It wasn't exactly a gay bar, just of such patronage, a mix of all types, that it had that tough leather-man feel to it. Actually, it was the lowest point in the gutter, the thin line where all the silt collects, sometimes so thick it was hard to breathe. Hutch had begun to think it was sifting into his pores.
But though it wasn't the worst thing in the world to sit there and make eye contact, drink beer and turn into a regular, Hutch didn't like it much. Couldn't make himself like it. It was close quarters, the air was thick with smoke and voices, the click of pool balls, and someone was even jamming him in the ribs.
"Watch it, man," he snapped.
The offender shrugged and moved off.
This was the type of place Hutch did not prefer. More to his liking was a place where the sun could come into the windows, were it daytime, and the counter he was leaning on would have seen a cleaning rag more often than once a week.
Starsky, on the other hand, leaning backwards on the bar with both elbows, was so much a part of the street, and the streets of him, that he seemed at home. The atmosphere of the seediest of places, Hutch had discovered, rolled right off him. Which was why Hutch was surprised to see him fidgeting.
"What's up, partner?" he asked in a whisper, leaning close.
"He's staring at me again."
Hutch looked at Starsky, craned to see that Joshua Bright, an attractive red-haired man and the focus of their little undercover operation, was indeed staring at them and smiling, and then looked at Starsky again. His friend wasn't incapable of handling himself, but Hutch felt he might need a little assistance.
"If he comes over and talks to you," he said slowly, "tell him you're with me and he'll leave you alone." Hutch took a sip of his beer.
There was a touch of seriousness in Starsky's voice as Hutch hid his own twinge of having approached some unknown boundary.
"With me," he asserted anyway.
Their solemnity broke as Starsky turned towards Hutch to snicker into his beer. "With you, my ass."
Hutch nodded, letting his smile show through his glass. "Yup. Yer mah date."
Of course if Bright did decide he was so attracted to Starsky that he did come over, they would have to play along for awhile. It would fit into their plans to offer to buy or sell drugs, depending on the gentleman's attitude, and fortify their cover with a little interaction. And their cover as two small neighborhood dealers with their eyes on the rung above theirs meant that they had to be into whatever the big boys were.
"Mike's" was a major clearing house for all kinds of drugs, prostitution, porno, and with elections coming up, the governor had decided on a major crackdown on everything. "Just say no" or some dumb thing. How could a person say no to something that was his only pleasure? Homicide, for once, was slow, and drugs needed their help, otherwise they'd have been very far from this type of action.
Anyway, the only other undercover in the bar was a lone cop whose sole job was the buying and selling of child pornography. Sam had told Hutch at one point that for the first couple of days he'd gone home and had nightmares about short-eyed individuals. Sam was a 15-year veteran, but this was the hard stuff. At least Hutch and Starsky only had to worry about the drug deals, something they were used to. Hutch was sure that if he had been the one to work on the child pornography, he'd have blown his cover inside an hour by killing one of his customers.
In the course of a month, he and Starsky had purchased several thousand dollars' worth of cocaine, pot, Ecstasy, and a plastic baggie of assorted colored pills that the lab had not been able to identify. During that same time they'd both tested, or pretended to test, various amounts of their purchases, discovering that neither one of them liked cocaine or Ecstasy, though Hutch thought secretly that Starsky had been viewing the pot with new eyes after getting the severe munchies one night. The pills had gone unswallowed, however, both of them spitting them back out at the same time into their beers.
He reached across Starsky's body to check his watch. 2:30 a.m. Bright had left the bar and all their ready money had been spent. Several baggies of something were tucked securely into Starsky's pockets for checking into the lab later. Another half hour would see them well established as regulars, their few collective past experiences showing them that someone who left right after a deal was definitely going to be pegged as a cop.
When Hutch grabbed his wrist to look at his watch, Starsky looked at it too. It seemed kind of funny sometimes that Hutch, who seldom carried his pocket watch, was always checking the time on Starsky's wristwatch, while Starsky who wore the watch seldom checked it. He looked up in time to see Hutch smiling and looking away. Hutch tended not to look at people when he smiled. If he did, it was usually fake. He looked away when he did a lot of things, turning away sometimes, as if sheltering himself with his body.
He was doing it now, or at least as well as he could without completely moving off the barstool. Starsky watched him draw his large-palmed hand down his face and wondered why Hutch was suddenly pulling away.
"Is it cold in here, darlin', or is it just you?"
Hutch looked at him as if he'd grown two heads. "What are you going on about now?"
"Just wonderin' what's up. This bar gettin' to ya, or somethin'?"
Starsky, staring right at his friend, could not help but see the sad little tilt to Hutch's eyes, or the downward flex to his mouth. Looking down at the surface of the bar, Hutch said, "It is a little smoky in here."
It wasn't that smoky anymore, but there was no way he was going to start poking now, not when they were both undercover. They were both on their last nerves, though it was easier for him, he figured, to act like a criminal. Or was it? Certainly hanging out in a joint like this, playing pool and guzzling watery beer, was more comfortable for him. Hutch, on the other hand, Starsky had always thought, would look better and fit in better as one of those bad guys who wore three-piece suits and traveled on folding money. Had a goon or two to back him up. Like those bad guys in the James Bond movies. He snickered to himself.
"Something funny?" Hutch asked as if Starsky had been laughing at him.
Instantly, Starsky sobered. "Naw, just thinking about you in a tuxedo, that's all."
"Huh," Hutch replied as if he did not believe it, which he did.
"Is it time to go, yet?" Starsky demanded, putting the edge of a whine in his voice that he knew Hutch hated.
"Aw, c'mon, there's nobody here and I want some real food."
Starsky waved his hand to demonstrate and indeed the bar had cleared out, but Hutch would be determined to remain until the designated time to leave. And so they waited. Tipped back empty beer glasses. Finished off the pretzels. Didn't speak.
Until 3 a.m. At Hutch's signal, they got up and left the bar, strolled slowly to Starsky's car.
"Hutch, I'm STARVING. I think I'm gonna faint." Starsky patted his tummy as if to emphasize the hollowness there.
Before going around to his side of the car, Hutch paused to pat Starsky's tummy too. "Unless you live in third world county, I don't think you have anything to worry about." He smiled wickedly as he got into the passenger seat.
"Hutch, I'm serious!"
"You were serious last night too, but you lasted an additional hour, as I recall."
Starsky started the car, shaking his head. "Don't make me go through that again," he insisted.
"You're the one who wanted pizza at 4 a.m."
"Who was I to know that the L.A. pizza industry isn't open all night?"
They drove down the street and Starsky knew that as Hutch looked out the window, he was laughing to himself.
"I've got some eggs I could whip you up," suggested Hutch, and Starsky heard him swallow a snicker.
"Or maybe," said Hutch quietly, turning to face him, "maybe I remembered to set out some steaks to thaw, with salad and garlic bread and wine and all of that."
Starsky felt the surprise through his whole body. Trust Hutch to plan a full course meal for 4 a.m. in the morning for a partner who loved to eat.
"Then again," the voice came slowly now, teasing, as Hutch turned away, "maybe I forgot."
As he pretended to play with the rearview as they stopped at a red, Starsky smiled. It sounded like Hutch had made dessert too.
Hutch piled the dirty dishes in the sink and went around pulling the shades down over the mild winter sunrise. When the splashes of yellow hit his face, he was energized for a moment and seriously considered staying up to finish various and assorted things that had gone undone during their recent stakeout. But if he didn't sleep now, he would be one of the walking dead come sunset.
He closed the door on the greenhouse and tiptoed past the couch where all he could see of his partner were the fingertips of one outstretched hand and a tuft of dark hair. Starsky had dropped off to sleep like a heavy rock will sink to the bottom of a still pond. And he would remain that way till Hutch woke him. Of course, it wouldn't take more than his name, but until then, he was out.
Hutch stood there at the end of the couch, looking at the lump of covers that was Starsky. Crossed his arms and wondered at the vague feeling of disquiet that began to grip at him again. Going over to the door, he checked both locks; lifted the shade on each window and checked the locks there, and wandered over to the sink to wonder if he shouldn't do the dishes anyway.
If Starsky were awake he would see that Hutch was pacing and ask him, what's up? To which Hutch would hem and haw and finally come up with something that would satisfy them both. He stared at the sink, debating if he shouldn't go ahead and fill it with hot water, then decided he was really too tired, after all.
Was it their projected target, one Joshua Bright, that made him wish he had an extra pair of eyes and ears? Not to mention a full time assistant, made up of half him and half Starsky, to cover their tracks? Bright was well on his way to easing out creeping vines of power which reached into all facets of street culture, counter culture, sub culture, mainstream, and could provide just about anything illegal, immoral or unethical that anyone could think of. Compared to some, he was still small time stuff, but he was growing everywhere, like a bad weed or those traveling vines in the deep south.
Yeah, he realized as he wandered into the bathroom to brush his teeth, Joshua Bright made him nervous, and had done since Dobey had handed them the file on the man. Bright was going to be very hard to pin down. But Hutch had known that all along, so that couldn't be what was making him uneasy.
As he brushed his teeth, he stared at his tired refection in the mirror and wondered if the bad feelings came from being under so long without a break. He smiled through a mouthful of toothpaste, realizing that being under was just about his favorite part of being a cop. It was only their third or fourth time under, but he found himself enjoying it more each time. Especially when he could play the part of someone he absolutely was not. Someone who was so far away from who he was, that he could be as flamboyant and goofy as he wished, although this time they were under at a pretty low key, almost as themselves. So it wasn't that.
Hutch discovered the next night that it was the joke itself that he hated. At first it had been funny: Starsky would saunter across the bar, inviting looks and comments, and he would fend off all approaches with a toss of his head.
"I'm with him," he would say then, his eyes sparkling, throwing in a little hip toss.
Hutch nearly fell off his barstool the first time he saw that one, spilling beer over his jeans as he tried to swallow the laughter. Then a swell of possessiveness expanded in his chest, because, of course, it was true. Starsky really knew how to throw himself into the part, the tight jeans, skimpy t-shirt, and that worn leather jacket that somehow skimmed across the line of his hips at just the right place. And the way he moved, as Hutch began watching him with "gay" eyes, was something else.
Hutch felt he did the role well, too. And it was almost fun to pretend, if the situation about the drugs weren't so dark. He would, in front of the mirror at home, practice tying a bright scarf around his neck, copying the way he saw real gay men do it. As a signal, I am here. I am one of you. It seemed to work too, most of the clientele in the bar had come up and talked to him a time or two. They were regulars by this time.
Hutch sipped at his beer, and wondered when Starsky was going to show up. He'd said he'd had an errand; Hutch figured he'd forgotten to pay his rent or something.
"There he is," he heard someone say. Several heads, including his own, turned to watch Starsky enter the bar.
He did it in the way he always did, dressed in jeans and his leather jacket; nothing special. But Hutch noted that almost all eyes were upon his partner. Looking at Starsky in a way that Hutch had reserved doing from behind his sunglasses, when wondering what it was that all those women saw. What they thought when they were looking at him like they wanted to eat him alive.
That's when it stopped being funny. That's when he figured out what had been troubling him. They'd been under too long, and something that had long been precious and dear to him was being sullied and trampled under uncaring feet. Nobody looked at Starsky that way, like he was something that could be owned. Starsky was his own person and what had been unimportant the first time or even the second, to deepen their cover, was no longer the joke when someone else, some stranger, began looking at Starsky like he was a thing instead of a person. His friendship with Starsky was something like the Rock of Gibraltar to him; he couldn't bear to see anyone mess with it. Not even, not especially, in the line of duty. Some things weren't worth it. And nothing was worth messing with what he felt for Starsky. He couldn't even begin to acknowledge the uncomfortable realization that he himself had looked at many a female that way.
But Starsky continued to use it, that maleness, that sexual draw, continued to pull the clientele of the bar in. Practically the only person not to come and chat Starsky up was the real child pornographer. Even Joshua Bright began to make noises about being interested in doing business with them. Hutch felt that Bright thought any deal might include some private time with Starsky.
When Starsky reached his side, he grabbed him by the elbow. "Would you tone it down a little?"
Starsky pulled the elbow away and jabbed Hutch in the stomach with it. "Why should I worry, you'll be here ta protect me; defend my honor."
"You're no virgin princess, sweetheart," said Hutch, dryly.
"An' you're no knight, either."
Hutch tried to relax his chest by letting out a lungful of air and turned away on his barstool.
"Don't do that!" exclaimed Starsky. "You been doin' that for more than a week now. Two weeks, even. Watsamatta, somthin' bugging you?"
Bugging me, thought Hutch. The voice in his head sounded more mild than he felt, but if he sounded calm there, maybe his voice would be the same.
"Not sure," he said, taking a swig of his beer. There had been quite a lot of beer swilled over the past month and this had to be the most watered down slop ever. Even Coors was better. "Maybe it's taking too long to get to Bright. He's our man."
Ever predictable, Starsky's face brightened. "Hey, I know. I'll come on to him, subtle like, an' then you come over, all angry. Then, we'll make like the only thing that'll mollify you will be a deal. Then, we bust him!"
Hutch stared his partner straight in the face. He knew his expression was telling Starsky exactly what he thought of that idea; he only hoped it wasn't conveying the fact that he thought Starsky was behaving like a moron.
Starsky knew, that evening and the next, that what was bothering his partner had very little to do with Bright, if anything. It had been that tell-tale release of air, like a runner catching his breath. Hutch did that only when agitated and even though his friend's answer had seemed logical enough at the time, Starsky had caught him doing it several times. But he couldn't ask him again and again. Hutch would either give him the same answer each time, or a totally different one each time, none of which would be the real issue. Besides which, poking at him like that would only cause Hutch to explode. Starsky had seen the demise of several girlfriends who had caught on to that bit of information way too late.
He swiveled on his barstool to lean back, resting his elbows on the counter. His beer, his second beer, remained untouched. Even he had to admit that too much of a good thing was bad. He wondered if he'd ever, of his own free will, order another beer ever again. Or if the stale beer nuts, once a wonderful accompaniment, would ever—
Starsky looked up to see Joshua Bright walking over towards him, a perfectly straight line as bar patrons moved briskly out of his way. He made himself look casually around and located Hutch over by the pinball machine, pumping away at the buttons like a madman.
"Hey?" asked Bright as he came to a stop at Starsky's side.
"'lo," replied Starsky.
"'lo," said Bright, nodding, and for a second, Starsky got the impression that Bright was really quite shy and unused to making conversation with a stranger. He had to remind himself that this was the man he and Hutch were after. This was the man who had masterminded the sale of underage prostitutes imported from Asia, this was the man—
"May I . . ." Bright was indicating Starsky's drink, and his raised eyebrow seemed the most courteous of questions.
"Naw," said Starsky, hoping he could feel as casual as he sounded. "I'm all right."
"Perhaps some nachos from the grill?"
Of its own accord, Starsky's mouth began to water. Of course, even for as simple a gift as nachos, Bright would want repayment of some kind. Even if he would soon be behind bars and the debt null and void anyway.
"No thanks," he said. "Thanks though."
"Maybe you'll change your mind," said Bright ordering them anyway.
Starsky got the impression that the guy at the counter was going to practically run back to the kitchen and make them himself, he seemed so agitated. He had seldom seen such a burly guy snap to attention that way. The nachos arrived in due time, and Starsky looked at them, his stomach growling. Nachos and beer, unlike any stakeout he'd ever been on. And it looked as if nobody had skimped on the cheese either. However, he and Hutch never went on the take.
And of course, Hutch was away from the pinball game like a shot. Walking over towards them, shoulders forward like a predator staking out his territory. Face glowering, so jealous, for real, that for a moment Starsky had to hide his smile.
"Yes?" Hutch said to Bright, as if Bright had asked him a question. He did not help himself to the treats either, Starsky noticed, and something dangerous sparked in the blond's eyes. Instead he pushed the dish away as if out of Starsky's reach, though they both knew full well and good that Starsky had never had any intention of eating them. "None for you," he said softly, glancing at Starsky briefly. "You'll spoil your appetite."
Bright smiled at this, and appeared not to take it as an insult. "Hear you fellows got some business for me," he said instead. "White business."
Way obvious, Starsky noted.
"Five bigs per kilo." Hutch's voice was bald and bare, his distaste showing, at least to Starsky. God, they'd been under so long.
Bright drew them back to "his" table, a sign that they'd made it inside the ring if the local big boss was dealing with them personally, and he brought out a sample. Hutch motioned for Starsky to test it, and though there was a baggie of it in plain sight, no one paid any attention to it or them. For a moment, Starsky had the feeling that the drug problem was going to simply escalate, and no amount of undercover work was ever going to eradicate it completely. Then he shrugged and said, "It's all right," and fell against Hutch, his job over.
Hutch's arm fell across his chest and they both looked at Bright evenly.
"If you can promise us this quality in the future," rumbled Hutch's voice through Starsky's ribs, "we can plan on doing some business."
"My quality is always superior," said Bright.
Yeah, yeah, thought Starsky. As will be your accommodations in San Quentin. But it was only his ego talking. They had a long way to go before the LAPD would have enough to book this idiot.
He found Bright's eyes on him, "gay" eyes, appraising him, asking him with one of those raised eyebrows. The question itself was unspecific, but what mattered were his intentions. Starsky jolted as he suddenly wondered how far the department would expect him to go with this. And Bright was not unattractive, simply so overpowering that Starsky wasn't sure what he thought of the idea.
Could I do it with a man? All that red hair. What does a guy have to get around here to get a commendation?
Which of course was not why he was in police work.
He was about to fend Bright off with a yawn or some other previous engagement, when Hutch's arm tightened around him. A warm band across his ribs, large hand curved around the bone of his hip. He looked down at the silk-clad arm, black silk, Hutch's flesh pale beneath the cuff. Then Starsky did something he'd done a thousand times before: laid his head down in the warm hollow of Hutch's neck. A movement as natural as breathing, as right as an orange sunset on a dusky sea. But never before with an audience, never before with the intention of a message: do not touch, I am taken. A sly look to Bright, and the scene was over, relationship established. He pulled away, smiling to himself.
