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Never Let Go

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Consciousness was supposed to be a smooth, continuous stream, interrupted only by sleep or the occasional bonk on the head. That was how Starsky had always thought of it—at least until he was kidnapped by Simon Marcus' little gang of devils. The drugs they forced on him, the concussion, the beatings, and the lack of water or sleep had fragmented his memories of those two days, chopping them into bits and pieces that, later, he would be slow in fishing from his mind.

For weeks afterward while recovering, he would be surprised by the flashing return of some image from that time—a grizzly bear rearing up in his face, or a torch swinging at him from the dark, or the mumbled chanting of a pack of crazies circling him ominously before moving at him.

The memories surfaced in his nightmares too, where he was less able to deal with them. Embarrassed about needing it, he left the light on in his bathroom the first few nights.

Dobey made him take a few days off, and Hutch hovered, calling in from work and stopping by afterward. He kept his gun on during his visits, although Starsky wasn't sure if it was out of a real concern one of Simon's followers would try something new, or if Hutch just knew Starsky would find the sight reassuring since his was tucked away in Dobey's desk drawer.

Hutch's right hand was splinted up—he'd sunk two of his knuckles during the fight—and he bitched about how weird it was having his gun strapped to his right side. Starsky enjoyed the bitching. Everything had to be all right if Hutch was being cranky. But there were still bits and pieces floating around in Starsky's head, and he couldn't splice them together into anything that made sense.

It made him feel cold and uneasy.

He could've asked Hutch to stay over, of course, but that would've been too humiliating. So every night after dinner and some TV time, Hutch would rise with a farewell smile and head out, and Starsky would be left with his dreams and an annoying sense he'd forgotten something important.

The department psychologist told him not to worry, that his memories would return in full when his brain was prepared to deal with them. Starsky wasn't sure when that would be. He still couldn't remember what had happened at the very end of it, just that Gail had been in white, her eyes a feral green that glittered with light reflected from the end of a long blade.

Then Hutch was there. That part Starsky did remember, the swing of his long arms with hammers at the ends of them, pounding down the black robes. And Starsky remembered being on his back holding a cleaver at arm's distance, and the weight of the man on top of him, and his stink—a sweaty, animal stink.

"Taco for your thoughts?" Hutch dangled the overstuffed treat in front of him, and Starsky reached for it automatically.

Hutch pulled it away.

"Come on," Starsky said, his mood bouncing up a little at the mischief in Hutch's eyes.

"Nuh-uh." Hutch made as if to take a bite, and Starsky raised his hands in surrender.

"Okay. You got a deal."

Hutch raised an eyebrow. The mischief was gone, and a serious expression settled over his face as he handed over the taco. "It's still bugging you, isn't it?"

Starsky took the taco and dropped it onto his plate, going for another long swig of his beer instead. "I still can't remember everything that happened," he said. "All I've got are pieces of it. Looking up from washing my hands to see three of them coming out of the stalls behind me. A bear, I mean a real live bear, so close...but none of the other cops mentioned a bear, did they?"

Hutch shook his head. "Maybe when those goons heard us coming they set it free?"

Aw, Hutch. Always looking out for him, always trying so damned hard. A fragment of memory hovered just out of reach, but as soon as Starsky groped for it, it ran away.

"What?" Hutch put his good hand on Starsky's knee under the table.

Starsky shook his head. "Nothing. It's gone." He picked up his taco and took a bite. There was another sign of Hutch trying too hard—bringing him Mexican food. Later, they'd play some Monopoly. Hutch would probably even let him win. A perfect evening, actually. Life was good. But Starsky still felt lost, like he was standing on a broken sheet of ice with ocean coming up between the cracks. What was the name of that cartoon penguin? The one whose tears turned to ice cubes that clinked down? Starsky felt like him. He felt like crying, for Pete's sake. For no reason at all.

"Hey, hey." Hutch slid closer and touched his shoulder. Starsky took a deep breath, his stomach shaking. When he thought he had it all under control, he lifted his head.

"Dunno what's wrong with me," he said in apology.

"Yeah, like getting kidnapped, drugged up, and tortured by Satanists is just a walk in the park? I always knew you were a wimp."

"Takes one to know one." It was easy to joke, with Hutch's eyes warming up the place. And his soft laugh. Hutch never was a big one for yucking it up. He always laughed like he was afraid the teacher was watching.

"You can talk to me about it, can't you? Your buddy?" Hutch's expression had turned coaxing.

Starsky shrugged and avoided Hutch's eye as he took a sip from his beer. "Not much to talk about, is there? It's done. I'm back." Defensiveness made his voice abrupt, and he saw Hutch frown a little.

But Starsky couldn't help remembering how quickly Hutch had bounced back from his own kidnapping. After the last effects of his withdrawal had passed, Hutch had put it behind him, treating the whole thing like a page he had already turned. At first, a little skeptical, Starsky had waited for the inevitable fallout. But Hutch had never mentioned it again. Like it never happened.

So Hutch had some balls trying to get him to open up about what he was feeling, Starsky decided. He stiffened, resolving to put off any further good-intentioned probing.

But then Hutch bowed his head. "God, Starsk, I still can't believe you're sitting in front of me. I just didn't think we'd be able to find you in time." His voice dropped even lower. "And I didn't know how I was gonna live with that."

No fair getting soapy on me. Starsky's hand loosened its grip on the bottle. He couldn't speak.

Hutch looked up briefly. "The whole time I kept thinking, 'What are they doing to him now?' And every time I talked to Marcus, it made it worse, because I could feel the evil coming off him, and I knew he was too smart for me." Hutch's voice broke. "I knew he would win. And I would lose you."

"Hutch." Starsky's eyes smarted and he rubbed at them distractedly, trying to push away the lump of feeling gathering in his chest. But then Hutch's hand squeezed his knee again, and he moved closer, resting the splinted fingers over Starsky's shoulder.

