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Individuality

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It was late, the day shift had left, the night shift had checked in and was already out on assignments. Dave Starsky was tired and wanted to go home. It had been a grueling couple of weeks and he needed the upcoming weekend off. Just plain off! With the successful closing of the Martin case, the captain had promised that he and his partner, Ken Hutchinson, would have from tonight ‘til Monday morning to themselves, barring earthquake or other major calamity, of course, and Starsky couldn’t wait. He turned away from the file cabinet, ready to drag said partner out for a beer and burger before they headed for their respective apartments.

Hutch must have had other things on his mind though, because he walked to the control panel on the wall next to the double doors and activated the speakers. Instantly, communications from Central Dispatch, and all the patrol units and detective cars on the frequency, blared loudly. Without lowering the volume, he moved to his desk and sat down.

Whenever his other half did something like that Starsky knew it was time to pay attention.

“What year were you born, Starsk?” Hutch’s tone was flat, the voice level below that of the radio chatter.

“Same as you, dummy. Nineteen forty-three.”

“And what year is it now?”

“You know as well as I do it’s twen… Wait!… What the hell?” He glanced quickly at the calendar. “It’s twenty-thirty-three!”

Hutch nodded, never taking his eyes off him. “I don’t feel like I’m ten birthdays away from hitting the century mark. Do you?”

“Shit no!” Glancing around, Starsky lowered his voice, glad that no one had heard his shout. “I feel like we aren’t even forty yet!”

“Exactly! So what’s going on?”

The fact that there was no one around who could have overheard the last few sentences pleased Starsky a whole lot because his legs suddenly wouldn’t support him. He practically fell onto his desk chair.

Hutch’s stare bored to the back of his skull. “What do you remember?”

Starsky took the question seriously but couldn’t come up with a meaningful timeline. “Cases… back-to-back for months. No chance to think. No time to do anything except find bad guys, put ‘em away, sleep - never for long enough - and look for more bad guys.”

“Do you ever consider all the technology we have at our fingertips that we never had in the eighties?”

Starsky was stunned. “No. It never occurs to me. It’s like we’ve always had it.”

“Same here.” Hutch’s gaze was unblinking. “I’m beginning to think we’ve been… altered. Somehow.”

“Whaddaya mean, ‘altered’?”

“I don’t know.” Hutch got up and poured two cups of very old coffee, gave one to Starsky and sat back down. “I’ve been talking with Gloria, from Forensics, recently. You and I have been spending so much time giving separate depositions and testimony in the Carlton, Washington, and Garcia cases, I needed to get out of the squad room when you weren’t here.” He took a sip of coffee and couldn’t hide a grimace. “She struck up a conversation with me in the cafeteria one day, seemingly out of the blue. We’ve run into each other a few times since and we’ve talked.” Hutch looked down at this cup, appearing almost embarrassed.

Starsky waited for him to continue. He had the strange feeling that patience wasn’t his strongest suit but still, he waited.

“She’s a good listener,” Hutch finally went on, not looking up, “and I’m afraid I’ve let her see how concerned I’ve been getting.” He lifted his head, his expression showing a lack of the self-confidence Starsky was so used to seeing in his unflappable partner. “I get the feeling she knows what’s going on but she’s afraid to say anything.”

“What made you start talking to her?” Starsky studied his uptight partner. “I’m the one you come to when something’s on your mind.”

Hutch broke eye contact and examined his cup in minute detail. “I didn’t want to bother you.”

“Bullshit!” Hutch looked up, startled, which is exactly what Starsky had intended with his expletive. “We talk to each other about everything, Hutch. We always have!” A flash of uncertainty crossed his mind. “Haven’t we?” Hutch shrugged and Starsky plowed on, resolute. “You can’t start keeping secrets now.”

“I didn’t intend for it to be a secret.” Hutch pushed his cup aside. “I can’t get my head around what I know are facts.” There was definite worry in the bright blue eyes. “We should be ninety years old, Starsk, and we… aren’t.”

Starsky didn’t even bother to lift his cup; he was beginning to feel like a hound with a fresh scent and he didn’t want distractions. “What’s Gloria afraid of?”

“I have no idea but whatever it is, it’s big.”

“Hutch, we’ve lost fifty years! Damn straight it’s big!”

“Easy, buddy.” Hutch was trying to sound calmer than Starsky knew he was. “We need to think this through before we go off half-cocked.”

Starsky stood up. “Let’s both go talk to Gloria.”

