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Wuemsel's Fanfic Corner

In Too Deep (Part 2)


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*****

Hutch had no doubt he’d flinched three times as hard as Starsky when the shot split the air. He was next to Dobbs in a blink’s time, but froze before he could snatch the gun away from him, gaze fixed on Starsky, who hadn’t moved an inch, but was shaking, staring at a bullet hole in the wall, mere inches away from him. Carefully, as if to not enrage the unstable Dobbs again, he let his eyes wander up to the small group hovering above him.

"O-okay," he croaked and cleared his throat. "Wh-whatever you wanna know. Just... someone get the gun away from him, please?"

No one answered him, but Hutch and Zadie simultaneously reached for the gun without noticing the other one doing it. Hutch’s hand met empty air, and only when he tore his eyes away from his partner - making sure there really was no scratch on Starsky, no blood visible - did he see that now it was the girl holding Starsky at gunpoint. She seemed to have overcome her shock pretty fast and was slowly stepping backwards, until she could sit down on the table.

"Well," she said contentedly and waved the gun slightly. "Go ahead, Snoop."

"Man," Norton McLean suddenly said from behind the table.

Hutch and Dobbs jumped, whirling around. They had completely forgotten about McLean.

"You’re one lousy shot, Dobbsie." McLean whistled lowly. "My blind great-grandmother could do better’n th-"

"I didn’t mean to hit him!" Dobbs exclaimed irritatedly. He blushed. "I, uh... I just wanted to scare him into talking." He nodded convincingly.

Zadie snorted, earning a scowl, that she responded to by quickly lifting her brows innocently. "Worked, too," she agreed condescendingly.

She grinned at Hutch, who could only manage a quivery smile. He very carefully let go of a deep breath, trying his best to not fall out of character, as every one of his nerves screamed at him to punch Brighton Dobbs right there and then. "Yeah," he replied, his voice a little high-pitched. "Worked just fine." As if in good-humored relief, he patted Dobbs’ back, but made sure it was hard enough to hurt.

Dobbs flinched, discreetly, and quickly stepped away to lean against the table next to Zadie. Hutch remained where he was. He couldn’t stop his gaze from wandering off to stare at the hole in the wall every few seconds, never failing to realize once more how frighteningly close to Starsky’s head it was.

"Or didn’t it?" Zadie asked, and Hutch turned to see her focusing on Starsky again. He frowned, puzzled. Christian Gruder was leaning against the table too, now, as if he’d just popped into the scenery out of nowhere. But then, Hutch figured, he’d probably been scared to death by the gunshot and was seeking comfort from Zadie’s presence. He was incredibly pale and shook almost as badly as Hutch, or Starsky.

"What?" Starsky asked. He’d calmed down with a speed that his still-trembling friend found very impressive, the shook-up, startled irony having been displaced by the same pissed-off expression he’d worn before the shot. "Sorry, I must’ve dozed off. What were we-"

"I asked," Zadie interrupted him, lifting the gun for emphasis, "if you’re scared enough to talk now." With visible satisfaction, she watched Starsky follow her hand’s every move. Hutch had no doubt his partner just remembered all the lessons in shooting he’d given her.

"Seems to me there’s not much to talk about," Starsky replied. His eyes never leaving the gun, he tried to sit up straighter, but flinched violently when he tried to use his left hand to push himself up.

Hutch only hoped that the pain wasn’t as bad as the hot wave of guilt that washed through him. He quickly bowed his head to hide his own flinch.

"Yeah, well," Zadie sighed disappointedly, "you never were too bright, were ya, Snoop?"

"Don’t call me Snoop."

Zadie ignored the remark. "Look, it’s really simple. We know you’re here to spy on us, find out about our plans and actions... the basic stuff. And we know that there’s no way you could’ve contacted anyone since you’ve been here. So, naturally, there’s no date set for you to meet with any backup. Now, my guess is that you planned on calling in for the first time tomorrow, when you were in town, watching Teddy’s School."

Starsky nodded in mock gravity. "Your intelligence is humbling, lady."

Hutch rolled his eyes.

Zadie, though, just grinned. She was too far enmeshed in her power-high to be bothered by the detective’s flippant remarks. "Thank you." She slightly bowed her head. "So - what else do we know? You knew we’d find out about Frisco sooner or later. And you probably anticipated us doing something about it, which, basically, means you were just waiting for us to dig our own grave. Right?"

Starsky frowned. "I’m afraid you lost me."

"Aw," Zadie muttered in fake sympathy. "Poor Snoop." She cast Hutch a quick glance. "Shouldn’t have hit him so hart." She turned away again, before she could catch his grimace. "What I mean is, you were counting on us to come up with something like Dobbs’ plan all the time, so that you and your buddies could bust us with our hands in the cookie jar."

"On the ouzies," Starsky corrected sarcastically. "Yep."

"Yeah." Zadie paused. "And that is why the cops kept it a secret where they brought our fellow members. Isn’t it?"

Starsky just stared at her. "What?"

"It’s easy," Zadie said. "You wanted us out in the open without running the risk of us, even by accident, succeeding in freeing our people."

"Um..." Hutch cut in, truly puzzled. "Excuse me, but does that make any sense? If they wanted to get us, why didn’t they just let us know exactly where our people are, since then they’d know for sure where to catch us?"

"Good point," Starsky nodded.

"Thanks," Hutch said.

"You’re welcome."

"Aw, Hunter, I’m disappointed," Zadie said. "What would they need a cover cop for if that was the case?" She paused, but no one knew an answer.

Hutch glanced down at his friend, catching a 'good point, too'- look on Starsky’s face. He inwardly rolled his eyes. 'Very funny, Gordo.'

"See?" Zadie finally continued with a small gesture. "They’re not stupid. Fascist, inhumane and corrupt..." She smiled at Starsky. "... but not stupid."

"And I got nothing nice to say to you," the detective mumbled.

"They know there’s always the risk of other groups finding out where they’re holding the Frisco section. So they keep it a secret and send their men out to inform them about their reactions. Clever. You know, I think we’re probably not the only ones. If it had worked, they could’ve infiltrated other groups as well."

Starsky snorted a nervous laugh. "That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!" he exclaimed.

"Okay," Dobbs said challengingly. "So why are you here?"

"To drag your sorry asses back to your mommies, where they belong!" Starsky snapped. "D’you really think the police give a damn about a bunch of losers?! C’mon, give reality a chance, kids!" He cringed slightly; yelling obviously wasn’t doing his headache any good. When there was no reaction from the others, though, he drew in a deep breath and lowered his voice. "I admit we heard about you from the guys we arrested in San Fran. And, yes, I’ve been sent to you to check you out. See what you’re up to. And, yes again, eventually, I would have suggested busting you for illegal possession of arms. But at no point had I anticipated you trying such a completely insane, idiotic thing like you’re planning with that school. No one WOULD think you guys are actually up to that, because it’s straight-out dumb! If they’d told me to come here and wait for you to come up with THAT, I’d have refused to take the job, because I wouldn’t have thought anyone with half a brain stupid enough for it. You know, if anything, you surprised me," he concluded with a teacher-like, disparaging glance. "Kids."

Hutch held his breath, as he stared down at his enraged friend, whose eyes slowly wandered over to him, a very tiny, very quick twitching of one eye visible only for Hutch. Once more, the blond thought he could actually hear what his partner was thinking. 'Oops. Did I just... blow my value as a hostage?'

Hutch bit his lip. His mind raced. "Nice speech," he suddenly heard himself say, his tone as Hunter-like as it hadn’t been for a long time. "Did you have to learn that by heart?"

He knew from the look his friend shot him, that Starsky understood what he was doing. The curly-haired detective opened his mouth to reply something, but Hutch cut him off. "No more shit. You know where our people are, and you’re gonna tell us. One way or another. What’s it gonna be?"

*****

Starsky felt his features strain slightly, as he kept on staring up at Hutch. His inner cop, of course, knew that Hutch had just saved him - them - again, that it was necessary to have the enemy believe he was of any use alive, yet... He discreetly twitched one broken finger, cringing at the pain slicing through his whole hand.

... yet, being of use as a hostage holding information usually included the bad guys trying to tear said information away from you. Forcefully, if necessary.

Now, Starsky didn’t know anything about any hiding places the SFPD would hold some terrorists, and, for his own sake, he shouldn’t lie and say some random street, either. So by saving him, Hutch had trapped him. Meeting the blond’s calming gaze comforted him some, though.

And what choice did they have, anyway?

"I don’t know anything about your people," he said. "That’s the truth."

Hutch folded his arms in front of him and stepped forward, so that he was standing with his back to Dobbs and Zadie. While his voice was still cold, demanding, he could at least soften his gaze, as he kept eye contact with his friend. "I don’t believe you."

"Just look at my badge," Starsky exclaimed. "I’m not even from San Fran. I was just asked to help out. I don’t know where they could be, I swear!"

"I don’t believe you," Hutch repeated, dangerously hushed.

About to reply something, Starsky suddenly hesitated, his eyes snapping up to lock firmly with his friend’s. 'Aw, no. You’re not gonna knock me out again, are ya?'

Sensing his friend’s worry, Hutch shook his head no with a tiny movement, closing his eyes briefly.

Yet, before he could say some more, Zadie suddenly appeared next to him, having jumped off the table. She still held the gun, but loosely now. She looked down at Starsky, then up at Hutch. "I don’t believe him, either. He knows. But..."

At her nervous hesitation, Hutch frowned, puzzled. "But what?"

"But..." She sighed. "No offense, Hunter, but your method didn’t work the first time. We can’t afford to waste all day here, right? So how about you let me give it a try, hmm?" She smiled, patted Hutch’s back and folded her arms before her chest, once more studying the man on the floor. "I think I know how to get him tell the truth." She waggled her brows.

Starsky shuddered, his gaze almost involuntarily settling on Hutch.

"And what’d that be?" Hutch asked. His 'just interested' tone of voice couldn’t fool Starsky, though. It wasn’t for the first time that the darker part of the duo found himself actually grateful that he wasn’t in Hutch’s place.

Zadie’s grin widened, as if she’d just been waiting for that question. "Be right back," she said excitedly and turned for the stairs. Christian didn’t miss a beat in following her, never turning to look back, like a scared puppy.

Dobbs and Hutch exchanged a puzzled look.

"Zade? What... ?" Dobbs called. Turning for the stairs as well, he looked at Hutch, pointing at Starsky. "You keep an eye on him, okay? Hey, Zadie!"

And off he went too, the stomping sounds of his footsteps upstairs mingling with his continuous calls for Zadie, until silence settled.

Hutch’s gaze flew down to Starsky, then over to McLean, who, as if on cue, pushed himself off of the wall he’d been leaning against. "Be right back," he repeated Zadie’s words lazily, strolling in the direction of his room. "Care for a smoke, too?"

"Ah... n-no," Hutch replied. "Thanks."

McLean shrugged. "Whatever." His door fell shut.

Hutch’s eyes found Starsky’s. They were alone.

*****

Hutch only needed a split second to adjust to the twist their situation had taken, staring at the corner that hid McLean’s door in disbelief, then he practically fell into a crouch next to his partner.

"Okay, let’s move. You can walk, right?" Hastily, he grabbed Starsky’s shoulder and arm, accidentally brushing against broken fingers.

Starsky flinched.

"Sorry," Hutch hissed, sounding like he felt the pain himself. "Sorry. Hey," he added with a nervous chuckle, "how’s your thumb?"

Starsky didn’t answer. He had followed Hutch up to his feet, but planted them now, frowning at the blond, who was trying to drag him towards the door. "Hey, hey, hey, wait!" he whispered and grabbed the front of Hutch’s shirt with his good hand to stop his partner. "What’re you doing?"

"Getting us outta here," Hutch replied matter-of-factly. He didn’t look at his resisting friend, but checked McLean’s continuous absence with a quick glance over his shoulder. Thinking Starsky’s reluctance to walk was due to pain or weakness, he readjusted his grip to be able to take over more of his weight, but only succeeded in putting unbearable pressure on bruised ribs.

Starsky gasped and jerked away. He stumbled and would have fallen, if Hutch hadn’t - ever so gently now - reached out to steady him once more.

"Oh... sorry," Hutch whispered, biting his lower lip as he watched Starsky squeeze his eyes shut for a moment. "You okay?"

Starsky didn’t bother answering. With a small, slightly hitched sound he swallowed against the pressing pain. "We can’t just leave, Hutch. Lemme down."

"Wha... ?!" Hutch started to snap, but hushed himself, shooting a panicky glance down the hallway that, to his relief, revealed none of the group members on their return. When he spoke to Starsky again, his voice was urgent. "Listen, I’m sorry my plan didn’t work out all that grea-"

"There was a plan?" Starsky interrupted him dryly.

Hutch just rolled his eyes, the guilt that shone visibly in them betraying his annoyed tone. "Yeah, I know, I’m sorry. But we *have* to move now, before-"

"What about Ethan?" Starsky asked. "If we leave now, even Dobbs will be able to figure out who’s the leak. We don’t know when Ethan will come back, could be an hour after our departure. Then what?"

"Screw Ethan!" Hutch replied sharply. "It’s not our fault he never leaves a contact number. Besides, if it wasn’t for his stupid Frisco thriller story, Zadie wouldn’t be up there looking for God knows wha-"

"Hutch," Starsky’s calm voice cut the angry blond off. "We can’t just let him run straight into the fire. They’ll kill him."

He was right, and Hutch knew it. Hell, he was listening to his own previous thoughts. But then, certain developments, for him, had put decided emphasis on the word 'previous'. He opened his mouth to argue some more, but Starsky didn’t let him.

"And what about Topher. Huh? We pull the plug now, the bust is gone. They’ll run. You and I both know they won’t leave him behind. He needs help, not-"

"*You* need help," Hutch cut him off desperately, bending his head to lock begging eyes with his friend’s. "It’s not Topher they want to beat the shit out of, y’know?!"

A lopsided grin crossed Starsky’s lips. He lightly patted Hutch’s chest with his good hand. "Don’t worry. I’ll live."

Hutch shook his head. It was an almost reflexive gesture - he knew he was losing this argument. "Starsk..." he pleaded. "You can’t even tell them anything if..." He trailed off. "You’ve got nothing to tell."

"That’s why I’ll live," Starsky remarked wisely, and before Hutch had the chance to speak again he added, "Look, it’s my decision, and I say we’re staying."

Hutch pressed his lips together, his eyes never leaving Starsky. He didn’t say a word.

"Think about it, Hutch. If it was yours - would we leave then?"

A door was slammed shut upstairs. Hutch closed his eyes. "Whatever they’re gonna..." he whispered, but trailed off.

Footsteps could be heard again in the upper hallway. Voices, not yet intelligible.

Hutch craned his head back, staring hatefully at the ceiling, like the captain of a sinking ship, awaiting the masses of water that would shatter the walls at any second. He let go of a shaky breath, his eyes finding Starsky’s again. "I won’t be able to help you," he finished his sentence.

Starsky smiled wryly, but Hutch could see the fear starting to creep into his eyes.

"Just don’t go too far, huh?" With a last tightening of his fingers around the material of Hutch’s shirt, Starsky broke the contact, letting himself sink to the floor again, back against the wall. "And don’t let me fool ya."

"Sure thing, Camille," Hutch muttered.

There was no time left for him to catch Starsky’s reaction, though, as the sounds of excited steps practically flying down the stairs sent him whirling around, just in time to face Zadie and Dobbs approaching the kitchen. Their eyes were shiny bright with delightful anticipation, they both waggled their brows at him in unison.

Christian was missing.

"Where’s McLean?" Zadie asked. Now that she’d stepped closer, Hutch could see a small, longish item in her right hand. He frowned. At first sight it could be a gun, or rather a revolver, not unlike Hutch’s, but it didn’t carry any bullets, and its barrel was closed up front, flat.

"In his roo..." Hutch started to answer, trailing off, when Zadie came to a halt close enough for him to at last clearly see what she’d brought with her. Instantly, his blood ran cold. "...m. Uh, is that what I think it is?" He lifted one brow at the thing.

"It’s called a taser," Dobbs explained helpfully. "Ethan had a box of them stashed here for a few days some time ago, before he sold them in Mexico."

"And he, uh, forgot one," Zadie added with a wink.

Hutch nodded slowly. "I see." And actually he saw more than just the truth behind her casual lie. For example, he’d seen Starsky tense at the word “taser.” Secretly, he took a small step back, until his foot ever so lightly touched one outstretched one on the floor.

'I should’ve just picked him up and taken off, dammit! Taser! Great. Juuust great. Who said it was HIS decision, anyway?!'

"I doubt it looks unfamiliar to our friend here," Zadie continued, looking down at Starsky, as she waved the taser. "Or does it?" Turning her head at Hutch again, she explained, "They use those in jail. A lot," she added coldly, focusing on Starsky once more.

"And how would I know?" he asked, a slight, nervous, high-pitch tone lingering in his voice that wasn’t lost on Hutch. "Contrary to what you might think, Honey, I don’t stay there once I’ve disposed of the scum."

Before Hutch even had the chance to suppress an unnerved sigh at this latest display of reckless stupidity from his partner, Zadie was down in a crouch next to Starsky, furiously grabbing the collar of his shirt, pressing the barrel of the taser against his neck, directly on the cigarette burn.

"You bastard! Those SCUM were my friends!" Starsky clenched his jaw at the pressure on his sensitive flesh, a gasp caught in his throat. His eyes wandered to their corners to cast Zadie a cold glance. "If you plan on using that, you might wanna let go of me first," he advised, his voice scratchy, low, yet carrying hatred over telltale fear.

A moment of tension went by - Hutch held his breath - then Zadie drew back the taser. She looked at it inspectingly, then at Starsky, who’d allowed himself to let go of a tiny sigh, but froze once more, when her grip tightened on his shirt.

"Seems you DO know about it, after all," she observed and with a smile stood up again. Never taking her eyes off of him, she walked around his body, slowly, yet determinedly, like a cat pacing in front of a cornered mouse.

Starsky’s gaze followed her, but he wasn’t fast enough. Her foot came down hard on the already-injured lying limply on the floor beside him.

Hutch flinched, his eyes closing as if of their own will, while his partner’s strangled yelp echoed in his ears. When he looked again, Starsky had curled up on his side, cradling his hand and ducking his head to his chest, unsuccessfully trying to hide his face. Probably from his partner’s view, Hutch thought in dismay. He had stepped back involuntarily, so that he now stood behind Dobbs, unseen by the other two and therefore able to cast an utterly sympathetic, pain-filled gaze on Starsky.

Only when their eyes met, ever-so-briefly, and he caught the ghost of a reassuring look in the other one’s watery eyes, did Hutch notice that he had unconsciously folded his arms over his chest, practically hugging himself. Tightly. Quickly, he unfolded them, once more holding on to the kitchen table behind him, leaning against it. He was actually grateful for the support; his legs felt weak, as if he’d just been startled really badly, even though he had seen Zadie’s move coming.

The hand he lifted to run over his features was trembling. 'C’MON, get a grip!' he ordered himself. But then, he couldn’t remember a situation that had been as hard to play as this. Not that he had never before seen his friend hurt - worse even - but never before had he been so completely unable to help him, to provide any kind of comfort. Not to mention being part of it.

"Did he say anything useful while we were gone? Hunter?"

At Zadie addressing him, her voice quivery with rage, he snapped back into his role quickly. "Ah... no." He shook his head. "Didn’t say a word."

"Good," she stated coldly, shooting Starsky a hateful glare. "Let’s see how long it stays that way."

Hutch shuddered. He had no idea why Zadie so obviously hated cops, but it sure was scaring him for his friend’s sake. Plus, he couldn’t help thinking that maybe he, himself, had underestimated Zadie before. To him she had always seemed rather passively- aggressive - all talk and organization; not like the type who would kill with her own hands. But, watching her clench her jaw when she glared at the downed detective’s battered form, mercilessly taking in his writhing, his helplessness, Hutch could see a familiar sparkling in her eyes, the dancing flame of fatal hate he’d seen too often. The other side of the medal of righteousness. He had no doubt Zadie thought she was right in doing whatever it would take to make a cop tell her what she wanted to know. She was on a crusade for the right thing. And Starsky was not only standing in her way - he was the enemy. For people like Zadie and Dobbs, there were no further justifications needed to kill him.

McLean’s door was opened behind its corner, the room’s inhabitant appearing in the kitchen again with reddish eyes and hanging lids.

"’Ey, what’s the commotion about, guys?" he slurred lazily. Starsky’s scream earlier had probably disturbed his stoned comfort. Before he could lean against the wall again, Zadie turned to order him, "Mac, get me a chair, will ya?"

McLean saluted slightly, but obeyed without a comment, picking up one of the kitchen chairs to place it next to Zadie, who pointed her chin at Starsky.

Understanding, McLean and Dobbs both reached down to drag the detective up roughly and sit him on the chair. Dobbs’ hand remained on his shoulder, holding him in place.

Hutch had pushed himself off the table, like he just wanted to help, when in fact the sight of them touching his partner had just kicked him into motion. Making it look like he thought it necessary to keep their captive from trying something, he took hold of Starsky’s other shoulder, gently, comfortingly.

"Here," Zadie said, throwing Hutch a piece of rope she’d produced from her back pocket. "We don’t want him to keep falling off, do we?"

Hutch stared at the rope, then at Starsky, who had already moved his hands behind the chair, bravely trying to suppress a wince, but failing miserably. He flinched, hard, when Hutch touched his injured hand, and it took all Hutch had to not apologize two hundred times while he carefully tied his friend’s hands, making sure it wasn’t too tight, hating himself desperately. When he was done, he discreetly squeezed Starsky’s wrist once, earning a slight wriggle of unbroken fingers.

"Well," Zadie spoke, when Hutch stepped back behind Starsky. She was smiling in obvious anticipation, the cold, hateful delight she drew out of watching her helpless victim enough to send yet another ice-cold shiver down Hutch’s spine. "Don’t let anyone say we don’t give pigs a chance to act like human beings. So, Detective," she mockingly softened her expression, "d’you wanna tell us where the SFPD is holding our friends prisoner?"

Starsky forced himself to meet her eyes, head-on. "Zadie," he sighed as if disappointed by her idiocy, "I wouldn’t tell ya, if I knew."

Zadie grinned. Hutch could see his partner’s legs twitch involuntarily, as Zadie approached him slowly, lifting the taser.

"At this point, Snoopy," she said, emphasizing the despised nickname, "I can’t say I’m not glad to hear that."

The barrel was once again placed against Starsky’s neck, but this time, Zadie made sure she was indeed not touching him.

*****

Starsky’s last encounter with electricity had been some weeks ago, at Hutch’s place. A piece of pepperoni had fallen off the slice of pizza Starsky had snatched out of the box Hutch was carrying over to the coffee table, and it had landed somewhere next to the blender on the breakfast counter.

Upon trying to reclaim it - more out of neatnickiness than the actual desire to digest something that had made direct contact with Hutch’s breakfast counter - Starsky’s index finger had accidentally brushed against a damaged wire. The electric shock had been only a slight one, not even leaving much of a burn behind on his skin, but it had hurt, of course. He had yelped in surprise and pain.

There hadn’t been much sympathy from his partner, really - "Don’t touch electricity, Gordo. It’s not edible." - and a tired banter followed about rats gnawing away the wires to the blender, because they couldn’t stand the morning smell anymore, and the little punishments you’d always but always instantly achieve for being too much of a greedy gut.

Neither of them would have thought, back then, that the next time this memory flashed through both their minds, electricity would touch Starsky. And not just a tiny piece of raw wire, either.

When Zadie pressed the taser against his neck, Starsky forced himself to sit very still, deciding struggling against the inevitable would look pathetic, and he didn’t want to add even more fuel to the raging delight Zadie obviously draw from this. 'Talk about a power trip...'

But once she released the first jolt of electricity into his body, there was no helping the violent jerk that his muscles all made in unison. This time, there would be a burn visible, he knew that much, but it wasn’t the heat scalding his skin that was the most painful part of it. It was the frantic cramping up that locked the air in his lungs and forced his muscles to clench and unclench against his will. For a moment, he wasn’t the master of his own body anymore, could only squeeze his eyes shut to seek shelter within his own mind.

As suddenly as it had begun, the sensation went, leaving him to face the aftermath. A slight tremor showed the attempts of tensed muscles to ease up again, though something told them they couldn’t. Starsky was panting, suddenly aware he hadn’t been able to breathe.

In front of him, Dobbs and Zadie stood side by side, studying him like a guinea pig in a cage. They were visibly content with the efficiency of their new toy.

"Wow," Norton McLean’s quiet voice could be heard from behind Starsky, its owner once more leaning against the wall. "Cool."

Hutch kept his silence, but Starsky could sense movement behind himself, as Hutch pushed away from the table to turn around the chair and stand in his partner’s line of vision, next to Zadie.

Starsky could have sworn the blond had paled a shade or two.

He cast Hutch the quickest reassuring glance and watched him clench his jaw at the sight of the fresh burn.

"Well," Zadie’s voice drew Starsky’s attention back to her. She playfully waved the taser gun. "Now that you two," she patted it like a pet, "are acquainted - care to tell us the truth, Snoop?"

"Actually, yes," Starsky nodded, surprised that his voice sounded raspy, even to himself. He couldn’t remember having screamed. Had he?

