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Manhattan was built on bedrock. In some areas downtown the bedrock is within inches of the soil's surface, ever reminding inhabitants of the steel beneath her skin.

                                                                                   

—Armando Leigh

           

Three nuns and a pound of hashish, Starsky thought with disbelief, his fingers pecking at the typewriter keys as he entered his report.

"Hutch," he said, looking up, "what was the name of the nun who was in possession of the statue?" His notes were a mess, mostly because he'd been laughing so hard he'd spilled his soda while reading them back to Hutch in the car.

"Sister Kathleen," Hutch said, smiling lazily. He was lounging back in his seat, obviously enjoying the rare sight of Starsky doing the typing. "What I don't get is how they can stand to wear those black outfits in this heat." Hutch shook the collar of his shirt.

The smell of his cologne drifted over, and Starsky raised his head again. "How many 'P's in 'replica'?" he asked.

"One. And one in 'blasphemy'," Hutch said, his mouth now in a sly grin.

Starsky grunted in almost-amusement and went back to typing. Someday I'm gonna wipe that little smirk right off those perfect lips. He knew just how he'd do it, too, and had been aching to for a while now. Gonna plant my lips right on that kisser, Hutch, and watch you turn all shades of red. Someday. Maybe. Or maybe not. The problem was, he wasn't sure what would happen right afterward.

The phone rang. Hutch tilted forward to hook the receiver.

"Hutchinson. Yes?" Something in his tone made Starsky look up. "Yeah, David Starsky is here. Hang on."

Hutch covered the mouthpiece and said quietly, "NYPD." He raised his eyebrow and the simple gesture spoke volumes.

Nicky again, I'll bet, thought Starsky, wondering what trouble his little brother had gotten into this time. That damned kid. He reached across the desk and Hutch passed him the phone.

"This is Detective Starsky." Might as well let them know I'm on the job.

"Detective? This is Elijah Moore with NYPD Homicide."

Starsky heart thunked. Oh, kid. Bad, very bad.

"Yeah, what you got?" he said, hearing the gruffness in his voice that passed for dread.

"You are the son of Mrs. Muriel Starsky?"

Oh, God. Momma? Starsky looked up in alarm, catching Hutch's eye. "Yes. Yes, what is it? Has something happened?"

"I'm afraid so, Detective. I'm sorry to have to tell you this…but your mother was found this morning in her apartment. I'm afraid she's dead."

Starsky was barely aware of rising to his feet, his surroundings a blur, his heart pounding heat to his face in a rapid pulse while the rest of his body grew cold. He was numbly conscious of the continued buzzing in his ear, and knew he should be listening, but he couldn't think around the sudden panic in his head, the sensation of the ground sliding out from beneath him, his mind petrified with fear. Then a gentle hand took the receiver from him before lightly touching his shoulder, pushing him back down into his seat and holding him there.

"Hello? This is Detective Hutchinson, David Starsky's partner. Can you please repeat?"

Starsky felt Hutch squeeze his shoulder tight, and then he knew—knew it was real, not some crazy bad dream. He started to try to rise again, but Hutch held him fast, still talking, the words making no sense to his ears. Finally Hutch hung up the phone.

Starsky tried to speak. "I gotta...I gotta...." Got to what? Oh God, my mom is dead. I can't—"

"Hang on, babe. Please." Hutch picked up the phone again and dialed. Starsky heard him say something about flights. He slumped with relief. He couldn't for the life of him, at this moment, figure out how to get a plane reservation. Or call a cab. Or tie his shoes. His brain was caught on the one track, an endless repeat.

My momma is dead. My momma is dead.

~*~*~

Hutch kept one eye on the road and still managed to keep both on his partner as he drove the Torino to Starsky's apartment. It was unsettling to be driving the Torino with Starsky in the passenger seat. He'd only done it once previously, and Starsky had crabbed and bitched so much Hutch had never done it again.

But there was no crabbing this time. Starsky was still in the same numbed state of shock that had apparently paralyzed him upon hearing the news. Hutch wasn't surprised. Although he had no such closeness with his own mother, he knew Starsky called his mom once a week on Friday nights like clockwork, and had called her just the night before. It was the only thing, other than work, that he allowed to interfere with his dating schedule. Mother and son were very close, despite the distance and the fact that Starsky had been sent away to spend his teen years in Bay City after his father had died.

Sometimes, Hutch had envied them that closeness. He'd only met Muriel once, when she'd come for a stay while Starsky was recovering from the shooting, but that once had been enough for Hutch to see exactly where Starsky had acquired both his charisma and his stubbornness. Muriel had made use of both in her determination to try to loosen up Hutch during her visit, but he'd felt too uncomfortable, alien to the type of warm family atmosphere that Muriel was trying to foster in Starsky's home.

Hutch had just always been better at giving comfort than receiving it, and he'd sensed her exasperation with him over the ensuing weeks.

"She told me you were cold," Starsky said suddenly, shocking Hutch with the quiet statement—his own thoughts, but from the other side of the mirror.

Starsky continued, "She couldn't understand how I could be friends with you. Said you were like a frozen fjörd."

"She tried real hard with me, I guess," Hutch said, an apology in his voice. He kept his tone soft, afraid Starsky would sink away again.

"I tried to explain to her," Starsky said in that same, deadened voice. "I said, 'You gotta understand Hutch, Ma. The cold is just a front. Took me almost a year to figure it out, myself.'"

Hutch flushed, not appreciating the frank assessment. On the whole, he'd prefer the usual insults to this raw honesty.

Starsky went on, oblivious. "I told her you were really nothing but a big marshmallow, but I don't think she believed me. But then, she thought you were a little too blond, if you get my meaning."

It took a moment, but Hutch did. "There's a good distance between Norway and Germany, buddy."

"Yeah."

It hurt a little, thinking Starsky's mom hadn't liked him. But then he only had himself to blame. "I'm sorry I wasn't—"

Starsky cut him off with a quick gesture, and Hutch lapsed into silence. In his occasional glances over he saw the same, putty-like mask over Starsky's features, as if using his facial muscles would take too much effort. Or as if he were afraid to allow himself any expression at all.

At Starsky's apartment, Hutch helped him pack, and then pushed him into a chair and brought him a beer, squatting before him.

"Starsky, you with me?"

Starsky sipped listlessly at the beer.

"There's something I have to tell you…."

Starsky's eyes rose to meet his for the first time since they were in the squad room, and the pain in them nearly robbed Hutch of speech.

"What more?"

"On the phone...Detective Moore told me...they tried to notify Nick," Hutch said slowly, then pushed the words out with more haste, "but he's missing, Starsk." Hutch swallowed and waited for the reaction.

"Nicky?" Starsky frowned, and then shook his head as if it were too much to take in. It was a long moment before he spoke. Then he shivered and dropped the bottle to the carpet, letting his head fall into his hands. "God. God. I didn't even ask how it happened!" He raised his head. "Do you know, Hutch?"

Hutch nodded dumbly, his tongue a frozen lump.

"How?" Starsky whispered.

His eyes were pleading for the impossible. Hutch couldn't speak for a moment, wishing with everything he had that he could provide it. But surely Starsky knew. Homicide made the call, babe. He looked down and righted the beer bottle, saying softly, "I'm sorry. She was...strangled, Starsk."

Starsky's face drained to white and he suddenly jumped up from his chair, knocking Hutch over in his haste to get to the bathroom. The door slammed and then Hutch heard him puking. It was a familiar sound. For quite a while after Gunther's bullets had done a number on Starsky's intestines, food had been an enemy to him.

Hutch got to his feet to hang outside the door, but the sounds quickly ended, followed by the sink running and then heavy footsteps. Hutch backed off.

Starsky came out, looking like pure death. He went over to the chair to sit down again, his head sunk between his shoulders. Hutch crouched next to him and waited.

Finally, Starsky spoke. "My momma was murdered, Hutch." His breathing turned erratic, speeding up until he was nearly panting, his chin on his chest. Hutch recognized the fight for control, and resisted putting his hands out to comfort him, knowing that would just make it harder.

When his breathing had slowed, Starsky looked up, his eyes overly bright.

"She was murdered."

"Yes."

"I have to go do my job, then."

Hutch pressed his lips together, knowing it wasn't the time for lectures about jurisdiction or objectivity.

Starsky seemed to struggle with his words, and then he asked, plaintively, "Help me? Come with me?"

"Already bought my ticket, buddy," Hutch said gently. "We're both leaving tonight."

He was almost knocked on his heels by the gratitude in Starsky's gaze, which held him until the heavy lids dropped over his reddened eyes.

Hutch picked up the beer bottle and nudged it into Starsky's hand.

"I need to make some calls, then we'll head over to my place to get my stuff on the way to the airport.

Starsky nodded and leaned back against his seat. Hutch went to make the calls.

By midnight, they were on the red-eye to LaGuardia.

~*~*~

 

New York. Every time I'm back, I remember why I left, Starsky thought as the cab zipped down Broadway. Not that Starsky had had much choice in leaving, but he'd always intended to return. If not to Brooklyn, then to Manhattan or even Flushing, where his mom had re-settled to be closer to her sister, Martha. But Martha had died five years ago of cancer, and his mom and Nick had moved to Washington Heights, where the rent was cheap and the neighborhood seriously dicey.

Starsky had spent hours on the phone trying to convince her to give up on New York altogether and join him in Bay City, but Muriel refused to leave Nick. Never did stop treating him like a baby. She made me grow up too fast, and Nick never at all.

Starsky rubbed his face, feeling a little guilty for his critical thoughts. Ma is dead. Every time the thought struck him he had to try to accept it all over again. Fresh tears wavered in his eyes, turning the streetlights to smeared prisms, before he banished them by rolling his eyes back and letting the moisture dissipate. The ache in his throat, which had been dogging him since the phone call, swelled painfully, and he swallowed against it. Next to him, he could sense Hutch shifting in his seat, his entire posture shouting his concern.

Hutch had made all the arrangements. From the moment he had taken the phone from Starsky's shaking hand he had been guiding him through every moment. Without him, Starsky was pretty sure he would have run through the halls of Parker Center straight to the Torino and tried to drive to New York.

On the plane Starsky had, to his own surprise, fallen asleep for a little while, curled in an uncomfortable slump by the window. When he woke up his head had migrated to rest on Hutch's shoulder, and Hutch's soft leather jacket was wrapped around him.

The sleep had helped. He was functioning a little better now, and felt he could contain his emotions long enough to get done what needed to be. Starsky looked a little more alertly out the window and noticed that they had already passed 140th Street and were still heading downtown.

"Hutch, where we going?" he asked, puzzled.

Hutch turned toward him, looking relieved. It was then that Starsky realized he had spoken maybe two words since Bay City.

"I got us a hotel room on the Upper West Side."

"But—"

"We can't stay there, Starsky," Hutch said, his voice matter-of-fact, but his eyes gentle.

Oh. Right. It's a crime scene. My momma's apartment is a crime scene. Starsky felt the knot in his throat swell again, and he pushed away the images popping into his head of yellow tape and white chalk outlines.

"Hutch, maybe they made a mistake. I-I mean, even we do sometimes with the identification—"

The terrible compassion in Hutch's eyes stopped him dead, and he swallowed again, turning his head to watch the streets pass. He saw the gates of Columbia University, caught a memory, and hung onto it as a welcome distraction. He had fallen in love with a Barnard girl once while visiting one summer. Hot steamy nights riding the train uptown to picnic and watch the fireflies come out at the Cloisters. She was Catholic, and really got off on the location. What was her name? Kathleen. Just like the nun.

He wondered if Kathy had become a nun.

His brain shut down, and when the cab stopped at 86th Street he let Hutch do everything, accepting his bags and waiting passively to be led into the hotel lobby and then up to their room.

There was only one bed, but it was king-sized. "Short notice," Hutch said, and Starsky nodded. It was the middle of tourist season. Not a bad place. He wondered how Hutch had found it.

"Shower?" Hutch asked.

Starsky shook his head. "You go first." He dropped his bags by the closet and went to the window to look down at the City. He heard Hutch go into the bathroom and sighed, glad to be alone for a little while. He hadn't been since this whole thing started.

He let it out then, just a little bit, easing the controls, but the howling dark made him clamp down again quickly. Not ready.

Hutch came out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist, and went over to his suitcase. Starsky took his turn inside. The cool shower was a relief after the humid cab ride. He'd forgotten how dirty New York made him feel during the summer, even at night.

When he got out of the bathroom he found Hutch sitting on the bed wearing nothing but his jeans. He had a subway map unfolded but looked up quickly.

"So...."

"So," Starsky repeated.

Hutch smiled a little, a tightening of the lips that didn't touch his eyes—his version of a grimace.

"Starsk, you have to tell me what you want to do. It's too late to try to reach Moore. But we could go up to the 33rd Precinct and...." Hutch didn't finish but his eyes flickered away and Starsky heard the rest.

Visit the morgue.

"Or?"

"Or, we could, you know, take a nap, hit the 33rd when we've had some sleep. It's up to you, buddy."

"Sleep," Starsky said without trying to think about it.

A flicker of surprise crossed Hutch's face, but then he said, "Yeah. Tell the truth, I'm pretty tired."

"Tired, yeah." Starsky crossed over to where he'd dumped his bags and grabbed some underwear and a T-shirt. He dropped his towel and put them on, conscious of Hutch behind him also undressing for bed.

Starsky crawled in and turned away from the center, not wanting to encourage any talk. The bed dipped as Hutch got in, and then Starsky heard the telltale sigh of concern, but ignored it. He didn't want to think. He didn't want to feel, which was no tough trick since he hardly had the energy to breathe. The bed shifted and Hutch turned off the sole bedside light, blanketing them in darkness.

"G'nite, Starsk," Hutch said softly. When he didn't say anything further, Starsky relaxed, sinking into the mattress.

"G'nite," he mumbled, and made the world disappear.

~*~*~

Hutch opened his eyes. Gray morning greeted him through the soot-dusted panes of the hotel window. Starsky was still crashed out beside him, one hand buried under his pillow, dark cluster of curls hiding his profile.

