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Wuemsel's Fanfic Corner

Mushroom Cloud Part 2


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“Awake! I’m…” As the dust of panic settled, Starsky opened his eyes, taking in the sight of his own bedroom. He heard his own frantic panting in his ear, and slowly became aware of another sound, like a moan, next to him. Turning his head, he saw Hutch, curled up and facing him.

 

The blond’s eyes were tightly closed, his brows bunched together. Starsky's hand still clamped Hutch’s arm and he loosened his grip, allowed Hutch to roll out of the hold and away from him.

 

“Sorry,” Starsky mumbled.

 

As if in answer, Hutch buried his head in his pillow and snored lightly.

 

Starsky smiled and patted his friend’s shoulder in a paternal gesture. He pulled the comforter off and spread it over Hutch, who snuggled into it, blond hairs peeking out from under.

 

The smile on Starsky’s face faded into a worried one. Hutch must be really wiped out. He probably hadn’t gotten much more sleep than his partner.

 

Starsky gave the slumbering form an affectionate glance and climbed carefully out of bed, swaying. Will power carried him over to the door and into the living room. He stared at the terrace doors. Dawn painted the sky pinkish gold, though it had been dark the last time he had checked.

 

The light had changed.

 

The sound of his own gasp kicked him back into reality, and he shook his head and made himself unclench his fists. He was home. Hutch was here. The light could change all it wanted.

 

Still, he couldn’t seem to go further until he peeked into the bedroom again, letting go of a breath he hadn’t known he held when he saw the peaceful figure on the bed.

His thoughts, like his legs, weren’t all that steady. He didn't recall falling asleep, though he remembered Hutch talking to him, holding on to him while he fought overwhelming fatigue. He wondered how long he had slept.

 

There had been no dreams.

 

In the kitchen, he downed a glass of juice and put the coffee pot on before he headed for the shower. His stomach growled in loud protest, but that had to wait, Starsky decided, realizing he still wore the same clothes from four days ago. In the bedroom in search of clean clothes, he gave his partner an amused look. Must be the farm boy in Hutch that had made it possible for him to fall asleep next to someone who smelled like Starsky was convinced he did.

 

That or exhaustion.

 

He was unsteady on his legs, but the shower felt good. Now that he’d slept, he was ravenous and felt like he’d be sick if he didn’t eat something. He dressed in sweats, a bathrobe and the thickest woolen socks he could find.

 

Yet once he went into the kitchen, a strange feeling started in his throat and spread quickly as he rummaged through the grocery bag Audrey had left on the table the night before. Ignoring the sense of unease, he made a sandwich.

 

He couldn’t eat it. His breath quickened and his throat went suddenly dry. He swallowed and stumbled to the open bedroom door.

 

Hutch was still asleep, though his sleep was no longer peaceful. Starsky heard soft whimpers escape the thick blanket covering the blond head, but decided it wasn’t bad enough to wake him up. Years of endless stakeouts had trained Starsky to read the sounds Hutch made in his sleep, and he was pretty good at telling when he was having a serious nightmare. For one thing, the clearer Hutch’s words, the more unpleasant his dream.

 

Right now, though Hutch uttered a few moans now and then, to Starsky it was more important that his friend rest. That his friend was here at all.

 

'Hutch. Home.

 

Nothing wrong with eating at home.'

 

Confused and a bit scared of the strange feeling, Starsky returned to the kitchen to stare at his sandwich. He poured himself a cup of coffee.

 

That was nice for a start, he thought, savoring the fresh coffee. His empty stomach was starting to really hurt, the feeling of nausea only intensifying, but he couldn’t eat the damned sandwich.

 

'What the hell’s wrong with you?'

 

Suddenly angry, he picked up the sandwich and took a small bite. The impact on his body was immediate, and it didn’t take him five seconds to down the rest of it. Still chewing, he stared at his hands, then at the morning sky outside the window.

 

He’d eaten a sandwich?

 

He was back in the bedroom in an instant, almost falling on his face in the process of getting there. He stopped in the door, clinging to the frame for support. Hutch was mumbling in his sleep, and now Starsky could make out a few words, among them his own whispered name.

 

Swallowing back bile, he crossed the distance to the bed and sat down on the edge next to Hutch, shaking his friend’s shoulder. “Hey Hutch. Wake up.”

 

Hutch stirred, winced. “Hmmn,” he mumbled, slapping clumsily at Starsky’s hand. “Lemme...”

 

“Hutch,” Starsky urged, and drowsy sky blue eyes slid open, confusion clouding them.

 

“Huh? Starsk? Wha...” Suddenly alert, Hutch blinked, struggling to sit up as worry spread on his face. “Buddy, y’okay?”

 

“Uh...” Starsky said, swallowing, and darted from the room, reaching the toilet just in time. The little amount of food he’d forced down made a rather painful reappearance.

 

When he was done, he let his head sag, frustrated and wiped out, and suddenly realized Hutch was with him, rubbing small circles on his back.

 

“Good morning,” Starsky groaned.

 

The rubbing stopped as Hutch squeezed his shoulder.

“Breakfast doesn’t agree with you?”

 

Starsky shook his head wearily, letting himself sink back, trusting Hutch to support him, draw him in. “Must be the coffee.”

 

“Well, coffee’s not exactly what you need right now, anyway,” Hutch replied. “Want me to help you up?”

 

Starsky nodded, and with Hutch’s help stood on wobbly legs. Unnerved, he clung to the blond, who guided him first to the sink to wash, then back to bed. Starsky sat down, unresisting when Hutch pushed him back and lifted his legs up onto the mattress.

 

“Be right back.”

 

With his eyes closed, Starsky listened to hurried steps, then water running, then steps again. The mattress sagged, announcing Hutch’s return, and an instant later Starsky felt something cool and damp wipe over his face, his forehead.

 

Blinking up at Hutch's face hovering above him, he grimaced. “I hate being sick.”

 

Hutch smiled. “It’s a good sign you’re whiny, though. Think you’ll live.”

 

Starsky shot him an indignant glance. “I’m not whiny.”

 

“Sure,” Hutch soothed mockingly, but concern showed in his eyes when tremors started to overcome his friend. He reached to pull the blanket over Starsky. “How long’ve you been up?” he asked, turning to glance at the clock on the nightstand. “It’s seven in the morning.”

 

“Not that long,” Starsky replied, secretly grateful to be tucked in. Why was he so cold all of a sudden?

 

“Why didn’t you wake me?”

 

“You looked like you needed the rest,” Starsky said. He rolled his eyes at the look Hutch gave him. “Besides, I don’t need baby-sitting.”

 

“Okay. So,” Hutch asked through a yawn, one hand absently rubbing Starsky’s shoulder to warm him, “wanna try to get some more sleep now?”

 

The truth was Starsky felt like he should try to sleep more, yet the prospect of closing his eyes and allowing awareness to slip away scared him. Every time he’d awakened since being rescued had been a terrifying ordeal, and he didn’t feel up it again.

 

He was too tired to try to sleep.

 

“Starsky?”

 

“Hm?” Looking up to meet Hutch’s look, Starsky shook his head. “No.” He paused, then lied. “I’m hungry.”

 

Hutch nodded, patting the shoulder beneath his hand as if apologizing. “Right. You should eat something.” He yawned again, failed to suppress it. “All right. I’ll be back in a sec.”

 

He left the room, another yawn breaking through.

 

Staring up at his ceiling, Starsky sighed in regret. Hutch was exhausted. And *he* would be able to sleep if Starsky would just let him.

 

When he stepped into the kitchen a few minutes later, dragging the blanket with him wrapped over the bathrobe, he found Hutch listlessly stirring something in a pan, yawning.

 

“What’re ya making?” Starsky asked, shuffling closer to take a peek.

 

“Scrambled eggs.” Hutch took in the blanket covering his friend and frowned, worried. Starsky pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders, avoiding Hutch’s look.

 

“Think you can keep that down?” the blond asked after a moment. “Maybe your concussion is worse than Audrey thought.”

 

“Nah. Just ate the wrong stuff too fast,” Starsky replied. “Scrambled eggs are fine. Thanks.” Scrambled eggs hadn’t been room food.

 

He sat down at the kitchen table.

 

Hutch’s eyes followed him. “How’re you feeling?”

 

“Tired.”

 

“Dreams?” Hutch asked, his voice calm, interested.

 

“No.”

 

“Woke up... noticing again?”

 

Starsky didn’t answer, just freed one hand to wipe over his eyes. “It’s okay,” he muttered. “It’ll pass.”

 

“Want to tell me about it?”

 

At the sudden softness of Hutch’s tone, that familiar sound of comfort, Starsky smiled a little. He shook his head.

 

“Not much to tell. You’ve seen it.”

 

Hutch nodded, turned back to his cooking. Shaking his head, he gave the eggs a particularly angry shove and glanced at his friend again. “I won’t let her talk to you again. You can I.D. her through a window. She’s evil,” he added as if an afterthought.

 

Starsky thought he saw him shudder. Concern gnawed at his stomach. 'What has she done to him?'

 

“Thanks,” he said, watching Hutch. “Hutch?”

 

“Hm?” The blond turned. “Yeah, buddy?”

 

“Did you tell me she’s working for Forest yesterday?”

 

“I’m impressed. Didn’t think you heard a word I said.”

 

Starsky wasn’t in the mood for joking. Something was going on that upset him more than his own problems. “So she’s working for him how?”

 

Hutch sighed, sounding like a reluctant teenager forced to enter into a discussion. He scanned the breakfast counter as if searching around for something else to do in order to avoid Starsky’s gaze. “She’s the house writer,” he answered grimly, but then as if ashamed of his sarcasm, added, “She’s his favorite author. He contacted her to have her work out some of her…ideas on you to get back at me.”

 

Before Starsky had the chance to reply or question him further, Hutch lifted the pan. “Wanna eat here or in bed?”

 

Taken off guard by the abrupt change of topic, Starsky hesitated. “Uhm... TV,” he heard himself say.

 

“Okay.” Hutch smiled, yet something in his eyes kept Starsky from getting up. He remained where he was, waiting in silence.

 

Eventually, without looking at him, the blond added, “I’m sorry, Starsk.”

 

“What for?”

 

“Well... should... should’ve been me,” Hutch explained, stammering, and shrugged sadly. “Should’ve been me,” he repeated.

 

Starsky watched him in dismay. 'Looks like it was you.'

 

“Hutch.” He waited until his partner looked at him. “It’s not your fault.”

 

Starsky saw a hint of gratitude in the light eyes, but Hutch’s voice sounded hollow when he nodded. “Yeah.” A pause. “I know that.”

 

'Do you?' Starsky thought, as Hutch rummaged for a plate in an unsubtle plea for the conversation to end.

 

“Why don’t you go see what’s on? I’ll be right out.”

 

Reluctantly, Starsky stood to leave. Though his friend’s obvious distress troubled him, he knew he wasn’t in condition to be of any real help at the present. He was still too exhausted, too easily confused, his thoughts tumbling over each other. He needed more sleep if he wanted to help his friend, so he plopped down on the couch in the living room, feeling around with his hand for the remote control.

 

Forty minutes of “Rio Bravo” later, the sound of Hutch’s soft snoring beside him confirmed that it was safe to put away the half empty plate of cold scrambled eggs.

 

For a few moments, he allowed himself to observe the incredibly calming sight of Hutch’s chest rising and falling, to fully acknowledge the fact that Hutch would still breathe on, even if he fell asleep. He crawled his way out of the blanket-made cave bundled around him and got up.

 

Hutch stretched out to occupy the whole couch, turning around to bury his face into a soft corner.

 

Smiling, thinking the sight made him somewhat jealous, Starsky tucked his friend in, then picked up the plate and headed for the kitchen.

 

~oOo~

 

Hutch woke up gradually, registered the familiar feeling of uncomfortable bumps beneath him. 'Starsky’s couch? What...?'

 

He heard the television, turned down low. Dragging his eyes open, he found himself looking at some black and white sitcom he couldn’t remember the name of. He cleared his throat and frowned as his memory kicked into gear.

 

“Starsk?”

 

His partner was nowhere in sight, and when there was no response, Hutch sat up, brushing back the blanket covering him. The curtains were drawn shut, which explained the dim light, and he noticed that the terrace door was ajar.

 

“Starsky?”

 

Hutch stood and stretched. He walked over to the door and opened it wide, sticking his head outside. “Hey,” he said, trying not to startle his friend, who stood a few steps into the backyard with arms tightly wrapped around him, staring into the afternoon sky.

 

Still, Starsky jumped, whirling around to face him. “Hey,” he greeted back, making it clear he’d rather Hutch ignored his reaction. He smiled. “You’re awake.”

 

Hutch stepped outside as well. “I think I am,” he replied and yawned, rubbing at his face. “What’re you doing?”

 

Starsky shrugged. “Winning the World Series, what’s it look like?”

 

Hutch smirked. “Hysterical. What time is it?”

 

“’Bout three.”

 

“Three?” Hutch widened his eyes. “Wow.” He frowned, turned his gaze on his partner again. “Did you get any more sleep?”

 

“No,” Starsky replied reluctantly. “But... didn’t try to, anyway. Maybe later.”

 

An uneasy feeling spread fast inside Hutch’s stomach. He inspected his friend, took in the long-sleeved sweatshirt Starsky wore instead of his bathrobe. It was a sunny California day, perfect for the t-shirt Hutch wore. “Still cold?” he asked.

 

“Huggy wants ya to know that next time he asks you to keep him posted, you should consider that an order,” Starsky replied, ignoring the question.

 

Grimacing, Hutch folded his arms in front of him, positioning himself next to Starsky so that they watched the back street traffic together. “I knew there was something I forgot.”

 

“You oughta be ashamed of yourself,” Starsky told him. “Sounded like he was really worried.”

 

“I am,” Hutch assured. “When did he call?”

 

“’Round noon.”

 

“Why didn’t you wake me?”

 

“I tried,” Starsky replied, “but you probably couldn’t hear me yelling over your snoring.”

 

“I don’t snore. Anything else I missed? Apart from the morning shows?”

 

“I told Dobey I’ll be in tomorrow to get the identification down. Seems Miss Hemingway’s lawyers are giving him grief. Oh,” he added, as if he’d just thought of it, “he gave you today off, by the way.”

 

“Always so gracious,” Hutch commented, but couldn’t keep the concern from creeping into his expression again. “Did you at least eat some more?”

 

Starsky opened his mouth to answer, but his body language made it obvious his partner wouldn’t like what he had to say.

 

“Starsk. What am I gonna do with you? Why didn’t you eat? What did you do all day?” He looked over his shoulder as if back into the kitchen, thought he couldn’t see it from where he stood. “Aw, no. Don’t tell me you cleaned up after me.”

 

Starsky couldn’t help but laugh at the pretended dismay. “I can’t sleep, Hutch,” he said after a moment, the tinge of despair in his voice betraying his smile. He shrugged again.

 

All humor faded from Hutch’s face. “I thought you didn’t try,” he said calmly.

 

Starsky averted his eyes. He sighed.

 

It was a sound that hit Hutch like a blow. He felt his brows arch in sympathy. “Buddy—”

 

“It’s just,” Starsky said without looking at him, “not as easy as it looks like.” Nodding as if inwardly encouraging himself, he looked up again. “It’ll pass.”

 

Hutch smiled a small smile, unsure of what to say. In fact, he couldn’t think of anything but, “How ’bout lunch?”

 

“Lunch as in lunch?” Starsky said, “or lunch as in,” he waved his head at the blond, “y’know... yuck?”

 

“Lunch,” Hutch replied convincingly, and his partner nodded.

 

“Okay.”

 

“Good.” They turned, and Hutch placed one hand on the back of Starsky’s shoulder as if to guide him inside. Frowning, he rubbed the spot a few times, feeling tiny tremors rack his friend’s body.

 

“It’ll pass, Hutch. ’Mokay.”

 

Hutch decided to let it be. He drew his hand away.

