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They Say It Doesn't Hurt


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WARNING: This story deals with the death of a child. If this topic bothers or upsets you, please don't read on.
 
Thanks to Kreek, Starsky's Strut, Shawne, Brooke and EliValero for their constant support and, *grin*, helpful suggestions. ;)
Also thanks to Tamminy for listening, laughing, helping and being everything Tam. (And, yes, Jenny likes you. :))
 
SPECIAL THANKS to my beta e-pony, who was a great help! Thank you!!!

“To die -- takes just a little while --

They say it doesn’t hurt --

It’s only fainter -- by degrees --

And then -- it’s out of sight --”

 

Emily Dickinson

 

 

It was going to be a good day. 

 

Any day that started with him not oversleeping, with his newspaper not stolen from his front steps, and with him arriving at his partner’s place early enough for a second breakfast just had to live up to the promise the morning gave.

 

This decided, Starsky happily whistled away, as he bounded up the stairs to Hutch’s apartment two at a time. He walked down the hallway to his friend’s door and knocked in rhythm to his whistling.

 

It took some time – Starsky was compelled to knock again – before he heard footsteps behind the door, accompanied by a series of hm-mms, yeahs and uhms. The door opened, but no one appeared in it. So Starsky curiously pushed it open further to reveal his partner following the telephone cord, which he’d stretched to its limits to open the door, back to the coffee table.

 

As Starsky closed the door, Hutch cast him a welcoming smile, uttering yet another “uh-huh” into the receiver cradled between his cheek and neck. He was holding the phone in one hand and, in the other, a glass filled with a murky, thick liquid that, Starsky knew, was what his health nut of a partner considered breakfast.

 

Hutch’s hair was still wet from a morning shower, and he was barefoot. “Oh really?” he was just saying, a slight smile curling his lips. He took a quick sip of his shake, before adding, “That sounds like fun. But, uh, listen, does…”

 

Considering the way his shoulders slumped, he was obviously reduced to listening again.

 

Starsky wondered whom his friend was talking to. Judging from the behavior of the other party, it could have been Hutch’s father. But there wasn’t any trace of sarcasm in Hutch’s voice; nor did he sound stressed out. In fact, he didn’t seem to mind listening. He just wanted to say something, too.

 

With a shrug, Starsky headed into the kitchen, deciding first of all to help the day keep its promise. Listening to Hutch’s repeated attempts at getting the extremely enthusiastic talker’s attention, he searched the drawers for the chocolate-peanut butter-marshmallow bits cereal he knew had to be there somewhere. He found it and frowned at the lightness of the box. Dreading the outcome of his check, he peeked inside, frowned some more, and then turned the box over and shook it. True enough, nothing fell out.

 

At that moment, Hutch turned to face him. His reaction to Starsky’s mute complaint – shaking the empty box some more – didn’t help to improve the brunet’s plunging mood, though. Hutch just held up his glass in offer, looking for all the world like he meant it.

 

Starsky threw him a scowl, stashed the empty box into the trashcan and grabbed a root beer from the fridge. He had just hopped up onto the kitchen table and took a gulp when Hutch suddenly tore his attention back to the receiver. Apparently, the other party needed to draw in a breath every now and then, after all.

 

“I’m glad you’re having such a wonderful time, sweetie,” Hutch said and then hastily added, “Listen, Megan, is your mom around somewhere, too?”

 

At the mention of the name, Starsky frowned, puzzled at first. Then, he grinned. Megan, Hutch’s little niece, was currently on vacation with her parents – in Paris.

 

“Uh-huh,” Hutch said to Megan’s answer. “I see. Yeah.” He nodded out of reflex. “I understand, honey; but, y’know, you probably would have been bored, anyway.”

 

“Right,” he answered some comment from her. “Grownup stuff. Now listen, Meggie; do they know you’re calling here?”

 

Listening to her reply, Hutch made a face at Starsky, who grinned into his bottle.

 

“No,” Hutch said, “of course I love it when you call. You know that, hon. It’s just that it’s, uh… i-it’s a bit early here.” He waited, then muttered, “Actually, it’s later in Canada.”

 

Starsky’s grin turned into a chuckle.

 

“Yes, I’m sure that’s why she didn’t answer. It’s… hmm? Oh!” Hutch briefly closed his eyes and seemed to swallow a laugh. “Yeah, probably. Hm-mm. Yes. Meg? As much as I’d love to go on talking with you, I gotta go now. I’ve got to go to work. I…”

 

“Hmm?” he interrupted himself, listening, and then rolled his eyes. “Aw, Meg, I don’t…” His halfhearted protests were obviously just an act, though, and in the end, Hutch gave in with a stretched “oookay, but just once.”

 

He set the phone down on the coffee table and started to sing.

 

A soft smile settled on Starsky’s lips, as he listened to the lullaby Hutch had written for his niece years ago: something about a duck called Megan, who never wanted to sleep and, in the end, built a spaceship to fly to the moon.

 

“Well, Meggieberry,” Hutch said, when he was done, “you call me again when you’re back home, okay? Promise? All right. Love you, too, sweetheart. Yes, you… Uh, Meg, it’s really early over here. I don’t think you should call your friend Cindy just now. No, look! Just ask your mom when she’s back, okay? ’Kay. Bye, Meggie.” With that, he hung up and walked over to the kitchen, where he leaned against the breakfast counter.

 

“Missing her Uncle Ken?” Starsky asked.

 

Hutch chuckled and took a sip from his health-shake. “Karen and Harry went out to see a play, and the hotel babysitter fell asleep. Megan tried calling her grandmother in Canada first, but no one answered. Well, at five in the morning… Then, she tried ‘someone else’ in Canada to ask what time it was. But the guy she finally reached only spoke French. So *obviously* she’d called the wrong country anyway.”

 

Starsky nodded playfully. “Sounds like it.”

 

“Right. And then she called me.”

 

“Well,” Starsky concluded, finishing his root beer, “at least she called someone she knew. And maybe,” he added, “next time her folks’ll consider the extra ticket to here. Can’t be more expensive.”

 

Hutch smiled. “Maybe.”

 

It was no secret that he would have loved to see his little niece more often. But only Starsky knew that Karen’s reasons for not asking her older brother to watch Megan for longer times hurt him. A bachelor cop watching her baby?

 

“If they do,” Hutch continued, seemingly having sensed his friend’s knowing glance, “remind me to unplug my phone.”

 

He finished his shake and put the glass on the counter behind him, but he frowned during the motion, as if a thought had just occurred to him. Grabbing Starsky’s wrist, Hutch pretended to check the watch there. “You’re too early to be late,” he observed. “Second time this week, too. Something wrong with your alarm clock?”

 

“Funny,” Starsky replied dryly and hopped off the table. “You ready to go?”

 

“What’s the rush?” Hutch asked, deliberately following him extra-slowly into the makeshift bedroom, where Starsky was picking up Hutch’s jacket and shoulder holster from the bed to hand out to him.

 

“Well, thanks to your under-stocked household,” Starsky explained while practically shoving the two items into Hutch’s arms, “I missed breakfast. And if we don’t leave right now, we won’t have time to stop at the bagel place to get some.”

 

Hutch didn’t even bother looking at his partner, as he threw everything back on the bed, sat down, and grabbed his socks and shoes. “You had breakfast.”

 

“I had a morning snack, so I wouldn’t faint on the way. Will you hurry up?”

 

Hutch remained sitting while he put on his shoulder holster. “It’s not healthy eating that much in the morning, y’know, Starsk? All this ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ stuff is simply cereal-industry propaganda. In fact, stuffing yourself at the beginning of the day makes you drowsy and lethargic.”

 

Starsky rolled his eyes. He was in the living room again, his whole body language urging movement toward the door. “Uh-huh. Last week, it was that too much sugar in the mornings makes me jumpy and hyperactive,” he pointed out.

 

Hutch wasn’t going to falter. “Yes. At first, it does. Then, when the sugar-rush fades, it makes you drowsy and lethargic.” Finally, he stood and picked up his jacket. “Besides, just because you keep forgetting your groceries here, doesn’t mean I have to replace them. You don’t keep food for me at your place, do you?”

 

“Because you seldom pick me up,” Starsky defended himself. Only when Hutch glanced at him, with a wry smile tugging at his lips, did the brunet hear the echo of his own words. “Anyway,” he hastened to add and abruptly turned for the door, “we need to get going.” 

 

 

 

“So she’s having a fun time. That’s great,” Starsky commented when he stopped at a red light.

 

For the past ten minutes, he had been listening to Hutch fill him in on Megan’s Parisian anecdotes, which were mostly food-centered. (Yeah, sure, there was this tower they had looked at for hours, and this shopping street Mommy had been really excited about, and the pictures in this one place that had been pretty… “But you’ll never guess what Daddy ate last night, Uncle Ken!”)

 

“Yeah, sounded like it.” Hutch nodded. “You know something, Starsk? I imagine if you ever go to Paris, I’ll be having almost the same conversation.”

 

Starsky snorted. “You won’t see me going there with someone who eats snails,” he stated.

 

“Dunno. With peanut butter, maybe you’d like them.”

 

Starsky started but then seemed to consider that point. “Hmm. What do they taste like?”

 

Hutch glanced at him, then ahead again. He shrugged. “Like snails.”

 

“I once ate an earthworm.” When no immediate answer came, Starsky looked at his friend expectantly. “Well?”

 

“Well, what?”

 

“Well, do snails taste like earthworms?”

 

Hutch opened his mouth. Hesitated. Closed it again. “Yep.”

 

“Oh. Then, I won’t like snails.” Starsky shrugged. The light turned green, and he drove on.

 

“Wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Hutch replied. “The way they serve snails, it’s all about grease and butter – very unhealthy. You eat vegetables when they’re fried,” he added as an afterthought.

 

 “Now, that’s true. Maybe I should try them sometime,” Starsky said matter-of-factly. He pulled over at the bagel shop that he had decided was “on their way.” But the moment he opened his door, dispatch called them.

 

With a groan, Starsky let himself fall back into his seat.

 

Hutch picked up the mike. “Zebra Three.”

 

“Anonymous caller reporting an assault on Dock 14; that is –”

 

“Yeah, I *know*; that’s close,” Starsky cut the emotionless voice off and slammed his door shut again while already starting the engine.

 

“We’re responding,” Hutch translated for dispatch and put back the mike. He had to grab hold of the dashboard when his partner turned the car around. Throwing Starsky a warning glare, he rummaged about for the Mars light and then stuck it onto the roof.

 

“Why is it that whenever *I* want to get something to eat, I get a call instead?” Starsky ranted, waving one arm angrily. “Are you setting these things up?” he snapped at his partner.

 

“Sure. I pay half the city to try and slaughter each other whenever you get that hungry look of yours.”

 

“Knew it,” Starsky muttered.

 

The scene that awaited them at their destination didn’t look like a crime in progress. All they found was a hunched-over woman with curly blonde hair, sitting on a bench and holding her head. Her shoulders were shaking.

 

Starsky parked the Torino a little distance from her and exchanged a frown with Hutch. They stepped out of the car, senses on “aware-mode.” But neither of them could make out anything threatening. The wind was brisk, a little chilly even, and gulls shrieked from above the water.

 

To one side, a large pile of wooden boxes seemed to have been abandoned. On the other, benches stretched far down the walkway, providing passers-by with an opportunity to sit and enjoy staring at the foggy horizon. The wobbly silhouettes of ships leaned unmoving against the gray wallpaper that was the sky.

 

Hutch was the first to address the woman, as he and Starsky stepped closer. The partners could hear her quiet sobs now, and they could see a ripped hole in her tight, black jeans, just over her knee.

 

“Uh… miss?”

 

The woman didn’t flinch, but looked up instantly. Starsky winced in sympathy. An ugly, bluish bruise surrounded one of her sad, brown eyes, and blood had dried in one corner of her mouth, as well as under her nose.

 

She sniffed. “Y-yeah?” She didn’t seem scared of them or even grateful for their arrival. All she seemed to be was sad.

 

“Police,” Hutch explained, flashing his badge at her. “We had a call about an assault. Are you all right?”

 

She blinked a few times, as if trying to process the information.

 

“Can you tell us what happened, Miss…?” Starsky asked.