Buddy. Christ, I'm sorry. The memory of the previous day's events returned, and Hutch's heart went heavy in his chest, painful with his desire to do something to ease his partner's grief. But there was no cure for this. The only thing that could bring Starsky even a measure of peace would be to find the person responsible.

Hutch couldn't help thinking, somewhat guiltily, that the missing little brother might have something to do with it. He only hoped that Nick would be found, alive and healthy, so they could ask him some important questions. And if Starsky wasn't able to ask the hard ones, Hutch damned well could.

He eased carefully out of the big bed and padded into the bathroom to shave and shower again. By the time he was out, Starsky had risen and was just hanging up the phone.

"Called out for some breakfast," he mumbled. Hutch nodded and went to his suitcase seeking some fresh clothing. He yanked off his towel and pulled on a pair of boxers, conscious as he did so that he was being watched. He wondered a little at it, but when he turned he found Starsky's eyes were fixed on the dresser beside him, apparently staring at nothing.

There was a knock at the door, and Hutch opened it, taking the tray from the waiter and handing over the tip he had ready.

"Breakfast's on," Hutch said. Starsky just grunted and joined him at the table. They sat and drank and ate in silence, until finally Hutch stammered out the suggestion that had been on his mind.

"Starsky...if you want, I can—I can make the ID." He waited for a heated response but, again, Starsky surprised him.

"Okay, yeah. I think that'd be good." Starsky wouldn't meet his eye.

Jesus. He's a wreck. Hutch just nodded and finished his coffee and a couple of the rolls, while Starsky went to get showered and dressed.

A cab dropped them at the 33rd Precinct. They were still a little too early to meet Moore, but Starsky hadn't wanted to wait any longer, and Hutch could understand his impatience to be done with the horrible task. So they asked at the front desk and got directed downstairs to the morgue.

Just as they approached, Starsky tugged at Hutch's arm, pulling him to the side.

"I want to do it...if I can—just let me know if it's okay, I mean." Starsky was looking down and to the side, his face pale.

Hutch nodded his understanding, and saw Starsky stiffen his shoulders. They pushed through the double doors side-by-side, but then Starsky hung back as Hutch approached the white-coated staff member. The man, a skinny, pale young guy with sandy brown hair, greeted him with a circumspect smile.

"We're here to identify Muriel Starsky," Hutch said without greeting, conscious of his restless partner at his back.

"Sure. Uh, how do you spell that?"

"Starsky. S-t-a-r-s-k-y."

The man consulted a clipboard and then walked over to the cooler units, bending low to open a door and then pulling out the heavy, white-draped shelf. Hutch swallowed hard and approached.

The lab attendant pulled back the sheet just enough to reveal the face, and Hutch reluctantly looked down. Muriel Starsky, as Hutch recalled her, had soft brown eyes and wavy brown hair. Her eyes were closed now, and her face hardened by the rigors of death, the brown hair tangled, but she was easily recognizable as the woman he remembered, and her face looked undamaged, if a little darkened.

Hutch looked up and gave Starsky a look.

It seemed to take Starsky forever to take the ten steps over to join him, and then he, too, looked down.

After a long moment, Hutch heard him swallow, and then say, in a choked voice, "That's her. That's my mom."

The attendant nodded. "I'm very sorry, sir. I have some papers for you to sign, if you'll follow me to the office?"

It took a long time for Starsky to respond, and then he said, "Yeah." His posture was completely stiff, as if he were a corpse himself. Hutch took a deep breath and then reached out to touch his arm, but Starsky pulled away and looked up.

"Where?"

"Please go to the office," the attendant said, waving his hand, and Hutch understood. Better not to have Starsky watch his mother being entombed once again in the cooler. Hutch waited until Starsky turned, and then positioned himself behind him, trying to ignore the sound of the drawer rattling.

Of all the morgue visits he'd ever made, this was the worst.

~*~*~

"You mean you got nothing?" Starsky's voice was rising steadily, and his fingers were tapping his thigh.

"It would help if we knew where the hell your brother was," Detective Moore said. His light brown eyes were angry, reflecting his irritation at being questioned and his own frustration at the lack of meaningful evidence on the case. Hutch had been where the man sat more times than he could count, and so had Starsky.

"Ease up, buddy," Hutch said under his breath, and Starsky shook his head, but he leaned back in his seat a little and sighed.

"I wanna see the apartment," Starsky said, his tone lacking the previous anger, but no less firm.

"I'll take you there myself," Moore said, "as long as you understand that you aren't on the job here." He waited for the nod from Starsky, and then stood and shrugged on a brown leather jacket. Seeing him standing, Hutch realized the homicide detective was his equal in height, but much thinner. His gangly frame reminded Hutch of another friend of theirs, and he smiled faintly, wondering how Huggy was doing. He'd have to remember to call him from the hotel and give him an update.

Moore pointed to the door. "I'll take you to the scene and maybe you can help me determine if anything has been stolen. I have to warn you, though, the place is a mess. Whoever it was tore everything apart in a search of some kind." His eyes were sympathetic, but with a tinge of wariness as well. Hutch was only too familiar with the emotions he read there. There was always a concern that the victim's families would lose it when seeing the scene. And, in this case, Starsky was the victim.

And it was Hutch's job to make sure his partner didn't lose it.

~*~*~

Whoever said ' you can't go home again' wasn't fucking kidding, Starsky thought as they wended past a cluster of hookers and made their way toward his mother's apartment building on West 161st Street. This side of Broadway they were in Spanish Harlem, the only difference being the language of the banter traded between the working girls and their pimps.

Starsky heard one of the women laugh, saying "Gordo!" and he turned his head, trading a look with Hutch.

The brief smile his partner gave him was as good as a pat on the back, and they turned together and entered the building.

The elevator was broken, and they had to trudge up the two flights of stairs to his mom's apartment. Starsky found himself wondering how often the elevator was broken, imagining her carrying her heavy groceries up these same stairs, week after week. He felt suddenly exhausted by the weight of his grief, and had to wait a moment before approaching the yellow-taped door.

Moore walked ahead and opened the door, then ducked under the tape. Starsky followed, hearing Hutch right behind him.

The apartment was a mess. It looked like Hurricane Diana had been through it. Couch cushions and pillows lay torn, their contents scattered on the floor in drifts. Drawers had been emptied and dropped, broken. Fingerprint dust coated most of the surfaces of the furniture and handles. The mess at first obscured the taped outline that Starsky had dreaded seeing, but his eyes locked on it at last by the dirty windows that overlooked the street. He approached and looked down at the outline.

He could hear Hutch's breathing behind him, and the muffled cat calls of the hookers through the window. And his own heart, pounding with grief and fury, throbbing in his ears.

It took him a little while to realize that Moore was addressing him in that deep voice of his, the accent purely Harlem.

"I take it you're familiar with how the place used to look?"

"Yeah, I've been here a couple of times." Not often enough, was his unspoken thought, but he couldn't stand visiting her here. He kept begging her to come to California and move in with Aunt Rose, who was lonely since Uncle Al had passed away. But Ma had never liked her sister-in-law that much.

Didn't stop her from sending me away to live with her.

"Can you try to identify any missing items?" Moore said it with a certain hopelessness. And it was—completely hopeless—because so much was torn and broken and scattered it would've taken an archaeologist to piece things from the rubble.

"I'll try," Starsky said heavily. He walked to his mother's bedroom.

It was surprisingly less damaged than the living room, but then his mom had never owned that much personal stuff. The closet had been emptied onto the floor, and Starsky bent down and picked up an NYPD uniform jacket and pants, the only clothing of his father's that she had saved after he died. Starsky retrieved a hanger and carefully hung up the uniform in the closet, taking a moment to lean in and press his face against the lapel of the jacket.

He could just barely pick up the woody scent of his father's Captain Black pipe tobacco, and tears pricked his eyes. Not now, he thought, clamping down.

Starsky left his mother's room and went to Nick's down the hall, and upon entering he got a nice, cold shock of dread. Because Nick's room was the worst by far. Nothing remained untouched or unbroken, from the car models Nick had kept on his shelf to the mattress which lay shredded on the floor.

Oh, God, Nick. What have you done? He knew with sudden certainty that his brother was the key to this whole mess.

"Nick," he whispered and heard Hutch give a heavy sigh behind him.

Hutch knew. Or he suspected all along. Oh, Nick.

"This is your brother's room?" Moore said, his even tone making it obvious he had some suspicions of his own.

"Yeah." Starsky straightened, and turned to face Moore. "My brother wasn't such a good kid, you know? I guess—" Starsky swallowed the bile that tasted like betrayal. "I guess talking to Nick would be the best place to start. If he's alive." His voice broke, and he turned away.

"Any idea where we can find him? Where he liked to hang out?" Moore sounded relieved.

Guess he was just looking for the right opening, Starsky thought. Nick is definitely involved. How deeply, though? No way could he have hurt Momma.

"I don't know much about his life these days," Starsky was ashamed to admit. "He got into some trouble a while back but I thought he had straightened out." Starsky had to stop talking before his voice gave out completely. He sensed Hutch shifting beside him, but thankfully he didn't touch him.

"I'll make some phone calls," Starsky said at last.

"All right," Moore said. "Is there anything you want to…take with you?"

It was a generous offer, since the crime scene was still supposed to be kept intact. Starsky started to shake his head, but then changed his mind. He looked over at Moore.

"There is one thing…it wouldn't have any possible value to the investigation."

Moore nodded.

When they left, Starsky had his father's uniform folded under one arm.

~*~*~

Hutch watched as Starsky paced the hotel room like something caged.

"Starsk—"

Starsky whirled on him. "I don't even know where to start. My own damned brother, and I don't know any of his friends, what he's been doing lately, or who he's been seeing. Or if he even has a girl." Starsky's hands were clenched into fists.

"Why don't we start where we always start?" Hutch said, keeping his voice calm. "Let's call Huggy."

Starsky stopped his careening and stared at him. Then his expression eased, a hopeful look replacing the furious frown.

"Ya think?"

Hutch shrugged. "Why not? He's never let us down before. And we know he lived here a while when his family first came from Trinidad. Hell, he might still have contacts out here."

"Yeah. Yeah, okay," Starsky said, and went over to the phone.

Hutch went back to the table by the window to sit down and pick up the paper. He needed to get some space from this, from his partner's unrelenting grief, which tightened his guts as if it were his own. And, in a way, it was. Because somehow he had always felt warmed by the thought that Starsky had family who loved him. People to care for him just in case anything ever happened….

But now all Starsky had was Nick. And Nick was more likely to take than to give—even though Hutch had only met Nick a couple of times, what he'd seen told him that much.

So, I just have to make sure he's got me, that's all. After all, we're almost like family, he and I.

Hutch smiled a little to himself as he read the paper, half-listening to Starsky's voice as he talked on the phone.

A few minutes later Starsky hung up, and almost immediately the phone rang again. Hutch lifted his head, surprised, and shared a look with Starsky.

Moore? Who else could it be?

Starsky picked up the phone. His face changed almost immediately into relief, tempered by something else, maybe anger. His voice confirmed it.

"Nick! Where the hell are you?"

Hutch got up and walked over to try to share the receiver, but Starsky turned his back. Stung, Hutch froze.

"But you gotta tell me, Nick! Do you have any idea what's going on? Do you know about…about Mom?"

Hutch could hear the excited tones coming from the receiver, but couldn't pick up any of the words.

"Don't cry, Nicky," Starsky's voice was choked. "It's gonna be okay. Just tell me where you are...no, please...wait, what you do you mean?" Starsky listened, then slapped his palm on the wall. "No! Nick, don't hang up! You don't have to tell me nothin' if you don't want to. Just…I have to see you, okay? Whatever is going on, we'll work it out together...yeah, I remember. I'll meet you there."

Starsky sat down the bed, lowering his head and dropping his voice. "Wait…there's something I have tell you…I love you, Nick. Okay? I promise it's gonna be okay."

Hutch closed his eyes and went back to the table to sit down. His heart was like a rock, jagged and hurtful, from hearing the love in Starsky's voice, and yet knowing how much it must have cost his partner to say it, when he must be pretty sure that Nick was at least partly responsible for his mother's death.

Starsky's so goddamned good. Nothing but good, with a heart bigger than a house. The way he forgives—I guess I should be grateful, because it's one of the reasons he hasn't kicked me out on my ass already.

Yet beneath it all Hutch felt the craziest, stupidest jealousy, because Starsky had never said that to him. Not that Hutch expected him to. They just didn't talk like that between them. So it was nuts, but there it was—Starsky could say "I love you" to his rotten little brother who might've been responsible for getting their mother killed, but he couldn't tell Hutch.

Feeling like a selfish bastard, he raised his head as Starsky hung up the phone.

"Well?" Hutch successfully kept his tone even, but it was an effort.

"Well. We knew—" Starsky closed his teeth on whatever he was about to say, and waved his hand. "He won't tell me where he is, but he's said he'll meet me. He knows about Mom. He definitely had something to hide, and I can tell he's scared shitless. He followed us to the hotel from the apartment. He'd been watching it, I guess hoping he could go in and get some things." Starsky had run out of words, it seemed, and Hutch couldn't read his expression.

"Where're we meeting him?" Hutch asked after the silence dragged.

"We ain't. I'm going alone."

"Bullshit," Hutch said softly, daring Starsky with his eyes. He saw the stubborn set of his jaw leak away to resignation.

"Fine. But we play it my way."

"What about Moore?" Hutch asked, already knowing the answer.

"We'll fill him in later. Right now, we go see Nick."

"And we bring our guns," Hutch said, voice still soft. He turned and went to his suitcase, pulling his Magnum and holster harness from the zippered pocket in the top. He heard Starsky behind him shrugging into his jacket. Getting the guns through airport security had been a hell of a hassle, but Hutch didn't even visit his own mother without his gun. Let alone Starsky's brother.

Starsky was silent as he led them out the door. But under his right arm there was a familiar bulge.

~*~*~

"Hang on, Starsk," Hutch said behind him as they exited the hotel, and Starsky pulled up, quelling his impatience.

"What?"

