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Hutch Versus the Rat King

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Starsky didn’t bother knocking. He let himself into Hutch’s apartment quietly, hoping his partner was sleeping and not wanting to disturb his much needed rest. This whole case with Artie Solkin had done a real number on Hutch.

Starsky frowned, remembering how he’d found Hutch sitting in that dark rattrap hotel room, their teenaged murder suspect lying on the bed crying out in fear to Artie. Only Artie wasn’t there, so Hutch had played the part. His voice had been so weary that Starsky had barely recognized it.

It was funny. Starsky had been afraid he was going have to pull his partner off the creep that had beaten Abby. Instead, he’d found Hutch comforting the kid. Okay, so it was only funny in a sick sort of way. The same way that the worst of the worst were sometimes the most hurt of the hurt, and it was hard to find the line between pity and disgust.

Didn’t help that Hutch was exactly the type to try to feel out those lines between victim and victimizer, cause and effect, looking for some semblance of sense that Starsky, quite frankly, didn’t believe existed.

The way he saw it, you could examine each factor in a perp’s life, rearrange them and play out the hypotheticals like chords on a guitar, looking for a pattern you could recognize. You wouldn’t get a pattern; you’d just get random noise and bloody fingers.

So it was no shock that his partner had been sullen and testy as they’d filled out the post-collar paperwork. But he’d rallied the next day in time to pick Abby up from the hospital. Taking care of Abby had been the best medicine for Hutch; he’d been pulled out of his own head and been given plenty of small tasks to fill his time.

And then Abby had left. Starsky couldn’t blame her. If he hadn’t had Hutch in his life, Starsky knew that one or another of the traumas he’d weathered would have driven him back to his family in New York. Abby and Hutch had been close, sure, but she needed to feel the kind of safety that only family could provide.

But after she’d left, Hutch had crashed. Down came the forced optimism like a pile of bricks with no mortar, scouring away Hutch’s patience in the process. The creature left over was mean and bitterly sad.

Starsky had spent so much of the next few days smoothing over each feather Hutch ruffled at the station that he had missed the signs that Hutch’s hand was getting worse. It was only when he had swerved the Torino and Hutch had instinctively braced himself, then let loose a string of pained cuss words, that Starsky had really looked.

The bandage wrapping his hand had been dirty. The skin of his wrist had looked red and puffy where it disappeared under the dressing. In contrast, Hutch’s face had been pale and clammy. And angry. Very, very angry.

It was a wonder Starsky hadn’t gotten his own hand bitten off when he’d felt Hutch’s forehead. “You’ve got a fever,” he’d announced, and turned the Torino yet again, this time pointing it towards the hospital.

Hutch hadn’t argued. He’d just stared out the window, features set in a grimace.

At the ER they’d cleaned his burn and prescribed antibiotics. Starsky had finally left Hutch tucked up in bed, pills and water on the nightstand, and gone back to the station. It had been like sailing on a calm sea after days of choppy waters. The other detectives in Homicide had kept smiling at Starsky. One had even said, flat out, “Isn’t it nice to get a break from that storm cloud of yours?” And Starsky had smiled back, because yes, yes it had been.

“And yet here I am,” Starsky whispered to the potted plant near the door. “I coulda gone home after I clocked out, but no, I come here instead because I care so damn much for your owner. Hey, did I buy you for Hutch?” He peered more closely at the plant, some kind of leafy deal with vines climbing up the edge of a poster as if it was making a valiant effort to reclaim the apartment for Nature. “I’d better not come here one day and find your vines wrapped around my partner,” he warned softly.

“That you, Starsk?” came a miserable voice from the dark corner of the apartment that housed the bed.

“Yeah,” Starsky replied, feeling guilty. He hadn’t meant to wake Hutch. The guilt evaporated a moment later when he heard retching.