 

The woman moved her head to look at the empty space between them. “Jarod took the car,” she muttered. It looked like she was about to cry again.

 

Hutch frowned, concerned, and sat down on the bench next to her. “What’s your name?” he asked gently.

 

She didn’t look at him. “Kathryn… Norren.”

 

“All right, Miss Norren. I’m Detective Hutchinson; this is Detective Starsky. This Jarod… that your boyfriend?” He ducked his head a little to look at her tear-streaked face.

 

She nodded.

 

“Did he do this to you?” Starsky asked.

 

“I shouldn’t have said, ‘no,’” she whimpered. “He gets so angry when I say, ‘no.’” A sob caught in her throat, and she blinked more tears down her bruised cheeks.

 

Starsky and Hutch exchanged a dismayed look. Before Hutch could suggest getting her to a doctor, though, the woman added, “But it wasn’t my fault.”

 

She looked up at Hutch, seeking understanding.

 

With a soft shushing sound, he touched her shoulder. “Of course not, it –”

 

“Lilly,” she muttered over his words. “Lilly didn’t want to leave the car. Said she was afraid of the sea gulls.” Kathryn shook her head. There was no anger in her voice.

 

“Afraid of the fucking sea gulls. How am I gonna get back?” she added, changing the topic out of nowhere. “Jarod took the car.”

 

“We’ll take care of it,” Hutch promised. “Don’t worry. Now, who is Lilly?” He dreaded the answer, knowing he already knew it – sensed that Starsky knew it, too. “Miss Norren?”

 

“Lilly doesn’t mean it,” she mumbled, instead of answering; then she looked up into Hutch’s face again, suddenly urgent. “I keep telling her not to make Jarod mad. But she won’t listen. Or maybe she doesn’t understand…” Her eyes wandered off. “I don’t know.”

 

“Miss Norren.” Hutch lightly squeezed her shoulder. “Lilly. Is that your daughter?”

 

“Yeah,” Kathryn sighed. “I don’t know. Sea gulls… No one’s afraid of sea gulls.” The sentence was marked by a little laugh.

 

Hutch wondered if the woman had taken anything. “Where is your daughter now?” he asked.

 

It appeared to the detective as if she had only now registered that Lilly wasn’t in sight. The movement with which she briefly looked around seemed more like a reflex than a real attempt to spot the child.

 

“Around here. She must be hiding. She’s always hiding,” Kathryn told Hutch and then looked up at Starsky, smiling in a “you know, kids” kind of way.

 

Starsky didn’t return the smile. “How old is she?” he asked.

 

“She’s five,” Kathryn replied and looked around again, bending forward, as if it were possible to see into some hidden places on the dock that way. “She’s always hiding,” she muttered.

 

“Must be around here somewhere. Lilly?” the woman called out and then shrugged when no answer came. “Probably behind those boxes there. Somewhere. She knows where I am.”

 

“Could she have been in the car with Jarod?” Hutch asked.

 

The woman didn’t seem to notice the sudden coldness in his voice or the suspicious frowns the detectives cast her. She shook her head. “She wasn’t in the car before. She knows she mustn’t get in the car, unless Jarod tells her to.” Her face crumbled a bit. “And he took off,” she whined.

 

“Did he hit her too?” Starsky asked sternly.

 

Kathryn sniffed. She didn’t seem to have heard him.

 

“Miss Norren,” Starsky pressed, bending forward to look down into her face. “Did Jarod hit Lilly?”

 

“No,” she said.

 

“He’s not her father, is he?”

 

“No,” she repeated and then turned to Hutch. “How am I gonna get back?”

 

He stared at her for a moment, trying to decide whether her pupils looked enlarged. “Don’t worry,” he assured her. “We’ll drive you. We’ll take you to a doctor. Everything will be okay. But we have to find Lilly first, all right?”

 

He paused briefly, watching the woman closely for any reaction to his suggestion. But there was none. How he managed to keep his anger out of his voice was beyond him. “D’you have any idea where she might be hiding? Where did you last see her?”

 

“I don’t know,” Kathryn replied.

 

“Was she with you when Jarod left?” Starsky asked.

 

She glanced at him sadly. “Jarod took the car.”

 

Starsky let go a deep breath. Hutch could practically sense him trying to keep a hold of himself. “Yes, we know that. But when he did, where was Lilly? Was she here, with you?”

 

“Jarod told her to get out when we got here,” Kathryn said. “Lilly didn’t wanna go… because of the sea gulls. Jarod yelled at her, and she ran off.” She shook her head. “I told her so often not to talk back to him. She’s a good kid, usually,” the woman added, seeking Hutch’s eyes.

 

He nodded.

 

“I tried to tell him that, but he was so mad. I wanted to go after her – just for a moment,” she explained urgently. “Just to check, to tell her to stay close. I was gonna come back to him, I swear. But he wouldn’t believe it. And then he left,” she finished in a whine. “He’ll be mad when we get home.”

 

Hutch felt his partner’s gaze on him and met it briefly. There was no way they’d let a five-year-old go back to a “home” like that. This was a case for a different department. First, though, they had to find the girl.

 

“It’s gonna be all right,” Hutch promised the distraught woman, lightly rubbing her arm. “We’ll take you home, and we’ll take care of it. Don’t worry.” He cast her a smile, earning a shy one in return, and stood up.

 

“A sure candidate for the Mother of the Year Award, don’t you think?” Starsky muttered, as they turned a bit away from the bench.

 

Hutch grimaced. “Yeah. You start looking for the girl with her, and I’ll call it in, okay? I have a feeling we’ll need someone from Child Services there when we arrive, or we’ll lose her.”

 

Starsky nodded. He glanced at the woman huddled on her bench. “Someone’s already lost her,” he observed.

 

Hutch sighed. “Yeah.”

 

The partners exchanged a grim look; then Starsky patted Hutch’s arm, as if to comfort them both, and turned back to Kathryn Norren. Hutch heard him promise to take both her and Lilly home, once they’d found her daughter, as he marched over to the Torino.

 

 

 

Starsky did most of the yelling. Every so often, he encouraged the mother to call for Lilly, as well – trying his best not to actually order her to do so. But Kathryn seemed too distressed about Jarod’s leaving to do anything but trot along at his side. The detective doubted he’d ever seen a mother as indifferent to her child’s whereabouts as she was. And it made him furious.

 

“Lilly!” he called out once more, as they rounded another corner of high-piled wooden boxes. “Lilly Norren! It’s the police! Your mom’s looking for you!”

 

Up until that time, there had been no answer, although they had already been looking for five minutes. How far had the kid run off? Or was she scared of her mother, as well? Maybe she could hear him but was staying hidden, nevertheless, too scared of the consequences of talking back to this Jarod flake.

 

At that thought, Starsky glanced at Kathryn. She was staring off into the other direction, clearly not looking, but just strolling through her own little world of anxiety. He had watched Hutch check out her eyes earlier and was starting to wonder himself.

 

“Miss Norren?” Starsky touched her arm.

 

She didn’t appear to be startled. In slow motion, her head turned towards him. “Yes?”

 

“I think it’d be good if you called Lilly again. Maybe she’ll come out then. She doesn’t know me.” And she’s five years old, he added silently.

 

Kathryn smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “She knows she’s supposed to come when she’s called,” she told him.

 

But Lilly didn’t come.

 

The pair had walked through the first row of boxes and come out at the pier. Ahead, stood more piles. Starsky could hear voices in the distance. He assumed that workers had started to load up the trucks at the other end of the next two heaps.

 

He didn’t think that he and Kathryn could have missed Lilly in the labyrinth of boxes they had just crossed. So, either she had to be hiding between the boxes ahead of them or she had wandered farther off towards the dock buildings, or…

 

Dread spread inside Starsky, and his gaze wandered over to the steep edge of the pier, as if by its own will. The morning was windy. If a little girl stood close enough to the edge…

 

Inconspicuously, he strolled closer to the brink and peered down at the troubled water. A little farther back were steps half covered by water, and as he watched, a bottle drifted by. There were no signs of an accident, no pieces of clothing, not even a shoe or a toy. Kathryn hadn’t been able to remember if Lilly had taken a stuffed animal or doll with her, but somehow Starsky assumed that she had.

 

Anyway, he thought, if a little girl had fallen down here, there would have been a scream, wouldn’t there? Someone would have heard her.

 

As if on cue, the distant voices grew louder, as the wind quieted down for a second. Then, it rose, swallowing them again. Starsky frowned. If Lilly were hiding in the other heap of boxes – the one right before them – then she’d hear the voices, too. She might even be scared of them. After all, they were gruff, male dock workers’ voices.

 

He glanced at his silent companion. Kathryn had walked up beside him and also looked down into the water, apparently not for the same reason he had looked down, though.

 

“I think we should try the buildings,” he told her, waving in their general direction.

 

Kathryn nodded without looking up. “The water looks cold,” she said.

 

“The water is cold,” Starsky muttered in reply and walked away from the edge, one arm reaching out for her in a gentlemanly gesture.

 

She turned around, frowned suddenly and then drew her head sharply to one side, staring at the rows of boxes next to them – the ones they had already searched through.

 

“Lilly.” Her voice didn’t sound surprised, not even startled. It was just an observation: Look, it’s Lilly.

 

Puzzled, Starsky stepped back, until he too could see the little blonde girl standing between a wooden box twice her size and the edge of the pier.

 

To Starsky, she looked very pale. Her brown eyes were wide open, and the left sleeve of her light blue dress was torn. Both arms hung limply at her sides. Only, while the left arm ended with a clenched fist, the right one ended with a tightly clenched gun. A big gun that shook with her trembling fingers. And the safety switch was pulled back.

 

Starsky swallowed. Absurdly, the thought crossed his mind that she had taken a toy with her after all. He glanced at Kathryn, who hadn’t moved an inch. She was staring at the gun.

 

“That’s Jarod’s,” she stated, sounding more alarmed that her daughter had taken Jarod’s property than that the property itself was a fatal weapon.

 

From what little information Starsky had gained about Jarod, he doubted the guy would keep his gun unloaded. So, he waited, looking from mother to daughter and back, but nothing happened. Lilly didn’t speak, and she didn’t look at her mother once. Her gaze was fixed on Starsky.

 

After what felt like an hour, Starsky smiled reassuringly at the little girl. “Hi, Lilly,” he said. “I’m Dave.” He waited, and when still nothing happened, he took a step towards her. “I’m a co –”

 

The gun came up so fast, it was a miracle it didn’t go off by accident. A little gasp was all Lilly uttered, as she pointed the terribly shaking gun at the detective. It was obviously very heavy for her, and after a moment, she brought her left arm up to steady the butt in her palm. Starsky had to admit it looked very professional.

 

He had sensed Kathryn flinching behind, but she didn’t say anything. From the corner of his eye, Starsky could see the woman staring at her daughter. Carefully, he lifted his hands, watching the child very closely. She was terrified, that much was sure. There was an old bruise on her cheekbone and another on her forehead, underneath her hairline. Well, he’d only asked if Jarod had hit her *today*, hadn’t he?

 

“Lilly,” he said calmly, “I’m a cop. I’m here to help you and your mom. Nothing will happen to you.”

 

He waited.

 

Again, nothing happened. The girl was breathing hard. She had sucked in her lower lip, as if concentrating while painting a picture. The look of helpless terror in her eyes was a striking contrast to her size and baby-like features.

 

God, five years old! Starsky wondered where the girl had even learned what it was that she was pointing at him. How could a five-year-old know that certain things could do harm – or could protect you? Did she know it could kill, too? Did she know what that was… to kill?

 

“My partner and I will help you,” he tried again. “We’ll take your mom to a doctor. And you, too. And we’ll see to it that you won’t have to be scared anymore.”

 

Nothing indicated that she understood he wasn’t alone. No side-glances, no increasing nervousness, nothing.

 

You’re thinking of grownups, Starsky chided himself. She’s not nervous; she’s terrified.

 

He glanced at Kathryn. Surely, hearing her mother’s voice would reassure Lilly, wouldn’t it? But the mother kept on staring at her daughter, as if she were watching a scene from a movie.

 

What the fuck’s *wrong* with you, lady?