"Two o'clock, we're being watched." Hutch laid his hand casually on Starsky's arm, and Starsky played along, forcing a smile as if Hutch had just said something amusing. Meanwhile, Starsky darted his eyes over Hutch's shoulder and made the vehicle.

"Looks like cops. Moore, maybe. Doesn't trust me, probably."

"You think?" Hutch's voice was heavy with irony. "What's the plan?"

"No cabs. Subway." Starsky turned and started walking toward the corner.

"Where're we going?" Hutch asked him, and Starsky just grunted, focused on getting them to the subway entrance. This was his town, or used to be, and it was time he took back a little control of their movement.

It was time he woke up.

The grief was still there, like black oily water swimming in his gut. But at the same time he could feel around it a little now, and could start thinking about what he needed to do. The first thing was find Nick. And the second was to extract every tiny bit of information out of him that he possibly could.

Then Starsky could go after the bad guys.

It was too bad Hutch was here. Because Hutch might get in the way—try to keep him from doing something stupid, for his own good. Only Starsky wasn't sure what was good anymore. He'd done everything he was supposed to all his life. He'd left Brooklyn because Mom said he had to. He'd stayed out of trouble, did his short stint stateside in the Army, saying "Sir, yessir!" and had cleaned every fucking latrine in the place before getting sent home to spend the years after the Academy cleaning the latrine that was Bay City. Every time they took him down, he just got back up and did his job, even after the last time, the worst.

And this is my fucking reward.

Life was like that. Always taking. But he was still a cop. Maybe that was all he had left, but it would do just fine for what he had to do. He'd find whoever had done this, and see justice served.

"Are they following?" Starsky asked, not looking.

"Yeah," Hutch said.

"Good. Get ready, 'cause we're taking the A-train."

As soon as they were in the stairwell they started to move quickly, plunging down into the humid, urine-stink of the station. Starsky was already reaching into his pocket and slapped a buck down at the kiosk window, getting some tokens in return. He dropped one into the turnstile for Hutch and then used one for himself close behind.

"This way," he said, directing Hutch with a touch, and they climbed the stairs to the overpass and then picked up the just-arriving southbound Number One. No one got on board with them, and no one joined them in their car.

It was impossible to talk confidentially over the roar and screech of the wheels, for which Starsky was grateful. He knew Hutch would have a lot of questions about Nick, questions that Starsky just couldn't answer. Questions he was asking, himself.

They hopped over to the A-train at 59th Street, Hutch's face looking pained at all the graffiti and the wino sleeping in the corner. At High Street, Starsky nodded and led them out.

They were only thirteen blocks from his old house, but he didn't want to go sightseeing. Too many memories, now all tainted by the painful end of his childhood in Brooklyn. The neighborhood had come up a bit since then, and some of the houses had incredible gardens flourishing behind iron fences. His own neighborhood had been in a little bubble that way—nice brownstones on his block, but down the street were more dingy low-cost homes and cheap apartments.

"I said we'd meet him at the old hideout," Starsky said finally as they walked. "He was afraid we were being tapped—wouldn't even tell me where he'd been these past few days."

Hutch made a grunting sound and didn't comment, but Starsky could hear his thoughts, probably because they were his own. How did he know not to go back in the apartment? Was he already in hiding when Mom was attacked?

"I still have to call Uncle Eli," Starsky said. "He's Mom's cousin. He and my Aunt Sarita will want to come to—I think they'll want to be there. I don't know who else is still alive."

"We'll take care of it when we get back to the hotel," Hutch said softly.

"We're almost here." It was hot, and if it weren't for his gun he'd have already taken off his windbreaker. "It's a couple more blocks. Nick and I used to hang out behind Dad's favorite bar, Val's. Neighborhood joint. Dad would come outside sometimes to smoke his pipe, and he would catch us, send us home."

He wasn't sure why he was taking Hutch down memory lane. This wasn't a pleasure trip. But his mind couldn't help going back, noting the cracks in the sidewalk, searching out the familiar. He found it only rarely; a yard statue here, or the edge of a house that remained unchanged. Everything else looked different, smaller. The sidewalks seemed narrower, and he was seeing something else that was making him vaguely uncomfortable.

A couple of goombahs were hanging out, Sunday jackets lying on the hood of their car. The guys were leaning back and drinking a couple of beers. They gave Hutch a long, considering look, seeming to ignore Starsky as they passed.

Don't I even look like a cop anymore? But what disturbed Starsky even more was he suddenly had a memory of his honorary uncle, their next door neighbor, Tito, hanging out the same way, laughing and talking on quiet afternoons. Starsky's father hadn't liked him "bothering" Tito or his brothers, but Starsky had always sensed there was more to it than that.

Looking at the neighborhood now as they turned down Wyckoff Street, Starsky suddenly understood with a cop's eye what had escaped him as a kid. This was a protected block. Tito had been Family. Another memory popped up with startling clarity—

"Little Davo, why the long face, eh?" Uncle Tito rested a hand on his shoulder. "You look like you just lost your best friend."

"Not my friend," Dave said, struggling with the tears trying to come. "My bike! My brand-new red bike. I don't know how I'm gonna tell Mom and Pop. They had to save a long time to buy it for me. And now it's gone—someone took it!"

"Oh? You know who did this thing?" Uncle Tito looked angry. He shook Dave's shoulder.

"I dunno. Maybe Rico and his brother James. They were so jealous when I showed it to them yesterday."

"Well, maybe your bike she comes back to you, eh? Tell you what—you just let Uncle Tito worry about it some for you. He see what he can do. You wait until tomorrow before you tell your folks."

It seemed too good to be true. But Dave was so relieved he'd believe anything, as long as he didn't have to go home and tell his parents that he'd managed to lose his brand-new bike within a week of owning it.

The next day the bike had miraculously appeared in their front yard, and Starsky had been rescued from a fate worse than death: his parents' disappointment. He never knew if it was Rico and Jimmy, the poor kids down the street, who had done it after all. But they had avoided him after that.

La Famiglia. Sure enough. Starsky wondered how many of his childhood memories could be reinterpreted with this new information. He was afraid to think about it. Had been ever since Joe Durniak had said what he said about learning stuff he maybe didn't want to know.

They were coming up on Val's Tavern. Only, now it was apparently called Carney's Pub. But it had the same heavy wooden furniture and smoky smell. If Starsky focused he could almost catch the hint of his dad's pipe smoke drifting lazily in the humid summer air.

He felt Hutch close behind him as they entered the bar. It was noisy and crowded with Sunday afternoon drinkers. Starsky found a table in the back, while Hutch squeezed up to the bar and came back with two frosty-cold mugs of beer. They sipped and waited. And waited.

Nick was damned slow coming.

Hutch's eyes scanned over the crowd with interest. The ceiling fan wafted waves of cigar and cigarette smoke their way, and occasionally Hutch would put his hand up to his face and wave, coughing lightly, but he seemed content to just sit and wait in silence with Starsky. Just as he'd seemed content to fly across the country, crammed into a seat too short for those long legs of his, and to be first to view Starsky's mother in the morgue.

Mom. Oh, God. Momma. The memory hijacked Starsky for a little while, and when he came back to himself Hutch was nudging another beer into his hand. Nick still hadn't shown, and Starsky was considering telling Hutch they should just call it a loss when he heard his name being yelled. Starsky looked over and saw the bartender holding the phone.

"Dave Starsky? Is there a Starsky here?"

A couple of heads turned his way when Starsky plowed over to the bar to take the phone.

"Nick. Damn it, where are you?" he couldn't help saying angrily.

"I'm sorry, man. But I got freaked thinking I was being followed. I had to go back to this hideout I know—"

"Where, Nick? Where are you? Hutch and I'll come meet you."

"Hutch is with you?"Instead of distrust in Nick's voice, which Starsky expected after their last interaction in Bay City, Nick sounded relieved.

"Of course Hutch is with me. Where else would he be?"

"That's good, Dave. 'Cause I think we're gonna need all the help we can get."

Starsky rubbed his forehead in frustration. "Just tell me what's going on, little brother, okay? Whatever it is, we can fix it."

"Don't need fixing," Nick said. "I just need some help making this go down right."

Starsky felt his anger rising. "Making what go down?"

"You'll see, Dave." Nick's voice dropped low, sounding broken. "I'm sorry about Momma. I'm so sorry, but I didn't think—"

"Nick," Starsky said, cutting him off. "Don't get started down that road. We can't afford it. Just come in, okay? Come to me and we'll work this out."

"Can't," Nick said. "They'll get me for sure, then."

"Who? Who's after you? Who did this!" The babble of the bar around him seemed to drop lower, and Starsky said softly, "Just give me something to go on, in case—" He couldn't say the rest.

"It's Tony Markano, Dave. And if anything happens...listen—you remember that old spot we used to hide things, the treasure place?"

Starsky hunted back in his head. "Sure. Sure, I remember."

"Okay. I'll leave it there, then. Just in case. Soon as I can make it out there. But it's hard for me to move around right now. If I get made, it's over for me."

"No. No, Nick, just come in. Whatever this is, you know I can protect you—"

Nick's harsh laughter rang on the line. "Yeah. Yeah, sure."

"Damn it, Nick!"

"I gotta go, Dave. I got to get out of this phone booth. I'm a sitting duck. I'll call you at the hotel as soon as I think I can get clear."

"Nick—"

The line went dead, and with it Starsky's chance of getting anything more. But he'd already heard enough. It was Tony Markano, the same sleaze Nick had been connecting himself with back when he'd visited a year before. But just before Starsky let him go back to New York, Nick had promised to go straight and cut off any ties.

Markano worked out of Brooklyn; Starsky knew that much. He was turning to re-join Hutch at the table when someone tapped his shoulder.

"I hear old Joe right? You David Starsky?"

Starsky turned and pulled away warily.

"Who wants ta know?"

"That really you, little Davo?"

Starsky looked more closely at the old guy. Upon seeing the thinning black hair and the scar pulling down the side of the old man's face, Starsky recognized him with a shock.

"Uncle Guillermo? Willy?"

"Yeah! That's me, Willy. Jeesh, I can't believe it, it's Davo, all grown up, eh?" Willy seemed to size him up before his eyes traveled over Starsky's shoulder. "And who's this?"

Starsky caught a glint of gold out of the corner of his eye and smiled. Hutch's curiosity had obviously pulled him out of his seat. "This is my partner, Hutch."

"Partner?" Willy said. His eyes slitted, a professional glance. "You a cop now, Davo? That right?"

Feeling Hutch stiffen next to him, Starsky silently cursed his slip. They didn't need to be made as cops, especially if they wanted to track down anything on Tony Markano.

"Nah, he's my business partner," Hutch said smoothly.

"Yeah, huh?" Willy said. With surprise, Starsky recognized the tough guy phrase that he himself used all the time, and that Hutch had picked up from him— "yeah," to say he'd heard, but the "huh?" trailing up in disbelief.

"Yeah, business partner," Starsky said firmly, and Willy gave a husky, old guy laugh.

"Nice to meet you." Hutch held out his hand, and after a second, Willy shook it.

"Me, I'm Willy. Any friend of little Davo's...."

"Little Davo, huh?" Hutch said, giving Starsky a look.

Starsky suddenly felt anxious to get away from Willy and everything he represented—a past that could now turn ugly filtered by adult understanding. He shook Willy's hand, turning down the offer of a drink and giving Hutch's elbow a tap. Starsky had only one thought burning him now: the lead Nick had given him. A precious, tiny thread that might help them find whoever was responsible for his mother's death.

If only he didn't fear the trail would lead right back here to his past.

~*~*~

"Tony Markano, huh?" Hutch said quietly as they walked back to the subway. He had the strange feeling that Starsky was holding something else back, something more than his grief, or his fear that Nick might be more than a little responsible.

Unfortunately, getting Starsky to open up when he wasn't in the mood for it was only a little less difficult than scaling the Berlin Wall. And about as dangerous. As they walked, they speculated about how to get a line on Markano's business. Was he still working Brooklyn?

"Now that we've got a name, Huggy should be able to break something for us," Hutch said.

"Yeah. Let's get back to the hotel."

The train ride was as surreal as the first time, the clacking of the wheels on the tracks almost hypnotic. Hutch stood at the back of the last car and watched the blue lights as they receded down the tunnel. Moving away. Just like Starsky was, right now—had been, really, in the last six months since they'd hit their stride on the streets once again. Almost as if the closeness they'd shared during his recovery needed to be shelved once they were back in action.

They had been close. Too close, maybe. The seventy-five percent of the time they'd spent together had jumped nearly to a hundred. Hutch was even a little relieved at the separation, sensing an unseen danger in their symbiosis.

Truth was, he liked it too much, being around Starsky all the time. Even being needed by him, although it cut Hutch at the same time to see Starsky as less than his usual bossy, insufferably energetic self.

All that was over now. Except, once again, Starsky needed him. Or at least Hutch thought he did. Because his sense of subtle forces aligning against his partner was making the hair lift on the back of his neck.

Back at the hotel, Starsky grabbed the phone and got on the line to his Uncle Eli. Hutch could hear the relief in Starsky's voice when Eli volunteered to make the funeral and shiva arrangements. It was almost as if Starsky had given it no thought at all before that moment.

Hutch patted him on the shoulder and made a signal he was stepping out. Sudden paranoia had him finding a payphone in the lobby for making his call to Huggy.

"That you, Hug?" Hutch said when someone picked up at the Pits.

"And who else might it be, manning the bar all on his lonesome on a Sunday afternoon because someone—might her name be Anita?—dodged out on the Bear at the last minute?"

"Sorry to hear that. Why don't you give her a stern boss lecture?" Hutch grinned at Huggy's sudden hiss of disgust.

"You think I want my hand bitten off at the elbow? I look like a good candidate for a one-armed bartender?"

Hutch laughed, suddenly feeling better for the first time since the ugly phone call the day before. Has it only been a day and a half?

"Listen, Huggy: we think we might have a line on who was involved in the murd—in Muriel's death." Something in him resisted referring to Starsky's mother like just another murder case.

"I stand at the ready," Huggy said, his voice full of sympathy. "Anything I can do, you know you got it."