Starsky found himself leaning forward, further and further, until his forehead rested against the round muscle of Hutch's shoulder, his neck caught tight in the crook of Hutch's elbow. He smelled sunlight in Hutch's shirt, and Hutch's clean scent underneath, so familiar. Starsky stayed there for a little while, a vague memory of a moment in the monkey cage teasing at the edge of his mind. He let himself follow it away from his fear, but he couldn't quite reach the full memory. He took a deep breath, letting it all go, and pushed away. He couldn't look at Hutch—he felt a little too ashamed—but Hutch just patted his shoulder awkwardly.

"Hey, how about a game of Monopoly?" Hutch asked, his voice light.

"Sounds just about perfect," Starsky responded, glad to find his own voice under control. He stood, leaving the remains of his taco at the table, and pulled the tattered box from the bookshelf to set it down on the kitchen floor. Hutch grabbed a couple more beers and joined him on the cold linoleum.

"How come we're sitting on the floor?" Hutch grumbled.

"That way, if we get too drunk we won't fall out of our chairs."

"Oh." Hutch looked at him, eyes a little too innocent. "We getting drunk tonight?"

"I think we're already halfway there." It was true. He was on his fourth—which explained the waterworks—and Hutch on his third.

"All right then." Hutch toasted him with a grin, and Starsky made himself to smirk back before opening the game. The pieces were scattered in the box, the money all mixed up with the Chance and Community Chest cards, so it took them a while to sort everything out. Hutch meticulously returned each denomination of bill to its individual slot, in ascending order, while Starsky looked on, a little amused.

"Hey, Hutch, you know how Huggy is always talking about parallel dimensions and stuff?"

"Yeah?" Hutch was still focused on sorting the bills, his motions awkward because of the splints.

"Well, you think on the other side of the time warp the other you is a banker or something?"

"A what?" Hutch looked up, then reached for his beer and took a sip, his splinted fingers poking out. "What are you talking about?"

"Or maybe you're an accountant," Starsky said, warming up to the idea. "What with the way you are with numbers and receipts and keeping the Book and stuff."

"Starsky, I'm not an accountant."

"Well, sure, you're not. But maybe the parallel Hutch—"

"Parallel Hutch?" He made a disgusted sound and leaned back against the cabinet.

"—maybe he puts on a suit every day, goes to work downtown, and crunches numbers. Then he has tuna salad on toast and back to the numbers, numbers, numbers..." Starsky could almost see it—Hutch's blond head bent over a counting machine; he'd be wearing a shiny blue suit and pointy black shoes.

"And what are you doing while I'm a boring old accountant?" Hutch folded his arms. "You couldn't be one. The company would lose millions."

Starsky gave him a glare for the crack. "Maybe other-me is a football player. Or a fireman."

"I see. You get all the fun jobs."

"Fun? Running into a burning building?" Actually, that did sound kind of fun.

"See?" Hutch said, still sounding resentful. He drank the rest of his beer and lifted a long arm to set it on the counter above and behind him. "You realize this means you'd have to have another partner. Firemen do the buddy thing when they go in."

"Another partner?" The image made Starsky's brain lock up a little. "That wouldn't work then."

Hutch's eyes crinkled and a tiny smile tugged up the corner of his mouth. "It wouldn't, huh?"

"Nope. I think even in the parallel dimension we'd still be partners somehow."

Hutch smiled again, but didn't say anything. Instead, he reached down and picked up the little pewter car, handing the piece to Starsky. Starsky took it, the brush of Hutch's fingers making him feel a crazy warmth that stayed with him all through the quiet game.

Sure enough, Hutch let him win.

ooOoo

That night, Starsky didn't dream about the Old Zoo. Instead, he dreamed he and Hutch were firemen. He'd lost Hutch in the dense smoke and was groping forward blindly, his eyes stinging, when there was a creak and a crash and something hot and heavy fell on him, pinning him to the floor. The beam was burning, and so were the sleeves of his jacket, though his skin didn't feel it. Still, he was terrified, and struggled to move, but his body wasn't listening.

Then Hutch was there. He swore and heaved at the beam but couldn't lift it. Starsky called out his name and Hutch leaned close, looking strange in the brown jacket with soot all over his face. He pushed off his helmet and lowered his mouth close to Starsky's ear to say something, but Starsky couldn't understand it. It was in some old-sounding language. Somehow, Starsky knew it was Hebrew, and he wished he'd paid more attention in Hebrew school.

Hutch kept whispering, and his cheek moved against Starsky's. Starsky pressed closer, and suddenly the beam was gone, and Hutch pulled him up, holding him tight.

Starsky woke up, his heart pounding, and rubbed his arms, almost expecting to find them burned. Rolling out of bed, he stumbled over to the bathroom, trying to keep quiet since Hutch was crashed out on the couch.

Not wanting to wake up fully, Starsky kept the light off while he took a quick piss. Maybe if he was fast enough he could go back to sleep and slip back into the dream. He wanted to know what Hutch had been saying. It felt like somehow it was the key to what had happened to him at the zoo.

He tried to sneak quietly back to his room, but just as he was getting into bed he heard Hutch say foggily, "Everything okay?"

"Yeah. Go back to sleep, Blondie."

A soft snore was Hutch's response.

ooOoo

"How does it feel?" Starsky said, eyeing Hutch's splint-free hand before starting up the Torino.

Hutch squeezed his fingers into a fist a couple of times then shot him a grin. "Good as new."

"Yeah, huh? Well, next time stick to hitting the soft spots."

Hutch leaned over and tapped Starsky's forehead. "Like this one?"

Starsky pushed his hand away with a grunt. "Says you."

"How about you? You ready to hit the streets?"

"Am I ever." The department psychologist had cleared him the day before, even though there were still some gaps in Starsky's memory. He figured the higher ups had been putting some pressure on, and that was just fine with him. He'd rather be out on the streets any time.

Hutch flipped open his notebook. "Dobey suggested we talk to the Vice guys in the North Hollywood precinct about our John Doe—the one who looked like a hustler. I brought the picture." He slung his arm along the seat back, his fingers brushing the shoulder of Starsky's windbreaker.