He quickly turned on a lamp in the living room, which cast enough light to lead him to Hutch, who was propped up on one elbow in bed, leaning over the side. Starsky came around to that side, careful to avoid the patch of wetness on the floor. It looked like it was just stomach acid and water, with the exception of two half-digested pills glinting in the low light.

He kneeled down so he could see Hutch’s face. “Babe, did you just throw up your antibiotics?”

If anything, Hutch looked worse than he had in the ER. Spots of color high on his cheeks stood out against the rest of his sweaty, blanched face. “No, those were ibuprofen.”

Starsky smoothed back the strands of hair plastered to Hutch’s forehead, then let his hand linger there, cool against Hutch’s heated skin. Hutch closed his eyes and sighed.

“You took ibuprofen on an empty stomach?” Starsky chided gently. Although Starsky never had an issue taking ibuprofen with just water, he knew Hutch got nauseated when he tried.

Starsky wasn’t expecting an answer; he figured the trek to the fridge had just seemed like too much effort. He’d certainly had days where one inch further than necessary felt like a mile, so he understood.

But Hutch frowned and answered, “Didn’t want to open it.”

“You didn’t want to open… the refrigerator?” Starsky asked, confused.

Hutch nodded.

“That’s a little odd,” Starsky observed. “Were you thinking it would be too cold, or too bright?” Starsky supposed that with his fever, Hutch might be having sensory issues.

“No,” Hutch shifted so he could lie back down on his pillow. “I didn’t want to see the rat again.” He shivered and opened his eyes to look blearily at Starsky. “I hate the rat king.”

Looking into Hutch’s bright blue eyes, it occurred to Starsky that his partner wasn’t firing on all cylinders. “The rat… king?”

Hutch nodded again, as if he hadn’t just given the dead rodent he'd found in his fridge a royal title. Well, Hutch could ordain it the rat High Priestess for all it mattered now. “Hutch, the rat’s long gone. I bagged it and sent it to evidence that night you called me. That was…“ he counted out a few days on his fingers and then decided to just estimate, “about a week ago.”

“Right,” Hutch agreed, but he still looked a little lost.

Starsky wondered how much he was actually understanding. “Hutch, what did I just tell you?”

Hutch’s eyes searched Starsky’s face. Then he smiled. “You defeated the Rat King.” He reached up and cupped the back of Starsky’s neck with his good hand. “My Nutcracker Prince.”



Starsky poured a glass of milk from the still rat-free fridge, and brought it to Hutch with two fresh ibuprofen. In the time it took Starsky to clean up the vomit, Hutch drifted off. So Starsky helped himself to a beer and sat heavily on the couch.

He knew that people said the craziest crap when feverish. But thoughts — even delirious ones — had to come from somewhere. Why had Hutch cast Starsky as some character from a Christmas ballet?

Hutch liked ballet — or pretended to; Starsky wasn’t convinced anyone actually liked ballet — but he hated Christmas. No, that wasn’t entirely true; he hated the popular trappings of Christmas. Maybe Christmas was okay by Hutch if it came wrapped in the hoity-toity package of tutus and orchestral music.

Starsky frowned and picked at the damp label of his beer. He didn’t actually know much about The Nutcracker. First of all, it was ballet-related, so it was for girls. Secondly, it was a Christmas story, and he was Jewish. Of course, that hadn’t stopped him from enjoying the secular sentiments of the holiday, such as goodwill and cheer and more cookies than you could shake a stick at.

But that brought him to his third strike: The Nutcracker just seemed pointless. If he remembered correctly, most of the story was about candy coming to life and dancing. Candy was great, but what was the point if you couldn’t eat it? And dancing was great, but only if you got to join in. Just sitting there, watching candy dance? Terrible. The worst of all worlds.

Made sense that Hutch liked it, though. No empty calories and no tripping over his own two feet.