 

About half an hour later, he watched Starsky stir his chicken and noodle soup, free hand scratching at a cracker that lay next to his bowl. Putting his coffee mug down, Hutch furrowed his brows pointedly and tilted his head, but Starsky seemed too lost in thought to notice.

 

“Didn’t your mother teach you not to play with your food?” Hutch eventually broke the silence. “Buddy? What is it?”

 

Glancing up at him, Starsky opened his mouth, closed it again. Letting the spoon sink into the bowl, he placed both elbows on the table and rested his face in his hands, palms pressing his eyes closed.

 

Hutch watched for a few long moments, then tentatively nudged Starsky’s arm. “Starsky.”

 

Starsky dragged his hands down his face, leaving red streaks on his pale skin, then put his arms on the table. One hand closed over Hutch’s wrist. He closed his eyes briefly, drew in a deep breath, let it go again and picked up the spoon. He stared into the soup.

 

 “Hey.”

 

Starsky looked up at him.

 

“I can make you something else if you don’t like it, but you need to eat.”

 

“It’s not that,” Starsky muttered, gaze wandering off almost as if he was ashamed.

 

The defeated tone was a blow to Hutch’s already tense stomach. “Then what?” he asked softly.

 

Starsky wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I just... I just thought...” he swallowed, bit his lip. “Nothing.” He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Not important.” Obviously not wanting to give his partner a chance to react to that, he hastily added, “I’d better try to get some more rest after this.” A small, snorted laugh. “Can’t even think straight anymore.”

 

Hutch watched him carefully, catching the desperate plea in the body language. Forcing a wry smile upon his lips, he picked up his coffee and leaned back in his chair. “Not that anyone would notice.”

 

Starsky was so grateful he didn’t bother to come up with a reply, just nodded and finally started eating. Every so often, he’d steal a sideglance at Hutch, his shoulders lifted in constant tension.

 

Hutch thought of the untouched sandwiches in Starsky’s cell and suppressed an angry sigh as he tried to appear unaware of his partner’s struggle to manage the everyday task of eating.

 

Starsky caught him watching anyway, and looked at his own trembling hand. He let it sink down, dropping the spoon in the bowl.

 

“I’m tired,” he said curtly, shoving the bowl away and standing up in the same motion. He swayed, but something in his expression made it clear he didn’t need any help. Hutch remained seated, looking after his friend, who turned for the bedroom and went in, leaving the door open.

 

Hutch took his time finishing his coffee. He ate a couple of crackers, then stood to turn off the TV. He peeked through the bedroom door, seeing only a curled up form nearly hidden by the blankets. Even if Starsky couldn’t sleep again it was obvious he needed to be alone right now, so Hutch took a shower. Afterwards he headed for the living room to catch up on his phone calls, first of which was to call Huggy and apologize.

 

He’d just picked up the receiver when a knock at the door made him jump. He hung up and crossed the room to open the door and frown at Audrey, who’d just lifted her hand for a second knock.

 

She let it sink down with an embarrassed smile.

 

“Hi,” she smiled, pushed herself up on her toes to kiss his cheek and stepped inside. “How’s my patient?”

 

“Asleep,” Hutch answered and quietly closed the door. “Hi.”

 

“Still?” Audrey asked, surprised, and glanced at her watch. “That’s a good sign.”

 

“Uh, no,” Hutch replied and followed her into the kitchen. “Just now. What’s that?” he asked, pointing his chin at a brown paper bag Audrey put on the table.

 

“Donuts,” she smiled. “And muffins. Didn’t know what to buy, so...” She shrugged, then snapped her fingers and produced a small bottle from the bag. “And I brought him some pills to help him sleep. Just in case.”

 

“Good thinking,” Hutch said, surprised at his own hard tone. He glanced into the bag.

 

Audrey frowned. “What? I figured Dave’s big on comfort food.”

 

“Yeah, normally,” Hutch said, “but now’s not normal.”

 

Audrey put one arm around him. “He’ll be okay.” She looked up at him, waited until he met her eyes. “How ’bout you?”

 

“What d’you mean? I’m fine.” Disentangling himself, he walked around the table, then realized the only reason he’d done so was to get away from her. He picked up the coffee can. “Like some coffee?”

 

She shook her head and looked at the table. “Did he eat some more?”

 

Hutch nodded.

 

“And you?”

 

He sighed. “Audie, I’m fine. It’s not me I’m—”

 

“I worry about you. Don’t you understand that?”

 

“Yeah. No.” Hutch pushed a hand through his hair. “It’s just... I-I don’t want that, okay? Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.” Once again with no visible reason he turned towards the breakfast bar, only to find he had cornered himself.

 

“Hutch.”

 

Surprised, Hutch glanced at her over his shoulder. It was the first time he could recall her ever using the nickname. He didn’t know why that mattered, but it did somehow. It meant something. If only he could put his finger on it.

 

Watching his reaction, Audrey softened her voice even more. She didn’t approach him, though, leaving him in his safe space behind the table. “I want to help you. I’m here for you.”

 

“But I don’t need help!” he snapped, regretting the angry force of his reply instantly. “I’m sorry. I’m—”

 

“Okay,” Audrey cut him off. “I don’t know how to react to all of this, I admit that. I’m sorry. For me, this is just such scary shit going on in your life. And it looks like you’re used to it. Dave too. And that doesn’t make it any better. But I’m trying, Ken. I need to try.” She paused, studying him. “And if you want to be with me, you have to let me help you. If you want this to work out, you have to let me in. This guy you told me about, who’s responsible for all this, who wanted to get back at you…who is he? Tell me about that.”

 

Hutch didn’t even think about his answer. “I can’t.”

 

Somewhere deep down underneath the thick blanket of fear, he wondered why. Audrey opened her mouth to protest and he repeated, “I just can’t.”

 

“Meaning you don’t want to.”

 

“Okay, yeah,” he answered. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to talk about it. Not right now.” As if the echo of his own anger startled him, he lowered his voice. “Give me some time. I’ll... I’ll call you.”

 

A hurt expression spreading over her face, Audrey folded her arms in front of her chest. “Something terrifying happens to you, and you push me away? Is that your idea of a relationship?”

 

For some reason, though he knew it was wrong, Hutch started to get pissed at her. “It didn’t happen to me, it happened to my partner. And I’m not pushing you away. I’m telling you, I’ll call you. I need some time.”

 

“For what?” she asked.

 

“F-for...” Hutch stammered, exasperated. “For... I don’t know! For me! For this! To figure stuff out. Just... let me be for a while. Okay? Can you do that?”

 

The look she gave him didn’t confirm that hope. But her following words startled him. “Do you love me?”

 

Even more so did his immediate answer. “Yes.”

 

A humorless grin twisted her mouth. “But you don’t want me around in times of crisis. That it? You don’t allow me to try and—”

 

“Dammit, Audrey, this isn’t about us,” Hutch raised his voice, unsure where that had come from. “It’s about me!”

 

“If it’s just about you,” Audrey yelled, “then how do you think there can ever be an us?”

 

There was a long silence, both of them staring at each other, the perfect image of a fighting couple desperate for the other one to understand, angry without knowing why.

 

Hutch felt the adrenaline rush ebb away, replaced by regret. He took in her appearance, her anger that couldn’t hide the frightened sadness in her eyes. All this turmoil just for him. All this wasted energy. All this pain and grief that existed because he existed.

 

“I’ll call you,” he said.

 

She stared at him and let go of a shaky, audible breath. “I just don’t understand you, Ken,” she said, and he knew it was meant to hurt him.

 

She didn’t say any more, just turned and left.

 

Didn’t even bang the door.

 

Hutch stood in the corner of Starsky’s kitchen, letting his head hang. A voice from the entry made him jump.

 

“I’m with her.”

 

“Jeez, Starsk!” Hutch said, grabbing his chest for pure emphasis. He threw his friend a glance, then turned to the counter. “Thought you were asleep.”

 

Starsky didn’t bother to answer. He leaned against the doorframe, folding his arms in front of him. “What’re you doing, Hutch? What’s going on?”

 

“Insomnia is no excuse for eavesdropping, pal.”

 

“What d’you expect me to do, cover my ears?” Starsky replied, but his voice was somber. “What’s going on with you?”

 

“Nothing,” Hutch snapped, then sighed. “Starsk, I don’t want to discuss my love life right now, okay? I want you to try and get some sleep, so if you’d just go back to—”

 

“She’s right,” Starsky started again. “You are pushing her away.”

 

“I’m not.”

 

“Yes, you are. I know you, Blintz. I know you love her, and I know you’re trying to kick her out of your life. What I don’t know is why.”

 

Placing both hands on the breakfast counter, Hutch stared down at it, shoulders drawn up. He’d rather finish the conversation with Audrey than carry on with this. He felt Starsky’s gaze on him, sensed his moving from the door to the table. He sat down.

 

“You know you could tell her about it.”

 

Hutch looked up, eyes narrowed. “No, I could not.”

 

“Why not?” Starsky asked.

 

“Because I don’t tell anyone about it.”

 

Starsky studied him for a long moment, his gaze layered with pure sadness and knowledge. A knowledge that Hutch knew shouldn’t surprise him. “You know the queen of horror stories—”

 

“Galesko.” Hutch said. He was ignored.

 

“—is going to be put away. Whatever she said to you has no bearing in the real world. Only if you let it.”

 

Hutch huffed. “How wise, buddy. But just for the record, we put Forest away, too. See how unreal that made him.”

 

Starsky sighed. “Aw, Hutch, c’mon, d’you really wanna start with me about this? If you blame yourself, that’s bad enough, but don’t go and punish yourself. Don’t ruin things because of it. It’s not worth it. The world’s a dangerous place. You’re a cop, you should know that. If that’s okay with Audrey, then it’s the best you get.”

 

Coffee forgotten, Hutch leaned against the counter, arms folded across his chest. “You’re right, I’m a cop, and because of that, I know that Audrey doesn’t know shit. She doesn’t know what it is she’d be getting into.”

 

“Oh, I think she does. Now, at least,” Starsky replied.

“She’s a great lady, Hutch. If you push her away, you’re a fool.”

 

“So maybe I am!” Hutch exclaimed. “That’s better than...” he shook his head. “Let’s face it, Starsk, being around me isn’t good for people, health-wise. And sometimes the timing is just bad. Audrey and I were just starting, and…frankly, I don’t need her right now. Maybe I can call her in a few weeks and...” But as he listened to himself, he laughed softly and shrugged.

 

“I know how you’re feeling,” Starsky said, and Hutch bowed his head, ashamed of having this discussion with his friend. After all, Starsky was the one who’d lost someone he loved to the job. “And you’re right, it’s a risk. I mean, you and me, we know that, but...” Trailing off, he shook his head. “You’re letting her win. Whatever Whatshername told you, if she threatened Audrey or not, it doesn’t matter. You can’t just give up like that, have her run your life.”

 

“Better than have her destroy Audie’s,” Hutch said, avoiding his partner’s gaze. “Never heard of ‘if you love someone, let ’em go’?”

 

“But Audrey doesn’t want to go, Blintz. In case you haven’t noticed, Audrey clings.”

 

Hutch chuckled, but shook his head.

 

“She loves you, man,” Starsky said. “Even though she’s seen your car. And that’s sayin’ somethin’.”

 

Hutch smiled, still not looking at him.

 

Starsky waited, then asked, “You’re not even thinking about changing your mind, are you?”

 

Lifting his gaze at last, Hutch shook his head. “No.” He thought for a moment. “I can’t.”

 

“Of course you can,” Starsky shot back. “You have to fight. I mean I know it’s fucking frightening, and I know it’s hard, but—”

 

“Maybe,” Hutch interrupted him very calmly, “I’m just not as strong as you are. Ever thought of that?”

 

“No.” Starsky didn’t miss a beat to answer. Didn’t even sound surprised at the reaction. “Because that’s beaver crap.”

 

Hutch stared at him, dumbfounded, and suddenly laughed. He shook his head, lifted his hands in a surrendering gesture. “Okay. So it is. But it’s my beaver crap, all right? Let me deal with it the way I choose, and you just focus on getting better for now. How’s that sound?”

 

“Awfully reasonable,” Starsky grumbled and yawned suddenly.

 

“That’s what I thought,” Hutch said and approached him, took his arm. “Up. You’re going back to bed.”

 

“But I’m not done trying to talk some sense into you,” Starsky protested, trying to wriggle his arm free. “And besides, I can’t sleep.” He yawned again.

 

Hutch smiled at the absurd scene and patted Starsky’s head. “Well, tell you what, if you really can’t, you can take some of this stuff Audrey left. Deal?”

 

Frowning innocently, Starsky blinked up at his friend. “D’you really think donuts’ll help?”

 

“No. I meant the muffins. Mushbrain.”

 

“Oh.” Starsky nodded. “Okay.” On his way out, he stopped in the door. “Hey?”

 

“Yeah?” Hutch asked, not turning around.

 

“I’m fine around you.” He waited for Hutch to glance at him. “Health-wise.” He left the kitchen.

 

In less than twenty minutes he returned for the sleeping pills.

 

~oOo~

 

Starsky snapped awake, a gasp catching in his throat, and struggled to sit up, fingers scrambling at... something soft? He frowned. Why was the ground soft?

 

Squinting his eyes against the bright moonlight outside the window, he kicked his blanket away, watched it slide over the edge of his bed. Bed. Right. Home, he was home.

 

With the realization, frustration came, and he swung his feet to the ground and rested his face in his hands. At least it was dark outside, so he must have slept a few hours, he figured. He thought he felt a little better too. Tired still, but not as worn out as before. Not so desperate. He drew his hands away, looked about the dark room for a moment.

 

The clock on the nightstand told him it was in fact even later than he’d thought, and he gave it a satisfied look before remembering he’d taken two of Audrey’s sleeping pills instead of one. But then, oh hell, Rome hadn’t been built in a day.

 

He stretched a little, gaze wandering to settle on the door. He stood to leave the room, sudden anxiety speeding his steps.

 

Hutch was sound asleep on the couch outside, and the relieved breath that escaped Starsky at the sight was quickly followed by annoyance. Hutch was safe. He knew that! Why couldn’t his subconscious?

 

With a quiet sigh he sat down in the wicker chair next to the couch, sinking into it heavily, watching his friend.

 

The familiar little crease was apparent on Hutch’s forehead even in sleep.

 

Starsky knew how his partner was feeling. He wished he didn’t.

 

Leaning his head back, he looked at the ceiling, stretched out his legs. You couldn’t blame people for blaming themselves. Especially cops. After Terry’s death, he had talked a lot about quitting, but deep within his grieving self it had never been about the job. He’d blamed himself, David Starsky, as a person, not necessarily a cop. If it hadn’t been for him, Terry would still be alive. The world would still have a Terry Roberts. But if he’d had a choice, would he have chosen to stop living, stop loving?

 

No. Because he’d loved her that much. And though it was sometimes hidden underneath layers of guilt and remorse and sadness, there was the deep knowledge within his heart that she wouldn’t have wanted him to step back, either. She’d have chosen the same. Because it had been worth it.

 

He knew that now. After all this time, he knew it with all his heart, as if Terry herself had told him. He was too grateful for what they’d had to be able to wish different for her. He missed her terribly and he never lost the desperate fury at the man who’d taken her from him, but he didn’t blame himself anymore.

 

It hadn’t happened because he was who he was. It had just happened.

 

Hutch shifted a little, a small sound of protest reaching Starsky’s ears. It faded into the stillness of the night. About to reach out and offer comfort, Starsky watched him curl up on his side, face buried in the pillow, breaths calming, slowing.

 

Leaning back, Starsky drew his legs up onto the chair.

 

'You’re worth it, Blintz. You gotta learn that.'

 

The night grew old, watching him guard over Hutch’s sleep.

 

Slumber sneaked up unexpectedly.

 

~oOo~

 

Hutch hated waking up on Starsky’s couch, but today it was even worse. His back hurt and he’d also overslept. Now he was late for work. Funny, how your mind could inform you you’d overslept the minute you awakened, but didn’t manage to wake you up before.

