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Part 1

Charlotte Frost

Part 2

Hutch helped them wheel the gurney down the hall. Starsky was staring at him, but the blond man wasn't sure if his partner saw anything.

He remembered Dobey saying, "He knows it's you." That had to be true, the way Starsky had lain so trustingly against him since they'd found him. But the lack of any real emotion, considering Starsky's vulnerable state, was a cause for concern.

A concern Hutch would rather have any day than worrying if Starsky was even alive, as he had the past two weeks. Hard to believe that, a few short hours ago, he himself had been in enemy hands.

"ER Twelve," the nurse directed, as she guided the gurney toward a room with the same label.

"You'll have to wait outside," another nurse told Hutch.

He shook his head. "He's my partner. He needs me. I'll stay out of your way."

She opened her mouth to reply, but then glanced at Starsky, and saw him watching Hutch. She softened. "The doctors still might ask you to leave."

Hutch tightened his jaw. "Let them tell me that. But it won't matter, anyway. He needs me right here." He looked at his partner, then back at her. "Don't try to take away the watch he's holding. It'll upset him."

Her mouth hardened, too, but she said, "We'll try to work around it."

The doctor appeared and started ordering IV's. Hutch took a stool from a corner and placed it near Starsky's head and sat. He ignored the activity going on around him; he just wanted to be there for Starsky... and to drink his fill of his friend's living presence. He touched Starsky's cheek and rubbed gently, while resting his chin on his arm, which lay on the gurney.

He was aware of the medical personnel examining Starsky, of taking his vitals, of shifting him to catalog the rash. They scrubbed him with some strong-smelling soap, and even stronger smelling shampoo. Hutch had to remove his fingers while they shaved his partner's beard, and he instead stroked along Starsky's shoulder, below the rash. Starsky continued to gaze at him, and didn't seem disturbed by the doctors and nurses, even though the scrubbing of his open sores had to be painful.

It was after they'd turned him and administered an enema that he showed more expression, and his eyes started to fill. Hutch wondered if it was because Starsky felt violated, or simply because all the activity over the past couple of hours - to say nothing of the IV's administering nutrients - was finally rousing him from his stupor.

Hutch brushed a finger along Starsky's prominent nose and whispered, "It's gonna be okay, partner." Starsky's eyes filled even more, but he remained still.

"He has to let go of whatever is in his hand."

Hutch looked up at the invasive male voice. It was the doctor.

"We need to examine that hand," the doctor said, "and treat it for any cuts or other injures."

"Let me try," Hutch said, and waited until the doctor stepped back. He took the clenched fist and placed it across Starsky's chest, keeping his own hand around it. "Hey, buddy," he told the watery eyes that watched him, "we need to switch your watch to your other hand. You can still hold onto it; you just need to change hands. Will you let me help you?"

As soon as he tugged at one of Starsky's fingers, tears filled the corners of his partner's eyes, and he made the same whimpering noise of protest that he had back at the cabin.

Hutch's heart twisted, but he tried again. "Hey, pal, I need you to help me out, that's all." He brought up Starsky's right hand and placed it next to the fist. "You take the watch in your other hand." He encouraged the right fingers to touch the fist. They did, but that was all. Bracing himself, Hutch worked his way beneath one of his partner's curled fingers, soothing, "It's okay, buddy. Nobody's going to take your watch away. Just need to switch hands."

The hand had neither tightened nor released. Hutch locked eyes with his partner's distant ones and worked further at loosening Starsky's fingers one by one. "It's okay, partner. It's okay."

Starsky drew in a feeble breath as the watch came free. Hutch quickly transferred it to his partner's right hand, which immediately curled around it.

"There you go," Hutch said as he took the right fist and placed it against Starsky's chest, over his heart. "Let it rest right there. Right where it belongs, huh?" His own eyes misted.

Starsky cringed, as though in pain. Hutch looked up and saw the doctor trying to straighten the curled left fingers while examining the inside of the hand.

"No cuts," the doctor said. "But when he's well enough, he's going to have to exercise this hand before it moves normally again, the fingers are so stiff right now." The doctor put the hand down and turned his attention to the open sores that a nurse was covering with ointment.

Hutch could see the gold of the watch resting between Starsky's fist and chest. The watch looked dirty, like Starsky's wallet had been when it had been presented to Hutch as proof of his partner's death. But the wallet had been covered with dirt intentionally in an attempt to deceive. Hutch knew the watch had not been treated the same way. When he'd first realized he was being taken somewhere without Starsky, he had fought his kidnappers. In the fight, his watch had slipped out of his pocket and landed in the rotting flesh of a dead animal. One guard had put a gun to his head, while the other guard picked up the filthy watch, saying he was going to keep it. Hutch had hated the man for that, but concerns about what they wanted from him quickly over-shadowed that of material possessions.

When Hutch had been presented with Starsky's dirt-covered wallet, as proof of his partner's death, he had pressed it to his face when he was left alone. Consciously, he had been to try to bring himself as close to Starsky as possible. Now, Hutch realized that there had been a subconscious reason as well. The wallet should have been in the pocket of a decaying body, rotting beneath the dirt. But there was no offensive odor radiating from it. The dirt had smelled fresh. Hutch realized now, too, that that subconscious knowledge had helped to reject what his captors had said about Starsky's fate.

But, for Starsky, proof of his partner's death had been genuine. Starsky, too, had probably pressed the watch close to himself when it was given to him, as a need to bring himself as near to his deceased partner as possible. The watch carried the odor of the dead animal. Starsky could only have thought that the stench was from the remains of his partner.

Dear God, Hutch thought now. Starsky had suffered so much more than himself, emotionally as well as physically.

Hutch heard a noise and turned to his partner. Starsky swallowed, trying to wet his lips. Even though he was struggling to speak, his eyes still looked vacant, as though the lights were on but only a groggy presence was home.

Starsky's mouth moved and Hutch heard feeble words, but they weren't loud enough to understand. He rolled the stool closer, his chest pressed against the examining table, and rubbed at Starsky's cheek while bending nearer. "Hey, pal, what's that you're saying?"

Another swallow, then words strained from the effort of speaking. "D-d-don't... l-l-let... wa-ake... up."

"Don't let wake up?" Hutch repeated, trying to understand. Then he realized that he did. "Don't let you wake up? You don't want to wake up?"

"" The red-rimmed eyes filled again.

Hutch's hand stroked his partner's hair. He, too, swallowed, then tenderly asked, "You think this is a dream?"

"Don't... want... wake... up."

"Ah, buddy," Hutch said, his heart filling to capacity. He leaned even closer, his eyes just inches from the ones that were locked onto him. "Listen, buddy. It's all right to wake up. I promise it is. Because when you wake up, things are going to be just like they are right now. And I'm going to be right here with you. You know I wouldn't lie to you about something like that. It'll be fine."

There was the faintest movement of Starsky's head shaking. "Don't wanna wake up," he stubbornly insisted, his lower lip quavering. His voice was small and threatened to break. "Wanna ... stay... here."

Hutch placed both hands on Starsky's arm, above the IV line. "It's all right, pal. You can stay here as long as you want. Just know that, when you decide you're ready, it'll be okay to wake up because I'll be here."

"Is he talking?" the doctor interrupted, leaning over Starsky.

"Just barely," Hutch said without looking up. "He thinks he's dreaming."

"Mr. Starsky?" the doctor prompted. He shined a tiny flashlight in each of Starsky's eyes, which were still focused on Hutch. "Mr. Starsky? Can you hear me? You're going to be fine, Mr. Starsky. Just fine."

Hutch looked up at the doctor, hoping to give his partner a hint. But when he returned his gaze to Starsky, the other's eyes were still on him.

"How about some food?" the doctor tried. "Mr. Starsky? Would you like something to eat?"

"Hey, buddy," Hutch piped in cheerfully. "How 'bout something to eat? That sounds good, doesn't it?"

Starsky only blinked, and Hutch couldn't tell if it was incidental or supposed to be a response.

To Hutch, the doctor said, "The faster we get some real food into him, the faster his digestive system will start working again, and his recovery will move that much further along."

"Let's try," Hutch said, eyes on Starsky. "I'll see what I can get him to swallow."

The doctor moved away to talk to the nurses. One of them leaned toward the control panel opposite Hutch. "We'll need to sit him up."

The top part of the examination table started to move upwards, and Hutch squeezed his partner's arm. It felt so frail and thin. But his voice was cheerful. "Now you're all cleaned up, and we're going to get you sitting up, and then you'll be able to eat. That'll be great, huh?"

The doctor approached again. "It might be a good thing that he's out of it for a little while; otherwise, he'd probably want to be covered up. We need to keep those sores exposed to the air as long as possible."

