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Small Rituals

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A cop knew too many moments like this; I was running as fast as I could, convinced that I'd be too late, but still running because what else could I do? That was Starsky there, just up the grassy slope, with his hands tied above his head. I could see his lips move. Was he begging, cajoling, trying to fast-talk his way out of trouble with people who never listened to anything except Marcus's snake-hiss in their heads? I didn't know, because he was too far away, and Marcus's goons were chanting, and my breath was a roar in my ears.

The woman lunged forward with her knife, and I would have screamed except that I needed all my breath to push me forward; too late, I was too late, and then I nearly stumbled in relief when I saw that Starsky's hands were free, that he could fight for those last long seconds that I needed to get there to help him. The hand holding the meat cleaver - it was just a hand and a tool, not a person at all, and I knew that I broke that hand as I smashed it against the bars of that derelict zoo cage. I wanted to smash them all, grind them into bloody bits, and I was emptily surprised when there were no more men left standing to fight. The uniform guys were following fast up that slope, and Starsky was collapsed on the ground, shaking all over, with that girl huddled in his lap.

I knelt down and his hands latched onto the lapels of my jacket, dragging me down closer, so that his hair brushed my cheek, and the stink of his terror was the only thing I could smell. I don't know which one of us was holding on tighter as he shook and even cried, while I kept my hands on him and resisted the urge to kick the girl aside like a rabid dog.

The patrol men cuffed Marcus's men, and one of them approached us, and put a hand on the girl's arm. She flinched and wailed, and Starsky lifted his head and placed his hand on her back. "Hey. Take it easy on her," he told the guy. "I wouldn't still be here if it wasn't for her. Her name's Gail."

He didn't mean it like blame. It was a fact that I would have been too late if she'd done what she was supposed to, but it sliced something in my chest anyway. The patrolman, an older guy, made some soothing, fatherly noises and the girl, Gail, looked up, and then stared at Starsky, like a puppy that knew it was in trouble.

"It's okay, honey. It's over. Go on," he encouraged. She stood, her face nearly as white as her blouse and skirt, freeing Starsky to stand as well.

"Hey, buddy," I said. "How bad is it?"

He smiled at me. "I'll live. Give me a hand, will ya?"

I stood, and he took my hand and leveraged himself to his feet, not without wincing. I could take in his condition more clearly now. He was bruised, and there was a blistered burn mark on his face, too close to his right eye. His wrists were raw.

I could hear the wail of an ambulance siren in the distance. "Think you can walk down to the road?"

"Piece of cake," he says, but his arm was caught around my waist. I put my own arms around him, supporting him, and caught my hand in the material of the dark robe they'd put on him.

"I see you took time out for a fashion show."

He shuddered with laughter. "Yeah, this is what all the best dressed sacrifices wear this season." Just like that, I wanted it off him. I wanted Marcus's filthy rags off his body and away from his skin, but that would have left him cold, and he was already surrendering to shock. We stumbled down the hill, and the paramedics looked him over, and took him to Mercy.

I drove Starsky back to his apartment before sunset. It was important to me that he was back in his own home by dark, his own place where he could come and go whenever he wanted, not like Simon Marcus, who was going to rot in jail and in the slime of his own corruption for the rest of his life. Dobey had brought a change of clothes for Starsky, and taken the robe away for evidence, and Starsk crossed the threshold of his own home on his own two feet and headed straight for his kitchen.

"That had better be root beer," I warned him, when I saw the bottle in his hand. They'd dosed him up with some strong painkiller, and given him antibiotics, because they were worried about that burn so close to his eye.

"And what if it ain't?" he said, and poured it carefully into a glass. "Want one?"


"It's one beer, Mother Hen. One beer after a bad day." He lifted the glass, and inhaled for a moment before he took one, slow appreciative sip. Watching his throat move as he swallowed? Mesmerising. All these things that he could do: wear jeans, drink a beer in his kitchen, tell me to stop fussing over him. All those things had been seconds away from never happening. No more David Starsky; just a piece of butchered, bloody meat under the morning sun.

"Guess I will have one," I said. He reached for another glass, and I put my hand on his wrist. "Go and sit down, moron. I know where everything is. And don't come whining to me if the alcohol interacts with all the other crap in your system right now."

He flicked his hand up, dismissing the possibility, and walked out of the kitchen, while I poured out my beer with a hand that shook. It wasn't like we'd never drunk straight out of a bottle, but tonight, glasses were important. It was our own small ritual, nothing like gouging an upside down cross on your forehead and sitting on your heels and staring at the darkness inside.

He'd turned on the lamps instead of the bright overhead lights when I came out.