 

He lifted one clumsy hand to wipe over his features as he wearily pulled the blanket off, feet searching for the floor. He sat up and caught sight of a limp form huddled in the wicker chair. Puzzled, he frowned and studied his partner, who was sound asleep.

 

He didn’t have the heart to wake Starsky, though he looked uncomfortable, as if sleep did not come to him as a friend. His chin was tucked in close to his body, and his legs were twisted in a strange half sprawl. It reminded Hutch of the impossible positions Starsky managed to fall asleep in during stakeouts, sprawled between the steering wheel and the backrest of the driver’s seat.

 

Hutch staggered to his feet, his sore back screaming at him to try and find a more agreeable place to sleep next time. Scrunching his face, he stretched his aching muscles once more, then picked up the blanket to spread it over Starsky before he left for the bathroom. One quick glance at the clock told him his inner red alert still worked—he had overslept.

 

Coffee would have to wait, Hutch decided while he took a quick shower. He borrowed a fresh t-shirt from Starsky’s bedroom and threw it on when a strangled yelp sent him all but sprinting into the living room.

 

Starsky stumbled and crashed to the floor next to the wicker chair he’d jumped from, confused and terrified.

 

“Awake!” Starsky repeated through a breathless gasp, wild eyes jumping around the room. “I’m awake. I-I didn’t... it’s not...”

 

“Starsky! It’s all right.” Hutch knelt down and turned Starsky’s chin to face him. “It’s okay. I’m right here. It’s okay.”

 

Starsky froze. “Hutch?”

 

“Yes,” Hutch assured. “It’s me. It’s all right, you’re—”

 

Starsky’s expression grew even more frantic than before. Panicked, he grabbed Hutch’s arms. “No.”

 

It was just a whisper, yet the despair it carried hurt to hear. Hutch understood instantly. “Starsky. Starsk, listen to me.”

 

Starsky didn’t react, didn’t seem to hear or want to listen as he clung to the blond, almost hurting him. His eyes were closed, as if the cruel reality he expected couldn’t find him then.

 

It reminded Hutch of a frightened kid. And just like he’d deal with one, he lowered his voice, banned all urgency from it and gently freed one arm to cup Starsky’s cheek.

“Buddy, you’re home. It’s okay. Open your eyes, c’mon. Look.”

 

There was the slightest hesitation, then, tentatively, Starsky blinked his eyes open.

 

“See?” Hutch asked and looked around, sure that Starsky would follow his gaze. “It’s your place. You’re home.”

 

Starsky frowned, didn’t loosen his grip.

 

Hutch watched patiently, not trying to draw his other arm away, but sat back to give his friend more space. “Y’okay now?” he asked after a moment and waited for Starsky to look at him again. “Starsk?”

 

Starsky swallowed, catching his breath. He nodded. “Y-yeah,” he whispered shakily and cleared his throat. “Yeah, terrific.” A deep breath. “Triffic. I’m fine.” He scanned the room, mumbling. “Just fine. Hutch. Home. Okay. Everything’s okay.”

 

Hutch arched his brows and squeezed the hand on his arm. “Right,” he soothed.

 

“Okay,” Starsky said, more to himself than Hutch. “We’re okay.”

 

“Buddy, calm down.”

 

“Yeah. Yeah.” It didn’t sound like he was.

 

Hutch tried to get up and get him a glass of water, but Starsky held him back.

 

“Don’t go away!”

 

“No, I’m...” Hutch said, feeling his heart wrench at the pleading voice, the fear in his friend’s eyes. “I’m not leaving, I just wanna get you some water. I’m right here. I won’t go away, I promise.”

 

“I don’t need no water,” Starsky said. “Just stay here for a moment, yeah? Please?”

 

“Sure,” Hutch replied and sat back down, slow and quiet, trying to project calm. “I’m right here, babe. I’m not leaving, and nothing’s gonna happen to either of us. We’re okay.”

 

“Yeah.” Starsky nodded, then sighed deeply. Ever so slowly, his fingers unclenched as he freed Hutch’s arm. “Man, I hate this,” he said.

 

He still trembled, but it subsided as his breathing slowed. It took some time before he looked even remotely calm and was able to flash his partner a somewhat embarrassed smile. “Now water would be great,” he said.

 

Hutch chuckled and stood, squeezing Starsky’s shoulder on his way around him and into the kitchen. When he returned, Starsky was seated on the couch with his head back and his eyes closed. Hutch nudged his arm and handed him the water, then sat down next to him, watching him.

 

“Thanks,” Starsky muttered, after he’d taken a few sips. He frowned. “You’re late, aren’t you?”

 

Hutch waved. “I’m gonna call in—”

 

“No,” Starsky cut him off, “no, don’t. Honest, Hutch, I’m fine.” His partner opened his mouth, and Starsky added, “I’m not up to par, but I don’t need to be watched. You go to work, and I’ll be a good little couch potato and take it easy. All right?”

 

“I don’t know,” Hutch replied, furrowing his brows. “I don’t think—”

 

“Hutch,” Starsky interrupted him again. He wasn’t pleading anymore. “I just need more time. I’ll be okay.”

 

“Waking up to a panic attack is okay?”

 

“I said I will be okay,” Starsky said.

 

As if on cue, the phone rang.

 

Hutch gave it an angry glance. Starsky looked at him meaningfully, and Hutch sighed. “Gonna handle Dobey for me?”

 

Starsky winked. “Anytime, buddy.”

 

“Thanks. I’ll drop by later.” Hutch was off the couch and through the front door. There was just enough time to catch Starsky saying, “Yeah, but my car’s still with the lab boys, he had to take his own.”

 

He almost banged the door shut, but thought better just in time and pulled it closed with all the gentleness his survival instinct demanded.

 

~oOo~

 

It didn’t take Starsky long to find out that being a good little couch potato and taking it easy wasn’t the same thing anymore. At least not for him.

 

True to his promise, he had snuggled up on the couch in front of the TV with Audrey’s supply of comfort food, watching an agreeable looking oldie sitcom. What had seemed like a sure way to relax turned out to be an invitation for sleep to overwhelm him every so often. And it wasn’t a peaceful, healing sleep like he had hoped, but the restless, nervous slumber he’d grown so unnervingly acquainted with by now. He wasn’t sure why he had hoped things would to get back to normal so soon after the incident earlier that morning, but maybe it was just his own conviction that he should be getting over it. After all, it had been two days.

 

He’d made a point of not taking the sleeping pills with him to the couch. He couldn’t rely on those forever, could he?

 

And he didn’t need them, anyway. Hell, this was sleep he was talking about. The one thing right after breathing that you did without thinking about. He’d never had problems sleeping. Nightmares, now that was a different topic, but not insomnia. And certainly not like this. It was annoying to wake so often, but the thing that unnerved him was this stinging feeling of dread, exploding inside him like a bomb every time he awakened. It settled like poisoned fog over him. Every time he woke up, he had the urge to call the precinct and check on his partner.

 

Listlessly picking a donut from the bag on the coffee table, he found himself staring at it, the same aversion as before twisting his insides. He let it fall down again with a frustrated sigh. Leaning back, his gaze wandered until it came to rest on the terrace door, covered by the closed blinds. To keep the sky out.

 

Starsky closed his eyes. This was ridiculous. And totally unlike him. He should be okay two days after having been rescued. He hadn’t been through that much. He’d seen worse. Marcus, yeah, sure, that had been scary. Then, he’d been entitled to freak out for days afterwards, but this? The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that Hutch had never been in any danger. Galesko wouldn’t have had him killed. That hadn’t been Forest’s plan. So why was he still so frightened for his partner? Why couldn’t he get over the feeling they would hurt Hutch?

 

Or had already. The way Hutch talked about Galesko... the near hate in his voice...

 

Starsky knew that tone, and it worried him. Of course one of them always suffered when the other got hurt, in a different but not less painful way. They’d both found out long ago that helplessness could hurt as much as broken bones, and desperate fury could agitate as much as fear-filled nightmares. They were both pretty good at guilt too. It was a weak spot they just couldn’t get rid of and something that he knew acted in Galesko’s favor when she’d laid out her little scenario to Hutch.

 

For some reason, the writer seemed able to get to the blond like few people Starsky had met before, and it bothered him even more that that he didn’t know why. To him she’d been scary because she had power over his best friend’s life.

 

Apart from that, he hadn’t found her any more impressive than other psychopaths he’d come across. You took their being dangerous seriously, but not them. There had been nothing frightening for him in Simon Marcus’s people, either. What he had suffered from had been the terror of being at someone’s mercy.

 

So maybe the problem was that Hutch had taken Galesko seriously when she’d talked to him. Something she had said met a willing, believing part in Hutch’s soul, and it had hooked him in with slimy claws, impossible to disengage without ripping and damage.

Hutch was hurt, not safe.

 

But was that really the answer why Starsky couldn’t let go of the image of his friend dragged into the cold cellar room, beaten and battered and about to get...

 

Eyes flying open, a gasp died in Starsky’s throat. He knew he’d jumped up from the couch only when he stumbled over his own feet and crashed back down on it. Panting, he focused on the TV, then let his head fall forward into his hands, trying to shake off the disturbing pictures his mind tormented him with. All of a sudden he found himself at the phone, out of breath, heart hammering in his throat.

 

Startled, he stared at the receiver in his shaking hand and hung up, turning on his heels in the same motion to storm into the bedroom. This had to stop. He would make it stop.

 

~oOo~

 

Why was it that no one else in this precinct ever seemed to be on hold when they were on the phone? How did they do that?

 

The minute he told the person on the other end of the line, usually female, his name, he’d be holding before his lips stopped moving.

 

Well, maybe his name scared them off. Maybe they all had come across his Dad at some point in the past.

 

Hope flashed over his face, and he tightened his grip on the receiver. “Yeah, I’m still here. I’m...” He sighed. “... holding. Sure. No prob.”

 

The last words were spoken to a happy recorded tune.

 

And since when did all the big companies use those auto club happy ‘please hold’ tunes, anyway? Why would anyone calling the city waterworks want to listen to that? Did the police station use happy tunes? Maybe they should! Maybe the lab should!

 

He sat and drew circles around the name of the latest case in his notebook.

 

The body of Charles Grey, fifty-five years old, had been found by his neighbor that morning. A fragile looking lady in her late seventies, her question to Hutch had been, “Who would have done something like this?” over and over, during the whole thirty minutes of a futile attempt to take her statement.

 

The only thing Hutch had learned was that she hadn’t known Grey very well, had only noticed his open door by chance, and had stepped inside to see if everything was okay.

 

Considering what her well-meaning action forced her to see, Hutch really felt sorry for the poor woman. It hadn’t been pretty. Grey had been executed lying on his stomach with a clean shot to the neck. Both outstretched arms and legs had been shot in several places.

 

A quick scan of the apartment told Hutch the man had lived alone, though framed pictures on his shelves and TV told stories of a happy past: kids, pretty wife, family Christmas cards, vacations spent in the mountains, afternoon barbecues at the beach. Nothing appeared to be missing or stolen, and you didn’t need to be a detective to figure the killer was more than a startled burglar. This was something personal.

 

Hutch had tried to call some of the numbers on a notepad by Grey’s phone. A number for someone named Linda rang and rang, and he hadn’t been able to speak to anyone at the city waterworks Grey had worked for, either. With the usual order for the lab guys to hurry with the report so he could have it today, hopefully before lunch, Hutch left the scene.

 

Back at the precinct, he tried the two numbers again, starting with the waterworks, and ever since then had been on hold. Tormented with happy tunes.

 

He reached the point of humming along without noticing when a real person’s voice finally interrupted the music. At the same moment, Starsky entered the squad room.

 

Hutch hung up. “What’re you doing here?” he asked, glancing down at the receiver in his hand. Shoulders slumping, he looked at Starsky, sitting on the desk. “Thought you were gonna take it easy another day.”

 

Shrugging, Starsky replied, “I want my car back,” and

pointed at the phone. “What was that about?”

 

“New case,” Hutch said. “Your car? You know I’d have driven the tomato home for you tonight.”

 

Starsky shook his head. “Nah. I can’t relax when it’s not parked outside, y’know? Makes me nervous. Besides,” he added, sliding off the desk to stroll over to his desk chair, “I want to identify Galesko and her goons, get it done. Give my statement and all that. I think we’ll both feel better when Virginia Woolf is beyond lawyer talk. Now, d’you wanna type it?”

 

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Hutch replied “’Course. You might want to check in with Dobey first.”

 

Glancing over his shoulder at his captain’s closed door, Starsky nodded and without bothering to knock entered the office. Out of a familiar mixture of protectiveness and plain amusement, Hutch followed him.

 

“Hi Cap.”

 

“Starsky! D’you ever hear of knocking? And what’re you doing here? I thought you were still on sick leave! Didn’t you tell me he was?” Dobey barked at Hutch, who lifted his shoulders helplessly.

 

“He was this morning.”

 

“Then he still is this afternoon. Starsky, go home and get some rest. You look awful.”

 

Starsky tried on a hurt expression and looked at his partner. “And I just said ‘hi.’”

 

“Well, he does have a point there, buddy,” Hutch stated gravely. “You could do with some more winks, couldn’t you?”

 

“Listen to your partner,” Dobey said, waving Starsky off. “Take the rest of the week off and get some sleep. You’re no use to anyone when you’re about to fall on your face.”

 

Taken off guard, Starsky stared at him, then at Hutch and back. “I wish I’d known sooner this is what happens when you try to officially report back to duty.”

 

“No,” Dobey replied, “this is what happens when you bounce in here looking like you do. To report back, you need a psych certificate, you know that.”

 

Starsky’s face fell. “Aw, no, Cap,” he whined. “Please.”

 

Dobey rolled his eyes. “Starsky. You know the rules.”

 

“But they’re mean rules!” Starsky protested.

 

Hutch hid a smile.

 

“I didn’t make them,” Dobey countered, “and they’re there for a reason.”

 

“What reason other than to drive innocent officers of the law nuts? Oh, wait, I forgot, it’s about proving we’re nuts,” he added. “Do you wanna hear my theory about it?”

 

“Not really,” Dobey and Hutch mumbled in unison.

 

Starsky ignored them. “It’s just some bullshit Officer Weird talked you into because she takes pleasure from—”

 

“Starsky,” Dobey cut him off, lifting a warning finger.

 

Looking like an unruly little boy in the principal’s office, Starsky fell silent.

 

“Officer Weil,” Dobey continued, glaring as he emphasized the department psychiatrist’s name, “does a very good job at keeping this division together. You need to get that certificate whether you throw a temper tantrum or not, so I’d appreciate it if you could dispense with it. Now, get the hell outta here and don’t come back before you’ve proven to her you’re not crazier than normal. Hutchinson...” he turned to Hutch, who nodded quickly, grabbing his partner’s arm and dragging him out before Starsky had the chance to say anything more.

 

~oOo~

 

“Know what I think?” Starsky started while they were climbing the stairs to Sandra Weil’s office. “I think she’s in on it all.”

 

Hutch frowned. “Who?”

 

“Officer Weird!”

 

“Her name’s Weil, Starsky, and you know she’d be much less prejudiced against you if you’d save the come-on lines and level with her on your first meeting.”

 

“She asked me what I needed that time, so—”

 

“I know,” Hutch cut him off, lifting his hands, “what your answer was.” He rolled his eyes when Starsky grinned. “You just hate her because she’s a shrink.”

 

“I hate her because she’s hateable,” Starsky countered, “and you’re one to talk, Blintz. You’re scared shitless of her.”

 

“Intimidated,” Hutch corrected tonelessly.

 

“Yeah, right,” Starsky grumbled. His speed slowed as they reached the correct floor. Hutch placed one arm around his shoulders encouragingly.

 

“I’m right with ya, buddy.”

 

Starsky shot him a look. “I think she’s part of it all. I bet she called Galko to offer—”

 

“Galesko,” Hutch corrected, drawing his arm away. “And if I were you, I’d keep from mentioning your theory in there. Remember the last time you accused her of working for someone?”

