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Starsky didn’t stop to think about it until they were on the plane, winging through a purpling evening sky on their way to San Juan. He hadn’t let himself think about anything but getting the hell off Playboy Island ahead of Papa Theodore. He’d practically dragged Hutch to the airport and pushed him onto the plane, looking over his shoulder the whole time. He couldn’t relax until they were safely in the air, with his heart slowing down and Hutch, safe and whole, beside him in the window seat.

Then it all came crashing down on him.

“Sir? Are you gentlemen comfortable? Do you need anything?”

The stewardess had a pretty smile, and she turned it on him full force, but Starsky was so deep in thought he almost didn’t notice. He blinked, trying to call his mind back from its far places. “Uh… ”

“No, thank you, we’re fine.” Hutch’s words filled in the silence, and Starsky glanced up to see his partner’s puzzled gaze on him.

The stewardess turned away, and Starsky roused himself. “Miss! Uh, can you bring us a blanket?”

She smiled again. “Above you, sir. Just press this button.” She demonstrated, opening the compartment and producing a blanket.

“Thanks,” Starsky mumbled distractedly. As soon as the girl walked away, he spread the fuzzy comforter over Hutch’s lap and his own.

Hutch cocked an eyebrow at him. “Are you cold?”

“Yeah, I’m cold,” Starsky snapped. “We’re dressed for the tropics, and the a/c in here’s like Siberia. I’m freezing, so I wanted a blanket. Is that okay with you?”

Hutch nodded, eyes widening at Starsky’s confrontational tone. “Fine. But I don’t need it.” He pushed the blanket off.

Starsky pushed it back. “Don’t do that! You might get a chill or something, catch pneumonia and die – you wanna catch pneumonia and die? Gettin’ all wet, and cold, and…” His voice faltered as it hit him again, the reality of what he’d done.

“Okay,” Hutch said after a moment, in the same tone he used to soothe hysterical crime victims. “I’ll bundle up. Never know when a real Minnesota-style blizzard might descend on the inside of a 747.” He snorted and reclaimed his half of the blanket.

Starsky looked away and hunched his shoulders under the blanket. He was getting colder and colder.

 

*****

 

Once they landed in San Juan, it was a two-hour wait for the flight to Tampa. Crazy, Starsky thought; the flight itself was probably less than that. But it was worth it. Anything was better than hanging around Playboy Island hoping Papa Theodore wouldn’t reappear and do something to Hutch. Or make Starsky do something to Hutch. Again.

He’d cut his own throat before he’d let that happen a second time.

He shifted from foot to foot, waiting restlessly outside the men’s room for his partner. He watched the crowd, eyes automatically scanning for suspicious characters. Young women with toddlers on their hips; elderly couples in bright tropical clothes on their way home to Florida; businessmen in three-piece suits striding briskly along, headed for the pay phones. No one seemed to pose any threat, but you could never be too sure. Starsky knew that better than anyone. Sometimes danger comes from the least likely of places.

Hutch emerged at last and stopped short at the sight of Starsky positioned like a guard dog just past the door. “You going in?”

Starsky shook his head. “Don’t need to. I’ll wait till we’re in the air again.” He touched Hutch’s back, steering him gently but firmly toward the waiting area. “Let’s go sit down.”

Hutch laughed. “You don’t need to go to the bathroom? And after all that coffee you drank on the plane? Must be April Fool’s Day.”

Starsky gave him a narrow-eyed look. He’d needed that coffee to stay alert. And dammit, he did need to pee. He should have gone when Hutch did. Now if he went, Hutch would be left alone. Starsky didn’t want to risk that.

“I can hold it. I’m not a little kid.” He dropped into an uncomfortable plastic chair, jerking Hutch unceremoniously down beside him.

Hutch huffed out another laugh and freed his arm. “No, you’re a big one.” He rubbed the arm gingerly. “May I ask why you just tried to dislocate my shoulder?”

Starsky felt a cold pang. “Did I hurt you? I didn’t mean to – ”

“You didn’t hurt me. But you’ve been dragging me around ever since we got up this morning. Every time I turn around you’re stuck to me like a barnacle. I’ve got more of your fingerprints on me than my own.” Hutch paused. “Starsk, if something’s wrong – ”

“Nothing’s wrong!” Starsky snapped. “And since when do you mind me touching you? I got cooties all of a sudden?”