Zadie and Dobbs exchanged a surprised glance that, to their victim, looked a bit disappointed. Hutch didn’t even seem to bother acting like he bought that.

"Oh?" Zadie asked, brows lifted.

"Yeah." Starsky drew in a deep breath and revealed, "My real name’s Dave. You can stop calling me Snoop now." He nodded gravely.

Zadie’s face fell. Starsky wondered if she had really expected success to grace her work so early in the game. But then, he had no doubts about being the first person she had ever tortured.

"Funny," she said. "Really. Funny. Davy."

"Uh... Dave," he corrected. "Or David."

She ignored that, approached him again. "So I take it you liked that?"

His eyes wandered down to the barrel of the taser, following it on its search for a new spot. "I could think of more entertaining things, but..." he started a wisecrack, but trailed off, when the barrel came to rest against his right side.

He barely had time to make eye contact with Zadie, before she pulled the trigger.

The overwhelming sensation of displacement, of being suddenly snatched out of reality and thrown into a dragging lake of blurry pain lasted longer this time, and when he finally felt his lungs obey his frantic orders again, Starsky found that the large gulps of air he took mixed with something in his mouth. Tasting iron, he spit out blood - pathetically enough hitting his own knee - and probed around to find he had bitten his tongue.

The glare he wanted to shoot Zadie turned into an agonized wince when he tried to draw in a deeper breath. A small moan escaped, no doubt acting like a blow to his watching partner’s stomach.

But though he felt deeply for Hutch, knowing full well the blond was walking through his own personal hell here, Starsky couldn’t stop his mind from starting to focus more on himself, as his body protested viciously against the abuse it had taken already. Not only did his right hand still feel like it was on fire, broken bones screaming at him to *do* something about it, and it hurt to breathe, but there was also an odd feeling of confusion - or rather anxiety - slowly spreading within him. He was nervous, though he was too exhausted to be nervous. His skin seemed to crawl with shivers of a fear he didn’t really feel. He was restless, gaze darting about against his will.

'Don’t touch electricity, Gordo,' Hutch’s voice echoed in his head, and he shot his partner a puzzled frown. Had Hutch just said that? But it wasn’t *him* touching the electricity, it was the other way around. Wasn’t it?

Trying to move his hands to rub his eyes, he gasped when his injured hand was met with resistance. 'Right. Can’t move. Right.' He closed his eyes, shook his head slightly. 'What’s wrong with me?'

He flinched, startled, when someone grabbed his chin to drag up his lolling head. Eyes flying open, he saw Zadie staring at him. She gave his chin a rough shake.

"’Ey cop, you still with us?" Upon seeing that he obviously recognized her, she let go of him and stepped back, next to Dobbs, who, eyes never leaving Starsky, reached out, waving with his fingers.

"This is getting boring. Let me try something."

Reluctantly, Zadie handed him the gun.

Weighing it with one hand in a poor version of a John Wayne-gesture, Dobbs approached his captive. He smiled, friendly and challenging at the same time. "Look... Dave," he said, tilting his head to emphasize his gracious use of Starsky’s name, "why don’t you just tell us what we want to know? Hmm? Do you really think you stand a chance against Mr. 250 Volt here?"

Hutch snorted.

Dobbs shot him a surprised look.

"It’s not an electrical socket, Brighton," Hutch pointed out sarcastically. "Could be it’s... a bit more than that."

Dobbs just grinned and turned back to Starsky. "Well?" he asked expectantly.

"Well, if this was a quiz, I’d bet my money on Smarty Smurf," Starsky said. His casual appearance was damaged, though; he had to flutteringly squeeze his eyes shut once more and shake his head slightly, looking as if he was trying to get rid of a nagging noise buzzing in his ears.

He was stopped by a sudden pressure against the side of his head, beneath his left temple. Startled, he cast Dobbs an upward glance.

"If you don’t tell me what I wanna know right *now*, your next bet could be whether or not you’re gonna wet your pants," Dobbs growled.

Panicked, Starsky tried to jerk away from the pressure, but Brighton held him securely in place.

"Talk, pig!"

"I don’t know!" Starsky shot back, honestly afraid. "I swear I don’t-"

He could hear Hutch talk over his words, but suddenly all noise and light and meaning blurred, then vanished.

*****

Hutch wouldn’t have thought it possible, but, yes, he could feel worse than when he’d felt his best friend’s bones snap in his grip.

Much worse.

Watching Starsky’s body tense up at the first electric shock, listening to the choked cry that accompanied it and the frantic, probably unconscious puffs of air that followed, once the abused muscles slowly eased up again, Hutch felt he was going to be sick. He was still standing behind Starsky, leaning against the table, clinging to its surface, staring at swollen, blue-ish digits that had bent at an unnatural angle in the process of cramping. He could only imagine what that must feel like.

Once the direct effects of the shock had subsided, Hutch could practically sense his hurting friend’s effort to not turn his head and search for Hutch’s gaze, so he discreetly moved into Starsky’s sight, even though he found it hard to meet the other one’s eyes, as if by his just standing there and letting it happen, he had somehow had hurt his partner himself - again.

He knew Starsky knew what he was going through, and a quick, reassuring glance confirmed that deeply settled knowledge, but he didn’t need Starsky to blame him in order to feel like scum, anyway. After all - what the *hell* was he doing here?! Letting the bad guys torture your partner wasn’t exactly what his job description had read, and he never ever would have thought a situation like this possible. Even when, in the past, they had been on different sides, undercover-wise, Starsky and he had been at least somehow linked. Watching each other’s back. Covering both sides of a wide area. But the second one of them had been in danger, or hurt, the game had *always* been called off instantly. Protecting your partner was more important than the bust. Discussion finished.

And just how protective was he, every so often searching for Starsky’s gaze, offering silent, hidden comfort, while at the same time he stood back to give the bad guys room?! This was insane! He couldn’t let them continue with this until they inflicted serious damage! What had they been thinking? What had he been thinking?!

Guilt burning like a fever, he listened to Brighton Dobbs’ ridiculous attempt at sounding like a gangster and snorted angrily.

When Dobbs looked at him, it was almost as if he were afraid. Scared of having said something dumb.

Which, in fact, he had.

"It’s not an electrical socket, Brighton," Hutch informed him. "Could be it’s... a bit more than that."

Frighteningly more, Hutch thought. He wanted to add something else, something that, in retrospect, probably would have blown his cover, but Dobbs had already turned back to Starsky.

Hutch’s thoughts raced in his mind. He needed to do something. He needed to stop this. But then - what would happen, if he blew his cover? If whatever plan he came up with failed, and he was out in the open, too? Would he be able to help Starsky then? '

"I won’t be able to help you." - "Just don’t go too far, huh?" '

Their earlier words repeating themselves in his head like a mantra, he focused on Starsky - and actually flinched, when he saw Dobbs press the gun against the brunet’s head.

"Brighton," he said, but it came as a whisper, not loud enough to be heard by anyone.

Next to him, he could sense Zadie tense too. They exchanged a quick glance.

"Brighton," Zadie said warningly.

"Brighton," Hutch repeated, listening to Starsky’s panicked plea, which only seemed to fully set Dobbs off. "Brighton, no! Don’t-"

But it was too late. Brighton had already pulled the trigger, blind with fury. All Hutch managed to achieve was to break the gun’s contact with its target by pushing Brighton away.

"Stop!"

Brighton was thrown to the ground, landing hard on his back with a startled expression on his face. The taser clattered down next to him. Quickly, Zadie bent down to reclaim it. The irritated glare she shot Dobbs met blank confusion.

Hutch was beside himself with fury and concern. Gently holding Starsky’s head up by his chin, he tried to get a direct look at pupils that didn’t want to stay still. Tiny tremors shook Starsky’s body. A slender trail of blood ran out of his nose.

Desperately trying to ignore the ice-cold feeling gnawing at his stomach, Hutch fought to stay in character. Nevertheless, he allowed a deeply concerned frown to settle on Philip Hunter’s features. "David?"

It felt wrong, as always, not using his partner’s last name, but it would have to make do. He just wanted Starsky to hear his voice, let him know he was safe now.

There was no immediate reaction but an intensifying of frantic blinking, as Starsky obviously struggled to find reality through the fog.

Hit by a thought, Hutch tried again. "Snoop," he said, less softly this time, and gave the chin he held the lightest shake. Suddenly sensing Brighton Dobbs taking a step towards them, he snapped his head to him, eyes flashing. "You moron! You could’ve killed him!"

"I-" Brighton started, but Hutch didn’t let him finish.

"We need him alive! And lucid! How’s he going to tell us anything now, huh?!" He waved at the curly head as if for proof. When Hutch had withdrawn his grip, it had sunk down again, Starsky being unable to hold it up by himself. Discreetly, Hutch had left the hand formerly holding his friend’s chin on his shoulder, the urge to keep the contact his own.

"I didn’t want to kill him," Dobbs defended himself. He seemed shaken by his own thoughtlessness, or maybe he was just transforming into a pissed little boy as always, when he was facing a lecture. Hutch had seen it happen with Ethan Gerardy before.

"Just roast his brains a little?!" Hutch shot back and shook his head, exasperated, while he turned to Starsky again, clearly stating that Dobbs, in his eyes, wasn’t even worth the lecture. "Word of advice, Kid," he muttered without looking at the man, "in case you ever want to threaten a guy with a real gun - don’t shoot him in the heart."

"He’s not dead, is he?!" Dobbs protested.

That earned him a glare so furious from the blond, that he actually took a hasty step back.

"Because I stopped you!"

"But-"

"Okay, okay," Zadie cut Brighton off, lifting her hands calmingly, as she stepped in between the fighting parties. "Timeout. Hunter’s right," she told Brighton and held up the taser. "No more trusting you with this."

"No more using 'this,' is more like it," Hutch grumbled. He had crouched down to look into Starsky’s face. "He’s out."

As if on cue, Starsky mumbled something. His curls shook, as he tried to lift his head, but failed.

Hutch flinched. Out of mere reflex, his hand shot forward to touch Starsky’s knee. Too far away to have heard it, McLean pushed himself off the wall. "Show’s over, huh?" he said, his monotone voice never changing. "Damn shame. Anyone care for a smoke?" Without waiting for a reply, he strolled off.

The sound of his door falling shut was talked over by Zadie, who had frowned at the whimper escaping the semi-conscious detective on the chair. "What’d he say?"

"S-say?" Hutch asked. "Didn’t hear-"

"Hutch?" Starsky mumbled again. He was still trying to lift his head. From where he sat crouched down next to him, Hutch could see a confused frown spread on his face.

"'Hutch'?" Zadie repeated. "What’s that supposed to mean?"

Hutch opened his mouth to answer, but found he didn’t know what to say. "Uh..."

"H-Hutch?" Having at last managed to remotely focus on Hutch, Starsky looked up at him, but squeezed his eyes shut, when a wave of pain hit him. "Hurts," he whispered and, too low for Zadie to catch, asked, "What... ?"

Hutch lightly squeezed Starsky’s knee, making it appear as though he was actually holding onto the captive for support, since he was still crouched down in front of him. "It’s a name," he answered Zadie’s question, shooting her a grave look. "I think."

To his great relief, she rolled her eyes, annoyed. "Aw, great!" she exclaimed and glared at Dobbs, who had kept his distance, standing uselessly by her side, looking like a kid watching his parents inspect a precious vase he had broken during his wild play. "You really pushed him over the edge, Bright Boy!" she snapped.

Brighton lifted his shoulders helplessly, looking lost, and none of them noticed the breath Hutch allowed himself to release.

Starsky had tried to move his hands and winced when his forgetfulness was punished with piercing agony shooting up his right arm. Watching, his heart bleeding for his friend, Hutch once more tightened his grip on his knee. Seeing Zadie focus on Dobbs, who was stammering some witty reply to her accusation, he lightly tugged at Starsky’s jeans.

Pleading dark blue eyes found his, loaded with questions, but somehow their communication lines must still have been functioning, for - ever so slowly - Hutch could see some of the heavy helplessness lift off his partner’s expression as recognition crawled back out of the corner the shock had thrown it into. It didn’t fully make it, though, as Starsky once more tried to move, his instinctive urge to cling when he was lost and in pain breaking through. Again, he flinched, winced, when he was held back.

Hutch curtly shook his head. 'Sit still. It’s okay, I’ll handle everything. Just sit still and play unconscious.'

It was hard to stay calm himself; worry screamed at him from deep inside, tickling his encyclopedia of a brain so that it spat out random facts about the damages electric shocks could cause and comparing his knowledge to whatever symptoms he found gazing back at him from Starsky’s eyes. Not to mention the nagging little voice inside his head that continued to whisper accusations at him, telling him over and over again that this was all his fault. If he just had had the guts to blow his cover and tell the bad guys the truth, none of this would have happened in the first place.

Okay, if he’d done that, both he and Starsky would probably be dead now, but then... there was no feeling of guilt in the afterlife, was there?

"Good point," Zadie’s voice suddenly tore him out of his thoughts. Contrary to Hutch, she had been listening to whatever Dobbs had been helpfully pointing out. When Hutch looked up, he found her studying the back of Starsky’s head in contemplation.

An icy shudder ran down his spine. "I’m sorry, wha-"

But before Hutch could finish his demand that she fill him in on what he had missed, Zadie answered his unspoken question by roughly grabbing a handful of tousled curls, yanking Starsky’s head back.

Starsky gasped, startled. His eyes flew to their edges, panicked, searching for his partner. Hutch could see that, though some memories seemed to have found their way back into the brunet’s abused mind, an overwhelming feeling of helplessness still held him tightly in its grip. He desperately needed some guidance here, and all Hutch could do was meet a questioning, desperate gaze with a reassuring one, the ever-present crease deepening on his forehead when he was forced to watch Zadie tap the barrel of the taser against Starsky’s cheek, wanting his attention.

That she got. Starsky flinched, and violently. His eyes snapped to her face in clear fright. His breathing quickened.

"Aw," Zadie muttered and blinked in her best version of motherly concern. "Lookit, the poor guy’s scared. Tsk," she added, glancing at Dobbs, without letting go of Starsky, "Brighton. You scared him."

Brighton didn’t look like he minded.

Hutch lifted from his crouch, so that Starsky could see him more easily, but his partner’s eyes were wandering up to meet Zadie’s, when she spoke again.

"San Fran, Dave." She paused, as if to give him time to think.

Visibly confused, Starsky opened his mouth to reply something, but frowned. He looked at Hutch again. "Wha... ?"

"San Francisco," Zadie repeated. She gave the curls she held a small jerk, causing a gasp. "You wanted to tell us about San Fran. C’mon, just the address. You know it, don’t you?"

It broke Hutch’s heart to see how desperate his friend appeared to be. It was obvious that Starsky didn’t understand the question, just words that made no sense to him. He probably only knew that he hurt. And that Hutch wasn’t helping him.

Hutch briefly closed his eyes, but they snapped open, when he heard Starsky whimper in fright.

"No."

Having reached the end of her patience, Zadie had let the taser do some wandering, until it had come to once more rest against Starsky’s temple, where an ugly red burn stood out starkly against the pallor of his face.

"No?" she asked mockingly, adding pressure to the tender spot.

Starsky winced and closed his eyes. Hutch could see him shaking with fear.

"Z-Zadie..." Hutch said. So this was it. This was the edge. More, he couldn’t endure. More, he couldn’t let go by. If blowing his cover was what it would take, so be it. Hell, at least then he’d finally be able to treat his best friend like a human being again! And, anyway - whatever the consequences, he would *not* let her shock Starsky again. He couldn’t.

"Zadie, put that-"

"O-oak... Oak Street."

The stammered words, faint, yet urgent with fright, hung in the air like an echo. They had drowned out Hutch’s demand, as everyone’s attention was focused solely on Starsky, who swallowed nervously, unsure whom to look at.

Zadie was the first to snap back into action. Roughly, she shook Starsky’s head again. "Oak Street," she barked. "Oak Street in San Fran? Which number?"

Starsky muttered a number, frowned and corrected himself.

Finally, with the most contented smile, Zadie let go of him. She didn’t waste another look at him. "Someone get him outta the kitchen," she muttered, the command sounding more like she was talking to herself. "Mac!" she then yelled into the direction of Norton McLean’s room. "Come be useful!"

When there was no audible reaction, she turned to Brighton Dobbs, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb. "You go get him to help you, ’kay? Hunter," she said to Hutch, who up until then had stood staring at his partner, dumbfounded, "let’s talk outside."

Hutch watched her pass him on her way to the backdoor. He was slow to follow, finding it hard to tear his eyes away from his partner.

Starsky let his head hang, his eyes half-closed. He seemed to be mumbling something to himself, then fell quiet.

'What the hell is on Oak Street, San Fran?!' Hutch wanted to scream at him, but he doubted he’d get a satisfying answer. Starsky looked more than out.

McLean emerged from his room, along with a grayish cloud of spicy smoke. He rubbed at his eyes. "Madame yelled?"

Hutch followed Zadie outside and almost ran into the half-closed door when he looked back over his shoulder just in time to see Starsky slide from the chair, as Brighton untied him. He lay where he landed, motionless.

"Now, that was fun."

Zadie’s voice dragged Hutch’s attention to her. She was just lighting a cigarette and stopped, startled, when he reached out and unceremoniously took it.

"Thought you didn’t smoke?"

"Only when I’ve earned it," he commented dryly, taking a lungful of smoke. "That was good thinking back there," he then said.

She smiled. "Thank you. ’Twas Dobbs’ idea, though."

Hutch grumbled something unintelligible and took another drag.

"You think he told us the truth?" Zadie suddenly asked.

Hutch cast her a surprised look. "Who, the cop?"

"No, Santa Claus. Dummy."

He shrugged. "What with your diplomatic talents... Yeah, I think he did. Why wouldn’t he? He was completely out of it."

How true. Up until now, having his mind run 'Oak Street' over and over hadn’t helped any - Hutch was pretty sure he had never heard that name before. Yet, he couldn’t help thinking that his friend had looked way too... out of it to have come up with any random street name. No, Starsky had *known* which address to say, he had even *corrected* himself about the number. It must be something he’d recalled.

"Philip? Have you ever killed someone?"

Maybe it was some place Starsky knew from his childhood days. Most of his family lived in California, didn’t they? And come to think of it, Hutch thought he could recall some uncle from Starsky’s dad’s side, who lived in San Francisco. Or at least *had* lived there.

'Aw, no!'

Starsky hadn’t... Had he? Maybe it’d been the first thing his struggling mind had spat out at the mention of the city. Maybe, in a twisted way, Zadie’s plan had, indeed, worked.

'God, please don’t let it be his uncle’s address!'

"Hunter?"

Suddenly realizing that Zadie had been calling his name for some time now, Hutch snapped his eyes to her, then down to his right hand, where the cigarette had burned itself to death.

"Sorry," he mumbled, "sorry, what’d you-" When he looked up from where he’d stomped the cigarette butt into the ground, Zadie was holding a new one out for him.

Hutch took it with a forced smile. "Thanks. What’d you say?"

"I asked," she said, lighting his cigarette for him, "if you’d ever killed someone before."

His blood ran cold. He was glad he hadn’t looked in her eyes, but at her hands holding the lighter. Clearing his throat, he took a small step back and blew out smoke, studying her features. Was that fear, concern, regret, all of it or none in her eyes?

Excitement maybe?

"We still need him," he said calmly. The poetic irony of that statement made him smile inwardly. 'I need him.'

"Until we know he’s telling us the truth about the place," Zadie said.

He didn’t break the eye contact. "There’s no better hostage than a cop," he pointed out. "As you said earlier, 'might come in handy'. Once we’re in business - we’ve gotta get outta here."

A brief silence passed.

"You don’t like to think about killing a cop, do you?"

Hutch thought about that. "I’ve seen what happens to people who did."

"And were caught," Zadie added.

"Everybody makes mistakes," Hutch said. "No one’s exempt from that."

"Yeah." She grinned and waved her head at the kitchen door. "Just look at him."

"My point exactly."

Zadie studied him for one more moment, then snapped her cigarette away and turned for the door again. "You okay with checking out the address tomorrow with Brighton?"

Hutch shrugged.

"’Kay. Hey, Hunter?"

He lifted his brows questioningly.

"You know, only the one who pulls the trigger gets ten to life, when it comes down. The others can always claim they weren’t around when it happened."

Hutch snorted. "Bullshit, Zade. Ever heard of abetment? And it’s the chair for a cop, not ten to life."

She frowned. "Really?" And at his nodding asked, "How come you know all that?"

"My old man’s a lawyer."

*****

There was a small streak of blood on the kitchen table. In the pale white light of the flashlight, it glowed almost brown, as if the wood had rusted, but Hutch knew it was blood. He stopped for a shudder, and let the light wipe over the table as if accidentally, holding the flashlight down, so that he just saw where he stepped on his way to the cellar door.

It was way past midnight, party long over, the house slumbering in snorey silence. Party... Yeah, that had been torture (Hutch smirked at that thought.), sitting around in the 'lobby' with Zadie, McLean, Brighton and a miraculously reappearing Christian Gruder, listening to Zadie’s and Brighton’s plans and organizational brilliance, as well as to a never-ending description of the most horrible afternoon of his life.

Zadie had been proud of herself. And Brighton had been proud of Zadie. Christian had been quiet, McLean stoned. As for Hutch, he had, with admirable self-discipline, kept himself from drinking too much. Once more, he’d been glad Philip Hunter was a rather quiet fellow, not one to brag about any cop’s bones he’d might have broken that day, or some other stuff he didn’t want to say out loud, as if that would make a difference. But then, as long as he didn’t talk, no one could catch the quivery mixture of fury, self-hatred, despair and all the other emotions that swept his mind whenever this afternoon’s picture flashed up in front of his inner eyes like memories of a nightmare, jumbled and disconnected.

The mere hour they had tried to get Starsky to talk - to lie - seemed like a whole day to Hutch, or a week. Or, no, some interminable amount of time, a stretchable material that had caught them all in a large bubble, making it possible to go on with it forever, when to the outside world it had appeared to be just a short while.

A short while that had been more than enough, though, for him to helplessly stand by and watch, as he and Starsky had both dug themselves in even deeper with every new piece of the picasso-esque puzzle Zadie had started to hammer together, drawn by her wishful imagination. Now that he wasn’t held in the tight grasp of panic, Hutch couldn’t believe how uncoordinated he himself had played this, how... helpless. To first get Starsky - Starsk! - to come up with a story, and in his condition too, then make him tell something completely different and finally go with Zadie and her fantasies about political prisoners...

As the thoughts once more washed through him, carried on a wave of guilt, Hutch rolled his eyes at himself, closed them briefly with a quiet sigh. Some undercover-trained cop he was...

Before he carefully dragged the cellar door open, he hesitated, straining to listen to any suspicious sounds, but the only audible thing was a symphony of snoring performed by Dobbs and McLean. Given the amount of red wine Zadie had consumed, she was probably fast asleep as well - and probably not in her own bed.

The cellar was pitch black - there were no windows down there - and the clammy cold tugged at Hutch’s skin when he turned on the second step to quietly close the door behind him.

He had only been down there once before, to check on Starsky’s description of the group’s equipment, the same equipment that Brighton and McLean had brought up into Brighton’s room earlier, once they had dumped their prisoner down there.

Zadie’s suggestion.

'Sneaky little bitch.'

For a house of its size, the cellar was small, consisting of only two usable rooms; one bore a pretty impressive collection of wines, the other one had born a pretty impressive collection of a modern armory. That was where Hutch found his friend, when he shone the flashlight inside, careful to not hit him directly with the blinding light and startle him.

Starsky sat slumped against a cold radiator, to which he was tied with his arms uncomfortably twisted behind his back. He appeared to be asleep (at least Hutch hoped he wasn’t still unconscious); his eyes were closed, and his head rested sideways against the radiator, tilted slightly backwards, so that Hutch could easily see the colorful bruises on his face, dried streaks of blood.

Out of pure sadism, if you asked Hutch, Brighton and McLean had put a large strip of duct tape over Starsky’s mouth.

'Bastards! Who would he yell for, anyway? Us?!'

Hutch carefully half-closed the door to the room, making sure he’d still hear any other nightly visitors, and hurried to his friend’s side. "Starsky," he whispered.

Starsky didn’t react, but he moaned quietly when Hutch touched the side of his face, lightly, careful to not brush against any spot that might hurt.

"Starsky, wake up. It’s me. Starsk."

A small frown started on Starsky’s face, deepening when Hutch gently stroked thick curly hair, still softly whispering to his friend. "C’mon, Buddy, wake up, show me you’re okay. It’s Hutch, it’s alright."

Starsky stirred as he edged closer to wakefulness, and then suddenly startled awake, his eyes going from mere slits to wide open. A gasp came out muffled against the tape.

Startled himself, Hutch reflexively drew his hand away, only to reach out instantly again, touching Starsky’s shoulder reassuringly. "Easy. Easy, it’s okay. ’Sjust me."

Confusion glowed in Starsky’s midnight blues. He scanned his new surroundings with fast glances, ever aware of his gaze returning to Hutch every split second, obviously trying to determine what to make out of this situation.

Reading the stream of thoughts displayed in his friend’s eyes, Hutch took a gentle hold of Starsky’s chin to make him look directly at him. "It’s okay. They’re all asleep. I’m alone. Not here to hurt you anymore."