 

Starsky nodded.

 

“See,” Hutch said, nodding like a patient adult who’d just managed to talk some sense into a stubborn teenager. “Now for once try to behave yourself, tell her how you feel, and please don’t give her a reason to suggest your immediate admission into a psych hospital. Think you can do that? For me?”

 

“I don’t know. I mean, if I’m supposed to tell her how I’m feeling, then how—”

 

“Starsk,” Hutch said, using the advantage his height gave him to look down on his friend.

 

“Okay. For you,” Starsky added.

 

“’Atta boy,” Hutch praised and turned for the stairs again, as they were in front of Weil’s office. “I’ll be downstai—”

 

“Ah, ah, ah,” Starsky cut him off, grabbed his arm. “You stay here.” Pointing a warning finger at Hutch, he opened the door to the office without knocking and vanished inside before Hutch could protest.

 

With a frustrated groan, Hutch leaned against the wall. He hadn’t had time to get tired of standing when the door opened again, revealing a happily whistling Starsky, who with polite gentleness closed the door.

 

“’Kay,” he grinned at his dumbfounded friend, waving a small piece of paper. “Let’s go.”

 

Hutch stared at him, brows furrowing. “Did you hurt her?”

he asked suspiciously.

 

Starsky laughed and winked. “Told her how I’m feeling.”

Patting Hutch’s arm, he led him back down the hallway. “C’mon, we’ve got work waiting. You haven’t told me about this new case yet.”

 

 “She was in there, wasn’t she? Starsky, did you write that certificate yourself?”

 

“Hutch,” Starsky said indignantly. “Would I do that?”

 

Hutch just looked at him.

 

Starsky stopped in his steps, meeting his eyes, all innocence. “Just to get back to work? By the way, did you reach whoever you were trying to call earlier? Because I could call them back for you.”

 

With no reaction visible on his face, Hutch grabbed Starsky’s arm to glance at his watch. “Man, is it that late,” he said. “We’ve got work to do—guess I don’t have time to check with Weil. Just have to trust you, huh? Let’s go get that statement of yours filed before lunch, partner. Then you’ve got a call to make.”

 

Starsky nodded, content. “That’s what I thought.”

 

~oOo~

 

For the first time since they’d been partners, Starsky wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to have Hutch at his side. It was the first time he actually had to dictate a statement to his friend. Any other time they’d have talked about it already, so that Hutch would write it down and then have Starsky sign it. No need to go through it all again, asking and answering all those unnerving, disturbing questions cops had to bother a victim with.

 

But they hadn’t talked that much about what had happened, and though Hutch had seen the aftermath, he still needed details for the report. Details that more or less surrounded his own name on the paper.

 

Pretty soon into the statement, talking about level one of the ‘game’, Starsky realized this had been a bad idea. Listening obviously hurt Hutch a great deal. Well, no wonder, the whole story was focused on him.

 

Starsky knew that in a twisted, guilt-ridden way, Hutch heard that he was the reason for his friend’s ordeal, and the weapon used against him. He had been the reason for no sleep, no food, no warmth. He couldn’t see that he had also been the reason for hope and willpower.

 

Trying his best to cut the statement short and protect his partner as much as he could, Starsky left out things, forgetting occasionally that he was still talking to a cop, giving an official statement. Of course Hutch would ask when he noticed. He was a thorough officer, report-wise.

 

Starsky knew that in the end, he couldn’t hide the painful information from Hutch. He talked about Galesko’s visits, her threats that had left him imagining the most horrible scenarios, and after Hutch asked, explained the damage to his hands, the gash on his forehead. He lied, said that he had hit the walls out of frustration and fury. Hutch just nodded and typed it up that way, though Starsky knew it didn’t fool him.

 

At least it was over quickly, since there wasn’t much to tell apart from Galesko’s occasional visits. Hutch seemed particularly interested in these. He had a thousand questions, getting Starsky to tell him exactly what she had said, how she had said it, and how she had behaved.

 

“I told you,” Starsky said, lifting his hands in a surrendering gesture, “there was nothing remarkable about it if you don’t count her being the ice queen. She’d drop in, make fun of me, leave something there and then go again.” He frowned. “Is there something particular you’re after? If so, just ask, buddy. I’m not hiding anything.”

 

Hutch’s face fell. “No, I’m sorry. I-I’m just...” he shook his head, giving Starsky a small smile, and looked at the report again before he pulled it from the typewriter. “No, we’re done now. ’Sokay. Sorry for being such a pest.”

 

Starsky watched him closely. “Hey,” he said, his voice softened, “you probably spent more time with her than I did.”

 

“Yeah,” Hutch said. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Here.” He shoved the report over on his partner’s desk.

 

Starsky didn’t react, waited until Hutch lifted his gaze to him. “You all right?”

 

“Yeah, I’m fine.” A shrug. “I just hate what happened, that’s all.”

 

With some irony, Starsky wondered if he should take his partner’s statement as well, find out what Hutch had been forced to listen to during the long hours of interrogation. When it came to anything connected to Anne Galesko, he seemed so vulnerable. As if deep inside he feared that Starsky wasn’t telling him the whole truth, but hid something from him, something disturbing, something he kept looking for in Starsky’s face when he thought his partner wasn’t looking.

 

After all, Starsky thought with grim frustration, the crime itself had been focused on Hutch. It might not look like it on paper, but he had been the chosen victim.

 

“It’ll be good to put her away.”

 

Looking up, Hutch smiled. “Oh yeah! Especially on behalf of world literature. A person who uses mushroom clouds as metaphors should not allowed to touch pen to paper.”

 

“Mushroom clouds?” Starsky repeated, puzzled.

 

Hutch didn’t meet his eyes, instead playing with a pen. “Doomed to destroy,” he muttered.

 

Starsky watched him visibly withdraw. “Hutch?”

 

“Hm?” Hutch lifted his head, but his attention was claimed by Dobey’s booming voice.

 

“Hutchinson. Starsky. My office.”

 

Hutch stood and Starsky quickly scribbled his signature on the report and followed, but not without making a mental note to talk to his partner in private later.

 

“Have a look at those,” Dobey greeted them inside his office, shoving a series of crime scene pictures over his desk.

 

Starsky picked one up and frowned in disgust. It showed an elderly man in a very tidy living room, face down on the ground, arms and legs stretched out to his sides, dotted with bullet holes. Dark dried blood pooled around the still form. The features were the color of ash.

 

Glancing first at his partner, who was studying another picture, and then at Dobey, Starsky asked, “Details?”

 

“Robin Barton,” Dobey complied. “Age sixty-seven, resigned high school teacher, lived alone. A salesman noticed the smell when he knocked this morning and called the cops.” Dobey shook his head. “No one missed the man before that. Doc says he’s been dead for a week.”

 

“Who was at the scene?” Hutch asked.

 

“Reilman and Kleitz. They’re having the stuff sent over to you.”

 

Hutch nodded and lifted another picture, Starsky watching him. “I have a bunch of matching ones on my desk. Charles Grey, fifty-five. Welcome to the new case, partner.”

 

“Hooray,” Starsky muttered, studying the gruesome picture again. He stood up. “Well, let’s get to it then.”

 

“Yep,” Hutch agreed.

 

At the door Dobey’s voice held them back. “Starsky?”

 

Starsky turned. He tried not to cringe, seeing his psych certificate in the Captain’s raised hand. “Yes, Cap?”

 

Dobey gave him a piercing glance from across the room, then let the thin folder fall back onto his desk. “Good to have you back,” he grumbled.

 

Starsky beamed and rushed outside, followed by Hutch, who threw his superior a grateful smile.

 

~oOo~

 

Solving a case was like playing connect the dots. In the murders of Charles Grey and Robin Barton, there had been no witnesses, no one whose information might mark a starting point.

 

The first clues, aside from the method of murder itself, came from their apartments, their living situation.

 

The resemblances were striking. The pictures in Barton’s modest place showed framed snapshots of better times, just like the ones Hutch had seen in Grey’s apartment. Both men were divorced. They were also fathers: Grey had two daughters who lived with their mother in a small town near San Diego, and Barton had a son living in Seattle.

 

“Okay,” Hutch said late that afternoon, absently unwrapping a sandwich and flipping through the pages of his notebook. “Grey’s wife says she and the kids left him about a year ago because he beat them.” He sighed and exchanged a look with his partner. “According to her, Grey had a heavy drinking problem and some other ‘issues’, she called them. Meaning he beat her, caused a miscarriage, sent her in the hospital twice—I checked, it’s the truth. He started hitting the girls and the wife got them out of there.”

 

“The guy I spoke to at the waterworks says Grey was the kindest, best guy around,” said Starsky. “A real pal, as long as you didn’t run into him after he started drinking. Apparently he lost two or three jobs before this one because of his drinking and temper. He was arrested once at a bar fight, though his lawyer proved that the other guy started it.” He smirked. “The other guy was injured pretty badly—his nose was busted, his arm fractured, and a ripped ear. Guess what Grey carried away? A shiner.”

 

Hutch closed his notebook, raising his brows. “Your regular All-American asshole.” Taking a huge bite of his sandwich, he frowned at Starsky, who’d shoved his sandwich aside. “Something wrong with it?”

 

“Uh, no,” Starsky waved, not even looking. “I’m not hungry. Ready to hear about the next asshole?”

 

“You need to eat, buddy,” Hutch said. “We can get you something else, if—”

 

“Hutch,” Starsky cut him off with a warning glance. “No mothering on the job.” It sounded as if it was a fixed rule Hutch had forgotten about. “Now, Robin Taylor Barton,” he said, starting to read from his own scribbled pages, avoiding Hutch’s gaze. “Used to be a math teacher in Idaho, moved here two years ago. I spoke to the principal of the school he worked at. The guy was a teacher back then, too, and he said that Barton resigned after some rumors that he’d hit a student. The boy’s family never pressed charges, but…” he trailed off meaningfully. “Anyway, he’s also divorced, ex-wife died last spring. Cancer.”

 

“He hit a student?”

 

“It gets better,” Starsky replied. “I called his son, Daniel Barton. Lives in Seattle now with his own family, and when you listen to him, you’d think his old man was the Antichrist. Seems Mr. Barton was big on ‘discipline’ outside of the classroom, too. One time Daniel fought back and broke his father’s arm with a baseball bat. When Barton came home from the hospital, his wife and son were gone. Daniel says he only heard from his father again a few months ago. Seems he’d started working on his problems, y’know, talked about anger management. Started attending some self-help groups and was considering therapy. Daniel initially refused to talk to the old man, but his wife finally convinced him. That’s where it ended. They’d planned to call each other every week, maybe meet one day, take it slowly.” He shrugged. “Last week, no call came.”

 

“Because Barton was dead.”

 

Starsky nodded and leaned back in his chair. “Sometimes I hate this world,” he muttered.

 

“Okay, so what d’we got?” Hutch asked.

 

“Two dead bastards.”

 

Hutch nodded. “Yeah.” He drew one of the Barton pictures closer, studied it. “Yeah.” He looked up at Starsky. “Did Daniel or his mother ever come to California?”

 

Starsky shook his head. “Nope. According to Daniel, Robin moved here because of a woman he’d met. Daniel doesn’t know her name.” He checked his watch, then exclaimed, “What’re they doing down there, anyway?” He meant the lab guys, who had yet to send up the items collected as possible evidence from both apartments. “How long does it take to get fingerprints off an address book?”

 

Hutch shrugged and picked up his phone.

 

“I mean,” Starsky continued ranting, “We’re playing twenty questions here, and they’re sitting on the stuff that’ll help us find the killer!”

 

“Hm-mm,” Hutch muttered. He smiled at the woman’s voice answering the phone. “Hey Cheryl, it’s Hutch. Yeah. Hey, listen, we’re waiting for some evidence bags on a Charles Grey and a Robin Barton. D’you think you could check on those for me?” The smiled widened. “Thanks.” He was about to make a wisecrack aimed at his grumbling partner when Cheryl came back on. “Yeah? Oh. Okay. Well, no, of course. Yeah, I understand. Sure. ’Kay. Be right there.” He hung up and stood, picking up the rest of his sandwich to take with him. “Seems they’ve been done with our stuff for hours, but didn’t get it up here. I’m gonna go pick it up.” He shrugged at Starsky’s look. “Hey, they work very hard down there, y’know? Just because we expect them to play delivery boy doesn’t mean it’s really part of their job.”

 

“Right,” Starsky said. “Say ‘hi’ to Cheryl for me.”

 

Hutch grinned. “Sure.”

 

~oOo~

 

Watching after him, Starsky picked up his notes and leaned back in his chair. He scanned them again and then put them aside, waiting for his partner's return.

 

His stomach growled loudly and he pulled his forgotten sandwich closer, picking it up, fumbling with the plastic wrapping. The thought of actually eating it made him nauseous, but he knew he had to eat soon. The last thing he wanted was to worry Hutch even more. He ripped the wrapping open and took a small bite before he had time to change his mind.

 

He froze, staring at the sandwich, at Hutch's empty chair. Panic spread like heat inside him, and he rushed to swallow the bite already in his mouth. He reached for the phone and then realized he didn't know who he wanted to call.

 

Downstairs to see if Hutch had arrived? He drew his hand back from the phone and instead gave the sandwich on the desk an angry shove.

 

His stomach growled again, and he spread a hand over his belly, as if to cover the noise. Starsky swiped the sandwich into the wastebasket next to his desk. His hands were shaking.

 

Unnerved, he bent over his desk, gathering the pages of case notes and putting them in a neat pile.

 

He was looking for something else to do when Hutch re-entered the squad room, carrying two small boxes he dumped on his desk.

 

“Cheryl says not to say ‘hi’ to you, because you forgot to call her back when you-know-when.” Watching Starsky furrow his brows, trying to remember, Hutch added, “I didn’t know you and Cheryl had a you-know-when.”

 

“Me neither,” Starsky replied. He stood up and dragged one of the boxes closer, opening the top to inspect its contents. “Okay, Charles Grey it is,” he announced, digging into the heap of personal things. He pulled out a small red notebook and flipped through it. “Address book.”

 

“Same here,” Hutch said, waving a blue book he'd found in the other box. “Let’s see. There’s Daniel in here, a Dr. Simon, another doctor... ’nother doctor,” he said, sounding unimpressed. Shaking his head, he flipped through a few pages. “Lotsa doctors in here.”

 

“Shrinks?” Starsky asked.

 

“Check that later,” Hutch replied absently, scanning the names. “There she is. Marilyn Brix. Only woman in here.”

 

Starsky frowned. “That’s it? Daniel, doctors and Marilyn Brix?”

 

“Yep. Who’s in Grey’s?”

 

“Ex-wife, number at work, some first names, most of them crossed out.” He sighed. “No doctors.”

 

Craning his head back, Hutch closed his eyes and yawned. “Okay,” he said, stretching the word into a near moan. He inspected his empty cup and stood up to head for the coffee maker. “Who you wanna talk to first?”

 

“I don’t care,” Starsky grumbled. “I hate phone research.”

 

Not waiting for Hutch’s reply, he picked up the receiver and started dialing.

 

~oOo~

 

Phone research had certain advantages after all, the biggest one being that you didn’t have to see the people you talked to. Hutch in particular seemed grateful for that after he’d hung up from his short conversation with Marilyn Brix. She’d started ranting about Barton from the first, had told the detective all about the break-up after Barton hit her.

 

Barton had called her just once, months after the end to their affair, to tell her the same things he’d told his son.

 

Marilyn said it had scared her, how badly she had wanted to believe him. “Because he sounded so...sad, y’know?” She hadn’t went back to him, though, and Hutch could hear that her shock was more that someone she had once known was dead than that she truly grieved for him.

 

Brix didn’t know anything about Barton’s family or how he had lost his former job. The only thing that she did comment on was Barton’s hypochondria. “He had a doctor for everything. Medicine was like a religion to him, y’know?”

