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Wuemsel's Fanfic Corner

In Too Deep (Part 1)


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designed by kreek - thanks, buddy! :D

Thanks to Muse Brook for obvious reasons (;)), as well as to Eli, Kreek and Jeanine for their constant support and enthusiasm. Also thanks to Jeanine for the title. :)
 
Very special thanks to my beta Tamminy! Yogalates, T´hy´la, you´re the best!
 
Warning: The Muse Idea was that one partner has to hurt the other one due to the circumstances provided by a case, and that IS happening in this story. So if the idea upsets you, or if you find it discomforting, please don´t read this! I don´t want to spoil anyone´s fun.

Finally, a bush to land in. With what sounded like a sighed chirp of relief, the little bird let itself sink down onto a thin, fragile branch within the green shield, allowing itself to breath out at last: a gesture that would have been of great interest for any zoologist, since it resembled a yawn.

And no one could’ve held that against the little fellow, who had been up almost all night-- totally against its nature--restlessly roaming the urban jungle in search of a safe place to spend the night. Now that he’d found it, the sun was already in the midst of rising. Pinkish-golden rays were wandering slowly over the quiet alleys, soaking the gritty walls of the nearby houses in a beautiful light, as though they were ancient white temples, silkily bright and soft.

The roaring of the traffic washed up into the narrow side streets like the whooshing of the sea. The little fellow’s colleagues’ daily concert added to the falsely innocent appearance of this part of the city, where nature made a pact with human noises every day, creating a morning serenity that was artificial and not to be trusted.

Yet, our little friend was too young to know that -or maybe just too tired to remember it - and it dropped its guard. It buried its tiny head in the soft feathers of its shoulder, preparing to ignore the natural sleeping patterns given to it by nature, when suddenly its hiding place was knocked violently to one side. This sent the startled animal falling to the pavement, too surprised to even start flapping its wings. Only by inches did it manage to escape the running feet that hastily struggled for a safer hold on the ground after their owner’s collision with the bush.

Before the little bird had gathered his wits again, his unaware attacker was off already, the quick thump-thump-thump of his boots fading in the streets. Hopping to its feet, the bird stared into the direction the feet had vanished, only to jump in startled fright when similar noises appeared behind it. Flapping around, it barely made it up into the air before a sneaker-clad foot smashed it. Frantically trying to gain some height, it was suddenly hit by a sharp rush of air that threw it back into the bush. Fortunately, its fall was broken by a triangle of crossed branches, and there it stayed the whole day long.

Its involuntary attackers, though, didn’t have time for rest like that, as they tried to speed up even more on their chase.

"Damn birds!" the smaller one panted out annoyed as he waved his pained right hand, still throbbing from its accidental collision with the poor, flapping bird.

"No need to kill them," his blond companion answered, equally breathless, catching up with him again after having fallen behind at a curve in the alley. "They’re not the enemy, Starsky."

"Wouldn’t you know?" came the growled reply, and yet another corner was taken in flight-like sprint, once more leaving the blond behind, if not for long. "I swear, Hutch, sometimes..." He had to take a short pause to inhale, throwing his partner a glare without slowing down, and decided to leave it at that.

"It’s not my fault the car broke down!" Hutch defended himself.

"It’s your car!"

There was no denying that fact, and so Hutch wisely kept his silence while they chased down another alley. Starsky managed to land in the middle of each and every puddle, sprinkling both their jeans. At the end of this alley, there was an intersection.

Arriving first, Starsky more or less stumbled to an abruptly unsteady halt, jerking his head from one side to the other. "Where’d he go?" he asked, breathlessly.

Behind him, Hutch had taken the chance to try and catch his breath. He was standing hunched over with his hands on his knees, panting. "I have no idea; I didn’t see him."

Glancing over his shoulder at his friend, Starsky let go of a faint breath that lacked the sufficient energy to sound like the desired snort. "Neglected training lately, Blondie?" he quipped. Not waiting for a reply, he took off to the left, leaving Hutch to take the right-hand path.

Grumbling a previously suppressed curse at his own car, Hutch started to sprint down the empty alley, but he stumbled to a halt when he saw it was a dead end. "Aw, damn it to Hell!"

Turning, he ran back and indeed caught his friend’s voice somewhere in the distance of the left-hand path. "Stop! Police!" There was the shortest pause, then a loud crash, a yelp, and then silence.

"Starsk?!" Fright speeding his steps, Hutch practically flew around another corner, almost losing his footing, and stopped at the unexpected sight before him.

One knee pressed firmly into the back of their downed suspect - a pale, lanky kid in his early twenties - Starsky was swearing at him most creatively, while fumbling with his cuffs to get them onto the kid’s wrists. Behind them, the scaffolding on one of the buildings showed slight damage: one wooden pillar was hanging loose, and on the ground an empty bucket lay. If the large, wet, white stain covering Starsky, from his now-matted dark hair down to his blue sneakers was any indication, the paint in the now-empty bucket had been white.

Fighting the first instinct to chuckle helplessly at the sight of his white-striped partner, Hutch tried to swallow the pressing giggle and had to cough. At the noise, Starsky lifted his head, glaring at the approaching blond. He was done with cuffing the young man by now, but continued to sit on him, looking down on himself to inspect the damage for the first time. Having taken it all in, he cuffed the kid around the head with an unintelligible curse, then finally stood, dragging the kid to his feet as well.

"You caught him," Hutch stated smartly, earning a deadly glare through narrowed eyes. Trying to stop the corners of his mouth from twitching, he innocently added, "Are you okay?"

"Peachy," came the growled reply.

Hutch bit his lip ever so quickly to keep from laughing out loud and pointed at the young suspect. "Wanna read him his rights?"

"I don’t want him to have rights," Starsky replied, giving the kid a rough shake.

"’Ey!" the young man protested. "Get him away from me, man!" He looked at Hutch. "T’is is unnecessary force!"

"What’re you, a law student?!" Starsky snapped at him. "Want me to *show* you unnecessary force?!"

"I have a lawyer!" the kid announced, failing miserably in his attempt to sound threatening. The curly haired detective’s fury at him seemed to really scare him.

"That’s something acting in your favor, kid," Hutch said dryly and turned to his partner. "C’mon, let’s get him back to the car."

Starsky stared at him, looking so close to exploding that even Hutch shrank back a tad, repressing the urge to drag the kid away from his friend for his safety.

"What *for*?!"

Flinching at the bark, Hutch opened his mouth to reply, but stopped himself when the truth behind that question suddenly hit him. His face fell. "Oh."

"Uh-huh," Starsky grumbled, looking at his captive as if they were just new acquaintances. "His car broke down," he informed him with a humorless smile that had a slightly crazy look about it.

"I noticed," the kid replied politely.

Rolling his eyes, Starsky ignored him, glaring at his friend again. "Well, Brains?"

"We have to call in for someone to pick us up," Hutch said ruefully.

"Don’t say!" Starsky snapped, starting their long walk back to the LTD, dragging the young man along carelessly and not waiting for Hutch to catch up with him.

"You know, Starsk," the blond said after a moment, "you’re totally overreacting. It’s not my fault. It could’ve happened to anyone. Cars, they break down sometimes. It happens."

The curly, half-white head practically snapped around to him. "Not to mine, it doesn’t."

"I beg your pardon?!" Hutch replied, widening his eyes. "Five minutes of sunshine, and the Tomato’s engine looks like a barbecue!"

"And do you see the sun anywhere?!" Starsky asked, jerking the silently listening kid he’d been guiding in between himself and Hutch to the other side, causing a slight stumble.

"Hey-"

The protest was ignored.

"My car never broke down in the middle of a chase!"

"We got him, didn’t we?" Hutch pointed out defensively.

"*I* got him!"

"Yeah," Hutch smiled sweetly. "I must admit you’re in pretty good shape. I’m really proud of-"

"So help me, Hutch-"

"Um, Officer, you’re sort of hurting-"

"Shut up!" Starsky yelled at the young man, effectively silencing him. "Jeez."

Taking pity on the poor kid, who was starting to look rather uncomfortable, Hutch carefully offered, "D’you want me to take him?"

"No! If the little idiot hadn’t run, none o’ this woulda happened!" Starsky grumbled, glaring down at his captive. "Didn’t your Mom ever tell you to not run away from the police?!"

"Only if they’re in a car," came the thoughtless reply.

Hutch instinctively backed away, as if from his partner’s rage.

*****

The LTD was an image of misery indeed. Smoke from under its hood still rose into the air in tangled ellipses, and the driver’s door hung half-closed, as Hutch had more or less kicked it shut when sprinting off, in order to kill the horn that blared away whenever the door was opened. Whenever he started to reach over to open it a bit and then drag it fully closed, his partner’s piercing glare kept him from it, and with a nervous smile he’d lower his hand again. He was sitting on the passenger seat, their young captive - who’d finally introduced himself as Eric Lardner - having been roughly placed on the back seat, and Starsky was leaning against the car’s side, every now and then softly swearing, as he fingered the white paint on his red t-shirt.

Watching him for a moment, Hutch suddenly grinned. "You know something, Starsk?"

"Hmm…what?" the smaller man grumbled.

"You look like your car."

"Watch it, Blintz, or you’ll end up looking like *your* car."

Saved by dispatch, Hutch quickly turned his attention to the mike again. "Yeah, Zebra Three he-"

"Uh, Hutch?" the lady on duty answered busily. "I’m sorry, but we don’t have any available units in the area at the moment."

Exchanging a glance with his partner, Hutch frowned. "And... what does that mean?"

"No one can come collect you."

Irritated, Starsky grabbed the mike from Hutch. "What d’you mean, no one’ll come?! Didn’t you listen? We got a-" he shot a quick look at Eric Lardner "-suspect with us and no car!"

"Sorry, Starsky, no can do."

"And what d’you suggest we do now?!" Starsky snapped.

"Um...take a cab?"

Starsky stared at the mike, then at Hutch, back, and finally let it fall down into the blond’s lap. "I hate this day," he muttered.

"Aw, cheer up," Hutch muttered, crawling out of his car. "It only just started."

Starsky scowled at him. "Funny, somehow that isn’t helping my mood."

Casting him a sympathetic (and still annoyingly amused) smile, Hutch held the door open for Eric. "Mr. Lardner," he said dryly, making an offering gesture.

"You know, you guys still haven’t read me my rights," the kid told them, while struggling to get out of the car with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Discreetly squeezing his eyes shut, Hutch waited for the reaction to that. When he heard a faint protest, he opened them again to see the young man half outside the car with the passenger door blocking his way, as it was held in place by Starsky.

"You have," the curly-haired detective told the kid. "the right to remain very, very silent. Got that?"

Coughing a little - and most pathetically, too - Eric nodded.

"Good." With that, Starsky let him go, and Hutch took over the door again, holding it open for their captive. "You also," Starsky added after a moment’s thought, "have the right to pay for the cab."

Looking from one detective to the other, Eric widened his eyes. "I-I ain’t got no money with me, guys. I would, honest, but-"

"Yeah, right," Hutch cut him off, throwing the door shut - only to have it bounce right back at him. Ignoring his partner’s annoyed glance, he slowly shoved it closed again and turned back at Eric. "We grabbed you robbing a liquor store, Eric, and you mean to tell us you have no money?"

"I threw it away!" Eric exclaimed excitedly. "When I saw you going after me, I threw it away in some of them alleys." Glancing down on himself, he turned a bit to each side. "Where d’you think I have it?!"

Studying the young man’s clothing - tight black jeans and a green shirt, no jacket - Hutch pursed his lower lip and looked at his partner. "He has a point there, Starsk."

The brunet visibly had to restrain himself, his jaws clenched tightly together, fingers drumming dangerously slowly on the roof of the LTD. When he lifted his index finger to point at Eric, the kid flinched, hard. "We’re going to put that on your bill."

"S-sure," Eric nodded eagerly, suddenly looking much younger than Hutch had first assumed him to be. "Course."

"Well, okay, let’s go find a cab then," Hutch said lightly, smiling at the other men as if they were about to hike up a mountain for fun. "I’ll just lock my c..." Listening to his own echo, he trailed off, grinned sheepishly at Starsky’s annoyed glance, and put his car keys back into his pocket. "On the other hand," he said, starting to walk across the street, "it’s probably safe here, anyway."

"I’d say," Eric muttered. "Even the folks in this area aren’t that desperate."

Chuckling, Starsky grinned first down at Eric, then over his head at Hutch, who frowned indignantly. "Bright boy, huh?"

Hutch cast him a grumpy glance that slid down to the ground at Starsky’s feet quickly. "Try not to leave a trail all the way to the precinct, Buddy," he said.

Frowning questioningly, the smaller detective also looked down to see the smeared white sneaker-prints he left on his way. When his eyes found Eric Lardner again, they were flashing in bright, cold anger once more.

"That wasn’t my fault!" the younger man hastily stated, a pleading gaze finding Hutch. "He crashed into that pillar all by himself!"

"I don’t doubt it, kid," Hutch replied kindly. When his partner shot him a look that could kill, he returned it with a smile.

"Next time we take your car, you can run alone."

They walked down the street for some time, the still rising light following them from behind like a pink-bluish guide. Every so often, Starsky glanced back at his white footprints; they were weakening in intensity, but wouldn’t quite vanish. When he turned back ahead again, Eric would always flinch, awaiting another angry shove. More often than not, he got it.

After fifteen minutes, Starsky checked his watch, then the still-nearly-empty street behind them. He sighed. "What is it with getting a cab in the morning, nowadays?" he grumbled. "Are there no college parties they have to come back into the city from?!" When neither of the others answered, he turned to Eric. "And speaking of the time - don’t you kids have hangovers to nurse at this hour?! What were you doing robbing a store at five in the God- damned morning?!"

Eric shrugged. "Needed money for the ride home."

The detectives exchanged a glance. "If you wanna hit him, Starsk, I’ll look the other way," Hutch offered dryly.

"Thanks, I might hold you to th... There’s a cab," Starsky informed them, as he’d once more looked over his shoulder and now turned to wave.

"See?" Hutch smiled. "The day’s starting to make it all up, you’ll see."

"I’ll like this day when it’s over," his friend replied curtly.

The cab pulled over, and Hutch opened the passenger’s door, showing his badge. The driver frowned, suspicious. "What is this, traffic control or somethin´?"

"No, sir," Hutch smiled, "don’t worry. We just have to inform you that we’re police officers and are transporting a..." He glanced back up at Eric. "Person. Protocol," he added to further reassure the man, yet the driver’s attention had already wandered over to Starsky, who was inspecting his lifted shoe with a disgusted frown.

"I ain’t taking him," the cab driver said, pointing at the curly haired detective. "He’ll ruin my seats."

Puzzled, Hutch looked at his friend. "Um..." he muttered wittily.

"It’s all dried," Starsky said assuringly and ran a hand through his hair for proof, but only drew it out again with an even deeper furrow, studying the sticky, white paint covering his fingers. "Yuck," he observed and wiped it off on Eric’s shirt, ignoring the kid’s gasp of protest.

Hutch turned back to the driver, smiling sweetly. "See? It’s all dried."

****

About 70 minutes later, two very tired detectives Starsky and Hutchinson dragged themselves into the squad room at Metro, taking turns at pushing Eric Lardner in front of them.

"Do you believe all those weirdoes you see on a bus these days?!" Starsky asked, dismayed. "When I was a kid, that was perfectly normal public transportation. I used to ride on the bus all the time."

"Maybe you just didn’t notice it then," Hutch replied, shoving Eric down onto a chair behind his desk and exhaustedly sinking down in his own, rubbing his eyes, before reaching for a piece of paper for the arrest report. "Starsk," he asked in a mixture of a demand and a plea, "get coffee?"

"Hmm? Oh. Yeah," Starsky nodded and turned for the coffee machine and cups, but stopped when his look fell onto his white-strained hand. With a frustrated sigh, he drew it back again. "I’d better go get a shower, first," he told his partner.

"Great idea," a voice from somewhere in the room announced, and several of the early morning shift started to snicker.

"Hey Starsky," another colleague joined in, "you look like your car!"

Lifting his hands in surrender, Starsky turned to the room, nodding. "Yeah, yeah, okay. I got time tomorrow, then I’ll laugh." Facing his partner again, he rolled his eyes at Hutch’s amused grin.

The blond shrugged. "Told you so, Buddy."

Starsky grumbled something unintelligible and rubbed his face, only realizing he was using the paint-smeared hand when it was too late.

Hutch’s head practically fell on top of his typewriter from his giggling.

Still staring grimly at his hand, Starsky let his shoulders slump. "I guess I can dare to say it now: this day can’t possibly get any worse."

"Starsky! Hutchinson! My office. Now!" Captain Dobey’s booming voice echoed through the room.

If possible, the expression of helpless misery increased on the brunet’s white-streaked face.

Making a chiding gesture, Hutch shook his head curtly, as he walked by his friend, patting his shoulder once on his way. "Shouldn’t have said that, Starsk."

They were just about to enter the office, when Eric Larden’s voice kept them back. "Hey, officers! I’m allowed one call, ain’t I?"

"Yeah," Hutch nodded, "sure. The phone’s right there." And with that he closed the door behind them, leaving the cuffed young man staring at the telephone.

Inside Dobey’s office, the detectives saw they weren’t alone. A man in a suspiciously unsuspicious-looking gray suit leaned against the far wall behind Dobey’s desk. At seeing Starsky, one of his brows climbed up in puzzled amusement, but he didn’t speak.

Dobey, who’d marched back behind his desk, had yet to look up at them. "Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson, this is... What happened to you?" he interrupted himself, when he finally lifted his head, frowning at the darker half of the duo.

"Why, what d’you mean?" Starsky asked dryly.

Hutch couldn’t help chuckling at that, but quickly straightened his face again at the scowl his Captain flashed him. "It was an accident, Cap’n," he explained. "We had to chase after a fleeing... suspect."

Growling something in the line of "hmpf" to himself, Dobey shot Starsky one last particularly chiding glare, as if assuming it had been the detective’s intention to embarrass the department in front of a visitor, and finally half-waved behind him. "This is Major Leonard Perry from the National Security Agency. He wants to talk to you two."

The detectives exchanged a quick, confused look.

"Detectives," Perry now spoke, his voice strangely young, yet clearly used to giving orders and being obeyed. "Please have a seat." He lightly pushed himself off the wall and walked up in front of Dobey’s desk, where he leaned against it, arms folded before his chest. "What we have to discuss may take some time. If it is," he smiled back at Dobey, "alright with you, Captain."

"Sure," Dobey muttered, but sharply lifted his head, when Starsky was about to sit down in the chair next to his partner. "Not you."

"What?"

"You’re..." Dobey started and waved at the younger man, who glanced down on himself, understanding.

"It’s all dried, Cap," he tried, sounding like a little kid, who didn’t want to wash his hands before dinner. As if for help, he looked at Hutch, who all of a sudden seemed highly fascinated by the office’s floor.

"Just don’t touch anything," Dobey ordered instead of an answer and, without waiting for another reaction, motioned for Perry to continue.

Seeing his friend’s shoulders shake ever so slightly with a suppressed chuckle, Starsky scowled down at Hutch, but obediently remained standing behind the chair.

"Before I start, I want it to be clear that what you will be told must not leave this room," Perry started. He didn’t even wait for the agreeing nods, but continued. "The NSA needs you, Detectives, for an assignment that might put your lives in great danger."

He made a meaningful pause, studying first Starsky, then Hutch, whose ironic blank gaze slowly wandered up to meet his partner’s.

"Sounds like a job offer hard to resist, doesn’t it?"

Starsky smiled. "And," he turned to Perry, "you aren’t putting your own people..." He lifted his hands to indicate quotation marks, "'in great danger' because...?"

"We don’t have the right men for this assignment," the Major explained. His expressionless mask of serious dignity couldn’t quite hide how much the two younger men annoyed him.

"Who’d be what?" Hutch quipped. "Suicidal?"

In the safety of his desk-space, Dobey sighed.

"Trained undercover specialists," Perry answered coolly, casting the blond detective a piercing glare, "with...unconventional looks."

Surprised, Hutch half-turned in his chair to look his standing partner up and down, finding Starsky doing the same.

"You want us because we’re attractive?" Starsky finally asked.

Keeping up the show, just to get on the Major’s nerves, Hutch lifted his brows as if flattered, when he looked back at Perry.

"No," came the unnerved answer, "but because you two hot-shots look like hippies."

The wave of dismayed shock washing through the room was enough to send Dobey discreetly rubbing his nose in an attempt to hide an amused grin.

"We do?" Hutch asked in a small voice, his eyes wandering up, as if he was trying to check out his own hairline.

"Enough for what we’ve planned for you, anyway," Perry answered, ignoring the act in front of him (and Starsky bending forward slightly, as if he had just found out he actually wore bell bottom jeans) and grabbed a folder from behind him on Dobey’s desk. He started to give it to Starsky, but, catching the shiny white streaks on the brunet’s hands, handed it over to Hutch instead.

"BM Platoon?" the blond read the title on the first page and frowned. "What’s that?"

"BM," Perry started, "stands for Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff; they were German communist terrorists."

"Yeah, I heard about them," Hutch said, his frown deepening as he searched his memory. "But I thought they killed themselves in jail... last year?"

"They did," Perry nodded. "This group," he nodded at the folder, "was founded by an American exchange student, Darren Nicolas, whom they’d met in Berlin, sometime between 1970-72. Back in the US, he organized armory deals in Arabic countries for them, before they were arrested in Germany. After that, he founded this little American version of their original 'Red Army Front'."

"But those guys were anti-American," Hutch pointed out.

"So is Darren Nicolas," Perry said. "He is not to be underestimated. He’s smart, reads a lot. Well-educated, graduated in Yale. He kept any connections to communist groups very well hidden. We never would have noticed him, if he hadn’t traveled back to Germany and tried to visit Baader in jail. He was refused - they’d been held in isolation - but the German security services reported the incident to us, and once we checked him out... Well, let’s say, the United States has been at war with this man for quite some time now, without even being aware of it."

Having bent over his friend’s shoulder to read the page, too, Starsky whistled sarcastically. "That boy has sold more machine guns in two years than my uncle has sold toys in all his life."

"To communist countries," Hutch added. "Smart. Weaken the enemy without being even seen."

Perry nodded. "Once we found out about his 'Platoon', we sent a man inside under the name of Ethan Gerardy. He’s been with them for five months now, keeping us informed about the group’s activities. A few weeks ago, he reported a change in tactics."

"What, now they’re buying?" Starsky asked grimly.

"Not exactly. More like business seemed to have closed down. They’re planning their coming out. At least some."

"What good is there in having an ideology, when you can’t tell anyone?" Hutch nodded.

"What’re they going to do?" his partner asked.

"That," Perry replied gloomily, "is the million dollar question, and the reason we want you two to join Gerardy."

The detectives exchanged a puzzled look. "Wait a second," Starsky said. "You have this cover guy in there, and you know all that." He paused, but when Perry didn’t speak, tilted his head forward expectantly. "Well, what d’you need us for?"

Perry sighed. "The problem is that Gerardy had orders to only stick to Nicolas, and that’s what he did. But, see, Nicolas’ main group has its headquarters on the east cost. The Californian section is rather new. Gerardy barely ever saw them in the past months, and his reports about them didn’t read exactly worrisome. They’re mostly a bunch of unemployed old college grads and, well, old..."

"Hippies," the detectives concluded in unison, nodding understandingly.

"Yes. Though they have all followed Nicolas’ ideals, Gerardy believes they have by now turned into a whole separate group, a much more dangerous one than the original BM Platoon."

"Let me get this straight," Starsky cut in, frowning. "This Nicolas guy is a trained, experienced terrorist, yes?"

"Yes."

"And this Californian section of his army is just a bunch of civilist losers."

"I understand your question, Detective," Perry answered. "But if you’ll think about it, our concern is very reasonable. Organized Marxist terrorists have tactics; they function like national armies. As long as we play our cards carefully and not make our presence known too much, we can keep Nicolas under control, and in freedom he’s of greater use to us than behind bars." He paused for emphasis, then with a sigh added, "Civilists, though, are unpredictable."

Grave silence followed.

"When I was in college," Hutch finally said, his voice dead serious, "there were those guys, who wanted to burn a live dog with Napalm on campus. To show the effects of the Napalm being used in Vietnam. They were students, not in any political party, just very convinced that they were being right."

Starsky stared at him incredulously. "They burned the dog *alive*?!"

"No," Hutch replied. "They wanted to, but they were stopped, before they could really start."

"That’s the sort of folks you’ll meet there," Perry said. "Fanatics, but unorganized."

"Why doesn’t Nicolas keep them under control?" Hutch asked. "It cannot be in his interest to have the amateurs planning to ruin his tactics of laying low."