That, at least, got through, as Hutch discovered with relief. All nervous fright suddenly vanished from Starsky’s face, and he cast his friend an annoyed look. Hutch could almost hear his voice inside his head. 'Don’t be funny, Blintz.'

There was another muffled sound that sounded suspiciously like Starsky was affectionately insulting him. At hearing it, Hutch arched his brows apologetically. "Um, that is... maybe a bit. Just one more time."

He smiled sadly, seeing that Starsky understood what he meant. The brunet squeezed his eyes tightly shut, making as much of a show out of it as he could (Starsky’s idea of giving comfort under impossible conditions, as Hutch knew very well) and nodded once.

Hutch peeled off one edge of the tape and hesitated. "Ready?"

Starsky opened one eye for an annoyed glare.

"’Kay." And at 'three', Hutch pulled off the tape, mercifully quickly. He was impressed by how little sound his partner managed to make.

"Thanks," Starsky croaked and gave a little cough.

Hutch smiled. "Thirsty?" he asked, lifting a bottle of water he’d brought along. "There’s also wine, of course."

Starsky snorted a laugh and coughed again. "Water’s fine."

Hutch helped him take a few sips. "I can’t wash the blood offa your face, though," he said ruefully. "They’d notice."

"I know," Starsky replied reassuringly. "It’s okay, really. I’m fine now." A wince betrayed his words. He didn’t let Hutch react to that, but looked around, avoiding the blond’s concerned gaze. "How’d I get down here?"

"Dobbs and McLean," Hutch answered. Shifting his position, he leaned forward to untie his friend. "What’s the last thing you remember?"

"’Sall kinda blurry," Starsky repeated absently. He was twisting around as to see what Hutch was doing and flinched when he felt various parts of his body protest against that kind of movement. "What’re you doing?"

"Untying you, dummy. Stop wriggling."

"But... Hutch."

Hutch stopped to look at his friend, who arched his brows.

"What for?"

Understanding, the blond slumped his shoulders. He scratched his forehead, then returned to his task. "I can’t talk to you like this," he stated flatly.

"Hutch..." Hutch could hear Starsky’s voice again, softly - something must have shown on his face, but he chose to pretend he hadn’t heard, not wanting to allow himself the comfort of forgiveness.

"There you go," he finally muttered and carefully brought Starsky’s hands up front. When he took in the damage to the right one, his face fell. "Aw, God," he mumbled, to himself really, then to his friend, "Buddy, I’m sorry. I didn’t think. I-I... I’m sorry." A rueful smile curled his lips slightly, but it held no humor. "That plan just sucked."

"Yeah, well, we don’t go for solo plans, do we?" Starsky replied. He was visibly trying his best to not show how much he was hurting. A fine film of sweat was glittering on his face, and his features were strained, making it hard to see the offered support shining through his eyes. "And... speaking of going..." He coughed once, lifting one arm to have it stifled against the sleeve of his t-shirt. A moan followed, not as equally muffled. Reaching out to press his good hand against his bruised side, Starsky squeezed his eyes shut.

Gentle hands kept him from curling up, then wandered down to carefully probe his ribs. "Hurt a lot, hmm?" Hutch asked softly, shared pain coloring his voice. "I don’t think any of your ribs are broken, though," he added after a moment, but looked at his partner’s useless right hand that lay in Starsky’s lap.

"Hutch."

"Hmm?" Gazing up, Hutch found himself meeting midnight blues, that were filled with pain and struggling for self-control. Wanting to look supportive, not forgiving, as the message was there *was* nothing to forgive.

"Stop it, Blintz," Starsky mumbled. He needed to stop after that for a few quick breaths, then continued, "I’d have done the same thing." His attempt at an ironic smile came out somewhat quivery.

For his partner’s sake, Hutch played along, gracing Starsky’s effort with a smile of his own, while he brushed his thumb lightly over the taser burn visible on Starsky’s temple. "Sure, Babe, I know that."

"Come to think of it," Starsky added, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the radiator, "next time the tight spot we’re in looks like this, I might just do it."

Hutch chuckled slightly, not convinced, but grateful to his friend.

"I’ll keep that in mind." He lowered his hand to carefully turn Starsky’s face to the other side and get a better look at a particularly large dark blue bruise that the barrel of Brighton’s gun had left underneath the swollen eye. Wincing in shared pain, Hutch sighed. "I can’t do anything for you here, really, but..." Lifting his index finger, he reached for his pocket with the other hand. "I brought you some Vicodin."

Starsky’s eyes lit up. "You’re beautiful," he stated with sincere relief, and sighed when he took in the sight of the two pills Hutch showed him in his outstretched hand.

The blond frowned. "Yeah," he muttered absently, letting the pills fall into Starsky’s good hand and grabbing the water bottle again. "People keep telling me. Pain that bad, huh?" he added concernedly, watching his partner dry-down the relief-promising capsules with desperate speed, before he even reached for the water.

Catching the look on Hutch’s face, Starsky hesitated, almost ruefully. "Didn’t I say don’t let me fool ya?" he finally came up with a half-hearted wise crack and took a large gulp of water.

Hutch guided the bottle safely back down to the ground. Deep worry had yet to leave his expression. "Where’s it worst? Fingers?" he asked, but bent his head to inspect the angry red burn on the side of Starsky’s neck.

"Head," Starsky corrected quietly.

Hutch looked up sharply. For a brief moment of eye-contact, there was silence. At last, the blond sighed deeply. "Damn, what a mess this is," he mumbled as if to himself. "You oughta be in the hospital."

"I’d choose home," Starsky said. The pills were obviously kicking in by now; he sounded less strained, and he didn’t blink as often as before, Hutch noticed, a flash of new guilt washing through him. He didn’t even want to start to imagine how his friend must have felt before.

"Yeah, well, you’re done choosing for today," Hutch replied. His expression suddenly changed when a thought hit him, and he sat back to look directly at his partner. "Starsk, d’you remember anything after Brighton shocked you?"

Starsky furrowed his brows. "Thought it was Zadie." As his eyes wandered off, following a hazy memory, the frown deepened. "Wasn’t it?"

"At first," Hutch explained. "Um... so you don’t recall..." He trailed off, one hand reflexively brushing against Starsky’s temple.

That must’ve triggered something, given Starsky’s sudden flinch. "Now," he nodded quickly, but stopped himself, wincing, when his body obviously just reminded him that nodding was off the list of available movements for the moment.

Hutch discreetly squeezed his shoulder, moving a bit closer, so that he could keep his hand on the back of Starsky’s neck comfortingly.

"Yeah, I remember," Starsky said. "But... ’sblurry. Why?" he added after a moment’s thought. "Did I do someth... Oh." He grimaced, eyes widening. "Oh, shit. I think... I-I didn’t blow your cover, did I?"

Hutch smiled reassuringly and shook his head. "No, don’t worry. Would I be sitting here then?"

"Maybe I’m hallucinating."

"You could be," Hutch quipped. "But you’re not. And you didn’t do anything, don’t worry. It’s just..." he hushed himself, bit his lip. "Starsk, what’s on Oak Street, San Francisco?"

Starsky stared at him blankly. "What?"

Hutch sighed. "Wh-when Zadie asked you again where their guys were being heldd, you were so out of it, you-"

"I told them that address?!" Starsky interrupted him, surprised.

Hutch nodded.

"Oh."

Silence.

After a second, Hutch tilted his head expectantly, brows climbing up. "Well?" he asked, stretching the word.

"Hmm? Oh. It’s a toy store. Well," Starsky added with a half-shrug that stopped at the protest of cracked ribs. "At least it was one twenty years ago. My uncle Lenny used to take us there, when Nicky and I were kids. It’s the only address in Frisco I know."

Hutch stared at him. "A toy store?!" he repeated, pressing his lips together, when he noticed he’d increased in volume too much. "Are you sure?" he asked urgently.

"Yeah," Starsky answered. He didn’t need to think about it.

Hutch wasn’t calmed, yet. "You are? Yeah? It’s not, like, Uncle Lenny’s own address?"

Understanding, Starsky assured him, "No. Lenny moved so often, I could never recall his current address, and he’s not living in California anymore, anyway. Trust me, it’s a toy store."

Finally convinced, Hutch gave a small nod, but sighed, exasperated. "Shoulda expected that. Of course it’d be a toy store."

Starsky didn’t listen. "Man," he muttered. "Must’ve been *really* out of it. I don’t remember anything about giving them an address." He paused. "Didn’t think I would."

Catching the dark tone, Hutch looked at his friend, gently tightening his grip on Starsky’s neck. "Hey. It’s not like you could’ve helped it." A sad smile rushed over his face, as he brushed his thumb underneath the burn on Starsky’s temple once more. He only now noticed how cold his friend’s skin was to the touch. Shrugging out of the light jacket he wore, he continued, "Never should’ve let Brightass get near you with that thing in the first place."

He didn’t meet Starsky’s eyes as he carefully laid the jacket around his shoulders.

"Brightass?"

Hearing the grin in Starsky’s voice, Hutch looked up after all. The openly offered comfort he saw in his partner’s eyes made him smile. Sadly, ruefully.

Starsky would’ve forgiven him anything, he knew that. That didn’t mean he deserved it.

He shrugged. "Where the 'bright' comes from is beyond me. He could’ve killed you."

Starsky just looked at him. After a moment, he wordlessly tugged at Hutch’s shirt.

The blond understood and moved closer, shifting his position, so that he sat beside Starsky against the wall, their shoulders touching. From the corner of his eyes he could see the brunet taking the opportunity to wince in telltale pain. Probably thought Hutch couldn’t see. Feeling Hutch’s head briefly touch his, though, he opened his eyes again, meeting sky blue eyes.

Another moment passed, until Starsky suddenly sniffed.

Instantly understanding, Hutch tilted his head away a tad, feeling himself blush. "What?" he asked innocently, when Starsky’s eyes narrowed accusingly.

"Didn’t I tell ya not to smoke, Blondie?"

"Didn’t think I needed your permission."

Starsky snorted. "As if. Don’t you start again!"

"Alright, alright," Hutch quickly said, lifting his hands in self-defense. "Won’t happen."

"Yeah, sure." Pause. "What happens now? They gonna check out Oak Street?"

All easy humor fading from his face, Hutch nodded.

Starsky gazed at the ceiling. "Wonder what’s in there now. Maybe it’s still the same store." He smiled, rolling his head on the radiator, so he could watch Hutch avoiding his partner’s eyes. "Hutch-"

"If," Hutch cut him off quietly, "Gerardy doesn’t show by tomorrow night, when we’re back, I’m pulling the plug."

"How’s that gonna look?"

At that, Hutch met his eyes. "I won’t let them touch you again. No discussion."

Starsky opened his mouth, but Hutch, again, cut him off.

"Dobbs could’ve killed you. It’s a miracle you just have a headache. You need to be checked out properly. Now, if," he stressed the word, "Gerardy’s not here, when I get back tomorrow, I’m gonna get us away from here, one way or the other." A humorless chuckle breaking free, he shook his head. "I don’t even wanna start to imagine what Zadie and Brighton might do, once they find out you sent us to a fucking toy store."

"Best one on this side of the continent," Starsky commented dryly.

Hutch snorted. "I think we know by now your taste in toys and theirs don’t exactly match."

But Starsky hadn’t listened. Another thought seemed to just have reached him. When he looked at Hutch again, there was effortfully-suppressed fear evident in his gaze. "Uh... y-you won’t be here tomorrow?"

Hutch’s face fell.

"Is that what you said?"

"Zadie said... I-I’m sure I can somehow..." Hutch stammered. It hadn’t really occurred to him until now that by agreeing to accompany Brighton earlier that day, he’d also agreed to leave Starsky alone for hours. Alone with Zadie. "Fuck," he mumbled softly, dismayed. "I-I didn’t... didn’t even listen." Driving a hand through his hair, he gazed at his friend. "I’ll tell them... um..."

"Hutch," Starsky hurried to assure him, by accident lifting his left hand to calmingly touch his knee, and gasped at the painful reminder to not do that. Before Hutch had any chance to feel even worse, though, Starsky quickly used his right one instead, swallowing hard to regain control over his voice. "Stop it. ’Sokay." He paused, drawing in a deep breath. "I’ll be okay. ’Sjust that I know to play unconscious, when I hear footsteps," he joked halfheartedly.

Hutch wasn’t calmed. It was obvious that the thought of spending a whole day alone in the cellar, never knowing when Zadie might feel it appropriate to take some more revenge for her arrested friends, scared Starsky immensely. Hell, it’d scare him too! It *did*!

"I’m so sorry, Starsky, I didn’t even really listen to her. I just nodded. I-I’ll think of something, I promise." He wiped over his face, squeezing his eyes shut briefly, mind chasing a solution already.

"Hutch."

Hutch turned his head.

"Don’t raise their suspicions. Gerardy will show tomorrow." It was said with so much confidence that Hutch felt tempted to believe Starsky knew more than he could. "You do what you have to do, and I’ll be a good, little, quiet prisoner. Zadie won’t try anything."

"How can you know?" Hutch asked sarcastically. He felt like scum. Starsky was right, he couldn’t think of any explanation as to why he shouldn’t ride with Dobbs, not to mention that even if he stayed, it wouldn’t mean he could hang around the cellar all the time. He sighed deeply. "Okay."

Before Starsky had the chance to make some more reassuring comments, Hutch lifted a warning finger, stating, "But by tomorrow night, we’re gone. Either with Gerardy or without him. This is my call now. I’m not gonna place the bust above... you," he finished, averting his gaze.

"Wouldn’t, either," Starsky muttered, earning a grateful smile.

Time passed, seeing them sitting shoulder to shoulder, silent, each lost in his own task of giving and drawing comfort from the other one’s presence.

"Don’t forget Topher, when you pull the plug," Starsky eventually said.

"Don’t worry."

"Think Ethan *will* show?"

"He’d better," Hutch replied darkly. "Or he’ll learn how to play undercover right the hard way." He seemed to listen to his own echo, then sighed, head bowing slightly. "Maybe I could offer to shoot you out in the woods some place and return la-"

"Like hell you will," Starsky interrupted him angrily. "Either we go, or we stay. Together."

"What happened to 'what if it was your decision, Hutch'?"

"Nothin’," Starsky replied. "It’s just not. - And Ethan will show," he added after a second.

"Yeah."

They sat in silence after that; Starsky’s head slowly, but steadily sank deeper, until it rested against Hutch’s shoulder, as sleep claimed him. The blond didn’t move, taking peculiar comfort from listening to his friend’s steady breaths. Occasionally, Starsky would moan or whimper slightly, when either the pain or disturbing memories managed to reach him even in sleep, but he’d always calm at Hutch’s soft hushes.

Hutch let his mind do some brainstorming, desperately trying to come up with a failsafe solution, a way out. But his own exhaustion, fueled by the never-ending guilt that beat in his chest like a second, black heart, made it hard to concentrate. Truth was, he had no idea how he would 'pull the plug' in case Ethan Gerardy did not greet him upon his return that night. Probably just try his best to fight off the group members, before they got their hands on Starsky, and run like hell... and not forget Topher.

'Don’t forget Topher.'

He knew it meant a lot to his partner to save that man. That twisted mirror image of who Starsky believed he himself could have been. And though Hutch knew better, he wouldn’t let his friend down on this. If Starsky needed to know Topher was getting help, Hutch would see to it. Question was how. But then, he’d have a lot of time for answering questions on his way to San Fran and back.

Hutch rubbed his face tiredly, feeling strained features under his fingertips, and absently rummaged for his watch. Glancing at it, he jumped. "Aw, shit! Starsk." Ever so gently, he moved away from his friend, supporting hands replacing the shoulder and side Starsky had been leaning against. "Starsky, wake up. C’mon."

Starsky stirred, frowned.

"Buddy, c’mon," Hutch urged, carefully shaking Starsky’s shoulder. "I gotta go. Wake up."

With a low moan, Starsky dragged his eyes open, but squeezed them shut again instantly. He moaned again. "Ow, damn. ’Sno dream after all, huh?" he mumbled and moved his left hand to rub his eyes.

"Don’t-" Hutch warned him, but too late.

Features tightening, Starsky bit his lip against a startled whimper. When he opened his eyes, he stared angrily at his hand, as if it was its fault. "Gotta learn that." He looked at Hutch, who was holding out the water for him. "Breakfast. Great."

Hutch smiled ruefully. "Know something, Starsk? You’re a pain in the ass in the morning."

Starsky took a few sips and handed back the bottle. "That’s what my Mom used to tell me. Only she used a different vocabulary." His eyes wandered over to where Hutch had carelessly thrown the rope he’d freed Starsky from hours before.

Hutch didn’t notice. "I hope so," he answered to Starsky’s wise crack. His smile vanished, when he looked at the bottle in his hand. "I can’t leave that here, I’m sorry. But I’ll be back as soon as possible, Babe, I prom-"

"Uh, Hutch," Starsky interrupted him softly. He waited for Hutch to focus on him, then slowly pointed at the rope. "Aren’t you forgetting something?"

Puzzled, Hutch followed Starsky’s gesture - and paled. "Oh." He swallowed, his face falling. "Right," he mumbled, sounding like a little kid, who had just been reminded of his unfinished household chores. Visibly unwillingly, he grabbed the rope, taking a short moment to study it with disgust. "Well..." He cleared his throat. "Move y-your arms behind you."

Starsky obeyed, casting Hutch a comforting glance. His heart obviously bled for his friend. He bravely suppressed a wince, as he tried to have his wrists touch without putting any pressure on his mangled fingers. "Don’t let this give you ideas, Blintz," he quipped.

Knowing the comment was meant to start a banter, to distract him, Hutch tried his best to play along, but his reply came quivery, sounding more like an apology than a counter. "You’re not my type."

"What, it’s just me?" Starsky asked, not giving up. "Otherwise this would be okay for ya?!"

Hutch rolled his eyes.

"Aren’t ya glad now you have to gag me too?"

At that, Hutch snorted a helpless chuckle and shook his head. He made sure the knots weren’t too tight, just so that they looked convincing, and patted Starsky’s shoulder, moving in front of him again. "Y’okay?" he asked softly. "Need anything, before I go? More water?"

"Only if you tell Miss Z to let me step outside later."

Hutch winced. "Oops. You don’t need to go now, do you?"

Starsky smiled, but had to suppress a flinch, when he unwisely moved. When he spoke, his voice was slightly strained. "Just go already, before anyone sees you."

"You sure?"

Starsky just nodded.

"’Kay." Hutch smiled, affection mixing with tormented concern in his eyes. He lightly ruffled Starsky’s hair and turned to go.

"Hutch," Starsky’s voice held him back.

"Yeah, Buddy?"

"Tape."

"Right." Hurrying so much that his mind couldn’t catch up to what he was doing, Hutch glanced around for the duct tape, found it on a shelf and tore off a strip, carefully placing it over Starsky’s mouth. He ever-so-briefly leaned his forehead against Starsky’s, then left.

*****

"That God damned bastard! Fucking little rat!"

His face turned towards his window on the passenger side, Hutch rolled his eyes. Having to listen to Brighton Dobbs’ endless litany of insults wouldn’t have been so bad if the man had at least more than just two on his list.

"I’m gonna kill him. I swear, I’m gonna kill him!"

Not to mention more than only one threat...

"The pig’s dead! Dea-"

"Brighton," Hutch muttered. "You’re loud."

Brighton didn’t seem to have understood, as he stopped his ranting, but instead now yelled, "I don’t *believe* it! I fucking don’t *believe* it!"

Hutch sighed and rubbed his eyes. He was starting to feel a headache forming.

"D’you believe it?! Of all places! A God damned toy store! What’d he think he is, funny?!"

Huge headache.

"Well, I’ll show him how funny *I* can be!!! That fu-"

"Brighton!" Hutch snapped. Merciful silence followed. Meeting Dobbs’ startled gaze, the blond quietly ordered, "Don’t yell at *me*; I didn’t do anything."

"Sorry," Dobbs said in a small voice, then concentrated on the street again. Every so often, he’d steal a side glance at Hutch who was stoically ignoring him.

Hutch looked outside again, watching the freeway signs pass them by. Another hour. Well... given Brighton’s driving, maybe two. His own mind wasn’t much better than Brighton’s ranting, though, as the only thought he heard over and over and over again in his head was 'Let Gerardy be there. Please let Gerardy be there.' He’d listened to that all morning, on their way to San Fran, while he’d been ignoring Brighton’s excited rambling about how they’d free 'their' people once they had gotten a picture of the hiding place.

The only time his repeated inner pleading had stopped for a moment had been when he and Dobbs had stood right in front of the house, looking through the window at wooden, metallic and stuffed toys.

'Gotta tell Starsk it’s still the same store. He’ll be delighted.'

A sudden jerky movement next to him tore Hutch out of his thoughts, and he snapped his head to Brighton, who had just hit the steering wheel. "That sneaky little-"

Hutch rolled his eyes and moaned. Not again! "Brighton-"

"I can’t *believe* he dared to do that!" A humorless laugh broke free. He shook his head. "A *toy store*, for fuck’s sake!"

Hutch clenched his jaws.

"I mean, what the hell did he think we’d *do*?! Let it pass b-"

"I doubt he *thought* about it!" Hutch barked, effectively shutting Brighton up. "For Christ’s sake, you *shocked* him, Dobbs! What’d you expect?!"

"Wh-what d’you mean?" Brighton asked, dumbfounded. "He didn’t know what he was saying?"

"Exactly," Hutch breathed exasperatedly. "He was out of it. It’s probably just the very first address that jumped to his mind."

Dobbs frowned. "D’you really think so?"

Hutch just stared at him. "I tell ya something," he said coldly after a moment’s thought. "How ’bout I shock *you*, when we get home, and we’ll see what’s the first thing you come up with afterwards, hmm? Like that idea?"

With visible discomfort, Brighton smiled nervously, sliding away a tad. "Man," he mumbled, looking ahead again, "you’re grumpy when you have to get up early, anyone ever told you that?"

"Just shut the fuck up and drive," Hutch growled, taking a lot of pleasure in allowing himself to snap at the other man. After all, Philip Hunter would, of course, be equally pissed about their latest discovery.

And Brighton was too much of a coward to argue.

The rest of their drive was spent in blissful silence.

'Let Gerardy be there. Please let him be there. I don’t know what to do, if he’s not there. Please let Ethan be there. Please.'

*****

Gerardy was there.

Hutch thought he’d faint from relief when he saw Ethan’s car parked in front of the house.

Brighton sighed, as he pulled over next to it. "Great. Ethan’s gonna be so pissed."

Hutch didn’t bother answering; he opened his door before Dobbs had even turned off the engine, and was through the front door before Brighton had emerged from the car.

Gerardy sat in the kitchen, smoking. He was alone. Upon hearing the door and Hutch’s hasty footsteps, he looked up.

The relieved expression on Hutch’s face faded. Something was off. He had expected the agent to not be particularly pleased by the latest news, but the downright cold that shone in Gerardy’s eyes was odd. The agent looked... dangerous. Like a tiger observing its prey, prepared to jump and kill.

"Hunter," Ethan greeted him quietly and moved his eyes to look at the entering Brighton Dobbs. "Brighton." He nodded his head. "So you’re back. Well - wanna share information? Where did our unwanted guest send you to?"

Hutch frowned. He remained standing in the frame that held no door to the kitchen, arms folded in front of him. Watching the agent, an uneasy feeling spread inside his stomach, as if Ethan’s gaze had placed a block of ice there.

"You’re not gonna *believe* it!" Dobbs started.

"Try me," Ethan replied with a smug smile. "I heard a lot today I found hard to believe."

Hutch tilted his head to one side. Suddenly, he noticed the knuckles on Gerardy’s right hand were bruised slightly. The ice-cold feeling increased.

Unaware of the tension starting to grow in the room, Dobbs laughed humorlessly, throwing his arms in the air, as he said, "A toy store! D’you believe that?! A fucking toy store, that’s where he sent us, that creep!"

Gerardy smiled thinly. "Cute."

Hutch looked over his shoulder as if casually. "Where’re the others?"

"Outside," Ethan replied. "Fixing the Flowermobile. We’ll need it tonight."

Hutch frowned. "What for?"

"To free our people." At the two confused glances focusing on him, Gerardy smiled. "Good news, boys. I found out where the Friscos are being held."

Hutch’s chin dropped.

Brighton grinned. "Where?"

"You’ll see," Gerardy said.

"How?" Brighton asked.

Gerardy shrugged. "D’you care? The important thing is, I did. Face it, Dobbs, this is gonna be your last night at la casa de McLean. By tomorrow morning, you’ll all be off to the East coast. Along with a bunch of very happy people."

"What about the cop?" Hutch asked quietly.

Before Ethan could answer, Brighton snapped his fingers. "Right! That little-" Mumbling the rest of the insult to himself, he stormed off to the cellar door and downstairs.

Hutch was instantly behind him. "Wai-"

But Gerardy’s hand on his arm stopped him when he passed the table.

"We need to talk. Detective Hutchinson."

Hutch froze. He waited, tensing in Gerardy’s grip, but the other one didn’t speak again, just looked at him as if expectantly.

Just as Hutch was about to break the eerie silence, Brighton could be heard climbing up the stairs again. His eyes were wide, filled with surprise - amusement, too - when he looked at Gerardy, who’d let go of Hutch again.

"Wow. Little rat give you grief, Ethan?"

Hutch’s eyes snapped to Gerardy.