"Is your eye bothering you?" I asked.

"Nah. This is just more homely. What do you think? Pizza? Since we were both too busy to cook tonight."

"I'd cook. If I thought there was anything worth cooking in that culinary desert you call a kitchen."

Starsky smiled then, tired, and sweet. "Yeah, I know you would. But pizza it is."

Pizza it was, although it tasted of nothing and felt like rubber between my teeth.

"What did you leave out of your statement?"

He looked up from his food, and rolled his eyes. "And why would you assume that there's anything left out?" He sipped at his second beer.

"Because I know you. And because I know Simon Marcus." And because I could still hear Marcus's people in my head, chanting their leader's name, making it all about the filth that they rolled in. Si-mon, Si-mon, Si-mone, Si-men. Semen.


"Don't you lie to me, Starsk. Not any way, not omission, nothing. No lying!" I didn't shout. Not quite.

He bowed his head, turned it away from me. "They didn't lay a hand on me, not that way. But...." He lifted his glass, and most of the beer disappeared down his throat. "You know what they are. Gail, in her white clothes. The blood, my blood, was going to make the outside match the inside. It was like a joke, they saw her as the dirty one. I was the," he swallowed, "the pure, acceptable sacrifice. But when they first chucked me down in that hole in the ground... They were chanting, walking around me in a circle, I couldn't see anything because I was blindfolded. And then I felt something on me, and at first I thought they were pissing on me. Stupid, it doesn't feel like that at all, but I couldn't believe it at first, ya know? Some things, your head doesn't take it all in at first."

I was strangled by red fury. How I'd fought Marcus's people? There weren't enough broken hands in the world.

He laughed. I couldn't believe it. "It's kind of funny when you think about it. All those guys with their skirts hitched up like grannies paddling at Coney Island beach."

"No! No, it's not funny at all." I crossed the space between us and I yanked him to his feet with hands clamped over his biceps. I wanted to shake him, the way that my mother shook me the time I was nearly run over. "Why the hell didn't you put that in your statement?"

"Because I didn't want to," he ground out from the back of his throat. "Hell, Hutch. They gave me a bath."

I was shocked speechless. I love the man, but understand him? Not as much as I want to, and this was one of those times. I struggled for words. "Are you crazy? What the..."

"It doesn't matter. They kidnapped a cop, and they tried to kill him, and they got caught red-handed. If they spend a hundred years in jail instead of a hundred and fifty, it's the same difference." His voice was gentle, like I was the one kidnapped and abused and defiled; and then I realised how hard my hands were digging into his arms, and I let go.

"I hope they spend a hundred and fifty years in hell," I told him.

"You and me both," he said, and dropped down again, like his legs couldn't carry him any more. "Get me another beer, will you?"


"Hutch," he whined.

"Just go to bed. You should sleep." I grabbed his hand and hauled him to his feet.

He leaned into me. "Sleep, huh? I don't know if I can." I knew that feeling, wondering what nightmares were waiting to ambush you.

"You have to try eventually, and another beer won't change that, buddy. How about you go brush your teeth and go lie down?" I steered him towards the bathroom, like he was a grumpy child, and I stood over him, watching his back while he brushed his teeth, and spat and rinsed several times, before he stared at his face in the mirror, and skimmed his fingers across the reddened, blistered skin.

"They said it shouldn't scar," I reminded him.

He looked into my eyes via the reflection of the mirror. "Yeah, I know." He fiddled with the items on the sink top, arranged his toothbrush just so, tightened the lid on the toothpaste. "You remember Wilkes?"

I remembered Wilkes. He'd taken a deep knife wound to the spine on the streets. The punk who took him out had been carrying a damn machete and was high as a kite. "I remember."

"You remember how he came to Jerry Martin's retirement party in his chair, and you got drunk that night and nearly fell down the stairs?"

"Vaguely," I replied, which was a lie. I remembered most of that evening pretty clearly, and I wondered why he wanted to rehash something that humiliating.

"You told me that was your particular nightmare. Your room 101. Being stuck in a wheelchair."

"Yeah. I remember." I remembered that I'd been too close to maudlin tears, and I remembered Starsky's hand in my jacket saving me from pitching headfirst down the stairwell. I felt too close to maudlin tears now.

"Being blind... When that creep stuck that torch in my face like that..." He shrugged, his face rueful and apologetic in the mirror, like he was sorry for being such a wimp.

"Oh hell, Starsk." I folded my arms around him, because he was one of the bravest men I knew, and I hated that he felt like a coward, when it was Marcus's creep, baiting an unarmed man, who was the coward.

