This story was originally published in Playfellows #1, published by Merry Men Press, 1990. Thanks go to SHaron for scanning and proof-reading. Comments can be sent to:

A Time for Change


Charlotte Frost

The bulky, brown envelope stared back at him.

Angry at its power, he tried to pretend he didn't want to open it -- to deny its instigators the satisfaction of his desperation -- even though they were not here to witness it.

It was no use. Yielding grimly, he turned the envelope over and ripped open one end, depriving only minute satisfaction from the torn pieces that floated to the floor.

The recorder sat on the kitchen table like an accusing specter. He drew out the cassette tape from the package and flipped it into the machine, the clatter of plastic on metal sounding loudly in the hollowness of the apartment.

Forcing emotion from his face and body, he stood over the table and pushed "Play". Then he listened.

"You getting annoyed, Detective? Getting tired of our little games? That's too bad. We have someone here who's even more tired of it than you are."

As if on cue, a low moan sounded in the background. The listener denied himself reaction.

"In fact, your friend here is getting so tired of it that we think the next time he sees you he may not treat you very nicely. Not like a friend at all. In fact, he may just become your most dire enemy." The mocking voice grew distant. "Isn't that right?" Then angrily, "Hey! Answer me, pig!"

Sounds of feeble pleading. Then grunts of pain, flesh impacting with flesh.

"Hey, pretty boy, who's doing this to you? Who's responsible for this being done to you?" A pause, then angrily, "Huh? Tell us... Louder!"

The frail, pain-filled whisper choked out, "St-tar-s-sky."

A delighted laugh. "That's right." Then firmly, "He's not your friend anymore. He's your enemy."

Silence, Then the voice spoke to the listener again. "All right, big shot, he's just about ready. Maybe next time we'll tell you where you can find him." A wicked chuckle. "Then again, maybe not. It could be a whole 'nother week. But we'll keep you updated, Sergeant. You get to hear every little detail of what's happening to your dear partner."

An evil laugh. Then silence.

Starsky pressed the "Stop" button and pushed aside the thought of calling Captain Dobey. There seemed little point. Getting a tape every day for the last six days had yielded no results -- no possible clues as to their origin. The postmark bore the name of an L.A. suburb, and the previous packages hadn't revealed any helpful fingerprints.

All each package contained was a tape that told Starsky how much Hutch was suffering. Because of him.

The first cassette had merrily detailed the kidnapping of the blond detective on a day off. The speaker, who had later identified himself as a man named Brandon, went on to explain that, once out of prison and finding his life in ruin, he was determined to make Starsky, the man responsible for incarcerating him, suffer as much as possible. It had taken a long time, Brandon confessed, before he had figured out the hurt that would cause the greatest pain. Hutch. Beloved friend and, better yet, innocent victim. Not only would hurting Hutch hurt Starsky more than anything else, but after the first couple of days of beating up on his captive with a group of thugs, Brandon got an idea to twist the knife even further. He began to work on convincing an exhausted, broken Hutch that the cause of his pain was the most important person in his life... Starsky.

And, from today's tape, it seemed that Brandon had succeeded.

The detective threw himself into the nearest chair, trying to ignore the burning pain that worked away at his stomach. After all that he and Hutch had suffered through together over the years, nothing had prepared him for this. Even Prudholm only demanded Starsky's resignation from the Police Force. But Brandon wanted nothing from him. Therefore, there was nothing Starsky could sacrifice of himself to free Hutch from pain.

At first, he had been sure Hutch would survive the difficult time. In the first tape Brandon had gone to great lengths to assure Starsky that Hutch would not be killed or injured in a life-threatening manner. They just wanted him to hurt. And the first couple of tapes had presented the sounds of flesh impacting flesh, grunts, groans, curses, and occasionally Brandon's voice cautioning his thugs to "Not hit his head," or "Don't do anything to cause internal bleeding." It was agonizing to listen to, but Hutch would survive. Yet, by the fourth day, the blond was heard to be pleading with his captives to not hurt him anymore. The pleas were not heeded, and occasional screams interrupted Brandon's relentless narration. And, now, the biggest blow of all: Hutch was agreeing that Starsky was responsible.

The curly man sat stoically in his chair, praying vehemently that Hutch was simply being smart and playing along, sparing himself further agony. Yet, it was apparent from the background noises that even when Hutch told Brandon what the convict wanted to hear, the thugs still continued with the beating, all the while repeating the chant over and over that Starsky was responsible.

Starsky's stomach burned more sharply. He had never allowed his inner turmoil release, and his body paid the price. At first, getting assistance from Dobey and fellow cops had helped ease the pressure, but there was no way to trace where the tapes were coming from. Finally, burdened with guilt, Starsky couldn't even bear to face anyone else. All he could do was wait anxiously for the arrival of each daily tape, hoping that, after all the agony, Brandon would reveal where Hutch could be found, for that was something the kidnapper continued to promise. And Starsky believed him, for that would be the biggest hurt of all: Finding Hutch in... whatever condition... and having to bear the other's hatred if he'd truly been brainwashed into believing his partner was somehow responsible.

Please. Hutch. don't believe it. Please.

And Starsky sat in the chair, as hours passed into darkness.

* * *

"Hey, Hug, how 'bout a beer over here?"

The black man made a gesture of acknowledgement. "Comin' right up." The phone rang in the background and he was grateful when a waitress moved to answer it.

He got the man his beer, reflecting on the dichotomies of life as he squeezed through the heavy crowd. Business was great tonight. Fantastic for a Monday. If only he could say the same for his friends. So many days with Hutch gone. He hadn't seen Starsky in three days. He knew that wasn't good.

As he made his way back to the bar, a distance plea reached his ears above the noise of the crowd. Finally discovering the source, he glanced over to the phone where the waitress was looking at him and gesturing to the receiver.

When he reached it, she whispered, "It's Starsky. He says it's urgent."

Heart leaping, in fear or anticipation, he couldn't be sure, Huggy put a finger in one ear and put the receiver to the other. "Starsky, what's goin' down?"

The other's voice sounded shaken and very low. "I know where to find Hutch. I got the tape today with the location. I'm going after him and I-I need you with me. In case."

Huggy wasn't sure what "in case" meant, and he fleetingly wondered why Starsky said I'm going after him, as opposed to more police or an ambulance. From everything he'd heard, there was every reason to expect that Hutch would be in need of medical care.

But he didn't voice his thoughts. When it came to his two friends, experience had taught him not to question either of them where the other was concerned. "Anything you need, my man."

"I'll be by to pick you up in a few minutes."

"I'll be waiting."

Huggy hung up and look longingly at the big crowd. Going with Starsky meant leaving everything in the hands of the help, and they would be too overworked to satisfy everyone adequately, so some customers would likely leave in frustration.

Such a small price to pay for helping one who meant so much to another. He subdued a smile and looked over at his most experienced employee. "Diane!" As she came toward him, he said, "Listen, I have to leave. I don't know how long I'll be gone."

She frowned, gesturing, "But the crowd...."

"I know. But it can't be helped. Get on the phone and call everyone who's off right now. Ask them if they can come in. I'll make it up to them."

She nodded... doubtfully.

Huggy grabbed a jacket as a shield against the crisp November air and went to wait outside.

The Torino skidded to a halt ten minutes later, pausing just long enough to let Huggy climb in.

The Bear settled in the passenger seat, regarding the driver worriedly. Starsky was hunched over the steering wheel, one hand clenching it, the other supporting the driver's chin, which ended a dangerously intense expression. The skin was pale, the jaw locked tightly.

Huggy had many questions but chose not to speak.

Fifteen minutes later they were out of the city and driving along roads the Bear was unfamiliar with. Finally, the curly man spoke, though he didn't take his eyes from the windshield. "I think he's going to be bad, Hug."

Though knowing the answer, the other tactfully asked, "Is there going to be an ambulance there?"

The dark head shook. "No. Not yet. I have..." he took a deep, shaking breath. "I have to see how he is. If he's conscious, how he responds to me."