Oscar time, he told himself.
"Later, babe," said Hutch as a codicil. "Let me finish business with Mr. Bright here."
"So," said Bright, leaning back, "is he your boy, or are you his?"
Before he could even tense, the back of Hutch's hand began stroking his collarbone, and the body beneath him seemed deceptively calm. But one move, one twitch, Starsky knew, and Hutch's arm would clamp down on him like a shot. He looked down to see the veins start to stand up in Hutch's wrist.
"Nobody's anybody's boy," replied Hutch softly. "What you see is true love."
"Yeah," added Starsky, more to let his partner know he understood than to donate his two cents worth, "true love."
"Ah," said Bright, smiling and nodding, "I see."
The matter was dropped, promises of money were exchanged, dates set, schedules for future deliveries. Hutch reached out a free hand to Bright. "We'll be seeing you."
By the time they arrived at Hutch's, Starsky was yawning so hard, he thought his eyeballs were going to pop out. He followed his partner up the stairs, hitting the couch the only thought in his head. In the door he went without a word, heading for the closet where the extra blanket and pillow were kept.
"Don't you ever go home?" asked Hutch from behind him.
Starsky stopped and turned. Hutch hadn't moved from the door, only folded his arms across his chest, glowering.
"What's the matter with you?" demanded Starsky. He was tired too, damnit, and really in no shape to deal with some bizarre mood.
Hutch unfolded his arms, his hands moving soundlessly in front of his face, head slightly bowed.
Starsky moved closer. "Hutch?"
"Man." It was a whisper. "I'm so tired, you know?"
Starsky nodded in return. "Yeah."
"Touching you was no big deal, you know, but with an audience . . . "
Those dark eyes were closed as Hutch trailed off. It was a lot to deal with.
"We won't have to do that again," assured Starsky, "not with an audience, anyway."
Hutch nodded, silent.
"Why don't you go to bed. We can talk about it later."
It was odd, sometimes, how Hutch would just give into him, do what Starsky told him. Usually when he was tired, or had been sick, or through some heavy street crap. He was especially malleable then, and Starsky suddenly realized that that had been when Van had gotten to him. After a day on the streets, when he got home. It was a wonder Hutch had lasted as long as he did.
"It's gonna be okay, Hutch," he told the retreating back as the other headed towards the bathroom. "Everything's gonna be okay."
Starsky eyed the article that he had located on page ten after the furniture warehouse ads.
"A local drug cartel was brought down at a place
known as Mike's Bar, authorities said. Undercover work of a
month by Sgt. Hutchinson and his team of investigators
collected enough evidence to arrest drug dealers and a
pornography ring, reporters were told. Warrants were
prepared with the full authority of the District Attorney's
office and defendants will be appearing there to testify
before going before a jury court. Approximately 1 million in
drugs has gone through Mike's Bar in the past year . . ."
Its placement in the paper, the dry details, the length of the thing, only two more paragraphs and the fact that his name wasn't even mentioned in conjunction with Hutch's, told Starsky how important their last case had been. Not very. Not sensational or lengthy enough, he supposed. He wondered if Hutch had seen it yet.
Starsky paused halfway to a bite of a jelly donut as Hutch came barreling from Dobey's office. Dobey barreled after him. Hutch had seen it alright.
"It was a million dollar bail bond, Hutchinson!" Dobey yelled back helplessly.
Both Starsky and Dobey watched open mouthed as Hutch flung open the door to the hallway.
"Didn't you see that article? How 'bout our report? One million in drugs through Mike's Bar ALONE! It's a drop in the bucket to him!" Hutch howled. "Who knows how much he's gotten from all his other dives; he'll never show up in court now!" He slammed the door behind him; the window vibrated.
Starsky and Dobey looked at each other, knowing that Hutch was right. And he was. Joshua Bright, owner of Mike's and a dozen other "dives" and out on bail did not show up for court.
Starsky stood up and gave Dobey the rest of his donut. "Here ya go, Cap'n. Don't forget to chew."
He headed out the door after his partner, catching sight of the blond head just as it went out the front doors of the station.
He lost him on the elevators and went to sit in his car in the parking lot, not starting the engine. What was he thinking? Treasure hunts were his best thing! Besides which, Hutch needed to be found, but good. He thought about driving up to Pine Lake anyway, or to that resort where Hutch liked to pick up ski bunnies. But it was too late for trout, too early for snow.
"I am Hutch," he said, half aloud. "Now, where would I go?"
The thing was to realize that the whole situation with Joshua Bright had been weird and to connect that with what Hutch would do about it.
He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, realizing he looked like he was napping. Picturing Hutch at his most relaxed was very soothing . . . Hutch playing his guitar, long fingers moving over the strings; Hutch fishing at Mirror Lake or cooking over that ancient camp stove, humming under his breath; Hutch in his greenhouse, talking to his plants. The two of them in the greenhouse, Hutch pulling off dead leaves from his Boston fern, spraying it with water and Starsky reading a true article about a boy who had found a blue pig. Hutch had suddenly gone off on a tangent about car payments. Car payments and interest rates which had nothing to do with something as fascinating as blue pigs, as far as Starsky could see.
But it brought to mind Hutch's face when he babbled passionately about something. His eyes would light up, cheeks flushed, and he would point and gesture, his face losing that eternal guarded silence. Starsky wished he knew the absolute secret of breaking through that remoteness, but he usually found that it happened without his realizing it. Only later would he remember the phrase or the question that had unlocked Hutch's vocal cords, something key to that one time only, something that set Hutch to talking a blue streak. Hutch in his greenhouse.
Starsky leaned forward to start the car, then paused.
That's too easy.
Yeah, but that's what he'd want you to think.
If Hutch was going to hide and sulk and feel somehow pissed off at everything in the world, the one place he'd go would be his very own jungle, his private Eden, his lair.
Starsky started the engine and shrieked out of the parking lot. He parked his car some blocks away, knowing that if Hutch was home he would recognize the sound of the engine, and walked casually down the sidewalk.
He stood beneath Hutch's window, the seafair wind of the early evening sliding past his ears. A movement through the fronds caught his eye.
Starsky mounted the stairs, took down the key and let himself in.
He found Hutch reclined on the chaise lounge, though he didn't look like he was relaxing at all. The second he saw Starsky, he shot to his feet, back to the wall, eyes glaring.
"What are you doing here?"
"Hutch," said Starsky calmly, "what is going on?"
"Nothing, go home."
"You call leaving without telling me where you're going nothing?"
"I needed to be alone."
"Alone? Without me?"
"Why aren't ya talkin' to me?"
"There's nothing to talk about." As if to prove his words, Hutch brushed past him rudely, as if the greenhouse were suddenly on fire. Starsky followed him.
"Fine," said Hutch, whirling to face him, as if Starsky had demanded yet again that Hutch tell him what was wrong. "This whole thing stank from the beginning." A broad forearm came out to underline his words. "Us against Joshua Bright; it was impossible from the start."
Starsky shook his head. "What are you talkin' about?"
"Don't you know?"
It was almost a snarl that Starsky saw on Hutch's lips, nostrils flaring as he inhaled, and his jaw dropping as he exhaled. He waited.
"They used us," said Hutch finally. "They used us, who we were, how we work . . . "
"The fact that we're friends?" prompted Starsky.
"More than that." Hutch was shaking his head now, as if he'd already explained everything and Starsky was now disagreeing with him. "We have a bond, a special bond, I.A. knows it, Dobey knows it, Special Investigations knows it. A bond that looks like love."
"It is love," said Starsky, his head going down, eyes still on Hutch. "We do care for each other."
Hutch lifted his head to look him straight in the eye. "It's more than that. So much more; man, sometimes it's the only thing that keeps me sane."
Starsky decided in a split second that he wasn't uncomfortable with the ground that his partner was now treading, only somewhat surprised. Surprised that a conversation that had been about the case was now about something more personal. Theirs was a friendship so carefully built, so unconsciously protected, that it hardly needed speaking of aloud. "Me too," he said softly in reply. "You keep me sane, too."
A soft little light flickered in Hutch's eyes, softened the edges of his jaw. Almost like he was grateful Starsky considered him a friend.
"But what I don't understand," said Starsky now, slowly, "is how our relationship relates to Bright, he—"
"It relates in every way, every possible way."
Now he was baffled and threw up his hands.
"Damnit, Starsky, listen to me. They sent us undercover in a gay bar, knowing that we would pass, that the way we are with each other would be the only cover we needed." Hutch blew out a huge lungful of air again and pulled his hand over his face.
"I kinda knew that goin' in, Hutch; I thought you knew."
"I DID know, but then you started with that 'gay' crap—"
An interruption was merited at this point, and Starsky struggled to keep his temper. He felt his voice deep in his chest. "Begging your pardon, but you were the one who said I was your date."
"Yes, I started it, I'm the one who said it first, but it was meant as a joke. A joke between you and me, something only we would know, like so many things between us. Something no one else would ever find out about. And then you used it, oh, so cleverly, to make our cover rocktight. You're with me." Hutch added with a snort. "Like you're ever not."
"It WORKED didn't it?" Starsky told himself he wasn't shouting.
Hutch shook his head, the tone of his voice making Starsky cringe. "Oh, only too well, my friend. You bandied yourself around that bar night after night, being mine, using our relationship so that we could buy drugs and pin Bright down. And it worked, we arrested him. Threw him in jail."
Starsky was afraid of what would come next. But he went ahead anyway. "And then he walked."
Hutch brought a tight fist to his own face, pushing it against his forehead. Then the fist dropped, and Hutch was completely pale. "Yes." His voice was soft. "He walked. And everything that we were, everything that we had, we allowed to be trampled on and used up was wasted."
Starsky found he was shaking. He'd had no idea that Hutch was feeling this way, and that bothered him even more than the fact that he'd not been able to pick up on it. "It didn't get wasted, Hutch."
His partner started to shake his head.
"It didn't. Listen to me—"
"The goddam, fucking LAPD can just forget me ever doing that again, do you hear me?"
"I will never, I repeat, NEVER, use you, or me, or US to pull an undercover mission again. We will never go in as ourselves. Are you listening? NEVER! They wasted everything that we were, they USED us and it didn't even work. We paraded our relationship in front of everyone in town and Joshua Bright isn't even in jail. Can you beat that?"
Hutch started laughing quietly in a way that Starsky did not like, then his words bubbled over themselves as if he suddenly found the whole thing uproarious. "He's not even in jail, and I held you out on a tether for people to gawk and gape and have them say, yup, they're lovers. It's priceless."
The blond threw up his hands and began to walk away. Starsky grabbed him by the elbow, not to turn him around, simply to stop him. He looked at Hutch's profile, that mutinous scowl of downturned mouth, the hooded eyes.
"I want you to listen to me, just for a second," began Starsky quietly. "I'm only gonna say this once. No matter what we did, no matter who we seemed to be," he sliced the air with his free hand and caught Hutch's eye following its mark, "all of that was just our cover. Ya got me?"
The response was a mere relaxing of the scowl, and Hutch lifted his face to stare at the far wall. "They used us up," said Hutch.
"They didn't touch nothin' of who we are, they'll never get at how we really feel about each other."
The blond shrugged, moving his arm out of Starsky's grasp. "Yeah, but you were in my lap, and Bright probably thought you belonged there, and that 'boy' thing, it just . . . "
"Maybe I do belong in your lap," replied Starsky easily, now that the main storm seemed to have passed, "who knows? I can think of worse places to be."
He smiled as he caught Hutch's mouth twitch. "My point is, it don't matter what Bright thought, what anybody thinks for that matter. We are how we are, and if they don't like it . . . "
" . . . they can shove it," filled in Hutch.
"Right. And as far as using me up, I'm the motherlode, here. It can't be done."
Hutch's face and body relaxed all at once, though Starsky found that his own shoulders were still bunched up tight. He took in a deep breath. "Listen, why don't we—"
Hutch held up his hand. "We can't. I went out of the station like a bat out of hell, and you probably came after me like a shot out of a cannon. We've been off the streets for over four months and Dobey needs us. We have to go back to work sometime."
"We can pick up something on the way in, okay?"
It wasn't okay. There seemed more there that Hutch had wanted to say, more about their relationship. More about who was whose boy here, and, on the heavier side, why Hutch felt it had been wasted. But the walls had come down and Hutch was in one of his "I'll say anything you want, but I'm still not saying anything" moods that came and went with surprising regularity.
And Starsky began to wonder exactly what it was that Hutch felt had been wasted. Later, he promised himself. Later.
Later turned out to be the drive home. Hutch, behind the wheel, had not spoken a single unnecessary word all day, except for the inscrutable command of "coffee?" when Starsky had gotten up to get himself some. And Starsky felt he could not let it go on any longer.
"So you gonna tell me what's buggin' ya?"
The question was followed by silence, then a sigh.
"You know, we've grown close . . . " started Hutch.
"And I never thought of myself as gay, not like those guys down at Mike's anyway."
"Or Blaine, right. That's a lifestyle—"
"Or a podium."
Hutch nodded again. Starsky could see he was having some difficulty getting all of this out; unlike Starsky, Hutch had to pull out honest feelings with king-sized meathooks, and yank real hard. At least it seemed that way to Starsky. He decided to lend a hand.
"Ya know, Hutch, none of this is news to me."
A blue-eyed look was spared him. "It's not news to me either, Starsk, but I wasn't planning to bring it up like this."
"Consider it brought up."
Hutch took one of those deep breaths of his where it still seemed as if he hadn't pulled in enough air. Then he let it out all in a rush, and followed it by an earnest moment of leaning over the steering wheel, looking for the non-existent oncoming traffic. Muscles twitched in the broad forearms as his partner gripped the wheel and twisted his fists forward and back.
"Damnit, Starsky, give me a minute."
"Ya want me to go first?"
"There's nothing to go first on, for pete's sake, we both know how we feel." The blond's voice was hot.
"So what's the problem?"
"It all got ruined, some dumbshit remark by me," he seemed extra mortified on this point, Starsky noted, but he kept his silence. "That date thing, you know . . . "
"I was going to get comfortable with the thought in my head, work on it, work it slow, but doing it, ya know?"
He turned to Starsky, and all at once let go of the steering wheel and turned to face his partner across the bench seat. It wouldn't take a stranger to see how much Hutch had worked himself up over this, the skin beneath the blond's eyes was tense and tight.
"I know," said Starsky again, although he didn't really. Didn't understand why Hutch seemed to think it was a problem. What Hutch felt for him was never a problem, at least not to Starsky.
"Then we became some damn spectacle, and anything I had wanted to do was suddenly on some stupid stage, all for the fucking LAPD—"
Hutch broke off suddenly, and if nothing else had clued him in as to how agitated Hutch was, the swearing would have done it right then. His partner, of the superior education fame, used long words, big sentences and eschewed profanity except when undercover.
"Hutch, I'm telling you, and listen to me for a minute. The undercover thing is all over; it's just us now. Me and thee. Whatever we are, however we wanna be, that's just between us. Ya got me?"
"Got ya," replied Hutch, but he still seemed unhappy.
Hurt-comfort-hurt-comfort-hurt-comfort . . . the litany echoed in Hutch's head as he struggled to catch his breath as the onslaught suddenly halted. The hurt came with each blow of leather to his head, his back, his legs. Curling up into a ball hadn't helped, wedging himself into a corner, hadn't either. They simply pulled him out, held him down and started all over again. From the beginning.
Of comfort, though, none existed. If Starsky had been there, hands would have patted his face, rubbed his shoulders, held him tightly. A voice would have asked him if he was okay, and then taken care of him when told the answer was no.
Everything was not okay; Starsky was no-where to be seen. Hutch couldn't figure out if that was good or bad.
"You'll die anyway, pig," said a voice, not Starsky's. "Might as well tell us something."
They strung his arms over his head, leaving the blindfold on. He shivered in the heat, realizing his chest was heaving and knowing he couldn't do anything about it. In his utter darkness, he could taste cement dust, blood from his mouth, and smell his own sweat refusing to dry. Part of his pants leg was in tatters and the belt that once held them up was long gone. It was just him, his jeans and his bare feet.
There was suddenly a pair of lips against his ear.
"While you can still hear me, I'll tell you something you might want to know."
It was a different voice, Hutch was sure, than that which had been questioning him for the past . . . days? He felt something tingle up his neck.
"You're going to die here. It's only a matter of time. Alone, like an animal in the dark."
He grit his teeth together and pulled his head back. Firm hands clamped themselves on his skull and around his jaw.
"Why?" Hutch ground out, "why if I'm going to die anyway, should I tell you anything at all?"
They were large hands and strong, calloused. Hot. They shook him gently as if to chide him. "You will go with less pain; you will go quickly."
The hands released him. The voice and several pairs of feet disappeared behind the sound of a closing door.
Hutch jerked on the tether that bound his hands over his head, growling. Sartre didn't know shit. Hell wasn't other people, like Hutch had previously always found true, hell was dying alone like an animal in the dark.
Alone, alone, always alone.
Except for Starsky.
He'd lived this way all of his life, did he have to die this way too?
The feeling was gone from his arms completely now, though he could feel every inch of the rest of his body. It was as if he was on fire except for his hands, which, tied, were raised in grotesque supplication. Sweat traced its way behind an ear, and he longed to push back his hair that was tangled in the band over his eyes and itched.
He wasn't really sure what they wanted from him anymore. The first day he had know with crystal clarity that they had been involved in the Mike's Bar drug ring and that they wanted names. With equal clarity he had been determined they weren't going to get it. At least not from him.
He had been clean then, unstreaked with blood and sweat, his throat not raw from screaming, his skin unflecked with bruises and cuts. He hadn't been thirsty or hungry or tired or floating above his body from too many blows to the head. Nobody but nobody was going to coerce a member of the LAPD with pain and threats of death to give them any kind of information.
