owe you one Huggy—partner who needed me—again—and then isn’t even home when I not only complete the favor, but deliver it to his sorry ass! Did I need you….”
“Hutch was running some errands and then going to his yoga class,” Starsky said and held a hand up when Huggy made a face. “He likes yoga, Hug, he’s been goin’ for about three months now. Says it strengthens his muscles without bulking him up and it’s increasing his… nimbility.”
“That’s not a word, Starsky,” Huggy shook his head and fished a large set of keys out of his front pocket. “Why don’t you try again?”
“It was a joke! Geez, what did my partner ask you to do that put you in a mood on a beautiful day like this during Christmas week?”
“I’m in a fine mood—I’ll have you know I am the king of charitable endeavors, but my back could’ve used a hand,” Huggy said.
“Your back could’ve used a hand with what?” Starsky asked. He loved Huggy but there were times his friend took the art of disarming conversation to levels that were confusing at best, and incomprehensible at worst. He wasn’t sure which one this was going to turn out to be yet. “Did Hutch ask you to fix something, because he’s actually better with a hammer than you are.”
Huggy issued an inelegant snort. “Sure he is, Starsky, all that nimbleness Hutch has now must make him swing a hammer like Grizzly Adams.”
“Doesn’t he use an axe?”
Huggy drew a pair of sunglasses out of his shirt pocket and put them on. “Ask Hutch, I have to go back to my paying work now. And please tell him I shoved everything into his closet…and I added a few things to his stash.”
“Stash of what?” Starsky asked, realizing that the conversation had definitely become incomprehensible. At least he wasn’t understanding it.
“As if you, Mr. Christmas himself, doesn’t know what I’ve been storing for Hutch for months… oh, and I suppose you can also tell him that I had a surprise delivery today and needed my extra storage closet emptied, which is why I had to deliver his stash to him, instead of him getting it from me tomorrow like we’d previously arranged.”
“Ah, that stash,” Starsky said, hoping his facial expression wasn’t telling Huggy that he had no idea what he was talking about. He smiled bigger, wanting Huggy gone so he could dash upstairs and see what was in Hutch’s closet before he got home. “Well, nice of you to bring it over, Hug. You have a good rest of your day.” Starsky juggled his packages so he could free a hand to give a friendly pat to Huggy’s shoulder and walked away.
“Don’t I always?” Huggy said.
Starsky didn’t bother answering, he just raised a hand in goodbye and hurried inside and up the stairs, curiosity burning through him. He knew Huggy hadn’t delivered a present for him that Hutch had hidden at his bar. Nope, Huggy thought he knew all about this mysterious stash. What have you been up to, Hutch? Starsky thought as he let himself inside the apartment and set the bags down.
Starsky had no problem with his conscience as he went to the closet to invade Hutch’s privacy. It was Christmas time, and snooping was practically a requirement. Besides, he was done with any secrets between them, and after his session with Dr. Jones he was done with keeping secrets from himself, too.
He opened the closet door and took a step backwards when he saw what was inside. If he’d had ten thousand guesses he wouldn’t have guessed this. Stacks of Barbie dolls, Hot Wheels, Tonka trucks, children’s books, and an assortment of Milton Bradley games met his astonished eyes. He estimated there had to be fifty or sixty items. At least. What was Hutch up to?
The sound of footsteps and jangling keys gave him enough warning of Hutch’s arrival to quietly close the closet door and hurry to the couch.
Starsky greeted his partner with a smile as Hutch entered the apartment wearing his yoga clothes and carrying an exercise bag. “Looks like you beat me here,” Hutch said with a smile of his own. “I didn’t stay for the meditation session today, just did the class. I was thinking I could get here in time to make us some lunch…but the best laid plans and all of that.”
“And all of that,” Starsky said. “Did you get the kinks stretched out? Was the pregnant lady there?”
“Yes, I did… I really think you should start coming with me, Starsk…and yes, she was. You know, she’s due on the 25th. That’s only six days away and she’s still the best in the class.”