When no elaboration came, the Bear slowly said, "What do you mean?"

The other swallowed. "He may not want me near him. He may hate me. They were... trying to make him believe I was responsible for what they did to him." Another difficult swallow. "It sounds like they succeeded."

Huggy couldn't believe that. It didn't seem possible, but it explained the great tenseness in the other. And he understood why he was along. To take care of Hutch. In case the blond didn't want Starsky near.

"We don't have any back up?" he asked worriedly.

Starsky shook his head. "They dumped Hutch and told me where to find him. They won't be there. They don't want me. They just want me to see how badly Hutch is hurt." The words were overly stoic.

Huggy wondered how the other could be so certain there wouldn't be a welcoming committee. But he decided not to voice his concern.

They drove another twenty minutes. Then the Torino turned onto a dirt road.


They stopped at a drainage ditch concealed by a shallow forest. A chemical plant was the nearest sign of civilization, and it was a half mile away.

The chirping of crickets penetrated the stillness of the air as the two emerged from the Torino. Starsky walked back to the trunk and opened it, trying to ignore his burning stomach and the emotion that threatened to overwhelm. He removed a large flashlight, a thermos, and a blanket, left-overs from his and Hutch's last camping trip. He handed Huggy the blanket, then gestured toward the large, gaping sewer tunnel and whispered, "He's supposed to be in there."

He cursed his own fear as he started forward, leading the way. He turned the flashlight on full power and shone it into the metal cylinder, grateful that there were only occasional spots of water.

He and Huggy started down the tunnel. They'd only taken a few steps when the beam caught something in the distance.

"That's him," the light-skinned man whispered, emotion threatening to overwhelm. In other circumstances he would have abandoned all caution and run, throwing his arms around Hutch and soothing away all the hurts as best he could, mumbling words of reassurance.

But, now, he was unsure of his partner's state of mind. And his feet only moved slightly faster as they continued toward the figure.

Gradually, it became apparent that Hutch was sitting with his back against the side of the tunnel, slumped, facing the other direction. Starsky didn't know whether to be concerned or relieved when he thought the other unconscious.

But a closer view revealed that the other man was in some state of awareness, for Starsky could just make out the signs of weary trembling.

The smaller man stopped. And swallowed. Without looking back, he whispered, "Huggy, stay here."

Starsky moved forward again, lowering the light's beam so that it wasn't so bright on its victim's face. Hutch was only ten yards away, and Starsky began to make out the heavy bruising on the side of the face he could see. The blond man was in brown cotton slacks and a thin, plaid shirt -- hardly appropriate attire for Fall -- and the shaking became more pronounced as Starsky came nearer. The curly detective wasn't sure if the tremors were from cold or fear. If the other was conscious to any degree, surely he could feel the vibration of the tunnel's metal that indicated somewhere was coming for him.

And Starsky vividly remembered Hutch's pleas on the tapes whenever Brandon or his thugs had approached.

He was close now. Just a couple of yards separated them.

Starsky halted and slowly squatted down on his haunches. He could barely make out Hutch's black right eye, as the other's face was turned so determinedly away.

"Hutch?" It came out softer than he intended. Yet, he saw the other man shudder at the word. The blond's left arm hung loosely at his side. The right rested protectively against the detective's stomach, and shining the flashlight directly on the limb revealed that it was heavily swollen.

Starsky swallowed, then forced himself to shine the flashlight over the rest of the body. Clothing covered everything but the face, and the side he could see revealed heavy bruises.

He scooted forward a little more, and a weary gasp escaped the other, followed by a new wave of shivering. The shivering wasn't profound, more like mild tremors... exhausted tremors.

Starsky was certain the reaction wasn't personal. Surely, Hutch didn't know yet who had invaded his prison, but the other was obviously fearful, and Starsky had to summon all his willpower to go slowly, for he did not in any way wish to cause Hutch further anxiety or pain.

Not knowing what else to do for the moment, he laid down the flashlight and opened the thermos, pouring water from it into the lid. He thought it may be a way of getting close to Hutch, for surely the other needed the water. When Brandon's tape had arrived earlier, the convict claimed it was made just before they dumped the blond detective. That would have had to have been on Saturday, for there was no mail delivery on Sunday. And today was Monday.

How could the other still be conscious? Have remained in this cold, dark tunnel so long, comatose with fear?

Starsky arranged the flashlight so that it shined up at Hutch's face, but not directly into it. He slowly moved closer, carrying the water, until he was right next to Hutch, who shivered harder.

Then he heard the weary, barely-audible plea. "No. No. Please. No."

Despite his best effort, Starsky's voice was shaking as he raised the water. "Hutch," he called gently. "Hutch. It's me, buddy. I've got water here. Just let me..." He continued to draw it up to Hutch's face. He hesitated, not wanting to force it on the other, but not knowing how else to go about it. Hutch was shivering even harder and trying to turn his face away.

Starsky inched closer, moving so he was a little more to the front of Hutch, guiding the thermos lid to the other's turned-away mouth. "Buddy, it's water. Come on. Drink. Please." He kept his voice gentle and soothing, not wanting to frighten the other any more that was absolutely necessary.

Hutch wasn't co-operating, and Starsky finally tipped the container slightly, until it ran down the other lips. A tongue cautiously darted out and tasted it.

Hutch closed his eyes. Then his lips parted and he began swallowing.

Starsky's eyes blurred from the victory. "That's it, buddy," he encouraged as he continued to tilt the lid. "'Atta boy."

When the lid was empty, he took it away and retrieved the thermos. Hutch still kept his face turned away and did not move while Starsky filled another cup.

More confident now, the shorter man again put the plastic container up to the other's lips, but Hutch began shaking profusely and pleading, "No. No."

Now, Starsky's eyes were moist with grief and frustration. But he didn't let it reach his voice. "Hutch, it's only water," he made a plea of his own. "It won't hurt you. I won't hurt you."

He had to repeat the process, spilling it over the blond man's stubborn lips before the other began to drink greedily. Still, Hutch didn't move except for the constant tremors that ran through him.

Hutch closed his eyes, exhausted, and Starsky took back what little liquid remain in the cup, setting it aside. He spoke quietly as his hand moved to Hutch's shirt and began to undo the buttons, only a few of which were attached. "Easy, buddy. It's all right. I'm here. Just let me take a look at you."

How much he wanted to take the other in his arms, smother Hutch with love as the other had done for him countless times. But to do that would be an aggressive action. And he didn't want to make any aggressive moves against one who was so afraid.

When the buttons were parted he picked up the flashlight and shined it on the exposed torso.

"Oh, man," came a sympathetic whisper from behind him, indicating that Huggy had moved closer.

Hutch trembled at the new voice.

Starsky could only swallow and fight back yet more emotion. Hutch's body was one big mass of bruises. And it was so thin that swollen ribs stuck out.

All from one week of agony.

"Jeezus," the black man said as the flashlight continued to shine, "look at his arm."

Starsky could only manage a nod. "Hutch," he choked out. "Hutch. Please. Look at me. I won't hurt you. Please." He was desperate, and afraid, to see the other side of the man's face, which was still turned away. To do so, all he had to do was move to the blond's other side. But he was still determined not to force himself on Hutch. Considering what Brandon had done mentally, Starsky thought his best chance at getting the other trust him was to let Hutch come to him.

If the other ever would.

He continued his soft litany. "Hutch, it's me, buddy."

"No. No," the other whispered again.

This wasn't working. Starsky shifted to his knees, sitting back on his heels, and slowly reached out and touched Hutch on the chin with one finger. He kept it there even when the predictable shudder made its way through the other's body.

"Hutch. I'm here, buddy. I'm here." Slowly, he moved the finger, forcing the tortured face to turn toward him. The visage gradually came into view, and the curly man had to fight back a surge of emotion as its condition became apparent.