But that had been days ago. Now he wasn't so sure.
When they came back, a long, dark time later, years it seemed, he suddenly felt every strand of hair on his body that had enough energy stand straight up. His body shook as a single pair of footsteps approached. The sweat had finally dried on his chest and the hand placed there felt almost cool. He felt a motion over his head and found that his arms could fall forward, the rope that had supported them snaking around his wrists in a friendly way. But there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing he could do as two hands clamped themselves around his upper arms. Nothing as he felt those lips at his ear.
"Can you tell me now, Officer Hutchinson? Can you? Who worked with you, who helped you?"
He tried to pull away but the hands held him firm.
"C'mon, just one name and it will all be over."
It occurred to him suddenly that if they knew his name, which they did from its frequent and polite usage over the past days, then they would know all the official information about him, about the case. Why did they have to know from him?
A hand was stroking his cheek and Hutch ducked his head. There was only one person whose name he could remember, anyway, one face that floated in the blackness. The name rose in his throat though he swallowed against it.
"What was that, officer?"
Such a gentle question.
Something moved forward from him of its own volition, its own free will. He was screaming when he told them what he thought they wanted to know.
A hand reached up to pat his face. "Thank you Officer Hutchinson, thank you."
"Hutch? C'n you hear me, Hutch?"
It was a voice from long ago and far away. A voice of the deep city, and it came with hands that cradled him in a lap he'd known once in a dream.
"You all right?" Warm, gentle hands on his face. "Hell, I know you're not, but could you tell me you are?"
There was a chest against which his head rested and it lifted him and laid him down with each breath. The hardness of a leg was underneath him and an arm was flung across his middle. He caught the scent of someone else's sweat and underneath that, Ivory soap. An elusive tingle brought his mind screaming to life.
He opened his eyes. The blindfold was gone. Starsky's tentative smile was the first thing he saw. A circle of dark hair going everywhichway. A bruise alongside his temple.
"Looks like we're in this together, buddy. At least we're together."
Hutch rolled away, his definition of hell changing once again.
Starsky tried to hold onto Hutch as he shakily got to his feet but it was more than he could do to add to the bruises already there. It wasn't like either one of them could go very far.
Hutch placed his palms along the cement as he pushed himself up, leaving damp marks. He bowed his head between his upraised arms.
"What have I done?" came the whisper. It was ragged, catching in Hutch's throat.
Starsky moved forward, but the instant his hands touched one arm, Hutch was knocking him away, whirling away to stand with his back in a corner. He tilted his head, half closed eyes staring at Starsky before turning away.
"Hey," said Starsky, his voice squeaking, "at least we're together."
There was no answer.
It was no good. His partner continued to lean into the wall, pressing against the cement as if to move somehow into its pocked surface. When Starsky moved in closer, Hutch jerked away, half of him coated with cement dust and grit. Waves of shuddering rolled over his taunt form, reminding Starsky of someone in heroin withdraw. Pangs of alarm lifted his arms, a glare from Hutch lowered them to his sides.
Four days of searching had brought him to this. At least Hutch wasn't dead, but he'd never expected this turning away. Four days after finding spilled groceries outside of his apartment, four days of round the clock attentiveness. He'd never expected to be rebuffed.
"Please what?" snapped Hutch, looking at Starsky at last, nostrils curling. "Please Hutch, I'd rather not be here, please Hutch, old man, I'd rather not die?"
"Whadja mean die? What do these turkeys want anyway?"
A sigh. A sigh that ended in a sob and Hutch raised his hands to his face covering his eyes. Bare arms and Starsky's eyes were riveted to the ladders of bruises there. He longed to move forward, move in close and lean into Hutch's shadow, but felt that Hutch, at this point, would simply move to the other side of the room.
"Talk to me," he said, hoping his voice was calmer than he suddenly felt. "What's going on."
Hutch dropped his hands and transformed into that still, quiet calm that enfolded him when things got really heavy, really bad. Later would come the explosion, the blond whirlwind that he knew and could deal with. But now, what could Starsky do in the eaves of the sudden quiet that filled the room? Huge bells of alarm began to explode in his head, filling the void.
"Do you remember Joshua Bright?" Hutch asked as calm as if they had both been in the squad room with the file in front of them.
Starsky nodded slowly, not liking the direction this was taking.
"Well, this is where he goes when he's out on bail. He wants the people responsible."
Hutch grabbed his wrist. "Damnit, Starsky, don't you know what they'll do to you? They'll string you up and make you tell. You'll give them information just to make the pain stop."
"I would never do that!" He felt indignant that Hutch thought he would fall that easy.
The hand fell away from his wrist, eyes a second ago locked with his turned away. "No," said Hutch. "No, you wouldn't."
"Hutch, what are you saying?"
"I didn't mean to do it."
"Didn't mean to what?" Starsky stepped closer but Hutch jerked away.
"Do you know how long have you been here, can you remember?" Starsky tried again.
"I don't know."
"You've been missing about four days; did you tell them something?" asked Starsky, shoving away the sudden quirky thought about how easy it was to translate the last 96 sleepless, frustrating hours into a single numeral.
There was silence and then there was this, so Starsky continued to push. "Anyone would have broken Hutch, with what you've been through."
"You wouldn't have," came the instant retort. "You said so."
Starsky waited, then gentled his voice. "Yes, I would have. Anybody would have."
Hutch burst out at him, pressing Starsky against the wall with his body, his hands pinning Starsky's arms.
"NO, you wouldn't have. You wouldn't have given them anything, least of all—"
Starsky interrupted him, pushing Hutch away. "Yes, I would have. After four days? I'm only human, Hutch, as likely to collapse in a puddle as the next guy; Hutch, it's okay. You shouldn't feel guilty for being human."
"Don't tell me what to feel!" snapped Hutch.
"I will if I want to!"
"Quit acting like this is some game. You're in here to die and you don't care!"
"But I do care!" Something rose up from inside him. "Do you think if you died that I want to live?"
The door banged open and Joshua Bright, his red hair glowing in the single light bulb, strutted in, three goons with Uzis behind him. They grabbed Starsky easily and Hutch realized that their last words to each other were angry ones.
"We'll take Hutchinson's boy here to another room for questioning. Officer Hutchinson has settled so well in this one."
Two things clicked into place in Hutch's mind at once. The first one, that 'boy' remark, seemed unimportant. The second was that they were taking Starsky away. They couldn't do that; it was not allowed.
He leaped at them, howling like a siren from the bottom of his lungs. Flew at the one who had the most solid hold on Starsky, ripping the Uzi out of his hands and sending it smashing against the cement. Punched him in the face with one fist and dug into the fingers of his grasp with the other hand. From behind, two pairs of arms wrapped themselves around him, pulling him away, lashing out with fists of their own.
And all the while, as he kicked and struggled, Starsky stood absolutely still, Joshua Bright's gun to his head, his arms already tied in front of him.
The light in his eyes was pure blue.
It became worse. Hutch lunged again, breaking free for a second and reaching for the nearest whoever, screamed, "TAKE ME! TAKE ME!"
"Sorry, Blondie," said Joshua as his men subdued Hutch. "We want your boy here."
Hutch froze for a second, watching the butt of a gun as it came down in slow motion at his head. He felt it, and staggering on his feet, thought that if they thought Starsky was his boy then they were probably thinking he should have been a better parent. His feet found the floor again as if he were a tightrope walker regaining his balance but by that time the door was shut and bolted and Starsky was gone.
He threw himself at the door, an all out body slam that jarred his spine into his skull. Pounded on it, howling till he thought his hands would burst. Then they did, spraying bright streaks across the dark grey of the door. Then they shut off the one bulb, leaving him in the darkness, a thousand aches stinging to life.
His hands found a corner somehow and Hutch pressed himself into it, shuddering from head to toe. Sartre had been wrong from the first. Hell was a room where Starsky had once occupied and been taken away. Hell was knowing it was all his fault.
In the silent darkness, when he came to, Hutch imagined that he had died. It was so dark, not even a sliver of light was coming in from under the door. It was like he'd gone to sleep and woke up mummified. Only the singing nerves of the back of his legs, and all the other hurts, told him that he was alive. As long as this went on, as long as he didn't move, nothing mattered. Nothing existed, save the slow rise and fall of his own chest, and he wasn't sure of that. The darkness absorbed everything, even himself.
Some time later, the door opened and something was thrown in. The flash of light was like a slap, followed by a low thud and a slam as the door was shut again.
Hutch shifted himself forward on his elbows, sweeping his right hand forward towards the direction of the sound of shallow breathing. Searching for Starsky in the darkness. He couldn't see anything, only brush his hand back and forth across the concrete in long half-circles. By the time he reached the body, his hand was stinging so badly he sucked on it to take some of the grit out. Spitting the other way in the darkness, he gathered Starsky into his arms and backed up till he was against a wall and folded him into his lap.
Starsky's shirtfront was horribly warm and damp. Hutch found his hands and fingers moving over his partner almost involuntarily, monitoring the other's breathing by the movements of Starsky's side against his chest, testing the spring of every muscle he could reach. Wondered if any differences in a face he knew so well could be detected by his fingertips. There was too much of something wet alongside of Starsky's head, and his left wrist seemed to be bent at the wrong angle, curling under like an overweighed flower. And when he ran his hands over Starsky's middle, the other gave a loan moan that raised the hairs on the back of Hutch's neck.
"Hutch?" asked voice.
"I'm here," said Hutch, feeling as if he were talking to himself.
Hutch bent forward, finding Starsky's face with his own. "I've got you," he said. "I'm here."
It the continuing silence, Starsky's breath was becoming more ragged, and a fresh gush of blood flowed warmly across his hand as it supported Starsky's back. And everything was black, always black.
If I die before I wake . . .
Hutch straightened to lean once again against the wall.
"D'n go 'way," said the small voice.
"I'm not going anywhere," said Hutch, feeling small. "I have to tell you something."
It had suddenly occurred to Hutch that they were both going to die and that Starsky would never know the reason. Which was hardly fair, since Starsky had always maintained that he never wanted to go without a fight. Which didn't make any sense either, since there was no way to fight this one, no way to make a way out. Starsky deserved to know; moreover, Hutch needed to tell him the truth. He needed Starsky's forgiveness.
"I have to tell you something," he said again, trying to draw a deep breath and failing.
"Tell," said Starsky.
He was a warm and quiet weight in Hutch's arms, his blood slick and drying on Hutch's fingers and wrists, his tousled hair wiry against Hutch's neck, and the scent of him blended by the copper tang of sweat and salt.
"It was me," he started, then realized that didn't make any sense, although it must have been him, otherwise how would they have known about Starsky?
"When they were torturing me, they promised me a quick and painless death if I gave them just one name." That part out, Hutch turned his face away as if Starsky could see him, could see his face. But in the darkness, silence followed.
"I . . . I gave them your name." It was so bare, there was no way Starsky could misunderstand him.
"They lied to ya," said Starsky. "You're still alive."
"I'm still alive," he conceded, "and you are with me."
"Why?" asked Starsky, "why did you do that?"
Hutch realized that Starsky was trembling, as if the shock of the pain were just settling in. And why indeed had Starsky's name been the only one he could supply? Surely someone else would have done, some other name that would have sent Bright and his men on a hunt for someone who didn't exist. Or who deserved to die.
"I . . . " Hutch ducked his head to swallow the tears that were forming in his throat. "I didn't want to die alone."
In the silence that followed, Hutch could feel Starsky's body shifting, turning in towards his own and Hutch instinctively folded him close. The tears were following anyway, despite what he could do. How could he have died with a stranger?
Hutch leaned down again, closer, his voice urgent. "I'm sorry."
It was inadequate, but Hutch felt the tug on his shirtfront and allowed himself to be pulled down even further.
"' forgive ya."
The tears rushed forth, a small waterfall in a desert of darkness. Starsky's uninjured arm was looping itself around him and Hutch bent down to kiss Starsky on the forehead. Only his lips found Starsky's temple and there was the gentle brush of eyelash against Hutch's cheek.
"I love you," he said.
That place of hard surfaces where no comfort had ever made itself known.
When one was rescued, Starsky had always thought, one should be wide-awake and exit on one's own feet. He remembered only vague things, bright lights, a blanket, and someone shouting. He'd thought it was Hutch and in a moment of clarity, opened his eyes and saw him sitting there, looking like death warmed over with gravy. An ambulance. And Hutch's determined face, pinched tight as they rocketed down some stretch of road. He tried to reach out his hand, but felt it slip against the blankets.
Sometime later Starsky had two moments of lucidity that seemed somehow incongruous with each other.
The first was of himself being placed on a gurney to be wheeled away, to an operating table obviously, though God only knew what was wrong with him. Everything was floaty and grey and the tart smell of Pine Sol was obnoxiously clear. He could somehow feel his eyelashes on his cheeks until he opened his eyes suddenly to see Hutch standing there.
There was blood on the side of Hutch's face, and it had left a coating down his neck, long dried and dark. His left eye was swollen almost shut and he seemed to be gritting his teeth and moving his jaw against a great deal of pain. Even his arms were shaking as he resisted the hands that were trying to pull him away. Someone was trying to maneuver a wheelchair beneath the long, unsteady legs, and someone else dressed in white was moving an I.V. pole in as close as they could. There seemed to be a lot of people trying to take Hutch away, but Starsky couldn't figure for the life of him why his partner did not allow it.
Hutch's mouth was moving, cords standing out on his neck as if he were shouting and Starsky began to realize that everything appeared as if in a silent film. The blond was straining against the grasps, ignoring the calmly moving mouth of someone in a lab coat, only looking at Starsky, jerking his head away from a restraining hand, jerking his arm away from someone else.
Don't they know, Starsky thought, that the only way to keep Hutch is to let him go?
Then Dobey appeared, his face dark and shining with sweat, tie askew, shirtfront dappled with stains. He started shouting too, Starsky could tell by the way his mouth was open, and the white coats and nurses and the person with the wheelchair all froze and turned to look at him. Then he said something else, quietly it seemed, looking only at Hutch. As one, the group nodded and everyone let go of Hutch and stepped out of his way.
Hutch moved forward, slowly, as if he were walking through thigh-high water. As he came closer, there were flecks of blood on his chin and streaks of it through his fair hair. It almost seemed to Starsky that someone had streaked Hutch with very dark and badly mixed water colors and splashed him with it at random, from bright red to dark brown and Starsky began to wonder how many shades blood could take on as it dried.
His partner bent closer till Starsky could feel the other's breath on his face, warm and gentle. Stiff, rough fingertips touched his cheek and soft lips brushed his forehead. Then the lips moved, still against his forehead, and Starsky strained to hear. It was like a silent message only between Hutch and Starsky's flesh, and Starsky moved his head up desperately. His and Hutch's eyes locked, and Starsky could feel not only his own chest rise and fall, but Hutch's too, they were that close.
Then Hutch was gone, just like that. Starsky wondered where he'd disappeared to, wondered why several doctors (or was it nurses?) were crouching beside his bed. And who was it they were lifting and settling in the wheelchair with the utmost care. His vision began to fade as someone settled a mask over his mouth and someone else injected his newly swabbed arm with something he hoped would kill the pain. The gurney was wheeled into somewhere else, and another sweet smell filled his lungs.
"Hu . . . ," he said.
"What was that?" asked one doctor. "Did he say something?"
"No," replied the anesthesiologist. "Sometimes they make funny grunting sounds when they go under."
"Oh," said the doctor.
The next moment of lucidity must have come some time later, for Starsky found himself in a white bed in a room with white walls. It made him feel white, and he could hear everything quite clearly, even sounds that seemed as if they should have come from a great distance, an impossible distance away. Like the sound of someone laughing, a gull over the ocean sighing over the arrangement of the sand, or the ocean itself, pulling chunks of earth back into the sea.
As he tried to breathe, tried to allay the aftereffects of being under, he felt a great weight on his chest. He decided it was a good idea to check and see if his bandages were too tight.
Upon opening his eyes, he saw someone with their forehead pillowed against his ribs, one bandaged hand across his thighs, the other unmarked one in a fist beside the bowed head. He couldn't see the face, only a swath of neck so pale that it seemed the person shouldn't be out of bed, let alone sitting at the bedside of someone else. Who would have such fair, shimmering hair, spilling untidily across the white sheets, almost as pale in places as the sheets themselves? He felt he should know.
Then he knew.
" . . . tch," he said, and the fair head lifted.
"Starsky," said the face, and as Starsky blinked several times, the face came into focus, and memory sharpened, and the great line of worry between Hutch's eyes became absolutely clear.
Hutch's butt had gone to sleep, but he refused to move. He'd positioned the chair just right out of line of sight of the window and if he moved they'd see him. They'd figure out where he was soon enough anyway, and then there'd be all hell to pay. But he had to stay on guard until Starsky came out of it. He'd read enough charts to know that his partner's condition was serious but not critical, and that had allowed him to relax a little bit. But Starsky hated, absolutely hated coming out from being under and Hutch was determined to stay until he made it. Not that he planned on sticking around afterwards. Starsky would understand.
Waiting for you.
There was no way they could go on as they had. He'd only told Starsky the truth because he'd imagined they were both going to die. A truth like that should never be spoken aloud or revealed in any way. It was the kind of information he had intended to keep secret, like the time he'd helped paint protest slogans on the high school gym wall. All the right clues had been there to tell anyone with enough brains who'd done it. And they'd kept coming close to the truth, but always managed to swerve away at the last, most nerve-wracking moment. Hutch thought he'd develop an ulcer over that one, but it turned out to be a nine-day wonder and a nice scar had formed over the memory and now he hardly had any guilt about it at all.
Hutch imagined that this secret would have taken a little longer to settle down and go away, and now it seemed it never would. When two people knew the same thing, it never went away.
He found himself staring at Starsky's arm. It looked much better now, much more like a human arm and much less like a grey and white chalk drawing.