“It’s nine o’clock,” Hutch reminded him. “She left hours ago.”

Starsky spun the chair around and straddled it, his arms folded across the back, and nailed the blond with a penetrating look. “Okay. What do you suggest?”

Hutch pushed his chair back and grabbed his jacket. “Let’s go to my apartment, make sure we’ll have some privacy.”

*******

Hutch pulled his battered SUV cross-over to the curb in front of Venice Place. “I definitely remember that this is where I live.” He knew Starsky hated it when he concentrated so hard, or had such a bad headache that the cleft between his eyebrows deepened but he couldn’t help it at the moment; his head hurt abominably.

Starsky cast a sympathetic glance his way, declining to comment on Hutch’s obvious pain. “I know it’s where we come when we don’t go to my place. Looks a little older than I think it should for some reason.” Starsky was plainly running through a mental obstacle course himself. “But not all that much.”

They got out and Hutch looked up at the familiar façade. “The building has great bones. It could be in this condition for another fifty years.” Following his partner upstairs, Hutch closed and locked the door behind them.

“Listen, buddy --”

Hutch put up his hand and signaled quiet. Catching on immediately, Starsky joined him in searching the apartment. They found four tiny micro devices and, without speaking, left them in place. Starsky took two beers out of the fridge while Hutch grabbed a CD at random from his collection before following his best friend out to the greenhouse.

“No bugs here, right?” Starsky whispered.

“Not that either of us found, but we’re not going to take any chances.” Hutch jammed the disc into the ancient Walkman on the potting table and hit ‘play.’ Heavy-metal, hard-rock pulsing guitars, brain-rattling reverb, and screaming voices blared out of the tinny speaker.

Starsky covered his ears. “Where did you get that?”

Hutch lowered the volume a little and sat on the bench. “I have no idea. Doesn’t sound like something I’d listen to, does it?” He patted the space next to him.

Starsky plopped down. “Sure doesn’t.”

“Well, it’ll drown out our voices and that’s all we care about.”

“Those four devices sure make it look like someone’s trying to listen.”

Hutch found he couldn’t do anything except nod stiffly and take a swallow of beer.

Starsky drank half his in three gulps before looking steadily at Hutch. “You got any ideas about who? And why someone would be monitoring us?”

“My guess is it’s whoever arranged for us to be younger than we should be.” Hutch held the cold bottle against his forehead. He’d had an almost constant headache for days and didn’t think he had them… before the nightmares. Starsky waited patiently, which seemed uncharacteristic, and with that feeling as reinforcement, Hutch was sure things were definitely out of kilter for both of them. “What do we really remember?”

“Gunther…” Starsky physically shuddered and drew in on himself. Hutch put an arm around his shoulders and pulled him closer. After maybe a minute, Starsky sat up straight within the embrace. “I made it back though.” He turned to Hutch, a look of gratitude and love in his eyes. “You wouldn’t let me give up. Took care of me, nagged me, encouraged me… believed in me… and I made it back.”

“Gunther was a big one, that’s for sure.” Hutch fought the headache, knowing he was going to have to take something for it soon but putting it off. “We finally got a guilty verdict in ‘81, and something makes me say he died, or was killed, in prison.” He pressed the bottle’s coldness between his eyes. “But there were important cases after that…. Weren’t there?”

Starsky didn’t answer right away; he was visibly processing information and not finding the answers he needed. “I… I think so. But I can’t seem to remember what they were. Or who we took down.”

“Gloria showed me a few records she’d dug out of the archives and copied.” Hutch drank a little more beer. “We worked a joint investigation with the FBI to break up the Dorsetti family’s empire. We both went undercover, you as a hot shot chauffeur and enforcer, replacing the man who’d been badly injured in a completely unrelated traffic accident. Dailey, at the Bureau, said it was the best piece of luck they’d had in the whole case to that point. You were a natural at the driving part and pulled off the leg-breaker role with élan.”

“‘Élan’? What the hell’s that?”

Hutch ruffled the dark, curly hair. When Starsky stiffened and drew away slightly, Hutch stilled his hand. “Sorry. Is that something I’m not supposed to do?”

“Don’t know.” After a second, his partner shrugged and shifted back. “Do it again.” Slowly, Hutch laced his fingers into the dense curls and gently massaged the scalp. “Mmmmmmm. Feels good.” Starsky sipped his beer and leaned against Hutch. “Don’t stop on my account.”