At first there seemed to be blood. Everywhere. But then Starsky realized it was dry blood, and it came from the detective's nose, and streaks ran down to cover the mouth and chin. The left side of the face was as bruised as the right, but the eye was even more swollen than its counterpart, to the point where it was barely open.

Starsky fought down his desire to find Brandon and personally dissect the man into tiny pieces... alive. He kept up his gentle, persuading litany. "Hutch it's me, buddy. It's me."

Finally, life was coming to the other's face, even as the tremors increased. It was as though the blond accepted that his fate was in another's hands, and he was finally determined to confront it directly.

The swollen eyes were forced open as far as they could go. Starsky quickly maneuvered the flashlight so that it shined up at his own face. "It's me, buddy. It's me."

Dry, red eyes narrowed, studying the illuminated visage. Then the gruffest of whispers. "Starsk?"

The other's heart turned over and instantly melted. But recognition was not complete. And once it was, would Hutch accept him or become hysterical with hatred and/or fear?

Despite his own fear, Starsky forced a crooked smile. "Yes, buddy, it's me."

"Starsk?" Slightly louder this time.

The lump in his throat only allowed a nod.

The shivering in the other's body had stopped. It seemed to have transferred to the Hutch's mouth, for the lower lip began to quiver as the eyes filled with tears.

Starsky was not in much better shape. He still didn't know if rejection was forthcoming, but he produced the courage to nod again and shakily repeat, "Yes, buddy, it's me."

Then the face broke. And Hutch used the last of his strength to pitch himself forward, into Starsky's arms.

The darker man cradled his catch, careful of broken bones, as the other began to shake profoundly. Not fear this time. Surely not that. Perhaps delayed shock... or relief.

"Hutch, Hutch." He whispered it over and over again. Now that he'd been accepted, he just wanted to gentle and comfort the other. "Oh, God, buddy. Oh, God."

The blond's face was buried in Starsky's neck, and the other felt the tears that flooded onto his skin. He didn't dare squeeze with his arms, so moved one hand behind Hutch's head and pressed it more firmly against his neck.

The tears continued to flow and Starsky's own eyes were filled. Finally, he could no longer speak past the lump in his throat. He communicated with his hands, the one on the thin hair massaging gently, the other lightly rubbing their captive's back.

After a time, Starsky remembered that Huggy was still there, watching them. He glanced up at the black man and choked, "He's crying. Crying like crazy."

The other nodded. "Do you think he needs --"

He was interrupted by a startled gasp from the injured man. And the trembling, which had begun to subside, started up again.

"Hutch, it's Huggy," Starsky pleaded, moving his arm and hand more purposely. "It's only Huggy, buddy. I'm right here. Right here. No one is ever going to hurt you again." He looked back at the standing man. "Huggy, the blanket."

Gingerly, Huggy approached Hutch and spread the blanket over the quivering shoulders.

One arm at a time, Starsky shifted until his embrace included the blanket. He noticed that each time any part of his body drew the slightest bit away from Hutch it sent the blond man into a renewed fit of tremors.

"He's going to need an ambulance." Huggy whispered. "Maybe I can call it in?"

Starsky quickly shook his head, pressing the blond even closer to him when the frail frame again reacted to the black man's voice. "No. No ambulance," he whispered back, grateful that Hutch had stopped shying from his own voice. He swallowed at Huggy's disapproving expression and pleaded, "You see how he is, Hug. I can't turn him over to anyone else right now. He needs me. Can you imagine what it would do to him, having all those strange doctors and nurses around him poking needles and things into 'im? He's even afraid of you."

The other didn't respond and all was silent except for the injured man's harsh, shallow breathing. Starsky kept up his petting, and finally, or maybe it was from sheer exhaustion, Hutch began to relax in his arms, his weight growing heavier.

Starsky closed his eyes in relief. "Thatta boy. I'm right here, Hutch. You're safe with me." He glanced up at Huggy again. "Can you get the thermos? He's been without water for at least a couple of days."

The other nodded and retrieved the thermos. He poured out a cup of water and presented it to the hand that had been wrapped around Hutch.

Starsky accepted the cup and maneuvered his mouth close to his friend's ear. "Hutch, I've got water. Come on, now, turn your head so you can drink it. It's all right."

The other kept his face hidden in Starsky's neck.

"Come on now, Hutch. It's all right. You can do it. You know I won't let anything hurt you. Come on, buddy."

He brought the cup up close to the side of the other's mouth, continuing his gentle plea. "Come on, Hutch. It's water."

Finally, there was movement. Slowly, slowly, the head turned, his body starting to shake again as it did.

"Easy, buddy. Easy. That's it."

When his head turned enough for his mouth to be a high percentage target, Starsky tilted the cup. "Come on, partner, swallow it down. That's it. You're doing great."

With the effort of swallowing, the tremors were abandoned. Nearly the entire cup was empty before the blond man choked wearily.

"Okay, that's enough." Starsky gave the cup back to Huggy, and tried to soothe his partner's heaving body without squeezing or pounding. "Easy, buddy. Easy." He rested his cheek on top of the filthy head and closed his eyes. Hutch stank. Abominably. But never had a more pleasant odor assaulted his senses. He glanced back up at Huggy, meeting the dark eyes over the beam of the flashlight, and whispered, "I've got to take him home."

"Are you going to set his broken bones?" the other asked doubtfully.

Starsky thought furiously. Then, "Huggy, do you know anybody -- a doctor, nurse, paramedic -- who may be able to help us? Who'd be willing to come to the condo to treat Hutch? You know I'd make it worth their time. I just can't stand taking him somewhere where I can't be with him." His voice choked. "He's suffered enough."

While the Bear thought, Starsky continued to stroke the body in his arms, grateful that the other seemed to be drifting near unconsciousness. Please. God. No more pain for him.

"I think I just might know someone," Huggy finally said. He hesitated when Hutch moaned softly, which was subdued when Starsky mumbled something in a soothing tone. The Bear softened his whisper. "There is a doctor. An older guy. A good guy. He owes me a favor. I think I may be able to convince him."

"All right. We'll have to go with that because it's all we got." Starsky took a deep breath, grateful to leave though regretting having to move Hutch. "Huggy, you're going to have to drive us to the condo."

The black man shook his head. "Man, you know I don't have no license."

"Drive, anyway. I can't. I've got to stay with Hutch." Trying to keep things moving, now that they'd reached that point, he ordered, "Pick up our stuff and put it in the trunk. Then lean the passenger seat back. It's going to be crowded, but I can't leave Hutch in the back."

The black man moved off silently, knowing that there was no use in arguing, and inwardly agreeing that it was probably best for his friends. He knew the condo Starsky spoke of was neither detective's home. Instead, it had been purchased by them jointly as an out-of-the-way place for each man when he took days off separate from the other. There, each felt safe in entertaining a female friend, or just needing a quiet place to relax without any interference from the outside world. Huggy was the only other person who knew about the condo.

"Buddy, we're going home," the curly man whispered, preparing to gather his burden. Lifting Hutch would not be an easy task, particularly when needing to careful of broken bones and severe bruises. He started to gather the exhausted, silent man, soothing, "Take it easy, buddy. Take it easy. I'm going to have to lift you. Easy now. E-e-e-asy."

It strained his back profusely, but it was accomplished in one smooth stroke. Hutch shuddered for a moment, then was still again.

Starsky aimed for the tunnel's opening, and as he approached the black man stood at the entrance.

"Need help?"

"No, I've got him."

The passenger door was open and Starsky went up to it. He carefully bent his knees, lowering his burden, then pushed it inside.

Hutch began shaking violently.

"Hutch, it's okay. It's okay. Bear with me, buddy. Bear with me."

The words had no effect, and as soon as Starsky had Hutch pushed to one side of the seat, he slid in beside his partner on his side, back to the doorway.

He began embracing Hutch again. "Okay, get the door."

The door was slammed shut and Hutch jumped with a gasp, and then his eyes glazed when the sudden motion produced pain in his racked body.

"Easy, buddy," Starsky pleaded sorrowfully. "Easy."

