"These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.
The ill-timed truth we might have kept -
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say -
Who knows how grandly it'd have rung?
'Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away."

Part 3a.

They were in the middle of the dark parking lot, streetlights casting desolate circles of lights here and there. Under their glare, the streets, wet with the recent rain, extended from the lot, looking like the glistening tentacles of a dangerously quiet creature. City sounds filtered through the fog. The beast was dormant here, but busily masticating its fodder elsewhere. A sluggish breeze brought up the smells from the polluted waterfront.

At that moment, Starsky uncannily fit his surroundings. Light refracted off the droplets which had failed to soak through the wild tangle of his hair, and shone in wet streaks off his leather jacket as it would off a serpent's skin. His stance was a predator's. Hutch stared at the apparition, mesmerized by it. It had sprung into his path, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Almost spoiled your pretty little bust, didn't I? Was it worth it? Tell me, damn you, was it worth it?"

What...? Worth it? Hutch remembered how good it had felt to know once again he had accomplished something that made a big difference, and breathed out the truth. "Yes, it was worth it." Too late, he realized Starsky was talking of another kind of cost. "Starsk, I had to get you out of the way. There was a "

"Outta the way, that's right! Outta sight, outta mind and outta the way. Kick the ghosts outta the way if they don't have enough sense to stay dead, bury the skeletons, collect the skulls cause when you reach the top, it'll all be worth it!" He was slowly circling the taller man.

"Starsky ... " Hutch pleaded, wishing Starsky would attack like he obviously wanted to, burn up the anger, and then maybe
there'd be a chance for words.

"Why are you still here, Glory Hound? Don't you know you've got a cheerin' section at Metro, all waitin' for the chance to make a hero outta you? You ain't gonna disappoint `em, are you? No, them you won't disappoint. Oh, am I in your way? You wanna get me outta your way again? Or are you too good to do your own dirty work? Come on, get me outta your way. Make a move, damnit! No one here to do it for you like there was this mornin'."

Hutch was too weary to respond to the threat of the storm about to erupt around him. It seemed as good a time as any to ask the question which had been burning through him all day. "What were you doing there?"

Starsky's mouth was already open to continue the baiting; the answer rang out with the same anger. "I thought you were gettin' hooked on that shit again!" He seemed to choke once the words were out, as if he hadn't meant to reveal that. His expression turned to confusion.

On that ? What? Heroin? Oh, God, of course. Something constricted Hutch's throat. "What...what were you going to do?"

"Stop you, what else?" Starsky spat out. "If it wasn't too late."

"And if it was? Too late?"

"Huggy's again, I guess. I don't know! How the hell do I know?"

Don't do it, Hutch's mind screamed at him. You've done this to him too many times. Don't play the `How much do you love me? Show me Tell me' game again. But the words were already past his lips. "Why? After all that's happened, why?" A small creature inside him jumped up and down with unholy glee: Tell me, tell me, tell me....

The features of the dark face twisted with fury again, but now Starsky's rage had found a new target: himself. "Because I'm a fuckin' idiot, that's why! Because I'm so goddamned stupid that I don't know how to junk something when it's gone stinkin' rotten. I can't smell the sewer when I'm hip-deep in it, that's why!"

For an instant, he looked ready to hit Hutch, then he whirled around, looking for something, anything, to vent his rage on. They were in an empty portion of the lot. Nothing handily presented itself. He made a choking sound, and took off down one of the streets, his erupting energy fueling his headlong rush, only a razor's edge away from allowing his momentum to carry him face-first into the wet pavement.

"Starsky, wait! Oh, God, I'm sorry!" Hutch started after him. "I'm so sorry. Please, wait." Then he couldn't spare the breath to shout anymore. The man ahead of him was running as if he was hell-bent on exorcising demons and one way to do it would be to burst his lungs.