 

“Lilly…” Ever so carefully, Starsky lowered one arm to reach out to her. “You know it’s dangerous to play with that thing, don’t you? I’m sure… I’m sure your mom told you.” He paused, but the mother didn’t confirm his statement. “Give it to me, okay? I know you don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

 

The gun shook harder, as the girl took a stumbling step back. Starsky held his breath. It was only a matter of time until the gun would go off, with Lilly rattling it the way she was.

 

“Lilly, please,” he said more urgently. “No one’s gonna hurt you. But you need to give me that…”

 

Whether it was a reflex action or she meant to do it, Starsky didn’t know, but the girl curled her finger tighter around the trigger. If she were to so much as move again, it definitely would go off. And though she was pointing the gun roughly at him, there was no telling what, or whom, she would hit. If it did happen, Starsky could only hope he’d be the target. The alternative was unthinkable.

 

He licked sweat off his lower lip, feeling his breath stick in his lungs. Why the hell didn’t that woman *say* anything, for Christ’s sake?

 

Lilly had started glancing at her mother, her gaze flickering from Kathryn to Starsky and back. The detective couldn’t tell, though, if the glances were expectant or reassuring, help-seeking or something else. Was Lilly protecting her mother – or herself, since her mom was here with yet another man.

 

Starsky couldn’t help thinking that Kathryn’s version of what had happened with Jarod back at the car must have been a daydream. He was sure Jarod had threatened the girl enough to leave her almost in shock. At least, that was what it looked like. What could anyone possibly say to a five-year-old to freak her out like that?

 

Starsky was trying to determine what to say next himself, when he saw Hutch sneaking around the corner of a large wooden box behind Lilly. He must have approached quietly behind the row, having overheard Starsky talking to Lilly. Noticing Starsky’s look, Hutch nodded slowly and made a “stay-cool” signal with his hands.

 

Starsky drew in a much-needed breath, only now realizing how long he’d held it, and said, “Your mom’s been worried about you.”

 

Lilly’s eyes flew to her mother. She looked like she was about to say something, but in the end, she just mouthed the word, “Mommy,” no sound leaving her throat. Still, she watched Kathryn expectantly.

 

Starsky nodded at Hutch. Their eyes locked – and they jumped at the same time. Starsky pushed Kathryn down, protecting her body with his own, as a shot rang out. Simultaneously, Hutch grabbed Lilly from behind, jerking up the hands that held the gun, so the bullet met nothing but empty air. Lilly never even screamed.

 

They should have been safe.

 

It looked safe. But the ground was wet and slippery, they were close to the edge, and Lilly was light and small, not some bull of a man you needed to knock down to disarm. Whatever the reason, Hutch slipped, still holding the girl – shielding her, as he fell backwards over the edge. There was a sickening thud, and then the splash of bodies hitting the water.

 

Starsky was on his feet in a flash, almost falling into the water himself, he bent so far over the edge. Now, he could see what had caused the “thud.” Hutch and Lilly and fallen down just where the stone stairs were. He could see a strain of red on one step, and the dark water was quickly turning red, too.

 

“Hutch!” Starsky yelled. “Lilly!”

 

For an agonizing moment, nothing happened. Then, Hutch’s head burst through the surface. He was coughing and spitting out water.

 

“Hutch! You okay?”

 

Hutch didn’t seem to hear. He was looking around wildly, sending drops flying around his head. “Lilly!” It was more a croak than a scream. “Lilly!”

 

As he dived back into the water, Starsky saw a streak of red follow him, then fade in the water. “Oh, my God!”

 

Hutch must’ve hit the stairs with his shoulder or arm and let go of the girl. 

 

Starsky’s eyes roved the water, while his hands automatically started to remove his jacket.

 

“Hutch!” It was futile. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” He wasn’t even aware of his muttering, as he threw aside his holster.

 

From the corner of his eye, he saw Kathryn step up to the edge of the pier and stare down at the reddish water silently. For the briefest moment, Starsky envisioned grabbing her and rattling her ’til her teeth clattered. Why hadn’t she said anything? Why hadn’t she talked to her child? Why had her five-year-old daughter had a fucking *gun*?

 

Then, he was in the water, breaking through the surface again almost at the same time as Hutch did.

 

“Hutch!”  He grabbed the blond; the blood on Hutch’s arm was warm even in the ice-cold water. “You get out, now!” Starsky ordered sternly.

 

But Hutch was frantic. He looked around wildly, paying no attention to his friend.

 

“Lilly!” he yelled, coughing when he swallowed water. “I-I-I can’t find her!” His voice was hoarse and high-pitched. “I let go of her. I can’t find her! Lilly!”

 

“Hutch, you need to get out of here,” Starsky told him. Hutch’s lips had taken on a blue tinge, and the brunet couldn’t tell if he was pale just from the cold or from blood loss.

 

“Hutch!” he snapped when his friend didn’t seem to be listening to him. “You’re hurt. I’ll look for her.”

 

“Sh-she… she hit her head,” Hutch croaked. “I felt it. She hit her head on the steps. God, Lilly! Lilly!” After looking wildly about, he turned to Starsky again. His eyes were as wide as Lilly’s had been. “I let go of her!”

 

“You’re bleeding,” Starsky said by way of repeating his order. He found it difficult to drag Hutch back to the stairs, since the blond was no help. But knowing that he needed to go look for the kid again, Starsky managed.

 

“You get up there now,” he panted, placing Hutch’s hand on the slippery stone of a step.

 

Three men in dirty work clothes had appeared and were hovering near Kathryn with curious looks on their faces. Upon seeing the men in the water, two of them hurried over to the stairs to help pull Hutch out.

 

“We heard a shot,” said one, a black-haired, muscle-packed guy in his 30s. It was more a question than an explanation.

 

“Yeah,” Starsky said breathlessly. “Call for an ambulance. A little girl fell into the water.”

 

The man raced off without another question. His two companions, however, stayed where they were, staring into the water as if looking for the kid that way.

 

Starsky dived in again, trusting the two workers to keep Hutch from going after him. The water was dark and murky, troubled by the wind. Three times, Starsky dived as deep as he could, swam farther out… but Lilly remained hidden in the cold grip of the ocean.

 

He wouldn’t find her; he knew that. Hopefully, the search boat would.

 

Underwater, he closed his eyes. Damn. He headed for the stairs.

 

Hutch sat on the first step of the stairs, shivering hard. Neither of the remaining workers was wearing a jacket, and they obviously thought that the silent mother needed more attention than the wide-eyed detective.

 

Starsky felt badly shaking hands grab his shoulders to help him onto the stairs; then they turned him around, so he looked into Hutch’s pale face. Starsky shook his head.

 

“Fuck,” one of the workers said in a heartfelt manner.

 

Hutch bowed his head, a sob catching in his throat. His hands fell from Starsky’s shoulders as if he’d lost his grip, but one found Starsky’s ankle, instead, and clung to it as if it were a safety rope.

 

“I couldn’t find her,” he muttered.

 

Starsky reached out to squeeze his neck comfortingly. The skin under his hands was freezing cold. That was no surprise; Starsky was shivering himself. Still, he thought it was another cold he felt there. Out of reflex, he squeezed harder as if that would provide warmth.

 

“It’s okay,” he soothed. “’S’okay, Hutch. Let’s take a look at your arm. C’mon.”

 

Hutch didn’t move. “I let go of her. How could I let go of her? How could I pull her into the water? I should’ve pushed her away. Shouldn’t have held on like that. Sh-should’ve…” A coughing fit cut him off.

 

“Come on,” Starsky said gently. He stood up, practically dragging Hutch along with him onto the pier.

 

Hutch was shaking, and now Starsky could see that the blood had come from a good-sized gash on the blond’s right upper arm. The sleeve was drenched in blood.

 

Starsky winced. “Aw, buddy, we need to do something about this, until the medics come.”

 

Spotting a small, wooden box nearby, he attempted to lead Hutch there. But he was taken by surprise when his partner jerked out of his grasp and marched over to where Kathryn still stood, staring down into the blue that had swallowed her child.

 

“Why did she have a gun?” Hutch yelled and grabbed the woman with both hands to turn her to him. She didn’t reply. Her empty eyes settled on his, but her mouth stayed close.

 

“Why did she have a gun?” he yelled again, rattling her. Blood smeared on her shirt, yet neither of them seemed to notice. “How could a five-year-old have a fucking gun? Why didn’t you go look for her? Why did you let her run away with a gun? How could you do this? How could you let your child –”

 

“Hutch!” Starsky cut him off. Totally startled by his friend’s outburst, he grabbed Hutch’s shoulders to tear him away from the silent woman. “Let her go! Come on, let her go!”

 

“What kind of mother are you?” Hutch exclaimed over his partner’s words, too caught up in his own wrath to hear him. “She’s five years old! How could you let her have a gun?”

 

A deep wince cut off any other accusing questions he wanted to yell into Kathryn’s face, and he let go of her, falling down on his knees in the same motion.

 

Kathryn didn’t step away. As she had done with the water before, she now stared down at Hutch, who held his bleeding arm, his head hanging and his eyes squeezed shut.

 

Starsky had gone down with Hutch, trying to break his fall. Now, he knelt next to him, supporting his good shoulder.

 

The two workers had watched the whole scene from a safe distance, but at Starsky’s quick glare, they swiftly approached Kathryn and gently took her arms to lead her away. Their soothing words followed them as if carried on the wind.

 

From another direction, Starsky thought he heard sirens. Absently, he scanned the area before turning to his partner again. “Hutch, let go. C’mon, I need to check this out.” Eventually, he managed to peel the blond’s hand away from the wound. “Okay. Okay, babe. The medics’ll be here in a second. It’s okay. Doesn’t look too bad.”

 

He was rambling. It looked horrible – not the injury, but everything else. With his bleeding arm hanging limply at his side, Hutch sat on the ground, shivering.

 

Gently, Starsky removed Hutch’s soaked jacket to use it as a makeshift bandage; then he grabbed his own to lay around his partner’s quaking shoulders. “It’s okay,” he lied a hundred times. “Everything will be all right.”

 

“I tried to hold onto her,” Hutch muttered over his partner’s words. He was staring at the dirty ground before him. Small drops of red had fallen onto it, forming a strange pattern.

 

 “It was an accident, Hutch,” Starsky stated, as if this were a new addition to his litany of “it’s okays.”

 

“Suddenly she was gone. How could I let go of her?” Hutch’s voice dropped to a whisper. “She must’ve been so afraid.”

 

Starsky couldn’t help thinking Hutch sounded afraid himself.

 

“Hey.” He placed his hand on Hutch’s cold cheek to make the blond look at him. “She hit her head. It was an accident. No one would have been able to hold onto her with a gash like that on his arm.” Not to mention, it was saltwater that Hutch had fallen into. The pain must have been excruciating.

 

The sound of sirens was definitely growing louder now. Starsky sighed in relief, as he looked up to watch for the medics’ arrival. All the while, he continued to gently rub Hutch’s back to warm him.

 

“I never should have grabbed her like that,” Hutch mumbled. “Should’ve said something. Distracted her. Played it differently.”

 

Starsky looked into his friend’s eyes again. “The girl was terrified. She might have shot you.” At the unspoken words in Hutch’s gaze, he firmly added, “Or someone else. Hell, she could’ve hit her mother.”

 

A particularly hard shiver ran down Hutch’s spine, and Starsky tightened his hold on him. “Easy, buddy. Help is here.”

 

A second later, the ambulance arrived.

 

 

 

At the moment, Hutch’s strength didn’t match his stubbornness, and he would never have been able to convince the medics to let him stay. After they’d patched up his arm and given him a blanket, they had said he needed stitches and rest and, if possible, an overnight hospital stay to check on his obvious symptoms of shock. What he didn’t need was to wait in the chilly wind, swaying on unsteady legs and watching the search boat fish trash out of the murky water.

 

But the medics didn’t know Hutch as well as Starsky did. One look from the blond had been enough – no begging, no argument this time. Starsky understood.

 

“I’ll drive him to the hospital when we’re done here,” he informed the grumbling medics in a tone that made it clear that that *was* what would happen. “Thank you.”

 

“Cops,” they growled.

 

Starsky shrugged, watched them leave and then walked over to where Hutch was sitting on a wooden box. Like Starsky, he was wrapped in a woolen blanket. He looked a bit better, though still pale. When Starsky put a hand on his shoulder, he smiled up at him.