Where the Nutcracker Prince and Rat King fit into the story, Starsky had no idea. He glanced at the phone, wondering if Huggy was home or at the Pits. Huggy would know the story of The Nutcracker, he was sure. And maybe if Huggy told it to him, he could figure out a few of the twists and turns in Hutch’s mind.

He glanced back at the dark bedroom, only partially blocked from the rest of the apartment by bookcases. He knew his voice wouldn’t disturb Hutch’s rest. If anything, Hutch slept very well to the background drone of his partner’s voice. Probably made him feel safe, Starsky thought proudly.

He lucked out. Huggy was at home, rare as that was. “Hey Hug, you actually managed to tear yourself away from work?” Lately, Starsky and Hutch made sure to chat with Huggy a moment and ask how business was going before pumping him for intel. This was due to an argument a few months back where Huggy had accused them of being rude and self-involved. Then Huggy’d turned to Hutch and said, “Aren’t people from Minnesota supposed to be polite?”

Hutch had laughed it off at the time, but the barb had obviously found its mark, because over the next few days Hutch had brought it up over and over. First Hutch’d been mad at Huggy, then at Starsky, then at himself. Then he’d made Starsky promise that they’d show more interest in Huggy when going to him for help.

This wasn’t the usual info they needed from him, but Starsky supposed the same principle applied.

“Yes, and I deserve every heavenly minute away from that hellhole!” Huggy replied. “Have I told you about my newest waitress? I found out she was selling these homemade health powder supplements on the clock! To my customers!”

“You fire her?”

“I certainly intended to, but when I called her out she told me she’d split her profits. Turns out she’s really rakin’ it in with this shit.”

Starsky laughed. “So what’s the problem?”

“My customers! I guess some of them thought her sales pitch was just a cover, and believed they were buying high-quality weed or something. Now they want refunds.”

Starsky was still chuckling when Huggy heaved a final sigh and asked, “And what’s on your mind?”

“Honestly it’s nothing much. I was wondering what you could tell me about The Nutcracker.”

“The Nutcracker?” Huggy whistled, long and low. “He’s one bad dude.”

Starsky frowned. He’d thought the Nutcracker was the hero.

“He mostly does kneecappings, but his signature number focuses on anatomy slightly higher, hence his name. I thought he was still in New Jersey, though. Did you need me to check his whereabouts? If Joey Walnuts has landed on our fair shores, I can find him.”

“Joey Walnuts?”

“One of the Nutcracker’s aliases. He has several. Joey the Hammer, The Plum Buster—“

“Huggy,” Starsky interrupted. “I’m asking about the ballet!”

There was a beat of skeptical silence. “The ballet?”

“Yeah! I just wanna know about the Nutcracker ballet story, not… not…”

“The Gonad Goon?”

Starsky shivered. “Yeah. But maybe make sure he’s not in town anyway…?”

“Sure thing, my man. Now, what’s this about the ballet? I take it Blondie is involved, somehow.”

“How’d you know?”

“Well, it’s no secret he likes ballet. And I forget when this was, but I remember he was at a booth, and I heard him humming when I brought him beer. It was Waltz of the Flowers, from The Nutcracker.”

Starsky was impressed. “And how did you know that?”

Huggy laughed, pleased. “I have friends in high places, I have friends in low places. I have friends in loud, quiet, straight, and kinky places. I am as at home in the front row of a seedy burlesque as I am in a private box at the Bay City Opera House.” Huggy dropped the sing-song quality to his voice and concluded, “Which is where I last saw The Nutcrackerperformed. And don’t ask me who my benefactress was, ‘cause I ain’t sharing.”

“Aww, Huggy,” Starsky whined. “I don’t want tickets for me or for Blondie. I just wanna know the plot. Hutch was running a fever and making noise about a Rat King, and…” he trailed off, not sure if he should mention the Nutcracker Prince comment. “And I just wanna know what’s going on in that dumb head of his.”