Though most of his calls were much shorter, Starsky didn’t appear entertained by his share, either. The number of first name listings could lead you to assume that Grey had an active social life, when in fact they were phone numbers of colleagues from work and rarely utilized.

 

None of the people Starsky talked to had anything to say about Charles Grey other than that he was ‘polite and quiet’. They didn’t know about Grey’s history of bar fights or his family situation. In fact, nobody knew anything much about him at all.

 

Dark had fallen dark outside when the detectives compared notes again. The coffee machine had long run dry and Starsky’s stomach wasn’t the only one growling in protest anymore.

 

“We’re missing something,” Starsky said, glaring at his notes as if they were to blame. “How can two guys have so much in common and then nothing at all to link them?”

 

Hutch suppressed a yawn and lifted his hands in a helpless gesture. “A lot of folks have that stuff in common, Starsk. Maybe we’re not seeing the forest for the trees.”

“Or maybe we’re not seeing the trees because of the forest,” Starsky pointed out.

 

Hutch thought about it, frowning, and shook his head. “Yeah. Or maybe we both need some sleep.” His stomach growled. “And dinner,” he added. “’Kay, how about we call it a day, leave the rest for tomorrow and go grab some food? My treat, your choice.”

 

Starsky smiled, knowing full well the offer was made out of worry. He shook his head. “Nah, thanks, Blintz, but no thanks. I’m beat. Think I’m gonna hit the hay early tonight. But maybe you can give me a rain check—”

 

“One time chance, partner,” Hutch said, yet his voice softened as he took in his friend’s exhausted appearance, the evident smudges under his eyes, the band-aid covering the gash on his forehead. “So how about you?” he asked. “Think you’ll be able to get some sleep now?”

 

“Yeah,” Starsky replied, no second thoughts. “Don’t worry ’bout me, I’m fine. Officer Weird said so,” he added with a wink.

 

Hutch acknowledged the lame joke with a quick grin, but it didn’t deter him. “I could stay another night,” he offered.

 

Starsky stood and grabbed his jacket. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow,” he said. “Did you tell them to release my car while you were downstairs?”

 

“Uh...” Hutch mumbled, his face going blank.

 

“Great,” Starsky replied, picked up Hutch’s phone and shoved the receiver into his hand. “Here. I’m on my way. Tell them.” With that he turned, waving without looking back again. “Nite, Blintz.”

 

Hutch dialed the number, waited—and thumped his forehead down on the desk when he was put on hold.

 

~oOo~

 

Being this hungry had an interesting effect on Starsky.

 

Because he had experienced the feeling in just a very few, very special situations, it reminded him of danger closing in. Hunger, this kind of hunger, meant that something was badly wrong.

 

He had never understood how Hutch could choose to not eat. And for days, too. And he found it very hard to believe his friend’s claims that he didn’t even get hungry during his fasts, and that it had healing, cleansing effects, leaving him calm and ‘balanced’.

 

Balanced....

 

Starsky loved his partner dearly, but when it came to his eating habits, Hutch was just not normal. Humans needed to eat, end of story. And not only to survive, but to function. To feel okay. To be okay again. To move on. To find some comfort. To have something to do when they couldn’t sleep.

 

Frustrated, Starsky let his fridge door fall shut again and rested his forehead against it. His eyes burned. He closed them, his heart racing, a loud, whooshing sound filling his ears, like when you pressed a shell to them. Sleep tried to seduce him and drag him into slumber, promising rest, but it was a lie.

 

His head hurt, his stomach hurt, and he couldn’t deny being scared any longer. Scared of the time that wouldn’t pass fast enough, that passed too fast, the hours flying by like clouds on a windy day. Six hours left to sleep. Five. Four.

 

If only it’d be light outside already, and if only he could go pick up Hutch, see if Hutch was okay, see Hutch, not be alone anymore, tell Hutch about it.

 

But then, he couldn’t tell Hutch about it. He’d been so hungry all day, and it had been such a temptation to accept Hutch’s offer of having dinner together, yet what if the same thing that happened when he’d tried to eat the sandwich earlier happened again in front of Hutch?

 

Hutch felt so bad already, crushed and scared and disturbed by whatever crap Galesko had planted in his mind. Starsky couldn’t burden him with any more problems. Quite the contrary, if he wanted Hutch to open up and let go of that confused fear that Ben Forest always caused, Starsky had to be the strong one this time and be there for his friend.

 

But it wasn’t easy when you were going crazy from lack of sleep and nagging hunger.

 

He couldn’t let Hutch see that. Besides, what could Hutch do about it? This was entirely Starsky’s fear. Unnerving, irrational fear. He knew Hutch was safe. Nothing would happen if he ate something, if he fell asleep. Nothing but that his over-fatigued mind would calm down, the pain in his stomach would stop.

 

He sighed, close to weeping. Interesting how extreme an adult’s reaction was when their most basic needs were not met. He was reacting like a child. He shivered and pushed away from the fridge. His shoulders drew up and he dragged his bathrobe tighter over his pajamas.

 

There on the breakfast counter laid the few sleeping pills Audrey had left him. He didn’t have to think twice. He dry-swallowed two of them.

 

~oOo~

 

The alarm had ripped him from a dreamless slumber. He couldn’t believe it was morning already. He had stumbled out of bed, thinking that what the world needed was pills to counter the effects of pills. Or something like pure caffeine in a capsule. Or in a syringe.

 

Starsky squinted his eyes at the road. He was on his way to Venice Place, and he’d have taken any of those things to feel more alert. But at least he had slept. Deep and sound, for long, long hours, undisturbed, unhindered.

 

He had slept. And once the heavy blanket of drugs lifted from his system, he’d be as good as new, relaxed, rested, functioning. That was some comfort, wasn’t it? Besides, thanks to the dull numbness the pills had left behind, he didn’t feel hunger as badly.

 

That was something else he needed to work out.

 

He opened the door at Hutch’s place and let it fall shut behind him. He rubbed his eyes hard, determined to clear his vision of the fog clinging to it.

 

“Man!” Hutch’s voice greeted him from inside the apartment. Starsky blinked his eyes open and saw his friend smoothing a T-shirt he’d obviously just dragged over his head, leaving stray blond hairs sticking out at odd angles. “Good morning to you, Gordo. Give a man a heart attack!”

 

“What?” Starsky replied casually, strolling into the kitchen. “I told you I’d pick you up this morning.”

 

“Okay, but next time, please let me know you plan on busting in without knocking, yeah?”

 

Starsky rolled his eyes and opened the fridge out of habit. Behind him, Hutch bent down and picked up a shirt from off the floor. He picked it up, frowned and threw it back down. He turned to join his partner in the kitchen, heading for the coffee maker. While he helped himself to a cup, he stole a quick sideglance at Starsky.

 

“Got any sleep? You look better.”

 

“Yeah,” Starsky smiled at him, fridge door still in hand. “Slept like a baby. I told you it’ll pass.”

 

“That’s great,” Hutch said, downing his first cup of coffee, turning for the blender. Starsky took an exaggerated step away, but not so far that he wasn’t able to keep looking into the fridge.

 

Hutch rolled his eyes. “You know, Starsk, there’s a cheaper way of warming the beer. Grab something or don’t, but close my refrigerator, please.”

 

Starsky snorted. “Not like there’s much in here to grab, is there? You’re one to talk, complaining about me having no groceries.” Taking an aluminum foil covered plate from the fridge, he closed the door and sat down at the table. He leaned back, keeping his distance from the plate, and peeled off the covering.

 

Busy throwing the contents of his morning shake into the blender, Hutch replied, “I do have groceries, just not in the fridge. Just because you think the fridge is the heart of the house doesn’t mean everyone does.”

 

“I don’t think that. Everyone knows the heart of a house is the TV. Uhm, Hutch?” He waited until the blond looked, then pointed at the plate that bore red and green pasta. “What’s this?”

 

A shadow crossed Hutch’s features and he answered, “Audrey left it.” With a shrug, he turned again. “Just throw it away, I’m sure I have some of your junky cereal around here.”

 

But Starsky had already dug in the utensil drawer. He sniffed tentatively at a forkful. “Smells okay,” he announced.

 

Hutch all but whirled around. “Aw, no, don’t tell me you’re...” He watched his partner chew and swallow, then nod appreciatively. Hutch scrunched his face. “Yuck. Starsk, c’mon, that stuff has been sitting in there for days. And even fresh it would still be cold pasta. Made by Audrey. That’s bad to begin with.”

 

“I think it’s okay,” Starsky answered around a mouthful.

 

The pile on the plate was vanishing fast. Too fast even for Starsky to realize he had no problems at all getting the food down. When it suddenly hit him, he blinked, surprised, then swallowed the last bit.

 

“What was that about my cereal?”

 

~oOo~

 

“I can’t believe you ate all that,” Hutch still marveled as they entered the squad room, Starsky leading the way and chewing happily on a chocolate bar from the vending machine outside. “I mean, I hope it’s just your system catching up with the deprivation, otherwise we should probably consider that Dobey’s contagious.”

 

“What was that?”

 

Hutch jumped at a booming voice from behind him. He blushed a faint pink, and Starsky swallowed a laugh behind Dobey’s back as the Captain towered over the blond.

 

“Uh, nothing...nothing,” Hutch stuttered, working up a nervous smile. “G’morning, Captain. Ah...any, uh, any news? I mean concerning our case?”

 

“Isn’t that supposed to be my line?” Dobey countered, unaware of Starsky’s imitation behind him.

 

“Oh. Yeah, yeah, course it is. Course. Well, no, sir, no news.” Hutch shrugged and hurried past his superior toward his desk. “As soon as there is, though...” he added, trailing off, and sank into his chair.

 

Starsky shook his head and looked at the Captain with an amused grin. “Good morning, Cap.”

 

Dobey glared at him and left the room.

 

Starsky glanced at his partner, who was in the process of turning back to his normal color, and grinned. “Running into you is like a prescription that cures morning grumpiness, Blintz, d’you know that? I mean, look at our Cap now—man walked outta here like a ray of sunshine.” He winked.

 

“Aw, shut up,” Hutch muttered, rubbed his face and stood, heading for coffee. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing his chin at a plastic bag on Starsky’s desk as he passed.

 

Picking it up, Starsky shrugged, ripped it open and only then read the tag. “Oh. Lab stuff. Seems they didn’t include the contents of Grey’s pockets in the box yesterday...uh.” He frowned.

 

“What?” Hutch asked, putting a steaming cup in front of his partner

 

“This is both Grey’s and Barton’s stuff.”

 

Hutch’s face fell. “You gotta be kidding.”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Great.” He picked up a gray pocket calendar from the small heap. “You know this is all your fault, Starsky, don’t you?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Well, I’d have called Cheryl back.”

 

Starsky just rolled his eyes.

 

“Okay,” Hutch sighed, searching his desk for the numbers he’d gotten from the notepad he’d left. “Let’s compare the handwriting, then. What d’we got?”

 

“Change yourself to change the world.”

 

 “What?” Hutch asked, confused, and looked at his partner holding up a small information card. Bold black letters covered the bright background like warning shouts.

 

“Change yourself to change the world,” Starsky repeated and handed the card over to Hutch. “It’s a self-help group for men who ‘suffer from their own temper.’” Imitating quotation marks with his fingers, he put extra emphasis on the last words. “Says that they can help you cope with hating yourself. Y’know, for abusive fathers, husbands, stuff like that.”

 

“Makes sense,” Hutch said, inspecting the card. “Whose is it?”

 

“That,” Starsky replied in a tone of voice that made his partner look up at a second, identical card Starsky held, “is the twenty thousand dollar question.”

 

“Whoever had one could have two,” Hutch pointed out.

 

“Okay,” Starsky replied and put the card down, then took the other one out of Hutch’s hands to place next to it. “We’re both sure it’s the same killer, aren’t we?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“’Kay. So what similarities d’we have? Grey was ten years younger than Barton, he was an alcoholic, he was physically impulsive, lower social status.” He lifted his brows at his partner, waiting.

 

“Barton was a traditionalist,” Hutch said. “Was probably beaten himself as a kid, didn’t drink, didn’t go to bars, hit only people he felt he had authority over.” He paused, then slowly drew one card to his side of the desk. “And he told both his son and his ex-lover that he was trying to change, work on himself.”

 

They exchanged a glance.

 

“I guess,” Starsky said and drew the other card to him, “Grey just didn’t have anyone to tell, or anyone we know about, anyway.”

 

Hutch nodded in slow motion, gaze focused on the card. “A self-help group,” he muttered and looked up again. “They meet tonight.”

 

“Yeah,” Starsky said. “Y’know, my uncle Stan ran a self-help group.”

 

“What for?” Hutch asked. “For people with names out of a comic book? Stan Starsky?”

 

“I know,” Starsky said. “To make matters worse, his nickname was Sippo. But anyway, he had this group for phobia sufferers. Some of ’em were pretty strange. Man, I loved hanging around there when I was a kid.”

 

Hutch just stared at him. “Sippo?” he repeated.

 

“Did you know there are people out there who’re scared of words starting with an x? Think about how that limits your life.”

 

“I’d rather not. So—seven o’clock tonight, St. Mary’s. You get the okay from Dobey,” Hutch added.

 

“Hey! Why me?”

 

“Because I don’t want to listen to any more self-help group stories,” Hutch explained and smiled.

 

~oOo~

 

Was there anything more boring than talking Dobey into an undercover assignment in a self help group? But after that Dobey wanted to talk about the case again, and Hutch had had to join Starsky and the captain in his office after all.

 

The autopsies revealed that the killer had shot the two men repeatedly, and that many of the wounds were non-lethal, located in their arms and legs. They’d both lived to suffer agony before the killing shots put an end their suffering. Obviously, the killer was expressing massive anger at the victims or what they represented.

 

What Grey and Barton had had in common was loneliness and the need to change. The need for help. What a cruel irony if that was the cause of their deaths.

 

Starsky looked forward to the assignment that night.

 

Anything that meant doing something. Action. He sighed.

 

It was nearly six o’clock, and he and Hutch had separated a couple of hours ago. He’d driven home with his stomach informing him it was empty again, the welcomed morning meal long gone. At home, though, he found he couldn’t eat. Panic returned, and along with it the fear of breaking rules that no longer existed.

 

He’d bought himself Chinese take-out and just could not eat it. It was ridiculous. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the boxes of food, as if their mere presence in his apartment was evil. Bile rose in his throat when he thought about tasting it. Food meant death.

 

He shivered. His head ached. He checked his watch and forced himself to turn away from the contaminated kitchen table toward the couch. He plopped down and stared angrily at the ceiling. God, how he hated all of this, hated the mess he’d become. He’d been abducted, okay, but that was over now. Why couldn’t his body understand that? He’d been abducted before, so why the extreme reaction this time around?

 

'Simon. Simon.'

 

He could still hear their voices, the chanting inside his head. He still heard them at night sometimes. But he felt safe from them.

 

It wasn’t Anne Galesko that Starsky feared, but whatever this was, he didn’t feel safe from it. He felt ice cold and afraid.

 

He gasped, bolted upright on the couch, wild eyes flying around the calming, familiar surroundings. He glanced at his watch. Two minutes. He’d dozed off for two lousy minutes. His heart hammered in his chest, like a scared rabbit trying to escape. He grasped his chest, closed his eyes for a deep breath.

 

“Hutch,” he muttered. “Home.”

 

He left the house early.

 

 

~oOo~

 

'If so many men are determined to change themselves and change the world, it’s a miracle the world’s still in the shape it is,' Hutch thought with no small amount of sarcasm.

 

He was in a large yellow room, watching as at least two dozen men of varying ages stood around in small groups, carrying plastic cups of coffee, smoking, chatting. Others sat alone on one of the chairs arranged in a circle, either staring ahead into nothingness or scanning the room. Those were obviously the newer members, and only among them could you see a few with no nametags. Those were the ones that probably would not return.