The streets became narrower, turned into obstacle courses of broken-down buildings, deserted crates, and piles of refuse. They were empty, save for the ever-present possibility of night creatures haunting their shadowed recesses. Hutch couldn't see past a blur. He had neglected himself for too long. The once proud and powerful body, which Starsky could then only keep up with through sheer tenacity, now couldn't take the exertion. He let himself be guided by his hearing, then the pounding blood in his ears cut off that avenue as well. The protest of his muscles finally defeated his determination. He simply couldn't gasp in enough air to replenish what his body was furiously burning up. At the entrance of an alley, he collapsed. He slid down a wall onto the wet sidewalk, with his arms tight against the inferno in his chest, and stayed curled up in a ball of misery.

He had no idea how long he stayed there. The next thing to reach his awareness was the sound of someone approaching. The cop in him said he was in a dangerous place, but he couldn't bother. Ostriches had the right idea.

"You idiot!" It was hissed out of a throat that was obviously as abused as his own. "You dumb ass! What're you waitin' for here? Someone to slit your throat?"

So, he's back, his brain registered distantly, and that activity exhausted it again. He sensed Starsky slipping to his knees.

"Get up," the voice grated on. "Get the hell outta here." A wet slap sounded on the wall next to his ear. "You sonuvabitch, don't do this to me!" Starsky kept slapping at the wall to rouse him from his stupor, but something had curled up on itself inside him and he didn't have the will to untangle it.

"I'm tired, you hear me?" the voice rose, "I'm tired, you bastard! Sick `n tired of carin' what happens to you. So why don't you get your carcass outta the rest of this garbage dump and outta my sight? Cause I quit got that? I quit! I'm sick of carryin' you around like a hole blasted in my gut, I'm tired of hurtin' and I don't give a damn no more. I don't care. If you're gonna go to hell, do it in your own handbasket, `cause I don't care!"

Hands had roughly grabbed him. Fingers dug painfully in his shoulders, shaking him, and he didn't have enough strength to resist. He stayed like a limp doll, which seemed to infuriate Starsky even more. The hands pulled him further forward, then gave a shove back, releasing him at the same time. His head snapped backwards until he steadied his neck and leaned sideways into the wall. He thought he heard a sharply drawn breath, then there was only silence. Mildly curious, he opened his eyes. Starsky was right in front of him, but he didn't look angry as Hutch had expected.

"Don't," he whispered softly. "Come on, Hutch, please don't."

Hutch would have done anything to obey that plea, but he had one problem. He didn't know what it was he shouldn't do until Starsky reached out to brush awkwardly at his face. He then realized he had been crying; how long he had no idea. Mindful of Starsky's request, he immediately tried to stop. The attempt only succeeded in turning the easily flowing tears into heaving sobs. Miserably, he hid his face again.

"Aw, Hutch," Starsky mumbled, resignation edging his voice. "I didn't mean it. You know I didn't mean it. I mean, I do hate what's happened to us, and I am tired of hurtin', and I wish I didn't care, but I can't turn it on `n off like some machine. I do care and there ain't a damned thing I can do about it, so don't cry, huh?" Predictably, that only increased the flood pouring out of Hutch. "Shit!" Starsky said.

The huddled man panicked at the possibility of exasperating Starsky into leaving for good this time, at his inability to stem the flow. "Please," he managed between sobs. "A minute. Didn't give up...so far. Please. Don't now. A minute...'s all."

"Aw, shut up, dummy," Starsky grumbled. "Ain't goin' nowhere." Tentatively, an arm came around Hutch's shoulder, moved a bit as if checking to make sure it still fit there, then settled with comforting familiarity. "Jeez, Hutch! How did you tap into the ocean? All right, all right, let it all out. Probably good for the soul or somethin'."

It took longer than the minute Hutch had asked for, but he finally quieted. "Got something left to walk on?" Starsky asked. The arm around his shoulder slipped under his arms to help him up and stayed firm until Hutch pulled himself together.

Wordlessly, they trudged up the hill. The rain had started again, but neither was in any shape to be too enthusiastic on their feet. The parking lot didn't look so malevolent to Hutch this time, except if it had been another step away, he was sure, he wouldn't have made it there.