It was half an hour later when Starsky's head dipped to one side and Hutch heard the dull sound of a dry throat moving. As fast as he could, he grabbed the nearest container, a small trashcan, and moved to the side of the bed. Starsky was raising himself up, blinking several times, but Hutch knew from past experience that his friend wasn't really awake yet. He managed to guide the other man's white-clad shoulders forward till Starsky was propped loosely on one elbow.
From behind him, the door opened, and a female voice asked sharply, "What are you doing in here?"
"Get me a damp cloth," Hutch snapped without turning around. He didn't care who it was.
He heard her footsteps doing just that, and he turned his attention to guiding the dark head over the trash can and cupped his hand around the back of Starsky's neck.
"Okay, buddy," he whispered, "go ahead."
Starsky vomited into the container, a liquid brown stream, involuntary, and his shoulders seemed to shrug apologetically.
"Go on, I got ya."
Starsky's body shuddered, the flow continuing in short violent spurts until Hutch was afraid that the new stitches were going to come apart. Then they stopped suddenly and Starsky sagged against his own forearm, moisture dappling his face, mucus trailing his upper lip.
"Gimme that cloth," Hutch snapped. He held out his hand without looking up. The nurse placed it quietly in his hand, and Hutch wiped Starsky's forehead with it first, then his nose, then his mouth, gently saying, "There, there. It's all done."
He handed the nurse the cloth and she took it.
"How did you know he was going to do that?"
Hutch looked up at her for the first time. At the moment, her concern was for the patient in the bed, but in a moment her attention would turn to the displaced patient on the floor on his bandaged knees.
"Every time he goes under," he said, "and comes back up, he throws up."
"Why wasn't I informed?"
Hutch looked at her again, saw the nametag, and realized that she was a doctor, and in fact had been the doctor that had done the work. Naturally she would feel totally responsible.
"I don't think, doctor," he replied, "that either one of us was in a condition to remember." He paused, and ducked his head. "We usually try to tell someone."
"Well, you're quite the friend to wait all this time for him to practically vomit all over you. Not many would."
How could he tell her that he considered it an honor? It sounded too weird. He only said, "Well, ma'am, that's what partners are for."
"Partners," she said in return. She seemed to understand everything it was meant to explain.
But it didn't stop her from suddenly scowling at him. "Get up."
Here it came. "But, doctor, you see, I have to . . . " Oh, he didn't really feel strong enough to resist her, especially if she called for some fresh young intern to help her shove him into a wheelchair and cart him off. He struggled to his feet, using the side of the bed to push himself to a stand. "Please, let me . . . "
She walked over to the wall and picked up the chair he'd been sitting in and moved it right next to the bed.
"Partners," she said again. "If you must stay, please let it not be on your knees on that cold floor."
Hutch's jaw dropped open.
"I'll let you stay until he wakes up again. Then you go back to your own room. Deal?"
He still couldn't say anything.
"I know you'll only sneak back down here if I don't let you stay, so let's be sensible, okay?"
It was almost too much. The kindness of strangers, and his jaw worked furiously against the feeling rising up in his chest. "Th-th-thank you."
With a wave, she was gone.
Hutch sat in the chair, settling his head on the bed against Starsky's side, resting his bandaged hand across his partner's thigh. Starsky had laid back down, practically asleep again. He did not know what he was going to do; his partner needed him so very badly now. Even after a week in the hospital, Starsky would need assistance at home, getting things set up and Hutch himself felt far too weary to make a dash for some faraway place.
I must get away but I can't leave.
Then he heard his name. Actually it was merely a single syllable of sound, but of such an intonation and coming from Starsky he knew it could only be his name. He turned his head, raising it slightly from the mattress.
Starsky's hair was dark against the white pillow, his eyes blue in his pale face. Some new lines had made their way there, scoring the flesh around his mouth and alongside his nose. As he struggled to sit up, Hutch reached and adjusted the pillow behind him, automatically, without thought. There was the scent of the bitter orange disinfectant hospitals use before operations and Hutch wrinkled his nose.
"Did I throw up already?" asked Starsky.
"Yeah," said Hutch, "yeah."
There was a bit of matter in the corner of Starsky's mouth and Hutch wet his thumb and wiped it away, then wiped his hand on his hospital robe.
"Hey," protested Starsky, not very loudly, "don't get your spit on me."
Hutch tried to return the smile in his voice. "What's a little spit between friends?"
It was really no use, he could not go on. Starsky's mouth was curved in a partial smile, as if being alive was enough, and Hutch wondered how he could be forgiven so easily.
Maybe deciding not to decide was to decide.
Dobey came by later that evening to visit both of them. He didn't seem surprised to see Hutch by Starsky's side. Hutch realized that he was there to give them a rundown on their rescue, the case in general. It was what he did every time, understanding that their need to know what was going on in the outside world as much an integral part of their recovery as medication and rest was. But Hutch didn't want anything more to do with it. Nothing more to do with Joshua Bright, with putting himself and, sweet Jesus, his partner at risk, with anything to do with going undercover.
Starsky settled back against his pillow and waited for the euphoria of the medication to seep through his body. Hutch had promised to sneak him a root beer if he took all the pills in the white cup, and he had, one by one, waiting for the smile of approval when he was finished. It never appeared. But Dobey did, settling himself in a too-small chair, handing the flowers he'd obviously bought in the gift shop downstairs to Hutch, who laid them offhandedly on the bed tray.
"I want to give you the rundown on this case," began Dobey without aplomb, "but there isn't much to tell."
Starsky, who was looking with as much interest as he possibly could, given the fatigue that was creeping up on him, felt Hutch sigh.
"We have one untraced phone call that we got from one of Bright's boys who decided he didn't want to be implicated in the death of a cop and told us how we could find you. But that's it. We can't locate any of the persons involved in your abduction; although from your testimonies, we have a good chunk of information that will help send them up river . . . "
"If you find them," said Hutch, his voice dark.
Dobey seemed to catch it too, and it felt like an irksome darkness to Starsky, who began to hear things as if in a great echo chamber.
"Listen, Hutchinson, we will find them. It's only question of time. What I'm really worried about is you two."
Starsky realized he must have raised his hand to motion to them, but found he had to blink several times to focus.
"Don't worry about me," said Hutch. Starsky felt a hand on his arm. "Starsky got the worst of it."
"Both of you are going to receive as much counseling as it takes on this one. It was no ordinary abduction. I can figure how they got to you; your name was in the paper. But I'll be damned if I know how they got to Starsky. I guess they must have figured he was your partner and nabbed him too."
If he'd been more alert, Starsky knew he would have felt Hutch stiffening, even if he were miles away. But he was being rolled in a piecrust, and stuffed into a soothing, comfortably warm oven. Dobey was wrong, as usual, he didn't know anything about it.
"No counselors," he heard Hutch say, "all they want is talk, talk, talk, and nothing gets solved. Ever."
Dobey's reply was vague and mumbled.
"Talk, talk, talk, talk . . . ." continued Hutch.
Hutch, Starsky said to himself, you ever realize that sometimes you sound just like a broken record?
Just then, someone turned the heat up in the oven, and it became comfortable enough for him to fall asleep.
Hutch checked himself out of the hospital early the next morning. With a bottle of pain pills in his jacket pocket, he was going to feel just fine, and lying on his back in a semi-private room was not going to help him heal faster. Well, actually one could call it checking out, only the nurses would never know he'd left until they came to collect the breakfast things, and even then they might assume he was in the bathroom until someone came to take a blood sample, or whatever. And he'd been in this particular hospital any number of times, either himself in a bed or visiting someone else. Usually Starsky. He knew where the service elevators were, which attendants were too stupid to realize they had a patient walking out on them, and where to catch a cab so that everyone who was supposed to be taking care of him wouldn't know.
Mounting the numerous steps to his apartment wasn't as hard as it should have been, but a double dose of the pills had taken care of that. It had only tired him out, but he supposed he'd pay for that later. Very much later, if the medication held out. He'd only planned a shower and a long, midmorning nap, and started pulling out something clean to wear. Something that didn't smell like hospital. After all, he wasn't expected back at work for another week and even then it would only be for deskwork at the station. Then he found himself pulling out several changes of clothes, clean underwear, an extra sweater, his sneakers, and throwing them all on the bed. Pulled out a duffle he kept stashed in the closet and stuffed everything into it.
Where are you going?
He didn't know.
You're not leaving, are you?
He didn't know that either.
What about Starsky?
"I'll be back when he gets out of the hospital," he promised the air.
Hutch had always thought that L.A. should be covered with horrible weather in wintertime, like Duluth had always been. Grey, foggy, cold, miserable. But it wasn't. The sun was shining, there was a shy breeze from the beach, and his head felt light as he tossed the duffle in the back seat of the LTD. He headed vaguely towards the bank, withdrew a lot of money and filled the car with gas. It was perfect driving weather, not hot, not too sunny, just bright enough and with enough bite in the air to make driving with the windows down somehow a necessity.
When Hutch had driven as far as he could until his body started to cramp up at noon, he pulled off into the first beach motel that he saw. There weren't many left; any still standing after the Public Beach Act were relics from the fifties and considered local landmarks. His trail had led him to the Blue Sky Motel, which surely had escaped demolition by a scant year or two. It was terribly ugly, barely following Warhol, and missing the Art Deco revival so far it was almost ghastly. He barely made it to his room after checking in ("Plenty of room so early in the season, sir.") and tried to imagine that he'd come to the edge of the world rather than the end of his rope.
The room itself was in pink and brown, with some recent updating that showed in the small avocado green fridge. He hardly saw this as he tossed his duffle bag on the chair and flung himself on the bed.
I'm going to stay here forever, he thought. And not get up.
Of course, five minutes after lying absolutely still, his knees and legs began to cramp up so bad he found himself rolled in a ball with sweat dappling his forehead. So he had to get up and throw some pills down his throat, followed by a swallow of warm water.
I'm not taking all of these, he told himself. I'm not even thinking about it.
Of course he wasn't.
After the heroin fiasco of earlier years, he'd tended not to take any medication at all, not even aspirin for a headache, so the pain pills began to kick right in. He'd never mentioned this reticence, not even to Starsky, as he somehow felt foolish at his own weakness. But even aspirin was too close to becoming a junkie again, and that was just too much weight to fling on Starsky again, let alone anyone else. And that was the problem wasn't it?
"Let me tell you, Starsk," he said aloud, easing himself back onto the bed with stiff arms.
Let me tell you about you.
Those men had beaten Starsky to a black and blue pulp, torn up the ligaments in his arm . . . Hutch shuddered at the thought of blood on his hands. In more ways than one. And it had been Hutch's fault. No one who knew the truth could deny that. No one who knew, that is, that being merely Starsky and himself. Bright didn't even know how much Starsky meant to him. Probably considered Starsky someone Hutch had had it in for. Never even gave him a second thought after he'd thrown him into Hutch's arms; a mere exercise in skillful pummeling for his boys.
His boys on Hutch's boy.
Not my boy, Hutch snarled in his head. Not anybody's boy.
Of course Dobey had no clue. Not at all. Had only imagined that somehow Bright's gang had been clever enough to pick up Starsky on their own, when his name had never been mentioned. Not in the bar, not in the paper, not ever released to the public. Only by Hutch, only to Bright.
Didn't I? he asked himself. Wasn't it me?
It had to have been.
A woozy light began to fill his eyes as he started to feel less of his legs and more the weight of his lids. But it was an oblivion filled with an image of himself standing next to Starsky. Putting his arm around the dark haired man's shoulder and drawing him close. It was a scene he remembered clearly from . . . well, it could have been any of a number of occurrences. It tended to flash in his mind at odd moments and he'd never concentrated on it before, figuring he knew where it came from. Only now he didn't. And behind it, suddenly, as if reflected in a series of mirrors all lined up, all marvelously lit, and perfectly clear, were others. And in each one he was reaching for Starsky, or Starsky for him, offering comfort, supporting each other with words or touches, sometimes simply with the mere closeness of their bodies.
Where did the love enter into all this? Looks like love, he'd said. It is love, Starsky had replied, eyes dark.
I'm such a liar.
He had never cared for Starsky. And if Starsky had cared for him, it was under some false assumption.
He wiped at his face, his hand coming away wet at the palm. As he turned his face into the pillow, he caught sight of the squat avocado green fridge, glinting in the direct light as it shone through the window.
Jeezus, that's ugly.
It was good to pass out.
When the nurse pulled the I.V. needle out, Starsky was immediately relieved. It meant he was better, and he couldn't stand the thought of some long pokey thing in his vein. He rubbed at the top of his hand convulsively.
"Don't do that," snapped the nurse. "You'll make a bruise."
Ug, thought Starsky. Ug, ug. Needles, blood, hospitals. All of it. Aloud he asked, "When do I get to go home?"
"I'm sure I don't know, Mr. Starsky."
"Ya gotta know!"
"Records has your chart, Mr. Starsky. And I don't have access to that information."
Starsky kept himself from rolling his eyes from sheer force of will. Where was Hutch anyway? Always cool in a crisis, he would be the only one able to get the information without going ballistic on some poor candy striper. Unless he was still in that weird mood.
The first days of Starsky's recuperation had passed in their usual, fogbound muddle. Pain, surrounded by painlessness, followed by more dull aches as the medication wore off, or his I.V. ran out. And through it all, he'd been pretty sure that Hutch had been right at his side. Near as he could tell, it had taken him three solid days to come out of being out of it, and Hutch had been there. Then, as he began to feel somewhat better, Hutch had stopped coming by so much. Mumbled something about being missing for some mysterious bed count.
Bed count, bullshit. It was near noon, and Hutch hadn't come by at all.
It was that Bright crap again, he knew it was. His partner was taking all the blame for that and holding onto it like Knute Rockne at the end zone. And poor Dobey had no clue. Going off about how Bright had snatched Starsky, and Hutch sitting in that chair, all bruised up, knees stiffening, face pale. If Dobey had known Hutch thought he was responsible, he wouldn't have said anything. But he didn't know. And Starsky wasn't going to tell him. No one was.
Hutch wore guilt like a dark blanket, midnight against his blonde brightness. It sounded romantic in theory, but it was hell to live with. He took it on and wore it when something bad went down. Wore it to rags. Like that would change anything. Like he could affect it at all. Jeanie, Abby, Van. Shit, he probably even felt bad about Terri, and that was so far away from the truth it wasn't even funny. He would never throw it off until Starsky dragged it off him. They still hadn't worked through the Van business. It put circles under Hutch's eyes, and Starsky didn't like it.
"Never did," he said aloud.
"Never did what?" asked the nurse as she re-entered the room, lunch in hand. She set it up on the bed tray, functional frown firmly in place.
"Nothin'. Hey, have you seen my partner?"
Her eyes settled on him, slightly unfocused. "Pardon me?"
"My partner, Hutch. Ken Hutchinson. Tall, blonde guy. Visits me . . . sometimes."
"Oh, him." She brought her hand to her hair to push back some imaginary stray. It told Starsky that Hutch had flirted mildly with her, probably to be allowed in Starsky's room after hours. "He apparently checked himself out."
Oh. That sounded like Hutch. Hospitals weren't his favorite place either. "Guess I'll have to give him a call at home." Why he was telling this woman this, he couldn't fathom.
"That wouldn't do you any good," she told him.
Naturally this nurse wouldn't know what she was talking about. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Her voice was arch. "Your captain was in here a half hour ago, demanding to know why we'd let one of our patients escape. Like he was a prisoner or something."
That sounded like Dobey. "Why didn't he just call Hutch at home?" The conversation seemed to be going around in a never-ending spiral.
"Your Mr. Hutchinson is not at his place of residence. He is, apparently, missing."
Starsky pushed back the covers and landed his feet on the floor in one move, but the nurse, healthy and whole, was quicker. She grabbed his hips and legs and shoved him back in the bed and shouted for the orderly. Instantly he arrived, on cue, a huge, hairy armed individual who filled the doorway with his shoulders.
"You are not leaving this room, Mr. Starsky. You will not even try. Do you understand? Otherwise I will have to sedate you and strap you in."
The calm nod he returned to her was faked, but the shudder that ran through him was not. The situation reminded him, all of a sudden, of Cabrillo State. They were planning to pump him full of shit and tie him down. Only Hutch wasn't going to be there to make sure everything was all right. As a matter of fact, Hutch wasn't anywhere to be found. He tried to tell himself that the pumping of his heart wasn't from fury, but it was.
Damnit, Hutch, this is the second time.
Hutch never used to run off. Never used to disappear. That was more Starsky's line. Of the two, he was more likely to brood in solitude and then reappear when everything was worked out. Hutch needed someone to be there when he fretted, needed someone to help him through it. Needed Starsky.
He made himself lay back down, and allowed her to pull the covers back over him. Made himself smile and take a deep breath.
"You're not on the I.V. any longer, Mr. Starsky, but can I get you something?" the nurse asked. Starsky couldn't tell if she was fooled or not. The intern apparently was, for he unfolded his arms and backed out of the room.
"No needles, tired of those," he told her.
"Some codeine for the pain, perhaps?"
His heart was pounding again. How the hell was he going to get out of here with her watching?
"Yes, thank you."
And where the hell was Hutch?
After the nurse came by a little while later with the pills, Dobey stopped in. Starsky, bandage over one eyebrow, contemplated the man before him in silence. There had been plenty of occasions where both he and Hutch had pushed their senior officer far beyond the limits of prudence. Many a time had bent this regulation or ignored that dictum of sanity, or even taken an afternoon off, all in spite of, in the face of, Dobey's grizzling. And Dobey had taken it all, even, when pushed had come to shove, backed "his boys" to the I.A. all the way to the wall.
"C'mon, Cap'n, where'd he go this time? Up to your cabin at Pine Lake? C'mon, you can tell me."
The eyes that bored into him had grey circles beneath them, and there was a frown solidly in place. "I don't believe I have to inform you of my officer's whereabouts."
"Did Hutch tell you not to tell?"
Another quick look told Starsky the truth. "You don't know, do you?"