 

“Thanks.”

 

Starsky grimaced. “Yeah. Don’t get used to it.” Lifting his head, he looked over at the boat. “How’s it going?”

 

“Nothing yet,” Hutch said gloomily.

 

Starsky lightly squeezed the nape of his friend’s neck.

 

“I can’t believe I yelled at the poor woman like that,” Hutch muttered.

 

Starsky followed his gaze to where Kathryn stood on the very edge of the pier, right across from the boat. Unmoving as ever, she, too, had been handed a blanket. The workers, who’d hovered close by her at first, had left. Now, she stood alone.

 

Starsky shook his head lightly, as if just at himself. “I would’ve done it myself if you hadn’t beat me to it,” he said. “Something’s very wrong with her.”

 

“But it’s not her fault,” Hutch said.

 

“No,” Starsky replied, glancing down at the damp, blond hair. “I know. It’s no one’s fault.”

 

Hutch didn’t answer.

 

“I called Dobey,” Starsky said after a moment’s pause. “Metro will check out this Jarod, see if he has a record. He definitely abused Lilly. She had bruises on her face.”

 

“I never even saw her face,” Hutch said quietly.

 

“Dobey said you can take today off. He wants you to talk to Weil when you get in.”

 

“Yeah,” Hutch said sarcastically. “Of course.”

 

Dr. Sandra Weil was the department psychiatrist.

                 

Starsky hesitated a moment; then he squeezed Hutch’s shoulder. “You know… maybe it’s a good idea.” That earned him a doubtful glance. After all, Starsky’s dislike (edging on loathing) of Dr. Weil was well-known. His involuntary appointments tended to result in the doctor taking a week off.

 

“Oh, really?” Hutch asked. “Why? I’m not the one who lost a kid today. Well, in a way I did, I guess,” he added dryly.

 

“Hutch…”

 

“No, Starsk. I let her drown. A five-year-old girl. What is there to talk about?”

 

Starsky waited until Hutch looked up at him. “You know, the girl could have killed someone: you, me, her mother. Imagine that.”

 

Hutch snorted. “Each of us would gladly switch places with her, don’t you think?”

 

Starsky softened his expression, as well as his voice. “I was thinking about what it would’ve done to * her*.”

 

There was a long pause before Hutch averted his eyes. “If I hadn’t slipped, no one would’ve gotten hurt, or killed.”

 

“If Kathryn had spoken to her,” Starsky said, “if Jarod hadn’t scared the shit out of her, if he hadn’t left his gun lying around in the car, if her life had been different, if I had made the call to the precinct… It was an accident, Hutch.”

 

Hutch nodded with his eyes closed. “Yeah, I… I know that, Starsky. I know.” He reached up to put his hand over Starsky’s on his shoulder.

 

They sat in silence for a while. The search group still had found nothing.

 

“God,” Hutch muttered eventually, “she was so small. She must’ve been so scared.”

 

It was the second time Starsky had heard his partner say that. He frowned, but Hutch didn’t notice. “She was scared before,” he pointed out. “She was terrified.”

 

Hutch kept his eyes on the boat. “I know, Starsk, but… she must’ve felt like… like someone… She didn’t just die; she was killed.”

 

Although he knew those could have been his words – if their roles had been reversed – Starsky couldn’t keep the anger from mingling with the worry. “Hey.” He firmly tapped Hutch’s shoulder to make him look at him. “She died.”

 

He paused for emphasis, lifting his eyebrows at his friend as if expecting an answer. “It was an accident, and she died. She hit her head. She never felt anything. She must’ve been unconscious right away, or she’d have made it back to the surface at least once.” Another pause, then he continued urgently, “She wasn’t scared of you, and you didn’t kill her.”

 

Hutch scowled. “I know that.”

 

Starsky held the blond’s gaze for a moment longer. “Good.”

 

But he knew it wasn’t what Hutch really felt. What Hutch felt was the powerful tug of water as it tore a lifeless little body out of his arms… and then nothing.

 

 

 

The searchers still hadn’t located the girl’s body by the time Starsky found he couldn’t stand it any longer. Using his “I let you stay this long, didn’t I?” card, he coerced Hutch into going to the hospital, where his arm was sutured.

 

Upon reading the medics’ notes about Hutch’s earlier condition, the attending doctor suggested keeping the blond overnight, but Hutch wouldn’t have any of it. So, with a prescription for pain killers and an order to keep an eye out for any returning symptoms, he was released.

 

The partners were halfway to Venice Place when Hutch noticed where they were heading. “Hey, where’re we going?”

 

Starsky glanced at him, surprised. “Your place. You’re off ’til tomorrow, don’t you remember?”

 

“If I wanna be,” Hutch corrected. “Which I don’t.”

 

“Why would you wanna go to work? There’s Dr. Weird waiting for you, and you’re not street-fit, anyway. It’d be a paperwork afternoon; d’you want that?”

 

“With me not street-fit, it’s a paperwork afternoon for you no matter what I decide, Gordo. So, why aren’t you proclaiming your gratitude and turning around?”

 

“Because there’s still Dr. Weird.”

 

Hutch frowned. “Who’s not waiting for *you*. And didn’t you say talking to her would probably be a good idea just a few hours ago?”

 

“I changed my mind,” Starsky replied. “It’s a bad idea. I know this woman. She’ll weird you out, too. Can’t let that happen. Better I go today and you talk to her substitute tomorrow.”

 

Hutch rolled his eyes. “Starsky, I don’t want to go home.”

 

“Oh? Well, nothing can stop you from taking your own car once we’re there. Except for your arm… and your car.”

 

“Starsk, I mean it.”

 

Starsky’s open mouth – ready to shoot back another reply – closed. He pressed his lips together and nodded once. “Hmm. Okay. Just…” His voice had lost its playfulness. “You’re hurting, you’re high on pain killers, you can only type with one hand, and your clothes are salty. Why would you *wanna* go to work right now?”

 

Hutch clenched his jaws. For a long, long moment, he said nothing.

 

“Distraction.”

 

Starsky pulled over suddenly. With his hands still on the steering wheel, he looked directly at Hutch. “Distraction,” he repeated.

 

Hutch nodded. “Yeah.”

 

Starsky eyed him, thinking. At last, he snorted slightly, as if he’d just lost an inner argument, and started the engine. “Wanna drop by your place to change? You smell like something the cat dragged out of a goldfish bowl.”

 

“I do not,” Hutch replied through a smile. “But okay.”

 

 

 

You don’t look very distracted, Starsky thought as he tore yet another sheet of paper out of his typewriter, crumbled it and aimed a three-point shot at the wastepaper basket. He missed. You look awful.

 

And Hutch did. Ever since his talk with Dr. Weil, which had only taken 20 minutes, he had looked even worse. But, then again, that came as no surprise to Starsky. Dr. Weil could make you feel like Armageddon was something to look forward to.

 

The precinct still hadn’t received any news on Lilly Norren’s body when the partners had arrived at Metro, but Kathryn apparently had been taken to the psych ward for observation. She still hadn’t spoken.

 

Hutch didn’t seem like he would be far behind her. A mumbled “okay” to Starsky’s question about how it’d gone with Dr. Weird had been the last word he’d said to his friend... and that had been hours ago.

 

Hutch’s typing was, of course, slow, due to his limited number of typing hands. But sometimes it would stop altogether, and Hutch would sit staring at the paper, machine or desk, or – more likely – at the past taped in front of his eyes. Whenever he sensed Starsky’s worried look on him, he’d snap out of it and return to typing.

 

Starsky was thinking about innocent-sounding ways to drag his partner into a conversation, when he caught the half-swallowed moan coming from the other desk. He glanced up in time to see a deep wince gradually fade from Hutch’s features, which still looked strained, though.

 

“Hurting pretty bad now, huh?” Starsky asked gently. “It’s been awhile. Maybe you should take another pain pill.” Or two or three. Or go home and sleep it all off.

 

Hutch waved dismissively. “I’m all right. I’ll take one tonight. No need to OD myself over this.”

 

Even if it hadn’t lacked any sarcasm, that sentence would have justified the inner flinch it caused Starsky. Why did he feel so edgy? Hearing double-meanings now!

 

“I just don’t want you to hurt,” he said and almost frowned at himself.

 

Surprised, Hutch looked up from his machine, where he’d just rolled in a new sheet of paper. He smiled slightly. “I’m really okay.”

 

Maybe Starsky wasn’t the only one hearing more than what was being said. Why should he be? Cases like this brought that sort of thing along. A child’s death infiltrated everything –  every word you said.

 

It would pass.

 

Hutch’s phone rang. “Hutchison.” A shadow settled on his face. He listened quietly for a brief moment and then hung up with a muttered “thanks.” His eyes found his partner’s.

 

Suddenly, Starsky felt tired. He leaned back in his chair with a sigh and ran a hand over his face.

 

“Maybe we should try to find out who her father is,” Hutch said into the silence. “Someone should tell him.”

 

Starsky shot him a glance that Hutch didn’t catch.

 

“Not us,” the brunet replied. He highly doubted that Lilly’s death would come as a surprise to her father. Besides, Hutch didn’t really seem to have meant it, anyway. He didn’t react to his partner’s reply, but sat still, staring off into empty air.

 

Starsky decided to let him be for a while and returned to his work: reports on crimes that were weeks old. Robberies, murders, drive-by shootings, a family quarrel that had turned fatal – just the kind of world in which a five-year-old would run away from an abusive stepfather, carrying a gun and scared enough to kill somebody.

 

“What did she look like?”

 

Startled at Hutch’s question, Starsky blinked. “What?”

 

“I never saw her face,” Hutch reminded him. “What did she look like – Lilly?”

 

“Older than five,” Starsky replied.

 

Hutch grimaced. “I can imagine.”

 

“A lot like her mom,” Starsky continued. “Brown eyes.” He shuddered at the memory. No child should have eyes like that. “She didn’t look like a Lilly at all.”

 

He didn’t know where that had come from, and he noticed Hutch’s bemused look; but it was true. Lilly was the kind of name happy people had – a name for a beautiful life.

 

Maybe she could have become a Lilly. Strangely, Starsky felt like he had just read Hutch’s mind, although the thought had been his own. Lilly could have become a happy person. They could have helped her. They could have made a difference.

 

His eyes met Hutch’s.

 

Right. And then we could’ve gone to free the Roswell aliens.

 

Mind-reading again.

 

“You know something, Starsk?” Hutch suddenly said, his voice as tired as Starsky felt. “I think I’m not up to a whole day of work after all. Drive me home? I’ll buy you a beer on the way.”

 

“Sounds like a plan,” Starsky agreed and stood, leaving in typed mid-sentence.

 

 

 

It was because of the arm, Starsky decided. Everything was. Because of his injured arm, Hutch hadn’t been able to hold onto Lilly… and because of it, he now couldn’t let go. The blond wouldn’t be street-fit for at least three more days, but he refused to stay home and give his body time to heal, arguing that he needed the distraction. All of which would have been fine with Starsky if only he believed you actually *could* distract yourself with paperwork.

 

Paperwork, though, was the summary of everything bad you came across when working a particular case. There were no side stories in paperwork, no talking to snitches or meeting people or coming up with a bunch of case tactics. Besides, with their unusual working methods, you could forget everything fun about the job when writing reports. All they ever contained were the gruesome details: crime, criminal, victim, justice.

 

It wasn’t what anyone needed, period – two days of typing reports. But it especially wasn’t what Hutch needed. What Hutch needed, Starsky thought, was to hit the streets again as soon as possible. To go to *work*, not write.

 

The red-alert signs were becoming obvious. That first night at The Pits, right after it had happened, Hutch’s ramblings about what kind of a job it was that made you kill a five-year-old had been understandable, if exaggerated. Starsky would have felt the same way.

 

It had been Hutch’s right to be depressed then. Hell, it was still his right to be depressed. But Starsky figured his partner wouldn’t be feeling quite so low if he didn’t have to sit at his desk all day, staring at his typing fingers and marking the time since “IT” had happened.