Hutch looked down at Starsky. His partner's thin, bony body was completely naked, save the thick covering of ointment all about his groin area, the tops of his shoulders, and various other places. A catheter had been inserted and there was some other tube that extended from his lower body to a pouch at the side of the bed.

No, Starsky wouldn't want people to see him like this.

But at least he was clean, and he didn't seem to have any complaints. Hutch returned his gaze to the eyes which refused to release him from their focus.

A nurse rolled a stand next to the bed, and a serving tray was extended across Starsky. She studied him a moment, then said to Hutch, "He doesn't look like he'll be able to feed himself. We're going to have to help him."

Hutch wasn't sure if it was her way of asking him to step out of the way. His expression hardened. "I'll feed him."

"Well, what do you know," a familiar voice said from the doorway.

Hutch looked back as Dobey came toward them. He realized he hadn't given any thought to the captain's whereabouts.

"Well, he looks a darn sight better than he did two hours ago." Dobey stood beside the bed. "How you doin', son?"

Starsky's gaze remained on Hutch and he gave no indication of having heard the question.

"He thinks he's in a dream," Hutch replied for him. "I think he's feeling okay, considering."

"He's spoken to you?" Dobey asked in surprise.

"Just a little." Hutch rubbed Starsky's upper arm. "He thinks he's dreaming and he doesn't want to wake up."

Dobey squeezed Hutch's shoulder. "He'll be all right, Hutchinson. He's made it this far."

The words were encouraging, but the tone was weary. Hutch looked up at his superior. "You find out anything from that sonofabitch?"

Dobey sighed heavily, then shook his head. "He knows no more than Huggy's informants have already uncovered. He said he was waiting for The Boss to send him money and directions about what he was supposed to do with Starsky. He said he was only going to wait another few days, then he was going to split."

"And leave Starsky behind?" Hutch asked indignantly.

Dobey shrugged. "He didn't say. It doesn't matter now. In the meantime, we're going to see if Huggy can find out anything further. We'll need a thorough report from you, as well." He nodded toward Starsky and said gently, "As soon as you're up to it."

"When he falls asleep."

"When you can leave him, I want you thoroughly checked out by the staff here." He looked toward the doctor, and the doctor nodded back.

Hutch felt there was nothing wrong with him that food and rest wouldn't cure, but he didn't bother with a protest.

A nurse had placed a bowl of broth in front of Starsky, and the captain stepped away. Then he paused. "Oh, and Hutchinson...."

Hutch had picked up the soup spoon. "Yes, Captain?"

The other's gaze didn't waver. "This case is mine."

The case. Finding out who had done this. Hutch had spared little thought for that; he'd only been concerned about getting to Starsky and, now that he was with him, helping him through the physical and emotional trauma. He wondered how long it would be before he started thinking like a cop again. "Okay."

Dobey left the room.

Hutch turned back to his charge. A nurse had put a bib around Starsky, and Hutch scooped up some broth and slowly brought the spoon up to his partner's mouth. "Hey, buddy, how about taking a sip of this. Huh?" He placed it against the chapped lips.

"Don't force it down him," a nurse warned as she placed a stack of paper napkins on a tray. "Give him plenty of time to swallow between spoonfuls."

"Can you try to open up?" Hutch beckoned. "It'll be good, buddy. Smells good, doesn't it?" But Starsky's nose hadn't given any sign of having detected the aroma. "Come on."

The dry mouth barely opened and Hutch tilted the spoon. The broth spread out across the crease of Starsky's lips, and they closed a little, until some of the soup disappeared.

"Hey, that's good, buddy. That's great. You're doin' great." Hutch scooped up another spoonful. "Just swallow now, pal. Can you swallow?"

He had to wait, but the Adam's apple finally bobbed.

"That's my boy." He brought the spoon up again. "Now that you know how good it tastes, how about trying again?"

Starsky's eyes hadn't changed their vacant gaze, but his mouth opened more readily.

"Ah, that's terrific, buddy," Hutch said as he tilted the spoon. He brought up a napkin to wipe at a thin stream of broth that ran from the corner of Starsky's mouth, but he didn't have to ask him to swallow. This time he did so readily. "We're rolling now," Hutch encouraged.

After a while, his partner was opening his mouth in anticipation of the next spoonful. It seemed like such a victory... but Hutch knew it would be a long road to complete recovery. For now, he had to be satisfied, and proud, of these first few steps.

The bowl was almost empty when he brought the spoon up to lips that would no longer part. Hutch realized that Starsky's eyes were closed. He let the spoon drop back to the bowl, relieved that his partner now had some degree of peace.

"We'll be taking him to his room now," a nurse said in a hushed voice

Another nurse took Hutch by the arm. "Mr. Hutchinson, please come with me."

Reluctantly, he allowed himself to be led away. They took him to another examination room and told him to undress. Now that he was the focus of the attention, Hutch found himself feeling the full affects of his ordeal. He was exhausted. For two weeks, he'd had no exercise, and been given a limited amount of food.

The doctor talked about Starsky's condition while examining Hutch. In addition to serious malnutrition, Starsky was suffering from a variety of skin ailments, which ranged from an extreme dermatitis, to a fungus on his feet, to bed sores from his clothing having not been changed or even shifted for a prolonged period. His muscles were atrophied, and his left hand was stiff from holding the watch so tightly for so long. Nevertheless, the doctor noted that, "Mr. Starsky has an unusually strong heartbeat."

As for Hutch, he was told to take in extra calories for a couple of weeks, not to return to work for half that time, but to rest and exercise sensibly. He was also given a special shampoo to kill any lice that he may have picked up from his partner..

Hutch went up to Starsky's room, which was a private one. His partner was sleeping, so Hutch left the hospital to visit Parker Center for the first time in two weeks. And make his report.

* * *

Starsky remained groggy for the next three days. He was eating, but he was still listless and whatever attention he was capable of giving was still aimed at Hutch. The nurses said that their patient seemed more alert when Hutch was around, but otherwise he didn't seem disturbed when his partner wasn't there, which wasn't often.

Since Hutch had been ordered to rest, he figured he may as well do it in Starsky's room. A haggard-looking Dobey checked in frequently. Neither he nor Huggy had been able to come up with any additional information that would lead to the kidnapper.

The doctor told Hutch that, despite Starsky's lethargic state, his body was getting stronger every day.

* * *

In the hospital cafeteria, Hutch picked up his tray with the remains of his lunch and tossed it into the trash. He was feeling stronger, too. Though he'd spent a lot of time at the hospital, he was also jogging in the mornings. He'd also done some weight lifting and was amazed at how much effect a two-week change in lifestyle could have on his strength. It reminded him all the more of how long the road to recovery was going to be for his partner.

Hutch rode the elevator up to the eighth floor. As he approached Starsky's room, he thought he heard a noise within. The lights were off since Starsky usually slept through the morning. Hutch paused outside the door, trying to identify the sad sounds. Then he realized they were sobs.

Entering the somewhat darkened room, he saw that the top portion of the bed was elevated. Starsky's head was turned to the right, since that's where Hutch tended to sit. But instead of being asleep, or staring vacantly, Starsky shuddered with a choking sound. It seemed as if he were trying to hold them back, but then he couldn't and his body shook harder.

It took Hutch a moment to realize he was staring and not helping. He flipped on the overhead light, then rushed toward the bed. "Buddy?"

The eyes darted to him in surprise. They registered recognition. And then they squeezed shut as Starsky cried harder - a choked, congested sound - his cheek pressed into the pillow.

Hutch was assaulted by a mixture of emotions. On some level, he thought the release of emotion had to be healthy. It also looked as though Starsky was, finally, genuinely awake. But it also hurt to see him in such distress.

"Ah, Starsk," Hutch sympathized as he rolled the IV stand back a few inches. He sat on the edge of the bed, and leaned back against the headboard. Wrapping his arm around his partner, he pulled Starsky against him so that the other's head rested on his chest. "It's okay now. It's okay. I'm right here, pal. Right here. It's going to fine." With his free hand he rubbed the arm that wasn't hooked up to the IV. "It's okay now."

Starsky gave a final hiccup, and then went silent. Hutch felt the weight against him grow heavier. He bent awkwardly so he could look into his partner's face. The watery blue eyes were open as they stared up at him, but there was now a presence behind the orbs, instead of a vacancy.

Hutch waited, then asked, "Hey, what was all that about?" His hand continued to pet Starsky's bony arm. "Huh? Can you talk to me, buddy?"

Starsky's soft voice trembled. "I-I woke up. And I couldn't remember if you'd really been here or not."

"I've been here almost constantly, pal. I - "

"I know," Starsky interrupted, sniffing. "But I didn't know if you'd been here in a dream, or if it was real. I was trying to figure it out - what was real and what wasn't." His voice broke. "But I couldn't. Nobody here to ask." He took a deep, quivering breath, then his voice grew softer. "Didn't know if you were alive or not."