Starsky gunned the Torino toward Hollywood. On the ride over, he was conscious of Hutch's fingers hovering near his shoulder. It seemed like ever since the zoo, Hutch had been sticking close by—closer even than usual. Touching close. Part of him wanted to be a little pissed that Hutch seemed to think he couldn't take care of himself. But an even bigger part was glad Hutch cared so damned much.

"Hoo-boy—would you look at that?" Starsky said as they cruised up to the precinct house. The building was impressively modern and imposing, with a huge steel-and-glass awning looming over the entrance.

"Maybe it's time we put in for a transfer," Hutch said as Starsky squeaked up to the curb.

Starsky laughed. "We should do it just to see Dobey's face." He climbed out and started up the steps, and Hutch matched him stride for stride.

In Vice, they got shuttled from one detective to another until they found the right guy, a Detective Glowers. Won't be hard to remember this guy's name, Starsky thought. Glowers' thick, beetled brows were heavily salted with white, matching his hair.

"What can I do you fer?" he asked them in a gruff voice.

"We're trying to identify a John Doe," Hutch said, handing over the photo. "Detectives Starsky," Hutch gestured, "and Hutchinson, from B.C.P.D."

"Starsky?" Glowers leaned forward and stared at him. Starsky found him even more daunting close up. "You're that guy!" Glowers snapped his fingers. "The one got nabbed by those sickos—"

"Yeah, that's me—Mr. Popular," Starsky said, hiding his unease.

"The photo, Detective?" Hutch said, putting a shoulder between Starsky and the other man. "You recognize this guy?"

Glowers took the photograph and peered at it for a moment. "Sure, that's Baby Joe. I think his last name is Little. Joe Little. Hustler, small-time, hangs out on the Strip."

"Not anymore," Hutch said, taking back the photo.

"I guess not," Glowers agreed. His attention shifted back to Starsky. "Yeah, they called in a whole crew of us to go out to the Old Zoo when they found you. I saw him, too," Glowers nodded at Hutch. "Man, he was wired tighter than a piano. I remember thinking it would take a crow bar to pry him away from you so the paramedics could take a look."

Starsky didn't like the funny tone to the guy's voice. "That's what partners are for. Good partners, that is." He sensed Hutch's sudden tension and gave him a clap on the arm. "And Hutch is one of the best."

Hutch eased up. "What, only one of the best? Who's the best?"

"You're lookin' at him." Starsky got a swipe to the shoulder for that one before Hutch turned back to Glowers.

"You know any of Little's friends or johns?"

"Sure. He got bailed out a couple of times by the guy who owns the hotel he lives in. Lived in. The Vine Lodge near Hollywood Boulevard."

Hutch had pulled his notebook to scribble it down, even though Starsky knew he had a perfect memory for addresses. He wondered if Hutch was trying to look 'by the book' for this guy, who obviously had a stick up his ass.

Starsky moved to the side to address Glowers directly. "Anything else you can give us on Little?"

"Not much. Kid was a roller-skater, did the disco thing down by the beach. You know—that whole scene."

"Okay. Thanks for your time." Starsky gave Hutch's elbow a tap and started to turn away.

"How long did they have you, anyway?"

Glowers' interest made Starsky's skin crawl. "They tell me it was a couple of days," he replied reluctantly.

"You don't know? What did they do to you?" And it was back, that weird tone, a little mocking, a little too knowing. Starsky could feel a sudden crackle of electricity coming off Hutch next to him, and he reacted instinctively to defuse it.

"Oh, mostly we just sat around playing Parcheesi." Starsky leaned one hand on Glowers' desk and gave him a sardonic smile. "You play Parcheesi, Glowers?"

Glowers face went stupidly blank, and Starsky suppressed a laugh.

"Thanks again for your help." This time, Starsky turned and walked away without waiting, trusting Hutch to tag along. After a moment's pause, Starsky heard his partner's steps behind him.

Hutch was too quiet as they walked back to the car. Starsky waited until they were in the Torino and heading toward Vine before saying, "Boy, what a creep, huh?"

"Yeah," Hutch responded slowly.

"He seemed a little too interested in the Marcus thing."

"And in us." The words were heavy in the air between them, and Starsky took a second to try to figure out just what Hutch was trying to say. It wasn't often that he needed to even think about it. But this time he couldn't get a read.

"You think he thinks we're...." Starsky couldn't quite say it.

"A couple," Hutch said, putting nicer words to it than Starsky would have picked.

"So? Wouldn't be the first time a fellow cop has thought something like that."

"But it's the first time someone's implied it to our faces. Maybe because he's from another precinct." Hutch had turned to look at him, and Starsky tried to catch his expression out of the corner of his eye.

"And that bugs you?" Say it doesn't. Starsky wasn't sure where the thought came from, but suddenly it was the most important thing in the world that Hutch wouldn't want to change anything about them. Even if everyone and his mother thought they were screwing each other cross-eyed each night after end of shift.

There was a long pause, and Starsky started to think Hutch wasn't going to answer. But then Hutch finally spoke, his voice so serious that Starsky felt a shiver of alertness raise the hair on his arms.

"No. I guess it doesn't. Even if we were together that way, it wouldn't make us any less of who we are. In fact..." Hutch's head turned and he looked out the side window, his voice dropping. "I think it takes real guts to love whoever you want. No matter what everyone else tells you or thinks about it."

Starsky tried to push down the nervousness in his stomach. But it rose higher, grabbing his throat, and he pulled to the side of the road, breathing heavily as another bit of memory floated up, and he saw the black robe and the scarred face of his tormentor, Luke.

"Starsk?" Hutch sounded alarmed.

"Luke said it," Starsky babbled, caught in the grip of the memory. "He said Simon chose me because of his dream: my blond lover would come and find me dead. That was the power Simon was after—the power of destruction." The words came out of his mouth in rush, and he turned to look at Hutch.