While Huggy got in the driver's seat, Starsky began to rub his hands soothingly about Hutch's head and back, whispering all the while. "It's okay, Hutch. It's all right now. Nothing's gonna hurtcha ever again."

It was crowded in the car, but Starsky tried to keep his body, save for his hands, as still as possible, hoping it would encourage Hutch to relax against him, though the blond seemed distressed that Huggy was at his back.

"It's okay," the Starsky whispered over and over. "It's okay. It's all right now. We'll be home soon."

* * *

It was some forty minutes later when the Torino turned into the carport attached to the condo. Hutch had finally quieted, Starsky thought from sheer exhaustion if nothing else. Hutch's eyes remained glazed over, and he occasionally gasped when the Torino was unable to avoid bump in the road. And he continued to rest against Starsky and cradle his injured arm protectively.

Getting out of the car was as uncomfortable as getting in, but they finally managed it. Starsky presented his pocket for Huggy to take the key to the front door. The black man opened it, standing aside to allow his friends in, then switching on the light behind them.

Hutch started at the sudden brightness.

Starsky quickly carried him to the sofa and said, "Huggy, can you get some wash cloths and water? Lots of water. Warm and cold." While the black man obeyed, Starsky slowly lowered Hutch. "Easy, buddy," he whispered. "Easy. We're home now. We're home." As soon as the blond's weight was resting on cushions, Starsky moved his hands up to Hutch's hair, soothing, as panic was setting in. Hutch was highly distressed at having lost the security of the embrace.

Now Starsky was able to see Hutch for the first time in adequate light, and he had to fight back choking emotion.

The blond's entire face had a bluish-purple coloring, a few spots, including both eyes, an angry black. The hair was completely mussed and dirty, the squinting eyes painful puffs of swollen tissue, their iris dilated with pain and fear. One side of one lower lip was also heavily swollen, and both lips had a record of cuts, old and fresh.

Full of guilt, but knowing he needed his hands free, Starsky lowered his face close to the other's until it was less than an inch away. With one hand he lightly cupped the other's cheek, careful of bruises.

"Hutch," he soothed. "It's all right now. We're home. You can rest now. Try to relax. Just relax, buddy."

He kept up the gentle banter while Huggy began to stock the requested items on the coffee table. His words didn't have much effect until he clasped the uninjured hand.

"Where's the phone?" Huggy asked. "I'll try to contact that doctor I know."

"Next to the fridge."

One hand still clasping, Starsky reached with the other for the pitcher of water. He poured some into a glass then brought it up to Hutch to drink. This time he moved the comforting hand behind Hutch's head, lifting it, noting with new concern how the blond seem to barely have the strength to swallow. Even if the injured man was aware of his rescue, the trauma of the ordeal had taken its toll.

Starsky set the glass down and lightly cupped both cheeks, leaning his face close again. Hutch was still shaking, and the darker man wanted so much to provide some degree of relief, to soothe, to bring some sort of end to the persistent trauma.

"Hutch," he whispered, his nose almost touching the other's. "Hutch, look at me. Look at me, buddy." He waited, watching the vacant eyes as they stared at the ceiling, opening and closing as waves of pain washed through the tortured body. He gentled his tone. "Hutch. Buddy. Will you look at me? Look at me, please. Let me know you know it's me. That you're safe." With one hand he reached up and slowly stroked through the filthy hair. "Hutch, it's all right, buddy. Look at me, Hutch. Look at me."

Finally, the stricken eyes darted to meet his. Starsky thought he might collapse inside, for their depths were so trusting. Despite his gratitude, he wondered if he deserved it. But he forced a smile that threatened to break into tears. "That's it, buddy. That's it." He wanted to give Hutch something to focus on besides pain, and needed to reassure himself that the moment of recognition in the tunnel hadn't been a figment of his imagination. "Hutch, do you know where you are? Do you understand what I'm saying?"

He watched the thin throat swallow as swollen eyes closed painfully. Guiltily, Starsky quickly whispered, "No, don't try to talk. Just rest, buddy. Just rest. Just know that I'm here. No one is going to hurt you again. Nobody," he vowed.

The frail body almost seemed to sigh with relief.

Then Huggy stepped into view, and though the black man spoke quietly, his presence sent Hutch into a relapse of shivering. "The doctor agreed. I'm going to pick him up. I don't know how long it'll be. I have to get him at home, then take him by his office so he can get the supplies he thinks he'll need."

Starsky was only half listening, for he was trying to still the frantic shivering. "Easy, Hutch, easy." He held the other's shoulders. "No one's going to hurt you. Calm down, buddy. Easy." Barely glancing at Huggy, he simply nodded. "Okay." Then a glance at Hutch. "But hurry. Please."

The black man started for the door. "Right."

It barely registered when the door closed. Starsky brought himself down close to Hutch again, mumbling words of reassurance, petting whatever uninjured spots his hands could find. The blond eventually calmed, but Starsky knew it was short-lived. Hutch would have to be undressed, and it would be better if he did it instead of the doctor.

He wished desperately that he had more than two hands.

"Hutch? Buddy?" He reached for a blanket Huggy had thoughtfully laid by the couch. "Buddy, we've got to get you undressed." He tried to speak positively as he started with the shirt. "Just take it easy. Getcha out of these clothes." Starsky worked on the garment with one hand, drawing up the blanket with the other.

When the flaps of the shirt were folded back, the curly-haired man spread the blanket over Hutch, hoping the warmth would provide some degree of comfort. His hands worked beneath the blanket, tearing the right sleeve at the shoulder, then ripping it down, very carefully as he tried to clear the material of the swollen arm. Hutch gasped weakly and whimpered, indicating that the process hadn't been painless, and Starsky could only choke out, "Sorry, Hutch. Sorry. Sorry."

Finally the shirt was clear of the injured arm, and freeing the other arm was easier. Starsky pulled the shredded garment from beneath the blanket and tossed it aside. He went to work on the top button of the next obstacle. "Easy, buddy. Let me get the pants now. Just take it easy." The further he got away from Hutch's head, the more the man trembled, and the more he shook, the more frantic Starsky got to finish. And rushing caused Hutch to shake more, like a cornered deer.

When the fly was open, Starsky, still working beneath the blanket, pushed and pulled the trousers and underwear down together. He paused to slip off the shoes, fight with socks, and was finally able to pull the last smelly garments off and away.

By now Hutch was shaking profusely, and Starsky hurried to tuck the blanket around his partner, murmuring soothing words all the while. He finally crouched on the floor, near the other's head. But his return to petting and stroking had only a mild effect.

Desperate to ease the pain, Starsky realized that the best thing for Hutch would be to hold him, though it would be difficult getting him into position. But he couldn't stand to see him like this a moment longer.

The curly-haired detective put his hands on Hutch's blanketed upper arms. "Buddy," he whispered gently, "I'm going to lift you up. It'll just take a second." His arms worked their way beneath the other. "Easy. Take it easy."

Finally, he lifted, agonized by the look of alarm/pain that crossed his partner's features. Forgive me. forgive me, he silently pleaded, while verbally soothing, "Easy does it. Easy."

As soon as Hutch was adequately lifted, Starsky squeezed himself into the space left on the couch, sitting where Hutch's head had lain. He put a pillow in his lap, then slowly lowered Hutch atop it.

The filthy blond head came to rest at Starsky's midsection, and the bruised face turned toward the human warmth.

Starsky sighed with relief, suddenly realizing how utterly exhausted he was. He didn't allow himself to dwell on the thought, but instead bent over his partner and spoke soothing words again. His right hand stroked gently through his partner's hair while the left fussed with blankets, and alternately stroked a cheek or a shoulder.

"That's it, buddy," he whispered when the shaking had finally subsided to small tremors. "I'm here, Hutch. I'm here. It's going to be over soon."

He allowed himself to wonder where the doctor was, though also dreaded Hutch's reaction to a strange physician. And he shied away from wondering if he should have Hutch in a hospital, where surely pain-killing medication would have long since been administered, and Hutch would at this moment be in a deep, peaceful, healing sleep.