"He’s not in the US," the Major explained. "He left for the German Democratic Republic three weeks ago. That we found out about his Californians stepping out of line was a coincidence. Gerardy had just came here to check on them, routine. Their... structure, or rather the lack of it, and their talking alarmed him enough to give the order to pull a fullstop on them."

"But not on the 'Platoon' as a whole?" Starsky asked suspiciously.

Casting him a cool look, Major Perry thought about this. When he finally answered, his words seemed carefully chosen, his tone strained. "Like I said, Darren Nicolas has proven to be quite useful for us. We think it safer to have him in the open, where we can see him, than organizing things underground. What we don’t want are well-armed, unguided, unorganized groups of stoned dropouts, whose morals have been severely screwed up."

"But if we find out what they’re planning and bust them," Starsky asked further, "won’t the big boss get suspicious?"

"No, he’ll get careful," came the stern answer, "about who he recruits. That will only act in the interest of us all."

Hutch had already detected a change of mood in his friend, and he wasn’t surprised when Starsky took an almost-threatening step forward at that; no funny-looking paint streaks were able to weaken the air of suppressed rage surrounding him. "I’ll tell you what’d act in *my* interest, Major, and that’d be no communist terrorists being kept 'out in the open' on purpose by the NSA." The calmness with which the words were said didn’t betray the angry accusation behind them.

For a moment, tensed silence filled the room like smoke, and Hutch found himself looking from his friend to the man he focused on and back, then over to Dobey, who watched the scene as expectantly.

"Well, in that case, Detective Hutchinson," Perry replied quietly at last, "let’s just say you’re not to decide what acts in the nation’s interest."

"Starsky," Starsky said tonelessly, not taking his eyes off the other man, while he pointed down at his partner, who gave a small wave and a smile. "He’s Hutchinson."

Perry didn’t even follow the curly-haired detective’s gesture. He simply smiled in faked politeness. "I don’t give a damn."

Hutch’s eyes darted back to Dobey. The silent plea for help hadn’t been necessary, though, as the Captain had already jumped to his feet, before his hot-tempered detective had had the chance for a - most assuredly physical - reply. "With all due respect, Major, if you want to send my men into some lunatic’s out-of-control bunch of other lunatics, you *should* give a damn about who they are."

Visibly impressed, Starsky cast his Captain a proud look, then turned to Perry again, folded his arms in front of his chest and pointed at Dobey with his chin. "What he said."

Glancing from one detective to the other, Perry at last slightly lifted his hands. "I apologize." He paused as if awaiting a thank you-card. None came. "So, Detectives, are you willing to take the job? Since the NSA has no authorities in regional police forces, I cannot order you to do it. All I can do is ask."

Hutch stood, folder still in hand, and cast his friend a quiet look. 'What d’you think?'

"A 'please' would have been nice," Starsky said, as if in answer to the blond’s unspoken question.

"Starsky," Dobey growled chidingly, but Major Perry didn’t seem very impressed.

"Please," he said dryly. "Your country needs you."

Both detectives groaned quietly, rolling their eyes in unison. "Yeah, okay," Hutch quickly said, lifting his hand, "we’ll do it, if you promise to save us the clichés."

"Good," Perry smiled, seemingly snapping a mask of contented, calm politeness back on. "I’m glad to hear that. Now," he busily checked his watch, "I don’t have time to go into the necessary details concerning your cover stories and the how and when right now, but I suggest we’ll meet in my office here in the city, later this afternoon." Expectantly, he looked from one to the other. "Two o’clock alright with you, Detectives?"

Hutch didn’t even bother looking at Starsky; he could practically sense his friend’s face falling. It was seven in the morning, their night shift had ended almost two hours ago, just before they’d surprised Eric Lardner, the liquor store robber, and their next one started at five.

"Sure," Starsky answered for them, and only Hutch heard the muttered "Who needs to sleep, anyway?" that followed.

"Fine," Perry smiled once more, turned to shake Dobey’s head, then Hutch’s. When he reached Starsky, he gestured a half-hearted wink, shrugging apologetically, and at last started for the door.

"Major?" Hutch’s voice held him back.

"Yes?"

"Just one more thing... Why d’you think we’ll make a connection to those people, when your own man hasn’t?" "

"As I told you, he hasn’t been among them much."

"Yeah, okay," Starsky cut in, "but neither will we."

Perry thought about that and finally drew up his shoulders a tad in a regretful-looking gesture. "The truth is, they have too much respect for him. He’s Darren Nicolas’ right hand. Basically - they fear him."

"And you don’t think they could gain too much respect for us too?" Starsky asked.

For the first time since they’d met the Major, a real, obvious emotion crossed his face, as his eyes visibly flashed, one corner of his mouth twitching dangerously, while he let an inspecting glance wander down the two younger men. "I... um... I’ll see you later, Detectives. Have a nice day." And with that, he was gone, as quickly as the door would open.

In the remaining stillness, Starsky and Hutch looked at each other, each one down himself and back, while they turned to face Dobey. "Wow," Starsky stated, playfully impressed. "I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been insulted with just a look."

"I wouldn’t be so sure about that," his partner quipped, but didn’t wait for a reply. "Did you notice he never told us their cover guy’s real name?"

The smaller man shrugged. "Names didn’t seem to particularly matter to him."

A frown was starting on Hutch’s forehead; he hadn’t even listened. "Something about the whole thing feels weird, don’t you think? Maybe they don’t trust their own man anymore. Five months is a long time."

"Could be," Starsky agreed. "Though that wouldn’t have sprung to my mind on the cue of 'something weird'. Can you believe they choose to have a known international terrorist on the loose?! Whatever happened to the *real* security agents, the good guys? James Bond."

"He left for England," Hutch commented dryly, so lost in his own thoughts he didn’t even take the time to fully roll his eyes at that. "You know something? I really don’t feel so good about this. Not at all." He shook his head.

"Is that why we said yes?"

Casting him a glance, Hutch tilted his head backwards in surprise. "No, that was because our country needs us."

"Ah, yes. Right."

"Are you two heroes through now?" Dobey’s sudden grumpy question cut off any further joking.

"Absolutely," Hutch assured and flashed his superior a smile that his partner instantly copied.

Silence stretched, the Captain’s gaze changing into expectation, as his fingers started to slowly drum on the table.

"Oh." Nodding slowly to indicate he understood, Hutch lifted his index finger. "Right. C’mon, Buddy," he waved, turning for the door.

"Hey," Starsky suddenly started with a frown, when they were almost out of the office, "d’you really think we look like-" But the rest was cut off by Hutch dragging the door closed behind them.

Left alone in the relaxing quiet of his office, Dobey let go of a deep breath and leaned back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling as if for an answer. "Why do they *always* have to say, ‘yes’ to everything?!"

*****

"I can’t believe someone would *do* such a thing!" Starsky stated some time later, when they were at his place. A nice uniformed patrol team had driven them there, after they’d finished the arrest report on Eric Lardner (who had turned out to indeed be a law student), and Starsky was getting ready for a much needed shower, plucking disgustedly at his t-shirt, which had had become glued to his chest by the finally-dried paint.

"I didn’t think you’d hold such a speech," Hutch replied lazily from the living room, where he’d plopped down on the couch, too tired to even reach out for the remote control on the table. Regretfully, he focused on it through exhausted eyes, as if trying to move it with sheer brain power. "Thought you didn’t like dogs."

"So? I don’t like my landlady, but still I wouldn’t set her on fire."

"I don’t think they held grudges against that particular dog, y’know," Hutch said. "It was just any dog."

Starsky’s head appeared in the doorway. "Okay - I wouldn’t burn any landlady." His gaze fell upon something white on his floor, and, bending a bit closer, he saw that it was the faintest footprint. "I would make an exception for inanimate things, though," he grumbled grimly. "Like cars."

"Oh, shit," Hutch muttered. Until that comment, he had not moved or looked at his friend, but he now lifted one hand to rub his eyes. "I forgot my car."

"I haven’t," his friend replied mercilessly and turned back into the room. Two minutes later, the sound of water running filled the apartment.

Bending his head back in an attempt to look at the phone in the kitchen from his position, which was impossible, Hutch contemplated using the opportunity to quickly call the Auto Club, while his partner wasn’t hovering around him, shooting off comments.

Yet... he just couldn’t seem to bring himself to get off that couch. It wasn’t that the shift that lay behind them had been a particularly stressful one; in fact, it’d been a quiet night, nothing more than checking out a few suspicious places, a bar quarrel or two and, of course, Eric Lardner. But still, he felt like he could sleep for a day. Or at least past two in the afternoon. Not aware that his eyes had already drifted shut, he sighed. Whose God-damned idea had it been to say 'yes' to this great new assignment, anyway?! Communist college grads - uuuhhh, this was going to be so much fun, and he knew it!

He almost fell off the couch when something damp suddenly landed on his face with unnecessary force. Reaching up to tear the towel away, Hutch glared after his friend, who had walked past the couch into the kitchen.

"Don’t fall asleep like that," Starsky advised, "or your neck’s going to kill ya later. Besides, you shouldn’t fall asleep, anyway, for when *you* fall asleep, *I* fall asleep, and then we’ll miss our appointment with Major Smartass." Carrying two steaming mugs of coffee, he returned to the couch and, without looking, plopped down on it, so that Hutch had to quickly lift his legs. Unimpressed, he immediately rested them across Starsky’s thighs, accepting the mug his friend handed him.

"And that’d be bad, because...?" he muttered.

Casting him a glance, Starsky shrugged. "Dunno. You were the one who wanted to be there for your country. Not to mention you told him about your dog-burning friends, which really set him off." He paused, took a sip from his coffee and, leaning his head back, studied the blond again. "I still don’t believe people actually wanted to do such a thing! Where you there?"

"What, when they tried to burn Spot?"

Starsky’s dismayed gaze snapped back from where he’d looked into his coffee. "I thought you said he didn’t have a name!"

"It," Hutch replied calmingly, "didn’t have one."

"Not. Funny," his friend informed him grimly.

"Yeah, I was there. Everyone was, y’know, it was around lunchtime, really crowded." He shook his head, gazing off into the faded past for a moment. "We didn’t even understand what they were doing, until some professor stopped them."

"God. Didn’t the poor thing wail like hell?"

"They’d sedated it first," Hutch explained. "Y’know, that’s what they said later. 'It wouldn’t have suffered; it was *sedated*'," he mimicked a surprised tone.

"Real humanitarians, your college fellows," Starsky commented dryly.

"Yeah," the blond nodded. "I’m pretty sure the only reason they didn’t use a kid for that was that none of them had baby brothers." He shook his head. "They were really bad weirdoes, let me tell you. And they weren’t even alone. I remember this guy from my medicine class, Ronald Whatever, who demanded we all go on strike to protest their arrest."

"And did you?"

"Not really. We offered to have him locked in a cage on campus, to show the inhumanity of jails, but he refused. Even though we said we’d sedate him."

Starsky snickered. "I didn’t know college life was that dangerous."

"Oh, yeah," Hutch nodded in faked exaggeration. "You vets have no idea!"

Laughing, Starsky patted Hutch’s feet as if for reassurance.

"But, honest, Starsk," the blond said after a moment, the humor having left his tone, "they were idiots, no doubt, but not dullards. They were smart kids, and they thought they were *right*. If they’d have gotten the chance - they’d have killed people for their cause, too. They would have burned that dog alive, if they hadn’t been stopped."

His partner studied him seriously. "You think our civilist losers are planning something big, don’t you?"

Hutch didn’t answer; the look he shot Starsky was enough.

"Well, there’ll be no dog burnings, I can tell you that," the brunet stated with a determined nod, and Hutch chuckled lightly.

"I’m sure any pets they might have will feel much safer with you around, Buddy."

Starsky smiled, but a shadow started to crawl over his features, as his gaze seemed to be drawn into some long-faded past as if by invisible fingers. "I don’t get this, Hutch, y’know? I mean..." He trailed off briefly, glancing at his friend with a sadness in his eyes that Hutch had seldom seen there. "That wasn’t something that needed to be carried over here."

Understanding, Hutch felt his heart fill with helpless sympathy. Since his hand was too far away for a real squeeze, he flapped it lightly against his friend’s forearm.

Noticing the gesture, Starsky smiled, blinked his gaze away. When he looked back at Hutch, whatever memories had caught up with him seemed once more gathered together, stashed away safely behind playfully twinkling midnight blues which narrowed a bit under a frown, as the curly head was tilted to one side. "You know something, Blondie?"

Catching the imitation of his own usual tone, Hutch shook his head, expecting the wisecrack that followed.

"You *could* do with a haircut."

The blond rolled his eyes. "Starsk, I hate to break news to you, Buddy, but when Perry said we look unconventional, he was really talking about you."

"That so?" Starsky asked indignantly. "I’m not the one wearing bell-bottom corduroy."

With the hint of a somewhat nervous frown appearing on his face, Hutch glanced at his pants ever so briefly, before looking at his smugly grinning partner. "But you’re the one looking like Grizzly Adams."

Mouth open to shoot back a reply, Starsky suddenly stopped himself, as he blinked upwards at a loose stray of still-damp, curly hair that had fallen over his eyes. "Okay," he said in a compromising tone, "maybe we *both* could do with a haircut."

Thinking about that for the briefest moment, Hutch nodded at last and held his empty mug up. "Right." He yawned. "And more coffee."

*****

Drop-dead tired, the two detectives sat in Major Leonard Perry’s office a few hours later, taking turns with wide yawns, as they waited for their belated host to show.

"Did you see how cute that secretary was?" Starsky asked in a tone so tired anyone but his best friend would have mistaken for being bored. "How come a flake like Perry has a girl like her working for him?!"

"Maybe we work for the wrong company," Hutch yawned.

"Maybe she’s a spy," Starsky suggested.

Hutch cast him an expressionless look. "Maybe you shouldn’t watch late night thrillers anymore."

"Maybe you’re getting on my nerves," Starsky grumbled. He let go of a tired breath and checked his watch for the hundredth time that minute. "What’s he doing? He’s ten minutes late."

"Savin’ the country," Hutch muttered with tired sarcasm.

"Oh, you really think he went on a vacation?"

Hutch grinned.

At that moment, the door was swiftly opened, energetic footsteps introducing Major Perry’s entrance long before the detectives had even found the willpower to turn in their chairs. Perry’s "Good afternoon, Detectives" came from behind them, so they only smiled half-heartedly in response, when Perry had already lowered himself on a chair behind his massive desk.

"Good seeing you again," the Major continued with unpleasant eagerness and smiled toothily.

Starsky opened his mouth to reply something, but was cut off by his wiser partner. "Yep."

Looking from one detective to the other, obviously just now taking in the deep shadows under tired eyes and strained features, Perry let his wide smile fade a bit and obviously decided to leave out some of his other greeting phrases and instead move on to the core of the discussion. "From your presence here, I take it you had no second thoughts about agreeing to the assignment." He waited, brows lifted, as if it had been a question.

Starsky looked at his partner, then back to Perry, and shrugged. "We’re here."

Seeing an unsure frown starting on Perry’s forehead, Hutch added, "Just tired. Never mind."

"Well..." Another inspecting glance. "Good. I have here," Perry continued, lifting a handful of folders from his desk, "some files about the known members of the Californian platoon. " He handed them over to them. "So that you can get to know the people you’ll have to put up with. I spoke to Gerardy after our conversation this morning, and we’ve decided upon sending one of you up there the day after tomorrow."

"*Up* there?" Starsky asked.

"They have a sort of camp, if you want to call it that, south of Monterey, a few miles from the coast."

To his partner’s hidden amusement, a suspicious shadow crossed Starsky’s eyes. "A 'sort of camp'?" he asked. "Like tents and fireplaces and bushes and hunting bears for breakfast?"

"Like cabins," Perry answered annoyedly.

"’Kay," the brunet nodded slowly. "That’s alright. I guess," he added in a mutter, looking up as Hutch reassuringly patted his shoulder.

"Like I said," Perry went on, ignoring the silent banter taking place in front of him, "Gerardy and I believe it’ll be best to have you enter the group separately, so as to not draw any suspicion towards you. You shouldn’t act like you know each other. According to Gerarady, they’re very trusting, if someone has been sent to them by Nicolas - which will be the case, since Gerarady is going to introduce each of you as a newbie - but they do have problems acknowledging already established relationships. They want to have met each other only via the shared idea." At the detectives´ puzzled expressions, he shrugged in a 'What’d I tell you?' kind of way.

"Gerardy has," he continued after a moment, checking some notes on his desk, "spread the word that they need an armory specialist - Nicolas’ order - and he’ll introduce you," he pointed at Hutch, "first to them, in two days, and..." Again, he checked his notes, "Hutchinson about a week later with some other expla-"

"Um," Hutch interrupted him, "I’m Hutchinson."

Lifting his head, brows furrowed, Perry looked at him. "You sure?"

Hutch just looked at him blankly for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Quite."

"Oh. So you’re Starsky then?" Perry asked, turning to Starsky, who nodded in annoyance. "Right," the Major said with a smug smile. "Now I remember. I didn’t recognize you without the white stripe."

Starsky opened his mouth, but at sensing his partner’s glance on him, closed it firmly, settling for a nod.

Unaware of the verbal attack he had just been spared, Perry flapped through his notes, as he went on, "Okay. Starsky." Having found what he’d looked for, he cast the brunet a questioning look. "You been to ’Nam?"

"Uh... yeah."

"Good. We’ll have you introduced as their new machine guns specialist."

"Oh. Um, I’m... I’m not sure 'specialist' is the right-" Starsky started, but was cut off by Perry with a wink.

"Don’t worry, Detective. You’re dealing with a bunch of well-off dropouts here. They can’t tell a gun from a can opener. You know how to take a machine gun apart and put it back together, don’t you?"

"Sure."

"That’ll suffice," Perry waved assuringly. "I bet you’ll be their hero."

Listening with growing unease, Hutch couldn’t help thinking that the 'your lives will be put in grave danger' assignment they had agreed to that morning had seemed to change into a piece of cake too fast to trust it. A side-glance at his partner told him he wasn’t the only one wondering.

"Do whatever preparation you usually do," Perry said pleasantly, pointing at the folders he’d given them both. "Get to know the flakes, and Gerardy will collect you on Thursday morning. He’ll leave on Saturday for Seattle again and come to collect you," and, again he pointed at Hutch, this time with an apologetic smile, "Hutchinson?"

Hutch nodded with barely-hidden irritation.

"Yes, you," Perry continued, "a few days later, something like Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. We’ll let you know." He looked down at his notes again, smiled contentedly, and lifted his gaze. "Any questions?"

"Your man will be in Seattle over the weekend and then get straight down here," Hutch said without any introduction.

Perry nodded. "To pick you up, yes."

"Yeah, I got that. What I’m wondering about is... Doesn’t that mean we’ll be leaving Starsky on his own for days? With no possible way of contacting anyone?"

Perry studied him silently for a moment, his smile gone, contemplating his answer. "Yes. Does that present any problems?"

"Well, no," Hutch answered sharply, "except that I don’t like it."

Perry grinned, looking decidedly pissed. "I’m so sorry to hear that. I wasn’t aware you’re his mother."

For once, it was Starsky who had to quickly cut in in order to keep things at a non-insulting level. "Major," he hastily said, before Hutch had even thought up a fitting reply, "no need to..." Realizing he was about to get pretty insulting himself, too, he swallowed the rest of the sentence and instead added, "You have to understand that the BCPD plays undercover cases differently. We have to get used to your ways of operating first."

Perry didn’t even look at him, gaze still focused on Hutch, whose boiling anger was hardly contained. "Then I suggest you hurry," he said sarcastically, and let his eyes wander over to meet Starsky. "For you have only two days left. And now, please excuse me, I’m awaited at a meeting."

The conversation was over. Without looking back or another word, the major stood and swiftly left the room, the door falling closed behind him with a soft click.

Starsky and Hutch were alone.

Silence passed, stretching into seconds, seeing neither man move. They remained sitting, with their arms folded in front of them, as they stared jointly at the major’s desk.

"I say," Starsky finally spoke, his voice calm, emotionless, "we put dog poop in his desk drawer."

His partner snickered, not looking at him. "Since that beats my idea of just taking the whole office apart... Okay."

*****

'Boy, am I glad I never had to wear glasses as a teen,' Hutch thought, casting his mirror-image a last sympathetic look, before taking off the thin-framed glasses again he’d finally settled on for Philip Hunter, his 'BM Platoon' alter ego.

It was Tuesday morning, and he was busy (and glad to be busy) packing for his trip up to the platoon’s camp later that evening. After Starsky’s departure on Thursday, he had been left with pretty much nothing to do, since there was no use in creating an undercover persona while he didn’t know what tasks Gerardy had thought up for his character.

With his typical lack of mercy, Captain Dobey had, upon being informed about the situation, presented him with his and his partner’s unfinished paperwork (ninety percent of that being Starsky’s - if you asked Hutch.) and for the better of the last three days, he had spent his time proving the rumor to be right that *no one*, not even his best friend, could read Starsky’s notes. Thank God Perry had called that morning - Hutch couldn’t help thinking he’d be ready to join any random group without necessarily being undercover...

In his free time, he’d worked on reading his way into the group via the files Perry had left them. They were a rather small bunch of people, four men and a women in their early-to-mid-thirties, and with one exception, their biographies read strikingly alike. They had all been arrested - or at least suspended - during their college days, due to some protest activities. Only one of them, the former founder of a political college party at Berkeley, Brighton Dobbs, had actually graduated; all the others were dropouts. As far as the files went, they had never worked in a regular job, except for serving at their parents’ country clubs (if that counted as a real job). Reading his way through those people’s stories, Hutch had had the strange feeling he *knew* these folks. Not them, specifically, but their... kind. He’d made a bet with himself that, when he saw them, he would be able to tell who was who without needing to be introduced.

Walking back to the bed, where a half-packed sports bag waited for him, he picked up another t-shirt to stash it inside - unfolded, of course - and hesitated, when he noticed it belonged to Starsky. Red with a white phrase written on it. Hutch grinned. It wasn’t the first time he wondered how his partner might be doing among this very unfamiliar crowd of people. Being undercover with a street gang would probably be less uncomfortable for his curly-haired friend, Hutch mused, his grin taking on a somewhat gloating tinge. Trying to picture his friend among all those 'just-talk's had proven to be a good way to keep the nagging concern at bay. He stashed the t-shirt into the bag.

"So, who d’you figure you’re gonna be, when we meet again?" Starsky had asked on the day of his departure, his neatly packed army bag standing ready in front of his feet, preparing to leave both his apartment and Hutch behind.

Hutch had shrugged. "Dropout, probably. The cool part’s already taken." He’d waved at his friend regretfully.

Starsky had grinned. "Sorry to break the news to ya, Brains, but you basically *are* a dropout, y’know?"

Hutch had just returned the grin, nodding slowly, sarcasm dripping from his words. "Yeah. Thanks for reminding me. And you have fun with them, Buddy. I’m sure they’ll love you."

"Don’t worry about me," Starsky had said. "I’m the tough vet. When they get on my nerves, I’m entitled to kick their butts."

"Oh, boy," Hutch had sighed, rubbing his eyes, as if tired. "Just don’t overdo it." He’d looked at him again. "Okay? I mean that, Starsk. Think you can try to stay out of trouble until I get there?"

"Sure," his friend had smiled reassuringly. "I can try."

Another sigh, but Hutch had wisely kept from commenting on that. He’d just said a very dry-humored "Great." and added, "Got everything? Badge?"

"Yep," Starsky had replied in his best army manner, straightening his posture.

"Toothbrush?"

"Yep."

"Name?"

"Um..." Starsky had muttered, caught, but then had snapped his fingers. "Going to be introduced."

"Starsk-"

"No, it’s gonna look way more credible that way." And with that he’d picked up his bag, doing a mock salute before opening the door. "See you in a few, Blintz."

"Yeah. See you... Stranger," Hutch had said, still looking none-too-happy about this part of the plan.

Starsky had crooked his lips, thinking. "Hey, that could be a cool name." At Hutch’s expression, he’d grinned once more, then had patted the blond’s shoulder and turned to leave.

"Just be careful, Strange," Hutch had called after him, but had just received a 'don’t worry' wave.

He only hoped his partner had kept his promise.

About an hour later, Detective Kenneth Hutchinson had completed his transformation into Philip Hunter, college smartass, and was sitting in a cell at some police station Perry had picked for the meeting. The plan was to have Ethan Gerardy get this newest 'platoon' member straight out of jail, where Philip Hunter had been brought after an - if you asked Hutch - unnecessarily rough arrest.