“Her baby is due on Christmas day?” Starsky asked.
“Is Christmas still the 25th?”
“Then I guess she might have a Christmas baby,” Hutch said, carrying his exercise bag to the closet.
Starsky got to his feet so he could watch Hutch open the door. “Poor kid, his birthday will get watered down in all the Christmas excitement. He’ll probably never get a decent birthday present. Or, he’ll get a good birthday present but not much from Santa.”
“Starsk,” Hutch said, as he opened the door, “I’ve told you a million times, Christmas isn’t supposed to be about presents–”
Starsky wanted to laugh out loud at the open-mouthed stare on Hutch’s face, but he restrained himself and just enjoyed the moment. “You sure have, Hutch, and I’ve appreciated your explaining that to me so many times. Why don’t you put your bag down—I think you can probably set it on top of the stack of Barbie dolls—and come tell me some more about why people shouldn’t get caught up in crass commercialism and give in to the materialism shoved down our throats by advertisers and, who were those other people? Oh, yeah, toy manufacturers.”
“Um, yeah, um,” Hutch said. “This stuff…um, you know what, um…how?”
“You’re so cute when you’re articulate,” Starsky said, and this time the laugh building in his throat had to be released. “I mean, actually pretty adorable.”
“How did this stuff get in here?” Hutch asked. “And I can explain.”
“And I can’t wait to hear the explanation, so let’s sit down and you can give it to me.” Starsky walked the few steps to where Hutch stood and took his elbow. “Join me on the couch? It’s a little early for a beer, but I could make you a nice cup of tea if that’ll help while you’re explaining?”
Hutch gave Starsky a withering look. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
With a small shake of his head, Hutch freed his elbow and went to the couch to sit down. “They’re toys.”
“I saw that for myself,” Starsky said, sitting beside Hutch on the couch. “A whole lot of toys, and Huggy said he added a few to your stash. How long have you had a stash of toys hidden at the Pits?”
“Yes, Huggy delivered them—none too cheerfully I might add—because he had some surprise delivery and needed the storage space.”
“He could’ve called me.”
“While you were at yoga doing the downward doggie—that sounds so dirty by the way—or meditating? How could he have called you when you weren’t even home?”
“It’s called downward dog, not doggie.”
“Still sounds dirty.” Starsky received another withering look for his observation of yoga names. “But I digress.”
“Stop talking like a politician.”
“We’ve established that part, Hutch, how about a few more details.”
“They’re toys I’ve been gathering for kids.”
“Good to know you weren’t gathering them for yourself, although I wouldn’t mind having a Hot Wheels contest with you someday, but I don’t think either one of us knows how to stylishly dress a Barbie.”
“Toys for Tots, Starsky, they’re going to Toys for Tots,” Hutch said, and Starsky noticed the pink stain on his cheeks. “I’m taking them over tomorrow—they should have been there a few days ago but I wanted to get a few more trucks so I stretched it until payday, which was yesterday.”
“You have more trucks than the ones in the closet?”
“Three more in the trunk of my car. I bought them last night while you were wandering through Macy’s.”
Starsky sat back in amazement. He knew how kind Hutch was at his core, hell, when they’d first become partners, he had to wrestle Hutch’s wallet away from him more times than he could count before he gave all his cash to any one he perceived to be needy. After a while, though, the streets had hardened that instinctive kindness, especially the months before he’d been shot when Hutch’s cynical side threatened to overpower the gentle, caring side. The pendulum had started swinging back from the moment he first opened his eyes in the hospital to find a giddy, beside-himself-with-happiness Hutch hugging his nurse, but this? A closet full of toys for needy kids? He hadn’t seen this one coming.
“So, you’ve been buying a few toys out of each paycheck and storing them with Huggy?”