"Name is Tony Markano. We think he works out of Brooklyn. Maybe funny money, maybe drugs. We'd appreciate anything you can find out. We'd especially appreciate having a source out here if you can pin one down."

"I'm on it, Blond-man. You tell my dark-haired brother to hang in."

"You got it. Thanks much, Huggy."

Hutch hung up. Out of the corner of his eye, through the big glass doors of the hotel, he saw a nondescript sedan parked across the street. So, they hadn't lifted surveillance. Hutch knew his next call should be to Moore. It wasn't right to treat a fellow detective like the enemy. They could at least compare notes with him on some of what they'd learned. But first, Hutch would square it with Starsky.

After all, this was Starsky's case.

~*~*~

Starsky slowly hung up the phone, feeling the tears standing in his eyes like a wall. A shining wall between him and the ugly world. Aunt Sarita had been openly weeping over the phone. Even though she and his mother were only in-laws, they'd been close. Sarita had tried desperately to get Muriel to move in with her and Eli, but Nick had won the move to Manhattan instead. Staten Island was too far away from the scenes Nick enjoyed.

If only his mom had been able to let Nick go, let him live on his own. The kid was thirty years old, but she hadn't been able to cut the strings. She'd paid for it.

Starsky was trying hard not to be angry with Nick. Regardless of what kind of mess he was in, he wasn't the killer. The killer was the one responsible. Starsky would find him and make him pay.

He looked up at the quiet knock and saw Hutch at the door, eyebrows raised as if asking for permission.

It's your room, too, big dummy. But when Hutch saw he was off the phone, he walked in quickly and grabbed the chair from in front of the desk, spinning it around and seating himself across from Starsky.

"Let's talk," Hutch said.

"I'm listening."

"I just spoke to Huggy. He's gonna try to get a line on Markano."

Starsky nodded. "Uncle Eli and Aunt Sarita are handling the...the funeral. It's gonna be on Tuesday. He's going to arrange releasing her...to the funeral parlor. They're going to sit shiva for her with me after the funeral."

Hutch winced and nodded. "We need to talk to Moore," he said, sounding tentative. "And we need to decide how much to tell him...."

Starsky's first instinct was to suggest they tell Moore to shove his head up his ass, but he could see from Hutch's expression that wasn't going to fly. They did need to tell the detective something. He opened his mouth, but when a sudden thought hit him he shut it again, raising his eyebrows at Hutch.

Hutch frowned and tilted his head.

Starsky looked down at the phone, then scoped the room. Everything looked the same as when they had left, but that meant nothing. If they were being staked out, there was a good possibility they were being bugged as well.  

Hutch's eyes showed understanding, and he said, "Why don't we grab some dinner? Those two beers need a little company."

"That sounds great," Starsky said. "We'll get you a nice, greasy hunk of meat. I know how you like that."

Hutch made a startled sound, almost a laugh, as if he wasn't expecting it. Starsky suddenly realized he felt a little better. Whether it was talking to his aunt and uncle and having the sympathy of their open grief, or if it was the feeling of being on the same page with Hutch, and being actively on the case, his heart felt just a little less heavy.

They went downstairs and started walking, pretending not to notice the dark grey sedan that kept creeping between stoplights behind them. They walked a long time, until at 72nd Street, they found a restaurant that did barbeque. Starsky gave Hutch a questioning nod, and Hutch almost successfully muffled his sigh of disgust, then pushed open the front doors.

The beer was dark, and the onion loaf beyond good. Starsky had an appetite for the first time in two days. He munched and sipped while Hutch outlined his plan.

"We tell Moore Nick's alive. We tell him we don't know where he is, but that he has some information he's promised to give us, and that we'll try to get him to come in. We wait until we get the info from Nick before we tell Moore anything more. And we keep Moore totally in the dark about Markano until we know for sure there's anything there. If Moore already knows about Markano, it won't hurt if we don't say anything. But if he doesn't, and he starts poking around, he could tip our hand that Markano is under suspicion, and any leads we can get out of Huggy will dry right up."

Starsky nodded. It all sounded good, with one exception. "I don't think we should try to bring Nick in. We don't know these guys, Hutch. For all we know, someone on the inside is working for Markano."

Hutch looked momentarily shocked. It amazed Starsky a little that he could be, after the shit that had gone down with that crooked IA cop, Fargo. Not to mention losing Lionel to a dirty judge. Hutch never seemed to let go of those damned ideals of his. If it wasn't a big reason Starsky loved the guy, he would've banged Hutch's head against a wall to try to knock the damned things out of him. Ideals never led to anything but heartache.

"Okay. We try to get Nick somewhere safe. When we catch whoever did this, he can come in to testify, if needed. But we keep him safe."

Starsky nodded his gratitude. When we catch them. Not if. His eyes welled up embarrassingly, and he looked down into his beer. Hang onto it. Save it for later. If ever. He felt a gentle touch on his wrist, there and then gone again, and it almost pushed him over. Instead, he washed the tears back with a couple of swallows of the bitter ale in his glass.

When we catch them, partner, I'm gonna make it up to you for dumping all this crap in your lap. Gonna give you back your life again, just like I did after rehab. No one should have to put up with all this shit for a friend.

Seemed like lately all he did was lean on Hutch as if he were a big blond crutch. The fact Hutch never complained about it only made it worse.

Here I am bitching to myself about Nicky being old enough to stand on his own. Well, I've got a couple of years on him.

Starsky didn't kid himself that there'd be an avalanche for him to deal with once this was all over. He could feel it building behind his barricades, rock after rock, almost heavier than he could stand. But he'd be damned if he let it bury Hutch when it came down. You didn't do that to a friend, let alone to Hutch, who was so much more than that. Starsky finished his beer and looked up at his partner.

Ain't a word big enough for what you mean to me.

~*~*~

When they got back from dinner, Hutch put in the call to Moore, who, to his credit, was still at the precinct. Hutch could hear the man's wariness in his responses as Hutch filled him in on Nick's phone call.

Moore said, "Tried to reach you two this afternoon, but you weren't at the hotel."

"Ah, well. Starsky had a hankering to check out the old neighborhood. You know how it is."

"Yeah, huh? Well, don't go roaming too far. Streets like this can eat up a couple of cops from sunny California."

Hutch suppressed a laugh at the condescending tone. "Oh, Bay City has a few of its own little sharks, Moore. Ever hear of a fella named James Marshall Gunther?"

There was a long silence, then Moore said, with new respect in his tone, "Could be I might've heard a thing or two about that. Didn't realize that was you two."

"Yeah, well, keep it in mind when you're measuring out the leash, Moore. Starsky and I are clear we're not on our turf, but we're still cops first. Make no mistake about that."

"I hear ya. I hear ya, man."

After he hung up, Hutch stripped down and went for a shower. He felt coated in grime, a combination of his sweat and the grit that seemed to hang around in the humid New York City air. Even his lungs hurt, and he took some deep breaths in the shower, trying to loosen the ache. Don't get how anyone could live here. This is worse than Bay City smog.

Hutch was suddenly, ridiculously homesick. He wondered how his plants were doing, and if Huggy had succeeded in getting Anita to come in and help with the Sunday night crowd. Or if the captain had enjoyed his birthday dinner on Saturday night. Hell, Hutch even missed the goddamn Torino.

They were too far from home.

~*~*~

Starsky woke first, his elbow trapped under his torso and the heavy weight of a big, too-warm body nudging his back. The bed had a distinct dip in the middle, and they'd both rolled to the center in the middle of the night. Starsky could feel Hutch's morning erection pressing against the back of his thigh, and he moved away, disturbed by the feeling.

A piss hard-on wasn't what Starsky was after. In fact, he wasn't even sure what he was after anymore. His heart was too sick with grief and anger, and his earlier fixation on his partner now seemed like a careless, childish risk. A risk to their partnership, and a risk to him personally. He had too damned little left he could afford to lose.

He rolled out of bed and quietly ordered breakfast before washing up. His face looked gray and tired in the tiny bathroom mirror as he shaved off his morning stubble.

When Starsky got out of the bathroom, Hutch was just waking up, yawning hugely. His hair was sticking straight up on the right side, thanks to the short haircut he'd gotten right before they'd hit the streets again as partners. Hutch had looked at him, kind of shy and embarrassed, when he'd showed up for work that day. It was as if he were trying to say something important with a shave and a haircut.

And even though Starsky had made fun of him mercilessly most of their long first day, he was grateful for the message: we're going back to the start.

Hutch rubbed his eyes like a big, dopey kid. "You order coffee?"

"Yeah. And some bagels. God, I love the bagels here," Starsky said.

"Yeah, they're good." Hutch groaned a little when he got out of bed, and his hand went to the small of his back.

"Miss your bed, huh?"

Hutch just shrugged and took the bathroom.

After finishing his breakfast, Starsky pulled the phone over to the table and grabbed his book to locate Uncle Eli's phone number.

"I'm going out for a run," Hutch said, taking his tennis shoes out of his suitcase.

"You're nuts," Starsky said in disbelief.

"It's not that warm yet," Hutch argued. "And I need to work out the kinks. Besides, I want to check out Central Park. I saw on the map it's only three blocks over."

Starsky shook his head. "Your funeral, Blintz."

They both winced. Hutch let himself out, and Starsky dialed up Uncle Eli. They spent an hour on the phone working on the funeral arrangements. Every time his uncle asked him "what Muriel would've wanted" Starsky felt a fresh pang of guilt. How the hell did he know what her favorite shoes were, or what color lipstick she would've liked? At least he could answer the question whether her cousin Natalie should be invited to the memorial service. Momma had hated that "gold-digging shiksa" with a passion.

Starsky hung up and was in the process of putting on his sneakers when it occurred to him that Hutch had been gone an awfully long time.

Against his will, Starsky's eye caught the Magnum lying on the bedside table where Hutch had left it.

~*~*~

It might be worth living here just for this goddamn park, Hutch thought. Central Park was too perfect to be believed. A large, wild piece of nature flourishing right in the middle of the busiest city in the nation. The air was almost cool on his sweaty face as he jogged along the wide path that ran north along a large body of water. There were a couple of kids sailing model boats on the lake, and Hutch grinned when he saw one of them capsize, the little girl with the controls giving a wail of dismay.

He checked his watch and ran full out for ten minutes. At first it felt like he was just slogging along, but then his muscles started tuning up, and he got his second wind. Wish I could get Starsk to come out with me. Running does wonders for your mood. But Hutch admitted it was just as likely he could get Starsky to give up beef chimichangas smothered in red sauce.

Ten minutes out, Hutch turned around again, wishing he had enough time to go all around the lake. But he needed to get back to his partner. He'd ducked out on listening in on the painful phone call he knew Starsky had to make, but he should at least be there if Starsky wanted to talk about it afterward. And then they had to check in with Huggy; Hutch would give him a call from the lobby.

Lost in plans, his eyes dazzled by the morning light flickering through the trees, he was taken utterly by surprise when a mountain of a man stepped out onto the path in front of him, grabbed his arm, and used Hutch's forward momentum to send him spinning into the arms of an even bigger guy off in the bushes.

Wise guys, Hutch thought, cursing his own carelessness. And then they started swinging, and he didn't have time for thought. He was too busy struggling to get free, using every trick in his repertoire to get one arm loose, using it like a hammer as he turned to pummel the gorilla holding him. He realized his mistake when the Mountain planted a rock in his ribs from behind. Hutch sagged, then butted backward with his head, catching Mountain in the face. The guy yelled a curse, and Gorilla put an end to Hutch's struggle by viciously chopping down on his neck. Suddenly he couldn't lift his right arm, and Mountain got his revenge by spinning Hutch around and punching him hard in the mouth before giving him a thick knee to the balls.

Hutch moaned and dropped, grabbing his crotch, all fight leaving him in the wake of his overwhelming agony. He didn't even have the power to twist away from Mountain's big two-toned shoe, which caught him just under the ribcage. That pain flared to nothing next to the pure molten fire radiating from his groin.

Mountain spat on him, a bloody wad landing on Hutch's neck.

"I gotta message from Tony Markano," he said. "This was half of it. The other half is: tell Nick Starsky that next time it's his brother, capiche? And we won't stop until Nick has to bury him right next to the biddy."

Hutch managed to open his eyes and look up into man's face, trying to focus past the pain and nausea. Mountain spat again and walked off, Gorilla following behind. Hutch closed his eyes and tried desperately not to throw up.

When he no longer felt that death would be a worthy alternative, he managed to crawl to his knees, and then his feet, all the while reciting the details in his head, Mountain: six foot three, short brown hair, black eyes. Long scar right forearm. Two-thirty, maybe two hundred forty pounds. Gorilla: light brown hair, three moles left cheek. Nose small and narrow. Taller. White shirt....

Hutch staggered down the path.

~*~*~

Stupid goddamn Blintz. Needs to have his fucking run. Ran himself into a heat stroke, maybe.

Starsky grabbed his gun harness and pulled it on. He was adjusting his shirt over it when suddenly the room door creaked open and his partner lurched in.

He was a mess. Bloody mouth, hair matted with sweat and what looked like twigs. He had his arms wrapped around his stomach, and before Starsky could move or say anything, Hutch had stumbled past him into the bathroom.

"Jesus, Blondie, you get mugged in broad daylight?" Starsky said shakily, moving in behind him. Hutch's eyes gave him a brief glare in the mirror, and then the blond head bent down over the sink.

"Had a little run-in," Hutch mumbled thickly. "Apparently, Tony Markano is less than fond of your brother." He ran the water in the sink and took a long drink, then lifted his head. "Get me some ice?"

"Ice. Yeah. Uh." Starsky ran for the bucket, his brain spinning. Oh, shit. Oh, here comes the avalanche. Somehow, Starsky had hoped for the impossible—that the cost to Hutch wouldn't be as high this time.

But he should have known that Hutch would be in the line of fire. Weren't they always, when they were together? Sometimes, late at night when no one could hear him thinking the disloyal thought, Starsky wondered if it wouldn't be better for the both of them to split up. Safer.

Safer, but so damned wrong it didn't bear thinking.