Absently trying to rub his aching wrists, where the cuffs bit into his flesh, Hutch checked the clock at the far wall of the cell and sighed grumpily. Obviously following a quite irritating characteristic, the Major was late. Hutch couldn’t help wondering if he was being left there some time longer than necessary on purpose. But then - it wasn’t that the Major had any real *reason* to despise the two Bay City cops, was it?

Hutch grinned to himself, and as if on cue, the door was finally opened, revealing Major Perry and a man about Hutch’s height with straight black hair and hard features, his ice blue eyes appearing almost soft, like a cloudy blue sky, yet cold at the same time. He wore a black, spotless suit, complete with a red tie.

Hutch stood, looking at Perry expectantly, whose eyes fell upon the blond’s cuffed hands. Without any greeting, he stated, "Can’t say I don’t find this picture highly satisfying."

His gaze wandering off briefly, Hutch grimaced slightly, before casting the major a convincingly innocent look. "About your drawer... That was Starsky’s idea."

"Funny," Perry grumbled, producing the key from his pocket, but handed it to the other man. "That’s not what he said."

Trying his very best to suppress a grin, Hutch wisely kept his silence and instead held his hands out for the man in the suit to finally get the cuffs off him. "You’re Gerardy?" he asked.

The man nodded and took a step back to shake Hutch’s hand. "Call me Ethan," he said with a smile, then frowned as he tried to recall Hutch’s name. "Um..."

"Phil," Hutch helped him with his cover name. "Hunter."

"Right," Ethan waved his index finger at him and let a brief glance wander down the detective’s form. "You guys are really good, d’you know that?" he asked, honestly impressed. "Your partner too. Fit in there perfectly." He looked back at Perry, who stood with his arms crossed, waiting impatiently. "Good men you sent me, Leonard."

"I’m so glad you’re happy with them," Perry grumbled, his piercing eyes finding Hutch once more, before he opened the door and left without any further word.

Gerardy looked after him, then with a wide grin back at Hutch. "He hates your guts," he informed him happily.

Hutch shrugged boyishly. "Can’t say I mind."

Gerardy laughed, holding the door open for them. "Know something? I think I like you, Hunter."

"Phil," Hutch corrected him half-heartedly, but wasn’t heard.

*****

"So, how’s my partner?" Hutch asked, when they were in Gerardy’s car some time later, on the road out of the city.

"Funny, when stoned," Gerardy answered dryly and, at the blond’s wide eyes added, "Word of advice: don’t eat Zadie’s cookies." A somewhat smug smile crossed his eyes. "I may have forgotten to tell your friend."

"Zadie, that’d be Susanna Morgan?" Hutch asked, meaning the one woman the files had mentioned. The piece of - probably highly embarrassing - information regarding his friend he safely kept in his mind, knowing he wouldn’t miss an opportunity like *that* to tease his friend for a million bucks.

Gerardy nodded. "I see you’ve done your homework, Detective."

"I had some time to spare on my hands," Hutch muttered in response. "Do you have any idea what we may be facing by now?"

"You mean what the Looneys are planning?"

"Is that what you call them?" Hutch asked with a puzzled smile.

Catching the hidden tone in the blond’s voice, Gerardy cast him a quick glance. "I admit it; I haven’t been around them much. I guess the Major let you in on most of the information."

Hutch nodded. "You didn’t think they’d be that much of a problem, huh?" he asked, understanding.

The other man sighed affirmatively, reaching up to loosen his tie. "To tell you the truth, Hunter-" Either he didn’t see Hutch’s slight cringe at his alias’ last name or he ignored it - "I screwed up majorly there. I was so focused on playing Darren’s shadow, I never even paid enough attention to the Looneys to learn all their names. Your friend probably knows more about them by now than I do. I’ve had my hands full with tracking down an armory deal up in Canada last month, and when I stopped by at Camp California, Zadie and Dobbs were all over me with this 'necessity to tell the public' and stuff." Taking his hands off the steering wheel, he waved them briefly in a mocking gesture.

"But you didn’t let Nicolas handle it," Hutch stated.

Gerardy threw him a quick look. "No." There was a short pause, then, with what to Hutch sounded like exhausted guilt, Gerardy admitted, "They’re getting on my nerves. Okay? I want them out of the way. I can’t concentrate on what’s going on with the *real* platoons, when those wannabe terrorists are giving me constant cause to worry. They’re able to do something really stupid, like, *in* the country, and that could endanger our other operation as well."

Hutch watched him for a long moment. When he spoke, his voice was calm, cool. "I don’t expect you to tell me about your other operation, Ethan. My partner and I are interested in the something really stupid they *could* do in the country."

Surprised, Gerardy looked at him, then smiled. "Good thing we have that settled," he said.

Hutch nodded.

*****

'Camp California' lay so close to the coast you could smell the sea, the whole area reminding Hutch more of some rich family’s summer residence than of an actual camp. There was a small wooden cabin, complete with a wide, furnitured porch, an olive green army tent some steps away - and an old, white house with two floors.

A rusty old jeep stood neatly parked in front of the house, but otherwise the place seemed empty when Gerardy pulled over, parking his car next to the jeep. He turned to Hutch. "Welcome to Looneytown," he smiled ironically and waved at the scenery. "You look just like your partner did."

"Well," Hutch started, "w-we’d expected something a bit less..."

"Large?" Gerardy helped, and Hutch nodded. "I know," he said and opened the door, "but, remember, they’re all used to country clubs. You wouldn’t think they’d settle for caves, would you? And, by the way, Hunter," he added the faked name with emphasis, looking directly at Hutch, "you wouldn’t, either. Don’t forget that."

Understanding, Hutch nodded curtly, drew in a deep, bracing breath and opened the passenger door. Outside, he caught his bag as Gerardy threw it at him while banging the trunk closed again and walking ahead to give the newcomer the grand tour.

They started in the house, whose door was unlocked. "Okay," Gerardy started, pointing around with curt, almost hasty gestures, "that’s what we call the lobby, here’s where everything happens."

It was a large, almost empty room that had once been the living room. Huge windows bathed it in the golden, late-afternoon light, and there were only a couple of large wooden chairs and a few sitting mattresses in it. With no wall or door in between them, it melted into the kitchen, which consisted of a breakfast bar, a table, and three half-broken chairs.

"Kitchen," Gerardy said unnecessarily. "Upstairs," he pointed at the stairs starting in one corner, "is where Dobbs and Zadie have their rooms, and yours is there too, I think."

Looking around, trying to take it all in and feeling like a kid again, back when he was sent to visit family members. Hutch placed his bag on the floor, nodding, when Gerardy looked at him as if for a reaction.

"There," Gerardy continued, pointing at a corner, behind which another door hid, "is-"

Before he could finish his sentence, the door was opened, and a young man wearing only boxers and some rock band’s t-shirt shuffled out into the bright lobby, his messed up flaxen hair making it pretty clear that he had only now gotten out of bed. Upon seeing the two other men, he waved lazily. From his files Hutch assumed this was one of the younger, richer group members, a San Francisco kid named Norton McLean.

"McLean," Gerardy introduced him in a tone that left little room for interpretation. McLean clearly wasn’t his favorite.

"Hey," McLean muttered, looking Hutch up and down.

"Good Morning," Hutch quipped.

"Mac, that’s Hunter," Gerardy said, pointing at Hutch with his thumb. "He’s new."

McLean nodded, unimpressed. "Cool," he mumbled, grabbed an open can of orange-juice from the breakfast bar and shuffled back behind his corner. The sound of his door falling closed followed.

Hutch glanced at Gerardy, who shrugged. "There are more and less dangerous people living here," he explained. "Let’s go find the rest."

They left the house through the backdoor that led from the kitchen onto the paths down to the cabin. A young girl of maybe twenty walked up the small hill to the house, heading towards the two men. Upon seeing them, she grinned and sped up her pace. Even from a distance, Hutch could see she was extremely pretty, slim, with long blond hair that flooded down from her head like a curtain of silk. All she wore was a blue mini skirt and a bright pink bikini top.

"Oh," Gerardy said, lifting his index finger, "forgot to mention-"

"Hi, Ethan!" the girl called out, audibly chewing gum, and came to a halt in front of them. "Who’s your friend?" Her smile grew toothy, as she looked Hutch up and down quite appreciatively.

Blushing a shade, Hutch smiled sheepishly. "I’m-"

"Hunter," Ethan interrupted him hastily, "that’s Pixie. Pix, why don’t you be a good girl and go tell the others we have a newbie here?"

Not taking her eyes off the detective, Pixie batted her eyelashes. "Maybe because I don’t wanna be a good girl?" she asked huskily.

Rolling his eyes, Gerardy stepped forward to grab her shoulders, drag her away from Hutch and turn her around, giving her a little shove, as he said, "Okay, then how about doing it because otherwise I’ll be pissed?"

"Party pooper," she grumbled and threw Hutch a smile, before wandering off again. "See ya, Hunter."

Hutch only lifted his fingers slightly, wide questioning eyes finding Gerardy, who smiled apologetically. "That’s another thing I forgot to tell your partner," he said. "Don’t talk to Pixie."

"Who *was* that?!" Hutch whispered urgently. "I didn’t read about her."

"Pixie," Gerardy explained. "She’s Topher Martin’s girl. Dumb as toast, but dangerous in her own way. Trust me, don’t talk to her."

Topher Martin was the one 'platoon' member, who had not been in college and in no political party, either, but, like Starsky, in Vietnam and after that, unlike Starsky, in jail. Four years for serious bodily injury and robbery.

"Oh," Hutch muttered.

Patting his back, Gerardy led him further down the hill. "Don’t worry; as long as you don’t talk to her, you’re safe. Ah, there’re the others."

And indeed there were two other people, a woman, Zadie, and a man Hutch thought to be a man named Christian Gruder, approaching them.

"Hey, Ethan," Zadie greeted them and looked at Hutch. She was small, only reaching up to Hutch’s shoulder, and rather fragile looking, but one look into her clear, green eyes told you that she was no girl and didn’t like to be called one, either. A strong will marked her sharp features, giving her a hard appearance, almost cold, seemingly ever-defensive.

"Zadie," Gerardy smiled, "meet Hunter."

Zadie held out her small hand. "Hi there. I’m Zadie."

"Phil," Hutch smiled. She nodded as if he’d given a statement and turned to Christian Gruder, who had come to a halt behind her. "Christian, this is Hunter."

Hutch couldn’t help casting Gerardy a helpless glance, but the undercover agent wasn’t looking.

"Hi," Christian Gruder smiled, giving Hutch’s hand a weak shake. "Good to have you here. Where’re you from?"

"City," Hutch replied curtly and watched the shy smile fade into what looked like the beginnings of fear.

"Cool," Christian mumbled, his gaze dropping.

"Where’re the others?" Gerardy asked Zadie, stretching to look over to the cabin, where Pixie had reclaimed a chair on the porch, where she’d sat down, leaning back as if dozing.

"Dobbs and McLean are sleeping," Zadie answered, annoyed. "Had another one of them 'men’s nights'," she made quotation marks with her fingers for emphasis, "with the guys yesterday."

At that, Hutch’s head snapped back to her from where he’d looked at the cabin and tent interestedly, but he kept himself from asking. Why would it surprise him, anyway, that in a group like *this* Starsky would belong to 'the guys'?

"Topher and Snoopy are down, trying to get the VW back on track," Zadie continued. Fortunately, she wasn’t the attentive type, so that the small cough of amused surprise Hutch was unable to suppress passed her by unnoticed.

'Snoopy?!'

"’Kay," Gerardy nodded, having also missed the twinkling in Hutch’s eyes. "Thanks. Come on, Hunter, I’ll introduce you to-"

"'The guys'?" Hutch asked sarcastically.

Gerardy grinned and turned to lead the way. Zadie and Christian left, walking up to the house.

It wasn’t two minutes before Hutch could hear his partner’s voice from somewhere behind the cabin, calling over the roar of a car’s engine.

"No, stop! Topher! Stop it, man, this ain’t gonna work!"

The girl, Pixie, only blinked one eye open lazily, when Gerardy and Hutch walked around the cabin. She was lying on a chair that stood on the porch with her long legs hanging casually over one armrest. Hutch avoided looking at her. At the back of the cabin, they saw Starsky bending over the inner organs of a bright yellow minibus, whose cracked, rusty hood was held in place with a wooden stick.

Taking the opportunity, Hutch allowed a quick grin travel over his face at the unfamiliar sight. His friend was clad in jeans and a white t-shirt so dirty and oil-streaked they could have stood on their own. His hair, sticking out wildly, was held back by a blue bandana - and in one corner of his mouth stuck a burning cigarette.

The sound of the driver’s door being thrown shut tore Hutch’s attention towards the second man, Topher Martin, who had jumped out of the bus at seeing Gerardy, and was now approaching them with slow strides. He was tall, muscular, with very short dark hair and a firm set of massive jaws that dominated his face. His hands finding his pockets, he produced a cigarette and placed it between his lips. He didn’t make a face about that, even though a large bluish red bruise was visible around his mouth.

Somehow, Hutch couldn’t help thinking he knew how that had ended up there.

"Hey ’Rardy," he muttered, nodding at Gerardy in a salute-like gesture, before focusing on the blond detective. "Welcome." He stretched out a large, dirty hand.

Spotting Starsky turning around at the voices behind him, Hutch looked down at the hand, but didn’t take it. Instead, he adjusted the glasses on his nose, watching Topher Martin draw his hand back with an angry look.

"Hunter," Gerardy said, having understood the act, "these are Topher and-"

"Snoopy," Hutch finished with a smug expression he know only his partner would be able to read. Yet, it faded, when Starsky fully turned, wiping his hands off on an edge of his already soiled t-shirt. He, too, wore a colorful, large bruise around his left eye, and his left thumb was covered with a white, dirt-streaked bandage.

"Sam," he corrected and didn’t even bother to offer Hutch his hand. "Hunter?" he instead asked in a tone that sounded like payback.

"Phil," Hutch answered, looking directly at his friend, but only received a 'Don’t ask' look in return.

Starsky turned to Gerardy, taking the burned down cigarette out of his mouth and snapping it away. "Ethan, we need a new car."

Gerardy arched his brows, surprised. "I bring you a new member, and that is all the ‘thank you’ I get?"

Throwing Hutch a disparaging glance, Starsky shrugged. "What d’you expect?"

Playing along, Hutch rolled his eyes in obvious irritation, aware that Topher Martin was still glaring at him as well.

"Boys," Gerardy started, hands lifted defensively, "I told you there’s nothing I can do. You have the jeep; take it or leave it. But don’t get on my nerves, because this... flowermobile is giving you grief, okay? I have enough on my mind as it is." As if for emphasis, he checked his watch. "Actually I need to get going right now. I’ll be back, tomorrow." He pointed a warning finger at the two men. "You behave, you hear?"

Now it was Starsky’s turn to roll his eyes. "You don’t have to tell us every time, man!" he exclaimed, hands starting to pat at his pockets, obviously looking for something that wasn’t there. "What d’you take us for, kids?"

Topher grinned.

"You don’t want an answer to that, do you?" Gerardy replied dryly and, having watched Starsky’s searching movements for a second, produced a pack of cigarettes from his own jacket. Taking one himself, he flipped the bag at Starsky, who caught it in the air, and turned with a parting pat on Hutch’s back. "Show Hunter the way back to his room for me, will ya, Sam?" he said, already leaving.

"Aye, aye, sir!" Starsky called after him. "And, hey, Ethan!"

Walking on, Gerardy glanced back questioningly.

"Nice suit!"

The undercover man flashed up his middle finger and continued on his way.

Topher snickered, accepting the bag of cigarettes Starsky held out for him, after having taken out one for himself. When he looked up at Hutch, who hadn’t moved, his face darkened.

Watching, Starsky nudged his shoulder. "Hey, Pal, why don’t you go get cleaned up before dinner? I think I can handle Smarty Smurf by myself."

When Topher only looked at him, he lifted his brows expectantly. "Hmm?"

Finally, the larger man nodded reluctantly and, bumping into Hutch’s shoulder as he walked past him, left.

The moment Topher Martin was out of sight, Starsky practically let himself fall against Hutch, his bowed head connecting with the blond’s shoulder. "I hate this crowd," he whined like a little kid, all tough guy attitude instantly forgotten.

Hutch couldn’t help laughing at that, patting his friend’s back. Starsky pushed away again. "I’m happy to see you too. Snoopy."

Starsky moaned, rubbing over his face, smearing dirt all over it. Hutch caught him wincing slightly when he touched the bruise.

"Does that name have something to do with Zadie’s cookies?"

Blinking through his fingers, Starsky hesitated. "Ethan told you about that?"

Hutch nodded. "That... I made him promise not to!"

Taking his hands away, he noticed he still held the cigarette and absently stashed it into his pocket. Suddenly, he frowned, nodding at Hutch’s hands. "What’s that?"

Following his partner’s glance, Hutch noticed the slightly-red rings the cuffs had left around his wrist and rubbed them lightly. "Nothing," he winked. "Just Perry’s idea of payback. But," he added before Starsky had the chance for further inquiry, "I guess that’s from something else." He pointed at Starsky’s face. "What’d you do, Starsk? I can’t even leave you alone for five days."

"Oh," Starsky said as if only now recalling. He brushed over the bruise lightly. "That. Yeah. Don’t talk to the girl."

Understanding, Hutch nodded slowly. "Pixie."

Starsky lifted a warning index finger. "Don’t call her by name. In fact, it might be better to simply ignore her altogether."

"You and Topher had a fight?" Hutch asked, somewhat amused.

Starsky thought about that. "I think of it more as a conversation."

"Mm-hmm. And that," Hutch said, pointing at Starsky’s bandaged thumb, "is from talking to the girl too?"

"Ah, no," Starsky answered, lifting his thumb to look at it. "That’s from trying to show Christian how to clean a machine gun. Word of advice," he added dryly, "don’t trust Christian to understand what 'hold this up and don’t let it snap back' means."

"Yeeouch," Hutch muttered with a slight frown, stepping closer to look at the dirty bandage. "Broken?"

"Nah," Starsky waved. "Just sprained, I think. None of the flakes took any medicine classes unfortunately, so I had to apply this on my own, but-"

"Now I’m here," Hutch finished and earned a grateful smile. Patting his friend’s shoulder, he turned to head back for the house. "Come on, Snoop, let’s take a look at this, and then you can tell me the other house rules."

"Okay," Starsky replied grumpily, following him. "Here is one: don’t call me Snoop."

*****

"Wow," Hutch stated, when Starsky opened the door to "his" new room for him. They had entered the house through the backdoor, taking the - probably rare - opportunity to stay out of sight of the other group members for as long as possible to exchange information. "Now I really *do* feel like I’m back in college." Looking around the small room with its ceiling curved inward in one corner, he threw his bag onto the bed that - together with a chair and an old desk - was the only furniture. "Only I had a roomie," he added with a slightly nostalgic smile.

Starsky nodded. He’d closed the door behind them, careful to check the long floor for any unwanted listeners, and sat down on the wobbly chair. "I bet you didn’t sit on General Macarthur’s supply of dynamite back then, though," he stated dryly.

Hutch whistled quietly. "That’s what they have?" he asked and waved Starsky’s hand up. Leaning against the table, he undid the dirty bandage on the smaller man’s thumb.

Watching suspiciously, Starsky answered, "Yep. Down in the cellar. Ow!" he exclaimed, when Hutch turned his thumb in his hands, examining the greenish-black bruise spreading from the knuckle on upward.

"Sorry," the blond muttered, flashing his friend an apologetic smile and walking over to his bag on the bed. "D’you have an idea what it is they might want to do with their little collection of explosives?" he asked, while digging through his bag, until he found what he had been looking for, and returned to his partner.

"Why am I not surprised you brought first aid stuff?" Starsky asked instead of an answer.

"’Cause you know I know you," Hutch grinned.

"Ah. Right," the brunet nodded, totally unimpressed, and held his thumb up for Hutch to bandage. "Well," he returned to their original topic, "we have our daily political discussion every night..."

Hutch couldn’t hide a smirk at his friend’s audibly unenthusiastic tone about that.

"And they have a lot of *ideas*, but nothing’s been decided, yet. As far as I can tell, Dobbs and Zadie are calling the shots. I think they’re..." He waggled his head slightly. "You know. Anyway, they’re the ones, who really want to *do* something. Keep on saying how tired of waiting ’round for Nicolas they are, and so on. How they want to start making a difference, that sorta talk."

"What about the others?" Hutch asked. He had finished his bandaging job and leaned back against the table again, folding his arms in front of him.

"Christian’s so glad to have found people who don’t treat him like shit, he’d jump off a bridge if you’d tell him to," Starsky said, not without a hint of sympathy for the younger man, as Hutch noticed. "And McLean..." He shrugged. "The house is his."

"Yeah," Hutch nodded, understanding. "I met him."

"Yep."

"What about Topher Martin?" the blond asked and frowned, when he saw his friend growing quiet. "Starsk?"

The brunet looked up at him, a gravity in his eyes that Hutch had learned to recognize. "Topher’s..." Starsky started, hushed himself and finally said, "I’ve seen guys like him before."

Hutch frowned questioningly.

"He was a POW, Hutch. With the Vietcong."

"Did he tell you that?"

"He wasn’t sober," Starsky said, "but..." Once more he trailed off. When he spoke again, his voice was low, almost strained. "He has flashbacks. Bad ones."

His partner’s inner alarm instantly ticked off. "Starsk?" he asked, stretching the name, sounding like a teacher waiting to hear the confession of a prank.

Starsky sighed slightly. His gaze had dropped to study his thumb. "We’d been working on the car again the other day, after we had," he smirked, "settled things about Pixie."

Hutch grimaced, but kept his silence, listening.

"And all of a sudden, he went..." Starsky shook his head, looked up to meet his friend’s eyes. "You know."

"Yeah," Hutch said quietly, "I know." They both knew he really did. "What happened?"

Starsky shrugged. "The classic thing. He flipped out."

"Did he attack you?"

"No," Starsky answered sincerely. "He just got really scared. Badly scared. I could calm him down, but..."

"Time bomb?" Hutch asked, when his friend trailed off.

"Oh, yeah," Starsky nodded meaningfully.

"Do the others know about this? Topher hasn’t been here that long, either."

"I don’t know if they *know*," Starsky said, "but they kinda keep their distance."

"He doesn’t really fit in," Hutch said. The files had said that Ethan had chosen Topher Martin for the group due to Darren Nicolas thinking an ex-trooper would change the groups overall annoyingly academic appearance. He wondered if the undercover agent knew about Topher’s past, or his condition.

"If you want my opinion, he doesn’t fit in the world," Starsky said sadly. He shook his head. "He should’ve never been put in jail in the first place, but straight to..." He made an unmistakable gesture.

Hutch sighed, lifting his glasses a bit, as he rubbed his eyes. "Okay, while we’re here, think you can keep an eye on him?"

"What d’you think I’ve been doing all week long?" Starsky retorted.

"Getting your butt kicked and smoking pot," Hutch answered. A wicked grin snaked over his features at his friend’s grumbled reaction. "Wanna tell me now what this name’s all about?" Of course, such a lame attempt wasn’t going to be graced with success.

Casting him a dark glare, Starsky stood, looking down on himself, then at his watch. "I’m gonna go get a shower. Anything else?"

The amusement on Hutch’s face faded. "Shower?" he repeated accusingly. "I just bandaged you up."

"Oh," Starsky looked at his thumb and back at Hutch. He shrugged. "Didja think I’d walk around like this all day?"

Resigning, Hutch waved and watched his partner approach the door, when he thought of something else. "By the way, where’s your room?" To his initial surprise, Starsky’s shoulders slumped, and when he turned again, it was with the most heartbreakingly suffering expression.

Hutch grinned, and a chuckle (that his partner would have described us 'utterly cruel') made his voice quiver when he asked, "You have the tent?" It had come out as more of a statement than a question.

It looked as if Starsky wanted to shoot back a reply to that, but thought differently - knowing he couldn’t win - and instead turned for the door again. Before he opened it, though, he shot his gloating partner a grim look. "A real friend would’ve offered to switch places, y’know?"

"Oh, hey," Hutch said with a wide, innocent gesture, "*I*´d do it any time, partner, but," he grimaced mockingly, "I don’t think Phil Hunter would, so..." He shrugged apologetically. "Sorry."

The slightly-pissed glance changed into a full death-glare. "Yeah. Sure. See ya later then."

"Yeah," Hutch smiled. "And I’ll look at that," he pointed at Starsky’s hand, "again later too."

"Thanks, but d’you really think Phil Hunter would do that?" Starsky grumbled and, ignoring the chuckling that followed him, left the room.

The door hadn’t even fallen closed, when Hutch heard his friend loudly exclaim, "Mornin’, Brighton!"