Starsky unlocked the Torino and motioned him into the back seat. "Lie down. You look ready to pass out." Hutch obeyed. At that moment, he would have obeyed Starsky had he been asked to jump into the Bay. Starsky shoved at his legs, trying to get them onto the too-short seat. "You gettin' longer on me, or what?" he fussed. He was eventually able to close the door.

Hutch was soaked to the skin and shivering. Starsky must have been cold, too; the first thing he did was to turn the heater on upon starting the car. The sounds, smells and the feel of the contraption the blond had complained so often about were very comforting now, despite the cramped seat. The heat slowly penetrated, and his eyelids got heavier and heavier....

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The car was dark and motionless when Hutch woke up. Every muscle in his body was screaming loudly to be uncramped. He moved slowly, registering the blanket tucked around him one of his own, in fact, probably left in the trunk of the Torino after an outing. The car was parked in the alley behind The Pits. Starsky was dozing in the front seat. Hutch's movement in the back roused him. He stretched and rubbed his face.

"`m hungry," came the typical complaint, and it was almost like the last months had never existed. Then he turned, the wary look in his face reminding Hutch that the last months had been very real indeed.

"How long did I sleep?" His throat was painfully raw.

"`bout an hour `n a half." Starsky kept watching his passenger as Hutch found ways of stretching first one leg, then the other. "The way I see it," he continued, indicating The Pits, "we can go in there, have somethin' to eat, down a beer or two, and I'll take you home. Nothin' heavy. Tomorrow we each go `bout our own business. Or we can get somethin' to eat, pick up some beer, go to your place and get smashed while we hash things out. Your choice."

"Let's get smashed," Hutch chose immediately.

They got out of the car, stretching some more, then rounded the alley to the entrance of The Pits. Hutch noticed a hesitation in Starsky and looked at him questioningly.

"No double-talk, no head trips," Starsky said, eyes very dark and very serious. "Just straight, honest talk, even if it hurts. Or I swear I'll kick your ass this time."

Hutch found a smile from somewhere. "I almost wish you'd do that, anyway, but okay. I'm game."

Starsky's hand shot out to grip the wrist of the hand holding the rail. "And no games, either."

"Hey, I didn't mean -_" Hutch hurried to assure.

"I know you didn't. Just...no games, okay?"

Yeah, buddy, Hutch thought, we really used and abused out games, didn't we? The child in us wanted to play, but we forgot something. Children play to learn; men use what they've learned to corrupt their games and I'm such a competitive bastard. The difference is just a fine line between innocent-age and innocence-lost, and we never noticed stepping over it. No, I never noticed stepping over it. You're still there, aren't you? Humoring me, but not really liking my grown-up games. When did I lose my childhood, and how did you manage to hold onto yours through so much, for so long? "No more games," he solemnly promised. "I swear."

Apparently, he had lost a lot of credibility along the way. The grip on his wrist remained while Starsky searched his face a while longer, then became a pat before the hand was removed.



Huggy's double take was worthy of a great comedian, but for once, it was absolutely sincere. He took in their thoroughly bedraggled appearance. "Well, well, well. When it rains in this city, the wind blows in the strangest apparitions. I presume it was the wind. No self-respectin' cat would be caught dead draggin' in the likes o' you."

Hutch felt giddy. "Damn, Hug, I missed you."

"I was thinkin' o' missin' you, too, but you've been all over the six o'clock news. Didn't have the chance. Hope they weren't takin' your name in vain."

"On the news, who knows? I'll give you the straight story, but not now, okay?"

"We're starvin', Huggy," Starsky interjected, as he found a table.

"And they're gonna have an honest-to-god meal here, too. What'll it be?"

"Oh, a special, I guess," Starsky said offhandedly.

"Restrain your enthusiasm for the bounty o' my humble establishment, m'man. How `bout you?"

"Make it two specials."

"No," Starsky objected. "Throw together a salad for him, and see if you can find something hot to drink, like herbal tea. Mint, cloves, whatever's supposed to be good for the throat."