It was selfish of him to have Hutch here. Yet, had their situation been reversed, he knew he would benefit more from being in his partner's gentle, comforting arms than in the cold, sterile atmosphere of a hospital.

No, he couldn't let Hutch down now. His partner needed him.

An aura of peace settled around the room. Hutch held onto consciousness, his breath shallow in the silence of the room. His mouth hung open and he occasionally gasped or swallowed, but his head rested comfortably against the pillow and his partner's stomach.

Just when Starsky began to wonder if the doctor had changed his mind about making a house call, the peace was shattered by outer footsteps and then the opening of the door.

Hutch made a noise of startlement, his eyes popping open as wide as they could, and began to shake all over again.

The doctor entered, a fiftyish, grey-haired, medium-built, kind looking man dressed in a three-piece suit minus a tie. He carried a large medical bag and, behind him, Huggy carried another.

As they approached the couch, the Bear said, "Starsky, this is Dr. Simpson. Doctor, Detective Starsky." The black man lowered his gaze and softly said, "And Detective Hutchinson."

Starsky nodded at the concerned gaze that was focused on the patient. "Thanks for coming, Doc," he whispered.

The Doctor began to push the coffee table out of the way as he knelt by the sofa.

"He's real scared," Starsky told him.

Huggy brought a kitchen chair and Simpson settled into it. The physician reached in his bag and took out a stethoscope, glancing at Huggy. "Can you lay my supplies out here on the table so I can get to them?" he asked in a quiet voice.

The Bear nodded and went to work.

Blue-gray eyes met Starsky's for an instant. "Huggy said he was beaten up and left in a sewer tunnel?"

"Yeah," Starsky replied softly, finding his voice scratchy. "Beat up over a period of days. He was left in the tunnel for at least two days."

The doctor shook his head sadly and rubbed the end of the stethoscope against his hand, warming it.

"Buddy, the doctor's here," the dark-haired man bent to inform his partner. "It's going to be okay now." But the other didn't seem to hear, for he was shaking worse than ever, his eyes squeezed shut as though trying to escape the people that had invaded his sanctuary.

"Easy, buddy, easy," Starsky began to chant again as Simpson reached inside the blanket with his instrument, then paused to listen.

Hutch closed his eyes wearily, as though fleeing to some inner haven, his trauma left to express itself in the form of the residual tremors.

Simpson felt for the pulse on the uninjured arm. Then he took a small pen-light from his coat pocket and leaned over Hutch. He glanced momentarily at Starsky. "What's his first name?"

"Ken. He goes by 'Hutch'."

The doctor gently laid a hand on the chin covered with bruises and peach-fuzz. "Hutch," he beckoned softly, yet firmly. "Hutch, open your eyes for me. This won't hurt."

Starsky was impressed with the physician's kindness. He knew the man could simply force Hutch's eyes open by raising the lids, but both were heavily swollen, and he realized that Simpson was trying to avoid agitating flesh that was already painful.

"Hutch," Starsky called, adding his voice to the doctor's. "Hutch, look at me, buddy. Please, buddy. Come on."

The blond's eyes snapped open, seeking Starsky's. The curly-haired man met them, holding their gaze while the small pen-like flicked across each orb.

"'Atta boy," the detective praised while the doctor straightened to gather his blood-pressure equipment.

The sounds of that procedure caused the injured man a few moments of alarm, but his eyes remained locked with his partner's.

When that was done, the doctor paused to make some notes on a pad. Then he said, "I'm going have to check him thoroughly to see the extent of his injuries. I'll be as gentle as possible, but it's going to be uncomfortable for him."

Starsky swallowed and worked more intently on keeping the eye contact. He wasn't sure anymore if Hutch was still seeing him, though the blue eyes were staring at him.

So much the other had been through....

The examination seemed to take a long time. The doctor moved from head to toe, pressing on bone and muscle, checking for reactions, passing up places that were obviously painful. Hutch sometimes gasped, sometimes whimpered, and when fingers skimmed along ribs, his eyes watered and took on a look of near terror. But the expression cleared with the fingers moved on. Simpson was careful to only remove the blanket from the specific area of anatomy he was examining, before re-covering the exposed flesh and continuing elsewhere.

Finally the doctor straightened and sat back, meeting Starsky's eye. "I can't detect any internal damage. He's got numerous cracked and broken ribs, though I can't say how many without an x-ray and agitating him further. I'll just bandage the entire area. I'm not sure how bad his arm is. I'll go ahead and numb it first. His nose appears to be cracked, but not broken. After I'm done with the bones I'll pump him full of nutrients, then I'll finish with a sedative."

Starsky nodded, not realizing until the doctor began gathering more supplies that he was finished with his dissertation. Somehow, the detective had been expecting at some point to get scolded for not taking Hutch to a hospital. He knew that, had there been internal injuries, there wouldn't have been a choice. But apparently Brandon had known what he was doing, and hadn't wanted to commit a murder, especially on a cop. He'd only wanted Starsky to suffer the guilt and rejection. Only the latter had not been forthcoming. Somehow, Brandon had failed at that. Apparently. A small part of Starsky wondered if, indeed, Hutch's mental state would be different once recovered from the shock of his injuries.

With Huggy's assistance, plaster for a cast was prepared. Simpson shot the injured arm full of Novocain, a procedure that Hutch endured grudgingly. Yet, quickly, small signs of relief traveled through the detective's face as the pain from his most prominent injury began to dissipate.

The doctor placed an ace bandage over the arm, then felt carefully along it.

"It's a little out of place," he said. Concentrating heavily, Simpson pulled on the arm, rotating it and maneuvering it in such a way that Starsky had to keep reminding himself that the movements weren't hurting Hutch. Finally, the doctor was satisfied that the bone was back in place.

"When he's able, we'll have to have it x-rayed to make sure it's healing adequately." Then he applied the cast with Huggy holding the arm and Starsky soothing Hutch who threatened to panic from the commotion.

Nearly an hour later, Simpson finished the job with a sling "Now, let's sit him up and I'll do his ribs."

Hutch started shaking all over again when they sat him up. Starsky whispered and soothed, holding the protected arm out of the way while Simpson applied tight rows of bandages around the patient's torso.

When it was over, all three men were exhausted. Hutch was gently laid back down while Simpson returned to his bag and began to prepare a long row of syringes.

About half were applied to the injured man's good arm. Then he was tilted toward Starsky, and the remaining injections were inserted in a buttock.

Finally, Simpson sighed, patting Hutch on a shoulder before sitting back. "He should be asleep soon."

Starsky agreed. He now had Hutch cradled, one arm beneath the blond's back, the other under his knees, ready to carry him to the bedroom as soon as he drifted off. The blond's breathing was getting heavier and heavier, and there eventually became a point where his eyes stayed closed for good.

"Peace, at last," Starsky murmured. He lifted his burden and headed for the bedroom.

Huggy was there first, holding the bedding back. Very gently, Starsky laid Hutch on the mattress, then helped the black man in covering him, tucking the edges. When they switched off the light and turned from the bedroom, Starsky felt free to let his body express its fatigue, shoulders and face slumping.

"I've got coffee," Huggy mentioned quietly.

Starsky sighed heavily, nodding. He and Simpson moved to the small kitchen table and sat down. The detective realized the doctor had washed his hands and put his supplies away.

Starsky forced his eyes open enough to look at the doctor. With a crooked, weary smile, he said, "Thanks, Doc. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your willingness to come here." His gaze dropped to the table as he whispered, "He's been through so much."

The doctor smiled softly -- almost sadly. "He's lucky to have friends like you and Huggy. I hope he appreciates that."

A heartbeat lurched against the curly man's chest as, in an instant, his memory brought forth so many occasions when Hutch had been there for him. "He does."

Having poured the coffee, Huggy joined them at the table. "These two would die for each other," he told the doctor, "without question."

Seriously, Simpson said, "Let us pray it never comes to that."