The not knowing was the worst, Hutch knew. He took Starsky by the chin so their eyes could meet. Firmly, he said, "I know what they told you. I know how they made you believe it. And I know where they kept you, how they treated you. I was a captive, too, about fifty miles from where you were. They told me you were dead, too. I know what you've been through, buddy. But it's going to be okay now." He released the chin and pressed Starsky's head back against his chest.

"W-were you in the hospital?"

Hutch stroked his partner's hair. "No. The goons that held me took better care of me."

The were silent a while, then Starsky asked, "You gonna be here awhile?"

"Yeah. I don't have to report to work for another two days. You'll have plenty of time to get sick of me."

"I've never been sick of you."

Hutch closed his eyes. What a responsibility it was to mean so much to another. And how unfortunate that there were so many people in the world who didn't have anyone who loved them this much. He cleared his throat. "I'll be here as long as you need me."

They fell silent again. Now that Starsky was fully conscious, Hutch was anxious to get as much food into him as possible. But he also understood that what Starsky needed most of all was physical contact. It had been that way for him, too.

Hutch let ten minutes pass in silence. Then he asked, "Think you can eat something?"

"Don't know if I can even lift my hands."

"I'll help, buddy. The sooner you start eating, the stronger you'll get. And then you'll be able to go home." Hutch made sure one arm was secure around his partner. With the other, he reached behind the bed where the call button was, and pushed it.

When a nurse appeared, she said pleasantly, "You're awake." She stepped closer. "That's good to see." She removed a blood pressure sleeve from the wall and wrapped it around Starsky's arm.

"He's hungry," Hutch said.

She nodded while pumping up the sleeve. "I'll bring him something as soon as I'm finished here."

Starsky didn't react to her attentions. Hutch was glad that she seemed satisfied when she put the sleeve back on the wall.

"A few more minutes," Hutch said after she left, "and you'll be able to feast all you want. Imagine how it'll be when you get out of here - I won't be ragging on you about all the trash you put into your system. You're going to be able to eat as much as you want for a long time."

For a moment there was no reaction. Then, Starsky asked, "How long have I been here?"

It was such a relief to have a two-way conversation. "About four days. You've been pretty out of it, pal. Now that you're fully conscious the most important thing is to get some solid food into you. The IV's can only do so much."

"Don't feel like myself," Starsky muttered.

Hutch started rubbing his arm again. "You've lost a lot of weight, buddy. I know you don't feel very strong right now, but I'll help you get back to where you were before." The nurse walked in with a tray. "And step one is to start putting some pounds back on." Hutch reached to the serving stand and rolled it closer.

The nurse put the tray on the stand. She asked Hutch, "Are you going to help him?"

He sat up straighter. "Yes." While she removed coverings from the dishes, he said gently, "Hey, pal, look what we've got here." He studied the soft lumps. "Oatmeal, mashed potatoes, soup, jello, pudding. Want to sit up more?" Even with the bed elevated, the food seemed far from Starsky's mouth.

Starsky shifted, which Hutch took to be a yes. He slipped his arm around his partner's bony back, and nudged his weight forward, until Starsky sat hunched over the tray. Hutch picked up a spoon and placed it in his partner's left hand. "Want to try by yourself first?"

The nurse seemed satisfied that they could manage, and left the room. Since Starsky was naked except for the blankets, there wasn't any place to tuck the napkin in. Hutch instead spread it along his partner's lap. "How you doin' there, partner?"

Starsky scooped up a bit of mashed potatoes. His hand shook as he brought it to his mouth, and he lowered his head to shorten the journey. A moment later he swallowed.

Hutch patted him between the shoulder blades. "Hey, you're doin' fine." He continued to rub his back as Starsky took another shaky bite. "Taste okay?"

"Not much flavor."

Hutch pointed to another dish. "Try that. Looks like banana pudding."

Starsky scooped up a spoonful. He took a deep breath, as though gathering strength, and the journey to his mouth took a little less time.

Hutch waited until he swallowed. "Better?"

"Yeah, 'cept 'm not all that fond of bananas."

"Well, maybe the oatmeal will be a compromise."

Starsky grunted. "Feels good." He carefully nudged the oatmeal forward.

"What? This?" Hutch rubbed harder across his lower back.


Hutch was more than happy to do something nurturing. He concentrated, working his fingers along vertebrae and the surrounding muscles. They were silent for the next few minutes. Then Starsky sighed deeply and the spoon dropped to the tray.

"What is it?" Hutch asked, wondering if his partner was going to be sick.


"Yeah, okay. Lie back. You can try again after your stomach has had a chance to work."

Starsky collapsed back, part of his weight heavy against Hutch.

"Just rest for a while. You're already a lot stronger than you were a few days ago. You weren't able to eat by yourself before." He hugged Starsky. "You've got a monster of a heart, buddy. The doctor even said so." Hutch knew he was babbling, and maybe Starsky really wanted to rest, but he was anxious to have as much conversation as possible, now that Starsky could really hear him. He spotted a stethoscope draped over a stool. He reached out with a foot and nudged the stool toward the bed, until he was able to reach the instrument. "Hey, wanna hear?"

Starsky was interested enough to keep his eyes open. Hutch placed the small plastic knobs in Starsky's ears. Then he warmed the circular piece at the opposite end by rubbing his palm against it. He placed it over the left side of Starsky's chest. "There. Hear that?"

Starsky managed a grin, and Hutch grinned back - widely - because it was the first smile he'd seen since before they were kidnapped.

But Starsky suddenly sobered and took the round piece in his hand. Weakly, he nudged it against Hutch's arm. "Wanna hear yours," he demanded in a sad tone.

"Sure." Hutch remained cheerful as he opened the next highest button on his shirt, but he wondered how deep the hurt and grief that Starsky had suffered still ran. He placed the instrument against the smoothness of his own skin. "Hear anything?"

Starsky quickly shook his head.

Hutch moved it lower. "Now?"

Starsky closed his eyes. "Uh-huh."

His partner's voice was too low. "Uh-uh or uh-huh?"

"Uh-huh. Leave it there."

Hutch relaxed, leaving his hand over his chest. He wondered how long Starsky would need to listen. He hoped Starsky wouldn't fall asleep, because he really wanted him to eat more.

But Starsky's eyes finally opened. "Who did this to us?"

Hutch took a deep breath, not sure how much he wanted to talk about the case. But if Starsky needed to.... "We don't know yet. The guys who did the kidnapping were never told anything about who was sending them the money. Huggy has been pulling out all stops with the contacts he has. Dobey is counting on him to lead us to the mastermind behind it. It was through Huggy that they found out where we were held."

Starsky tilted his head back to look up at him. "When were you rescued?"

Hutch hugged him closer. "Just a few hours before you."

Starsky had lifted his left hand and he flexed his fingers. "This feels funny. Hurts."

Gently, Hutch said, "That's because you were holding onto something for a long time... real tight." He wasn't sure if this was something that should be discussed now. But they were going to have to face it sooner or later. Hutch reached for the bedside drawer. He took out the gold watch.

Starsky's eyes widened as he spotted it, and he made a desperate grab for it, mouth curving into a pitiful frown.

Hutch placed it into Starsky's right hand, and the fingers clutched it tightly. Starsky's eyes squeezed shut and he gasped.

Hutch took the stethoscope out of his partner's ears. "I'm here, buddy," he whispered. He wondered yet again how deep Starsky's pain ran - wondering if he really had any clue. "You don't need to hold onto it anymore."

"Oh, God," Starsky whimpered, pressing his face against Hutch's shirt. His hand eased its grip on the watch, but Starsky now pressed it to his own stomach. After a long moment, he took a deep, steadying breath.

Bastards. Hutch felt his first raw anger since he'd been rescued. Who would have done this? For what purpose? Even if it was done out of utter hatred for them both, whoever was responsible hadn't been there to witness their pain. What was the point?

He tried for distraction. "Dobey's taken the case himself."

Starsky's looked up. "They let him do that?"

Hutch smiled. "I'm not sure they had a choice. He's working it with that new kid, Newton." He reached up and gently scratched Starsky's scalp. "We weren't the only ones hurt by this, buddy. We were missing two weeks and no one knew what had happened. Rumor has it that Edith took the kids and left Dobey, he was being so difficult to live with."

"Does Ma know I'm okay?"

"Yeah. Dobey played down how serious the disappearance was." Hutch felt himself blush. "And, after we found you, I played down what kind of shape you were in."

"What kind of shape was I in?" Starsky asked quietly.

Oh, God, did he really want the details? Hutch took a deep breath. "I think starved and filthy pretty much covers it."