"I hate pigs."

The casual reply came out so utterly cold, hard, that it felt like a blow to Hutch’s stomach. Quickly, the blond sat down, thinking he felt his knees buckle. "Wh-what... ?" he stammered, too quietly for Brighton to hear, who was talking over it, anyway, informing him that, "Snoop’s really worked over. Can’t say I’m not jealous," he quipped happily.

Gerardy returned the grin and shrugged. "I heard you had your share already."

Hutch was looking from one to the other. 'What he hell... ?'

Catching the blond’s gaze, Gerardy looked directly at him, though it sounded like he was still talking to Brighton. "I’m gonna take him to the woods later to finish him off. When they find the corpse, we’ll be on the other side of the country."

Brighton laughed. "Man, I don’t believe we spent a day following some dumb pig’s instructions when you knew where to find our guys all the time! You could’ve let it slip that you *might* find out, when you left last time, y’know?"

Gerardy didn’t take his eyes off Hutch when he replied, "Letting things slip’s not my style. Besides, the way I see it, Detective Starsky did fulfill a certain purpose."

Hutch’s blood ran cold. "H-how..." He cleared his throat. "How d’you figure that?"

Gerardy smiled. "Fun?" he suggested.

Brighton laughed, patting Ethan’s back as he walked behind him. "You’re one of a kind, ’Rardy. Hey, I’m gonna tell the others about our discovery." He grinned and winked. "See ya later."

The door fell shut behind him, and instantly the tension in the room seemed to explode, drawing all the oxygen out of it. The two remaining men stared at each other.

"What did you do to him?" Hutch asked, his voice freezing.

Gerardy lifted his brows as if surprised. "Didn’t you listen?"

"Why?!" Hutch yelled, but pressed his lips together, when Gerardy made a mockingly hushing gesture. "What’s going on here?" he asked much lower. "What’re you playing?"

"My favorite game." Gerardy grinned briefly. "Now listen carefully, Detective. I want you to follow my orders tonight. Precisely. And then, I want you to arrest the Looneys. In that order."

"What’re we going to do tonight?"

"Blow up a house."

Hutch’s features hardened. "You..." He bit his lip, swallowing the insult. When he looked at Gerardy again, his eyes were filled with boiling fury. "You set us up, didn’t you? This is all your fault. You *made* them find Starsky’s badge, so that you could be sure I’d go along with your plan. What’s that house we’re going to crash, huh? An embassy? Some federal building?" He paused, then, as an afterthought, stated, "You switched sides."

"Not really," Gerardy replied and winked.

Hutch let go of a quivery breath. He was practically shaking from anger. "I don’t believe it," he mumbled to himself. When he noticed he sounded like Brighton Dobbs, he snorted a sarcastic laugh, shook his head. His eyes met Gerardy’s again. "I’m not gonna do it. Forget it."

Ethan lifted his brows. Folding his arms in front of him, he leaned back in his chair.

Hutch shook his head once more. "No way. No way I’ll help you support some red terrorist. What are you thinking?!"

"What am I thinking? Well, Detective, I’m thinking I’ve got you." He paused as if thinking. "I read your profile. Yours and your partner’s. And I watched you. I asked Perry for you specifically, did you know that?"

Hutch clenched his jaws, listening.

"Very predictable people, the both of you." Gerardy made a small disapproving noise, pointing at the back door behind him with his head. "Kinda like them."

"We were never even in the game, were we?" Hutch asked, audibly struggling for self-control.

Ethan shrugged graciously. "Aren’t we all part of somebody else’s game?"

"Now that you mention it," Hutch said. "What makes you so sure I won’t tell the other predictable folks all about you?"

"And blow your own cover?"

"To watch them... 'treat' an NSA agent? Any time."

Seemingly thinking about that, Gerardy reached for the pack of cigarettes on the table, pulling one out. "Wanna take me with ya, kid, huh?"

Hutch didn’t answer.

Gerardy stuck the cigarette between his lips and spoke around it. "I’m not scared of dying." He reached for the lighter. "You?"

Hutch remained silent.

"Or your buddy? You see..." Lighting his cigarette, Gerardy took a deep draw and blew out the smoke before he finished the sentence. "If I die, I die alone. What about you?"

Hutch averted his gaze. He was trapped. It was easy to play mind-poker, when the stakes were just you and your well-being. But the moment you had something more precious to lose than your life, you were out.

"You didn’t have to hurt him," he stated calmly. After a moment’s thought, he too reached for the pack, getting himself a smoke.

Gerardy shrugged. "I like things to look the right way," he replied. "Consider it a message. Besides, I didn’t want him to talk too much. So - we understand each other. Don’t we?"

Hutch exhaled smoke. "I’m not letting you walk outta here with my partner." He curtly shook his head. "You can forget about that. We leave him here, comfortably, and when everything’s over, I collect him."

"And where would be my insurance then?" Gerardy asked, unimpressed.

"Screw your insurance!" Hutch hissed, no longer able to hold the desperate anger at bay. "You don’t ask that of me! Starsky and I went through hell to save your ass! We could’ve left you to face the music on your own; hell, I wanted to! *He* kept me from it! You owe your pathetic life to *him*! You’re *not* gonna take him some place I don’t know about and use him as a hostage when things get rough! I won’t allow it."

"I’m touched," Ethan said mockingly. "And so, so grateful. Honest. But see - just as I said, too predictable." He tilted his head, looking up at Hutch teasingly. "Don’t you think I knew I could trust you two?" He smiled.

Hutch stared at him incredulously. "Who the hell *are* you?!"

"This game’s mastermind," Gerardy joked and snuffed his cigarette. "But I have some more things to do today, as much as I’d love to stay and exchange quotable tough guy lines with you, Hutch." He looked up to grin at the blond, visibly amused by the reaction his using the nickname received. He stood, lightly snapping the pack of cigarettes over the table towards Hutch. "Keep it. You’ll need them."

Startled, Hutch jumped up too. "Where’re you going?"

"Collecting my hostage."

Too fast for Gerardy to react, Hutch grabbed the man’s collar and shoved him against the nearest wall, pinning him there. "Didn’t you listen? I won’t let you walk out of here with him!"

"Let go of me," Ethan ordered calmly. "Now."

"No."

Gerardy sighed exasperatedly. It was obvious he was done playing games and seriously heading towards being pissed. "Okay, look, it’s your call. You wanna try pick him up and run? Good luck getting past the Looneys carrying an unconscious guy."

"The three of us will take that walk. Nice, slowly and without raising any attention."

Gerardy just shook his head. "No, we won’t."

Hutch narrowed his eyes, studying the man he held. "You’re not that tough, Ethan. You won’t really let me tell them about you."

Ethan didn’t move, didn’t blink. "Wanna give it a try?"

Moments passed. Neither of the men took his eyes off the other’s. Voices could be heard growing louder outside. The 'Looneys' were coming back.

"I’m your buddy’s only ticket out of here," Gerardy whispered. "Except in a coffin."

Hutch was the first to break the contact, his gaze flying from Ethan to the cellar door, to the back door and back. He tightened his grip. His voice was dripping with despair. "I won’t let you take him."

"Then he’ll die!" Ethan hissed. "I know you don’t care about your own life, but Starsky’s is in your hands too. Save him or let them kill him. Decide!"

Hutch closed his eyes. What seemed like an eternity was indeed only a split second of his mind fighting against the plain truth. And, in the end, losing that fight. He withdrew his shaking hands. His head was bowed when he stepped away from Gerardy, unable to meet the man’s eyes, knowing that if he did, he might do something that would decide Starsky’s fate.

"You touch him again, you’re a dead man," he whispered and looked up after all. "And when this is over - you’d better run like hell."

"I have every intention of doing so," Gerardy replied. Hutch couldn’t be sure, but he thought that for a split second, he’d seen honest fear rush through the other one’s eyes.

Zadie burst into the room through the back door, laughing. "A toy store?!" she grinned at Hutch. "If he wasn’t a pig, I’d have to say I think that’s cute! Totally Snoopy!" She shook her head.

"Yeah," Hutch replied coldly, glaring at her. "Aren’t you crying a river, since we have to kill cute, funny little Snoop? But then," he added sarcastically, a somewhat cruel grin starting on his face, "you’ll be holding the rifle, when Woodstock falls outta the sky."

Startled, Zadie stared at him. "Wow," she muttered and made a show out of letting her eyes wander over to Gerardy. "Didn’t you tell him the good news, yet?"

Gerardy waved lightly. "Hunter’s just in a sour mood, because he has to leave sunny California. Aren’t ya, Phil?" He smiled wryly at Hutch, but didn’t wait for a reaction. "McLean, why don’t you and Christian go get our guest upstairs, so we can all be on the road in a few?"

"Aw, man!" McLean whined, taking the cigarette he’d just clamped between his lips out of his mouth again to speak. "Why do *I* have to carry the guy up and down all the time?! He might not look it, but he’s heavy, ya dig?"

"I could-" Hutch offered, already stepping towards the cellar door, but Gerardy held him back, grabbing his arm tightly.

"Nope, you and Brighton still need to pack your stuff. The rest is already in the Flowermobile. Or isn’t it?" he asked, glancing at Zadie, who nodded eagerly.

"All packed, ’Rardy," she stated and gave a mocking salute. "Flowermobile’s ready to rumble."

Hutch lifted his brows. "Oh? Well," he added, looking at Ethan again, "let’s just hope we won’t hit any holes in the street." He smiled slightly, challenging.

Ethan wasn’t impressed. "I don’t think you will," he replied calmly and with a casual motion opened the cellar door. "Mac, Chris, I don’t have all night."

"Dictator," McLean mumbled, but obediently climbed down the stairs, followed by an ever-quiet Christian Gruder.

Hutch looked after them, feeling his throat tightening. If he just walked after them...

... there’d still be nothing he could do. Was Ethan armed? He hadn’t even checked.

"Hunter?"

Maybe Ethan wasn’t. Maybe it’d be easy. Maybe Starsky wasn’t *really* unconscious.

'’Sjust that I know to play unconscious, when I hear footsteps.' Hadn’t those been Starsky’s words?

"Hunter."

Maybe they could get out of this somehow. If he moved now. If he decided to go for it *right now*. If he just *moved*. Maybe...

"Hunter!"

Hutch’s eyes snapped to Gerardy, startled.

"Go pack your stuff," Ethan ordered calmly.

Hutch suddenly noticed Brighton had left already, probably to do just that.

The blond detective hesitated, eyes wandering to the cellar door. He could hear footsteps approaching. 'Starsk...'

"Philip." Gerardy’s voice. Low.

Hutch looked at him, despair arching his brows. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t turn away. Couldn’t leave. He drew in a shaky breath.

"Ethan..." It was whispered more than mumbled. Zadie, who stood behind Gerardy making coffee, didn’t even hear it.

But Ethan did. "Go upstairs. Now." With the slightest movement, he brushed the jacket he wore aside, revealing a gun tucked into his belt.

Hutch stared at it, unaware that he was holding his breath. He didn’t move an inch. 'Starsky...'

Gerardy drew the gun, smiling at Hutch’s flinching. Once more, their eyes met.

Ethan shrugged, pretending to check his gun. To see if it was loaded.

Hutch watched.

'Save him or have them kill him. Decide!'

Decide... Could he decide to go with the risk?

'Save him or...'

Nothing could come after the 'or'. Save him. Nothing *could* be the alternative to saving Starsky’s life. Hutch knew that.

"’Ey!" McLean’s voice broke through the silence. "Someone get this fucking door, *please*?!"

Before Hutch could even move, snapping out of a trance-like state, Gerardy grabbed the cellar door to drag it fully opened.

"Thanks," McLean panted sarcastically, as he stepped up into the kitchen, working on maneuvering his and Christian’s burden through the door.

Only the sudden ache in his chest told Hutch he still hadn’t let go of the breath he’d been holding. So he did.

It came out as a sigh, and Gerardy heard. Quickly, he took up a position between the group of three and Hutch, partially shielding Starsky from the blond’s view.

"Get him into my car," he ordered, his fingers tightening around his gun. "I’ll be right there."

"Aye, sir," McLean muttered. He and Christian left, more dragging than actually carrying the unconscious man through the door Zadie held open. She whistled quietly, shaking her head, bemused, at the drops of blood that now shone on the kitchen floor.

Hutch hadn’t heard or seen any reaction coming from his partner.

"Will you *please* go and pack your God damned stuff now, Hunter?" Gerardy growled. For emphasis, he slightly waved his gun, before he put it back into his belt.

Icy blue eyes found his, and after a long, silent moment, Hutch moved, stepping towards Gerardy at first, slightly bumping into the man, before he turned around him to then walk towards the stairs. "I’ll get ya for this," he whispered, as his shoulder touched Ethan’s. "You’ll be sorry."

He didn’t look back when he heard the kitchen door slam shut, but walked on into his room, where he closed the door, leaning his forehead against it.

Moments passed. Hutch didn’t move.

'C’mon, Hutch. Get a grip. This isn’t helping. Just think about all the stuff Starsky’ll make you do to make up for this. Wash his car. Buy crap-made-lunch for the next twenty years. Do all the paperwork. No more camping trips ever again. Just think of that. You’ll never hear the end of this. Never. You’ll see. In a month, it’ll get on your nerves. All this '... remember the time ya let me down?!'-kinda talk. It’s gonna annoy the hell outta you. Better believe it will.'

But the truth was, he just prayed it would.

*****

Why was the cellar moving?

And who the hell was doing all this loud moaning that echoed in his ears?!

Starsky strained to listen.

'Oh. Right. I am.'

Well, since that was settled, he allowed yet another groan to escape and finally blinked his eyes open.

Now, that was effective! He sighed. Darkness surrounded him. Moving darkness, he corrected himself, when yet another sudden shaking motion threw him head first against something. A wall? Whatever it was, it provided a connection hard enough for stars to have exploded before his eyes; he squeezed them shut briefly, struggling to hold onto consciousness.

He tried to gasp at the pain that flooded freely through his head, but his mouth was forced shut, and so the air left through his nose. Damn, that hurt! He sniffled, smelling blood. Could feel it stick to his skin under his nose, around his mouth. His left eye hurt, wouldn’t open fully.

But even if it had, all that would have resulted from that would’ve been a better view of the darkness. Moving darkness. Where the hell *was* he?!

He tried to cough a bit, but, again, it didn’t help much, and now he slowly remembered that he was gagged. Unnerved, he brought his right hand up - instinct more than memory told him to not use his left - and peeled the annoying tape off of his mouth. There! Better. Finally, he could cough and carefully probe at the corners of his mouth with his tongue, taste the dried blood there.

To his relief, the coughing didn’t bring up any fresh blood, though it hurt, sharply cutting off his relief about being able to do it. His ribs and chest especially protested against any straining motions, and when he tried to curl up to ease the sudden, stabbing pain in his sides, he found he couldn’t. His knees would meet the wall his head had connected with. Not only was the cellar moving, it had also shrunk.

And, come to think of it, hadn’t he been tied up in the cellar? Puzzled, he lifted his hand again, this time to have it touch a ceiling he could sense mere inches above his head. A crushing wave of claustrophobia hit him; his breath quickened. What was this?!

For the briefest, most agonizing moment, he believed his new surroundings to be a coffin. Panicking, he unwisely scratched his left hand over the ceiling too, as if trying to dig himself out, but the instant his injured digits brushed against the concrete material, he stopped, swallowing a whimper.

'Note to self: left hand’s out of order!'

But somehow the pain woke up memories of itself, memories that stirred others. Hutch holding his hand, gently, carefully... apologizing. 'Aw, c’mon, Blintz, don’t look like that. You know ’snot your fault.'

But... wait...

Starsky frowned, blinking at the ceiling, suddenly seeing it was brown. Not so dark after all.

Hutch had left again, hurriedly. 'Hutch. Tape.' Had brought him pain pills. But he hurt now. A lot.

Squinting his eyes, as if trying to see through the fog that clouded his fuddled mind, Starsky shook his head curtly to clear it, stirring yet another wave of dimming pain. Grayish light appeared in front of his eyes, blurry, engulfing. Startled, he closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, the light was still there, clear now, softer. Not everywhere anymore, but only a long slit, right in front of his nose. It, too, seemed to move, widening slightly every few seconds. And it was loud.

A rattling light.

Starsky frowned. He lay on his back now, his body having decided to at least move *somewhere*, if curling up was out of the question. He looked at the ceiling, moving his head on an aching, tense neck, then to the light again.

All of a sudden, the truth came to him. Out of nowhere, like the memory of a name you’d forgotten for a long time. A trunk. He was in the trunk of a driving car.

Another thought hit him: 'Ethan.'

Ethan Gerardy had come to see him, some time after Hutch had left and he’d fallen asleep again, still blissfully under the influence of the Vicodin.

At first, Starsky had been relieved to see the agent, had even greeted him with a muffled mumble against the tape. But Gerardy had never answered to that. Hadn’t spoken at all. All he had done, in silence, had been to very thoroughly beat the living daylights out of the bound detective, starting with his face, then his chest. The kicks to his sides, responsible for the pain flaring through his sides whenever he moved, Starsky hadn’t even felt. At least not consciously.

Focusing on the slit of light, the brunet tried to put his thoughts in order. What did he know?

Well, first of all: Ethan Gerardy was not on his side.

Second: Ethan Gerardy was therefore not on Hutch’s side, either.

Third: Starsky was in a moving car, in the trunk, and it wasn’t the Flowermobile.

Forth: the trunk wasn’t fully closed.

The slit of light he’d been watching growing and shrinking in height was the unlatched trunk, bouncing lightly up and down as the car drove on. For some reason, Starsky doubted that had been intentional. It was the same instinct that told him he was in Gerardy’s car. After all, the man must have had a reason to lash out at him like he had, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that said reason had most likely been to impress Hutch.

Which, Starsky thought grimly - if he looked anything like he felt - it probably had.

So Gerardy was following some plan he needed a hostage for, an insurance.

Now, Hutch had said something about offering to shoot 'Snoop' out in the woods, in case Ethan didn’t show, so they could get out of Camp California. But... Hutch wouldn’t stuff him into a trunk and not let him out the second they were out of sight. Not to mention - why would Gerardy allow Hutch to take his partner away when he wasn’t on their side?

His mind still running through explanations, like a computer program searching through saved possibilities, Starsky slid closer to the slit, gritting his teeth against his body’s protests, and narrowed his eyes to look outside. The sun was setting, but it was cloudy, the sky a milky gray instead of the usual Californian blue. He could see buildings rushing by, streetlamps, other cars.

This wasn’t the woods, this was a city. His city, he suddenly realized, when they passed - of all buildings - Venice Place! Out of reflex, Starsky grabbed the edge of the opening, pressing his face closer, gazing back at Hutch’s place as it vanished behind a corner. Fighting a sudden wave of irrational sadness, the kind a kid would feel passing a former house the family had moved out of, he clenched his jaws, suppressing a groan, as he carefully rolled onto his side, so that he was now facing the slit.

He might not know what exactly had happened while he’d been out, but he knew for sure there was no way Hutch would drive around in Bay City with him in the trunk.

Or... Starsky hesitated. Could Gerardy be forcing Hutch to do so? Had he kidnapped them both? But what sense would be in that? Ethan needed Hutch for something, needed him to follow his orders. What better way of assuring that than to take his partner?

'Think, Dave. What would you do if it was the other way around?'

Easy. Follow Ethan’s orders.

But what could Gerardy possibly want? Why this charade? Why specifically *ask* for cover cops and then...

Starsky froze.

'... then use them to bust the Looneys after they’ve done the dirty work. That’s why!'

He let go of an angry breath, feeling his good hand forming into a fist. 'That bastard! Frisco guys, my ass! I bet he wants them to blow up an embassy. Or a federal building. Something like that. And then Hutch will arrest them *after* they succeeded, and why?! - Because he has no choice!'

He sighed deeply, placing his right hand up against the ceiling in a futile attempt at expressing his frustration.

"Damn, what a mess, Partner," he muttered under his breath, his heart breaking for his far-away friend. If the roles were reserved - he’d blow up his apartment, if it would keep Hutch alive. His favorite taco stand. Metro. The Statue of Liberty.

And he could only imagine the hell Hutch must have gone through to let Gerardy leave with his hostage; to leave both their fates in the hands of a man who had betrayed them. Who was most likely a terrorist.

'Aw, Hutch...' Grimacing, Starsky sighed again, guilt washing through him. 'I’m sorry, Pal.'

It was all his fault - if he hadn’t insisted on staying, hadn’t kept Hutch from getting them out, none of this would’ve happened. Gerardy’s plan wouldn’t have worked out, he wouldn’t be in a God damned trunk right now, and Hutch wouldn’t be... wherever he was.

'Great job, Detective,' Starsky chided himself, the anger mixing with fear for his partner, making him almost forget about the pain. 'Saving the bad guy’s ass. T’riffic!'

He was still silently ranting, switching from accusing himself, then Ethan and then himself again, when the car stopped, with the engine still running. A red light.

Taking the opportunity, Starsky lifted the trunk lid the tiniest tad and peeked outside. He knew the street. They were still in Hutch’s neighborhood. It had been under construction for months, driving the blond crazy, since he constantly forgot about it and ended up in traffic jams on his way to pick up Starsky for work.

Widely marked holes in the asphalt slowed the traffic down, and Starsky could see the car had stopped right next to one. Orange lights blinked on and off in the settling dusk.

To the detective’s disappointment, there were no cars behind them, the pavement was equally deserted. No one to whom he could’ve signaled for help. His frantically searching eyes found the hole again. Absurdly enough, he shot the wall behind himself a glance. As if he could see Gerardy behind the wheel.

He swallowed dryly. 'Just don’t think about it. Do it.'

Ever so carefully, he pressed his right hand against the lid, pushing it slightly more open. The moment he lifted his upper body just an inch, abused ribs, muscles - everything - screamed at him to *not* 'just do it', *please*!

But who was he to listen to muscles?! Sensing the car slowly starting off again, added gas sending tiny tremors through the vehicle, he prepared to push himself out with both hands.

The engine roared.

'Now or never. C’mon. You can do it.'

Squeezing his eyes shut, afraid of the pain he knew this was going to cause, he kicked the trunk half-way open with one foot, making sure it would snap back down, and in the split second it stayed up, he pushed himself out of the trunk, onto the street. Not allowing his body to even register the blow or the resulting pain, he blindly crawled forward.

'Get away! Get away! Get a-'

"Aaahhh!"

Suddenly, he was falling.

*****

There was a small noise from behind. Like a door falling shut in the distance.

Startled, Ethan Gerardy glanced into the rearview mirror. Nothing but the damned construction hole in the street. Frowning, a sudden uneasy feeling creeping up inside his stomach, he fully turned to shoot a brief glance over his shoulder, but there was nothing to see there, either. Just an empty back seat.

Weird.

'Hearing ghosts now, old boy?' he teased himself ironically, as he turned around again, facing the darkening streets. God knew there were enough ghosts from all his lives he could’ve heard.

Absently, he turned the radio on and started humming along to Sinatra’s 'Too Close for Comfort'.

Man, if nothing else, he’d surely miss American music!

*****

"Okay, *fine*, have it your way, Dobbs, but I’m telling ya, that street has been under construction for months now!"

"And how would you know, Zade? Last time you left the house was-"

"Yesterday."

Behind the wheel, Brighton rolled his eyes. "Correct me if I’m wrong, Miss Mayor, but you went to San Francisco then, not Bay City."

Next to him, in the passenger seat, Zadie rolled her eyes. "I know which city I’m in, when I’m in it, Egghead!" she snapped. "But if you’d rather spend the night in traffic..." She waved a wide, 'whatever' gesture.

Brighton sighed, annoyed. "O*kay*," he said, irritated, "though it is statistically proven that women get lost fifty percent more often than men, we’ll take-"

"Aw, shove it, Asshole," Zadie muttered, turned her head to stare outside.

The argument was over. However, Brighton still turned left, where he’d planned to go right, and the fully-packed Flowermobile passed the street to Venice Place.

From where he sat next to McLean on the back seat, Hutch looked after it, something inside of him squeezing tightly. 'Home...'

The whole drive to Bay City, Zadie and Brighton had fought on and off, about the fastest routes, the speed limit ('That’d be just great, Dobbs. Have a cop stop us now!' Zadie had snorted sarcastically when Dobbs had panicked at seeing a patrol car parked on the side of the road.) their destination, the future, the weather, where to make room for the freed prisoners, and police regulations that made it possible for people who had been arrested in San Fran to be secretly hidden in another city.

All the time, Hutch, McLean and Christian had listened in silence, sitting more or less cramped next to each other and all the stuff that had been unceremoniously stuffed inside the car, Christian and Hutch passively inhaling the smoke of McLean’s ever present joint, while the smoker himself tapped his left foot to the rhythm of some Bob Dylan tape that had started along with the car.

Through his mind’s desperate search for a way out, Hutch every now and then absently wondered if the box McLean so eagerly drummed with his booted foot contained any sensitive explosives, like some of their other luggage. But then, maybe he didn’t want to know.

Dusk had long ago faded into black, illuminated dimly by the city lights, and, watching the familiar neon lights passing by, Hutch felt himself unpleasantly reminded of family vacations. Long rides in the stuffy family car, squeezed in between tons of luggage and his little sister, who’d always fall asleep the instant the engine was started and sprawl on her side, shoving the suitcases, bags, coats and stuffed animals over into his space, until he’d sat huddled against his window, listening to his parents’ endless fights. He would sit in frightened silence, trying to keep from adding water to the icy-cold debates going on in the front seats, and watch the streets and lights pass by over his own reflection in the window.