"Man, I'm runnin' a bar in not-quite-the-sleaziest part of LA, not a genteel cafe for spinsters. Where would I ?"

"Give it a try, huh? There's gotta be a health food store around still open. The man can hardly croak, `n we have a lot to talk about."

There was precious little Huggy couldn't deliver if he wanted to. The tea was on the table soon. Hutch was grateful for it, both for his throat and to keep himself busy. Starsky seemed to consider it a take-a-breather time, and Hutch felt in limbo. The food arrived. While Starsky attacked his with customary gusto, Hutch played with the salad, not hungry in the slightest.

"Eat it. Good for you," Starsky broke the silence. Hutch tried to take an interest, but wasn't too successful. Starsky misinterpreted. "Sorry," he mumbled. "It was none o' my business. Wanna order somethin' else?"

"This is fine. I'm just not hungry. I'll try." He took a mouthful. "Mind telling me why, though?"

"Well..." Starsky squirmed uncomfortably. "Look at you, Hutch. You used to eat well, exercise, take care of yourself. You let it all slide to hell `n gone. I must've corrupted you."

"Starsky Hey, it's not your fault. None of this is."

"So how come you used to be so sharp, and now you look as much a bum as I am?"

"You're not a bum!" Hutch's sore throat didn't quite allow it to be a shout.

"Yeah, well...eat your salad anyway."

"All right. I'll eat it, and you can reform me if you want, but don't call yourself names again. I don't like it."


Suddenly, not being hungry didn't matter so much, and the salad was actually rather good. "It isn't your fault at all," Hutch insisted between forkfuls. "I just started to like that stuff you prefer."

"You can have a bite." Matching action to words, he held out his hamburger, then for good measure, dunked a french fry in the ketchup and stuffed it into Hutch's mouth. "But stick to the healthy stuff otherwise."

"You're really going to reform me?" Hutch asked around an overflowing mouth. Why had he thought he wasn't hungry? This was definitely great.

"We screwed up, Hutch badly. I figure fifty percent of it is my fault, so I'm gonna try."

"How do you figure that fifty percent?"

"Well, partnership, right? Half me, half thee. Down the middle. Even split. Two halves of a whole. That adds up to fifty percent in my book. We do good, half the praise is mine. We blow it, half the blame is also mine. Simple."

Yes, it was simple. It was also so straightforward, so uncluttered, so fair so very... Starsky that Hutch's throat closed up again. Fearing he may not have, after all, exhausted the tears, he tried to break the mood by chuckling. "Never could get Van to even consider accepting that, and in her case, it was true."

"I ain't Van, and it's still true."

Hutch smiled. The tally could wait. The moment was too precious to start arguing. "Whatever you say, Starsk."

Starsky looked at him strangely, put his food down and leaned forward on his elbows. "That's how it's gonna be? Whatever I say? `Cause if that's what you're plannin', let me tell you, I like that no better than the rest of the trash you've been dishin' out lately." He frowned at Hutch's confusion. "I knew a man for eight years. Where's he, Hutch?"

Dead, Hutch thought. If you want him, this is a waste of time.

Starsky read him accurately. "I know there're changes, and there will be, and that's okay. But deep down inside, that doesn't change so much. I'll know it when I see it. I'm warnin' you, we've been through too much together for me not to recognize a counterfeit if you try to sell me one. So cut out this meek-lamb act before I walk outta here. Whatever I say, my ass. That ain't you talkin' and you know it."

Hutch took a deep breath. "All right. I want another bite of that hamburger, and another fry, no ketchup this time. Then I'll eat this salad you wished on me. You ordered the food, you pay for it. I'll pay for the beer. And I'll give you, oh, say, ten percent for now, but that's only because you've let me get away with murder."

"Seems I gotta teach you simple math, but that's better." Satisfied, Starsky sat back after rescuing what he could of his hamburger, and went back to the business of eating. "Hell, have two fries purely outta the goodness of my heart, you understand?" His hand, on its way back from Hutch's mouth, detoured to the salad bowl to pluck out and inspect a few items, only to drop them back into the bowl disgustedly. "How come I got the short end of this deal?" he fussed, licking the salad dressing off his fingers.