 

Starsky knew what Hutch was feeling. He had been there himself. You couldn’t avoid dark times in their profession. And you couldn’t avoid guilt. But you had to try. You had to look straight into reality’s eyes when it challenged you and see it for what it was: a complex thing. It wasn’t all bad; it wasn’t all sad. Most of the time, it was pretty great. But everyone could get hurt, everyone could suffer – and everyone, even a little kid, could die. Those were the rules. No white knight would change them.

 

So what you needed to do after something like this, Starsky figured, was to quickly find your old rhythm again – before the weight of it all dragged you too far underground. After all, their job was *fun*, too. There was the planning, the staging, the knowing how to play people and how to read them. And there was the feeling of success when you wrapped up a case. There was a reason why they did it. You couldn’t always see it, but it was there.

 

Land on your feet – that was what you needed to do. Or, if you couldn’t, then you had to turn around quickly before anyone noticed. Starsky had always been better at this than Hutch. He knew all the rules, too. And the first one was “don’t run!”

 

“Y’know, I’ve been thinking; maybe we could take some real time off,” Hutch suggested two days after the accident, looking at Starsky over his typewriter.

 

Starsky frowned. “We just went to Pine Lake.”

 

“That was months ago!”

 

“Oh. Really? Feels like yesterday to me.”

 

Hutch sighed, unnerved. “Look, I just –”

 

“But,” Starsky cut him off without looking at him, pretending to be busy spell checking his last report, “I agree with you that y… we could do with a break. So, since last time you did all the deciding, it’s my turn now.” Here, he glanced up innocently. “Right?”

 

Hutch seemed to consider that. “Maybe you’re right, after all, about it feeling like yesterday. ’Sides, I totally forgot that Dobey would never let us go.”

 

“Oh.” Starsky furrowed his brow, as if that thought had just occurred to him, too. Then, he nodded slowly. “Yeah, you’re right. Pity.” With a little sigh, he shrugged, the embodiment of understanding. “Maybe after Christmas.”

 

Hutch nodded. The topic didn’t come up again.

 

The second rule was to seek the other side of reality: the good one.

 

“Buy me a beer?” Starsky asked as he pulled over at Venice Place that evening.

 

Hutch smiled, but shook his head. “Nah, I’m tired.”

 

“Okay, I’ll buy.”

 

“Starsk.” Their eyes met. “I’m okay. I’ll… be okay,” Hutch corrected himself quietly.

 

“I don’t doubt it,” Starsky replied. He watched his friend lean back in the passenger seat as if preparing for a long stakeout.

 

Hutch looked at the darkening sea of clouds outside the windshield. “You know what the definition of killing is for lawyers? It’s to ‘change the world by removing another person.’ I read that once, when I was a kid.”

 

“I’ve always known you were a weird kid,” Starsky commented dryly.

 

Hutch snorted a laugh, but it was faint, held no real humor. He kept on watching the stars struggling to shine through the clouds.

 

“Changing the world, huh?” Starsky repeated eventually. “Who’d have thought lawyer talk could be so soapy?”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Hutch agreed. “Who else could make murder sound romantic.”

 

“Or changing the world sound bad,” Starsky pointed out.

 

A frown crept over Hutch’s forehead, and he let his head loll to the side on the headrest to look at his friend. “I never looked at it that way.”

 

“That’s because you college kids are all trained to think in the same direction,” Starsky informed him.

 

Hutch rolled his eyes and opened the door. “G’night, Starsk.”

 

“Hey,” Starsky’s voice held him back.

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Wanna drive your car tomorrow?”

 

This time, Hutch’s smile was a real one, and it lingered in his eyes when he tried on a scowl. “You know very well I can’t drive. What’re you trying to do, rub it in?”

 

“Finally, he admits it,” Starsky countered.

 

“Get outta here,” Hutch said and threw the door shut.

 

 

 

The next day, three days after the accident, Dobey called them into his office.

 

“Hutchinson, how’s the arm?” he asked gruffly, once Starsky had closed the door behind them.

 

The detectives exchanged a glance. They knew their superior well enough to recognize the tone of voice that went beyond polite asking.

 

“Fine,” Hutch replied.

 

Dobey frowned.

 

“Well, almost,” Hutch corrected in a small voice.

 

“Why, what’s up?” Starsky asked, his hope for some emergency case that needed them both on the streets (no matter in what condition) rising. Hutch’s health was a priority, of course, but right now another part of him needed healing more badly than his arm. And not by resting, either. “You need us for something?”

 

“Actually, yes,” Dobey said. “Gleason called in sick this morning. Apparently, he went to some place you recommended to him.” An accusing glare found Starsky, whose expression was blank with innocence.

 

“Huh?”

 

“Aw, no,” Hutch commented and grimaced. “Don’t tell us. Baherty’s,” he guessed, making it sound like a statement.

 

Dobey grumbled some affirmative answer, while Starsky’s eyes grew wide. Baherty’s Grill & Barbecue had been his latest “best chili dogs place ever” for some time, at least until it’d been Hutch’s turn to choose lunch a few days ago. Then there’d been the accident, which had killed Hutch’s appetite and, therefore, reduced Starsky to using the cafeteria at the precinct.

 

“I don’t understand,” he said anxiously. “W-what’s wrong with Baherty’s?”

 

“It closed down,” Hutch informed him pitilessly.

 

“It *was* closed down,” Dobey corrected him grimly. He was looking at Starsky as if the detective had murdered someone – Adam Gleason, for example – with his bare hands. “After they traced back more than three dozen cases of food poisoning to the –”

 

“Don’t say it,” Starsky cut him off with a shocked plea. The skin around his nose turned a little green. Or at least he thought it did from the feeling spreading in his stomach. “When did this start?” he asked with dread.

 

“A week ago,” Dobey answered.

 

“Oh, thank God.” Starsky sighed in relief, which only caused his captain’s eyes to darken some more. To make matters worse, he added with a happy smile, “I haven’t been there for some time now. Phew!”

 

“Right,” Dobey growled, “you only seduced everybody else into going, and now nobody’s there for the Gaskell stakeout.”

 

Starsky stared at him, then at Hutch, and then back at the captain. “Since when am I responsible for what people eat? You don’t hold Hutch responsible when… wait, what am I saying?”

 

Hutch rolled his eyes, but ignored his partner’s outburst. “So you want us on the Gaskell case?” he asked doubtfully. The Gaskell case had been Adam Gleason’s baby forever.

 

Upon hearing that, Starsky forgot to continue being indignant. “Adam’s not *dying* is he?”

 

Dobey’s glare killed any humor that line had held. “I doubt it. The need for revenge is probably pulling him through.”

 

Speechless, Starsky opened his hands in helpless defense. “I…”

 

Dobey didn’t wait for him to find his words. “He’s on sick leave for at least the rest of the week, and since your partner’s actually on sick leave, too, although refusing to leave,” he added with a side glance at Hutch, “I’m assigning you to the case temporarily.”

 

Starsky waited and, when no more came, looked at Hutch. “Just me?”

 

Hutch shrugged. “I’m on sick leave.”

 

“And you’d rather spend your days with a pile of paper than me?”

 

“Actually,” Dobey announced before Hutch could answer, “I need you for something else today.” The change in his tone took both detectives by surprise. He sounded almost… pleading.

 

Hutch looked at Dobey questioningly. So did Starsky.

 

Going from superior to something else (friend, actually), Dobey explained, “Well, the thing is, Edith volunteered to chaperone Cal’s school trip, and then the babysitter called this morning, saying she has some stupid appointment at the theater. And, of course, you know there’s this conference at the DA’s office later, so…” It was obvious he was waiting for one of them to ask the question rather than say it himself. Starsky could have sworn the captain was actually blushing.

 

“You’re asking me to baby-sit Rosie?” Hutch asked.

 

Starsky grinned. It wasn’t the first time one of them, or both of them, had been asked to look after her; it was just that usually Edith would ask.

 

“Uhm…” Dobey said by way of a “yes” and gestured vaguely toward Hutch’s bandaged arm. “That is, if…”

 

“Oh, no. Sure,” Hutch waved. “I’d love to. Drive me?” he asked Starsky.

 

Starsky was about to nod, still grinning, when suddenly the change of venue for the afternoon hit him. “Hey, wait a minute! He gets to spend a fun afternoon with Rosie, and I’ve to watch some ratty diner all day?”

 

“Gaskell’s a three-star restaurant, Starsk,” Hutch corrected him.

 

“And, what with Adam sick, make that all day *and* night,” Dobey added.

 

Starsky’s shoulders slumped. “Life sucks,” he muttered and turned for the door.

 

“Maybe you’ll think twice, now, next time you send people to the hospital,” Dobey lectured after him.

 

In the open door, Starsky whirled around to protest, but was gently, yet determinedly, shoved out by his partner.

 

 

 

 “Who’re you?” the girl who opened the Dobeys’ front door asked suspiciously. She looked about 17, with the attitude of a 50-year-old head nurse surrounding her like a shield. Her eyes narrowed at the men’s puzzled gazes. “Well?”

 

“Uh… replacement,” Hutch replied and flashed a sheepish smile.

 

The narrowed eyes became mere slits. “You’re late. If they don’t let me speak my monologue because of you,” she pointed a warning finger at the blond that put his own to shame, “I’ll know where to find ya, mister.”

 

Under Hutch’s dumbfounded stare, she turned to yell, “Rosie! The cops are here!”

 

Wisely, she stepped aside when excited footsteps could be heard sprinting down the stairs a split second later.

 

“Uncle Ken! Yay!”

 

Before Rosie had the chance to practically leap at Hutch from the bottom step, Starsky managed to snatch her up. “What?” he asked with a playful sulk, as he held her in his arms. “I don’t get a ‘yay’?”

 

“Yaaaaaaaayyyyyy!” Rosie squealed and hugged him.

 

“Okay, better,” he grinned. “Now, look, Rosie; I’ve got a favor to ask.” He became all serious and conspiratorial, as he turned so she could look at Hutch. “See, I have this patched-up partner on my hands, but your daddy wants me to go save the world. Now, while I do that, would you mind keeping an eye on Hutch for me? I told him to behave and not to whine when he has to go to bed.” He cast Hutch a pointed glance, as if to underline what a tiring session of lecturing that had been.

 

Rosie giggled and announced, “I’ll do my best.”

 

“Knew I could count on you,” Starsky replied; then, he kissed her forehead and let her hop down.

 

Taking Hutch’s good hand, Rosie asked, “Does it hurt?”

 

He shook his head. “Nah. Only when I sit in his car.” He pointed at Starsky with his chin.

 

Having watched the scene from where she still stood holding the door open, the babysitter frowned at Hutch as if she’d only just noticed his bandaged arm. “How did that happen?” she asked.

 

“Line of duty,” Starsky said, while Hutch replied, “Accident.”

 

The girl looked from one to the other, then shrugged. “Whatever. Wish me luck, Rosie.”

 

“Go show them!” Rosie cheered and held her hand up for a high-five.

 

“I *so* will!” the babysitter agreed, determined, and stepped outside.

 

“Can I drive you somewhere?” Starsky offered.

 

Pointing over her shoulder at the Torino, the girl asked dryly, “What? In that! Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll take the bus. Bye, Rosie!” she waved, already walking away.

 

“Bye, Naomi,” Rosie waved back. The moment the babysitter was out of hearing range, she let her shoulders slump sadly. “She’s never going to get the job. Poor Naomi.”

 

“How do you know?” Starsky asked.

 

An expression of shame settled on Rosie’s features. Her voice dropped to a near whisper, as if she were admitting a crime. “She showed me her monologue.”

 

Hutch suppressed a grin and just nodded. “I see.”

 

“I’m sure the army’d take her any day,” Starsky muttered; then, louder, he announced, “Well, kids, I’ll be off. Don’t watch too much TV, and no more health food for you,” he told Hutch sternly.

 

“I’ll give him some candy,” Rosie grinned. At Hutch’s glare, she switched to a serious expression.

 

“You do that.” Starsky nodded curtly.

 

Hutch rolled his eyes. “Bye, Starsk.” For emphasis, he started waving at his partner, who was still standing right in front of him.

 

Starsky sighed. He patted first Rosie’s head and then Hutch’s, before walking over to his car. “See you guys later.”

 

“Yeah,” Hutch called after him. “Have fun saving the world.”

 

He closed the door.