There was silence for a few moments, and Hutch was relieved that he wasn't asked for more specific details.

Then, Starsky asked plaintively, "Did you get Lard Ass?"

Hutch looked down at him. He could only mean the guard. "Yes, he was there and we arrested him -- without a struggle, in fact. But he wasn't much help. He's borderline retarded, buddy. As much as I hate to say it, I don't think he realized how badly he was treating you."

Starsky grunted. "Every time he had to piss or take a crap, he came back to where I was to do it."

Hutch stared at the ceiling. The only thing he could say to that was point out, "You survived it."

"What about the other guy?" Starsky asked after a moment.

"He's disappeared."

"Wasn't so bad when he was around," Starsky muttered, "even though he was a big sucker. Could never get the best of him. They'd take me outside and stuff to take a leak. Bring food every now and then." A pause. "And then one day they came and shackled my leg to the wall. Wouldn't tell me anything. Only saw Lard Ass after that, and only when he had to relieve himself or a few times he gave me water. Kept trying to trick him into letting me outta that shackle, but he never paid attention. Just wanted to watch the fuckin' television."

"Ah, buddy," Hutch whispered, hugging Starsky against him.

After a long time, Starsky continued, "The third day I was there they... they...," his voice caught, and he had to draw a deep breath, then, "They gave me your watch...." He shut up abruptly.

"And you believed it, just like they wanted," Hutch finished.

Starsky nodded. "Never occurred to me it wasn't true, that they were making it up. A-and - and - it's like I died inside. I didn't even know who to fight." His voice was still choked. "Even if I woulda somehow escaped, what was I 'posed to do, since I didn't have you to go looking for?"

Hutch closed his eyes. He gently petted the back of Starsky's head, wondering again if he had any idea of the cost the incident had taken on Starsky's psyche.

After a few minutes, Starsky moved his head and looked up at him. "They told you I was dead, too?" he asked.

Hutch was relieved that his partner's memory was functional. It had been over an hour since Hutch had mentioned that a similar crime had happened to him, too.

He reached into the drawer and pulled out Starsky's billfold. He placed it in his partner's lap. "They gave me this."

"They took it from me," Starsky said, fingering the leather. "I thought they wanted the money."

"I thought the same thing when they took my watch, but they just took them as proof for each other. Only..." Hutch wondered if Starsky would understand what he was about to say.

"What?" Starsky prompted, eyes on the wallet.

"I never really believed it, buddy. Not deep down inside. They kept telling me you were dead, and I kept demanding proof. As long as there wasn't proof, I had hope. And then they brought me your wallet. Said they'd dug it up from where they'd buried you. But, even then, I wasn't totally convinced." Hutch quickly corrected, "I realized that it might be true, but I didn't have the strength to deal with thinking you might be dead, so I focused on believing you were alive. The two guys that kept me... they acted too deliberate about the whole thing. There was something about it that didn't feel genuine. But I had no idea why they were holding me. They kept saying they didn't, either. They were waiting on further instructions from The Boss."

Starsky shook his head and muttered, "Don't understand."

"I don't either, buddy. But whoever is behind it will be caught eventually, and then we'll know."

Starsky was still holding the watch in his right hand, but his grip had eased. Hutch pointed to it. "The reason your other hand is so sore is because you had such a tight grip on my watch for so many days." Ten days? he wondered.

"Thought it was all that was left of you," Starsky said gruffly.

"Yeah," Hutch sighed. He heard Starsky's stomach gurgle. "Hey," he said, grateful to change the subject, "sounds like everything's working in there. How about trying to eat some more?" Seeing Starsky's hesitation, he pointed out, "It's the fastest way to get stronger."

Starsky shifted. "Yeah, I guess."

Hutch helped him sit up again. Starsky complained that everything was too cold, but he finished off the oatmeal, pudding, and jello. He looked sleepy afterwards.

"Buddy?" Hutch said as he stood. "Looks like you can use some shuteye, so I think I'm gonna go. I'll be back later tonight."

Starsky nodded. "Okay."

When Starsky was able to sleep, Hutch wondered if he might be disoriented when he woke up. His grieving, choked sobs were a painful memory. Hutch took his partner's wallet while bending close. "Listen, pal, when you wake up, if you can't remember if I'm real or not, just reach for your wallet. Because you know I had to be real in order to give it back to you. In fact...," Hutch gently took the watch from Starsky's reluctant fingers. He placed it inside the flaps of the wallet and folded the leather in half. "There. Let's slip it right under your pillow here, in case you wake up and need to feel for it." He guided Starsky's hand to where the wallet was. "You won't ever need to wonder."

Starsky nodded again, his eyes still watching Hutch.

Hutch pushed his friend's hair back from his forehead. "When I come back, I'll have your pj's, so we can get you into some clothes. Okay?"

Starsky nodded again. Hutch knew from the way he was watching him that Starsky didn't want him to leave. But he was being brave and not complaining. Hutch briefly gripped the pointed chin. "You get some shuteye while I'm gone, okay? And when I come back, maybe we can get you some real food."

Starsky managed the hint of a smile.

"Okay, buddy. See you in a bit." He patted the curly head.

Then he turned and left the room. And didn't dare look back.

* * *

Starsky continued to improve. Hutch brought him a hand weight that he could lift while in bed, and helped his partner walk around the floor. He also started to bring him "real food" from outside, since the hospital staff didn't object to anything that added more calories, as long as it had some degree of nutrition. When they told Starsky he could go home after being in the hospital for a week, he still had another twelve pounds to put back on.

As for the mastermind behind their abduction, Dobey and Huggy felt they were slowly getting closer.

* * *

"Never thought I'd see this place again," Starsky muttered as they entered his apartment.

Hutch found some scissors. "Here," he said, cutting the plastic ID band around his partner's wrist, "now you're a free man."

Starsky pulled at his jeans, which were still a little baggy, and looked about the apartment. "You must've been keepin' it up."

Hutch shrugged. "Of course." He moved toward the kitchen. "Want something to eat?"

"Like what?"

"I got some fresh chicken slices from the deli. How about a chicken sandwich?"


Hutch watched as Starsky sat down on the sofa. He already looked bored and tired. Hutch sighed inwardly, knowing that complete recovery would take a while longer. But at least the most direct course was one completely painless for his partner: eating.

Hutch had left all of Starsky's unimportant mail on the coffee table - of course, bringing him the more timely stuff while he was a patient - and Starsky now idly leafed through a magazine, chin in his hand. "Wish I could get out and do something," he muttered.

Hutch applied mayonnaise to the bread slices. "Yeah, like what?"

Bony shoulders shrugged. "Anything. Just, like, walk outside in the sunshine."

Hutch smiled. "We could do that. Maybe just around the block, for starters." He made them each a sandwich and took the plate into the living room. "Here, eat this first."

Hutch was a little disappointed that his partner didn't seem more cheerful about being home. He knew that gaining strength would go a long way toward bringing back Starsky's usual good spirits, but knowing that didn't make seeing his partner so listless any easier.

By the time the sandwich was finished, Starsky had apparently forgotten about the idea of a walk. He went into the bedroom, moving in the shuffling way that told of his weakness, and sat on the bed. As Hutch watched while cleaning up the coffee table, Starsky took his belongings out of the duffel bag. When he pulled out the wallet folded over Hutch's watch, he suddenly frowned, as though sadness encompassed his whole being, and put the wallet on the nightstand with an unsteady hand.

Hutch leaned against the doorway and gently said, "I'm here now, partner."

Starsky gave a small nod and, without looking up, began to remove his clothes.

Hutch turned away, wanting to give Starsky his privacy, and uncomfortable with the way the other still had such a strong emotional reaction to his partner's fictional death.

Without further conversation, Starsky got into bed and soon fell asleep.

* * *

It was two days before Starsky mentioned a walk again. But he was in much better spirits, and they went four blocks before he slowed down. Hutch suggested they sit on a bus bench to rest, and was relieved when Starsky didn't protest.

His partner did look much better today, and was more talkative than he'd been, but that was only relative. In general, Starsky was much quieter than he'd been before the kidnapping. Hutch didn't badger him much because he knew Starsky would talk when he was ready. His partner still showed an intense reaction to the wallet and watch, which he kept by his bedside, and Hutch wondered if he reached for it in the middle of the night.

"You been having any dreams?" he asked conversationally. He himself had only mild dreams of what he'd been through; nothing nearly as terrifying as reality had been.

"Not particularly," Starsky said. "Don't really remember them, so...." he shrugged.

"Yeah, me neither." Hutch laid a hand on his partner's shoulder and squeezed. "Reality was bad enough."