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At his apartment, the first thing Hutch wanted to do was to take a hot shower. Starsky also expressed his desire to get out of his clothes and clean up. Hutch fished out a robe for him and let him go ahead.

While Hutch was taking his turn, Starsky was left to wander around the house. Nothing had changed, but everything looked... off. There were dirty dishes in the sink, laundry piled on the floor, magazines and cups littered everywhere, the guitar had broken strings, the bed was unmade. Little things that Hutch normally didn't neglect. Starsky filled the sink with water to soak the dishes, started the laundry, throwing in his own muddied clothes as well, and went around tidying up. He inspected the plants. While they all lived, and there were the inevitable additions, they no longer seemed to thrive in wild profusion of leaves and blooms.

"Probably stopped holdin' conversations with `em," he speculated.

Clad in his orange robe, Hutch came out, sat down and looked around, wondering again how Starsky could be so haphazard when it came to his person, but turned almost persnickety inside four walls. "Thanks."

Starsky chose the couch. "So, what happened today?"

The recital was dry, almost in the form of a report, a sure sign that Hutch was trying to keep something personal out of it. Starsky wondered why, and tried to read between the lines. "Must've been one hell of a lonely business." Hutch shrugged. "I could've blown it for you. Sorry."

"Forget it. It's over."

"Right." They were silent for a while. "Hutch, there're some things that ain't over at least, I hope not. You think we "

"Wait," Hutch interrupted. "Before this goes any further, I have to tell you something." He had been debating it, but it had to come out. "I've seen Kira since we walked out on her at Huggy's."

"So have I." Starsky dismissed it lightly.

Hutch knew they were talking of different things. "No, not like that. I haven't just seen her around. I've been... with her."

Something darkened in Starsky's eyes and the jaw muscles tightened as he rose. Hutch wondered if he was leaving, but he got a beer and sat back down, the signs of anger replaced by neutrality. "Anything else I should know?"

"Is that all you're going to react?"

"Whaddaya want I should _- " He broke off and took a sip of beer. "I asked for straight talk, didn't I? Guess it works both ways. All right. Get one thing: I don't give a damn about Kira. But we took a stand with her. It was the last thing we did together. I assumed it was an agreement you wouldn't, couldn't break. If you want the truth, I'm angry."

"So why are you holding it in?"

"Dunno. Just feel I have to. I lost my temper once, and ever since then I felt like... like I missed the forest for the trees. I don't wanna do it again." Hutch was at a loss for words. "You wanna tell me more about Kira, or do we go on?"

"It happened only once. It was " He found something off in the distance to stare at. "Earlier that day, O'Donnell and I had a court appearance. The bastard we'd spent so long to catch walked on a technicality. We'd spent days and nights on stakeouts; O'Donnell's wife was in the hospital, and he hadn't been able to spend any time with her when she needed him. And they let the son-of-a-bitch off inside of ten minutes. He'd had enough. Said he was taking leave right away and resigning afterwards. He left, just like that, and there was nothing I could say. Hell, I didn't have any faith in what we were doing, either. I had another hearing. Would you believe I blew that one, too? When I got back to Metro, O'Donnell was gone. Dobey already had Washington lined up for me."

He gave a short, bitter laugh. "Washington wasn't pleased, to say the least. He's an up-and-coming detective. I heard the argument. He was kicking about being partnered to a wash-out, `a burn-out case' as he put it. Couldn't very well blame him, could I? How do you argue with the truth? Dobey shouted him down and called me in. We all tried to be civilized."

He noticed Starsky was holding out a beer. "Thanks. Anyway, I went to see O'Donnell at the hospital. He's a decent sort. I wanted to say goodbye. It was strange, you know? He was throwing away his pension, his life's work, his wife was so sick, but they were just happy to be together, so content, so I don't know. All I know is they made me feel like they knew something that would always be a mystery to me." He trailed off and paid attention to the beer for a while. "Kira came over that night, out of the blue."