Hutch's face was pale, his lips a thin line. He swallowed, his throat jumping. "They took you away from me," he said hoarsely, as if he were trying to explain something. "But I got you back."

Hutch's hoarse words set loose the final memory. That moment after the fight when Hutch had held him so hard, telling him it was over. And then he'd whispered in Starsky's ear, and now Starsky could understand, though Hutch had spoken too quietly, almost as if he didn't want Starsky to hear—as if the words were too precious for even Starsky to be allowed to hear them.

"I got you back. I got you back, and I'll never let you go."

"I remember now," Starsky said softly. It changed everything. Or maybe nothing at all. He took a deep breath and stared over at Hutch.

But Hutch had looked away, his jaw muscle twitching. After a moment he said, "That's good. The shrink told you it would all come back eventually." He raised his hand and rubbed the back of his neck. "You need to take a break? Or should we follow up on Little's hotel?"

Okay, maybe I'm wrong. Oddly relieved, Starsky flicked on the blinker and pulled into traffic, his heart settling down into a slower beat. "Let's follow up while we're here." To his surprise, his voice sounded completely normal. He smiled. "Be nice to solve this right under Glowers' nose."

Hutch didn't respond, but Starsky caught his quiet sigh.

Nothing. Or maybe everything.

Starsky just wasn't sure which one got his vote.

ooOoo

"Vine Lodge Hotel, a vacation paradise," Starsky said, looking at the run-down building with disgust. It looked like the last time it had had a paint job was in the '40s. Decades of grime coated the moldings above the door and windows.

Hutch grunted and got out of the car, then closed the door quietly. "Push or shove?"

"Take it away," Starsky said, feeling agreeable. He saw Hutch give a toothy grin.

The front desk had an old-style switchboard, with cables and plugs. The guy behind the counter was broad and pale and sported a greasy comb-over. He lifted his head with a weary look as they approached.

"Detectives Starsky," Hutch pointed with his thumb, "and Hutchinson." He flashed his badge. "Are you the owner of this establishment?"

"Nah. That would be Mr. Noah. He's back there in the office." The clerk waved his hand at a half-open door just as Starsky heard a loud, clattering thump coming from behind it. Hutch's eyebrows went up and he moved fast around the desk, drawing his piece as he went.

"Mr. Noah?" Hutch tapped his gun muzzle on the door. "This is the police."

"I've got the back," Starsky murmured and he hustled out the front and around the side of the building, a sudden burst of adrenaline giving him speed. The slot between the buildings was narrow, and he dodged a couple of trashcans, knocking the lid off one, making it rattle to the ground behind him. He heard a muffled shout and then the sound he dreaded most: gunfire, and it wasn't the familiar rip of Hutch's Python.

Starsky was nearing the end of the building at full speed when someone rounded the corner directly in front of him. He collided full on with the tall, heavyset man, and reacted quickly, letting momentum carry him on top of the guy so he could flatten him to the ground. He elbowed the loose gun away and had one forearm hooked under the man's thick jaw before he could recover from the impact.

"Police," Starsky panted out the obvious. "You are under arrest." He pressed hard with his arm, watching with satisfaction as the guy's eyes bulged.

Starsky wasted no time flipping the perp over and cuffing him, all the while trying hard not to think about why Hutch hadn't shown up yet—that Hutch was probably down—that he might be shot.

That Hutch could be dead.

Hauling the man to his feet, Starsky pushed him forward and up the back stairs, reaching around him to pull the door open. His mind was shocked blank, in that hovering space between knowing and not knowing. He wanted to stay there forever if he could. At the same time, he felt like he was trying to run through wet cement, locked in a nightmare, his feet slogging forward while fear tore at his guts.

He had to know.

The answer was slumped against the wall behind a filing cabinet. Blood, stemming from a matted wound on Hutch's head, glistened down the side of his face and throat. But Hutch's chest was moving, Starsky saw with dizzying relief, and his heart gave a hard warning thump as he staggered a little, then pushed Noah roughly to the floor and onto his belly.

"Stay right there." Starsky was torn between wanting to run to Hutch and the need to call for assistance. After a brief mental struggle, he grabbed up the phone, the heavy black receiver the same old-style as the equipment at the front desk. A shaky voice answered him—the clerk.

"Ye-sss?"

"Patch me through to the operator. Now."

Once he had an ambulance and backup on the way, Starsky spared one glance for the perp, who was still lying on his stomach, hands cuffed behind him. Then Starsky stumbled over to Hutch.

Not-dead-not-dead. Starsky had known that much from the slow breathing and the lazy flow of blood, but was hardly reassured, since Hutch had shown no signs of stirring. At first, Starsky was afraid to touch him, and his hand hovered over Hutch's face before cupping it gently. He was relieved beyond belief to feel the warmth under his palm and to hear Hutch emit a tiny groan.

"I'm here, buddy," Starsky said. He probed carefully at the tangle of bloody blond hair and felt a rush of gratitude when he saw the shallow signature of the wound. Grabbing the edge of his t-shirt, he ripped off a strip to press it against the deepest point. Hutch made a protesting sound and tried to pull away from the pressure. Starsky braced him with his other hand and pressed even harder.

Hutch's eyes fluttered open. They were rolling crazily.

"Hey, it's okay. It's okay," Starsky said softly. He slumped down beside his partner and tilted Hutch's head against his shoulder, keeping the pad pressed to the wound. He could feel the warmth of Hutch's blood soaking through the cloth to meet his fingertips.

"Starsk?" Hutch sounded confused. He struggled a little in Starsky's grip.

"I'm here, partner." Starsky pressed his cheek against the top of Hutch's head. "It's gonna be okay. I've got you, Hutch."

He felt Hutch relax, his weight resting trustingly against him.

Starsky thought maybe his heart would break. "You know what, Hutch? I think I know what you meant," he whispered. "Don't ever wanna let you go."