Starsky nodded distantly, and Hutch furrowed his brow. Of course, he'd been showing his partner the affection they'd always counted on each other for, and it just now occurred to him that Starsky had been uncommonly non-reactive every time. Almost as though he didn't want that affection from Hutch, but - perhaps because he didn't want to make an issue of it - declining to say anything. But Starsky's body language was expressing - if not "hands off" - then at the very least indifference to the contact.

Hutch took his hand away.

"When do you have to go back?" Starsky asked, his attention on the people walking by.

Hutch shrugged. This was his lunch hour, and Dobey wouldn't say anything if he made it longer than usual while Starsky was convalescing. "Whenever."

Starsky glanced his way. "Dobey making any more progress?"

Hutch had to control the urge to reach for his partner again. "He thinks they're getting closer to The Boss. But the closer things get, the slower the going is."

Starsky watched a bus stop at a bench across the street.

"We'll get him, buddy."

Starsky gave a twisted half-smile, but that was all.

Desperate for further conversation, Hutch said, "How many sit-ups are you up to?"

"Thirty." Then a sheepish grin while still watching the people. "Well... thirty as long as I can rest between fifteen and twenty, and twenty and twenty-five, and twenty-five and twenty-six and...."

Hutch chuckled.

The other drew a deep breath and prepared to stand. "Okay, I'm ready to go back."

Hutch stood. As his partner took a few steps ahead of him, he wondered how much of the distance between them was fueled by his own worry.

* * *

Starsky was almost recovered and Hutch no longer stayed with him. While the blond was grateful to return to some semblance of normal life, he continued to worry about his partner. Despite the physical progress, Starsky continued to hang onto the watch and billfold. Once, entering his partner's bedroom unannounced, Hutch found Starsky with his hand underneath the pillow. He obviously kept the wallet and watch there. Hutch then knew that Starsky had been sleeping with them under his pillow ever since returning from the hospital.

Hutch hadn't said anything, for he had no idea what to say. He hadn't been through what Starsky had been through. Still, he couldn't deny that Starsky's obsession with the symbolic objects was disturbing and even hurtful - hurtful in that his partner seemed more connected to the inanimate objects than to Hutch himself.

* * *

"So," Dobey said, reaching for a stack of files now that the briefing was concluded, "you can get started on these right away."

Hutch grimaced as he accepted the stack. "Lucky me."

"I'm late for an appointment." Lt. Richardson from Vice stepped past Hutch and opened the door. "Good to be working with you gentlemen."

Dobey and Hutch nodded. Hutch had tucked the stack under an arm, and picked up his coffee cup.

"So, how's Starsky doing?" It was the first chance Dobey had had to ask that day.

Hutch smiled. "Oh, he's doing great. Looking much better. Packing on pounds and exercising more. He must be up to 160."

Dobey's eyes were on him and he nodded perceptively. "Uh-hm. You've only mentioned the physical things. What about the rest?"

Hutch shrugged with exaggeration, uncomfortable with the subject. "I think he's okay, Captain. No nightmares or anything."

"No anger or mood swings?"

Hutch shook his head. He'd been on the lookout for such things.

Dobey relaxed. "That's good to hear. Maybe he'll be back in a week or two."

Hutch nodded vigorously. "Tops." He turned toward the door. Then he realized that Dobey might be the one person he could actually talk to. He turned back. "Uh... there's just one thing."

Dobey straightened, concern spreading across his features. "What's that?"

"Well," Hutch shrugged again, feeling bashful, "it may be nothing."

Dobey watched him, waiting.

Abruptly, Hutch sat back down, the files resting in his lap. Voice softer, he said, "It's hard to describe, Captain. It's almost like... like...."

"Like what, son?" Dobey's voice was unusually gentle.

Hutch's brow furrowed as he studied the seashell pen set on his superior's desk. "Almost like he... like there's a gap... a chasm or something... between us."

"What do you mean?" Dobey was surprised.

Hutch shook his head, releasing a heavy breath. "I'm not sure what I mean. It's like a distance. Usually, when one or both of us has been in a tough spot, it draws us closer together."

Dobey leaned forward, voice incredulous. "And now he's pushing you away?"

"No, not pushing," Hutch corrected. "And I'm sure it's nothing he's doing consciously. But it's almost like...," with his free hand, Hutch touched his chest, "... he doesn't believe it's really me." Now that he'd said it, the words came faster. "Like, deep down inside, he thinks I'm a ghost and he's afraid to believe I'm real." Hutch paused, realizing how silly it sounded. "I'm not saying this right. Maybe it's nothing."

"I doubt that," Dobey noted soothingly. "You know him better than his own mother. It's got to be something, if you've noticed." He grimaced half-heartedly, as though knowing his words were of little help. "Maybe he just needs more time."

"Maybe." Hutch wanted to believe it was that simple.

"Or maybe he's been hurt in such a deep place by thinking that you're dead, that he's not letting himself risk being hurt that badly again."

It was on the tip of Hutch's tongue to point out that Starsky was more of a fighter than that; that he wasn't one to avoid hurt because of pain in the past. But then he reminded himself, once again, that he really had no clue what Starsky had been through emotionally. And if what Dobey said held any truth, Hutch wasn't sure he could bear never being as close to his partner as they'd been in the past. He stood abruptly and this time didn't pause on his way to the door. "I'd better get started on these."

* * *

"What's buggin' you?"

Though the tone sounded annoyed, Hutch felt a tremendous relief that Starsky noticed enough to comment. But that didn't make answering any easier.

Hutch broke open his cornbread from Kentucky Fried Chicken, where he'd stopped on the way over. After his conversation with Dobey earlier today, he'd become increasingly fearful that his captain's speculations were true. "Just have things on my mind." He reached for the butter.

"Yeah? Like what?" The tone was a touch suspicious.

Though it was tempting to be coy, Hutch decided it was foolish to be anything other than honest. "About us."

Starsky pulled a chicken leg away from his mouth, looking as though that was the last thing he'd expected to hear. "What do you mean?"

Hutch shook his head, hoping he wasn't the one who would have to do all the talking. "Don't you feel it, too?" He waited, and when no reply was forthcoming, he pushed on. "I-it's not the same between us. It's like you don't want to be close to me anymore." Having said it, Hutch suddenly felt confined, and pushed his chair back and stood, turning toward the window. "I know it's not your fault," he said more quietly. "I know you can't help it."

It was a long moment before a subdued reply came from behind him. "Yeah, I guess I know what you mean."

"It's not your fault," Hutch said again, gazing out the window.

He heard the sound of movement, and when he glanced back, Starsky was sitting on the sofa. The dark-haired man picked up a sofa pillow and hugged it against himself. "Don't know how to explain it."

"You don't need to. You went through something that destroyed your faith that I'm going to be there for you."

"Hutch, it isn't like that," Starsky said firmly. "When I'm back on the street, I'm going to be trusting you with my life. I know you're going to be watching my backside. This isn't going to mess that up."

"Fine," Hutch said unhappily, focusing on the window again. "When we're on the streets, maybe it will be like before. But what about the rest of it? When you're frustrated by trouble Nicky gets into in New York; or when you fall in love with a beautiful lady and have your heart broken, are you going to share any of that with me?" Hutch shook his head, turning around. "I don't think so." He gestured toward the table. "I have to get belligerent just to have dinner with you." When he'd called him before leaving the station, Starsky hadn't sounded enthused about Hutch bringing the chicken so they could eat together. The blond head bowed. "When it comes to personal stuff, you push me away."

Starsky took a deep breath, looking like he wanted to say something to make it better, but instead he just wore a sad expression.

Hutch decided to let it all out, and didn't cushion the anger in his voice. "You'd much rather cling to that damn watch of mine than cling to me."

That got a reaction, albeit a hesitant one. "I-I can't explain it, Hutch. I guess I just feel the watch is you."

Hutch patted his chest, taking a few steps toward the sofa. "But I'm here, buddy."

"I know." Starsky took a deep, troubled breath. "I don't know how to explain it. It just seems...." He trailed off, lost for words.

"Safer?" Hutch supplied levelly. "Safer to hold onto the watch? Because while I might not be around for you someday, the watch always will? The watch can't hurt you, but I will if I die again, and that's what you can't bear?"

Starsky's grim expression told Hutch that his partner thought the speculations might be true. And now Starsky's voice carried a touch of anger. "Keep telling myself that I should have been like you. That I shouldn't have believed them." He looked at Hutch sadly, desperate for an answer. "Why did I lose hope so easily?"

The self-blame surprised Hutch, and he wanted to ease that burden as quickly as possible. "You had no choice, buddy. When I fought them, the watch fell out of my pocket. There was some dead animal - possum or something - rotting by the road. My watch fell into it. When they gave you the watch, it smelled like death. Whether you were conscious of it or not, you had absolute proof that I was, dead, dead, dead. It was impossible for you to believe otherwise." His voice gentled. "For me, the clues were different. And that's why I was able to hold onto that small bit of hope."