 

True to his make-believe character, Hutch headed straight for the coffee bar, trying to appear withdrawn and unsure. Once he had a cup of coffee in his hands, he acted as though he’d just discovered the pen and blank nametags by the coffee machine. He acted hesitant, then scribbled a name on the tag and put it on his shirt.

 

Even before he turned back to the room, his ears informed him that Starsky was there, talking to two older men. He searched for his partner and saw him standing in the middle of the room, fumbling with an empty cup. At the sight of the name tag—Stan—Hutch rolled his eyes and then jumped when someone touched his shoulder.

 

“Hello,” a tall, black-haired man said as he passed by, giving Hutch a friendly smile. He moved on, greeting others. Hutch watched him. Probably the group leader.

When he’d reached the center of grouped chairs, he cleared his throat, announcing, “Welcome. I think we can start now. Please, everybody, have a seat.”

 

General shuffling as each man looked for a chair, gave each other embarrassed smiles and sat down, averting their eyes from their neighbors. In the end, they all focused on the group leader, whose ever-present friendly smile widened as he nodded to some of them individually.

 

“Well,” the group leader said, sitting down himself, “I see a lot of new faces, a lot of familiar ones,” and he nodded at a few more attendees who smiled and even waved. “As always, we’re going to start by introducing ourselves. For those who are new here, tell us your name and whatever else you choose to let us know about yourself. It’s not a requirement, though. I know it can be difficult the first time. So if you don’t feel ready, just watch. It’s like the song says, ‘stroll around the ground—’”

 

‘“Mrs. Robinson,’” a few others muttered and chuckled.

 

Hutch saw Starsky grin.

 

“Right,” the speaker nodded with a smile. ‘“Until you feel at home.’ No one here will judge you. We’re all in the same boat, we all want to change, we’ve all had our share of mistakes.” He paused. “Now, I’m going to start. My name is Norman Sennett, former homeless criminal, before that a stock broker, and now studying to become a psychiatrist.”

 

Some applauded. Hutch tilted his head to one side, trying to imagine the calm, smiling middle-aged man that was Norman Sennett living on the streets, robbing liquor stores or doing anything other than smiling understandingly. It wasn’t an easy task.

 

Norman spoke some more about himself, his history of domestic violence, and made sure to point out that his own violent childhood was no excuse for abusing others. He spoke of his divorce, the kids he’d only started seeing again a few years ago. Then he nodded to his right, and his very young looking neighbor muttered his first name, paused, said he’d hit his baby daughter. It looked as if the man considered saying more, but in the end he shrugged and bowed his head. After half a minute Norman nodded to the next man.

 

Most of the men gave their names and talked about specific incidents in their past. Some kept their silence completely. Only a handful told full stories like Norman’s.

 

Those started with “I’ve spoken in this circle of friends before,” and were applauded after their detailed stories.

 

Then it was Starsky’s turn. “Hi, I’m Stan, and I’m here because someone said it might be a good idea.” He smiled nervously. “I’m not so sure, but, hey, ’m gonna give it a try, I guess.”

 

Fortunately, Hutch didn’t need to hide his surprise, as most of the others were looking puzzled. For the first time Norman interrupted, asking, “Someone told you about this group, Stan?”

 

“Yeah,” Starsky replied, “a friend of mine. His name is Charles. He’s not here today, but he told me the meetings have done him a lot of good.”

 

Hutch’s eyes flashed around, catching reactions. Good tactic, partner, he thought. Starsky’s bold, intuitive way of tackling assignments was sometimes risky but often useful.

 

A few men obviously knew Charles. Some looked around as if checking for his presence. Others just nodded at Starsky’s words.

 

“Do you want to tell us why Charles thought it a good idea for you to come here, Stan?” Norman asked.

 

Starsky looked at him. “No,” he said after a moment.

 

Norman nodded, and it was the next man’s turn.

 

A few minutes later, Hutch muttered the name he’d written on his nametag and averted his eyes. There were no questions directed at him.

 

When the introduction was over, Norman asked if someone wanted to be ‘the center’ tonight. To his obvious surprise, the man sitting next to him raised his hand, though he didn’t look up.

 

“Joe,” Norman said, his voice friendly. “That’s great. Please, sit down in the center.”

 

Everybody applauded as Joe dragged his chair into the center of the circle and faced Norman.

 

What followed reminded Hutch of an interrogation. Though Norman’s friendly, understanding tone never changed, the questions he asked Joe were direct and allowed no room to hide.

 

“Why did you hit your baby, Joe?”

 

“B-because she was...she was screaming.”

 

“She was getting on your nerves.”

 

Joe nodded.

 

“Have you ever hit her before when she screamed, Joe?”

 

Joe shook his bowed head. He sniffed.

 

Norman waited, eyes never leaving the huddled young man. “Your wife used to take care of her, didn’t she?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“But where is your wife now, Joe?”

 

Joe was silent.

 

“Joe. Where is your wife now? Why isn’t she taking care of your baby?” When there was no answer, Norman asked again, “Joe? Where is your wife? Where is she? Is she coming home?”

 

That last question obviously hit a nerve, because Joe’s head flew up. “No!” he yelled, eyes sparkling with fury. “No, she’s not coming home! Never again! She left me! She left me, because of...b-because of...because of her!” His voice slipped into a high-pitched sob. “Because she couldn’t bear the screaming anymore, the smell, the...the...oh God.” He let his face fall into his hands and was crying in earnest now. “She’s just a little girl. She’s my daughter. It’s not her fault. It’s not her fault.” When his mantra changed into a desperate whimpering, Norman kneeled next to the chair and took the crying man into his arms.

 

“No, it’s not,” he said. “It’s not the baby’s fault. And it’s not her fault that your wife left you both. It’s your fault.”

 

Joe cried into the offered shoulder and clung to Norman, looking like a lost kid. When he pushed away, Norman let him go and sat down again. Joe sniffed and rubbed at his red-rimmed eyes.

 

“You don’t need to be embarrassed, Joe,” Norman said, and he waited until Joe nodded and looked at him. “Do you want to tell us more?”

 

“I gave her to my Mom,” Joe said. “I don’t know if I should get her back.” Pleading eyes locked with Norman’s. “I’ll never hit her again.”

 

Norman smiled gently. “Joe, it’s your decision. But you’re not alone.” He looked around. “No one’s alone here, unless you choose to be.”

 

Others began asking Joe questions or making comments. It was impressive, how everyone managed to share their own experiences but still keep Joe’s story as the primary focus.

 

‘The center’ was obviously no exaggeration.

 

Hutch himself kept his silence, contrary to his partner.

 

“Joe,” Starsky asked, “what’s your daughter’s name?”

 

Joe frowned at him. “What?”

 

“You never call her by her name,” another man who was sitting next to Starsky pointed out. His name tag read Clyde, and he looked even younger than Joe. “Why?”

 

Starsky cast him a surprised glance, then focused on Joe again, who shrugged, confused.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Well, what is her name?” Clyde asked.

 

Hutch exchanged a glance with Starsky.

 

“Ella,” Joe answered. “Her name is Ella Kimberly.”

 

“That’s a beautiful name,” Clyde said.

 

“Thanks,” Joe said, not looking at the other man.

 

Near the end of the meeting, Norman said, “I believe little Ella will forgive you if you let her, Joe.”

 

A few yeah’s were spoken, and some nodded agreement. Hutch caught Clyde’s smirk.

 

~oOo~

 

Hutch was the first to leave. He and Starsky had agreed to meet at Venice Place to exchange impressions. He was already sitting in the green house nursing a beer when Starsky entered. Hutch passed him a bottle.

 

“Boy, I think I hate self-help groups,” Starsky said, sinking heavily into a chair. “Can you believe those guys? I bet none of them ever apologized to the ones who really suffered. But you know, I felt for Joe, though.”

 

“Yeah,” Hutch nodded. “I know.”

 

“He’s like, what, twenty-four?” Starsky continued, shaking his head. He wrinkled his forehead in disbelief. “And that’s supposed to help him? A bunch of old-timers watching him break down?”

 

Hutch shrugged. “Do you remember what the guy next to you said about why he was there? Clyde?”

 

“He didn’t,” Starsky replied. “He just said his name. I was surprised to see someone there who looks as young as he does. He looks even younger than Joe.”

 

“I know. And,” Hutch added, exchanging a serious glance with his partner, “he reacted the way we would. Asked the same question you asked.” He paused, pointed out, “He didn’t seem very guilt-ridden to me.”

 

“No, you’re right. I spoke to Norman after you’d left, asked him about our old pal Charlie, and he asked a couple of guys if they knew where he was. Clyde is one of the guys Norman asked. He’s apparently been in the group for awhile, and he knew Charles. Nobody said they’d seen him.”

 

Hutch pursed his lips. “Good thinking. Anything else?”

 

Starsky shrugged. “Just that Norman says a lot of the guys stay for a couple of meetings and then vanish. They don’t exchange numbers or anything, and Norman doesn’t keep records of their personal information as a matter of privacy. It encourages the men to come forward, he says. He has no way of contacting them, or knowing what becomes of them.” He snapped his fingers, hit by a sudden thought. “Oh, and he said that after they’d been ‘center’, like Joe was today, they’re more likely to keep coming back. It’s seen as a huge step. They feel more a part of the group, then, more secure, stuff like that.”

 

“That’s strange,” Hutch said, taking a sip of his beer. “After that I’d never come back.”

 

“Yeah, well, that’s what Charles did,” Starsky said. “Charles was ‘center’ the last time.”

 

“We need to check the group members out,” Hutch said and sighed, rubbed a hand over his forehead.

 

“I don’t see how,” Starsky replied. Lifting his beer, he stopped in mid-motion. “Audrey’s plant?” he read the inscription on the plant pot and glanced at his friend, who blushed and averted his eyes.

 

“That’s...that’s an inside joke,” Hutch mumbled.

 

“Oh. Okay.” For a long moment, Starsky just watched his partner, worry coloring a gaze that Hutch wouldn’t meet. He decided to let it be for now, and returned to business talk. “We need to find out these guy’s last names somehow without blowing our cover. What do you think of Norman?”

 

“Well, he’s the only one we can run a full check on, but I just don’t think he’s our killer.”

 

“Nah, me neither.” Starsky finished his beer, checked his watch and leaned back in the chair. Hutch watched him, tilting his head to one side.

 

“What?”

 

“You look tired.”

 

“Oh.” Starsky waved. “I’m okay. I’m just thinking about how much fun I’m having with this case. Tomorrow’s gonna be another nice day at the office.”

 

Hutch smiled. “Yeah, a barrel of laughs, smart guy. You know, Starsk, Sherlock Holmes was never involved in a single car chase during his whole career.”

 

“Well at least he died falling down a cliff. And came back. Now that’s action. All I’m facing right now is the prospect of going blind from staring at paperwork all day.”

 

Chuckling, Hutch stood to get more beer from the kitchen and patted his friend’s shoulder as he passed by. “You’ll see plenty of action again, once we break this one open, buddy. Lots of opportunities out there in the world to wreck your car and break our necks and get yourself shot. I promise.”

 

Starsky craned his head back to look after his partner. “I’ll hold you to it, Blintz.”

 

“You do that,” Hutch called back over the sound of the fridge door opening, then closing.

 

Starsky shook his head, amused, and glanced at the inside joke in a pot again. He spotted a thin pile of papers lying on the table, half hidden behind the plant. Curious, he grabbed them and found maybe twenty or thirty pages clipped together. Flipping through it, he frowned. It was a short story.

 

Ice cold hit his stomach like a blow. Hastily, he looked at the front page.

 

'By Anne Galesko.'

 

“Know what I don’t get?”

 

Jumping at Hutch’s voice from behind him, Starsky stashed the story into his pocket, trying his best to wipe the anxiety off his face. “N-no...” He cleared his throat, watched Hutch sit down. “No, what?”

 

Fortunately, Hutch hadn’t looked directly at his friend when he’d put the bottles down. “We think the killer wants to punish his victims for their crimes, right?”

 

“Right.”

 

“Yeah, but why do it to people who want to change? If he really is going to the meetings, he must’ve heard Grey’s and Barton’s version of it all.”

 

Starsky shrugged. “Maybe that’s what makes him angry.” He couldn’t concentrate, as if the story struggled inside his pocket, hoping Hutch would discover it missing from the table.

 

To his surprise, Hutch’s head turned to him, sky blue eyes widening. “What did you say?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“‘Maybe that’s what makes him angry,’” Hutch repeated. “That’s it! Think about it. Whoever is ‘center’ gets all the attention, comfort, Norman lets them defend themselves, lets them tell everyone how bad they had it, how unfair life treated them, etc. ”

 

Starsky followed his trail of thoughts and nodded. “And when our killer listens to that crap...”

 

“He snaps,” Hutch finished. “All he has to do then is follow them home.” He lifted his hands. “Easy.”

 

“If that’s true...” Starsky said after a moment’s thought, and Hutch once more finished the sentence.

 

“...we’ve got to find Joe.”

 

They were both out of their seats in a heartbeat.

 

~oOo~

 

“I don’t believe it,” Starsky exclaimed four hours later. Pushing away from his desk with his chair, he swung his feet up to rest on the surface. “How hard can it be to find a single father in his twenties in this city named Joe?”

 

“Are you kidding me?” Hutch said, not bothering to look up from his share of printouts. He glanced into his empty cup. “Get back to work.”

 

Starsky glared at him. “You know, I just thought of something else Sherlock Holmes never did during his career. Go through lists of Joes! This is ridiculous!” Exasperated, he grabbed a handful of pages and waved them at his partner. “It could be Joe’s not even his real name. Or maybe he’s not living in the county. Maybe his daughter doesn’t have his name, maybe he isn’t married at all, maybe we’re wasting our time, maybe—”

 

“Maybe you tell me what else we can do, Starsky!” Hutch snapped.

 

Starsky fell silent.

 

“Face it,” he added after a moment, “we’ve got to find this guy or pray our theory’s wrong, which in return will leave us as much in the dark as before. Unless you have a better idea?” Brows lifted, he waited in mock expectation, then raised his hands and shrugged. He focused again on his own list, but a minute later he threw it down in disgust. He sighed and dropped his face into his hands. “Aw, shit, who’re we trying to kid here, huh?”

 

The detectives locked eyes.

 

Hutch leaned back. “Okay, listen, we’ve got Joe’s description out there with every unit. So far, at least, the killer has always let some time pass after a group meeting before someone dies. Tomorrow we can check the stores, bars, everything. But it’s what, two o’clock now?”

 

Starsky lifted his index finger to indicate the correct time.

 

“We’re both beat,” Hutch continued, yawning. “I say we go get some rest.”

 

“Know what I think?” Starsky asked.

 

“Hm?”

 

“I think self-help groups should be required by law to keep records of their members.”

 

“Brilliant thought, buddy. Only it undermines the basic idea of self-help groups.”

 

Starsky waved his hand dismissively.

 

“You want the government into everything you do? What about freedom?” Hutch asked in surprised disgust.

 

Starsky pushed his feet off the desk to sit up straight. “Hutch, we’re part of the government. All we’re trying to do is save that kid’s life. Right now, he has the freedom to get killed within the next few days. Assuming we find him in time, why don’t you ask him for his opinion? I think I know what his answer will be.”

 

Hutch smiled unwillingly and stretched his aching neck. “We’re on the same side, Gordo. You’re just talking nonsense, as usual. Ready to call it a night?” He got to his feet and looked impatiently at Starsky.

 

Starsky shrugged tiredly and followed. “Might as well.”

Patting his pockets, he opened the door for Hutch. “Hey, lend me a dime?”

 

“What for?” Hutch asked, handing him a coin.

 

“Candy.” Starsky plugged money into the vending machine in the hall.

 

“Starsky, it’s two in the morning.”

 

“One,” Starsky corrected, munching.

 

“How can you eat chocolate at two in the morning?”

 

“One,” Starsky stoically repeated, then shrugged. “Might come as a shock to you, Blintz, but it doesn’t taste

different at night.”

 

Hutch rolled his eyes and waved a tired version of his warning finger at his partner. “Y’know, that stuff’s going to kill you, pal.”