“Okay, okay! Calm down, for God’s sake.”

“I’m calm! I’m perfectly calm!”

“Jeez,” Hutch muttered under his breath, but he let it drop.

After a minute’s silence, Hutch stood. “Be back in a minute.”

Starsky looked up sharply. “Where ya goin’?”

Hutch let out a long breath, seeming to gather all his patience. “To the drinking fountain, which is over there – ” he pointed to the right “ – approximately, oh, one hundred feet away from our present location.” He adopted an air of grave solemnity. “I’m reasonably sure I can make it, but if I haven’t returned in ninety seconds, you may want to notify Interpol.”

Starsky jumped up. “I’ll come with you,” he said.

 

*****

 

The San Juan to Tampa leg was uneventful. No bomb threats, no hijackers, no engines catching fire, nothing that might endanger Hutch in any way. Starsky got to take a long, blissful piss.

The Tampa airport was boring, too, as boring as any other airport, but that was good. Starsky was cultivating a real appreciation for boring.

Once they were in the air again, though, it all started back. Hutch was dozing, his head tipped back against the seat. Starsky watched him. Hutch was a pleasure to watch sleep. Face serene, lips slightly parted, breath coming slow and deep, he was like a figure in a painting. A particularly good painting, Starsky thought. He had watched Hutch sleep many times, on stakeouts, during the late show after beer and pizza, even once or twice in the squad room after they’d been up around the clock on some motherfucker of a case and even Minnie’s horseshoe-floating coffee wasn’t enough to keep them both going at once. Starsky liked the feeling it gave him, looking at Hutch’s face in repose. He imagined it was the same feeling Hutch himself got from meditation.

Ordinarily, that is. This time he couldn’t bear it. He turned his head after a moment and stared blindly up the aisle.

If that peace and that beauty and that – Hutchness – were still there, it wasn’t because of Starsky. He’d done his goddamndest to snuff it all out.

He could hardly even make himself think about it. His mind shied away from the cold facts the way a beaten dog shrinks from an upraised hand, but that didn’t change a thing. It had happened, he’d done what he’d done, and he couldn’t undo it. It didn’t matter that Hutch seemed to have brushed the incident off without a thought. You could do that when the problem was something outside yourself. When it was inside yourself, when you had to live with it, sleep with it, come to some kind of accommodation with it – how the hell did you do that? How could you look at that dark thing that was you and go on with normal living? Go on getting quiet joy from the sight of that messy lock of blond hair that fell over your partner’s forehead when he slept?

 

*****

 

“Ever been to Texas before?” Hutch asked.

Starsky grunted wordlessly. He was tired. Tired of flying, tired of sitting in airports, tired of worrying about Hutch. Tired of himself, most of all.

Hutch raised his eyebrows. “That mean yes or no?”

Starsky slumped down in yet another uncomfortable airport chair. “That means I’m tryin’ to read my book and you’re asking me stupid questions. No, I have never been to Texas before.” He stared harder at his paperback. 'Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King. It was supposed to be scary as hell, and he loved scary books, but he couldn’t concentrate on it.

Hutch hummed quietly under his breath, and then not so quietly.

Starsky ignored him.

Hutch hummed a few more bars. “Remember that song?” He sang softly. “Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl/Nighttime would find me in Rosie’s cantina/Music would play and Felicia would whirl….”

“Felina,” Starsky said, without looking up from the book. “Felina would whirl.”

He heard the frown in Hutch’s voice. “You sure?”

“I’m sure. I bought that record in tenth grade.”

Hutch sighed. “Anyway, I wish we had more time to spend here. I’ve never been to Texas, either. Too bad we can’t see the sights.”

“What sights? Buncha cows and oil rigs. Maybe a few tumbleweeds.” Starsky turned a page. “What’s so great about that?”

“You’re really a ray of sunshine today, aren’t you? And you complain about my moods.”

“Look, it’s dangerous, okay?” Starsky snapped. “That guy, the guy in that song – he got shot in El Paso, remember?”

Hutch gave him a look of utter incredulity. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Starsky felt a flush creep up his neck. It was pretty ridiculous. He shrugged and mumbled, “Well, it could happen.”