That day had been the lowest point he ever remembered hitting. When Van had walked out, he'd had righteous indignation on his side; when Gillian died, Starsky had been there. None of it had felt like the absolute rock bottom of that day, and he was talking about it because he needed to get it off his chest. But suddenly he realized how it all must sound to Starsky, and looked at him. Predictably, there was no anger left in the man. The eyes looking up at Hutch held only sympathy.

"Enough, Hutch. I understand."

He wished he could leave it there, pass the episode off as taking refuge in a moment of need, and not lose the sympathy. But he was tired of games himself. "You don't understand. Sure, I needed something, but it wasn't what Kira offered. Oh, God, it wasn't even close!" He had to move or burst out of his skin. Noticing his beer can was empty, he got up to throw it away.

"Hey." Starsky indicated his own empty can. Hutch caught it with one hand, and pitched a full can across the room with the other. He got another beer for himself as well, and paced aimlessly around the room.

"It was so pointless. She had a lot of anger and resentment. I suppose it was her way of striking back. She literally threw herself at me. No pretenses, no niceties, no nothing and I... I ... "

"You took it," Starsky finished for him, resigned.

"I don't know what she proved. Except, of course, she knew exactly who didn't have enough integrity to tell her to take her teasing tail and go to hell." He wandered back to the middle of the room. "And I can't even say I'm sorry, or that it can't happen again. It made me feel terrible. Small, you know. But only after it was over. At first, I didn't care. I knew it was wrong just didn't give a damn. If the right buttons are pushed again, I'm not so sure I'd " He looked intently at the man on the couch. "Can you be sure, Starsk? Can you vouch for your glands?"

"Aw, Hutch, how the hell do I know? Can any man?"

"Kira knew. She didn't come to you. I bet she didn't try that `it's perfectly all right to love two people at the same time' reasoning on you, either. She knew damned well who'd swallow what." Starsky took a while to digest that, although he didn't ask Hutch to elaborate.

The blond man found himself at the counter, regarding a neglected-looking plant. Absentmindedly, he plucked out the dead leaves. "Doesn't say much about me, does it?"

"It just says we're different. So what? Not exactly earth-shaking news. Remember us, the original Odd Couple?" He joined Hutch by the counter. "I think you've got something all screwed up. I never had any desire to measure you with my yardstick. I mean, if that's all I wanted for a friend, I can pick up a mirror and hold great conversations with myself, right? Except, there ain't no point in it."

"What's the point, then?"

"You got somethin' to eat around here?"

Hutch blinked at the abrupt shift, then realized Starsky needed a break; long soul-searching wasn't his forte. "Starsk, you just ate."

"You ate most of that for me. I'm hungry."

"There are some crackers and cheese. Chips. Ice cream. Some left over pie, I think."

"Good enough." He went into the kitchen and started rummaging. "Popcorn," he announced. "Great."

There was a sense of absurdity to sitting there, on hold, and watching Starsky fix popcorn, raid the kitchen, transfer some laundry into the dryer, humming all the while. There was also a sense of familiarity to it. Hutch couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry.

"Want some?" Starsky shoved an overflowing tray under his nose.

Hutch eyed the incongruous array. Had he really had all that junk food around? "Good God, no."

Undaunted, Starsky sat down and proceeded to make respectable inroads into the pile. "Did you love her?" came between mouthfuls, as offhandedly as a comment on the weather.

"Who ? Oh. No."

"Didn't think so." A fistful of popcorn disappeared, "What then? Attraction? Competition?"

"Some of both, yes. Not enough to explain it."

Starsky popped the tab off another can. "So what explains it?"

"You're not going to like it."

"Do tell. News flash for you: I ain't likely to be enamored of anything that caused this screw-up. Just give it to me, okay?"

