Imagine an infinitely long piece of tape, stretching out past the horizon, glistening reflective black in the middle of a vast expanse of blank nothingness. There, in the distance, a black speck appears. It resolves into a small box, travelling along the tape at an exact steady pace. With no cares, no feelings, no will of its own, it trundles along -- and stops.
Hutch spun his empty glass around. He'd had too much already, and he cursed himself for a fool. His only consolation was that he was at least the more sober one in the room.
His partner, across from him on the floor, lolled drunkenly to one side. "'S'it my turn?" he asked.
Hutch shook his head. "No idea, Starsk. Let's call it a night." Starsky made no protest, so he painstakingly picked up their playing pieces (the metal ground car for Starsky, the silver top hat for himself) and dropped them into the box. Next, he rounded up their money. One of his bright orange bills had been used accidentally to mop up a spill. He thought that even so, he'd come out ahead.
Not that he was going to let Starsky know that, of course.
He pushed the boxed game under the dining table. He'd return it to the rental store tomorrow (and pay for damages). Starsky had the regular edition on his home center, but he'd wanted to play the paper one on this day. Terry had liked it better.
"She always could beat me," Starsky said with a bemused smile on his face, his head tipped back against the sink cabinet. His bare throat was vulnerable and pale against his bright red sweater and his dark hair.
"That's because you're terrible at it," Hutch teased him.
"Heeeey," Starsky protested. He fell silent, and the next moment gave a half-snore.
"Ready for bed?" Hutch queried indulgently.
Starsky came awake with a start. He blinked slowly, then stared down at his knees, his legs stretched out in front of him and his hands laid meekly in his lap. There was a long silence. "She was just... so good."
She really had been. A year wasn't hardly long enough to forget. She had had spunk, and humor, and so much love -- for disadvantaged children and for 'regular' people both. Hutch remembered how he had sometimes wondered, if maybe...
He shook himself out of those thoughts. "C'mon, Starsk." He levered himself to his feet and reached down for Starsky. But Starsky refused to come, dead weight in his arms. He looked up at Hutch. "You're the best pal I ever had."
Hutch grinned and found he had to clear his throat. "You're drunk, Geeker."
"No, really." Instead of coming up, Starsky hung onto one of Hutch's arms until he'd pulled Hutch down beside him. "Hutch, you're... You're just wonderful to me." Starsky looked like he was on the verge of tears.
"Okay, okay. I believe you," Hutch assured him. He petted Starsky's head, and that seemed to help. "Hey, me, too. You're my best friend in the whole universe."
Instead of smiling, Starsky suddenly turned his head away. Hutch heard him sniffle.
"Starsky?" he said, alarmed.
"I'm glad it wasn't you," came the belated, emotion-heavy answer.
"God, when Terry died... I felt like, like I was being ripped into pieces. But... But if he'd gotten you instead..."
"Aw, Starsky. That doesn't mean anything. You loved her, with all your heart. But you didn't know her all that long, right? Another few months, and you would have forgotten everyone else existed, including me."
The half-joking assurance had been ill-timed. Starsky actually jumped up to kneel over Hutch threateningly. "Don't ever say crap like that. You're my partner."
"Sorry." Hutch put up his hands in surrender. "I'm sorry."
Starsky glared for a moment more before settling back down. Still, he appeared anxious, staring intently at Hutch. "You're the most important person to me, Hutch. Do you understand that? You're even more my brother than Nicky is. You're..." Words seemed to fail his alcohol-sodden mind. But he continued determinedly on. "I feel like there isn't anything I couldn't come to you for. Ever. That's what you are to me."
Hutch felt his own eyes well up. He turned clumsily toward his partner, his foot catching his empty glass and sending it spinning. He ignored it. "Starsky, me, too."
The never-ceasing urge rose in him, swelling up full of hope and trepidation and shame. Now. Surely, now? Anything, Starsky had said.
He's drunk, he reminded himself. His defenses are down.
It's perfect, another part of him answered. He's mellow. He just said you're his very best friend, and his brain won't be able to shift out of that gear so quickly.
He needs you right now. You'd be taking advantage, the first part countered.
But the second part trumped it: You've been lying to him for years. Can you continue to do that to a man who just told you that he thinks of you as closer than his own brother?
"S-Starsky..." he said. The unbearable secret he had been holding back for so long knocked at his teeth and choked his tongue, making him stutter. He paused, frustrated.
"Hutch, I want to tell you something."
Relieved and disappointed both, Hutch nodded, "Go ahead."
Starsky hesitated. Then, looking right into Hutch's eyes, he said, "You know Turings killed my pop."
Hutch froze. So. Did Starsky already know? He waited, petrified, for what Starsky might say next.
But Starsky continued, his voice gruff. "He was beaten up. T-Tortured. Everyone knows that." Hutch nodded. Starsky had had to live with the sympathy and the whispers all his life.
"I've never told anyone this before," Starsky whispered. His rummy blue eyes were wide with sincerity and past hurt. "But I was there."
"I wasn't waiting for him at the gate like I was s'posed to. I wanted to meet him coming home." Starsky swallowed nervously. "I h-heard him. Yelling. I found them in that alley." His voice got more and more tight. "They were whaling at him with these, these pipes. And they were laughing. Like it was a game. Like he was just some thing on the ground. Or one of those, um, piñatas, like they were waiting for him to crack open and drop candy. And he was still alive, and he was scr- screaming and begging them to stop."
"Oh, my god." Hutch could think of absolutely nothing to say. He reached out and stroked Starsky's broad shoulders, kneaded the rock-hard tensed muscles.
Starsky was still staring straight into his eyes, straight into his soul. "Everyone thought I just found him there. But that's not true at all. I watched it. I sat there and I didn't do anything. I was so scared. Hutch, I let them kill him."
That jolted Hutch into speech: "Starsky, you were a kid. What could you have done?"
"I don't know. Something!" Starsky put a hand to his mouth, but a sob escaped. "I could have at least yelled, gone for help."
"Starsky, be reasonable. They might have killed you, too."
"They didn't! They f-- They found me. They didn't kn-- know that he was my pop, but they saw how scared I was." Starsky was crying in earnest now. "And they just laughed. They didn't touch me. Not once."
Suddenly, he lurched to his feet and stumbled against the sink. With a fierce motion, he killed the auto-water-save on the faucet, turning the blast high to splash his face liberally. He stayed there, shivering, until Hutch climbed to his feet behind him and touched his shoulder. Starsky's hair and the collar of his sweater were soaked, but he looked more alert and calm.
Starsky gripped the edge of the sink. "I tell you, Hutch. I've never so much as kicked a dog in my life. But if I ever get to meet a tin can face to face again, I'd punch him in the mouth just as hard as I could." He looked out his window at the overcast night. "And I wouldn't stop. I wouldn't stop. I'd want to see him hurt. I'd want to hear him really scream. And I would enjoy every last picosecond of it."
Hutch felt his heart chill. "Starsk--" he started to say, his throat dry. He was frightened by this unknown portrait of his compassionate, tolerant friend.
Starsky turned to him. His expression was wide open and blank. "Does that make me a terrible person?" he asked, and Hutch could only stare.
There was an infinite stretch of philosophical, educatory, self-serving answers that Hutch could give. But looking at his partner's face, all he could be compelled to do was to put a hand to Starsky's cheek and whisper, "No. Starsky, of course not. You could never be a terrible person."
Starsky blinked watery eyes. "Promise?" he asked, like a child.
Hutch nodded definitely. "Trust me."
The box whirrs and, business-like, it imprints a null symbol on the tape -- and then it moves on.