Hutch smiled. “Anyway, ‘élan’ means you performed your duties with enthusiasm and vigor. Thankfully though, we were able to get you out before you were forced to hurt someone, or blow your cover by refusing.”

“What were you doing while I was driving?” Confusion and doubt crept into Starsky’s expression. “Why don’t I remember this, Hutch?”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it. I’m only telling you what I read in the report. I don’t actually remember it either.”

“So what were you doing?”

“I took over the bookkeeping from an old guy who’d given the family his loyalty and expertise for almost thirty years.”

“Had he been working for the Feds all that time?”

“No idea.” Hutch tugged a curl lightly, hoping for inspiration. It didn’t come. “If he had been, the FBI wouldn’t have needed us.”

Starsky didn’t look satisfied. “How’d they come up with a good enough cover story for you? Sounds fishy to me.”

Hutch shook his head, then nodded. “It does to me, too. But according to the file I read, they did, and I had enough time to get the hard-copy information that was needed. You worked a couple of the lesser family members and convinced them to testify. Together, you and I collected enough evidence and testimony to put four top Dorsettis away and dismantle the rest of the organization.” He rolled the bottle across his forehead again. “We got commendations from the Bureau, as well as our own department.”

Starsky suddenly sat up straight.

Hutch stopped caressing Starsky’s hair. Self-consciously, he took his arm from around the shoulders and put both hands around his beer bottle. “Did you just remember something?”

“Maybe…” Starsky’s face was scrunched up in pure concentration. “A kidnapping… for a huge ransom… billion dollars or some ridiculous amount like that… businessman’s wife…”

“Nelson and Adele Marshburn.”

“Right! But it was bogus… she set it up herself… wanted the money so she could run away with the head kidnapper.” Starsky looked as it he wanted to go after her and bust her again.

They sat in silence until the CD skipped a few beats and began to repeat the first terrible song. Not bothering to get up to change it, Hutch picked up the thread of their conversation. “Thinking about it all now, I seem to recall things that were glossed over or left out of the official report Gloria let me read. You and I found a snitch who’d been in on the beginning of the plan but had run afoul of the leader, been beaten and left for dead on the docks. In the hospital, after he woke up, we badgered him for information until we could piece things together and figure out where she and her paramour were hiding.”

Starsky snapped his fingers, an ‘ah ha’ look on his face. “When we got her in cuffs, she had the foulest mouth of anyone I’d ever heard. Male or female. Remember?”

“Now that you mention it, I do.”

Starsky nodded. “She was a piece o’ work. We got dressed down, verbally, for using an injured perp that way, but official commendations. Solved the case for the FBI and saved Mr. Marshburn all that money.”

“Reading between the lines, yes.” Hutch held the now lukewarm bottle against his aching head, got up and lowered the CD’s volume a little more. “I almost don’t care if anyone is listening. That’s the worst junk rock I’ve ever heard.”

Starsky nudged him gently in the ribs after he sat back down. “Have you got a rebellious, antisocial side I don’t know about and are buying this crap behind my back?”

Hutch considered the question before shaking his head. “Nope. Pretty sure I don’t. And I have no idea why this CD was in the rack.”

“Maybe it’s one of our listeners’ idea of a joke. Or his taste in music.” Starsky got up and hit the kill switch.

Merciful silence filled the room and Hutch imagined that even the plants sighed with relief. “Thanks, partner.”

Starsky remained standing. “I better shove off,” he whispered. “Get lots of sleep this weekend. Monday’ll be another long day. We need to keep digging on the Arlington jewelry heist. It’s about to break, I can feel it!” He brushed his fingers across Hutch’s forehead. “Take something for that before you go to bed, okay?”

Hutch got up and led the way inside. When Starsky moved past him, Hutch put a hand on his arm, keeping his voice down. “Don’t leave.” He turned the entertainment center on, found an acceptable station and cranked up the volume. His partner glanced at him, the question in his eyes. “Something makes me think we shouldn’t be separated right now.”

“Oh… okay.” Starsky glanced away.

“And don’t look at the couch.” Hutch made sure his voice was casual and normal. “It kills your back. Besides, the bed’s plenty big enough for both of us.”

“You sure?” Starsky sounded uncertain. “Have we done that before?”

“Don’t remember,” Hutch admitted. “But right now I don’t want you out of my sight, so sharing the bed will have to work.”