Pushing himself away from the desk, Hutch grabbed the door to open it again and looked down the hallway just in time to catch the sight of Starsky patting a decidedly startled looking Brighton Dobbs on his back with enough force to “help” the taller man take a stumbling step forward.

"Head feelin’ alright?" Starsky asked teasingly and didn’t wait for an answer, but headed for the bathroom on the right side - which had obviously been Dobbs’ destination. "Oh," the detective quickly announced, before drawing the door shut behind himself, "the newbie’s here." And with a last pointing down the hall at Hutch, he vanished inside the room.

Knowing his partner like he did, Hutch assumed that bullying Brighton Dobbs wasn’t *all* just undercover show on Starsky’s part. And judging from the expression he saw on Dobbs’ face when the man turned to look at him, this hadn’t been the first time it had happened, either. It didn’t surprise Hutch - he’d found Brighton Dobbs to even *sound* like quite an unpleasant fellow when studying his file - yet he couldn’t help feeling the faintest twinge of sympathy for the poor guy. He whom Dave Starsky disliked did not have an easy life...

Dobbs visibly tried his best to force a greeting smile upon his face, when he approached Hutch, stretching out his hand for the detective to shake. Hutch did so. "I see," Dobbs grumbled, "you met the LITTLE RAT!" The last part was practically yelled back at the bathroom.

The sound of the shower starting answered him.

Dobbs sighed angrily and turned to Hutch again. "I hate this guy," he stated with so much honest loathing that Hutch just had to laugh.

"I wouldn’t’ve noticed," Hutch quipped and finally introduced himself. "Phil Hunter."

"Sorry," Dobbs apologized ruefully and, once more, shook Hutch’s hand. "Brighton Dobbs." Suddenly realizing he’d just crawled out of bed and was still wearing the boxers and t-shirt he’d slept in, Dobbs blushed. "Usually I’m up and about a little more early, but..." Casting the newcomer a 'you know what it’s like' look, he trailed off and instead started with a new topic, while he headed for his own room again, making it clear he wanted Hutch to follow him. "Ethan still here?"

"No," Hutch answered, politely stopping in the door to Dobbs’ room, leaning against its frame. "He had another meeting this afternoon. Went right after he dropped me off."

Dobbs nodded to indicate he was listening. He had grabbed a neatly-folded pair of jeans from a pile of equally-folded ones and put it on. Taking a quick glance around the strikingly-tidy room, Hutch couldn’t help but feel reminded of Starsky’s side of their room back at the academy. He suppressed an amused grin.

"He told me he’d bring you," Dobbs said, stepping outside again. For the briefest moment, he waited, listening for the water which was still running in the shower, then rolled his eyes and gestured for them to go downstairs. Hutch nodded and followed him.

"Said they brought you in for organizing a demonstration in front of City Hall?"

"Y-yeah," Hutch answered hastily, startled, since he’d had no idea 'they' had arrested him for doing that. 'Thanks for keeping a fellow updated, Gerardy,' he thought irritatedly. "Ethan got me out just today," he added quickly, wanting to change the topic. Walking on eggshells made him nervous, he figured sarcastically. "He thinks I could be of use here."

"No doubt about that," Dobbs said enthusiastically. They had reached the kitchen, and he was pouring himself a cup of coffee, waving the pot at Hutch questioningly. The detective nodded and, with a thankful smile, accepted a steaming mug. They sat down at the table. In the 'lobby', Hutch could see Zadie and Christian lying down on one of the many mattresses, playing some sort of card game.

"At first, when Ethan said he’d found someone else who would 'be good for the group', I did have doubts, I admit that," Dobbs said. He lifted his cup with a frustrated little noise. "Especially after his last choices."

Hutch nodded understandingly: Topher and Starsky.

"But I heard a lot about you," Dobbs continued with a somewhat expectant smile, which Hutch returned carefully. It *did* sound like that was a good thing, but the other man’s odd way of behaving like they were actually pals, alone on a mission only they knew about, had caught him off guard. From what he’d learned about Brighton Dobbs from the files, he had thought him to be cold, unreachable. The embodiment of *the* arrogantly self-assured, righteous, upper-class marxist.

"Same here," Hutch said.

Dobbs grinned contentedly - as if it was understood that that had been a compliment - and lifted his coffee as if for a toast. "Welcome to Camp California," he said, emptied his cup, and stood. "I’m gonna," he said, pointing upwards, "kick his skinny butt outta there now."

'Meaning you think he’s done by now,' Hutch thought with an inner smirk, but nodded affirmatively. After Dobbs had left, he remained sitting at the table, drinking his coffee, and took the opportunity to sort out what he had learned so far. Which wasn’t much, apart from his partner’s ability to spread joy and harmony wherever he went (and that wasn’t a fact exactly new to Hutch) and the discovery that he had obviously been chosen to become Brighton Dobbs’ best friend before he had ever met the guy.

Oh, *and* that there was dynamite in the cellar, he added with dry humor.

He could hear voices upstairs and the bathroom door being opened, when Norton McLean suddenly emerged from his hidden downstairs room again - still in the same outfit Hutch had seen him in before - and shuffled into the kitchen. Upon seeing Hutch sitting there, he waved tiredly. "Hey."

"Hey," Hutch replied.

McLean headed for the coffee pot, poured himself a cup and turned to Hutch. "Coffee?" he asked.

"Ah, no, thanks," Hutch smiled, gesturing at his mug.

McLean nodded and put the pot down on the breakfast bar, where he noticed an unwatched pack of cigarettes. Without hesitating, he grabbed it, shook one out to clamp it between his lips, and held out the pack for Hutch. "Ciggie?" It was all said in the same tone of voice; Hutch was beginning to wonder if the younger man could talk in whole sentences.

He was just about to accept the offer with a thankful 'sure', when he felt a glance on him, and, looking up, he found Starsky practically glaring at him from the bottom step of the stairs.

Instantly understanding, Hutch cast McLean a nervous smile and, once again, shook his head politely. "Thanks, but no thanks," he muttered.

With a shrug, McLean picked up his coffee and turned to leave. "Mornin’, Dude," he greeted Starsky, when he passed him. "Last night? Neat party."

Starsky nodded in feigned coolness. "Yep. Today - mean hangover."

"You got it," McLean replied, his voice still not changing one bit, and vanished behind his corner. His door fell shut.

Hutch glanced up at his partner, who grimaced just for him, and smiled sympathetically. He had no doubt that the very last thing Starsky had needed after four days at Camp California had been a 'neat party' with Topher Martin, Norton McLean and Brighton Dobbs.

"Have you met Brighton, yet, Hunter?" Zadie Morgan’s voice drew Hutch’s attention away from watching Starsky very plainly pick up the pack of cigarettes and put it out of reach.

He looked up to see her come to a halt in front of the table, Christian Gruder - as always - one step behind her. "Yeah," he nodded, "just now."

"He’s really been waiting for you to get here, after all Ethan has told him about you," she said.

"Tell me about it," Starsky cut in, annoyed. He was leaning against the breakfast bar, arms folded in front of his bare chest, since he now only wore the dirty jeans he’d hurried into the bathroom with. His hair was still dripping wet, and only now did Hutch see he had no shoes on, either. Maybe Dobbs’ mission of conquering the bathroom hadn’t been a complete failure after all. "He thinks last night was a party, but the truth is we couldn’t endure listening to him rambling any longer."

To Hutch’s discreet surprise, he caught Zadie stifle a grin at that.

"You’re his Dulcina," Starsky added, casting Hutch a mockingly 'you lucky pup, you'-glance.

"Dulcinea," his friend and Zadie Morgan corrected in unison.

"Whatever," Starsky grumbled and, as if out of a sudden inspiration, opened the fridge to peek inside, then let it fall closed again, unsatisfied. "Hey, woman - food?" he asked Zadie, who had been about to talk to Hutch again.

Her irritated expression was ruined by an affectionate laugh that broke free, as she stepped up to him. "Hey, Snoop - manners?"

"No, thanks," he grinned and earned a playful punch to his upper arm.

"You’re awful," Zadie informed him, quite happily, Hutch thought.

"Well, with you being beautiful, that makes the world okay between us," Starsky quipped charmingly and placed a feather-light kiss on her cheek, before turning for the door. "Be right back, just gonna grab a shirt."

"Don’t bother!" Zadie called after him.

Instead, he didn’t bother to look back. "Ah, ah, Zade, your cooking’s not *that* good."

Giving a small snort, Zadie looked down at Hutch - who did his very best to stay in his indignant undercover alias and look utterly disapproving of the flirting he’d just witnessed - and Christian, who’d sat down next to him. "You hungry, too?" she asked.

"Yeah, thanks," Hutch answered. Christian didn’t react. It seemed understood that the question hadn’t included him.

Catching the cool tone, Zadie waved slightly, while she produced a pan from one of the cupboards. "Never mind Snoopy, that’s just his way. He’s..." She hesitated, then shrugged. " ... a big kid."

"Mm-hmm," Hutch muttered. "Does he need spoon-feeding too, or can he at least do that by himself?" If it was Ethan Gerardy’s plan to have him be on Brighton Dobbs’ side, he’d be on Brighton Dobbs’ side.

Zadie cast him an almost pitying smile. "Want some advice? If you don’t like him, keep your distance."

Hutch frowned at that and caught Christian nodding in agreement. Lifting his brows, he picked up his coffee mug. "Didn’t say a thing."

"Better not," Zadie said and turned to where she was busy cracking eggs into the pan.

A few minutes later, Brighton Dobbs climbed down the stairs, this time dressed in a corduroy pants and jacket. He didn’t look particularly happy, and the sight of the empty coffee pot didn’t seem to help his mood. Grumbling, he let himself sink down on the last kitchen chair. Nevertheless, when he looked at Hutch, he smiled. "Wanna join me doing the shopping today? See the town and all that?"

'The town' was Monterey, Hutch assumed. "Sure," he said.

"Good," Dobbs’ smile widened, but only until the door opened again to reveal a freshly dressed Starsky, followed by Pixie, Topher Martin’s girl. To Hutch’s amusement, he was walking decidedly ahead, never once turning to even acknowledge her presence.

"Someone," Dobbs said sternly, glaring at Starsky, "used up all the hot water again."

"Really?" Starsky asked, unimpressed, and shook his head sadly. "What is this world coming to?" Discussion being over, he settled for standing next to Zadie, hovering above her cooking.

Pixie had walked straight over to the table, leaning against it where Hutch sat, blocking his view, as she looked directly at him. "Hiya," she smiled.

"Um..."

"I kept wondering... is Hunter your first or last name?"

Before Hutch had even had time to remember the correct answer, a trio of male voices, chorusing a half-sigh-half-moan of "Zadie!" echoed through the room. Without looking up from preparing her scrambled eggs, Zadie asked, "Pix, could you go ask Topher if he wants to eat too?"

"He’s sleepin’," Pixie answered, never taking her eyes off Hutch.

At that, Zadie turned around, casting the younger girl a strict look. "Then wake him."

Pixie rolled her large blue eyes dramatically, but pushed herself away from the table unwillingly. "At your command, Witch," she muttered quietly and left the house, not without winking her slender fingers goodbye at Hutch.

He couldn’t help staring after her.

"Didn’t I tell you to not talk to Pixie?" Starsky asked accusingly.

"Yeah, Hunter," Dobbs nodded, a smug grin crossing his features. "Listen to him, he knows what he’s talking about."

"Well, we can’t all be on the safe side, when it comes to the girls, professor," Starsky countered.

The quarrel would have grown much longer - and probably louder - if it hadn’t been for Zadie. "Guys. C’mon." She cast Starsky a chiding glance.

Lifting his hands in an 'I didn’t start it'-gesture, he obediently fell silent.

Neither of them noticed Dobbs’ secret glare. To the contrary, however, Hutch made a mental note of it.

*****

Hutch had to agree with Starsky on the quality of Zadie’s cooking. Yet, it didn’t keep his friend from showing his usual enthusiasm about food, which resulted in an explanation meant for the newbie - Hutch - from Zadie: "Just don’t try to comprehend it. Snoop could eat for California."

"Any day," Starsky had happily agreed.

Afterwards, Dobbs and Hutch prepared for driving into town, getting a list of what everyone needed - mostly beer and cigarettes. To the blond detective’s increasing discomfort, it seemed that Camp California was inhabited by chain smokers only. Once more he was offered a cig, by Dobbs this time, when they were already in the jeep, and he accepted it (gratefully). Unfortunately, Brighton had forgotten something inside the house, and the second he was out of sight, Starsky appeared next to the rolled--down passenger’s window, keeping Hutch from lighting up his cigarette with a stern look.

"You’re doin’ it," Hutch complained with a whine, but placed the cig on Starsky’s outstretched palm.

"Yeah, but we both know I can stop again afterwards," Starsky replied. "When you smoke, you smoke. Besides," he added in a hurried, smug whisper, watching Dobbs leaving the house again, "I don’t think it’d fit Phil Hunter."

And off he went, missing his partner’s hissed "I hate you!"

All the way into the city, Brighton Dobbs kept on rambling about how the BM Platoon needed to become widely known, how changes couldn’t spring from secrets, and that they, he and Phil Hunter - and, with some qualifications, Zadie Morgan - should be the ones calling the shots instead of this Gerardy guy Darren Nicolas had left them alone with.

Hutch decided to play his role rather cool, listening and agreeing, but not too openly. He’d nod a lot, but never uttered a suggestion of his own. And the longer this one-sided conversation went on, the more convinced he grew that his tactics were appropriate. Even though Brighton Dobbs had been arrested way back when, right after college, for founding an illegal party, he hadn’t been in jail, but had bought his way out of it with his parents’ money. He had no clue about anything, and to Hutch he seemed more like a bored teenager planning his big summer adventure than the head of a radical group. His attitude, though, couldn’t have been more dangerous.

"I’m the last one who’d want to kill innocent people, but then - who *is* innocent, if they’re not fighting this system, know what I mean?"

Hutch nodded mutely. 'Oh yeah.'

"And I’m not saying actually killing someone is necessary, but... Let’s face it, demonstrations and labs going up don’t make it onto the front pages anymore, now do they?"

Hutch shook his head.

"No offense, man," Dobbs quickly added, remembering Phil Hunter’s verdict.

"None taken," Hutch said. "If I didn’t think that too, I wouldn’t be here, would I?"

On Dobbs’ face appeared the biggest smile Hutch had seen there, yet. "Right."

It had dawned on Hutch some time ago, that the reason for Brighton Dobbs’ instant trust in him wasn’t just the result of Ethan Gerardy’s story, but also had something to do with the man’s highly superficial makeup. Philip Hunter looked like him, acted like him, appeared like him - and therefore he trusted him. Hutch found it hard to believe he had actually been *that* right about Dobbs’ character, when he’d judged him just from reading his file - but it seemed to be the case. Brighton Dobbs had waited for months for someone like Philip Hunter to enter the scene.

"Can I ask you a question?"" Hutch asked after a moment of silence.

"Sure. What?"

"Have you spoken to Nicolas about any of this?"

The briefest flicker of nervousness rushed through Dobbs’ eyes at the mention of THE BOSS’ name, but at seeing the lack of accusation in Hutch’s gaze, he found his self-confidence again. "Yeah. Not just once, either."

Hutch watched him closely, carefully planning his next few moves. "He wants your camp to remain what it is: a place for his stocks. Doesn’t he?"

"Pretty much, yep," Brighton answered grimly.

Hutch nodded slowly. "Thought so." He paused for emphasis, then placed the first of his little verbal landmines. "When was the last time he was been out here, anyway?"

*****

It was long past midnight that day, when Hutch stood in his small room, looking out at the huge, thick-branched tree that stood right next to the edge of the roof underneath his open window.

"I can’t believe I’m doing this," he muttered to himself, while he swung first his right and then his left leg over his windowsill and onto the roof. Years of experience, though, enabled him to carefully half-step/half-crawl his way down and towards the tree, where he grabbed the first branch he could reach to climb down and to the ground.

In the near distance, the dim circle of a flashlight lay still behind the greenish material of the tent next to the cabin.

Silently sprinting over damp grass, Hutch made his way over to the tent’s entry, where he crouched down, finding the canvas unzipped. "Starsk?" he whispered, and, peeking inside, found his partner sound asleep, curled up on a blanket and half-wrapped in a second one. The flashlight still lay next to the limp fingers they had obviously fallen out of.

Rolling his eyes, Hutch crawled inside. Out of fear of the zipper making too much noise, he left the entry open, but at least rolled the canvas back down. "Starsky?" he whispered once more and gave the sleeping man’s shoulder a gentle shake. "Starsk, wake up."

Starsky muttered something unintelligible and dragged his head down to bury his face inside the blanket.

Hutch sighed quietly. "Starsky, man, c’mon. I’m tired too. Staaarsky."

"Hmm?" an annoyed mumble finally reached his ears, and he sat back, leaving the other one room enough to wake up fully. "Hmwhat?" Starsky asked drowsily, blinking his eyes against the slumber trying to push them closed. "Hutch?"

"Sure, me. Who’d you expect, the sandman?"

Starsky just blinked some more, still extremely sleepy. "Did I fall asleep?" he asked, puzzled, and tried to push himself up on his elbow, only to find he’d used his damaged thumb in the process. With a stifled gasp, he fell back down.

"Don’t put pressure on it," Hutch advised smartly.

"Don’t get on my nerves," Starsky replied, now fully alert. He settled for rolling onto his stomach, and looking up at Hutch, who was scanning the tent’s modest interior.

"Cozy little place you have here."

"You have to rub my nose in it, don’t ya?"

Hutch slightly raised his hands in a feigned apologetic defense. "Sorry."

Starsky growled quietly and shifted, wincing, when his thumb once more protested against any unwise moves.

Honestly sympathetic now, Hutch nodded at it. "Hurt badly?"

"Nah, ’sokay," Starsky winked. "As long as I don’t put pressure on it." The wry smile he cast his friend softened the retort. "How was your day then?" Though they had seen each other on and off over the day, there had been no opportunities to exchange information or talk in private. "Have a nice time getting to know Brightass?"

Hutch’s attempt at a chiding look was ruined by a wicked grin pressing through. "Boy, am I glad I was never on your list, Pal. D’you even know how *mean* you can be to people?"

Unimpressed, Starsky shrugged curtly. "Tell me you don’t hate his guts, and I’ll be nice."

Hutch contemplated. "Well," he finally said in feigned hurt, "you *could* stop calling me Smarty Smurf."

"Sure I could."

"Okay."

"But I don’t think I want to." Starsky grinned.

"Oh. Right. Well, go ahead. What do I care?" Hutch waved and after a pause added, "Snoopy." At the sharp glare he received for that, he only smiled innocently.

Starsky sighed, but it seemed the desire for sleep kept him from entering the openly-offered battle. "Okay, serious now. D’you have anything to tell? For, on my part it’s nothing more than that the Flowermobile is still out of order."

"And Topher?" Hutch asked, all business-talk now, as well.

Starsky shrugged. "Holding his own. Far as I can tell."

Hutch nodded. "’Kay. Well, Dobbs and I had a little chat. Or, rather, I listened to his monologue."

"I was just about to ask," Starsky quipped.

His partner smiled knowingly. "Anyway - you were right, he is calling the shots, or at least he believes he is. And he sorta counts Zadie on his side, though..." He trailed off, searching his friend’s face. "Have you noticed Dobbs expressing a certain... disapproval concerning your behavior towards Zadie?"

"Disapproving?" Starsky asked, the smug grin in his eyes betraying the shock his voice carried. "Brighton? Is he really?"

Hutch chuckled. "You’re cold, d’you know that?"

The smaller man shrugged. "Hey, they’re the ones, who think conventional relationships are all based on a fascistic view of the world. I’m just charming a girl."

"The way I see it, you’re charming her man right into my part of the story," Hutch observed.

"And it’s working, isn’t it?"

Hutch cast him a helpless glance. Sure, it had worked. And it was a brilliant, too. Just the way you wanted your partner to prepare the undercover area for your arrival, and even better. Hutch had no doubts about the situation Starsky had found, when he’d arrived in 'Camp California': a duo of lovers, passionately united in their fight for what they believed to be right, believing that they were leading a bunch of unorganized, wanna-be grown-ups. Now, the duo of that picture was history, and that had left Brighton Dobbs eagerly awaiting for someone new to discuss his plans with, at the same time leaving Zadie Morgan to trust Starsky more than her ex.

Separate the people on top. Yes, it was a brilliant plan, Hutch admitted. If only it didn’t leave *him* having the most irritating person thinkable as his shadow.

"Mm-hmm," he muttered his grumbled response.

Starsky grinned knowingly.

About to shoot back a fitting reply, Hutch had to stifle a yawn and wisely decided to drop the topic. "Okay, like I said, you were right about Dobbs’ enthusiasm concer-"

"Nice way of putting it."

"Concerning their... mission," Hutch finished, ignoring his friend’s interruption. "But the way I see it, I think their problem is they’re-"

"Lacking a mission?" Starsky cut in again.

Hutch nodded. "Yep."

"Yeah, I noticed," the curly-haired detective agreed. "’Sno reason for them to do anything. No point in planning something."

"Nothing they could want," Hutch added. "Has Zadie spoken to you about that?"

"Well," Starsky replied, grimacing slightly, "sort of. I can’t shake the feeling she doesn’t think I’m-"

"Smart enough?"

"Intellectually equal," Starsky corrected with a scowl.

Hutch smiled amusedly. "They are a bunch of real snobs, huh? ’Cept for you guys."

"'You guys'? That’d be us tent-and-cabin inhabitants?"

"Who do the car jobs," Hutch said in feigned defense. "Don’t underestimate the importance of the working class for the revo-"

"Isn’t it time for you to climb up into your room again? Last I heard, you nerds all get up at sunrise."

Hutch grinned, but nodded. "Yeah, I guess I should get going." Trailing off, he scanned their surroundings again, an almost regretful expression rushing over his features. "Know something, Starsk? This is really nice."

His partner rolled his eyes. "Too late, rich boy. Go back into your real room with a real bed and real lights and a real bathroom next door and leave me my..." He waved a hand over his sleeping bag and pillow. "... dirt."

Chuckling at his friend’s heart-breakingly suffering sigh and fallen face, Hutch patted his shoulder on the short crawl over to the exit. "Don’t take it so hard, Buddy."

Starsky glared after him. "You’re enjoying this, aren’t ya?"

"Actually," Hutch admitted, a faked nostalgic look settling in his eyes, "it does remind me of some summer camps I’ve been to, y’know? Climbing out of windows in the middle of the night, meeting in other people’s ten-"

"And out you go," Starsky cut him off, holding the exit canvas up for him with a determined gesture. "Don’t slip on the grass."

Hutch crawled out, still grinning, and waved goodbye. "Don’t forget to check your sleeping bag for snakes, Partner."

"Good night," Starsky hissed and let the exit fall shut.

Snickering to himself, Hutch rushed back to the house.

*****

As much as the importance of the 'working class' shouldn’t be underestimated, it turned out that the same went for the advantages of belonging to it. Meaning: while Starsky spent the next two days rummaging through the Flowermobile’s interior together with Topher, when he wasn’t observing Zadie’s and Christian’s daily shooting training, Hutch was more or less doomed to Brighton Dobbs’ presence. He had shown Hutch the quite impressive arsenal of weapons safely hidden in the cellar, and if they weren’t discussing ideological matters as well as practical ideas ('discussing' being a highly one-sided term here...) they would sit in the kitchen for hours, playing chess.

At first, Hutch had been relieved to at least be able to pass some time like that, but his delight over having found a supposedly-equal chess partner had quickly subsided, when it had become clear that for all his smarts, Brighton Dobbs was as easy to beat at chess as Rosie Dobey. So after merely 48 hours, Hutch started to decidedly identify with the subjects of their undercover mission: he was itching for something - *anything* - to happen.

"Did too."

"Did not!"

Feeling reminded of long-faded times, when his head would snap up at every noise and voice entering the kitchen he’d been confined to to get his homework done, Hutch felt his head come up from his latest chess game with Dobbs, greedy eyes searching for some distraction. The distraction entered the room in form of his partner and Zadie, as usual followed by her Christian Gruder-shaped shadow. It was early evening; the first golden rays of dying sunlight had begun to cover the garden with their sparkling blanket. Somewhere in the lobby, Pixie had curled up on a mattress, reading a comic book. Norton McLean had yet to emerge from his room. A certain odor of house-weed established the belief that he wouldn’t appear too soon, either.