But he had to, of course, once the medics showed up. They lifted Hutch onto a gurney and wheeled him out, and Starsky had to stay behind until a couple of uniforms arrived to secure the scene. Then he handed over Noah and hopped into the Torino, arriving at the hospital just as Hutch was getting out of X-ray.

The doc wasn't happy with the films and told Starsky they'd have to keep Hutch for observation. Starsky wasn't happy with the doc, who wouldn't let him in to see Hutch until they had finished stitching him up and had him in a private room.

But finally it was just the two of them, in a setting too familiar from just a few weeks before. Only this time it was Starsky staring down at Hutch's hand resting on the white blankets. Starsky wanted to touch it, had a strange urge to brush his finger down the pale hairs that feathered the edge. But he didn't want to disturb Hutch, who was bound to have a splitting headache once he woke up.

Instead, Starsky sat back and finally let himself think about the sudden shock of revelation he'd had while holding Hutch in his arms.

All his life Starsky had struggled with the occasional urge he'd been told wasn't acceptable. He'd always felt different, and had worked on both his macho image and his reputation for landing women to protect himself. Guys, he didn't get close to.

He always figured Hutch didn't count. Hutch was his partner, wasn't he? Partners were supposed to be close.

Starsky recognized it now—what he was feeling. The memories he'd run from had caught up with him finally, and he wasn't afraid anymore. Luke had told him Simon wanted to destroy what was between the two of them—that the more powerful the connection, the more power Simon would gain from its destruction. Starsky remembered what he'd really felt, deep down, hearing the taunting words—his fierce pride that they were that powerful a force. And how desperately he'd wished Hutch were there in that moment so Starsky could touch him. Make the connection physical. Make it even more powerful.

He wasn't really sure what lay beyond that. But he thought maybe he wanted to find out, with Hutch.

If Starsky could convince him.

ooOoo

Hutch woke up for him for a little while, and the doctor stopped in to check Hutch out. The doc seemed pleased and gave Starsky a few encouraging words. Hutch couldn't seem to stay awake, always drifting in and out again, so Starsky stepped out to grab a cup of coffee. In the hallway, he ran into Dobey, who had come by to look in on Hutch and take Starsky's statement personally. It was unprecedented and a kindness that made Starsky smile secretly while Dobey blustered at him about hotdogging it and private parties and leaving the scene.

Starsky just nodded and said, "Yes, sir," and jiggled his foot, worried that Hutch would wake up and think he'd been left alone.

After extracting the briefest accounting from him, Dobey waved him back into the room, following behind and saying he had to check to see his detective was okay. Starsky wasn't fooled by the gruffness and was smiling as he pushed open the door.

Hutch was awake.

"Hey!" Starsky moved quickly to the bed and then stopped, conscious of Dobey behind him. "Welcome back to the world."

"Good to...be back," Hutch said, his voice husky with sleep. "Thought maybe you hadn't stuck around."

"Don't be stupid," Starsky said roughly.

"You look like hell," Dobey said, his voice equally rough. He came up to the bed to stand next to Starsky. "You mind telling me how you ended up getting shot?"

"I don't remember...wait." Hutch rubbed his head. "He had a gun in his pocket," he said, closing his eyes. "Didn't even have time to tell him to show me his hands. He started out shooting."

"Well." Dobey cleared his throat, an awkward sound. "You rest up. I want you back at your post ASAP."

"Yes, sir," Hutch said meekly. Starsky had to turn his shoulder to hide his grin.

"You, too, Starsky," Dobey said, a little louder, a little meaner. "But maybe you can take a day to...take care of things."

"Yes, sir!" Starsky said gratefully.

Dobey frowned at him and left.

Starsky let his grin loose, turning it on Hutch, who was regarding him thoughtfully. The frown creased through his swollen eyebrow, making Starsky wince.

"Easy, there. You need to throw up? What's the matter?"

Hutch blinked. "Nothing. I dreamed—nothing."

"Nothing, huh?" Starsky toed the plastic chair closer to the bed and sat down. He put his hand on top of Hutch's, noting Hutch's start of surprise. "Is this okay?" He squeezed Hutch's hand.

"Okay?" Hutch's one eye widened, though the other still drooped. "Yeah, I guess—no. What the hell are you up to?"

"Up to?"

"Or is it bad news? Did the doc say something about my head?"

"No, nothing like that." Starsky thought fast. "Can't a guy just show he's glad you didn't check out on him?"

"Oh." But Hutch's brow was still crinkled with suspicion.

It was clear Starsky was going to have to approach him from his blind side. "You scared me, you know?" Starsky gave his most earnest look and was glad to see Hutch's expression ease.

"Sorry about that. He got the drop on me." Hutch shrugged. "All's well that ends well, right?"

"Right." But Starsky didn't let go of Hutch's hand; in fact, he turned it for a more comfortable, relaxed grip. Hutch gave him a funny look but didn't pull away.

After a moment, Hutch said, his voice low, "I remember now what happened. I thought it was all over. I heard the shot, felt it like an explosion..."

Starsky swallowed hard, remembering the scene all over again.

"Then I woke up with my head hurting. It was wet." Hutch smiled crookedly. "I was sure it was my brains leaking out. I was...scared."

The confession was a surprise. Starsky wondered how much of it had to do with the grip he still had on Hutch's hand. He squeezed gently, encouraging Hutch to keep going.

"Then you were saying something to me, and somehow I knew it was going to be okay. I knew I wasn't going to—" Hutch cut himself off and gave him a grateful look. "Well, thanks, Starsk."

"No problem." There was something wrong with Starsky's voice.

"Funny, with all those times we've been shot at, I never really believed I could get hit." Hutch ducked his head and touched the bandage with his free hand, looking embarrassed. "Stupid, huh?"

"Not stupid. That's the way we gotta look at it, Hutch. Anyway, this should do you for a couple of years. You get the next one hundred slugs free and clear."

Hutch gave him a bashful smile, and his tone lightened. "Thanks for taking the bastard down."

"It was nothing." Starsky gave his cockiest grin. "He only outweighed me by forty pounds or so. Piece of cake."