"Hey, Hunter?" Zadie’s voice tore Hutch out of a sudden déjà-vu.

He blinked, startled, and gazed ahead into the rearview mirror, where he could only see Brighton’s eyes, though, since he sat behind her.

"Yeah?"

"Find the key?"

She was talking about the key to the cabin Topher and Pixie had spent the last days in, more or less isolated, except for Pixie’s rare visits to the kitchen on her search for food, beer or cigarettes. Ever since she had found Starsky’s badge - not in the tent, as Hutch had discovered, when talking to her before their departure, but on the porch of the cabin - she hadn’t come inside the house anymore.

The plan had been to leave Topher and his girlfriend-made-nurse behind, locked into the cabin, and later let the police know where to find them by an anonymous call.

Hutch had volunteered to check on the two, before the rest of them left, and then throw the key away. Arms loaded with supplies, he had stopped by the cabin on his way to the Flowermobile.

From Starsky’s reports, Hutch had had a vague idea of how serious Topher’s condition had become, but nothing could have prepared him for actually seeing the formerly energetic, dangerously unpredictable, strong man huddled up on his cot in one corner of the small main room, hiding his face in his hands as he turned away from the blond intruder, whimpering incoherently in telltale fright.

Starsky had been right; Topher had needed psychological help right after his first breakdown, and the captivity the group had forced upon him had only succeeded in worsening his state. Hutch could see the clear signs of severe flashbacks all over Topher’s face, as well as in Pixie’s tired eyes.

Yet - he couldn’t trust the girl, who Gerardy had picked to discover Starsky’s badge. If Hutch had learned one thing about Ethan Gerardy, it was that he didn’t leave things to chance. So Hutch had settled for asking Pixie where exactly she had found the cop’s badge - a casual question, just curious small talk - and after mere minutes had left, but not without secretly shoving the key back inside the cabin under the door he had quietly locked before.

'Told ya I wouldn’t forget Topher, Buddy.'

"Yeah, sure," he replied to Zadie’s question. "Found it alright. Threw it downhill, towards the beach."

"’Kay," Zadie nodded. She seemed to not have been interested in the answer, anyway. Had just wanted to talk to someone other than Brighton. "How did Topher look?" she asked after a moment.

This time, Hutch bent forward slightly, so he could talk closer to her ear. "Do you really wanna know, Princess?" he asked.

She frowned, but he’d seen her flinch. As if disgusted, she slid away, closer to her window, and snorted. "What the fuck’s your problem, man?! You’ve been acting weird all day!" She paused, until she sensed him leaning back, then glanced over her shoulder. Her gaze softened, became almost gentle. "Nervous because of the cop?"

Hutch shrugged. "Why would I be? It’s Gerardy’s problem now."

"I thought you said we’d all get it."

"Only if Gerardy talks," Hutch said calmly.

Silence followed. Zadie turned her head again.

"But," Hutch added into the stillness, "we trust him." Appearing to be looking outside, he studied Zadie’s reflection in her window. "Don’t we?"

"We’re here," Brighton exclaimed excitedly, partially talking over Hutch’s question, not having heard it in the first place. He pulled over sharply in front of a huge fence and looked over through Zadie’s window at a building across the street. Only one of the two street lamps in front of it was working, and only two windows showed dim light behind the glass. There were no guards patrolling in front of it, no passersby at this time of night in this part of the city.

Hutch frowned. He knew that house.

Zadie looked at Dobbs. "Are you sure you’ve the right address?" she asked. "This looks deserted."

"Yeah, I’m sure," Brighton replied. He bent over a bit to get a better look through her window.

"Hmm," Zadie muttered, following his gaze. She didn’t sound convinced. "Doesn’t look at all like a police building."

"I think that’s the point," Brighton said.

Yet, the point was it *was*. Hit by the sudden recognition, Hutch felt his chin drop and quickly readjusted his jaws. It *was* a police building! Or at least parts of it was. Among a bunch of rented offices, there were a handful of rooms the force used for witness protection every now and then. It was one of those places BCPD would rent for just a few months and then leave again, making sure the word didn’t make it onto the street fast enough.

It was only by mere coincidence that Hutch even knew about this one. A friend of his and Starsky’s on the narcotics squad had just recently been hiding a witness there; they had collected him and delivered him to the court as a favor.

Whoever was in it now, though, Hutch didn’t know. He wondered if Gerardy had anticipated his recognizing the building, but figured he probably hadn’t, since his inside knowledge enabled him to know exactly where the rooms meant for destruction were.

A faint flicker of hope started to grow inside him. If he was careful - and fast - he could save whoever it was Gerardy felt necessary to eliminate, without Ethan noticing. The bust could still go down, then.

He’d find Starsky, before Ethan would notice his plan had failed. And something told Hutch that then the undercover agent would be in trouble. After all, there were only so many reasons for wanting to get rid of a witness...

"Ethan’s late," Brighton stated, checking his watch.

Zadie shrugged. "Maybe he took the blocked street. How about we unload?"

"What, here?" Brighton asked. "No, we should wait for Ethan to show," he decided, sounding decidedly nervous. "He’ll tell us where to put the stuff."

"’Kay," Zadie replied, annoyed, "fine. But I need fresh air." And with that, she opened her door and emerged from the car.

Christian and Hutch followed her example, grateful to get out of the cloudy back. McLean remained where he was. He appeared to have nodded off.

"Ciggie, anyone?" Zadie asked, holding out the pack she herself had just taken one from.

Christian shook his head lightly.

Hutch smiled his thanks and took one.

"I don’t like this," Zadie stated after some time of standing and smoking in silence. She was studying the building across from them, her free arm wrapped around her middle as if it provided some form of protection.

Hutch had never seen her this nervous. 'Feels different than staring at a school all day, doesn’t it, lady?'

"It doesn’t *look* like a police place," she added and blew out smoke.

Hutch shrugged casually. "Dobbs is right, Zade. That’s probably the point."

"But why are there no guards?" she asked.

"Maybe because then it’d look like a police place," Christian muttered ever so quietly.

Hutch grinned and nodded curtly at him.

Zadie rolled her eyes. She was about to snap at them when a car appeared behind a nearby corner. Its lights were turned off.

Hutch tensed.

"Ethan," Zadie said unnecessarily.

Brighton must have seen him too, as he emerged from the Flowermobile, leaving the driver’s door halfway open. Approaching Zadie, Hutch and Christian, he folded his arms in front of him, gazing in the direction of the car which was now pulling over behind the larger vehicle.

Gerardy looked off, Hutch thought. He couldn’t point his finger at it, but something in the way the agent’s gaze flickered to him for the briefest moment, almost fearfully, nervous, made him frown.

Yet, it only lasted a split second, then Ethan turned to Brighton and Zadie. He, too, had been smoking and now snuffed his cigarette butt with his foot. "Hello boys and girl," he greeted them jokingly. "Welcome to your first night mission." He grinned encouragingly.

"Say 'we’re counting on you, kids,' and I’m outta here," McLean, who was still sitting in the back seat of the Flowermobile, but had opened the door to participate in the conversation, muttered.

Gerardy smiled.

Zadie laughed quietly.

"If I counted on you, Mac, I’d be a fool," Gerardy answered, earning an amused snort. "But here’s the plan," the agent continued, serious now. "Brighton, Hunter, Christian - you’ll get the stuff into the first floor. Back door’s open; I took care of that. Zadie, Mac and I will meet you at the front door. Set the clocks to five minutes. That should be enough time for us to storm in, get our people and get the hell outta there again. Never forget the whole house is ticking," he added, looking from one to the other. "Okay? Five minutes can be a long time - and a short one. When you hear me yell, you run like hell. Got that?"

"We’re going to blow up the whole thing?" Zadie asked.

"Yes," came the curt answer. "Any more questions?" Gerardy’s tone made it clear that a 'yes' wouldn’t be appropriate, and so it was silence that followed.

Hutch went through the plan in his mind, inwardly shaking his head at Gerardy’s incredible arrogance. Five minutes! True, that could be a long time, but not for three people to run through a whole building, meet the others, storm inside and get outside again. No doubt Ethan would appear *so* surprised at their not having any time left after they’d begun to storm inside...

Absently exhaling the last draw of his cigarette, Hutch tried to estimate the time it would take him to reach the rooms used by the force and warn the people there. They were on the second floor, as he recalled, which wouldn’t be too much of a sprint, and he could tell Brighton and Christian to go without him without raising any suspicion - could pretend to have heard something upstairs or something. The question was: how fast would his colleagues on second floor react? Given their task - to watch over a witness - they’d be highly distrusting, even at the sight of a badge. The worst case scenario, Hutch figured, could be them deciding to *call* someone first and check on a Detective Ken Hutchinson, while Gerardy pushed the button outside the building...

Hutch snapped the cigarette butt away into the darkness. "So let’s move, huh?" After all - did he have a choice?

Gerardy’s eyes met his for a moment.

Once more, Hutch thought he saw something odd reflected in the agent’s gaze. He looked away. Ethan couldn’t possibly know that he knew about the house, could he? Maybe he just anticipated Hutch’s struggle to come up with a plan.

'Yeah,' Hutch decided, when he sensed Gerardy turn his attention away from him. 'Must be it.' After all, he probably wasn’t the first cop Gerardy had ever had to deal with. Who knew, maybe the agent had learned to be aware of most cops’ tendency to try and protect probable victims of crimes.

Being the unofficial chief of organization, Zadie took over handing out the guns before she ordered MacLean and Christian to unload the explosives.

Hutch checked the gun that’d been unceremoniously shoved into his hand, feeling yet another stream of hope dig its way through his arm up into his mind. It felt good to be armed again. Funny, whenever that thought hit him, he despised it, his innermost instinct always being to not trust weapons, the false security they could fool you with, too much, but then, sometimes it just *did* feel better to be aware of any false security than none.

Besides - as Starsky had once pointed out, when he had heard Hutch comment on not liking always having to be so linked to his gun - a scalpel was a weapon first too. "Things get personality through their owner. It’s about what you use it for."

Back then, Hutch had just rolled his eyes. "'Personality', Gordo? And why is it then that doctors don’t name their scalpels?" To which Starsky had wanted to reply with sharing an anecdote about his cousin Melvin, who was a doctor up in Maine, and who... But Hutch had cut him off.

As he now tucked the gun into his belt under the jacket he wore, Hutch made a mental note to ask Starsky about his cousin Melvin, when this was over. 'Wonder what kinda name you give a scalpel.'

"Gentlemen. Lady." Gerardy looked from one to the other. He was carrying a wooden box, as well as McLean. Hutch and Christian had been handed heavy knapsacks. Brighton would only be burdened once the group was to split at the front door. "Let’s go."

It was a short, rushed walk across the street and up two wide, low set steps, where McLean and Gerardy lowered the boxes. Christian followed their example. Hutch cast him a puzzled frown, but focused on Gerardy, who appeared to say some last encouraging words.

Suddenly, the door burst open in front of them, sending McLean stumbling down the steps. He fell onto his back, lay were he landed with his hands in the air, as a whole bunch of uniformed figures stormed outside into the small group, taking aim at everyone.

Hutch, who had been looking at Gerardy when the attack had started, whirled around, chin dropping, when he heard Christian Gruder’s voice behind him. "FBI! Don’t move!"

With eyes widening to their largest possible dimensions, Hutch stared at Christian, who suddenly seemed to have transformed into a completely different man. All shy anxiety, all nervousness had vanished from a face that was now marked by determination. His hands, holding the gun that was pointed directly at Ethan Gerardy, didn’t shake at all.

"Agent Bosworth, you are under arrest for treason, murder one in at least four cases, drug dealing, illegal possession of arms-"

It sounded like the list of verdicts wasn’t going to end any time in the near future, and - given the obvious fun Christian was having while informing his suspect of the charges - it probably would have gone on for some time. That is, if it hadn’t been for Brighton Dobbs snapping his head to the man he had known as Ethan Gerardy for months now, and with all understandable fury repeat, "*Agent*?!"

Christian stopped. "Surprised, Bright-" he started smugly, but, once more, Brighton cut him off. Hadn’t even listened.

"You bastard!" he yelled at Gerardy and lifted the gun he had drawn when the federal agents flooded the entry.

It happened so fast, Hutch couldn’t even really remember it later. All he knew was that he saw Dobbs take aim at Gerardy - and jumped. "No!"

Hearing the shot, Hutch felt his body crash into Gerardy’s, tearing them both to the ground. Only then did he feel the pain, sharp, in his left shoulder. With a groan, he rolled off of the totally stunned Ethan and felt himself being grabbed by rough hands that dragged him to his feet.

"W-wait," he panted, squeezing his eyes briefly shut against the intensifying agony that now ran freely through his left arm, where he felt blood starting to glue his sleeve to his skin. "I’m... I’m a cop. He knows... where... my partner is."

He pointed his chin at Gerardy - Bosworth - who still lay on the ground, some federal agent’s aimed gun keeping him from getting up. Another one had disarmed Brighton and held his arm in a tight grip.

"Let go of me, I’ll show you my badge," Hutch added.

At the briefest nod from Christian, the two agents withdrew their hands.

Hutch winced when the pressure was lifted off of his wounded arm, and he struggled to produce his badge.

"I don’t believe it," Brighton muttered.

He stared at Hutch with his mouth hanging open. Zadie clenched her jaws.

"Man," McLean said. He was still on the ground, supporting himself on his elbows. A small blueish bruise was forming on his face, where the door had hit him. "You’re a cop too? And you’re," he looked at Christian, "an FBI agent? And you..." His gaze wandered to Gerardy. "What were you again?"

"National Security Agency," Christian explained, the self-confidence in his voice so foreign a sound to Hutch’s ears it seemed as though he had never heard the man talk before. "His real name is Roland Bosworth." A smile crossed his lips when he crossed the space to where Bosworth lay and looked down at him. "And I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long, long time. Get him up," he added casually to his colleagues, who dragged Bosworth to his feet.

One hand firmly clamped over his bleeding arm, Hutch looked after Christian. "And who’re you?" Something was digging through the spreading pain in his momentarily fogged mind, and he thought he heard sirens in the distance. He curtly shook his head.

Christian turned to the blond. "Special agent Christian Watterston." He grinned. "I *thought* you were a cop, Detective... ?"

"Hutchinson," Hutch helped. To his right, he heard Zadie snort in telltale fury.

"Hutchinson," Christian nodded. "Now, what was that about your partner?" At the mention of Starsky, the fog in Hutch’s head cleared. The thought that had been struggling to get through hit him with full force. Anger blazed in his eyes. He fought to stay calm as he approached Christian.

"You were after," he pointed at Bosworth, "him all the time?" he asked, ignoring the special agent’s earlier question.

Christian nodded. "Yeah, he-"

"And you arranged - this?" Hutch interrupted him, making a small gesture that included the busy arrest scene.

Christian frowned. "Yes, but I don’t see wh-"

"So you were able to contact the outside world," Hutch figured.

"Well, I could-"

"And you didn’t help my partner, when you had the chance?!" Hutch snapped, the fury finally burning in his eyes. "You just let those..." He glared at Brighton and Zadie, "*freaks*-"

"Hey!" they both protested in unison.

Hutch ignored them. He was too focused on a slightly-retreating Christian Watterston. "...torture and almost kill a cop?! What’re you, insane?!"

"Whoa, Detective, hold your horses," Christian replied, lifting his hands. "Just for the record: I didn’t see *you* jumping in for the rescue back there, now, did I?"

Hutch just stared at him, then, after a long time, blinked, averted his eyes. "Did you know Ger... Bosworth had asked his boss to assign my partner and me to the case, so we would arrest the Looneys today?"

"The *what*?!" Brighton snapped.

Christian furrowed his brows. He looked at Bosworth, then back at Hutch. "He did?"

Hutch drew in a deep breath. "Star... My partner was down in that cellar for a whole night. Did you just *once* go see him? Tell him the truth? Reassure him?"

"I-"

"Where were you, when... Yesterday. When you disappeared," Hutch continued to ask.

Christian snorted a nervous laugh. "I’m... I don’t have to-"

"Answer me."

"I was calling in a report."

"Bastard!" Brighton exclaimed.

Hutch ignored him. He was looking directly at Christian, his features strained from barely-suppressed fury. "Did you tell your superior about Starsky?"

There was a very long silence. Christian averted his gaze.

Finally, Hutch rubbed a hand over his face and studied the agent again. "You knew they’d order you to pull the plug and get the cop outta there, if you told them. Didn’t you? You wanted this bust so badly that..." Trailing off, Hutch clenched his jaws. When he spoke again, his voice was low with loathing. "You’re worse than he is, Special Agent Watterston. You’d have let my partner die for this bust."

"I was-"

"You," Hutch snapped, "didn’t even know about me! Or that Ethan knew about us, for that matter! You would’ve let him leave to *kill* a cop!!!"

Christian closed his eyes for an annoyed breath. He was becoming visibly irritated at being constantly interrupted. "I didn’t think he-"

"Now, *that*’s something I *don’t* find hard to believe," Hutch remarked. "In fact, if you *had* thought and still acted the same way - I fear I’d have to hurt you now."

The sounds of approaching sirens Hutch had previously heard grew louder now, almost drowning out Christian’s angry answer. "You and your reckless pal almost ruined the whole operation, Detective! Instead of throwing accusations, you should be grateful that I’m not filing a complaint against ya! Besides," he added with a smug grin starting on his face, "contrary to you, I didn’t intentionally hurt him."

It wasn’t easy to irritate Hutch to the point, where he’d lose his cool and surrender to instinct, so the fact that Christian Watterston managed to do so with just one sentence could be seen as pretty impressive.

Returning the smile with a dangerous, wry one, Hutch took a step closer to the agent, looking like he was about to say something in response. He opened his mouth, then seemed to stop to think, and closed it again.

Watching him most unsuspectingly, Christian was too slow to react when Hutch suddenly punched him in the face, almost losing his own balance. But just almost. "Actually, you did," he growled, shaking his hand, as he stood over the agent’s crumpled form. "And that’s for spraining my buddy’s thumb."

Swaying slightly, he then turned abruptly, marching over to Bosworth.

Wisely, the federal agents didn’t even try to interfere when Hutch grabbed the man’s collar, shoving him against the nearest wall. "Where is he?"

"Listen..." came the stammered reply, difficult to hear over the extremely loud sirens of the handful of squad cars pulling up to the scene. "Th-there’s something you should-"

"So help me, Eth... whatever the hell your name is, you tell me where Starsky is *right now*, or-"

"Hutch!"

Never letting go of Bosworth, Hutch turned his head in time to see Starsky emerge from one of the parked police cars, along with a rather unnerved-looking uniformed officer. A bunch of officers and uniforms left their cars now, Dobey among them.

Hutch stared, dumbfounded. "Wh-what’re you doing here? Where’d you come from?"

"Your place," Starsky replied with an ironic grin. He seemed to have a hard time trusting his ability to walk over to his friend and leave the support of the car he leaned against. Even from a distance, Hutch could see him shiver as if extremely cold, and his hair lay half-plastered to his forehead, as if he’d recently gotten soaking wet.

Apart from that, Starsky looked the same mess he had the last time Hutch had seen him - bloody, battered, bruised and too pale.

"My place?" Hutch repeated, looking at Bosworth again, though he was still talking to Starsky. The truth dawned on him before either one could speak. "He got away?!"

Clearing his throat against the tight hold his neck was in, Bosworth smiled wryly. He gave the tiniest shrug. "He doesn’t call you Smartie Smurf for nothing, Kid."

It was the wrong thing to say at the wrong time. Without any indication or hint, Hutch let go of Bosworth, stepped back and hit him square in the face. The agent crashed to the ground, and this time Hutch lost his balance for real. Fortunately, he landed on his good side.

"Hutch."

Blinking his eyes open - Funny, he hadn’t even noticed he’d closed them, and what was he doing on the ground? - Hutch found himself looking at Starsky’s half-worried, half-amused face.

"Easy, ’sjust me," the brunet joked, but couldn’t hide his concern at the sight of the half-dried blood on Hutch’s arm. "What happened to you?"

Before Hutch even had time to answer, Dobey’s impressive voice could be heard nearby, as the Captain marched onto the scene. "Hutchinson!"

"Hey, Cap’n," Hutch greeted him and struggled into a sitting position.

Next to him, Starsky had surrendered to the need to sit down, discreetly leaning partially against Hutch’s back for support.

"Will you stop punching people?!" Dobey barked, annoyed.

Letting his eyes wander from a very pissed-looking Christian Watterston, pretending to be busy giving orders to his men, over to the still-downed Agent Bosworth, Hutch focused on Brighton Dobbs for a moment, before answering, "For now."

Brighton paled and looked around, as if for help. "H-he just threatened me. Hello? I’ve just been threatened by a police officer, I want that notifi-"

At some growled advice from a nearby uniform, he hushed himself, avoiding Hutch’s gaze.

Against his uninjured shoulder, Hutch could feel Starsky snicker. "Don’t bunker all the fun, Blintz. What’s about Christian, anyway?"

"He’s a fed," Hutch replied absently. He was trying to readjust his position to get a better look at his friend, without shaking him too much. "Starsk, what’re you doing here? You should be in the hospital."

"Needed... find you," Starsky mumbled sleepily. It seemed that now that they were both safe, whatever adrenalin rush had kept him going was running out fast. "Before you do somethin’ stupid," he added.

Hutch smiled softly. "Thanks, Buddy." He lightly patted his friend’s shoulder, but frowned when he found that Starsky’s skin was ice cold, noticeable even through the material of the shirt.

Gently, he started to rub Starsky’s upper arm. "D’you fall into the ocean or something?"

"Sewer," Starsky corrected.

"Sew..." The lights went on. "In that street behind my place? The one that’s under construction?"

Something unintelligible came out, muffled by the material of Hutch’s sleeve. He could feel Starsky’s weight growing heavier against him. "What?"

With a groan, as if annoyed at having to move, Starsky lifted his head a tad to repeat, "Don’t call ya Smarty Smurf for nothin’."

Hutch rolled his eyes with a soft chuckle. "Right." Before he could say anything more, Dobey’s voice cut him off, and, blinking up, Hutch could see his superior hovering over them.

"Ambulance will be here in a sec." He shook his head. "What a mess you two managed to get into again. Starsky, what happened to you? Why didn’t you say you needed a doctor, when you called?!"

"Needed to get here first," Starsky replied. He didn’t open his eyes. "But ’sokay now. Ambulance sounds nice."

"Where’s that uni who picked you up at Hutch’s?" Dobey continued his grumbling, seemingly not having listened, and looked around.

"Cap’n," Hutch said calmingly. "Let it be. We’re okay now." As if for emphasis, he shifted his position a bit to sit up straighter against Starsky, but winced when his wounded shoulder screamed in protest.

"I can see that," Dobey sighed. "How’d you get hurt?"

"Saving a traitor," Christian Watterston’s cold voice suddenly appeared behind Dobey.

The Captain turned to the young man.

A large bruise was forming around Watterston’s left eye and cheekbone. He shot the seated detectives a hateful scowl before looking at Dobey again. "Detective Hutchinson seems to have been under the impression he was saving the day. Anyway - may I ask why it is that my scene is being flooded by your people, Captain...?"

"Dobey," Dobey growled.

Too softly for anyone but Hutch to hear, Starsky chuckled. "Run, Christian, run..."

Hutch grinned.

"Well, Captain Dobey," Christian said, completely unaware of the danger he was heading towards, "like I said, this is my scene, and I’d highly appreciate it if you and your people could just pack up and leave."

"Agent... ?"

"Watterston," Hutch helped his superior, who just nodded.

"Your role in this whole matter will be investigated. Now get your suspect outta my Detectives’ sight."

Without another word, Christian turned away. It didn’t take the FBI parts of the crowd more than five minutes to evacuate the area, taking the explosives and Bosworth; the former NSA agent avoided looking at Hutch as he was shoved past the huddled figures on the ground.

In the distance, the siren of an approaching ambulance could be heard.

"Almost outta here, Buddy," Hutch whispered to Starsky, but got no response. Bending down a little, he saw that his friend had at last succumbed to unconsciousness. Swallowing back a groan, Hutch shifted once more to hug Starsky closer to himself.

"How’d you find me?" he asked Dobey, who was not leaving his position close to them.

"Starsky," the Captain replied. "He had every unit all over five cities looking out for something he called... the 'Flowermobile'?"

Hutch grinned and gently squeezed the back of Starsky’s neck. "Good thinking, Partner."

"Hunter."

At Zadie’s sudden voice behind him, Hutch jumped, then turned his head sharply, meeting her eyes.

"So your old man’s a lawyer," she asked sarcastically, "huh?"

"You’ll laugh; he really is."

She didn’t laugh. "Bastard. You and your buddy think you’re so smart, don’t you? How did it feel watching us hurt him?"

Hutch averted his eyes. "Get her outta here."

"D’you enjoy it?" Zadie called, while she was shoved to a car and maneuvered inside. "Because you’ll see it again, when I get out, cop! I swear you will!"

The squad car’s door was thrown shut and merciful silence followed. Brighton had wisely kept quiet when he’d been led to another car.