It was Dobbs’ turn (to Hutch it seemed as if it always was) and Hutch could see him steal a grim glance from his examination of the board up to Starsky, who was jumping up on the breakfast bar, while Zadie headed straight for the fridge, still laughing at some crack he’d just made. Hutch hadn’t failed to notice how the woman’s laughter, her whole, usually so very serious, attitude changed when she willingly entered a flirting match with 'Snoopy'.

"Sure, you did!" Starsky exclaimed, accepting the beer can Zadie handed him only to wave it at her for emphasis. "Go on denying, veggie girl, but I *saw* that bird drop dead to the ground, and so did Christian. Didn’t ya, Chris?" He lifted his brows at Christian, who had secretly sat down on the table, taking in the situation on the chess board and was now looking up, startled, visibly uncomfortable at being dragged into the quarrel going on.

"Pardon?" he asked shyly.

Starsky flashed him the briefest of smiles, only for him to catch, and turned to Zadie again, who was holding out beer cans for Hutch and Dobbs, raising her brows questioningly. Hutch accepted with a grateful nod. "See? He saw it too."

Zadie was not impressed, but happily playing along, Hutch thought. Lighting up a cigarette, she sat down too, much to Brighton Dobbs’ barely hidden annoyance. "I did not shoot a bird, and that’s that."

"Right," Starsky nodded. "You didn’t. And the Pope’s a Jew."

"I did not!" Zadie exclaimed through a laughter. "I startled it, okay, but *I* saw it fly away, unscathed, uninjured, un-dead."

"Yeah, well, maybe next time you should ask Smarty Smurf to let you have his glasses then," Starsky quipped, ignoring the discreet scowl he received from his partner. "For there’s no doubt about it. You’re officially a danger to birds." He raised his beer as if for a toast. "Cheers."

"Not true," Zadie replied and caught Hutch’s gaze resting upon her. "Not true," she repeated to him. He smiled, waving slightly with both hands as if to say 'don’t drag me into this'.

"But," Starsky continued, tone dropping to a more serious level, "gotta tell you, Zade, you’re good. Getting better every day. Maybe tomorrow, we could try moving targets for a change."

It took all Hutch had to not let on that he just *knew* what was about to follow. He focused on the board to keep from rolling his eyes.

And Starsky didn’t disappoint him. “Got some time then, Brighton?"

"Snoop," Zadie chided, but only half-heartedly, and she was ignored by her ex-lover, anyway, whose head snapped up fully now, a meant-to-kill glare meeting Starsky’s falsely innocent expression.

Hutch didn’t move; somehow, Phil Hunter hadn’t turned out to be talkative or very interested in the members’ ongoing quarrels and fights. In fact, people seemed to constantly talk *to*-- not with--him.

"You think that’s funny?" Dobbs replied through gritted teeth.

Starsky shrugged. "I admit I can do better, but..."

Dobbs looked like he was about to say some more, but Zadie’s hand lightly pressing his forearm kept him from it. "Dobbs, c’mon. You know he’s just teasing. Don’t be so cramped about it."

"Cramped?" Dobbs repeated angrily, shooting her a glare. "This is no fucking summer camp! In case you haven’t noticed, we’re waiting for the word to *really* use the stuff! And not for birds! It’s not supposed to be fun time, when you’re out there practicing!"

At that increasingly loud outburst, even Hutch allowed himself to lift his head, trying to lock eyes with Dobbs.

"What with you in here, 'out there' is the only place to have fun," Starsky mumbled into his beer.

"What was that?!" Dobbs exploded and stood up to approach the curly-haired man on the breakfast bar. He came to a halt inches before him.

Starsky didn’t move - there was no point, he was smaller than Dobbs, anyway - but met the other man’s eyes unimpressed. "We others are all ready, Brighton, but I haven’t seen you pick up a gun once, since I’ve been here, know what I’m saying?"

Dobbs did, very well too, and he was about to express it, but was interrupted by Starsky’s adding, "And besides - yes, we *have* noticed we’re *waiting* for something to give. And that’s all we’ve done so far, isn’t it? Waiting and waiting and waiting." His voice dropping a degree, he bent forward. "Accept it, Little General, you’re not calling the shots, not here, not anywhere. You’re sitting on a powder keg you’re supposed to *watch* and that’s all. So if you could just get off my back and take a chill pill, that’d be real nice."

Unnoticed in the split-second silence that followed, Hutch closed his eyes, unnerved. 'Smart move, Gordo.' He could hear Dobbs draw in a shaky breath, audibly trying to control himself - and then fail at that.

"Why, you..." Dobbs hissed and with full force brought his clenched fist down on Starsky’s left hand that rested on the breakfast bar, since he couldn’t hold a bottle with his hurt thumb.

The detective flinched violently, but swallowed a yelp, though he had to clench his jaws. Eyes never leaving Dobbs’ face, he slowly put the bottle down next to him, slid off the bar, tilted his head to one side slightly, mockingly - and landed a solid, well-placed punch right on the other man’s nose. Brighton did not swallow his scream, when he crashed backwards, missing the table by an inch, and landed hard on the ground. Kicking his legs furiously as if he was running away, he cradled his bleeding nose.

"Ow! Fuck!"

"Sam!" Zadie yelled angrily, jumping to kneel down next to the fallen Dobbs. "God damn it!" She shot Starsky a furious glare, then turned to Brighton again, trying to pry his hands away from his nose. But he kept drawing away from her, still swearing colorfully under his breath.

Hutch stayed where he’d sat, throwing his friend an annoyed scowl. 'Was that really necessary?!'

Unaware of the silent communication taking place above her head, Zadie reached out to grab one of Brighton’s arms, ignoring his protests. Seemingly out of nowhere, a very quiet, very frightened looking Christian Gruder suddenly appeared next to her to assist her in helping Dobbs up and back onto a chair.

Starsky stood, leaning against the breakfast bar, absently rubbing his thumb.

"Here, let me see," Zadie muttered to Dobbs and finally succeeded in getting a glimpse of his bloody nose. "Aw, man," she sighed and turned to Starsky angrily. "Satisfied?!"

Before his partner even had time to come up with some smart-ass answer that would only result in ticking everyone off even more, Hutch stood, announcing, "I’ll go get a towel."

"Don’t bother," Christian quickly cut in, jumping to his feet. "I’ll go." And off he went, visibly grateful to be able to flee the scenery.

It wasn’t the first time Hutch wondered what motives could have possibly driven this shy, intimidated, quiet young man to join such a group. Where had Nicolas found him, and, more importantly, *why* had he wanted Gruder in his 'Platoon'?!

His attention drawn back to the loud half-whimpers/half-curses emanating from Brighton, Hutch made a quick note to remember to ask Starsky for his opinion on Christian Gruder later.

"Stop fussing, Zadie, okay?! God!"

"Okay!" Zadie snapped angrily, lifting her hands sharply and stepping back until she stood next to Starsky, scowling once more at him. "You’re the worst macho ever, Snoop, d’you know that?! For Christ’s sake!"

The fact that he had been promoted from 'Sam' to 'Snoop' again wasn’t lost on either him or Hutch. Or Brighton for that matter, who looked up sharply, the anger in his narrowed eyes boiling. When he felt Hutch’s inspecting gaze upon him, he turned to cast him a brief look. Hutch smiled encouragingly and even reached out to pat his forearm.

"Am I the only one who saw that *he* started it?!" Starsky asked irritated.

"Yes," Zadie and Hutch muttered in response.

"Where do you come into this, anyway?!" Starsky snapped at his partner, taking the opportunity to make eye contact at last.

Annoyingly innocently, Hutch lifted his hands in mock defense. "Didn’t say a thing. Don’t come punch me."

"Can’t say I-"

"Okay, okay," Zadie quickly cut in, her worried reaction proving the detectives’ acting talents to be as convincing as ever. "You," she turned to Starsky, "cool off. Now."

"I wasn’t going to-"

"Just," Zadie interrupted him sharply, "shut up, Snoopy, okay? Shut up and stay out of..."

She trailed off, when she saw Christian return with a handful of towels and pushed herself off the bar to grab one. "Now take your hands away, Dobbs," she ordered and sat down next to her ex, the perfect image of a caring, motherly-concerned girlfriend. It wasn’t one that suited her very well, Hutch thought.

Looking up at his partner again, he saw that something had caught Starsky’s attention, all smug post-punch attitude having completely faded from his face, as he frowned at something in the lobby.

Discreetly, Hutch turned in his seat, catching a glimpse of Topher Martin pacing in a far corner of the other room. Pixie blocked his view, though. She was obviously agitated and kept on glancing urgently in their direction - at Starsky, as Hutch suddenly realized. He turned back at his partner just in time to see him hurry into the lobby, throwing him the briefest of glances.

Whatever it was that was going on with Topher, his side wasn’t the right place for Phil Hunter to be, and so Hutch forced himself to remain where he was, trying to look casually unimpressed at the scenery in front of him. Zadie had managed to wipe away most of the blood on Dobbs’ face and was now busy with the unnecessary touching and prodding that were normal from someone who had no clue as to how a damaged nose felt. Humiliated to the point of grumbling loudly under his breath, Dobbs let her have her way, though. Hutch couldn’t help thinking he even looked sort of... contented with the sudden amount of attention he was getting from his former girlfriend.

Christian had returned to his seat and withdrawn again, as if he’d just popped into existence for his latest quest and then had disappeared again. Hutch smiled at him, but didn’t get a reaction. What *was* it with this kid, anyway?!

The noise of the front door falling shut made Hutch and Christian jump, and again, the detective cast the quiet man a slight, reassuring smile. The ghost of a responding one rushed over Christian’s features, but that was it.

*****

"Hey, Snoop." Smiling apologetically at the violent flinch his greeting had just caused, Hutch stepped closer to his friend, careful to ensure that his appearance not reveal his true concern.

Darkness had set by now, the house lights casting the garden into a dim, softly foggy, deep black shadow. Starsky was sitting on the porch alone, smoking. There was no light inside the cabin. All was quiet.

"Don’t sneak up on a guy like that," Starsky muttered in a worn-down version of his Snoopy-tone and snapped his cigarette away, as he stood up. "And don’t call me Snoop."

"Sorry," Hutch replied, lifting his brows questioningly at the cabin.

His partner nodded and stepped away, over to his tent. Hutch followed, glancing over his shoulder to see if they were alone. "What happened?" he asked in an urgent whisper, once they had stopped in the far darkness behind the tent, where no lights could reveal them to anyone looking from the house out into the garden.

"He freaked a bit," Starsky answered in an equally low voice. "Because he was alone for too long, I think. We brought him to bed; he’s sleeping now. I just checked."

Hutch nodded and sighed slightly. "How bad was it?"

"I don’t know. Worst I’ve seen him, though. Pixie said he usually just needs to see other people then, but apparently it wasn’t enough this time." He shrugged helplessly.

"Think it’s getting worse?"

"Yeah."

"Damn," Hutch whispered, sincere sympathy coloring his voice, then frowned lightly, not entirely serious when he asked, "'Pixie said'? What, you have immunity now?"

Starsky smiled tiredly. "I’m really worried about him, Hutch," he said after a moment’s thought, his gaze searching Hutch’s. "He shouldn’t be here."

"I know, but what can we do?"

"I don’t know," Starsky sighed and drove a hand through his unruly curls. Absently, he started to pat at his pockets, a gesture Hutch had come to recognize.

Tilting his head to one side slightly - his surprised blinking unnoticed by Starsky - he watched in silence as his partner produced one of the crumpled cigarettes that he tended to keep in his pockets. He never carried a pack, but seemed to constantly carry around a supply of single ones. He was just searching for his lighter in the same way when he sensed Hutch’s inquiring look upon him. Without even needing to look up at the blond, he took the unlit cigarette out of his mouth again and stashed it back into one pocket.

"Don’t start," he muttered grimly, waving a tired index finger at Hutch, who lifted his hands in quiet defense. "I just wish there was something we could do. The guy is suffering, y’know?"

"I know, Starsk," Hutch said gently. "But this won’t take forever, okay? As long as we’re here, all we can do is keep an eye on him and wait ’til it’s over. Then we’ll put it in the report and he’ll get the help he needs. Okay?" he asked, when there was no response.

"D’you think Gerardy knows about it?" Starsky asked instead of an answer. "He brought him here in the first place."

Hutch thought about it. "Well... you said yourself that it’s worsening. Besides," he added, his voice softening, "not everyone would know, would they? Topher probably didn’t tell him what he told you."

There was a long pause, then, tonelessly, "Yeah."

Hutch watched him for a moment, then reached out to touch his shoulder. "Hey."

Starsky glanced up.

"You okay?"

Understanding, the smaller man smiled gratefully, one hand coming up to assuringly pat the hand that remained on his arm. "Yeah, sure. Just..."

"Worried," Hutch concluded. "I know."

Starsky nodded and sighed, head bowed. When he looked up at his friend again, there was a wry grin visible on his face. "At least I got to punch Brighton, while I’m still allowed to."

Drawing his hand back, Hutch rolled his eyes. "Yeah, aren’t we all glad you did that?"

"Hey, don’t tell me you’re on *his* side too! He started it!" Starsky defended himself, lifting his thumb as if for proof. "See? I think it’s more bruised than before!"

Hutch didn’t even look. "Can’t see in the dark, Dummy. And you know you had that coming, don’t you?"

"Oh?! What did *I* do?!"

"'Little General'?!" Hutch repeated his earlier words, brows raised. "What was that about, anyway? Trying to push him into acting so you can sleep in a real bed again?"

"Aw, would I do that?" Starsky asked in feigned hurt innocence. "Force a criminal to commit a crime?"

"To get out of a tent? Any day."

"It’s not like he doesn’t *want* to commit a crime."

"Just nudging him, huh, Partner?"

"So? *You*’re doing it. And don’t give me that look. I know you’re encouraging him, when he starts off rambling about all those innocent people he’d hate to kill."

"Just because I don’t punch him, doesn’t mean I’m encouraging him," Hutch said indignantly. "We’re here to arrest them, when they go out to *do* something, not give them ideas."

"Uh-huh," Starsky nodded, unconvinced. "But what if they’re too... slow," he said with emphasis, "with the ideas?"

Hutch sighed in mock resignation. "I’d better head back inside, before Christian gets suspicious."

At the mention of Christian’s name, Starsky glanced up. Their eyes met.

"I know," Hutch nodded after a moment, frowning. "Didn’t say who got him in in the file, d’you see?"

"Yeah," Starsky replied. "Ask Gerardy ’bout him?"

"Okay. When’s he going to come back, anyway? It’s been three days."

Starsky shrugged. "Don’t ask me. He’s not exactly the most organized person in the world."

"Yeah," Hutch agreed grimly. "That’s for sure. Okay, I’m going to ask him about Christian, when he shows next. And Topher," he added, catching his partner’s gaze.

Starsky nodded and yawned.

Hutch smiled, patting his shoulder assuringly. "’Kay then. See ya tomorrow, Snoop. Sleep tight." And with that he turned to leave.

"Don’t call me Snoop," Starsky grumbled, but wasn’t heard.

*****

If there was one thing Dave Starsky hated more than getting up in the morning, it was getting up in the morning in a *tent*. And if there was one thing he hated more than waking up in a tent, it was waking up in a tent after a rainy night.

So when he woke up that next morning, his nose wrinkling as if by its own will, before the rest of his body had even yet fully registered its state of wakefulness, the very first thing he consciously realized was that the soft wall of canvas he’d rolled against in his sleep was damp. As was his sleeping bag. In fact, he himself was too - save for his feet, of course. They were soaking wet.

'I hate camping!'

Only after the thought had caused an angry frown to settle on his face, he opened his eyes, blinking at the dark wet olive green of his ceiling and realized he wasn’t even 'camping'. This was work.

With an unnerved groan, he squeezed his eyes shut again. Fingers that were slowed from residual sleepiness worked on unzipping the wet sleeping bag. 'Okay, so it’s not *real* camping, but I still hate it. I hate tents, I hate sleeping bags, I hate non-waterproof, cheap canvas...' He sneezed loudly.

'And I hate rain!'

Once he’d crawled out of his damp sleeping place - the blankets had soaked up an impressive amount of water, too, looking as though they planned on applying for new jobs as sponges - he quickly discovered the cause for his discomfort. A small, sharp stone underneath the corner where the tent’s floor met one wall had knifed a slender, but long cut into the canvas. There was still a small puddle right on the spot, but most of the water had been soaked up by other materials nearby.

Allowing another moan to escape, Starsky let his face fall into his hands, resignedly. The lower quarter of his sleeping bag and blankets had soaked through, and he hadn’t even *woken up*!

'I’ll never question Hutch again, when he insists I’m a deep sleeper...'

Fortunately, most of his clothes lay in neatly folded piles in the other far - dry - corner. So at least he’d found dry pairs of socks and jeans as well as a huge warm sweatshirt to wear, when he crawled out of his tent a few minutes later. It didn’t change the fact that he was chilled through, though, and neither did the faint drizzle welcoming him outside.

'Great. Good Morning to you too, world.'

Snuggling up in his sweater, head ducked, he hurried over to the house, entering the kitchen through the backdoor. Through the window, he’d seen that he wasn’t the only one up at this hour, but before he’d even had the chance to grumble a Baaad Morning wise-crack, another sneeze broke free.

"Gesundheit," Zadie and Hutch, who stood leaning against the breakfast bar, said. They were both unconsciously nursing their coffee in exactly the same manner.

Zadie only glanced at the entering Starsky, then turned back to the table again, where Brighton, Christian and Ethan Gerardy sat.

Catching the discreet, sympathetic look his partner cast him, Starsky briefly rubbed at his nose, bowing his head low enough for a quick glance to be exchanged. "Morning," he then grumbled. He had to cough a little afterwards and cleared his throat. "What gives? You look like Watergate."

Indeed they did, and the reactions to his casual greeting only confirmed his suspicion. Zadie quietly nudged his arm, since he’d come to a halt next to her, and Dobbs and Hutch shot him chiding glances, as if he could have *sensed* what was going on, if only he’d wanted to. It was the perfect picture of a group of insiders’ reaction to an intruder, and he instantly felt guilty.

"Whoa, sorry," he therefore muttered, sounding slightly hurt, and lifted his hands. "Don’t expect mind-reading before coffee, okay? Hey, Ethan," he added with emphasis and turned to look for the coffee pot. Without a word, Hutch poured him a cup and handed it to him.

"Mornin’, Sam," Ethan Gerardy replied, casting the detective a wry smile. "How’s life? I heard you’ve been all good manners in my absence again."

Starsky didn’t even bother to look indignant at that. "He started it," he simply stated, accepting the coffee from Hutch. "Thanks, man."

"That’s what you said about Topher," Gerardy insisted.

Starsky shrugged. "Because it was the truth then too," he answered matter-of-factly. A side glance to first Brighton Dobbs, then Hutch escaped him. He could see his partner was as impressed as he, himself, was about the fact that Brighton didn’t even try to cut in once. He seemed to have surrendered totally to the background, since Gerardy had appeared on the scene again.

Gerardy smiled, but shook his head lecturingly. "Sam, Sam," he muttered. "What am I supposed to do with you? If this was a war, you’d be the enemy’s ace, so far."

"If this was a war, there’d only have been one of ’em here to punch," Starsky retorted, glancing at Brighton, whose eyes sprung wide open in fury at this. Yet, the sharp reply that had undoubtedly started in the other man’s throat was kept from being uttered by Gerardy quickly stating, "Okay. Just..." He shook a warning finger at Starsky. "Don’t make a habit outta it, ’sall I’m saying. Alright?"

Lifting his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug, Starsky took a sip from his coffee. "I didn’t start it."

"As entertaining as Morning Manner School for Snoopy is," Hutch cut in, to Starsky sounding more like an exasperated partner than a bored Philip Hunter, "can we get back to business here, please? Ethan just arrived from San Francisco. Seems something went down with our people there."

Going from morning grumbling into undercover modus, Starsky fell silent, settling for watching Gerardy expectantly like the rest. He hadn’t missed his partner’s 'Pay attention!'-tone.

"Down is the word," Gerardy said with a sigh, his hand coming up to absently scratch at the back of his neck, as he looked into his coffee, continuing, "The whole group was made about ten days ago. That’s why I went up there in the first place, right after my meeting. I hadn’t heard from them in a while, they hadn’t answered any calls, and when I arrived..." He waved. "The apartment is yellow-taped, and they’re nowhere to be found. I checked some other possible hiding places, but nothing’s come up, yet. Nada."

"What was their task?" Brighton asked at the same time that Zadie inquired, "Have you told Darren, yet?"

"They were about to leave and meet with some other folks in Sacramento to await further instructions on... something important," Gerardy answered reluctantly, then, to Zadie, "And, no, I haven’t gotten through to him, yet."

"What did they keep in their apartment they could get booked for?" Hutch asked.

"Explosives," Ethan replied. "Mostly. Some stuff for the money-making on the way, far as I know."

Thoughtful stillness followed. Out of the corner of his eyes, Starsky could see Brighton Dobbs’ hands nervously shove his coffee mug around in small circles on the table. The excitement that was building in him was palpable.

"How many are they?" Zadie asked, her voice calm, even, as if she was already collecting the information they would need to follow orders she seemed eager to accept.

"Four," Ethan answered.

"Where’re they being held?"

Ethan sighed. "I have no idea. I couldn’t find any of their contacts; I just saw the place, and I talked to some guy from the pub down the street who told me it all happened ten days ago. My guess is they were forced to reveal their contacts later, and that’s how those people vanished too. There was no way of finding out they were gone, until I actually showed up there."

Safely hidden in his silence, Starsky emptied his cup to turn around to the breakfast bar, reaching out for the pot again. Like he’d expected, Hutch noticed the sign and turned slightly, seemingly coincidentally at the same time. They exchanged a quick glance.

"What was it they’d been assigned to do in Sacramento ?" Brighton asked. His eyes glowed, as if from too much caffeine, and his quivery hands encircled his cup, looking down into it with his head bent forward, as if there was a movie scene running in it.

"I can’t tell you that," Gerardy said after a moment’s thought.

Brighton looked up, searching Ethan’s eyes. "Okay," he finally said. It sounded like a decision. Like he’d been asked to do something. "So what d’we do now?"

Gerardy lifted his brows. "Lay low?" he suggested. "What d’you think I told you all this for?"

For a moment, it actually looked like Dobbs wanted to answer to that. His mouth opened, then closed again.

"The feds probably know by now that they stumbled over something big, so all I want you guys to do is keep everything to a limit, until I’ve talked to Darren. That’s what we’ll do, Dobbs, got it? Wait for Darren’s orders."

"Okay," Brighton muttered, waving one hand surrenderingly. "Got it."

"Did you really?" Gerardy asked sternly. "For this could mean big trouble for all of us, if they get our people to talk. So what I don’t need on top of that is any interference from you guys. Am I making myself clear?"

"Crystal," Brighton said.

"Good." Letting a last long look linger on Dobbs, Ethan emptied his coffee with one gulp and stood. "Now, is there a place a man can get some real sleep at here or what?"

*****

It was some time later that Hutch finally found the opportunity to catch his partner alone, in the kitchen. His curly head seemed to almost vanish inside the fridge as he rummaged through it in the search for food. Checking the garden through the backdoor window, Hutch saw Topher and Pixie sitting on their porch, talking. Zadie and Christian had set off for a walk down to the beach, and for once, Dobbs had left with the car alone, in a near escape. To restore his hurt pride, probably.

"He’s lying."

Starsky flinched violently, hitting his head against the upper fridge shelf. Glaring past the door at Hutch, he hissed, "Didn’t I tell you to not do that?!"

Hutch’s apologetic smile only earned him a scowl, then Starsky returned to the fridge again, rubbing the sore spot on his head lightly.

"Yeah, I know," he commented on the blond’s earlier statement.

"Why would a squad team yellow-tape a crime scene and not keep it observed well enough to catch him, when he shows? It doesn’t make sense."

"I know, Hutch. The question is: why?"

"I don’t know," Hutch mumbled, lost in thoughts. He was resting his elbow on top of the fridge, rubbing his chin with his hand. "What’s he planning? Why didn’t he tell us before?"

"Like I said," Starsky suggested, "he’s unorganized." He sneezed.

"Gesundheit. Hey, does your tent have a hole? You didn’t look your usual charming morning-self today."

"You oughta be a detective," Starsky grumbled and sniffed.

"Yeah, well, if you did catch a cold, you shouldn’t be standing next to the open fridge for so long," Hutch commented and shrugged innocently, when his partner glared at him, all but throwing the door shut.

"Okay, now what do you suggest we do, ask Ethan about it?" Starsky asked, folding his arms in front of him.

"We’d better. Maybe he expects us to do something, and we’ve got no clue."

"Yeah," Starsky said, a shadow crossing his features. "Or maybe it’s not us he’s relying on."