Dobey had to nod at that, and it looked as if he would rather keep his head down and fall asleep right there on his feet.
After Dobey left, chagrined, the phone at Starsky's bedside rang. Normally he would never let a phone go on more than four rings, but two went by as he stared at the thing, dumfounded. He never got calls in the hospital; hospitals were notorious for misrouting calls. It took him another two rings to untangle his arm from a tangle of sheet and blanket and he slammed it against his ear, wincing.
A soft, almost musical breath greeted him from the other end. It was Hutch, no one else breathed like that.
It was greeting and confirmation all at once. If his partner were actually in the same room, he would have been able to decipher from the lofty variety of expressions what was up. Now he had only his hearing to lead the way. And Hutch did not sound good. Not at all.
"Where the hell are you? You're not at the hospital, Dobey doesn't know—"
"Blue sky," said Hutch, suddenly.
"What?" He thought it was a description, like green trees or orange orange.
"'m at the Blue Sky Motel. Blue Sky."
Where the hell was the Blue Sky motel? "Hutch, c'mon home, will ya? Ya gotta get me out of this stupid hospital and feed me chicken soup—"
A sudden panic rose in Starsky's throat. "Did you get into an accident, where's your car, are you okay?"
A short silence ensued, and no reply was forthcoming. It seemed as if Hutch were reaching for something that took him away from the phone, for when he came back, Starsky heard him take a deep breath.
"Pain pills," said Hutch slowly. "Thought the bottle said two every hour, but there's a smudge here . . . I think it's a four, two every four hours. Can't operate heavy machinery anyway, don't you know."
"When did you start taking the stuff?"
"Got here at noon, er, noon. Not taking any more till tomorrow."
It was almost four o'clock and that meant that Hutch had taken eight instead of two. No wonder he sounded groggy.
"Can you put them away, like in a drawer? Do it now."
The phone was put down with a clunk and a thump. When it was picked up again, Hutch was breathing hard.
"'kay," he said, equably.
"Promise me something."
He could feel Hutch nodding at the other end, and was nodding in response himself, but he wanted to hear it.
"DON'T MOVE, ya got me? I'll be there as quick as I can."
"Stay right where you are. Where is this hotel, anyway?"
"Highway One. 'bout four hours."
Four hours of driving. He wasn't ready. His side still ached, he had a bad headache that wasn't going away, and a huge bone bruise on his left thigh. But for Hutch, it seemed not enough, somehow, to force himself to drive the distance to the motel; he would be willing to do that, and more.
"I'm leaving now. Hang in there, babe."
He got dressed, slipping his cutoffs over the large bandage on his left leg. His heart was pounding lest some efficient nurse discover his escape, and he realized the whole thing was stupid really. Hutch hadn't actually overdosed, and he could probably very well just call an ambulance to go and get him. But something else called to him, other than Hutch himself, some invisible tether that connected him. Was pulling itself taut, encouraging him to get his car and hit the road. When he got to Hutch, the tension would lessen, and everything would be all right.
It took almost an hour for him to get a taxi ride home, pack some things, and fill the tank with gas. He found that his appetite was completely gone, though he knew he should probably eat.
On the road, he promised himself. One of those roadside places. Of course, none was forthcoming along the way.
As he drove, he wondered if he might have left word for Dobey, who was probably still storming the hospital, tie askew. Left a note on his pillow or something. But what could he have said? Gone into detail how Hutch had confessed what he'd done? There was no way to properly convey the memory of Hutch's sweet, low voice in the darkness as he said, "I didn't want to die alone." Or the tender, satin lips on Starsky's temple as he kissed him. Dobey never did understand that level of their relationship. And he would probably scream blue blazes at him when they got back, although Hutch hadn't gone very far. And of course, Starsky would follow.
He found the motel by the headlights in the dark. It hadn't been very hard to find, almost as if he had pictured it in his head and had merely followed a well-known path. The clerk at the front desk pointed him in the direction of Hutch's room, and he stepped into the night air once again. His headache had faded and expanded and had taken a leave of absence for the time being, for which he was grateful. The throbbing in his left leg was just going to have to be ignored.
Knocking on the correct door, he walked in without waiting. Hutch stood quickly from where he'd apparently been sitting on the floor, off balance for a split second, putting his hand out on the nearby chair.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"You called me, remember?"
Both of their glances went to the phone on the nightstand by the bed. It was still off the hook, so long off the hook that it had gone completely silent. Starsky walked over, and hung it up, and cast a puzzled look at his partner.
"Don't ask, Starsky, you don't want to know."
"Don't tell me what I want to know." He shook his finger at Hutch. "I want to know what's going on in that damn head of yours."
"Will you just go back to L.A., please?"
From his position by the door, Starsky could tell Hutch was about to explode, a necessary but scary thing if you were the only person in his sights. His lips were in a thin line, eyes sending off sparks, his jaw tight.
Starsky approached Hutch slowly. "Hutch, it's okay now."
"It's not okay, it will never be okay, don't tell me it's going to be okay because IT'S NOT!"
Starsky forced himself not to step backwards, headache suddenly back with full force.
"It's just this simple," hissed Hutch, his head going down, "everything that happened to you and to me was my fault and there's simply not enough forgiveness in the world, let alone in you, for that."
Some of his trepidation faded away. It was just Hutch feeling guilty. "You want my forgiveness? Why? It's already yours."
"I gave you up." The words were simple, but it scared him that Hutch didn't seem to be able to look at him.
He made himself walk closer. "Oh, babe, like you said, you're human. I would have done the same."
He couldn't see Hutch's eyes but could imagine the expression there just the same. The spark and the snarl, tiger released.
"I believe your response was, at the time, and I quote, 'I would never do that.'"
Starsky closed his eyes. Trust Hutch to remember that. "Brave words," he said, "flying in the face of disaster. Spitting into the wind. And I woulda melted, I just never got pushed that far."
Now Hutch turned, eyes black slits. "Oh, didn't you. I call emergency surgery for internal injuries pretty far to be pushed."
Starsky stepped forward cautiously, toe first, finding purchase on the rug, and realized he was shaking. "Hutch, I love you, I forgive you. It's all right."
Sudden tears streaked down Hutch's face, one-two, one-two. Starsky reached forward with both hands. "Don't cry, you'll break my heart."
Hutch lunged forward, eyes bright, grabbed his arms, and Starsky thought, bruises, I'm gonna have permanent bruises. Shook him, tears gone, rage pouring out of him.
"Why are you STILL HERE?"
"Why, I . . . "
"I keep using you and USING YOU and you're STILL HERE! You've got to run out soon, though I don't know how I'll earn more points, I'm running out and you're running out and where's it gonna come from, huh?"
Firm hands shook him hard. "Hutch, I don't understand, talk slower, I—"
"It's always bad, never forgiveness or a favor for something small, oh no. Never, hey, buddy, lend me a twenty that I'll never repay you for or hey, buddy, I'm sorry I forgot to pick you up on my way to work this morning."
Starsky thought Hutch was slowing down as he took a large gulp of air and bowed his head. "Hutch," he whispered softly.
The blonde head came up, eyes silver-dark. "No, it's always, hey, buddy, cover for me under this gunfire, or sorry, I'm goin' off the deep end and taking you with me, or say, sorry you got tortured, it's all my fault. Shit like that uses up a man's quota real fast, wouldn't you say, Starsk?"
Hutch let go of one arm and began propelling him towards the door. Starsky had to hustle or get his shoulder dislocated. Before he realized it, Hutch had thrown him out and locked the door. He pounded on it.
"You bastard, open this door! OPEN THIS GODDAM DOOR!"
"You MORON," Starsky shouted, "I don't know what kind of roster you're working with, but you don't have a quota with me. THERE IS NO SUCH THING!"
The response was quiet, almost inaudible.
"There has to be."
"So I can earn it."
"Earn it? Love?" Starsky sniggered sarcastically. "Babe, you can't buy it, sell it, or earn it. It's not a commodity, there's no stocks on the market for this. It's invisible."
"Like the tooth fairy."
Starsky stared at the panels of wood, wishing he had his gun to shoot a big enough hole in the door to step through. Desperation rose in him when he realized that wouldn't do him any good. Nothing would do any good at this point, it seemed, and a sob rose in his throat. He pounded on the door again.
"Damnit, Hutch, IT EXISTS, it's REAL, love is REAL!"
Silence. Utter silence, a wall that was more than the door panels it was made up of.
Suddenly he was bone tired. He'd always heard that phrase before but had never understood it until now. It was a kind of exhaustion that pulled at his bones until he thought they would melt under the strain and he would be left in a formless heap on concrete. He figured he had two choices. One, he could try pounding on the door again. But even if Hutch did let him in, which seemed unlikely, he wouldn't have the stamina to go another round and try to help his friend make sense of it all. His second choice was to get a room. That, and make sure that Hutch wouldn't leave in the morning without his knowing.
He took his keys from his pocket and knelt gingerly in front of the back passenger tire of the LTD. He might sleep through a car being started outside his window, but there was no way he'd sleep through Hutch changing a flat.
Little socks on his teeth. He could swear that's what they were. Little fuzzy red socks, and the rest of his mouth was lined with cotton. Or was it wool? He tried swallowing, and ran both hands experimentally through his hair. All there. He'd had a bizarre dream about it disappearing.
No more painkillers for you, my boy.
He dressed slowly, imagining that he was not alone on the edge of the earth, and decided he would get some breakfast and drive north for . . . for what? For awhile.
But once he stepped outside he saw two things. A flat tire on his car, and beyond that a few spaces, was Starsky's Torino.
He's here, he loves me.
For the life of him, he couldn't figure out why.
He walked out into the parking lot to try and figure out which room had been Starsky's. And out of the corner of his eye he caught, way across the road, a figure on the beach. Walking along the shoreline. And Hutch knew it was up to him to make an effort to catch up. Which was no effort at all.
When Hutch reached him, Starsky was standing barefooted in the surf, the stringy fly ends of his cut-offs straying across his thighs and the large white bandage. Even fully dressed, he seemed naked, some animalness, some connection with nature made it seem as if the wind could caress every pore of him.
And I thought I was nature boy.
On top of which, Starsky looked a little bit better than Hutch remembered from the night before, though that whole memory was lanced with a drug induced haze. Plus, he looked pissed off. Hutch wondered why, all of a sudden, it was easier to be with a Starsky that was mad at him than it was to be with a Starsky that looked at him with love in his eyes.
Starsky sat in the sand, and Hutch sat beside him.
"Starsky, I'm sorry."
"What do I care?" asked Starsky, staring out to sea.
With a start, Hutch realized that his friend wasn't merely mad, he was angry, which didn't happen often.
As if Hutch had posed a question, Starsky continued. "I already forgave you and you couldn't accept that. And if you can't accept it then there's no point in my saying it again, or for you to keep saying you're sorry."
An impasse some would call it, but to Hutch it felt like a brick wall. No way up, around, or through. Once Starsky planted his heels, it was all over. He was one of the few men for whom the principle would always mean more than the money. Hutch felt his shoulders crumple in towards his chest, and his feet moved, helplessly, cross-legged, beneath him.
"I . . . don't know what to do, Starsky . . . I don't think I can."
As if he'd reached out a hand, Starsky looked at him, turning his head slowly, a solemn pull to his mouth.
"All right, let's start from the beginning."
Any man, thought Hutch suddenly, who thinks this guy lacks an analytical mind, is minus a few marbles.
"What is eating you? Why won't you let me forgive you?"
"Because, man, I gave you up, I turned you in. You can't forgive me for something like that."
"Why did you do that, give me up I mean. I know you tole me once, but . . . "
"I gave you up because I didn't want to die alone."
"I couldn't die without you."
Starsky thought about that for a moment. "Could you live without me?"
"Then you have to let me forgive you."
"No, I don't."
"Yes, you do."
"Why isn't my forgiveness enough for you? If you don't accept it, it means that what I'm feeling doesn't mean anything to you."
"You know that's not true."
Starsky continued as if Hutch hadn't spoken. "It means that what you're feeling means more to you than I do."
Hutch's head jerked up. "That's bullshit!"
"No, it's the truth. How do you expect me to work with you in the streets, work the way we work, if I'm always knowing that you don't believe that I love you enough to forgive you?"
The logic of it was beautiful and perfectly circular. There was no way Hutch could deny any of it.
Starsky stared at his partner, unwilling to give ground, even once it had been gained. "You have to let me forgive you."
Hutch's voice was raw. "Why?"
"Why do you think you're the only one who cares as much as you do? I care. I love you, I forgive you, that's all you need to know. And if you loved me, really and truly, you would allow yourself to be forgiven. That's what friends do for each other." Starsky took a deep breath and went on. "What we're talking about before, the way you feel, that you couldn't go on living without me, that you wouldn't want to die alone, remember?"
""But you wouldn't have given me up, you said so."
"Quit harpin' on that, will ya? And that's beside the point, besides. If you had died—"
"Don't talk to me about feeling suicidal."
"Remember Terri? I meant what I said: I wouldn't have made it if it hadn't been for you, if you were gone, what reason would I have?"
"Hutch, don't break my heart, don't make me go on believing that you don't believe I love you."
Hutch stared at the sea, morning colors dancing along the surface.
"I guess my problem is that I don't understand why you love me. How you can love me that much."
"You want me to PROVE it to you?" Incredulous.
"No, I want you to explain it to me."
"I love you because . . . " Starsky sighed, ducking his head down. ". . . because I love you."
"That's not a reason, Starsk, you have to have a reason."
"Why?" The muffled voice sounded sullen.
Why indeed. Starsky was faithful beyond measure, and he sure didn't need any evidence that Starsky cared for him. His partner had never let him down. He took whatever Hutch dished out to him and never complained: from the incessant teasing about his lack of a degree to bossing him around to taking his food from him to the out and out cruel tricks he played from time to time. And he always forgave, understood, considered Hutch his best pal in the world. Even this time.
"And what do you get in return for all of that?" Hutch asked suddenly, cutting off the uncomfortable pictures in his mind.
"There has to be something you get from me that you don't get from anyone else, the reason that you keep forgiving me—"
"Something I get?"
"Yes, something you get."
It was obvious that Starsky was confused, but perhaps it was because he'd never thought about it before. Hutch started to panic. What if when he starts thinking about it instead of just doing it, then he'll realize what a crummy person I am to be around, what if . . .
"Well, our friendship is pretty special."
I don't see how, Hutch said to himself. Aloud, he explained, "No, that's not what I mean. Our friendship is pretty special, I agree, but what I mean is something you get from our relationship, that you take for yourself to make up for all the shitty things I do to you. Some selfish thing you take for yourself."
"Selfish?" Starsky squeaked when he was upset or startled, and Hutch realized that the word was just not a part of his friend's vocabulary. Never had been.
He tried again. "Yeah, something all for you, some need in you that only I answer. You're not a paragon, Starsky, there has to be something I give you."
"You want me to tell you something you don't know."
Hutch nodded. What do I give you that keeps you close to me. He wanted to keep doing it.
Starsky shifted on the still-cool sand, appearing not to mind the grains sifting into his clothes. He stared out at the stretch of grey-blue, squinting a little as if his answer was coming closer. Hutch waited beside him, shivering at the change in temperature. They both looked at the sea.
"You give me a place in the world." The voice came very slowly to him.
"Yeah, it's like I belong to you."
"People don't own other people, Starsky."
"Well, I belong with you, then."
What a difference a preposition could make.
And Starsky went on, his quiet voice, so unusually serious, mixing with the rush of water to soothe his heart.
"You probably don't know this, but one of the guys at the station already asked me this question, or one like it."
"Why I put up with you, why I like you."
"And what did you tell him?"
"Same thing I'm gonna tell you now, or near enough. He said to me, that Hutch is so mean to you all the time, nagging at you, taking your food, yelling at you, making you do his work for him, always putting you down. Why do you put up with that crap, I don't understand it. So I told him, you know Dan, when I come in and want money for a soda he gives it to me, if I screw up, he covers for me, some candy in his drawer? It's mine. Help working on my car. No problem."
"Dan said that sounded pretty tame, and I said, yeah, hey Dan, you know what, no matter what happens, no matter what I do or say or feel, he's always on my side. Always. Can you say that about anyone you know? Well, of course he couldn't."
A lump in Hutch's throat threatened to explode. He had to swallow three times to get it down. He didn't deserve to hear this, yet he still wanted, needed more.
"And you do nag, y'know? Always going on about what I eat, did I take my vitamins, how much sleep I look like I didn't get, am I wearing that again." Starsky was doing a credible imitation of Hutch by this point and it almost made him smile. "You mother me as if I were yours to mother."
"You like that?"
"You take it for granted that you have that right but let anyone else try it and you are all over their ass. Only you are allowed to boss me around."
"That's a lot to take for granted." The conversation had taken a sudden, unpleasant turn.
"Yes, but that's just you."
"How can it be right?" demanded Hutch. "First you all but say I own you and then you say I take it for granted and those are the reasons you love me? Are you telling me you like that?"
He looked at Starsky now, but Starsky refused to meet his gaze. He realized how unusual that was, for Starsky's eyes not to be right there whenever he needed to look at them.
"Please, Starsky, I do need to hear it."
Starsky swallowed, then nodded. "Part of it is that you take up where Aunt Rosie left off, where she gave up, y'know? She tried, she really did, but at nine . . . when dad died . . . everything kinda got stripped away, no more childhood, so what did I need a mother for? I was a wild kid."
A sudden grin appeared as a private memory flashed across the dark haired man's mind, and Hutch could suddenly see it as well: a five-fingered pick-up at the drugstore, and a wind-sprint getaway down the first alley; Starsky in the lead, whatever goodies stashed in his back pocket.
"And then you showed up, years later. Tellin' me what to do, mindin' my P's and Q's for me, picking up the pieces where she left off."
"I always thought partners should look out for each other."
"Yeah, but where another guy would draw the line, you kept going. For us there are no lines, right?"