They all sipped quietly for a long moment. Then Starsky said, "How long do you think he'll be out?"

"At least a couple of days, considering his state of exhaustion." Simpson shook his head. "It's always amazed me the things the human body can endure."

"He's been through worse," Starsky replied automatically, thinking of the heroin withdrawal. So long ago, it seemed...

The doctor chose not to comment. Instead, he stated, "I'll come back by to see him the next few evenings, after I get done at the office." He reached into his pocket and took out a business card, laying it on the table. "That's my office number, in case there's an emergency."

Starsky glanced up worriedly. He was so tired. "Are you expectin' any?"

The gray head shook. "Shouldn't be, but just in case... No, I expect him to sleep off his exhaustion, then be bed-ridden for a couple more days after that. It's going to take his body time to heal. And it's going to be a number of weeks before he gets all his strength back. The bones alone are going to take six weeks to simply heal, let alone operate correctly." Simpson drained his coffee and pushed his chair back. "I've got to get going. The wife will be worried."

Starsky didn't have the strength to see the physician and Huggy to the door. "Thanks, Doc. Huggy." He watched the two men leave. Then he staggered to his feet and made his way to the bedroom. His stomach was hurting again -- shouldn't have drunk that coffee -- but he knew he wouldn't have trouble sleeping. He was too tired. And, besides, the reason for his insomnia was here, safe and sound.

Without turning on the light, he quickly stripped down to his underwear, then slowly got into bed beside the sleeping figure. He rolled as close as he could without touching, for he didn't want to do anything to disturb the blissful slumber.

He never remembered closing his eyes.

* * *

He wanted the noise to go away. He was in far too deep a sleep. Surely, it was imagination, or the taunting of dreams.

More noise. Painful noise. Agony. Moans.

He started awake, taking an instant to orientate himself in the darkness. Then he recognized it.

Hutch was groaning. And whispering. Pleading.

"No.... No... Please, no more. No more."

At first, a panic hit him, for he didn't know what to do. Hutch was asleep, and waking the exhausted man was out of the question. Then he realized this shouldn't be any different than all the other times he'd soothed the other.

He got up on an elbow and leaned over his partner. Then he reached out and lightly ran a finger down a cheek, whispering, "Hutch. It's okay, buddy. You're safe now. You're safe."

Trembling started in as the plea continued, "No. Please, no more." Barely audible.

Starsky leaned closely, stroking more purposely. "Buddy, I'm right here. I'm right here. S'okay now."

He continued the banter, hoping it would register with the stubborn subconscious. But it didn't appear to be working.

Finally, he did the only other thing he could think of. Carefully, wary of broken bones, he laid himself beside Hutch, drawing his arm across the higher, uninjured portion of the other's chest. He pressed up against the upper arm, not daring to get any closer than that, except his lips, which he moved near an ear.

While gently rubbing the smooth chest, he whispered, "Hutch, it's okay, buddy. It's okay." Over and over again.

He didn't remember when either of them fell back to sleep.

* * *

It was daylight. That much he knew from the sun forcing its way in through the lavender curtains. Groggily, Starsky popped an eye open and looked toward the digital clock on the dresser.

One-twenty in the afternoon. Sleep he'd badly needed, though not nearly enough.

He paused, listening. Only deep breathing met his ears.

Sighing inwardly with relief, he very carefully dislodged from the man he'd been sleeping against, drawing his arm from the chest, careful to pull the blanket up where it had slipped back.

He slowly got up. Used the john. Showered. While drying, he came into the bedroom and stared at Hutch for a long time.

He was really here. The nightmare was over. But normalcy was a long way away.

His stomach burned, knowing the agony he had caused, however inadvertently.

Guiltily, he remembered that he needed to call Dobey. Let him know it was all right. Tell him it would be at least a week before he was back at work, much longer before Hutch was.

He threw on jeans and a t-shirt. Called Dobey. The other man was relieved, though concern still hedged his voice. Of course, they could have all the time they needed, but if Hutch was in so bad a shape, why wasn't he in a hospital?

"He needs me, Cap'n. You'd have to see him to understand how he is. But Huggy found a doctor. A good one. He seems to know what he's doing. And he cares."

Hang up. Fix breakfast. Something bland, to keep his stomach from hurting so much.

Crunchy cereal. Lots of milk.

I'm sorry. Hutch. I didn't mean it. I didn't know being associated with me would ever cause something like this to happen to you. You've been through so much already. So much. I can't stand it, to see you hurting.

Hutch wasn't hurting now. Not at this very moment. But, once he woke up, what would he think? What would he feel, even if he couldn't help it?

Starsky tried to imagine, if they're situation had been reversed, how he would have felt about Hutch.

He knew. He knew if it had been him in that tunnel for two days, after having been worked over mercilessly for over a week, that he'd welcome that blond knight with the soft voice, the strong arms, the gentle hands. Oh, he wouldn't have hesitated a moment to crawl right up against him, just as he had always before when he'd needed some special loving. He'd welcome being cradled, being carried, being cared for. Then, after he was better, maybe....

Starsky let the thought trail off, coming back to his major concern at the moment. Hutch's mind was more complex than his own. Maybe what had happened to Hutch, because of him, was something his partner wouldn't be able to forgive.

The detective put the bowl with the remaining milk in the sink. He went back into the bedroom. Laid down. Dozed until Hutch's moans and shaking woke him again. He repeated the procedure from last night, gradually quieting the other.

* * *

In the evening, Dr. Simpson stopped by as promised. He applied more injections. He took Hutch's vital signs, seemed satisfied, and left in less than an hour.

Huggy dropped by a load of groceries, which Starsky vastly overpaid for to show his appreciation.

Then Starsky went to bed early, near Hutch, and slept through the entire night.


Morning. Finally Starsky felt caught up on his sleep, or nearly so. Hutch was still asleep. The blond did not stir, other than the occasional twitch of a finger or eyelid.

Not knowing what else to do with himself, Starsky moved about the apartment and cleaned it. It wasn't really necessarily, for a maid came in every couple of weeks and tended to it, but the chore gave him something constructive to do. Take the glasses out of the cabinets, wash the contact paper there, put the glasses back. Scrub around the stove top. Clean out the refrigerator.

When there was nothing left to tidy, he collapsed on the sofa and turned on the television. Low. Watched a number of programs that didn't register. Then he padded around in the kitchen, cooked a bland meal of macaroni and cheese. Ate it hungrily. Then was sorry later when his stomach started hurting.

* * *

It was just getting dark outside when he was cleaning up the dishes. He heard a faint moan.

Quickly drying his hands, Starsky moved to the bedroom and turned on the light. The illumination didn't seem to register with Hutch, but the injured man was waking. Or trying to. His feet shifted restlessly beneath the covers, and he turned slightly one way and the other, as though the bandage over the ribs were registering a warning that pain was to be expected if the blond moved too far in one direction.

There wasn't the shaking like there had been before. Nor the pleas. Yet, Starsky bent close, laying on hand on Hutch's good arm, the other on the chest that was uncovered.

"Hutch," he whispered. "It's okay, buddy. I'm right here. It's all right now."

The other paused, listening.

Starsky lightly patted a cheek. "Hutch, it's okay to wake up. You're safe now. I'm here. I'm right here."

The closed eyes squinted.

"Slowly, Hutch. Open them slowly. You've been asleep a long time, buddy."

Groaning noises. Not of pain, but of one struggling for consciousness.

"'Atta boy, Hutch. Easy does it. Easy."

Finally, the eyes squinted open.

Relief began to wash over the watching man. "That's it, Hutch. That's it, buddy. It's all okay now."

Hutch opened his eyes further, then groaned and turned his face away. He started to roll on the side away from Starsky, but gasped -- this time in pain -- and seemed to decide against it.

"Easy, Hutch. You're banged up a little. Lie still."

Starsky had kept a fresh pitcher of water beside the bed. Now he filled a glass and brought it to the blond's lips while lifting the other's head. "It's water, buddy. Try drinking it. I'll hold it for you."