Hutch furrowed his brows. "You don’t think..." He tilted his head to one side, frown deepening.

"I don’t know," the smaller man said. "But just think about what we said last night."

"We were joking around," Hutch pointed out.

"Maybe Gerardy doesn’t have that sense of humor. Or professionalism, for that matter. I mean, were you surprised - at all - that none of 'our' guys even considered the possibility *they* could be under observation too?"

Hutch just looked at him.

"Ten days, Hutch. That’s before I got here. And still none of them got suspicious. Not even Brighton. They hear what they want to hear, and Gerardy knows that."

"You really think he wants to push them into doing something to speed things up?"

Starsky waved one hand slightly. "I’m saying it’s a possibility."

"Okay," Hutch muttered nervously. "Okay, but why would he order them to lay low then? Directly order them." He gestured at the front door. "Dobbs is scared of him, you’ve seen that. They respect him too much to-"

"Dobbs," Starsky interrupted him in a low voice, "is pissed." He let the words sink in and added, "Have you never disobeyed an order, because you felt you knew better?"

There was a very long silence, then, convinced, "You’re right."

"Course I’m right, I’m always right. Now, what d’we do? I don’t think Gerardy will be very impressed, if we let him know how we feel about his plan."

"No," Hutch agreed. Their eyes met. "I guess all we can do is play along, isn’t it?"

Starsky grimaced. "Looks that way."

"Yep."

"Yep."

"I don’t like it, though," Hutch stated.

"Me neither. But then, try looking at it this way: the sooner we bust them, the sooner we can go home."

"I know," Hutch muttered, not taking over the humor at all. "But what I wonder is what’s Gerardy getting out of it?"

Before Starsky had any chance to answer, Norton McLean’s door opened, revealing the lost son of the house, disheveled and sleepy-looking as ever. "Hey guys," he greeted them with a tired wave, as he shuffled his way over to the coffee pot. "Did I miss anything?"

*****

Dobbs hadn’t returned by the time the sun was turning golden and the rain had stopped. It didn’t surprise anyone - there had been a *lot* of pride to restore. Hutch welcomed the opportunity to get to talk more to the other members of the group, most of all Christian, whom he was still trying to figure out. Yet, true shadow that he was, he was never seen without Zadie nearby. His safe spot.

They were just inspecting the Flowermobile when Hutch approached them. It was a rare to see the colorfully sprayed, half-repaired car without either of its two protectors. But Topher had announced that he’d better 'check on our war equipment' after he’d heard the latest news, and Starsky was taking a nap on one of the mattresses in the 'lobby'. His cold hadn’t improved any, and Hutch sighed inwardly when he thought about the countless 'See? If we had switched places... but nooo...'- comments he was bound to hear, once Starsky had rested and had the required energy for them to pop up in his head.

"Hey there," Zadie waved at the blond when she spotted him, smiling slightly. Ever since the Platoon Morning News, an increasingly tensed atmosphere had descended upon the group’s members, as though they actually were a bunch of drafted soldiers ready to be sent into action. It was a feeling Hutch recognized easily, the mixture of fright and adrenalin, of the knowledge that you were about to do something important mingled with the nagging notion it might cost you everything you had.

He returned the smile. "Hey."

"Ethan up, yet?"

"No," Hutch shook his head. Gerardy must have had one hell of a day, whether or not he had been lying about his trip’s real destination; he’d slept through the whole day.

Zadie checked her watch. "He probably will be soon, though. Maybe I should make him something to eat, then."

Hutch kept his silence, stifling a snicker. For all her anti-feminine, enlightened attitude, deep down there was the perfect housewife sitting in Susanna Morgan’s soul, ever prepared to jump up from her place on the knitting chair to serve. Whenever he came across those revelations, Hutch felt reminded of some of the girls he’d known in college. Spoiled, upper-class chicks who were all talk - important, deeply insightful political talk - but at the same time the perfect opposite of what they were discussing. They believed themselves to be emancipated, when indeed it was obvious they were just doing the small talk in order to find a husband. Street scum couldn’t be worse liars then those women.

His gaze wandering over to the Flowermobile, he reached out to brush over a particularly bright spot in the spraying. "Whose car is this, anyway?"

Zadie looked at him, a frown starting.

"I mean," Hutch quickly explained, "whose is it originally?"

"Good question," Zadie replied after a moment’s thought and glanced at Christian, who gave the ghost of a shrug. "Probably McLean’s," she concluded. "Why’re you asking?"

"Just interested," Hutch answered casually.

Zadie watched him in silence for a moment. "Hunter?” she asked at last.

"Hmm?" Hutch blinked up.

"What do you make out of... all of it? What Ethan told us?"

"What d’you mean?" Hutch asked innocently.

"What do you think we should... do?" She slightly bowed her head, as if they were sharing a conspiratorial thought. Out of the corner of his eyes Hutch could see Christian’s gaze flicker between them nervously.

Hutch let a moment pass by, choosing his words. "I don’t see how that is our decision," he said calmly, but locked eyes with her for a moment. "Why, what do you think?"

She was about to answer - too quickly for a wise reply, the detective thought - but closed her mouth, determined, when she spotted someone approaching them from the house’s side. Hutch turned to see Ethan Gerardy walking over the damp, fresh grass, arms spread out for a drowsy stretch. When he noticed the small group, he smiled, stashed his hands in his pockets and stepped over to them.

"Don’t you guys tell me you’re begging for a new ride, too, now," he greeted them and knocked on the car’s hood, bending as if listening to the echo. "Perfect shape, if you ask me. Where are the car boys at this time of the day, anyway?" he added with dry humor, looking around.

Zadie smiled sociably. "Have a nice nap?"

"Yeah, thanks. How about," he checked his watch, "a very late breakfast?"

Hutch kept himself from rolling his eyes at that manipulating tone. He obviously hadn’t been the only one to come across Zadie-like women in his life.

Unaware of her own predictability, Zadie nodded eagerly. "Sure. I’ll go make you something right away, Ethan. No prob."

The smile on Gerardy’s face popped into a grin. "Thanks, Honey. You’re the best. Hey," he held her back, "is Dobbs around here, somewhere? I’ve looked for him, but-"

"He went to... do the shopping," Zadie explained hesitantly. "He should be back soon." Once more, she turned to go, Christian Gruder behind her, but stopped. "Was there something in particular you wanted to discuss with Dobbs?" she asked, some nagging twinge in her voice betraying the faked innocence of the question.

Gerardy looked at her, mockingly surprised. "Yes," was all he answered.

To Hutch’s disbelief, when he bowed his gaze, just a tad, to stifle a snicker - he could see Christian doing the same!

Zadie seemed to know she was on the losing end, so with a scowl she turned for the last time, angry determination marking her moves. She had just passed the cabin’s side, when she slowed her steps, then stopped fully.

Hutch could see her features strain. Christian, behind her, paled.

Standing with his back to them, Gerardy hadn’t seen. "Hunter, can I..." At Hutch’s sharp wave, he trailed off and turned too, just in time to watch Christian ever so carefully shoot them a pleading look.

"Something’s off," Hutch muttered unnecessarily and hurried after them, Gerardy closely behind. As if on cue, Zadie was just slowly raising her hands, as if to calm someone down. Someone dangerous.

'Damn!' Hutch thought, as the realization hit him like a blow. 'Topher.'

He was right. It was Topher, who had stopped Zadie on her way, though it seemed she hadn’t needed to stop, maybe mustn’t have. He was sitting on the grass, huddled against the wooden wall of the cabin, with a gun held in such a cramped position that he appeared to hug it to himself. Like a comfort-gun, Hutch thought grimly. The ex-POW shook like a leaf.

"Topher?" Zadie asked frightfully. She still had her hands up. It looked eerie; he wasn’t threatening her. "Are you okay?"

At hearing her voice, he ducked his head lower with a sharp move that drew his forehead against the barrel of the gun. His lips moved slightly, soundless mumbles being seemingly directed at himself.

Like the gun.

"Topher," Zadie tried again, more urgently, but before she could go on, Hutch’s hand on her arm stopped her. He shook his head softly, so as to not startle the confused man on the ground further. His mind raced - *he* knew how to deal with this situation. He was pretty sure he would have been able to drag Topher back into reality. But - Philip Hunter wouldn’t, would he? How should he explain his expertise to Zadie and Christian afterwards, when his alias’ biography lacked any events to have possibly enabled him to deal with post-war flashbacks?

"What’s that he’s saying?" Zadie’s half-loud voice broke through his brainstorming.

He glanced down at her next to him, and answered, "'Won’t let them get me'", while the answer to his own question jumped at him with full force. What was he standing here for, contemplating?! He wasn’t alone! "Christian, go get Sta... Sam."

Christian didn’t move, stared at him, terrified.

"Snoop," Zadie snapped at him, as if she thought he hadn’t understood the order. She pushed him lightly. "Go get Snoopy."

He was off like a shot.

"Good thinking," Gerardy muttered next to Hutch, who ignored him. He kept his gaze focused on Topher, ready to jump into action if there was no other way.

Topher was calm for now. They weren’t talking to him anymore. He didn’t care about being stared at, just as long as they didn’t talk to him. He wouldn’t let them interrogate him again. He wouldn’t let them.

Hutch tensed. He knew the look forming in the other man’s eyes. The growing determination. Suppressing a sigh, he glanced over his shoulder at the house. In the far distance, a car’s engine could be heard. It stopped. A door slammed shut.

Hutch and Gerardy exchanged a startled look.

"Dobbs," Gerardy said urgently.

Hutch nodded. "Go keep him away," he whispered.

Ethan didn’t look convinced. His gaze flew to Topher and back.

"It’s okay" Hutch said assuringly. He nodded once more, looking past Ethan at the house’s back door, where a very startled, sleepy-looking Starsky appeared, followed by Brighton Dobbs, who stopped short, unsure of what to do.

"Go," Hutch ordered sharply, and finally Gerardy obeyed.

*****

Starsky didn’t look at the undercover agent when he passed him. His gaze was focused on Topher Martin. His steps were quick, large, but he didn’t run, didn’t visibly hurry. When he reached the small group, he shot Hutch a very brief glance. It didn’t carry any message, he just wanted to make sure Hutch was there.

Carefully, he crouched down, so that he was on eye-level with Topher. "Topher?" It was a mere whisper, gentle and surprised. Surprised, because it startled Starsky to see the other man like this. Scared him even.

"Hey." Starsky waited for a reaction, but nothing came. "Topher."

Topher ducked his head deeper, so that his forehead was pressed more firmly against the gun.

Starsky swallowed dryly. He didn’t feel so sure about the whole situation, and it frightened him that he didn’t. He wanted to turn to look at Hutch for reassurance, but was very aware of Zadie’s presence. Hutch would have done a much better job than he here, he thought, but undercover-wise, it was *his* field of experience. After all, there had been a reason for them to decide that keeping an eye on Topher Martin was *his* job, hadn’t there?

And, hell, he *did* have experiences. He knew. He’d been there. Seen it.

Just not from Hutch’s side of the fence. So why was he so scared?

'Easy. Because you *are* on Hutch’s side of the fence now,' he thought grimly, feeling the increasing nervousness ebb away at his own chiding inside his head. 'And he’s counting on you. So stop whining and *do something*!'

He drew in a quiet, deep breath, bracing himself. He could do this. "Topher? Can ya hear me?"

The other man tensed. The gun in his hand shook so badly that Starsky wondered if it was even working, since it hadn’t gone off by now. He waited patiently for an answer.

"I won’t..." Topher started in a quivery whisper, eyes squeezed shut. He trailed off, bit his lip.

Starsky waited. When it became clear Topher wouldn’t speak on, he waved casually, allowing his voice to sound more confident, but still soft, comforting. "That’s alright, you don’t have to," he said.

There was a pause in the other one’s shivering, as if his body itself stopped to wonder about Starsky’s words. He frowned.

Starsky waited.

"I won’t let them... I won’t," Topher said, determined. His eyes were still closed, but he had lifted his head, so that the others could see his face.

"Sure, man," Starsky assured. "I understand. I wouldn’t let them, either. I’m on your side. You know that, don’t you?"

Topher opened his eyes. The frown was still there, as he searched Starsky’s face, puzzled.

The detective smiled in mock hurt, spreading his hands slightly in a 'Come *on*!'-sort of gesture. "Don’t say you don’t recognize me."

Topher stared at him with his mouth hanging open. A sudden noise from the house drew his attention away from the curly-headed man in front of him and towards the back door. Instantly, his features softened. "Pix..." he whispered.

Not bothering to look over his shoulder, Starsky carefully bent forward, secretly reaching for the gun that started to slid into a dangling hold in Topher’s fingers.

"Glad you have your priorities all sorted out," he muttered dryly. The moment he could grab the gun, he came to his feet, not hastily, but quickly, and stepped away from Topher, whom Pixie approached with a worried expression. Her eyes darted from the gun in Starsky’s hand back down to her boyfriend.

"Baby? What’s going on?"

"It’s okay now," Starsky muttered softly, when her confused look found him and stepped away, leaving her to take care of Topher. She crouched down next to him, stroking his face, crooning soft words. The situation didn’t seem alien to her, and the way Topher relaxed under her caressing hands spoke volumes.

Unloading the gun, Starsky discreetly waved Zadie and Hutch away. With a last, relieved glance over his shoulder, he followed them to the back door, where Christian, Dobbs and Gerardy stood. They went inside.

****

"Good job," Hutch said, once they were inside, and gave Starsky’s back a gentle pat. "Sam."

To his worried surprise, there came no wisecrack in return. Just a tired "Yeah", when Starsky sank down in one of the kitchen chairs. The hand he lifted to drive through his hair was shaking slightly. At feeling Zadie’s gentle grip on his neck behind him, he flinched away, but quickly cleared his throat so as to make it look like an accidental move.

It took all Hutch had to not study his friend with open concern, when he too sat down. Gerardy took the last free seat, rubbing his eyes. "Boy," he muttered. "Good Morning, Ethan."

Starsky smiled.

An eerie stillness settled, marked by a nervous relief. Dobbs was the first to speak again. "What the hell *was* that?! What happened?"

"Topher freaked," Zadie explained with a sigh, her tone low, discreet. As if it was a piece of information that somehow included Starsky.

And indeed he did react. "He had a flashback," he corrected sharply. "Of ’Nam." He glanced up at Dobbs and Zadie. It suddenly stroke Hutch that Christian was nowhere to be seen.

"Topher was a POW with the Vietcong," Starsky continued grimly and took in the reactions on the other’s faces, including Gerardy’s. "I take it you didn’t know that."

"Did he tell you that?" Ethan asked.

"Yep."

"Wow," Zadie muttered, more to herself than to anyone else. "With the Vietcong? Wow." She paused. "Explains a lot."

Next to her, Dobbs nodded. "Oh, yeah."

Out of pure reflex, Hutch’s hand snatched forward to close around his partner’s wrist in an assuring grasp, but Starsky jerked away. "What’s that supposed to mean?" he growled.

"Well," Zadie started, "he’s always been a bit..." She hesitated.

"Dangerous," Dobbs concluded, but received a scowl from her.

"Odd," she corrected.

Dobbs snorted. "Whatever. The question is: what d’we do with him now?"

"I think," Starsky snapped, "the question is-"

"What d’you mean?" Hutch interrupted him quickly, ignoring his friend’s glare.

Dobbs looked from one to the other. He seemed to not understand the questioning glances directed at him. "Well, we can’t just let him run around here anymore, can we?" he said excitedly, spreading his arms in a wide gesture that resulted in pointing at the back door. "He could’ve killed someone out there!"

"Or himself," Starsky stated.

Dobbs cast him an icy glance. "He’s someone, too."

For a moment, their eyes met. "What do you suggest we do?!" Starsky barked at last. "Lock him away?!"

Dobbs didn’t answer. Zadie bowed her gaze.

"Aw, come *on*!" Starsky exclaimed and stood, taking a step away from the table, so that it now appeared like the middle line of a battle field. Gerardy and Hutch exchanged a helpless glance.

"You gotta be kidding! Where d’you wanna put him?! In the cabin? The cellar? Don’t we have a nice, clean cage on hand?!"

"Snoop-" Zadie muttered softly, but she wasn’t going to be heard.

"Why don’t you just shoot him right now, if you want to treat him like they did, anyway?!"

"Okay, smartass," Dobbs shot back, "what do *you* suggest we do?!"

"Help him!"

"How?!"

"I don’t know!" Starsky yelled. In the following silence, he looked down at Gerardy. "He can’t stay here," he said, more calmly. "He needs help."

Before Gerardy had a chance to answer, Dobbs intervened. "Oh, hey, wait. You aren’t thinking of bringing him to a hospital, are you? We can’t do that! He might tell them all about us!"

"Why would he do that?" Starsky snapped.

"Because he’s crazy!"

Hutch’s gaze flew up at Starsky, a silent plea forming in his eyes. 'Don’t flip out, Partner. Please.'

Starsky must’ve heard his thoughts, because he remained miraculously calm, his only answer a growl. "You’re such an asshole, Brighton."

"Maybe," Dobbs replied smugly. "But I’m right."

"We can’t keep him forever," Hutch pointed out. Noticing that everyone looked at him, surprised at him for even bothering to participate in the discussion, he shrugged. "Can we?"

"We won’t *stay* here forever," Dobbs replied gravely.

"Brighton is right," Gerardy said. "When the group moves, we can send him to a hospital. We won’t tell him where you’re going then. But as long as we have this West Coast situation on our hands, we can’t take any risks. And Topher is a risk," he added to Starsky. When the detective frowned angrily, he smiled with a half shrug. "After all, we *do* have Pixie, right? And we have you to keep an eye on him. Just don’t let him get near any guns again."

He seemed finished with the topic, turning to Zadie, but Starsky’s voice held him back. "If we lock him into his cabin, it’ll get worse. It *is* getting worse already."

Gerardy sighed in annoyance. "It’s not my fault life’s a bitch sometimes, okay?"

"It’s inhumane!"

"It’s how it is, Snoop!" Gerardy snapped, effectively shutting the detective up. "We didn’t make him that way."

Starsky opened his mouth, but once more caught his partner’s gaze and closed it again. Without any further word, he stormed out of the room, throwing the door shut behind himself.

Gerardy didn’t look after him. "Well," he said, "now that we have that settled - I’m hungry. Zadie?"

*****

Dawn was lingering behind impressive mountains of clouds, a massive gray shield blocking the pale, fragile rays of newborn light. It smelled of wet grass and fresh air, and though it had stopped raining some time ago, the ground was still muddy and slippery, when Hutch hurried over it to the tent. The tent bore no source of light this time, but stood still and serene, like a piece of nature.

He wasn’t surprised to find Starsky sitting in the entry hole, wrapped in a bunch of blankets.

"Hey," he greeted Hutch tiredly and put out the rest of a cigarette on the ground outside next to his feet, where a small pile of cigarette butts already lay.

Crawling inside the entry to sit on the canvas next to his friend, Hutch nodded at the spot. "Polluting the environment?"

"Yep," came the unimpressed reply.

At the clear rejection of easy bantering, Hutch sighed slightly. "Did you sleep at all?" he asked gently. Unnecessarily too, since he’d taken in Starsky’s appearance before.

"Nope."

Hutch waited and after a short pause asked, "Fix the tent?"

"Nope."

Again, the blond waited for more, then bent forward to peek up into the grayish pale sky. "Looks like rain again."

Starsky shrugged.

"Wanna switch rooms?"

Surprised, Starsky turned his head, meeting Hutch’s smiling eyes. With a soft laugh breaking through, he shook his head.

Relieved, Hutch playfully punched his shoulder.

"Okay, okay," Starsky said, waving his hands as if in defense. "I’m just pissed. Sorry."

Hutch gazed at him understandingly. "Did you check on Topher again?" he asked.

Starsky shook his head. "Spoke to Pixie, when she went to get some food. He’s been pretty out of it since..." He trailed off. "I’m gonna go talk to him tomorrow."

"You did a good job back there," Hutch said, nodding reassuringly when a nervous glance flickered up at him.

Starsky didn’t answer.

"Starsk," Hutch said firmly, waiting for the other man’s eyes to find his. "You did a good job."

"Yeah," Starsky muttered, unconvinced.

Something was deeply troubling him, Hutch could sense that. He let a worried look wander from Starsky’s nature-made ashtray to his partner’s strained features. Starsky wasn’t looking at him, but at the greenish mud between his feet, a constant crease edged into his forehead.

"Hey." Hutch gently nudged one drawn-up knee. Starsky looked up. "You couldn’t have done anything for him. Don’t beat yourself up over it, huh?"

Starsky smiled gratefully, but shook his head. "It’s not that."

Hutch frowned. "Okay, then wh..." Catching his friend’s quick, embarrassed glance, he trailed off, understanding. "Oh," he sighed deeply and leaned back slightly, bringing one arm up to lay it around the smaller man’s shoulders. He gently dragged him a bit closer, patting Starsky’s arm. "Aw, Pal, you were a lot easier to handle, believe me."

Starsky snorted a nervous chuckle, head hanging low, careful to avoid looking at Hutch, who wisely let him have the few seconds he needed to recompose himself. When the curly head came up again with a deep breath, he drew his arm away, but only so much that he could still rest his hand on Starsky’s shoulder. Deep blue eyes found his, gratitude mingling with the fading remains of shame.

Hutch smiled comfortingly. He knew that look. From a long time ago, when their friendship had still been rather new, though already something that struck you as extraordinary, when you stopped to really think about it - like something you’d grown into, or a change that you hadn’t noticed before. For, like everything important in life, it seemed to have, all of a sudden, always been there. Good things, they try to change the past as they settle in the present.

And back then, they had still been there, Starsky’s flashbacks. Not regular ones, most of the time nothing more than very bad, shaking nightmares, but occasionally they had managed to grab him unawares, when his guard had been down, and, yes, Hutch had seen. The fear and the horror and this barely-bearable feeling of just having completely lost control.

As time had gone on, they had faded along with the years, the flashbacks, settled in the past where they belonged. But still Hutch remembered that look of crushing embarrassment on his friend’s face, when he had become aware of what had just happened, when he’d suddenly came to his senses again, finding himself huddled in a corner in either his or Hutch’s apartment with the blond hovering nearby, soothing, comforting, openly offering support and care.

Over the years, they had both lost that sort of embarrassment, or maybe it had just been transformed into utter gratitude at having someone on your side who you could allow to witness your darkest moments. Even when you were at your lowest and couldn’t fall any deeper. They didn’t have to be ashamed of clinging, when it was necessary, or of needing the other one. It was understood.

But what Hutch also understood was that it was different to *see* the exact same thing happening to another person. To all the time know 'This is how I looked like. This is what I said. I behaved like that.' It could get to you, watching a mirror image of your own vulnerability.

Yet, just as Topher Martin’s suffering had brought back parts of Starsky’s own past for him, so did the look he now saw in Hutch’s eyes, the sensation of his mere presence. The wordless, understood comfort Starsky knew was okay for him to need. To accept.

Reaching up, he placed his hand over Hutch’s on his shoulder, but tore it away again quickly, when a loud sneeze broke free.

"Gesundheit," Hutch smiled, teasingly backing away from him.

Starsky sniffed through an intelligible grumble. "Boy, I can’t wait for this to be over, I’m tellin’ ya. This case is-" He sneezed again.

"That’s what I wanted to say," Hutch quipped. "But, y’know, could be you’ll be sleeping in between walls again sooner than we thought."

Cop mode kicking in, Starsky lifted his brows hopefully, all ears. "How’s that?"

"Ethan left, while you were down at the beach," Hutch told him, "and I think-"

"Wait a sec, he *left*?!" Starsky interrupted him incredulously. "He just got here! Where did he go? Did he talk to you?"

"Well, you could say that," Hutch replied sarcastically. "He said not to interfere with his plan, and that we have to wait for him and Perry to decide when we’ll bust anyone. Oh," he added in feigned seriousness, "and I’m to tell you to try and keep punching people to a minimum, if possible."

Starsky visibly chose to ignore that one. "His plan?" he repeated instead. "So what, we were right?"

"I thought you were always right," Hutch said casually.

"Yeah, sure," Starsky replied, equally unimpressed by the discovery. "But how did Ethan find out? Has he said when he’ll be back?"

"Few days."

"Few days," the smaller man echoed disgustedly. "Great. He’s always 'a few days'. And you call that soon?!"

Hutch shrugged. "In comparison to Gerardy’s time," he said, earning a scowl. "Anyway," he quickly continued, before his friend could start whining, "I had a chat with Dobbs afterwards, and you were right. He’s pissed."

"Hey, they don’t let me carry a badge for nothing. Can read people like books. So, what’d he say? He wants to try and get those San Fran guys free, of whom we don’t even know if they exist, yet, right?"