Now Starsky looked at him, a mock serious frown turning his mouth down, but in his eyes was a real need to have Hutch understand.
So Hutch nodded.
"Remember after those Satanists had gotten me and I had the heebie-jeebies for a week?"
He nodded again. Knew what was coming.
"You came over to my place and slept on the couch the whole time. Fussed and fussed, called me a big baby."
Yes, he had done that. "So?"
"Yeah, but you never said a word about sleeping with every single light in the place on, never bothered to mention to me that you had a big date with that stewardess, the one with the huge—"
"How did you find out about that?"
"She called me, chewed me out. Said I shouldn't hog you on the only night she was in town."
Hutch shook his head. "Starsky, that's what friends are for, that's what they do. You've said that enough times yourself."
Starsky shook his head too. "You're not listening to me, it's more than that. The mothering part? The taking for granted part? There's more. You expect me to be at your side without question. Everyone in the department knows it. Without question, you depend on me, you know I'll cover you, back you up. You trust me like you do no one else. No one else trusts me the way you do."
"B-but you earned that."
"There's that earning shit again. Okay, yeah, so I earned it. But you gave me a chance to do that."
"Don't I give everybody a chance?"
"Yes, but they always screw up. I almost did, right when we met, when Dobey teamed us up. You looked me up and down, I could tell right away that you hated the way I dressed, most people do. And you asked me, you said, 'Can those jeans walk by themselves yet, or do they mostly just stand in the corner when you take them off?' Well, I almost told you to shove it, like I woulda most people, but instead I admitted that I only had two pairs. It turned out to be the right answer. You needed someone to tell what to do, and I needed someone to care."
"That doesn't sound like it's about trust."
"But it is, Hutch, it is. You trust me to understand that that's your way of saying you care. And I do understand it. And in return, you take care of me, make me a place at your side. No exceptions, 100%. It's like all I ever wanted."
What more could he ask for, what more did he want to make the badness go away?
He looked over at Starsky shivering in the sand, late March clouds rolling in on the breeze. The urge to mother was there, though it felt awkward after what Starsky had told him.
"You look tired," he said simply.
Starsky hung his head, knowing it was true, feeling his chest tighten with each breath.
"Why do you need a mother?" Hutch asked him suddenly.
A thousand replies rushed to the fore, something to explain how lonely it had been without feeling like there should be a poignant violin in the background. It wasn't like he'd ever suffered through a bedless night, huddled over an open sewer grate for warmth; L.A. just never got that cold and he'd never been without a place to stay. And he'd never lacked for anything in particular, even that bike he'd wanted when he was twelve. But it seemed a bitter wind had blown through him anyway, because there had been too many winters followed by too many springs where there hadn't been the money for the cross-continental visits. Too many weeks where the budget had been too tight for even a long distance phone call. And Aunt Rosie, had been a good caregiver, but never very motherly.
"I was separated from my mother when I was nine, Hutch. That does something to a kid," Starsky said finally.
"And I've taken the place of that."
"I'm not your mom, Starsky. Or your dad, for that matter."
"But you were, Hutch, even if you aren't now. Doncha see?"
Starsky could see it in his face that Hutch did not. It was hard for him to reconcile the horrible thing he'd done to Starsky with Starsky's continued love for him.
It suddenly became clear to Starsky what the essential problem was. Hutch could not allow himself to love someone he felt he had hurt, and everyone he loved he hurt, in some way. It was a snake with its tail in its mouth, going around and around and sent Hutch spinning with loneliness. Starsky felt as if he'd ridden an elevator to the top of a very tall building, and could see, spread below, a sea of toppled dominos, and only he could see over the tops of everything.
What Hutch needed and wanted, the same thing really, was the one gift he would not give to himself.
Hutch was hunched over as if waiting some sort of admonishment, some dire consequence from a figure in authority.
That, thought Starsky dryly, or a benediction from the Pope.
Starsky reached up an arm to encircle his partner's shoulders and felt a sudden heat along his side. His short intake of breath was involuntary, almost nonexistent. But Hutch was immediately alert, eyes suddenly clearing, shoulders going back. He put his hand to Starsky's side and it came away blood. Starsky looked down at himself to see the darkness soaking through his shirt.
For a single second, Starsky did not want to be fussed over. On the other hand, Hutch desperately needed to fuss. Needed to take care of Starsky, needed to feel as if he had contributed to his partner's well being instead of his destruction. He allowed himself to be pulled gently to his feet, with only a single, "Aw, Hutch, I'm okay," to maintain the illusion that the nursing Hutch was about to perform would make Starsky love him any more than he already did.
Hutch lifted him to a stand and helped him, one arm around his waist the other across his chest, back to the motel. He led Starsky to the bed and eased him down upon it and pulled open the buttons of his shirt, almost touching the once-again torn skin with the side of his hand.
"Don't move," admonished Hutch.
Starsky nodded, telling himself it didn't hurt, that the idea of muscles ripping anew wasn't making him want to gag.
The blonde left and came back again with a large handful of first aid gear, and set to work. Wiped away the blood with a damp cloth, wincing as Starsky winced, swallowing in tandem, breathing in sync, as if it were his own wound he were tending and not that of another man's. At one point, when Hutch was just about to apply the antibiotic, he suddenly leaned forward and laid his head, as if in exhaustion, against Starsky's hip. A tremor of the broad shoulders, and Starsky realized that his friend was crying.
"You're rusting my spurs," said Starsky.
Hutch lifted himself up immediately, wet tears still dripping from his face onto Starsky, his face working against something unidentifiable. It took Starsky a second to realize it was a snort of inexplicable laughter.
"Trust you to say the dumbest things," said the blonde in his most derisive voice.
Music. Pure, sweet music.
But even as Hutch was smiling, he lifted his hand and it came away damp with blood.
"This doesn't look good, buddy," he said.
"No," said Starsky, "no hospitals."
"Starsky," said Hutch, brows furrowing sternly.
Green Valley Hospital said later that Mr. Hutchinson had done the right thing: Mr. Starsky had been just one step from going into shock, and they had been able to clear the touch of pneumonia they found in his chest. But Starsky found the two days there before he'd been transferred to L.A. General very lonely without Hutch, who'd been busy getting both cars back to L.A. And busy explaining to Dobey why he'd felt it necessary to drag Starsky from the hospital on a wild goose chase. Starsky didn't imagine that that had gone very well.
But, true to form, once all that was over, Hutch had visited him every day. Well, almost every day, last Thursday Hutch had called him to say he couldn't make it.
"Got my one and only session with the departmental shrink."
Starsky could hear the shake in the blonde's voice, knew that his large hand was gripping the phone too tightly, and that Hutch was trying not to exhale his anxiety into the receiver. He wondered when they were going to continue the conversation they'd had in the car the day before Hutch had been abducted. Where it would take them when they continued it, and how even the simple acknowledgement of something special between them had marked them.
"Hutch," said Starsky.
It was a brave face that Hutch put on every day that he went to visit Starsky, root beer and smothered burritos carried in on the sly. It wasn't a face to cover the fear that Starsky was in any medical danger, Starsky was okay. He was going to make it. It wasn't one to cover the hope that Starsky would forgive him, he already had. Hutch had accepted it as best he could, and was trying very hard, as Starsky had admonished him on the ambulance ride to Green Valley Hospital, to forgive himself. That was a little more difficult than some things, but not impossible, not with that soft gleam in Starsky's eyes as he bit into his illegal burrito, and socked back a foamy swallow of root beer. The food told Starsky he was loved, and the voracious way he downed it told Hutch he was loved in return.
At least that's what Hutch thought it meant; that had always been the way they'd expressed it before, through gifts of food. Hutch would introduce Starsky to gourmet eating: caviar, old cheese, blackstrap molasses, vitamins; and Starsky in his turn would drag Hutch to every single dive that could even be vaguely described has having local color. The food from which kitchens turned out to be very ethnic, and usually very spicy. Heartburn time. He quietly brought out some packets of Tums and laid them casually on the bed tray.
"So you don't have to ask the nurse for some later and have her wondering why," he said, not looking directly at Starsky.
Starsky wiggled his toes beneath the bedclothes; Hutch could feel it against his thigh.
"You're awful quiet, talk to me."
"Just thinking," replied Hutch, suddenly very intrigued by the hangnail on his thumb.
He wanted to ask Starsky now about that conversation in the car, about how nothing would change them ever, only now everything between them had changed. About how many ways there were to say I love you without uttering anything near to those three words, but how they had to be said anyway. About why he'd driven off to get away from Starsky and ended up calling for him, how Starsky had driven for four hours in the rain, probably feeling like shit the whole time, and never saying a word about it. About how their lives and souls were intertwined like climbing vines.
But you couldn't start asking questions of a person who was trapped in a hospital bed.
Or a car for that matter, thought Hutch suddenly, remembering Starsky pursuing the topic of their relationship, when Hutch had been strapped into the driver's seat with no escape but a sudden attentiveness to his driving. Starsky could be ruthless sometimes, when alone with Hutch, taking the upper hand with very few words and a stern slice from his suddenly hard eyes.
"Hey," said a voice, and a root beer bottle was thrust into his face.
He turned. It was Starsky, offering him some of whatever he had, as he always did, in an attempt to bring Hutch back from his private morass of unproductive thoughts.
"Want soma my root beer? 'S good."
I love you, thought Hutch suddenly, wondering at the unexpected rush, I always have.
He scooted closer to the head of the bed, settling himself next to the pocket of Starsky's hip. Starsky did not move, or even blink, unaffected as if Hutch had been sitting that close all along. Hutch traced the dark violet splotches beneath Starsky's left eye with his thumb.
"Been sleeping okay?"
There was a pause before Starsky's reply and Hutch knew that it was a lie before he heard it.
Starsky did not even bother to defend himself, or deny it. He shrugged. "They got me on sleeping pills. Makes my mouth dry. I didn't take 'em."
Hutch, who had been where his friend was sitting right now, knew exactly how he felt. "How 'bout pizza and beer tomorrow?" he whispered, leaning in a bit closer.
"And beer?" squeaked Starsky. "How ya gonna sneak that in?"
"I have my ways," replied Hutch loftily, shaking his finger in his partner's face, "but I'll only bring it if you're good. Take your medication."
"I will," Starsky promised. "Bring in the good stuff, okay?"
The blonde stood up and patted Starsky's thigh. "Only the best for my buddy."
Over the next ten days, Starsky's condition improved remarkably, and he even gained a little weight, which the doctors chalked up to the miracle of modern medicine. Hutch chalked it up to a different helping of junk food every day, peppered by huge spinach salads with bacon, liver and whey shakes, and as many root beer floats as could be carried under one arm. It wasn't hospital food, which was precisely why, Hutch knew, Starsky was feeling better.
On the day Starsky was released, Hutch was on duty on the other side of town on routine day patrol, and he made a point of driving directly to Starsky's place when he got off work. Only Starsky wasn't there. He let himself in and dialed down to the station, surely the only other place Starsky would think of going. He managed to get hold of Minnie.
"Yeah, darlin', I saw him, lookin' as cute as ever. You took good care of him, I hear."
"Yeah, Minnie, look. Is he going to wait there for me or what?"
"I think he's been waiting for you since he got here, I'll tell him to keep hanging around for you."
Hutch smiled to himself. I thought she was going to say he's been waiting for me all of his life. "Thanks, Minnie. Tell him about half an hour."
"I will, whenever he gets back from downstairs."
Downstairs? "What's he doing down there? He's not on a case."
"Went visiting some collar."
"Who?" He couldn't imagine, unless it was Huggy for some reason. Starsky never visited prisoners.
"Well, hold on, sweetheart, let me find out."
He waited, frowning at the dust on the coffee table, the stack of mail by the phone, the over-watered plants, hearing the rustle of Minnie's investigation in one ear. When she returned, she said, very calmly, "Some character, Joshua Bright."
"Honey, don't yell. Some rookie nabbed him this morning."
"I'll be right there," he said, and hung up the phone.
The drive to the station went incredibly fast, 28 minutes, 23 seconds, at least a full minute under their old record, and which included the time it took to park. Hutch felt like he was trying to speed through molasses. He raced up the stairs two and a time and shot into Dobey's office, through the squad room, checking only to see that Starsky was not there.
"No bail on Bright, right?" he demanded, not letting go of the doorknob.
"I'm not a fool twice, Hutchinson," said Dobey sourly, pencil in one hand. He used it to point. "But that partner of yours is trying to walk on fire. I told him to stay clear; I imagine he ignored me."
"Not a fantasy, Cap'n," replied Hutch tartly. Hell, anyway, it wasn't Dobey's fault. "See you tomorrow."
Hutch turned right out of the squad room, and immediately saw Starsky coming up the set of stairs that led to the holding cells. But instead of turning left, and Hutch was sure Starsky had seen him, Starsky headed straight down the hall which would take him outside. Hutch bounded down the hall and laid his hand on Starsky's arm, noting the slight tremor there and the balled fists all at once.
Starsky didn't even pretend to have not seen him, as if his friend's presence was inexorable, unavoidable, somehow preordained. His face was closed, eyes shuttered.
"Hutch," he said.
"Starsky," Hutch replied.
"Take me home, I don't feel so good."
"No," agreed Hutch, "you look like shit. Are you sure they were supposed to let you out of the hospital today?"
"Why you askin' me? With you standing guard every day, double checking the doctor's notes, bawling that one intern out just to be bossy—"
"He was prescribing too much codeine—"
"And you're the one who made them keep me an extra coupla days, just to be sure. TODAY is the day you said I could go home."
"Oh," said Hutch, realizing that he must have been pushing the staff at the hospital around more than he'd thought. "Starsky, why did you go see Bright? That's not your style."
Starsky shook his lowered head. "Just take me home."
The taxi driver drove almost as badly as Hutch did, and Starsky smiled to himself at the thought of the surprise on his friend's face when he arrived at the station. He planned to take Hutch to a fine, fine restaurant on the strip that had dishes with names he didn't think either one of them could pronounce, wine that cost a half a week's salary, and a restaurant where you needed a reference from a prominent member of society for a reservation. He personally thought he could eat a horse, rare, and wondered vaguely, as the taxi pulled up in front of the station, if Hutch would try to feed him caviar again. He hoped not.
Dobey was in his office, elbow deep in paper, sleeves rolled up and a big coffee stain on his tie.
"Missed ya, Cap'n," said Starsky by way of greeting.
"'bout time you got your butt in here," said Dobey in return. "I wanted to tell you before anyone else did."
He seemed pleased with himself, so Starsky didn't think it was bad news. "Watsat, Cap'n?"
"Some rookie beat you boys to the punch."
"Cap'n, I'm just outa the hospital, my poor head . . . "
"Samuels, the new kid, he collared Bright this morning."
It took Starsky a minute. "JOSHUA Bright?"
Dobey shook his pencil in the air. "The same. He's in a holding cell, and he's going to stay there until the maximum security guys come to pick him up."
Starsky didn't know what to think or feel. He'd had a quickie fix-it session with the departmental therapist in the hospital but that had only been a band-aid. You'll be fine, time will heal. Worse than useless. And worse than that . . .
Dobey sighed. "Don't you go stirring—"
"I'm not," said Starsky quickly. "Where is he?"
"Out on patrol, said he was going by your place after work."
"Then he's not coming by here."
The dark eyes looked at him calmly, waiting.
Starsky felt anything but calm. "Can you do me a favor, Cap'n?"
"Make sure Bright is out of here before he finds out, huh?"
Starsky walked forward to lean his hands on Dobey's desk. Tried not to press too much of his weight forward, tried to keep his voice low. What had seemed just fine, had turned very uncertain. "He doesn't need . . . "
What didn't he need? To come face to face with a man who had beaten him up, tortured him, and to whom he'd given his best friend? Starsky thought that most of that was behind them both now. The question remained, could Hutch meet up with Bright again and not harm a hair on his head? Could he stand by and watch justice take its course, something Starsky knew Hutch was beginning not to believe in, and even if Bright was convicted, could Hutch watch him walk off to a prison from which he would probably be paroled in a few years? And even if Hutch could do all these things, surely only through a Herculean effort on his part, could Starsky stand by and watch him struggle with it?
"He doesn't need to see Bright right now."
"I thought this was all settled, that you two were okay."
There was a lump of anger that Starsky made himself swallow. Dobey had never been anything but supportive of both of them, almost fatherly sometimes, he didn't deserve to be yelled at. But the tremor was in his voice just the same.
"Trust me, Cap'n, he doesn't need that right now."
"What about at the trial, he'll have to see him in the courtroom."
His hand came up of its own accord to press the bone between his eyebrows, pinching the pain away, the image of Hutch on the motel room floor, arms wrapped around his knees. Head buried against his thighs, breath coming in short gasps.
"He'll be ready then."
I'll make sure he's okay by then, thought Starsky, or, by God, he's not going to be there.
"I'll do my best, Starsky."
Starsky opened the door to leave.
"And don't you go down there either, hear?"
Muttering an affirmative under his breath, Starsky shut the door behind him.
His feet, of course, did not obey Dobey's imperative. They had a mind of their own, stubborn things, and Starsky found himself going through the security gate and down the grey barlined hallway to Bright's cell.
The instant he caught Bright's vivid dark eyes, he knew he shouldn't have come.
Bright, somewhat tattered at the far edges, was nonetheless, still potent as he slowly rose from the bench nailed to the floor and walked towards Starsky.
"Well, well, Hutchinson's boy."
"You shut your mouth." The snap was out before Starsky could contain it. Keep your temper, he told himself. Keep it on a tight rein. Hutch was always the one to lose his temper, not him.
"It's kind of you to visit me," said Bright politely, as if Starsky had merely said good afternoon. "Did you bring me anything?"
For a second, Starsky was taken aback. It was the same tone he'd used in the bar, perfectly kind and gentle, offering nachos, selling cocaine.
"I wouldn't bring you water if you were on fire." Shit, he'd done it again. Where was his head, why was he here?