“Yes,” Hutch said simply. “It wasn’t like I was trying to keep a secret from you or anything—I don’t want any secrets between us—but you’re not supposed to brag about doing something charitable and I didn’t want you to think—”
“You thought telling me would be bragging? That’s one of the dumbest things you’ve ever said, and I have plenty to choose from! Why wouldn’t you have thought—no, known—that I’d want to help you get stuff for the kids?” Starsky asked, now feeling a little hurt.
“I knew that’s exactly what you’d want to do,” Hutch said, “which is why I didn’t want you to know.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
Hutch took a deep breath. “Starsk, what Gunther did to you hurt you in so many ways, and one of those ways was financially. You’re just getting back on your feet that way now that you’re back to work and making full checks instead of partial pay when you were out on disability. I knew this wasn’t the year for you to spend money you needed for everything else on toys—so I bought enough for both of us. I’m donating them in both our names, and next year we can buy them together. We’ll start early—earlier than I did this year—and we’ll have a pile put together in no time! Okay?”
Starsky’s pride had taken a lot of hits over the last six months, but Hutch had never been one of the ones delivering the blows, and he wasn’t now. He was stating the simple truth: money had been tight; medical insurance didn’t take care of everything, and Starsky knew Hutch had covered a lot of co-pays and pharmacy costs and therapy sessions himself in what he thought was without Starsky’s knowledge. But Starsky had known. He just hadn’t made a big deal about it, allowing Hutch to think he was being covert and clever. Besides, Hutch hadn’t done anything that he himself wouldn’t have done for his partner if it had been Hutch standing on the driver’s side of the Torino when the bullets started flying on that terrible day. There was no scorekeeping between them, so it was easy to smile and agree. “Okay, but next year we’ll make that stash of yours look tiny. The two of us putting our resources together…it’ll be wonderful!”
Hutch gave him a relieved grin. “Just like everything else we do together…wonderful!”
“So, just when did you start this little project of yours?” Starsky asked. “By the looks of it I’d guess it’s been going on for quite a while.”
“June. It was the night before I was going to finally take you home from the hospital. I’d just left you when that mean nurse—”
“You’ll have to be more specific,” Starsky interrupted.
“The one that hated me.”
“Again, I’m going to need you to narrow it down—”
“Shut up, smart ass, I know I wasn’t Mr. Popularity with your nurses—”
“Or my doctors.”
“Yeah, them, too, so let’s just say when one of your nurses asked me to leave the premises for the evening so that you could get some sleep—”
“I was so excited about gettin’ sprung in the morning that I had to pretend to go to sleep that night just so they wouldn’t give me another shot in the ass to make me sleep!”
“Yeah, I know. You were practically giddy when I left you, and I was pretty excited myself, so I thought I’d go to the mall and find you a little welcome home gift. Naturally, when I saw the toy store, I knew that’s where I’d find your gift.”
“I think I should be insulted by that comment, but I’m not…so, you got the idea of donating from the toy store?”
“They had a sign at the cash register saying it was never too early to plan to make a child happy. Since I was pretty damn happy myself, I thought what a great way to celebrate. I’d buy a few toys and we’d find a donation station at Christmas time, drop them off, and then go drink hot chocolate or something.”
“By ‘something’ you mean beer…Obviously, you didn’t stop with just a few.”
Hutch looked a little sheepish. “No, it was like something got under my skin. I wanted to buy the world a toy…so, I bought a few out of every paycheck and stored them at Huggy’s and you know the rest.”
Starsky could feel how big the grin on his face was. “Just think, if you’d bought me a grown-up present like a book or some cologne or something, you’d never have gotten your great idea!”
“Would you have preferred cologne?” Hutch asked. “Didn’t you like your present?”
“A thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of a T-Rex? Hell, yeah, I liked it. I loved it, and so did you.”
“God, how many nights did we spend putting that thing together? Remember trying to find the tiny pieces for the dinosaur’s tiny hands?”
“The tiny hands are hard to find in a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle,” Starsky said. “And it wasn’t that many nights—we’re pretty smart, you know.”
“Well, we might be pretty smart, but we had that thing all over your kitchen table for more than a few days and nights.”