“Starsky, what is wrong with you? Where is this paranoia coming from? You can’t seriously believe we’re being followed by some voodoo curse – ”

“Shut up!” Starsky hissed. “Don’t talk about it!”

“Starsk, it was the power of suggestion, that’s all. The whole situation on Playboy Island gave you the creeps, made you jittery, made you ready to believe crazy stuff.” Hutch paused, as though bracing himself for a difficult admission. “Me, too. I believed it, too, for a while. It was creepy.” His voice gentled, and he laid a hand on Starsky’s arm. “But it’s over, buddy. We’re a thousand miles away from it, and it’s over.”

Starsky looked down at Hutch’s hand. He wished he could hold it, squeeze it, lace their fingers together. Kiss it, and whisper, “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me.”

Except he knew it was.

Instead he said, “Papa Theodore’s free. How do we know he can’t find us, huh? How do we know that?”

Hutch sighed. “We don’t know that. I suppose if he wanted to, he could. But he’s got no power over us, Starsk. Not if we don’t believe he does.”

Maybe he’s got no power over you, Starsky thought. But he made me – he made me –

For a moment he could feel Hutch’s throat beneath his hands, the blood rushing in it, the larynx hard and lumpy under his thumbs as he squeezed, squeezed….

I’m gonna be sick.

He dropped his book, lunged out of his seat, and dashed for the men’s room, only dimly aware of Hutch’s alarmed shout of “Starsky!” behind him.

False alarm. He was in a stall, bending over a toilet, gagging unproductively, when he felt a hand come to rest on his back. It remained there, rubbing gentle circles between his shoulder blades as the ominous internal spasms fizzled and died.

“Okay?” Hutch asked.

Starsky straightened slowly, tilted his head back, and swallowed twice before he could nod.

“Sure?”

“Yeah.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Thought I was gonna lose it.”

Hutch laughed softly. “What was it that got to you? The airline food or the paperback vampires?”

Starsky waved a hand dismissively and concentrated on breathing.

Hutch caught Starsky’s arm and looked at his watch. “We’ve got a few minutes before our flight starts boarding. Let’s go and get something for your stomach. Come on, buddy.” Again he stroked Starsky’s back.

Starsky turned, grabbed Hutch in a suffocating hug, and buried his hot face against his partner’s neck. He heard Hutch’s surprised grunt, felt him stagger slightly under the unexpected onslaught.

“Hutch,” he whispered, “Hutch – ”

Across the room, the door opened, banging back against the wall, and a man entered, shepherding two frolicking little boys ahead of him. Starsky looked up and met a pair of startled eyes as the newcomer took in the sight before him -- two men locked in an intimate embrace in a public restroom.

Starsky backed up hastily, releasing Hutch, and cleared his throat. “Come on,” he said, starting for the exit. “We’re gonna miss our flight.”

 

*****

 

They got into Durango at 12:30 AM local time. By then, Starsky was convinced that he could live a long and happy life without ever seeing the inside of an airport again. Except LAX, of course. He couldn’t wait to get home.

But the Durango airport was small, and the earliest flight Starsky had been able to book to Bay City was the next morning. They’d have to spend the night in a hotel, and they couldn’t stay in separate rooms. He might no longer deserve to watch Hutch sleeping, he might have forfeited his right to that pleasure, but he still had to be with Hutch, close to him. What if Hutch got sick or something during the night? What if he needed something?

The hotel turned out to be a motel, the Rodeo Motor Lodge, with a neon cowboy and his bucking bronc capering across the sign out front. Their room was a double, and it had two of the narrowest twin beds Starsky had ever seen. While Hutch showered, he stripped to his skivvies and stretched out on the bed nearest the door, closing his eyes resolutely. Time to sleep. Time to put all the craziness behind him and sleep.

After a moment he opened his eyes, sat up, and looked around at the room. There was nothing wrong with it. It was an ordinary, average motel room, not sleazy, not dirty; small and tidy and functional, even cheery in a generic, orange-carpet, cheap-prints-on-the-wall kind of way.

It reminded him, Starsky realized with a sudden chill, of the room they’d shared on Playboy Island.

At the thought, his left thumb started to throb. An instant later, a matching pain assailed his head.