 

“Oh yeah,” Starsky nodded gravely, balling up the candy wrapper in one hand and tossing it in a nearby wastebasket with a perfect three-point throw. He grinned at Hutch. “In sixty years. Once you’re too old to chew, there’s always the danger of choking.” He winked.

 

“I’m sure by then they’ll have invented intravenous chocolate drips,” Hutch assured. He held the door for Starsky, who made a face as he walked through.

 

~oOo~

 

Audrey’s plant was losing leaves. Not many and not suddenly, but it seemed to Hutch as if the plant huddled in a corner, trying to be unobtrusive. Sad. Maybe heart-broken.

 

Hutch rolled his eyes. “Aw, shuddup, you’re just a plant! Wait ’til you have relationships. See how great you manage!”

 

The plant didn’t bother to reply, but sat in accusing silence. Hutch almost felt its sad gaze piercing his back as he watered the other inhabitants of his little jungle.

 

Just like his grandfather’s huge old dog, who’d puppy-eye you to death whenever he was refused something.

 

Hutch shook his head and yawned. Way too little sleep, that was what got you thinking about crazy stuff like plants staring at you.

 

It was late morning actually, sun long up, but Hutch had overslept, and since neither his captain nor his partner had called to yell or tease, he decided to take his time. Maybe not enough to jog, but he could at least water his plants.

 

Well...and Audrey’s.

 

Funny. Now that Audrey was safe just as he’d wanted, he was still unhappy. He picked up his coffee from the breakfast counter and turned to lean against it, looking out over his apartment. He missed Audrey in it, but he also realized that up until that moment he hadn’t missed her. Things had just turned back to a pre-Audrey state. But then, they usually did, didn’t they?

 

A knock at the door took him out of his thoughts. Just in time, probably. His memory might have carried him too far back in time for his liking.

 

“It’s me.”

 

“Come in,” Hutch called, stretching to produce a second mug from the drawer. His partner closed the door and Hutch looked up. He froze. “What’s wrong?”

 

Starsky seemed to think about the question, then stepped into the kitchen and sat down on the corner of the table.

 

He looked pale and worn.

 

“Hey, buddy, are you okay?” Hutch asked, his voice softening. “’Nother rough night? What...” Starsky drew a rolled bunch of paper from under his jacket. Hutch trailed off. His throat was dry all of a sudden.

 

At last, Starsky met his eyes, and immediately the two switched roles. Suddenly it was Hutch who stared into his coffee, fingers fumbling with the cup. Suddenly it was Starsky’s voice that was concerned and soft when he spoke.

 

“Found it in the green house last night.”

 

Hutch nodded, but didn’t look at him. “Did you read it?”

 

“What do you think? Yes, I read it.”

 

An attempt at a smirk. “Lotsa déjà vu, huh?”

 

A very long pause. Hutch felt the pain in Starsky’s face even with his gaze averted. “You were right, she’s awful.”

 

Puzzled, Hutch glanced up at his friend.

 

“As a writer,” Starsky explained dryly.

 

“Oh. Yeah.”

 

Another pause. “So why’re you starting a private collection?”

 

“Starsk...” Hutch muttered, head lowered again.

 

“No, I’d really like to know. How often have you read this...thing already?”

 

Hutch didn’t answer. He watched his coffee grow cold.

 

“It’s not doing you any good, and it doesn’t make any sense,” Starsky continued, his tone harsher. “What d’you expect to get from this by going over it again and again? Watching it through her eyes? The story’s not about you, you know that! It’s not even about the poor devil she did it to! It’s just about her!”

 

“I know that,” Hutch said when the stillness got unbearable. He unclenched his hands, noticing how tightly he’d wrapped his hand around the coffee cup.

 

“Then what is it?” Starsky asked, gentle again. “What is it about this woman that’s getting to you so much?”

 

“She knows me.” Hutch shrugged helplessly. “I-I-I don’t know,” he replied, suddenly anxious, and flashed his partner a nervous smile. “I don’t know, Starsk. Maybe it’s just that anyone as crazy as her creeps me out. She’s one scary person.”

 

“I know, I met her.”

 

A rueful smile crossed Hutch’s lips. He nodded. “Yeah. I’m sorry.”

 

There was no response, but the glance Starsky shot him made it clear that the apology was unnecessary. “You don’t have to be so scared of her.”

 

“I’m not scared!” Hutch snapped, the intensity of his reaction surprising himself.

 

Confused, he started to add something, but was cut off by the phone. He stood to pick it up. He listened, then hung up and turned to his partner.

 

“Looks like they found Joe.”

 

Starsky’s features hardened. “Dead?”

 

Hutch nodded. “Just like the others. Victim’s name is Joe Coolidge, and the physical description fits our Joe.”

 

“Fuck.”

 

“We gotta get to the scene,” Hutch said, turning for the bedroom to get a jacket.

 

“Yep.” Starsky nodded, waited for his partner at the door. “After you, Dr. Watson.”

 

~oOo~

 

The night before they discovered Joe Coolidge’s body, Starsky had run out of sleeping pills. The next night, he tried sleeping without any pills and in the end found himself buying a box of over-the-counter sleeping pills at the drug store.

 

Those hadn’t worked.

 

The next meeting of the self-help group was in five days, and they had until then to work out a strategy.

 

“I always liked being the center,” Starsky joked. They were in Dobey’s office, talking over the details. It was a very simple plan.

 

“Why him?” Dobey asked, jerking his thumb over at Starsky.

 

Hutch grinned at his partner’s indignant look. He shrugged. “We tossed a coin and he got to be the extroverted one.”

 

Dobey left it at that. “Well, you two be careful, you hear?”

 

Next, the detectives tried another hopeless search, this time for Clyde, but the results had been as frustrating as before.

 

Hutch had suggested running Clyde’s name through the children’s welfare department records in case there was a record of abuse with them, but nothing turned up.

 

The days passed slowly. They patrolled, worked on what little they had in the hopes they’d turn something new up.

 

The nights saw Starsky lying awake, afraid to let go of consciousness. If anything, his “condition”—though he hated to think of it that way—had worsened. Not only couldn’t he sleep, but now he couldn’t be alone in a room with an uncovered window without having flashbacks. Because he and Hutch rarely left the precinct, he lived off vending machine food.

 

He couldn’t eat at home.

 

He was always cold, shivering, and he couldn’t wear too many layers out of fear of alerting Hutch. His partner probably worried enough about him already, because he couldn’t hide the shadows under the bloodshot eyes. He needed sleep.

 

It was the night before the next group meeting. Two AM. He was supposed to pick up Hutch at ten.

 

Starsky huddled in front of some old western in his usual bundle of blankets, not even watching the show. Just to have the noise. When he nodded off and jerked back awake, the noise helped him return to reality sooner.

 

His head hurt. His eyes hurt. His stomach growled. He was cold.

 

He was at home, and he’d brought his cell with him.

 

He rubbed his eyes, trying to relieve the burning feeling. An idea hit him. He stared at the TV screen. He had slept a few nights, hadn’t he?

 

He was outside and in his car in an instant.

 

~oOo~

 

Audrey had cried when it become clear Ken wouldn’t call her. Not in the next few days, not ever.

 

She had cried because it’d been so humiliating to be shut out that way. Because she had been so afraid of him backing out from the very start, and then he had managed to convince her he wouldn’t.

 

And because she missed him. He had never said “I love you”—which was another fact to cry about—but she knew it had been there, love. They had been there.

 

But then...after the tears had dried, there had been another emotion slowly crawling into her mind from her heart, gnawing tiny holes into the wall of frustrated sadness and hurt. Relief.

 

She was relieved that she wasn’t part of Ken Hutchinson’s life.

 

She had loved being with him, she still loved him, but what she had seen scared her immensely. The way he took care of his partner, the way they both appeared so...used to it. Used to getting hurt, seeing each other get hurt. And hurt in that way too. Purposely. Planned.

 

Getting shot at, now that was something Audrey expected in a cop’s life. Fights, yes. Hospital stays, okay. Maybe even a hostage situation, stuff that might leave psychological scars as well.

 

But Ken’s partner had been kidnapped by someone wanting to take revenge. On Ken! The whole situation was insane. She didn’t want scars in her life and in her mind from insanity like that.

 

All those realizations were relatively fresh when she stepped into one of the waiting rooms at Memorial that night. A colleague had told her a patient wanted to see her about his son, said the guy looked pretty worn out.

Probably just needed assurances from the boy’s doctors.

 

Audrey nodded and headed for the room, trying to think which patient of hers might have parents there in the middle of the night.

 

The moment she opened the door, her friendly smile faded into disbelief. “Dave?”

 

Dave Starsky stood in the middle of the room, a nervous smile greeting her. He indeed looked worn out, though not as bad as the last time she’d seen him.

 

“Hi Audrey. Hope I didn’t interrupt anything important. I called, they said you were on duty tonight, so...”

 

“Uh...no,” she replied. “No, course not. No. What’re you doing here? Did something happen to Ken?”

 

Starsky smiled. “No, don’t worry. Hutch is fine. It’s, uh...it’s about me. I’m...” he scratched his forehead nervously. “I-I’m...I need something to help me sleep.”

 

Her confusion vanished, and she arched her brows with a sigh.

 

“Please,” Starsky added after a short silence. “We have this assignment tomorrow, and...and I need to...function.”

 

It was obvious how difficult pleading with her was for him.

 

“Dave—”

 

“The only stuff that helped was what you gave me. Don’t tell me you can’t prescribe that.”

 

Audrey gave him a serious look. “You could go to a doctor about this. Get a real prescription.”

 

He smiled. “You’re a doctor.”

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

“Audrey, please. Just this once. I’ve got important work to do on a case tomorrow, and I need to sleep,” he added with desperate emphasis.

 

“And after this case?” she asked, tilting her head to one side, inspecting him through narrowed eyes. “What will you do then?”

 

He sighed. “It’ll pass.”

 

“How can you be so sure of that?”

 

“Bad things pass.”

 

It was said in such a charming mixture of innocence and street wisdom that she just had to laugh. “I don’t know, Dave. I don’t feel good about it. Does Ken know you’re still affected to this degree?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

She threw him a disbelieving look. “I’d really rather talk to him abou—”

 

“Damn it, I’m not a kid, Audrey!” Starsky cut her off.

“Just tell me if you wanna help me or not!”

 

For a long moment, she just looked at him, then turned for the door. “Stay here.”

 

When she returned, she waved a small white box. “Lucky you, I found the last of the samples.”

 

“Lucky me,” he smiled.

 

She handed him the box, but didn’t let go of it until he met her eyes. “Don’t O.D. yourself.”

 

“I just wanna sleep,” he replied, shoving it into his pocket. “Thank you.”

 

“Don’t mention it,” she said.

 

Tension sprung up in the following silence. Starsky cleared his throat, Audrey scratched her head. It was the silence of those who needed but didn’t want to talk.

 

“So how’re you doing?” he finally asked.

 

She shrugged. “Okay.”

 

“I’m really sorry for what happened,” he said sincerely.

 

She looked up, met a gentle, somewhat sad look. “Don’t be, it’s not your fault,” she said, paused and added, “Y’know what I always hated? That he kept his key over his door.”

 

Starsky grinned.

 

“I mean,” she continued, “if you have your key over the door all the time, anyway, then...then you can’t give it to someone. You know?”

 

The grin faded. “Sometimes,” he said, very gravely, “it’s just bad timing, honey.”

 

Surprised, she looked at him, then away. “I guess that’s true.”

 

He looked as if he wanted to say something else, but he headed for the door instead. “Thanks again for...” he waggled his jacket pocket.

 

She nodded.

 

“Bye, Audrey.”

 

“Goodbye, Dave.”

 

~oOo~

 

The circle of chairs was already half filled when Hutch arrived at the meeting that night.

 

Starsky and Norman Sennett stood in a corner across from the door. When they’d formulated their plan, Starsky, Hutch and Dobey had agreed to play it safe and have Starsky ask Sennett personally to be ‘center’ before the meeting started rather than wait until Norman asked the whole group. From what Hutch could see now, his partner was acting suitably nervous while making the request.

 

The meeting proceeded the same as last time. Norman was all smiles and positive energy. Hutch saw a few new faces, and a few missing. He paid special attention to Clyde this time.

 

Again, the young man just said his name. Hutch did the same, and Starsky exchanged a glance with Norman and then shakily stated, “Hi, I’m Stan, and, uh, I just lost my family.” He smiled without humor, shrugged curtly. “Guess I deserved it too.”

 

Hutch was impressed. He tried to make eye contact with his friend a few times, but for the rest of the introduction

Starsky stared down at his folded hands.

 

“Stan came to me earlier,” Norman said when everyone was done, “and asked if he could be ‘center’ today, even though it’s only his second time with us here. Now, I believe that to choose to be ‘center’ is an act of great courage, and there are no guidelines that determine readiness for that challenge. If Stan wants to do it, then I feel he’s ready. But we’re all in the circle, so does anyone disagree?”

 

No one did. Most of the men smiled encouragingly at Starsky, and a few of the more experienced members applauded.

 

“Well, doesn’t look like it,” Norman smiled and gestured for Starsky to move to the center. “Please, Stan.”

 

Hutch watched, his eyes sliding over to Clyde every now and then.

 

Starsky continued proving his acting talents. He told the story he and Hutch had come up with, something that would hold enough potential to enrage the killer, a story that involved alcohol, gambling, numerous affairs. A wife and a little girl and boy who “Stan” loved dearly, but who didn’t know how to shut up when they misbehaved. Or when he was drunk. He loved them, but he couldn’t keep from hurting them. He didn’t know there were so many things that could make you hurt the ones you loved.

 

That was the first sentence that made Hutch do a double-take.

 

“But you feel regret when you hurt your loved ones, don’t you, Stan?” Norman asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Why do you think you still do it then?” Norman asked.

 

“I try not to.”

 

That was the second sentence. Every muscle in Hutch’s body tensed as his inner alarm went off. Something was definitely going on with Starsky and it wasn’t planned.

 

He huddled on the chair, staring off into space. Hutch saw him trembling, shivering as if cold. When had that started?

 

“You try not to?” Norman repeated, friendly but determined. “But you still do, Stan, don’t you? You hurt the ones you claim to love. You endanger them too, you know that, don’t you?”

 

Hutch tried his best to suppress his anxious frustration. For some reason Starsky was reacting in a way they hadn’t planned. Speaking to him about how he endangered others was not helping.

 

Pity that Norman couldn’t know that. He was talking of the risks for abused children.

 

“I’m trying,” Starsky mumbled. “I really am.”

 

“We all believe you, Stan,” Norman said. “I believe you. You want to keep away from the stuff you know is bad for you, your family, for all of you, but it’s a pretty hard fight, isn’t it?”

 

Tired, Starsky rested his face in one hand. It looked as if he didn’t want to talk anymore.

 

“Stan?” Norman asked, suddenly concerned, and when no response came he repeated, “Stan, do you need a break?”

 

“Hm?” Startled, Starsky lifted his head, puzzled when he met Norman’s friendly smile. Hutch could see he barely caught himself from searching for his partner. “Oh. No. No, thanks, I’m...I’m all right. It’s just...” he trailed off.

 

“I know. Guilt can be a powerful enemy. Like a disease.”

 

Starsky raised his brows. “Don’t say.” But he recovered, switching Stan’s character back on. “Nobody ever felt guilty for what they did to me.”

 

It was part of the plan to whine about ones own horrible past.

 

“Yes they did, Stan,” Norman answered. Hutch couldn’t help thinking the line sounded incredibly hollow. “We all feel guilty for our crimes. Do you want to talk to us about what they did to you?”

 

“Uh...no.”

 

Startled, Hutch stopped watching the other members and their reactions and looked at Starsky. He was dismayed to see his partner tense up. The question was a dangerous one.

 

Norman softened his smile. “But you know we’re all here to protect you, Stan. We understand.”