"Braggart." Hutch took his hand away.

Starsky felt a small stab at the loss, but the timing turned out to be good, because just then the door opened on a knock, and a nurse entered carrying a tray.

"Suppertime!" she said brightly. Hutch took a look at the food and gave a groan, but she ignored him and bustled around, putting the tray on a rolling table and pulling it over the bed. "Now you eat up, you hear?"

"Yes, ma'am," Hutch said, his tone anything but agreeable.

After she'd gone, Starsky lifted the cover from the main dish. "Mmm, chicken and gravy."

"Please." Hutch waved his hand, his expression pure revulsion. "Be my guest."

Starsky picked up a fork and took a bite. The chicken was salty and tough, but he was starving, so he dug in.

"But, Starsk—?"

Starsky looked up. Hutch gave him a pitiful look.

"—can I have my pudding?"

ooOoo

Starsky's strategy was a simple one. The best plans always were, whether they involved breaking out of an airtight room or rescuing hostages in a Laundromat.

In this case, rather than stripping down right away, he planned to go a slightly subtler route, but the plan itself was still straightforward. He wanted to get close, to touch Hutch. But Starsky wouldn't do anything he hadn't done before. He just planned on doing a lot more of it. That way he could get closer without raising Hutch's alarm bells. Knowing Hutch, he probably had some tripwires and maybe a guard dog or two, and Starsky didn't want him running.

He wanted him nice and relaxed.

After a couple of days of bed rest Hutch was back at his desk, his bruises fading. He couldn't go on active duty until his stitches were out, but they had a backlog of old cases to review and prep for court, so they were both busy enough.

The wrinkle in Hutch's forehead told Starsky his head was still bothering him, and Starsky caught him rubbing his left hand and arm a couple of times. In the hospital, Hutch had complained to the doctor of some numbness and tingling. The fact Hutch wasn't quite a hundred percent gave Starsky the excuse to hang closer than usual.

He didn't change his habits too much; didn't touch Hutch any differently. He just started touching him more often, using any opportunity. And Starsky was surprised to discover how often he wanted to reach out—it made him realize how much he'd been holding back before. But now he gave himself permission to go for it.

The other surprising discovery was how Hutch responded. If he was like sunshine before, now he was a supernova. And even when something was eating his goat, some stupid piece of bureaucracy or a new example of human stupidity, his occasional bad mood seemed to dissolve like cotton candy into a sweet smile, just from the casual touch of Starsky's hand on his elbow or a clap on the back.

And sometimes he would shoot this shy grin at Starsky for no reason at all, even though Starsky wasn't touching him. It took Starsky a long time to pin it down, but he finally did, one Saturday afternoon outside of Pepitos, over nachos and a couple of ice-cold beers.

Hutch said, "You've got some salsa on your lip."

Starsky curled his tongue over, trying to capture it, and Hutch said, "The other side, Gordo." And when Starsky caught it with a "Thanks," Hutch gave him a grin, that shy one, his face dipping down as if he didn't want to Starsky to see it.

With a shock that bolted through his gut and straight up to his throat, Starsky recognized it for what it was—Hutch's personal brand of flirting.

Hutch was flirting. With him.

The funny thing was, Starsky was pretty sure Hutch wasn't even aware he was doing it. It took every bit of Starsky's undercover chops to act like he hadn't seen it. Like it was just another day, another chip with salsa, another chug on a dark beer with the Bay City sky glowing blue overhead.

But inside, excitement was making his heart dance the electric boogaloo.

"You ready to go? We gotta pick up my car, Starsk."

Starsky groaned on cue. The LTD had been languishing in Merle's lot for over a month, with Hutch grumping about it on an almost daily basis because the Earl was having trouble finding some part he needed. Starsky had listened patiently, giving Hutch an occasional pat to lift him out of his funk. For some reason, the blintz really did care about his heap of junk.

Privately, Starsky believed the real reason for the delay was sheer orneriness on Merle's part. He probably thought working on Hutch's car was beneath his dignity, and so kept dropping it to the bottom of the list. But it was ready at last, and Starsky drove Hutch over to the Earl's to pick it up.

Starsky should have known right away that something had gone wrong. The LTD was parked in a corner by the garbage with a big black cover thrown over it. Pulling it off revealed that Merle had taken some liberties with Hutch's upholstery.

Some serious liberties—fake fur and fuzzy dice were involved. Before he knew it, Starsky found himself standing on top of the LTD, trying to protect Merle from his incensed partner. Hutch had blown three gaskets and was leaking spit, and he looked like he was ready to do violence to the both of them.

Starsky managed to convince Hutch not to kill Merle outright, but it was a close thing.

This was the point where normally Starsky would ditch his partner and leave him to stew in his own juices for a while. They'd planned to go to the park for some basketball after picking up the car, and with Hutch's mood the way it was, Starsky considered just going alone. But that little smile Hutch had given him at lunch tipped the scale, and instead, Starsky convinced Hutch to leave the LTD with Merle and let Starsky drive them to the courts.

"He'll fix it, Hutch," Starsky said, trying to console him. "Just think—in a parallel universe the LTD is all fixed up just like new already."

Hutch didn't seem amused. "I'll give Merle two days. And then I'm gonna go over there and see if I can remodel his interior. With a crow bar."

Not even a squeeze to the shoulder lifted Hutch from his foul mood, and Starsky was thinking about canning the basketball game, but then Hutch sighed and gave him an apologetic shrug.

His mood improved even further on the basketball court, and soon they were playing a fast and furious one-on-one. They were well matched on the court as they were in everything, so the score was tight. Starsky took the ball out after making a bucket to tie the score, and was about to try a spin-fake-out-lay-up when he felt a tap on his arm.

"Excuse me, can you help me with my ball?" A pretty young thing was staring up at him with a crooked smile. Her eyes were a vivid green in her pert, heart-shaped face. "I can't seem to get the needle in."