 

 

 

 

Hutch was probably right, after all. It had to be a three-star restaurant, with what little activity surrounded it. In the past three and a half hours, less than a handful of people had entered it, none of whom was on the case list. That is to say, none of them was important. Funny-looking, maybe, but then there was no one to whom he could comment about that.

 

Solo stakeouts suck. Hmm. Bet you can’t say that three times fast.

 

Starsky had invented a new stakeout game, “Pretend You’re Hutch,” in which you had to argue with yourself against any sort of stakeout game; but it had grow boring fast. There was no fun in teasing Hutch when Hutch wasn’t around. So, now, he was listening to some topic-related discussion on the radio. Only, with the experts yelling over each other’s words nonstop, he had yet to find out what the topic was. Probably whose turn it was to talk.

 

“But this is *not* just about the food; it’s –” one of the radio experts broke through the swirl of words, before his colleagues’ ranting swallowed the rest, and the discussion became one loud wave of sound again.

 

Food.

 

Starsky scowled at the radio, at the restaurant, at his stomach and – out of reflex – at the empty passenger seat. Solo stakeouts *really* sucked. He would have gladly eaten whatever weird stuff Hutch might’ve carried back to the car at this point. His stomach grumbled as if to confirm that.

 

“Shuddup,” Starsky told it. “No coffee breaks for the lonely. Hey, that could be a song.”

 

Humming some melody to himself, making the chorus words fit to it inside his mind, he frowned suddenly when a familiar car pulled over behind his. He switched off the radio and rolled down his window as one of the two detectives inside walked up to his car.

 

“Hey, Don,” Starsky greeted the man. “What’s up?”

 

“Dave,” Don Hutton said by way of a greeting. He looked concerned. “Meredith sent us to replace you. Uhm… she had a call from Dobey’s daughter.” His voice went up, making the information sound like a question.

 

Starsky tensed. “What happened?”

 

“No clue,” Don replied. “I just know that Mer called Neil and me and said we should take over here and that we should tell you to get to Memorial.”

 

“Memorial?” Starsky repeated, alarmed.

 

“They couldn’t reach the captain,” Don continued, either ignoring his colleague’s reaction or not hearing it. Then, he grimly added, “Meredith said the kid sounded very upset.”

 

Starsky was off without another word.

 

 

 

“Rosie!”

 

She was sitting in the waiting area, her feet hanging above the floor, because the seats were made for grownups. Next to her sat a worried-looking nurse, whose face filled with relief upon hearing his voice.

 

Rosie didn’t reply to Starsky’s call, just jumped from her seat and flew towards him. He crouched down to let her run into his arms.

 

“Hey. It’s okay, sweetie. It’s all right; I’m here now. It’s okay. What happened?” He felt her tremble and stroked her back comfortingly, while keeping up his soothing mumbling. Glancing up, he saw the nurse approach, and he stood, lifting Rosie in his arms. The girl’s silence distressed him. She wasn’t even crying.

 

“What happened?” he asked the nurse.

 

“You must be Dave,” she said and put her hand on Rosie’s back. “She’s a very amazing girl.”

 

“I know,” Starsky snapped, regretting it instantly, but unable to help it. “What happened?”

 

“Rosie told me you and Ken are cops, like her dad,” she more asked than said, probably trying to figure out the constellation of people involved.

 

“We’re friends of the family,” Starsky replied.

 

“Yeah, uhm… apparently, your partner had a heart attack,” she said in the clear, soft voice hospital staff use when breaking news of that kind.

 

Starsky stared at her in disbelief. “What?”

 

“I’m sorry,” Rosie whispered brokenly, almost causing him to flinch.

 

“’S’okay, kiddo,” he assured her, hugging her closer. “You got nothing to be sorry for.”

 

He looked back at the nurse. “Hutch is as fit as a mountain lion,” he told her. “How could he have a heart attack?”

 

She looked at him sympathetically, but couldn’t tell him more. “The doctor will be with you soon.” After patting Rosie’s back once again and uttering some reassuring words, she left.

 

Starsky carried Rosie over to the row of plastic chairs and sat down, never letting go of the child, who still trembled against him. “Rosie?” Gently, he tugged at her shoulder. “Honey, look at me.”

 

She hesitated, but eventually pulled away. Only now could he see that her eyes were puffy and red from crying earlier.

 

“What happened?” he asked softly.

 

Her lower lip quivered. “I didn’t mean to hurt him,” she whimpered.

 

Starsky didn’t think he’d ever seen her quite this upset. “Aw, baby, of course you didn’t. He knows that. And I’m sure it’s not your fault.” He hugged her again, hearing her sniff back new tears. “It’ll be okay, Rosie. I promise.”

 

It broke his heart to think that he would have to make her relive something so horrible. But the instinct to protect her was struggling with his increasing fear for Hutch. “Can you tell me what happened?”

 

She wouldn’t look at him again, but clung to his neck. “H-he was showing me how to make pumpkin muffins,” she started.

 

No surprises so far. Rosie was about the only person on Earth for whom Hutch would make normal food, and she was notorious for her love of learning new recipes. She wasn’t a big eater; she just loved to make any kind of food. It seemed likely that when she turned 12, Edith would be able to retire.

 

“I was sitting on the breakfast counter,” Rosie continued in a small voice. Starsky could feel her crying again. “I was swirling the dough. Uncle Ken said he couldn’t be-because of his arm. And he was cleaning up some messy spot on the counter. A-and… and…” Her voice broke into a sob.

 

Starsky drew her in closer, murmuring soothing words. Though every nerve tore at his patience, he waited for her to calm down enough to continue.

 

“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” she finally said, her voice a mere whine now. “I just forgot. A-about his arm,” she explained through a sniff, then couldn’t go on again.

 

“Oh,” Starsky said softly, stroking her back. “I see. You jumped on him from the counter, huh?”

 

She nodded against his neck.

 

“Did you hurt yourself?” he asked, gently prying her away to look into her tear-filled eyes. Hutch was pretty tall, especially if you were eight years old and being dropped from his height.

 

Rosie shook her head. She wouldn’t look at him.

 

“Hey.” Starsky tipped his finger under her chin and lifted her head. “Honey? It’s okay. You didn’t want to hurt him; he knows that. And what happened after is not your fault.”

 

Not really, anyway, he admitted. Considering where the story led, he was starting to doubt it’d been a heart attack, after all – at least if it wasn’t possible to tear an already damaged one.

 

He waited for a brief moment, until Rosie had calmed down enough to not go into hiccups; then he asked, “What happened next?”

 

The look on her flushed face confirmed how scary a memory it had been. “I apologized, and I-I asked what I could do. He really was in pain. But… I-I-I dunno. He suddenly… he… It looked like he couldn’t get air, and… and he wouldn’t wake up, and…”

 

“Shhh,” Starsky hushed her, allowing her to nestle up to him again, her face buried in his shoulder. “Okay. You don’t have to tell me any more; it’s okay. Now, Rosie, what happened was not your fault. Okay? You mustn’t think that. D’you hear me?”

 

“B-but I…” she started, then sobbed.

 

“No ‘buts,’” Starsky told her. “It wasn’t. I know. I can explain if you want.”

 

She hesitated, but eventually pulled away to look at him. “Okay.”

 

“You remember when you had nightmares after those bad men tried to break into your house?”

 

She nodded.

 

“And you remember that, for a while, you were scared of noises outside, right?”

 

Another nod.

 

“See, when Hutch hurt his arm, something like that happened to him. Something really bad. And, when he hurts it again, he remembers that moment.” His voice dropped a little. “And that scares him so much, it’s like he has a nightmare while he’s awake. That’s why you couldn’t wake him. But it’s not your fault,” he repeated, brushing his palm over her damp cheek.

 

She had stopped crying while listening. Her eyes filled with the innocent sympathy of a child. “Poor Uncle Ken,” she said.

 

“Yeah,” Starsky agreed.

 

There must have been something in his voice he wasn’t aware of, for suddenly Rosie hugged him; she was comforting him now.

 

“He’s going to be okay, right?” she asked next to his ear.

 

“Of course he is,” Starsky replied and closed his eyes.

 

They sat in a silent embrace for maybe a minute, until a discreet clearing of someone’s throat tore Starsky from his thoughts. Without letting go of Rosie, he glanced up to see the nurse who had been there earlier and an overweight, gray-haired man in a white coat standing in front of him.

 

“Hi, I’m Dr. Rohr,” the man introduced himself. He sounded a lot younger than he looked. “I examined your partner. I understand you’re cops?” he asked.

 

“Yeah,” Starsky answered, standing up when Rosie hopped off his lap to stand beside him, holding onto his hand. “Detective Starsky.” He held out his free hand for the doctor to shake. “How is he?”

 

“Going to be fine,” Dr. Rohr replied with a smile. Talking half over his shoulder, he spoke to the nurse, “Betty, why don’t you and Miss Dobey go have some lemonade in the cafeteria?”

 

“I’m sure you’re pretty thirsty after all this excitement,” he said to Rosie, who instead of confirming that, huddled closer to Starsky, bumping into his leg.

 

“I want to stay here,” she said in a small voice, clearly meaning she wanted to stay with Starsky.

 

The detective crouched down to gently grab Rosie’s shoulders. “I’ve got to talk to the doctor, sweetheart. But I promise I’ll pick you up right afterwards, and then we can go see Hutch, okay? Now, you go with Betty, and I’ll come get you as soon as I’m done here. All right?”

 

She swallowed, forcing herself to meet his eyes, forcing herself to be brave. “All right,” she muttered and even managed the smallest of smiles at his proud one.

 

“Okay.” He drew her into a quick hug, patting her back. “Everything’s gonna be okay,” he whispered just for her to hear. “I promise. And you know I’d never break a promise to you.”

 

By the time he let go of her, her smile had grown a bit, and she didn’t look quite so scared anymore. Locking her eyes with his, as if to draw strength from him, Rosie breathed in deeply and then out again. She turned to Nurse Betty a moment later, filled with new energy. She didn’t take the nurse’s outstretched hand, but walked away at her side without looking back.

 

“She’s a remarkable young lady,” Dr. Rohr observed. “Not many children would have managed to keep it together enough to call for help in a situation like that.”

 

Starsky just nodded, still looking after Rosie; then he turned to face the doctor and his information. “Hutch didn’t really have a heart attack, did he?” he asked.

 

Dr. Rohr blinked, surprised. “No. How did you know?”

 

“Rosie told me how it happened, and… I think I know what it was.”

 

The doctor eyed him for a moment, then snapped into talking in a startling manner. “Why don’t we have a seat?” he suggested. He was sitting before Starsky could agree. When the detective also had sat down, Rohr started, “When your friend was brought in, he was in a lot of distress, and at first, we thought he had accidentally overdosed on pain pills – what with his injury. Blood tests didn’t back up that assumption, though. Actually, for a gash like that, he could take more than what we found in his blood,” he added as a by-the-way thought.

 

Starsky chose not to comment on that.

 

Dr. Rohr once more looked at him inquiringly, before going on. “It was definitely not a regular heart attack; you’re right about that. Detective Hutchinson is in pretty good shape. It could’ve been due to the pain in his arm. We couldn’t get a lot out of… Rosie,” he had to think a moment to remember her name. “But she did say she had hurt him somehow.”

 

“Accidentally,” Starsky explained. “She jumped into his arms – off a counter.”

 

“Ouch,” Dr. Rohr observed with a sympathetic smile. “Well, extreme pain *can* cause distress that alarming, but…” He trailed off. “You said you had an idea?”

 

Starsky looked down at the ground between his feet. “When he was hurt,” he started, feeling eerily reminded of his earlier conversation with Rosie, “he couldn’t hold onto a little girl who’d fallen into the water off a pier. She drowned.”

 

When the doctor didn’t say anything, he glanced up, brows lifted expectantly. “He was pretty upset,” he added as if for emphasis.

 

Dr. Rohr nodded slowly. “I understand. Well,” he continued after a moment’s thought, “from how his arm looks, I take it that didn’t happen all that long ago?”

 

“Three days.”

 

The slow-motion nodding went on. “Hm-mm. Did he seek professional help afterwards?”

 

“I wouldn’t say ‘seek.,’” Starsky replied dryly, “but he talked to our department shrink.”