Starsky was silent for a long time, staring at the wall. Then he simply said, "Yeah." He hugged the pillow tighter against himself.

Sadly, Hutch turned back toward the window. There was no solution. If he could only show Starsky - the deep, down subconscious part of his partner - how real he was, so that Starsky believed it - knew it - in his soul. That Hutch was here now, alive, well, and healthy. And while Hutch couldn't promise that he'd never die, he would never leave Starsky voluntarily.

Frustrated, the blond found himself wishing there was some way he could show Starsky, without a doubt. He imagined himself taking his partner by the arms and shaking him. "I'm here, I'm here, I'm here. Feel me. Feel my strength. Feel how real I am." Holding himself against his partner, making Starsky totally aware of the reality of his physical self.

He imagined himself on top of someone. Some woman. Any woman. Pounding into her. When he gave her all of himself like that, there was no way she could deny his realness. For they shared the same physical space, him inside of her. No phantom could create that feeling.

As Hutch gazed, unseeing, out the window, he decided it couldn't do any further damage to their relationship by voicing his thoughts. Softly, he said, "If you were a woman, there's no doubt how I'd show you how real I am."


Hutch decided to swallow his medicine. He turned around to see his partner's reaction.

Starsky had the same grim expression, apparently not surprised or angry by what Hutch had said. Being a man, he obviously understood why Hutch would seek the physical as a method of presenting himself in the most intense, no-room-for-doubt way possible.

Hutch sighed. "I'm afraid, buddy. I've been telling myself to give you more time, but it's like we're just moving further and further apart. I miss what we had. And I'm afraid that we'll never have it again." He had to turn back toward the window, for his voice was shaky. "I feel like I'm losing the most important part of myself. That I'm not whole anymore, that part of me -- what I am -- is lost, because you aren't there anymore. Because so much of what I am is wrapped up in my partnership with you."

Starsky swallowed. "It's not by choice, Hutch." The desperate tone was still there.

"I know," Hutch said. Once again he faced his partner. "But knowing it doesn't solve anything."

Starsky hugged the pillow again. "I don't know what to do."

"I don't either." Hutch picked up his jacket from where it was draped over the sofa arm. "I gotta go." Hutch felt more depressed than before, because there was no solution. He had to get away.

He didn't bother saying goodbye.

* * *

Starsky sat staring at the wall, still hearing the gentle slam of the door. Hutch was in pain, and Starsky had no comfort to offer. Only a feeble, "I can't help it."

He had been nothing less than selfish ever since Hutch and Dobey found him. The fact that it was completely unintentional - that he didn't know how to make himself get past the extreme, inconsolable hurt of knowing Hutch was dead - didn't make it forgivable that Hutch was still hurting. From loving Starsky so much.

Starsky put the sofa pillow aside and sighed. Time wasn't going to help. He didn't want Hutch close to him. It was much safer to hold onto the billfold and the watch. Even now, as the thought crossed Starsky's mind, he felt reassured. That's how he always felt when he reached for the two items beneath his pillow each night. They were safe and secure - all important symbols of his and Hutch's importance to each other.

Coward, he railed himself now. Let him get close again. Just... let him. But even as he imagined his partner's arms coming around his shoulders - as they had so many times - he wanted to squirm. To get away from it. To not let his heart love this man again.

What a great "reward" for Hutch after all he's done for me, he snarled to himself.

It wasn't fair. And yet, he knew he couldn't pretend to be closer to Hutch, even if for Hutch's sake. He would be too transparent.


He wanted to make it better, for Hutch's sake, but didn't know what the answer was. Hutch didn't either, other than mentioning what any man would do if he had this problem with a woman. Then, the answer would be easy. Use his body to express his inner being, the sheer physical existence of himself.

Starsky furrowed his brow. Would it make a difference?

Hutch pounding into him. It would hurt. Sharing the same physical space. It would force its own sort of intimacy.

I couldn't push Hutch away while he was on top of me. Maybe it would force all these walls I've put up to come crashing down... having Hutch sharing a part of himself, like that. Even if I tried pushing him away, he'd be right there. My sore ass couldn't deny what we'd done together. Would I still be able to push him away after sharing something like that?

Or was it a recipe for disaster? Having sex together with such a sense of purpose, without expressing love or even wanting to bring pleasure to the other person. Just to see if it would bring them closer, because they were out of ideas as to how to cure the unintentional breach between them.

Starsky resisted the urge to go to the bedroom. He wanted to feel under his pillow. Lay his hand over the wallet that was folded over the watch, stick his finger in between the leather and caress the watch. Even just thinking about it gave him a sense of peace and security.

Once Hutch folded the wallet over the watch at the hospital, he'd never removed it. It just seemed so... right... the way the watch was inside the leather. The symbol of Hutch inside the symbol of Starsky.

Just as, if they fucked, Hutch would be inside of him.

He should feel threatened by that, Starsky decided. He would be the one on the bottom. He wondered why that seemed automatic. Wouldn't it accomplish just as much if he were fucking Hutch?

No. That would require on act on intimacy on his part. He wouldn't be able to bring himself to do it. If they were going to fuck, he'd have to just lay there and let Hutch do it. Be passive. Hope that by the act of fucking, it would somehow bring them closer together.

He imagined what it would be like after they were finished. In his mind's eye, they were face to face. Hutch had just withdrawn and was soft and sweaty all over. Starsky would reach up and bring Hutch's head down to his chest. He would stroke his hair, those delicate golden strands.

Thinking about it now made Starsky feel warm all over.

Why could he imagine himself being close to Hutch like that, but not be able to imagine feeling good about it if Hutch simply put his arm around him? Because Hutch would be doing the latter for Starsky's sake. But after sex, Hutch would be vulnerable during his blissful weakness, and Starsky would feel protective. It was easy to imagine being close to Hutch if it meant protecting Hutch.

Starsky felt more confident. If his partner ever needed comfort and nurturing from him, Starsky could still provide it. But once Hutch was okay again, would Starsky go back to keeping him at a distance?

No way to test. For that matter, there was no way to test if having sex together would actually accomplish anything either. On the contrary, it could ruin everything; it could create even more hurt and frustrated feelings.

"No," Starsky muttered out loud. Things were so messed up between them, he couldn't imagine that they could be made any worse. He reached for the phone.

* * *

Hutch heard the phone as he wrestled with his key in the door. Finally it was open, and he rushed to the telephone. "Yeah, talk to me."

The familiar voice was plaintive. "I want to do it."

He was relieved that it was Starsky, simply because it meant his partner was making an effort. But he didn't understand the statement. "What?"

"I want...," now Starsky sounded shy while struggling for words, "to do what we've never done before."

Hutch's heart pounded as remembered what he had said in Starsky's apartment. It had become more than just a flippant remark, for Starsky had taken the words to heart. It was on the tip of Hutch's tongue to say, "You sure?" or "What do you mean?" But that would be insulting his partner's courage. He didn't know what to say. "Uh...."

He heard a thick swallow through the line.

"Uh...," he struggled for words, feeling foolish. Then, "Do you...," now his own voice was delicate, "want me to come back over... right now?" What were they supposed to do, set a date?

And was this really supposed to help anything? He was supposed to go to bed with somebody - his male partner - who didn't even want him to lay an affectionate hand on his shoulder?

"Um, well," Starsky, too, was obviously struggling for the right thing to say, "why don't you, you know, give me a coupla hours. And, you know, you need to.... you know, stop by the drugstore and get... well, whatever."

Hutch stood there with the phone to his ear.

Another deep breath from Starsky, then a meek, "I don't know if it's going to help anything, but I want to... try. For both our sakes. I need something to... free me." There was that desperate tone again.

Free him to love again? Hutch wasn't sure if that was what Starsky meant, and obviously the other was struggling just as much for the right words.

"I'll be there," Hutch said and quickly hung up. He sat heavily on the sofa, feeling a sense of disaster. Whenever he'd slept with anyone for any reason other than to make love, it had always ended up being a negative experience, even if the bad feelings didn't start until the afterglow had worn off. When he did it with Starsky, it would be for the sheer purpose of pounding home the reality of his physical existence.

Maybe, instead, they should try tender sweet love....

No. Starsky wouldn't - couldn't - allow that. He'd built too many walls to protect himself from getting hurt again. He wouldn't be able to give anything of himself. He was waiting for Hutch to unlock the door between them, to "free him".

Nothing like having the weight of our entire relationship on my cock, he thought forlornly.

He had no hope that this would work. But it couldn't possibly make things any worse than they already were. For him, the hurt from his partner's rejection already ran far too deep.