"’Ey, man," Norton McLean addressed the blond when it was his turn to be led away.

Hutch looked up, blinking tiredly. He couldn’t hide the fact that he was exhausted to the point of blacking out anymore. As if on cue, the ambulance arrived.

"You’re cool," McLean said, nodding gravely.

Watching after him blankly, Hutch more felt than heard himself mutter his thanks.

The next moment, gentle, yet busy, determined hands were on him, checking his vitals, probing around his wound - awakening flaring pain - disentangling Starsky from his hold. Along with the hand came calming and calm voices, asking him questions that he answered as if in a trance.

All of a sudden, it seemed, he was so damned tired.

"Detective? Your partner has a strange looking burn on-"

"He was shocked. With a taser," Hutch mumbled. He felt himself gently guided down onto a gurney. His eyes refused to open again, but somewhere he found the strength to add, "His digits... right hand... You can fix that, can’t you?"

He didn’t hear the answer before darkness swallowed him.

****

Hutch drifted in and out of consciousness while in the ambulance, as the paramedics took a first look at his shoulder, informed the hospital about their arrival and mostly unsuccessfully tried to get some answers from him. Apart from yes, it hurt and no, he wasn’t hurt anywhere else, there wasn’t much more they could get out of the exhausted blond.

As a personal record, Hutch only asked about his partner four times on the way into some quiet ER room. He was even too tired to put up much of a struggle when a happy med student bounced into the room, excitedly informing the patient that he was about to become the first person ever said student would provide with an IV.

Fortunately, the kid seemed to have practiced on non-living material before. He managed to drive the needle home smoothly, while, to Hutch’s relief, a doctor entered the room, checking on the student’s work, finally giving the detective something for the pain before turning to tend to the shoulder wound, which he then cleaned and stitched.

Though it was deep and had bled a lot, the good thing was that the bullet had cut through the flesh on its way out, hadn’t gotten stuck and therefore didn’t cause worry for a possible infection.

Yet, the blood loss, mingled with the anxiety and stress of the last 24 hours, had left Hutch depleted. He surrendered to sleep when the happily whistling student took over the bandaging.

The next time Hutch awoke, he at least felt a lot clearer, if still incredibly tired.

"’Bout time you woke up," he heard a familiar, gruff voice.

Blinking against the sleep that was still clinging to his eyes, Hutch slowly turned his head on the mattress and found himself looking at Dobey in the doorway, just about to enter.

It was still the same ER room, a fact that Hutch chose to interpret as good.

"Hey Cap’n," he croaked and cleared his throat. "Where’s Starsky?"

"In a room upstairs," Dobey answered, stepping fully inside. "They’ll keep him for a few more days. But don’t worry," he quickly added. "He’s alright."

"I take it that means they’re not gonna keep me?" Hutch asked hopefully.

Dobey almost smiled. "I spoke to your doctor, and he says after this," he pointed at a light pink liquid slowly dropping through Hutch’s IV, "has run through, he’s willing to let you go. On condition that you take it easy for some time."

"D’he say anything about Starsky?" Hutch asked, ignoring the last sentence, as he tried to struggle into a sitting position.

Stopping him with his hand, Dobey pushed the button to elevate the bed. "There you go. Yes, he said they’re monitoring him for signs of pneumonia and to keep an eye on his fever. Other than-"

"Pneumonia?" Hutch interrupted him concernedly. He frowned. "Wh... Oh. The dip in the sewer."

The captain nodded. "Right. Doc says Starsky probably lost consciousness because of the fall, just long enough to breathe in the water." Taking in Hutch’s dismayed expression, he comfortingly added, "It’s just a precaution, Hutch."

"But you said he’s running a fever," Hutch pointed out darkly.

"Well," a sudden, deep male voice appeared from the door, "given his condition, that’s nothing unusual, I assure you, Detective."

The source of said voice stepped fully inside, revealing a smallish man in his late fifties with an open, credible smile and somewhat unruly gray hair. His hands rested casually in the pockets of his white coat, decorated with so many pens that it made Hutch wonder if the good doctor might suffer from concentration difficulties.

"Hutchinson," Dobey said and turned from the doctor to Hutch again, "this is Dr. Greenwald."

Hutch nodded a faint greeting.

"So," Greenwald widened his friendly smile, "how’s my patient?"

Hutch frowned. "I thought you were gonna tell me."

Unable to hide visible amusement, Dobey rolled his eyes.

The doctor snorted a chuckle. "Cops," he muttered to himself, shaking his head at the Captain, as if they shared a secret inside joke. When he looked at Hutch again, his expression was gentle, reassuring. "The *other* patient is doing fine. We have everything under control; the monitoring is just a precaution, like your Captain told you." Before Hutch even had the chance to ask something, Greenwald continued, "Yes, there’s the danger of pneumonia, but other than waiting and watching, there’s nothing we can do at this point. Apart from that, I’m sure I’m not breaking any news to you, when I tell you he’s been through some, say, rough treatment, which left him pretty bruised up. Three ribs are cracked slightly, which will make it necessary for him to watch his movements for some time, but though very unenjoyable, none of his injuries appears to be life-threatening." The doctor paused, watching Hutch take it all in. "Does that answer your questions?"

It didn’t. "What about his hand?" Lifting his own right one, as if for emphasis, Hutch winced when his injured shoulder screamed in protest even through the cover of painkillers.

Greenwald slightly arched his brows in sympathy, looking like an unnerved father, who felt close to reminding some kid to keep still for the hundredth time. "Like I said," he replied, keeping from advising *this* patient against dumb moves, "unenjoyable, but no cause for worries. His index and middle finger are broken, but they will heal just fine, very clean breaks, those. There’s also some swelling of the upper hand, but that’s just another bruise on his list. Painful," Greenwald added as an afterthought and shrugged, as if just having thought of something, "but he’s getting drugs now."

Hutch eyed the doctor for a moment longer, trying to determine whether or not to be satisfied with the report, then abruptly looked at his IV and back. "Can I see him?"

Greenwald nodded, smiled. "Yes, Detective. I’ll have a nurse come to wheel you upstairs in just a minute, okay?"

"’Kay."

"Good. D’you think you can try to think of yourself just a bit, too, for the next few days and take it easy?"

"Huh?" Frowning at Greenwald, Hutch caught the ironic smile sparkling in the older man’s eyes and grinned sheepishly. "Oh. Yeah. Yeah, sure, Doc, will do."

"Good," Greenwald repeated, giving the blond’s good shoulder a parting pat. "I’ll give the nurse a prescription for you. And don’t forget to come back here to have those stitches removed," he said, pointing a warning finger at Hutch, who nodded obediently.

"Won’t forget."

"Good, good. I’ll see you in ten days then." With that, Greenwald turned, locking eyes with Dobey on his way to the door. "Not *that* bad a patient at all," he stated, sounding as if he’d expected much worse.

Hutch grinned discreetly, watching Dobey avoid his gaze, embarrassed.

His attention was once more drawn to Dr. Greenwald, though, when the doctor turned in the doorway, snapping his fingers. "Detective? When you go visit your friend, don’t be surprised if he appears a bit... confused."

All amusement wiped away, Hutch frowned, instantly grabbed by worry again. "Confused?" he repeated dreadfully.

"Yeah." After a pause, Greenwald took a step inside the room again. "I understand he received an electrical shock to his head?"

Hutch paled. "Uh-huh..."

"Don’t worry," Greenwald hurried to reassure him, lifting his hands. "He’s going to be fine. I give you my word. There just might be some temporary problems with his short-term memory, due to a concussion *and* the afferefects of that shock. Electricity can be a tricky thing, when it hits the brain. Detective... ?"

"Starsky," Hutch helped absently, his expression miserable.

"Yes, Starsky," Greenwald continued, "showed some difficulties in answering our probing questions, but, like I said, I’m certain that it’s a temporary reaction that will pass. Probably soon."

"'Probing questions'?" Hutch asked. "Like 'what’s the date?'"

"Yes," Greenwald nodded. "Date, day of the week, mother’s maiden name, governor of California, stuff like that. With cops, we sometimes add some regulation questions, for fun." He winked. "He knew the answers to those, alright."

Dobey snorted, glancing at Hutch, who returned the doctor’s smile. "Now, *that*´d worry me."

Hutch chuckled slightly. "Thanks, Doc."

"My pleasure," Greenwald waved, pointing his index finger at the patient once more. "Don’t forget to take it easy, Detective. Good night, gentlemen."

Turning from where he’d watched Greenwald leave, Dobey cast Hutch a stern look. "You know, my kids never cause me to talk to doctors."

Understanding, Hutch smiled. "Cap’n - that’s because you leave it to Edith," he replied bemusedly.

Dobey chose to ignore that. "Now, will you please tell me what happened? I’ve been waiting for answers all night! First I hear nothing from you two in over a week, and

then-"

"Have you spoken to Christian again?" Hutch interrupted him, all business again. "I-I mean Agent Watterston?"

"No," Dobey replied, exasperated. "I’ve been *here*, Hutch."

"Oh. Um..." Seeing a nurse pushing an empty wheelchair in the direction of his room from outside the open door, Hutch arched his brows pleadingly at his superior. "You’ll get my report in the next few days, Cap’n. As soon as..." He gestured at his bandaged shoulder.

Dobey’s expression darkened. "Hutchinson-"

"Detective..." The pretty petite nurse, who at that moment entered the room, looked down on the chart she was carrying, "Hutchinson?" She looked up, brushing a lock of honey-colored hair out of her eyes, eyes that found Hutch and lit up in a smile. "Hi, I’m Vicky. I’m here to take you upstairs. Ready?"

"Vicky." Hutch smiled. "Hi. Sure. Whenever you are." With pretty impressive speed for a sick man, he climbed out of the bed and into the wheelchair while Vicky carefully unhooked his IV, casting him the slightest of scowls for jostling around so much.

"See you, Cap’n," Hutch waved.

Dobey looked after him grimly. "Don’t forget I know you’ve been released," he advised.

"You’ll get my report," Hutch nodded.

"Hmpf," Dobey said, then, almost gently, added, "Tell Starsky I’ll be seeing him tomorrow."

"Will do," Hutch smiled.

*****

Starsky was lying on his back, blinking up at the ceiling, fast, almost as if he was fighting sleep, but the moment he became aware of approaching noises, he excitedly turned his head on the pillow, revealing that what had looked like exhaustion from outside the room had in fact been a severe case of boredom.

"Hey!" he greeted Hutch happily, but didn’t even catch the responding smile, as his eyes wandered up to take in Nurse Vicky’s appearance. "And hi to you," he added, audibly impressed, and glanced at Hutch again. "Why is it you always get the pretty nurses? D’you pay extra?"

Hutch shrugged. "Parta my insurance."

Flattered, Vicky laughed. It was obvious that it wasn’t the first time she’d found herself the center of some patients’ interest, though. "Stop it, you two. You’re making me blush."

Leaning his head back to look up at her, Hutch smiled. "And what a nice blush."

She chuckled some more and unceremoniously shoved his head into a straight position again. "Don’t be such a rude visitor, Detective," she joked. "I’ll be back to collect you when Dr. Greenwald decides to throw you out. Visiting hours are long over; he’s making an exception for you."

"Oh, please," Hutch replied charmingly, "collect me any time."

Vicky made a show out of rolling her eyes, but waved when she left, very aware of the pair of gazes following her down the hall, until she vanished behind a corner.

"Did I ever tell ya I coulda been a doctor?" Starsky muttered, succeeding in having Hutch instantly turn to him again.

The blond shrugged. "They don’t date doctors, y’know."

Starsky looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. When he spoke, his voice was heavy with wisdom. "You need to watch more TV, Blintz."

Hutch chuckled. "Yeah. So how d’you feel?" His eyes had found the bandaged right hand lying limply on the blanket that was covering Starsky.

"Okay," Starsky answered and coughed. "What did the doctor say?"

Smiling at the reminder of how well his partner knew him, Hutch replied, "He said you’ll be as good as new in a few."

"Nice slogan," Starsky commented. Suddenly, his features tensing, he lifting his left hand weakly to gesture towards Hutch’s shoulder. "What happened to you?"

Hutch frowned. Starsky sounded like he had no memory of asking that at the scene earlier that night. "Took a bullet," he informed him. "Just a graze, though. Don’t you remember?"

Starsky grimaced slightly. "’Snot the only thing."

"Yeah, I heard," Hutch said gently, placing one hand on Starsky’s arm. "But Dr. Greenwald said it’s just temporary. Nothing to worry about. When you get outta here, your famously astonishing memory will be completely intact again."

"Don’t you insult me, I’m sick!" Starsky protested jokingly and had to cough again, a bit longer this time.

Concern washing through him as it took the easy amusement away, Hutch arched his brows as he patted the spot where his hand lay on Starsky’s arm. "Easy," he mumbled, feeing useless.

Visibly straining to make it appear as though the coughing wasn’t bad - and didn’t hurt - Starsky cleared his throat before speaking again. "Wanna tell me now why you got shot at?"

Hutch softened his expression. He knew exactly what his friend was doing, and for some reason it stirred a discomforting feeling inside him. Reminded him of another time, not that long ago, when he’d watched Starsky downplay his condition...

As if to clear it, he shook his head, then replied, "When Brighton heard Ethan was an undercover agent, he tried to shoot him."

"So?" Starsky asked tonelessly. "’Swhat *I*´d like to do, and I knew he was an agent all the time."

Grinning slightly at the dry joke, Hutch just said, "Yeah. But, anyway, I jumped in and took the bullet for him. Or," he added, waggling his head, "part of it. It’s just a graze."

Starsky frowned. "Ya said that already. What I don’t get is why’d you get yourself grazed for Ethan? We don’t like Ethan."

"No, we don’t," Hutch agreed, "but back then, Ethan was officially still holding you as a hostage, so," he shrugged, "couldn’t have Brighton kill him. As much fun as that woulda been," he added sarcastically.

Starsky’s face fell. "Oh." Pause, then, in a small voice: "I’m sorry."

"Wh... Y-you... Starsk, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for!" Hutch exclaimed, for some reason dismayed. "Nothing that happened was *your* fault! *I*´m sorry! I don’t ... I’m... Feels like just 'I’m sorry' isn’t even enough," he finally finished, his voice dropping, as if he was disappointed at how lame it sounded.

The frown on Starsky’s forehead deepened. "How d’you figure that?"

Hutch stared at him. The horrible idea hit him that maybe Starsky didn’t recall what had happened back at Camp California, due to his temporary confusion. "U-um... Starsky,

y-you remember just how... I mean, how you got hurt, right? Before Ethan... took his turn at it too. Don’t you?" he asked, almost pleadingly.

Visibly understanding, Starsky sighed. "Hutch, there’s no need for you to feel guilty. Okay? And you got nothing to be sorry for."

"So you don’t remember," Hutch stated dryly.

"I remember that you saved our lives back there. And Ethan’s," Starsky said as an afterthought and shrugged awkwardly, "but can I forgive you that."

Hutch avoided meeting the eyes that he knew were full of unspoken comfort, the joking just a way of expressing comforting support. Support he just refused to accept, just like he had before. He didn’t deserve support. And he hadn’t deserved to be just grazed.

"His real name’s Bosworth," he muttered instead of a reply. All of a sudden, he noticed that his hand was still lying on Starsky’s arm. He drew it away, leaning back in the wheelchair. Created more distance. "Seems like we were right about him the first time. They *did* worry about him. Watterston said something about having been on Bosworth’s case for quite some time now."

"Watterwho?" Starsky asked, confused.

"Christian," Hutch explained. "He’s a fed."

Obviously, having heard that before didn’t occur to Starsky, and so he widened his eyes. "He *is*?!" His eyes wandering off for a moment, he muttered, as if to himself, "That sneaky little weasel," then, to Hutch again: "And here that guy pretended to not know about machine guns!"

"I know," Hutch nodded.

"He sprained my thumb!"

"I know!" Hutch replied.

"I hope you at least punched him for me!"

"Sure did," Hutch guaranteed.

Starsky gave a curt nod and coughed. The conversation was starting to wear him out, Hutch could tell. "Good for you. Why didn’t he help us?!"

A shadow rushed over the blond’s features. "He was too focused on the bust, I guess. He would’ve let you die, if necessary."

His head bowed, Hutch looked up, surprised, when he felt a weak tug at his knee. Instantly, he leaned a bit forward again, so that Starsky could now squeeze his wrist.

"I wouldn’t have died."

Hutch understood, forced himself to smile gratefully, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. "Got pretty banged up, though, didn’t you?" Involuntarily, his gaze found the bandaged right hand again.

"At least I didn’t get shot at," Starsky commented. "Honest, Blintz, what am I gonna do with you? I can’t even leave you alone for just one night." As if just having thought of something, he slid a tad closer - only for emphasis, really - sniffed and wrinkled his nose. "And what did I tell you about smoking? Huh? See? See, what I meant? Didn’t I tell you it’ll be harder on you back in the real world than me? Hmm?!"

"I happened to still be undercover," Hutch said dryly. He was about to add something else to his defense when Starsky’s coughing interrupted him.

Having worn himself out a bit with that faked ranting, Starsky succumbed to yet another short but loud coughing fit that left him catching his breath and exhausted.

Concern flashing in his eyes, Hutch found himself squeezing his friend’s shoulder comfortingly before he even had time to stop himself. "Easy, Buddy, easy. I’m right here."

Grimacing, as if at the taste in his mouth, Starsky stated, "I hate sewer water." He coughed again, just once, and cleared his throat.

Hutch smiled, discreetly lifting his hand to quickly brush a stray curl off Starsky’s forehead as he spoke. The warmth he felt there didn’t pass by, unnoticed. "Considering your preferred nutrition, that surprises me." Not waiting for an answer, he glanced around, finding what he was looking for on the nightstand. "Want some water?"

"Actually, now’d be a good time for the wine," Starsky replied tiredly, but accepted the glass Hutch held out for him. "Thanks." He was still grimacing when he handed it back, but it was so much a show, now, that Hutch rolled his eyes.

"What’s gonna happen to Ethan now, you figure?" Starsky suddenly asked. "I mean, to Agent Bos...moth...?"

"Bosworth," Hutch corrected, then shrugged. "I don’t know. But the building he wanted us to blow up was that new safe house down by the harbor. So-"

"So he really wanted to blow up whoever was hiding *inside*," Starsky finished.

Hutch nodded. "That was my conclusion as well, Watson."

"And who d’you figure that could be?" Starsky asked.

Hutch thought about it. "I have an idea, but I’m not sure. Guess I’ll have to ask Agent Watterston about it the next time I see him."

Starsky grinned. "Planning on turning life into hell for someone, Blintz?"

"Who, me?" The grin turned into a chuckle. "I have to admit I would’ve loved to see Brighton and Zadie’s faces when they found out about you."

Hutch’s face fell. "Yeah. Let’s just say I’m glad the roles weren’t reversed, Buddy." He absently patted Starsky’s arm, without looking, and only turned his head when he yet again felt a supporting, slightly feverish hand covering his.

"Me too, Partner. Me too."

Hutch’s gaze dropped. The breath he drew in was shaky, and he quickly tried to cover it by clearing his throat, as he glanced over his shoulder at an approaching noise. "Here comes my cab."

Starsky didn’t remove his hand; the casual touch Hutch knew was meant to communicate comfort; absolution, while at the same time Starsky wanted the blond to know none was needed.

Turning his head, Hutch had to visibly force himself to look at Starsky again. He smiled and reached out to squeeze his friend’s shoulder with his free hand. "I’ll be back later, Buddy. You get some rest, okay?"

Starsky blinked affirmatively. When Hutch tried to draw his hand out from under his, he gently held him back. "Hey."

"Yeah?"

"You did a good job back there."

Hutch averted his eyes. "Yeah," he muttered, unconvinced, and patted Starsky’s hand, then broke the contact.

With a happy greeting, Nurse Vicky reentered the room. "Ready to go home?" she asked kindly.

Hutch just nodded, didn’t even look at her.

Sensing the change in the situation, Vicky wisely kept from any flirtatious comments. "I’ll be back later to check on you," she told Starsky. "If you need anything, just push the call button."

"I know the drill," he smiled. "Will be counting the seconds." It sounded like he wanted to say something else, but coughing cut him off. Busy coughing and unable to speak, he just flapped his hand at Hutch, in an effort to pat the blond’s knee that was out of reach.

Understanding, Hutch smiled slightly and waved at him. "Get some sleep, Starsk."

Vicky, the wheelchair and Hutch were already out of the room and almost around a corner, when Starsky’s hoarse voice reached them. "’Ey Hutch!"

Hutch turned his head, brows raised questioningly. "Yeah?"

"Sorry ’bout the - *cough* - mess at your place!"

Deciding a coughing patient shouldn’t yell so much, Vicky pushed on forward, taking any chance from Hutch to verbalize what went through his head. '*Mess*?!'

*****

The first thing Hutch did, when he finally, finally, finally came home again - after what felt like a lifetime of absence - was to break into his place. '*sigh* Thanks, Partner.'

Being the safety-conscious person that he was, Starsky had, as always, forgotten to return the key to Hutch’s door where the blond usually kept it, but had left it in the hole, which made it impossible for Hutch to even carefully gain access to his apartment.

In the absence of any alternatives, he surrendered to kicking in his own door, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the smell that greeted him was as homely and long-yearned for as sewer odor could possibly be.

Sniffing miserably as he stepped inside, leaving the useless door wide open, Hutch felt his face fall. "Welcome home," he muttered under his breath, taking in the dried, stinking puddles Starsky had left on his hasty, seemingly uncoordinated way inside.

Apparently, the brunet had had to stop several times on his way to the telephone - grimy dark spots on the couch and kitchen table gave grim testament to that. Hutch cringed sympathetically at the sight of a still slightly damp, especially nasty looking spot on the ground just behind the couch, where the carrier of all the dirt and dirty water had obviously fallen down and had remained lying there for some time.

'Probably lost consciousness,' Hutch figured, renewed concern clouding any annoyance.

The phone was still off the hook. Hutch hung it up gingerly, his touch on the receiver almost soft, as if it was somehow linked to his injured friend. Absently, he carried it with him, as he started to check on little details in his living-room, opened the windows to let the fresh, late-morning air sweep away the smell. Keiko had obviously kept his promise to drop by regularly and water the plants - none had died.

"Hey, plants. I’m home," Hutch sing-songed in the vague direction of the greenhouse and finally put the phone away when the wire stopped him abruptly on his way inside. "How’s life? Everything green?" he greeted his little jungle’s inhabitants further, randomly watering a few on a short walk through the glassy room. There, the smell wasn’t as bad, either. Starsky obviously had not taken the time to say hi to the plants.

Hutch smiled at that, drawing irrational comfort from that giddy thought, while others stole themselves into his serenity. Memories of Starsky whining about how badly he wanted to go home, the back-then amusingly annoying moans now suddenly appearing heartbreaking, as Hutch let his gaze wander through his much-missed greenhouse and inside the apartment again. It was always such a great feeling to return home after an undercover assignment.

He sighed, putting away the watering can.

On his way to the drawer, he shed the scratchy scrubs he’d been given at the hospital - they’d had to cut off his shirt to tend to the shoulder wound (not to mention it had a hole in it now, anyway) - and suppressed a wide yawn, as well as the desperate urge to just climb into his own bed and sleep for a week. In fact, he wisely kept from even glancing at his inviting bed and instead looked at the clock on his nightstand that told him it was almost noon.

Had it really been just a day since he’d been sitting next to an excitedly-rambling Brighton Dobbs on their way to discover Starsky’s favorite Californian toy store?

Hutch shook his head sarcastically as he gathered fresh clothes and headed for the shower. 'Time really flies, when you’re having fun,' he thought to himself, but frowned a second later, when it hit him the saying made no sense in the situation.

Rolling his eyes at himself, he stepped into the shower. He was already relaxingly soaked when yet another thought hit him too late - don’t shower with stitches in your arm.

'Aw, damn it.'

Hand reaching up to turn off the water, he froze, shrugged - which earned him a probably well-deserved wince - and stayed where he was, savoring the forbidden shower, since he was wet now, anyway, stitches and everything.

But still, the good old 'it’s nice to be home'-feeling didn’t reach him; whenever it tried to, his thoughts would wander off to Starsky, who was lying in a hospital bed, beaten, bandaged, monitored and coughing, and who wouldn’t return home for at least another week.

Hutch closed his eyes, let his head hang. Streaks of water ran down his forehead, over his closed lids. He felt like scum. Even more so, when he thought of his partner’s easily-dispensed absolution, the helpless expression in Starsky’s eyes, when he had tried to comfort *him*, Hutch. Who was the reason he was at the hospital in the first place, for crying out loud!

... well, and Bosworth, Hutch added hesitantly, but that didn’t count - Bosworth wasn’t Starsky’s partner and best friend. Bosworth was the bad guy - he had been, if not entitled, *bound* to hurt the good guy. No one would expect less from the bad guy. But Hutch doing it, now, that was different.

Hutch needed to be the one Starsky could trust. With his life. Unconditionally.

And, okay, yes, so he *had* saved their lives by playing along back at Camp California. Probably.

Very probably.

But still, he had *hurt* Starsky!

Hutch didn’t even realize he’d formed a fist with his right hand until he felt the protesting pain from his wounded shoulder. Looking down at his clenched hand, he didn’t ease up on the straining muscle, though. So he hurt now - well, *good*! He damn well *should* hurt! Starsky hurt, didn’t he?