“Good times, partner, good times…” Starsky trailed off, remembering his first few days at home on his own when Hutch had to finally go back to work. Remembering how much everything hurt and how much he didn’t want to take too many pain pills and how long it took to walk to the bathroom and how much even the simplest of things took maximum effort to accomplish. “I remember watching the clock waiting for you to get there every night. By the end of the day the minutes just dragged. I swear, you were the only thing keeping me sane.”
“I watched the clock, too,” Hutch said. “I hated having to work while you were stuck at home. I hated not knowing if you were okay or hurting or feeling upset. Hated it.”
“You called me about a dozen times a day, Hutch, so you always knew how I was.”
“It’s different when I can’t see for myself.”
“You’re a control freak.”
“Probably, at least when it comes to you,” Hutch said without a hint of apology. “You should know there’s little chance I’m ever gonna change.”
“I know that,” Starsky said, and laid his hand on Hutch’s knee. “After all these years, I’m pretty okay with you just the way you are.”
“Nice,” Hutch said. “I always strive to be ‘okay’ in life.”
“Mission accomplished, so you can relax…besides, it took someone as okay as you are to figure out that I needed a little extra fine tuning in my recovery. You found Dr. Jones for me…I’m not sure I ever really thanked you for that.”
“You thanked me by not socking me in the jaw when I suggested it and actually, you know, going. Speaking of which, did you have a good session this morning?”
Starsky kept his hand on Hutch’s knee. “I did. I had a very good session. Figured a few things out, even.”
“That’s great, Starsk,” Hutch said enthusiastically. “I thought you’ve seemed more like yourself the last few weeks, more relaxed, I guess? Can you tell me what you’ve been working on…what you talked about today, or does all of that have to stay between you and Dr. Jones? I don’t need to know or anything…I’m just happy you’re feeling better.”
“That’s a big fat lie; you want to know every detail,” Starsky said.
“Yeah, I do, I really do,” Hutch agreed. “Every detail. So, are you going to tell me?”
Starsky laughed. “One day. For now, I’m just going to tell you that we focused on one word this morning. And that one word kind of opened me up. Or opened something up in my head…or my heart…or whatever body part holds all the emotional stuff. I was off to the races, running my mouth like I was getting paid for every word I spoke, and not the one doing the paying to be heard.”
“Sounds like a powerful word,” Hutch said. “And it didn’t…hurt you…all this opening up? It helped?”
There it is again, all his caring, all his worry right there on his face for me to see. He’s been showing me forever, I can just see it so clearly now. “No, partner, it was good…it was the best. Once I looked at it head-on, no filters, no lying to myself, no pretending…it was the most peaceful feeling in the world. And that’s how I’m feeling right now. I know who I am, I know who I’m always gonna be, and I know what I want. The chips can fall any damn way they please, but I’ve got my truth now and nothing can take that away.”
“Geez,” Hutch said. “What the hell was the word that did all that for you?”
“Kissing,” Starsky said calmly. “The word was kissing.”
Hutch wore the expression of a man who had just had a bucket of ice water dumped on his head. “Kissing? I thought you were going to say heaven or Armageddon or, or…kissing?”
“Yes, kissing. It’s a powerful word when you think about it, Hutch. It’s a powerful act, the act of kissing. Really kissing. Have you ever thought about it?”
Hutch still looked a little stunned. “I guess I haven’t much, obviously nothing compared to the thinking you’ve given it. Seriously, kissing? You’re not jerking me around?”
“No, I’m not jerking you around. Give it a second and really think about how you feel when you know, you really know, you want to kiss someone for the first time.”
“Okay, yeah, it’s an exciting feeling…but you’re talking about feeling peaceful. I’m really confused.”
“Oh, I didn’t say I wasn’t excited, too, Hutch, ’cause I am. The peaceful part came from figuring out who I wanted to kiss and why.”