"They *really* don’t let you carry a badge for nothing," Hutch replied dryly.

"I keep telling ya! Okay - so what’s the plan? He doesn’t know where they are, or has Ethan let something slip?"

"Nope," Hutch answered.

Catching a nervous flicker cross the blond’s face, Starsky turned so that he was directly facing him. "Alright, shoot."

Hutch pressed his lips together, glancing at his friend. "You do understand Ethan’s orders mean that we have to play along for as long as he and Perry think it appropriate."

"Yeees," Starsky nodded, stretching the word.

"And that means we have to hooray Dobbs’ plan and *not* lose our cool and blow it all."

"Whatever gets me home."

"Right," Hutch nodded slowly, tensed as if sensing he was getting close to thin ice. "And if whatever gets you home turns out to be something you want to punch Dobbs for again, you won’t do it, because then it’ll lose its getting-you-homeiness, won’t it?"

Starsky just looked at him for a long moment. "Okay, give it to me straight. What’s the crazy little professor’s plan? Drop a nuke?"

"Attack a school."

"*What*?!" Hutch sighed. He closed his eyes, briefly, before casting his partner a grave look. "He wants to take a school hostage to get the Frisco people free."

"A *school*?!" Starsky exploded. "He wants to threaten *kids*?! What is he, nuts?! Oh wait, what am I saying?!"

"Calm down," Hutch said, gesturing quietly. "It won’t happen, we won’t let him. But it’s his plan, and that’s what we’ll have to work with until Ethan returns."

"And what if he won’t wait for Ethan’s return?" Starsky asked.

"I believe he will," Hutch answered. "I think he’ll try to convince him of it. Today really got to him. He wants to be the genius with the master plan, and I think Ethan knows that. Probably part of his plan too."

Starsky let go of a grumbled sigh, rubbing his tired features. "Man, I’m beginning to hate this guy."

"Who, Ethan or Dobbs?"

"Both," Starsky growled. "I mean, what is it with Gerardy keeping us out of everything all the time? What’re we, the hound dogs?! We never know where he is, we don’t know what he’s up to..." He shook his head, frustrated. "And Dobbs!" he suddenly burst out. "What the hell is *wrong* with this guy?! 'I’m the very last person who’d kill innocent people for this, but if I have to, it’s *gotta* be kids!'"

Hutch grinned at the perfect imitation of Brighton Dobbs.

"It’s not even a good plan! How does he think he’ll get out of there alive, afterwards?! Doesn’t he know a school with a hostage situation is going to be swarmed by cops within a minute?! That’s the most ridiculous plan I’ve ever heard!"

"I’ve a notion he doesn’t plan on going in there himself," Hutch pointed out quietly.

Still too upset to comment on that, Starsky let out an angry breath. "When they sentence him, I wanna be there to watch."

Hutch laughed softly, patting his back reassuringly. "Everything you want, Buddy. I’ll drive you there. But until then - d’you think you can manage to keep your opinion to yourself, when he presents his glorious idea to us all?"

"Oh, sure," Starsky answered, his voice taking on a high-pitched tone. "Sure! I’ll cheer, if you want me to."

"If you could just not attack and strangle him, that’d be beautiful."

"Okay!" the curly-haired detective accepted graciously.

"Okay," Hutch nodded as if for reassurance.

"Okay." With a wide gesture, Starsky shot him a 'Happy now?!'-glance, brows raised, then patted at his pockets, until he found a crumpled cigarette and stuck it between his lips with angry determination. When he reached out to grab the lighter on the ground next to him, Hutch snatched it away.

"Hey!" Starsky protested.

"What 'hey'? I thought we both know you can stop again."

"And I can!" Starsky insisted, trying to grab the lighter from Hutch, who held it too far away.

"Well, prove it."

"I happen to still be undercover, now gimme that!" Starsky barked in a tone impressive enough to cause Hutch to drop the lighter into his outstretched hand.

"You know something, Starsk? You’re gonna regret this, when we’re back in real life," the blond lectured.

"Yeah, aren’t you grateful I saved you from it?" Starsky grumbled in response.

Hutch sighed. "I’d better go get some shuteye," he announced, blinking into the beginning daylight. A faint drizzle had started, and when Hutch moved to crawl out into the open, a few drops loosened from the tent’s upper side, landing on Starsky’s burning cigarette with a precision Hutch couldn’t help but chuckle about.

"T’riffic," Starsky muttered gloomily. "Hey," he called after Hutch, "what about switching rooms now?!"

Getting to his feet in front of the tent, the blond shook his head with a frown. "Nah, don’t like that smell of cold smoke everywhere. See ya later, Snoop."

"I hope you slip!" Starsky informed him.

"Try to get some sleep," Hutch answered and hurried back to the house, without slipping.

*****

Somehow, Starsky ended up being the one to break the news to Pixie about what had been decided among the group concerning Topher, and to everyone’s surprise, it seemed to work. The girl took care of her boyfriend physical needs, and she stayed with him inside of the cabin, most of the time. Not once did he try to leave his confinement, and for Brighton and Zadie he seemed to have ceased to exist. They didn’t mention his name anymore, didn’t talk about the cabin, nothing. Topher had vanished from the group, like an unpleasant family member that had once been there, but was now deceased.

Christian, though, paled every time he walked past the cabin and after half a day seemed to try to keep being in the garden to a minimum altogether. McLean’s opinion on the whole matter had been a toneless "wow", though even that had surprised Hutch, who’d expected something along the lines of "Who’s Topher?" from the young man. If Christian was a shadow, McLean was a ghost, the forgotten uncle of the family, never outside his room for longer than a trip to the kitchen or bathroom, and the others only thought of him when they needed money. That, Hutch had found out pretty soon after his arrival in Camp California - it was financed almost entirely by Norton McLean. If the group had been a firm, McLean would’ve been its silent partner.

So the house’ inhabitants quickly forgot all about Topher, other than a relief that he was gone. But on the second day of Topher’s imprisonment, Hutch had a brief opportunity to talk to Starsky, who dropped by the cabin twice each day. The concerned crease edged into Starsky’s forehead, the strain around his mouth, spoke volumes.

"Not good, huh?" Hutch asked sympathetically.

Starsky sighed, shook his head.

Hutch squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. "It’s gonna be over soon," he muttered.

"It’d better be," Starsky replied, locking eyes with Hutch. "He’s losing it. Pixie tries to get him to sleep a lot, but..."

Catching the guilty tone, as his friend trailed off, Hutch tightened his hold on Starsky’s shoulder. "Starsk. There’s nothing we can do right now."

"I know," came the unconvinced reply. "I know." Eyes desperately seeking understanding locked with Hutch’s.

With no need to voice his thoughts, Hutch returned the glance reassuringly.

"Yeah," Starsky finally mumbled, when the contact was broken. He drew in a deep breath. "Yeah. I know."

They had to split. Hutch was expected back inside, and with a parting pat on Starsky’s back, he walked past him. "Take care, partner."

Starsky didn’t answer, but returned to his work on the Flowermobile. Since Topher’s disappearance, he had found himself pretty much deserted, left alone with the car most of the time, unless they were discussing Dobbs’ idea. Even Zadie’s interest in him had faded in comparison to her dedication to The Plan.

True to Hutch’s prediction, the day after Ethan’s departure Dobbs had told the rest of the group about his idea of taking a school hostage in order to free their fellow platoon members, and it had changed everything. There it was, what they’d all been waiting for for so long: a task.

To say that Zadie was delighted would have been an understatement. She was ecstatic. Finally, after all this time of discussing and arguing, talk, talk, talk - finally there was a goal to achieve. A mission to accomplish. Finally, her true talents were needed, her gift for organization, for planning. It seemed that she had, overnight, turned into the loudest member of the group, always on the search for someone to deliver some orders, or make suggestions, and an outsider might have even gotten the impression that she was the boss, after all. Calling the shots.

But Hutch knew that she was calling Brighton’s shots.

It was Dobbs’ plan, and there was no doubting his superiority, anymore. The morning he’d let the group in on his great coup, he and Hutch had driven to San Francisco, looking for a fitting target. What they had decided upon - after Dobbs’ fiercely determined suggestion - was a private elementary school in a western part of the city, small, with colorfully decorated windows. A nice, clean looking building. Kids, chatting happily with each other, unaware of the doom lingering nearby in a parked jeep, had just been arriving at that hour, most of them accompanied by their mothers or fathers. They had crowded the door in little groups, a giggly mass of moving colors, high voices, laughter.

"Rich kids," Dobbs had muttered in a near spat, staring at the scenery from behind the wheel.

Hutch had just gazed at him sideways.

The Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School - 'Teddy’s School' for the inhabitants of Camp California - had from then on been officially under observation, at least during school hours. Zadie had come up with a neatly scheduled plan, and so two changing members were responsible for watching the school each day, notin down irregularities (that never occurred) and getting to know the area. According to Dobbs, it was a necessity that everyone know exactly where all the exits were, which adults were coming and going at what times, and approximately how many kids were inside on which days.

"T’riffic. Undercover stakeouts," Starsky grumbled to Hutch on the blond’s daily trip to the tent the night after Zadie’s presentation of the schedule, which now hung in the kitchen like a family’s calendar. "Why did we agree to this shit again?"

"’Cause the country needed us," Hutch replied dryly, not really paying attention to his partner’s complaints. "But d’you know something? We’re on duty together the day after tomorrow."

Starsky frowned as if thinking. "Really?"

"Yeah, I checked. Tomorrow’s Zadie and me, and the next day-"

"You’re on twice in a row?"

"Um... yeah," Hutch replied, puzzled. "You too. Didn’t you see? The day after that, you’ll be driving with Chris-"

"And what about Dobbs?!" Starsky exclaimed, reminding Hutch of a little kid moaning about the unfairness of being the younger one. He wondered where Starsky had learned that tone, though - he’d never been the younger one.

"I’m sure Brighton will be going next week," Hutch said calmly, patting his partner’s shoulder teasingly.

"Oh, sure! That’ll be the day! I bet he-"

"Starsk," Hutch cut him off patiently and waited until the smaller man was looking at him. Without any further words, he just lifted his brows.

Starsky rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, nyah, nyah. But it’s not fair," he added in a mumbled grumble.

"Life usually isn’t," Hutch commented wisely, ignoring the glare he received for that. "But we’ve got more important things to talk about."

Suddenly turning from an upset boy into a cop again, Starsky furrowed his brows. "What d’you wanna do, contact Perry?"

"I was thinking more of Dobey."

Eyes wandering off, as he followed that thought, Starsky pursed his lips, shrugging. "Good idea. But will we make it in time?"

"It’s about the same distance to Frisco, isn’t it?"

Convinced, Starsky nodded. "’Kay. I’ll drive."

Hutch laughed, shook his head and crawled out of the tent again.

"I mean that!" Starsky called after him. "I’ll drive!"

Hutch just waved without turning.

*****

"I think we did good." When no answer came from the driver’s seat, Zadie turned to look at Hutch, who was just stifling a yawn. "Don’t you?"

"Hmm? Oh. Yes." He nodded tiredly. "Sure."

"Yes," she repeated happily, leaning back in her seat with the contentment of the hardworking. Gazing outside at the passing streets bathed in the bright golden late of afternoon, she breathed in as if savoring spring air even through the rolled-up window. "Man, I’d completely forgotten how great it feels to actually be working. Y’know," she glanced at him, "to *do* something after you’ve gotten up. Know what I mean?"

Hutch didn’t even bother nodding. "Mm-hmm," he muttered, clenching his jaws against yet another yawn. 'Know what I’d forgotten, lady? How boring stakeouts are.'

"I mean, don’t you just love the thrill of it all?" Zadie rambled on next to him. "This great feeling of... purpose?" she added excitedly.

Hutch rubbed his eyes. "Mm-hmm. Purpose," he mumbled, but she wasn’t paying attention to him, anymore.

"This is going to be huge, Hunter. I can feel it. Darren’s not gonna believe it." A happy giggle followed.

Thinking he didn’t believe her, either, Hutch sighed regretfully. If there was one good thing that had come out of this whole undercover assignment so far, it was that he was bound to remember being grateful for Starsky’s presence next time they were on a stakeout together. His partner might not be much less talkative than Brighton Dobbs or Zadie Morgan, but at least he wasn’t boring.

'Boy, I mustn’t ever tell Starsk that,' Hutch thought with dry humor. 'He’ll never let me hear the end of it.'

But then, right now he’d have chosen never hearing the end of it over one more minute spent with Zadie. Shooting her a quick glance, he noticed she was still talking, nonstop. He shook his head to himself. 'When I get promoted one day and am in charge of hiring people, I’ll invent a 'fit for stakeouts'-test.'

"Hunter?"

'I could use Starsk for it. Like, where’s the test person’s boiling point?'

"Hey, Hunter."

'Five minutes is an A, two minu-'

"Hunter!"

Jumping at a sudden touch to his shoulder, he snapped his head to his right, staring at Zadie. "Huh?! Wh-what?"

She scowled. "Were you listening to me at all?"

"Oh. Yeah. Sure!"

"Mm-hmm," she nodded, icily. "Because you just missed the off-ramp back there."

"Oh?" He looked over his shoulder. "Oh. Um... h-how about taking the scenic route?" He smiled sweetly.

Half an hour of blissful, if tensed, silence later they arrived at the house. Hutch sighed in relief, letting himself fall back into the seat for a relaxing breath after stopping the engine. He felt more like he was returning from an 18-hour stakeout than from a six-hour one, beat, worn out, his back hurting, his head aching... Blinking with tired sarcasm, he cast the sulking, emerging Zadie a glance. Amazing how people could stretch time when they wanted to, wasn’t it?

Shaking his head slightly, he finally followed her outside and to the house. When she stopped abruptly in the front door, he almost stumbled into her.

"What the...?!"

Alarmed by her incredulous outburst, he looked past her, deeper into the 'lobby' - and froze.

"Hey, guys!" Brighton Dobbs greeted them with a wild grin, waving his free hand. The one that wasn’t pointing a gun at Starsky’s head. "Guess what we found out, while you were away!"

Hutch swallowed dryly, ice-cold fear knotting his insides. He didn’t need to guess. His partner was kneeling on the floor with his hands folded behind his neck, elbows outstretched and focusing on him with fierce urgency, willing him to read his thoughts. And Hutch did, his gaze flickering up at Brighton again, as he hastened to process the situation.

'They don’t know about me. Yet.'

His mind racing, logic working desperately on keeping at bay the frightened urge to tear the gun away from Starsky’s head *right now*, he closed the door behind himself, not once breaking the calm, unconcerned appearance of Philip Hunter, while Zadie stormed inside excitedly.

"Brighton, what the fuck is going on here?! What’re you doing?!"

"What am I doing?" Dobbs repeated sarcastically, savoring every moment. "Well," he pursed his lips, shoulders lifted in a half shrug, "I think it’s called 'threatening a police officer'." Seemingly out of nowhere, a silver badge appeared in his free hand.

Puzzled, Zadie took it. The frown on her face faded into a disbelieving, blank look. "Oh, my..." she muttered, staring at the item. Her head shook slowly as if on its own accord.

Hutch stepped up, gazing over her shoulder at his friend’s badge. "Starsky," he sighed. For everyone but the captured detective, it sounded like he was merely reading the name aloud. Allowing himself another quick look at Starsky, he saw a thin streak of blood trickling down his left temple. A bruise was forming there.

'Damn it, Starsk.'

"Crazy, huh?" McLean said, truly impressed. He was sitting on one of the mattresses with his elbows resting on his knees, smoking. He looked as stoned as ever.

Hutch glanced at him, only now taking in the rest of the scenery, noticing that Christian was present too, hovering in the safe distance of the kitchen. Pixie and Topher, though, were missing.

"Who’d have thought Ol´ Snoop was a cop?!" McLean continued, shaking his head at Starsky, who couldn’t see him, anyway, since he was kneeling with his back to him. "Man."

"I knew something was off about him from the day he set foot in here," Dobbs replied and shoved his foot into Starsky’s back, almost sending him down on his face. Hutch could see him bite his lip to keep from making a noise.

Zadie didn’t listen. She was still holding the badge, staring down at Starsky. "You’re a cop?!" she suddenly asked. She actually sounded hurt, Hutch thought surprisedly. As if she felt truly and sincerely betrayed. "All the time," she added, "you were just tricking us? Setting us up?"

Starsky looked up at her, his expression hard. "Yep."

For a moment it looked like Zadie might jump into his face, or at least lose it, yell at him. But she just returned his glare for a moment, then threw his badge at him disgustedly. He didn’t move out of the way, let it hit his nose and fall down.

"What d’we do with him?" Zadie asked coldly, turning to Hutch, then Dobbs.

In answer, Brighton lowered the gun more, so that it now rested directly on the back of the curly head. "You gotta ask?" he replied. A sarcastic grin snaked over his features.

The cold fear in Hutch’s stomach instantly changed to white hot panic, and it was only Starsky’s quick glance that kept him from doing something rash. Instead, he blinked composedly, before speaking. His voice was so calm it surprised himself.

"Um, Brighton?" sounding almost mocking. Like he was talking to a little kid who was preparing to screw up. Like Philip Hunter would sound.

"What?" Dobbs asked, not angrily, but truly puzzled, nervous even. He looked up at Hutch expectantly.

The blond detective only hoped that they couldn’t see his heart hammering against his chest. He couldn’t believe how convincingly in-character he sounded, while at the same time his thoughts stumbled over each other. He was terrified, but appeared bored.

"I’m sorry to intervene," he said casually, "but do you really want to shoot a police officer right here in the middle of the house?"

Dobbs stared at him then at the gun in his hand. He didn’t answer.

Out of the corner of his eyes, Hutch could see Christian tense, his arms wrapped around himself, as he stood at the kitchen table, watching in telltale distress.

McLean waved his hands. "’Ey, Dobbsie, man, he’s right. You can’t just blow the guy away, he’s a cop."

"Exactly," Zadie replied hatefully. She folded her arms in front of her, casting Starsky a hateful glare. "But I gotta say I’m on Hunter’s side about not doing it in here, because I will not scrape the bastard’s brains from the wall."

Hutch cringed. He could sense his partner’s gaze on him, and when their eyes met, Hutch saw that Starsky was scared. Terrified. But it wasn’t for him, really. They both knew Hutch wouldn’t - couldn’t - let Dobbs and the others seriously hurt Starsky. At one point, he’d reach the brink of his endurance and blow his own cover as well. If that happened, they were both most likely lost. Too many uncertainties. Even if Hutch, for example, could get the gun from Dobbs, Topher and Pixie were still out there somewhere. Besides, they had no way of contacting Ethan Gerardy. When it got out that there had been two undercover cops introduced to the group by the same man within a week, it wouldn’t be too hard for even Dobbs and Zadie to put one and one together. Blowing both their covers would mean blowing Gerardy’s cover as well and leaving him to blindly walk into his sure damnation upon his eventual return.

No, the only way to play this, Hutch figured, was by keeping Starsky out of harm’s way and alive, while waiting for Ethan to return and help them out. Glancing at Starsky to let him know about his decision - which his friend had probably anticipated, anyway - he winced inwardly at the sight of the by now-bluish bruise that seemed to be growing steadily on Starsky’s temple.

Well... relatively out of harm’s way, he thought grimly.

"If you want my opinion, I don’t think it’d be wise to have his brains covering anything," he said in the half-joking tone of the know-it-all Philip Hunter was. At Zadie’s scowl and the others’ questioning glances, he lifted his hands, palms turned up. "Not while they could be useful to us," he added.

Starsky snorted.

Hutch shot him a glare that wasn’t entirely played - 'Next time we’re in a situation like this, you come up with the bad guy talk, Bogey!' - and asked, "I mean, aren’t you wondering why he’s even here?"

Zadie’s angry face fell.

Dobbs frowned. "Well..." he said, but trailed off.

Encouraged by his accurate prediction of their reactions, Hutch went on. "Where’d you find his badge?"

To everyone’s surprise, Christian answered. "Pixie found it in his tent, when she went looking for him." At meeting Hutch’s eyes, he quickly bowed his head again, withdrawing himself from the scene.

Hutch gestured slightly - 'See?' He knew he was stepping on thin ice, always relying on his opponents’ willingness to believe him and take his words for something wise and important. He couldn’t shake the feeling that inside his head, Starsky was teasing him about his acting talents. 'Don’t forget to mention me, when they give you the Oscar, yeah, Blintz?'

"If he brought it with him, it means he assumed he’d need it at one point," Hutch pointed out.

He could see they were still following him, especially Dobbs.

"To arrest us?" Brighton asked, sounding strangely incredulous, as if it hadn’t yet dawned on him that having a cop among them meant they were actually being observed.

"Probably more like protection against being shot with the rest of us, when his buddies storm the house," Zadie hissed.

It took all Hutch had not to reflexively exchange a look with Starsky at that. "Well," he said, "whatever the reason, fact is, if we shoot him now, he’ll be missed, and they know where he is."

"He can’t possibly have contacted anyone," Dobbs said. "We’re too far away from any street for observation cars, and he couldn’t have used our phone."

"We don’t know that," Zadie snapped. She was glaring at Starsky again, who, Hutch thought, proved to be uncharacteristically patient.

He hadn’t moved an inch since he’d straightened up after having been pushed by Dobbs. His arms were still in the air, hands folded on his neck. And he was trying very hard not to focus on Hutch all the time.

"I say we just ask him," Hutch suggested, glancing down at his partner. "That and why he’s here."

A long silence followed, everyone looking at the kneeling detective, until he turned his head slightly to glance up. "You don’t expect me to answer to that, do you?" he asked in contrived, casual disbelief.

Hutch held his breath. Too fast, he was moving too fast for Starsky. Coming up with a believable story that would endanger neither Hutch’s nor Gerardy’s life’s probably proved to be a lot harder with a gun was pressed to your head. Not to mention when your head *hurt*, as Hutch assumed Starsky’s was most likely to, if the bruise and blood were any indications.

Yet, as understanding as he was, he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of nervous annoyance at his friend’s reaction. 'I’m trying to save your ass here, Buddy. The least you could do is play along!'

So when he spoke again, the look he cast his friend was urging. "Actually we do, yes."

Starsky returned the gaze almost apologetically, making his friend regret his harsh tone. His helplessness was palpable, and it suddenly hit Hutch that there weren’t that many believable stories to come up with at this point, anyway. Maybe the 'keeping Starsky out of harm’s way'-part would turn out to be more difficult than he’d thought.

"I didn’t contact anyone," Starsky said clearly.

Hutch could hear him trying to keep the fear out of his voice. He’d known that answer would come, there was no use in lying about that, since the truth was easy to check out.

Hutch nodded, taking his time before he asked further, willing Starsky to come up with something. Anything. "Okay." He paused. "So what’re you doing here?"

When Starsky didn’t answer fast enough - though Hutch thought he’d seen an idea forming in his eyes - Dobbs cuffed him with the barrel of the gun. This time, a soft noise escaped the detective, but he stubbornly refused to react, just bowed his head a tad.

Hutch could see him squeeze his eyes shut against the pain.

"He asked you something. Snoopy," Dobbs spat.

"Topher," Starsky suddenly said.

Hutch froze, mind racing to figure out whether that was a smart story or not. Whether or not he could work with it. "What?" he asked.

"I’m here because of Topher. We knew Nicolas visited him in jail a few times. That’s why we decided to have him be observed. I had no idea I’d land *here*," Starsky added with a sarcastic little a snort, shooting Dobbs a glare.

It was a good story, Hutch found with relief. In fact it was so good that it even allowed him to play doubtful. "Nicolas isn’t very interested in this platoon," he said, feeling Dobbs’ eyes on him. Philip Hunter wasn’t known to be particularly fond of Darren Nicolas, since Nicholas obviously wanted to keep Camp California a storage unit for hiding his weapons, not a group that would actually participate in the secret war he fighting against the state. Hunter, though, sought the action, publicity.

Just like Dobbs.

Starsky must have understood, because he played along smoothly, hardening his expression, when he looked at Hutch. "We didn’t know that," he replied.

There was no reason to doubt that. The next task for Hutch was to point out the use of having a cop prisoner. Or the benefits of not killing a cop. Whatever worked. He was just about to try the first option, when Zadie spoke.

The dangerously low sound of her voice made the hairs on the backs of several necks rise, not just Starsky’s. "When did you become so talkative, Snoop?" she asked sarcastically. "Is that really what you cover cops do, when you’ve been made? Tell the bad guys everything?"

"I’m a coward," Starsky quipped, but Hutch could hear he was nervous. Maybe even as much as he himself was.

"Somehow I doubt that," Zadie said, watching him closely.