At first the liquid ran down the corners of a lightly-bearded chin. But then it found its target, and Hutch drank greedily until Starsky took the glass away. "Not too fast, buddy." He took a corner of the bedspread and wiped the chin.

The doorbell sounded.

Hutch's eyes widened, a gasp escaping his throat.

Starsky quickly patted the lean shoulders. "Hutch, it's the doctor. It's Doctor Simpson. It's all right, buddy. I'll be right back."

Guiltily, he tore himself from his partner and trotted out the bedroom to the front door. Quickly, he undid the locks and opened it. "Doctor Simpson," he greeted breathlessly. "He's awake. Sort of."

The doctor didn't reply, but followed Starsky into the bedroom, laying his bag beside the bed.

"He's sort of afraid still," the curly man threw over his shoulder before sitting beside Hutch on the bed. The blond was breathing harshly from distress, his eyes now partially opened.

"All right, young fella," the doctor said, taking out his stethoscope. "No one is going to hurt you."

"Easy, Hutch," Starsky chimed in while the doctor worked. He kept a hand on his partner's shoulder. "No one is going to hurt you."

Hutch remained still during the ordeal, though he occasionally shuddered or threatened to hyperventilate. Dr. Simpson made a note of vital signs, and the darker detective was again impressed with the quiet, gentle patience of the physician.

Another sedative was administered and they waited until Hutch fell sleep again.

Then they moved into the kitchen, Starsky sighing with fatigue.

"Coffee, Doc?"

"Yes, I'll have some, thank you." Simpson took a seat at the kitchen table.

Starsky served them each up a cup. "How's he doing?"

"He's better. The sedative I gave him now was relatively mild. I'm hoping I won't have to give him any more, and he'll be able to sleep normally. The next time he wakes up, I suggest you get some food into him. Soft things at first -- soup and the like, but foods with a lot of nutrients. I'm going to administer some more vitamins tomorrow, but we should start weaning him off the pain-killers."

Coffee was served, and after sipping the doctor glanced up at the man seated across from him. "You've done a good job of taking care of him."

Starsky smiled tiredly and blew on his cup. "He's my partner."

"I thought partners came and went."

The detective shrugged. "That's how it is lots of times. But Hutch and I..." He trailed off, never sure, when it came to this subject, how to explain it. He couldn't claim to understand it himself. He finally made a tight fist in the air. "Hutch and I are like this. It's like we're more than friends or even brothers. Certainly more than just partners." The blue eyes lowered. "It's a bond I've never been able to explain." He picked up his cup and drank, wondering if he'd said too much.

The doctor's eyes sparkled with kindness. "I don't think words are needed," he stated gently.

Starsky sat back in his seat, studying the other for a long moment. Then he got up the courage to ask, "What makes you so sympathetic toward him? Toward us? You aren't like any other doctor I've ever met."

Simpson shrugged with a sigh. "I confess that I get cynical occasionally. I've worked in a lot of big cities, seen a lot of ugly things." He snorted. "What happened to your partner is a relatively mild example." The doctor paused, then, "But seeing one person care about another -- how much you care about him --" he nodded, "it reminds me that there's hope for the human race after all."

Starsky smiled warmly. It felt good to be understood. He took another sip of coffee, then quietly said, "Doc, if you don't mind me asking, how did you get to know Huggy?"

The other smiled instantly at the recollection. "I had a little too much to drink one night after I lost a patient. I was staggering around the city streets. Huggy found me. For reasons I've never quite understood, he took me in before I could get mugged. I poured out my sorrows, he asked me to treat his athlete's foot, and we became friends." He shrugged. "We don't see each other much, but he's been a good man to know." He glanced up. "You?"

Starsky finished his cup. "He's an informant for Hutch and me. But also a friend." Thinking of a sweating, shaking vision of his partner in withdrawal in an old bedroom, he softly added, "A good friend."

Talk changed to less personal subjects. Then, suddenly, Starsky's arm wrapped around his stomach and he grunted involuntarily.

The doctor was on his feet in an instant. "What is it?"

Starsky shook his head, but couldn't take his arm away. "My stomach. It's been burning a lot. Ever since this thing with Hutch began. I mean, since he was missing."

All candor was cast aside and Simpson was the physician again. He asked the detective a series of questions, then made him lie down on the sofa for an examination. Later, he pulled out a bottle of pills from his bag and a prescription pad. He began to write. "You're on your way to a good-sized ulcer. Unless you want to lose a good portion of your stomach, start taking these right away. Two every four hours. Cut out all caffeine and acidic foods from your diet. Try to keep something in your stomach at all times. I'd recommend coming down the office for some tests so I can diagnose it more thoroughly, but I know you won't do that until your partner is on his feet again."

Starsky silently acknowledged that fact. It seemed strange, thinking that his condition could be serious, that he could ultimately lose part of his stomach. He seemed like an unreality, something separate from what was important... the man in the bedroom.

"Thanks, Doc," he finally whispered.

He took the pills when the other left. In less than thirty minutes his stomach felt a lot better, and he wondered why he'd put up with the pain for so long. He couldn't be of much help to Hutch if he was hurting, too.

* * *

It was the next day, late in the afternoon, when Hutch showed signs of emerging from a normal, rather than drug-induced, sleep. Starsky had walked into the bedroom, as was his habit at least every half-hour, when he noticed the other stirring.

He sat down on the edge of the bed, laying gentle hands on the other's shoulders.

Hutch grunted a moment, then began to blink. The curtains were drawn, the room's overhead light was off, and it wasn't long before the blue eyes opened completely.

And they were clear and reflected recognition.

Starsky smiled. "Hutch?" he whispered, hands gripping slightly.

The blond's voice was very weak. "Starsk?"

The smile broadened. "Yeah, buddy. It's me. Welcome back."

Blues eyes moved lazily about the room, then settled back on the curly-haired man. "Where am I?"

"The condo."


Starsky swallowed, but reached forward to run a reassuring finger down the blond's cheek. He wondered if the other was suffering from true amnesia, or if he were simply disoriented. "I'll explain later." He hoped he wouldn't have to. With forced cheerfulness, he asked, "Do you think you can eat some soup?"

The other had to think a moment. Then he said, "I gotta piss."

Starsky was prepared. "You're too weak to get up. But I've got it covered, Hutch. Just wait a sec." He scrambled to a cabinet below the nightstand where he'd put an empty spray bottle -- without the lid -- just for this occasion.

He returned to the bed and slid the container beneath the covers. "You need help, buddy?"

The other's hands were moving, too. "Just hold the bottle," he muttered weakly.

Starsky did, trying to position it beneath the covers, only able to go by feel. His hands brushed Hutch's hands and genitals, but finally, after a seemingly long time of maneuvering, they had everything in order. After the tell-tale sigh of relief, Starsky moved to the bathroom and dumped the contents into the toilet. Then he returned to Hutch's side.

"Think you can eat something, buddy?" he asked again. "Doc says you need calories."

The fair brows narrowed wearily. "Doc?"

Starsky swallowed, wishing he hadn't said anything to confuse the other. "Yeah, Doctor Simpson. A friend of Huggy's who's helping take care of you." The look of confusion intensified and Starsky forced a smile, running a hand through the dirty hair. "Don't think so much, Hutch. I'll be right back with some soup."

He moved frantically about the kitchen, heating a vegetable broth in the microwave. When Starsky returned with a tray, he fluffed a bunch of pillows behind his partner, then said, "Here, buddy, let me help you sit up." It was difficult, for the other was so weak, but finally he had his friend in a partial sitting position. After one attempt, it was apparent that the patient was too weak to even hold a spoon.

"I'll feed you," Starsky informed him, grateful to be of help. The other wasn't in any condition to protest, and Hutch ate nearly the entire container of soup before falling back to sleep.