Panic seized him. He couldn’t leave Hutch alone, but he couldn’t stay with him, either. He didn’t dare. All day he’d been trying to protect his partner, and now he didn’t know how.

He was seriously considering the merits of tying himself to the bed when Hutch emerged from the bathroom, a towel slung around his hips, raking his fingers through his damp gold hair.

“Man, that hot water felt good.” Hutch yawned, and sat down on the opposite bed. “Better get under the covers, Starsk, we’ve gotta get up early.”

“Hutch,” Starsky said, “you can’t go to sleep.” He spoke softly, forcing the words out between teeth that chattered.

Hutch, who was reaching to turn the bedside lamp off, paused in mid-motion. “What?”

Starsky squeezed his eyes shut. “You can’t sleep, you gotta stay awake all night.”

“Okay,” Hutch said, after a moment’s stunned silence. “It’s past midnight, we’ve been up since 7:00 AM, we’ve spent most of that time zigzagging across half a dozen time zones, I had to watch Rodan vs. Godzilla – not the highlight of my life’s filmgoing experience, Starsk – and now you’re telling me I can’t go to sleep?”

Starsky sprang to his feet, gripping his thumb with his right hand. “You gotta stay awake! You gotta be ready to defend yourself! I might – ” His voice broke suddenly, and he swallowed. “I might do something. Hutch, I might do something to ya.”

Hutch’s eyes reflected amazement, which faded to understanding, and then compassion. “Starsk,” he said softly.

Starsky barely heard him. The lampshade was tilted up, the light pouring over Hutch’s fair skin. Starsky stared.

“You’ve got bruises on your throat,” he said. “I can see ‘em from here.”

“Starsk – ”

“I knew they’d be there.” He began pacing around the little room because he had to move, he had to do something. “I knew it, but I didn’t look close enough to see ‘em. I didn’t wanna look, I didn’t wanna see – ”

Hutch shot off the bed and grabbed Starsky by the arms. “Starsk!”

“I put ‘em there, I tried to – ”

Hutch shook him, hard. “Starsky, shut up!”

“I tried to kill you.” It was the first time he’d said it, the first time he’d said the actual words, even in the safety of his own mind. He still couldn’t speak them above a whisper. “Oh my God, Hutch, I tried to kill you.”

Hutch closed his eyes briefly. “Sit down.” He tugged gently at Starsky’s arms, urging him down to the bed.

Starsky went, stiffly, barely feeling the mattress give as he sat. “Oh, my God,” he said again. He was trembling now, a deep, full-body shudder that reverberated through his bones and into his heart. He covered his face with his hands and rocked slowly back and forth.

Hutch sank down beside him, sliding an arm around Starsky’s bare shoulders. “I didn’t know if you even remembered. When I told you after we fell in the water, you didn’t seem to, and then you never mentioned it after that.”

“I remembered.” Starsky raised his head and stared across at the opposite wall. “I just – I couldn’t….”

When he went silent, Hutch said softly, “You couldn’t let yourself think about it.”

Starsky shut his eyes. He could see it so clearly, Hutch’s shocked face beneath him as they rolled in the dirt, the rocky cliff’s edge, the pounding surf below. He could hear Hutch’s voice yelling his name, shouting for him to stop….

“You never mentioned it either,” he said. He looked at Hutch. “You never said another word about it.”

Hutch’s mouth quirked into a little smile. “No reason to. You couldn’t help it. It was….” He paused, and shrugged helplessly. “A voodoo curse.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe that, not really. There must be some other explanation. But whatever it was, it sure as hell wasn’t you, buddy. I knew that.”

“It’s in me,” Starsky said. He looked down at his thumb. It wasn’t red or swollen or bruised, any more than it had been back on Playboy Island, but the stinging pain was there just the same. He raised it to his mouth and sucked at it a moment before repeating, “It’s inside me.”

Hutch’s warm fingers stroked Starsky’s shoulder. “Starsk, you’re not making sense.”

Starsky threw off the comforting touch and stood, almost shouting. “It’s me, don’t you get it? Papa Theodore saw it! He saw – I dunno what. Somethin’ dark, in me. He used it against me.” He let out a bitter laugh. “Against you, I mean.”