“Well sure. It’s not a bad story. This chick and her siblings are opening presents at a real glitzy Christmas party. Her Godfather is this creepy toymaker, a total mad scientist type. He’s got all these clockwork toys that move and dance, but she loves this simple Nutcracker doll, so he gives it to her. But her little brother is rough with it and breaks its mouth.”

Starsky winced, remembering the last time he’d been punched in the jaw and lost a tooth.

“So this chick uses her hanky to hold the Nutcracker’s mouth together until her Godfather can fix him. She falls asleep under the Christmas tree, and next thing she knows she’s trippin’. The tree starts growing, or she’s shrinking, and then an army of rats attack, led by the Rat King. You know, I saw one version where the Rat King had seven heads. Crazy creepy, and I have no idea how that dude managed to leap around with such a huge mask.”

“Well, what happens next?” Starsky asked, impatient.

“The Nutcracker doll comes to life and jumps in to defend the chick. But the Rat King gets the upper hand and is about to stab the Nutcracker, so she takes off her shoe and nails the rat in the head with it to distract him, and the Nutcracker wins the fight.”

“So the Nutcracker is the hero.”

“Course he is! And he’s a prince, too, which he tells the chick, and then he whisks her away to his magic kingdom as reward for savin’ his bacon.” Huggy fell silent.

“Is that the end?”

“No, it’s the intermission. A good time to hit the john, especially if you’ve had unlimited French champagne on the house like I had that night.”

“Right. So the second half must be all the dancing candy.”

“You got it. Real psychedelic shit. Let’s see… there’s the Waltz of the Flowers, the Sugar Plum Fairy, chocolate, coffee, tea, candy canes, bonbons… oh, and mirlitons.”

“What the hell are mirlitons?”

There was a pause. Then Huggy admitted, without a drop of embarrassment, “I have no idea.”

Starsky laughed. “It figures, don’t it, that Hutch was humming Waltz of the Flowers. All those food and drink options, and he picks the plants.”

Huggy laughed too. “That’s our Hutch. And that’s pretty much it. The Prince takes the lady back home, and she wakes up under the Christmas tree, everything back to normal.” There was another pause and then Huggy asked, “Does any of that help put Hutch’s ramblings in context?”

“Yeah.” Honestly it left Starsky with more questions than ever, but at least he knew the story now, and wouldn’t have to ask Hutch, who would either clam up or tell it in excruciating detail, probably with a lot of boring ballet terms thrown in just to be pretentious. “You’re a lifesaver, Hug. As always, I owe ya.”

After he hung up he reclined on the couch, toeing off his shoes and resting his head on a throw pillow.

A rat in the fridge triggered a fever dream about a Rat King from a popular ballet. Coincidence? Probably. But Hutch had never mentioned The Nutcracker before that Starsky could recall, and that was through all the Christmases they had shared, not to mention the countless arguments Starsky instigated by trying to goad Hutch into showing a little seasonal spirit. So, was that because Hutch barely cared about the ballet, or because he held it close to his chest?

Hutch’s eyes had been so bright and his smile so gentle when he’d called Starsky his Nutcracker Prince.

Somehow, Starsky suspected that Hutch held it close to his chest.



He must have drifted off, because suddenly Starsky heard the toilet flush. He sat up and stretched, listening with approval to the sounds of Hutch filling and drinking a glass of tap water. Then Hutch wandered into the living room, looking disheveled but much less ill.

“Want anything to eat?” Starsky asked.

Hutch shook his head and settled onto the other side of the couch, curling against the arm and pulling a small folded blanket out from under the pillow. Soon he was wrapped up as cozy as a burrito. He blinked a few times at Starsky. “Did I throw up on you?”

“Nah,” Starsky replied. “I did clean up after you though, so don’t think I won’t collect on that.”

Hutch smiled slightly, but it faded. He kept looking Starsky in the eye as he said, “I’ve been an asshole to you.”