* * *

This is insane, he thought for the hundredth time as he climbed the steps to Starsky's apartment. We wouldn't be doing this if it weren't for my big mouth. My hormones must be acting up because I haven't had any in a while.

He knocked. Dear God, what do I say?

The door opened and Starsky stood there. His eyes were cold and determined. He was wearing a robe; the slight dampness of his hair indicating he'd showered. Those eyes made one truth clear to Hutch.

He knows this is as wrong as I do.

"Come on," Starsky said simply, turning to lead the way to the bedroom.

Like I'm some cheap whore here to perform a trick. Hutch realized he was angry. I won't get paid with money, though. If I'm a good boy, if I do a good job, my partner will be free to love me again. Do I really want it that badly to go through with this? He gritted his teeth as he stepped over the threshold to the bedroom. Yes.

Starsky was standing beside the bed facing Hutch, and he untied the sash to his robe and let it fall from his shoulders. He stood naked, waiting.

Hutch's back was to the wall. Great. I'm supposed to get aroused while watching him stand there like some sacrificial lamb? And yet, he had the sneaking suspicion that he was the one being offered at the altar.

Starsky made a deliberate attempt to soften. He stepped closer to Hutch. Sympathetically, he whispered, "Need help gettin' the motor running?" His hand went to the crotch of his partner's jeans, sliding over the soft mound.

Hutch closed his eyes. God, it did feel good, those strong fingers kneading at his crotch. He was growing. He would be able to go through with this.

Starsky reached up with his other hand, held it an inch away from Hutch's shoulder. "Where else?" he asked gently.

Where else did he like to be touched? Personal preferences were hardly what this was about. He looked into those still-harsh eyes. "I need to know that you want it," he said firmly. "Really want it."

"Calling you back over here wasn't a haphazard impulse," Starsky said, his own voice just as tight. "I want it. Maybe not in the way people normally want it, but I want it - need it - anyway."

Hutch gasped between words because of the effective hand tormenting him. "You know damn well it's going to hurt." Especially the way we're going about it.

"Of course, it will." Starsky blinked, but his eyes were just as feral. "And if I scream or something, don't worry about it. At least...," he hesitated, searching for words, "at least pain is something that is real."

Hutch looked toward the ceiling. Starsky wanted permission to express his pain, and know that Hutch wouldn't "worry about it", wouldn't stop. Pleasure would not have any place in it.

His jeans were too confining. "That's enough," he muttered, feeling guilty that he could be so aroused when his heart was so sad about what was going to take place.

Starsky moved his hand away. Once again, his voice struggled to be soft. "We can do it under the covers, if you want. I know I'm not exactly built like Marilyn Monroe."

As if looking like Marilyn Monroe would make a loveless ass fuck any more enjoyable.

Hutch firmed his jaw. "You'll do for what we have in mind."

Starsky studied him. "You're pissed off."

"No, I'm always like this when someone wants me to come over for a hard fuck that's going to make them scream." Sarcasm covered every word. "I love using my dick for pain."

Starsky wasn't going to take all the blame for that one. "Still, you came over."

Touché, buddy. Now I'm going to get what I deserve, aren't I?

Starsky tried softness again. "Hutch, it's all forgiven. Whatever happens - if it turns out to be the biggest mistake of our lives - I forgive you." His eyes were shadowed with hurt. "I hope you can forgive me."

"I'm here, aren't I?" That game could be played both ways.

Starsky seemed to get the point. He changed the subject, glanced around. "Did you bring...?"

Hutch reached into his jacket pocket and produced a tube of K-Y, holding it out. When Starsky took it, Hutch said tersely, "I'm surprised you don't want me to go in dry. If it's pain you're after, you'll get a lot more of it that way."

Starsky stared at the label, as though pretending to read the directions.

Dear God, Hutch thought, don't tell me he's actually thinking about doing it like that. Quickly, but forcing his voice to sound calm and in control, he said, "Not that I'd want to tear the skin off my cock."

That seemed to rouse Starsky from his thoughts. Looking up, he took a deep breath; then, sounding terse himself, said, "So, are you going to get undressed or what?"

Like any cheap whore. Hutch was getting angrier. "Are you sure you don't want me to keep my clothes on? It'll help keep us more distant from each other while we're having a nice, intimate fuck."

Starsky swung around. "Have it your way." He tossed the tube onto the edge of the bed. Then he got in the middle of the mattress and lay facedown, spread-eagled.

Hutch's erection had softened, but now his increasing anger fueled it again. Fine, buddy, I'll give you exactly what you want. That's what I'm here for, isn't it?

He removed his jacket and took off his shoes. Then he undid his jeans and pushed down the denim and underwear in one motion. At least his cock was cooperating. Despite everything, the promise of a warm, snug enclosure was keeping it interested. He didn't bother with his shirt or socks. He moved to the bed, stroking himself.

He wanted to find some degree of intimacy - some common ground - between them. Something other than anger. But there was still harshness in his voice when he spoke again. "You need pillows to arch your ass up if I'm supposed to get any leverage."

Starsky took both pillows and tucked them under himself. "If you want more get the sofa pillows."

No, this will do nicely. Hutch reached for the K-Y and unscrewed the cap. Round, cushiony globes. Darkness peaking from between them. Maybe in other circumstances he'd even be able to enjoy himself.

Unfortunately, this wasn't other circumstances.

Hutch knelt on the mattress behind Starsky's raised hips. It was tempting to stroke along his buttocks, using a tender touch, to be loving. But Starsky didn't want that. Instead Hutch focused on applying the gel to his flaring length. His cock bobbed eagerly.

Forcing all sense of propriety aside, he inserted his finger into Starsky's darkness. He felt the clean, wrinkled orifice, and pushed. There was no give. It would have been impossible to do it without grease. Sitting back on his heels, he took the tube, aimed, then squeezed the plastic.

Too much. It ran down the crevice to each of Starsky's thighs.

His partner made no comment.

Hutch dabbed at the silky smoothness, then pushed at his partner's clenched opening. The finger went in easily but he could still feel incredible tightness. The lubrication would allow him to get in there, but the opening was still impossibly small and tense. Starsky was going to get exactly what he wanted: it was guaranteed to hurt.

Normally, at this point, he would say something tender and reassuring to his bed partner, but Starsky didn't want any of that.

Hutch rose up on his knees, took his thickness in hand. It would take a firm shove to get in. It would hurt. Starsky might scream, and Hutch would have to concentrate hard to ignore it and not pull out.

This is senseless.


He pulled a buttock aside, then lifted his shirttail out of the way. Pressing his weapon at Starsky's opening, he closed his eyes, focusing. He tried blocking everything except his duty to his partner.

One, two....

He thrust.

Starsky screamed - a soul-filled, terrorizing sound. It came from such a deep place that Hutch knew it involved far more than the pain from having his asshole ripped open.

Hutch cringed, wanting to escape it. He lunged again, fighting against muscles that were trying to expel him. Starsky continued to cry out. Hutch grabbed his shoulders for a better grip and bucked again, forcing his length farther into the tight channel.

Hutch kept on pumping, and his partner released one long, continuing cry. He hated what was happening - himself most of all for continuing. But with bitter determination, he kept up his side of the bargain, fighting against the body that did not want him.

Yet as he worked, sweating profusely, Hutch soon realized that his partner's cries were a completely separate event from the fucking. The screams had a pattern, but the pattern wasn't in sync with the fucking. Whatever pain Hutch was causing had very little to do with his partner's suffering. That was a small relief, but a relief nevertheless. As he continued the harsh motion of his hips, a truth fell into place. What they were doing had nothing to do with reclaiming intimacy. The pain of Hutch's actions was a way for Starsky to tap into the rage deep down inside himself... and release it.

Hutch's anger melted into compassion. He understood now the reason behind all their harsh words. Starsky hadn't understood why he wanted Hutch to fuck him, but he had known it was something he needed. Their mutual lack of understanding why it was needed was causing the confusion between them.

Encouraged, Hutch pumped harder. Was there some way he could cause more pain, so Starsky could release more of the poison inside? He considered squeezing his partner's scrotum, but that be cruel. Perhaps even damaging. Focusing on Starsky's thick mass of hair, he abruptly grabbed a handful. Yanking hard, he jerked Starsky's head back.

Starsky yelped and pounded the mattress with his fist. Was that progress? Up to now Starsky had simply lain there, crying out. That pounding was his first active participation in his own healing.

Hutch's stamina was wearing thin. He understood now why rapists rarely ejaculated. While the friction kept him hard, the sensations weren't building toward climax. The pain he was causing, no matter how much Starsky may have wanted it or even, on some twisted level, needed it, was a deterrent to his own pleasure.

"Get off me," Starsky demanded angrily, still pounding the mattress.