Hutch was shaking his head. “Starsk – ”

“Look, why d’ya think he didn’t do it to you, huh? He coulda cursed us both, right? Or he coulda cursed you instead of me. But he didn’t. He picked me. He saw something that made him pick me. He saw evil, or – or hate, or…. ” He choked on the words, bile rising in his throat, and stumbled to a halt.

“Maybe he saw love,” Hutch said.

Starsky had squeezed his eyes shut against the pain, against the truth – because that was what it was, and it was about time he faced up to it – and now he opened them to stare incredulously at his partner. Love?

Hutch’s voice was very soft, and very intense. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, eyes boring into Starsky’s. “Maybe he saw the deepest love he’d ever seen, the fiercest loyalty he could imagine. Maybe he saw a way to use that against us both.” He paused. “Starsk, how would you have felt, what would you have done, if you’d killed me?”

Starsky flinched at the words. Nausea clutched his stomach, and he swallowed.

“You gotta ask me that?” he whispered. “What the hell do you think I would’ve done?”

Hutch nodded. “And then Papa Theodore would’ve been rid of both of us. No need to curse us both. What could be worse for you than knowing you’d killed me?” A grim smile twitched his lips. “Or the other way around. Same result, believe me.”

Starsky let out a long, shuddering breath. The adrenaline wave of emotion drained suddenly away from him, leaving him stranded. He felt his legs weaken.

“Hey.” Hutch held out his arms. “Come back here.”

Starsky did, gratefully, sinking down on the bed, letting his head come to rest on Hutch’s shoulder, letting his arms creep around Hutch’s waist. Hutch hugged him, and Starsky felt his partner’s breath stir the curls on top of his head.

They sat like that for a long while. The pain faded from Starsky’s thumb and his temples, slipping gradually away like the sea’s receding tide. He kept his eyes closed and felt the steady beat of Hutch’s pulse, and let his own breathing match its rhythm. He turned his face to it, to the warm skin behind Hutch’s collarbone. Then he remembered the bruises, and drew back. He gazed speculatively at the marks he’d left.

“What?” Hutch whispered.

Starsky shook his head slowly. “Shoulda done this a long time ago,” he said, and leaning forward, he kissed Hutch’s throat. He pressed his lips once, gently, to each bruise, and then, when Hutch’s only reaction was a sigh, he let his mouth wander, laying kisses over every inch of neck, every morsel of bare flesh, nuzzling the tendons, teasing just behind the ears, nibbling the jutting Adam’s apple, licking delicately at the hollow where the pulse throbbed. It was no longer steady. It leaped and raced beneath Starsky’s mouth.

He looked up, meeting Hutch’s eyes. The pupils were huge, dilated, black with heat.

“You’re right,” Hutch breathed, raising a hand to cup Starsky’s cheek. “You shoulda done that a long time ago.” He leaned in and caught Starsky’s mouth with his.

The kiss was a cautious one, careful, as if Hutch was wary, uncertain whether Starsky would accept or reject it, and that uncertainty was so absurd that, for the first time since they’d left Playboy Island, Starsky felt like laughing. He did laugh, his lips curling under Hutch’s until he had to draw back, his shoulders shaking.

Hutch gave him a look that was equal parts bewilderment, desire, and offended pride. “Well, I’m glad somebody’s getting a good laugh out of this.”

Starsky laughed harder, and, putting a hand on the back of Hutch’s neck, drew Hutch’s face to his until their foreheads pressed together. “I was just thinking,” he said, between giggles, “we picked a helluva place for this. Beds are barely big enough for one.”

Hutch gave a little snort of amusement. “You wanna do it in the shower?”

Starsky sighed. “Babe, I don’t care if we do it in the bushes outside under the cowboy. Long as we do it.”

Hutch raised his head and grinned. “Easy, huh?”

“Yeah, I’m easy. Hard, too.” He took Hutch’s hand and placed it over the tented front of his briefs, biting his lip as the warmth enveloped him.

The humor faded out of Hutch’s eyes. “God,” he whispered, and stroked Starsky through the cotton.

Starsky gasped. He’d thought about it before, many times, fantasized about the way he’d want their first time to be; the slow buildup, the long, luxurious exploration of each other’s bodies, the all-over touches, the aching gradualness of it, the delight of discovering his partner’s preferences. Now he could remember none of it. “Take ‘em off,” he whispered, raising his butt off the mattress. “C’mon, take ‘em off me.”