Starsky shrugged. “You’ve been sick. And…” he didn’t know if this was a good time to go digging, but what the hell. “I know your head hasn’t been filled with nice thoughts lately.”

Hutch snorted and glanced down, twisting the hem of the blanket in his fingers.

“Hutch,” Starsky began slowly, searching for some opening question that wouldn’t raise alarm bells. “Are you afraid of rats?”

Hutch’s head snapped up. “Why?”

“Well, you left me to deal with the one in your fridge. And you were muttering ‘bout it earlier when your fever was worse. Just wondering. You know, in Brooklyn, rats were as common as seagulls. I always thought they were kinda cute.”

It was the right thing to say. Hutch’s hackles went down and he raised an eyebrow. “Cute? You need your eyes checked. They’re disease-filled monsters. I’m not afraid of them, I just hate them.”

“So Artie guessed pretty good when he put one in your fridge.”

Hutch grimaced. His hand gripping the hem tightened until his knuckles were white. Starsky decided the best course of action was to give him some space, so he got up to grab some water for himself, pouring from the kitchen sink. When he sat back down, he did so in the chair near the couch. He sipped his water and waited.

Hutch finally started talking. “Do you know of a… a natural phenomenon called a rat king? It’s when several rats — or mice, sometimes — get their tails all tangled up in- in hair or string, or stuck together with sap, and they just have to live like that. Or, well. Not live. My dad saw a specimen in a museum in the Netherlands. I think there were six rats fused together at the tail, and biologists were able to tell from the bodies that they’d survived quite a while like that. It really stuck in my memory when he told me. The idea of being trapped like that horrified me.”

Starsky knew that there was more coming, so he just nodded when Hutch glanced at him. Sure enough, after a few moments Hutch said, “I was thinking about Artie and his boys. Tommy was sick to start with, but most of them–the boys, like Billy–are just… innocent. And then Artie convinces them he can give them the best life they’re going to get. And–and they’re stuck together. They don’t even see what a horrible thing they’ve become part of. To them, they’re just… surviving.”

Hutch swallowed audibly. His voice had become more and more strained as he spoke, as if he could see this monstrous rat king before him. Or maybe he was just picturing Artie, with his defensive hunched-up posture and oily slicked-back hair.

Quietly, Starsky said, “I know how much you hate Artie Solkin.”

“No, you don’t.” Hutch’s voice wasn’t angry; he was just stating a fact.

Starsky felt stung all the same. “Then tell me.”

Hutch stared down at his hands, his mouth a hard line.

“Look, babe, I know you said those rat king things scared you. But we aren’t rats, and being tangled together ain’t always so bad. You and me are as tangled together as two people can get, and that’s a good thing.”

“We still have our private lives,” Hutch protested.

“Private thoughts, maybe. Private lives? No. And if that bothers you, you’re gonna have to be the one to cut us apart. Because I like us the way we are.”

“Maybe you’d change your mind, if you knew my thoughts.”

Starsky scoffed. “Yeah, right.” His glass was empty, so he got to his feet and went to the kitchen. “I’m gonna make us some toast. Think you can keep it down?” He didn’t hear an answer but he figured Hutch had nodded.

Once the toast was cooking, Starsky peeled and sliced a banana, putting half on each of the two waiting plates. Then he turned to peruse the fridge for Hutch’s jelly and jam selection. Again, the lack of a dead rat felt notable. He wondered how long Hutch would subconsciously tense up whenever he opened the fridge.

Hutch had the strangest jams. Boysenberry, lingonberry… stuff that Starsky had never had before meeting him. He’d been excited to try them at first, but he’d quickly realized that none of them were as sweet or as tasty as grape jelly. Some of them were downright bitter.

When he saw the plum preserves he thought of the Sugar Plum Fairy and picked it, right as the toast popped up. He spread the preserves and carried the plates to the couch. Hutch didn’t complain about how much jam he’d used as he bit into the toast, a sure sign he wasn’t feeling well.