 

“Hm-mm, hm-mm.” Dr. Rohr seemed to think for a moment. “The human psyche is a very powerful force. It can influence every other part of the body.”

 

“So…” Starsky asked tentatively in the following pause, “so it’s possible that Hutch had a… flashback?”

 

“I’d call it a panic attack,” Dr. Rohr replied. “It seems a strong possibility, yes, what with his overall… humbling good health,” he added through a wry smile. “Incidents like that can indeed cause physical distress resembling that of a heart attack, especially when the memory is still so fresh in the mind. Actually, it’s not rare. Do you know if Detective Hutchinson has ever before reacted like that to a traumatic event? If… there ever was one before,” he quickly added.

 

Starsky let go of a deep breath and nodded, his eyes dropping. “Yes.”

 

“Hmm. Well, the most difficult thing about panic attacks is to determine their causes. In Detective Hutchinson’s case, I’d say it’s obvious, which is good.” He smiled reassuringly at a doubtful-looking Starsky. “You could think of it as a little newsflash his body sent him. However he is dealing with this… incident, it is not the right way.”

 

Dr. Rohr looked away. The smile changed somewhat, until it was little more than a grimace of sympathy.

 

Starsky frowned, having watched him from the corner of his eye. “You sound like there’s a ‘but’ to follow,” he observed.

 

A shadow of the smile was back in an instant; yet the doctor’s gaze flickered from the detective back to the wall ahead. “Not really a ‘but,’” he said, “but…” He interrupted himself with a humorless, little laugh he seemingly felt obliged to deliver. That done, he grew serious again. “You have to understand that your friend’s reaction could be a sign of trauma. It may have just been a… a cry for help, if you want, but it could be something else too. Like I said, the psyche is a tricky thing.”

 

“Are you a psychiatrist?” Starsky snapped, regretting his tone instantly.

 

Dr. Rohr smiled. “No,” he replied. “But your partner wasn’t brought here with psychiatric symptoms.”

 

Starsky was studying his shoes again.

 

“You’re right,” Dr. Rohr continued. “I’m trespassing here. I can’t give you a diagnosis, only my personal opinion.”

 

“And what is your personal opinion, Dr. Rohr?” Starsky asked, glancing up at the man.

 

“Detective Hutchinson is a very unhappy man.” Rohr shrugged a little, as if to show he knew what the detective wanted to ask next but didn’t know what to do about it, either.

 

Well, Starsky thought dryly, it’s been a very unhappy week.

 

He stood up. “I want to see him now.”

 

 

 

 

Starsky felt Rosie move closer to him when they reached the door to Hutch’s room. Her grip tightened on his hand. Yet, when he looked down at her, she didn’t meet his eyes, but looked straight ahead instead. He thought he saw her clench her jaws, trying so hard to appear brave that lines of strain appeared on her forehead.

 

The instant memory of the last time he had seen a child in such distress hit him unprotected, and he squeezed her hand, at last earning a glance and a little smile.

 

He smiled back while he knocked and then announced, “Hutch, it’s us,” opening the door slowly, so Rosie couldn’t look past him at first. “Hey.”

 

Hutch had obviously just been in the process of getting dressed again and turned around from the examination table when the door opened. He was barefoot and had managed to button only four buttons on his shirt so far. An air of extreme exhaustion surrounded him, as if he had just woken up from an unsatisfying nap.

 

Upon seeing Starsky, though, an anxious expression flashed in his eyes, which instantly snapped down to where the brunet was now pushing the door open wide enough for Rosie to be seen.

 

Hutch breathed in relief and crouched down, so that he was on eye level with Rosie.

 

“Hey, Rosie,” he said with a little smile. “I hear I owe you a huge ‘thank you.’”

 

Rosie was still clenching her jaws, but had lost her fight against the tears. Still holding onto Starsky’s hand, she shook her head.

 

Hutch V’ed his brows, exchanging a quick glance with his partner. “I think I do,” he told Rosie and reached out with his good arm.

 

Rosie swallowed audibly. Silent tears rolled down her cheeks. After a long moment, she let go of Starsky’s hand and tentatively approached Hutch, glancing at his injured arm every second step, as if she were afraid she might cause him pain even from a distance. She stopped in front of him, looking into his eyes.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said. Little more than a whisper came out. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Uncle Ken,” she added, before Hutch had a chance to speak.

 

Starsky thought he could see actual pain cross the face of his partner, whose heart probably wrenched at the words. Standing in the still-open door, he watched Hutch gently pull Rosie into a hug.

 

The carefulness with which she responded was remarkable. Her arms wound around Hutch’s neck; she looked more like the comforter than the comforted.

 

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, sweetheart,” Hutch told her, his voice thick with emotion. “It wasn’t your fault, you hear? *I’m* sorry. I never meant to scare you like that. I’m… very sorry,” he repeated, briefly hiding his face in her shoulder, before pushing her away far enough to look at her. “You hear that? It was *not* your fault.”

 

“Okay,” she said in a small voice.

 

“Okay,” Hutch repeated with a curt nod. “And I thank you. You did great today.”

 

“Everybody keeps telling me,” she said listlessly and glanced at him as if they shared a secret about that; then she dropped her gaze to the floor.

 

 “That’s ’cause you did, pumpkin,” Starsky said from the door.

 

“Yeah, listen to him,” Hutch agreed. When Rosie didn’t look up at him, he rubbed her back, bending his head to see her eyes. “Hey.”

 

A shy gaze found his.

 

“He wouldn’t let just anyone watch his partner,” Hutch said in a conspiratorial whisper.

 

Rosie’s head lifted a bit more. There was even a tiny smile curling her lip. “No?” she asked.

 

“You kidding?” Hutch replied. “Course not. I’m precious.”

 

Rosie grinned. She looked at Starsky over her shoulder.

 

“He’s right,” Starsky told her, nodding to underline the seriousness of his tone. “Almost as precious as I am, and he’d let you watch *me*, too. Now *that’s* saying something.”

 

When she looked at Hutch again, he nodded. “I was lucky you were there today. Thank you.”

 

This time when she hugged him, she wasn’t quite as careful, and Starsky saw a slight wince rush over the blond’s features. But when he opened his mouth to suggest Hutch put on his shoes now, he saw Hutch slightly shake his head. Understanding, Starsky nodded.

 

Loudly approaching footsteps turned his attention to the hallway, and before he even had time to look, Dobey appeared at his side, anxious and a little out of breath.

 

“Cap.”

 

Dobey cast Starsky a puzzled glance and then looked at Hutch, whose gaze instantly dropped.

 

“Daddy!” Rosie exclaimed and ran the few steps to her father, instinct making her seek comfort anew at her safest place.

 

As if out of reflex, Dobey picked her up. Starsky could see the captain had been informed, from the way he looked at Hutch; yet relief still flooded his eyes as he hugged his daughter. When your child was involved, it was probably impossible to trust anything but her safety in your arms.

 

“Rosie.” Dobey shifted her a little in his arms to look at her. “I heard what happened. I’m very proud of you.”

 

She grimaced, as if afraid to disappoint him by saying, “But I hurt Uncle Ken.”

 

“No, you didn’t,” Starsky and Hutch said simultaneously.

 

Hutch had straightened up and now stood in the middle of the room with his head hanging, like a prisoner awaiting the verdict. The fact that he wore no shoes only added to that image.

 

“She really did great,” Starsky told Dobey, nudging Rosie’s shoulder conspiratorially. “If she was a cop, I’d say we should give her a medal.” He winked at Rosie. “Maybe we can find a substitute for a medal?”

 

Dobey glanced at his detective and then at his daughter. He grumbled something inaudible, but affirmative, then added, “So, who’s gonna complain emergency training is boring next time?”

 

“Not me,” Rosie assured him.

 

“Me neither,” Hutch muttered dryly. At last, he met Dobey’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Cap’n.”

 

Dobey put Rosie down again next to Starsky, who laid one arm around her shoulder; then the captain approached Hutch. “How’re you feeling?” he asked.

 

“I’m…” Hutch started, but trailed off, seemingly lost for words. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am,” he finally said, softly. He shook his head, as if to indicate he didn’t know *what* to say.

 

“I meant how’re you feeling physically,” Dobey said. He didn’t smile at Hutch’s surprised glance, just watched him expectantly. Still, the smile was there in his eyes and voice, surrounding him like a scent.

 

“I-I’m fine,” Hutch stammered, puzzled.

 

“Hm-mm,” Dobey grumbled, casting Hutch’s feet a pointed look. “Better put your shoes on, before you catch pneumonia. And get some rest,” he added, frowning, as he studied Hutch’s pale face. “You look awful. I can’t have my best detectives typing for *another* week; so you,” here he turned to Starsky, “make sure that he stays home from now on. Understood?”

 

“And you,” he told Hutch, not waiting for Starsky’s answer, “are banned from the precinct until Tuesday next week. Is that clear?”

 

“Crystal,” Hutch hurried to reply.

 

“Good.” Dobey nodded contently. His gruff voice had almost covered the fact that he had put a reassuring hand on Hutch’s shoulder at one point. Now, he withdrew it, but not without a last squeeze.

 

“Come on, Rosie,” he said, heading for the door. “I’ll buy you an ice cream medal.”

 

Rosie grinned at Starsky, returned his wink, and marched over to Hutch for a goodbye hug. “You don’t have to stay, right?” she asked.

 

“No.” He shook his head.

 

“I would’ve visited you,” she explained.

 

“You can visit him at home,” Dobey said from the door.

 

“You’ll have to,” Starsky agreed. “Who else can baby-sit him when I’m out savin’ the world?”

 

Rosie giggled and turned to hug Hutch one more time. “I hope you won’t have anymore nightmares,” she said as she pulled away, “awake or asleep.”

 

Hutch just smiled faintly. He stroked her head and stood up, locking eyes with his partner.

 

Rosie said goodbye to Starsky and left the room.

 

“You two, remember what I said,” Dobey grumbled, casting each of them a stern look. Then, he followed his daughter. When Starsky turned to close the door behind them, Dobey quietly muttered, “Keep me posted.”

 

“Will do,” Starsky promised.

 

“And take care of him.”

 

Starsky nodded and closed the door. He braced himself as he turned around. Hutch hadn’t moved. He stood looking at Starsky, as if waiting for a lecture.

 

“Cap’s right,” Starsky said. “Better put your shoes on.”

 

A frown broke the strained expression on Hutch’s face. He looked down at his bare feet, then stepped backwards to the table and sat down, picking up the socks that lay there.

 

Starsky watched him for a moment, arms folded across his chest. “D’you want to tell me what happened?” he finally asked.

 

Hutch didn’t look up from his task. “You heard what happened,” he pointed out. He sounded tired.

 

“Not from you,” Starsky replied.

 

There was no answer to that.

 

“What did the doctor say?” Starsky asked after another short wait, during which Hutch had grabbed his shoes; now he was busy tying them.

 

“You spoke with the doctor,” Hutch said in the same tone of voice as before.

 

“But I wanna speak with you.”

 

Maybe it was the sudden softness of Starsky’s voice that made Hutch really look up for the first time. It was obvious he had expected something other than the worried helplessness displayed on Starsky’s face – probably a different kind of worry: more demanding, more urgent. But it was also obvious that he wasn’t ready for worry of any kind.

 

Starsky thought he had never seen his partner look so fragile.

 

Or maybe “fragile” wasn’t the right word. Hutch looked tired, tired to the point of being numb. As if all of his emotions had been folded and shoved to the edges of a vast, empty space.

 

“I’m really tired, Starsk,” he said, making Starsky feel like his mind had been read. “I just want to go home. Can’t we do this some other time?”

 

The tiredness was contagious; waves of it wandered through the room, which seemed sticky with it.

 

“Sure,” Starsky muttered and returned Hutch’s tired smile with an equal one.

 

Neither of them spoke again until they reached Venice Place.

 

“Starsky,” Hutch said quietly when his partner opened his door to get out of the car.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I… I’d rather be alone.”

 

Starsky frowned. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Look, why –”

 

“No,” Hutch cut him off, not angry, but determined. “I want to be alone. I’m fine,” he added at Starsky’s doubtful expression. “Just tired.”

 

“If you’re gonna sleep, anyway, then what’d it matter if I’m there?” Starsky pointed out.