“Fine by me.” Starsky grinned. “First dibs on the shower!” He put his empty bottle on the end table and dashed toward the bathroom.

Hutch picked up the container and took it and his own to the recycle bin. He programmed the coffee maker for morning and filled the reservoir from the kitchen tap. With the sound of the shower buzzing in the background, he got a loaf of bread and a pound of turkey bacon out of the freezer and put them in the refrigerator to defrost. With no other chores needing to be done, he shut off the lights and went to the sleeping alcove.

*******

Starsky knew he was having a nightmare but couldn’t seem to wake up. He was angry, terrified, and completely unable to hold onto a single thought that made any sense. Hutch was dead and that couldn’t be possible! He wouldn’t allow it to be possible.

He screamed, or whimpered, he didn’t know which, when strong arms wrapped around him. He fought but the limbs held him tighter. “Easy, Starsk, easy, buddy… it’s okay… come on back… I’ve got you…” The soothing words were whispered in his ear.

Gradually, as he became aware of his surroundings and his agitation lessened, the stranglehold was relaxed. Starsky knew it was Hutch who held him; the gentle strength, the calming words, the unique scent of woodlands-smelling soap, were things Starsky’d recognize anywhere, at any time. Being cradled in his partner’s embrace, though, made him slightly uncomfortable. He tried to wriggle out of the warm grasp. “I’m okay now.”

Hutch let him go and sat up against the headboard. “Bad dream?”

Starsky pulled himself up to lean against the brass uprights, too. Having his partner’s arms around him had felt… right. And good. But he figured they had too much to unravel and find out about before getting involved in personal feelings. At least that was his thinking at the moment.

He turned on the bedside lamp, activated hidden speakers, needing the background music from the living room to cover their words, and shifted so that he could look at Hutch. The sky-blue eyes were clouded, almost wary. Starsky put a hand on his partner’s arm. “Thanks. It was bad, and I couldn’t get out of it.”

“That’s what I thought.” Hutch tentatively held his arms open. “Want a hug?”

Starsky cuddled into them immediately, snaking his own arms around the slim waist and finding that his head fit perfectly into the hollow of Hutch’s throat. So much for not getting involved in personal feelings. However, he discovered that he had to steel himself and take a deep breath in order to talk about what he’d ‘seen.’ “You were dead, Hutch.” A shudder ran through the taut body he held, almost duplicating the one that coursed through him.

“Tell me.” Hutch began to stroke his back gently.

“You’d gone undercover as a buyer in this huge human-trafficking organization. Men, women and children had been disappearing for over a year. You’d been under for weeks and I’d hardly had a chance to talk to you. I had a bad feeling and was trying to convince the top Fed to pull you out.” Unable to stop himself, he began trembling and Hutch held him tighter. “Then you… vanished… and they said you were dead.”

“I’m right here, Starsk.”

“I know. It was only a dream.” He pulled back and looked into the concerned deep blue gaze. “But it seemed so real. I’d lost you.”

“A couple of times recently… I dreamed that you died, too.”

Starsky leaned back even more. “Really?” He sat up. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Didn’t know what the dreams meant. And I didn’t want to worry you.”

“Here we go again, Blintz…” Starsky didn’t try to keep the humor out of his voice or off his face. “We don’t keep things from each other. That much I think I do remember.”

Starsky jumped out of bed, ran to the kitchen and grabbed two beers from the fridge. When he got back, Hutch had smoothed the rumpled bedding and was sitting on top of the spread, leaning against the shiny spindles.

He accepted the beer Starsky held out. “You’re right. I should tell you about my two dreams.”

Starsky sat next to him, his ankles crossed Indian-style. “I’m all ears, pal.” Hutch took a long swallow before rolling the cold bottle across his forehead. Starsky bolted off the bed again, left his beer on the nightstand, and raced into the bathroom. When he came back he held out four aspirin tablets. “You never took anything earlier, did you? Knock that headache back so we can talk.”

Hutch took the pills and downed them with brew. “Thanks.”

Starsky picked up his bottle and settled back where he’d been, only closer, with his knees against Hutch’s hip and thigh. The contact seemed to help soothe his partner.

“In two different dreams…” Hutch took another swallow. “You were dead. I found your body myself the first time. Held you. Cried. Screamed. Ranted at the Feds around me. They’d left you under too long or inadvertently blown your cover themselves. I didn’t know which. I only knew that I’d never see you again. Not alive anyway.”

He fell silent and Starsky nudged the forgotten bottle. “Drink some more. It might help.”