Starsky told Hutch to take five and accepted the deflated ball and the pump the girl offered, walking with her over to the picnic bench. "You have to wet it first," he explained, sticking the needle between his lips before sliding it into air hole. She held the ball steady for him while he pumped it up.

Hutch was standing off at center court acting kind of pissed off and uncomfortable. But when Starsky looked at him directly, Hutch's expression smoothed over and he went back to shooting free throws.

"Thanks," the girl said softly a moment later. "My kids would've been really disappointed if we couldn't play." She waved her hand over her shoulder, and Starsky looked to see a small group of kids milling about on the other side of the court, all of them looking a little bit off. Special kids, he thought.

"Here you go," he said finally, pulling the needle. "All set."

She took the pump back and held it up, tapping the needle against her lips in a gentle come-on. Usually he'd be leaping at such perfect bait, but he found he wasn't interested, and before she could take it further, Starsky nodded coolly and backed away.

"Have fun," he said, eager to get back to his game with Hutch.

"Pretty lady," Hutch commented as he jogged back, a question in his voice. He tossed Starsky their ball.

Starsky shrugged. "C'mon. You and me've got a tie to break." He grinned and then dribbled twice before bouncing the ball neatly between Hutch's long legs, making him curse and come chasing after him.

And if there was a little relief mixed in with Hutch's laughter, Starsky could maybe admit it made him feel good to hear it.

ooOoo

After the game, Starsky was high on the day and charged up from all the close contact on the court, his body humming happily with energy he couldn't quite hold in, so he gave Hutch a playful shove through the door when they got back to his apartment. Hutch stumbled and threw him an amused grin, and Starsky laughed.

He decided to push the odds. "You know, I think you should reconsider the leopard skin interior, Hutch," he said, baring his teeth. "I mean, some blond fur would go great with all that blond fur of yours—"

With a mock growl, Hutch spun and caught him around the waist, laying him down on the floor with a tricky move. Starsky was panting a little with laughter, but he managed to turn in Hutch's grasp before he could apply one of his college wrestling holds. Starsky hooked one leg around Hutch's thigh and used it as leverage to roll on top of him, pinning him underneath so he could smirk down into Hutch's face.

I've got you now.

But Hutch's smile faded, his expression going blank, and between two heartbeats, time seemed to slow down. Starsky saw awareness flood Hutch's face at the same moment Starsky felt a growing bulge pressing against his leg. A big, warm bulge.

"Get off me," Hutch said quickly, sounding panicked, his eyes darting away. "Let me up!"

"Nope." Starsky's chest hurt, but he couldn't tell if he was breathing too fast or not at all.

"I'm not kidding!" Hutch struggled to free himself, and Starsky pressed down with his forearms, pinning Hutch's shoulders. "Let me go, Starsky."

"Never. I've got you, Hutch, and I'll never—"

The words broke out soft and rough, and they seemed to distract Hutch from his panicked struggle. He stared up at Starsky, his eyes widening.

Starsky rested his palm on Hutch's cheek, which had darkened with a flush. Hutch's skin was hot under his hand, and he let his fingertips caress Hutch's cheekbone.

"What's the hell's gotten into you?" Hutch said, sounding breathless.

"Aw, Hutch. You gonna tell me you don't know?"

Hutch blinked rapidly. He stared up for a long time, and Starsky could see the thoughts shuffling rapid-fire behind his clear eyes, could practically hear the whir as that sharp mind stepped quickly through the same sequence Starsky had worked out over the previous weeks.

Starsky waited anxiously, watching the frantic pulse throbbing in Hutch's throat.

Then Hutch gave Starsky a wavering smile and answered unsteadily, "No, I...maybe I do. But Starsk—"

"I know." Starsky dropped his hand, relief flooding him.

"It could...this could be...this is nuts."

"Uh-huh." Starsky kept his tone easy, but inside a bubble was rising in his throat, threatening to turn his voice into helium.

"I mean nuts." Hutch's hands were restless, brushing against Starsky's elbows, and Starsky eased backward to capture them.

"You always say that when it's something you want."

Hutch looked startled, and he blinked slowly. "Do I?"

"Yeah, Hutch. You do."

"I guess I...I must really want it, then." Hutch smiled again, this time a luminous smile. It drew Starsky like a magnet, or like the sun's gravity. He went with it, until he was just close enough to feel the heat rising from Hutch's lips to meet his own. He saw Hutch's eyes widen, and then Hutch raised his head up that final inch so they could kiss.

It only lasted a few seconds or so, but the warm, soft cling of Hutch's lips against his own was enough to send Starsky's heart back into beating double-time. He raised his head in an almost panic. His chest was resting against Hutch's, and he could feel Hutch's ribcage rising and falling rapidly. Apparently, Hutch was as freaked as he was.

Because it had been good. So good, like a kiss before dying. Was he dying? His brain went dizzy, and Starsky's arms started giving out, so he lowered himself until he was lying completely on top of Hutch. After a while, he realized Hutch had wrapped his arms around him and was squeezing him hard. He was whispering Starsky's name in his ear, as if trying to bring him back from somewhere far away.

"Yeah?" Starsky raised his head, still feeling dizzy.

"You weigh a ton, you know that?" Hutch smiled up at him.

"Sorry," Starsky said automatically, trying to push himself up. But Hutch arms were still tight around him. "Let me go," Starsky grumbled.

"Never."

That made him look again, and Hutch was still grinning at him, but something in his eyes made Starsky's breath hitch a little in his throat. He leaned down again, ready for it this time, the dizziness that hit him when Hutch's lips opened against his and he kissed him, soft and wet and deep, his tongue storming Starsky's mouth.

Starsky realized he was grinding his hips downward, rubbing his cock against the seam of Hutch's jeans and the matching hardness beneath it. Hutch groaned approvingly, his fingers digging into Starsky's ass.

They rocked together, and Starsky could swear this was hotter than anything he'd ever felt—just the two of them, humping against each other, cock against cock.