Only when there was a justified fear of passing out in the shower did he allow his arm to relax, then turned off the water. For some time, he just stood in the still shower, dripping, staring ahead at nothing that was really there. Eventually, he started to shiver slightly, but ignored it, didn’t move.

An unstoppable flood of other solutions to his previous predicament washed through him, as if his own home had held those prisoner all the time and only now decided to let them go and mock him. He could have... He should have...

'Who ever said it was Starsky’s decision?! Why is it *his* call, when I have to stand back and... Well, watch?! Why did I even *listen* to him in the first place?! It’s not like he could’ve put up much of a struggle, if I’d just decided to God damn carry him outta there!'

How true, but... he had felt pretty guilty what with having broken Starsky’s fingers before, hadn’t he? He would’ve done anything Starsky told him to.

'I should have... Damn it, I should’ve played my cards out in the open from the start. Try to go for the gun. Hell, I could’ve *asked* Brighton for the fucking gun!'

True again, but... What about Ethan Gerardy? Same situation - they would have left without knowing where the agent was, leaving him to deal with a fatal situation upon his return.

'But Eth... Bosworth’s a *dirty* agent! Who set us up!'

He hadn’t known that then.

'And that’s supposed to be an excuse?!'

Did he really need excuses?

'For Christ’s sake, *yes*! I broke his bones!'

Yeah, right, but... just considering Zadie’s later idea - what would Brighton have done to Starsky before, if Philip Hunter hadn’t taken over? What about the wisdom of at least staying in control of his partner’s pain, if it was impossible to avoid it? What about that?

'What about I never would’ve thought I *could* hurt Starsk? What about that?!'

What about the fact that he saved Starsky’s life? Twice?

'The second time was a misunderstanding.'

Still.

'Speaking of which...' Rushed by a sudden wave of energy breaking through the exhaustion, Hutch hurried out of the shower and into fresh clothes.

Before he could rest, he had people to meet.

****

Oh, hell, the day had already *started* with breaking his latest diet’s rules - And whose fault had that been?! Not his! It wasn’t *his* fault he’d had to sit in some ER waiting room all morning! - so that meant it was out of the count, anyway, didn’t it? Sure it did. Besides, he was the Captain, for Christ’s sake, he was supposed to *give* orders, not follow them! So there!

Plus - how would Edith ever find out?

Since the answer to that last question was obvious - spies, spies everywhere - Dobey left his office very discreetly, head held high to cause any officer who coincidentally glanced in his direction to think better of it. He was stopped short, though, when his scanning eyes found an unexpected figure more or less slumped on a chair behind a nearby desk.

Dobey frowned. "Hutchinson, what’re you doing here?"

"Thinking," came the mumbled response from down where the blond head hung in between Hutch’s hands.

"And you can’t do that at home?" Dobey asked in a mixture of gruff annoyance and growing concern.

Hutch lifted his head, tired, bloodshot eyes finding those of his Captain. "My place stinks."

Dobey sighed at the pitiful sight. "Have you slept at all?"

With a somewhat wry smile, Hutch feebly rubbed his eyes. "Thought you wanted that report ASAP."

Dobey rolled his eyes and stepped back inside his office, leaving his door open. "My office. C’mon, move it."

He had long sat down in his own chair again, when the exhausted detective finally dragged himself inside and with seemingly superhuman strength closed the door behind him.

"Sit down," Dobey ordered and watched the show of Hutch practically melting into the chair he gratefully sank into. "What is it?"

Hutch opened his mouth to reply, thought about it, closed it again, eyed Dobey. When he finally spoke, his voice sounded resigned. As if he was too tired to even try and come up with a lie. "I’m looking for a way to get back at a federal agent, but I can’t think of anything but an official complaint. Which I can’t file."

"Why not?"

Hutch sighed. "’Cause I punched the little shit, that’s why."

"And that’s not getting back at him enough?" Dobey asked.

Hutch just looked at him.

"Hmm," Dobey muttered, understanding. He paused, then asked, "This fed happens to be young Agent Watterston?"

Hutch nodded.

"I got his report an hour ago."

"Wait ’til you read mine," Hutch replied grimly.

"Yeah. I figured that," Dobey said sincerely. He had no doubts about how the inconsistencies he’d found in Christian Watterston’s report would read in Hutchinson’s. The federal agent had made a mistake too huge to hide it from trained eyes. "You know he’ll get it after that, don’t you?"

"Get what?" Hutch exclaimed. "An official warning? If this kid never gets an undercover assignment again, it’ll be too soon, Cap’n!"

Dobey sighed. "I know. Well," he at last added with a small sigh, "I’ll deny I said it, but to me it looks like this situation would justify the use of any intern... helper you got in the bureau. Know what I mean?"

Hutch just stared blankly. "'Intern helper'," he repeated. "What, with the FBI?"

Dobey frowned, surprised. "You and Starsky don’t have a fed friend?"

"Um..."

"Kids," Dobey muttered under his breath, shaking his head as he reached for his phone. "How’d you manage all these years without a fed friend?!" he rambled on without looking at Hutch, as he dialed a number he’d looked up in a small black address book lying on his desk.

"Uh... I... w-we don’t particularly like-" Hutch started in a small voice, but Dobey just waved him off.

"Listen and learn," he advised his detective, before speaking into the receiver. "Surtee? Yeah, Dobey here. How’s it going?" For a few moments, he listened - visibly uninterested, nodding repetitively - then spoke again. "Oh, fine. Fine. - Yeah. - Mm-hmm. I know, don’t tell me. Not what it used to be. - No. - No... listen, I need a favor." And here, he grinned, if slightly. A tiny bit wickedly. "Just put it on the list. - How often have I told you, you can always call *me* and... - Okay, it’s about one of your men. Young guy. Um..." Brushing through the pile of papers on his desk, he found Watterston’s report and read, "Watterston, Christian. Special agent. - Yeah. - Yes. - Oh? 29, yeah, that’s him." He looked up at Hutch, who was watching him with what looked like amused awe and repeated, "His birthday’s next week."

"Hooray," Hutch mumbled dryly. Dobey was talking to Surtee again. "That’s nice. - Mm-hmm. - But, listen, um, I have a detective sitting here who’d like to see Watterston celebrating his big day with a promotion."

Hutch frowned...

"Y’know, something that’ll push him up the ladder, right behind a desk somewhere."

... and grinned.

Dobey listened for a few moments, then smiled and lifted his brows at Hutch. "Alaska?" he repeated Surtee’s words.

Hutch widened his eyes and - after the briefest moment - nodded eagerly. Dobey thought he looked like a little boy participating in a giddy prank.

"Yeah," he said to Surtee. "Sure. That’s the place to be when you’re young and ambitious, just what I’m always saying. - No, never been there. Uh-hmm..." As he listened to his the agent’s rambles about Alaska, he rolled his eyes. "That’s all very interesting, Al, but..." He smiled. "Yeah. - Okay. - You do that. I owe you." A gruff laugh. "Like I said, put it on the list. Well, then-"

"Wait," Hutch hurried to stop the hanging-up-preparations. "Ask him about Roland Bosworth."

Dobey frowned, puzzled. "Hang on a second. What?" he asked Hutch.

"Roland Bosworth, that’s Ethan Gerardy’s real-"

"Surtee," Dobey interrupted him, "I’m handing you over to my detective. Say hi to the kids for me, okay? Bye." And with that he held out the receiver for Hutch, who took it with a slightly uncomfortable expression on his face.

"Um... this is Detective Hutchinson, I’m... - Yes, thanks." He listened for some moments, exchanging a now-knowing glance with his superior. "Yes, just one more thing. Watterston was on the trail of a NSA agent named Roland Bosworth. I just want to know where..." He trailed off, listening. A shadow suddenly formed on his face. "And that’s for sure? - Okay. - Thank you very much, Agent... Al," he smiled, causing Dobey to once more roll his eyes. "Yeah, I guess we will," Hutch continued, still smiling. "Yep. - Just put it on Dobey’s list. Thanks." Finally, he hung up, looking at his Captain with renewed respect. "You have a friend in the FBI," he stated, impressed.

Dobey shook his head as if disappointed. "What do they teach you kids at the academy nowadays? Of course I do. Every cop needs at least one fed friend. That doesn’t mean we have to like them."

Hutch chuckled, nodded. "How true. Mind if we borrow yours in the future?"

"Just don’t spoil him," Dobey wisecracked and, just obviously enough for Hutch to catch, softened his voice. "So - can you go home and get some shuteye, now that your problem is going to get transferred to the North Pole?"

"Not quite," Hutch replied and stood to leave. "Thanks for the help, Cap’n."

Dobey just waved a 'don’t mention it' gesture, watching his detective close the door behind himself and leaned back in his chair, absently closing his address book. Sometimes telephone lines were a nice alternative to the streets, weren’t they?

Smiling to himself, he stood to once more try and sneak past the spies towards the vending machine...

*****

What with knowing Special Agent Christian Watterston would probably get a lot of longjohns and gloves for his 30th birthday, Hutch felt better, but like he had told Dobey, he wasn’t quite ready to rest, yet. There was still one name left to be scratched off his list.

Most of what Al Surtee had had to tell him hadn’t been surprising. Just like he’d thought, Roland Bosworth had tried to eliminate the most important witness in his case: none other than Darren Nicholas. Hutch had assumed that. And he’d also assumed - though refused to accept - that the feds would try and have Bosworth testify against a whole bunch of people who had been involved with Nicholas’ groups over the past months. In return, Bosworth himself would be put on the list of exchange prisoners, instead of being sentenced for illegal dealing with weapons, treason and drug dealing. So after a year at the most, he’d go free, since a man with his qualities - the lack of conscience, for example, as Hutch thought grimly - could be of great use for a lot of dictatorships.

'One year. That’s all that son of a bitch’s gonna get, before they fly him out to sunny Outtastate.' And there was nothing Hutch could do; absurdly as it was, being an officer of the law, he should even be glad they could offer Bosworth a deal and thereby gain information enough to bust a whole bunch of other dangerous people. But, having been one of Bosworth’s chess figures in this last game, Hutch wasn’t glad.

He wasn’t usually one to go for revenge. Or at least he liked to tell himself that. Having Christian Watterston sent away to Alaska and, more importantly, behind a desk hadn’t been revenge, but a necessity: it was Hutch’s duty to protect his fellow officers from a guy like that.

'At last,' he thought darkly, catching a quick glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror. Just like showering with stitches, driving with a bandaged shoulder probably wasn’t the smartest idea, but he hadn’t caused any accidents, yet, so what? Besides, the drive to the precinct that held Roland Bosworth wasn’t that long, anyway.

Long enough, though, for an idea to form inside his head, so that a somewhat wicked smile spread on his face as he climbed the front stairs to the building. So he wasn’t one to go for revenge - usually. But when his partner was concerned, usually didn’t count. After all, people should know that by now.

"Hutch," a sudden familiar voice stopped him on his way down the hallway, and Hutch stopped to turn and look at the person he’d actually been on the way to see.

He smiled, reaching out to shake the other man’s ridiculously huge hand. "Grady! How’s it going? How’s Lisa?"

"Great, thanks. She made second in her class’ reading contest the other day." Grady Michaels grinned, showing a row of uncared-for teeth that matched his three-time-broken nose and deep scars on his forehead. He looked so much like an ad for 'Stay outta trouble, kids. - Jail looks like *this*!' that it never ceased to amaze Hutch. He and Starsky had once arrested Grady for robbery, and when they’d found out he had been trying to get a job for months by then, to support not only him, but his little daughter as well, they had asked around until they’d found a job for him as a janitor - in a police precinct of all places.

Well, Hutch thought, he and Starsky may not have fed friends, but they sure knew the right people for every occasion. "That’s great! Tell her congrats from me."

"Will do," Grady promised. "She’s still all excited. But," he added, suddenly frowning, "what about you, man? Where’s the other one? Something happen?"

Hutch smiled. "That’s actually the reason I’m here. I need a favor, Grad. D’you have some time?"

"You kidding?" Grady replied sincerely. "For you, I’d *make* time! Hey, Starsky’s alright, isn’t he?"

"Oh, sure," Hutch waved assuringly. "Don’t worry. He’s in the hospital right now, but he’ll be okay."

"Hospital?" Grady repeated, dismayed. "Crap, man! Okay, who d’you want me to get for that?"

Hutch chuckled, patting the much taller man’s huge bicep. "Hold your horses, Pal. It’s not like that. Actually, I just need you to *look* like you’re gonna get someone for it. Think you can do that?"

Puzzled, Grady furrowed his brows. "You lost me."

"I’ll explain," Hutch said and started to walk, Grady following him, listening to the plan.

*****

Roland Bosworth looked like he was in a mood way too good for a guy who’d been busted for treason merely 20 hours ago. But then, Hutch figured, considering the constant stress the agent must’ve experienced in the months before, sitting in a nice, warm, safe interrogation room probably wasn’t the worst of things. Not to mention knowing it would only be a year - maybe even less - before it would all be over for him. He would be seated in a nice, warm, safe plane on the way to some nice, warm, relatively safe country, ruled by some questionable government, where he would just lay low for the rest of his life, forever grateful that he survived what, to most people, was a fatal political decision.

Hutch had no doubts that said life wouldn’t be one spent in poverty. Some secret account in Switzerland was probably bursting with money that Bosworth had made behind Nicholas’ back.

Watching the former NSA agent from behind a huge window - this window being the only one in the building that would allow Bosworth to see into Htuch’s little room, which was exactly why had chosen this room in the first place - he shook his head. Why people went with risky plans like this, he would never understand. What was wrong with earning just enough money to have a nice, safe life, without ever getting in trouble huge enough to have yourself killed? But then, who was he to talk?

Pushing the thoughts aside, he cleared his throat, just loud enough for Bosworth to hear him from inside the room. Bosworth lifted his head to meet Hutch’s hard gaze.

Surprise flickered through the agent’s eyes, but he quickly covered it with a smug smile, even lifting his cuffed hands in a wave. It was only then that he caught Grady Michaels´ impressive form behind the blond detective. Michaels, too, was cuffed and had exchanged his gray working clothes for the notorious orange of jail overalls.

Seeing that Bosworth had discovered his companion, Hutch turned slightly to look at Grady and winked. Then, he stepped inside the room, closing the door behind himself. Grady remained where he was, his jaw firmly set, his eyes never leaving Bosworth, whose gaze nervously slipped away repeatedly, though he tried to focus on the entering detective.

"Hi," Hutch greeted him and slowly dragged a chair to the table where Bosworth sat.

"Detective," Bosworth said, futilely attempting to sound unimpressed. "How nice to see you again. What can I do for you?"

Hutch sat across the table and looked down as if thinking about the question. "Nothing," he finally replied and casually put his folded hands on the table. He smiled.

Silence followed, interrupted only by the soft, nervous sounds of clothing materials brushing against each other when Bosworth moved to look at Grady Michaels, outside.

Hutch just watched.

"Okay, I’m swallowing the bait," Bosworth finally stated, irritated. "Who’s your friend?"

Hutch blinked as if confused, than looked outside the window at Grady. "Oh. Him." He waved. "He’s not my friend. Are you kidding? He’s just a guy a friend of mine busted for breaking another fellow’s neck." He paused, then as if an afterthought, added, "With his bare hands." He nodded importantly.

Bosworth frowned, seeming to try to follow, but settled for smiling at Hutch again, visibly choosing to not play along anymore. "How’s your partner?"

Hutch ignored that. "I heard they’re sending you to Sacramento for some chats, until they find someone who’s willing to exchange more worthy people for you."

Bosworth smiled smugly and shrugged. "I’m a wanted man."

"Oh yeah," Hutch nodded dryly. "How true." Once more, he paused, appearing like he was choosing his next words. "Sacramento. Nice place. Nice folks working there. Good people."

"Well," Bosworth replied, trying to sound as smug as before, but it seemed that - slowly - understanding was starting to reach him. "I’m not gonna stay there long."

"Yeah. What a shame. But," Hutch shrugged, "time’s relative, isn’t it? Even a day can be awfully long, when you fear for your life."

Bosworth eyed him uncertainly. "So I’ve heard. I’m sure you have more experience there than me, though."

"Mm-hmm," Hutch nodded absently. He had turned his head to look at Grady, as if he was studying the bulky man. When he looked at Bosworth again, he nodded, like they were sharing a secret. "Y’know what I like about people like us, Ethan? Uh," he smiled, "I mean, Roland. Y’know what? We have class. Dignity. We wouldn’t do everything for money. Not like him," he pointed at Grady with his thumb, "for example. I mean," he snorted a half-chuckle, "I know money’s even more valuable in jail, but that guy, he’s really focused on it. Know what I mean? The other guy, whose neck he broke?" He made a short pause for emphasis, then in a half-whisper continued, "Twelve dollars. That’s how much the poor bastard owned him. I mean, c’mon! Twelve dollars! Insane, isn’t it?" He smiled.

Bosworth just stared at him for a long moment, then at Grady, who grinned, then back. "Do you honestly believe I’m buying this?" he asked, to Hutch sounding like he’d bought it long ago. "That you paid that ape over there to break my bones? D’you really think I’m scared now?!"

Hutch grinned, looking eerily like a little boy having the time of his life, and nodded. "Oh, yes."

Bosworth face fell, his gaze flying from Grady to Hutch and back. "B-but... I’m... You can’t do this, I’m... y-you’re a cop!"

Hutch sighed sadly, sounding like he actually felt sorry for the man. As if disappointed, he shook his head. "D’you ever have a partner, Roland?"

Mouth hanging open, Bosworth stared at him.

Hutch shrugged in a 'can’t help it' manner, then stood up. "Have fun watching your back," he happily advised and left the room, before Bosworth had the chance to reply. The pathetic calls after him he ignored, but wiggled his fingers at the agent when he walked past the window.

Grady Michaels remained where he was for a few moments longer, staring directly at Bosworth, then, without ever having moved his features, turned to follow Hutch.

*****

"Starsk, stop laughing, you’re gonna hurt yourself." With a mixture of honest concern and amusement, Hutch sighed, when only coughing answered him. Coughing mingled with helpless laughter, that had been going on ever since he’d told his partner about his 'little act of vengeance'.

Though the danger of pneumonia seemed to have ceased a bit - they weren’t monitoring his heart anymore - the time Starsky had spent in the cold sewer water had still left him with a severe cold, and the coughs seemed to have worsened since Hutch had last seen him. But then, maybe they hadn’t. After all, laughing obviously had that effect on weakened lungs - and up until now Starsky hadn’t done much more than laugh.

Hutch watched for a few more moments. "C’mon, Buddy, calm down, or I can’t tell you about what Dobey and I achieved for Agent Watterston."

At that, Starsky frowned, swallowing back a cough. "Who?" he asked hoarsely.

"Christian," Hutch replied, worry instantly softening his voice. "He’s a fed, remember?"

"I just forgot his name," Starsky snapped and suppressed another cough. "I don’t forget every... *cough* ...everything you tell me, y’know?"

"I know." Hutch smiled apologetically.

"Yeah." Starsky gave a curt nod. "Just because I forgot it five times already, doesn’t mean I forgot it now." A dry-humored glance found Hutch, who chuckled.

"Course not, Gordo."

"Okay, Great Avenger, what’d you do to the kid?"

"Hey, it wasn’t me," Hutch defended himself, lifting his hands slightly. "It was Dobey’s idea. Oh, by the way, we’re allowed to use his fed friend from now on."

"What’s a fed friend?"

"A friend in the FBI," Hutch explained.

"Who has friends in the FBI?!" Starsky asked incredulously. "Dobey?!"

Hutch nodded.

"Sneaky guy."

Hutch nodded more.

"And I hope he had someone break Christian’s thumb with a machine gun."

"Ah... nope," Hutch shook his head.

"Damn."

"Better," Hutch promised. "He promoted him."

Starsky looked at him, a frown slowly spreading on his forehead. "And that’s an appropriate measure, because... ?"

"D’you promise to not hurt yourself laughing again, when I tell you?"

For an answer, Starsky just pressed his lips together.

Hutch rolled his eyes. "Good thinking. Okay, they’re gonna give him a desk job. In Alaska."

Instead of bursting with laughter, this time Starsky just grinned. And widely. It was the meanest, most wicked, most downright evil grin Hutch thought he’d ever seen on his partner’s face.

"That’s neat," Starsky finally stated, nodding gravely. "Classy too."

"Thought you’d like it."

"I surely do. You’d make for a good avenger, Blintz," he added and reached out to pat Hutch’s arm, but the blond sat too far away. As if out of reflex, Hutch bent forward in his chair so that Starsky could reach him.

Seeing that he would touch the bandaged arm, though, Starsky lowered his hand to the mattress again. "How’s the arm?" he asked, pointing his chin at Hutch’s shoulder.

As if a switch had been turned, all easy amusement faded from the blond’s face. His gaze sank down to Starsky’s wrapped up right fingers, and wandered over to the burn on his neck. It was no longer bandaged, but it shone slightly with the antiseptic cream the nurse had put on it.

"Fine," Hutch mumbled. "Just fine."

Starsky frowned lightly, familiar concern edging forward on his face. Ever so carefully, he nudged Hutch’s arm after all. "Hey."

"Hmm?" Visibly torn out of unpleasant thoughts, Hutch lifted his gaze, blinked. A forced smile appeared on his face. "Yeah?"

"Thanks for saving my life."

"Y-you, um, you already said that, Starsk," Hutch replied, taken off guard.

"Oh?" Starsky asked, unimpressed, then shrugged, very careful to not stir the pain that had just been suppressed by medication. "Well, I can’t remember doing it. So..." He smiled gently. "Thanks."

Hutch tilted his head to one side, watching him, then dropped his gaze. "You’re welcome."

"Have you slept at all?"

Surprised, Hutch lifted his head again. "I’m... um..."

Starsky sighed softly, sounding amusingly paternally. "You look beat."

"Uh... I-I’m... My place smells," Hutch stammered, before he could stop himself.

Starsky grimaced. It was more of a show than sincere regret, though. "Right. Sorry ’bout that. Well," he added casually, "you know you can always stay at my place."

Apparently, that didn’t brighten Hutch’s mood. "Thanks," he muttered, but sounded as if that offer only made things worse.

Starsky watched him for a long moment and sighed. "Hutch, we need to-"

"Knock, knock," Nurse Vicky’s melodic voice cut him off as she entered the room, pushing an empty wheelchair. "I’m sorry," she said, when the men turned to look at her, "but it’s time for the x-rays, Mr. Starsky."

"Didn’t I tell you to call me Dave?"

"No." Vicky smiled.

"Can’t believe I forgot that." Starsky shook his head and returned the smile. "Please, call me Dave."

"Okay," she accepted pleasantly. "Dave, it’s time for the x-rays. Ken," she turned to Hutch, "I’m sorry, but you’ll have to either wait here or leave."

"Huh?" Hutch muttered, as if confused. He was obviously slow to shake off the crushing grip of guilt that had held him before, and hadn’t yet switched on his charm. Instead, he blinked up at her questioningly.

Sensing the state his friend was in, Starsky swallowed any comment about Vicky knowing *Hutch’s* name and instead brushed his good hand against Hutch’s arm to get his attention. "Hey, Blondie, go get some sleep, okay?"

"Uh... yeah," Hutch nodded, not very convincingly, and hurriedly wiped over his strained features. "Yeah, sure. I’ll be back later."

"I know," Starsky smiled. With Hutch’s help, he climbed out of bed and into the wheelchair. He held onto the blond’s arm just a tad longer than necessary, causing Hutch to really look at him this time. "Promise me you’ll get some sleep," he said seriously.

Hutch just nodded.

"Okay. See ya."

"Yeah," Hutch said, forcing a reassuring smile on his lips before he stepped aside to let Nurse Vicky take over the wheelchair.

*****

It was the third day of his Great Plan, and Starsky couldn’t help admitting to himself that things weren’t working out quite the way that he had intended. In fact, it might even be that the tactics he had chosen had been completely wrong.

The plan had seemed brilliant, at the beginning. Knowing Hutch, he had very soon come to acknowledge that no matter what he said, his guilt-ridden friend would stick to feeling like crap as stubbornly as he usually stuck to the conviction of being right. There was no breaking through the thick walls of unforgiveness Hutch had built around himself - for now. So while still in the hospital, Starsky had settled for distracting his partner whenever he’d seen the obvious signs of another wave of guilt and distress threatening to swallow Hutch. He had even - more or less subtly - encouraged gorgeous Nurse Vicky to flirt with the blond, anything to keep Hutch from being dragged into the black hole of his own thoughts too often.

But it had turned out that gorgeous Nurse Vicky was engaged to a much older doctor, and Hutch didn’t seem as easy to distract as he used to be. The latest events had obviously really shaken him to the core. Much more so than Starsky, who, if not particularly enjoying his stay at the hospital, didn’t see it as a bigger deal than any other of his previous hospital stays. After all, work was tough. Could get you hurt or sick or both. He could live with that. But he found Hutch’s pain hard to endure, especially because he knew the pain was his partner’s fault. And it was unnecessary. The thought of blaming *Hutch* for anything was absurd, and it sickened Starsky to think that his friend did it all over again every time he looked at the healing patient in the hospital bed. As if he, Starsky, himself carried the proof of Hutch’s crimes all over his body like some banner, when the truth was that they both owed their lives to Hutch’s instincts and to his ability to play no-way-out-situations better than any other cop Starsky could think of. Including himself.