Hutch paused, surprised, wondering if this was one of those times when "no" meant "yes". He waited, immobile, while Starsky's channel still tried to force him out.

"Get OFF!"

That was definitely a no. He withdrew, throbbing, and knelt beside Starsky's upraised hips. He wondered if Starsky would turn around and slug him. He wouldn't defend himself.

Starsky didn't move from his position, but he was panting, his screams exhausted. Suddenly, he punched the mattress. Then, glancing up at the headboard, he backhanded a clock radio that went crashing to the floor. He seemed lost, searching, and Hutch realized he was looking for something else to break.

Hutch didn't want to be the first to speak, but it was too difficult to not say anything. "Breaking things won't change anything." His own voice was heavy with exhaustion.

Starsky held still a moment. Then a deep, choked sound emerged, almost as a sob, but there were no tears. His upper body collapsed against the mattress, hands covering his head.

Ah, buddy.

Hutch pulled his shirttail over his groin, grateful to have that small degree of covering, as he knew he was heavily soiled. Shifting carefully, he reached over the bed and found his partner's robe. He draped it across Starsky's back and rear, then wrapped his arm around his friend. He rested his cheek against the robe, desperate for some tenderness, some degree of closeness, between them.

Starsky muttered inarticulately. Coughing, he rose up on all fours. Hutch lifted his head, shifting out of the way while Starsky delicately removed himself from the bed. He moved as if he ached in every bone. Grabbing the robe around himself, he rushed to the bathroom without even a glance at Hutch.

Hutch pulled up his knee and rested his forehead against it. Had this been a disaster or a step toward healing? He had no way of knowing.

What he did know was that he needed to wash up, and he felt too dirty to wait for the john. He went into the kitchen where he knew a bar of soup rested on the sink. He found a clean dish towel and wet it, then used soap liberally. He ended up using two towels. After he was clean, he put them in the wastebasket, and threw a couple of dishrags and anything else he could find on top of the pile, to hide the filthy evidence of Starsky's rejection.

At least washing up had taken his frustrated boner away. Opening the refrigerator, he grabbed a beer and got one for his partner. Starsky's throat had to be absolutely raw. But Hutch paused before returning to the bedroom, wondering if his presence was the least bit welcome.

He wondered, too, what had caused Starsky to put a stop to it. Was it because the physical pain had simply gotten to be too much? Or was it because Starsky had exhausted his rage and didn't need to be hurt anymore? Or was it because he'd come to his senses and realized what a ridiculous expectation he'd had from the whole process?

Hutch was stepping into his underwear when the bathroom door opened. Starsky appeared, looking haggard. He glanced at Hutch briefly, then silently turned to the bed and got beneath the covers, leaving his robe on.

Hutch approached, holding out a can. "Here."

"Thanks," Starsky murmured, avoiding his eyes.

Hutch stood back and watched as Starsky popped the can and sipped. He took a sip of his own and wondered again if he was welcome. Their lack of communication, considering what had just taken place, was unbearable. He stuttered a moment, then whispered, "We don't have to figure everything out right now; but, please, let's say something to each other. "

Starsky looked up at him, a plea in his own voice. "Give me a minute, 'kay?" He arranged the pillows behind himself so he could sit up comfortably. Afterwards, he patted the side of the bed.

Hutch thought he would collapse with relief. He was still welcome. In Starsky's bed, no less.

Taking a moment to discard his sweaty shirt, he sat on top of the covers, his back against the headboard.

"Oh," Starsky said wearily. He shifted and pulled at one of his pillows, as though to offer it.

"No, it's okay."

Starsky seemed grateful, sinking back into the softness and closing his eyes. After a long moment he opened them and took another sip of beer. Then he looked over at Hutch. "Sorry about making you stop in the middle."

"Didn't matter. I wasn't going to come, anyway."

Starsky sighed heavily. "Yeah, that happens to me sometimes, too. Hump forever and that feeling just never seems to be there."

"I can't feel pleasure when I know I'm causing pain."

Starsky slowly shook his head. "The pain was already there, Hutch. I just needed you to create it in the here and now so I had something to fight against." He snorted with amusement. "Maybe fight isn't the right word. Just... get it out of my system."

Your ass muscles were fighting me plenty. Hopefully, Hutch asked "Is it out?"

Starsky bowed his head. "Yeah, think so." Then, more softly, "Hope so."

Hutch supposed it would take time before either of them really knew. Anxious to keep the communication going, he said, "All this time that you've been pushing me away, it wasn't because you were afraid of being intimate again. I think anger was the wall between us. It wouldn't allow you to cross over and love again."

Eyes heavy with exhaustion, Starsky turned to his partner, cheek pressing into the pillow. He gazed at Hutch for a long time. "Sorry about everything."

Hutch managed a half-smile. "S'okay."

Starsky reached out tiredly. "Come on over here."

Hutch sucked in a quiet breath. Starsky really wanted him near? It seemed so long. His relief, and his need, showed on his face.

"Don't look like that," Starsky scolded half-heartedly.

"Like what?" Though he knew.

"Like you thought I'd never want you near me again."

Hutch stuttered, "I-I've never... never been very sure. For a long time now."

Starsky stretched and tugged at the blond's hand. "I've been incredibly inconsiderate of your feelings, haven't I?"

Hutch shrugged. "You've had good reason to be wrapped up in your own." Shamelessly, he curled up beside Starsky, resting his head on his friend's robed chest. It felt like bliss when Starsky's arm enclosed him.

After a few moments of silence, Starsky said, "Thanks for giving me what I wanted, even if it meant I was just using you."

Hutch had no pride. "It was worth it if this was the end result."

A hand furrowed through his hair, which was still damp with sweat. "Big baby."

Hutch grunted, having no desire to protest.

Fingers tilted his chin. "Hey."

Hutch looked up. Before he knew what was happening, soft, dry lips touched his own.

"Least we can do, after what we just did," Starsky said.

Yes, it was the least they could do. Hutch propelled himself upwards and found those lips again. He wanted them badly, if they were agreeable, for this contact was so much more satisfying than what they'd just been through. He pressed, and pressed some more, until gravity made it awkward.

"Man," Starsky said with a half smile. "You are one hell of a kisser."

Hutch's cheek returned to the soft pillow of terry cloth, but he was still looking up. "I could have told you that."

Tired eyes studied him. "You want to do that again."

Why lie? This kiss had been so delicious. "Yes."

"To make up for everything?"

Hutch sighed with frustration. Now, they were talking too much. "Do we need reasons?"

"Well... considering that we've never done it before. I'm mean, this," Starsky indicated the bed, "was just supposed to be a one-time deal."

Hutch hadn't thought it about it one way or the other. "Yeah," he finally said, discouraged.

"I mean...," Starsky went on delicately, "it's not like... you know, you'd want to do it in other circumstances." He paused, then said hesitantly, "Would you?"

"What other circumstances?" Hutch wanted to know. "I did this tonight - however grudgingly - because I love you. It's what you wanted. What you needed. If we ever did it 'in other circumstances' it'd also be because I love you. That's what I meant: do we need other reasons?"

He patted Starsky's robe-covered stomach. "Doesn't matter, anyway. You're beat, so nothing's going to happen, regardless. We both need to be playing with a full deck to talk about stuff like this." There, that left a door open. So there couldn't ever be any misunderstandings along the lines of, "I would have be willing, but I didn't think you'd want to."

What was the big deal, anyway? Tonight they'd committed what some would call a great sin. Having gone that far, there wasn't much else they could do that could be protested on grounds of morality.

And the kissing had been so very pleasant....

Hutch straightened. "Just once more," he warned, and found Starsky's lips. Pressed... It was so easy to lose himself when the feelings were so nice....

Starsky pulled back first. Breathlessly, he said, "You really want it, don't you?"

Hutch tried rationale. "If we've used sex to hurt each other, don't we deserve to use it to love each other?"

Starsky frowned. "You aren't just talking about a one-time thing, are you?"

Hutch was exasperated by all the questions. "Starsky, it's not like I can talk you into anything you don't want to do."

The other's voice was soft now. "I didn't mean it like that. I'm just... surprised, that's all. Never really thought...." He shrugged.

"Neither have I. But, I guess, once you've turned a corner, it's hard to step back and pretend you haven't seen around it to the other side."

"Yeah," Starsky said wistfully, and seemed happy at the thought. His loud yawn concluded the discussion.

Hutch reluctantly disentangled himself from the arm around him. "Guess I better go." He needed to be alone, to contemplate what had happened tonight. All that had been said... and not said. He patted Starsky's head. "I'll drop by tomorrow. Okay?"

Starsky watched him sleepily. "'Kay."

Hutch gave him a smile. Then he gathered up his clothing and left.

Part 3A