“Rat kings aren’t just tangled-up rats. It’s also the villain in The Nutcracker,” Starsky said carefully, trying to sound conversational. Judging by the way Hutch coughed around his toast and stared at Starsky, he’d failed.

“Jesus,” Hutch muttered. “Are you psychic? I thought you said we had private thoughts.”

“I said we had private thoughts maybe. You’re the one who brought up The Nutcrackerwhen your fever spiked. So what’s your deal with The Nutcracker?”

Hutch flushed and looked away. “It’s a ballet I saw as a kid. I like the music. That’s it.”

“No, there’s more to it than that.”

“Oh?” Hutch was getting angry. “Then you tell me.”

“Well, you like it a lot, and not just the music. But you don’t want anyone to know. And if that really is the entire story, it’s a little unusual, ‘cause you sure ain’t shy about exposing me to the rest of your weird interests.”

Hutch glared. “Well, I embarrassed my parents by loving The Nutcracker as a kid, so it’s not really that strange that I don’t bring it up. Old habits and all that.”

Starsky felt a pang of sadness, but he knew from experience that Hutch didn’t want sympathy. “In this rat king, I’m the one who embarrasses you,” he reminded Hutch. “So tell me about seeing The Nutcracker. I like to know about the things you love.”

Mollified, Hutch finished his toast and started picking at the banana. “My parents took me and my sister to a production when I was seven. My mother had impressed upon me how important it would be to sit still and not fidget, so I thought it was going to be like one of the stuffy plays they dragged me to. But this was active, with incredible costumes and–and magical sets. The special effects they used when the Christmas tree grows giant… I was spellbound.”

Starsky smiled at the image of his tough partner as a seven year old, the lights of the stage reflected in his eyes.

“And the Rat King was terrifying, when he attacked Clara, but the Nutcracker saved her, and then she saved the Nutcracker. I thought, in a way, she was braver than the Nutcracker, because he had a sword and she just used her shoe. I thought she was incredible. She was kind, and protective, and she got to visit a different world because of her kindness and bravery.

“So that night I asked for a nutcracker for Christmas.” Hutch laughed. “My poor parents. They’d brought a ten year old girl and a seven year old boy to a ballet, and it was the boy who loved it while the girl was bored. They told me no, that dolls weren’t for boys. And I thought that was so unfair. The Nutcracker is a toy soldier, for one thing, but even if he wasn’t… I just wanted something to remind me of that magical night.”

And to remind you that kindness and bravery unlock better worlds, Starsky thought. With a prickly sense of shame he remembered that he himself had pegged The Nutcracker as “for girls” when it obviously wasn’t that simple.

“My grandfather came over for dinner soon after and I asked him for a nutcracker, too. My parents overheard and got mad again, because now I’d embarrassed them in front of family. My father said I was disobeying him by bringing up a topic he’d closed, and sent me up to my room. I was so angry I was crying. It was the first time I seriously wanted to run away. I even packed a bag and pulled out all my warmest winter gear before I gave up.

“The funniest part of it all is that my grandfather didn’t give a rat’s ass. He gave me a parent-approved boy-appropriate gift on Christmas Eve at my parents’ house, but the next day at his farm he gave me a nutcracker. I had to keep it there so neither of us got in trouble. Just as well. When I did run away later on it was usually to his farm. One less thing to pack.”

Starsky smiled at the half-hearted joke, but he felt, instinctively, that the comment contained a bread crumb clue that lead to something larger. “When you ran away, it was usually to the farm?”

Hutch flushed again and Starsky knew he was on the right track. “Yeah.”

“But sometimes to other places?”

“Sure, when I was a teenager. I felt so stifled I’d disappear after just about any big fight. Sometimes I’d stay with Jack Mitchell, but sometimes I’d hop a bus or train to the Twin Cities and just… find guys to stay with for a few days.”