"I wanted to tell you," began Starsky slowly, "that you will never again walk a free man."
"Who's going to keep me in here, you?"
"You will keep you in here, asshole." Man, he was going to have to shut up and leave before he punched Bright right through the bars. The guards down here wouldn't take kindly to his disruptive behavior, police officer or no. "I'll be going now. Just wanted to make sure they tucked you in properly."
He turned to go, admonishing himself before anyone else could that a true officer of the law didn't use sarcasm, or anything but a courteous tone, even with scum like this. Fuck. He hoped Hutch didn't find out about it.
"Before you go, Mr. Starsky."
"That's Detective Starsky to you, asshole." He didn't stop walking or even turn his head.
"I wanted to tell you something about your friend, Hutch."
Starsky did stop then, cocking his head to one side. "There's nothing you can tell me."
"Oh, yes I can. I can tell you everything he told me before I slammed that two-by-four against his knees."
Starsky winced, drawing his eyes tightly closed, as if the pain were his own.
"How he turns his face away to keep from listening."
Starsky's mouth opened, and he found his eyes open as well, staring through the streaked square window in the metal door.
"I can even tell you how he hangs his head when he cries."
He whirled then, slamming his hands against the bars, not reaching in for Bright, but wishing he could. Wishing with everything he had to bash that red-haired skull against the grey metal till it ran red. But he made himself breathe very slowly, eyes never leaving Bright's. If he had anything to do about it, Hutch would never lay eyes on this man again. Never have to experience a flash of memory where Bright's hand was raised and brought down, never have to look at that face that smiled while it inflicted pain.
"There's something else, Mr., I mean Detective Starsky. I already knew who you were."
Starsky had never realized how dim it was in the basement before. How darkly grey everything was painted, they could use a couple more light bulbs, some more windows. He could barely see his hands in front of his face as they clung tighter to the bars. He knew exactly what Bright meant, but there was no way, short of grabbing another officer's gun and shooting the prisoner where he stood, to keep him from saying what he was about to say.
"I already knew your name, knew who you were, long before I grabbed Hutch. There was that newspaper article, you see, and there were plenty of people who could tell me who Hutch's unnamed partner was. You boys pissed me off, arresting me like that, and I wanted to see what it would take to tear you down."
There was a pause, and he could almost hear Bright smiling, though he didn't dare look at him.
"And you know something else?"
Now he had to look.
"He never told me anything, not even when I bashed his knees. Oh, he thinks he did, I know, but he didn't."
Starsky leaned his forehead against the coldness of the bars then. Heard very clearly, for the first time, Hutch's voice when he'd leaned over Starsky at the hospital. Finally heard the words Hutch had said before Starsky had passed out.
I love you, Hutch had said. I will love you till I die.
Of course he did. Why had it taken him so long to hear it?
Bright was saying something else now, but it sounded faint and far away. Starsky opened the door, his hand not feeling the knob, saying good evening to the officers on duty without hearing his own voice. And mounted the stairs, feeling very lightheaded. What was he going to tell Hutch? Was he going to tell him anything at all?
When Starsky got to the top of the stairs, he realized he was shaking all over and wondered if it was from rage or sorrow. He stopped and planted his feet to get a good breath. His fists refused to become unclenched, but the breath helped. He saw Hutch out of the corner of his eye, but he wasn't alarmed. He simply turned the other way, knowing that Hutch probably hadn't seen him, and then he could go in the parking lot on the side street and catch a taxi to somewhere else. At least till he could figure out what to do.
Then he felt a hand on his arm, so soft, and he turned. Hutch's eyes were bright with worry, and he wasn't letting go.
How could I imagine, thought Starsky, that you would not find me? We're like a pair of magnets.
Hutch drove Starsky to his place after picking up his bag of things, and tried not to demand to be told what was wrong. It was obvious that something was, but you couldn't push at a guy like Starsky. He was liable to get out of the car at the first opportunity. And Starsky, for his part, stared fixedly out the window, not so much as turning around when Hutch softly touched the back of his dark head.
"You okay?" he asked then.
"Fine," said Starsky. He spared Hutch a glance and then turned back towards the window. "I'm just fine."
No you're not. You're wound up like those rubber bands inside of golf balls. And any second, you're going to start snapping apart.
But you couldn't say that to Starsky. You had to approach with the stealth of an Indian, or a security guard at a museum. Hutch tried again.
"Yes, I'm sure."
Not "yeah" or "uh-huh" but, yes. Not like Starsky at all.
Hutch pulled the LTD in front of the Torino that was parked in front of Venice Place.
"What's my car doing here? What am I doing here?"
Hutch got out without answering right away, grabbing Starsky's bag and heading up the stairs in silence. Trying not to limp. "Thought I'd keep a better eye on the Tomato while you were in the hospital if it were here."
On the landing, as Hutch was reaching for his key, Starsky took his arm.
"I was going to take you out to dinner, that's why I went to the station, but . . . " It was an apology, which seemed strange, as Starsky had done nothing wrong.
"Another time." Hutch tried to smile, but he knew it was thin. Putting his concentration on unlocking the door, which normally required about one-tenth of the attention he was giving it, he wondered how in the hell he was going to get through his friend's shell. And what had erected it.
Once inside, he threw his stuff on the couch and headed toward the kitchen. "Want some coffee? Maybe we could order a pizza."
There was no answer from Starsky, who merely threw himself on the couch.
"What happened with Bright?" Hutch asked, keeping his voice soft. He pulled two beers from the fridge and walked into the living room.
Starsky got up and began to walk away. In his own place, he would have walked to another part of the apartment, shutting himself off. But since Hutch had basically the one room, there was no escape. Blocked by the piano, Starsky made a left and walked behind the couch out to the greenhouse. Now Hutch had to put down the beers and follow him; he didn't want to lose Starsky behind the greenery. But the second he entered the greenhouse, Starsky came out again, brushed passed him and headed towards the kitchen. Hutch grabbed him easily and pulled him over to pin him against the back of the couch. He held him firmly with his two hands, forearms straining to be gentle yet not let go.
"Starsky, damnit, don't carry this yourself. I'm here. Let me help."
He began to hear little noises coming from his partner's throat, like breath passing too quickly or not at all. And Hutch knew that if he didn't do the right thing, and quickly, Starsky would lock it up inside and it would never see the light of day. Whatever it was.
Hutch bent his head forward, so that they were eye to eye, though Starsky was staring at the floor. Closer now so that he could feel the breath from Starsky's lungs on his cheek, smell the sharp tang of anger.
"Did he . . . did he hurt you again?"
Starsky let go. All at once, his body leaned forward and his head buried itself against Hutch's neck. And the tears were hot and slow against Hutch's bare skin. He held him there, Starsky in his arms, Starsky's arms clutching around his waist, shudders passing through the dark form held so tightly against him. He felt the words before he heard them.
"What?" he asked softly. "Babe, tell me."
Starsky raised his head a little, lips still against Hutch's collarbone. "He told me he knew already."
There was a large gulp, and Hutch thought that Starsky was trying to swallow the words before he could say them. Get rid of whatever it was.
"He knew who I was." The words came out all in a rush. "Didn't need you to tell him."
For a moment, Hutch didn't think he'd heard right.
"I wasn't gonna tell ya, Hutch, but how could I not?" Strong arms squeezed at Hutch's waist, and Hutch found himself standing absolutely still, the world was still as if everything was completely frozen. "And then he told me how he bashed your knees with that two-by-four."
"Starsky, he's lying."
"But he said—"
"Starsky," said Hutch sternly, "if that were true, I'd still be laid up in the hospital. He's lying, I'm telling you. I'd remember something like that."
"But, but then he says you never told him my name anyway, never told him anything. Is he lying about that, too?"
Another shudder from Starsky and Hutch dipped his head, ignoring the bright spark of thought that maybe he hadn't done anything wrong. "Babe, it's all right, it's over now."
"No," Starsky was practically moaning now. "No, it's not."
"Why isn't it?" It's got to be over, it has to be. He didn't know how much more of Bright's leftovers he could manage.
"I wanted to kill him," hissed Starsky. "Wanted to so bad, oh, Hutch, what he did to you. I never wanted to kill someone before, an' he hurt you for no reason . . . "
More crying now, a high keening coming from the back of Starsky's throat as if the pain had driven it there and was keeping it there by a knife's blade.
Now Hutch was shaking, and trying to keep it from Starsky, held so tightly in his arms, was an impossibility. He didn't know what made him more furious and helpless all at the same time, the fact that Bright had done what he'd done to both of them, or the fact that he'd so recently upset Starsky and for no reason.
He dipped his head again, and brought up a hand to lift Starsky's face. Starsky was crying hard now, eyes wide open, staring straight at Hutch.
"I'm sorry, Hutch, I'm sorry . . . "
"It's not that you wanted to kill him, Starsky," Hutch said, his voice low, "it's that you didn't."
Starsky took a deep breath, and shook his head, thumping it against Hutch's chest. "Whatzat s'posed to mean?"
"I hate him too, probably would want to kill him if I ever saw him again . . . hope I never do." If he ever did, he'd probably panic and start stuttering. God, he hoped he never saw Bright again. "But thinking it isn't the problem."
"But it's wrong," Starsky insisted, pulling himself upright, "it's wrong to hate this much."
"Not," replied Hutch, his hand going to Starsky's damp face, "when the reason for it is love."
Starsky slumped in his arms. "Which one of us is he lying to?" he asked, low.
"Does it matter?" asked Hutch, stroking the back of his partner's neck. "His whole life is a lie; he doesn't count for anything in our world."
"But he's the reason you wouldn't let me forgive you," protested Starsky.
"No, he's the reason I can't forgive myself." He caught Starsky's startled expression and felt himself go a little pale. "I'm working on it," he amended quickly. "I really am."
"So you're saying he does matter." It was almost a question.
Hutch took a deep breath. "We can't let it," he decided. "If we do then he's still got both of us strung up in that dark, grey room forever."
Starsky pulled himself out of Hutch's arms to smile up at his partner. Trust Hutch to get to the heart of the matter. Whether Bright had lied or not was unimportant, and it only remained that what he had done was only as significant as they allowed it to be. And, which it seemed, Hutch was not willing to allow at all.
"I'll forget about killing him," said Starsky, feeling like he was only half joking, "if you forgive yourself."
"Dirty pool, Starsky," said Hutch, tipping his head.
Starsky just smiled and stepped away. "I'm gonna get me a beer, now," he announced. "You gonna order that pizza, or what?"
When the pizza arrived a half hour later, they settled on the couch with their beers in silence. While Starsky inhaled half the pizza, Hutch nursed his beer and his single slice, morosely nibbling on the crust.
"What are you thinking about?" asked Starsky.
Hutch let out a sigh of air. "Just wishing I could turn back time."
"How far?" asked Starsky, wondering, as he often did, where it was exactly that his partner got these obscure fancies, but willing to go along with them, nevertheless.
"Oh, I don't know . . . just to before."
Starsky didn't have to ask before when, but his friend's chin was almost touching his chest. Weighted down, no doubt by some pretty heavy, and probably bleak, thoughts.
"Why don't we," he said, forcing himself to be bright, licking the last of beer from his mouth, "take it back to that conversation in the car."
"Which conversation," said Hutch without lifting his head.
"You know, the one we had before . . . the one about . . . "
"Is this the one about the alligators in the sewers of New York?"
"The one about how you always wanted some woman to . . . "
"Definitely not that one." Starsky smiled to himself. Hutch was already interested, his head having tipped back and his free hand reaching for another slice of pizza. He was so very easy to distract sometimes.
"This," he began slowly, "is the one about me and thee. The one where you were going to tell me something, something about us."
There came only a nervous flick of Hutch's blue eyes, round and soft. He looked especially vulnerable then, Starsky had always thought, and at the same time it was the only expression he couldn't do on purpose to manipulate Starsky. It was a true face, solid, straight to Hutch's soul.
"You know the one I mean," said Starsky, knowing that Hutch did. "We'll go back to that conversation and pick it up from before Bright, before all of this other junk."
"I'm not that good a pretender, Starsky," came the soft reply.
"This was your idea, babe."
Only silence met him, that and Hutch's ducked head.
"C'mon, Hutch, do it for me."
It occurred to him, suddenly, that he would be able to get a lot of things out of Hutch right now with all the guilt he was carrying around, a fancy meal, a backrub, a favor, whatever. And it was up to him, and only him, to make sure he didn't abuse his friend's state, to make sure he only pushed Hutch for something really valuable.
"The conversation began," he prompted, "'I never thought of myself as gay.'"
"Yes, I remember."
"And I said, 'like Blaine.' And then we both agreed it was a lifestyle."
"And at the end of all this, you said you needed to work out something, work it out slow. Work out what, Hutch?"
He was staring at Hutch, he realized, and then, remembering that a watched pot does not boil, made himself look at his hands.
"I wanted to make sure," said Hutch, quietly, "that you knew how much I love you."
"Surely you know that I know that."
"But sometimes, sometimes I don't seem to be able to express it, express it in a way that there's no way you'll misunderstand."
"How can I possibly misunderstand it when you're always saying it?"
There was a big, long pause. Starsky had come to the realization, several minutes before, that there was something very important to what Hutch was working through, something that would make him all soft-voiced and still. And when the moment came, the second really, that the outer shell of the man melted away with a big shouldered sigh, it was very hard not to watch the real man emerge. Like wanting to touch the inner throat of a newly opened lily but knowing that you'll smudge it if you do, Starsky found himself almost sitting on his hands.
"Sometimes," said Hutch to his knees, "sometimes, when we're in a room of people and you're about to go wandering off, I want to take you by my side and shout MINE! Other times, and it doesn't matter who's around, I want to give you a kiss, to let you know how much I like being with you, you know?"
"Yeah," said Starsky, wondering why none of this seemed to be anything new. It was obvious that for Hutch it was very difficult to say, but Starsky was finding it exceedingly easy to hear.
"Then," went on Hutch, now addressing the backs of his hands along his upper thighs, "when I told you you were my date, at first it was funny, then it wasn't."
"I didn't mean to make a game of it, Hutch, I only thought—"
"It was true. You were mine, at least I always considered you that . . . "
Hutch trailed off, and Starsky realized with a growing horror that the blonde head had dipped once again and that Hutch was holding the bridge of his nose. Then he flipped his head up, took a deep breath and looked away.
"Considered you enough mine to give away, when all I wanted to do was keep you."
Hutch stopped. Then he sighed, and spared a glance that fell in Starsky's general direction. "I suppose you know all that, even like it in a way, belonging to someone, or as you and I like to say, with someone."
"Is this," asked Starsky, "where I'm supposed to tell you that this isn't anything new."
"Now would be a pretty good time," replied Hutch, almost smiling.
"It's not, you know," said Starsky, low. "Telling me you love me is enough, Hutch, you don't have to keep finding new ways."
"But sometimes," Hutch said, as he had before, "what I want to do is show you . . . like lovers do."
Lovers? thought Starsky, wondering why he wasn't more amazed.
"Knowing you is not enough, being with you is not enough." Hutch took a deep breath. "Sometimes when I see you, all I want to do is crawl inside of you, inside your skin, become a part of you. And loving you, making love to you, keeps forcing its way into the picture."
As if given permission by the fact that Starsky had not, as yet, laughed in his face, Hutch continued, still addressing parts of himself and Starsky that could not possibly be called upon to reply.
"It's not sex," he told Starsky's calf, seriously, "not like I picture it anyway, you know, like with Becky, that stewardess from Pasadena . . . "
"I remember," said Starsky, picturing the state of shambles his apartment would always be in after a visit from Becky.
"It's more like when being with someone is enough and sex only adds to it, like a spice."
"Like icing," Starsky added.
"You sound like you understand." This was aimed at Starsky's midsection.
"Well, I do and I don't, Hutch."
At long last, Hutch looked at him fully, his blue eyes round, soft-edged, head ducked slightly as if waiting for clues to tell him which way to leap.
"I understand it," Starsky went on, "because I know how sex can sometimes become secondary when you're with someone you love. Sex is just play, and the real love," here he paused to put a thumb to his own chest, "the real love is in here."
Again the slow gaze, the expectation that Starsky would understand him without words. Starsky tapped his chest again with his thumb. "Here is where you are, Hutch."
Hutch ducked his head again, and Starsky could see the long jaw working.
"What I don't understand," he continued softly, "is how this arises out of your saying that I was your date." He leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees, so that he could look up into Hutch's face, even though the other was curled over.
Hutch brought his hands to his face, and Starsky scooted over and reached up to pull them away. Hutch let him.
"Just go slow, Hutch, I'll wait."
"P-part of the love that I feel, that knowing and being known—d-damnit, this is so hard to say aloud—"
"It's only me, babe," said Starsky.
"That knowing and being known sort of crosses some line, and I can't go back, not that I'll ever know when I stepped over in the first place."
Starsky was only a little confused. "What line is that?"
"You know how when you work with a lady cop, or even with the women in the office, the two of you decide, by mutual and unspoken consent, from the very beginning that this is not a sexual relationship?"
"It doesn't matter if she's married or not married, ugly or pretty, whatever. It's an agreement. Unspoken, and yet . . . yet there is the tension, that the possibility for sex is there."
"Working with other guys, with Dobey, whoever, and especially with you, there never was that sexual tension. Even from Blaine I never felt it, because sex never entered our conversation."
"This," added Starsky dryly, "is also not new."
"This tension," Hutch continued sitting up, frowning, "is still not there, not between you and I . . . anyway, it's not tension, it's more like a pulling instead of pushing and pulling, like tension, you see?"
A pulling. "I've felt a pull sometimes," said Starsky, frowning, "like a magnet." He almost found himself embarrassed at this, but caught Hutch nodding.