Only a few more strokes, Starsky thought, and maybe another one of those deep kisses that made him insane. He pushed hard, feeling the bunched material rubbing him in just the right spot, and he came in his pants, nearly biting Hutch's tongue in his sudden spasm. Pleasure jetted through his groin and heated his face while he continued to thrust automatically, coming harder than he could remember.

Eventually, when he thought the spaghetti that stood for his arms would serve to hold him up, he raised himself, too embarrassed to look into Hutch's face. But Hutch reached up and brushed his chin, forcing him to meet his eyes.

"You okay?" Hutch's eyes blazed blue.

"Oh, man." Starsky grimaced and reached down to pull his jeans away from his sticky underpants, adjusting himself in the process. He was suddenly burning with embarrassment at having come all over his best friend, and he rolled away from Hutch to get to his feet. "Gotta hit the can," he said shakily. "Be right back."

The clean up didn't take too long, but Starsky stood for a long moment leaning over the sink, the cold, wet spot in his crotch a reminder that his universe had just shifted right off its axis. He was almost afraid to go out and face Hutch, even though Hutch had been there with him in the moment, seeming to want it just as badly.

And he was still waiting out there. Starsky had never abandoned a lover before, always tending to her needs first before taking care of his own. Only, Hutch wasn't his lover. Was he?

He is, if he wants to be. The thought popped up and calmed him. This was what he'd wanted, after all. It was just harder than he'd thought it would be, letting Hutch see him that way. Seeing Hutch that way, as someone who could bring him off like that.

But it had been good, so good. And they were barely even started.

Starsky washed his hands quickly and stepped back outside of the bathroom. He found Hutch not in the living room, but in the kitchen throwing some paper towels into the garbage. As Starsky walked in, Hutch jerked up, a guilty expression on his face.

Starsky knew in an instant what had happened. A quick glance at Hutch's jeans confirmed it. He imagined Hutch furtively jerking off out here while he was in the bathroom, and suddenly all of Starsky's embarrassment evaporated in a flash of resentment.

"You finished without me?" he burst out angrily.

Hutch's face went as red as a beet. "I...I—"

"That's a helluva thing. You make me come in my pants and then you—"

Hutch broke in, irritation in his voice. "Hey, you left me high and dry!"

The outraged tone was so familiar that Starsky had to laugh. He couldn't help it. Hutch looked offended for all of about two seconds before his face split in a sheepish grin.

Starsky moved closer, the magnet pull working its magic, until he could put his hands out and grasp Hutch's forearms. Hutch shuffled one step closer.

"I didn't want you to have to deal with it," Hutch confessed, his voice low. "Truth is, I don't know what—"

"Me neither," Starsky admitted. "I don't have a clue. Except—"

"Except?" Some of the blond hair had curled forward from Hutch's temple and was trapped in his eyelashes. Starsky suppressed an urge to untangle it.

"I thought we were getting a pretty good handle on the kissing part."

Hutch laughed softly. "Yeah, we were doing okay, weren't we?"

"Not that I wouldn't mind a little more practice." But he was embarrassed again as soon as the flirting words left his mouth, and Hutch's eyes flickered at him.

Except, then Hutch smiled, one of the shy ones, his face dropping again. And Starsky knew it was all right. Hutch would never leave him hanging. He proved it a moment later by leaning over to kiss Starsky on the cheek, his big hand holding the side of Starsky's head to keep him captive. Then Hutch wandered down to his mouth and kissed him there, the same long, wet, slow kind of kiss that had made Starsky's jeans so uncomfortable in the first place.

The reminder had him pulling back. "Don't wanna get too worked up again," he said in explanation.

"Oh," Hutch said. He looked startled. He obviously didn't understand the power of his own lips. Starsky thought maybe it was better that way, otherwise the blintz would get a swelled head. Starsky let his hands drop and took a half step back.

Hutch gave him a concerned glance that was so familiar, a look that asked him what now, partner? And suddenly Starsky wished he could slide right through Huggy's time warp to that other place, the one where he could just grab Hutch and tear his clothes off and touch him as if he had the right to, the dimension where Hutch could feel free to say the things Starsky could see lurking in the shadows of his eyes.

On the other hand, maybe those other two guys had it even worse off. Maybe they hadn't even made it this far, and were still chasing skirts and pretending the connection wasn't there just waiting for them. But here on this side, now that Starsky had had taste of Hutch, he didn't plan to be giving it up any time soon. Maybe they'd have to fumble their way through, but he knew they could get there.

Hutch was still looking down at him, now with a strange smile on his face.

"What're you thinkin'?"

Hutch shook his head without taking his eyes off Starsky.

"Come on, give."

"Not sure I can say the words, Starsk."

"No?" Starsky shrugged elaborately. "Well, guess I'll say good night then." He turned, hiding a grin when Hutch fumbled a grip on his arm before pulling him around again. Starsky raised his eyebrows.

Hutch's eyes moved, a quick flick down and away, before returning to his face. "I was just thinking...this'll make a hell of an entry in my journal tonight."

It surprised a burst of laughter out of Starsky. "Dear Diary, Hutch passed me a note today in gym class—" he said when he could get the words out.

Hutch gave him an exasperated shake. "Dear Diary," he said mock seriously, and then his voice softened. "I kissed Starsky today. I kissed my partner."

Starsky stopped laughing.

Hutch's grip tightened on his arm. "I want to...I want to do it again. I don't ever want to stop. I want to be the one he...." The pale skin went pink again.

Starsky met Hutch's eyes. "The one he...?"

Hutch swallowed. "The one he needs."

The grip on Starsky's arm was suddenly welcome, because he found himself going a little dizzy again. Love. It pinches the damned capillaries.

Starsky forced himself to respond. "You already are, Hutch. Haven't you figured that out yet?"

Hutch exhaled quickly, a ragged sound. And then he bent to kiss Starsky again. Their lips moved easily together, like they were meant to. Starsky felt Hutch's arms circle around him, locking in, and he clutched back just as fiercely.

Not letting go.

 

.....................................

January 12, 2007
San Francisco, CA