 

Starsky blinked, frowned slightly. “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea,” he muttered. It sounded in character, but Hutch wondered.

 

Norman watched in silence, then bent forward on his chair, hands folded on his knees. “Stan, let’s talk about the guilt again.”

 

“You said,” Clyde said, to everyone’s surprise, “you ‘lost’ your family. But the truth is they left you, isn’t it?”

 

Starsky nodded. To Hutch, he looked visibly grateful for the shift of focus back to the task at hand. Something about Norman Sennett’s gentle inquiries touched a raw spot, but Clyde was easy to handle.

 

“Then why don’t you say so?” Clyde asked.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Does it feel like you pushed them away?” Clyde asked, eyes narrowed.

 

Starsky watched him. Hutch saw clearly when an idea dawned on his partner. “No,” came the answer.

 

“No?” Clyde repeated. “You don’t think it’s understandable that they left you after all you’ve done to them?”

 

“We could’ve worked it out,” Starsky replied. “There are rules in life. I know I made mistakes,” he said, giving a fine performance and baiting Clyde perfectly, “but I’m willing to change. Now, what about her?”

 

Clyde was agitated, staring at his opponent. “Rules? Is that what your family’s home life was like? They had to follow rules you made up?”

 

“Sure. Does that bother you, Clyde?” Starsky asked.

 

“Wha...of course it—”

 

“Sometimes,” Starsky cut him off, not sharply but almost gently, understanding, “rules are necessary.”

 

From out of the corner of his eye, Hutch could see Norman frown, confused, looking from one to the other, probably wondering when he had lost control over the conversation. Hutch only hoped the moderator wouldn’t interfere.

 

For now, fortunately, Norman kept his silence.

 

“But not if they’re made to hurt people!” Clyde snapped.

 

Starsky nodded. “I agree. That’s why I’m here. You shouldn’t let your anger control you.”

 

Clyde froze.

 

Starsky watched him. “I mean,” he continued, “that’s the same problem we all have, isn’t it?” He glanced around in the circle, but not long enough to allow anyone else to speak up and distract Clyde. “That’s where we’re all to blame. We let ourselves blow up because we’re angry and frustrated, and no one ever showed us what belonging feels like, or what home means. When it gets too much, we snap. Break the rules. Isn’t that so, Clyde? You’re here, just like me. Didn’t you break any rules? You feel guilty for hurting someone, don’t you?”

 

Clyde met Starsky’s gaze. His jaws were clenched in suppressed rage.

 

Starsky played innocent. “So what’re you lashing out at me for? I didn’t do anything you didn’t.”

 

“I’m not like you,” Clyde said, his eyes flooding with hate. “I’m not like any of you!”

 

That was Hutch’s cue. “Because we don’t kill, Clyde?”

 

Clyde turned to him, shock written all over his face. Before he had the chance to respond,

 

Starsky spoke again. “There is a rule that says ‘thou shalt not kill.’” He paused, exchanged a glance with his partner while Clyde lowered his head, the fight fading from his face. He looked almost calm.

 

“They would have never been punished,” he said. “For what they did to...to their sons. Daughters. Wives, employees. Everyone.” His eyes found Hutch’s. “The world, you know?” He shook his head. “No one ever punishes them.”

 

“But you did,” Hutch said.

 

The answer didn’t come for a long time, but when it did it was angry, accompanied by glares like shots at the dumbfounded, frozen members. “I came here to see people change. I thought you’d meet and talk about your mistakes, your failures. But all you guys do is whine!” he yelled. Some of the men flinched. “Moan about your hard childhood and your...your wives, who don’t understand you, and how you miss your kids, and yet you beat them!” His head turned to Norman Sennett, whose chin had traveled south a long time ago. “You don’t deserve comfort, or...or embraces or understanding. You deserve to suffer! Like...like...”

 

“Like you suffered?” Hutch asked.

 

Clyde looked at him sharply. “You think I’m pretty easy to read, don’t you? What’re you, a cop?”

 

Hutch nodded.

 

“Well, to you everybody looks the same, right? People kill, and they go to jail. It’s never about what’s behind it! Or is it?”

 

Something in Starsky’s eyes kept Hutch from answering.

 

“We’re going to arrest you, you know, Clyde,” Starsky said “For Murder One. Will you give me your I.D. or do I have to come and get it?”

 

“Cops,” Clyde said, groping around for a wallet and throwing it at Starsky’s feet. “What do you know, anyway?”

 

“I know,” Starsky replied, picking up the wallet to search for Clyde’s I.D., “that you’re a killer, Clyde...Cormack,” he read, and looked up again. “And that you will be punished for it. Whether you moan or whine or defend yourself. Or do you want our pity? Understanding? Maybe a hug?” He stood up to leave the circle. “Hutch, read him his rights. I’ll call for backup.”

 

Hutch looked around in the deathly still circle and smiled. “Norman, uh, d’you maybe want to call the meeting to an end now?”

 

~oOo~

 

Starsky and Hutch’s understanding of the difficulties in life usually drove them to show interest in a lost soul’s history, his roots, his motive. Sometimes it was a tragedy with more victims than one would think.

 

But Clyde Cormack had killed two men, men who were at the very least trying to come to grips with their violence and pain. Clyde Cormack had made them suffer agony. Clyde Cormack didn’t deserve sympathy he’d never know about, and so they hurried with the paper work, did just as much as they had to for the night, and left in the dark hours of early morning.

 

Usually, they went to Huggy’s after closing a case like this one to drown their own frustrated anger at a world with the likes of Clyde Cormack running around on its surface. But tonight they both sensed it wasn’t the right time. With only exchanged glances, they agreed to have the well deserved post-case beer at Venice Place instead.

 

“Kid broke easily,” Starsky said once they sat in the dimly lit green house. Tipping his bottle back and forth, he stared at the beer sloshing inside, avoiding Hutch’s look. But Hutch knew the start of the conversation was an invitation to start asking.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Didn’t think he would,” Starsky said. “Thought we’d have to question him further at the precinct.”

 

“Me too,” Hutch said. “That was good work, partner.”

 

Starsky lifted his shoulders just a little. “Yeah.”

 

“What was that before, though?” Hutch asked innocently. “When you were still talking to Norman.”

 

Starsky opened his mouth to make a wisecrack, but in the end let go of a deep sigh and leaned his head back to stare at the ceiling. “I don’t know. The stupid questions bothered me, I guess.”

 

 “Starsk?”

 

“Hm?”

 

“Ever since you came back to work....” He stopped, thought, then just asked. “Can you sleep?”

 

“If I take something,” Starsky answered after a moment.

 

Hutch’s shoulders slumped. He scratched his forehead. “Eat?”

 

This time, the pause was much longer, and Starsky shifted his head to look at him when he answered. “I can eat when you’re with me.”

 

Hutch waited.

 

“I’m always cold,” Starsky continued, sounding so annoyed that Hutch couldn’t help smiling. “And...” Nervous, Starsky stopped, then in a small voice mumbled, “and I’m scared of...of windows.” At seeing the question on his partner’s face, he explained. “Sky.” He made a small upward gesture with his index finger. “When I look outside from a window for long, I get flashbacks.”

 

Hutch was dismayed. “Buddy, why didn’t you tell me?”

 

Starsky shrugged. “It got worse over the past few days. We had more important stuff to focus on. Besides,” he added, more determined, and took a sip from his beer as if for emphasis, “it’ll pass.”

 

Hutch sighed. “Yeah right, everything passes,” he muttered. “What am I gonna do with you? If you need help, you need help. Time’s not always the best answer, y’know?”

 

Starsky just looked at him.

 

“Today when Norman asked you, you said you were trying not to endanger people. But you don’t need to try, Starsk,” Hutch added, a hint of despair showing through his reasoned answer. “You don’t endanger anyone by sleeping and eating.” He waited, then said with emphasis, “I’m safe, buddy. We’re both safe.”

 

Their eyes met.

 

“Are we?”

 

Surprised, Hutch frowned at his partner’s calm voice, the lack of agreement in his expression. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“You don’t seem very safe.”

 

“Starsky, that doesn’t—”

 

“You’re scared,” Starsky interrupted him quietly.

 

Hutch averted his eyes.

 

“But I don’t know why. What would you be so afraid of if we’re safe?”

 

“Starsky, please...” Hutch started, but caught himself as if annoyed at his own pleading. “I told you that’s nonsense. I’m fine.”

 

“Hutch.” The calm, determined tone made Hutch look at his friend again. “If you need help, you need help.”

 

“Aw, shut up.”

 

They both laughed but it was short, a fragile moment.

 

Starsky broke it. “I know you, Blintz. You’re scared. You let them control you. Just like when you dumped Audrey.”

 

Hutch kept his silence. Starsky’s soft voice, the helpless pain it communicated was enough to disarm his defenses.

 

“I mean...a mushroom cloud?” Starsky continued. “Crime reports as short stories? How can you believe a single word that woman said to you? I thought you were supposed to be the brains of this duo!”

 

With his head bowed, Hutch whispered, “It’s not her, Starsk. Everything she said is true. Don’t you see that?” Suddenly agitated, he pushed a hand through his hair, searching for words. “I’m...the night I came home, after we found out you were missing, I brought some files home, and that reminded me of my Dad, and...and, I don’t know, of kids, y’know, of having kids, and...” Noticing he was rambling, he let go of a frustrated breath. “No one I love, no one I’ll ever love will be safe! Not you, and...and Audrey...Galesko threatened Audrey. She knew about her. I mean, of course she knew about her, she knew everything, but that’s hardly a comfort, now is it?” he added sarcastically, rushing on before Starsky could cut in. “I would’ve endangered Audrey’s life just by being with her if I hadn’t left her, just like with Jeanie, or Abby, or...” he closed his eyes briefly. “Or Gillian. Galesko asked me what it would’ve been like if it had been you Forest wanted back then, not Jeanie.”

 

“Aw, Hutch.”

 

“Well, I know what it would’ve been like. But d’you know something? In a way that’s exactly what happened now!”

 

“Hey!” Enough was enough. Grabbing Hutch’s shoulder, Starsky gave him a hard stare. “That’s not true. It wasn’t your fault.”

 

“I was the reason,” Hutch replied. “The result remains the same.”

 

“But the result isn’t the same. You arrested her, you solved the case and most importantly, you saved my life. That’s a good result, Blintz, the result of hard work. You’re not responsible for the crime.”

 

Though he wasn’t looking, Hutch sensed Starsky’s gaze on him. He ducked his head as if away from the Starsky’s words, threatening to dig through the defenses he wrapped around his huddled soul.

 

“Maybe I should’ve watched my back better, who knows?” Starsky said softly. “Maybe things like this will happen again. Maybe we’ll have to look out for our loved ones more than others. But if so, then that’s just the way it is. There are horrible people out there, yeah, sure, but you can’t refuse to be with the good ones because of those. You just can’t, Hutch.”

 

The silence that followed stretched on until Hutch looked up into midnight blue eyes. Starsky smiled at him.

 

“Because you’re too important for that, babe.” He shrugged. “Plain and simple. The good ones need you.”

 

A thick knot in Hutch’s throat threatened to make him sound close to tears, so he swallowed, clearing his throat. “What a soapy line, Gordo,” he croaked.

 

Starsky stared at him, then laughed. “Yeah. A simple ‘thanks, pal, love ya too’ would’ve sufficed, y’know.”

 

“Thanks, pal. Love ya too.”

 

With a twinkle in his eyes, Starsky waved his hand at his partner. “Don’t get mushy, Blintz.”

 

Hutch smiled and the moment of easy laughter circled back to where it had started as the men’s eyes met again. “I’m sorry for breaking like this,” Hutch said.

 

He realized how unfair it was to Starsky that he’d suffered from Galesko’s words. Here Starsky had fought so hard to win the game, to keep Hutch safe, and yet he had still lost. Or, well, almost.

 

“No, I understand,” Starsky replied, nodding as if to himself. “I do. I think,” he added after a moment’s thought, “it’s just too easy to feel responsible for it all. I mean, we owe it to, I dunno, to ourselves to...live. So that we can do our job. Don’t you think?” he asked. “I wouldn’t wanna go through my life and only meet flakes like Clyde or Galesko or Forest or Prudholm. There has to be something that makes it worth it.”

 

“Or someone,” Hutch added quietly.

 

“Yeah,” Starsky agreed and lifted his bottle to touch Hutch’s. “To someone.”

 

“To someone.” Hutch smiled back.

 

~oOo~

 

“I’m tellin’ ya, it’ll be worth a million in a century. That’s an investment you’re holding in your ungrateful hands there.”

 

“Huggy,” Starsky said, ungrateful fingers flipping ungratefully through the mentioned investment’s pages, “it’s a book. And it smells.” He wrinkled his nose, let the book fall onto the counter.

 

Huggy picked it up to brush imaginary dust off it. A reproving glance found the detective. “You know what your problem is, Starsky?”

 

“Right now?” Starsky threw a handful of nuts into his mouth.

 

“You have no sense of art,” Huggy informed him. “And no money sense.”

 

Starsky rolled his eyes. “Tell me one good reason it’ll be worth a dime anytime in the future. I don’t even know the author!”

 

“That’s the secret of its success,” Huggy said smugly. “No great authors were famous as long as they were alive. But this kid,” he pointed at the cover, “will be a hit soon, and then you’ll have a first print.”

 

Starsky narrowed his eyes. “It’s a cousin of yours, isn’t it?”

 

“So? There’ve always been great artists in my family!”

 

“I’m sure. Forget it.”

 

Hutch walked in. Huggy followed his progress across the room, keeping his silence.

 

“Hey, hey!” Starsky exclaimed, greeting his partner with a pat on his back as he sank into a chair. “Here he is. How did it go?”

 

One glance from Hutch was enough for Starsky’s grin to fade. “Uh oh.”

 

“Uh oh’s right,” Hutch muttered, nodding his thanks at Huggy, who’d already planted a beer in front of him.

 

“No chance?” Starsky asked.

 

“She said she’d call me.” Hutch looked at his friend meaningfully.

 

“Oh.” A pause. “Well...you can’t blame her.”

 

“No,” Hutch sighed, wiped a hand over his features. “I know.”

 

Watching the miserable heap that was his pal, Starsky fondly squeezed his shoulder. “Hey, at least something good came out of it.”

 

“And what’s that?”

 

A grin popped up on Starsky’s face. He turned to Huggy, who handed him a five-dollar bill.

 

Hutch blinked in disbelief. “You two bet on my love life?”

 

Starsky shrugged. “’Smore fun than betting on Huggy´s.”

 

“Hey!” Huggy protested. “Just because you didn’t have enough money on ya.”

 

Hutch smiled and took a sip of his beer.

 

“Yeah, yeah, right,” Starsky said, waving his hand. “Why don’t you try to talk Hutch into buying your cousin’s

bestseller?”

 

“Nah, I’m afraid his taste in culture has been negatively affected by the company he keeps,” Huggy said, and strolled off to serve a couple sitting at a corner table.

 

Hutch looked after Huggy, then back at his partner. “Do I want to know what that was all about?”

 

“I don’t know,” Starsky replied, “it has something to do with Huggy´s family and literature.”

 

“Okay, save it.”

 

Starsky patted Hutch’s back and took a sip from his beer. He lowered the bottle and stole a

quick look at his friend. “Hey.” He waited for Hutch to look. “Y’okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Hutch replied and smiled. “I’m good.”

 

Content, Starsky nodded.

 

“You?” Hutch asked in return. “Ate today?”

 

Starsky picked up his beer and nodded. It wasn’t time yet for him to become annoyed at Hutch’s mothering.

 

“Slept okay?”

 

But they were heading towards that point. He swallowed his beer. “Yes.”

 

“Okay. Hey.”

 

“Hm? What?”

 

“Thank you.”

 

Confused, Starsky frowned. “For what?”

 

“This,” Hutch said, spreading his hands. “Now.”

 

Understanding, Starsky smiled and looked ahead again.

“Don’t get soapy, Blintz.”

 

THE END

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