Yet, he understood Hutch’s pain. Hell, he didn’t want to start to imagine how *he*’d feel in Hutch’s place! So, after a dozen futile attempts at really talking it out, he’d settled for his great, great plan, which was to get *Hutch* to start with the talking. By driving him crazy.

Ever since he’d been released from the hospital and finally, finally, finally returned to his home, he’d done everything - but everything! - to turn mother-henning into one hell of a job for Hutch. And it was not like that was an easy plan to begin with, since Hutch could be exceptionally patient when mother-henning. All the things he would usually respond to with sarcasm were suddenly treated gently, softly, like the symptoms of some serious sickness. Whining, moaning, grumbling and demanding usually led Starsky right to the end of Hutch’s patience, but it became harder when he was sick, and this time, it seemed that the blond’s will to endure was sheerly endless.

So, all Starsky had managed so far was to drive himself half-nuts, to the point where he’d succumbed to being downright mean - secretly hiding the remote control he’d just demanded Hutch get for him, or deliberately asking for the one sort of juice he knew couldn’t possibly be in his fridge, maybe not even available in the city.

Up until now, nothing had worked. Stubbornly gentle, Hutch spent his days going wherever he was sent, bringing whatever he was asked to bring, and - though it had taken some time - he *had* found that particular juice. (Which, by the way, had been the yuckiest stuff Starsky had ever had to drink, except for Hutch’s morning shake.)

Slowly, but steadily, Starsky was moving from determination to help his friend to becoming increasingly worried. When he had come home, he had found that matters were a bit worse than he had first thought; Hutch had obviously not taken Starsky up on his offer to stay at his apartment. That alone wasn’t discomforting, but what worried Starsky was that Hutch had tried to make it *look* like he’d stayed there. There’d been some used dishes in the sink and a blanket and pillow on the couch, but - Starsky being Starsky - he instantly sensed that his place wasn’t somewhere that Hutch - of all people - had recently used. Hutch was a messy guest, and he knew it. So Starsky assumed that in order to make the show credible, his partner had deliberately created a small, believable mess. Only it was *too* small. Too... neat for a mess. Whoever heard of Hutch putting dirty dishes *in the sink*?!

As for the sleeping supplies... one good look at the blond betrayed any impression that the pillow and blanket had meant to create. An ever-present strain slowly edged its way deeper into Hutch’s face, matching-ever exhausted eyes. Now that he was home, Starsky could see for himself that Hutch was neither sleeping nor eating much. The question was: where had he spent the few nights Starsky had still been at the hospital, and, more importantly: when the *hell* was this going to finally *stop*?!

Hearing the key rattle in the door, Starsky sat up a bit more in his bed, where he’d lain and mind-rambled almost all afternoon, after having awakened from a post-lunch nap to find Hutch gone, a note on the nightstand letting him know it wouldn’t be for long.

When no immediate greeting or call for him could be heard, Starsky frowned, bent his head a bit in a futile attempt to peek through the nearly-closed bedroom door. "Hutch?"

Something that sounded remotely like an answer, but could also have been an exhausted snort, answered him. Two minutes later, the door was gently pushed open to reveal a very tired-looking Hutch still in the process of peeling himself out of his jacket. "Hey, Starsk. Have a nice nap?"

Starsky took in his friend’s appearance. "Mm-hmm," he mumbled in response. "Where’ve you been?"

"Um..." Hutch started to answer, but had to suppress a yawn and tiredly rub his eyes before finishing. "I had my lock changed. Brought you the new key," he added as an afterthought as he reached for the key. Somehow he managed to let it fall out of his hands just when he’d finally gotten it off his key chain. Annoyed, he looked after it, as if down a cliff, then bent down to pick it up.

"Hey," he pointed out on his way back up, hands searching for the mentioned key, "you found it."

Following Hutch’s gaze, Starsky found himself looking at the remote control he’d absently put on his nightstand a couple of hours before. He hadn’t yet had the time to hide it again. "Yep," he replied. "It was, um... Why’d you have to change your lock again? The last one wasn’t even a month old."

"Lost the key," Hutch replied tiredly. Once more, he rubbed his face, yawned and, jacket still in hand, sat down on the edge of Starsky’s bed. Only after a moment did he remember he was still holding onto the key inside one pocket, and he put it on the nightstand next to the remote control. "There y’are."

Starsky frowned. "How could you lose your key when you haven’t been there for days?"

Stopping in the middle of a tired sigh, Hutch looked like he was thinking his answer through and in the end simply stated, "Dunno."

Taking pity on him, Starsky let him be, after that. "Smell any better?" he asked instead. "You know, I’m really sorry about that."

Hutch snorted softly, as if gently chiding, and patted Starsky’s knee. "Don’t be silly, Gordo, you know it’s not your fault. Besides, it really is much better." A sarcastic expression settled on his features when he added, "The locksmith barely made a comment."

Something in Hutch’s tone switched on a light inside Starsky’s mind, and it illuminated a new source of hope. "So, tough day, huh?" he asked slyly.

Hutch didn’t catch the change in Starsky’s tone and simply shrugged in affirmation.

"Poor Hutch. Did you get the cough medicine?"

Hutch’s features visibly froze, as he very slowly lifted his head to look at Starsky. "What?"

"The cough medicine," Starsky repeated innocently. "Y’know, the one I told ya to get this morning."

"Starsky, that’s for kids. I thought you were joking."

"Well, I wasn’t," Starsky replied, noticing with dismay the familiar signs on Hutch’s face which indicated that he was about to give in. The following words, though, hit him with relieving surprise.

"I’m really beat, Buddy. Don’t you think you can take the other one just one more time tonight, and I’ll go get you kiddie stuff first thing tomorrow morning?"

It was said so heart-breakingly tiredly that Starsky barely managed to keep up his act, and some part of him wondered if this was his tiny version of Hutch’s earlier ordeal: having to deny his friend much needed and much yearned for rest in order to help him.

Still, he pushed the guilty thoughts aside for the time being and - with an exaggerated sigh - nodded his okay. He didn’t forget to add two or three miserable coughs, either, which earned him a very well-registered, irritated look from the blond.

"Okay," Hutch sighed, to Starsky looking suspiciously as if he was about to reconsider going to get the kids’ cough medicine after all. To the brunet’s relief, though, he yawned instead of offering to go, then asked, "D’you take the other stuff? Pain meds?"

"No," Starsky answered, as if taken completely off guard.

Hutch blinked. Slowly. It was the closest to a real Hutch-like reaction he’d come in the whole three days. "Why not?" he asked, audibly trying to sound patient.

"Couldn’t find them," Starsky explained. With things having taken such a swift change, Starsky found himself supplied with renewed energy and meanness.

"On the kitchen counter. I wrote that in the note."

"Note?"

For a split second, Starsky thought he’d been made as Hutch stared at him incredulously, but in the end, the blond just pinched the bridge of his nose briefly, then stood up, exhaustion slowing the process. "I’ll go get ’em for you. Water or juice?"

And the show went on. "Water," Starsky replied and waited until the second before Hutch re-entered the room with the pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other one before calling out, "Uh, no, juice."

He wasn’t sure, but he could’ve sworn he heard a curse.

"There you go," Hutch muttered against a huge yawn as he returned to the room, handing the glass and medication to Starsky, who - secretly grateful - swallowed the relief-promising pills.

Hutch watched him, concern breaking through the clouds of tiredness. "Still hurtin’ pretty bad, Buddy, huh?" he asked gently, taking the glass again.

The secret glance he cast at the still-bandaged right fingers didn’t slip past Starsky. Quickly, he hid them under the covers, making it look as if he was trying to drag the blanket up higher. "Nah," he shook his head slightly, "you’re letting yourself get fooled, again."

"Yeah, well," Hutch replied with a sad smile, taking over the tucking-in process, as Starsky slid down to lie on his back again, "one of these days you can stop trying to fool me, how ’bout that?"

"But I’m good at it," Starsky said, allowing himself an inner snicker at that.

Unaware of the inside joke that he was missing, Hutch muttered, "Don’t be so sure of that," and yawned again. "I’m gonna go grab some zzz’s on the couch, okay? Just for an hour or so. D’you need anything, like, now?"

How Starsky always managed to look so utterly innocent never ceased to amaze Starsky himself. Hutch would never have guessed he’d just stepped right into a trap. "No, I’m good. You get some sleep, Blintz, you really look like you need it."

"Okay," Hutch said and stepped over to the door, where he turned once more. "If you need anything, call me."

"Will do."

And with a parting smile Hutch vanished behind the door, not quite closing it, audibly shuffling along towards the couch, where he could be hear to plop down, fully clothed.

Starsky gave him ten minutes. "Hutch?"

Hutch couldn’t have been asleep already - he looked far too coherent for that, when he stumbled through the bedroom door - yet the effort of getting off of the couch again had clearly left a mark on his expression. "Yeah?"

"Aw, sorry, did I wake ya?"

"No," Hutch hurried to reassure, driving a hand through his hair. "No, ’sokay. What is it, d’you need something?"

"Magazine," Starsky replied, pointing at some old modern legends magazine he’d left on the table across the bed.

Hutch just stared down at it.

"Hey," Starsky explained with a smile, "I slept all afternoon, I’m bored."

"Um... sure," Hutch muttered, took the magazine and flipped it onto the bed, close to Starsky’s left hand. "There you go. Anything else?"

And again, the innocent look worked. "No, thanks," Starsky said, not looking up at Hutch, as he effortfully reached for the magazine. "Sorry, again."

"Don’t be," Hutch waved. "You’re welcome. Night." He left once more, and Starsky thought he dragged the door just a tad more closed than before.

This time, he gave him twenty minutes, and this time, Hutch *had* been asleep.

"Hutch?"

The sight of the disheveled-looking figure now appearing in the door made Starsky sincerely grimace with sympathy. "Aw, *now* you were asleep, huh? I’m sorry. It’s okay, really, I can... You just go back to-"

"No, no," Hutch once more waved and cleared his throat. He rubbed his eyes. "What is it?" When no answer came, he blinked up at his friend, who was making a show out of frowning, his eyes wandering off as if following something.

"Starsk?"

"Forgot," Starsky finally answered and grinned sheepishly. "I forgot what I wanted. I’m sorry. But, y’know..." Feebly, he gestured for his head and shrugged.

Hutch narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but just for a moment, then smiled the most understanding smile he could muster under the circumstances. "’Sokay, Buddy, you know Doctor Greenwald said it could still come and go. No big deal." He waited a second. "Any vague ideas what it might’ve been?"

"Ah... no. Well," Starsky shrugged, "couldn’t’ve been that important then, right?"

"Right," Hutch muttered, quietly enough to allow himself to sound darkly, and without any parting words turned for the couch again.

Starsky only waited ’til he heard the by now familiar plop. "Hey, now I remember!"

There was a very short silence, then the sound of a hasty throwing off of blankets and angry shuffling back to the bedroom. "Great," Hutch stated, the one word soaked in sarcasm, as he glared down at Starsky. "What?"

"I thought if you could maybe take the remote control back into the living room with ya? I don’t want it to get lost again."

Hutch drew in a deep breath and wordlessly grabbed the remote control off of the nightstand. Behind his back, Starsky grinned to himself. Yep, he was *very* close to success, now.

This time, the door *was* closed, and none too softly, either.

Starsky counted to ten. "Hut-"

Even before the name had fully left his lips, the door was all but torn open again. "What?!"

Starsky blinked, as if surprised, once, twice, then, "Could you leave the door open?"

"Sure," Hutch growled and turned.

"And-"

"Starsky, are you doing this on purpose?!" Hutch snapped, whirling around to face his friend. "Whatever it is, go get it yourself! You’re just sick, okay?! Not paralyzed!"

"Finally," Starsky sighed and rolled his eyes. "It’s about time you noticed." Making it very obvious, he used his hands to push himself into a sitting position, leaning against the headboard and grinning at his dumbfounded partner. "Mad at me now, aren’t ya?"

"U-um..." Hutch stammered and blinked, as if trying to decide what to make out of the situation. "No, not... mad, but..." he muttered, puzzled, then frowned. "You *were* doing it on purpose."

Starsky made a show out of giving him a thumbs-up. "Oughta be a detective, Blintz. And," he added mockingly conspiratorially after a pause, "it’d be appropriate to be mad now, y’know?"

Hutch just looked at him. Somehow, though, the expression forming on his face wasn’t what Starsky had expected. Or hoped for.

"Hutch?"

Hutch sighed, rubbed his eyes. "I’m sorry, Starsk," he said and cast his friend an apologetic smile. "I know I’ve probably been a pest these last few days, mother-henning you to death and... but..." He was searching for words. "It’s just that-"

"Whoa," Starsky cut him off, lifting his seldom used Starsky-warning-finger (a rather poor imitation of his friend’s impressive typical gesture), "hold it right there, Pal. I’m not gonna listen to any more apologies. I bugged you for three days now, and all I get is more *apologies*?! Uh-uh," he shook his head. "We’re gonna talk this out, and now. C’mere." Shoving one edge of his blanket aside, he patted the mattress next to him.

Responding more out of surprise than out of obedience, Hutch shuffled closer and sat down, brows lifted questioningly.

"Now," Starsky started, sounding like he was about to hold a speech, "you listen to me. Nothing that happened back at the camp was your fault. Okay?" He paused. "Come on, nod."

Hutch nodded slightly.

"Good boy. You did your job, Hutch, and you did great. You saved Ethan... or whatever the hell his name is, Topher, probably Pixie too, yourself and - most importantly - me. That’s nothing to feel bad about, or is it?" Once more, he paused, and when Hutch didn’t react, raised his brows expectantly.

Understanding, Hutch shook his head softly.

"There," Starsky said proudly, gently squeezing Hutch’s good arm. "So what are you continuing to beat yourself up about?"

Hutch seemed to take a sudden interest in his own bare feet, as his gaze fell.

Starsky waited patiently, but after a few seconds tugged at Hutch’s sleeve to get him to look up again. He smiled encouragingly.

Hutch couldn’t meet his friend’s eyes for long. "It’s just..." he started, gesturing feebly for Starsky’s bandaged right hand, "I’m so sorry I hurt you." He shot Starsky a pained glance, then looked down again. "I... I’d *never* hurt you, but..." A nervous, sarcastic laugh broke free. "I did. And... and I’m sorry." Shyly, he glanced upwards at his patiently listening friend, again. "I’m sorry, Starsk. I just... I didn’t know how to play the situation, and it all happened so fast, and... I probably should’ve..." A pause followed, as Hutch’s eyes flashed about, trying to catch some alternative he had yet to come up with. "Dunno," he finally stated, "but... something. Should’ve done something."

"Like what?"

"I don’t know!" Hutch exclaimed, then lowered his voice. "Something."

"If the Looneys had found out you were a cop, too, they’d have killed us both. And we couldn’t leave, because I said so. If you wanna blame someone, why don’t you blame me for making you stay?"

Instantly, Hutch softened his expression. "You had no way of knowing Ethan had set us up."

"I know," Starsky said casually. "And neither did you." Watching as the words sank in, though they were obviously still met with fierce resistance, he gently added, "No one’s blaming you for anything, but yourself, Hutch."

Hutch didn’t look at him. "I never wanted to hurt you," he mumbled.

"I know," Starsky repeated, sounding like it was understood. Unnecessary to even mention. He bent his head a tad to look into Hutch’s face. "But we both know sometimes you have to do crap you don’t like when undercover. Don’t we? Remember the time I had to hit you in front of those dirty cops? Think I liked doing that?"

A tiny, amused sound escaped Hutch, and he even looked up slightly. "That was different."

"Yeah," Starsky replied dryly, "you don’t see *me* whining."

Hutch chuckled, but lifted his brows in faked indignation. "Hey, you *did* hit me pretty hard back there."

"Sissy."

Hutch just smiled, looking down again.

Starsky’s voice grew serious again, soft and urgent at the same time. "Nothing has changed, Partner." Comfortingly, he gave the blond’s neck a gentle squeeze and let his hand linger comfortingly. "I’m sorry this job sucked so much. But you gotta stop feeling responsible for that. After all, you got the bad guys." He grinned.

Understanding, Hutch snorted a soft chuckle. He had yet to lift his head again. "Yeah." A deep sigh followed, and - at last - haunted, sky blue eyes found Starsky’s. "I don’t think I ever felt that much like shit before." He shook his head, almost sadly. "Or hated myself more, for that matter." The fingers on the back of his neck tightened comfortingly, but he didn’t notice. "If I hadn’t stopped Brighton..." Once more, he shook his head, but seemed somewhat determined this time. "Next time, it’s my decision," he said ironically.

Starsky nodded. "Sure. We’ll take turns. No prob."

Hutch smiled, nodded.

"Okay," Starsky said, drawing his hand back. "Wanna tell me where you slept at, when I was at the hospital?"

Taken off guard, Hutch opened his mouth in surprise, but thought differently and simply answered, "In the car."

Starsky sighed in sympathy. "Hutch."

"Just didn’t feel right, sleeping here, when you couldn’t come home, yet, because of me," Hutch explained in a small voice, looking up into his friend’s eyes with his head bowed. As he shrugged slightly, hi lips arched in a sheepish smile.

Starsky watched him for a moment, a very familiar, protective feeling spreading inside him, though he knew he probably looked chiding. Sleeping first in what he called a car and then on the notoriously bumpy Starsky-couch had probably done wonders for Hutch’s back...

Supplied with sudden determined energy, Starsky quickly climbed out of the bed, drawing back the covers in the process. "Get in," he ordered, and before Hutch even had time to protest, added, "Or I’ll find myself forced to discuss the smoking problem right now, as well."

It didn’t take Hutch a second to plop down on the mattress.

Nodding contentedly, Starsky tucked him in and pointed over his shoulder at the door. "I’ll be watching cartoons. Yell, if you need something, okay?"

Hutch just nodded, already having to blink fast to keep his eyes open. He struggled to suppress a yawn.

Starsky couldn’t hide an affectionate smile at the sight. "’Sokay," he said softly, lightly brushing his hand over disheveled blond hair. "Just sleep. Everything’s fine."

On his way out, he suddenly stopped in the open door, and turned to let Hutch know that, of course, he didn’t really have to get new cough medicine in the morning, but all that met him was the soft sounds of Hutch’s even breathing emerging from somewhere down in the bundle of pillows and blankets the blond had snuggled up into.

The planned words fading in his throat, Starsky smiled, quietly whispered, "Sweet dreams, Buddy," and gently closed the door behind himself.

*****

Starsky’s cough quickly faded into a mere scratchy feeling, and his bruises and cuts had already healed nicely when he returned to work again, a week short of Hutch, who had taken some time off to take care of him.

The brunet’s broken fingers were on the mend as well, and, contrary to his long faded electroshock-caused bad memory, he did his best to never let on, when they still bothered him in front of Hutch.

As for the sudden attacks of confusion he still - quite often - suffered from: it didn’t take Hutch, Dobey, or anyone else very long to figure out they were an act. The only one still firmly believing in them was Starsky, himself. He only stopped misusing them as alibis for overdue reports or skipped meetings when Hutch started to turn them against him by claiming promises Starsky had allegedly made ("You said you’d write that report, Buddy. Don’t you remember?") or similar things ("Um, actually it’s my turn to choose lunch today, Starsk. Yours was yesterday. Don’t you remember?").

Between the detectives, things were finally back to normal, for which Starsky was very grateful, to the point of even grinning in relief when Hutch - in his typical, sarcastic way - complained about Starsky’s whining - "Aw, for Christ’s sake, Starsk, you’re left-handed! Why’d you have to try and learn typing with your right *now*, anyway?! I’m starving!" - and only when he sensed the blond’s questioning gaze on him did he remember to join in and take over his part in the banter - "Correct me, if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it you who has gotten on my nerves all these years now about becoming right-handed? I’m just practicing, like they said you should in that book you gave me."

"Book? I’d never give you a book, Gordo. Must be your memory playing tricks on you, again. Come on, let’s go get food."

Yes, things really were back to the way they used to be. Or... almost.

It was almost a week after Starsky’s return to work when Hutch, after claiming to need to get some file from the archives, stepped outside the building, leaned against the brick wall to the right of the entry steps, patted his pockets searchingly - and frowned.

"Looking for this?"

If the outside had had a ceiling, Hutch would’ve bumped his head. "Man!" he panted, involuntarily grabbing his heart, while he stared at his approaching friend. "Give a guy a heart attack."

"Yeah, well," Starsky shrugged mercilessly, waving the half-empty pack of cigarettes he held, "seems to me you’re keen on getting one, anyway."

Visibly uncomfortable with the situation, Hutch averted his eyes. "Um... I can explain."

"So can I," Starsky replied with a tone of voice that sounded almost condescending, like he was talking to a kid in trouble. "Now," he continued after a short pause, studying the pack in his hand as if grabbed by a sudden interest in it, "what was all that talk about 'I can stop again, too, Starsk, don’t worry, I just happened to be undercover, yaddah, yaddah...'" Lifting his gaze, he frowned at Hutch in mocking confusion. "Is it my memory playing tricks on me, again-"

Hutch rolled his eyes.

"- or do you really happen to *not* be undercover anymore? Maybe I’m contagious, and you... forgot?" he teased.

Hutch drew in a breath, struggling to keep his dignity here, but in the end he unwillingly muttered, "Okay, okay. I admit it. It is harder for me to stop again than it is for you. Happy now?"

Starsky sighed deeply, mockingly disappointed, and shook his head. "Why is it you never listen to me, Blondie?"

"If I tell you, will you give me my cigarettes back?"

Starsky just laughed - "Yeah, sure." - and stuffed the pack into his jeans pocket.

His features evening out into a heart-breaking sick puppy look, Hutch’s gaze never left the pack.

Noticing, Starsky abandoned his next teasing comment and rolled his eyes. "Hutch, stop that. Just kick it. You did it before. Turn to candy for a little while, like the rest of us mortals, no big deal."

Hutch grimaced. Easy for Starsky to say. Except for food, there didn’t seem to be a thing on this Earth the brunet *could* get addicted to, the least of which would be nicotine. It had been Starsky’s decision way back in the academy to quit smoking for good, and because he’d read somewhere that you shouldn’t be around smokers in the process of quitting, he had practically ordered Hutch to quit as well. But while Starsky had quit smoking like you’d quit eating raw cauliflower, for Hutch it had been a torturous struggle. Not to mention that he had needed four attempts, all in all.

"I hate candy," Hutch pointed out lamely.

"Okay, how’d you do it last time?"

"Fasted."

"Oh," Starsky muttered and bit his lip, as he took a moment to let his eyes wander down Hutch’s slightly-too-thin body. "That might not be such a good idea at the moment," he admitted. "Y’know, in fact, you look like you could do with some candy."

"And just how do I kick the candy afterwards?"

Starsky blinked. "'Kick' candy?!" he repeated incredulously. "Whoever heard of that? Look, Hutch, how ’bout we find something candy-*like*, but weird enough for you to be able to eat? Like... dunno, soy cookies. sprout muffins. Something yucky. How’s that sound?"

Hutch pursed his lower lip, thinking about it, then smiled. "Sounds good."

"’Kay." Starsky nodded, grinning contentedly. "Then, c’mon, let’s go back to work. If you don’t hand in that report from yesterday’s bust, Dobey will have a fit. And then he’ll have to 'interrupt' his diet again, and you don’t wanna be responsible for that, do you?"

Following his partner up the stairs to the entry, Hutch frowned, innocently. "*Me* handing in that report? Sorry, Pal, but it’s your turn today. Don’t you remem-"

"Just stop it right there, Brains. My memory’s officially back at work, from now on, okay? That report’s yours."

"Actually, it’s really not, Starsk."

"It is, now. Hey," Starsky quickly changed the topic, snapping his fingers, "maybe we’ll find something to help Dobey kick... uh... well, *food* too."

Hutch thought about that. "Smoking makes you less hungry," he finally stated.

"Mm-hmm," Starsky nodded. "Or watching you making your morning shakes. Maybe you could settle for doing that at the office from now on."

"Right," Hutch agreed dryly, "and what with your table manners, you could have all your meals at the office, too. That way, we’ll have the whole precinct on a no-nutrition-diet soon."

"You know why you’re so grumpy all the time? Because you never eat candy, that’s why. I bet you’re suffering from a constant lack of make-you-happy-enzymes."

"Endorphins."

"Whatever," Starsky waved. Spotting a candy vending machine, he headed straight for it.

"Yeah," Hutch nodded dryly. "I’m sure I am. Now, about that report..."

But his friend wasn’t listening. He was busy producing two chocolate bars from the vending machine (much to Hutch’s impressed surprised - he hadn’t even seen him put money in it) and holding one out for Hutch. "Happy quitting."

"Thanks," Hutch sighed, amusedly, faking his annoyance. He took the candy, watching his friend rip open his own. "Make-you-happy-enzymes are addictive too, y’know?"

Starsky shrugged. Around a mouthful of chocolate, he replied, "What’s wrong with being addicted to happiness?" and grinned, patting Hutch’s back. "C’mon, you’ve got a report to write."

Watching after him, Hutch weighed the candy bar in his hand, then with a shrug ripped it open and, chewing, followed his partner down the hallway.

THE END

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