He filled the bucket and brought it back to the room. The bathroom door was closed, and he knocked. "Hey, I've got the ice."

"Just a second." Hutch's voice was muffled, but Starsky could still hear the pain in it. He rattled the doorknob and found it locked. "I said hang on a sec!" Hutch hollered.

"Okay! Okay, already." If Hutch was being that loud, he couldn't be hurt too badly. Starsky set the bucket on the bed and sat down at the desk. Hutch came out a moment later. He was stripped down to his boxers and walking funny. Starsky eyed the deep purple mark on the side of Hutch's ribs as he crawled onto the bed.

Starsky raised his eyebrows. "You going back to sleep?"

"Nah. Just need to...hand me some ice, would ya? And a towel?"

More than a little worried, Starsky did as Hutch asked. He grabbed a plastic bag and filled it with some cubes, handing it over with a small towel. Hutch took them with a nod of thanks, and then wrapped the bag in the towel and slipped it under the sheet at his waist. He didn't look at Starsky.

Shit. "Got you in the nuts, huh?"

"Oh, yeah," Hutch said with a wince. "God." He moved his hand, shifting the lump, and then gasped. "Jesus."

Starsky sat down on the side of the bed. "You ready to tell me what happened?"

Hutch licked his bloody lip. "You got any Vaseline?"

Starsky sighed and went digging in his toiletries. He came up with a jar of the stuff. He liked to use it when he jerked off, but he had a feeling Hutch wouldn't want to hear about that just now. Starsky handed it over and waited patiently while Hutch dabbed some on his lip.

"Enough procrastinating," Starsky said when he was done. "Get talking."

Hutch exhaled heavily. "There were two of them—"

"Only two?" Starsky broke in, incredulous.

Hutch shot him a furious glare. "Hey! They were big, all right? I mean, huge! Both over six-three, and about five hundred pounds between 'em. And they took me by surprise—"

"Okay, okay, Blintz, don't get your ego in a knot—"

"And they kicked me in the balls for chrissake!" Hutch finished, his voice rising high.

There was a moment of silence, and he shifted the ice again, giving a little groan.

"You want I should...check on that for you—?" Starsky asked, only semi-joking.

"I'm fine. My nuts are just dandy, thank you very much." Hutch rolled his eyes. "Like I said, two of 'em. Big. The one we'll call Mountain because, Jesus, he might as well've been—about 6'3", two-forty, brown hair, short, with black eyes and a scar on his left arm. The other one, Gorilla, was taller, maybe 6'5", closing in on three hundred, I'd guess. He was the one holding me while the other one softened me up. Mountain told me...I should tell Nick it was a message from Tony Markano, and that next time they'd come after you. In a permanent way."

Starsky dropped his head into his hands. "Jesus. What the heck has Nick gotten himself into?"

"Well, I guess that's what we're gonna have to find out, buddy," Hutch said.

Starsky rose and started pacing, his anger at Nick rising, along with his fear for Hutch's safety. Maybe he should try to get him to go home.

Only, looking over at Hutch sitting on the bed, ice pack between his legs and a stubborn frown creasing his forehead, Starsky thought it was pretty unlikely he could get Hutch to budge an inch.

He named the wrong guy "Mountain."

~*~*~

Hutch fell asleep after all, and Starsky went downstairs to check in with Huggy.

"Tony Markano...that dude is gunning for capo de tutti, Starsky. You better not mess around with him."

"Yeah, well, the problem is, he might've messed with me first, Huggy. And today a couple of his goons got hold of Hutch and rattled his marbles. And I'm not talking the ones in his head."

Huggy let out a low whistle. "But don't you think you can let the NYPD boys take care of this? I mean, ain't you a little ways out of your jurisdiction?"

"We might not have any choice. Nick is...he's underground right now, but he says these guys are after him. Don't you have someone over here you can trust?"

"Yeah. Yeah," Huggy sighed. "You know I wouldn't let you down. I got a cuz—"

"Huggy, I swear if you say 'cousin'...."

"But he is! Marcel is a full-blooded third cousin on Grammy Camille's side of the family."

"And he can give me the dirt on Markano?"

"He'll give you what he can. But only if you make sure it doesn't come back on him. Dig, nothing better come back on him, Starsky. He's family."

"I hear ya, amigo."

Starsky dug around for a pencil and his notepad and scribbled down the contact. Before he hung up, he remembered something. "Hutch wanted me to ask you if the situation with Anita has improved."

Huggy snorted. "Well, it depends on what you mean by improved. Damned if the sister hasn't gotten herself in the family way. That's why she's been a plain bear to work with lately. And now I'm gonna lose my best bartender."

Starsky tried not to laugh. "Tell her I said congratulations. And think of it this way Hug..."

"Yeah?" Huggy said warily.

"You haven't lost a bartender...you've gained a new cousin."

~*~*~

Hutch woke up and immediately regretted it. It felt like a steamroller had taken a pass over him in his sleep. Between his legs he felt the soggy lump of his melted ice pack. He reached down and gingerly touched his bruised testicles, wincing when he found how swollen they were.

Well, seeing how little I've been using 'em lately, no big loss. The dismal thought made him grimace as he eased his way off the mattress and into the bathroom to take a closer look, making sure to lock the door again in case Starsky returned. Some things, like examining your bruised and swollen nuts, you just wanted some privacy for.

The swelling looked less severe than it felt on physical examination, and he sighed with relief. It would be damned difficult to be of any use to Starsky if he couldn't fit into a pair of pants.

He got dressed slowly, favoring his right arm and trying not to wrench his tender ribs. He was just strapping on his Magnum when Starsky walked in without warning, a gigantic pizza box in his hands, with a brown paper bag balanced on top.

"How come you're getting dressed?" Starsky said, sounding disappointed. Hutch was surprised by how relaxed Starsky looked, the thundercloud over his head apparently somewhat dissipated.

"Thought we'd get some lunch?"

"Lunch has come to you, my friend. And it's the kind of lunch I've been waiting for years to treat you to." Starsky reverently placed the box on the table. "Real—and I mean honest-to-God—New York pizza." He opened the box almost reverently.

Hutch gaped at the giant pizza sitting in the bottom of the box and positively swimming in oil and cheese. His stomach lurched.

"Starsk...Starsky, the damned slices are bigger than my head!"

Starsky shook his head with a tsk'ing sound. "Not 'slices,' Blondie. Slabs. Those are gen-u-ine slabs of New York pie. Gonna knock your socks right off."

Hutch sagged down onto the bed and automatically raised his hands in protest when Starsky pulled a paper plate from the bag and tried to hand him a piece.

"My heart would never forgive me."

"Screw your heart, Hutch. Think with your damned stomach for a change. I mean, this is the real deal right here."

Hutch gave a sniff. He looked up at Starsky who, for the first time in two days, had an emotion on his face other than uncomprehending grief. Then Hutch looked back down at the greasy slab of pie. And held out his hand.

Starsky passed it over with a grin, following up with a wad of napkins that he dropped on Hutch's lap. "Chow down, partner."

While Hutch tentatively nibbled at the end of the huge slab, Starsky made short work of his piece by the simple expediency of folding it in half lengthwise until it was like a pizza sandwich. A couple of near misses, with the cheese threatening to slither its gooey way onto his lap, had Hutch imitating the technique.

"Oh, I almost forgot—can't have pizza without root beer." Starsky grabbed a couple of bottles from the bag, but Hutch drew the line at the pure sugar poison of sodas and shook his head.

Starsky ate his way through two of the huge slabs to Hutch's one, and then he closed the pizza box, giving the top a proprietary pat. "Plenty more for later."

The vision of Starsky eating congealed, oily cheese for dinner almost had Hutch losing his hard-won slice.

But at least Starsky was smiling.

~*~*~

After a casual hour reading the sports section and listening to Hutch's kibitzing, Starsky hauled himself upright, rubbing his full belly. He glanced over at Hutch, who still had a look of self-disgust on his face, as if he'd just woken up from a one-night stand and was dismayed to see who was lying next to him.

Starsky grinned. "Time for my shower," he announced. Hutch just grunted at him and propped himself upright on the bed, grabbing his paper.

In the shower, Starsky took his time, mulling over what Huggy had told him. For some reason, the challenge had energized Starsky out of his funk like nothing else could. They would get Markano. And then Starsky would shake him until the truth fell out.

He dried off, giving his hair a brisk rub but leaving it damp, and then wrapped the towel around his waist. Back in the room, Hutch had slumped down in the bed and was napping again.

Starsky frowned in concern. Still, this wasn't the first time Hutch had had the stuffing beaten out of him. He was tough. It was just one of the things that made Starsky love the big lunk so damned much.

Smiling a little, Starsky got dressed. He had his holster in his hands when the phone rang.

Hutch startled awake, and Starsky grinned again at his befuddled look before Hutch reached over to grab the receiver.

"Hutchinson."

Hutch's face went suddenly tight, and Starsky's heart gave a warning throb when Hutch flashed him a shocked glance.

"Lay it on me," he said, his voice too calm.

Starsky took three steps forward, his feet like lead.

"No. Shit. No. Oh, God." Hutch looked up at Starsky's face.

Starsky had stopped breathing, his eyes locking on Hutch's.

"Thank you for calling, Detective," Hutch said. "I'll...we'll call to make...arrangements."

Hutch hung up the phone. His eyes dropped away, and Starsky had the strange sense that he was falling with them.

Hutch said in a rough voice, "That was Moore, Starsky. He says they think...it's not certain, but he believes that Nick's been in an accident." He swallowed. "Fatal."

It was the squadroom all over again, only this time along with the frozen fear, there was a rage so deep it felt like it was coming from the center of the earth, a volcano rising up his legs and through his body, tightening his fists.

He'd never known this much hate.

He spun, and stalked to the nearest wall, resting his hands against it for a moment for support. But in the next instant his hand cocked back.

"Fuckers. Fuckers," he chanted, slamming his fist against the wall, leaving a bloody smear. The pain focusing his rage even further. He drew back his hand again, but then Hutch was there, pulling his arm aside, sliding between Starsky and the hard surface, pushing back on his chest. Starsky tried to shove him away.

"Get outta my way." The words were like hot gravel in his throat.

"Starsk. Please. I understand—"

"You understand shit, Hutchinson!" Starsky tried again to push him aside, but Hutch set his weight like a boxer. "Move it!"

"I know how you must feel—"

"Liar!" Starsky shifted forward and palmed Hutch's chest, edging him back against the wall. "You know shit about what I'm feeling. Your entire family could off themselves and you wouldn't even blink. You don't give a fuck about any of them!" Starsky punctuated his words with smacks to Hutch's chest, but Hutch didn't give.

The pain and compassion on his face pulled the words from somewhere deep, and Starsky started shouting. "I got no one! I got no one left!" Oh, God. Nick. Momma. Pop. I'm all alone.

His hands turned to fists and he started pummeling, and Hutch, goddamn him, just stood there and took it, didn't fight back at all until a knuckle glanced off his ribs and he pulled Starsky into a clinch, and still Starsky rocked his arms around, weakly striking Hutch's back, trying to beat him away, but Hutch wouldn't let go.

"You still have me," Hutch whispered hoarsely. "Always."

"Fuck you," Starsky said, trying to butt him away. He pushed forward, brushing Hutch's groin with his leg. Hutch gave a low moan of pain and grabbed his shoulders hard, holding him still.

"Shit," Starsky mumbled. He didn't want this, didn't want Hutch to care so goddamn much, didn't want to feel the concern and love tugging at him, pulling him out of his rage, but he didn't have anything left in his arsenal.

Except. He knew the one thing that would put the lie on Hutch's tongue, would push Hutch away forever and leave him totally alone, just like he deserved. He reached up with both hands and grabbed Hutch's head, feeling him stiffen his neck in reaction. Starsky's lips pulled back from his teeth in a dry grimace, and then he yanked Hutch's head down roughly and pressed his lips hard against his partner's bruised mouth in a stinging kiss, thrusting his tongue briefly past the barrier of Hutch's teeth. Then he shoved Hutch away and looked up into his face, waiting angrily for Hutch's reaction.

Hutch rubbed a shocked hand over his mouth and stared at him for a long moment before giving a pained smile.

"You're gonna have to do better than that, Starsk," he said quietly, but Starsky could read the uncertainty in his posture, in the tilt of his head, and had to turn away. Sickened with grief and self-disgust, Starsky moaned and stumbled back to the bed to sink down, his head dropping into his hands.

"Just go, Hutch. Ferchrissake, don't you have enough sense to know when to fuck off?"

"No." But Hutch hadn't moved from his position next to the wall, and the shakiness in his voice made Starsky's gut give a panicked flutter. He moaned again and rolled over until he was lying on his stomach on the bed. Burying his face in the pillow, he gave in to the pain, letting it roar through him like a wave until he was shuddering with it. He felt the bed move and then a firm hand on his back, soothing him as if he were a wounded animal.

"I don't want you to care," Starsky said, his voice muffled by the pillow and the tightness in his throat.

"I know," Hutch said softly.

"I don't want to feel," Starsky said roughly.

"I know that, too," Hutch said, and the hand on his back was joined by another, both moving to his shoulders.

"I went away. I left them. I was never there for either of them. Nick told me that once, you know? And he's right. Was." The pain stabbed his gut, twisting his stomach with nausea.

"You did the best you could. You didn't have any choice—"

"I couldn't protect them from way over there. I tried to get her to move, but she wouldn't. And now she's gone, and I'll never get to tell her...."

"She knew, Starsk."

Starsky raised his head in protest. "She didn't! I always just said it like a goodbye, I never really told her so I knew she heard it."

"Don't be an idiot. Of course she knew."

Starsky let himself hear the absolute certainty in Hutch's voice, and something in him eased. Just a little. She knew. Starsky sighed and said, quietly, "Lemme be alone for a while, huh?"

Finally, finally Hutch let him be.

~*~*~

Hutch reluctantly rose and went into the bathroom, giving Starsky the requested space. It felt wrong to leave him alone when he was hurting so badly, but the worst of it seemed past.

Thank God, because Hutch wasn't sure how much more he could take of Starsky in such pain and pushing him away with both hands.