Hutch groped for words. "I don't know how _- "

"Look, I've been over this thing every which way. I can't add it up. What was that saying? When all the possibilities are exhausted, the impossible must be the answer. Well, Hutch, all the possibilities washed out. And the impossible is that you were out to hurt me. But that's really impossible, isn't it?" Head down, he seemed to be paying undue attention to the food. His eyes, apprehensive, came up when no immediate denial was forthcoming. "Isn't it?"

"I told you you weren't going to like it." Hutch felt like he had literally delivered a backhanded slap.

Starsky looked back down, pushed the tray away impatiently, and studied the table top with intense concentration. "I see. Not so impossible, huh? Okay. All right. Fine." He shifted around. "Excuse me. Too much beer," he explained politely and disappeared into the bathroom.

Hutch suspended all thought. The only thing Starsky had asked for had been straight talk. He'd deliver what he owed as long and as honestly as he could. He didn't have the energy to speculate further than that. What would happen would just have to happen.

Starsky was back in the room. "I gotta wait till my stuff is dry. In the meantime, maybe you'd care to tell me why. Then again, you can just let me borrow some clothes."

Hutch understood why the choice was being left up to him again. Starsky was no longer sure of his welcome and was treading softly. He blinked away the burning sensation behind his eyes. "I don't think I've got anything left to fit you."

"Okay," Starsky accepted. He stretched out on the couch, put an arm across his face, waiting without being pushy about it.

Hutch leaned back. "One thing I want you to understand, I know now what was wrong with me, but at the time I swear I
didn't know, Starsk. I was doing things, and I didn't know why, and I hated doing them, and I just kept doing and doing like a roller coaster I couldn't get off of. It didn't start with Kira, you know?" Starsky stayed quiet and still. Obviously, he was leaving it all to Hutch.

"I don't know exactly when it started. One day we were young, full of hope and energy, out to save the world, so damned sure and cocky. We had our crusade, our chosen path, the right path all those lovely lies people told us, I told myself. And the next time I looked back, nothing was the same anymore. There were too many corpses along the way, too many compromises, too much loss, and it was all wrong. I wasn't the same. I was just older, weaker, tired...scared. God, I couldn't even carry my own weight; I didn't want the weight of the world on my shoulders, too. I kept trying to shake it off. It kept piling back on and I knew it was because one thing I couldn't shake off was..." He hesitated, but there was no kind way of saying it, "...you."

The arm came off Starsky's face, the wide eyes fixed themselves on Hutch.

"You wouldn't let go! I kept getting more and more unpleasant. You kept taking it. I closed you out. You insisted on prying me open. When I just wanted to take off, there you were, going with me, then dragging me back, and I was right back in the same mess I couldn't live with any more. It seemed like I couldn't make one solitary decision for myself without you getting somehow tangled up in it. I kept running into you at every turn. I suppose I was feeling smothered. Hell, I was suffocating. Misery doesn't always love company, you know. I had to get away, make you let go. Then Kira came along. Guess she was just the wedge I didn't know I was looking for. Anything would've done. Anyone. Now that I think about it, it could've just as well been Allison. Remember? Except she wouldn't play. Kira was more than willing."

"Hutch you mean...? Are you tellin' me I'm the cause of all this? What did I do!? I don't understand. Don't you know why I ? Hutch?"

Hutch felt terrible. Starsky was looking like a child lost and unable to understand what he had done to deserve it, why it was happening to him. "For heaven's sake, Starsk, it wasn't you! Don't you think I know you were just being you? But that only made things worse. You were killing me with kindness. Can't you understand what a burden that is to someone who doesn't think he deserves the kindness anymore? God, why did you keep accepting me no matter how I changed? I pushed you and you gave. I sniped at you, I put you down, played games with you, and you never kicked me the way I deserved. Why, damnit? What makes me so goddamned special? Like when I faked that amnesia. What possessed you to forgive me just like that?"

Starsky sat up. "You're weird, Hutch, you know that? If you thought it was such a terrible thing, why did you do it in the first place?"