“You met someone?” Hutch asked, and Starsky could hear a trace of insecurity in his tone. “How’d you pull that off during the fifteen minutes a day we’re actually separated…or do I know this person, too?”
Starsky glanced down at the hand he thought was still resting on Hutch’s knee and saw that it had moved to Hutch’s thigh on its own volition. Neither of them had even noticed. “Yeah, you do, and yeah, I did…about twelve years ago. The best person I’ve ever known. The person I love more than anything on God’s green earth. That’s the person I want to kiss. And according to my doctor, it’s probably something I’ve wanted for a long, long time.”
Hutch closed his eyes for a moment when Starsky was done speaking, and when he opened them again they looked a little damp, and his voice was half an octave higher than usual when he spoke in barely more than a squeak. “Me? It’s me? You want to kiss me?”
“With everything I’ve got,” Starsky said and boldly squeezed Hutch’s thigh. “Everything. But, Hutch, just because I want this…and I’m not going to lie to you and say I don’t think you might want it too…but if I’m wrong about that…if you don’t. If the idea makes you want to run for the hills, I won’t bring it up again. Just the knowing. Just saying it to myself and saying it to you…I can stay at peace with that much and no more. I really can. You can go off and think about it for an hour or a day or a year, or you can never think about it again and we’ll still be fine. Our partnership, our friendship…we’ll still be fine. Okay?”
Starsky held his breath while he waited to see if Hutch had absorbed everything he’d said. While he waited to see if he’d just brought their world crashing down on their heads, or if the promise of heaven might be his for the taking. He’d played his highest card and shown his heart. He wouldn’t have to live in a closet, or suffer dreams that left him aroused and confused and lonely. If he couldn’t be honest with himself and with Hutch then what else in his life would ever mean a damn?
Hutch’s big hand covered the one he had on Hutch’s thigh. “I don’t want to run for the hills, Starsk. I don’t ever want to be anywhere that doesn’t have you in it. Without you, what would I have? Nothing. You’ve been all that really mattered to me for too long to remember…but I never thought this would be possible.”
“So, you have thought about it?” Starsky asked, feeling the stirrings of joy start to overwhelm the feeling of peace he was determined to be satisfied by. “I haven’t imagined that things have been…different between us since the hospital. More—”
“Intimate?” Hutch asked. “Is that what you were going to say? Because that’s what I’ve been feeling. That intensity that I’ve always felt for you started to feel…intimate.”
“Yeah, maybe that’s it…or maybe that intensity just needed to take a new form. I don’t know much, but I know what I know, and now I know what I want.”
“How’d we get here, Starsk? I mean today, right this second. What did you say to Dr. Jones to make her say the word kissing?”
Starsky smiled. “It turns out for the last three or four sessions I’ve done a lot of talking about you and the good doctor called me on it today. She asked me if I realized that everything always came back to you. Since I hadn’t exactly defined things that way, I asked her if she could explain it…instead of explaining it she asked me what I thought of when I thought about the act of kissing. I thought it was kind of an unusual question, but she is a doctor and all. So, I closed my eyes and thought about it and there you were—blue eyes shining, sweet lips smiling, and it was all so freaking clear and obvious.”
“And peaceful,” Hutch said.
“So, what do we do now?” Hutch asked. “Should we just try it and see what happens?”
“I think we both know what’s going to happen when we start kissing,” Starsky said, “so I vote we wait.”
“Wait for what?” Hutch said, and both looked and sounded disappointed. “Why should we wait?”
“Because I want you to have a little time to be sure—to be really sure—and because it’s almost Christmas and Christmas is all about magic…and love. I’d like our first kiss to be on Christmas Eve, with the tree lit and carols on the stereo—”
“And we’ll drink champagne—I’ll get us the best I can find.”
“Yeah, we’ll drink champagne,” Starsky agreed. “And we’ll toast our future. Our very bright and peaceful future.”
“And on Christmas morning—” Hutch started.
“I think we’ll wake up together on Christmas morning, partner, and I think we’ll be very happy.”