What did you expect? Nick is dead. Jesus, Nick. Hutch had never been terribly fond of the guy, but he liked him well enough if only for the admiration in Nick's eyes whenever he looked at his older brother. And because Starsky loved him.

Hutch closed and locked the door to the bathroom, and then lifted his shirt to survey the damage. His skin was light and always tended to show every bruise, and there was no denying Starsky had used some pack in his punches. But, fortunately, there would be no way for Starsky to know which bruises were his, and which belonged to the goons that had attacked Hutch earlier.

And the blows hadn't hurt half as bad as knowing that Starsky was trying so goddamn hard to get rid of him. And that kiss… There'd be no hiding the reopening of the cuts on his lips. They were still tingling.

What stung more than the kiss was Starsky had done it thinking it would repulse him. It hadn't. Nothing Starsky could want from him could repulse him, not even that. But Hutch was pretty certain it hadn't been anything on Starsky's side but a pointless attempt to make him leave in disgust.

And what hurt most of all, down deep, was Starsky saying he was alone, that he had no more family. And that Hutch didn't give a damn about his own.

Doesn't he know that he's my fucking family, now? Aren't I his?

Of course, Starsky had to know that. He was just hurting so badly right now that he was trying to spread the misery around. But deep down, Hutch felt the seeds of doubt taking subtle root.

He took a quick shower in order to force himself to stay away a little longer and give Starsky the time he needed. After Hutch dried off, handling his tender groin with extreme caution, he put his T-shirt back on and tucked the towel carefully around his hips, then went back into the room.

Starsky was at the chair by the window, staring down at the street.

Hutch went to his suitcase and put on a T-shirt and clean pair of shorts. He pulled up the other chair and sat across from Starsky. "You want to know what Moore told me?"

Starsky nodded tiredly.

"They salvaged a vehicle that had crashed and burned off the West Side Highway earlier today. It went into the Hudson. The car is Nick's. They found belongings...a wallet and stuff. But no body, Starsk. Maybe—"

"Don't."

Hutch shook his head at hearing the dead tone in his partner's voice.

Starsky exhaled heavily. "Nick told me if anything happened, I should go to our treasure spot. He might've left something for me there."

Hutch nodded. "Okay. When?"

"No time like the present." Starsky raised his head, and the red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes told Hutch why Starsky had wanted privacy earlier.

"Then let's go."

~*~*~

The train ride gave Starsky a chance to pull himself together, and wearily he set the barricade back in place. Hutch sat next to him on the train, every so often shifting uncomfortably on the hard, contoured seat.

He didn't walk so good, either, on the way to the park. Starsky felt a wince of guilt. As they approached the Brooklyn Promenade, he pointed toward the small strip of green.

"We always hung out down there because it was the only green thing around. We were always there, or down by the docks at night after all the workers had gone home. Lots of great places to play, with all the machinery and crates."

Hutch nodded. "So where's this treasure place?"

"Well, they say a tree grows in Brooklyn...in our case, it was this gigantic elm. The only way up to the first crotch is if someone gave you a boost. So you really couldn't go up it alone. Perfect for shared treasures." Starsky led the way to the park, toward the cluster of trees on the south end. The elm was still there all right, looking slightly bigger and fuller but missing one of the major cross branches they used to play on, straddling it and bouncing like they were riding a horse.

Up higher, where the leaves were still thick, was where Starsky hoped Nick had managed to leave him some small clue as to why their family had been destroyed. And why Starsky was alone.

He felt a tap on his shoulder. "I think I can manage a boost," Hutch said quietly.

Hutch made a basket with his hands, standing close to the trunk, and Starsky stepped into them. With one smooth motion, Hutch hoisted him up, much higher than Nick ever had, so that Starsky could practically step onto the first branching of the trunk, his hand grabbing the convenient knot on the left.

He scrambled up the branches, memories thick in his mind of reaching down and pulling his little brother up, hearing him scrabble behind him. Oh, Nick...no. Don't think.

Funny how his hands and feet still remembered exactly where to go. He didn't look down, because he'd always had a fear of heights, even though he loved the climbing part.

Starsky hit the dangerous juncture, the spot where you had to squeeze through the thick push of branches, scary because the twigs could poke you in the face and make you flail backward, here where there was no real handhold until you crawled in between them and found the secret heart of the elm.

And there, right smack in the middle, one strap looped around a branch, was a light blue duffle bag.

Thank God. He made it this far. Starsky blocked his mind from imagining what must've happened right afterward. They didn't find a body. Just hold onto that. It was the only thing keeping him sane as he untangled the bag and hung the strap over his shoulder. Backing out carefully, he made his way down.

Down was always harder than up.

Just as he reached the final junction he heard Hutch call urgently, "Starsk!"

Starsky looked down. Hutch was staring at something, but Starsky couldn't crane his neck far enough to see.

"Hutch, help me down." Without waiting, Starsky let go, feeling Hutch's hands catch him under the arms and ease him to the ground.

He turned. Walking toward them hastily, obviously trying very hard not to look like they were, were two of the biggest goons Starsky had ever laid his eyes on.

"It's them," Hutch said quietly.

Starsky reached for his Beretta and then realized how ridiculous their situation was. They couldn't draw on these guys. Not only were they out of their jurisdiction, but if anything went wrong, the bag would be confiscated, either by the goons or the cops, before they'd even had a chance to look inside.

He turned to Hutch. "What should we do?"

"Try to take 'em?" Hutch said, sounding eager but a little doubtful.

"No." Starsky decided swiftly, shifting the bag so it hung behind his back. "We run."

Hutch looked at him, his eyes wide with astonishment.

Starsky shrugged.

"I told you they were big," Hutch said, giving him a sly grin.

"Shut up and move, Blondie," Starsky said, and then he was sprinting off, away from the goombahs, Hutch on his heels. Starsky risked a look backward and saw that the big guys had broken into a lumbering run behind them. Way too slow to catch up, even though Hutch was obviously having some trouble, grunting a little on every breath. Starsky led him down to the docks, turning and ducking past the rows of trucks and containers until they reached the broken spot in the fence where he and Nick used to slip through.

Someone had repaired it. Starsky sighed and started clambering up, the bag knocking against the small of his back. He had one leg slung over the top and was getting ready to swing down the other side when he realized Hutch had stopped. His partner was bent over, one hand on his thigh, the other cupping his crotch.

"Jesus," Hutch gasped.

"Hutch," Starsky said, looking outward. No sign of the goons, but no telling how long they had. "Put down your nuts and get your ass over this fence."

Hutch groaned and then gripped the fence and started over. By the time he was ready to drop, Starsky was there, both hands on Hutch's waist to help him down.

Then they were running again, heading toward the pier. Starsky ducked under and crawled up the slope until they were tucked away out of sight. He sat down and just panted for a while, listening to Hutch breathing deeply beside him.

"Well, that was fun," Hutch said ironically.

It was dark, the late afternoon light hardly filtering through the cracks to their hiding place, but there was just enough for Starsky to read the pained expression on Hutch's face.

"You okay?"

Hutch shrugged.

Starsky pulled the bag around until it was in front of him. It was heavy. Eagerly, he unzipped it and pulled it open.

Inside was a thick mass of papers, some in loose stacks, some rolled up and held together by rubber bands. On top was a single folded sheet. Starsky could make out the smudged Dave scrawled in Nick's handwriting.

Starsky swallowed hard and pulled it out, unfolding it.

Hutch scooted down the incline to take a look out of the gap.

"We're clear. What does it say?"

It was hard to read in the dimness. Starsky tilted the sheet to best catch the light.

 

Dave. If you're reading this, something has happened to yours truly. Guess the Starskys never really had the luck, did we? Seems like nothing but bad for years now, starting back with Pops.

I'm sorry about Momma. I didn't think any of this would touch her. But when I got back home it was hard for me. Real hard. I promised you I'd go straight, but what was there for me to do? Tony and his crew heard something had gone down, but they didn't know the whole story. Still, they were giving me shit.

I decided I could do something big, you know? Be the good guy for once. So, I worked my way back in, but not like you think—all along I've been putting stuff together on these chumps, figuring I could go out with a bang and make a deal with the Feds. Make enough so Momma wouldn't have to live in that crappy neighborhood anymore.

I didn't figure on them catching onto me. I still don't know what tipped them off, but I had to go underground. I figured they would come after me, but I thought I'd be able to get what I knew to the right people. It was stupid.

I never thought they would hurt Ma. You've got to believe me, and try not to think too badly about your little brother. Hey, I'm gone, right? So you have to think well of me. Don't be sad about me. I guess it's like Uncle Saul would've said, "When your time is up, what can you do?" I guess my time is up.

I love you, Davey.

Nick

 

Hutch was silent at his side. Starsky tried to breathe around the knot in his throat, the one that was aching like a clenched fist.

"Stupid kid," he said hoarsely. "Stupid damned kid thought he could take on the Family all by himself. No back-up. No help."

"Shh," Hutch said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "He was trying to make you proud of him, don't you see that?"

"Yeah. Yeah..." Starsky looked down at the letter again, something about it bothering him. "Uncle Saul. Why would he say...Uncle Saul isn't dead."

"I thought you only had your Uncle Eli left?"

"Yeah. My Uncle Saul was more like an honorary uncle. We had a lot of those. He used to come to parties, and sooner or later someone would ask him to tell the story again, about how he escaped Belzek, the concentration camp in Poland where he got sent—holy shit." Starsky's heart did a crazy, desperate leap.

"What?" Hutch leaned in close. "What is it?"

"Don't you get it? No, of course you...Uncle Saul, he got out by hiding himself in a pile of bodies. He pretended to be dead. Almost froze to death, and then almost suffocated, half-buried in a pile of corpses. But he slipped out and made it over the border. Took him months and he nearly got caught over and over...he just never gave up." Starsky's eyes filled with tears. "Oh, God, I think Nick is alive. I think he's telling me he's just playing dead."

"Jesus." Hutch's voice was hushed.

"He's alive," Starsky whispered fiercely. "My baby brother is alive."

"That's incredible. Oh, man, Starsk." Hutch pulled him in to give him a hug, and Starsky returned it, grabbing him hard, chin pressed uncomfortably against his own shoulder but not giving a good goddamn, just breathing in the relief.

Hutch made a sound and let him go. "I guess we gotta get this stuff to Moore. We won't tell him about Nick's ploy. But we can let him in on the rest about Markano. When they bring him in we can squeeze him for what happened to your mom."

Starsky nodded. He was still high on his relief. But there was something nagging him, something about the sound Hutch had made as he let Starsky go. Starsky looked up, but all he saw was the side of Hutch's head.

"We can't take the train; we'll be sitting ducks. How much cash you got on you?" Hutch asked, interrupting the thought.

"About thirty, I guess."

"Will that get us back to the City? Back to the 33rd?"

"Yeah, it should do."

"Then let's hit it."

Starsky dropped the note back into the bag and zipped it up. They made their way carefully to the street then headed north, hoping to avoid contact with anyone who might be looking for them. They gave Starsky's old neighborhood a wide berth. Starsky wondered if Willy had been the one to drop the dime on them, or if the gorillas had tracked them all the way from the hotel.

He guessed he'd never know. He did know one thing for certain, though—he would never come back here. He'd rather keep his memories the way they were.

The future was all he was interested in now.

~*~*~

They had a long, dirty session with Moore, who was justifiably angry that they'd held back the Markano connection. Hutch sat down with the mug books and was glad to successfully identify his two favorite wise guys. Moore promised to bring them in on an assault charge and keep them until they cracked on some of the other crimes they were responsible for, all detailed in Nick's scribbled notes.

Moore insisted they let a black and white take them back to the hotel, and Hutch was grateful for the safe ride. He ached all over, but tried his best to hide it from Starsky, who was still riding high on his certainty that Nick was alive.

That was all that mattered to Starsky—that he still had real family. The thought hurt Hutch almost as much as the painfully tight hug they'd shared under the dock.

And there was still the funeral to go to the next day. Hutch was dreading it with his whole heart. He took his suit out of the closet and into the bathroom with him, hoping the steam from his shower would ease out some of the creases. He also brought his pajamas so he could change into them in the privacy of the bathroom.

The bruising had risen to the surface of his skin in glorious Technicolor. Hutch winced at the sight as he slipped his arms into his pajama top. He knew Starsky would wonder why the hell he was wearing them on such a hot night, but it couldn't be helped.

He needn't have worried. Starsky was crashed out, dead to the world, sprawled like a drunken sailor across the big king bed. He'd only managed to get one shoe off before passing out. Hutch bent and removed the other one, then pushed at his mumbling partner until enough of the bed was available. Gingerly, Hutch stretched out then turned off the light.

"G'nite Starsk," Hutch said softly.

He was answered by a rattling snore.

~*~*~

Aunt Sarita didn't stop crying the entire time. Not during the service, and not at the burial. Somehow, it helped Starsky keep it together. That, and Hutch, who stood like a wall by his side, his pale hair and face sandwiched between the black of his yarmulke and the dark funeral suit. His eyes kept drifting over to Starsky, checking on him, and it eased some of the dull agony that clenched him whenever he looked down at the plain pine box before them.

Afterward, they all took the long limousine ride to Staten Island for the after-service at his aunt and uncle's house. Starsky drifted in a fog, accepting condolences from friends and distant relatives he hardly remembered. He didn't want to be there. None if it would bring her back.

Who would ever love him as much as she had?

And even she had sent him away. He knew why, too, though it was never the stated reason. Always it was for his own good, to keep him from getting mixed up with the wrong people.

But the real reason was she couldn't bear her son's grief along with her own. Every night after his father had died, Starsky would cry himself to sleep, hearing his mother weeping alone in the other room. Little Nick had been too young to really comprehend what he'd lost, but Starsky had understood all too well. And he and his mom would knock around the house like two ping pong balls, bouncing against each other's pain, making it worse. It had been too much of a burden for a struggling widow, and she'd had to let him go.

Aunt Rose's health had kept her from her sister-in-law's funeral, and a large spray of flowers had arrived in her stead. The bouquet gave Hutch a sneezing fit, but the big dope just moved to the opposite side of the living room, his eyes teary and red.