Hutch did as ‘ordered.’ “One of the trauma techs that had responded to the scene caught me unaware and injected me with something. The last thing I remember was being told everything would be okay in the morning.” He looked at Starsky, pain lurking deep in his eyes. “And it was. I woke up, here in my bed the next day - at least I think it was the next day - went to work, and you were there.”

“No explanation? I was just… there?”

“No explanation,” Hutch repeated. “Neither of us was given the chance to talk about it either. We were called into Dobey’s office and thrown into another critical case right away.”

Starsky drank a little of his own beer. “What about your second dream?”

“Someone pulled the plug on my assignment, brought me in out of the cold, and told me you’d died. I never even got to see your body.” Hutch stared at the brown bottle in his clenched fists. “I didn’t freak that time though. I pulled my gun because I fully intended to kill them.” The haunted blue eyes found Starsky’s. “Pretty sure I didn’t get the chance. When I came to, in a hospital, you were there. Alive and well.” He took a couple of swigs. “I woke up from that dream sweating, shivering, and knowing something was wrong. I’ve been trying to piece things together ever since.”

Starsky did his best to sort through his thoughts and feelings. He took one more drink and put the bottle on the nightstand. Turning back to Hutch, he deliberately took the closest hand. “It sounds like they… and I’m not sure if ‘they’ are Federal or local, give us the really difficult cases. They shove us undercover, make us gather the intel they need, and if we get burned…” He peered deeply into Hutch’s eyes. “Are you thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?”

Hutch put his beer aside. “We were the best…. So they cloned us.”

“Wait a sec!” Starsky grimaced when he realized he’d raised his voice. Grabbing the remote, he turned up the volume on the background music before looking back at Hutch. “I remember the case…. At least I think I do.”

Hutch drew his legs up, crossed his ankles and shifted so that they sat knees-to-knees, their faces only inches apart. “Like you said, I’m listening.”

Starsky took both of Hutch’s hands in his. “After Gunter… after I requalified and we were back on the streets… we cracked a bunch of big cases and then were brought in on one the Feds had supposedly been struggling with for over a year.”

Hutch leaned in, a fire beginning to blaze in his eyes. “A research lab…”

“Out in the Mohave…”

Hutch’s hands gripped his tighter. “I went in as a tech…”

“I drove the shuttle bus that transported workers to and from Barstow every day. There was a second bus that brought employees up from Baker, driver’s name was… Bruce? There was a limo, too… I drove the head honchos everywhere they had to go. And did the maintenance on all the vehicles.”

“Our covers must have been blown…” Hutch’s forehead creased as if his headache had suddenly worsened.

Starsky leaned forward and, with his thumbs, gently erased the deep wrinkles and smoothed out the vertical fissure. “Don’t make your headache worse. We’ll figure this out.”

Hutch’s gratitude was laced through his determination. “I’m okay, Starsk. We’re on the right track, I know we are.”

Starsky took Hutch’s hands again. “We’re clones.”

Hutch shuddered. “They put Starsky and Hutchinson into that facility so they could make copies of them.”

Starsky nodded. “They wanted expendable supercops. We get thrown into every miserable situation because they know if we get killed, all they have to do is activate the next one.” A new thought occurred to him. “Wonder how often they’ve done it? How many of… us… have there been?”

“Close to fifty years’ worth, I’d say.”

“Terrific.”

“I’ll bet they’re making sure we get some sort of mind-dulling drug that keeps us from putting it all together.” Hutch took a hand back and rubbed his head again before returning it to their clasp. “Can’t be too mind-dulling though, partner…” He smirked. “We’re still solving big cases.”

“It’s twenty-thirty-three, Hutch. I’ll just bet there’s a drug out there that’s capable of enhancing or submerging any specific thought or emotion.”

Hutch signed with resignation. “Wouldn’t be at all surprised.”

Starsky rubbed a thumb across his partner’s knuckles. “I know this is off the subject but… are we supposed to be holding hands?” He looked up into the bluebonnet blues. “I was trying to back off earlier, didn’t want to complicate things. I’m having second thoughts now, though.” He glanced down at their hands again, then back up and into the gorgeous eyes so very close to his. “Does this bother you?”

“Not in the least.”

“Good. ‘Cause I suddenly want to kiss you.”

The surprise that appeared on Hutch’s face quickly turned to interest, then enthusiasm. “Please… don’t let me stop you.”