"And then," Hutch went on, "I feel like I want to pull you over that line, the one working partners are never supposed to cross. At the same time . . . " Hutch's hands went to his knees again, sliding the palms along the fabric. "At the same time, though I know I can pull you over, I can't make you want it. I don't want to make you want it. I especially don't want you to want it in the normal way, the way even I think of it most times, but in this other way." Hutch stopped and lifted a thumb to his chest. "To express what's in here, like you said, where the real love is."
"Not having sex, you mean," said Starsky, "but making love."
Hutch took this for permission, but he did not, most certainly did not, want to take what Starsky did not want to give. He reached up his left hand and brought it to the other man's cheek. His movements were almost jerky, his arm felt so stiff, and the side of Starsky's face was rough. In spite of all that, Starsky's eyes slid closed for a second as if that touch were the softest he'd ever known. Then his eyes opened and he reached out, and with the tips of his fingers, pushed away the hair from Hutch's eyes.
Both of their touches dropped away suddenly, and they sat for a moment on the couch, staring at each other. Hutch noted that Starsky was breathing overly hard for a man who was simply sitting, that he had managed to place most of his body on the couch, and had not relaxed a single muscle. How to begin? Where does one first touch a man with passion, when one has touched that man all over in friendship? He eyed his partner, noting the crook of one knee brought up against the back cushions of the couch, the inside seam of his blue jeans straining with the pull of the leg.
Very tight jeans. Very, very tight.
He wanted suddenly to ask, how do you run in those, they're practically painted on, but remembered that it might be the same as with a woman, for whom one doesn't break a romantic, passionate mood with a intended-to-be-funny comment about how long it must take her to get so much makeup on. Hutch simply reached out and laid his large-palmed hand almost casually on the lower inside of Starsky's thigh. Starsky twitched but did not move away. Did not brush Hutch's hand away as if it were an irritant. In fact, he was watching it quite closely, as if it were some unknown object whose actions neither one of them could predict.
Hutch slid his hand slowly upward towards Starsky, his thumb pressing along the seam itself. Found Starsky's leg warm and taut beneath his fingers, and the awkwardness floating away. He leaned in to kiss Starsky's mouth.
As Hutch leaned in to make the kiss more of a reality, hips and legs moving in to slide along Starsky's, he realized how warm Starsky was all over. How much he smelled like Ivory soap, how pliable his skin seemed the cotton shirt, how his legs almost matched the length of the couch as the two of them unfolded to use up all of it.
"Can you, can you put your head there?" Hutch asked, whispering, smiling into Starsky's wiry hair as the other eased his head into the hollow between Hutch's shoulder and his neck. A sudden urgency was fighting with the restraints of caution, an urgency that was licking little fires up the back of his arms, his legs, tightening his stomach, and anywhere else it could think of. He used his arm, now tucked beneath Starsky's waist to pull the other man into him, and his free hand yanked at what seemed to be yards of cloth from Starsky's waistband. He unbuttoned the buttons as fast as he could, so much more awkward since they were on the side opposite from where they usually were, and laid his hand on Starsky's chest. It was springy with rough, curly hair, and Hutch drew his hand back, astonishment dropping his jaw.
Starsky, smiling a little, placed his hand on the back of Hutch's and pulled it close to lay it on his dark chest once again. Hutch watched, fascinated, as Starsky tipped back his head and sighed.
All of it seemed suddenly a tad bizarre, and Hutch looked down at himself to realize where he was. Half undressed with his best friend, about to reach for the parts of Starsky which would pleasure him the most, to kiss that mouth which suddenly seemed so much more delicious than it ever had, shaking with the wanting of it. One hand absently stroked the muscles of Starsky's ribs, the other, curled around his head, had entangled itself it that dark, forever tousled hair.
This was his reward. This was his gift for betraying the person he loved most in this world. Even if had all been a deception to entertain Bright's twisted sense of justice, the fact remained that Hutch thought he had surrendered that one person from whom he now had no right to expect any love at all. And yet, there lay Starsky. Eyes half closed, watching him in that very still way that he had, almost expressionless, except if you looked very closely. Very closely to see that dark light of the man inside, to whom much was serious and important, so important that it had to be hidden by the facade of the clown, the boy-child.
Hutch realized he was shaking.
Wordlessly, Starsky reached up to touch Hutch's lips with one finger. "Don't go backwards, Hutch, 'kay? Kiss me some more."
Hutch got the sudden, quirky impression that Starsky had watched him, forever it seemed, kissing so many women and had, perhaps, wondered from time to time what he was doing that made their knees buckle so. What kept them coming back, even thought he went through them like pocket handkerchiefs, and had a dozen waiting in line.
"You never seem to be at ease with any of them," said Starsky, thoughtfully, his hand moving down to trace the bone of Hutch's jaw.
"You a mind reader now," asked Hutch in perfectly normal tones, as if they were simply sitting there, instead of wrapped in each other's arms.
"I know you like I know me," replied Starsky simply.
Never at ease, Starsky had said, and Hutch knew it was true. You never knew when a woman was going to get pissed off and turn on you. Never knew when that the special thing you had done only yesterday which drove her crazy with passion, would today make her crazy with anger. Up and down like some damn roller coaster, and you always had to have one eye on the track and one on her, just to make sure you didn't fall out when she decided to jump. But Starsky wasn't like that. You never had to think about yourself when you were with Starsky, you could just be. Like being on a carousel, going round and round, up and down, and let yourself float away on the music.
His hand was still stroking Starsky's side when Hutch focused on his friend's face again. "I'm going to . . . I want . . . here, sit up like this."
As Starsky moved up the couch, Hutch moved down, one hand around his waist, the other undoing the tight jeans with long fingers.
"You're kidding," said Starsky, voice rising.
From the ear that was almost next to Starsky's chest, Hutch could hear the low, rising groan. There was almost an air of disbelief in the following silence as Hutch worked the zipper and slipped his hand into the warmth between Starsky's legs.
"You don't have to."
Hutch spared a moment to press the side of his head against Starsky's stomach. "But I want to. It'll be like being inside of you."
It was different, seeing it done from this angle. Usually he watched as the woman pushed the hardening sex towards her mouth. Smiled as she flung her hair out of the way, and caught her sparkling eyes just before she lowered her lips around the rosy head. Now it was him, his large white hand gently urging upward the flesh between Starsky's legs, trailing his fingertips in the curling pubic hair. Now it was his eyes that caught Starsky's and he smiled, feeling wicked in his enjoyment of the shock on Starsky's face. It was a pleasured shock, as if Starsky were receiving something unexpected that he never thought he wanted, never thought about wanting, but found, suddenly, that he wanted very much.
Starsky's sex was just about to the point of hardness, still soft and dry. Hutch moved his cheek along his length as he'd had one woman do to him, and then moistened its base with his tongue, as he'd had another woman do. He did this over and over until the other's penis seemed hard enough, as Starsky had described the sensation, to drive spikes with. Then he lifted himself on one arm and descended, until the entire hardness was encased in his mouth.
Pulling away suddenly from the moistness, he checked Starsky's expression. His partner's eyes were closed solid, and Hutch remembered his friend remarking that, at this point in any sexual encounter, his whole world became a single mouth. A point at which any mouth would do.
Not this time, babe.
He gently yanked Starsky's jeans halfway down his legs, pausing to plant a gentle kiss on the fading bruise, and ran his hot hands on Starsky's hips. Starsky was blinking as if surprised, and Hutch reached up to pull the other's shirt away from his shoulders. He planted his hand in the middle of the furry chest.
"I don't want you forgetting that it's me."
"No way," Starsky groaned softly. "No fuckin' way."
Hutch positioned himself so he could clasp the back of Starsky's damp neck with one hand, and control his sex with the other. Most women couldn't do that kind of reach for long, he knew, so he knew it would be something new for his partner. He allowed Starsky's dark head to fall against the arm of the couch, as he knelt on the floor beside the other's hips.
"Pillow?" asked Starsky suddenly.
This stopped him short. "What?'
"Pillow?" asked his friend again. "Pillow?"
"You want a pillow?" Hutch was confused.
Something soft was tossed against his head, and Hutch smiled as he pushed it beneath his knees. Trust Starsky, in the middle of everything, to think of his partner instead of himself. He leaned in, clasping the dark head with both hands, and kissed the already parted lips.
"Can you be selfish?" Hutch whispered there.
"Maybe," came the almost inaudible answer.
"Tell me what you want."
There was a pause as the bare chest lifted with a double jerk, and the dark head pulled slightly away. Starsky seemed to be wiping away a sudden sweat from his forehead on the cloth of the couch. Hutch eased his flat hand between his partner's face and the couch. They both knew that Hutch would do whatever Starsky wanted, and Starsky was as hesitant as if this were his heart's desire.
"I want you to . . . I want you to suck me off. Swallow everything. No towels."
The blue eyes darkened in his direction, lashes and mouth solemn, and Hutch hid the thought that it wasn't very much to ask.
"Then I'll really be inside you," said Starsky.
Starsky was already all around him, in every facet of his life, his dust in Hutch's pores, his breath in Hutch's lungs. Arms surrounding him every minute of the day, and there was never even a fraction of a second where Hutch did not feel the force of his attention. This then, would be next in the joining, the merging of who they were, belonging to each other, and becoming of each other. Hutch smiled, his mouth barely moving.
He lowered his head once more, his one hand on the back of Starsky's neck once again, the other between his legs. Furled his tongue around the ridge of flesh, soaking in the heat with his lips. It was easy to build up a rhythm, his head moving up and down the length, his hand stroking wherever it landed, a rhythm built on love. Easy to know when to grip harder on the base of Starsky's cock, easy to read the moans in Starsky's chest that had not even freed themselves and back off just enough to keep his partner on the edge.
Starsky tasted just on the near end of salty, clean enough to be sweet, and the fluid that was easing itself forth something else altogether, something hot and essentially himself.
"I'm going to suck you dry," whispered Hutch. "I'm going to suck you till you can't come anymore."
His partner stiffened slightly, eyes slowly shutting with the pleasure of anticipation. Face glowing with a sheen of sweat.
Hutch began to move again, move his mouth and lips along Starsky's length, tonguing the stiffened veins, both hands together now, pushing and drawing away the hardness. It was an unrelenting rhythm. And Starsky with him, hips rising and falling with Hutch's hands, his own hands fists that gripped at nothing, and searched the open air. Starsky's whole body was sweat now, and Hutch ran one hand briskly along the other's chest, knowing the cool air would add to the whirlwind, and paused to wipe his own forehead and take that sweat and add it to his friend's. The couch began to squeak beneath them.
Starsky was on the verge. Hutch's eyes flicked up to catch the white teeth in a grimace, and, never pausing in his own motion, reached up to cup the back of Starsky's neck again. Its dampness there echoed the dampness of mouth and the flesh beneath his other hand. He could feel it, could feel the pulse of Starsky's release coming closer like a rushing hurricane. Stopped his mouth for one second, and then began to suck very hard.
The cords on Starsky's neck stood up like iron bars, and his whole body stiffened as if frozen. Then, shattered from within, a cry from his throat leaped out, tattered, as if restrained by a thousand hands.
Let go, Hutch thought, let it go.
The pumping of Starsky's cock began almost immediately, and Hutch continued to suck. Suck and swallow; Starsky the fountain spilling and he the ground beneath.
It wasn't the lack of breath, Hutch knew, but something else. Will you swallow, Starsky was asking, will you take all that I am?
All that and more, my friend.
He opened his throat even more, pushing the pulsing of Starsky's sex further back, swallowing by reflex now. And not only desire, but friendship and love made him keep the liquid swallowed, made him keep it down where his throat wanted to say, too much, it's too much, too fast. So much, it was a rock hard jet at the back of his throat, a force to put out fires. Or ignite them.
Hutch continued sucking, continued nursing at it until Starsky's hardness began fade into gentleness, and he felt Starsky's soft hands on his hair.
"Oh, stop, oh, god, stop," eased the voice from Starsky's lips, his whole body trembling, "I'm dissolving. Oh, man."
Hutch wiped his mouth gingerly on the back of his hand, and, his lips still moist with Starsky's fluid, placed a kiss on one streaming hip.
"We're going to have to hose this place down," whispered Hutch as he eased himself along Starsky's length. He folded Starsky in his arms, and Starsky buried himself in Hutch's shoulder, shaking, his legs moving restlessly against Hutch's longer ones. His partner's dark hair was matted with sweat, and it softly ran down the sides of his face. Pretty soon he would feel cooler to the touch, but right now he was a bonfire.
"Nobody," said Starsky, his voice pale with wonder, "nobody, I mean, all of it Hutch, Jeezus."
"You're in me," returned Hutch contentedly, using the tail end of someone's shirt to wipe his face, "in me, through me, running in my veins."
He put his arm back around Starsky as the dark head lifted. Then came that smile, the ear-to-ear Cheshire Cat grin, those white teeth shining against the sweat.
"You're next, blondie, so get ready."
Hutch smiled in return, then pretended to frown. "You were about to pass out a second ago."
"I recover fast, babe."
As Hutch's head fell back to rest against the arm of the couch, he allowed his frown to fade away peacefully. Allowed the heat to fade into a glow, and realized that he didn't even need to tell Starsky that he needed 10 minutes of shut eye before he would be ready for anything else. Didn't need to tell Starsky to rest his head against his shoulder so that Hutch could pull him closer. But maybe, he thought as he faded into sleep, he should tell Starsky later what a pleasure it was to have Starsky's body relaxing against his. To have Starsky dropping off into sleep in two seconds flat and to have his own self-awareness shutting down a half-second later.
The courtroom was crowded, and in that late September and the maintenance, who couldn't figure out if it was too late for the air conditioners or too early for heat, had done the easiest thing and left them both off and all the windows closed. Hutch was beginning to feel he was in a sauna, or a fully dressed suit-and-tie straight jacket. Standing room only, and though he and Starsky had been key players in Bright's prosecution, they had been shuffled backwards by the media blitz, and the strong line of men in blue who let the cameras forward so far and no farther. The recent six months of trial, though light-speed fast by legal standards, had seemed interminably slow, and Hutch was glad to see the end of it all. Whatever the outcome.
Bright, in his wooden chair at the defendants table, looked unaffected by the heat, though Hutch could only, and for a few seconds at a time, see the back of his head, it was cocked at its usual jaunty angle. He remarked that though the dark, curly head of his partner standing in front of him was cocked at the same angle, he was close enough to see the sweat marks on the shirt collar. What a difference proximity could make.
It was expected that in minutes, the jury would be finished, the judge would come out and sentence would be passed. Hutch had little doubt as to the outcome of the trial, and had continued to tell himself, over the course of the past days, that he was unworried. Starsky, however, had not been able to remain as calm and had paced holes in his sneakers and drunk enough root beer to drown a camel.
"Do we hafta be there, Hutch, do we hafta?"
That was his "take care of me" voice, and Hutch had looked at him, shaking a scolding finger. "It's important, Starsky," he said, trying to remember why.
The chamber doors opened and the jury filed out to sit in their two rows. Then the bailiff came out and announced that all should rise, completely unnecessary since everybody was on their feet anyway, and the judge floated out in his black robes.
He must be boiling, thought Hutch.
The legalities of the date and time were read out and Hutch found himself staring at the back of Starsky's head. Thinking of the past six months not of the sex they'd been having, at least not sex in the way he'd always defined it before, but of the love they'd been making. It had been in the new way, with touches and kisses, and strokes, and closeness. They could barely count a handful of orgasms between the two of them, all of them complete accidents. Of course, those had been outrageously good, but it was nice that they hadn't been everything. In fact, nothing had been said of them at all, unless he counted Starsky's grunted, "I'll have to remember how I did that," only the day before yesterday.
Now the judge was reading out the date and time and in this county of and city of Los Angeles . . . and Hutch found his heart tightening and his hands moving into fists. It suddenly became very important that Bright got the book thrown at him. He'd been only pretending, he realized, when he'd been telling himself and acting like he didn't care. Drug trafficking, kidnapping, assault on an officer. He did care. Cared a lot.
In front of him, he saw Starsky's dark head move to one side, and the jean-clad knees waver from their stiff, straight lines.
"Starsk?" he whispered, putting his mouth next to Starsky's ear.
"-tch," came the reply.
Starsky had been standing too still for too long, knees locked in that hot room. His face was the color of paper. Hutch, unclenching his fists, moved the single step forward and pushed his hand under Starsky's dark blue jacket to lay it gently on his hip.
"Got you," he said softly. "You wanna get out of here?"
The other nodded, and no one, as all eyes were straining towards the front, paid them any attention.
"Let's go," murmured Hutch turning, pulling Starsky with him. "Excuse me, excuse me."
Various persons, not too many as they were already at the back of the room, let them pass. No one looked at them directly, only lifted their gazes beyond them in the other direction.
Hutch opened the huge wooden doors as quietly as he could, and walked Starsky over to a bench by a water fountain. He set him down and briefly searched his pockets for a handkerchief or even a scrap of napkin. Nothing. He pulled off his tie and wet it thoroughly in the stream of water, waiting for what felt like forever for it to run cold. Finally he decided that not that cold was probably better, and carried the dripping tie across the linoleum.
Starsky's head lolled backwards against the wall.
"What's the verdict?" he asked.
Hutch wiped his friend's face with the thick end of the tie, running it over Starsky's mouth and neck. "I didn't hear," he replied.
Starsky licked his lips. "How could you not hear? It's all I can hear, just above the ringing in my ears."
Hutch paused for a second and then ran the thin end of the tie along Starsky's nose. "What's it saying?" He really did need to know.
Starsky smiled. "Guilty," he said. "Guilty and sentenced for 100 years, no less than 75."
For a second, Hutch couldn't believe it. But Starsky wouldn't lie, not about that. Hutch slumped back on his heels and faded to the cool floor, one thigh down, the hand with the wet tie in it curled around the other propped up knee. The tie was cool through his pant leg and he felt Starsky's arm around his shoulders, the hand pulling along the side of his neck. He allowed it to until his head was resting completely against Starsky's thigh. Felt the soft kiss of lips through his hair.
"There ya go, Hutch. I love you."