"It seemed like a good idea at the time!" Hutch snapped, hating the way he was losing his temper, but unable to help it. "I woke up alone too, you know. They had me in traction. I couldn't so much as open my mouth, and nobody thought of telling me how badly you were hurt, or even if you were still alive. It wasn't fun, buddy! And when I finally found out, well, you were lucky that time, but I kept thinking that damned car was going to kill you one day. I've been trying for years to get you to ease off; wasn't getting anywhere. I thought if you believed you had hurt me -- anyway, I was trying to teach you a lesson, but I carried it too far. I don't know why "

Honesty, he reminded himself. "Hell, I know why. You were bleeding for me and I was enjoying it too much to stop. Then you started talking about... you know, Terri, Gillian, and I felt awful. It wasn't a game anymore, and it sure wasn't funny. So I confessed and what did you do? You not only didn't kick my teeth in; you started playing along with me! How could you be so... so...? So!" He was shouting.

The reply came in soft contrast. "It was easy."

"Ea easy!?" Hutch sputtered.

"Sure." Starsky was matter-of-fact. "I asked myself, would I want him to be honestly sick, or do I prefer him to be a sonuvabitch but healthy?" He shrugged. "It was easy."

Hutch stared at him in astonishment then slowly closed his mouth and shook his head, defeated. "God, I don't know how to deal with all this. I don't know what how to Oh, forget it!" He dropped his head on the back of the chair and closed his eyes.

"Look, you know I'm not good with head trips. I ain't no friggin' shrink. Oh, I can tell you're screwed up badly here." Starsky tapped his own head. "But I don't know what you want from me. My dad used to say kids push to see how far you'd give,
but they really wanna be stopped somewhere. Is that what you want? Or you think you've done something wrong, and wanna be punished for it, absolution-like...? Hell, Hutch, I ain't your father or your priest. I'm not gonna punish you or kick your teeth in although if I can get my hands on whoever dumped all this guilt-shit on you.... Anyway, forget it, you ain't my kid to discipline. I thought a friend should just accept, whatever comes, the good and the bad but not "

"Not what?"

"Indifference. That's what I thought happened with Kira. I told you how I felt, and it didn't seem to make a difference to you. So, I was missin' the forest. Indifference is one thing, maybe the only thing, I can't accept from my best friend. How could I possibly know it was exactly what you wanted from yours. I...I'm sorry, Hutch."

Hutch's head snapped up. "You're sorry!? I hurt you and you're sorry!?" He suddenly realized how bright the dark blue eyes were with a liquid sheen. God, he thought, I did it again. It seems the only way I can stop hurting you is to cut my tongue out. He wondered if it would not have been kinder to let Starsky go at that parking lot. "Oh, Starsk...." was the only thing he could manage. Get away from me, he wanted to say, for your own good.

"Well, I think I understand. I crowded you. I always suspected you took your badge back because I wanted mine, and you knew I wouldn't take it without you. But I didn't dream you didn't want me to quit with you in the first place."

Hutch felt miserable. It wasn't Starsky's fault if he was one of the precious few people in whose book loyalty came way before self-interest. "I didn't know it myself, so don't please, don't..." He didn't know how to finish the sentence. "It isn't worth it," he ended lamely.

"It is to me. I'm sorry," Starsky repeated.

"Damnit, stop saying that!"

"I don't know what else What do you want me to say, Hutch?"

"Nothing. I don't want you to say anything. I don't want you to care. I don't want to feel so goddamned guilty because you care. Please."

"Is that what's gonna make you happy? To be responsible to no one, for no one? You want me to leave you alone for good? Will that make everything all right?"

He'd thought so once. Maybe it was still the best thing. Not all right, and certainly not happy.... Easier, yes.

Hutch nodded. Starsky kept looking at him as if something of this importance required more than a nod for him to accept it. The blond took a deep breath. "At least now there are no questions left unanswered between us. Will you please leave?"

Starsky looked at him another instant, then sighed. "All right."

Hutch went out into the patio so Starsky could dress and leave in privacy. He sat on a bench in a corner and closed his eyes.