Starsky walked over and put a hand on his elbow. "Let's get out of here, huh?"

Hutch looked at him. "Had enough, huh?"

Starsky nodded. He tracked down his aunt and uncle to say goodbye. They'd be sitting shiva since Starsky couldn't right now, and wasn't that another kick in the head.

On the ferry back to Manhattan, Hutch gave him some space. Starsky needed it. He looked out over the water at the city lights and tried to let it all go, but everything was knotted in his gut like fishing line. There was no going home. Not ever again. No more Hello, sweet boy, and wrinkled hands patting his cheeks. No more homemade spaetzel and hot sweet bread and eat, eat, you're nothing but skin and bones. And no more thinking he could always ask her, find out for sure, if she really forgave him for never coming home again.

No more chances for anything at all.

They debarked and took the train back to their hotel. When they arrived, hot and tired, there was a note waiting for them at the front desk.

"Huggy's cousin Marcel has come up with something," Hutch said, reading it. "You want I should go talk to him?"

"We go together," Starsky said.

He followed Hutch up to the room to change. Starsky shucked off his suit and was pulling his jeans on when he saw Hutch, a bundle of clothes under one arm, start to go into the bathroom.

"You're taking another shower?" Starsky asked, impatient to get out of there and see if Huggy's cousin had any real leads.

"No, 'm just gonna change," Hutch mumbled. He began to close the door, but Starsky stopped it with his foot.

"You getting modest on me or something?" he asked incredulously. Hutch's behavior was bizarre.

A sudden thought made Starsky's heart thud dully. Maybe this was about that damned kiss he had laid on Hutch. Jesus, maybe Hutch was now worried about undressing in front of him.

"What's up?" Starsky said unevenly. "Give it to me straight."

Hutch blinked and looked away. "Hey, can't a guy get a little privacy?"

"Yeah, go ahead and pull the other one, Hutch." Starsky bit the bullet. "Listen, is this...is this about me planting one on you last night? Because if it is—"

"No!" Hutch looked shocked. "It's not that at all. I just...." He ran his fingers into his hair, and then pushed by him to go back into the bedroom. Wordlessly, Hutch began to strip off the white, button-down shirt.

When he eased it off his shoulders, Starsky had to bite back a curse.

Hutch's back was peppered with black and blue marks. He threw his shirt on the bed and started to pull on his T-shirt, but Starsky put a hand on his arm, stopping him. Hutch sighed and turned.

The front was even worse than the back. Great purple marks overlapped his abdomen and chest. The largest, a crescent shape below his ribs, was a deep, angry shade of reddish blue that had Starsky sucking in his breath in sympathy.

"Don't get yourself in a dither," Hutch said sardonically. "Most of it's thanks to the Bobbsey twins."

"Yeah, huh?" Starsky sat down on the bed, his shame beating at him. Hurt him. All I do is hurt him, throwing more and more on. When's he gonna get tired of it?

"Hey." Hutch squatted down in front of him and rested his palms on Starsky's knees. "You think I care about a punch or two? Trust me, it looks worse than it is. You know I just bruise easy—"

"'Easy as a Florida peach,'" Starsky said, numbly repeating his usual taunt.

Incredibly, Hutch laughed out loud. "'—and twice as sweet,'" he said, finishing it.

"Come on." He patted Starsky's leg. "We got a snitch needs talking to."

~*~*~

Marcel had dreadlocks straight from the Islands, and a thick accent to go with it.

"I tink ol' Huggy Bear, he got his noodles scrambled in the sun out dere. He know I and I don't talk to no Babylon. Not unless he be a frien'."

"Marcel, believe me, we wouldn't be bothering you if this weren't...personal." Hutch put every ounce of sincerity he had into his voice, staring the young man straight in the eye. "My partner's mother was murdered in her apartment in Washington Heights three days ago. We think it was one of Markano's guys that did it. All we're looking for is any kind of lead on who."

Marcel bit his lip. "Maybe an' I talk with you, them family boys come right back 'round with trouble for mine."

"We're about to keep them so busy they won't know what end is up," Starsky spoke up quietly from Hutch's side. "We've got enough on them to give their lawyers a year's worth of heart attacks."

Marcel grinned. "An' I like you, mon, you make them pay a little kind."

"Oh, they're gonna pay, all right." Starsky's teeth were clenched, and Hutch squeezed his elbow lightly. He saw Marcel's eyes follow his hand.

Marcel nodded decisively. "Up here, none so little go down that I don't hear 'bout it. Could be two big guy, Tiny Sam and him pal Giorgio, be seen where they shouldn't be come last Saturday."

The names registered with a click, and Hutch looked over involuntarily at Starsky. The skin on Starsky's face was taut, pulling the bones into relief, his eyes as dark as a shark's.

"Now, they should've known better than that," Starsky said in an ugly whisper.

Marcel shook his head nervously, and a vaguely sweet scent wafted over to tug at Hutch's nostrils.

"Thank you, Marcel," Hutch said hastily. He held out his hand, and Marcel took it in a crazy grip, sliding his fingers across Hutch's and ending with a slap.

"We're gonna take care of business, Marcel," Starsky said as a farewell. He slipped the man a bill, and Marcel took it with a nod and a strangely intent look.

"I can most certainly believe it."

Hutch grabbed Starsky's elbow and tugged him away. "You realize Moore has those two guys in custody right now?"

Starsky nodded, his steps keeping time with Hutch's.

"Guess it's time for Mohammed to go to the Mountain."

~*~*~

The one-way mirror was filmy and scratched, but Starsky had no trouble identifying the men behind it. Moore was in there talking to the Mountain, a.k.a. "Tiny" Sam Amato, child of two immigrants from Bivona, Sicily.

Two hours behind the glass hadn't eased a single bit of Starsky's rage, which was boiling just beneath his skin, a nice, full simmer that had his hands twitching on his thighs.

I want to kill him. I don't think I ever wanted anyone so bad. Not even Prudholm. And if we had drawn on them down in Brooklyn, I might've had a chance to do it.

Moore was getting close to the endgame. The truth was, in spite of Tiny's role in the murder, Moore himself had bigger fish to fry. Starsky knew it, could feel it in the pattern of questioning. He heard Moore start in again, his voice coming through the tinny speaker.

"You think Markano's gonna bail you out of this one, Tiny? We have two working girls who've identified you and Giorgio coming out of the apartment on 161st. We have three other murders that Nick Starsky tagged you for before his untimely demise. But tell me this: if you were after Nick, why kill the old woman?"

And damned if the goon didn't go for it.

"That damned Nick could never keep his stupid yap shut. Anyway, this is all Tony's fault, he sent us—" Tiny clapped his hand over his mouth, looking incredibly like a little boy caught out.

"You telling me you willing to deal with me on this, Tiny? You gonna give me Tony?"

"If you...you gotta promise me the DA's gonna keep me from the Chair. I ain't going to the Chair."

"No Chair, Tiny. Now give."

Starsky felt Hutch tense beside him.

"We were just trying to get back Tony's property. That damned Nick, he walked off with some papers. We didn't know the old biddy would be in the apartment. Tony didn't say nothing about some old lady...and...it was Giorgio, yeah. He just lost his temper for some reason."

Starsky couldn't listen to any more. He rushed out of the door, feeling Hutch riding his wake. Starsky didn't stop outside the building, but kept walking. Across the street he saw a park, and he headed toward it, his legs moving faster until finally he broke into a run, running from the images flashing in his mind—of Tiny's petulant, lying mug, and the taped outline in his mother's apartment; of her face, so still like it never was in life, still and white like his grief—a pale thing. He didn't deserve to grieve her, because he'd left her there, endlessly climbing the stairs with her heavy bags of groceries.

And there was no one to hate, really, because Tiny was nothing but a drone, a stupid, wide-mouthed puppet with no more feeling about what he'd done than a man feels guilty stepping on a bug.

Starsky's foot caught on something and he fell to the grass in a tumble, the dampness sprinkling his face and hair. He lay panting, and heard the sound of his partner pounding up to him.

"Starsk?"

Hutch, help me. I wanna kill that bastard. But there's a thousand more just like him standing in the ranks. Tiny is nothing.

But the rage had to have somewhere to go, and when Hutch reached down to pull him up, Starsky leaped to his feet and pushed him away, hard.

Hutch staggered back, and then his face set and he took a step forward.

"Don't," Starsky warned, but then took another step forward himself and shoved at Hutch again.

This time Hutch was ready for him, and didn't move.

"Goddamn it. Goddamn it, fight me, damn you!" Starsky yelled, swinging wildly, but Hutch just grabbed his arms, then slid his hands to Starsky's wrists, holding them hard, forcing them down by Starsky's sides.

"No. You fight me," Hutch said quietly.

And Starsky did. He twisted, bringing his elbows up to break the grip on his wrists, but Hutch re-captured them a moment later high by his face, holding them back. Starsky strained hard, jerking, and then gave up and instead wrapped an ankle around the back of Hutch's calf and lurched forward, bringing both of them down.

He landed on top of Hutch, and felt more than heard Hutch's pained grunt, and then they were rolling in the grass, Hutch flipping on top of him and straining to hold him down, and Starsky on his back fighting to free his hands. He lifted one elbow and knocked Hutch viciously under the jaw. Hutch's hand closed into a fist that hovered over him.

"Do it. Do it," Starsky said angrily.

But Hutch shook his head, dropping his hand and capturing Starsky's wrist again. Starsky squirmed against him with all his might, attempting to shift under the heavy weight of his partner's body. He tried to twine his legs with Hutch's and roll him to the side, but Hutch did some fucked up college wrestling move and then had Starsky on his belly, both hands trapped behind his back. Hutch ground him down, and Starsky squirmed again. He suddenly realized his cock was rock hard. It was the feel of Hutch holding him down, one big knee between his thighs, that did it. Starsky bucked again, groaning in fury and increasing excitement until he wasn't sure which was more important. All he knew was Hutch was holding him. Holding him with force, with love. Stopping him from hurting himself.

Stopping him from hurting them both.

Starsky shuddered, and then relaxed. He lay unmoving, focused on the weight above him. Hutch was panting in his ear, and the sensation made Starsky turn his head until Hutch's lips were touching him. He leaned up into that touch, trying to rub against his mouth.

"Starsk?"

The soft, astonished voice shivered against Starsky's ear, spreading through him like wildfire, and the excitement won. He groaned and thrust his hips down, grinding his hard-on into the grass.

"Oh, God," he heard Hutch whisper. And then he felt it—a growing warmth and hardness against his ass.

But the moment was over in an instant. Hutch rolled off of him hastily, kneeling beside him before pushing himself to his feet.

Starsky moaned quietly and hoisted himself up on his elbows to cover his hot face with his hands.

"Starsk," Hutch said softly.

Starsk stood. He stared at Hutch, waiting for something. For the incriminations to start, maybe. Or for Hutch to take just one step forward. But Hutch's face was blank, an unwritten sheet. He cleared his throat.

A thick spatter of rain suddenly dropped on Starsky's head, followed by another, and then, as if the sky had just sprung a massive leak, buckets of warm summer rain came crashing down. It was like standing in the shower.

Hutch wiped a hand across his eyes, his hair plastered over his forehead. He was still staring at Starsky.

Starsky raised his arms in a helpless shrug.

Hutch gave him a hand up, and they slogged back to the hotel.

~*~*~

The next morning, Hutch flew home. He was almost out of leave days, he said, and Markano was in custody. The case was solved. They'd have to come back and testify at some point, but Starsky found himself hoping it would be a good long damned time before he had to visit his hometown again.

It took another two weeks for Starsky to settle his mom's affairs.

Neither of them spoke about what had happened in the park. Or had almost happened. And Starsky was relieved to have Hutch go, because the tension between them on that last night was too electric and strange. Half-looks and weird sighs. Heavy silences, and Hutch crawling into bed with him and then turning away, making Starsky squirm with mortification.

He then spent the next two weeks trying not to think about what had happened, but it kept popping up at the weirdest times. The feeling of Hutch's hard-on pressed against him, and the taste of him during that one brief, violent kiss.

And especially the moment when Starsky had realized that no matter what, Hutch would be there. That he could still love him, watch over him, even when Starsky was so overcome with grief that he wanted to obliterate everything around him.

He knew what he wanted. But he also knew that Hutch deserved more than mean words and angry fists. Starsky needed to find his peace first.

He found it, strangely enough, when he came across the box of things that his mother had kept, most of it his father's. Silly stuff, like the dusty box of his father's pipe tobacco, or a worn-out copy of Apache Devil, the trashy novel his father loved to re-read over and over.

And in the same box, Starsk found a wooden ship, his favorite toy when he was a kid, and his baby book, with a lock of curly brown hair folded in paper and tucked between the pages.

She'd loved them both. She'd lost them both, but that didn't stop her from loving them.

Maybe that was all he needed to remember.

~*~*~

"Huggy, just do me a favor and pick me up, and don't give me a lotta grief."

"Starsky. Why am I the one giving you a ride from the airport? When that blond cowboy of yours has been moping around the O.K. Corral for the past two weeks looking like his favorite dogie slipped the picket line?"

"What? Who the hell died and made you Roy Rogers?"

"Been watching some great westerns lately," Huggy explained. "And in that vein, when is your stage coach pulling into these here parts?"

Starsky grinned. "I should be landing about two p.m. Continental."

"See you at baggage claim."

Huggy was good and didn't pester Starsky too much on the ride back to his apartment. He gave Starsky his condolences, and Starsky thanked him for putting them in touch with Marcel.

Back at his apartment, Starsky took a quick shower and then a catnap, ticking down the hours until Hutch would be getting home from work. At six on the dot Starsky went out and tried to start up the Torino, only to discover the battery was dead. Cursing a blue streak, he pulled out his trickle-charger and hooked it up to the battery.

And then he called a cab.

~*~*~

He found Hutch out on the deck and bent over a dead-looking plant.

"You're back," Hutch's voice was flat, but he turned around and gave Starsky a tight smile. "Thank God. I don't think I could've taken another day with the rookie Dobey's paired me with."