 

Hutch cast him an ironic little smile. “I can take care of myself, y’know. Not kids… but myself. Besides, I’m not asking you not to come in; I’m just saying I want to be alone.”

 

Of course, he had a point there. But Starsky couldn’t shake the odd feeling that he needed to be there. Maybe it was just the aftermath of everything that had happened, the feeling that he should have been there earlier. Maybe he simply wanted to protect Hutch from what had already happened.

 

“Hey,” Hutch’s voice tore him from his thoughts. “I’ll be fine. It’s not like I have spells or something. It’s not going to happen again.”

 

Starsky wasn’t so sure about that, but he was clearly losing ground; he couldn’t very well insist on staying at a grownup man’s place when that man didn’t want him there. And though still pale, Hutch appeared to be all right. Exhausted, but all right.

 

“Call me when you need me.”

 

Hutch nodded and heaved himself out of the car. When he turned to push the door shut, he caught Starsky’s worried look.

 

“I’m really beat,” he said. But it didn’t sound like it was what he’d wanted to say. “Good night, Starsk.”

 

The door swung shut.

 

 

 

Five minutes.

 

Couldn’t be, could it?

 

Frowning, Starsky shook his wrist and hand, and then looked at his watch again. But the result remained the same: five minutes. Should have been an hour, from what it felt like.

 

He sighed tiredly and slid back in his seat. Outside the window lay the late afternoon emptiness of any side street in the city. Two or three homeless dogs strolled away from some garbage cans; occasionally, a homeless person in dirty clothes would join them, only to hastily walk away upon sighting the red Torino parked at the far end of the alley.

 

Starsky couldn’t blame them. It sure looked like he was on a backstreet stakeout here – the only car around; the driver sitting outside, staring like he was waiting for someone to show up. Well, maybe more of a drug buy then, rather than a police stakeout… or both?

 

He wiped his eyes. Hell, he *felt* like he was on a stakeout, too: tired and anxious. But the only thing he was waiting for was himself to get a grip.

 

You heard him. He’s okay. It happens, shit like that. Would’ve happened to you, too.

 

But no matter how often he told himself that, it remained an empty phrase. Yeah, sure, it happened. Lotsa shit happened. Was that supposed to make it okay?

 

He let go of a deep, frustrated breath and checked his watch. Six minutes.

 

How long’re you gonna stay here, you figure? he asked himself and rolled his eyes as if in answer.

 

Dunno.

 

Until the feeling went away. That nagging something that had made him pull over here and park in the first place, a mere couple hundred yards away from Venice Place. Around the corner, to be precise.

 

He checked his watch. Still six minutes. He sighed.

 

God, this was ridiculous! How long *was* he going to stay here? What if Hutch needed him after all, tried to call him – and he was here?

 

That brought a frown to his face. Could happen. Wouldn’t be the first time Hutch needed time to calm down first, before he’d turn to his friend for comfort. After all, he’d been pulling the same stunt now for three whole days, trying to show himself that he was coping, that he was okay, that all he needed was a little “distraction.” And look what that had gotten him!

 

As his inner rambling picked up speed, Starsky clenched his jaws

 

 A fucking heart attack, that’s what! Well, okay, not *really*. But enough of something else to fool the damn paramedics! And who’s he to decide who needs to be alone afterwards? *He* wasn’t the one dragged away from the job to the hospital only to be told his partner had had a fucking *heart attack*!!

 

Surprised by a sudden noise, Starsky looked down to see that he’d unconsciously opened the car door. He frowned, startled by his own vehemence. But, then, if his body was ahead of his mind, so what? That was the case usually, anyway.

 

Come to think of it, why had he been sitting here for seven minutes now if it wasn’t to come to the realization that *he* couldn’t be alone right now? Maybe – though he doubted it – Hutch needed some time for himself. But, hell, he’d had seven minutes now! It was time to focus on what Starsky needed, and that was to check on Hutch, maybe fuss a little (or a little more) and feel the piling anxiety fade away.

 

Besides, Hutch wasn’t very good at deciding what was best for himself. Never had been.

 

Determined, Starsky slammed the door shut and started the short walk back to Venice Place. No doubts anymore. He didn’t need an excuse for this. If the roles were reversed, Hutch wouldn’t need one either.

 

The TV was on in Hutch’s apartment, not blaring, but loud enough to be heard through the closed door when Starsky came to a halt in front of it. Cartoons, if he wasn’t mistaken.

 

Starsky grimaced. Hutch watching cartoons wasn’t an image to ease his concern. While already reaching for the key above the door, he knocked. “Hey, Hutch. It’s me.”

 

He thought about adding that he’d forgotten something, but dismissed the idea almost instantly. It was too obvious a lie, and, besides, what had he just thought about needing no excuse?

 

So, when no answer to his second knock came, he used the key, pushing the door open slowly, so as not to startle Hutch, in case he hadn’t heard Starsky over the noise of the TV.

 

“Hutch?”

 

Cartoons were on, all right, but Hutch wasn’t watching them. He sat on the floor, back propped up against the couch. His forehead rested against a folded arm that lay across his drawn-up knees; the injured arm was wound loosely around them. An unopened bottle of beer stood on the coffee table, next to the remote control.

 

Taken off guard by the scene, Starsky stood with the doorknob in hand for a moment, unable to speak past the lump forming in his throat. When he at last gently closed the door, Hutch flinched, startled and looked up.

 

Starsky cast him a soft, apologetic smile, but didn’t say anything.

 

Hutch’s eyes were shiny, the bluish skin underneath damp, as if it itself had oozed water. He had no tears on his face, just a slight overflow every few seconds, which seemed to be soaked up instantly.

 

He glanced from Starsky to the TV screen and back, searching for a line to make light of it all, but nothing would come. So, with a smile matching Starsky’s, he shrugged slightly and bowed his head again.

 

Watching Hutch’s tense shoulders tremble, Starsky arched his brows. “Aw, man,” he mumbled under his breath.

 

With two long strides, he was beside the table. He switched the TV volume off, then sank down to the ground next to his friend and put one arm around Hutch’s back, stroking the nape of his neck. Starsky’s free hand curled around Hutch’s ankle, almost in the same manner as the blond had held onto him three days before, when he’d come out of the water at the pier.

 

“It’s okay,” Starsky said softly, feeling Hutch tense even more at the touch. “’S’all right. Let it out. I’m right here.”

 

Hutch drew in a shaky breath that ended with a slight hitch. His eyes were squeezed shut as if against Starsky’s voice. He shook his head.

 

His heart breaking, Starsky tightened his grip on Hutch’s neck, as if to hold him up, to keep him from falling. He was about to repeat his reassuring words – to say that it was okay, okay to cry, okay to be comforted, and that it *would* be okay again – when Hutch lifted his head, just a bit, and glanced up at him.

 

“What am I gonna do?” It wasn’t much more than a whisper, but it was so filled with despair that it could have been a scream.

 

Once more, Starsky, taken off guard, sat with his mouth open, lacking any response.

 

“What am I gonna do, Starsk?” Hutch repeated in the same soft tone. He waited, searching Starsky’s helpless gaze. A sob caught in his throat, coming out like a bitter, huffed laugh.

 

“I killed a child,” he said, as if breaking the news to his friend. Then, he averted his eyes, staring at the silent pictures racing across the TV screen. “God. I killed a child, Starsky. What am I gonna do?”

 

As the tears finally broke through, Hutch bowed his head again, fiercely hugging his knees, as if to prevent himself from falling apart. “What am I gonna do?” he whispered through the small sobs, repeating it over and over. “What am I gonna do?”

 

You’re doing it, Starsky thought. But this wasn’t the time for answers. So, instead, he kept silent, while he held onto Hutch, stroking his hair and his back, which shook with his sobs.

 

The outburst didn’t last long. And when Starsky felt Hutch’s breathing even out – the tension in the broad shoulders first fading, then returning with a vengeance as embarrassment kicked in – he drew back, granting Hutch some space to compose himself.

 

Visibly grateful, Hutch took in a deep breath, sniffed and wiped his face. Only then did he look up at his friend, trying on a weary smile. “Uh… sorry ’bout that,” he said.

 

Starsky gave him a pointed look. “Don’t be silly,” he muttered. He grabbed the bottle from the table, opened it, and shoved it into Hutch’s hand, before standing up to get one for himself.

 

By the time he returned from the fridge, Hutch had crawled up onto the couch and was staring at the ceiling with his head against the headrest.

 

Starsky touched his beer bottle to the one in Hutch’s hands and took a sip; then he sat down again.

 

For a while, neither of them spoke. Hutch sat with a lost look on his face, absently clawing the label off his bottle, and Starsky watched him, taking in the still too-pale face and strained features, the red-rimmed eyes almost silver-gray from tears.

 

“You didn’t kill her.”

 

The fingers halted their scraping against the brown glass, but Hutch didn’t look at Starsky. Instead, he swallowed audibly. “Feels like I did,” he admitted.

 

“That’s why I’m telling you this,” Starsky said.

 

Hutch nodded to show he understood. “May take awhile,” he said after a pause and looked at his friend.

 

Starsky shrugged. “I figured.”

 

Something in his voice must have changed, giving him away, for Hutch’s expression suddenly softened with regret. He opened his mouth to say something, but instead took a sip from his beer. He studied it afterwards, looking like a wine drinker trying to decide on the taste. Then, without looking at Starsky, he muttered, “Thanks for coming back, buddy.”

 

Starsky glanced at him and then at the cartoon animals racing each other. “Just forgot something,” he said.

 

“Oh, yeah? What?”

 

“To tell you to never again scare the shit outta me like that,” Starsky replied matter-of-factly, rolling his head on the headrest to look at Hutch.

 

With a rueful smile, Hutch nodded once. “I’ll try.”

 

“Better try hard,” Starsky grumbled, but chuckled when Hutch laughed.

 

For a few moments, silence settled.

 

“You know something, Starsk?”

 

Startled at finding he’d almost nodded off, Starsky lifted his head. “What?”

 

“Without the noise, this is almost watchable,” Hutch said, waving his half-empty bottle at the TV screen.

 

Starsky followed the motion and frowned. “Ya think?” he asked doubtfully.

 

“Yeah,” Hutch insisted. “And you know what else?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“When either of us has kids, we should quit the streets. Or maybe even the whole job.”

 

 “And do what?” Starsky asked, playing along.

 

“Raise the kids,” Hutch answered. “Teach ’em baseball and take them camping. Let the wives earn the money.”

 

Starsky grinned, waggling his head as if considering the idea. “Sounds like plan,” he replied, “’cept for the camping part.”

 

“Camping’s good for kids,” Hutch stated. “Shows them the value of nature. Keeps them off the street.”

 

Lifting his hands to cut off any further lecturing, Starsky gave in. “Okay, okay. You take ’em camping, just as long as I don’t have to come along. I’ll teach ’em about cars, then.”

 

Hutch lifted his brows, as if choosing his next words carefully so as not to hurt his partner’s feelings. “How ’bout you’ll teach them about model ships? O-or photography,” he added hastily when Starsky’s gaze darkened.

 

“How about I’ll teach them games to play on long car rides?” Starsky suggested. “Games like ‘Guess the Blintz’s Middle Name,’ maybe.”

 

“Cars is yours then,” Hutch stated without a second to lose.

 

“Glad you agree.”

 

The grin they exchanged faded into the returning silence. Every now and then, Starsky glanced over to see Hutch gradually sliding farther down on the couch, until he looked too uncomfortable to bear.

 

Finishing his beer, Starsky stood up. Gently, he lifted Hutch’s legs onto the couch and then disentangled the fingers curling around the beer bottle, taking both empty containers back into the kitchen.

 

He found a woolen blanket on the floor next to Hutch’s bed and took it to the couch to cover the still form. As he switched the TV off, he felt a hand brush against his arm and turned to look into sleepy, blue eyes.

 

“We’ll take care of them, won’t we, Starsk?”

 

Starsky frowned, thinking Hutch must be dreaming. Then, he remembered their earlier playful conversation and smiled. “Sure we will, Blintz.” He grasped the hand and gently put it back under the blanket. “We won’t let anything happen to them.”

 

But Hutch was already asleep again.

 

THE END

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