Hutch did, hooking his thumbs into the waistband and pulling the underwear downward. Starsky didn’t help. He was too busy fumbling feverishly with the knot of the towel around Hutch’s waist, a knot Hutch had apparently tied with the express purpose of foiling all attempts to undo it.

They managed to get each other naked at precisely the same moment, a happy coincidence that allowed Starsky the insane pleasure of feeling his erection gripped and rubbed by Hutch’s fist while simultaneously closing his hand over Hutch’s own straining cock. He heard himself groan, low, from his belly. “Hutch!”

Hutch was staring at him, eyes wild, mouth working as though struggling to force words out. “Babe – ”

“Lay down,” Starsky gasped. He caught himself, tried to force the harshness from his tone. “Please.”

Before he got the last word out, Hutch was down, on his back, pressed tightly between Starsky and the wall, his hand stroking steadily, maddeningly, at Starsky’s dick. Starsky squeezed his eyes shut.

“Here,” he whispered, “like this,” and he urged Hutch onto his side until they faced each other, Starsky’s ass almost dangling off the narrow bed, their opposing wrists clashing for a moment until they worked out an awkward rhythm. They looked down, together, foreheads touching, panting breath intermingling, as their movements mirrored each other, as their cocks swelled and darkened, as their hips pumped in unison.

It wasn’t slick enough, Starsky thought dimly, and they were at the wrong angle to reach each other’s balls with their free hands, and he wasn’t used to a foreskin, didn’t really know what to do with it…but all these facts were incidental, far away, barely noticeable behind the high, sweet hum of pleasure in his brain, of Hutch’s hand so tight, moving so steady, so fast, and the animal grunts he heard himself making, and then Hutch’s strangled voice crying, “Starsk! Oh, God!” and Hutch’s head going back, mouth open, as he erupted in creamy ribbons over Starsky’s hand, and his own yell of release a moment later as climax roared through him and left him limp and trembling, panting, eyes closed, face buried against Hutch’s throat.

“Sorry,” he whispered, when he had enough breath to speak. “Too fast.”

“Mmm,” Hutch replied, and sighed a deep sigh.

Starsky raised his head. Hutch’s eyes were still shut. Starsky could see the tiny blue veins in the lids.

He touched Hutch’s lips. “I mean, I wanted to, y’know, do a lotta stuff for ya. Kiss ya all over, and – you know.”

Hutch murmured sleepily. His hand slid to Starsky’s back and stroked it.

Starsky arched into it with feline enjoyment. “But I forgot. And all I did was get you all sticky.”

Hutch smiled, and moved his hand around to Starsky’s belly, where he traced a shiny trail of semen around the navel.

Starsky captured the hand and kissed it. “I wanted to show you how sorry I – ”

Hutch’s eyes snapped open. “That’s the last time,” he said, snatching his hand back and brandishing a warning finger in Starsky’s face. “So help me, Starsk, if you start talking about that again, ever, I’ll….”

He left the sentence hanging, so Starsky propped himself on one elbow and gave his partner a defiant look. “What? You’ll what?”

“I’ll never jerk you off again.” Hutch glared up at him triumphantly. “What do you think of that?”

Starsky flopped onto his back and gazed morosely at the ceiling. “I let him come all over me, and two minutes later he starts with the blackmail. I can sure pick ‘em.”

He turned his head and met Hutch’s grin, a grin that tugged his own out of hiding.

“Okay. I’ll never talk about you-know-what again on pain of not gettin’ jerked off again, ever, pinky swear.” He kissed his little finger and held it up for Hutch to see. “Happy now?”

“Happy,” Hutch said, and yawned. “Now can we please go to sleep? My eyes are burning.”

“Right,” Starsky said. “Sleep.” He moved to get up, only to be yanked back down by a strong hand on his shoulder.

“Here, dummy. You’re already in bed.”

“Hutch, these beds are about a foot and a half wide, and with your big feet – ”

“I can’t hear you,” Hutch mumbled, eyes closing. “Turn the light off and cuddle up.”

And after a hasty cleanup with the sheet from the other bed, Starsky did.

He almost fell off the bed twice during the night. And both times, Hutch hauled him back from the brink.