* * *

It was like that throughout the next day. Hutch would wake up, speak a few sentences, eat whatever Starsky was able to encourage down him, then fall back to sleep for a few hours. He continued to show puzzlement at his situation, but didn't have the energy to pursue the subject for very long. Starsky gave vague answers to the questions that did manage to get asked, as he didn't want to lie. Nor did he think Hutch was ready to remember something horrible if the blond's subconscious was specifically avoiding it.

It was the following day that the Hutch finally seemed to have the strength to stay awake, even after eating, though the other didn't speak much. Starsky sat with him, keeping up a primarily one-sided conversation, until the telephone rang. Hutch started slightly -- as he still did with sudden noises -- and Starsky gave him a reassuring pat and went to answer the phone out in the living room, leaving the blond in peace.

It was Captain Dobey, and the curly-haired detective talked for twenty minutes, giving his superior an update on their situation. Yes, it was going to be awhile. Another week, at least. No, he hadn't gotten anything out of Hutch, who was too weak for questioning. Yes, they were doing fine. Hutch was being taken good care of. Yes, he would be back at work as soon as he was convinced Hutch didn't need him anymore.

After hanging up, Starsky went back into the bedroom, where he found a very contemplative expression staring at the wall, frowning.

"Hutch?" he whispered, standing in the doorway.

The blond turned to look at him, the ice blue eyes focusing. "Starsky," he said, then a corner of his mouth quivered. His face gradually took on a look of horror as he said, "I... I remember. I know what happened." Then he closed his eyes tightly and sunk further into the pillows. "Oh, God, I remember."

Starsky was at his side in an instant, clasping the quivering hands beneath the blankets. "Hutch, I'm right here. I'm right here, buddy. They can't hurt you anymore." The other seemed so determined to shut out whatever he was remembering, that the shorter man leaned down and put his arms around Hutch, pulling tight. "It's all over now. It's all over."

Hutch reached up and clung to Starsky as desperately as his weakened condition would allow. Finally, he whimpered, "I don't know what they wanted from me. They wouldn't tell me. I kept trying to figure it out..." His voice caught and he fell silent.

Starsky began stroking the back of the clinging man, hurt that Hutch hurt, yet nevertheless marveling that they could still share this closeness that nothing seemed to be able to break apart. How blessed they were... even when their love for each other brought forth such a terrible cost at times.

Finally, Hutch seemed to grow exhausted, and his desperate grip loosened. Starsky eased him back to the mattress, then took both hands into his. Gently, he said, "They didn't want anything from you, Hutch. They wanted me. They just wanted to use you to hurt me. There was nothing you could have done..." Now his own voice choked, thinking how helpless his partner had been in Brandon's hands.

Hutch closed his eyes and swallowed. When they opened, he reached up to run his fingers along a rugged cheek. "Oh, God, Starsk," he whispered with great compassion, "they succeeded, didn't they?"

Starsky managed a smile from the thickness in his throat. He shook his head, gripping the clasped hands tighter. "No. They tried to make you hate me." Then, softly, "I don't think they accomplished that." The statement held the barest hint of a question.

The blond's eyes closed again. Then, gruffly, he said, "I remember... giving in. Telling them what they wanted me to say. I couldn't take it any more, and..." His eyes watered.

"I know," Starsky whispered, leaning closer. "You did the right thing. They may have killed you if you'd continued to resist."

Hutch looked away a moment. Then, quietly, he asked, "Did you get them?"

"No. Once they told me where I could find you, you were all I could focus on." Almost apologetic, Starsky said, "You were in bad shape, Hutch. They'd worked you over..." He trailed off when the pale eyes squeezed shut again, as though trying to block the memory.

Starsky couldn't stand the pitiful expression. He leaned down and rested his forehead against his partner's, massaging the hand that he held.

"I never hated you, Starsk," the prone man finally managed. "I was confused about what they wanted, why they were beating me, why they were telling me you were responsible... but I never believed it. Never." The ice-blue eyes opened then, meeting the sky-blue orbs hovering over him, and he reached to cup the pointed chin. "I'd die," he whispered, "before I'd ever believe that."

The smaller man swallowed to clear the obstruction in his throat. "It's over now, Hutch. It's over."

* * *

They spent a lot of time talking after that. Slowly, carefully, Starsky revealed his end of the ordeal -- the tapes he'd been sent, his agony over listening to the slow, tortuous beating and being unable to do anything to help. Hutch, in turn, told of how he'd been captured, the resistance he'd stubbornly put up at first, then the gradual wearing down, when he didn't even understand why he'd been kidnapped. The recollections fed on each other, and he even had a vague memory of when Starsky had rescued him in the tunnel. His relief had been so profound that no words -- or voiceless thoughts -- could express the emotion he'd felt, even in the midst of his fear and pain.

The talking did them both good, and as Hutch gained strength, he eventually was allowed out of bed. Dr. Simpson came to check him a last time at the condo, and indicated the next time would be when Starsky drove Hutch to the clinic, so the broken bones could be x-rayed to make sure they were healing properly. He also wanted to do a more thorough exam on Starsky's ulcer, though the curly-haired man's condition had improved after watching his diet, taking his medication... and seeing the improvement in Hutch.

* * *

Eight days after Hutch had been found, Starsky stood in the bedroom doorway after getting off the phone with Dobey. "I'm going back to work on Monday," he told the man who was sitting on the bed, tying his shoes. "You ready to go back to your place?"

Their eyes met and Hutch nodded. They'd stayed at the condo for fear of Brandon and his men possibly coming after either of them at their homes. But no trace of the convict had been found, and there was every reason to believe he and his men had left the state, as had been indicated on their last tape.

Starsky moved back into the kitchen and began cleaning the area, transferring dishes from the sink to the dishwasher. He heard Hutch's soft footsteps behind him, and expected to see the other reach for some fruit sitting on the counter.

Instead, Starsky felt an arm slip around his waist, embracing warmly, and a cheek coming to rest on top of his head.

He froze, both hands holding dishes, and simply absorbed the love radiating from the other man, the gratitude and appreciation. There had been many moments of warmth between them in their many years together, and it never got old. He leaned back against the long body, never wanting the love to end.

One day, he knew, that love would be expressed in a new way. It had threatened the boiling point many times before. One day it would boil over, and they would share as they never had before. Starsky wasn't sure how he knew that, he just knew that he did. And the knowledge did not frighten him, nor make him impatient. It simply meant he would be ready when that critical moment came.

A final squeeze, then Hutch let go and reached for an apple before heading into the living room.

The blond looked fine on the outside, Starsky decided as he watched the graceful form take a place on the sofa in front of the TV, but he knew weakness still existed within. And the ribs still caused moments of pain whenever the injured man needed to twist or turn a certain way.

Starsky resumed loading the dishwasher. "Did I tell you we both have appointments with Doctor Simpson tomorrow?"

Hutch tilted his head back. "No."

"Ten o'clock. You get x-rayed. I get an upper G.I., or something like that."

Hutch turned all the way around then, though only as quickly as his ribs would allow. "Do you think he'll let me return to work?" he asked hopefully.

Starsky grinned. "I doubt it. I'm sure he'll want to give you at least another week." His voice softened. "You've had a lot taken out of you, buddy."

"Yeah, but the boredom is starting to get to me."

"I know. Maybe when we're done at Doc's we can stop by the book store and you get find something to keep you interested for a while longer."

The other didn't reply for a moment, then only smiled, as though giving in gracefully. Starsky wondered if Hutch was being particularly co-operative because he was worried about irritating his partner's stomach. As yet, Hutch hadn't lectured him about how he'd always warned him that his stomach was going to fall out some day. In fact, the blond had been unusually compassionate -- even for him -- since waking up from his ordeal.

The smaller detective wondered if perhaps Hutch was thinking the same thoughts he had lately.

Starsky smiled and concentrated on finishing with the dishes, It was all in Hutch's hands. The blond was the one who would have to make the first move, whenever that would be. All Starsky could do was drop hints that he was ready. He wasn't quite sure how to do that, but he knew, eventually, the message would be received, loud and clear.

If it hadn't been already.