He stood quietly for a while, and generously pretended that I was the one offering comfort. "Better let go, Hutch. This ain't getting me to my little bed, here." He sounded steadier, and I let him go, and watched him go to his closet, and pull out a pillow and a blanket. "You're staying?"

"You know how I love your couch." No way was I leaving him alone that night.

"Catch," he said, and threw the pillow and the blanket my way, and I caught them well enough and made up a rough bed. The glasses and the remnants of the pizza I took out to the kitchen. "Hey," Starsky called from his bedroom. "Is it okay with you if we leave the one light on out there. Just that lamp in the corner?"

"Sure," I told him. "We wouldn't want me to get lost on my way to the bathroom."

He grinned then, typical Starsky mischief, but he left his door open. I watched as he stripped off, tracked the bruises that I knew were there, and measured how easily he moved. He wore just his briefs as he climbed into bed, and I lay down on the couch and tried to sleep.

It took me a while. Starsky's couch is long enough for me but it's not that wide, and I was hyper-alert. Maybe if I'd been more alert at the court house... if Starsky had been, too... if the cops on security had been on the ball. If Simon Marcus and his followers weren't crazy and evil.... What ifs got you nowhere, especially not to sleep.

Starsky's shouts woke me. I was on my feet in an instant, the hairs on my neck rising, when I realised that he was having a nightmare. I didn't have to grab for my weapon. Instead I charged into his room, not waiting even to flick a light switch.

"Starsky!" I thought he was half awake at first, because he was nearly sitting upright and kicking at the bedding, but then I realised it was more like a night-terror than a nightmare. His eyes were wide open, enough that I could nearly see the whites in the dim light, but he didn't know me. He made another incoherent noise and flailed with both his hands and his feet. It had been a bad day, a really shitty day washed down with meds and booze and I guess I'd been expecting this. "Starsk!" I grabbed at his shoulders, and he yelled again, but he was too confused to really have a chance of hurting me. That was good, because he throws a mean punch, but he's strong, and I was half wrestling with him and he still wasn't with it. "Goddammit, Starsky! Wake up! It's just a dream!"

I was straddled across him before he finally stopped fighting me. He sighed heavily, like he didn't even have the strength for breathing anymore.

"Hutch?" It sounded like a kid's voice.

"It's okay," I said softly, letting go of my grip on his wrists. "It's okay."

He had a hard-on. Sometimes when you're scared, you wish that your dick could retreat all the way inside you just like your balls. And other times, it seems that the only half-way sane response is to grab the nearest warm body and just fuck it all out of your system.

The half-way sane response here would have been to get off my partner, my friend, my buddy, and either let him deal with his 'problem', or let him ignore it and drop back into sleep. That young, confused voice - that was a sound that had clawed its way out of confusion and nightmare. Leaving him be would have been the halfway sane response, except that Starsky grabbed my shoulders and hauled me close with the same desperation that he'd dragged at my jacket lapels at the old zoo. We wrestled briefly, and then I was at least off him and alongside him instead. He was on his side, and I rubbed a hand across his back - comfort was what I meant, nothing more - but he whimpered.

I didn't even know why I did it, just that it seemed the most natural, sane move possible - the only thing I could do. I fished my hands down his briefs, and I held him close, and I jerked him off, while his skin shivered under my fingers, and his hips bucked, and his hands grabbed at me like I was the one thing keeping him from going under for the third time. He came with another one of those long, heavy sighs, and I was stuck with wiping the mess on my hands off on my t-shirt. I dragged it off, and wiped him too, and then I pulled the covers up over him.

"Sleep," I said softly, and his head nodded, barely a movement at all. His eyes were already shut.

I got off the bed as carefully as I could and walked out into the living room in nothing but my briefs, the dirty t-shirt in my hand. I was hard, and I felt like I could jump out of my skin. I couldn't lie back down on the couch and will that feeling into non-existence. I felt like I'd die if I didn't get off, but there was no way I was going to do it right next to the open door of Starsky's bedroom, either. In desperation I went to the bathroom. The mirror was opposite the door, and I caught a glimpse of my face as I flicked the light on. I looked wrecked. I shut the door and looked at the hard-on filling my briefs, and I turned off the light and stood in the dark for a moment.

I touched myself, a slow stroke of fingers through material, and I had to lean against the wall, I felt that weak, that desperate. I pulled my briefs down my thighs and sank to my knees in my friend's darkened bathroom, and I made myself come thinking about Starsky. It was like triumph, even though I felt like dirt. Because Simon Marcus was wrong about me, like he was wrong about every single thing that he ever set his twisted mind to.

I was no fucking white knight.