"That could be because you have the hots for me, honey," Starsky muttered.

Hutch closed his eyes with an inward sigh. 'Staaarsk.' And of course that remark earned Starsky another blow with the gun from Dobbs. Forceful enough this time to make him double over and crash to the floor.

Hutch flinched.

"Shut the fuck up!" Brighton snapped and kicked the downed man.

Having just started to push himself up, Starsky was knocked down, landing hard on his left hand and thumb. He couldn’t stop himself from yelping at that.

Hutch practically had to force himself to stop, as he reflexively took a step forward. 'Scratch relatively,' he thought sarcastically. But then, he’d take 'alive' if he had to. What else could he do?

The pain seemed to have ebbed some, but Starsky didn’t try to get up again. He remained were he lay, face down.

Annoyed, Dobbs nudged him with his foot. "Get up, Snoop," he ordered wickedly, obviously frustrated that his victim was no longer providing him with more excuses for his mistreatment.

Starsky didn’t move. "Don’t call me Snoop," he growled.

Before Dobbs had a chance to do anything, Hutch quickly stepped closer and reached down to drag Starsky up by the the back of his t-shirt. It was a supportive gesture, but the blond managed to make it look demanding and painful. Once he had his partner back on his knees, he shook him slightly for emphasis. His grasp didn’t loosen, when he spoke again, but discreetly changed location, so that it now looked like he was roughly grabbing the curly-haired man’s neck, when his fingers were actually just resting there, providing comfort in the only possible way.

It suddenly hit him that he hadn’t had a reason to interfere, other than to protect his friend from Dobbs. "Well, Cop," he said, stressing the last word in a mocking retort to Starsky’s earlier growl. "I must say I’m not totally convinced, either."

"Breaks my heart to hear that," Starsky replied.

Hutch ignored the cocky reply. It didn’t fit Hunter to lose his cool at trivial things like that. Yet - for the others, he *had* just lost his cool. Come to think of it, it must appear strange to them, his sudden outburst. Out of character. And dangerous.

Seeing his chance there, he lowered his voice some more, forced his features to freeze to an emotionless mask. "Not convincing me might get other parts of you broken." He bent down a tad, so that he was speaking into Starsky’s ear-level, when he added, "If you get my meaning."

Starsky shot him the briefest side glance, and what Hutch saw there made him tighten his grip on his friend’s neck. Still not hurting - never hurting - but comforting. Apologizing.

Hutch knew it had been a futile hope to believe they could get out of this mess as he had previously planned. Zadie and Dobbs were arrogant, snobby, inexperienced and blue-eyed, but they were neither stupid nor naive enough to believe Starsky’s story.

For a moment, Hutch had thought it would work, and he knew his friend had too, otherwise he wouldn’t have talked so quickly, but they had to realize it wouldn’t work. In order to keep Starsky safe, Hutch needed him to be convincingly important. Important enough to be spared, anyway. Until Gerardy returned.

But what would be important about a cop with nothing left to tell?

'God, I hope this won’t be too bad, Starsk. I’ll try, I promise!'

"So," Hutch said, his forced calmness once more acting like a shield against his nagging distress, "how about we try this telling us why you’re here part again? Only this time, without you lying."

He could feel Starsky tense. Showtime. "I wasn’t lying."

Unimpressed, Hutch exchanged a glance with Dobbs, then Zadie. "You mean you want us to believe you were sent here to watch a nutcase who’s been in and out of jail for years without any cops following him, just because your colleagues caught Darren Nicolas’ name on some visitors list?" he asked quietly.

"It’s why I’m here," Starsky stubbornly replied. At least he couldn’t get caught in any traps now. He had a story to stick to. "It’s the truth, I swear."

Dobbs shook his head, determined. "This is getting nowhere." Positioning himself in front of Starsky, he once more pointed the gun directly at his head. "It’s over, Pig. One way or another we’re going to find out."

Starsky snorted. "That’s so clever, Brightass. If you shoot me, you won’t find out shit."

Hutch tightened his hold on his partner’s neck to warn him, but his hand flinched away, when Dobbs hit Starsky in the face with the butt of the gun. The blow sent the brunet crashing to his side, blood streaming from his nose.

The self-control it took for Hutch to not instantly attack Brighton with a vengeance was immense.

Starsky lay on the floor, dazed, not paying attention to Dobbs, who crouched down, grabbing a handful of curly hair. "You think you’re so clever, don’t you, Snoop? Well, piece of information, Pal: your sorry ass is mine now, and I swear to God you’re gonna tell us exactly what your assignment is and whatever else we want to know. Got that?" With angry force, he shoved Starsky’s head back onto the floor, then stood and, as if in afterthought, kicked the downed man’s side.

Starsky groaned, his body reflexively curling up against more abuse.

Hutch held his breath. He physically had to swallow back the urge to lunge forward and make it all stop. Check on his friend. He didn’t like the way Starsky ducked his head close to his chest, obviously not wanting Hutch to see how his face was scrunched in pain.

From where he sat, unmoving, but fascinated by the real life action taking place in his house, McLean waved a lazy hand at Starsky. He laughed softly. "If I were you, I’d talk, Snoopy-Cop. Dobbsie’s pissed."

Hutch cast him an incredulous glance, McLean’s tone grimly reminding him of Starsky when he talked to people on the TV screen. Looking back at Brighton, he worriedly took in the truth of McLean’s statement, as it was obvious that Brighton *was* indeed very pissed. He’d hated Starsky from day one - a condition Starsky was partly to blame for - had been teased and bullied by the curly-haired man whenever Starsky had had the chance - and now he had the perfect opportunity for payback.

Not to mention the fact that Starsky, as a cop, was the total embodiment of everything the group hated in the world. In their opinion, he was entirely to blame for every single fellow terrorist who had died in jail or been shot during an arrest or had simply been arrested at all. They had the enemy at their mercy.

The delight was clearly written all over Dobbs’ and Zadie’s faces. It even dominated the feeling of betrayal and fear of being observed.

The sudden realization hit Hutch with cold force. Gazing down at his partner, who slowly unfolded himself in order to get back on his knees, the right side of his face bloody and battered, he felt the fear mounting. He could only hope Starsky had no broken ribs after this. Brighton could easily beat Starsky to death right there, and Hutch knew it. What he doubted, though, was that *Brighton* knew it. He hadn’t proven to be very immersed in reality in the past, and Hutch wondered whether he realized how much damage could be done to a person’s body without putting bullet holes into it.

So the fact remained that Starsky’s only chance at the moment was to be in the hands of someone who *did* know all that. Who cared.

Hutch closed his eyes ever so briefly, drawing in a quiet, bracing breath. He was pretty sure this was the toughest decision he’d ever had to make, as this day decidedly turned into one of the darkest of his life.

Dobbs was just stepping forward again to grab Starsky, who was still struggling to get back up, when Hutch sternly stopped him by catching his arm, before he could touch Starsky. Surprised, Brighton looked at him, but indeed halted.

Hutch returned the questioning expression coolly.

The obvious respect Dobbs had for Philip Hunter was their biggest ace, and Hutch knew that - to Brighton - his boiling anger looked like cold rationality. He was still willing to listen to Hunter, for some reason trusting him with this matter as much as with everything else before.

Keeping his hand clamped around Dobbs’ arm, Hutch quietly pointed out, "He can’t tell us anything if he’s unconscious."

Brighton pursed his lips, gazing down at his victim. The logic in that seemed to make sense to him.

"And we’d better keep him alive too," Hutch continued. "At least as long as we don’t know where he’s coming from."

"I agree," Zadie suddenly said. She’d kept her distance, while Brighton had lashed out at Starsky, watching with what Hutch would’ve described as a cliché of the coldness of a betrayed female. As if Starsky deserved getting the stuffing kicked out of him, just for tricking her, alone. Once more, she reminded Hutch of similar women he’d met during his college days, who had also had the heart and pride of an ice queen.

"Might come in handy at one point too, having a cop to show them," she added.

Hutch shuddered. If she knew how handy it was already.

"Okay." Brighton shrugged, accepting their arguments, and folded his arms in front of his chest. He stepped away from Starsky.

The way the gun dangled from his fingers made Hutch increasingly nervous. His partner’s teasing about Dobbs’ lack of shooting practice had crept into his mind.

"But how do we get him to talk?" Dobbs asked.

For a split second, Hutch caught Starsky’s gaze.

The regretful fear and pain he saw reflected there was meant entirely for him. 'It’s okay, Hutch. Do what you have to do to get us outta this mess alive. It’s okay. Me and thee, Partner.'

But still Hutch had to speak past a growing, choking lump in his throat. "I think I have an idea."

Dobbs and Zadie didn’t answer, their silence an offer to go ahead.

"I..." Feeling his stress stutter kicking in, Hutch quickly hushed himself and cleared his throat. He could sense Starsky looking at him reassuringly, concerned. "I need him at the table," he finished the sentence, impressed himself by the matter-of-fact tone he managed. As if he was preparing to arrange the setting for a photograph. Not to torture his best friend.

Hiding the wince that rushed over his features by quickly bending down to drag Starsky to his feet, he silently chided himself. 'Thinking the t-word is not helping, Hutchinson. Focus on staying in character, come on. Starsky’s relying on you.'

As he held on to Starsky’s arm and the back of his neck, while walking him into the kitchen - making it convincingly appear as if he was half dragging, half pushing him - he could feel his friend’s hand ever so briefly close over his, squeezing hard.

"’Msorry," Hutch whispered so softly it was more mouthed than actually spoken. But still Starsky heard it. Hutch could feel him lean slightly into him, pressing against his side.

When they arrived at the kitchen table, Christian practically jumped away, hurrying into the 'lobby' to once more position himself at the far end of the scene’s setting. He had his arms securely wrapped around himself, as if he were cold, and Hutch thought he saw him cast Zadie a pleading look. She didn’t see it. Along with Dobbs and McLean, she walked into the kitchen, where they surrounded the table.

Hutch had pushed Starsky into a chair, holding onto his hands, while he himself sat down across from him.

Their eyes locked.

"Somebody hold him down," Hutch ordered after taking a moment to brace himself. He let go of Starsky’s left hand, which was instantly grabbed by Dobbs as he dragged it behind the chair with enough force to make Starsky flinch with the pain.

Hutch’s gaze snapped up at Brighton, but he fortunately stopped himself from making any sharp comments. Instead, he focused on his partner again. He couldn’t remember ever having felt so utterly miserable. Beyond despair. What he was about to do was unthinkable.

The sympathy he read in his friend’s eyes came as little comfort. They both knew the pain Starsky would have to endure would be nothing in comparison to Hutch’s.

How he managed to keep up his act so convincingly was beyond Hutch. The important thing was that he did it, making a show of pinning Starsky’s right hand to the table at the wrist, while seemingly playfully picking up each finger once to stretch it straight out. When he was done, he saw Starsky desperately trying to keep from clawing his fingertips onto the wooden surface in frightened anticipation of what was about to come.

"I’ll ask you one more time," Hutch said calmly as he tightened his grip around Starsky’s index finger, looking into midnight-blue eyes. "What is your task here?"

Starsky swallowed dryly. "I told you," he answered. "I’m observing Topher Martin."

*****

Starsky had flinched when Dobbs jerked his left arm upwards behind his back, but had forced himself to keep from crying out. He had planned to at least try not to scream during the whole procedure, for Hutch’s sake, yet that promise crumbled to dust when his index finger snapped under Hutch’s quick, jerking move.

Starsky understood why Hutch had chosen that kind of torture; it looked very convincing, but wouldn’t do too much harm, contrary to a beating. The damage was controllable, and the bones would heal nicely, afterwards, when you made sure they were broken with clean snaps.

What Starsky had suppressed until now, though, was that the reason it looked so very convincing was that it *did* hurt like hell.

Inwardly kicking himself for having allowed the strangled yelp to escape, he quickly bit his lip, swallowing an agonized whimper at the scalding hot pain that ran freely through his whole hand. His head was hanging so low his forehead nearly touched the table; he would not look into Hutch’s eyes while his features were contorted in pain. Somewhere behind the screeching agony he registered a slight pressure just above his wrist, where Hutch held onto his hand. His heart bled for his friend, and he finally managed to will the pain to ebb away some. Drawing in a deep breath through his nose, he lifted his head, seemingly stubbornly, but with eyes filled with sympathy, comfort. Absolution.

*****

Hutch thought his heart had stopped beating - he couldn’t seem to feel anything. At the same time, though, he felt everything: agitation, fright. Guilt.

The necessary logic that had marked his plan seemed to fade, now that he was watching his best friend desperately struggle to recompose himself.

What was he doing here, for crying out loud?! Why didn’t he just get up like he should, jerk Dobbs away from his partner, grab Starsky and *run* like hell?!

One look into Starsky’s eyes reminded him of the whys - 'It’s the only way, partner. I understand. Please believe me. I do!' - but inside his head it felt as if another thought was creeping up at this comforting answer, planning to overshadow it: he’d just caused Starsky a hell of a lot of pain. On purpose.

The sight of Starsky clenching his jaws tightly against pressing moans tore Hutch back into reality. His friend was holding out for him. He should do the same.

Quickly, so as to not allow himself a moment of doubt, he grasped Starsky’s middle finger next.

Out of pure reflex, the brunet tried to jerk his hand away, so that Hutch had to tighten his grip. When he accidentally brushed against the constantly-swelling index finger, they both flinched.

"Nine more to go," Hutch said and lifted his brows questioningly.

Starsky arched his lips in a humorless smile. It didn’t last a second. "I’m impressed. Smarty Smurf can count."

Hutch shrugged. "Pity." Before he had any time to think, he snapped the second bone. No one but Starsky saw him squeeze his eyes shut.

This time, Starsky did manage to keep from screaming, having anticipated the pain, but it took his breath away when he tried to swallow it back. He gasped pitifully, then lowered his head again, as he gulped in air.

Hutch could feel him tug at his hand, mere instinct urging him to struggle.

"That’s eight."

To Hutch’s left, McLean gave a low whistle. He was leaning against the wall, watching with his arms folded. "Hunter, I just wanna say I’m glad I’m on your side, man." He shook his head.

Next to him, Zadie lit up a cigarette. Brighton clearly secured Starsky to the chair with more force than necessary.

As if McLean’s comment had marked a pause meant for the rest of them to intervene, Dobbs suddenly grabbed a handful of the tousled dark curls and jerked Starsky’s head backwards.

Hutch winced. From the new angle, he could see where the blood had run down into Starsky’s collar from his nose.

"Not looking so tough now, our hero," Dobbs hissed. He gave the head he held an angry shake. "Why don’t you just tell us what we wanna know, Snoop, huh? We might even let you go then." He arched his brows mockingly.

Starsky rolled his eyes. "Save that for the judges, Brighton," he muttered and paused, clearly having to swallow back bile. "And for fuck’s sake, stop calling me Snoop, will ya?!"

Furious, Brighton released Starsky’s head with an angry shove.

Starsky mumbled something unintelligible into the crook of his elbow, where he rested his forehead, eyes squeezed shut against the pain. Sweat was glistening on his face by now, mingling with drying blood. When he lifted his head again, there were bright red spots on his bare arm.

Hutch suppressed a shudder. He glanced at his own hand, which was hovering over Starsky’s bruised, swollen one. 'God, what a mess we got ourselves into, Gordo!' It was time to end this for now. He needed a break.

"You know - Cop," he said, once more stressing the word ironically, and almost playfully tugged at Starsky’s pinky. "This could go on forever. There’s your left hand, and the hands themselves, toes, arms... You get the picture?" he asked, lowering his head to look into Starsky’s eyes.

His partner understood. Looking for all the world like he was seriously contemplating whether or not he wanted to live through the described ordeal, he let his gaze wander off nervously, then flicker back to Hutch.

When he spoke again, his voice was fear-filled. Small, but high-pitched with anxiety. "What d’you want from me, that I lie to you?! I can’t tell you more than the truth!"

Hutch hit his free hand down on the table, hard, next to Starsky’s hand, causing a violent flinch. "No more lies!" he ordered sharply, waving his index finger warningly.

It was so familiar a gesture that Starsky winced.

Noticing, Hutch instantly lowered his hand. "I won’t let you go on wasting my time here, 'Snoop'," he added with a feigned, hateful emphasis. "What is so important to hide from us, that you’re willing to be crippled over telling?! What is your fucking assignment?!" His voice had risen to a full yell, fierce, sky blue eyes locking with Starsky’s.

'Just play along, Buddy, please. I promise I’ll make it quick, but I need a break. Please.'

He thought he could see his friend sigh, as if resigning.

Yet, Starsky did play along. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. Do we use language like that ’round here?" Upon catching Hutch’s urging look - it wasn’t enough for Philip Hunter to blow up - he added, "And don’t talk to me about wasting anyone’s time, Smartass. You’re nothing but a pathetic, unemployed drop-"

That was good enough. With one well-placed punch, Hutch sent Starsky flying from the chair, out of the startled Brighton Dobbs’ grasp, and onto the floor.

Starsky lay where he landed, out cold.

Hutch stood half-leaning over the table, staring after the brunet, gently shaking his aching hand. When he brought his other one around it, he suddenly froze, glancing down at it disgustedly.

Dobbs frowned at him, as he stepped over to Starsky and nudged the unmoving detective with his foot. "What was that about him being useless when he´ s unconscious?!" he snapped.

"I figured his uselessness is not a matter of his condition," Hutch muttered sarcastically.

Dobbs rolled his eyes. "Hunter! Just don’t let him get to you like that! We need him awake!"

Hutch tried his best to keep the surprise at seeing how well his plan had worked from showing in his face. He snorted. "You’re one to talk."

"Guys," Zadie cut in calmingly, pushing herself away from the wall next to McLean, who was once more slowly shaking his head at the scenery. She crossed the short distance to where Starsky lay on his side, face down, and crouched down next to him.

Hutch flinched involuntarily. Watching her stroke back wayward curls from Starsky’s forehead was decidedly creeping him out. His mind raced, trying to come up with an explanation of why she should get away from there *right now* and leave 'Snoop' the hell alone!

"No need to fight over a piece of youknowwhat." She smiled at Hutch playfully and was disappointed, when he didn’t react to her gentle teasing. "Besides," she continued, taking a long draw from her cigarette, "I think I know what he’s hiding."

Hutch only noticed that he had been holding his breath when his chest started to hurt. He nervously rubbed his chin. "Oh, yeah?"

Her hand remaining entangled in Starsky’s hair, Zadie looked up at him. "Uh-huh." She smiled wryly. "It’s not that hard to figure out, but I guess you were too busy." As if for emphasis, she lightly patted Starsky’s cheek.

He moaned quietly and turned his face away from her.

'Oh, great,' Hutch thought grimly. 'Go ahead, Lady, wake him up. Don’t let the fact I just crossed Hell to finally knock him out stop you.'

Zadie smiled at Starsky, her fingers slightly tightening in his hair, as she took the last lungful from her cigarette stub. "Snoopy," she sing-songed, shaking his head. "Wakey, wakey."

Starsky moaned some more, ducking his head in a futile attempt to free himself from her grip. His eyes remained closed, but Hutch could see he was starting to come around.

'There goes my break,' the blond nervously joked to himself. He couldn’t help acknowledging an increasing twinge of panic setting in, while he watched Zadie pick up Starsky’s mangled hand, shake her head in disgust and let it fall back down.

Starsky’s forehead wrinkled in a wince.

Hutch was losing ground, and he knew it. Whatever Zadie thought she’d figured out, it wasn’t acting in Hutch’s favor, taking the control out of his hands again.

He nearly jumped forward when Zadie, impatient at Starsky’s slow process of waking up, finally shoved her burning cigarette butt down on the side of his neck.

Starsky yelped. His eyes popped wide open. Still dazed and only semi-conscious, he frantically tried to scramble away from this new source of pain, but Zadie held him back, applying even more pressure on the butt, until she was convinced that he was fully awake.

Hutch felt like he was about to get sick. He swallowed dryly, feeling his arm press closer against his chest as if by its own will. As if it wanted to restrain him from interfering.

Suddenly sensing a glance upon him, he turned slightly and caught Christian Gruder quickly looking away.

A swift movement next to him drew Hutch’s attention away from the pale young man and to Dobbs, who’d left his side to come to a halt next to Starsky, pointing the gun at him with emphasis, as if he feared the confused, injured detective could break free from Zadie’s hold and hurt her.

Hutch could tell his friend was far from doing that.

Focusing on Hutch, visibly puzzled at why he was just standing there, Starsky jerked his head away from Zadie’s touch.

She let go of him and rose to her feet next to Dobbs, watching her victim drag himself up to a sitting position against a wall, his good hand holding the burn on his neck.

At some point, the frown of confusion on his face evened out. His gaze wandered over to cast a hateful glare on Zadie.

"That was not necessary," he told her.

Hutch bowed his gaze. He couldn’t help thinking he’d seen a quick side-glance directed at him. Noticing that his hands were shaking, he reached behind himself for the kitchen table and leaned against it, fingers clamped tightly around the wooden surface.

Zadie grinned, as if Starsky had complimented her. She was obviously having the time of her life, enjoying her superior cleverness. "I know what you’re here for, Sn... Cop," she stated. Audible excitement betrayed her cold tone.

Starsky closed his eyes, slightly squeezing them shut against the pain, and sighed. "Enlighten me. Please."

"It’s because of the Frisco guys."

'Funny,' some disconnected part of Hutch’s mind thought, 'how something said in such a casual tone can hit the air like a bomb.' He froze, watched Starsky do the same.

Their eyes met, and Hutch found it hard to tell whose voice it was that he heard mutter 'uh-oh' inside his head - his or his partner’s.

Anyway, 'uh-oh' covered this latest change in the situation perfectly, as Dobbs’ immediate reaction proved. His gaze flew to Zadie, the gun in his hand twitching with the movement.

Hutch saw Starsky flinch, hard.

"That’s right!" Dobbs exclaimed, unaware of the fact he’d just almost pulled the trigger by accident. "Why didn’t we think of that?!" He turned to Hutch with mock accusation. "It was obvious, all along! Just think about it, how long’s he been here, two weeks?"

"After the Frisco arrests," Zadie pointed out, savoring her moment of brilliance. "Shortly after," she added with emphasis.

Starsky stared up at them, dumbfounded, then at Hutch, whose strained expression didn’t appear very comforting. Catching the pleas in his partner’s frightened eyes, Hutch discreetly lifted his fingers off the table’s edge in a tiny, calming gesture.

"Um," he started, waiting for Dobbs and Zadie to turn to him, "I-I don’t get it." He cleared his throat, then frowned, lifting his chin a bit, to force an unconvinced expression on his face and to make up for his stress stutter. He folded his arms in front of his chest. "Even if he was involved in the arrests, how could he have known about y... us?"

The moment he’d said it, he wanted to squeeze his eyes shut against both the realization of his own stupidity and Starsky’s frustrated glare. He could all but hear his friend’s reply. 'Right. Good question, Hutch. So what could possibly be the answer to that? Let’s see... oh, hey, maybe there’s ANOTHER leak. Like, say, YOU, idiot!'

Dobbs and Zadie looked at Starsky again, both frowning at this new twist in their theory. Hutch used the opportunity for a quick, desperate ghost of an apologetic grimace. He thought he saw Starsky roll his eyes at him, but it could’ve been just his imagination, since he that was exactly what his partner wanted to do, right now.

"Okay..." Starsky started with a sigh, having obviously decided that playing along was the only chance they had right now.

He needn’t have worried, though. Zadie and Dobbs had found a truth they liked, and they weren’t going to give it up just because logic might get in their way. "Our guys must’ve told the cops about us," Zadie explained to Hutch. A shadow crossed her features when she turned to Starsky again, nudging one outstretched foot with hers. "What’d you do to them to make them talk, Pig, huh? What do the police use these days to get information? Torture? Or threaten to hand them over to God knows who?"

Hutch saw the first clear signs of Starsky getting annoyed - his gaze would wander off as if insulted, so that he all in all appeared to just not be listening anymore - but at least he proved to be smarter than Hutch this time, wisely keeping himself from pointing out that Zadie, Dobbs and the rest themselves hadn’t heard of any other group but theirs before Gerardy had broken the news to them the other day. Logically, the Frisco members probably didn’t know about them, either, and couldn’t have told the cops where to find them.

"Sorry to disappoint you, Honey," Starsky replied sarcastically, casting Zadie a disparaging look, "but we don’t do torturing. Don’t need to with you folks, anyway." He smiled wickedly, leaving them to interpret the remark however they wanted.

"Shut up!" Dobbs barked angrily, but the words were swallowed by a loud bang. He had let his trembling fingers twitch once too often.

To be continued in Part 2