It wasn't the enthusiastic greeting Starsky had been hoping for. He hid his disappointment, looking down at the little plant.

"What's its story?"

"Heat wave," Hutch said. "While we were gone. I've been trying to nurse it back, but some things are hard to recover from." Lifting the pot, he dumped the soil into a bin, catching the dead plant and tossing it into the trash. He brushed off his hands.

Starsky's heart fell at the words.

"Did you get everything squared away in New York?" Hutch asked coolly as he walked back inside. Starsky followed him to the kitchen, where Hutch went to the sink and started washing his hands, using a small brush to get the soil out of his skin.

"Yeah. It's all good. We had Nick's 'funeral' a couple of days after you left. There were a couple of suspicious-looking characters at the gravesite, so I made it a good show. Then this one guy, a Fed, approached me."

Hutch rinsed his hands and dried off, giving him a raised eyebrow. "That must've been interesting."

"Wasn't it ever," Starsky agreed. "He was a little put out when he learned I'd already turned everything over to Moore. Turns out this guy Stevens was Nick's contact. He's the one who arranged the accident with Nick, but Nick disappeared on him right after. I guess Nick didn't really trust him. Took his money, though." Starsky grinned, remembering his relief at the confirmation of his hunch.

"So, Nick really is okay. And you still have family." There was a weird note to Hutch's voice. His eyes refused to meet Starsky's.

Damn it. What's going on with him? "Yeah, of course I'm fucking glad about Nick, but...Hutch, hell, can't we just talk about stuff?" Starsky burst out in frustration.

"About what?" Hutch said lightly, but he turned his back, going into the fridge. He came up with a couple of beers, handing one to Starsky.

Starsky took it and just held it, watching Hutch pour his into a tall glass.

"You gonna pretend nothing happened back there in that park?" Starsky said, his voice husky with disappointment.

Hutch shrugged, looking uncomfortable. He walked away again, so Starsky followed him.

"What did happen?" Hutch said, leaning his ass on the arm of the couch. He sounded annoyed.

You got turned on, Starsky wanted to say. We both did. But Hutch's words about family echoed in Starsky's mind, tugging at him.

"What did you mean, what you said about family just now?"

Hutch looked surprised. Then his eyebrows drew together. "Just what I said. I know how important it is to you. I mean, there's nothing like blood, right?" He stood up again and raised his glass in a toast, his mouth lifting in a grimace.

Awareness hit Starsky, freezing him still. He felt like he'd been trudging a long time in the dark, only to have light dawn and suddenly realize he'd been walking the edge of a cliff the whole time.

He really can't think...? But of course Hutch could. Hutch never had any trouble underestimating how important he was to someone.

And I know where that comes from. But back in New York it just didn't occur to me he'd see it that way, how I felt about losing them. He just doesn't get it. I can't believe it—the big dummy is questioning us.

Starsky cleared his throat. "No, there's nothing like blood, Hutch. But there're some things thicker."

Hutch blinked.

It was hard for Starsky to say it out loud, so he had to sit down, his knees going a little loose on him as he sank down onto the couch.

"I know I never say it, because I never have to think about it—what you and I got. I mean it'd be like thinking about the ground beneath my feet. Or deeper, like bedrock. Thicker than blood. Better than...better than anything, Hutch. Love doesn't cover it, as a word. Doesn't begin to."

Hutch's face changed, twisting tightly as if he almost couldn't bear to hear it out loud. He sat down heavily, his beer foaming up the sides of his glass.

"Yeah," he said softly. "Never did find the words that could."

Starsky nodded, his heart racing at Hutch's admission. "I always thought you felt like I did. So, I always figured you knew I felt the same."

Hutch stared at him a second before rubbing the back of his neck, his face thoughtful. He stared down into his glass. "If you put it like that, I guess I did. It's just sometimes I...I mean, when you got better, and we hit the streets again, something changed. Suddenly you weren't—you weren't there somehow. Not that we were having problems, not like last year. Just...different. And then all this went down, and I felt like a jerk because I kept thinking, there's this place I can never get to with you. Never. Because I'm not...blood."

Starsky shook his head, stumbling over the words in his dismay. "You're already there, babe. So deep. Like I said—bedrock."

Hutch smiled suddenly, but it was gone in an instant. He took a sip of his beer, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. It was so unlike Hutch that Starsky had to grin. But his gut was shaking with what he still had left to say.

He crossed his arms, holding them tight to his body. "Like I said, some things just go deeper than words'll do..." He took a short breath. "But I've been thinking, just lately, ever since the shooting, actually, that maybe I can—I can show you."

Hutch's head jerked up, and Starsky saw him wet his lips, a nervous gesture. It made Starsky's speeding heart falter a beat before it started up again, thumping hard in his chest.

"That's what...happened in our room? When you..." Hutch gestured at his mouth.

Starsky nodded. "I know it ain't your usual thing." He couldn't help a wry grin. "But then, ain't a lot about us is, huh, partner?"

Hutch put down his beer and gave a shaky laugh, covering his smile with his hand. "You got that right."

Starsky was glad to see the little smile, even if Hutch felt he had to hide it. He stared into Hutch's eyes, memorizing the sight of what they looked like in that moment, so deep and clear, frozen on his.

It's okay. We're okay. More than okay, even... But Starsky felt strangely unable to move. Usually, when he had someone in his sights, he would charge ahead, guns blazing. But this was Hutch. And Starsky had done more than a little damage the last time he bulled in.

The last time. On the grass, Hutch showing me his big heart. Letting me use him as a punching bag. Covering me, all around. Holding me down, safe. Starsky's cock hardened, tightening his pants.

"You just gonna sit there?" he said to himself, except he said it out loud.

Hutch's eyes widened, and then a flush crept over his face, darkening the pale skin. "What do you want me to do?" he asked.

"Show me, Hutch." And saying it freed Starsky from his paralysis. He got up, took a step forward, and held out his hand.

Hutch rose to meet him, his palm damp against Starsky's.

"I've held your hand before," Hutch said, sounding detached.

"Not like this," Starsky said. It felt weird; the grip was wrong, and he shifted his fingers, then sandwiched Hutch's hand between both of his.

That was right. Hutch was looking at him strangely, and Starsky had to ask, "You did feel it, didn't you? In the park?"

"Yeah, I did," Hutch said softly. "Right before my balls gave me sheer hell." He smiled wryly. "Nothing like a kick in the nuts to make a guy wanna embrace celibacy."

It was a lame joke, but it was a joke. Hutch's face was red, but the laughter was there in his eyes, along with a lingering disbelief.

"You're over it, though, right?" Starsky said, making his voice anxious, and Hutch gave a little whuffing breath of amusement.

"Got one thing on your mind, huh?" Hutch was staring at his lips as he said it.

Starsky gave them a lick, but he needn't have bothered, because Hutch leaned in and placed his soft, wet lips right on Starsky's.

Hutch pulled away almost immediately. "This okay?" he asked, sounding breathless.

"Yeah, this was part of the plan," Starsky whispered back. It felt weird to be whispering to Hutch. To be planning things in his head, his mind racing with images of what he wanted to do the guy.

But Hutch grabbed Starsky by the forearms, his fingers digging in hard. "This is crazy. This is even crazier than most of your ideas," he said hoarsely.

"So? Since when did you not come along for the ride?"

And Hutch laughed again, this time kissing Starsky hard before pulling back. "Okay."

"Okay?"

"Okay, okay. Lead the way, Kemosabe."

Starsky turned and walked quickly toward Hutch's bed, stripping as he went, keeping his mind carefully blank so he wouldn't risk shooting his load before he even got his pants off. He was that hard and aching already.

Hutch didn't look in much better shape, and his face was red as he dropped his pants. Starsky started to worry about Hutch's ticker. He's gonna blow a valve.

But that got Starsky to thinking about blowing other things, and he had to clamp his hand hard on his dick. He heard Hutch snicker next to him, sounding completely loony, like he'd left the planet.

Maybe they both had. Starsky felt lighter than the wind, and he launched himself onto the bed, buck naked, his ass in the air. The frame creaked beneath him as he landed.

"Hey, watch it," Hutch said behind him, still whispering for some reason. "That's a new mattress."

"Good. Time to break it in, Blondie," Starsky said, flipping over onto his back. A bare second later Hutch launched himself to land beside him, and Starsky laughed. "Goddamn double-standard."

Hutch just smirked, but then he looked down at Starsky's body, and his expression went slack. "God."

"Yeah." Starsky knew what he meant. The goofing had gotten him this far, but as he stared at Hutch's erect cock, and all the flushed skin of him, Starsky's throat went dry.

"I ever tell you...you're perfect, Blintz? Just...beautiful?"

Hutch laughed nervously and put a hand on Starsky's chest. "Never like that. Never like you meant it."

Starsky took Hutch's hand and dragged it down impatiently to his cock. He closed Hutch's big fingers around him, and then dropped his hand.

Hutch looked down, his face full of curiosity, and gave him a careful squeeze.

"Christ, yeah," Starsky said softly. He closed his eyes and let his arms fall back, focusing on the sensation of Hutch's tentative stroking. Starsky felt a firm pressure below the head, Hutch's thumb, he thought. Hutch's thumb, stroking me just in the right—

"Wait," Starsky gasped.

Hutch stopped immediately and gave him a worried look. "What?"

"Was gonna...blow it," Starsky confessed.

Both of Hutch's eyebrows went up. "So...what do you want? Do you want me to try to—?"

"No," Starsky said, deciding. "Like this." He grabbed for Hutch, pulling his big body on top of himself, spreading his legs so Hutch could slip between them. He felt the hard heat of Hutch's cock pressing next to his, his groin trapping them both together against Starsky's belly.

"Oh, yeah," Hutch said softly, staring down into his face. He pumped his hips, making them both groan in pleasure.

"Grab my hands," Starsky whispered. "Pin me."

Hutch's eyes widened.

"Like in the park, Hutch. Like you won't let me go."

"I won't. Not ever," Hutch whispered, sounding embarrassed. He reached for Starsky's wrists, pinning them to the mattress, his full weight pressing Starsky down. And then Hutch started moving again, more quickly now, thrusting and holding Starsky in place.

"Oh, Christ. Hutch. Hutch." It was perfect. Too perfect—all that weight and, yeah, love bearing down on him, and Starsky moaned helplessly, closing his eyes again. So good.

Hutch bent to kiss him, panting against his lips until Starsky sucked his tongue into his mouth. Starsky groaned in approval of the taste and the suggestive slide of Hutch's tongue against his. Bet he can do amazing things with that thing.

The thought ratcheted Starsky's excitement. Hutch was rocking faster now, still pinning Starsky's wrists in a sweaty grip. Starsky's cock was rubbing repeatedly against the hard muscle of Hutch's smooth groin, an achingly perfect rhythm, and he could feel Hutch's cock riding his belly, digging in. Starsky wrapped his legs around Hutch's and let himself imagine Hutch thrusting into him, taking him all the way, and the forbidden, vivid image was too much. He cried out softly and came, slick warmth pumping from his cock. He heard Hutch moaning in his ear, and the hands on his wrists tightened painfully hard.

"God! Starsk, oh, God!" Hutch's cock throbbed and released, throbbed and released, his come joining Starsky's on their skin. He felt Hutch shudder and sigh heavily. And then Hutch's forehead dropped onto his shoulder.

"Don't let go," Starsky said.

Hutch shook his head, his silky hair brushing Starsky's shoulder. "Not planning to. Not in this lifetime."

"That sounds just about perfect."

~*~*~

Hutch awoke from the strangest dream only to discover it was a reality. A nude, warm reality, draped over him in his bed.

Starsky. Impossible. But Hutch had known Starsky long enough to know that nothing was impossible when it came to his brilliant, quirky partner.

The last two weeks now felt like they were the dream, one in which he let himself doubt what Starsky felt for him. One in which he'd given into stupid resentment in his jealousy over Starsky's emphasis on blood ties.

But they were tied tighter than blood. Hell, right now they were glued together with something even thicker.

Hutch suppressed a laugh, not wanting to wake Starsky just yet. He needed this time to think about what had just happened.

Bedrock. That's what he called us. Hutch had never thought of himself as anyone's bedrock. Van had never leaned on him that way, and none of his other relationships had lasted the test of time. But Starsky had lasted longer than any. Starsky believed in him so deeply that he didn't even think about it. Maybe that was the craziest dream of all—that Hutch had been searching for someone to trust him that much, only to discover someone had been there all along.

Starsky had always been there. Just like the world.

"You know," came a sleepy voice beside him, "I can always tell when you're thinking too hard. You get this dumb little crinkle right here—" A finger tapped his forehead. "—and then I could swear steam starts coming from your ears."

"Not thinking," Hutch lied. He captured the finger and ran his lips along it. Hairy. Starsky had hairy knuckles. Hutch suppressed another laugh.

"What's so funny?" Starsky pulled away his finger and used it to trace Hutch's smile.

"You. Bedrock. Fred Flintstone."

It was a mistake. Suddenly one hundred-eighty pounds of hard muscle came clambering on top of him, pinning his shoulders to the bed. A sharp kneecap veered dangerously close to Hutch's balls, and he tried to twist away.

"Take it back!" Starsky growled, the blue of his eyes fierce. "I ain't no Fred Flintstone."

"Then you must be Wilma," Hutch choked out, laughing now, trying to squirm out from under, but Starsky's legs had trapped his waist. They wrestled a while, an almost motionless struggle with minute shifts in balance and pressure. Finally, Hutch gave up, panting heavily. They were too well matched, and Starsky had the early advantage.

Starsky grinned down at him. "Hey, Barney, where's your get up and go?"

Hutch had to drag up the proper response. "I think it just got up and went."

"Oh, I hope not. I really, really do." And then Starsky reached down and did something wicked to Hutch's cock that he could swear was still illegal in the California statutes. Hutch gasped and squirmed again.

"See? Nothing but a big liar," Starsky said smugly.

"Shut up and kiss me, Fred."

Starsky did.

 

Fin.

 

July 14, 2008
San Francisco, California