Starsky felt his eyebrows climb to his hairline. “Find strangers to stay with?”

Hutch swallowed. “Yeah. Not too hard if you knew what bars to ask at.”

Ah, babe… Starsky felt his heart ache. The weight of what Hutch had just admitted about his sexual experience felt dwarfed by the bleak picture it painted of his teenage years. “You ever run into trouble?”

“No, I was lucky.” A silence heavy with memories blanketed the room. Then Hutch said, “I often dreamed of running away to California in high school. I’d heard that LA was nothing like the Midwest. That you didn’t have to hide who or what you liked, that you could be anything out here. So many nights I’d lie in bed and think tomorrow, tomorrow I’d pack and ditch high school and everything and hitchhike to California.”

Hutch’s voice dropped lower, a hollow ring to the words. “And meanwhile, men like Artie were waiting in LA, waiting to tell the runaways that he loves them, that he’ll look after them, no strings attached except for the strings you’ll find later when he wants you to beat and smuggle and steal for him, for the continued pleasure of a roof and food and drugs and–and–a family…”

Screw giving Hutch space. Starsky moved to the couch, sitting down right next to his partner. He ran a hand along Hutch’s shoulder. “I know how much you hate Artie Solkin.”

Hutch gave a watery smile. “Yeah, you do.”

Starsky scooted even closer, until Hutch lifted his arm and allowed Starsky to settle against his side. “If any of that was supposed to make me question our partnership, well. It didn’t.”

Hutch sighed. “Maybe I was too vague. I used to sleep with men. Boys my own age and older men. And I liked it.”

Starsky nodded. “Yeah, I got that. I am capable of reading between the lines.”

Hutch added quickly, “I haven’t in a long time. Not since before I enrolled in the police academy.”

“Too dangerous?” Starsky asked, although he couldn’t help but wonder if Hutch had just stopped sleeping with men when he’d grown into his looks and started attracting women.

“No. First there was Vanessa. Then there was you.”

Shock was like a physical force, tugging Starsky abruptly in an unforeseen direction. “Oh,” he said, and felt absurdly proud that he hadn’t spluttered. If he showed anything but nonchalance, Hutch would run.

“How about now?” Hutch asked. “Still sure this is where you want to be?”

“I already told you, we’re stuck together and I ain’t gonna cut us apart.” He gently lifted Hutch’s forearm. “And I don’t think your hand is in any condition to hold scissors.”

Hutch made a strangled sound, half-laugh and half-sob. “Sorry.”

“For what? Getting your hand burned by pissing off a creep who pushed all your buttons? For telling me something you shoulda told me ages ago? Or for thinking my love for you could be that easily shaken?”

“I underestimated you,” Hutch said softly. “You’re not repulsed.”

Starsky took stock of his own feelings. He was surprised, a bit confused, and a bit scared. He knew in the back of his mind that this was a big deal, and could have dangerous repercussions. And he didn’t fully understand how his partner — who had had some of the most beautiful girlfriends he’d ever seen — could want his male best friend, let alone keep it a secret for years. He was also scared because he felt a spark of excitement, and he wasn’t prepared to figure out what that was about.

But mostly he felt grateful that despite these additional “what if?” possibilities of Hutch’s childhood, Hutch had ended up where he belonged: next to Starsky. He maneuvered Hutch’s injured hand until it was cradled against Starsky’s chest.

“You don’t know what I saw when I followed you into Tommy’s room,” Starsky whispered. “Forget about fighting the Rat King. You sat with him when he was scared. You are the kindest, bravest man I know.” He breathed deeply, feeling love soften the edges of everything. “I wish I could give you a break, whisk you away to some magic place where only nice things happen.”

“But you can’t,” Hutch said.

Starsky settled his head on Hutch’s shoulder and closed his eyes. He felt Hutch’s good hand nestle into his curls and smiled. “No. All I can do is stick with you. Good thing that’s all I really want.”